Checking In With Eric Lee McDaniel
The Universal Asian had the privilege of doing a follow-up interview to get to know Eric Lee McDaniel more after our introduction of his Ted Talk, in which he shares his adoption and birth family reunion.
When Eric appears on screen clean-cut, in a white shirt and black tie with a backdrop of books in his office, one senses the positive nature of the 34-year-old, who already has a lengthy and impressive resume. After receiving a baseball scholarship to Jefferson Community College and later to Rockhurst University, McDaniel switched directions by joining the finance world with an investment management company in 2008. That same year, during the bubble, he decided to up and move to Seoul where he started working as an English teacher for a national English teaching company. Meanwhile, while based in Korea, he: started a fast-food franchise and a media channel, was the CEO at an international events company with a large audience involving booking celebrities, DJs, and artists; and now, runs a media consulting agency that helps startups and existing company brands reach recognition and connections amongst all the noise out there.
Although we already know a bit about McDaniel’s story, it was important to begin before his adoption with his vivid recall of the raw and harsh aspects of his early life in the rural part of Incheon. In these snaps of memories, Eric recalls being in an orphanage, abused by his father, fighting with kids in the streets for survival, and finding himself frequently in police stations.
He shares one particular memory from being 4 years old fighting on the street with other kids using a broomstick to break a kid’s arm in protection of himself, which resulted in him going to the police station. Upon reflection of that time in his life, he believes his frequent visits to the police station lies in considering it a safe place from what was going on back home.
McDaniel’s time in the orphanage is what triggered issues with anger, depression, and mental health issues that he took with him to his adoptive family at the age of four, when he was sent to Kansas City, Missouri, USA from South Korea. Eric recalls channeling his fighting survival instincts when he was on the plane over and being handed over to his adoptive family. It was when his American family gave him a photo album of his new family and home that he was instantly comforted and relieved. More importantly, he was aware that this was his second chance at a good life—even at a very young age.
Still, he faced challenges such as not speaking at all for about six to eight months, as his brain went into a silent period trying to adjust and learn a new language, environment, people, and all that being internationally adopted entails.
Further, elementary school was typically tough due to social anxiety and trying to learn to speak perfect English after having Korean as his first language. This opened him up to getting bullied, but his time in a Korean orphanage gave him the fire to fight back, but wisdom to soften the long-lasting effects. Eventually, the bullying changed as he decided to fight back with kindness and focused on doing what it took to be happy.
Still, he did not let on at home that this was happening to him at school. Obviously, from the moment he arrived in the U.S., he knew that he was different and his identity as Korean remained. However, rather than fight the difference, he embraced it and focused on adjusting and improving himself, which he points out is an important life skill throughout any aspect of life—work, relationships, etc.
As the memories of Korea started to fade, he replaced them with happier ones with his adoptive family. His father gave him strength and courage and his mother gave him love and compassion. He chose not to let his negative past define him by making a simple choice to focus on the love of his family and working to improve who he is.
The main breath of fresh air in McDaniel’s existence throughout his school years that gave him a sense of “belonging outside of family” was baseball. Being accepted in rural Missouri was through sports. So, he got good at it—very good. McDaniel wasn’t aware that he was the first Asian American, and adoptee, who could pitch both left- and right-handed. He says he was too busy focusing on just being Eric McDaniel.
Everything changed, though, in his third year of university when he met his first Korean friend, which also coincided with his quitting baseball. He chose to give up baseball when a culmination of events occurred. Most impactfully was his father’s diagnosis with terminal cancer. So, he chose to be close to his family and transfer to the smaller Jesuit Rockhurst University. This is where he began to engage with other Asian Americans and his eyes were opened to racism. Without the protection of sports and academics, he became aware of how others perceived him and other Asian Americans.
The factors of not meeting baseball goals, ill father, changing schools, and facing racism caused McDaniel to face mental health issues. To get himself out of his depression, he recalled the kid who survived the streets of Korea, which reminded him that he didn’t want to become that person again; and it propelled him to channel his energy toward a positive direction to create new goals for his life.
This was the turning point that brought him full circle to where McDaniel is when we speak with him.
When asked, “How do you identify yourself and how important is it?”
"Sometimes the best thing, when you look in the mirror, is to simplify. That’s it. Just knowing who you are, and identifying the characteristics of who you want to be and who you don’t want to be, can make it clearer who you are now. So, I identify myself as 'Eric' as a label."
Ultimately, though, he recognizes himself simply as a human being and that’s it. He emphasizes that “If you don’t know who you are, then go seek the answers and be ready for them.”
That is exactly what he did and started to immerse himself in learning whatever he could about Korea after meeting his Korean friend, which gave him the starting point to be able to find his Korean family and go abroad.
Through this friend, McDaniel decided he wanted to confirm the pockets of memories that he carried and fill in the full picture of the snapshots that he had, so he returned to Korea.
Being in Korea, he faces the same challenges of being forced to fit into others’ boxes, but he says he doesn’t let it get to him.
His focus on having been given a second chance at life makes him look at how he can further this chance and build more doors rather than close any. McDaniel refuses to let himself be held back with all the knowledge of his background and origins, instead he uses that, and his new knowledge, and happiness to move forward and give love—even to those who hurt him in the past.
He describes his experience meeting his biological family and father again as a numbing moment. “The room filled with silence,” in his mind, when his father and uncle walked in; and he jokingly admits that he looked at both wondering which one was his father. Thirteen years after his reunion, he can calmly recount learning the truth about his family.
In fact, just this past December 2020, McDaniel found out that he has a half brother and sister, who were both adopted in France. Through serving as their translator, he learned all the truths about their common father that reinforced his own memories.
Based on his experiences, McDaniel’s thoughts on international adoptions are simple. He expresses the dichotomies of adoption experiences, citing Olympic champions to those with horror stories. He wishes that people/organizations would do proper due diligence to ensure that the child is given the best second chance as possible. Overall, he admits that the current adoption policies could be much improved, but also that it can still be an amazing experience like that of Eric McDaniel.
McDaniel further expresses that it isn’t a judgement per se whether or not an adoptee is encouraged to have a connection to their birth country and culture—parents always get a bad rap no matter who they are—but that it is really a matter of knowledge and becoming aware in-depth of where you come from. With that, it helps to define who you are and develop your sense of identity to ultimately become a better human being.
Finally, in reflecting on whether he thinks his success is due to or despite his past, McDaniel replies:
“I am on the success path because I combine everything to be constructive—the positive and the negative. I want to succeed because I don’t want to be that poor boy I was before. It’s not that I’m scared of it, but it’s not who I want to be. I enjoy what I am doing.”
He believes his being driven and skill in knowing how to adjust for survival is a natural instinct, but he has nurtured the things of the heart thanks to his loving adoptive family.
McDaniel’s final piece of advice for anyone who is going through dark periods like he did is:
“Whenever there are feelings of fear, but you know rationally that they are wrong, take a step back, breathe, sit down, and write out what you want, then visualize it happening. Surround yourself with the type of people who are like how you want to be. It’s just one door that is closed that needs to be opened to see the light in the next room. Do things that you want to be done to you. Seek love, seek the joy, especially if you know what death, abuse, and hunger is. If there is an absolute evil, then there is absolute happiness, find the path to get you there.”
You can connect with Eric on Instagram: @daeileeplanet