Where I reside in Asian-American society, as a Korean adoptee, has been referred to as the “third space.” It is a place that hovers between who I was raised to be and who I was born to be.
I am a Korean adoptee. I was raised in rural Minnesota by white Lutherans of German and Scandinavian descent. Both my parents are generational farmers. My dad and sister have blond hair and blue eyes, as do many of my cousins and friends. I spent a good piece of my life in envy of that blond hair and, especially, those blue eyes. Even though I do not remember a time when I did not know I was adopted from Korea, I do remember a long period of time when I was raised to forget that I was from Korea; to believe that I was the same as everyone else around me, and that everyone else would treat me as if that were true. It seemed to work . . . for a while.
Being familiar with an entire community’s life stories is an advantage and disadvantage of living in a small town. It was an advantage for me because everyone knew how I came to be in my family. I could claim membership to my family with no questions asked. Small town living was a disadvantage because my family and I didn’t have to deal with my race. I could easily become “just like them,” “just a daughter,” “just a friend,” “just a sister,” “just a cousin.” Just, just, just. Even though I was very comfortable with just being “me,” I can see how my affinity for rooting for the underdog, by being moved every time we learned about civil rights in school, by not wanting to eliminate people based on their surface appearance, was me telling myself that I was more than just; I was something other.
In college, I constructed my world to resemble my childhood world. People who would say they saw me as “just” were happily welcome to be a part of my life. I craved others who would accept me as the person I was on the inside and not be guided by my physical appearance. I went on one date with an Asian man, but couldn’t do another because I was convinced I wasn’t Asian enough for him. I didn’t have Asian parents or Asian friends. The whole time we were on our date I was waiting for him to yell, “Phony!” and make me confess I wasn’t a “real” Asian. With my college friends and colleagues, my ethnicity was discussed only within the framework of comedy, as if being the only person of color in a group of white people was always hilarious. I thought this humor helped me own my ethnicity, but it only created more distance between my identity and my ethnicity. Throughout my young adult life, I carried around this sense of being lonely, even in a crowd of people. However, I couldn’t pinpoint the source of this melancholy feeling.
Later in my college career, I transferred to a much larger university. I had the opportunity to take classes specifically related to race, to explore the idea of white privilege and to understand that I no longer had access to this privilege via my family. I started to accept myself as other. However, my social circle remained very white, as I was too afraid of rejection by communities of color. I feared that the people in this community would discard me because my white upbringing made me unauthentic. I only looked like a Korean women, but I thought, talked and walked like a Caucasian.
When I first heard the term “twinkie” to describe a person who was ethnically Asian, but was culturally white (or strived to “act” white), I was so relieved to finally have a label for myself. Even though the person who was describing this term was referring to twinkie as a pejorative term, I was just so happy to learn there was a group of Asians with whom I could identify. But, I did not know where these twinkies were or how to find them. So, I remained in isolation and alone in my struggles.
Then I discovered the online adoptee community. I devoured a handful of blogs that spoke to my race and adoption experiences. I was astonished and relieved to read that other people had experienced many of the same racist encounters that I had; that the authors found it difficult to feel like a “real” member of their ethnic group. Reading these blog entries and comments was the first time I ever felt validation about my own experience as a transracial adoptee. I could read something and say, “I know!” authentically and with authority. A few years later, with help from my therapist and some new friends in the adoption community, I have fully incorporated adoption into my life experience. Where I once thought of adoption as a finite event and something I should “get over,” I now acknowledge that adoption is a lifelong experience that will always be an influence on my life. I can confidently identify as a Korean adoptee. Something I was raised to be, but something different than my birthright.
My current challenge is about authenticity and authority. Given my upbringing, do I know enough about Asian-Americans to claim membership to the group? I know a lot about the culture of rural Minnesotans, but I have never had an Asian-American role model in my everyday life. Do I have the authority to claim to a part of the Asian-American experience based on my physical appearance and the fact that I was born in an Asian country?
I think a lot about what I now believe to be my birthright and how it was taken away from me by many different forces – social, economic, political, religious and individual. Because I am aware of these forces, I am comfortable laying claim to a heritage that was afforded to me by birth, but denied me in my adoptive family. I have not been raised by Korean parents or even lived in a Korean community, but I am living out a piece of the Asian-American experience; an experience that is unique to the Asian-American community itself. Even though it is often downplayed or ignored, I am an Asian immigrant who was sent as a baby to fend for myself in a land of strangers. A land where I could not be comforted by the sound of my language or filled with food cooked by my grandmother’s hand; where I was raised to become a stranger to my own motherland.
I am part of a people that must find the balance between our white families and our needs as Asian-Americans. We have to find acceptance from our white families that we are in fact Asian-Americans and the courage to seek out other Asian-Americans for guidance and support. I am still building courage to seek what I need, but I have been given confidence by my fellow adoptees and by a welcoming Korean-American community. Their acceptance and guidance has slowly been fusing the gap between the person I was raised to be and the person I want to be. And, always, I will hover in the “third space” with my fellow adoptees. We cling to each other as we each try to find our own balance.