THE BLOG
09/12/2014 04:07 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2014

An Ethnicity Conversation Your Adoptive Child Wants You to Have

Inti St Clair via Getty Images

In countries like the United States, where ethnicity is, by legislation, no means for prejudice or discrimination, why even talk about it? Individuals in the U.S. are asked to identify their ethnicity and race in forms throughout their lives, from college applications to random surveys, and while the "other" option is always available, it is a question that cannot be escaped. The news media concentrates on it when reporting, analysis often features race and ethnicity breakdowns, and even casual conversations are often littered with generalizations. Despite the fact that ethnicity is something learned, not biologically inherited, transnational adoptees continue to struggle with asserting themselves as rightful members of their adoptive families' ethnicities.

Transnational adoption is nothing new to society, especially since celebrities like "Brangelina" and Madonna made it look trendy. Historically, international adoption rose out of humanitarian sympathy for the growing number of parentless children following World War II. The Korean War also helped to prompt the greatest influx of transnational adoptions, and for many years South Korean children and babies dominated the international adoption scene. Nowadays, children are adopted from countries all across the globe in both large and small numbers, with the majority coming from China, Ethiopia and Russia.

My own parents adopted me from South Korea in 1993 when I was just 3 months old. Transnational adoptees like myself who immigrated to the United States as infants are being raised by primarily white, American families and often grow up with English as their first language. We are usually raised in our adoptive parents' cultures, and the way we walk, talk, and think often screams, "white American." Despite the fact that adoptees may internally identify with the white culture of their adoptive parents, transnational, transracial adoptees still struggle to develop and assert their own self-identified ethnic identities because ethnicity is regularly associated with race. For transracial adoptees, there is often a severe discordance between the ethnic person they feel like and the ethnic person others want them to be. While race generally refers to a social hierarchy based off of a person's phenotype, especially skin color, ethnicity mostly signifies a personal attachment to a certain ethnic group and refers to shared customs and beliefs within" that group. But as Amanda L. Baden, Lisa M. Treweeke, and Muninder K. Ahluwalia note, "in the cultural milieu of American society... [transnational] adoptees are forever tied to being associated with their birth culture." Even more, racialized ethnicities seem inescapable.

My experience with being a transnational, transracial adoptee, for example, is not uncommon, especially among Asian American adoptees from China and Korea. For several summers during my childhood I attended Culture Camp (also Heritage Camp) for Asian adoptees. These Camps, often run by adoption agencies or adoptive parents, provide an instrumentally important opportunity for adopted children to meet other transracial and transnational adoptees like themselves and learn about their birth cultures in a positive, supportive, and non-judgmental setting. Looking back, I regard the Culture Camp I attended as one of the most secure spaces for Asian adoptees. Three days out of the year I got together with other Asian American adoptees, mostly from South Korea and China, and some from India. Although the other children and I were practically strangers to each other, there was a strong sense of community among us because we all understood exactly what it was like being the only Asian person in an all-white family, usually growing up in predominantly white communities. At Culture Camp, no one ever asked, "Where are you from?" or, "What are you?" Better yet, no one ever asked, "Did your birth mom not love you?" Not being questioned was a huge relief. Unfortunately at Camp I never learned more than a few Korean fan dances (which I quickly forgot) and the Korean alphabet. And while these were only a few days out of each year, it was the only time that I was actually immersed in anything culturally Korean.

Now I look back on my time at Culture Camp and think, "Why did my parents push me so much to go to this camp in the first place?" Yes, being exposed to other Asian adoptees was a very positive experience, but does being born in Korea automatically mean I must also learn to be Korean? Was something about me not right? Often I wish "Korean-American" were an ethnicity I could escape, for though my ancestry may be Korean, my culture is not. All too often a Korean ethnicity is prescribed to me without question or insight into my personality and history.

I am very proud to be Asian and a Korean adoptee, but if we are assuming that a person's ethnicity is defined by a shared religion, culture, language, and more, then why would I declare my ethnicity as Korean? I share the same origin as other Koreans and Korean Americans by the fact that I happened to have been born in South Korea, but besides that, I am a foreigner in my own birth country: I have been an American citizen since my adoption was finalized and my Korean citizenship was automatically dropped at the same time. Even when I visited South Korea for the first time since I was adopted the people there regarded me as an American. They could clearly tell I had some sort of Korean heritage, but they also immediately understood that I was not "one of them." Everything about me tipped them off, from the way I styled my hair to my inability to speak any Korean to my manners (or lack thereof, in Korean standards). In Korea, I could not pass for a true Korean, but in America I cannot pass for a true American.

Many other transnational adoptees living in predominately white North American or European countries experience similar ethnic disapprovals. Adoptees of color in Sweden, for example, have a very difficult time reassuring others of their "Swedishness." These adoptees may feel 100% culturally Swedish, but their skin color alone sends a different message. In the context of Swedish popular culture, as in the American one, real Swedes are white. In one way or another, people of color are often viewed as culturally foreign.

As a result, many transnational, transracial adoptees like myself are essentially barred from claiming any sort of European or American ethnicity. There are exceptions to this rule, however. Look at reality TV star, Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi. Polizzi was adopted from Chile as a baby but despite this, she is able to herald the Italian American heritage that her parents possess on TV at the Jersey Shore without her ethnic authenticity being questioned. So why is it that a transnationally adopted celebrity can very publicly appropriate the ethnicity of her parents without her authenticity being questioned? Simple: Polizzi's skin is light enough, and her features similar enough, that she uphold an optional ethnicity and pass for an Italian American. This is contrasted by the laughter I received as a response upon telling a man working for the Dublin Airport check-in staff that I am Irish, too.

A study on same-race international adoptions in New Zealand highlights the connection placed between race and ethnic approval even further. When white Eastern European adoptees were asked how much other people saw them as authentic New Zealanders, also known as "Kiwis," 94 percent reported that "they were treated mostly like a Kiwi" and 72 percent "felt that a stranger could [not] tell that they were biologically related to their parents." Clearly playing the part is not enough to pass for a member of a specific ethnicity -- looks are a key factor. So I wonder, is ethnicity really a choice for some transnational adoptees? And why does it matter?

Ethnicity identity matters because people either ask about it and are not satisfied with the answer or people fail to ask and are too satisfied with their own assumptions. It is presumptuous, if not insulting, to assume that all transnational adoptees identify with their home countries just because they were born there or look a certain way. For many people, especially transnational, transracial adoptees ethnicity does not necessarily correlate with race or ancestry. Ethnic identity is personal and therefore something decided by the individual, so why is it that the ethnic identity that transnational, transracial adoptees choose is not the one that is accepted? We must overcome our racist assumptions that presume skin color and overall phenotype denotes behavior and belief. To deny a person's ethnicity is to deny a person of his/her own upbringing, life experiences, self-expression, and integrity.