An #importedAsians POV: Andy Burdin
Andy Burdin is a Renaissance man. He’s a Korean adoptee, graphic designer, and nationally registered EMT (though we didn’t have time to talk about that last one). His thoughtful creativity and playful personality jump out from everything he touches, from his website to the projects presented throughout. His Instagram is full of vivid images that highlight some of his biggest loves: the outdoors, design, his wife, and dog.
Perusing his website, with projects ranging from "Honda Head2Head" to Marvel to a collaboration between Adidas and Ninja (one of his favorite projects), one might think design was a path he always knew he’d pursue. However, Andy stumbled into his career by chance. During high school, he discovered Photoshop, started learning from free online tutorials, and fell in love with this medium that allowed his creativity to bloom.
When he got to Boise State University, he didn’t know what major to declare. All Andy knew was that he loved Photoshop, so he looked for a major to further develop that skill. That started his trajectory into graphic design. After a year at Boise State, he transferred to another small school in Idaho and studied print design, learning everything from book design to billboards. His love of movies drove the goal of creating a movie poster for a blockbuster film one day.
Giving and receiving constructive feedback is essential as a creative. A film instructor told Andy that he was good, but he had to be even better if he wanted to work in the entertainment industry. He had to hone his skills technically, creatively, and artistically to achieve his goals.
Andy entered several design contests in Idaho. Then, as chance would have it, an L.A. advertising company ran a key art competition for an "Iron Man" movie that he entered. While Andy didn’t win the competition, it was his first foray into working with professional photo assets, which confirmed that this was the path he wanted to explore.
When Andy was about to graduate, a creative director discovered his work and asked him to join his team as a junior designer. He moved to L.A. and learned the ins and outs of professional production design in entertainment. Andy’s love of movies, video games, and design came together to shape his unexpected career.
Throughout his 10 years as a designer, Andy has learned that one of the most challenging aspects of creative work is that it’s highly subjective. What one person likes won’t be the same as what someone else does. Humility and flexibility are key when balancing what a client wants while still injecting a personal touch. “It’s a different formula and playbook every single time,” he explained.
I asked Andy if he ever ran into creative blocks and, if so, how he works through them. Without hesitation, he said: “Oh man, all the time. My best looks different every day.” Working through these blocks involves surrounding himself with people he respects who can give honest, constructive feedback.
While the work is extremely challenging, it’s equally rewarding. Collaborating with incredible creatives on projects he really likes keeps him excited and continuously growing. One of the best parts is when his hard work pays off, and his clients are happy with his design. “I’m very, very grateful for the opportunities I’ve been able to have a hand in,” Andy shared.
Another area of Andy’s life that has proven to be both challenging and rewarding is delving into his Korean adoptee identity. He was born in Seoul, and adopted by a white American family when he was around 6 months old. He has an older sister he’s close with, who was also adopted from Korea. They grew up in Washington state. His family moved to Idaho when he was 13.
Like many adoptees, Andy and his sister didn’t have much contact with other Asians growing up. Their parents were supportive and encouraged them to do whatever they felt they needed to do, whether that was celebrate Korean holidays, explore Korean culture, or initiate a birth family search. But as kids, they didn’t have much interest. “When you’re kids, you don’t realize the dynamic of looking different from your parents. It’s easy to forget how you look when you’re surrounded by all white,” he shared.
Andy went on to explain how as kids, it was clearer that their parents were their parents; people could figure it out. As adults, that changed. When he was at lunch with his mom, the server asked them if they wanted separate checks because she thought they were separate parties. His mom was confused because to her, it was obvious—Andy's her son. Situations like those have led them to have conversations about the ways others perceive the difference in appearance and how it affects how he and his sister are treated in America.
Another situation that magnified how he stands out happened in college. The resident assistant (RA) in his dorm had seen Andy with his parents at the beginning of his freshman year. At the end of the year, she asked him if he was adopted. When he told her he was, she got excited and said, “Oh my gosh! A real-life adoptee!” and told him her family was considering adopting a baby from China. “It was kinda jarring because I was like, I’m not a zoo animal, I’m a person.” While he knows she wasn’t trying to be offensive, it distinctly showed that others see him as different.
The rise in anti-Asian racism accelerated his exploration of Korean culture. He realized that, culturally, he’s the same as all his white friends, but how he looks puts him in another category in many minds. He experiences the same racism as other Asian Americans, but without the cultural upbringing.
“I can’t culturally identify with first/second-generation Asian American culture, but I receive all of the same negative stereotypes. It wasn’t until I started to process that in the past year that I realized I should have every right to be proud that I’m Korean American. It’s not something I should have to hide. At this point in my life, I feel proud not only that I’m a Korean American but that I was adopted, and that in itself adds a huge dynamic.”
He continued: “Sometimes it’s easier to assimilate with what’s around you. When I was younger, I felt like I was rocking the boat or trying to stand out as a Korean American. Frankly, I had little to no knowledge of Korean culture at the time. I didn’t have a pedestal to stand on to be proud of being a Korean American because I didn’t have the cultural upbringing. It was easier to just assimilate into white American culture and ignore that. Now, as an adult, I have a sense of pride. I’m Korean American. I’m an adoptee. And there are others out there like me that I can reach out to, and we all have shared experiences.”
Diving into Korean culture has helped him learn to be willing to take risks, be wrong, and not feel a sense of shame as he learns. “I’m okay struggling through this. It’s easy to get discouraged investigating these parts of a culture we’re a part of and getting judgement from Koreans and non-Koreans alike for not knowing what it looks like we should know. I think that’s why I avoided Korean culture before.”
While finding a sense of pride as he learns, he also admits that it can get emotionally draining trying to understand unfamiliar customs and traditions and stumbling over communicating in a language he doesn’t know. He also invests a lot of himself when he introduces people to Korean food because he feels it’s a reflection of him if they do or do not enjoy it. “To experience Korean culture through food may be one of the only entry points a lot of people have to Korean culture. For me, there’s a weight of hoping they enjoy it,” Andy stated.
On the flip side, it’s incredibly rewarding when people do enjoy it. He said: “You always have a good time introducing people to something you love and seeing them enjoy it as well,” with the understanding that sometimes, it doesn’t matter how great it is. Some will not like it anyway.
Recently, Andy initiated a birth search. So far, he has very little information, and like so many adoptee records, the information may not be accurate. “It’s easy to watch documentaries of adoptees finding their families and think, ‘that’s the benchmark for success.’” He likened this process to the California Gold Rush when people invested huge amounts of time, money, and resources to go dig for gold. Along the way, they’d hear stories ranging from it being a major success to it was a massive waste of time. As his story unfolds, he’s working to maintain a balanced perspective as he hears other search stories.
As we wrapped up, I asked Andy what advice he has for other adoptees. He empathetically said: “Be kind to yourself. I think it’s easy to look at pictures of gold: you’ll find your birth family and be reconnected, and it’s this big family reunion. That’s a lot of people’s pictures of gold. To me, I look at it more like that picture’s a little bit blurry, and it looks different to every person. Whatever that looks like to you, is right for you. There is no right or wrong answer. How you feel about processing these things, how you unpack it, how you go about it, how much you share or don’t share is completely up to you and completely right. There’s no right or wrong way to feel emotionally about this, despite whatever social media and documentaries may show you. Don’t let anybody else’s successes or failures change how you personally feel. It’s an easy thing to verbalize, but it’s difficult for a lot of people, including myself, to put into action and weave into your picture of emotional and mental health. Be kind to yourself. Be forgiving and understand that this is a difficult, nuanced subject to talk through and process. There’s no right or wrong way to feel about it.”