- Jennifer Lee
Another and an Other
I am one of over 200,000 adoptees exported from Korea. Plunked down in Minnesota in the mid-seventies, my adoptive parents were told to “raise her like your own,” which translated to a “love sees no color” approach. My name was changed from Sei Myung Lee to Jennifer, the single most popular name for newborn girls in the U.S. from 1970 to 1984. This “love sees no color” attitude seemed like sage advice for the time; however, it did not account for the fact that even if love didn’t see color, people did. This colorblind approach led to the paradoxical experience of simultaneously being treated as another…and also an “other."
Being raised as a transracial adoptee in a white family from the suburbs did not lend itself to much discussion about race, racism, or what it was like to be a Korean girl negotiating predominately white spaces. There were few places, if any, to describe my experiences and the fact that moving through the world was different for me than for my white, non-adopted peers and siblings. My attempts to describe these differences were met with a lack of understanding and my parents’ efforts to soothe me by ignoring and minimizing differences—the idea that a bounty of love would dilute the difficulty of navigating a racialized world, alone.
Despite growing up in a white family and in white communities, my proximity to whiteness did not shield me from the reality that I was not white. Those around me controlled whether I was considered another (white) or an “other” (Asian). In a society that often views race through the binary lens of black and white, Asians are neither. I was either relegated to this invisible space or else took up my position as a perpetual foreigner. I grew comfortably uncomfortable residing on the spectrum of hyper-visibility and invisibility, moved along and between these poles as others chose to place me. My belonging was conditional.
I was fully a part of my white family…until I was told that I could marry my brother…or my cousin because they were not my real family, and we were not related by blood. I was just one of the girls, until someone referenced “the chink” walking by and suddenly I was all alone despite the fact that I was smashed between several other teenage bodies. I learned that at any moment my racial identity could be relevant, although it was rarely recognized. This contributed to the sense that my experiences were as valid as a white person’s understanding and comfortability.
My dual access to white privilege and model minority status, made my experiences, feelings, and the visceral happenings in my body difficult to identify and even harder to validate. I learned to keep my experiences private—to get small and be good, and to navigate the confusion on my own.
Becoming a parent, myself, created an opportunity to think about race in a new way and to consider what it would mean to raise multi-racial children. Half Korean and a mix of French, Irish, English, and Polish, my boys would never check just one box in a category of racial identifiers, unless of course the one box generically identified them as “other.” I thought about the efforts my parents made to connect me to Korean culture. There was Korean camp. And bulgogi. And kimchi that no one liked. And Korean folk music that my mom played on car trips until my dad got a headache and had to turn it off. These efforts to connect me to my history meant something; however, without the context of language and cultural mirrors, it became a representation of all that had been disrupted.
It is hard to describe the internal battle that surfaces each time I think about returning to the place of my birth. There is a notable tension, a push and pull. My birth country holds such tremendous power. It is the place of my beginnings, where my roots extend far beyond my own life, and that of my first family. These roots extend to generations of ancestors and a land that holds my history. The draw is unparalleled.
At the same time there is a notable tension—a silent ask to the universe to help me transcend my midwestern upbringing so that I may be absorbed seamlessly back into the Motherland. This is confusing, yet over the years I have learned to live with this tension. It has become a familiar sensation—one that is lifted only when my feet are firmly planted on Korean soil and I am able to move freely within a sea of faces that mirror my own.
When my children arrived, I wondered what it would look like to become the role model I had sought so desperately as my younger self. I am still figuring this out.
What I know is that I want my boys to have the space, opportunity, and language to grapple with race and identity. I want their identity to be shaped by their own understanding and experiences, not by what others say it should be. I want them to be able to think critically about the explicit and implicit messages that they see and hear about who they are and where they fit, as well as the messages that they see and hear about who others are and where others fit. I want them to understand that identity is complex and evolving, and that they have the right to take up the space that they’re in—no matter what that looks like.
In our house, we have ongoing conversations about difference. We discuss difference as it relates to race, but also as it relates to many other areas of identity and living. Our conversations are candid. They are truthful. Sometimes they are awkward and uncomfortable. I can’t say that I’m doing it right. What I can say, however, is that race and identity are complicated beasts, and I do not know how this process will unfold for my children. It may be a journey that is traveled with relative ease, or one that is marked by bumps and detours. Either way, I want them to know that their process is exactly what it should be—perfectly their own and up to them—where they are neither an other or another—just beautifully themselves.