The Trauma of Transracial Adoption
At 6 months old, I was adopted by a White family and brought to the United States. I was told growing up that my Korean mother loved me so much that on the day I was born, she took me to a police station in Seoul so that I may have a better life. I believed this story. When I became an adult, I learned from a stranger that, at 2 weeks old, I was found outside of a Daegu hospital on a cold winter’s night. Whether this version is true, I still don’t know.
For intercountry adoptees of color, “a better life” often translates to being taken in by White Christian parents in the West with money and means. We are considered “lucky” to have escaped the poverty and crude treatment we would’ve endured in our homelands. Sometimes that is true, but it assumes the best of our adopters, implies that our cultures are less than, and can cut ties and access to one’s roots and people.
There’s nothing lucky about that.
When I was adopted by affluent White folks from the Greater Boston suburbs, everyone saw what I gained—two houses and two sisters born from two White Catholic parents—but not what I lost. Adoption erased my Korean family, language, and culture, while granting my adopters a badge of honor for saving a poor child from a war-torn country.
It’s impossible to know whether things in Korea would have been worse. After all, mine was not the poster adoption experience.
Like many transracial adoptees with White parents, I was raised in racial isolation, which caused me to have a fractured identity, experiencing racial confusion and internal bias. When I looked in the mirror, the face I saw was not what I expected or wanted to see. I didn’t look like my parents and siblings, or my friends, or the people who I read about in books and saw in magazines and on television. I was often told race didn’t matter, despite the many racist jokes and slurs carelessly flung my way by family, schoolmates, and strangers.
Some swore they forgot I was Asian and considered me to be White. The gaslighting and denial had me blaming myself for my own suffering.
When my adoptive mother had four more children after adopting me, each birth further emphasized what I’d lost. Why were these children who were loved by their mother allowed to be kept? People gathered to celebrate, joyfully remarking on family features—which conflicted with what I was told of genetics being unimportant. I began to understand that they only meant mine.
I didn’t fit in at home or elsewhere.
I had two short-term friendships with other Asian kids. The first ended when my friend’s mother decided I was neither Asian nor American enough. The second was shut down by my mother—soon after my father’s disclosure of a sexual attraction to Asian women, which amplified my mother’s dearth of compassion for me. (I learned more about the broad oversexualization of Asian girls and its ramifications firsthand through sexual violence in my teens and 20s.)
The lack of racial mirroring deepened my imposter syndrome. When I encountered other Asians, I would sometimes avoid them out of shame—of cultural ignorance and inferiority for not being a “real” Asian.
When I visited my homeland, it was a complicated mix of reconnection and rejection, pride, and pain. I caught a glimpse of the life I may have had and witnessed those thriving from my displacement. Rather than helping to keep struggling families together through social services, Korea had exported more than 200,000 of us. Thirty years later, the so-called Third World country I’d been saved from had a booming economy full of impeccably dressed people and technological advances.
Rarely is there the question of why I and so many other children from the Far East and Global South, are adopted by Westerners. Why our countries have been devastated by wars to the point that children are either left with no parents, or their parents are giving them away to people in far away lands.
The U.S. played a big part in Korea’s division, and the Korean War was the catalyst for large-scale international adoption, continuing into my generation and beyond. Intercountry adoption is often political, and connected to the history of transracial adoption within the U.S., which began with colonization, racist policies and cultural genocide against Native and Black peoples.
Yet adoption advocates purport the deed to simply be an act of love.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of international adoptees in the U.S. remain without citizenship, at risk of deportation to unfamiliar lands. A lack of shelter and resources, along with communication barriers, can leave the deported isolated, which for too many result in death. This truth about adoption, unfortunately, is less heartwarming than social perception.
Yes, intercountry and transracial adoption can contain happiness and love. However, I recognize—and have experienced—the bad that shouldn’t happen. Contrary to what some think, exposing the negative aspects is not an attack on healthier adoptions, but doing so creates an awareness that the current system produces high rates of abuse, suicide, and murder.
Many call on adoptees for reassurance that most of us are happy, well-adjusted, and grateful. They don’t understand that it’s possible to love our adoptive families while simultaneously living with trauma and a sense of displacement.
Disconnecting from our adoptive family’s identity risks losing everything again. Fear and conditioning can cause us to cling to a cloak of Whiteness, and comply with the safe narrative.
We may stay in White communities, surrounding ourselves with predominantly White friends and partners when it’s all we’ve known. We may even buy into aspects of White supremacy and take on family politics that work against us as a racialized group. The self-actualization of transracial adoptees exists on a continuum, often evolving only when we feel safe. This explains why many Asian adoptees don’t identify as people of color until immersed in online community.
It takes a lot to break through the brainwashing and barriers—even for those raised with racial support. But to live authentically, we must consciously connect to our people, history, and culture. There’s power in knowing who we are without feeling shame. I no longer feel the need to perform Whiteness—or for White people.
I’m on a journey of decolonization and reclaiming what adoption stole from me. Understanding the plight of my people helps me unify with Black, Indigenous, and People of Color’s causes. I challenge us all to push back on the systems that cause injustice under the guise of love and good intentions.
JS LEE is a Korean American author who writes about trauma, race, and adoption. Her forthcoming novel “Everyone Was Falling” (Pent-up Press) is out September 2020 and her novel “Keurium” (Pent-up Press) was published May 2018.