Korean Adoptees and Identity

By Ashley Yang ’25 for Fall 2021

Where does identity come from? Is it based on the people around you? Or how you view yourself? Does it stem from race? Your interests? Everyone has different thoughts on what helps form your identity, but for many people race has a huge impact on how they and others view themselves.

Self-identity can be confusing for many Asian adoptees, especially those who enter non-Asian families. According to The New York Times, about 78% of Korean adoptees who enter into non-Korean families struggle with accepting their ethnicity. As children, the majority of adopted children just want to assimilate into their family and surrounding community, who are often not Korean. A lot of them also faced some sort of teasing or racial discrimination. Shockingly enough, many reported that this treatment came from their teachers! To make
matters worse, they also felt alienated and unwelcomed by their own ethnic group.

Therefore, they refused to acknowledge their Korean heritage, and some even went as far as to think of themselves as another race, because they did not want to acknowledge that they were different. However, once the adoptees reached college age and older, and as they got to meet a wider variety of people, many of
them felt isolated and began to become curious about their lineage. This led to an exploration of Korean culture, and it was common to take trips to South Korea. Some even tried to find their birth family. Sadly, a lot of these stories did not end well because of the culture gap and language barrier between American-raised adoptive Koreans and native Koreans. Furthermore, some adoptive parents take it as a form of rejection when their adopted children start to explore their background.

One example of this is the story of Joel Ballantyne, who was adopted by white parents in 1977. His parents took it poorly when he told them that he was going to visit South Korea, because they saw it as a rejection of their family. However, he still went and was able to track down his maternal grandmother! Sadly, the reunion was filled with tension because his grandmother was the one who put him up for adoption, and she criticized him for not learning Korean before visiting. He was also not seen as a “real Korean” because he did not understand the language or understand the culture. While his trip to South Korea was eye-opening, Joel Ballantyne also stated that it was very disheartening. With stories such as these, it is no wonder that Korean adoptees face an identity crisis.

So what is the solution? Sonya Wilson, another adoptee who was adopted into a white family in 1976, wishes for policy changes that aid single mothers in South Korea to keep their children. Also, the Donald Adoption Institute’s study states that organizing such trips to South Korea is one of the many ways that parents and adoption agencies can aid adoptees in their struggle with identity and race. However, as seen with Ballantyne, taking trips to South Korea do not always help. Usually, the problem is not that the adoptees do not have access to their native culture. According to The New York Times, in recent years adoptee families have made an effort to integrate their adopted child into their native culture. Despite this, many adoptees in their younger years did not wish to learn more about their heritage because it meant acknowledging their differences from their adoptive families. Instead of learning about their heritage, many adoptees
just want to have the assurance that they were not alone. Therefore, while it is important to teach Korean adoptees about Korean culture, it is also just as important to put them in touch with other adoptees like themselves.

One way to do this is through organizations such as KAMP. KAMP stands for the Korean Adoptee Mentorship Program, and it is run by Wellesley College’s very own Korean Student Association! The program puts Korean adoptees in the Boston area in touch with Wellesley students, and they do activities together such as cooking, story-telling, celebrating Korean holidays, crafting, and more.

For this article, I interviewed Michelle Lee, a junior and Co-Vice President of KSA. She was also the KSA Culture Chair from 2020-2021. The KSA Culture Chair is in charge of organizing KAMP activities.

When asked why she thought it was important for Korean adoptees to learn about Korean culture, Michelle states that “as they grow older, they might be curious about where they were adopted from, especially if their home situation is more American. There is a lot of value in knowing your heritage because it tells you a lot more about yourself and where you fit in.”

“My favorite activity that I did with KAMP was teaching the kids how to write their names in Korean because of how curious the kids were. Sometimes the kids’ siblings would come too, and they were so excited to teach their siblings how to write their names. Also, the parents were really supportive, which was touching.”

However, the question still remains. Do programs such as KAMP really benefit adopted children? Yes, according to Michelle. In the time that she had spent helping out with KAMP, she noticed that the kids who attended were understandably shy in the beginning but began to open up and be more comfortable as time went on. Their interactiveness with each other and the activities also increased. Hopefully, with more organizations like KAMP, transracial adoptees will begin to have an easier time coming to terms with their identity.

Keep a lookout for emails from KSA about KAMP opportunities if you’re interested in helping out!

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