Belonging and Identity: An Asian American Perspective on Adoption
Jack Dae Han Miller, Account Executive & Whitney Fincannon, Art Director
May 21, 2021
For many Americans, the first people they think of when they hear the word “adoption” is adoptive parents. It’s much rarer to hear from adoptees themselves, even though they are the focal points of every adoption story. Transracial and international adoptees, especially, face a distinct set of challenges being raised by parents of a different racial or cultural background from their own. Two G&S colleagues open up about their transracial adoption, and how they navigated the world around them, addressing stereotypes and hate as they grew up in predominantly non-Asian communities.
The uncertainty of the pandemic continues to linger as we search for a path forward. Everyone is seemingly faced with the same questions—will there be another quarantine? With the introduction of vaccines, when will the pandemic officially end? Do we still need to wear a mask? Some uncertainty from the last year has been universal, and some has been more targeted and personal—will I be verbally assaulted if I go in there? Will my half-Asian children stand out less if my white husband takes them to the bathroom? Do I need to worry about this?
I am Korean by birth, raised in the American Southeast. When I was an infant, I was put up for adoption, and my parents – the people who raised me and the only people I call “my parents” – brought me home in eastern North Carolina when I was six months old. As an adopted individual uncertainty has been a fact of my life. I do appreciate the (small) time savings of being able to say “Can’t answer – adopted” in the family history section of medical forms, or the somewhat carefree way I can live without the burden of knowing a potential threat of future illness. While I’m sure some dedicated investigation could find these answers for me, in a world where there’s always something to worry about, it’s nice to know I’m limited in my capacity to dwell in the unknown. However, the uncertainty of the outcome of this past year is less comforting.
Growing up, my older brother, who is also adopted from Korea, and I were generally the only two Asians in most social settings. Our parents taught us to treat others as we would like to be treated and often that played out well. I knew from experience how I did not want to be treated and did my best to not repeat those actions to anyone else. At that time, my biggest worry was being asked stereotypical questions based solely on my physical appearance, which I made sure not to reciprocate when I met and interacted with new people. In some regards, I probably missed the opportunities to learn more about Asian cultures as I grew older, and my social circles became more diverse. I overcompensated by avoiding asking the same questions I resented.
However, as I face the harsh realities of the recent AAPI hate crimes and the pandemic, I found a glimmer of good from it all; I gained a stronger sense of community with my fellow AAPI colleagues and community. I find myself seeking answers and wanting to know more about the culture. By coming together to discuss the rise in hate crimes, and how we’re individually impacted by it, we’re finding more similarities than differences, and really that’s one of the most certain things we should rely on.
Jack Miller: Connecting with my Heritage
I remember always knowing I was adopted. My parents were, correctly, always open about it, and our skin colors gave it away anyway. Colorblindness, the idea that people can choose to not “see” race, is a falsehood. Everyone understands race and experiences it.
As a Korean and Pakistani adoptee in the Chicago suburbs, I didn’t often experience race positively. As early as age 7, I experienced “positive” racism from my teachers who expected higher quality work from me, highlighting the burden of high expectations placed on the Asian community. Later on, classmates began calling me a terrorist and asking when – not if, when – I would bring a bomb to school. I was five years old when the War on Terror began, and spent my childhood and adolescence watching as the U.S. killed Pakistani civilians, who I saw as “people like me,” by the thousands to reach a much smaller number of militants.
My parents did a generally good job of raising me and my adoptee brother, but their white, Christian adoption agency sold them the lie of colorblindness. While my parents loved us very much, they were not equipped to help us handle racism. I depended on a small number of Asian American friends, and a single Asian American teacher, for validation that my racial and ethnic backgrounds were good things; I felt very alone.
Attending college helped me connect with my Asian heritage and was immensely beneficial for me. For the first time, I was part of, and eventually took leadership roles in, Asian American communities on campus. I unlearned a lot of internalized racism, and racism against other people of color I absorbed from my predominantly white hometown. I found and helped build solidarity with other students of color and LGBTQ students. I helped my parents become invested in understanding race and racism themselves. I learned more about the cultures and histories I am part of, and I learned they belong to me as much as they belong to any other Korean, or Pakistani, or Asian American.
I became comfortable with my skin being on the darker end of its tonal range. I could start accepting my racial, LGBTQ, adoptee and other backgrounds not as separate, contradictory identities, but as flavors and variations of each other. I became comfortable helping drive D&I or social justice work in the workplace and the community. Once the post-pandemic courthouse rush ends, I’m going to legally reacquire my surname from birth.
I made some people angry along the way. Many people do not like when Asian Americans speak out against racism, or when adoptees become adults with opinions about race and adoption. As surges in hate crimes after 9/11 and the onset of COVID-19 demonstrate, some people are always looking for an excuse to justify racist violence.
9/11 happened when I was a child, and I feel afraid now facing COVID-associated hate crimes like I felt afraid of violence then. But unlike when I was a child, I no longer feel alone. And that feels like a victory.