Where Do You Belong?

Answering intrusive questions about my nationality, ethnicity, and family structure have become so routine that I almost don’t challenge the validity of these interrogations. Being both transracially adopted and Korean in America, somehow signals to people that it’s okay to pry and that I will answer. I found myself in new terrain the other day, when, during a friendly conversation, the person I was speaking with said, “Oh, your family is Korean.” It wasn’t a question or comment of surprise. She was simply confirming what I had just said, which must have been that I was Korean. I don’t remember the exact flow of the conversation. All I remember was the interruption of the dialogue as I zeroed in on her acknowledgement that my family is Korean.

A brief second and time stood still.

Should I clarify that I’m adopted and my family is white? I mean, it’s not incorrect that my family is also Korean. Regardless of if you believe family is what you make it or that love and care defines family, very few would disagree that people immediately related by blood are also ‘family.’ In fact quite the opposite, people often refer to my biologicals as my ‘real’ family. As in, “Have you ever tried to find your ‘real’ parents? Why not?” Whereas, the incredulity is reserved for my (adoptive) parents. “That’s your dad?”

The moment passed.

It was odd to sit in an existence where my family is simply Korean and whatever the concomitant assumptions are about who I am, my experiences, my views. Simply being Korean does not begin to describe me, but similarly being a Korean adopted by a white family doesn’t either. Both obscure more than they reveal.

It was an unfamiliar moment for me. To not clarify. To not be under investigation. To simply respond to the ethnicity question and not the countless others that typically follow. I felt like I, in some way, had engaged in deception, as if I were passing for something other than who I am and who I have been conditioned to believe I am.

These thoughts resurfaced a couple weeks ago when I saw that June is Immigrant Heritage Month. Despite having an alien registration card, then becoming a naturalized citizen, and the general, ever-present knowledge that I was not born in the U.S., I have never self-identified as an immigrant (and research finds that most Korean adoptees don’t). That has never been the story explaining international adoption. In national and familial narratives meant to normalize international (and typically transracial) adoption, the focus has been on accentuating similarity and downplaying difference. It is quite the paradox – difference is what made the family yet once joined that difference is meant to be erased. It is how I can simultaneously be an immigrant and not-quite an immigrant.

But what does it mean when difference is erased, when a simple turn of language changes how children adopted internationally are categorized from eligible orphan to immigrant to simply U.S. citizen’s family member. These elisions do not eradicate questions about perceived differences. While efforts are made to pass transnational transracial adoptees as like the family, like white, like American, the shortcomings of such a ruse are made clear. Passing is predicated on demarcations of insider-outsider. To pass means operating within the logics of those lines in order to quietly cross them.

Was I passing? Passing as what? For what? For whom?

I continue to ruminate on these questions. Unlike the prying questions imposed by family members, strangers, and friends, questions meant to help the asker make sense of something they don’t understand, these query the questions themselves. Yet they are similar. In the end, they are questions about belonging.

So I ask you: Where do you belong?

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What’s Your Nationality? Transnational Adoptee Dilemma

Right behind “No, where are you really from?” is this question. “What’s your nationality?” is supposed to elicit the response that explains why my physical features say “Chinese” but my body language and attire say American and accent says Down South. Even though “What’s your nationality?” masquerades as the more polite version of “Where are you really from?” its purpose is the same – I need to explain that I’m not really American. While I am in America, I’m a modified American, a hyphenated American, in others words not really one of “them.” I need to protect the (all-White) American dream and explain that although I am American, I am really something else.

Endless questioning has conditioned me to understand the nationality question, or rather the answer, as not one of my relationship to any state or government. Instead, nationality is meant to stand in for ethnicity, or my assumed relationship to people who share the same blood, habits, language, culture. So you can imagine my dilemma when I’m filling out the online registration for the International Korean Adoptee Association (IKAA) conference and one of the questions is nationality.

I paused. Momentarily perplexed. My mind went back to the many, many times I’ve been asked this question. The subtext has always been explain why you’re not really American, but now the context is different.

Of course IKAA knows I’m Korean. Have I encountered one of the rare moments when nationality actually means American?

I stare at the screen for a few more seconds.

I finally fill in the blank and submit my registration.

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Migration and Identity in Adoptee Experiences

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.

Teayoun Kim-Kassor's Migration Series
From Teayoun Kim-Kassor’s Migration Series (front)

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.

Teayoun Kim-Kassor's Migration Series
Piece from Teayoun Kim-Kassor’s Migration Series (back)
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An Emotion Filled Mother’s Day: An Adoptee’s Reflection on Mother Loss

I am a notoriously cold-hearted, non-feeling, definitely non-emoting bitch.

Or so some people say.

This is in part due to a severe case of resting bitch face but also because I need time to process emotion, which results in you saying something heartfelt, me looking at you seemingly blankly, and then you thinking I’m a cold-hearted, non-feeling, non-emoting robot.

However, as I get older, I find myself being more emotional in general and more emotional about my mother in particular. (My mother passed away from breast cancer over 20 years ago, so as you can see I’ve had quite a long time to process those emotions.) This Mother’s Day it should have come as no surprise that I was attacked by feelings. In fact, it started Saturday night when, for no immediately apparent reason, I found myself crying. These feelings of *breaks out emotion chart* loss, grief, sadness carried over to Sunday, when I was scheduled to serve as part of the prayer ministry at church.

I contemplated not going. But, I had made a commitment, and anyways I didn’t think I was too overcome with emotion that I couldn’t be there. I was wrong.

Decades later, I find myself grieving over my moms – the one who raised me and the one who gave me life. This is new for me. To grieve. To grieve over my moms. When my mother passed away from breast cancer, I didn’t allow myself to fully grieve. I suppressed. Over the past several years, I have found myself coming to terms with what her absence means. Perhaps it is because of various milestones I am accomplishing or will accomplish, but I recognize how important she is to who I am and how much I miss her, how much I’ve missed her.

My birth mother I’ve never consciously grieved for. As I was growing up, my feelings towards my birth mother were confusion and anger. I had no understanding of why someone would give up their child, especially as I got so many mixed messages, from family, other adults, and society, that children were “a blessing,” children should be with their *biological parents, and that adoption was an anomaly, adoptive children were somehow “bad” or deficient, and adoptive parents not “real” parents. I harbored much anger and having no way to express it, or even really identify it and why I felt the way I did, only led to more anger.

Only recently have I started expanding my understanding of my birth mother. Throughout the past year, as I’ve gotten to talk to other adoptees and hear their experiences with birth family searches and reunification with their birth family, I’ve realized how confining my perspective on my birth mother has been. Through the stories of other adoptees, I have found a humanity in my birth mother, one that recognizes her as a complex human being. Not a piece of my story to erase, I find myself curious about who she was, who she is, and if I’m anything like her.

If she’s anything like me, then it has probably taken her a while to process the many emotions that she’s had about giving her child up for adoption. Not a piece of her story to erase, I hope she has not suppressed however she feels.

Serving at church on Sunday led to an emotion filled Mother’s Day. As Pastor Cartagena remarked, amidst the celebration of mothers, it can be a very difficult day for some. And, it was a difficult day for me but at least now I’m able to recognize those feelings instead of suppress.

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New Year’s Eve Reminiscing

One of the best New Year’s I had was in 2011. I had just quit my job a couple weeks prior (Christmas Eve was my last day at work). For the previous three years, I was working as the executive assistant to a nightclub owner, which meant I worked both during the day (five days a week) doing the behind-the-scenes business operations in the office, three to four nights week when the club was open, and on call 24 hours a day to respond to phone calls, text messages, and tweets about club events. It also meant I worked holidays and weekends. It was a lot of work, but it was also a lot of fun. Until it wasn’t.

I remember 2011 vividly. I remember being told by God to quit my job. I remember not obeying. I remember being told by God in a variety of ways, through a variety of different mediums that it was time to quit my job. Finally, I remember quitting my job. I was scared y’all. I was more scared of imagined earthly repercussions than I was confident in following God’s commands. But I finally did it, and on December 31, 2011 I remember sitting at home, alone, on my couch drinking some champagne, watching the ball drop in Times Square, and feeling so at peace. Words cannot capture how at peace I felt. I was at rest in God’s will. I didn’t have a job. I didn’t know what I was going to do next. But it didn’t matter. I knew it would all be okay. Sometimes having ‘nothing’ is better than having the wrong thing.

I remember being excited, expectant, and full of hope and possibility for 2012, and that’s exactly what 2012 turned out to be. It was so exciting – knowing that anything is possible is exciting! Stepping out on faith is exciting! Knowing that God’s got you is exciting! It’s freeing. It’s empowering. The year exceeded expectations – I had support from people who I didn’t even know and people who I didn’t think knew I existed. I was making income from food blogging. Then, I got accepted into grad school. I moved to the DMV to start my PhD in sociology at the University of Maryland. 2012 was an adventure! And it hasn’t stopped.

Here I am three years later, another December 31 and I’m still at peace. Life is not perfect. It never is. But, I am still at peace. There is a confidence and security in pursuing your purpose and having a relationship with God. The future is unknown. It always is. But, I am once again embracing the new year with excitement, expectancy, and full of hope.

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