It should be noted that this letter was written with the premise that my personal perspective is uniquely my own.
Dear Hannah Hyun,
Everything you have worked for the past 18 years has led to this moment right here. From a young age you were told that going to college was the ultimate definition of success and you have finally obtained that. You are about to start college at the University of Arizona (UA). But little do you know you are also about to write one of your greatest stories. You are probably slightly confused, because since that day you were given life, your narrative had already been created for you — who you are, what you should be, and who you’re supposed to become. You never had a chance to create your own story, and that’s a painful aspect that will become a part of you and your fight and drive in life.
If you recall on May 13, 1995 your life changed forever. You suddenly went from being a person to case number. You were born in a small town just outside Seoul, Korea. Your mother and father were never legally married, and because neither of your parents made it past grade six, times were tough. According to the documents, your parents split because of irreconcilable differences. Consequently, your father and three older siblings do not know who you are or that you even exist. Shortly after the split, your birth mother ran away from home to avoid disgracing her family and chose to give life to you. However, she came to the conclusion that it would be impossible to care for a baby by herself. Realizing that it would be better for you to grow up in an environment full of parental love, emotional, financial, and educational support, she gave you up for adoption the day you were born.
On September 21, 1995, you became a transracial adoptee (TRA). You grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona with a white mother and father. You also have an older brother who is also a Korean transracial adoptee. While you recognize the privilege that came with your adoption, there is still a deeper level of trauma that no one will ever fully understand. Being a transracial adoptee, you constantly blur a line between race, ethnicity, and culture — working through a space that is somewhere in between how you identify yourself and how others perceive and define you. On one side you are still marginalized, oppressed, and seen as inferior to the dominant white race in society; however, you are often treated and perceived by your peers as being white. You have often been told to be grateful you were saved by your family because you could have it so much worse. Consequently, you have felt pressure to assimilate into the white culture and society and leave parts of your identity behind wherever you go. Many family members also have a colorblind attitude towards your race. They do not recognize you as a person of color and has constantly reinforced in your head that you are not Asian. Because of this, your family’s acceptance of you and your identity has often depended on their own perspective of racial identities.
You have struggled a great deal in high school. I know you have felt a burden to “live-up” to be being Asian. Because of people’s own implicit biases and assumptions of who you should be as an Asian American womxn, it negatively influenced your experiences and how you were treated. You had a difficult time reaching out and receiving support. Your teachers and peers have often made you feel “stupid” or “incompetent” when you were not able to grasp a concept at a snap of a finger. You have silently suffered for so long and have tried to suppress these feelings because you were told they are not real or that you were overreacting and too sensitive. This only led to deeper emotions and once again, you silently suffered with depression but could not reach out for help. You still have not healed from this pain and it will make your first year of college one of the most challenging.
As you are now entering college as a first-year student, you will begin to feel the weight of living up to these expectations and narratives that have always dominated your life. It will become too much that you will contemplate taking your own life because not being here is more bearable than having to live with the feeling of never being enough. But you will overcome this, I promise. And you will go on to continue writing your own narrative and defining your own ideas of success and who you want to be as a person.
You will find your passion within the Asian Pacific American cultural center (APASA). In this space, you will meet your undergraduate mentor who will quite literally change your life. He will be the first person to empower you to shape your identity, embrace being a Korean transracial adoptee, and you will begin to find your place in racial justice activism.
You and your friends from the various cultural centers will do something incredible and create a legacy. Inspired by the incident at the University of Missouri and the work of your Black Student Union, you all come together and form the Marginalized Students of the University of Arizona (MSUA). MSUA will release list a 16-page list of demands to faculty and administrators demanding for change, equity and justice for marginalized students.
Although MSUA is a legacy you all created, not everyone will understand. You will be seen as the loud, outspoken, and the angry Asian and people do not like that, especially within your own community. People will tell you that it is not your place to be doing this work or even be in APASA because you are a transracial adoptee. You will be told time and time again you are not a “true” Asian because you’re raised by white people and that you will never understand what it means to be Asian. You will quickly learn just how exhausting and challenging this work can be, but moreover, you will learn the importance of self-care and self-worth and you will say one of the hardest goodbyes to a place that once gave you a home.
Your experiences with the cultural centers will impact you and you will question your sense of belonging in this world. Because you blur those lines, you crave a space where you can fit-in and be surrounded by others like you. But if I am being honest, I do not think there will ever be a space that you can claim as your own and be one hundred percent authentically yourself. But that’s what you are here, and that is why you continue to fight.
While being an undergraduate and given your experiences, you will be asked how you have survived and thrived at a predominantly white institution (PWI). For your first couple of years, you will struggle to answer this question because your humanity and existence within the academy is never even an afterthought. But you will realize that it is because you attend a PWI that you have learned to survive and have chosen to thrive in environments that have often done everything in its power to hold you back and keep you silent. You will choose to continue to resist and utilize your experiences and gained knowledge around racial identities, marginalized students, and social justice by pursuing a degree in higher education and student affairs (Spoiler alert: you get into graduate school!) Your desire and aspirations will only continue to grow and develop. You will choose to stay at the UA because you know your fight at this institution is not done yet.
You will be deemed the “hell-raiser” of your cohort because you will choose to speak up when you see injustices. You will question leaving your program, the institution, and the field altogether because the amount of racism and racial violence projected onto students of color by faculty and students will feel insufferable. But despite all this, you will continue your story.
This academy will confine you to walk within a circle and you will feel like you are torn between two worlds. On one hand, keeping within the lines of the circle compromises your values and personal integrity, but you also know the minute you step out you have everything to lose.
Within this circle, you will also be told to not pursue your research interests in the Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) and TRA community. And you will feel as if the weight of the world is on your shoulders and there is nothing you can do to alleviate this pain. But you will meet a professor that will impact you in ways I am not even sure he realizes yet.
He will empower you as a womxn of color and teach you how to run your own race. And you begin to do that. You will pursue your research interests in your MA thesis and work to create intentional spaces and visibility for TRA’s to be seen and heard. You begin to embrace who you are as a brilliant, resilient, powerful transracial adoptee and womxn of color. You will become unapologetically yourself and your heart and passion will continue to set you apart. And despite every obstacle, you will complete and successfully defend your master’s thesis.
And although your chapter at UA has come to an end, a new one is soon beginning (another spoiler alert ahead). You will be accepted into the University of California, San Diego to pursue your PhD in Education Studies! As excited and proud as you feel, you will also struggle internally because you know choosing to pursue a PhD is also complicity and reinforces so many hegemonic and toxic narratives of the academy, but at the same time you know your presence in the academy is also resistance. Never forget this because the academy is not designed for you to thrive nor survive; yet you are doing it despite being in a system that is not intended for you to succeed. But also continue to have conversations around your complicity and what that means for you as a womxn of color in the academy.
Remember why you are doing this work and continue to keep your community at the core of all that you do in speaking your identity and community into existence. Because as you have come to learn as an Asian American transracial adoptee your fight will always exist. But every experience and obstacle you will face and will continue to inspire the work you do. Never lose your heart and passion and continue to create your own narratives and define your own ideas of success. Do not stop your fight for equity and justice, your resistance against the academy, and reframing what it means to be APIDA and a TRA. Remember to take care of yourself because people will always find ways to tear you down; rise against them. You are never alone in this journey and you will not do this work alone, so do not be afraid to seek support, hold people accountable, and be willing to be held accountable. Because in the words of David Stovall (2016), “We cannot win individually. Our victory will be collective. Waiting for something or someone to save us is agreeing to our collective death. If we are to live, then we must work to make life possible” (pg. 284).
We are here with you, cheering you on in every way imaginable. The pen is yours; now it is your turn to write…
With love and in solidarity,
Hannah Hyun White (Um, Hyun Jung)
Stovall, David. (2015). Out of Adolescence and Into Adulthood: Critical Race Theory, Retrenchment, and the Imperative of Praxis. Urban Education. 51(3), 274–286