Growing Up An Adoptee
“When people ask me questions like, ‘When did you learn you were adopted?’ or ‘How old were you when your parents started talking to you about being adopted?’ I honestly don’t really know how to answer. You hear stories about adoptees not finding out about their story until later, or parents making the reveal a big deal, but that wasn’t the case for me.
I truly can’t remember a day when I didn’t know; my parents just always talked about it. Not in a, ‘We can’t go a single day without reminding you that you’re adopted,’ kind of way, but more in a, ‘This is a big part of your story and why would we hide that from you,’ kind of way. It was normalized as a topic of conversation in our house and they never shied away from answering questions or admitting when they didn’t know the answers.
They certainly never tried to make me feel like I needed to blend in or be more like them. They didn’t talk about me like I was only American. They signed me up for Korean classes. They tried to find as many other Korean adoptee families in the area. They had me in a ‘Big Brother, Big Sister’ program with the local boarding school that had a large Korean student population. They bought kimchi. They made Korean food in the wok. They invested time and money in a three week long trip to Korea that was specifically for adoptees. The list could go on and on.
They didn’t have experts telling them what to do – to create a safe place where their adopted children could talk about uncomfortable things, to introduce as many cultural engagement opportunities as possible (but also to make it a choice for us), to listen – but they did it naturally anyway.
Growing up, I loved being adopted. I loved how it paralleled the gospel. I loved that I had not just one set of parents who loved me, but two. But the older I got, the more confusing it became. Not because of my parents, but because of everyone else.
My parents were comfortable with me being Korean and American, but other people didn’t always feel the same way. I remember one of the first times I rode the bus to school in 1st grade, a boy asked me if I ate dogs. I remember being confused, because why would I eat dogs and why would he ask me that? In what would become my go-to response when I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I felt slightly uncomfortable, and because I didn’t want to think too deeply about it, I just laughed it off.
I remember jokingly being told countless times to ‘open your eyes.’ I remember being teased because I was the fastest at multiplication time tables in 3rd grade and it just had to be because I was Asian. I remember when I was in 6th grade and the Virginia Tech shooting happened, a classmate told everyone ‘he was just a crazy Korean guy.’ I remember being really upset but not quite able to understand why. I remember getting to college and being constantly mistaken for the two other Asian girls in my class, even though we looked nothing alike.
I recently read Nicole Chung’s memoir, All You Can Ever Know, written about her experiences as an adoptee and her journey of trying to find her birth parents. She sums it up, writing, ‘Even if their adopted child’s race didn’t matter to them, it would matter to others.’
I would add that race should matter to adoptive parents. To say it doesn’t matter is ignorant and harmful to their adoptee children. But I don’t think that’s what she meant in her statement. I think what she meant was that even if adoptive parents celebrate their child’s birth culture, their love can only extend so far. Out in the world, adoptees are not always protected by their family’s Americanness.
To cope with all the confusing feelings rumbling around inside of me, I largely ignored my Korean heritage. It was just easier that way, than to admit it hurt. Admitting that required vulnerability and the unknown of how other people might react. Rather than risk rejection, I played it safe and kept silent about everything I was feeling and experiencing.
Finding Comfort In K-Pop
It’s going to sound cliché, but finding BTS (Bangtan Sonyeondan, a K-Pop boy group from South Korea and the biggest musical act in the world right now) literally changed my life. I came upon their music by chance in 2019; a song they collaborated on with Halsey was on a personalized suggestions playlist on Spotify. I gave it a listen and loved it immediately (Boy With Luv in case anyone is curious).
A simple Google search revealed they have thousands upon thousands of live performance videos on YouTube, which involve not just singing, but dancing. As someone who is fairly athletic, but has not a single rhythmic bone in my body, I think it’s the dancing that hooked me in the beginning.
Before long, I was in deep – analyzing performances, learning the members’ names and personalities, and working my way through their lengthy discography. I loved seeing the dynamics between the members, hearing about their passion for art, and reading translations of their deeply moving lyrics. Mostly I loved seeing myself reflected in them – instead of being embarrassed to say I was from Korea, I was proud to say it because they were proud to say it.
I started learning Korean a couple of months after getting into BTS. Sure, a small part was so I could understand their lyrics better someday. Also, as my pride to be Korean was growing, I started thinking about what it would be like to travel back there someday; of trying to maybe meet my birth parents, and wanting to be able to communicate with them.
While I was quickly becoming semi-obsessed with K-Dramas and K-Pop and learning Korean, it took me a while to get to a place where I felt comfortable talking about those things with other people. It’s similar to when I laughed away all my discomfort growing up. It was easier to not talk about it, to keep that part of me hidden. In sharing it, I opened myself up to rejection – to people thinking it’s weird because why would I listen to a group that sings in Korean?
That was three years ago. Now I’m in a place where I talk about all those things freely. I’ve gone to several K-Pop concerts this year and don’t feel embarrassed to talk about it with my friends. When people ask what TV shows I’m watching, I have no problem telling them about my latest K-Drama.
I’m a lot more open about the ups and downs of being adopted and the reality of being a racial minority. This growth is good and it’s definitely to be celebrated.
Struggles Along The Road Of Acceptance
But with this progress has also come some really hard and painful experiences. Someone I considered to be a very close friend completely cut off all contact after I tried to be vulnerable about some racially hurtful things they had said.
Three years ago, I never would have pointed out things that made me feel uncomfortable or hurt; I was barely even telling people I listened to BTS. Now I’m a lot more honest, even at the risk of being rejected. My experiences and feelings matter and the people who are willing to sit in those conversations with me are the ones I want to hold onto.
This year has been one of the hardest of my life, but through these painful experiences, I’ve grown so much as a person as well as in my walk with the Lord. I’ve learned to stand up for myself and for what I feel. I’ve grown in empathy because I’ve been on the receiving end of apathy. I’ve found my voice in speaking up for Korean-American adoptees because our stories matter.
I’ve seen and heard glimpses of the Lord’s goodness, even when it feels like He’s silent. I’ve fought to trust Him even when I doubt His faithfulness. I’ve learned that it’s okay to be angry with Him, to cry out in pain, to share my hurt and frustrations because He can handle it.
I’m not yet at a place where I can say I’m thankful for this chapter, but I trust that He has something good that will come out of this. I pray He will use this pain for His glory and my story for some kind of good – that if just one single person finds comfort in me sharing what I’ve gone through so they know they aren’t alone, it will have been worth it.
Embracing Korean Culture
When I think about what I want people to take away from this, it’s hard to know what to say. First and foremost, I want people to know I’m thankful for adoption and the family it’s given me. My parents are two of the best people I know and the way they have loved, encouraged, and supported me is something I’ll never be able to repay them for.
They are willing to listen to me share about my frustrations and hurt. They never get defensive or make me feel guilty – like I should ‘just be thankful.’ They have always been a safe place for me to be truly honest and for that I’m so grateful.
I know there are many adoptees who don’t feel safe sharing the challenges of being adopted or of being another race with their parents, so I certainly don’t want to take the gift of my parents for granted. I have a younger brother who was also adopted and I’m grateful to have someone who gets it – the good and the hard, the beauty of family gained and pain of questions that might never have answers. My family is one of the clearest pictures of God’s goodness in my life.
But, secondly, I want people to know it’s also really hard. Being adopted is hard and being Korean-American is hard, so having both of those experiences intersect can be confusing and painful at times. The struggles ebb and flow, manifesting themselves in different ways, in different seasons.
Something I see right now, both in my own life and in broader society as a whole, is the enthusiasm for Korean culture – listening to K-Pop, watching K-Dramas, eating Korean BBQ – but the lack when it comes to seeking out Korean-American voices and making sure their experiences are heard and held with care.
I’m all for the celebration of Korean culture and entertainment, but it’s not enough. I urge people who engage with those spaces to be equally as intentional in seeking out Korean voices, whether that’s making sure Koreans you know personally feel seen, known, and cared for, or engaging with Korean perspectives on various platforms – social media, podcasts, blogs, YouTube.
I’ve been working my way through Vernon from Seventeen’s Mindset series recently. For those who are not familiar, Mindset is an app by DIVE Studios that focuses on wellness through sharing authentic stories of celebrities. I love Seventeen so when Mindset announced their next series would be Vernon, I knew I had to tune in.
Vernon shared in one of his episodes that one of the keys to overcoming prejudice is respect. That understanding of people who are different than you comes from listening. And listening takes a lot of effort.
I don’t know what Vernon’s religious beliefs are, but I was immediately reminded of similar themes found in Scripture. James implores his brothers and sisters to ‘be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry’ (James 1:19). Paul writes to the Galatians, telling them to ‘bear one another’s burdens’ (Galatians 6:2). In Colossians, he writes: “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12). Compassion and humility lend themselves to listening to others, to bearing their burdens, and to showing kindness to all.
And that’s what I would encourage everyone to do. To slow down. To ask questions. To listen.”
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