Café Korea

I have enjoyed getting to know Korean adoptees like myself, and I have really enjoyed learning about and eating the food. And sure, I am thankful, grateful, blessed, lucky, and so on that I was adopted into a loving family. But tonight at dinner, I had a moment. I wish I would have had someone filming us: me; my Korean adoptee boyfriend; and my non-adopted, half-Korean daughter at dinner at a local Korean restaurant. For me, the moment really illustrated how I have been feeling lately about myself, relative to who I am as a Korean adoptee in this country.

Nothing extreme or strange happened. The service was friendly; the food was delicious. There were no incidents. However, if someone would have captured us on film, I could have made slides, drawn arrows and diagrams and those thought-bubble things above our heads; I could have shown you some of the cultural clusterfuck that is in my brain lately.

To the Caucasian man dining alone at the table across from us, we look Korean. If he can hear us, he can tell that, yes, we are Koreans, but Koreans who clearly speak English as our first language. If he would listen a little more closely, he would be able to tell that none of us speak any Korean whatsoever, and, in fact, have to point at the menu item (me) and do horrible stereotypical, almost inappropriately rude mispronunciations of the Romanized Korean words on the menu. (My daughter, she’s 8 years old though, so she gets a pass.) To the other Koreans in the restaurant, who, to my knowledge are not Korean adoptees, we are clearly not “Korean Koreans.”

Is anyone else in the room at that moment giving this as much thought as me? No, probably not. I am, though. I am fumbling with the menu, embarrassed that my daughter is using her fingers to pick up the japchae noodles because she cannot use her chopsticks, and wishing that I would have stuck with Korean language class way back in the 1980s when my parents enrolled me in a class with Korean children. I am feeling frumpy in my sweater and “late for work” ponytail, seated at the table behind the slight-framed and tidy woman with the massive Louis Vuitton bag, which I eyeball furiously, and the perfectly coiffed hair. But mostly, I am feeling like a phony. I am feeling like an impostor and a misfit because I do not fit in. On the one hand, I feel smug that I am Korean and finally able to go to a Korean restaurant and not just enjoy but truly love the food, and even make some of my favorites at home. I am not ashamed to admit wholeheartedly that I like being in a room where I’m not the only Asian person. It feels good. But then on the other hand, I am pointedly reminded that I will never ever be “Korean Korean” as I fumble for some semblance of pronunciation to order my yukaejjang (yes, I probably misspelled that) that looks so unbelievably delicious; I might as well be the Caucasian guy at the table next to us who probably ordered in pristine Korean. Even if I took accelerated Korean language lessons every single day for the next five years, I would still stumble and feel awkward when in the presence of non-adopted Korean people.

In the Korean adoptee space, which mostly, at least for me, consists of online relationships with adoptees locally, nationally, and internationally (which, arguably, are not even REAL relationships), I feel like there is a “KAD Continuum of Koreanness.” It ranges from those who know nothing about Korean anything and probably consider themselves “white,” to those who dabble with the language, the food, maybe like K-Pop, K-Dramas, and have ventured into the expansive online world of Korean adoptee forums, to those who travel frequently to Korea, are highly involved with adoptee organizations and causes, and comfortably identify themselves as Korean. I have no clue where I fall; somewhere in the murky middle, but probably more toward the “white” end of the continuum. Regardless of where I land on that continuum, though, it is always for me a place of confusion and it often feels fake and disappointing. Fake, because of the KAD world and its tireless pursuit of making up for lost Korean time with the forced peace signing and noreabanging and endless Instagramming of banchan (of which I am guilty of doing all but noraebang). Disappointing, because I often feel caught somewhere between disgust and desire, wanting to participate in the groups, the gatherings, the rallying around Korea, but don’t really know to what degree, nor do I live near many KADs or have the resources to travel to KAD events. Too much participation and I feel pangs of guilt, like I am turning my back on my upbringing, my friends, and my family. Too little participation and I am a sell-out, complacent with my life as a culturally assimilated “white” person. It is this constant feeling of push and pull and towing the line between the two hemispheres where I feel like I just do not quite fit in either.

And the limbo does not stop there. Adoptees travel in droves to visit the motherland. They come back from their trips and yearn to go back. Having not yet gone to Korea, I of course cannot fairly say how I would feel (and yes, I understand and get that it is highly emotional), but in order for me to ever go I have to convince myself that I do not hate the place. So for 41 years thus far and until I am ready, here I am. I am supposed to love a place that severed me from my birth mother and sent me away to people and a place that has embraced me, but where I consistently feel a sense of awkwardness and discomfort.

These are just my feelings today, and this is not to say that I do not feel pride, happiness, compassion, love, and camaraderie because I so often do with my Korean adoptee friends, as well as with my non-Korean friends. But tonight, for whatever reason, I feel like the proverbial sore thumb.

Fake is hard for me, as it goes hand in hand with trust. So this is particularly difficult and unsettling and no number of trips to the Korean restaurant, platefuls of bulgogi, or “yes, I do feel gratefuls” can make up for the fact that as a Korean adoptee in Midwestern America, I somehow feel like I go through life with an inherent sense of falseness. No one “did” this to me. I did not do this to me. This is no one’s fault. This is simply how it is.

~ Kate Lustig

About Kate Lustig: I was adopted at the age of 6 months after a brief stay at the White Lily Orphanage in Daegu. I currently live in Carmel, Indiana with my 8-year old daughter and our feline adoptee, Jupiter James. In addition to fantasizing about being a writer, I am a full time mother, 40-hour per week-job-holder, and lover of dirty martinis. I also enjoy being outdoors, attempting to make Korean food, and loving on my loved ones.