A Korean Adoptee Tale

A Korean Adoptee Tale

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.

Comments

  1. Crystal on

    That’s cool! It’s awesome that you seem to take it all in with grace. My husband was an army brat. :P My parents split when I was young, and my mom passed, so my little sisters got adopted. My brother and I were in group homes, and now my son is adopted. My son is actually my great nephew, and my husband’s blood. But I am Mommy. I wiped his butt, and gave him his kisses. :P My sister’s adopted parents, have adopted about ten kids I think, besides them. I’m a fan. :D I just wish people like celebrities would adopt older, and more american children. There are so many here who need homes.

  2. This is beautiful, Tara. I’m glad you’re beginning to come to terms with who you are. :)

    I’ve already told you this, but I also grew up in an American naval base although it’s closed now. I started living with my American stepdad when I was 8, and he married my mom a few years later. It’s a common theme in my hometown. Many single moms marry foreigners for a better life and more opportunities for their kids. If it wasn’t for my dad, I wouldn’t be who I am now. I owe everything to him.

    But I definitely struggled with my cultural identity. People in my hometown constantly made assumptions about me: spoiled, stuck up, can’t speak Tagalog even though I could so they’d make comments about me thinking I wouldn’t understand. I didn’t feel accepted beyond my friends who were in the same situation.

    I came here in the US to study college, and I also didn’t feel like I fit in at the beginning. When I made comments about politics here (something I kept up with at home thanks to my dad), my friends would quip that I’m not “a real American.” They were just joking, but that hurt my feelings.

    I’ve learned not to let what people think of me affect me. As far as my cultural identity, I still have a lot of questions but I’ve decided to focus on the good things of both cultures for now. I am who I am, and people will just have to deal.

    Sorry I basically wrote a blog post in the comments. XD

  3. Silver on

    *HUGS* Tara, this post is so utterly beautiful, captivating and most importantly brave of you to have shared with the world. Being proud of who we are is amazing and I am glad that you are starting to feel this way. It will inspire others who are in the same position as you (to know that they are not alone!). And from the sounds of it, you’re truly blessed with wonderful parents who love you for who you are – their daughter. I do enjoy hearing about your american/korean roots and being part of both western and asian cultures is pretty rad! I think in some ways, being a Singaporean, we kind of experience a confusion in cultural identity but that’s a different story to tell. *SQUISHES*

  4. A friend I met in college was Korean and adopted by her parents before her first birthday as well. Her adoptive parents were second generation Italian Americans and they raised her Roman Catholic with all of the typical big Italian family traits. Whenever people would ask “what she was” (which is a stupid and rude question in my opinion) she’d tell them Italian because that was truly how she identified. She’s had trouble with her license, her passport, anything that combines her name and picture because she has an Italian surname and is clearly Asian, people just assume it’s a false name.

    I can’t understand what you’re going through, but I do admire your honesty and openness. It’s a hard subject to grapple with for many, and you seem to be handling it very gracefully.

  5. Connie on

    This was a beautiful read, Tara. I’m so happy for you because being able to admit it and share it is the biggest step to moving forward. You may have inspired to write about mine!

  6. Lotte on

    This was a really beautiful post to read! Thanks so much for sharing it with us. It’s important to like and be proud of you are, even if it can be difficult! :) I know how hard it can be to have a cultural identity that can be so torn in half. Obviously I can only imagine what it’s like to hear and learn to deal with being an adoptee (though it sounds like you have a wonderful loving family!), but culturally I’m in a very similar situation. I have lived exactly half my life in the Netherlands and the other half in Canada and I feel like my identity belongs just as much to one as to the other. The question “where are you from” is a really annoying one then too and the answer always changes depending on context. Those round the classroom question sessions always felt really weird to me too because everyone around me would talk about some city or town no more than 50 kilometers away but I’d always talk about a country on the other side of the world because the place where I live rarely feels like the place where I’m actually “from”. You know what I mean? xD Still I’m very glad to be a part of both cultures. :) Thanks again for sharing!

  7. This is such a lovely post. I think in terms of how Korean or American you are, you should get to determine that for yourself. I don’t think others should put their assumptions on you. I’m just really glad that you wanted to share this.

  8. Michelle on

    That’s a beautiful story, and I’m glad you were able to share with us. That must have been not easy, but I’m glad you shared something personal about yourself like that. To me, you’re Tara, and that’s all you have to be.

    <3

  9. I remember your entries about being adopted on your other journal. I didn’t know the story of when and how you found out though! I think that’s really interesting that you brought it up first and not your parents. You handled it really well back then! I’m also glad that people don’t treat you negatively for being adopted and that you’ve met others in similar situations.

    I can’t relate to your situation, but I can see how that’s tough to question your identity. You should definitely be proud of who you are though :) Many people grow up knowing one culture, and I think it’s a good thing to be able to incorporate more in your life. Thanks for sharing your story with us!

  10. It is so great that you shared this about yourself, and I hope that it can allow you to have more pride in your history, and your background that has made you who you are! :)

  11. Finally have time to go back and comment here ^^
    Again, I am proud of you for being so brave about it. Some people hate the fact that they are being adopted and different from other people, but hey, we are all still human, right?

    How lucky you are to get to learn so many things from both sides of the world!

    Kudos to you and have a nice day!

  12. Oh my goodness, Tara, this post is so enlightening in giving me a different perspective. It’s also inspiring to see you take your first step of being proud of your background, as you mentioned. It’s something I still seem to struggle with sometimes.

    When I lived in Europe, I realized just how “American” I was. It’s truly more of an attitude rather than blood.

  13. Agent Q on

    Well today I learned this part of your identity. It’s pretty cool how you managed to embrace this part of your identity with grace. Own it with pride, for your experiences can give you an insight that many people such as myself do not have. It is legitimately an interesting story. :O

  14. I loved reading this, Tara! A few years back I took a class that had a unit on the intersections of enculturation, race, and ethnicity. I found myself applying what I learned while I was reading your story. There’s really a fine line between culture and race. They’re not always one of the same. When we’re young, we pick up on little things that ultimately make up our culture and although we can identify as American, or any other culture, there are always nuances to how we identify. Thus, creating our unique identities within our own cultures and race.

    Again, I really loved reading this and thank you for sharing your experiences.

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