Going to school was just a normal thing for me. I mean, people would ask me, “Why aren’t your parents Asian?” or something like that, and I’d be kind of confused, like, “I don’t know.” But, finally I asked my parents why they looked different. And so, they told me, “Oh, you were adopted,” and stuff like that, “That’s why you don’t look the same.” So . . . I just kind of accepted that. But at school, the questions would keep building . . . They were asking “OK, so, if you’re adopted, then who are your real parents?” or “Have you ever met your real parents? Do you have any siblings?” and stuff like that. Those questions that would be asked over and over again. It used to bother me, because the questions would be so repetitive. But now, I just kind of tune it out, because I’ve gotten it so many times. It doesn’t really even bother me anymore.
There were a few African American kids in some of my elementary school classes, but the classes were mostly white. And then middle school was like, a variety. There was just mixed, mixed races. Now, in high school, there’s a lot of everything. There’s mostly whites, but I see a lot of other Asian people, and Hispanics, and African Americans. It used to feel like I was, like, the only one. But now, now that I see so many other different races, I don’t feel that way anymore . . . I like it better now, because you’re not . . . if someone wants to pick on a race, you’re not the only person there that’s representing that race . . . I have many friends that are Asian and African American and stuff. I think it’s easier than, like, with white people, because they ask so many questions about your race. People who are, like, ethnic and stuff like that, they get those questions, too, so they don’t ask you.
In school, sometimes people would be like, “Oh, you, you’re a chink,” and “She’s Asian, she’s not supposed to do this.” Blah blah blah. “She’s not supposed to be good at this.” I got that in, like, late elementary school, fifth grade, fourth grade, and then kind of just through middle school. But now that everyone’s in high school, everyone has matured a lot more and they just know better than to do that. Because that’s “below” our grade, right now, and our maturity level. But they, those are the worst, just like “chink” and stuff like that, those are the ones that I get. When I would tell my parents, they would just tell me the same things, like: “Turn the other cheek, just ignore it” and stuff like that. But I would tell them, it’s really hard to ignore it when you’re sitting in a classroom and the person in front of you is calling you that. To just look them in the eye and have them call you that. My parents would just say, “Oh, if you just don’t talk to them at all, don’t even make eye contact, they’re just going to stop, because it’s going to get boring without getting a reaction out of you.” So, I did that, but I just had a few of them just thrown at me. But it doesn’t bother me any more. Because there’s so many different people out there, that if they call me it, then they’re calling basically like every Asian that.
I went to Korean culture camps for, I can’t remember how long, but it was through elementary school and stuff. And I stopped before high school. I was too young then, I think, to really realize why I was there. Like, what purpose it was there for. I just thought it was just one of these camps that you go to . . . I used to think, like, “Oh yeah, the camp was fun and everything.” But then I guess it just got boring for me because I get bored easily with stuff like that. And my parents, I guess, they just decided that I didn’t have to go anymore . . . my sister was interested in it, but she was older at the time. So, she understood more than I did, and I think I was just, like, there to be there. I mean, I was learning a little bit of Korean each day, but it wasn’t, like, making that big of an impact on me. So, it was just this little daily routine that I went through, I guess . . . I think it showed me that I was not the only Korean adopted person in the whole world, besides my sister. And seeing the wide variety of those other people, I guess, right now, thinking about it makes me feel like I’m not the only person here. There are millions of other people here.
When I was really, really young, I had a thing for dancing; I used to dance a lot. I joined a Korean dance group a couple of years ago. And the only reason why I did that is because I had made a bargain with my mom: if I joined the Chang Mi Korean dance group, I could get our dog. I was never really interested in going to dance every Saturday morning, having to get up early, not being able to sleep in. And on Sunday afternoons, doing performances that were here and there. I mean, I guess I’m sort of grateful, because, I have a bunch of friends there; but there’s so much drama going on between the people, like “Oh, I think she hates me secretly” or something. I’m just getting tired of having to spend all my weekends at dance. And I can tell my sister is, too. Because she’s getting more angered, easily, about going to dance and doing performances and having to help out other kids with dance. My mom knew I wasn’t going to give up on the dog subject, and she probably just wanted me to be around other Korean girls and not to always have, like, one-race friendships. But, I have a lot of friends — like, even more friends than and I used to — and, like I said, the drama is unbelievable.
Out of all my friends, I’d have to probably say 25% of them are adopted but aren’t from Korea. My Asian friends, we all kind of, like, have the same interests and stuff like that, but they’re not all from Korea. Some of them are from, like, Vietnam, or China, or Taiwan—or they’re Hmong or something like that. But, we all kind of act the same way. But adoptees who aren’t from Korea, I mean, we still have a lot in common. And that’s partly why we’re friends, because we have stuff in common. So, I don’t really separate them from each other. I look at them as equals . . . Well, with my friends I know that there are differences, even if they’re still from Korea. I mean, they have different things about themselves and I have different things about myself. But, in the family, it just doesn’t really matter to me.
My friend Tou — he’s Hmong — he says, like, “So, you’ve never met your parents?” and all of those stereotype questions like that. But then he’ll actually be interested in it. He’ll be, like, “So, do you speak any Korean? Do you know when you were born? Like, what exact time? Or where you were born?” and stuff like that. And I’ll say, “No,” because I don’t. But he asks more questions than anyone else, because he’s actually interested in it. He’s not adopted, but he has other friends that are. It doesn’t bother me, because I know he’s curious about it . . . But just being Asian himself, he knows all the racial comments. I mean, he’s gotten a fair few of them, too. And I’ve been around him when he’s gotten some, and I have to just kind of restrain myself from, like, jumping them. But, yeah, I get angry when I’m kind of put off to the side because I’m different. I mean, the last thing I want to be is selected out of a large group of other different races. I don’t want to be, like, discriminated against. Or just picked out because I’m different. One of my fears of going to school is being chosen out of a group because I’m different. Like: I’m Asian, I’m adopted, I don’t speak Korean, even though I’m Korean, and I don’t know anything about my birth parents, and . . . That’s the things that I think are different about me than other adoptees. I mean, a lot of my adopted friends have met their parents — their birth parents . . . But I haven’t, yet. And, it’s not a big deal, because I know in some part of my future that I will. Because my dad promised me that I would, sometime. It doesn’t really matter to me when, but, it matters that I do. So I can just, like, get that out of the back of my head.
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.