Friday night, I battled the rain and finally made it to an event at the Korean Cultural Center in DC. The announcement for the art exhibit opening of TeaYoun Kim-Kassor’s “Migration and Identity” described her work as “explor[ing] the inextricable connection between ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Where am I?’ that defines every individual.” As an identity scholar, I was intrigued.
As the artist was explaining her artwork, I kept making connections to my own identity as well as adoptee identity more broadly. Though Kim-Kassor’s work is about migration and how that affects identity, and not about adoption per se, it is. As an adoptee, I have made physical moves – from Korea to Japan to the U.S., from family to orphanage to family – but I have also made psychological moves – from family to family, from culture to culture, from identity to identity.
For adoptees, identity is often about the shedding of who we once were – name, history, culture, country – and assimilation into who we should become. However, as Kim-Kassor reminded us, “Identity is built on, not by completely casting away. . .We have our past. That’s who we are today.” Identity indeed builds upon our former selves, our past experiences, how we interpret and make meaning of ourselves and the world around us. Even if we try to cast away our past, it is ever-present, residing within us. What does it mean to boldly incorporate our past into who we are? To recognize that it is who we are today and not try to diminish it or forget it, whether from shame or lack of understanding.
“People feel comfortable going back to their past,” Kim-Kassor asserted confidently, referring to the idea that people feel comfortable going back to past selves or a past that had emotional significance, particularly those that were enjoyable. But, for adoptees, going back to the past is not necessarily comfortable. It’s confusing, painful, difficult. Yet, in a way it is comforting to go back to one’s past, to search it out, to explore it, because the present is a future that the past created.
As Kim-Kassor shared her many works and the creative process behind them, her statements struck me as I thought about adoptees: who we are, what we know about our pasts, our migration stories, and how we come to understand ourselves. Adoptees’ identities are built on many pieces, bit by bit, and undeniably about our adoption, about Korea, about migration. Our movement from birth country to receiving country is evident. Our thoughts about who we are, from one understanding to another, frequently similarly drastic though often unseen.
Like Kim-Kassor’s Migration series textile work that layers fabrics and colors and incorporates Nubi, a traditional Korean sewing technique, to create a visual display unachieved by the individual pieces, our lives are similarly pieced together from seemingly disparate parts. Who we are depends on where we are on our journey as we understand the migrations we’ve undergone and value them for what they are.