War Brides, Yellow Fever, and a Korean Adoptee

I remember the day I transitioned from cute Korean adoptee to sexualized Asian American woman. It was the weekend, and like many other families, my father and I were doing our weekly grocery shopping. The checkout line was wrapped around the frozen food aisle. My father and the white military serviceman behind him had struck up a conversation. Then I heard the question to my dad, “Is that your wife?”

I was barely a teenager.

Were my father and I of the same race, I doubt that question would have been asked. Were I of a different race, still not white but not Asian either, again I doubt that question would have been the one asked.

Instead of one of the countless Asian adoptees in the U.S., the questioner lumped me into the category of the countless Asian military brides of U.S. servicemen. Some might try to rationalize this assumption, we were on a military base’s grocery store, the questioner was a military serviceman, and the families all had military ties. But, there was nothing rational about this question.

I was barely a teenager.

A couple decades later this same scenario played out as my father and I joined an afternoon boat ride around the Wisconsin River. We sat on the lower deck near the captain, a white man at the later years of middle age. As the boat left the dock, the captain urged us, “Don’t be shy. You two can cuddle.” I quickly retorted, “I love my father, but not like that!” The captain apologized and then later flirted with me.

Transnational transracial adoption adds children of color to white families with the promise of a family just like any other. In many ways, this form of family-making creates families similar to blood family relations, but in countless others, transnational transracial families face distinct challenges. Adoptees are often seen as adorable children in need yet we do not remain children forever. We have some understanding of what the adoptee child means or looks like but far less understanding about what it means to be an adoptee as an adult. Children by birth simply grow up and continue being daughters or sons, sisters or brothers. Children by adoption grow up and become, or continue to be, outsiders among their family – assumed ‘wives,’ ‘husbands,’ or ‘romantic partners’ at best, sexualized objects prime for the taking at worst.

What happens when the adoptee child grows up?

Do promises of forever family hold true?

Who do adoptees become in the context of family?

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