An #importedAsians POV: Daniel Gyu of Yeondae
What was it like growing up as an adoptee?
If anyone thinks about it, when they’re a kid, you’re not really aware of these kinds of things. Recently, I had this moment where I tried to explain to other Asian-Americans or people of colour that I can just point to any couple, who are white, walking down the street and say they could be my parents. My parents are exactly like them.
I can identify more with the white American culture than Asian-American culture because I didn’t really know about Asian food or the language or any of those reference points. Despite that, there were still some types of unspoken signals to me that I didn’t fit in with white culture, and I really couldn’t understand why. However, I just kind of accepted it and absorbed it. In a lot of ways, it was damaging, but in other ways, I took ownership of it and told myself that I don’t have to put up with this. I’m just going to be my own person and figure it out.
It wasn’t until I started spending more time with Asian-Americans that I started hearing different stories. I was also able to identify with the things that they talked about such as being treated in the same way—as we are externally perceived as the same. It wasn’t until I was 25-30 years old when I finally started to kind of come out and realise that the world sees me as Asian-Korean. I thought to myself that I should probably figure out what that means for me and how to respond to it.
With everything that has been going on with politics and race relations in the U.S., it’s been so much for us to realise that we have a lot of internalised racism because of the way that we learned about racism from our white parents, especially in terms of anti-blackness. I grew up in Chicago, in a nice white suburban area of Chicago, which was right next to the more crime-ridden, predominantly black and impoverished west side of Chicago. That’s how race was taught to me in a very clear-cut and explicit way. It sends the message that being black is poor and dangerous, etc. It took me moving to Portland, Oregon to realise that my education around race was totally wrong.
For about a few years, I volunteered with the Asian Pacific American network of Oregon. That really helped build a network for me to meet other Asian-Americans who all had different experiences of being hapa, first or second-generation immigrants, refugees etc. We were all able to hold a space together for all our experiences, but there still wasn’t much representation or acknowledgement of the adoptee experience. For a long time, I heard a lot of people talking about how their grandparents immigrated or about internment camps or refugee experiences and that they descended from them and learnt all about their cultures from their ancestors. Whereas I’m here twiddling my thumbs and thought to myself "I can’t really relate to this." But, I also don’t feel comfortable talking about my white family because in these places, there are a lot of associations with having a white family to being privileged and having a better life, which is all kinds of mixed messaging and traumatic.
I grew up in an upper-middle class white neighbourhood so I went to good schools, had healthcare and all those things. However, in terms of identity, there wasn’t a whole lot there. The attitude that a lot of adoptive parents had was just to raise them as if they were your own. It did take 30 years before I was able to finally come out again. I say come out because I also identify as queer!
Not sure if you have heard of the comedian Joel Kim Booster before. But he’s also a gay Korean adoptee. In his comedy shows, he tells all these funny jokes; and one of them was that he knew he was gay before he knew he was Asian. That just spoke to me so hard because it’s the weirdest situation to be in. Someone told me before that being gay is more of a logistical identity aspect to figure out, whereas the Asian part is more of an emotional and cultural aspect of your identity… Every aspect of me coming out at different stages is like coming out of a different closet; first I’m a person of colour, then I’m Asian-American, then I’m Korean, and then I’m actually a Korean adoptee. I realised that when I met other Korean adoptees that we really support each other and understand that experience.
From my understanding, Yeondae wasn’t created purely for Korean adoptees, but it’s also a platform to show solidarity towards the Black Lives Matter movement?
Yes, and I want to address the complexity that comes from supporting the Black Lives Matter movement from the experience of being Korean adoptees. We carry certain privileges, but also our own racial traumas, that in this moment, in Portland (Oregon), requires careful consideration in how we demonstrate solidarity with Black lives. So we talked about how we, especially as Korean adoptees, have this close proximity to whiteness because we’re basically taught how to be white. However, we still encounter situations where we can no longer be white and being Asian still separates us out and we still get discriminated against. As such, by being able to focus on that and recognise how white supremacy operates in our experiences, we can dismantle that and target white supremacy as a problem. There is also this whole aspect of colonisation and we are colonised people who were taken from our country and raised to be white. Just like the US and other countries have done with indigenous folks and Black people.
Personally, I found discussing topics like BLM with the older generation slightly challenging. There were passing comments such as "people should just work harder and stop complaining." Have you also experienced similar things, especially as an organisation who will inevitably have these types of conversations with people within the Asian community?
That’s interesting. Actually, a couple of us last summer in 2019, who were at the moment of realisation of our adoptee identities, wanted to organise a panel series with the Asian Pacific Network of Oregon (APANO) where we educated ourselves and the general public.
So, we put on this panel series about the past, present and future of what it meant to be a Korean adoptee and seeing how it was actually the first and biggest movement in the history of transracial transnational exploitation of babies. It all started in Oregon by the Holt Family, a missionary couple who came to Korea right after the war.
Due to the colonisation and occupation from Japan and the U.S. and other places, it affected Korea a lot. In addition to the culture of being so shaming towards women having children out of wedlock and other things, it resulted in a lot of unwanted babies. So, we have what we call the first wavers, who are Korean adoptees and grew up in the U.S. in the '60s and '70s and would probably have a very different outlook on race and racism. They owe their lives to the U.S., so they tend to be grateful for being American. In some ways, you can’t blame them, but also again they benefited from that in a very different way at a different time.
As a result, there’s always this bootstrap narrative among that generation. It does take a delicate conversation to suggest to them that it’s not like that anymore. Now, we are kind of seeing that attitude at its worst. The whole model minority myth as well plays a huge role resulting in many false presumptions.
However, at Yeondae, we realised that we, as East Asians, have a closer proximity to whiteness and more access to boardrooms and people in power. We just want to be as honest, transparent and authentic as possible. I think the whole system just operates in a way that if you comply with whiteness and become assimilated into it, completely blind to all other ways, our powers are being limited or manipulated.
So, we want to exercise that and make sure that the messages are going through to the higher levels. Just because we’re also allowed in white spaces doesn’t mean that we will comply. We have this agenda to continue bringing and keeping that door open to other people of colour because we recognise that white people are more prone to listening to us.
I’m actually reading this book called "The Primal Wound" which is about adoption. It talks about the reality [of being given up] that gets glossed over so much around adoptees because, for our whole lives, we were fed this very sugar-coated narrative that we were saved from our impoverished, sick and poor family into this privileged and wealthy family. Some people believe that because we were adopted as infants, it’s not as impactful or traumatic as being adopted as grown kids. But the reality is, as the book says as well, it’s being taken from your birth mother at an age when you needed her the most. No matter how good your adoptive parents were, that’s not the same bond.
Have you ever had conversations about race, identity and #BLM with your family?
Personally, I have not. I deliberately chose to stop communicating with my family about 3-4 years ago. Like I said, every adoptee experience is different. Some have similar experiences, but some have more violent histories with their families than I do. Others have perfectly wonderful relationships with their families and can openly talk about race and adoption. My adoptive parents only had so much capacity and they’re not really fully prepared or equipped to handle these things.
At Yeondae, we are doing a lot of internal work. We just had restorative justice training and we had so many conversations about conflict, resolution and transformative justice. We also learnt what it is like to have non-violent communications especially in terms of micro-aggressions and addressing our white co-workers or family members. It’s just a weird situation to be in for our 60-70 year old white parents to fully understand our experience not as their child, but as an adult who has this experience that doesn’t have anything to do with them but also, at the same time, has entirely to do with them .
Is there anything else specific you would like to bring up today?
I also want to make sure to bring up another major action that Yeondae is focusing on right now, which is adoptees’ rights. I’m not sure if you’ve heard about the recent case of this Korean-American adoptee Kara Bos, who won this landmark case. She was able to find her biological father who refused to meet her, so she filed a lawsuit against him and the country of Korea for a DNA test to prove that she was his daughter to ultimately have access to know who her mother was.
We were able to host an interview with her to not only learn about her first-hand experience, but also how she created all these resources that are now available for other adoptees going through that birth search. That’s just a huge life choice of whether or not we choose to find our biological families. So, Kara was zooming from Panama and she told her story which was really tragic. But, the most tragic part about her story was that it could be any of us.
In addition to that, a group called Adoptees For Justice are also in the middle of working on this Adoptee Citizenship Act. In the year of 1984, I believe, adoptees didn’t have automatic citizenship in their paperwork and for the past two years, this act has been stagnated in the government. Because of Yeondae, we were able to get two different people from Congress from the state of Oregon to sign onto that. We’re getting really close to getting it because there are so many adoptees who have been deported because of inaccurate paperwork.
There are so many cracks in the system and the government just straight up deport these folks who may have committed a misdemeanor when they were a teenager, but now they are sent to a completely foreign place where they don’t speak the language and don’t have any resources. It’s pretty scary!
On a positive note, what are Yeondae’s plans for the future?
Our core value and mission, from my perspective, always boils down to supporting the Korean adoptee community. Maybe just in Portland for now, but with the benefits of Zoom and the Internet, we’re also connecting and building coalitions with all kinds of organisations across the country and around the world with similar motives as ours. The more we learn about inter-continental adoptions, the more opportunity we see to join our voices and dismantle this exploitive system from every angle.
I believe that what makes Yeondae really special and unique is that most other Korean adoptee organisations operate on a more surface or social level, which is great, but often they won’t dig deeper into certain aspects such as trauma, justice and race, etc. So we’re hoping that with Yeondae, we can bring people together on a greater level of community healing and transformative justice in whatever ways we can share with each other.
To learn more about Yeondae or get involved, connect with them on one of these platforms: