by Jake Neuman – Korean adoptee, film student, martial artist
I am a young man, and I was adopted from South Korea in 1994. My two very loving parents have given me a spectacular life and have helped mold me into the person I am today. Despite their unwavering care and affection, one issue that has been constantly arising in my head is the question of identity. Who am I? Am I Korean, American, or something else? To me, a person’s self identity is their home. It is the place where they can come to at the end of the day and proudly say, “this is who I am.” This “home” holds the positive thoughts and feelings that have helped shape that person’s individuality and identity. Those who are still searching for who they are have not yet completely “made” their homes. These searches can often be painful, worrisome, joyous, or any of the emotions in between. What makes these searches of self so difficult is that they require a person to delve into their most intimate weaknesses. Whether that person is willing to accept them or push them out will mold their identity. I think people are are often fearful of how others will perceive their “flaws,” however once we accept our flaws, no one can use them against us because we have embraced them as a part of who we are. From my perspective, the author of this blog has a very strong home and identity. I have been jealous of this because I am still making mine.
As a 21 one year old junior in college, many people see this as a time of life dedicated to self discovery and identity formation. This has been something that has weighed on my mind for such a long time. In the past, I would mull over the fact that I am adopted, but I didn’t really think significantly about it — I just saw myself as another person, living life. Because I have such loving parents, I never felt the need to question adoption. I would have some bad days, but nothing major that I couldn’t rely on my parents’ support to help resolve.
In the past few years, some of my extended family members have moved up to Wisconsin from Indiana. Since their migration, I have really begun to notice that I’m different from the rest of my family. At first, I didn’t make much of the situation and just thought life would continue as it had before. I slowly started to feel left out of family conversations, though. I vividly remember one conversation in which my cousins, aunt, uncle, mom, dad, grandma, and grandpa had a discussion about genealogy and physical features. I was about to participate too, but then I realized I had nothing in common. I’m not white, Swedish, German, and Polish. I don’t share their features. I just sat silently, listening to the tales my grandparents told about how their great grandparents came to the United States and more family stories that I felt excluded from.
Another example of my isolation within my own family is through athletics. My cousin played basketball for a long time. It was such a big part of his life; my parents and I would watch his games, and he would get so much praise for his sport. At family events, conversation was always centered around his basketball and never about my passion for taekwondo. My cousin would get asked question after question about how his season was going, whereas I would get maybe one courtesy question about taekwondo before the discussion would pan back to him. I felt very alienated from my family already because I wasn’t the same race and didn’t have the same skin color, and now even our interests in sports diverged.
I brought this up to my mom, explaining how I felt so different and not part of the family. We had a heated discussion, and she slowly teared up. I think she was trying to come to terms with her son realizing he was different. My mom told me that these gatherings are about family and that my grandma doesn’t get around or some bullshit of that sort. In saying this, she made it about “them” and not me. This moment stands out in my mind because I felt she was protecting the rest of our family over her own son. Additionally, I had to confront my parents’ own imperfections, as she tried her best to make the situation about family and about how we are the same. But it’s much harder to see that sameness when I’m not even remotely related to them. Our races, ancestors, and countries of origin are separated by 6,671 miles of ocean in between them. This scenario has played over and over in my head and was one of the contributing factors that made me start to question who I am.
During most of my growing up years, I didn’t want to face that I was different, so I pushed out the truth and let it roll off my back. For the longest time, I considered myself European like my parents and grandparents. I started to rethink this mindset as my feelings of difference and isolation resurfaced with my aunt and uncle’s move to Minnesota and my cousins move to Wisconsin. Whether it was my cousin and his basketball or family conversations on genealogy, I felt different and for the first time, I couldn’t partake. Now when my family goes out to dinner, I notice the strange looks directed at me from the other families there. I don’t know if anyone in my family notices, but I do. I have felt extremely isolated at times, and it compels me search for who I am. My old “home” was slowly destroyed over time, and I am currently making my new one.
Since leaving for college, my parents have done more things with my cousins and have them over to the house often. They talk about the lousy T.V. shows they watch, such as New Girl, and make cultural references that I don’t understand. When spending time at my house, one of my cousins often says, “Oh, thats my spot!” or “Thats my cup. I always use that cup.” I always tell her in a half joking way, “No, I live here and there is an order here.” I want to say to my cousins and their significant others that this is where I live and remind them that, in my house, they are the ones who are different and always will be. I refrain from doing this because I want them to be family and to truly feel like family with nothing between us. Sadly, I continue to feel internally isolated.
About three weeks ago, I was home for the weekend. My parents went to have dinner with a cousin and her husband who live 15 minutes away. I really wanted to go because we are family, but I didn’t say anything because I wasn’t invited. When we do have family gatherings, I notice that I am of South Korean descent more and more. I sometimes do not want to accept this. I wish that I would wake up the same race as my parents and cousins. I realize, however, I will never be Swedish or German, and I need to accept this and learn to be comfortable in my own skin. It has been very difficult to come to terms with this. I don’t want to be different from my family. I want to fit in and have nothing between us, but race will always get in the way. This is something I would like to believe can easily be overcome, but it has proven to be much harder.
A big part of my identity is being an artist and fighter. From my interest in these subjects, I have come to see flaws as potentially positive, despite often having a negative connotation. A flaw is a mark that mars a body. This body can be ideological or something physical. In my case, this “body” is my family. Though it has been an extremely tough road, I am finally learning to accept who I am and where I stand in my family. Just as I have learned to accept that I have depression and always will, I have come to accept that I am different from my family. And I don’t want that to hinder me. I am Korean-American, and this doesn’t seem like such a foreign term to me anymore. I am starting to embrace this aspect of my identity and am learning to love who I am. I am a flaw amongst my white family, but I am a beautiful flaw. On a predominantly white body, I am that body’s beauty spot. I enhance my family. Even though the shade of my skin is darker and my race is different, we are all part of the same body of love. Race will always be between us, and I have come to terms with this. Moving forward, when we go out as a family and others stare or notice us, I won’t think about how strange I look. I will think that they’re seeing a family that is strong and loving despite racial and ethnic differences.
As I continue to build my “house,” I find out parts of my identity that I easily accept and others that I need to still work on accepting. For the most part, I am comfortable in my own skin, but I do have days where I am not. I believe that building one’s own “house” takes quite a while and many journeys of self discovery, but once built, we can feel happier and less restricted. I know that I’m still discovering my own self and laying the bricks to my house. This will continue to be a very long journey, and I look forward to seeing the person I am when my house is finally built.