Four Transracial Asian Adoptees on Body, Place, Family, and Race

Autostraddle APIA Heritage Month

Welcome to Autostraddle’s APIA Heritage Month Series, about carrying our cultures from past to future.

I knew all the words to the original cast recording of Miss Saigon when I was in sixth grade. I’d sit cross-legged on my twin bed listening to the double-CD, memorizing the liner notes and singing along in what I imagined was a spot-on Lea Salonga impression. Miss Saigon is the worst type of white-savior-complex, virgin-whore dichotomous, colonizer-loving Asian representation. I also loved it. It was among the scarce Asian pop culture representation I’d found in 1994 in rural Western New York.

There was this one song, titled “Bui-Doi,” a Westernized version of the Vietnamese trẻ bụi đời, in this case referring to children born during U.S. occupation during the Vietnam War. (The term bụi đời in Vietnam refers to any person who lives on the streets, not just children or mixed-race children of American occupiers, but anyway.) The Vietnamese protagonist, Kim, has a child with a white American soldier and the climactic end of the musical comes when she, heartbroken that he has moved on and married a white woman back in the U.S., kills herself in front of her former lover to ensure her child can be “an American boy.”

This was my first exposure to an Asian adoption story, other than my sister’s and my own. Miss Saigon is just the traumatic tip of the iceberg when it comes to the United States’ racialized history with the transracial adoption diaspora.

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Prior to the late 1940’s, white families rarely adopted children of color. “Race matching” was the typical practice, with agencies placing Black and mixed race children in Black homes and white children in white homes. That changed in the 1950’s, as interracial placements began happening purposefully, often into evangelical Christian homes with a literal savior complex. In addition to interracial adoption of Black children, international adoption and adoption of indigenous children by white American parents also began to rise.

Following World War II, international adoption became increasingly common as wars, famines, forced migrations, and other issues made children living in poverty more sympathetic and visible to Americans. Soldiers sent to war and occupations in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam in the years that followed both raped women and had romantic relationships during their deployment, resulting in children and mothers who were poor and stigmatized in their own countries.

In 1954, the evangelical Holt family adopted eight Korean children who were “war orphans” in what became a public spectacle. They went on to launch the faith-based Holt International, the first international adoption agency and one of the largest still operating today. For decades, Korea was one of the largest “senders” of children to the United States. Korea underwent an industrial growth period in the 1960s and 1970’s that created economic division, resulting in huge numbers of children being available from “unwed” parents, teenage mothers, poor families, and due to divorce and death.

At the same time, the growing civil rights movement increased the overall openness towards interracial families. Victories in reproductive healthcare like the birth control pill and legal abortion meant fewer white infants available for domestic adoption in the U.S.. White parents were drawn to the idea of “saving” orphaned children and were also more open to adopting light-skinned East Asian and Russian infants rather than Black infants available for domestic adoption. South Korean and U.S. adoption agencies worked together to funnel Korean children into the U.S. in the thousands annually.

The adoptee diaspora is lived by many people from many countries, including not just East Asian adoptees, but Pacific Islander, South Asian, African, South American, and Caribbean adoptees. Many of us are LGBTQ and the adoptee diaspora has unique ramifications on our health, our families, our bodies, and our future.

Lisa Kim is a bisexual Korean adoptee from San Diego, CA who came through Holt International to the U.S. in 1965. She was two years old when she arrived, with no information about her birth or early years of life. Growing up with four siblings who were biological children to her adoptive mother, her childhood was “wrought with physical and emotional abuse.” She never fit the model minority stereotype because her family was poor and she didn’t fit in with other Asian children or with white children. She remembers her first racial slur from a classmate at the age of seven. “Basically, as a Korean adoptee, your identity is always in question. You straddle two worlds—not white, not Korean.”

Feeling caught between two worlds or without a place to belong is a common experience for Korean adoptees. I also remember my first racial slur around kindergarten, when kids would whisper, “Chink,” to me in the hallway. As an adult, I think about where those kids learned that word and that’s more upsetting to me than my five-year-old peers’ first ventures into hate speech.

Like both Kim and me, Jake Abbott grew up in a white home, with white family members, deeply wishing he could be white. “Growing up, I thought I was going to be white,” said Abbott, a transgender 29-year-old Korean adoptee living in Rochester, New York, “Not literally, obviously I knew it wasn’t possible, but there was always this sense that I wasn’t the way I wanted to be… I think I focused a lot of my unhappiness with myself onto that unattainable goal, when the reality was that I had a different but similar unattainable, at the time, goal to become a man.”

Abbott feels that being adopted contributed to the length of time it took him to recognize his gender dysphoria. “Sometimes I wonder whether I would have recognized my gender dysphoria sooner if I had Asian male role models in my life. Even at the beginning of my physical transition, I felt that I could never look the way other trans men/trans masculine people looked. It was only when I made a conscious effort to consume content from Asian men/trans masculine individuals that I felt like I could see a future for myself where I didn’t hate my body.”

“I longed to be tall and blond, with blue eyes like my siblings,” shared Kim, “I saw being Asian as ugly and less than… The very idea that I saw being white as superior is such a sad statement. Today you couldn’t pay me to be white.” Living in this placeless racially complex space is common for transracial adoptees. We’ve been severed from our language, food, culture and our history and there’s no way to fully retrieve it, no matter how much healing we do. The politics behind so-called interracial adoption and intercountry adoption have always been bound up in Western imperialism, whether it was the “integration” of Black and mixed-race children into white households, forced removal of indigenous children to “boarding schools” across North America, or the “saving” of children from war-torn countries. Not all adoption experiences are bad, but all come with deep loss.

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As Korea added new U.S. adoption restrictions in the aftermath of their public embarrassment during the 1988 Seoul Olympics, China became the global leader in international adoption in the mid-1990’s through today, followed closely by Russia. Overall, international adoption has been dropping since 2005 as more countries including Ethiopia, China, Russia, Korea, Guatamala, and Khazakstan have eliminated or reduced the number of adoptions to the U.S. and standards for international adoption have become more rigorous.

Kate is a 23-year-old queer and nonbinary Chinese adoptee who lives in St. Paul, MN. Per identified with per Chinese culture and also feels “there isn’t much room for [Chinese] queer and trans identities as the general population struggles to survive harsh conditions and, traditionally, trans and queer people aren’t acknowledged.” Per was able to embrace per identity by meeting other queer adoptees and other queer people of color who navigate multiply marginalized identities.

Queer and trans adoptees, who already grew up with a notion of being “chosen” by their families and straddle complex identities deeply understand the concept of “chosen family.” When asked what brought him joy about being a Korean person and an adoptee, Abbott replied that, “…’chosen family’ in LGBTQ+ communities is something that is not as easily embraced in other spaces. I find that other members of the community are more understanding of the different layers and nuances that can exist within a family dynamic and that it doesn’t matter who gave birth to you but rather who played a formative role in raising and supporting you.”

Kim recounted her “first trip home,” a home trip to Korea she embarked on as an adult after beginning to connect with other adult adoptees through a local meet-up group. The group “was the first time that I was able to connect with others who shared the challenges of being adopted into a white culture.” At 45, she took her first trip back to Korea, followed by a second trip the next year. “It was very powerful. I say that on a molecular level, my body knew that I was, ‘home’,” she shared. On her second trip, she was with a group that included Korean adoptees from Europe and she remembers, “sitting in an outdoor eating establishment in Seoul one night speaking French with KA women from France & Switzerland. It was absolutely surreal. I felt that I had died and gone to heaven! A truly magical experience.”

At 45, she took her first trip back to Korea, followed by a second trip the next year. “It was very powerful. I say that on a molecular level, my body knew that I was, ‘home’,” she shared.

Chosen family revolutionized my way of being in the world, too, but it’s mainly been my queer and trans family and aligning my solidarity with Black folks and people of color. I’m just beginning to forge real-life connections with other adoptees, dissect my adoption trauma and joy in new ways through parenthood, and grow my chosen family to include specifically queer and trans adoptees. This piece you’re reading is a real-time exploration of that journey.

For all of us in both queer and trans spaces and adoptee spaces, the concept of “family” is perpetually changing and changed. This comes to bear for many of us as we approach how we want to create our own families. For Abbott, not having any biological relatives or health history was a factor both in entering his transition without any idea of what male relatives looked like and his plans for having children one day. He shared, “While I was struggling to decide whether HRT was right for me, I would have appreciated the comfort of any information that could help me feel like I knew what was waiting for me on the other side.” He also has had to pass on having a DNA-related child, knowing that he would need a gestational carrier to carry his eggs, a costly procedure that would have been “too expensive and physically undesirable (for me personally) that I decided not to pursue it so that I could save money for top surgery and be able to start HRT sooner.” Abbott has made peace with his decision that will likely result in him never meeting a biological relative.

While writing Countdown to Baby T. Rex, I connected with several other adoptees who also chose to carry their own biological children. It’s something I never planned to do and it unearthed new levels of pain when I realized that I had never even considered the possibility of a biological child. It’s very much the reason why I’m thinking about and reading so much about and trying to connect with Korean adoption narratives now.

Having her own child was also a “turning point” for Kim. She shared that, “It was the first time that my being adopted bubbled to the surface. Up to that point, I managed to bury my feelings. While pregnant, I distinctly remember it hitting me that the child I was carrying would be the first person that I would be genetically related to. It was also the first time that I was struck with the thought that some woman carried me in her body.”

Adoptees are always grieving loss. That’s something that translates into queer and trans experiences, as well, and certainly the experiences of people of color. The losses are big and small, can be forced on us or uncovered through our own lived experiences, and they stay with us. Adoptees are up to four times as likely to commit suicide than non-adoptees. On top of that, more than one in five LGBT youth have attempted suicide and that number is higher for Native American, Pacific Islander, and Latinx youth. Transracial adoption narratives in popular media often focus on the adoptive parents, the “saving” or “civil rights” framing of adoption, leaving transracial adoptees feeling they have to show gratitude and that they’re alone in their feelings of loss.

There is certainly joy in adoption, too, not for all but for many. Kate shared an annual tradition per family has during which they have a celebratory dinner and look through photos from per adoption together. Per also attends Chinese New Year events with per friends from Chinese school. My sister and I had similar commemorations every year, which was kind of like a second birthday with presents and cake and attention from our parents. In fact, it’s my sister’s “anniversary” as I’m writing and I just sent her a note of celebration. OK, it was a gif. Because we’re all stuck at home during the pandemic, my mom now video chats with my toddler every day and we both get so much amusement out of the ways Remi reminds my mom of me at Remi’s age. I feel so close to both my mom and my child in those moments.

Because we’re all stuck at home during the pandemic, my mom now video chats with my toddler every day and we both get so much amusement out of the ways Remi reminds my mom of me at Remi’s age. I feel so close to both my mom and my child in those moments.

I believe my queerness makes my Asian-ness and my adoptee-ness stronger. I am more myself when I hold all these truths together than when I try to compartmentalize them. Kate also spoke to the joy and strength that comes from per multiply marginalized identities: “Since I identify in many ways, it can be disheartening to find out so many ways I might be marginalized. I also find that these different identities can have protective factors. I may be a minority, but I can speak up for myself and others on issues and ask for help. I might be queer, but I can pave the way for younger people who are also struggling and show them that it gets better. I may be adopted, but I can relate to other adoptees and form strong bonds and encourage their stories to be heard. There are many ways to see both sides of issues and I strive to find the strength in myself when confronted.”

Abbott added, “There is no right or wrong way to feel about your past or your culture. You don’t have to embrace where you came from, but you absolutely can. Be thankful for the ways that being adopted makes you uniquely capable of viewing class and race, and acknowledge when it makes life harder.”

I asked Kim what advice she would give to younger transracial adoptees today and this is what she shared: “Never ever apologize for who you are. Don’t ever let anyone make you feel less than because society has deemed you as different. Embrace yourself—your full self. Speak your truth. Surround yourself with others who will love and support you. Never give up, and never forget where you came from. We are so resilient!”

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KaeLyn is a 37-year-old (femme)nist activist, word nerd, and queer mama. You can typically find her binge-watching TV, standing somewhere with a mic or a sign in her hand, over-caffeinating herself, or just generally doing too many things at once. She lives in Rochester, NY with her spouse, a baby T. rex, a xenophobic cat, and a rascally rabbit. You can buy her debut book, Girls Resist! A Guide to Activism, Leadership, and Starting a Revolution if you want to, if you feel like it, if that's a thing that interests you or whatever.

KaeLyn has written 224 articles for us.

12 Comments

  1. Whew, hitting all my adoptee feelings today! Thank you so much for this, Kaelyn, and everyone who shared! I’m not TRA, but I can still relate to much of this and so appreciate the kind of courageous vulnerability it takes to share these stories. I learn so much from TRAs, and we all benefit from the activism in TRA communities. 💖💖💖

    • HAHAHA. I did not plan for both to land on the same day. Sending love. Adult adoptees have a special connection and our stories are so specific and unique, but the complexity of bodies, place, and family resonate for us all.

  2. I do have a question, and I’m not sure this is the right place for it (and am somewhat worried about offering this up for criticism) but here goes:
    My baby daughter is 1 now. We have connected with 4 other donor siblings, have met one older sister, and keep up online. The donor we chose is 1/2 Korean in ethnicity (the other half is German). We chose this donor for a variety of reasons and ethnicity was not part of our decision. I am also 1/2 German, with a grandmother who emigrated from Munich shortly before my father was born, and 1/2 Cuban; my wife is Czech-American. My daughter is often around her extended family and is being exposed regularly to Cuban, Spanish, Czech, American, and German food and traditions through them. However, appearance-wise she is obviously of east Asian heritage and we do not know the donor or have a larger Korean family/community in our area. I have read many of your columns here about choosing a Korean donor, being a transracial adoptee growing up in America, etc. Do you have any tips or resources for celebrating and acknowledging my daughter’s heritage before she turns 18, without crossing the boundary into cultural appropriation? Do you know of any good ways to strike that balance when we have no contact with the donor or his own family until my daughter is an adult?

    I know this isn’t about adoption, exactly, but reading this great piece as well as the one explaining sperm donation back to back brought up this thought for me again.

    • Thank you for this thoughtful question/reflection, @kiahb6. I don’t have a perfect answer, but I’ll say the fact that you’re thinking about it is a really good sign.

      I don’t know how you feel about being Cuban and German, but I’ve found that my experience as a transracial adoptee often touches on similar issues typical to the experiences of mixed race folks and first-gen POC with immigrant families. The feelings of straddling more than one identity/world, not fitting in exactly anywhere, and being a symbolic “melting pot” in a way that feels erasing and disjointed. So if you experience any of that, that will certainly make it easier for you to relate to your child when she’s old enough to be exploring these themes in her life.

      As someone who grew up with almost no cultural references to Korean life and is going in without a lot of guidance now, I’ll tell you that you will feel silly at first, but it’s OK. Try adding Korean food and celebrations into your family gatherings at a pace and level that feels comfortable and appropriate. Try to seek out the narratives and advice of Korean people (not white people with Korean kids) to get a sense of what might be important to share with your child and how to approach her mixed race and multi-ethnic family. Acknowledge and honor that you will be doing this imperfectly, but it doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

      Two important Korean holidays to start with (and I’m just starting to celebrate these this year myself) are Seollal (Lunar New Year’s) and Chuseok. Your daughter is a member of your family, so you’re not appropriating any more than when you celebrate Czech traditions with your wife or when your wife joins you for Cuban traditions. The challenge is that you are going to have to create the context for the Korean traditions and teach them to your child. Again, it’ll be imperfect, but I think she’ll appreciate it later in life and they will become your family traditions over time and for future possible generations of your family.

      Good luck!

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