Up Front, I really wanted to give a shout out to Friend-of-the-Blog Jean who operates the Cycle Write Blog. She had actually directed me towards some of her content on Asian Cultural Identity, and it’s pretty good Stuff. She’s an Asian-Canadian, and it’s fascinating to read about her own experiences in Alberta, Canada; Proving my point that despite our upbringing and our nationality, we all share common themes in our Asian Experience and despite these familiar refrains in our life (stereotypes, racism, assimilation, etc.) we all possess a unique insight into that experience and possess the ability to shape and enhance that narrative with all of our stories. Check out her Blog! She got me started on two articles: From Race Around the World Series: Chinese-Canadian. Part 14, and Marriage of Cowboys, Dolls, Bicycles and Chopsticks (I really liked this one!).
People have asked me throughout my life, “When did you realize that you were adopted?” or “Did your parents tell you? How did you know?”
The answer to these questions is incredibly simple. I realized I was adopted when I was 3 or 4. I figured out I was adopted by simply looking in the mirror. Simple. My parents did tell me I was adopted when confronted…and I feel it necessary to note that they had no intention of hiding this reality from me.
There’s something magical that happens in a child’s brain as they start getting into their ones and twos; they begin to formulate the sense of identity as their brain builds new neural pathways and translates inputs from the outside world. As with me, on the cusp of becoming a fully realized individual…a glance into the mirror made me realize that something was seemingly amiss.
My eyes were different. My Skin was different. My nose was different. My ears were…rather prominent. In fact, for years my parents and I joked that the one quality I did share with the family was that both me and my father had straight black hair. Aha! Proof Positive of being related! It was usually the most common and cheesiest joke we could throw out at a waiter at a restaurant, befuddled by some white people with an Asian child:
“What? Don’t you see the resemblance…we have the same hair!” Pause for uproarious laughter and applause…or, more often than not, a barely audible chuckle and patient smile.
Well, there came that day where I plopped myself down on the hideous orange couch in our living room; a monstrosity that looked more like a flowered, flannel shirt than a piece of furniture. I looked at my parents and asked, “Why do I look different?”
Well, it was time for The Talk. I had already said that my parents had no intention of hiding the fact that I was adopted. The very nature of my heritage precluded any subterfuge on the part of my parents. Unless, I was simply comically ignorant like Steve Martin in The Jerk…I was in for a new revelation: I was not of sturdy eastern European stock!
My Own Misgivings As I Reflect: I will always continue to laud my family for providing me a loving and attentive upbringing. Yet, as a 35 year old, looking back at my family photos, I’m struck by how I stand out. “No Shit, Sherlock!” you may say as you sarcastically roll your eyes at my patently obvious notation. This, indeed should come as no great surprise to me; yet, I what truly find myself shocked and surprised by is cognitive dissonance created when viewing my family. I associate myself with the family, but as an adult I get the strong sense that I’m somehow an outsider; at least from viewing photographs alone and out of context.
I was told I was adopted and that there was very little information about me other than my (estimated) birthday, the orphanage I was found at, and the name the orphanage gave me: Lee Kim Kwon. When I was a few years older, my parents even asked if I wanted to change my name in some way to honor my original Korean Moniker. I graciously declined the offer; as by the time the offer had been presented to me, I had been using the name “Daniel” for quite some time. I can only imagine the social nightmare of having to re-educate all my friends, family, and general acquaintances of a new name. For the record, my Father apparently wanted to name me after the prophet Malachi…but thankfully, my mother, being a very sensible woman, dissuaded him from that particular choice. Had the case been that I would live with the name Malachi Singer…well…perhaps the decision to change my name would have gone in a much different direction.
Children’s books about Korea were furnished to me. These books stood lonely on my bookshelf, unread for the most part. My parents even sent me to the Korean Presbyterian Church on Sundays for Korean school for a brief stint. A combination of disinterest, a desire to not be stuck in school even on the weekends, and general yearning to get on with my life led my parents to pull me from Korean School upon on my own urging. Little did I know, what they had in store for me, later on when I got older…something far more tedious and unpleasant: Hebrew School at Temple Beth Shalom!
Queue dramatic music! We’ll revisit this someday in a future post.
On a completely different note, my cousins were adopted, yet this particular revelation was not made known to them until their birth parents found them on Facebook. While I believe they took this rather earth-shattering revelation in stride, this is likely not the ideal manner to discover you came from a Native American background. Again, my parents had no real option to to be dishonest with me, as the mirror ultimately would prove any denials of adoption to be patently false.
The point is, my parents were incredibly supportive and made absolutely every effort to better acquaint me with my Korean heritage. I simply refused and dug in my heels. You can argue this was a case of being a stubborn toddler; arguing that this was simply a kid who just wanted to play and have fun…instead of be consumed with learning every facet of Korean Culture and history. I would argue that I, on an unconscious level, wanted merely to distance myself from my identity…that if I somehow embraced that Korean identity I would be levelling an unspoken insult to my adoptive parents. I assert, that at the time, my rebuke of Asian cultural education was a means to communicate my own love for my adoptive family. Being Korean is behind me…I have a family that took me in, fed me, clothed me, and loved me…that was good enough for me!
It’s an absolutely sweet sentiment to have. Here’s the actual revelation: I realize as an adult, I can embrace my heritage and love my family at the same time! These need not be mutually exclusive! I can say…Korea is behind me, but one thing remains true for all immigrants is that: I can change my clothes. I can change the way I talk. I can shift my interests into ones that are more “white.” I can even change the color of my hair. At the end of the day I cannot change the color of my skin, the shape of my eyes, or elongate my nose. It’s simply not happening…not without expensive and extensive plastic surgery (and a serious underlying, unaddressed psychological baggage). It’s unfortunate that it took me over three decades to come to this realization, but there is no reason I need to reject my Asian-American identity in order to better love my parents. I have no need to pretend I’m Caucasian, even though I’m not.
By the same token, I’m not listening to gigabytes of K-Pop on my phone. I’m not grilling bulgogi every Saturday. I haven’t found any fondness for Kimchee among my taste buds (seriously, I think the stuff is disgusting – to be fair, my wife thinks Gefilte Fish is disgusting). I haven’t quit my job and joined an eSports League. Hmmm…what other stereotypical Korean behaviors are there…?
The point is: our existence isn’t a binary one. The person I am today is the product of my upbringing and other environmental factors. That person, does not have to be in a perpetual state of conflict with his identity as a Korean-American, or more broadly: an Asian-American. My true self and my identity and heritage can co-exist in the same space.
This may seem strange…but I would relate my newfound relationship with my Asian Identity with that classic inspirational photo of a single set of footprints on the beach; a testament to Jesus carrying members his flock during the hardest moments of their lives. Confusing imagery coming from a Korean Jew, but bear with me. I visualize myself walking on the beach. This is my true self. The man I am today. The man formed by over three decades of life as a Jew…an Army veteran…a Husband…I Chihuahua owner…Me. In this make-believe image, I’m holding hands with a ghostly figure beside me; pale and luminous. It’s my Asian-American Heritage. This specter isn’t a scary ghost out to terrify Scooby in the Gang. This translucent spirit, is merely a presence…an awareness on the periphery of my own consciousness. Sometimes that Asian-American voice whispers into my ear…waking me up and making me aware of that heritage. Sometimes that Korean G-g-g-ghost is silent. Yet, regardless of circumstances, that particular spirit of Asian Identity has been with me my entire life, I was either in denial of its presence or truly didn’t know about it. That identity is a collaborator in my life that has been walking at my side, as an equal…the only difference today is that, I now know who this collaborator is…and we can effectively work together now that we can acknowledge each-other’s existence.