In June 1986, my husband, our four-year-old son and I were strolling through the Sinchon market in Seoul. In my arms, I carried our seven-month-old daughter, whom we’d met for the first time four days before. An ajumoni grinned up at us from where she squatted beside her bins of fresh vegetables and called out in Korean, “She looks just like her mother!”
As the brand-new white American mother of a Korean baby, I couldn’t have been more thrilled. The experience was the fulfillment of a dream born in the heart of a nine-year-old girl who spent after-school hours playing with the babies in the orphans’ wing of the Korean hospital where my missionary doctor father worked. Twenty-five years later, I finally got to bring a Korean baby home.
Adopting Yunhee was one journey; raising her was another. My own passion for Korea, which became my second homeland and the source of my second culture and second language, made me determined to give Yunhee a sense of her birth legacy. But how does a white American, even one who grew up in Korea, raise a Korean American – on an island in Maine?
We had an unusual asset in that Korea was naturally a part of our family culture, even before we brought Yunhee home. (After meeting at college in the States, my husband-to-be followed me half way around the world, where he spent nine months as a volunteer to the Kojedo Community Health Project, so he had his own Korean connection.) We began with my husband’s suggestion to keep the name given to our daughter by her birth mother and containing a syllable of her own name (Gi-yun). We cooked Korean food at home and went to Korean restaurants. We bought Korean dolls, books, and videos. We took Yunhee to the Korean language school Sunday afternoons at the local Korean church, where she learned to read and write hangul. (She hated it at the time; years later as a young adult she lamented, “Why didn’t you make me study harder so I’d be able to speak Korean?”) We made sure there were Korean adults in her life. One friend, who was in her twenties when Yunhee was in elementary school, used to schedule special girl time for just the two of them. Whenever they met, Hyo-Jung would pull on a lock of her own glossy black hair and and sing out, “Same hair!”
“We tried to always give her support for the idea that she was Korean,” my husband observes. “We were embracing her Korean-ness all along.”
In fact, I kind of forgot to tell her she was American, too. Although we finalized the adoption as soon as possible, we somehow never quite got around to the naturalization process. Looking back, I think I was unconsciously procrastinating out of regret for what had been taken from Yunhee, and the sense that relinquishing her Korean citizenship for American was yet another loss. When we finally filed the paperwork when she was eleven, I was a bit chagrined to realize that I’d never emphasized her claim to American-ness the way I had to Korean-ness, though of course she was immersed in American culture.
Equipping Yunhee with the knowledge and skills to navigate the tricky waters of race in contemporary America seemed an essential piece of parenting, despite the challenge of my own white privilege. I had been involved in anti-racism training for fifteen years prior to adopting cross-racially, as a response to my own upbringing and experience. Yunhee’s arrival intensified my commitment to and my sense of urgency about that work. I was the white mother of a child of color; I had to do something about racism!
When Yunhee was two, I joined the Maine chapter of the National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI), a nonprofit diversity leadership training organization. One of the core pieces of the NCBI model is building effective skills to interrupt prejudicial jokes, slurs, remarks, and actions. I felt armed and ready to leap into the fray as Yunhee’s ally when the inevitable happened.
One July day when Yunhee was seven, she was playing outside while I worked upstairs. Through the open window, I heard the taunting voices of two neighbor boys whose family came to the island for the summer. “You’re Chinese! You’re Chinese!” I jumped up and ran to the window. This was the moment I had been training for!
There in the yard was Yunhee, hands on her hips, leaning towards her tormentors and shrieking back at them, “No, I’m not, I’m Korean!” No intervention needed.
But it wasn’t long before my skills were tested. By second grade, in the small circle of island children (fourteen in her class), Yunhee’s adoption prompted curious questions: “Do you know your real father?” “How come your parents gave you up?” These innocent but ignorant inquiries sent her reeling, and her emotional reactions intensified her classmates’ fascination. Despite my best efforts and several home/school-based interventions, by fourth grade the pattern was set, and the questioning had evolved into taunting. The content was rarely about race, but of course the only reason that Yunhee’s adoption was so obvious was that she didn’t look like her parents. Teasing sometimes escalated into bullying, and it continued for more than four years. It’s the only aspect of parenting our daughter that I look back on with regret.
When she was in eighth grade, I took her back to Korea. She’d been asking to go since she was six years old. We’d been trying to figure out, financially and schedule-wise, how to take the whole family for a number of years, but I finally realized that if we waited until all four of us could go, we’d never get there, and it was essential for Yunhee to get her there. We stayed with my Korean extended family in their apartment in Jamshil; went shopping at Lotte Department Store and Dongdaemun market; toured palaces and temples; visited Eastern Child Welfare and the babies’ home where Yunhee had stayed as a newborn; and traveled to Daegu where we met the doctor who delivered Yunhee (this excited me much more than it did my daughter). The only hard parts of the trip were the discovery that, by agency policy, Yunhee wasn’t old enough to search for her birth mother, and the news that her foster mother had died. However, the agency was able to track down her foster sister, who was delighted to join us for a day, during which Yunhee never let go of her hand.
The week-long trip became an essential piece of our daughter’s developing sense of herself. Exploring Korea and feeling the warm embrace of our Korean family gave Yunhee the idea that “being Korean was pretty cool.” It boosted her self-esteem, working like a vaccination against the barbs of her classmates. Once she was no longer reactive, they stopped teasing her. Also, the relationships she built with my extended family in Seoul resulted in three more visits to Korea, two on her own.
One of the strengths I brought to cross-racial parenting was the heightened awareness of race that came from my childhood in South Korea. Though my status was highly privileged, I grew up in the spotlight of a minority identity, and this consciousness of race, unusual among white Americans, has made me a better ally to my daughter. In our home, race was a frequent topic, discussed with matter-of-fact directness.
Talking about race gave Yunhee permission and language to unpack her own observations and experiences, and a structure for understanding the nuances of racial identity in America. At various ages and stages, it helped her find her voice to express her grief, her rage, her confusion (at age six, “Why couldn’t somebody in Korea take care of me?”). My training helped me to just listen and be supportive rather than get confused or hurt by her feelings. It was essential for me not just to convey that all her thoughts and feelings were welcome, but also to become aware enough of the filter of my own white and non-adopted privilege that I could respect Yunhee’s authority in naming realities as she perceived them. I had to work to not inadvertently discount her observations and difficulties just because I wished they weren’t true.
My daughter and I have something in common in relation to Korean-ness: the uneasy status of outsiders, a combination of a deep pull of connection and a sense of not quite being entitled, of being not “really” Korean. And we share the caught-between feeling of all bicultural people.
Raising Yunhee has been like a kind of spiral dance, in which we two are partners, mirroring and led by each other’s movements. Thinking about her needs has kept me in touch with my own Korean upbringing, and deepened my own identity questions (see Of Longing and Belonging). My ongoing exploration of race and culture supports her own identity construction, and perhaps even serves as a model for her – though she’s far less interested in these issues than I am!
Yunhee is twenty-seven now, and despite living in Maine, one of the whitest states in the country, she stands securely in the center of her own identity continuum, claiming aspects of both her American and Korean experiences. With equal ease, she prepares a Korean spread with multiple banch’an side-dishes (with supplies from bimonthly trips to the nearest H-mart in Massachusetts) that is a huge hit among her circle of young professionals, and a traditional Thanksgiving meal for her visiting grandmother, right down to the perfect apple pie. She has created an extended family of her own with friends who run one of Portland’s Korean restaurants. A complete geek for anime, manga and fantasy, she spent a recent Maine blizzard curled up in bed watching the TV historical drama, “Jumong.” When asked how she defines herself, she responds with easy confidence: “Korean American.”
I’m deeply gratified to see that the choices we made as parents seem to have assisted Yunhee in claiming her ethnic and racial identity, a process I believe is essential to her wellbeing and sense of wholeness. But in the end, it’s just a small piece of the experience of raising her.
I don’t think of Yunhee as my “Korean daughter,” my “adopted daughter,” or my “Korean-American daughter.” She’s just my daughter.
Anne Sibley O’Brien (http://AnneSibleyOBrien.com) is a children’s book writer and illustrator who grew up in South Korea. She has illustrated thirty-one books, thirteen of which she also wrote. Korean titles include the graphic novel, The Legend of Hong Kil Dong: The Robin Hood of Korea, and a picture book she illustrated, What Will You Be, Sara Mee? by Kate Aver Avraham. Her latest project, a young adult novel set in North Korea entitled In the Shadow of the Sun, is currently with her agent, seeking a publisher. She blogs on race, culture and children’s books at “Coloring Between the Lines.” (http://coloringbetween.blogspot.com/). She lives on an island in Maine.