Growing up, I never thought about being adopted. It’s something that happened a long time ago and explains why I don’t look like my white parents, but that’s about it. It’s the missing piece of the puzzle that puts others at ease. It’s the fact I have stashed in my back pocket for those group icebreakers.
I pull it out like trick handkerchiefs tied together. Red: I was adopted. Blue: from Korea. Yellow: at 6 months old. Green: abandoned at the front door of a police station. Tada! Wide-eyed amazement.
My ethnicity was nothing more than a parlor trick until March 16, 2021, when news of six Asian American women gunned down in Atlanta pierced through my veneer of indifference. I knew about the increase in violence against Asian Americans in recent years, but this time, the fear tore into the heart of my being. It forced me to look at my own Asianness and the reality that I am a target of hatred toward Asian Americans whether I feel like a “real Asian” or not.
For most of my life, I didn’t consider myself a real Asian because I didn’t know Korean culture. My white parents believed the more assimilated I was, the happier and more successful I would be. They called it being Americanized. When I asked my mother why I didn’t go to Korean school like other Korean kids, she said, “Because you live here now. You are a U.S. citizen. You are American.”
I thought: Got it, I am American. But what about the Korean part of me? My mom never talked about that part. Trying to make sense of my identity as a child, I assumed my Koreanness just fell away like a snake shedding its skin. I thought: That must be what happens when you’re adopted; the original parts fade and you become like everyone else.
The only problem is my outsides never fell away. My Korean skin is part of me, and growing up not acknowledging it didn’t make it go away. And so my ethnic identity became an empty shell ― Korean on the outside, without the richness of cultural knowledge and experience to flesh it out. Later, in college, I learned there was a name that some people used for people like me: “banana” ― yellow on the outside, white on the inside.
When I was in my 20s, a friend told me about a young white couple who were about to adopt a girl from China. They were learning Chinese customs and were busy furnishing her nursery with all things Chinese. It sounded so bizarre to me, to so conspicuously point out the otherness of a child they were about to raise as their own. It seemed disingenuous for parents to immerse a baby in a culture they themselves weren’t born into.
Maybe I was angry because I wasn’t raised with my birth culture. Maybe I was jealous that she wouldn’t have to wrestle with the guilt that I carry, growing up in Asian skin but not knowing anything about being Asian.
Real Koreans, I concluded, must be the ones who learned all the customs and practiced them at home with their Caucasian families. Real Koreans whose parents didn’t immerse them in Asian culture as babies ran out and learned the Korean language as soon as they left home. Since I didn’t take it upon myself to learn the culture as a young adult, I didn’t think I could call myself a real Korean.
The only Korean thing I ever owned was a red booklet, scarcely more than a few sheets of paper stapled together. It had little black and white line drawings of things like “girl” and “boy” and the corresponding Korean words with English pronunciations. My younger brother, also a Korean adoptee, had a copy, too. I don’t know how long he kept his, but I kept mine into adulthood even though I hardly looked at it. It didn’t occur to me then, but maybe I clung to that book in the hopes that one day, I would want to learn more about Korea.
In college, I met a Korean woman a bit older than me through friends, who had traveled to Seoul many times to visit family. She encouraged me to go to Korea, and for a brief moment, I was excited about it. Then she told me that people would probably refuse to speak to me in English because they look down on younger generations who don’t speak the language.
That did it. It obliterated any desire I had of one day visiting Seoul. I was so estranged from my ethnicity, the thought of Koreans dismissing me because I couldn’t speak the language was a shame I just couldn’t bear.
In my 20s and 30s, I never learned anything Korean because I thought that any attempts I made were feeble and too little, too late. I was afraid of other people’s judgment but slowly realized that the only person judging me was myself.
By my 40s, a quiet curiosity built up about the customs I never grew up with. Out of the blue, a friend of mine texted me about a free online beginning Korean language class at a local city college. It took me a few months, but I eventually got the guts to sign up.
Then came the horrifying shootings in March 2021. My gender and ethnicity, once largely ignored by the media, were suddenly and violently thrust into the spotlight. Overnight, it felt a million times more vulnerable and scary to be an Asian woman in America. Every place I went, I felt like an exposed nerve ― like I was in the collective crosshairs of a nation and everyone who looked at me saw me as a victim. I was a nervous wreck just walking into my neighborhood grocery store.
It was in that vulnerable state, just one week later, that I began my online Korean language class. Having the courage to speak Korean words in front of people was terrifying and life-altering. It helped me to push past my imposter hang-ups and gave me permission to learn something that would ultimately help me feel less like an imposter.
At the start of each class, I and 40 others cheerfully shouted, “Anyeonghaseo, Pangapsumnida!” in that echoing, beautiful, uneven cacophony. No one was ever again going to give me that sideways look because I didn’t at least know how to say “hello” in Korean.
“Being American is not just about fitting in; it’s about honoring all parts of who you are.”
As a Korean adoptee, I was raised to be like the white people I grew up with. It helped me fit in and feel a “part of” most of my life. But not embracing my ancestry when I was young didn’t make my Koreanness disappear. Today I see that, while it was done with the best of intentions, devaluing the importance of being Korean made it hard for me to develop a healthy ethnic identity.
It’s Adoption Awareness month, and I want to be clear: I am beyond grateful to have been adopted by my parents. I also support transracial adoption, but it is my hope that parents see that being American is not just about fitting in; it’s about honoring all parts of who you are.
For 47 years, I chose not to own my heritage because it didn’t feel like a part of me, but that is changing. Today, I feel a kinship with other Asians. I am learning Korean, and for my 50th birthday, my husband and I are planning a trip to Seoul.
Stacey Fargnoli is a Los Angeles-based writer who formerly worked as a news writer and documentary TV writer/producer. Raised on Long Island, New York, she is a wife and mother of two lively teenage boys. She writes about parenting, food addiction, body image, identity and female representation in the media.