Before going to Korea, I hated being Asian. Growing up in a very white community didn’t help either. I grew up where we rarely learned about other cultures, and when we did, I was beyond anxious. I thought of myself as being white, and when someone brought up my being Asian, I would be so embarrassed. I grew up having to laugh at Asian “jokes,” trying to fit in.
My family is very diverse. My mom, dad, and older brother are white and biologically related. My sister and I are Korean, and my younger brother is Ethiopian. At this point in my family’s life, we are numb to the racism that happens to us every day.
My sister and I are both adopted from Korea, but we don’t share the same DNA. In Korea, we weren’t ever told that we “look the exact same.” Here in America, we are told that whenever someone meets us. I literally get terrified when people ask what my sister looks like. I hate showing them a picture, not because I’m ashamed or embarrassed, but because I know what’s going to come out of their mouth. “Wow, you guys look exactly alike,” or “is she your real sister” (meaning, is she your biological sister). People don’t realize how racist it actually is. Yes, she is my sister, but we don’t look alike. Asians have that stereotype of “everyone looking exactly the same.” So when Korean people met us and didn’t say we look the same, it was so refreshing.
Before going to Korea, whenever my parents tried to bring any Asian culture into our lives, I was mortified, yet I would never say anything because I did not want to complain or seem weird. Hiding my identity became natural to me, the same as someone else breathing. The worst thing was whenever my classmates and I read any book that remotely dealt with Asia or Asian culture. That would mean that I got stared at the whole time.
My parents wanted us to see and learn more about where we came from. My sister felt ready and wanted to go. I was very hesitant but knew they would go no matter what, so I acted like I wanted to go too. I remember thinking, “Just take it one day at a time while you’re there. It will be over before you know it.” I also remember getting sick at a restaurant, not being able to eat because I felt so sick. Guess what we were talking about before I got sick? Korea.
On the plane ride, which I thought would never end, I thought about the worst scenarios. What if I got lost and no one could help because I can’t speak Korean? I remembered when I was very young, going to a conference for Korean adoptees, and I HATED it—like, it was bad. I remember getting picked up by two Korean adults and instantly bursting into tears. I thought I was getting kidnapped or sent back. It was awful. After that experience, I never wanted to do anything like that again.
When we arrived in Korea, we were greeted by the people who ran The Ties Program. The program was for Korean adoptees and their families to visit the places they were born. When we arrived, I had no energy to even think about where we were. I just came off a fourteen-hour flight, and we still had to wait for other families to arrive.
After the first day in Korea, I was already starting to come out of my shell. I felt this connection I have never felt in my life, though I didn’t realize it at first. We met a lot of the families, and my sister and I connected with a few in particular. For the first time, I had other people close to my age who knew how I felt and live what I live every day. I had a really close connection with this one family in particular. They had two girls adopted from Korea, and one of them was my age. She even had a Korean sister, just like me. We shopped together and tried live octopus at the Asian fish market, and though I was terrified to eat it, I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As I got to know these people more and more, that is when I felt most connected to Korea.
I’m a big foodie, so being able to try new foods from the place I was born was unforgettable. Everything there had so much flavor and was authentic. My sister and I went to this one restaurant almost every night. It was a noodle and dumpling place a five-minute walk from our hotel that was so cute and delicious. Like many Korean restaurants, they cook your food right in front of you, so it was fresh and you knew what you were eating. I tried everything, from bibimbap to the dumplings. One thing I’ll never forget was the portion sizes—it was incredible to me how “small” they were, since they’re meant for one person and not a whole family. You could tell why other countries called us Americans fat.
Being able to eat Korean food and experience the culture without others making fun of what you eat or asking a million questions about it is something people take for granted. In America, eating Asian foods in front of other people means I get “Ew that looks gross” or “Why does it smell like that” or “Did you make that yourself?” In Korea, I could just live in the moment and not worry about who I sat with or who was around me. For the first time ever, I could be myself.
Initially, I was worried I was going to feel like a tourist in Korea. It was the complete opposite. I never felt closer to a place in my life. Being able to walk the streets not being stared at or scared to be called “chink” or have someone run up to me and give me “Asian eye” was something I never felt before.
To me, Korea felt like a safer New York City. The buildings were close together, and everything was within walking distance like New York, but I felt safe and wasn’t worried that people would approach me. Being able to walk to restaurants with my sister and not worrying that we’ll get stopped or laughed at was an experience no one can take away from me.
I did not feel like the odd one out. I was not embarrassed about what I looked like. I felt like me, like I was my true self for the first time. I took in all the smells, tastes, and sounds, and I embraced what I felt. Going to Korea was like reliving the moment I got glasses. I finally could see the world clearer. I wasn’t trapped in a little bubble that made me feel small and weak. Korea popped that bubble and made me love who I am.
Leaving Korea was very bittersweet. If you told me six years ago that I would miss Korea more than anything, I would have laughed in your face. Korea brought so much joy and reassurance to my life, reassurance that I’m not alone and that I now have two homes: one here in America and one in Seoul. Like I said before, I hated being Asian before going to Korea, but I am now proud of who I am. Those twelve days were the longest streak of time that I didn’t experience discrimination in my life. I feel like people don’t even realize when they’re being racist, to Asians in particular. People would always tell me to ignore the discrimination or say, “It’s going to happen in the real world, so you have to get used to it.” Well, in Korea, I didn’t have to “get used to” people saying racist things to me. I used to be so self-conscious about my eyes, but in Korea, I realized so many people have eyes similar to mine.
Right now, in my life, I stick up for myself if people make Asian jokes. I also try so hard to have Asian culture in my life, like cooking many Asian dishes. I go to events that talk about being adopted from Korea, like KAAN, the Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network. KAAN hosts conferences for Korean-Americans that talk about being adopted and what it’s like for Korean adoptees. I try my hardest to be a proud Korean and to not let anyone change who I am or make me feel stupid or ashamed because of it. And though I’m still trying to find my identity, Korea has taught me to love myself and where I came from.
I’m going to be extremely real with you. One of the hardest things about being an adoptee is the unknown. The unknown of why I wasn’t enough. Many adoptees go through life hearing, “Your parents are so nice to have ‘saved’ you,” “Do you want to know your real parents?” and “Your ‘real’ mom didn’t want you.” That’s just a fraction of what I had to hear. Now that I look back at my childhood, I wish people could be told that it’s not okay to say things like that. Words hurt, and adoptees don’t need to be reminded that they were given up.
In Korea, if you get pregnant when you’re not married, your family will shun you. I don’t know much about my birth mom. I just know she wasn’t married when she was at a bar, met a guy, and it was a one-night thing. They didn’t even exchange numbers or anything. By the time she figured out she was pregnant, there was no way to contact my birth father. Her family already had money trouble because the father (my birth grandfather) died and they didn’t have much income. She had to go to a home for pregnant women. When I learned that, I broke down. My family tells me it’s not my fault that that happened to her, but deep down, I always feel guilty. Yes, I know it’s not my fault, but I always felt as though I ruined her life.
I hate not knowing things. The “what ifs” are making me go crazy. This past year, I sent out a request to find my birth mother. I want her to know I’m happy and loving life. I want to thank her for everything. Yes, she didn’t raise me, but she brought me into this world and gave me to my parents. She could have tried to raise me with no money, but she wanted more for me.
KARA DONOVAN is a freshman business management student at Beacon College in Florida. When she’s not at school, she lives in Maine with her family. This is her first paper published, and she’s very excited.