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  • Haiku Kwon

An #importedAsians POV: Jon Oaks

“The only way to survive is by taking care of one another.” — Grace Lee Boggs

As I waited for Jon to log on for our interview, I perused his website to get more familiar with him and his work. What struck me most was his clear desire to create inclusive environments, from his classroom to adoptee spaces, so that everyone who comes in contact with him can find a sense of belonging. Before getting lost in thought, Jon appeared on my screen. His kind authenticity made starting the conversation effortless.

Jon is a man of many talents: he’s the Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network (KAAN) webmaster, an award-winning math professor, a podcast host, and a community-builder extraordinaire. But, life wasn’t always as full of community for him as it is now. At around 3 months old, Jon was adopted from Korea by a white couple in a rural area of Michigan outside Flint. When he was around 5, his parents moved into the city so he would have access to a better school system. Jon reflected on how blessed he was to have gone to a school where he could take language courses, which helped him better understand the world around him.

Growing up as an adoptee, he felt a disconnect with his adoptive parents because they didn’t understand his attachment issues from being torn away from his birth parents and culture. It was a struggle growing up without any Korean or Asian influence. Reminiscing about going to a Korean summer camp when he was a child, he asked his parents why he never returned. They said it was because he didn’t like it (though he doesn’t remember that). He wishes they would have understood the significance of having his identity reflected back to him and encouraged him to try again.

He delved into describing what felt like such a familiar situation. In high school, he knew two other Asians, one who was also an adoptee from Korea. Though, they never connected about it. Jon mentioned that he tended to avoid situations where he might be singled out as different when he was younger. He’s come a long way from where he was to where he is today.

One of Jon’s first epiphanies happened on his 13th birthday. He painted the scene: his trusting parents provided food, told him he could have a party with his friends, and left for the evening. Arriving home, they found him curled up, crying in their bed—no one showed up. He recognizes that perhaps some parents weren’t comfortable with an unsupervised party. But as a child, it was difficult having “friends” say they’d show up, then not. That’s when he realized he didn’t belong to a community. “You can choose your friends, but not your family.” From then on, Jon knew he wanted to do something that would allow him to form the community he didn’t have and help people build friendships, connections, and networks.

I asked Jon what inspired his career in math. Without hesitation, he began telling me about when he was in kindergarten. Jon is colorblind. So, when his class was doing coloring lessons, he would peek over at the first graders’ math lessons. He believes that gave him a head start, finding what he could do in the midst of what he couldn’t.

Additionally, the 1980s movie "Stand and Deliver" inspired him. He saw how Jamie Escalante’s dedication to his students not only brought out the best in them but also created a tight-knit community. He showed them they can achieve more than what their environment told them. “Once you’re out of where you are, you can come back to give to your community,” Jon said. He explained that’s why he wanted to teach in an urban environment. Diving into his dream career as a math professor, Jon began cultivating the community he had always dreamed of.

Jon’s compassion for his students extends well beyond the classroom walls. He discussed how teaching is so much more than conveying material. The most successful teachers invest in their students’ lives and stories because it also influences their classroom work. He wants his students to know they don’t have to choose between their lives and education. When they struggle, he does everything he can to show the support he wishes he would’ve had growing up—from helping them find language learning resources to offering his own space heaters when the heat is out in their homes.

“If a student comes in feeling like they don’t belong anywhere, I don’t want them to leave feeling that same way. The phrase ‘there’s strength in numbers’ is quite real.”

Jon’s colleague, Bill (who had a Korean adoptee roommate), often asked him if he wanted to go to the Korean barbeque his roommate hosted. Jon always declined, but when Bill retired, he finally agreed to go as a retirement gift. That opened the door for him, and he got connected with the Michigan Korean Adoptees (MIKA) group. From there, he made more connections with other adoptees in the area.

One night, he went out for drinks with a friend and woke up the next morning to a text that said, “Are you excited about your trip to Korea?” Puzzled, Jon thought, “What trip to Korea?” His memories are hazy on when and how the trip got booked. He felt a bit anxious since it would be his first international trip and the first return to his birthplace, but he decided he couldn’t back out.

He determined that he wanted to see the orphanage he stayed in and compare the records there against the ones he already had. Jon began the arduous process of requesting a visit to the adoption agency. He learned that he needed to initiate a birth family search even just to visit.

One day on the subway in Korea, Jon received a call from Holt saying they made contact with his birth mother. They said they would fill him in more the following day when he visited. He broke down on the crowded subway, trying to conceal his emotion. “It was a surreal experience. I wasn’t expecting them to find any birth family, especially not quickly or while I was in Korea. At best, I thought I’d find out months later.”

The next day at Holt, Jon learned that his birth father refused to respond and didn’t want any contact. His birth mother wrote a letter saying she didn’t want contact because she was married now (she wasn’t married when Jon was born). He also learned that he had a half-brother. In a quick turn of events, his birth mother called Holt before he arrived, saying she had changed her mind about not wanting contact. He could contact her, but she couldn’t guarantee she’d respond. Her husband didn’t know about him, nor did his Japanese grandfather, whom she was the most afraid of telling. Frustrated, he struggles with not being able to meet his mother and half-brother, largely because of his grandfather.

Jon’s first visit to Korea gave him a deeper connection to his birth country and opened the door to find his birth mother. One day, he wants to get dual citizenship to spend more time in Korea. He hopes he can further explore the culture and convince his mother to meet him.

Taken December 18, 2018, during the Blue House Tour on my first trip back to Korea. In a crowd of students waiting to meet President Moon

Currently, Jon teaches in the U.S., spends time with the adoptee community, and hosts a podcast called "Funny Is Part of My Name" with his good friend, Nick Ha. Jon and Nick met through a mutual friend, went to a Red Wings game together, and the rest is history.

Some of that history involves a Saturday evening of Korean barbeque, a good bit of soju, and a casual mention from Nick about a podcast. Jon being a go-getter (especially after a few drinks), said, “We can start a podcast Monday at 10 p.m.” Waking up the next day, Jon thought, “Oh no, I told Nick we could do a podcast. I better come up with something.” The podcast name was inspired by Nick’s family name, “Ha.” They build their topics around math, current events, jokes, trivia, and guest appearances with the hopes of building a community that can feel a little less alone as they tune in on Monday nights.

Building community is woven throughout everything Jon does. In addition to his other activities, he’s also the KAAN webmaster. He volunteered for that role as another way to be involved with the adoptee community, honing his skills to further support a community he loves.

I asked Jon for a final piece of wisdom for adoptees who might be struggling and feeling alone. He said: “No matter how hard things are, give yourself the right to self-care. It’s so important. For many years, I felt like I had to just work, so I neglected things in my personal life. I missed opportunities to make connections. At some point, I realized these connections matter. Surround yourself with people you like, take care of yourself, and remember the work will be there later.” He added, “Remember, you’re only alone to the extent that you lock the things and people out who want to be in your life. Be open to new experiences and people.

Taken August 30, 2019, during a Korean Culture Class at the Korean Cuisine Culture Center as part of the Korean language class at Ewha University’s Language Centre.  

Learn more and stay connected with Jon on his website, Instagram, and podcast, "Funny Is Part of My Name."


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