Asian American Adoptees Are Grappling With Incomplete Histories And Cultural Gatekeepers

In response to the surge of racist violence, many Asian Americans are reconnecting with their ancestral cultures. But that’s not so easy for those who were adopted into white families.

For Julie Hollek, who was 8 months old when white parents in Michigan adopted her from South Korea, her relationship to her birth country is “tenuous” at best, she said. Raised as a Catholic in a white neighborhood, she grew up speaking only English, knowing little about Korean culture, and going to school with kids who didn’t look like her.

Over the last year, as the coronavirus pandemic engendered a surge of hate crimes against people of Asian descent, Hollek spent much of her time in lockdown reflecting on an ethnic identity that had felt distant — but now suddenly seemed to be under attack.

“It’s this weird thing where this is all I know, white Catholicism, but I didn’t fit in there,” she said. “One day, if I go back to Korea, there will be many reasons why I don’t fit in Korea either. Where do I belong? To whom do I belong?”

She began watching K-dramas but was “annoyed” that she had to read subtitles, which inspired her to take Korean-language classes and “more fully engage with being Korean and more generally with Asian American culture.”

She said, “At some point, I kind of realized that I am Korean. I don't have to do anything to be Korean, because I just am.”

But like many adoptees of East Asian descent who were raised in white households, she discovered that connecting with her history wasn’t as simple as looking up her ancestry or studying traditions. While some young people have reclaimed their “other” native names, traced their family lineages, and probed older relatives for stories about the past, that information is often inaccessible to adoptees. As fragmented online movements began cropping up for Asian Americans, many adoptees have struggled to find their place. In some ways, they said, the collective experience of this moment only further isolates them.

The efforts to stir pride among Asian diasporas in response to racist violence bloomed a question that resonated with adoptees like Hollek: What does reclamation look like for those who grew up feeling disconnected from their own ethnic identity? Sometimes, they discovered, the same online communities that they turned to for unity were filled with debates, often led by gatekeepers and clout chasers, on how to be authentically Asian. With few mentors and many clashing voices, whom could they turn to? How do they know they’re doing it “right”?

“I've had to struggle to reconnect with my Korean identity and haven't had resources available for most of my life,” said Danielle Saures, 32, who was adopted by white parents when she was 5 months old.

Saures grew up in a suburb outside of Rochester, New York, which she described as an "all-white town." She hadn’t met another Korean or an East Asian girl until she was 8, when she attended an event hosted by her adoption agency. That was about the only outreach effort that she remembers.

When she encountered racism at a young age — first in mockery of how she looked and later in fetishization of how she looked — it did not help that her mom employed “color blindness” logic to try to assuage her confusion and pain.

“My mom was like, ‘You’re American; you’re just like us.’ … She didn’t know how to talk about race, because she didn’t have to,” Sauers said. The way her mother responded exacerbated her feelings of isolation and self-loathing as a teen.

“I did spend a good majority of my teenage years hating being Korean, not having access to my culture or other Asian people. Maybe I accepted that internalized racism,” she said. “I had a sense of shame, and, not having a vocabulary to explain this, it made me feel bad but not know why.”

Her reconnection with her Asian identity was first inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. She realized her Irish Catholic family was patently clueless to “what was going on” in the US, she said. Saures largely credits going to a college with a diverse student body, and the internet, for the community and limited resources she was eventually able to find.

“I dove more into socioeconomic diversity, religious diversity, what it meant to me to be a minority,” she said. “The Korean side of me is something I will never get rid of — because when I walk out on the street, to most people I’m Asian. I started learning more about my Korean culture.”

The recent attacks in the Atlanta area sparked another conversation about her race with her parents. This time, she acknowledged how the shootings rattled her as an Asian American. But it also reminded Saures that they may never “get it.”

“The conversations have been better, but it almost feels like an overcompensation,” she said. “I’ve been screaming about this stuff my whole life, and now you’re listening? And now [my mom is] more receptive, but it’s all this white guilt.” She said the escalation of anti-Asian crimes and rhetoric made her “scared” to leave her house. Her mom suggested “saying a prayer,” Sauers said.

For Laney, a 27-year-old adoptee who requested to only be identified by her first name, growing up in a white household left her with a sense of racial “isolation” and “dissociation.” She rarely talks to her mother about that. Laney described her mom as “nonracist” but also someone “perfectly fine with never having had a race talk with [her] growing up and never teaching me how to respond to racism.”

About a decade ago, Laney, who was born in China, started searching for her biological family. She had been adopted by a white woman from Dallas when she was under a year old, she told BuzzFeed News. When she was first brought to the US, a healthcare worker at the time said her latest medical records did not match those provided by the orphanage. It was then that she learned that the adoption agency had given her mother the paperwork for another baby. Laney believed her passport photo was not her own. The woman at the embassy told Laney’s mom, simply, “Not the same baby.” The revelation meant that she could only estimate her true age and birth date and had no clues to lead her to her birth name.

“I have a four-month window where I could have been born,” she said. “They said I was 7 months [when I was adopted], but I was probably 9 or 10 months. I’m not exactly sure. I just say I was under the age of 1.”

Over the years, Laney found other transnational adoptees who also believe their birth records are incorrect.

“Our names were given to us by our orphanages or people who worked at the orphanage or maybe even a foster parent,” she said. As a teenager, she cofounded China’s Children International, an organization that provides resources for other Chinese adoptees who want to connect with their roots and each other. “Personally, I’ve chosen to reclaim my orphanage name, but I do not 100% connect with it, because it was not my given name from my parents.”

Without records to guide her search, she turned to a DNA test and got a thrilling result in 2010: an apparent match to a family. She contacted the family and for four months got to know them, communicating over text. Then “the DNA company told me they fucked up,” she said, adding that they admitted to matching her with the wrong parents. According to Laney, the birth parents said their daughter was born in September 1994. Laney was adopted by her mom in August 1994, meaning it was impossible that she was their child.

“I haven’t been very active in my search since then,” she said. The information that she can piece together, like the four-month period when she could have been born, is based entirely on her biometrics, including the size and number of her baby teeth when she was adopted. She now thinks she was born sometime between September and January.

“I know it is my birthright to reclaim what was taken from me, but with every act I am reminded of what I lost, who I lost, and how I will never fully be able to get back what was taken as a result of my international adoption,” she said. “I simultaneously find immense joy, honor, and pride in my native name, language, history, food, holidays, etc., while also feeling immense feelings of loss and disenfranchised grief over what I can never regain.”

Without relatives from or memories of the culture they’re exploring, Laney and others are left to process the challenges of understanding their racial identity on their own — in a country where a person’s race has historically determined their opportunities and experiences.

“My connection to Korean culture is so tenuous and one that feels like it's driven by me wanting to be part of it rather than a connection where someone has invited me in,” Hollek said. “What ends up happening is you have children [like me] who in a way end up not being a part of any culture.”

These deeply personal circumstances mean it can be particularly hurtful when adoptees are confronted with controlling moral narratives about how to be Asian in America. This cultural gatekeeping rattles the work they’ve done for themselves, planting doubt about whether their ties to the racial group and its traditions will be accepted.

On April 11, a tweet from a Korean American blogger instantly inflamed a lot of these issues for adoptees. Amid the trauma of the killings at Atlanta-area spas, some Asian Americans had begun using their native first names on social media. The now-deleted tweet, by a 40-year-old who goes by the name T.K., was a sardonic response to that: “Asian Ams ‘reclaiming’ their Asian names will soon lead to them wearing some fucked up qi pao and hanbok and shit for everyday wear won’t it.”

It drew instant backlash online. Asian Americans called him out for discouraging people from exploring their heritage.

“The real issue is that choosing to have pride in our Asian cultural heritages and practices (clothing, language, names, food, etc.) in fact often takes bravery and a concerted effort — not because of other Asian Americans, but because of white supremacy or white norms in the US that have shamed Asians about our culture,” Nitasha Sharma, the director of Asian American studies at Northwestern University, told BuzzFeed News. “People go through a process of identity formation over the course of their life and change their names, their preferences, and their practices as they move throughout the world. Culture is not static; nor is identity.”

(T.K. defended his tweet to BuzzFeed News, but added, “I can see how that may be perceived as dismissive to the adoptees who read that tweet.”)

For Sauers, the online debate has only reaffirmed why using her native name, wearing her hanbok, and celebrating new holidays matter. She’s beginning to accept herself. She realizes she had a lack of agency as an infant being moved from her country of origin and recognizes that her white family may never understand how difficult her racial reconnection is.

“Reclaiming my Korean name means finally accepting my Korean identity, something I hated and shunned for so long,” she said. “It's deeply personal to me, and, frankly, I don't care what anyone else has to say about how Korean I am or not. Learning about holidays like Chuseok [a harvest festival in the fall], Lunar New Year, and traditional dress and food is exciting to me.”

Correction: The state where Julie Hollek grew up was misstated in a previous version of this post.

Correction: Laney was told by a Chinese healthcare worker upon being adopted that her medical records did not match her latest health exam. A previous version of this post misidentified the event that led to her and her mother's realization about this.

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