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5 Truths of Being a Korean Adoptee

5 Truths of Being a Korean Adoptee

I arrived from Korea at what is now the Reagan International Airport in Washington DC in October of 1984.  I was 6 months old, and apparently, from what my parents tell me, the only baby screaming as I was carried off the airplane, and into the arms of my new family.  Hi, Mom and Dad!  Be afraid, be very afraid!

Life as a Korean Adoptee is something I want to explore further about on this blog, and something I have found myself thinking about more as a new mother.  I want to share my experiences as an adoptee for those thinking about adopting – and for those who are just curious about what it’s like.  So, I might as well start with a post about some of what I’ve observed so far…

  1. When people say, “Wow, you are SO lucky to have been adopted.  Your life is so much better here than it would have been if you stayed in Korea,” I kind of cringe.  Yes, being adopted by a loving family is wonderful, and choosing to adopt is a fantastic thing to do.  I no-doubt had a idyllic childhood and was afforded all the opportunity in the world.  That being said, especially coming from the perspective of a new mother, it is the parents who are the lucky ones, not the child.  There is absolutely nothing so far in my life that can compare to the joy my daughter brings to my life.  It is the purest love.  I know my parents felt the same way for me, even though I was not biologically their own.  That love is life changing – and the only thing that can bring that love to life is a child.  The parents are the lucky ones.
  2. Looking different sucks/sucked.  I think I got made fun of for being Asian for first time in kindergarten.  A boy on the bus started pulling his eyes back tight and making fun of me for being “Chinese.”  Growing up in a predominantly white community, that was the first time I realized I wasn’t like everyone else.  The teasing continued through high-school with jokes here and there, and then rolled into the real world.  Comments about my eyes, mostly.  A person at a family function in Texas once said to me, “you’re really pretty except for your eyes.”  So, yeah, looking different has been a battle for me, but seeing myself in my daughter has given me a new perspective.  She has my eyes, and she is so perfectly beautiful to me.  I want to show her that I love my Asian-ness as a map for her own self-love.  Admittedly, this is a work in progress.
  3. Going to Asia as an Adoptee is weird.  The great thing about living and traveling in Asia as an Asian is that you don’t stick out.  For once in your life, you look pretty much like everyone else — and it is the tall, white Americans who stick out like sore thumbs.  The beauty products are great and made for your skin, and everything is sized to your height. The weird thing about traveling and living there is that everyone assumes you are a local.  When you can’t speak the language, people seem shocked, and since you look like you belong, no one offers support or help on the streets like they would to an obvious foreigner. In Korea, people kept telling me “…but you look so Korean,” after I told them I didn’t speak Korean.  Their reaction to this American behind a Korean face was first a look of horror, followed quickly by a look of sadness.  I would then tell them I was adopted, and they would say “oooh, yes, I thought so.”  In my experience, being an adoptee in Asia was more alienating than being an obvious foreigner.  It felt great to have everyone look like me for once, but not being able to communicate made everything difficult and strange.  I could walk the walk, but couldn’t talk the talk!
  4. Yes, I’m interested in knowing who my birth mother is, but if I never find out, it won’t be a huge deal.  When I went to Korea, I got to visit my orphanage and see my adoption file.  I learned that my birth mother was 18 when she had me, and that she left the hospital immediately after giving birth to me.  My birth father was out of the picture, and my mother lived in a small village south of Seoul.  She didn’t have the resources to care for me, so I ended up at Eastern Social Welfare Society, which is located in Seoul.  They have reached out to me to start a birth-mother search, but I haven’t yet reached back.  Yes, I am curious to see what she looks like, and to know if I have brothers or sisters, but luckily, I already have a Mom – my adoptive Mother, the only Mother I’ve ever known.  So, meeting my birth mother isn’t a huge deal to me at this point, although the curiosity is definitely there.
  5. As I’ve grown older, being I’ve become much more aware that my family doesn’t look like a family to much of the outside world.  For example, a couple years ago, my husband (who is Mexican) and I went on a family vacation to New Zealand with my Mom and Step-Father.  We went on a lot of tours, and it was a bit awkward explaining to tour guides and such that we were traveling together as a family.  They looked at my two caucasian parents, and then at Frank and I, and were totally thrown off.  Like, how are
    IMG_1938
    With my Dad

    you all related?  People’s reactions with I am out alone with my Father or Step-Father are equally awkward.  Like, I can see the wheels turning in their head as they try to figure out what, exactly, our relationship is – dating?  Mail-order bride?  Hmmm.  It is equally strange when my Mom wants to hold my hand in public.  It is all very vain of me to worry about what other people are thinking, but it is a reality to me.  I never thought about it growing up – and I guess when two people have a small, foreign-looking child with them, you assume they are adopted because the adults are obviously caring for them.  As  you become an adult, the situation isn’t so obvious, I suppose.

I don’t know if I will ever come to terms with my issues of identity – I am, for all purposes, a good old midwestern girl in the body of someone who the world perceives to be something…else.  I wonder sometimes if my daughter will have the same identity issues.  We don’t speak Spanish or Korean, we don’t really  identify with traditional Mexican or Korean culture — yet, the world will see our daughter as Asian or Mexican.  I want to make an effort to make her cultural heritage a part of her life.  Maybe it will help.

What do you think?

Are you an Adoptee?  What have been some of your experiences?  I would love to hear from you.  I plan on doing a 23andMe DNA analysis — and am looking forward to seeing if I have any close relatives in their database!  Stay tuned for more on that journey.

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  1. Cheryl

    I remember vividly the day a man randomly murdered people across the state. The man targeted Asian students in Bloomington. I was terrified for you. I was afraid you couldn’t see yourself through his eyes. You wouldn’t see yourself as a target. Would you know to be extra cautious until he was caught? Luckily his killing spree ended quickly. My personal revelation was abrupt. That was the first day I thought of you as a child of Asian heritage. You were always the sparkle on our block, captivating all of us with your smile! And Abby, different is definitely not unattractive. Your eyes are beautiful! You surely see that now in Estelle!

    1. abbyh1384

      Aw, thank you Cheryl. I remember that day, and I remember you so kindly reaching out to us. It was July 4th, if I remember correctly. When I was home and saw you just a month ago, a Chinese high school student got attacked with a hatchet in Nashville. Scary stuff. Thank you for your kind words, Cheryl!

  2. Cary

    I thoroughly enjoyed this entry. Thank you for sharing this part of you. Your parents are soooo lucky to have you. Because YOU are incredible!

    1. abbyh1384

      Thanks, Cary. I hope other adoptees can relate. Thanks for reading – and you are also incredible!!

  3. Diana

    Wonderful and thoughtful post. Oh and that Texan is an idiot, your eyes are fabulous. I hope you continue to share your journey in this, I for one am interested to see how it all plays out.

    1. abbyh1384

      Thanks, Diana. I will definitely continue to share this journey! I’m sure it will be a lifelong effort. Thanks for tuning in!

  4. Allyn Hertzbach

    I agree with you whole-heartedly when you say the parents are the lucky ones. I think that fact that you not only get this truth but can say it out loud is a powerful indication that you are on the right track and will reap more understanding and peace of mind as you continue your pursuit.

    1. abbyh1384

      Thanks, Dad. I’m glad you share my sentiment =).

  5. Sue

    From the time I first met you (about age 9 months!), I thought you were beautiful. Now you are still that, but glamorous, too!!
    there are many ways to build a family and adoption is one of them, bringing with it all the joys and hard times of raising any child. You have loving, caring parents who adore their new granddaughter and you (and Frank, too)…so that most important fact is one you have acknowledged. I hurt for all the children who have no one to think they are wonderful (and I had too many in my school)…adopted or birthed…Love is the answer.

    1. abbyh1384

      Thank you for your comment, Sue. I agree, love is definitely the answer!

  6. KIM KOHLER

    I’m a Korean adoptee originally from small town Wisconsin. Everything you’ve said is like words out of my mouth. Thank you for sharing!

    1. abbyh1384

      Thanks for sharing, Kim…and you are officially the first person I don’t know personally to comment on my blog…I am beyond thrilled that you could relate to the article. I grew up in small-town Indiana, so I’m sure we have similar experiences with being a bit of an outsider. I would love to hear some of your thoughts as well. Do you blog?

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