I think I’ve been really lucky in that my parents have seen the importance of connecting me to Korea. I think the older adoptees have been told by their parents, “Well, you’re not Korean, you’re American,” so they didn’t have anything Korean in their lives. But it’s gotten a lot better now. My parents were always really good about eating Korean food once in a while, and having Korean stuff in the house, and and taking me to Korean culture camp every summer.
For most of my life, every summer, Korean culture camps have been there. I met my two best friends at a Korean adoptee event, and the three of us have been best friends ever since. Most of my Korean friends are people I met at Korean culture camps. I went to culture camps from kindergarten through, I think it was sixth grade, and after that I went to Camp Chosun and started in the Korean language village up near Bemidji. I’m too old for culture camp now, but I do go back . . . two of the past years I’ve gone to Camp Chosun to help teach Korean dance, and this year I’m going to the language village as a staff member, which is really exciting for me because the first year I went there I knew absolutely no Korean.
The first year you do something like that, you don’t really want to go. You think “People aren’t going to like me,” or “I’m not going to have any friends.” But once you go for the first time, it’s like, “How could I not have had this in my life before?” If you are able to appreciate it, it’s one of the few times you can be around people who are like you — really like you, not only Korean but also Korean American, and not only Korean American but Korean adopted. So for me, going to the camps has always been a positive experience. And I do give a lot of credit to my parents for pushing me into it . . . but I was the one who decided that I wanted to keep doing it.
My Korean friends and I, we would never mix Korean friends and school friends—it just wouldn’t work. We’ve tried it before, a few times. It’s not like you change personalities, but when I’m with my Korean friends, we’re just more . . . laid back, or sort of comfortable. At school, I’ve noticed that a lot of my [Korean] friends are a lot more quiet. At school, I’m there to learn, and I don’t want to be gossiping about so-andso. Because it’s not important. But at school, there is more of a chance that you’ll be commented on — like, “Oh, well she’s Korean” — or that people will ask you about your Korean-ness, or ask you about adoption. And as you get older, you don’t want to have to to explain yourself, or tell them your story. You just want to “be.” And for us, when we’re together, we don’t have to explain anything, we don’t have to worry about that at all. If you’re having a bad day because someone called you “chink,” they totally understand, and they’re better at getting you through that. My white friends — most of my friends at school are white — they just wouldn’t know what to do.
At home, I think everyone in my family knows that we can totally be ourselves. Being Korean, being white, it doesn’t matter, because we’re all just a family. I mean, obviously sometimes it does matter, like if one of us came home and said “there’s this boy at school today who said these things to me about being Korean, about being whatever . . . ” It’s happened before. I used to tell my parents, but now I don’t. Because they can’t help me. Whatever they have to say isn’t going to make any difference. My mom would say, “Oh, just ignore it. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. You know, maybe you’re being a little too sensitive.” It’s not useful, but at the same time, I couldn’t expect her to say anything else.
The whole name-calling thing has totally gone away for me. I don’t think I can remember the last time I was called something. But there are moments when people are totally ignorant, and ask me stuff. Here’s an example: I’m part of a Korean adoptee youth group, and one day we all stopped at a coffee shop. While we were in line, there was this guy who looked at us and was like, “So, are you guys all, like, on a tour group from Japan?” And I just kind of looked at my friends; I was thinking, “Oh, gosh, what do we say? No?” My friend said “No, we’re Korean.” But then the guy said, “Oh, so are you guys going to move back to Korea soon? How is the language barrier thing going?” You can’t just yell at the guy for saying that, but at the same time… it’s just sort of weird, awkward moments like that when you know the person is not intending to say something dumb, but they are. And you want to say something like, “Well, no, we’re Korean, we’re adopted, we can speak English fine.” Stuff like that comes up more often. But it’s not something that’s racially meant to hurt you, I guess.
But there have been other times. My sister has come home a few times and said, “A kid called me a chink at school and people made fun of my eyes,” and stuff like that. It’s always the same. My parents try to make us feel better, but they’re never going to really know what it’s like, living here, because they’re white. My sister and I are Asian, and we’re going to have to deal with stuff like that, and they’re not. But it’s never gotten to the point where we have to sit down as a family and talk about it. My sister and I are old enough to understand that our parents are not going to be very useful, and we just have to talk to each other and to our other Korean friends. That kid didn’t know what he was talking about and I just have to, sort of, get over it. But I still know that those things are hurtful.
These oral histories and photographs from Here: A Visual History of Adopted Koreans in Minnesota by Kim Jackson and Heewon Lee appear with permission from Yeong and Yeong Books, St. Paul, Minnesota.