Tuesday, July 11, 2006

I guess it's about ethnic identity or something (paca)

I periodically stop in at a blog by someone based here in Hawaii where she writes about her daily stuff like everyone else, and she also writes about her experiences as a Korean adoptee in America, meaning that when she was very young, she was adopted out of a Korean orphanage by American parents and grew up in Ohio, I think. She is in her 20s now and lives on Oahu with her husband. She made the point in her blog once that her husband is Filipino and some sense of shared Asian-ness was important to her. Her history of adoption is apparently very important to her as well. She is something of a figure in the online world for Korean adoptees and seems to head a Korean adoptees association on Oahu.

I first stopped by her blog a while ago, following a link to a link that had nothing to do with Korea or adoption, and she had written a very long post about finally finding her name. She identifies strongly with both her Korean heritage and her American heritage. She had an American English name from her adoptive parents and had finally settled on a Korean given name to go with it. She had to find her own Korean name, because she did not identify with the one given by the people who ran the orphanage.

I didn't go back to her blog for several weeks after reading all this. When I did, she had recently been enduring a firestorm of emails because of a post she had written. I think in her mind what the post said was that before parents of another race adopt from some place like China or Korea they should really think about the cultural issues involved, because they can be very difficult to manage for the children. Adoptive parents who ignore these issues and adopt anyway might be thinking more about themselves than their children-to-be. That's my guess of what she was aiming for. What she actually said was much closer to "white parents can never adopt non-white children and those who do are selfish and don't really give a crap about taking a child out of its birthplace." Adopting parents of Korean kids who read her web site were then mortally insulted because they felt they were being told that they can never be true parents to the one they love more than any other and that their parenting was doomed to failure. The parents then returned with patronizing messages to the Korean-American adoptees, saying the blogger clearly needed therapy and didn'y appreciate her own parents or that she must have had a terrible mother (adoptive). In short no one conducted themselves well. It fell to the point of people attaching various labels to each other - oh, you are just a INITIALS HERE - so we don't even have to think of you as a human being and understand where you are coming from.

I should add that I was not part of the conversation at all. I kept being tempted to rush in with my first post ever and try to bridge the communication gap, but I think I wisely stayed silent since I am an idiot on all these matters.

Today I was having another related discussion in person about a Chinese-American family here in Hawaii who have adopted a couple girls from China. This just came up in a long chain of topics. The person made a comment that it made some sense for people of Chinese ethnicity to adopt a daughter of Chinese ethnicity.

But I still couldn't get the question out of my head, "why does this make sense?" or "does it really make sense or do we just think it does?"

To put it a third way, "what exactly makes this person who was adopted from Korea when she was one think of herself as Korean in some sense?" Of course, she has whatever physical and biological traits are part of being Korean, but what is the exact tie between the physical body and the culture? Is it better to be adopted from Korea by Korean-Americans or would it make no difference? What if the Korean-American adoptive parents only spoke English? Would the fact that their grandparents were born in Korea somehow make the adoption easier? The adoption might not be trans-racial, but it would still be trans-cultural.

I don't know the answers to my questions and I am not really challenging the blogger. I am ignorant. The only roughly parallel experience I have is being an American as an adult in other countries. I have a strong tendency to start displaying what you might call heritage traits when I live somewhere else. I owned a cowboy hat, Ecuadorian actually, but rarely wore it when in college in Minnesota. But when I went to China the hat suddenly got a lot more play, because I obviously felt the need to express American-ness there (apparently people stopping and yelling "laowai" which means literally "old foreigner" all day long wasn't enough). I do this kind of thing all the time. When I first moved to Hawaii, suddenly I was cooking gumbo and renaming the computers in the department lab with names like etoufee and jambalaya. Now that I feel largely at home in Hawaii, I don't seem to be expressing my Louisiana background anymore. The desire to express a separate identity faded.

The major difference of course between me and someone adopted out of a culture is that I have lived all my life as an American, not just one year as an infant with no conscious memories. And yet the blogger clearly feels that she was ripped out of her home culture, despite loving her adoptive parents very much. If I was an American kid growing up since I was 2 days old in Seoul to Korean parents with no other white Americans around me, but only speaking Korean and living as a Korean, would I feel a pressing need to discover my American heritage in addition to my Korean one? The answer might be yes. But I don't like that answer. It says that my physical race somehow ties me forever to a culture that I have never even known. Why should that be the case? Is it the case?

People may have gotten the idea already that I hold very strong opinions about the adaptability of humans, their basic goodness, and an almost ludicrous faith that people are all one in the end (make that last one match with with a belief in enormous cultural adaptability please, because I can't). So the idea that a few months in a place as a baby ties one forever to an ethnic identity just doesn't sit well. (And note that I am not saying that if I felt completely Korean in my "paca as adoptee" scenario that it precludes a desire to be American; or vice versa, because the discussed blogger feels a connection to Korean heritage, I am not dumb enough to think that she doesn't also, perhaps, feel completely American as well. Not mutually exclusive.) If birth does give ethnic identity, I just don't know why that must be so.

The final note. I have spoken mostly about transracial adoption from East Asia to the US because that's the blog entry that got me thinking, but I assume there are the same issues even within the US. They could occur when adopting across race lines within the same town. They could occur when adopting across class lines. And if the latter is the case, maybe race has nothing to do with it at all and I'm chasing the wrong horse. Some people apparently just feel a strong pull to a birth place when others don't - or at least express it differently. My understanding is that many adopted children feel an immense desire to know about their biological parents. Others could barely care. To take my life as an example again, when N moved with me to Hawaii, she felt no need to express her Seattle heritage in obvious ways. We weren't suddenly eating salmon every three days and watching the Supersonics on TV and running to the mountains so we could get rained on. It was only me who felt a need to be hyper-Cajun for a while, when I never ever ate gumbo as a kid and have never been to a crawfish boil in Louisiana. That said, I think of Hawaii more as home now than N does. N just wandered over and said this is true, but she doesn't really feel she has a home, so there is no identity to express. No one she knows is living in a town that she grew up in, while my dad does still live in the same place where I was raised. I understand what she is saying, but I bet if we had no idea where we were going next, or if I died, she'd immediately go back to Washington state.

And those are my thoughts. I realize they are mostly stupid ones.


Sammy Jankis said...

I can kind of understand identifying with a culture that you've never known. Look at the explosion of popularity in geneology over the past decade. Well, maybe it didn't explode. Maybe I just became more aware of it as an adult. People spend a lot of time and money tracking their ancestry back through the decades and centuries to see where they came from. Someone in my distant, extended family actually was working on a family tree and ended up travelling to some remote, backwater village in Russia where one of our distant ancestors originated from. What causes a person to want to do this? I don't know. Perhaps identifying the routes one's ancestors took to eventually arrive in your current life circumstance gives a new sense of meaning to existence?

This goes beyond this though. Many people describe themselves as Italian, French, German, etc. even though they can't speak a word themselves and their family hasn't been in those respective countries for generations. Maybe it's just humanity's innate need to sort everything into categories that causes us to try to define our identity with a locale?

I think there is a lot of study on this topic in sociology, or psychology. I seem to remember having a course segment on this topic at some point in school. It may have been my population (demographics) class in sociology? It all gets fuzzy now.

pacatrue said...

Very good point, sammy. One of my grandmothers spent her entire life doing geneology. She self-published a four volume set on her maiden name's family and a three volume set on the Paca family. She travelled to visit some castle in Scotland that someone 8 generations back with her name might have lived in. I've read large sections of the Paca family history myself. So, yeah, it's part of this same need to feel roots.

Of course, exactly how important one's geneology is to the modern person after you go back more than about three generations is highly dubious. That doesn't stop us from wanting to know though. I guess it lets you write a story that you are a part of. I could tell a Paca story at least back to the beginning of the 19th century thanks to my grandmother.

The story I can tell would be a list of names of fathers and the mothers they married with some random facts about what they did. The blogger doesn't have that story, but she can learn Korean on the weekends and take on other cultural artefacts to draw a symbolic connection to her biological heritage.

Yeah, I get it.

I think what was bugging me is the sentiment, "East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet." I hate that sentiment. I don't like the idea that a single woman could never be a complete parent to a boy, or a black couple to a white child, or a white couple to an Asian kid, etc. I don't know. I'm going to shut up now and get back to work.

Sammy Jankis said...

Some distant relative on me mum's side put together a book like that detailing that side of the family tree back through 7 generations. It was very enlightening to read, uncovering some things that were really cool, and others that were disturbing.

My parents gave me a middle name based on it being a family name that hadn't been used lately. Reading back I discover that my 6th great grand-father was named Martin van Buren [Last Name Withheld] after the president of the same name. Why anybody would pick him out is beyond me . . . he doesn't seem to be notable for much . . . but there you go. My parents never knew the origin of the name, but they used it anyway.

There were also excerpts from a diary of a great-great grandmother that lived in the early 1900's who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. At one point in her diary, she begins describing a wonderful new invention that helped alleviate her pain. She went on to describe it extensively in the terminology of the day. Even though it was called something else at the time, you eventually deduce that she was describing an electric blanket.

Then there is the more unsightly part of my family history where ancestors were trading people for acreage of land and excerpts of their detailed notes are included in the book. Something to the effect of "traded Joe, his children, a mule and plow for 15 acres of land in Woebegone Parish". Again, interesting in that even relatively poor people owned slaves at that time, but disturbing to my sensibilities nonetheless.

katze said...

I have to admit that I don't understand it myself, and I (as you may recall) am adopted. BUT. I was adopted by a family of my own ethnicity, and I can see how that might make some difference. I wonder, if this woman had been born in the US as a korean-american child, then adopted by the same family, if she would still feel the ties or bond to Korea?

I guess my biggest problem with the whole thing is this: in my opinion, the best thing for a child is to have a loving and stable family. If a child's choices are to be adopted by a family of another ethnicity-- even one that makes no effort to deal with the cultural background of their child in any manner-- or to remain in an orphanage or the foster care system (to include the US system in my statement), I would favor the family placement every. single. time.

But then, I am one of those adoptees who never really felt the need to find or meet my birth parents. I was always curious about my ethnic background partially because I felt so left out when others would say "Oh, I'm Scottish." or "My family is Italian", and partially because (and this is totally superficial) I look so different, even from my sister (who is my half sister biologically) that I can't help but wonder where my "exotic" coloring and facial structure came from. My sister, though, was consumed by the need to find her biological parents and see them face to face. I wonder why two children who were both adopted as very small infants and raised by the same (very loving) family feel so differently about this?

KM said...

I have read that same blog too, but I am coming from the point of view much like the blog author's - born in Korea, adopted to a haole family on mainland (living in Hawaii now for 5+ yrs). So I read that particular blog post through much different eyes than yours - and rather than reading it the way you did, I saw it as her response to some specific examples that are nonetheless very common... *not* as a denunciation of *all* white adoptive parents as selfish or insesnitive.

And while I can understand your point about race and connection to cultural ties (sort of like nature vs. nurture), I think in *our* case, as Koreans having been raised by white families in white communities, race does emerge as a very strong factor in our identities, no matter how little or how much time we spent in our birth country. Growing up, our "other" race is a daily reminder that we are different, that we don't belong - on top of being reminded of this by our peers, neighbors, strangers - and so, to me it seems logical that we should feel a very strong pull back to our roots especially as adults, having separated ourselves somewhat from our adoptive families and forming our own identities as adults. I have seen this same attraction to our birth culture in many Korean adoptees - some adopted as young as 3 months old, others as old as 12 yrs.

In this case, it's not just culture or genealogy or heritage - it's ethnicity on top of that, which actually does make a HUGE difference, and I think that is what this blogger stresses. So at least to me, it's so different from just moving from Louisiana to Minnesota or whatever other American state - because we're talking about ethnicity and racism here, not *just* regional differences within the US.

I have a couple of good friends who were adopted by same race parents, and try as I might to explain my point of view to them, I have found that there is a security for them, in growing up at least looking not so different from their families, that has created a barrier between us in this regard. That is, that my experience as the kid who everyone assumed was an exchange student ("IS SHE STAYING WITH YOU? DOES SHE SPEAK ENGLISH?") was so different from theirs (in which they at least aesthetically "matched" their parents) that I could talk and talk about this to them all day to no avail. You may have heard of "white privilege," but I think there is also something like "same race privilege" in growing up among people of "your own kind" that separates us in this case.

The blood bond is strong. Hundreds of Korean adult adoptees return to Korea each year seeking their roots, myself included.

pacatrue said...

Nodding along with ks in the comments. I am getting it more and more as I've thought about it, and you probably noticed that when I tried to think about me in a hypothetical parallel situation - i.e. me as a haole adopted into Korea - I had to guess that I would probably act the same. I would probably try to seek out my haole roots. In a sense this blog entry was me trying to figure out why, because in a sense I didn't like the idea that I might feel different from my adoptive parents because of my physical ethnicity. All of this junk about moving from state to state and living in China was not supposed to be the same experience as yours. It was me trying to use the experiences I do have to get my little head around it.

I do have one question if you ever check back, ks. Do you think it would have made any if you had grown up on Oahu even with the same parents? The reason I wonder is just the relatively large amount of Korean culture here (a child could go to Korean school on the weekend, go to Korean festivals, watch Korean dramas, see everyone eating kalbi and jun as everyday fast food, etc.) and the relatively large number of mixed race families, so that many people don't make the same bad guesses when they see a child who looks different from a parent.

pacatrue said...

Apologies - km, not ks.

pacatrue said...

I now officially hate this blog entry. I got woken up at 3:00 AM or so by noises and just decided to check my email and blog real quick then go back to bed. I then found KM's entry and I've spent the last 2 hours tossing and turning over this and related issues, and it now looks like I will be operating on 4 hours of sleep today.

I decided to add a new thought from my insomnia. I asked in my reply to KM if living in a place like Hawaii as a child would have "made any difference." Actually, that's what I meant to type, but I left out the word difference in my comment. Anyway, I was debating my own question and I realized it shows my own ignorance again. Made a difference to what? One way of taking the question is "made a difference so that you don't need to look for Korean heritage." I really hope I didn't mean that, but I am afraid I might have. As if there is anything wrong with learning about Korean culture in addition to American culture. Of course there isn't. Korea is a cool country from all I know (and as a linguist, I have to say a really super cool language with a killer writing system, hangul) and we'd all be richer from spending time in Korea, Japan, Micronesia, Vanuatu, France, Jordan, etc. So that was dumb on my part if that's what I was subconsciously thinking.

Another way to interpret my question is "would it have made your childhood happier?" But this is just as dumb. Where did KM say she was unhappy? She definitely pointed out issues that she had to deal with growing up that involved her ethnicity - people assuming she never truly lived in the country she grew up in, etc. - but every child deals with various issues of various sorts. That doesn't mean she wasn't overall happy. The point is that I don't know, since I don't know her, yet I seemed to have assumed something along those lines.

This all might leave one way my question isn't just dumb. That's the much more basic one of, "do you think that in a relatively multicultural place like Hawaii some of the issues you in fact described (not ones I put in your head due to my own ignorance) would have been mitigated?" Likely in an hour I will jump back on with a long explanation of why I now realize this question is dumb too.

One more thing. Some might wonder why I haven't just linked to the original blog that got me going instead of talking in generalities. That was a specific choice on my part. I didn't want to turn this into a debate about a real person living 10 miles from my apartment. I've never met her and I will not presume to debate her life publicly. Doing so seems almost offensive to me. Instead I wanted to reflect on the nature of ethnicity itself and how that relates to race and culture. These were to be my own thoughts on issues that the blogger raised, not my thoughts about her. If I posted a link to the original blog it might turn into that, and that seemed unfair to the blogger. I am well aware that she really doesn't need to explain the issues yet one more time to someone like me just because I haven't had to think about them before.

KM said...

Okay, I am back, because I couldn't resist checking back to see if you had thought I was making any sense, or if I was just some random dope spending too much time on the web. Anyway, to address your after-thoughts.....

Your initial assumption that my childhood growing up in a haole family on the mainland must have been unhappy, and then your followup realization that this was an errant assumption made me laugh because this is exactly what so many adoptive parents do when interfacing with us adoptees (only most of them don't allow for the possibility that we are *not* actually that "unhappy" --- merely expressing opinions on adoption that we have developed as independent adults). It's true, overall I was not unhappy with my childhood. Sure, it sucked sometimes, and I could file a million grievances with strangers, bullies, rude people i have run into over the years. But I don't blame my parents, and I have never wished for a different family.

Would it have made a difference to grow up on Oahu (with or without my haole parents)? Sure, I'm certain it would have been much different, because then I almost certainly would've had other Asian peers, friends, role models rather than surrounded only by haoles, and this would have played a huge part in my sense of self and in my identity.

I know the family of another KOrean adoptee from Oahu who was adopted by a haole couple. She didn't grow up her whole life here, but her family moved here when she was really little, so she lived here most of her life. The first thing she did when she went to college was to enroll in study abroad to Korea. She decided to stay there, and lived there in Korea for 4+ years. She is fluent now, and she recently moved to California with her husband, a Korean national. So I think that just goes to show that even living here among other Korean Americans and mixed race Asians, etc., doesn't necessarily lessen an adoptee's desire to seek out ethnic roots/heritage.

pacatrue said...

KM, thank you so much for your patience on the matter while I worked through the issues in my head. It's cool that I get to make the adoptive parent mistakes first without having to become one and inflict them on a child.

One thing I definitely am becoming more and more curious about from following links about Korean adoption (ok, mostly J-I's blog) is exactly why there is such a large number of Korean adoptees. I understand it somewhat in current China because of cultural and economic factors. I can understand it in Korea of the 50s to 70s, but Korea is a fairly wealthy nation now. Of course there will still be women in South Korea who will have reasons to give up their children just like there are in the U.S. But why do so many thousands of Korean children leave when there are not thousands of American children flying off to other countries with new families? Do American children ever get adopted by kind Korean, Japanese, French, or English families? Some of it is probably the law and some of it is Americans being convinced the U.S. is the best place on earth, so it can only be good to be here. Some of it is the age thing. Most infants in America are quickly adopted and it is the older children who stay in the state system for years, while in Korea, I think, many infants are available for adoption, which is what a lot of adoptive parents want. Yet you mentioned yourself someone who was adopted at the age of 12. Why is that happening so much exactly? The phenomenon is a little curious for lack of a better word.

katze said...


In response to your query about American children adopted abroad, yes, it does happen. There is a small but significant number of children who are adopted by Canadian families every year. These are almost always older children who are in the state system here in the US and have not been able to find a permanent placement. In my adoption law class, we talked about the phenomenon briefly as a part of our discussion on international adoptions in general, so I'm afraid I don't know the details. I do remember that the practice is fairly controversial among social workers in the US, not because of any thought that "America is the best place to live", but because these adoptions are overwhelmingly white families adopting african american children.

Semi-off topic: It's also interesting to me that one factor that comes into play in international adoptions is the perception among potential adoptive parents that a)if they adopt a child in the US, there is a chance that the birth parent(s) will change his/her mind and they will lose their child (fueled by some fairly high profile custody battles), and b)even if the Korean/Russian/Guatemalan/whatever nationality birthparent changes his/her mind, they will be unlikely to come to the US and fight custody. Neither of these assumptions is exactly true, and any reputable social worker/ adoption lawyer will take pains to make the true situations clear to the potential adoptive family before things progress. Still...

I think that I just wrote all of that in response to a (possibly unspoken) question on why US parents are adopting abroad, and maybe I've just been yapping, so... meh. I am fried from studying for the bar and not very coherent anymore. But this is interesting to me and I'm enjoying hearing the different points of view. I'm also learning, which is always good, and readjusting my own assumptions and beliefs, which is even better. Thanks for starting the conversation!

KM said...

"I can understand it in Korea of the 50s to 70s, but Korea is a fairly wealthy nation now."

Ay, there's the rub. This is a huge reason why so many Korean adult adoptees are campaigining to reduce the need to send KOrean children out of Korea. Korea has a thriving economy and is no longer one of those "third world countries" you pity after hearing about on the news. The continuation of the stream of children sent out of KOrea each year (I think it is still around 2,000) is due heavily to social taboos and resistance to adopting a child of a different bloodline, as well as the lack of governmental and adoption agency support to encourage domestic adoption. The really pissifying thing (as my dad would say) is that Korea's national birthrate is DECLINING. Wrap your brains around that!

As for your question re: if American children get adopted out of the USA, building on katze's answer ... yes, American children are being adopted abroad, but the thing to note about those children is their race. The babies who are quietly being adopted out to Canada and several European countries are all African American babies.

Sammy Jankis said...

Is Haole a Korean or Hawaiian word for Gringo?

pacatrue said...

Haole is a Hawaiian word for European. It is somewhat racially charged in that whenever you are a non-haole and you want to disparage the haoles, you choose this term to use. It means foreigner but is only used for whites. Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Samoan, etc., are all "local". It's partly a historical accident, these terms. Europeans were the first non-Polynesians to show up here so the word haole 'foreigner' got attached to them. Even though other peoples kept coming 'haole' stayed attached to Europeans exclusively. The term 'local' basically applies to all the peoples who worked on the plantations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Yes, one could get angry because your family could have lived in Hawaii, an ancestor could have served under Kamehameha III, and if you look strictly European you are still not considered 'local'. It's a little like (not the same!) a Chinese-American whose ancestors came to California in 1845, but who will still be asked by Americans where they are from - and California is not the answer they want to hear. The implication is that to some an ethnically Chinese person is never truly American, and that an ethnically European person is never truly 'local'. But, of course, it's all far more compicated than this and I haven't been around long enough to know much. The biggest difference is that the racial images on the mainland were used to keep non-whites out of power, while in Hawaii, haole is a term for the people who were in power, hence my reference to the plantations among other things. Short answer: haole is a Hawaiian word.

Anonymous said...

"But when I went to China the hat suddenly got a lot more play, because I obviously felt the need to express American-ness there (apparently people stopping and yelling 'laowai' which means literally 'old foreigner' all day long wasn't enough)...

"...If I was an American kid growing up since I was 2 days old in Seoul to Korean parents with no other white Americans around me, but only speaking Korean and living as a Korean, would I feel a pressing need to discover my American heritage in addition to my Korean one? The answer might be yes. But I don't like that answer..."

What if you were a white kid growing up since you were 2 days old in that Chinese city you just mentioned, with Chinese parents and no other whites around you, only speaking Chinese and trying to live as a Chinese despite people stopping and yelling 'laowai' at you all day long...?

Anonymous said...

"In response to your query about American children adopted abroad, yes, it does happen. There is a small but significant number of children who are adopted by Canadian families every year. These are almost always older children who are in the state system here in the US and have not been able to find a permanent placement. In my adoption law class, we talked about the phenomenon briefly as a part of our discussion on international adoptions in general, so I'm afraid I don't know the details. I do remember that the practice is fairly controversial among social workers in the US, not because of any thought that 'America is the best place to live', but because these adoptions are overwhelmingly white families adopting african american children."

Also see this: http://www.csmonitor.com/2004/1027/p11s01-lifp.html

pacatrue said...

Thanks for the link, anonymous.