Growing up, I never thought about being adopted. This is something that happened a long time ago and is why I don’t look like my white parents, but that’s about it. It’s the missing piece of the puzzle that puts others at ease. It’s the fact that I stashed it in my back pocket for these group icebreakers.
I take it out like fictitious handkerchiefs tied together. Red: I was adopted. Blue: from Korea. Yellow: at 6 months. Green: abandoned in front of a police station door. Tada! Wide-eyed wonder.
My ethnicity was nothing more than a roundtable until March 16, 2021, when news of six Asian American women gunned down in Atlanta pierced my varnish of indifference. I was aware of the increase in violence against Asian Americans in recent years, but this time fear tore the core of my being. It forced me to look at my own Asianism and the reality that I am a target of hatred towards Asian Americans, whether I feel like a “real Asian” or not.
For most of my life, I didn’t consider myself a true Asian because I didn’t know Korean culture. My white parents believed that the more I was assimilated, the happier and more prosperous I would be. They called it Americanization. When I asked my mother why I didn’t go to Korean school like other Korean children, she replied, âBecause you live here now. You are an American citizen. You are American.”
I was thinking: Got it, I’m an American. But what about the Korean part of me? My mother never spoke about this part. Trying to make sense of my identity as a child, I assumed that my Korean had just fallen like a snake losing its skin. I was thinking: This must be what happens when you are adopted; the original parts fade and you become like everyone else.
The only problem is that my exteriors never fell. My Korean skin is part of me, and growing up without recognizing it hasn’t made it go away. And so my ethnic identity became an empty Korean shell on the outside, without the wealth of cultural knowledge and experience to flesh it out. Later in college, I learned that there was a name some people used for people like me: âbananaâ – yellow on the outside, white on the inside.
When I was 20, a friend told me about a young white couple who were about to adopt a Chinese girl. They were learning Chinese customs and were busy furnishing his nursery with everything Chinese. It seemed so bizarre to me to show so conspicuously the otherness of a child they were about to bring up like theirs. It seemed spurious for parents to immerse a baby in a culture they were not born into themselves.
Maybe I was angry that I hadn’t been brought up with my birth culture. Maybe I was jealous that she didn’t have to struggle with the guilt that I carry, having grown up in Asian skin but not knowing anything about being Asian.
The real Koreans, I concluded, must be the ones who learned all the customs and practiced them at home with their Caucasian families. Real Koreans whose parents didn’t immerse them in Asian culture because the babies ran out and learned the Korean language as soon as they left home. Since I didn’t take it upon myself to learn the culture as a young adult, I didn’t think I could consider myself a true Korean.
The only Korean thing I ever owned was a red booklet, little more than a few sheets of paper stapled together. There were little black and white line drawings of things like “girl” and “boy” and the corresponding Korean words with English pronunciations. My younger brother, also adopted from Korea, also had a copy. I don’t know how long he kept his, but I kept mine as an adult even though I barely looked at him. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but maybe I held onto this book in the hope that someday I would like to learn more about Korea.
In college, I met a Korean woman who was a little older than me through friends, who had been to Seoul several times to visit family. She encouraged me to go to Korea, and for a brief moment, I was excited about it. Then she told me that people would probably refuse to speak to me in English because they look down on the younger generations who don’t speak the language.
It did. It erased any desire I had to ever visit Seoul. I was so far removed from my ethnicity that the thought of Koreans rejecting me because I couldn’t speak the language was a shame I just couldn’t bear.
In my 20s and 30s, I never learned anything Korean because I thought all the attempts I made were weak and too little, too late. I was afraid of the judgment of others, but slowly realized that the only person judging me was myself.
In my forties, a quiet curiosity developed about customs that I never grew up with. Out of the blue, a friend of mine texted me about a free online Korean course for beginners at a college in town. It took me a few months, but I finally had the courage to sign up.
Then came the horrific shootings of March 2021. My gender and ethnicity, once largely ignored by the media, were suddenly and violently brought into the limelight. Overnight it was a million times more vulnerable and scary to be an Asian woman in America. Everywhere I went I felt like a nerve on display – like I was in a nation’s collective sights and everyone looking at me saw me as a victim. I was a nervous wreck walking into my neighborhood grocery store.
It was in this vulnerable state, just a week later, that I started my Korean course online. Having the courage to speak Korean words in front of people was terrifying and life changing. It helped me overcome my impostor blocks and gave me permission to learn something that would ultimately help me feel less like an impostor.
At the start of each class, 40 other people and I shouted happily, âAnyeonghaseo, Pangapsumnida! in this resounding, beautiful and uneven cacophony. No one was ever going to take that sidelong glance at me again because I at least didn’t know how to say “hello” in Korean.
âBeing American is not just about integrating; it’s about honoring all parts of who you are.
As a Korean adoptee, I was raised to look like the white people I grew up with. It has helped me to fit in and to feel âpart ofâ most of my life. But not kissing my ancestors when I was young didn’t make my Korean disappear. Today, I see that, although it was done with the best of intentions, the devaluing of the importance of being Korean made it difficult for me to develop a healthy ethnic identity.
This is Adoption Awareness Month, and I want to be clear: I am more than grateful to have been adopted by my parents. I also support transracial adoption, but I hope parents see that being American isn’t just about fitting in; it’s about honoring all parts of who you are.
For 47 years, I chose not to own my inheritance because it was not part of me, but that is changing. Today, I feel a kinship with other Asians. I am learning Korean and for my 50th birthday my husband and I are planning a trip to Seoul.
Stacey Fargnoli is a Los Angeles-based writer who previously worked as a screenwriter and screenwriter / producer of television documentaries. Raised in Long Island, New York, she is the wife and mother of two vibrant teenagers. She writes on parenting, food addiction, body image, female identity and representation in the media.
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