Most people have baby photos taken in the hospital when they were born. The parents look sweaty, exhausted, but happy, with an infant swaddled in their arms.
I don’t have hospital photos. I have airport photos.
I’m what you’d call a “transracial adoptee.”
And no, not “transracial” like that Rachel Dolezal nonsense. “Transracial adoptee” means that I am of one race, and I was adopted into a family of a different race. In my case, I am racially East Asian, born in South Korea, and adopted into a White, Jewish family in Washington DC where I spent my entire childhood and adolescence. I arrived on a plane from South Korea on the first night of Hanukkah in December. Wrapped in a blanket. I was the super sweaty one. My parents took turns holding me and my uncle took pictures. My parents told me that when they took me home, they changed my outfit a number of times. Happy Hanukkah, here’s a baby!
The process of my adoption became my favorite bedtime story. I loved having my parents tell me about how they decided to adopt, how nervous and excited they were, and how the story expanded later on (apparently there was a hold up with my visa at the State Department which resulted in some drama). I truly do not recall ever being treated differently because of my race within my family. I had a number of books like, “We Adopted You, Benjamin Koo,” so I had characters in similar family situations who I could identify with.
I love my parents, and I know they did (and are still doing) their best to understand me and where I came from. However, my parents were also raised with the belief in “color blindness,” and since I seemed well-adjusted as a kid, we didn’t have conversations about racial identity, or how the world might see or treat me differently. There are instances I recall of classmates, friends, and even adults making comments about my appearance and differences (and real talk, find me a Person Of Color who hasn’t had these experiences.)
Fast forward to the travel part.
In college, I was on a mission to get in touch with my Korean identity.
I had never had the chance to explore. I took Korean language classes, majored in East Asian Studies, started to hang out with the Korean international students on campus, and even had a Korean boyfriend. During the summer between my junior and senior year, I applied for an internship in Seoul and was psyched to finally visit the motherland.
Well, spoiler alert! Being born of a place doesn’t always mean that you’re connected to that place. I’ve thought a lot about “Imposter Syndrome” that People Of Color feel when they have to conform to White spaces. However, I’ve realized that I’ve always worried about being an imposter in the Korean community. I’m culturally American, raised by a White family. I know a lot of customs, but my Korean language skills are around the level of a kindergartener. It was fascinating being in a country where I blended in for the first time in my life, but I was always afraid that I’d be “found out” the second I opened my mouth. I was told at work to dress more modestly (shoulders covered), appear more feminine, and I was directed to a number of “skin whitening” products by both friends and my boyfriend. I could easily write an essay about how whiteness manifests itself in South Korean culture, but that’s a story for another day.
Here’s the question I always get, and here’s the answer I’ve never written about:
“Have you ever tried to find your ‘real’ parents?”
I took the journey to Korea to find my birth parents
Before we even get into this story, never ask an adoptee or a foster kid about their “real” family. Family is who raises you and loves you. Family is more than just sharing blood and genes. Use the term “biological family.”
Up until my trip to Seoul, I had thought about it, but never very seriously because it seemed like such an improbability that it could ever happen. I remember throwing a fit as a little kid, packing a satchel on the end of a stick, and telling my parents I was going back to Korea. I think I got to the end of the block before realizing I had no idea which way Korea was. That’s the closest I had ever gotten.
My parents had provided me with some information about the adoption agency, which I learned no longer existed, but had been acquired or renamed by another agency. In Seoul, I had a lovely host family, and I had shared this information with them in passing. Then one day while at work, this happened:
[Me: Sitting at my desk editing textbooks in English, when an MSN message pops up from my host father.]
Host father: [In Korean] Hi, we’re leaving early today. We found the adoption agency and if you’d like, I can take you there this afternoon. Just be ready by lunchtime.
Me: [Understanding only half of this because my Korean isn’t very good] Okay!
(Just to make sure you’re clear, yes I just committed to going to my adoption agency to find information about my biological parents without actually knowing what I was signing up for.)
As I get in the car and my host father and I talk further, it finally dawns on me what is about to happen. Let me tell you, I don’t think any amount of preparation can prepare you for this kind of experience.
We arrive at the agency, and a very nice social worker has already pulled my file. I sit between her and my host father, and she translates all of the paperwork and for the first time, I start to learn my own story: My biological parents were really young. In South Korea, men have to serve in the military, so my biological father went off to the army, and my biological mother learned she was pregnant. South Korea was/is a very socially conservative country in many ways, and my biological mother didn’t see keeping me as an option. A doctor offered her the opportunity to put me up for adoption. So when I was born, I lived in foster care for a few months until I came to the States.
At this point, I’m handling this information pretty well. But then the social worker gets to a page where my biological mother has filled out information forms about herself and my biological father. The social worker reads out their height, weight, and physical descriptions. Then she pauses, studies my face and says, “According to this description, you have your father’s eyes.”
I. Lost. My. Shit.
Is this the moment where I get to find my birth parents?
Hearing this fact and seeing my biological mother’s handwriting on these forms was the first time I had any tangible evidence that these people existed. Before, they had always been abstract entities somewhere in the world. But she held this paper as she signed these forms, and now I was holding the same paper.
I’m now sitting in the middle of the adoption agency office crying hysterically and snotting all over the place where my host father and social worker awkwardly bring me tissues and pat me on the shoulder. They ask if I want to try to locate my biological mother. (I forgot to mention that my biological father was not informed of my birth and that seemed like a shitty surprise move to pull on him 20 years later.) They warn me that my biological mother most likely has a husband, kids, and family members who don’t know about me so there’s a big chance she won’t want to be found. Then the social worker offers me another option: There’s a popular show that reunites adoptees with their biological parents. On live television. The show has money and resources, so if I’m serious about finding her, this might be my best bet.
It only takes me a second to give her my answer: Hard pass. The last thing I want is to be snotting all over the place on television.
Protecting my birth parents was an instinctual part of this process
I opt to write my biological mother a letter instead, in hopes that the agency can deliver it to her. I tell her about who I am, my upbringing, my family, my interests. I tell her that I’m doing just fine and that I’m happy and healthy. I tell her that in case she’s worried, I’m not mad at her, and that I’ve never been mad at her for giving me up. I tell her that I understand why she made her choice, and not to doubt that she did the right thing for both of us. I attach a picture of myself and tell her how to find me if she ever wants to get to know me. (Later on, my therapist will tell me that it sounded like I was more concerned with protecting my biological mother’s feelings than expressing my anger, but the truth is, I’ve never been angry with my biological mother.)
While I waited, a co-worker of mine shared with me that she worked part-time as a translator for adoptees who are reunited with their biological parents. She warned me to monitor my expectations. Her own cousin was adopted by a Swedish family and had reconnected with her parents. This was not typical, she told me. She had also recently translated for a young woman about my age who came to South Korea to meet her biological mother. This young woman chose to stay with her mom in order to get to know her. It had been a few weeks, and they had already developed a contentious relationship. The mother wanted her daughter to speak Korean and abide by Korean customs, while the daughter was frustrated that her biological mother didn’t understand that she was raised in Western culture and had no desire to assimilate to being a “good Korean daughter.” The cultural differences, my friend warned, are the main reason why so many reunions do not end in happily ever after.
In the end, I heard back that she didn’t want to be found.
I don’t deny that it hurt a lot. I guess I always knew that either way it was a catch-22. If I meet her and form a relationship, it would put a strain on my relationship with my parents. If not, I face rejection all over again. It’s been ten years since my trip to Korea and I recognize how much that trip brought me closure.
This is not meant to be read as an adoption success story. I believe that when it comes to adoption, there isn’t any such thing. There is always going to be trauma, heartache, and loss wrapped up in our identities and journeys. The experience has certainly made me more aware of being a trauma-informed educator, and how I need to be careful in the language I use to describe families with my students. Some days it’s harder or easier than others, but because of this experience, I have a better understanding of who I am, where I came from, and where I want to go.
Tips for Transracial Adoptees trying to find their birth parents
Looking back, I wish I had taken the time to clearly think out my objectives for finding my biological parents. I didn’t know anyone who had gone through this experience to learn from, and I wasn’t well versed enough in social media and searching for support groups to locate resources for myself. I wish I would have asked myself if I wanted a personal relationship with them? Would I have been satisfied with a photograph or the record of my family medical history? How would I potentially process the feeling of being rejected if they didn’t want to meet me?
Recently, a friend introduced me to PACT, an organization and community that serves adoptive People Of Color. Their work would have been so helpful for me during my journey. A former student of mine attends their summer camp every year with his family and I can’t help but feel a little jealous that he’s been brought up in this environment with access to these resources! You can check out their work at https://www.pactadopt.org.
About the Author
Liz Kleinrock creates curricular content for K-12 students around issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and designs engaging and accessible units of study for all ages of learners. She also works with school districts to develop workshops and trainings for adults that support culturally responsive practices that fit the needs of specific communities. Liz has received the Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching, gained international media attention for her lessons on consent, gave a 2019 TED Talk from “Education Everywhere” on building foundations of equity with young learners, and is working on her first book. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Instagram.