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'Two whites don’t make a Wong': Feeling like an outsider as an interracial adoptee

The author (left) with his sister. They were adopted from South Korea by white parents.
KUOW PHOTO/Brian Freeland
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The author (left) with his sister. They were adopted from South Korea by white parents.

I've always known I was adopted because I have white parents. 

In school, people talked about what traits they got from each of their parents: their eyes from their mom, their hair from their dad, their personality a mix of both. I envied them.

When I was five months old, I left Seoul, South Korea, flew across the ocean, and landed at Sea-Tac Airport. I went straight into the loving arms of my new parents.

Being adopted is complicated.

I got a second chance at life, but I also feel like I'm stuck between two worlds: Korea and America.

Brian created this story in KUOW's RadioActive Youth Media Advanced Producers Workshop. Find RadioActive on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and on the RadioActive podcast.

One of my favorite Disney movies is "Hercules." In the movie, Hercules is also stuck between two worlds. He's the son of a god, but he's trapped on earth trying to figure out who he is.

To help you understand what I mean, let me tell you about my middle school years at Mattson Middle School in Covington, Washington, where most of my classmates were white.

Once other kids found out I was adopted, a few would make jokes like, "two whites don't make a Wong." Or since I had wider eyes, they would ask if I saw the world in widescreen.

A kid even told me that my birth parents gave me up because they didn't want me.

That was a fear I'd always had myself. Was I unplanned? Was I meant to happen? Was I put up for adoption because I was a mistake?

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "I don't want adoption to be stigmatized. I want it to be celebrated.", "style": "full"}]]Then there were the stereotypes that come with being Asian:

You must know Kung Fu. 

You probably have a tiger mom.

You must be a math genius.

I heard these stereotypes so much, I actually started to believe them. I thought that if I conformed to these stereotypes, I'd fit in.

In high school, I took Algebra 3/4, which I thought would be easy.

Homework? Nope. Not for me. I've got this.

Failed a test? It doesn't bother me. I know I'll pass the next one because math is easy for Asians, right?

I ended the year with a D.

If all Asians were good at math, then why did I fail? 

I'm the outlier. (That's a math joke.)

I tried to fit the stereotypes because I thought that's what people wanted of me. But I hate math, so why pretend?

I started to realize that in a mostly white school, I would never fit in. Everyone saw me as Asian, but on the inside, I felt completely white. Maybe if I was around other Asians, I'd feel more Asian. Maybe I'd fit in.

[asset-images[{"caption": "The author (left) and his sister as kids.", "fid": "145586", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201806/2.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW PHOTO/Brian Freeland"}]]In 2015, my family flew to Korea. On the flight over, I had to explain to the stewardess that my sister and I, both Korean adoptees, don't speak Korean.

I felt like I could hear her thoughts: "They look Korean, so why can't they speak Korean?"

Feeling like an outsider in America, I thought Korea would make me feel like I belonged. I thought that since I looked like everyone else, I'd fit in. But I didn't speak the language, didn't understand the culture, and didn't have Korean mannerisms. 

I felt devastatingly lost that entire trip. I'm an outsider in the U.S., and I'm an outsider in Korea.

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "In a perfect world, I'd feel more comfortable and confident, knowing who I am as an adoptee, knowing where I come from, and having the closure I need.", "style": "full"}]]Throughout my childhood, my parents enrolled me in a summer camp for Korean adoptees where we would learn a little Korean, eat delicious Korean food, and learn the very important skill of how to use chopsticks. But I only went one week out of the year, so it was hard to make genuine friendships.

I was never completely comfortable, partly because I was so insecure, but also because we were teenagers, and just being a teenager was difficult enough.

Recently, I was told about another community called Asian Adult Adoptees of Washington.

My hope is that these older adoptees who have more life experience can help me discover who I am, both as a person and as an adoptee. 

If this were a perfect world, I'd have a close-knit group of friends who are also adoptees. People who know what I've been through. I wouldn't feel the need to explain why I don't look like my parents. 

In a perfect world, I'd feel more comfortable and confident, knowing who I am as an adoptee, knowing where I come from, and having the closure I need. 

I don't want adoption to be stigmatized. I want it to be celebrated.

This story was created with production support from Kamna Shastri and edited by Jenny Asarnow.