On Passing, Adoption, and Disability (First in a series of two essays on adoption and disability)


When I was young, I went through a period when I would avoid other Asians in public. I remember switching lines in a food court in an 80s-era Indiana mall after I saw that the person at the register looked like me. I must have been about 15 years old. I don’t remember consciously making a decision to do this. There was no weighing of options or considering the pros and cons. It was an instinctive action driven by fear. But fear of what, exactly? I realize now that I was afraid the checkout guy would “out” me as being Asian. This fear was ludicrous, of course. Did I think he would say something like, “Hey there, sister! Yellow Power!” or start speaking to me in Mandarin? Maybe I thought that if I stood in close proximity to another Asian face, suddenly everyone in the mall would freeze and a spotlight would shine down on me along with a red arrow and blinking sign that screamed, “Asian! Asian!” Little did I know, my prescribed racial identity was emblazoned on my body as sure as the Catholic school logo on my button-down shirt. The fear was real, though.


As a transracially adopted person raised in a white majority environment, I wanted to blend in to my surroundings. Not seeing any reason to feel proud of being Asian at the time, I wanted to render that part of myself invisible. I believe now that part of me also wanted to tether myself to white privilege, hoping some of it would rub off on me. Even though I was too young to be fully conscious of what I was doing, I could see the power of whiteness all around me, while simultaneously being aware of the lack of Asian power. I wanted to be on the winning team. In Western literature, the term “passing” originally referred to people of mixed African and European descent who were light-skinned enough to live their lives, or pass, as white. Think Joe Christmas from Faulkner’s Light in August or Peola in Imitation of Life. This strictly racial definition of the word doesn’t entirely apply to my case since my physiognomy dictated that I couldn’t pass as white. Furthermore, I find the traditional stereotype of the so-called “tragic mulatto” as problematic as the “angry adoptee” who pops up in some modern Korean dramas in that it relies on tired, predictable identity binaries (white/black, Korean/American). Still, my childhood desire to swallow my racial identity in order to reap the benefits of white culture, and my anxiety about that identity being revealed, has enough in common with the idea of passing for it to still be relevant. In this essay, then, I will use the term “passing” as well as “blending in” simply to signify the attempt to be seen as something you are not.


Five years ago, I was diagnosed with a rare neurological condition called dystonia, a misfiring of neurons in the brain. Dystonia manifests itself in different ways in different bodies. In my body it causes my brain to signal my right calf to contract at the wrong time. This leads my foot to constantly pull back when I walk forward. Consequently, my ability to walk has deteriorated over time, and I now require forearm crutches to travel more than the length of a block. I am now a person with a disability.


When I was still in the relatively early stages of my disease, I went on a four-day trip to New York City, a place where walking for miles is commonplace. At this time, I was obsessed with passing as a person without a disability. All of my energy went toward prolonging the amount of time I could walk “normally” before my right foot would begin to jerk back and drag on the ground. I knew I could buy myself more time by changing shoes, thereby shifting the gait of my foot just enough to give my leg just a little more control over my walk. I was always buying new shoes, hunting for pairs that would allow my foot to move around and overpower its constant need to jerk back. So in New York I carried two or three extra pairs in my purse, and the minute I started to feel the jerk coming on, I would switch shoes, believing that I was somehow tricking my brain. When I felt the foot start to jerk back, my heart would start to race, my breath would come fast and shallow, my eyes would tear up, and my entire sense of well-being would shatter. I was living in a constant state of panic and fear.


Much of the stress of passing is rooted in this fear, this anxiety around the moment when you are unmasked as different than what you are trying to present. As an adoptee, when I first returned to Korea, I wanted nothing more than to pass. I was keenly aware of how I looked and acted in comparison to Korean nationals. I felt like my skin was too dark, my shoulders too wide, my clothes too provincial. So I bought new clothes, had my hair cut by a Korean stylist, carefully studied everyone around me, and tried to apply my well-honed chameleon skills to the situation. Just as when I thought I could blend in to my white upbringing, the very notion that I was somehow passing as a Korean-raised person, even a little, was ludicrous. The way I laughed, the way I sat, even the way I walked was American. But I still carried that stress, that fear of being discovered for what I was.


Now that I use crutches to get around most of time, I am afforded none of the illusion of passing as an “able-bodied” person. No matter where I go, my crutches immediately mark my body as different, and I have been surprised by how liberating this is. Without the burden of the fear of being outed as disabled, I feel more able to be myself than ever. This isn’t to say that learning to live with crutches has been smooth sailing. My hands hurt constantly, and the muscles of my ring fingers have started to lock up at night. Formerly simple tasks, like picking something up from the grocery store, are now annoyingly complicated. Some strangers have spoken to me in what can only be described as baby talk. I must constantly negotiate what I want to physically do with the new limitations of my body. Nevertheless, I feel that my handicapped condition breaks down a certain barrier between the people I meet and me. It forces us both to be honest in a way. As a disabled person, I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly in others’ reactions to me. In some ways, though, I would rather see who people are in those moments than live under false impressions. For example, when you’re on crutches and a person openly stares at you but doesn’t try to help you get something off a shelf or get out of your way in a tight space, you catch a glimpse of that person’s true self.


Growing up, I internalized the habit of not demanding space for myself within my family and community. I’m not sure if this was because I was adopted, but it certainly was informed by the desire to blend in and disappear. Being disabled disrupts this habit. You realize quickly that you must ask for accommodations, you must ask for space, in order to get your needs met in a society not designed for you. When I consider this within broader frameworks, I see that demanding space is key for any marginalized person or group. Storytelling, organizing, art making, scholarship—these are all part of claiming space. As a transracial adoptee, it took me years to figure out what I needed, and then still more time to figure out how to ask for it. However, this journey is crucial, and it starts with coming to terms with who we are, whatever that means for each of us.


(next month: Parallels Between Adoption Grief and Disability Grief)


~ Katie Hae Leo