Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"Fitting In" (Part 2)

I believe this is a big issue/concern for many foreign adoptees. At least in my personal experience it is probably the one I struggle with the most. For some odd reason, I have never really been driven by the typical question of "Why was I given up for adoption?". To be truthful, I'm not sure if I was abandoned or truly accidently lost. It was not uncommon for mothers to abandon their children as a way of "giving them up". So since I was found in a bakery, it could have been that my mother truly abandoned me or I could have been lost. In my mind, I was adopted and that was the end of it. It doesn't matter how I got here, but the fact that I am here now.

What I do struggle with sometimes is "fitting in". I remember as a child always wanting to fit in. I just recently read an interesting book written by Dr. Hei Sook Wilkinson titled "Birth Is More Than Once: The Inner World of Adopted Korean Children". Dr. Wilkinson writes about her study of 8 Korean adoptees in the Greater Detroit area. One of her findings that was common among all of the adoptees was their striving towards "fitting in". Common to all of the adoptees, was their disinterest in anything to do with Korea; This included culture, food, and language. Dr. Wilkinson observed that this was a temporary phase common in the development of the children. After some time, the children regained interest in their native country.

Since I was 5 years old when I was adopted, I had some capacity in the Korean language. My parents used to tell me about introducing me to Koreans who would try to speak to me in Korean but I would refuse or pretend not to understand them. This was even within weeks of being adopted when obviously I only understood Korean! I can't be sure why I did this because I don't even recall doing this.

Dr. Wilkinson's concluded that this was common in her study and that it was due to each adoptee wanting to "fit in" into their new culture and surroundings as fast as possible. She further postulated that this was driven by each adoptee wanting to be accepted by their new family and their new surroundings (thus contributing to the success and permanance of their adoption). New adoptees tended to believe if they blend in fast and quickly, then their new adoptive parents will have less reason to send them back. While I can't say for sure whether or not this applied to me, I do know that it makes sense. I think my parents agree in that they contribute it to my will to "fit in" as quickly as possible. I'm not sure if this was out of "fear" of being sent back if I didn't "fit in" quickly or not, but I suppose it could have been.

Another phase that Dr. Wilkinson recognized in her study was "identifying" with other Koreans (or sometimes just asians). This was of course after the child overcame or grew out of the phase above of rejecting one's culture. I vividly remember this phase of my life. A year after being in the US, my parents enrolled me in pre-school. At the pre-school I remember my best friend was another Korean boy (I think Korean, definitely asian), we believed we were brothers because we were both asian so we believed we were related.

I used to ridicule ethnic groups in the US for "clumping" together (not necessarily ridicule, but couldn't understand why people would clump together). Developing little sub-cultures such as China Town, Korea Town, Mexican Town, amongst larger cities. In these areas you will hear the appropriate foreign language and authentic food. I couldn't understand how people could live in the US and never learning how to speak English, and only speaking their native tongues. My feelings were probably due to the fact that I grew up in a very prodominantly white suburb of Detroit. So when I was growing up, I couldn't believe that people would want to isolate themselves from American society. In the last couple of years, my view on this has changed. I can now understand why they would be drawn to living in the same areas as other people with the same ethnicity.

I think I have re-entered the "identifying" phase. I seem to find myself more drawn to asians lately. For the first time in my life I the majority of my friends are asian, and mostly Korean. I recently moved, so I was in search of a new church. I have to admit that I decided to see if there was an Asian church I could go to. I found one and I found that I really liked the people and have since made a lot of friends. I'll have to say, I rather enjoy it. Its not that we are exclusively asians, there are a couple non-asians. What I found is that we just naturally have things in common. Obviously we enjoy the same foods, similar secondary languages, and similar interests in pop-culture (ie K-music and K-dramas). This makes it very easy and comfortable to develop relationships with this crowd.

This recent event in my life has opened my eyes and made me realize that it does seem easier to relate when you share a common ethnicity/race with people. One thing I'm sure other adopted Koreans can relate too is introducing our non-asian friends to Korean food. The foods in particular are seaweed and especially kimchee. Depending on what kind of personalities your friends have some of them make quite the commotion about eating seaweed and kimchee. Particularly the smell of kimchee and the smell of kimchee when it "leaks" through the pores in your skin. Cultural differences such as these can definitely hinder making friendships with people who don't understand or have a "nose" for kimchee. A fellow blogger (Kim Yoonmi) talks about this issue in her blog: Here

Prior to my visits to Korea, I always lived in white societies and the vast majority of my friends were also white. Not that this is bad, actually I have some excellent friends. However, sometimes I just fealt that I didn't "fit in". So when the opportunity came to visit Korea for the first time, I was really excited that I was finally going to blend in and "fit in". I quickly found out that I was going to be disappointed. Sure I blended in by looks, but as soon as I opened my mouth I stick out like a sore thumb.

I definitely don't want to downplay the relationships I have developed with some of the best people I have ever met in my life in Korea. I met some really nice people in Korea. Some people that I will never forget and I will always remain in contact with all of my life. I would have to say that Koreans on a whole are very kind and helpful people.

However, I never felt like I didn't "fit in" more than during my travels in Korea. Ironically where I thought I would "fit in" the most, it turns out that I felt I stuck out the most. The language factor is probably the biggest reason I felt that I didn't "fit in" as well as I thought as I would. Since I love Korean food, and my Korean friends say that I am very much Korean except my language (ie my sense of humor and my interest in Korean pop-culture); I believe that language is the single biggest factor of "fitting in". Which is probably why I felt that I didn't "fit in" as well in Korea as in the US.

Sometimes it was external factors that made me feel like I didn't "fit in". Such as the one restaurant owner who refused to serve me because I didn't speak Korean. But more often than not it was my own internal feelings that made me feel like I didn't "fit in". I was so frustrated with myself on several occasions:
1. Trying to tell a taxi where to go
2. Trying to figure out what to eat for lunch or dinner
were the two most common instances where I this feeling was greatest. This feeling of not "fitting in" was not put on me other people. Instead this feeling came from internally. It was more of a feeling of shame of myself. To be honest, it was very discouraging at times. Luckily I met some really nice people in Korea who definitely made my trips worth while. But this whole scenario has put a huge drive in my life to re-learn my native language. I have purhcased and used Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, and now I take private lessons to try and learn Korean. I truely do believe that the language barrier is the primary factor of whether or not I feel like I "fit in". This is not to discount the other factors. Like I said, in my recent move, I think I have been able to make friends much quicker not only because I share the same language, but also because we share a commone sub-culture of asian food and pop-culture.

Now I can understand people wanting to "clump" together with people from their ethnicity. Particularly when language is a factor. I'm not sure that I will make decisions on where I will live in the future based on this, but I'm sure it will be in my mind when I do have to make the decision.


  1. A good website for learning Korean is koreanclass101.com. They have a good range of learning tools on their site.

  2. One of the hardest obstacles in trying to reconnect is breaking down the language barrier.

    In fact, I'd say that's the toughest one yet.

    I went to Pacific Mall and people would speak to me in Mandarin, and then I'd say, "I don't understand."

    Cue head tilt and another question in Mandarin.