It’s been 38 years since I left Korea. I was 4 then. I returned this past summer for my first time, and I was really apprehensive and a bit scared to go back. I’ve heard mixed reviews regarding the experiences of adoptees that return to Korea. The “insensitive” depiction of adoptees in the Korean media has been the topic of discussion on this site and others. I have also spoken to adoptee friends who have returned, and their accounts have ranged from wonderful to horrible. Research on the topic of returning Korean adoptees presents a similar mixed bag of experiences. Mustering up the nerve to go back and then being treated like a persona non grata isn’t what I was hoping for in my inglorious return. I also wanted to speak Korean when I returned, and while I am learning the language, describing my mastery of Korean as equivalent to a four year old is an insult to four year olds.
The context for my return was ideal. I definitely wasn’t ready to track down my birth mother; I went to Korea and Japan as part of a work trip. I met with friends and colleagues in Japan to discuss future research collaborations, and I traveled to Korea to meet with officials at a university in Seoul to discuss a future study abroad possibility for my course concerning comparative criminology. My two closest friends from Minnesota accompanied me since they also love to travel. We spent about five days in Japan and then five days in Korea.
Seoul is a wonderful and amazing city. We visited many lively, vibrant, energetic neighborhoods— such as Hongdae, Insadong, and Gangnam—with continuous sidewalk traffic, tasty restaurants, and curious bars. I love big cities because they give off an energy that I find slightly intoxicating, and Seoul is one of the best. The public transportation is among the best I have ever used (and is in fact world renowned). I attended my first “silent” dance party, and it was a really interesting and fun experience. Seoul is truly a marvel of urban planning and civil engineering. For a city that large (somewhere in the neighborhood of 22 million people), the lack of homelessness (I saw one person sleeping in an open construction field), the cleanliness, and public safety is nothing short of remarkable. I took more than a little bit of pride in thinking that my roots lie in a country that is capable of producing such a city.
Most of my interactions with people were positive. There were some awkward moments during my day-to-day interactions when people realized that someone who looked Korean couldn’t really speak Korean. Who knew ordering a coffee could be so complicated when all I can say in Korean is, “Can I have a coffee please?” When people asked me a follow-up question, such as, “Do you want a hot coffee or an iced coffee?” I wanted to just run for it but instead used the international language of finger pointing and miming to complete my order. I had heard that Korean people by and large keep to themselves and will generally not interact with strangers and I would add to that people often didn’t even make eye contact with strangers. The only person that engaged us was of course a Korean American from New York City who had moved to Seoul. During my tour of the university, officials that showed me around campus were very friendly and pleasant. I had one uncomfortable interaction with a university official who didn’t seem to “get” me, and my tour guide had to explain to him that I was a visiting American.
My first trip was really good for me and I enjoyed it. However, it was also a bit sad. Despite how much I enjoyed myself, I greatly regret not having gone back sooner. I found myself re-living the last twenty years of my life. In this alternate life, I come back to Korea permanently in my 20s as a prodigal son and live my adult life in Korea. It’s not that I’m dissatisfied with my current life. Rather, I feel that I am extremely fortunate, as I have a beautiful family, a great job, and wonderful friends. But for the first time in my life, I truly felt like I was just another… person. That’s something that white Americans generally never have to experience—standing out when you really just want to fade into background, not being different and having the comfort of being completely ordinary. That was until I opened my mouth… Other adoptees that have returned to Korea have remarked on the difficulties of looking the part but neither speaking nor acting it. There was an irony in finally “fitting in,” so long as I didn’t interact with anyone or say anything. A lonely existence to be sure, but growing up in Minnesota did not always afford that small comfort. In most social settings during my childhood, I was reminded explicitly or implicitly that I am an “Other.”
Another take away from my trip to Korea (and Japan) is far more profound and esoteric. I learned that there are a lot of Asian people—and I mean a lot—in Japan and Korea. While this seems painfully obvious, it was a shock to see this in person. I have never seen so many Asian people before in my life. Living in mostly white areas has made me perhaps overly accustomed to white people and conversely a bit shocked and surprised to see more than a few dozen Asian people at any one time. Seeing so many Asian people had the effect of making them seem like multi-dimensional human beings instead of the culmination of faceless stereotypes and racist assumptions. For this reason alone, I think Asian adoptees should spend some time in the country of their origin.
Upon facing this realization, I felt like I was a young boy who just found out that Santa Claus isn’t real (although, even as a young boy I had my suspicions; how did he get down the chimney?). Without consciously realizing it, I had bought into American white exceptionalism, and visiting Asian countries with such amazing skylines, infrastructure, culture, and vibrant nightlife made me rethink the supposed superiority of (white) America. At the heart of American exceptionalism is the idea that other cultures and societies are inferior, and even progressive Americans can fall victim to a colonialist perspective of non-white countries. Rather, the Asian countries I visited have developed urban centers of commerce, art, history, and science that rival (and in some ways exceed) the greatest American metropolises. This is not to suggest that Asian societies aren’t flawed or that they aren’t influenced by the West in significant ways. For example, the incidence rates of plastic surgery in Korea is alarming, and almost all of the cosmetic changes are to look more white.
For the first time of my life, however, I had a glimpse of what it meant to be Korean that was not defined by American standards, and I really liked what I saw.
~ Darren Wheelock