“Heart and Seoul: A Korean Adopted Woman’s Perspective”
The concept of racial identity is one that many people struggle with on a daily basis. As a Korean child growing up in a white family and suburb, I was not consciously aware of this struggle during my childhood. What I was aware of, though, was the all encompassing self-hatred that consumed me. I hated my Asian eyes, my Asian hair, my Asian stubby eyelashes and my Asian face. I wanted blonde hair and big blue eyes. I wanted to look like those who surrounded me. I wanted to be white.
My childhood best friend, also my first American friend, Jennifer and I were born just a few weeks apart. Our parents lived on the same street a few houses away from each other. Jennifer and I were instant friends. She has blonde hair and comes from German heritage. Her mother, Nancy, was beautiful. She was artistic, which in the town where we grew up, kind of made her stick out like a sore thumb. She wasn’t like any of my other friends’ mothers. Nancy was a designer and she dressed the part. A favorite activity for Jennifer and I was to raid Nancy’s closet and dress up in her high heels and funky jewelry and clothes. Beyond being fashionable, Nancy treated me like her other daughter. I truly adored her. (Sadly, she passed away in 2007.)
One of Nancy’s favorite stories to tell was about the time that I explained my “heritage” to her. She laughed as she would repeat my explanation. I told her that I was “half white, half Korean, half Italian, and half Irish.”
I was in kindergarten when I said this. I can appreciate why someone might find such an explanation to be cute coming from a five year old, in reality, though, such a statement is evidence of confusion. It shows dislike, or at least, the wanting to be something other than what I was. Parents who have children that are of a different race than their own, should be aware of these signs. They are the seeds that can eventually grow into sometimes very twisted and even ugly trees.
Growing up I was embarrassed to be near other Asian people (on the rare occasion that I was.) I was even embarrassed to see other Asian people on television. I thought I was so different from them and I wanted nothing to do with them. When other kids (and, yes, sometimes adults) would throw the epithet “chink” at me, I would want to crawl up and die. I was different than other Asians – why couldn’t people see that?
As I got older, instinctively, I knew that I needed to get away from the place where I grew up. When it was time for college, I knew that I wanted to be in New York City and I ended up at Fordham University in the Bronx. To this day, I carry a fierce passion and love for New York City. I attribute this love to the connection I feel with the city as the place where I was able to find, and learn to love, myself. When I arrived at Fordham, it was the first time I felt like an individual. No one knew my story. I was no longer the out of place Korean girl that was adopted by the Cardona family. I was just Julie Cardona. People wondered whether I was Filipino because of my Spanish last name, others assumed Cardona was my married name – and I loved it! (Although my father’s family is actually Italian, the name Cardona is a common Spanish last name. Some generations before my grandfather, the Cardonas were in Spain.)
Being in the Bronx, for the first time I was surrounded by beautiful brown people. Not so much on the Fordham campus, but everywhere else in the city I was no longer the only person of color. This was a brand new experience for me and I basked in it. Though I had this new exposure from living and volunteering in the Bronx, I was still on a predominantly white campus and carried many of the same racial identity issues with me throughout college.
In my early twenties I started to feel better about my appearance but I still lacked any true self-esteem. Unpredictably, it was through a Black man that I learned to fully embrace, and love, my Asian identity.
In 1997, I met the man who would become my husband. Fresh out of law school, I was 25 and enjoying being young and single in the city. Jamal was attending graduate school and neither of us thought we would end up married five years later. Jamal is a history buff and is extremely proud of his heritage. By just being himself, Jamal provided the example for which I unknowingly searched my whole life. Through his racial pride and knowledge, he showed me the importance of knowing one’s history and how to love oneself. He encouraged me to embrace my Asian identity, to know myself better, to authentically love myself.
Often times adoptive white parents of children of color will ask what they can do to help their children develop a strong sense of self. Many times they do not like the answer that, more likely than not, they will not be able to provide the example that their children need. When it comes to racial identity, love is not enough. We are not a color blind society. Children of color need guidance to learn to deal with this reality. In addition to other measures, parents need to seek out the vast resources available to them now and find appropriate racial identity role models for their children of color.
My husband helped me to achieve the gift of self-love through embracing my Asian identity. I am eternally grateful to him for this gift. Now, as we watch our son and our daughter grow we are very cognizant of the racial identity issues they invariably will face. We know firsthand that a strong sense of racial identity provides an invaluable armor for people of color in this country. Without such an armor children of color may become mired in the disillusioned state of wanting to be something they never were nor ever will be.
For people of color, a strong sense of racial identity can be akin to knowing and loving oneself. When we love ourselves properly then we are all the more equipped to deeply and compassionately love others.