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Choosing Ethnicity, Negotiating Race - A summary of a research book on Korean adoption

Updated on April 3, 2014

As of late, I have become more interested in learning about my heritage as a Korean adoptee; I was told that this is common when adoptees consider having children or adopting themselves if they do not have knowledge of who their birth parents are. I have been researching more about adoption and the culture of the Korean adoptee, and one of the books I have read as part of this is Choosing Ethnicity, Negotiating Race, by Mia Tuan and Jiannbin Lee Shiao. This has provided interesting insight into adoption as it compares not only the experiences of Korean adoptees, but also their experiences compared to Asian non-adoptees, and even African adoptees. I was somewhat surprised by just how similar my experiences have been to other Korean adoptees, though not terribly surprised, as I have been able to bond with other adoptees in the past as a result of our shared experiences and insights.

My brother and I grew up in a rural area with few other Asians
My brother and I grew up in a rural area with few other Asians | Source

There are a few points that were made in the book that I hadn’t considered but that seemed important:

  • Reasons for adoption can range, including that some feel it is (or was) easier than domestic adoption; some had a personal connection with the country; and some adopted for religious reasons, like those who followed the Holt family in the 1950’s because of a “calling”.

  • Korean adoption, or adoption from Asian countries in general, is often considered in a more positive light than adoption from Africa or other continents, which tends to be more controversial; some people who adopt from Asia feel like they are “saving” the children.

  • When adoptive parents are “racially dissonant” and make comments about the Asian race or the adoptee ethnicity that may not be positive, it can result in poor self-image for the adoptee. Also, some white adoptive parents have expressed concerns with their children dating people of other races (even Asian when their adopted children were Asian).

  • Adoptive parents reject or acknowledge differences between races, and how they treat the differences can impact how the child perceives others and themselves, and how interested they are in exploring their heritage.

    -How the parents treat differences can depend on role handicap, meaning how they are able to handle the difficulties of being an adoptive parents of a different race; for instance, does the parent never want to talk about their child’s birth parents because they are too uncomfortable and are afraid of their child wanting to learn more about them?

    -It is healthiest for parents to not just encourage, but also share in the exploration of culture and heritage.

  • Many parents will not or cannot go so far as taking their family on a trip to the nation of birth when helping their children to explore their heritage, but will use cultural dolls, books, and school events to this purpose (that is what my mother did!). Adoptive parents also like to connect their children to other adoptees so the parents can bond and communicate with each other over their shared experiences.

  • College is often the time when many adoptees will explore their heritage and history because there are more resources available. For me, it was really the first time I was around other Asian people, and it opened the doors to me to start exploring my identity because I realized it truly extended beyond what I had known myself to be before - the truth was that I hadn't really considered it because all I knew myself to be was, well, white inside, and my Korean appearance hadn't mattered at all.

  • How adoptees choose to express their ethnicity can depend on many factors, including their experiences in childhood with being Asian and if it was a positive or negative aspect of their lives. There may be the “Korean but” mentality around identity where they will acknowledge they are Korean, but do not feel they can completely identify with that ethnicity because they either do not connect with it or are not familiar with it. Some will say “Korean-American” or “Asian-American” to show that they feel they are American. Some will just say “American”, which is often the case if they want to control inquiries about their ethnicity or background. Not as many say they are just Korean compared to non-adoptees. I don't see being considered as Korean to be negative because I am often told by others that Korean people are beautiful and have other positive qualities; I rarely have been taunted for being Korean or Asian.

My mother and I
My mother and I | Source

Are you a Korean adoptee? If so, how do you identify yourself?

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These were just some of the bigger takeaways for me from the book, but I encourage any adoptees, adoptive parents, or potential adoptive parents to read the research and consider the possible impacts themselves. There were several excerpts of interviews that were included that provided interesting insight into their experiences. The book included adoptees from various backgrounds, including those who grew up in rural and more populated areas, areas with no other Asians or thousands of Asians, mixed-race adoptees, non-adoptees, and more. I really enjoyed reading their different thoughts and found myself getting emotional or upset about some comments they made that touched me or that I disagreed with. I'm glad that I read this as a Korean adoptee and think there are even greater implications of this research, such as general race relations in the United States.


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    • glassvisage profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Northern California

      Thank you for your comments! Thank you Raine for your insight and experience :)

    • Raine Law Yuen profile image

      Raine Law Yuen 

      4 years ago from Cape Town

      Thanks for this engaging article. I can relate to this writing as I am an overseas born second generation Chinese residing in a western culture and have two Euro-Asian children My brother also has two adoptees from Kuzbekistan. I have written a number of hubs about the intersection between east and west because this is where so many of us fit - even although you were bought up in a western value system with parents that may not be the same as your birth parents. I found Ken Nesbit's work 'The geography of thought' fascinating as I find that my mind seems wired like an Asian's in many respects even although I am totally assimilated within a western culture. In the end I really do believe its what inside that counts - so getting to know yourself well is key. In this way you will attract those that are similar to you and share your world views. This was my motive to write about intuition, life purpose and teaching children to value themselves.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      4 years ago from USA

      The intercultural adoption questions that you allude to are important ones. There is a fascinating literature in psychology on the development of ethnic and racial self-identity; you may be interested. I wish you well as you define yourself and who you want to be in this world.

    • glassvisage profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Northern California

      That is wonderful! I would love to take a trip back to Korea one day. I'm glad the trip was a success and that you are keeping the ties to their heritage strong!

    • VirginiaLynne profile image

      Virginia Kearney 

      4 years ago from United States

      Thanks for this interesting book review. We took our whole family (5 kids) including our two adopted Chinese daughters (12 and 10) back on a 5 week trip to China this summer. We had three goals for the trip: that we would all learn to appreciate Chinese culture and people, that my adoptive daughters would learn to feel positively about being Chinese, and that my daughters would also have positive feelings about being adopted. Our trip really did meet all of those goals. I'm very glad to know there are resources like this book to help my daughters to process their thoughts and experiences even more as they grow older.


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