The Culture of the Korean-American Adoptee

My mother and I
My mother and I
My best friends have always been White...
My best friends have always been White...

I notice them first when I see them with their families in restaurants. They stick out to me impossibly when I watch a flick or documentary. While they may not think about it much themselves, when they see me, they think the same thing:

"Another Korean-American adoptee!"

Okay, I might not think about it in those terms, but there's a certain kinship that I feel with other KAAs. I don't even have to know them to feel a connection to them because I know that we've experienced a lot of the same things just because we are Korean and adopted in the United States.

When I was a child, my mother used to seek out other families with adopted Korean kids, and she would take us to events that celebrated Asian cultures and traditions. I didn't think much of it at the time, and neither did my brother, who is also adopted. I think having him around helped me think less about it because I always had someone like me there.

Anytime I find myself in the presence of other Koreans - REAL Koreans who are familiar with the culture and language - I feel terribly out of place and a little fake. I have never believed in taking advantage of affirmative action because I feel that I haven't struggled with racial issues enough to warrant the benefits.

A few weeks ago, I participated in a anti-recall campaign and found myself in the presence of a group of Korean volunteers, who immediately noticed that I am Korean and proceeded to speak to me in the language. Of course I could only respond in English and admit that I couldn't speak Korean. However, the leader of the volunteer group really took the time to talk to me and ask me about my background. When he learned that I am adopted, he referred me to a group called AKA, or Association of Korean Adoptees. As soon as I clicked on the homepage for this organization, I immediately felt at home with the words describing the mission: "The Association of Korean Adoptees of San Francisco (AKASF) is a nonprofit organization supporting the needs of adult Korean adoptees in the SF Bay Area through community outreach, cultural enrichment and social gatherings."

"Every Korean adoptee has a unique adoption story. AKASF members pledge to respect other members' experiences. Adoption experiences are owned by the adoptee, and only he or she may share that story with others.

The group listserv is a dynamic forum for members to explore the various issues surrounding international adoption through discussion and debate. While AKASF does not endorse any of the posts as positions supported or held by the association, it does recognize that every member has the right to post to the listserv. Members post to the listserv understanding that their messages will be read only by AKASF members. AKASF requests that all members honor this confidentiality."

While I enjoy telling my story to others, it would be nice to be with more people with whom I could just "click." There was a girl in my fraternity in college who was also a KAA, and while our stories were a little different, there were enough similarities for me to feel like we were a little like sisters. I also attend social events through my adoption agency, where there are often many other adoptees with whom I can bond and relate.

I understand now that this is a feeling most people have with people of their race; I see African-American people at my work bond almost automatically, while I cannot achieve this relationship with my Korean-American co-worker... He's not adopted. All of the classes that I've taken on race and ethnicity and multiculturalism has helped me to the place I am now.

I want this feeling more often, and as I'm beginning to discover this more and more, I felt the need to write this and explain it not just to myself, but to others.

Korean Adoptee Thinks She's White

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Comments 33 comments

Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks

Glassvisage, thanks for sharing these experiences. Culture and race are separate things, but if a culture that we belong to is very race conscious, then people will treat us differently based on race, even if webelong to their culture, and not the culture of other people who share our race and not our culture.

There is something I'm curious about. Can you tell when you see an adopted Asian child in an American family right away that this child came from Korea, rather than China or Japan? I had some Korean friends in grad school, and they said it's hard for them to know for sure, until they start speaking to the person, just by appearance what country they are from.

I once rode in a cab with a colleague from Korea and another colleague from China. It was in Chicago, and we were at a conference. (I was born in Israel). The cab driver asked us what country we were from. We asked him which one of us he meant. "Aren't you all from the same country?" he asked. We were amused. "Which country do you think we are from?" we asked. "The Philippines," he said.

When I was in Taiwan speaking Chinese Madarin not very well to vendors whose native language was Taiwanese, one woman mistook me for a Korean!

Perceptions can be so misleading.


glassvisage profile image

glassvisage 7 years ago from Northern California Author

Thanks, Aya! Your experience is pretty interesting... Some people REALLY can't tell the difference!

I am okay at distinguishing Koreans from Chinese or Japanese people - I'm not perfect at it - but the main thing that allows me to guess that someone is a Korean adoptee is the fact that they ARE an adoptee... I've only met one or two adopted Chinese children, and never have I met an adopted Japanese person.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks

Glassvisage, I see. So adoptions from Korea are more common. We live out in the Ozarks and my daughter has a friend who was adopted from China. There aren't any adopted Koreans here, although I think there are a couple of kids living with their grandparents whose mother was Korean and whose father was a local person of Caucasian descent. Maybe it's also generational? Probably people your age who were adopted were more likely to have come from Korea.

It's true, I've never met an adopted Japanese person, either!


fishskinfreak2008 profile image

fishskinfreak2008 7 years ago from Fremont CA

As a person with 2 cultures myself, I can see myself in your shoes. Very interesting article. Well done. Thumbs up


Netters profile image

Netters 7 years ago from Land of Enchantment - NM

Thank you for sharing your story. I'm glad you found support.


Moon Daisy profile image

Moon Daisy 7 years ago from London

That's a really interesting hub, thanks! I've never met a Korean adoptee or heard about these experiences. I've often wondered though how it would feel to be from a different race/culture from your adoptive parents. But your hub shows that this maybe isn't the issue. It's perhaps more important to find other peers who are in the same position as you. I'm glad you found others to identify with.


LondonGirl profile image

LondonGirl 7 years ago from London

very interesting hub, thank you.

It sounds as if there was a lot of adoption from Korea to the US? Do you know why that was?


glassvisage profile image

glassvisage 7 years ago from Northern California Author

Thank you to everyone for stopping by! The first records of Korean adoptions into the United States were in the 1950s, and I think that the adoption wave was facilitated by the passages of several adoption policies, including the 1961 American Immigration Law that included more provisions for transnational adoption. Korean adoptions peaked in the U.S. at almost 8,700 in 1986 alone... one year before I was adopted!

I also think it's a cultural thing; some may not value girls as much as boys, and so many girls were put up for adoption (my parents actually expected to get another girl when in the adoption process for my brother!). Also, industrialization and urbanization resulted in changing social structures and environments, and there were more out-of-wedlock births than before, which resulted in more babies unable to be cared for by birth parents.


TheLoanConsultant profile image

TheLoanConsultant 7 years ago from Orange County

Very interesting Hub. I didn't know there was that many adopted Koreans in America. I do have a rhetorical question for you though: What does that mean exactly when that Korean girl says, "Most of my friends are white?" What if Korea was finally united and I was adopted there. But you still had this rift between North and South Koreans; and I were to say, "Most of my friends are North Koreans." Wouldn't that alientate everyone else who is not North Korean? And wouldn't this be conterproductive, seeing that I'm trying to fit in? Or is it because by saying, "Most of my friends are white" I think that this somehow makes me fit in? But if so, with who am I trying to fit in with? And if I'm only trying to fit in with a specific group of people and thereby excluding everyone else, is this not because I think I'm better than those who I am excluding?


LondonGirl profile image

LondonGirl 7 years ago from London

very interesting, thanks! I didn't know that. Was it from N Korea or S Korea?


Sarah Songing profile image

Sarah Songing 7 years ago

Thanks for the open and honest hub, glassvisage!

I think there are many Korean adoptees your age in the US. I had two in my class alone, both of them girls- in a small town in Minnesota. (Of all places!)

My husband and I have checked into international adoption before and are still considering going through with one in the future. Let me ask you from your personal experience, even though you feel out of place in your family and culture in some ways, do the benefits of being adopted and loved outweigh the negatives of awkardness? And on a personal note, do you have any desire- or have you already- searched out your "birth" family? (My best friend is adopted, and has no desire to find her birth parents. So I find this topic interesting.)

Thanks for a great hub!


glassvisage profile image

glassvisage 7 years ago from Northern California Author

Thanks for your comments! Loan Consultant, by that comment, I'm not quite sure if I mean anything really by it, other than the fact that I feel very comfortable with White people and their cultures because I am more familiar with them, as my parents were European American.

LondonGirl, it was South Korea! I'm not sure if North Korea would allow for international adoptions... :S

Sarah, I can certainly understand having seemingly random Korean adoptees in that small Minnesota town - my brother and I and one other girl are the only others that I know in my town and the four surrounding ones!

Also, I wouldn't give up my identity as a Korean adoptee because I love being different; I love trying to explain something that others might never understand. The positives certainly outweigh the negatives; it's hard to think of any negatives, for that matter, except for not knowing your medical history and things like that... I've never made any effort to search out a birth family because it seems so impossible, and I've hardly had much desire to. My parents are the best!


jqs2009 7 years ago

Wow, I didn't realize that there are a multitude of Korean adoptees in the United States. Thanks for sharing, and widening the scope of my knowledge in some experience I would have never had. Growing up in a dutch heritage, along with encounters with people from other ethnicities allow me to dilate my understanding of multiracism and different cultural values. German is your second language? that's awesome, because I dont really get the chance to speak the language, even though I have learned the language for a long time. Thanks for sharing.


glassvisage profile image

glassvisage 7 years ago from Northern California Author

Thank you all for your comments and input! Yes, adoption from Korea was certainly a big thing in the 80s, and I meet a lot of Korean adoptees around my age, which is cool :) Haha, yes, the language I could probably speak best after English is strangely German, because Spanish didn't interest me in high school (although I regret that decision now!)


2besure profile image

2besure 6 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

"When I was a child, my mother used to seek out other families with adopted Korean kids, and she would take us to events that celebrated Asian cultures and traditions."

You mom was a very wise woman to attempt to keep you in touch with your heritage. Adoption is always difficult for a child. It must be very difficult for any child adopted by parents of another race or culture. When seeking to be a part of their own culture there may be a feeling of betrayal of their adoptive parents.


glassvisage profile image

glassvisage 6 years ago from Northern California Author

Thanks, 2besure! I think my parents did a great job at helping my brother and I along :)


juneaukid profile image

juneaukid 6 years ago from Denver, Colorado

Thank you very much for this hub! We have a friend in Denver who is AKA but do not know if she is aware of this association. We loved our brief stay in Korea in Pusan and Cheju-do when I climbed Halla San, the highest peak in South Korea. We found the Korean people to be very open and friendly. Kamsa Hamdida.


glassvisage profile image

glassvisage 6 years ago from Northern California Author

Kamsa hamnida to you, juneaukid!


Mike 6 years ago

I stumbled upon this page via a search query for "Korean Adoptees Support Forums" and while insightful and uplifting, it was at the same time discouraging and heart sinking.

It makes me wish I was raised, lived/live, or went to school in California, and not the predominately white rural areas I have for the majority of my life. Hell, I even got my degree from a predominately white university in a small rural town where the 1% of the Asian student population consisted mostly of the 20-30 Chinese foreign exchange students... and my current job is located in a predominately white rural region of Maryland. Chances of a local AKA group like AKA-SF is slim. But it's good to know that there are some out there.

As a male adult Korean adoptee, I've always tried to be strong and not loiter long on the issue of being raised in a white adoptive family since infancy. I've always tried to not think about the negative impact it has had on how I feel about myself and molded me as the person I am today... I've always tried to rationalize that had I not been adopted, the life as a bastard to an unwed mother in Korea would have been miserable life where I would not have had the opportunity to attain the education, financial stability, health, and life I have today. I've used this rationalization to obfuscate my insecurities and identity issues as far back as I can remember. In fact, in third grade, I won the American Legion Essay Contest's southern division title for my essay "Why I'll Be True To The Red, White, And Blue" emphasizing my gratefulness for the opportunities I've been afforded that I would not have had otherwise.

However, since graduating college and entering the real world for the last year or so, I find myself struggling with my race and cultural identity even more... unable to stop myself from hating the fact that I am racially, physically, Korean even though I do not feel Korean culturally at all. I think not having the comfort of my adoptive family around everyday (physically and mentally) has made me feel much less comfortable in my skin... that their presence and support contributed to my ability to feel comfortable and feel like I belonged. So now that they aren't here to be my pillar, my crutch... by living in this predominately white rural area that I do, the continual reminder that I am "different" just eats away at me. It doesn't help that all the Asians I do meet locally I am unable to connect with because their 1st generation Asians, non-adoptees.

Anyways at this point I'm just rambling and being emo. For now I'll just have to suck it up and tred it alone without a local support group.


glassvisage profile image

glassvisage 6 years ago from Northern California Author

Mike, thank you very much for your comment. I find it interesting that you mentioned it's grown more difficult after graduating college, as I've noticed the same. Especially because I work with a Korean adoptee who was adopted by a Korean mother in the United States who was able to teach him the Korean language and customs - he enjoys rubbing it in my face! I find myself looking for language classes to take, but then I wonder... why? In the meantime, I will continue to work through finding my place between white and Asian!


Lisa 6 years ago

I dated a Korean man who was adopted, and I know it was confusing for him...and it was confusing for me when he went through his process on connecting to Koreans finally. Its weird..because culturally he seemed really white to me, and I know I didn't understand why he felt different until he educated me some, and I started to read some information on adoptees. I do want to say that there is a great emphasis on looks, race in our society..and I wish it didn't get in the way of connecting so much. I do think people are probably missing something they need to seek out if they lose their culture, like many Korean adoptees did. It probably has a lot to do with reclaiming part of yourself that makes one feel more whole. But there are many people in our society that feel alone for all kinds of reasons, and that they do not fit in. I myself have a disability that is not visible..but it also impacts me. I am white..but it causes me to not feel always so connected to white people. I tend to feel like I am understood more by people with the same health issue I have.


glassvisage profile image

glassvisage 6 years ago from Northern California Author

Wow Lisa, you're probably one of the few non-adoptees I know who gets it. It's refreshing to hear and see that others understand! Thanks so much for commenting and for sharing your story.


learnlangwithease profile image

learnlangwithease 5 years ago

This info is worth everyone's attention. How can I find out more?


glassvisage profile image

glassvisage 5 years ago from Northern California Author

Thanks learnlang! I would say that the links could help, but really it's interesting and informational to hear from an actual adoptee, or watch documentaries or YouTube videos.


mandilove311 5 years ago

Glassvisage, have you been interested in doing the birth parent search, as many Korean Adoptees do?

I was adopted also, and relate to a lot of what you talked about- about the disconnect with Koreans from Korea.


glassvisage profile image

glassvisage 5 years ago from Northern California Author

Thanks for the comment. I have always been curious, but never motivated enough to go on a search. I feel that it would be too difficult to seek one's birth parents when the adoption is closed. I don't have their names or any information!


PJ 4 years ago

Great writing and video. Helpful for our eight and six year old children....both adopted from S. Korea. My daughter asked me today....why don't we live in Korea? (We live in the USA.) I went into our usual adoption story and she was fine with it.


erin 4 years ago

Hello- I enjoyed your blog and have a question for you that is totally off topic, but would value your opinion. My sister and her family are adopting a baby from Korea and are struggling with whether to keep his Korean name as his first name or give him an American first name and keep his Korean name as his Middle name? His name is HaJin so it's not that tough to pronounce. They want to do whatever would be best for him.. would it be honoring his heritage or giving him an American first name? Thanks very much!


glassvisage profile image

glassvisage 4 years ago from Northern California Author

Erin, thanks for the comment. My middle name is also my Korean name, and I have an American name for my first name, which I like. I think it's a good compromise for me!


athena7891 4 years ago from Texas

Thanks for your post. It's nice to know that I'm not the only Korean adoptee who feels out of place/uncomfortable around other Koreans (why we use the word real, who knows - since our blood is just as Korean as theirs!). It's definitely an awkward experience and I'm earnestly trying to learn the language to feel a little bit less awkward around them. Still I feel like I stick out like a sore thumb and it seems like everyone can tell. Maybe it's paranoid, but being adopted and growing up in a small white community - there were only a handful of other Asians around and they were Korean adoptees too! In college I so desperately wanted to be among other Koreans, but most were already in their own cliques and I only met a few other Koreans (again, adoptees). Now as a married adult (not married to an Asian) - it still feels weird. It's a little bit of an identity crisis I suppose. My husband tells me it doesn't matter but deep inside I always feel a little bit of anguish when I'm around fellow Koreans. Going into Koreatowns especially. :/ Currently in the search for my birthparents.. Waiting to hear back from Korea, but since I was adopted as a baby in the late 80s, they may not have desired correspondence.

PS - My parents were and have been extremely open. When I was 14 we took a 2 week trip to Korea specifically for adoptees and their parents. It was great, but I wasn't old enough to search for my birthparents per the adoption agency's policy. I did find the clinic where I was born and met the doctor who delivered me. She said I looked like my mom. The steps I walked up were the same one's my birthmom did... I wonder if that's the closest I'll ever get..


glassvisage profile image

glassvisage 4 years ago from Northern California Author

athena, thanks for the comment from another non-real Korean :) How wonderful that you got to visit. I wonder if I could even track down my birth parents - never tried! And all my boyfriends have been at least half white. Everyone says I am pretty much white! Haha


Johnny Ng 4 years ago

Transracial adoption should not be allowed. It is cultural genocide. Although I do not generally harbor ill feelings towards the white community, I do not believe them to be fit to raise Asian children. I am a former adoptee.

It just leads to culture and identity loss and confusion, left in no man's land. Its why I became involved in the street life and gang culture. I know the risks associated but this is our movement and my family. I just wish that the white community would stop believing they need to "save" us Koreans and that Korean mothers would keep their children. We're just an example of another "white man's burden".


glassvisage profile image

glassvisage 4 years ago from Northern California Author

Thank you so much for sharing, Johnny. I think that's good input for people to know.

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