In seeking their own identities, transracial adoptees are creating a vibrant new community
Published in the Minneapolis Observer, August 2005
When I was a kid, I used to peer into the mirror and wait for my features to make sense. My huge brown eyes always seemed to see more than was good for them and my uneven lips seemed stubbornly full.
And then there was my hair. Coiled tightly into various-sized curls, it sprung out from every part of my skull, defying comb, pick, or conditioner. Simply put, it was every white mother’s nightmare.
Besides my features, there was the matter of my skin tone — deep brown in the summer and jaundice yellow in the winter. Both of my brothers were pale white boys who sometimes tanned, but more often burned. And my parents? Just as white.
Growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan — a bastion of liberalism if there ever was one — I most certainly knew I wasn’t the only mixed girl, and certainly not the only black one. There were always mixed and black kids in my classes and on my soccer teams. But there was still something different about me — sometimes vague, sometimes pronounced — that I couldn’t find language for at that time. I saw people who looked like me, but they did not talk like I did, and I often felt that I could not talk to them.
“You’re black,” my mother told me when I was 8. “No,” I said, “I’m brown.” It was my way of placing the burden of racial identity somewhere else besides my narrow shoulders.
Of course, it caught up to me. Your true self will always come and trip you up, even if you have clearly decided that you do not know how to be black, and you don’t know how or where to learn. Somehow, the language found me.
I am a mixed black transracial adoptee. Slowly, the words are coming to me. Slowly, I realize that I am not the only one who has had to find her way back into her body. Sun Yung, Jane, Kim, Robert, Danielle, Hee Won, Catherine, and Jae Ran have all had to do the same.
Finding a Community
In spring, 2003, I submitted a piece of short fiction to an anthology by and about transracial adoptees — the first I had ever heard of. “The literature on transracial adoption has been dominated by white adoptive parents,” the call for submissions stated, later calling on transracial adoptees to make our voices heard and define our own identities. Excited that such a project was underway, I sent out a couple of pieces right away, not intending to hear anything from the editors for months.
Imagine my surprise when, the very next day, I received an e-mail from Jane Jeong Trenka, author of the critically acclaimed memoir The Language of Blood and co-editor of the new anthology, tentatively titled Outsiders Within. Jane said she and her co-editor, poet and children’s book writer Sun Yung Shin, really enjoyed my work, and were astounded to learn that I lived in the Twin Cities, where they resided as well. How had we somehow managed to not meet before this, all of us being writers and transracial adoptees?
Transracial adoptees, I can remember thinking at the time, Is that what we are? I had never heard the term before, but it was somehow calming to finally have a term to describe the particular experience of being adopted and raised by white parents.
A week later, I was sitting in a coffee shop, trading life stories, war stories, and philosophies of writing with Jane. She told me she was adopted from Korea 20 years after the Korean War, and that she had grown up in a small town in Northern Minnesota, one of only a handful of Asian Americans and people of color within 100 miles.
My jaw dropped. “How did you manage?” I asked her. She grimaced. “Not very well.”
She was a trained concert pianist who had written her story on a lark, really — just to get it all down and to see that it was real, after all, and had ended up writing a piece of work that was so moving it was accepted for publication quite quickly. This experience had demonstrated to her how essential it was for transracial adoptees to get our stories out there, to get acquainted personally and politically. “Our community right now is like the black community in the 1920s — completely disorganized and largely without political power,” she says. I have reflected on this observation many times since this conversation, and am always struck by how true it is.
Flash forward to summer 2004. Jane and I have met a few more times, and have kept up a lively e-mail correspondence. Somehow, however, though we travel in many of the same circles, I have managed to miss meeting Sun Yung. Until, after much deliberation, my roommate found a suitable house to buy, which just happens to be the house next to Sun Yung’s.
When things like this happen, it’s hard to believe that the universe doesn’t have a plan that it’s slowly unfolding.
Soon after I move onto the block, Sun Yung and Jane’s good friend Jae Ran Kim, another Korean transracial adoptee, moves there as well (Sun Yung has used her indomitable powers of persuasion to convince Jae Ran and her family that Powderhorn is a much more suitable neighborhood for their interracial family than Como Park).
Jae Ran is also a writer, as well as a social worker in training. She is taking a class at Metro State with Robert O’Connor, a social worker, counselor, professor, and African American transracial adoptee, and tells us that he has plans to form a transracial adoptee network called TRAN. TRAN would provide counseling for transracial adoptees and their families and also help them network with each other.
Jae Ran begins holding monthly potlucks at her house in the fall, and they feasts of fascinating people and delicious morsels. Among the other transracial adoptees I meet at the weekly gathering are Holly Hee Won Coughlin, graphic designer and co-creator of HERE: The First Visual History of Korean Adoptees in Minnesota (currently in production); Kim Dalros, professional photographer, graphic designer and the other creator of HERE; and Kim Park Gregg, a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at the University of Minnesota, whose research focuses on the experiences of Korean adoptees.
All of these people will become my good friends and allies in the very near future. We are all in our early to mid 30s, and all feel that we are coming into our own. “Now we are beginning to do the work we were born to do,” Jane said at one gathering recently, and we all looked at her in terror and exhilaration.
Shortly thereafter, after many trials and tribulations, South End Press accepts Outsiders Within — which now features writing from transracial adoptees from Europe, Australia, Asia, and the United States — for publication (the release date is tentatively set for next fall). Jane receives a McKnight grant to finish work on her next book and promote Outsiders Within, and leaves to live and work in Korea. Jae Ran is accepted into the University of Minnesota’s graduate program in social work and plans to advocate for children of color’s best cultural interests, as well as personal and family interests. I receive a Bush Artist Fellowship to continue work on my novel Hank Aaron’s Daughter, which explores the many facets of the transracial adoptee experience. And Robert asks a few of us to help him get some programming in place to help develop TRAN and make it a reality.
A Movement is Born
All of this adds up to a veritable transracial adoptee movement in Minnesota on multiple levels: artistic, political, cultural and cross-cultural.
Why is this happening now? For one thing, Minnesota is home to more Korean transracial adoptees than any other state, and it also has a huge number of black and Latino adoptees. But, more important, I think, is the fact that we have come of age. “White adoptive parents are going to have to start hearing our voices and give up some of their power — whether they want to or not,” Robert says. “We’re not children anymore.”
Indeed, so much of the discourse around adoption in this country is rooted in the concept of adoptees as children. No one seems to realize that we will — we have — grown up. Now it’s up to us to decide who we want to be, what language we will use to describe our experiences, and how we will make sure the others — the transracial adoptee children of today — do not feel as isolated and confused as we did. We have two things on our side: the face in the mirror that finally makes sense, and each other.