UO scholars probe identity choices of Korean adoptees in America

So what is it like to be born Asian but adopted and raised by white parents in America? At what point do adoptees face the questions of "Who Am I?" and "Where do I belong?"

University of Oregon scholars Mia Tuan and Jiannbin "J" Lee Shiao have explored such questions, centering their inquiry on Korean adoptees, ages 26 to 51, to capture a sense of what adulthood means to these now-grown-up kids.

The take-home message is on the cover of their just-published book, says Tuan, professor of education studies and director of the UO Center on Diversity and Community: "It's the title, Choosing Ethnicity, Negotiating Race."

The idea for the research came to Tuan when she was teaching at Iowa's private Grinnell College while completing her dissertation for a doctorate in sociology from the University of California, Los Angeles. Numerous American-raised Korean students, many from Minnesota — where there is the highest density of these adoptees — attended Grinnell.

These students, Tuan recalled, kept approaching her, saying: "I have this face. My parents are white. I identify myself as American, but I have this face." It was, she said, an "a-hah moment" that stuck with her. Along the way, she invited Shiao to join her in pursuing the topic

Tuan and Shiao, associate professor of sociology, report that these adoptees generally reach a point in young adulthood — going to college, taking on jobs or assuming their place through various experiences — "where they have to choose whether or not to identify ethnically" or as just a regular part of white America.

Choosing Ethnicity, Negotiating Race: Korean Adoptees in America was published by the New York-based Russell Sage Foundation, which funded the authors' data collection for a broad project called "Asian Immigrants in White Families."

Chapter One quickly grabs the reader. A Korean adoptee raised in Seattle has a "borderline picture-perfect" childhood, but as he grows older he begins to hear jokes with Oriental undertones when on the streets and playgrounds.

Rather than focus on childhood experiences within families, however, the book covers "the life course" over generations, zeroing in on adoptees as adults, looking at their lives "from placement all the way to middle and later adulthood," Shiao said. "Rather than just seeing adoptees as perpetual children, we actually see how many of these issues play out for them throughout their entire lives."

Korean adoptions in the United States began in the 1950s in the aftermath of the Korean War (1950-1953) and grew steadily through the 1960s, primarily led by a Eugene, Ore., couple who founded Holt International, an adoption agency. For years, the authors said, Korean and Asian were used interchangeably to describe these children. Asian adoptions since have come to encompass Vietnamese and Chinese children, but don't have the long record of living in America.

While the book has captured the attention of Korean adoptees, scholars and adoptee families, Shiao and Tuan said, the book offers serious contributions to social science on issues such as race, identity and belonging. In fact, they said, the book is a good companion for readers of the 2010 book Adopted Territory: Transnational Korean Adoptees and the Politics of Belonging by Eleana J. Kim.

In the closing chapter, Shiao and Tuan also offer recommendations for "how families and adoption agencies can more thoughtfully support adoptees in developing substantive and meaningful identities." They also lay out four points about what Korean adoption says about race in the United States. The first is that "race continues to matter."

As part of their research, Shiao and Tuan pursued the similarities and differences experienced by adopted Koreans with populations of non-adoptees — full families of immigrants — in the U.S. They found that adoptees had similar racial experiences as non-adoptees but responded to them differently. The adoptees raised by white families, Tuan said, are "a part of Asian American culture but also apart from it."

"Our research suggests that adult ethnic identity, whether for adoptees or non-adoptees, should be characterized less as a contrast between national and group allegiances and more as a way to define a place for oneself within the nation in the face of group-based assumptions that diminish one's social citizenship," the authors write in their conclusions at the end of Chapter Six. "For Korean adoptees, this act is uniquely challenging because most were raised to think of themselves as white and to assume a sense of belonging to white society."

The seven-chapter book provides the general setting and historical context of Korean adoptees in America, before taking the reader through "Family Life and Childhood Experiences," "Ethnic Explorations in Early Adulthood," "Ethnic Explorations in Later Adulthood, "The Ethnic Identities of Adult Adoptees" and, finally, "Choosing Ethnicity, Negotiating Race."

The storytelling is done in 156 pages. Another 57 pages cover the appendix, references and index.