Another Korean Adoptee Story

As a child, the library was one of my favorite places. I loved the endless adventures at my fingertips. There was something comforting, and exciting, about knowing that anything I could ever want to know, and much that I could never even imagine, could be found within those voluminous shelves. I voraciously devoured the stories from history, from authors’ imaginations, and those constructed from the world we live in. Naturally, when I wanted to know about people like me, adoptees, I went to those trusted library shelves. But this visit was different. Unlike the many successes of the past, this time I found no comfort within those shelves. My hunger was left unsatiated. Diligent searches up and down the stacks left me empty handed and dejected. Adventure, history, and science fiction lined the shelves, filling the building from wall to wall, but the fact was that I was nowhere to be found.

“At least my mother loved me and didn’t put me up for adoption!”

– Accusation of a friend in elementary school

It was the early 1990s and while social workers and clinicians were researching adoptee outcomes and interviewing parents about their children’s adjustment, these research papers, journal articles, and limited monographs didn’t make it to the shelves of my public library branch. Perhaps this was for the better. After all, I was not in search of clinical absolution but rather connection to similar others. Like many others, I grew up in a neighborhood where very few looked like me, and unlike some others, I did not grow up participating in adoptive family groups or culture camps. Instead, adoptee was wholly a solitary state of being. Like any other only (l)on(e)ly child, I found ways to entertain myself. My imagination created new worlds and spell-binding adventures, unearthed scientific discoveries, and provided answers for who I was and how my family made sense.

“You guys know about vampires?” Diaz asked.
“You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.

And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all.
I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me?
That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?

And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”

— Junot Díaz, Pulitzer-prize Winning Author

I had no idea that though I consistently felt isolated, I was far from an anomaly. Internationally there were others adapting to another country and culture; nationally there were others assimilating to Whiteness yet integrating homogeneous (White) communities; and even in my own city there were others navigating the Black-White color line in a city that was still very much reaping the consequences of being the place of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination while also negotiating the mores and values of the Bible Belt. Even though I did not know my connection to the broader transnational transracial adoption phenomenon, I would learn that others knew enough – enough to make conclusions (about how we’ve fared), enough to make decisions (about how much we need to know), enough to make declarations (about who we are).

“She was giving me advice [about how to care for an infant], but I mean what does she know. She doesn’t have kids of her own. They were adopted.”

–Reflection of a friend in undergrad regarding her mother-in-law

While others felt confident enough to make such allegations publicly and privately with vast affects, their conclusions lacked comprehensive evidence. To be sure, I am adopted and this has had deep consequences, consequences beyond outcomes and adjustment, but I am much more than suspended moments in time or transgressions of U.S. conceptions of family-making and kinship ties. Yes, I am an adoptee (and yes, I am an American), but adoptee is more than static measurements or a categorization, something to be assessed, reported, and then filed away. It means to come to terms with being a representation for your experience, for what it means to be racialized in a certain way, what it means to create love and family and care beyond blood and with people who don’t look like you, what it means to challenge these U.S. borders. It means being at peace with being marked – as othered because of your family construction and your supposed phenotype-culture mismatch – yet invisible – because of your race within U.S. racial hierarchy – and taking the awareness of both and being seen. Asserting yourSELF. Demanding to be seen.

Silence kills the soul;
it diminishes its possibilities to rise and fly and explore.
Silence withers what makes you human. The soul shrinks,
until it’s nothing.

– Marlon Riggs, Filmmaker and Gay Rights Activist

It does not mean, however, that I acquiesce to external definitions about how I have come to be or ways that I should feel about where I am, neither where I am in this country nor where I am in this family. Quite the contrary, it means I don’t have to fit into the dominant adoptee narrative. It’s an acknowledgement that I am always being defined – orphan, unwanted, unloved, loved, grateful, rescued, white, culture-less – and am always being seen through the lens of others’ relationships to their family. People project their feelings about family relations and family making onto my family’s formation. Yes, what you onlookers say about adoption and how I should feel is directly related to your own family issues. You tell stories about me to bolster what you think about you, wish to be true about you, or what your values are. But just the same, I tell stories too.

Sharing your story is also freedom-work. In storytelling, we are reminded that we’re not alone, that we are loved, & that love is work, too.

– Deray McKesson, Activist and Social Movement Curator

And the stories I tell go far beyond the boundaries of adoptee. Adoptee is more than just an act – the act of abandonment, desire for a ‘better’ future, new family, new home, new country. It is action. It is deconstructing, redefining, rearticulating. It is better imagined Adoptee-American, because it is a politicized, racialized, historically-situated, and power-relation laden identity. We bear the marks of imperialism, colorism, colorblindness, commodification, and consumerism. Accepted individually but rejected collectively within the American imaginary of what is American. And, so the label adoptee, infantilizing and marginalizing, is insufficient in describing a full-grown, fully functioning, free standing collectivity who share a history, an upbringing, an experience and daily lived experiences, and who use those commonalities as a basis for community building, political platform, and advocacy.

Nobody’s going to save you.
No one’s going to cut you down, cut the thorns thick around you. No one’s going to storm the castle walls nor kiss awake your birth, climb down your hair, nor mount you onto the white steed. There is no one who will feed the yearning.

Face it.
You will have to do,
do it yourself.

– Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Author and Theorist

We have both the right and the responsibility of telling our story. If we don’t, then it will be told for us as it has been told for us for many years. Our stories are so much more complex than tropes about humanitarianism, Christian duty, Western superiority, who is ‘fit’ to be parents, and how adoptees should feel about being adopted. Family is so much more complicated and nuanced than linear explanations. While narratives about helplessness and rescue are seductive to our American minds, they are flawed like the title ‘adoptee,’ inaccurate, misleading, and minimizing of our actual lived experiences. While the title adoptee does describe a part of me, I am not encapsulated within it. As with any title that is externally created and imposed, it must be negotiated. This could be acceptance of the term and how it is used by others, by those in power. It could be a rejection of the title in whole or in part, and the rejection could be active, rejecting and replacing or redefining, or it could be passive, rejecting and ignoring, believing because it does not matter to you or wholly define you that it is free of consequences. However, individual beliefs by themselves do not dismantle institutionally embedded tags. And so the collective movement to #FliptheScript is necessary. And while these social media declarations may influence what the public, prospective and current adoptive parents, social workers, and others think, it is not for them that we do this. It is for us. It is our story to tell.

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