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An #importedAsians POV: Robert Ogburn

The Universal Asian had the wonderful opportunity to chat with Senior Foreign Services Officer for the United States State Department, Robert Ogburn. While there were several different areas that could have been shared due to Ogburn’s varied experiences, both personally and professionally, we are honored to be able to start the conversation with him here.


Robert sits casually in his chair with pen and paper in hand. Throughout the interview, he jots down notes or thoughts for reference later. Ogburn speaks in a thoughtful, calm, and compassionate way as we traverse through various topics related to his background and life. Although he humbly appreciates being described as a visionary, we find just how apropos this assignation is to Robert’s character and inclinations which guided his childhood interactions into his seemingly perfectly-suited career path.


Robert Ogburn was 2 years old when he was “picked out from a set of pictures” of children available for adoption by a U.S. military couple stationed in Okinawa, Japan who wanted to start a family. A couple of months after adopting Robert, the family moved to northern New Jersey, USA where he had his first taste of public attention when he was highlighted in the Trenton newspaper as a newly naturalized and adopted child from Asia, specifically Korea.


Ogburn's parents

Upon recalling his early childhood memories, he shares that before he was old enough to go to school, he used to be outside and the school children across the street would often come over to talk to him during their lunch break. It wasn’t until he was an adult that he realized that this might have been odd, and the reason they may have given him so much attention was because they had never seen, nor interacted, with someone from such a different background given the limited exposure to minority groups in the area he lived.


His awareness of other minority groups came when he and his family moved to Maryland where he lived from age 9 to 13. Ogburn made friends with those from all the different groups in the neighborhood, but realized they didn’t necessarily interact with each other much. This was amidst the riots of 1968 and the social/political activity that was happening not far away in Washington D.C. Still, growing up in the time of the moon landing, Ogburn felt a sense of optimism believing that “the sky’s the limit” despite the unrest that seemed to be around him.


This positive attitude helped him to avoid potential trauma in dealing with identity development as a youth. In fact, he admitted to pretending that he knew kung fu as a way to combat any kind of bullying or tension with middle school–aged kids, who questioned his identity or belonging—as any kid that age might face. Further, he mischievously laughs at his use of the Asian stereotype to his favor to get through high school math and science classes so that he could focus on the subjects that interested him more.


While Ogburn was not immune to being asked the inevitable "Where are you from?" question, he replies that by not having the vocabulary to answer the real question behind the words it didn’t really feel that it was much of an issue for him. Perhaps his high school being 60 percent white and 40 percent Black helped, as the students were encouraged not to develop biases—although they still tended to hang out with like for like—which afforded Ogburn the opportunity to mingle between the two groups and gain more awareness of the various issues each faced without any prejudice of his own.


When the issue of being adopted arose in a family conversation when Robert was about 8 years old, he recalls his mother said, “Don’t worry about it—you’ll always be my son,” which he felt was handled well for him. In fact, Ogburn’s adoptive mom played an important role in how he viewed his adoption experience and how his life would go.


Despite the fact that there were no programs or infrastructure available to help adopted children stay connected to their heritage, Ogburn’s mom put up a Korean flag up in his room and would remind him that it was the country in which he was born and suggested that perhaps someday he could go and visit there. She even encouraged him to possibly study at the University of Hawaii to be closer to his roots and experience the hybrid of Asian and American culture. Although he didn’t study there, it was an interesting thought that she put out there to direct his future and can probably be directly linked to his chosen career path.


Still, it took a while for Robert to become aware of his own Asian-ness.


One of his early memories of becoming aware of the fact that he was a person of color was when an African American man drew him into a conversation about the color of their skin and pointed out that Ogburn was also a person of color. At the time, he didn’t understand the significance or meaning of this, but later it became an important moment in his acknowledgement of being of a different race.


Further, his first engagement with being Asian was in college when he began to interact with first generation Asian-Americans. One particular incident was when a comic strip was printed with two dogs as the speaking characters pointing to a Korean restaurant and saying that they couldn’t eat there because Koreans eat dog. Ogburn got picked to use his "white American" status to be the voice for the Korean American students, who were outraged by the comic, to reach out to the paper and explain why this wasn’t a culturally sensitive thing to print. This was his first proper diplomatic action in bringing together two sides to discuss an issue resulting in a positive outcome with a deepened understanding of new perspectives.


He naively believed that that would be the last incident he’d face related to cultural and race issues—back in the early 1980s.


Thanks to his background and family being involved in government positions, Ogburn was interested in studying International Studies, which was a rare, or mostly unheard of, area at the time. Fortunately, he was able to self-design his own path in Latin American and Asian studies through his tertiary and graduate education, respectively.


Although Ogburn initially did other jobs, his entrance into the foreign service was an ideal fit as it matched his interest in being involved in different areas and working with a variety of people.


Ogburn’s first overseas experience was to Korea during the 1988 Olympics—making his mother’s foreshadowing come true.


In reflecting on his adoption and further into his career in foreign services, Ogburn expresses his full appreciation for his freedom to “muck around” in finding one’s identity and how far one is allowed to dream without being told who or what one is. Despite having the challenges that can arise with the diversity of democratic societies, it affords us the chance to define who we are as individuals on our own terms through our own experiences, Ogburn reflects.


Still, he believes that it requires a bit of a sense of humor to maneuver through some typical experiences where one’s face may not meet expectations.


In response to the anti-Asian hate movement alongside Black Lives Matter, Ogburn states that he thinks this sentiment has always been there and was severely under-reported before. The sense that Asians are the model minority or naturally successful and that our experiences haven’t been impacted is starting to come to light as not necessarily true. Robert suggests that if people start to practice open-mindedness, then they can find that teams, businesses, and organizations can be stronger and more positively impacted just by having a variety of skills and viewpoints.


Upon reflecting on adoption, in general, Ogburn feels that it has been an immensely positive experience during his time. It can also be an interesting opportunity to learn what it means to be “Korean” (or any native Asian heritage) for both an adoptee and those in the native country who interact with adoptees or #hyphenatedAsians. Wearing his foreign services hat, Ogburn reminds us that countries do indeed pursue national interests, but allies pursue issues in common as partners. “A willingness to challenge each other to do better is what makes lasting partnerships and most effective changes.”


Ogburn believes that his being adopted and seeing the flag in his bedroom contributed greatly to his career path and perspective on the world. Although he fully acknowledges that there are many less than positive adoption experiences, for him, being adopted allowed for him and others to see beyond various challenges and deep-seated notions as individuals, as a society, and in the world. He further thinks that adoptees are a natural fit for considering public service and even international service, since their backgrounds and their imaginations stretch around the world.

 

If the name Ogburn sounds familiar, The Universal Asian shared his daughter, Calista Ogburn's, book of poetry last August.


Ogburn's Family: daughter Calista, son Cal, wife Thu

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