A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
I’ve been trying to answer to this question for years because I want to set the record straight.
This isn’t an easy topic to write about. I have thousands of answers. All good and bad. All changing as I get older. They’re not the same as the next Korean adoptee, either.
This part is the bad part. It’s the hardest to write because I don’t like being a Debbie Downer, but it needs to be said.
The first thing I consider when I think about being an adoptee is is: what would I have been like, as a person, if I hadn’t been adopted? What if I had grown up in Korea in a Korean family? Would I have the same interests and personality as I have now, or was it my life experiences and surroundings that shaped me into who I am?
Confusion reigns when you’re an international adoptee. I don’t know my medical history. I always forget that I have to supply information about my Australian citizenship when I fill out forms because I was born overseas. I don’t know what town I was born in, only the state. I was never quite sure what to say when people asked about my family’s ancestry. My adoptive parents are a mix of Irish, German and English. But that’s not the answer people are looking for when they ask me.
I don’t look like my parents or anyone in my family.
My adoptive parents were overprotective of me as a child; I argued with them when I was a sullen, pimply, bitchfaced teenager; and they’re now my safety net as I awkwardly fumble through my 20s and have a go at this being an adult thing. That’s pretty much the same for you lot who share genetics with your parents, right? It just so happens that mine don’t look like me and our ethnic backgrounds shape our life experiences.
Racism is by far the worst part of being an international adoptee. My parents explained racism and bigotry logically to me from a young age. Hating someone just because they are a different skin colour is racist, and it doesn’t even make any sense. You should hate someone because they’re a total jerk, not because they’re from somewhere else.
But, being white Australians, that’s all they knew. They didn’t know about all the things foreign-lookin’ people in Australia cop on a day to day basis.
Sometimes it’s something little, like when people ask things like “where are you from?” a little too aggressively. Or “Freeman? That’s not an Asian name WHY IS YOUR LAST NAME FREEMAN?!” and you can pinpoint the exact moment their brain falls apart. Or “you speak English well… FOR AN ASIAN.” I absolutely hate that. Think about it. It’s not a compliment.
I used to work in retail and a woman actually avoided talking to me once. “I CANNOT UNDERSTAND YOU,” she said loudly, in reply to me saying “hello.”
Yeah, really. I’m still trying to get my head around that one.
Sometimes it’s too stupid to get offended about, like some well-meaning doofus who expressed her sympathy for my relatives “back home” when China was gripped with the SARS epidemic. Or the neighbour who thought I was an exchange student. Or that guy who thought I was my Dad’s mail order bride. Gross. My Dad ain’t Woody Allen.
Sometimes it’s sneaky and insidious, like when the overeducated white guy corrects you on your own feelings and life experiences because they know the things about social justice and read a lot of important blogs blah blah blah blah. Or when some douchebag randomly starts telling you about their holiday to Malaysia and Asian people are so nice.
Then sometimes it’s full blown obscenities spat at me on the street. I’ve been forcing myself to react quickly and angrily in ways that are too impolite to describe in a public blog. But damn, you abusive bigots, you absolutely deserve to be called every hate-filled four-letter word that this drunken nation has taught me. Not only are they insulting me, but they’re insulting all Asian people. My people.
I’m not going to lie; I am scared that fellow human beings don’t have a problem with saying these things to me. No matter how many times I tell myself that those people are obviously sad, insecure, and morally wrong. No matter how many times I tell myself that I am educated, a generally nice person, have great hair and better than them. Encountering racism makes me nauseous with fear. I am left shaking, angry, frozen in shock.
I am an Australian citizen. I do not remember being in Korea; I have grown up in this country since I was 4 months old. My parents are Aussie and raised me as their own. Australia’s not a perfect country, but I generally like living here. It’s my home.
Imagine being treated like an outsider, a threat or an oddity in your own home. Imagine being reminded over and over that the people you call Mum and Dad are not biologically your Mum and Dad.
It can really break your brain.
Racism is not an experience exclusive to adoptees. There are similar experiences of discrimination and hate, but it’s different for every ethnic group, every religion, every different way people come to Australia.
I used to wish that I wasn’t Korean. People didn’t know much about Korea when I was a kid in the 90s, except there was a war and people ate dogs and Asians look funny anyway so whatever, it’s the same as China right?
It was the thing that made me different, the thing that made people uncomfortable around me, the thing that made people slot me into boxes where I didn’t belong, the thing that stopped people from wanting to get to know me. I didn’t feel like a Korean. I felt like an Aussie. I’m just like them. But my eyes, hair and skin said that I wasn’t.
I exaggerated my Aussie accent and firmly told everyone I was a brown haired, brown eyed Australian girl. When people asked where I was from I said “Alex Hills”, because I’m a smartarse and it was true anyway. I got stuck when they asked where I was born though. I envied 2nd generation migrants who could really one-up the smartarse responses to that one.
As for talking openly about my adoption, like I am now? Forget it. Most of the time I tried to forget it was even a part of my life, in the hope that it would go away and I could just be normal.
Overthinking my ambiguous racial identity caused me too constantly worry what people thought of me.
Do they think I’m stupid because I look foreign? Do they think I’m smart because I’m Asian and will they be disappointed? Is that person staring at me because I’m Asian and they’re racist, or because I am wearing ridiculous sunglasses? Does this guy actually like me or does he have a creepy Asian fetish? Is this person only being nice to me so they can appear cool and cultured with non-white friends? Is this person being nice to me because they feel sorry for me? Am I going to disappoint this person when I explain that I can’t speak Korean? Does this Korean person think I’m an idiot because I can’t speak Korean? Am I too Asian? Am I too Aussie? Am I neither? What do people even think about adoptees anyway? Does everyone just straight up hate me?
Ultimately, I felt very alone.
Learning to accept myself hasn’t been easy or quick. It’s a gradual process, and it’s still going.
It gets better with Part 2.