Last weekend, I had the opportunity to participate in my fourth Korean American Adoptee and Adoptive Family Network (KAAN) Conference in the last five years. This was the last KAAN conference with the current executive director, who so warmly welcomed me into the community, and my first KAAN conference as a member of the advisory council. The conference, serendipitously, was held at the same hotel as my very first KAAN, which added to some of the poetic nostalgia. As I have been reflecting on the conference over the last week, one overarching theme became apparent to me: the importance of mentorship.
I arrived on Thursday evening for a planning meeting with the advisory council and anticipated the Friday arrivals of my friends and co-presenters. I had two presentations this year; the first was titled For God’s Sake: The Role of Christianity in International Adoption, and the second was called Transracial Teens: Who Can Relate?. If you would like to know more about my presentation on religion, please read this piece by my co-presenter, Mariette Williams: here. The second presentation, Transracial Teens, was about the origin, need, successes and challenges two friends and I have experienced in starting an adolescent adoptee group in our community from scratch. I have served as a mentor through many organizations and capacities (including this one), but as an older Chinese adoptee, there were no adoptees in my orb who were mentors to me until I met Korean adoptees.
After I attended one session and presented another, I ran into my former college professor in the conference book store. It had been several years since I last saw her. She was the first adoptee who was older than me who I had met and developed a relationship with, and she is the professor who propelled my journey of exploring my adoptee identity from a politicized and academic lens. The class she taught impacted my whole college experience and turned my world upside down, while simultaneously opening up a new world of adoptee activism, research, and community to me. That class was the jumping off platform for this blog and made me familiar with other Korean adoptee scholars in the community, some of whom I later met at KAAN conferences over the years.
A Korean adoptee I had a chance to get to know more at this conference is fellow advisory council member, Katie Naftzger. I had attended KAAN presentations led by Katie in the past but welcomed the opportunity to connect on more of a personal level. At the Saturday night gala dinner, Katie and I began to talk about clinical social work practice. I so appreciated her willingness to converse with me about her work.
After the Gala dinner, Eric Sharp (who I presented with in 2016 at the Midwest Asian American Student Union Conference) and the cast of Middle Brother held a dramatic reading of the play by the Minneapolis based Mu Performing Arts, which is the second largest Asian American theater in the country. I saw this play with adoptee friends several years ago, and while it was an outstanding piece on its own, seeing Middle Brother after having been to Korea made the play even more entertaining. Eric successfully captures such a range of emotions and experiences related to adoption, while adding appropriate humor to break up heavy moments. It’s really quite outstanding that the conference admission included not only one, but two full cast productions.
I was able to enjoy breakfast on Sunday with JaeRan Kim, an assistant professor at University of Washington – Tacoma and blogger at Harlow’s Monkey. I knew about JaeRan from my Minnesota connections, and the two of us had been trying to connect for nearly a year. We finally had the opportunity to talk about professional manners in person, and not just as small online soundbites. As someone established in academia, she gave me advice about graduate programs and social work as a field and told me about her path to arrive at where she is now.
Another Korean Adoptee adoptee scholar connection I was glad to make was at the closing panel for the conference on Sunday. I had a conversation with Kim Park Nelson, a professor at the University of Minnesota – Moorhead and author of the 2016 book, Invisible Asians: Korean American Adoptees, Asian American Experiences, and Racial Exceptionalism. We learned that we have the same alma mater, and she confirmed for me some partially constructed thoughts. She handed me her business card, inviting me to reach out the next time I come to her area.
I’m grateful that every year at KAAN, I learn or relearn a new lesson, and this year I am extra grateful for all of the Korean adoptee mentors I’ve had on my journey to womanhood and professional development. I remember my first KAAN conference in 2014 – it was the first time I had ever met that many adult adoptees who had interesting careers as magazine editors, physicians, architects, dentists, and more. It was a profound validation for me that we, adoptees, do grow up and go on to have full careers and families. And while that realization might sound absurd now, I wasn’t able to fully visualize it before because I had never seen adoptees in professional roles before — only as youth behind me.
After my college professor, Kevin Vollmers, the founder of Land of Gazillion Adoptees and Gazillion Voices, served as a friend and mentor. He promoted my thinking and involvement in the local adoptee community and encouraged my growth as a speaker, writer, and organizer. I became friends with (co-presenter) Rosita Gonzalez, who blogs as Mothermade and taught me about marriage and parenting as an adoptee, as well as other life lessons. Whether a full friendship formed or there was simply a one-time invitation for lunch and conversation, I’m grateful for all of the older Korean adoptees in my life who have shaped my path and helped me along the way. I know that I wouldn’t be in the place I am today without all of the mentorship I have experienced from Korean Adoptees. And though not an adoptee, I feel so appreciative of the mentorship Stacy Schroeder, the executive director of KAAN for the last 9+ years, has given to me. From welcoming me into the KAAN community to supporting my leadership from within, she has been nothing but encouraging of me and my potential.
Though KAAN is in a period of transition, 20 years in certainly a milestone. I can’t wait to see what the KAAN community will look like 20 years from now.
Another piece I wrote on older Korean adoptee mentorship: here