“Colleen. Colleeenn. Colllllleeen!” Mr. Baker, a tall, older Caucasian man with an incredibly bushy mustache looks directly at me and yells once more, “Colleen!”
He has, yet again, mistaken me with another Korean girl who is in one of his other classes. It is 2003, and I’m sitting in my World History class, one of many Asians in this high school. The fact is, yes, Colleen and I are both Korean, but we don’t look that much alike…
This was not the first, nor the last time I have been mistaken for another girl who is Asian—often, who isn’t even Korean.
“You all look the same.”
"Where are you really from?"
"Which Korea are you from-- North or South?"
"You speak English really good."
"Do you know Karate?"
The notion that all Asians look the same, along with the many stereotypes associated with Asians as a group, can be very frustrating to face. Something as simple as an introduction can turn into a drawn-out conversation about where I was born, or "what type of Asian" I am. People often like to guess, and jump to, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, or any other Asian ethnicity before they guess Korean. Better yet, sometimes they insist they know how to tell "us" apart. Or they want to know if I know Karate, or are surprised I speak English "good." I once went to a Red Sox game and was greeted by one of the ushers with "Konnichiwa," and was asked if I was excited about the Japanese pitcher.
There are some days where I am more patient and willing to engage in a dialogue with someone, but there are other times where I don't feel like sharing details about my background. And there are instances when I introduce myself and tell people that I'm adopted, which can lead to a much longer conversation because someone finds the topic fascinating. I am usually pretty open about sharing my story, but I’ve reached a point where I realize I’m not always comfortable speaking about such a sensitive subject. For instance, when talking about meeting my birth mother, whenever someone asks me how it felt meeting her or what it was like spending time with her, I realize that I automatically try to spin everything into a simple and positive answer. In reality, there’s a lot more layers to the story and the day after meeting her I had a bit of an emotional breakdown in public when my emotions hit me suddenly and unexpectedly. It’s not so simple and tidy, and it can be really hard to explain the complexities of an experience like that, especially to a stranger. I realize now that I don’t HAVE to share everything about myself or explain my background to someone. I think that sometimes I feel as though I either have to explain or justify being “American” and speaking English well, and showing that I belong in the U.S. by telling people I’m adopted.
“Where are you from. No, I mean, where are you really from?”
“I’m Korean, but I was adopted.”
“What Asian ethnicity are you? Are you Chinese? Japanese? Korean?”
“I’m Korean, but I’m adopted, so I speak English as well as you; I don’t know Karate or Tae Kwon Do, I’ve lived here my entire life and probably know as much about Korean culture as you do; I’m not that different from you, so please don’t ask me anything else, especially anything pertaining to any Asian stereotypes. I’m actually not so good at math, and I don’t think I’m that terrible of a driver…”
Some days, it can be exhausting to walk around looking Asian. It can get tiring answering the same type of generic questions over and over. And it’s, well, annoying to be called another name and confused with other people of Asian descent, just because someone thinks all of “us” Asians are easily interchangeable.
And that’s just dealing with the people who seem to mean well, but don’t know any better. I would say they are guilty of either ignorance or microaggressions. Then there’s the people who are blatantly racist and purposely make insensitive comments because they think it’s funny.
While I used to shrug off most of these experiences or conversations, as I grow older, I’m starting to realize that I don’t have to answer everyone’s questions, and I don’t have to paint a completely happy picture about adoption to everyone. I can take each situation as it comes and handle it how I feel like handling it at that time.
I’m still searching for the right response to the questions I face as a Korean-American Adoptee. I think this is something I’ll be thinking about for the rest of my life. While some conversations and experiences can be challenging, each interaction teaches me something new and adds to my story. And I’m happy to take what I’ve learned so far and embrace whatever comes next.