Growing up in South Korea, I’ve had many Koreans tell me that I physically look and act like an American. The Americans I’ve encountered here believed me to be Korean. In between the two, I’ve met people who thought me to be Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, or — the one that really made me do a double-take — Samoan. In my younger days, I’d explain to the people that I was half-Caucasian and half-Korean, also known as a “hapa”. Then one day someone asked if I were a “gyopo” (교포) — meaning am I an ethnic Korean who lived and grew up overseas? But I’m not a gyopo or a hapa or a Korean-American.
My name is Tara and I am a Korean adoptee.
I was adopted by a Caucasian-American father and a Korean mother when I was about eight months old. Soon, we left for the United States, where I became a naturalised US citizen. We lived in the US for about a year before we moved to Japan. We came back to South Korea when I was three, and we’ve been here since. I grew up in the heart of Seoul, but my schooling and career occurred on the US military base. I know both English and Korean, and I’ve been exposed to both American and Korean cultures all my life. So I consider myself lucky to grow up in my native country, lucky to know the language and the culture, and lucky to have an American upbringing from my dad and the base.
I didn’t find out I was adopted until in eighth grade.
However, I’d suspected something off beginning around fifth or sixth grade when I asked my dad to see my birth certificate because I read about it in a book. He gave me a vague answer about the certificate being lost in the storage room, and like a kid, I just let the subject drop. Nonetheless, as I grew older, I noticed things. Like how I didn’t really look like my parents, and how I didn’t look like any of my Caucasian-Asian peers. Then sometime in eighth grade, my aunt on my mum’s side and I talked about something, and she said a phrase that just made everything click in my head. That night, I simply went to my dad and asked if I were adopted. He hesitated a bit, but then he told me the truth. I took the revelation quite well. No, I didn’t do anything dramatic, like leaving the house and stewing in anger and confusion on the bank of the Han River. If anything, I asked questions to find out more about my unknown background.
Oddly enough, I was never teased or ostracised for being a Korean adoptee.
My elementary school and high school have a huge Korean population. Some students are Korean-American military brats, some are Koreans married into a step-family, and some are hapas. Growing up in this environment, many people probably assumed I was my mum’s biological daughter who married an American man. Or maybe they thought something completely random, but I was never questioned about having a Caucasian-American father, whom I had zero resemblance to. I was never asked or questioned by people if I were adopted. Even now, in my workplace when I tell people that my dad is Caucasian-American and my mum is Korean, they assume I’m a hapa or something along those lines. If they do suspect otherwise, they never say anything.
I discovered and met other Korean adoptees.
In fact, I even had three friends who were Korean adoptees from secondary school. Two of them were like me, adopted by a Caucasian father and a Korean mother, of which they were also primarily raised in Korea. Another friend was adopted by two Caucasian-American couple, but she was primarily raised in Germany and on the military bases here in Korea. As an adult I met a Korean adoptee who was raised in Minnesota by a Caucasian couple, and I discovered that that was actually the norm amongst so many of the Korean adoptees back in the 1960s to 1980s. From what I’ve read and heard, many Korean adoptees who were adopted overseas do not know Korean and are teased for being “different”.
Thus, I am grateful for having been raised in Korea while incorporating both American and Korean cultures in my life.
But that doesn’t stop me from wondering whether I’m Korean, American, Korean-American, or even a Martian. I do not deny having the best of both worlds (and the worst, haha!), and I do consider myself lucky being raised in Korea, but then I do have to ask myself — what am I? Who am I? Am I Tara or am I the baby with a Korean name that was given to me by a social worker? Am I Korean physically and American mentally, or am I Korean all the way as my mother adamantly told me several times? What makes a person American or Korean? Do I need to be dictated by my citizenship? Can I even call myself American despite only living there one year? I’ve had people automatically assume I’m Korean because of my appearance and of my living in Korea. I’ve had the pleasure of Facebook racial profiling me. I have a very Anglo sounding name, but I look Asian, so bam! I’m using a fake name! I do have my days when I am not certain about my own identity, my cultural identity, especially.
But I know one thing for sure. My name is Tara and I am a Korean adoptee.
My true identity is out on this blog, and I hope this will encourage me to be more forthcoming about my own background as an adoptee in real life. I admit that I was never comfortable about being a Korean adoptee, and while I am not going to go around blasting that fact to everyone I know, I will not hide my identity nor pretend that my adoption history doesn’t exist. I mentioned that I asked my dad questions about my adoption history when I first found out, but I didn’t dwell on it that much. I didn’t because I didn’t want to be an adoptee, and I’d kept on calling myself a hapa because my father and mother are Caucasian and Korean. I kept on telling people I was half-Korean and half-American . . . because I am. And I will always be half-Korean and half-American as a Korean adoptee. I will begin the first step of being proud of my background and of who I am. This is my story. A story that I’d meant to share long ago, but I didn’t because of my “denial”. I am a Korean adoptee.