My Week at Camp Sejong
As the teen and young adult male counselors danced to and lip synched the Kpop group 2PM’s hit “Again and Again,” fellow female campers, counselors and teachers screamed as if we were truly at a Kpop concert. Amidst the joy, the smiles, the adoration of these young Korean men and boys – I was overcome and had a “moment.” With tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat, I wondered what my experience growing up as an adoptee would have been like if I had been able to attend a camp like Camp Sejong. This same emotion stayed with me, as another group lip synched the One Direction song, “What Makes You Beautiful.” Towards the end of the song, the counselors/performers picked out little girl campers from the audience and got down on one knee and sang to them, “…you don’t know you’re beautiful.” The little girls were in heaven. They blushed with smiles from ear to ear, and as I watched this moment, I couldn’t help but think how moments like this could be life changing.
Camp Sejong, which started in 1992, is one of the oldest Korean culture camps in the country. What is unique about the camp is that it integrates, and helps provide a bridge between, non- adopted Korean Americans and adopted Korean Americans. This bridge between the two Korean American communities is one that is rarely found. Much like KoreanAmericanStory.org, Camp Sejong recognizes and embraces the many faces that make-up the Korean American community. This includes adoptees and biracial Korean Americans.
I attended the camp as a representative of KoreanAmericanStory.org. KoreanAmericanStory was there to film interviews for the Legacy Project and for the Camp. Going in, I suspected that I might have some personal “moments” here and there, as the adoptee part of my identity is such an integral part of who I am, that I cannot separate from it. As illustrated earlier, those “moments” came quickly. The importance of both young Asian boys and girls seeing and feeling adoration for one another cannot be understated. Positive images of those who look like us are vital to a positive self-image within ourselves. As an adult woman, I only started seeing Asian men as attractive within the last 10 years or so. This rejection of my own ethnic group of men was wholly based on the self-hatred that I knew growing up surrounded by white people. Now I’m constantly in awe of how attractive Asian men are. Throughout the week, I loved witnessing the playful, age-appropriate flirtatious behavior between the counselors and wished that I could have experienced the same in my teenage years. Perhaps then, my obsession with white boys who had no interest in me would not have been. More importantly, perhaps then, my all- consuming self-hatred would not have been.
I was also pleasantly surprised while interviewing some of the counselors. These young Korean Americans were so different from what I had been. I asked all of them about American standards of beauty and what their experience was in relation to it. I asked what their experience had been like dating. I asked some outright whether they ever wished they were white (as I and many other older adoptees once did.) Overwhelmingly, the answers to these questions were positive. Many of the subjects did not feel internal nor external pressure to be or look like anyone but themselves. The self-loathing that I grew up with seemed to have no place in these young Korean Americans, both adopted and not. I can’t help but believe that the surge in popularity of hallyu (all things Korean popular culture) has had a positive effect on the younger Korean American generation, as well. But, experiences like Camp Sejong, help to create an everlasting imprint and feeling of belonging for the participants, as well. This imprint is one that will go a long way in helping to strengthen the positive self-identity of the young campers and counselors.
One evening, I sat off to the side and watched as many of the counselors danced poolside. As I watched this scene of utter bliss, I felt like I could literally see their happiness. I could see their happiness in the form of sheer safety. Sheer emotional safety translated into freedom. Freedom from feeling different, freedom from sticking out, freedom from needing to be other. This freedom translated into complete electric joy and I loved witnessing every second of it.
As I was allowed into the lives of some of the counselors by interviewing them, I was also grateful to be reminded that these young people – and their sense of positive self-image – had come on the shoulders of people such as Joy Lieberthal Rho. Joy is a friend and fellow adoptee and has worked tirelessly, selflessly and compassionately in the field of adoption for over twenty years. It is through her constant hard work educating and advocating on behalf of adoptees, that younger adoptees can now have a journey that is smoother, more connected and more understood. Endless thanks to Joy for the work you have done and for the work you continue to do. You are an inspiration. (Read Joy’s blog at www.adoptionechoes.com)
Similar to the children and young adults that attend camp, I will always appreciate my week at Camp Sejong. It thrills me to know that there is a whole new generation of young Korean adoptees who are growing up with an experience so different from mine. My love of self came later in life but for the Camp Sejong participants, many have already found this all-important form of love.
Julie Young is a former litigation attorney and currently works full-time in the nonprofit sector. Additionally, Julie is a writer and speaker. She serves on the Board of Nazdeek and is an Advisory Board Member of All Together Now. Julie holds a B.S. degree in Psychology from Fordham University and a J.D. degree from Cardozo School of Law. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and twins.