In Year One, during the World Cultures Day parade, a kid from my class came up to me and said: ‘Your mum’s not your real mum.’
I was devastated. I came home crying, my sister leaving the kitchen while my parents sat me down to have the discussion they’d always known was coming. They explained how they’d wanted another baby after my sister, but couldn’t have one. My biological mother had given me up for adoption because she was unmarried. Being a single mother in South Korea was scandalous, humiliating for the family – a cultural taboo that persists to this day. So I was placed in an orphanage and put up for international adoption.
My parents travelled to Seoul to pick me up in February of 1988, seven months before South Korea hosted the Olympics – an event that would attract international attention to the plight of orphans and abandoned children in the country. Along with their new daughter, my parents brought home souvenirs – a little plastic figurine of the Olympic mascot, Hodori, a smiling orange tiger wearing a hat with a ribbon attached; a large sheet of hanji with their unusual Anglophone surname written in calligraphy; some paper fans; a pair of blue silk shoes with tassels. Together with my dad’s Irish family crest, a picture of Balmoral castle, a porcelain policeman and our family portraits (spot the Asian!), these were displayed prominently in all the houses I grew up in.
Mine was not the kind of adoption that could have been kept a secret. That would have been impossible – I was brown and my family was white. The difference was plain to see but, as a child growing up in one of the palest suburbs of Western Sydney, not something easily understood.
A few years after the incident in Year One, my mum made a proposal.
‘We could go back to Korea and look for your birth mother,’ she said. ‘If you want to.’
Mum told me what she remembered of Seoul. The futons rolled out on the floor. The clean, orderly streets. Fashionably dressed ladies staring at my older sister: a blonde girl, big gap in her front teeth, five years old in a pink jumpsuit. Strangers reached out to touch her hair.
Growing up, I didn’t know any other Koreans. We didn’t have family friends who weren’t white. There were a couple of other Asian kids at my school – one Japanese-Australian and one Chinese-Australian girl. But I wasn’t like them. I didn’t speak another language. Didn’t pack a lunchbox with tofu or seaweed. Didn’t visit my family overseas.
‘What do you do when you go to Tokyo?’ I asked my friend Mari.
‘We go shopping,’ she said.
That didn’t seem any different to what Mum and I did on weekends – going to the shopping centre, browsing for bargains, having lunch in the food court. I didn’t need to go to Korea to do that.
I’d begun to examine the extent to which I truly belonged in my family… The (white) veneer that held us together had already begun to wear thin.
I began to lose interest in the trip. I realised that we were only going to Korea because my parents thought it the right thing to do. They’d also offered to take me to Korean language or culture classes, but I’d always turned them down. To some adopted children, these might have been important activities, but to a child who saw herself as white, who was raised in a white community, it just seemed unnecessary, even bizarre.
So the trip never eventuated. I didn’t need to go overseas just to shop with my biological family. I wanted to spend my holidays at the beach. So we cancelled the trip and went to the Gold Coast instead, visiting all the theme parks. Our only regular encounter with Asian culture came when ordering Chinese takeaway from the place above the nail salon on Saturday nights. Spring rolls, short soup, combination chow mein.
The question of visiting Korea didn’t come up again.
I first left home when I was a postgrad in uni, moving into a two-bedroom house in Sydney’s inner west. Some friends took me to a Korean barbecue restaurant to welcome me to the neighbourhood, and I tried kim chi and jap chae for the first time. As a vegetarian, they were the only things I could order from the menu.
I began to use chopsticks (clumsily) in restaurants. Began experimenting with Vietnamese recipes. Thought about visiting Japan or Korea instead of Europe. I think these may have been the first steps in opening myself up to otherness. Although I wasn’t yet ready to acknowledge that there might be something Korean about me, perhaps I’d begun to accept that there was something Asian. In the vastness of the term – ‘Asian’ – there was also a kind of anonymity that fit.
I wondered if I might have something in common with Asian-Australian or Asian-American families on TV and in movies. Wondered if it was okay to identify with them, rather than with the white characters – at least some of the time.
I started dating someone who took tae kwon do classes. He’d learned Korean in high school and, even though he only remembered a few basic phrases, it was more than I knew. I was ashamed.
I learned that other adoptees also felt guilty about not speaking the language, not knowing more about their place of birth. Like me, many thought of themselves as white, or had wanted to be white when they were growing up. I wondered if they had ever proclaimed to their mothers: ‘When I grow up, I’m going to have blue eyes like you!’ I wondered if their parents also asked impossible questions like: ‘But you’ve never experienced racism, have you?’
My parents couldn’t understand why I’d left home to share-house with strangers. But I was ready to explore things that weren’t open to me at home. I’d begun to examine the extent to which I truly belonged in my family. Conceded – quietly, and only to myself – that I was uneasy with this belonging, that I did not wholly trust it, and that the (white) veneer that held us together could crack – and, indeed, had already begun to wear thin.
It took a long time, dawning on me slowly, over years.
Could I be part of a diasporic community?
It was a revelation when I discovered I could become a Korean citizen.
Was this a kind of invitation to belong?
This is the myth of the trans-racial adoptee: Either that race defines the family, or that race becomes invisible within the family. My experience is that both, and neither, are true. My parents say they don’t see me as Asian; they just see their daughter. I believe them. But how is it possible? How can they place this cloak of invisibility on my skin colour when it tells the story of how and why I came to them?
This is the myth of the trans-racial adoptee: Either that race defines the family, or that race becomes invisible within the family.
As a kid, I didn’t tell my parents about racist schoolyard slurs because they were so embarrassing. Even now, I don’t tell them when my niece pulls her eyes back into slits and smiles up at me as though it’s a joke, or when the man in the street yells at my boyfriend to ‘keep it Australian’. These things shake my sense of belonging, making me feel angry and weak at the same time. And yet, I often feel I can’t call myself a victim of racism when my experience of race is mediated through my white upbringing. When perhaps I may still be blind to, or even unwittingly reinforce, the marginalisation of others whose experience is not my own. How can I discuss these things with my parents without it sounding like a criticism?
But I often wonder: why a Korean baby? Why not a white baby? For me, this question probably doesn’t have a satisfactory answer, because my parents will always assert that I’m not Asian – not to them. But the lack of acknowledgement of my difference is troubling. It’s a kind of wilful ignorance, based on the belief that race doesn’t matter. Maybe white people can live in this post-racial fantasy, but people of colour know it’s a lie.
This question of why is a difficult one to discuss with my parents, because it feels like a repudiation of the life they’ve given me. I’m not ungrateful. But gratitude doesn’t feel right either. I had no choice in the matter. As Jane Jeong Trenka, a Korean adoptee living in America, writes in her memoir, The Language of Blood:
How can I weigh the loss of my language and culture against the freedom that America has to offer… How can a person exiled as a child, without a choice, possibly fathom how he would have ‘turned out’ had he stayed in Korea? How many educational opportunities must I mark on my tally sheet before I can say it was worth losing my mother? How can an adoptee weigh her terrible loss against the burden of gratitude she feels she has for her adoptive country and parents?
I don’t feel quite as strongly as Trenka. I don’t feel I’ve lost another life. But sometimes the possibility of belonging somewhere more fully prickles at me. Not a loss, but a lack. The thought that perhaps I’d understand myself more in the context of my biological family or my birthplace. That I’d not be such a brown wolf in a white sheep’s clothing.
I don’t feel I’ve lost another life. But sometimes the possibility of belonging somewhere more fully prickles at me. Not a loss, but a lack.
Quietly, I begin to revisit the idea of returning to Korea, but not with my family. Alone would be better, I think. I see myself there in winter. In my mind’s eye, it’s as though I never left. I’m walking down a snow-dusted street, and I look just like everyone else.
Preparing to buy my first home, I asked my parents to send me a copy of my Korean passport for the solicitor’s paperwork. The passport includes the name my biological mother gave me and a photo of me as a baby – fat cheeks, a spray of black hair. My parents kept part of my Korean name as a middle name, and I used to be proud of it as a child. It was a point of difference, more unique than Anne or Sarah or Jessica, but later it would make me feel like a fraud, like someone pretending to be Korean.
With adoption comes an understanding that families can be made and identities crafted in many different ways. But also the realisation that any sense of belonging can be tenuous – that the ground can shift beneath your feet at any moment, with a casual insult by a stranger, a child’s smile at a birthday party. Suddenly, you are discomfited by the people and the places you grew up in, and you don’t fit anymore.
What does being a Korean adoptee mean for your identity? Are you white? Are you Asian? Asian enough? I don’t know how to be Korean, and I don’t think I ever will. And yet I have some claim to Korea – it’s in my skin, my name, my records. I’m starting to think of myself as something else – not less, but liminal.
The way we make families across cultures is deeply political. It’s difficult terrain to navigate with adopted parents, but I’m hoping it’s something mine will one day understand.