5/21/12 Wait…I’m Korean?

One of the unanticipated aspects of coming to Korea was the realization that I’m “normal.”

At some point during the first day of the trip while I was walking around Korea, it hit me that these people look like me. (“Duh” would be the appropriate response to this.) It’s difficult to articulate what this experience feels like to non-adoptees and people who grew up in their birth culture because it’s always been natural for them; it’s always been their truth, their reality.

For the first time in my life I’m seeing myself physically reflected in the people around me– face, arms, legs, stature and all around build. All of a sudden *why* I look the way I do makes sense and it’s in a way that’s deeper than “because you’re Asian.” (Similar to how many people forget that Africa is not one country, but many, Asia is also not one country. People forget this all.the.time. so “Asian” generally meant/means Chinese.)

Throughout my life, the fact that I’m “Asian” has always stood out, making me insecure and feeling inferior to…everyone. At a young age, I remember hearing my parents comment on things like my “skinny Asian legs” and “small Asian feet.” I remember playing a mermaid game with my mom’s friend’s daughter who insisted that I take my shirt off to play. When I repeatedly refused she finally said that she was only curious in what an “Asian body” looked like; a family member once became curious about the same thing. I remember hearing the words “epicanthic fold” in science class and dreading the next moment: the moment when everyone would turn to me to confirm or deny if “Asians” were without eyelids. (I still cringe at the words.) I remember someone in college asking what “Asian boobies” looked like. (Go vomit now.)

I interpreted everyones curiosity (ignorance) by thinking that Asians were different –> different was bad –> bad was dirty, unnatural and weird. My response to this was a strong fondness toward clothes and being covered. The hardest part about Tae Kwon Do was having to be barefoot. I was embarrassed by my feet, like everyone was looking at them and silently gagging. It took me until high school to finally feel comfortable wearing sandals and it wasn’t until college that I felt okay wearing tank tops (around friends, not family). To this day I still have a strong aversion toward hate swimsuits and swimming.

If someone were to tell me a week ago that being in Korea would lead me to the revelation that I’m “normal,” I would have never believed them because I never understood how my thoughts had been formed, or even what my thoughts were. It’s definitely something that I’ve only arrived at because of being able to experience how it feels to have myself (physically) reflected back to me. As such, I’m slowly starting to understand that what I once believed were my flaws, imperfections and inadequacies are shared with at least 50 million people. And when that many people have the same things in common, it becomes normalized.

Korean becomes normal.
I become normal.

(Slowly.)

Gregor Mendel and Punnett Squares

The other day I was thinking back to some of the uncomfortable events of my childhood, brought about solely by being adopted.

Right away, I thought about science classes and learning about Mendelian Inheritance and filling out Punnett Squares. Although I normally loved science class, I always dreaded the time of the year when we talked about genetics. (This still hasn’t changed.)

When instructing me on how to fill out the Punnett Squares, given my “situation,” the teacher(s) always had me guess. Simple activity turned to disaster? Check. Not only did this activity bring up the issue of adoption, which I convinced myself didn’t exist, but it also left me feeling inadequate and ostracized from the rest of my peers. What other kids knew for a fact– what they saw reflected in themselves every day– was something that I had no idea about. The guessing that my teachers instructed me to do was a reality that I lived with, and one that I tried to ignore. I wonder if they’ll ever understand how hard that simple exercise is for an adopted child.

Filling out the “family history” section on various forms was always much easier because people didn’t expect you to guess on it. Once you said “I’m adopted,” they would move on, no questions asked. After all, what questions could they ask? This isn’t to say that it was easy, as the blank space became symbolic for the void in your life, burning into your mind and leaving you feeling exposed to everyone. Accompanying the feeling that you were exposed was the feeling that you didn’t belong, an imposter merely holding the place for someone else.

Along with these recurring experiences, were the usual occurrences that accompanied being an individual with a race and ethnicity that differed from the majority, mainly racial slurs.

I remember a period in middle school where two of the “popular” guys constantly yelled ching chang chong through squinted eyes when they saw me on the bus. Thanks to being actively involved in clubs, I became good friends with one of their future girlfriends and almost immediately the taunting stopped. After this, I always had plenty of friends and was liked by (most) everyone. I was social and completely different from the quiet and reserved introvert that I am now. In hindsight, surrounding myself with friends was my way of shielding myself from those who would have otherwise insulted me.

I wonder what this admittance says about my character, both then and now?