My Journey to Belonging as a Queer Korean American Adoptee

In the United States, we live in a society that often lacks love and acceptance. From the day we’re born, we’re told how we should live our lives. We’re surrounded by everyday messages through media, like advertisements, television shows, and literature, that explain to us how we should raise our children, how we should look, and how we should act in certain situations. Our culture pressures us to embody a certain “norm,” and consequently, we frequently hold ourselves—whether consciously or not—to impossible standards. To this end, when we strive to reach these standards, we automatically set ourselves up for failure. It might be especially difficult for people who hold marginalized identities, or people who are often socially excluded for not personifying cultural norms, to exist and survive under these conditions.


When I was growing up, I tried my very best to assimilate to the norm. At four months old, I was transracially adopted by two white parents and an older adopted Korean brother into a 96% white, suburban, Midwestern town. Being surrounded by so much whiteness caused me to reject as much of my Asian American identity as possible in order to embody as much whiteness as I could. All I wanted to do was fit in. I didn’t want to be different or to be told that I was. I just wanted to feel like I was “normal,” like I belonged.


Sometimes, I like to describe my need to assimilate as a drug: It was an addiction that blinded me from every other aspect of who I was. It was as if I injected whiteness into my veins and allowed it to take over my thoughts and actions. I convinced myself that if I acted like I was part of the dominant, mainstream body and mind, then I could convince everyone else that I was, too.


I remember distinct moments in time when I literally thought that I was white. In kindergarten, I confidently told my class I was German because my last name is German. In high school, I lectured one of my teachers about how Asian American culture wasn’t important to me because I saw myself as white. And in my first week of college, I wrote in one of my journals for class, “When I’m asked where I’m from, I tell people South Korea (because that is technically where I originated from), but then I immediately tell that person that I was adopted by a white family because I don’t want people to think I’m a true Asian.” I actually formulated the idea that I would socially benefit by ignoring who I truly was. I completely made myself believe that whiteness equated to happiness.


Sums up my childhood throughout grade school


However, this all proved to be faulty logic. Despite telling myself and others that I was white, my outward appearance was still clearly Asian. My skin color made me subject to a lot of racist bullying while growing up. I couldn’t escape the daily microaggressions and overt racism, so eventually, I began to internalize it all by picking up the “If you can’t beat them, you might as well join them” mindset. I started winning the approval of others by making “funny” racist jokes toward myself. I even took on the nicknames “Wonton” and “Egg Roll.” The more I did it, the more people thought that I was funny and seemed to like me… but for all the wrong reasons.


I continued this self-deprecation until I went to college and took an Introduction to Asian American Studies course, where I learned about the harmful effects of racism and what it meant to be an Asian American person. For the first time in my life, I was in an environment where I was not the only person who experienced race-related discrimination. However, since I didn’t have anyone to relate with before this moment, it was an overwhelming, yet comforting experience to realize that I was in fact not alone. Ironically, the time when I didn’t try to alter my body or actions to fit in was one of the first moments when I felt like I belonged. I realized I wasn’t able to genuinely belong until I no longer had to try to belong. Rather, I belonged the most when I was surrounded by people who understood my experiences on an implicit and personal level, where I could be my true self and didn’t have to pretend to fit in anymore.


“Coming out” as Asian American to myself and others was one of the most profound moments of self-discovery for me—so much so that it led me to realize another identity of mine that I repressed while growing up: my sexuality. I always knew there was something quite “queer” [pun intended] about how I felt, but I tried to ignore it. I could never articulate why I wasn’t comfortable enough to “come out” and tell people that I wasn’t straight, but I ultimately recognized that it came back to my need to assimilate into dominant culture. I used to think, “If I despise who I am on the outside, how could I love who I am on the inside? Who could possibly accept me if I can’t even accept myself?” I now understood that my fear of rejection stemmed from the internalized hatred of my outer Asian American identity. I couldn’t come out with being queer (a less visible identity) until after I came to terms with my race (a very visible identity). Accordingly, after finding the words as to why I was so afraid to be who I was, I was able to be more at peace with my sexuality.


Trying to fit in in those high school days


As I started to accept myself more, I decided to change my gender presentation. Even though I personally identify as having a very feminine soul and personality, I have never felt comfortable dressing femininely. Starting from a young age, I loathed wearing anything associated with being “girly,” and the thought of having to wear a dress literally brought me to tears. About a year and a half ago, I mustered the courage to cut off most of my hair and revamp my wardrobe with clothing solely bought from the “men’s” section of the store. As you might imagine though, I also didn’t feel completely comfortable with presenting myself in the way that I do now until after I began reclaiming and owning both my race and sexuality.


I find it interesting that one source of belonging and acceptance (my race) unintentionally led me to additional sources (my sexuality and gender). Our identities are all interconnected and opening the door to one form of belonging helped direct me to more. Because I was forced to think deeply and introspectively about how I saw myself compared to how society saw me, it was as if one awakening or self-realization brought forth an even more holistic acceptance of myself. I challenged myself to push past certain boundaries, and in that process, I passed through other boundaries that I didn’t even know existed. Or perhaps, I never thought they were relevant.


I didn’t want to lose my feelings of belonging, so I started to pursue more ways to preserve those feelings. My first step was to seek out people and communities that validated and normalized my experiences. Allowing myself to feel as though my true self was worthy of existing also allowed me to find and accept the communities that helped me feel like I belonged. This was one of the most revolutionary acts of self-care and healing that I have ever done for myself. For my adoptee identity, I began attending annual Korean American Adoptee Network conferences and served as a mentor for a youth adoptee mentoring program. My second step was building a stronger queer community. I joined a coming out group and later a queer women’s support group.


Adoptee conference attendees and me


As I became more comfortable in both of these realms of my life, I found myself wanting to create even more spaces of community around me. I therefore conducted research and wrote a thesis asking Korean American adoptees how they viewed the very act of Korean American adoption itself. I also co-created an on-campus adoptee group and assisted in making an academic class covering the topics of transracial and international adoption. I’m currently not as involved with the adoptee community, but my most recent participation in community-building has been helping to form a support group for gender non-conforming folks or people who present and/or identify as not fitting the stereotypical and binary definition of gender. Searching for these communities of belonging is not only about finding a safe space for myself, but also about providing and upholding a safe space for others. I fully believe that being who you are shouldn’t create isolation. Unfortunately, the reality of the world is that it often does, and this is why I seek such inclusive environments.


Now that I’ve found validation in who I am and have accepted that being different from the “norm” is okay, I am able to love myself more. This allows me to also exist more comfortably with and open up to people who don’t share my experiences. I initially had to heal and reconcile my individual identities and relationships in order to form any new ones. This is not to say that I couldn’t make deep connections with people outside of the communities I’ve formed around myself, because I could and did. It’s simply that I first needed to have these spaces in order to affirm who I was. That affirmation allowed me to move forward in my pursuit of belonging elsewhere.


Whether it is my outwardly Asian body clashing with my inner white culture, my queer sexuality, or my masculine presentation contrasting with my feminine personality, I don’t fit into boxes, and I really don’t think many people do. Thus, finding these beginning stages of belonging has been an empowering experience for me. There are many downsides to holding marginalized identities, but one benefit is having easier access to the wonderful people and communities that share similar struggles. My next steps are to find new and different communities that don’t necessarily share my identities, as well as to push the boundaries within the communities I’m already in.


More specifically, I have recently become a part of an allyhood mentoring program through the university I work and am also on the lookout for any other social justice-related programs that I could possibly join. In terms of furthering my current groups, as I stated earlier, I believe identities are connected, but not all communities are aware or sensitive to people who hold multiple marginalized identities. Many queer spaces tend to be predominantly white, so when I’m in a group for queer people, it can sometimes be hard to describe or feel validated in my feelings of being an adoptee or a person of color. Similarly, in adoptee spaces, while I feel completely understood in how I identify racially, I don’t always feel comfortable discussing my queer identity. I want to make these spaces more inclusive and diverse because on an individual level, I have been able to find connections and peace with my identities, but on a community level, it can still prove to be difficult to find that same support for identities outside of the specific groups I’m in.


Some of my queer community now


It has taken me just about a quarter of my life to fully realize how beautiful it is that we are all so different and unique. And this is something that we need to celebrate more often. I may be an idealist, but I yearn for a life where people don’t have to feel alone in their daily struggles and triumphs. My life-long dream is to help create an inclusive and intersectional non-profit that provides resources like health care, food, counseling, safe spaces, support, and social networking to marginalized, underrepresented, and underprivileged individuals. Essentially, I have a dream of being able to bring people of all identities and experiences together to form understanding and mutual bonds among each other. I have yet to figure out how I’ll actually put this plan into action, but it’s something that I’m working toward. In the meantime, I will continue to stand in my truth by furthering my journey of acceptance, self-love, allyhood, and community-building.


~ Erica Gehringer