Monday, December 1, 2008

Adopted Koreans

Recently, I had an article published in the Korean Herald talking about my adoption and my recent travels to Korea. I have been contacted by a few readers who have had similar experiences as myself or unique ones to share.

One of hte readers, Mari Cochran, made a comment to my original post. I would like to pull and excerpt from her comment to discuss further. I hope she doesnt mind, but I think since it was posted as a comment that it is "public domain"? If not, then please let me know and I will change the post.

Mari recently wrote:
"The "us" - American-Koreans who have gone through the same thing - living in America, looking Korean, a mixed hybrid of both cultures - never truely fitting in to either culture. I have met many of "us" out there and we share a few things in common other than our experiences - we love to travel - I think it is because we can't quite identify completely with a particular culture so that we constantly float around, looking for it. Even after returning to Korea (as he did and I did), you still don't fit in because you can't talk the language - even the way we walk, dress, handle ourselves in a crowd is different from a native Korean. We don't get hung up about adoption and not knowing all the facts as other kinds of adoptees seem to - we have the same attitude as many koreans - it happened, it's in the past, get over it and move on. I think Koreans are as a culture pragmatists - we've been pushed and pulled by our neighbors so long that we have developed a thick skin and in a way, developed our own unique independent attitude that has passed down through the bloodlines."

After reading her comment, I was wondering if she was talking about only Korean adoptees or also American born Koreans? At the beginning of the comment it appeared to be both, but at the end of the comment its definitely geared towards Korean adoptees. Which lead me to question, do Korean adoptees feel/experience differently from American born Koreans?

I think yes and no. In the aspect of "wanting to return to Korea for the experience" and then also the "not fitting in when they arrive to Korea" they experience fairly closely what adopted Koreans experience. However, the general experiences from these two groups may overlap they are definitely different.

More often than not, the American born Koreans (just for clarification, kids who were born in the US to Korean parents, or maybe moved to the US when they were very young, where they don't remember Korea) usually speak Korean. Which gives them a huge "step up" over adopted Koreans who I think typically may not speak Korean. If they do speak Korean it is because they had to learn through formal training versus speaking it at home.

Language is one of the biggest factors which separates cultures, which is why I think there is a big difference between these two groups. I wonder if the "drive" to learn about Korea, Korean food, language, and culture is more so in adopted Koreans than American born Koreans because they are further removed from it? I know this "drive" to learn about Korea is really strong in me right now. I wonder if it is as powerful as it is because I grew up so far removed from it, that now its like a counter-balance for all of those years where I didn't experience Korean culture? Compared to an American born Korean, who may have the same "drive" but not as strong because they have had a little more exposure to it than I have?

Maybe Im crazy, and I don't know how you would be able to measure someone's "drive" or motivation towards something. Or maybe its just person to person. I wonder if all Korean adoptees experience what Im feeling right now(a strong urge/drive/motivation to learn and experience as much Korean stuff as I can) at some point in their lives? I know if you had asked me this 10 years ago, I would have laughed. 10 years ago, I had no interest in Korean culture.

I especially like the last part of Mari's comments, how Korean adoptees are also different from other adoptees. Also how we seem to have this "thicker skin" that has been passed down our bloodlines. I wonder if there are any studies on adopted Koreans. I see a lot of similarities in what Mari has written and what Ive read from the few other adopted Koreans I have met. I wonder if adopted Koreans have somehow developed a "culture" of our own. We don't have our own language, or our own food, but we all share a common life experience that only we know about. We share this drive to identify with a culture, and to learn about Korea, and to someday return to the motherland.

Something unique about this "culture" that adopted Koreans might have, is that it was not formed as a group. With the exception of Minnesota, which oddly has a large population of adopted Koreans, our "culture" originated individually amongst each one of us, on our own. This is kind of reverse of how "culture" is traditionally definited. Usually its a common thing amongst a group of people. However for adopted Koreans it has had to develop in each of us individually and when you look at our group as whole you find this "culture". I guess it is very fitting that this "culture" of adopted Koreans is untraditional and has had to adapt because of our unique situation, similarly to how untraditional our experiences have been and how we have had to adapt to our surroundings.


  1. I think it varies person to person. wanting to learn about this is just something you have to come to on your own. up until a few years ago I rejected Koreanness and tried to be as white as possible, even refusing to learn Korean but now I'm embracing it. my Korean-Canadian friend says she has cousins who are in their 30s and still "pretending to be white" it's an individual basis but I think I understand your desire to learn about this culture and be part of it even though we can never fully assimilate. but I also think that's an advantage of having two viewpoints and growing up with a mixed identity.

  2. for American born Koreans, I too, think its really up to the person. The norm or "typical" one usually grows up speaking it, others are sent to Korean school ( I have not experienced korean school, but a typical kid usually hates it, like my brother), and as they grow accustomed to school (English), they slowly get rusty in Korean.Its usually hard to get it back, unless you make an effort to speak, write, read it. You cannot help get rusty because of the world. I believe that someone USUALLY wants to learn more KOREAN, as they grow up. I'm not sure if others want to "know more of the culture (aka pop culture etc").. but the language is something that I feel everyone might feel at one point in their lives (whenever that may be). I do realize that there ARE those who "think they are white". I've seen them. :)

  3. Learning another language can be achieved by studying books or other materials, but to turly speak the language, you have to understand the culture of the language you want to speak. Two are very different.

    Most Gyopos, adopted, etc. try to learn Korean, but to really speak Korean, one has to come over and experience the Korean culture including how Koreans live, behave, react, etc. Obviously, the longer one experiences, more fluent one will become.

    It definitely takes a lot of time, effort and money to spend time in Korea as a visitor, which probably explains the reason why more gyopos and adopted cannot fully learn to speak Korean, unless one decides to reloate him/herself.

    But, seeing your determination to know more about Korea, I have a feeling that you will get your Koreaness back in no time.

  4. I do believe that it does depend on the individual. It's up to them when they feel it is the time to start embracing a culture that may in some way feel like it has let you down. I was adopted when I was 5 years old, and although my new parents wanted me to keep my culture and language, I was dead set against it. My memories were ones that I wanted to forget, and that also meant forgetting where I came from. As you grow older, you get the nostalgia and curiosity of where you came from. I have started to wonder what it would be like to go back "home" so to speak and yet I feel hesitation at the same time. All I know is that there is always something to be grateful for and that trying to find the "norm" will only produce disappointment. I do agree with the "thick skin" comments though. What is meant to be will happen and I hope your journeys and experiences bring you happiness and peace.