Reorientation is author JS Lee’s monthly column about reclamation & actualization as an unwilling Korean import to the US.
There was no particular moment when I learned I was different. It’s something I’ve always felt and known. The family I was raised in was White. The other six children bore remarkably similar features, voices, and mannerisms. Third in line by age, I witnessed multiple celebrations of biological importance that many adopted people are spared.
I’ve written extensively of my experiences here and elsewhere, but today I’m ruminating on nomenclature and my identity as an ‘adoptee’. Others have voiced their frustrations with how everything from kids to animals and highways are said to be adopted. While that’s a fair discussion, mine questions whether the word applies to me.
The definition of ‘adopt’ varies by who you ask, but a quick Google search results in the following:
- [to] legally take (another’s child) and bring it up as one’s own.
- [to] choose to take up, follow, or use.
Let’s break this down.
To legally take
Although my adoption is considered legal in both the U.S. and Korea, it was not. My paperwork is full of lies and discrepancies—which I’ve learned is horrifyingly common. Laws meant to protect us from child trafficking were met with fabrications that enabled it.
To bring up as one’s own
Given that the family I grew up in had six genetic offspring, I can attest that we weren’t raised the same. They were offered unconditional love, choreless childhoods, and college tuition. Even if I’d been afforded the same privileges, they were raised with their culture, language, and familial entitlement. I wager it’s impossible to raise a child who’s not biologically yours as if they were.
To choose to take up, follow, or use
While I felt used as a virtue signal, nothing inherently mine was taken up or followed. The family never once sat down to a Korean meal together. We didn’t acknowledge Korean holidays or watch Korean films. But let’s discuss ‘chosen’ because that’s the word that was emphasized as it became clear that biology mattered. While there are some who were, the word ‘chosen’ is often an uplifting untruth as we’re merely presented as next in line. My photo and paperwork were sent and approved. Money and logistics were exchanged. There was no selection involved.
If my adoption wasn’t actually legal and I wasn’t chosen, taken up, or raised as a biological child, was I even adopted? Or, was I just trafficked? While I respect each displaced and transferred person’s preferred terminology, I find myself searching for a more fitting descriptor.
I’m learning to accept that the most meaningful pieces of my identity require modifiers
Identifying verbiage has always been hard. Many transracially displaced people share a sense of disconnect from our demographic groups. Personally speaking, I felt and was seen as an imposter to the few Asian Americans I encountered in my youth and early adulthood. My cultural knowledge and experience was lacking compared to those in intact families. Unacceptance is harsh for those who already feel rejected from their original families and countries, so it took some time to push through that barrier. When I consciously connected to pieces of my culture, history, and fellow Asian Americans, I learned that the Asian American experience is wide and varied. Now I don’t hesitate to claim being both Korean and Asian American. It’s the identifier I’d never questioned that feels fraudulent now. Some well meaning people might think it unimportant—but as a writer, words matter.
Like most women of color, I’ve been conditioned to prioritize people’s comfort over my own. When I learned that my legal birthday is false, some refused to acknowledge another date. I felt guilty carving out a more accurate ‘birthzone’. When I took back my Korean last name thirteen years ago, I didn’t change my first name because it seemed too much of an ask. I regret that now and might someday revisit.
As much as I enjoy simplicity, I’m learning to accept that the most meaningful pieces of my identity require modifiers. I owe it to myself to own who I am through each step of my journey. I’m inspired by people of culture demanding the correct pronunciation of names, and the brave queer and trans communities that are urging society to adapt. Identity and our understanding of it isn’t fixed, and all aspects of it matter—even as they change and evolve.
I’m a queer woman partnered with a cis, hetero man. I’m also a light-skinned person of color and an immigrant with citizenship. I recognize that how I’m perceived can provide harm, safety, and increased responsibility. Yet, how I perceive myself is most vital to feeling at peace in this body. Therefore, despite feeling very much connected to the adoptee community, I no longer self-identify with the word adopted. Instead, I was familially, racially, and culturally displaced. Yes, it’s a lot to say. It doesn’t fit neatly into a box and it takes up more space. But I shouldn’t have to make myself smaller and palatable at the expense of my truth.