Welcome to “The Story We Share,” a series of Q&As that profile two people with similar identities ― but who live in very different places. As part of HuffPost’s Listen To America tour, we’re exploring how people’s lived experiences overlap and diverge depending on their zip codes. What is the “American Experience”? It depends where you look.
In 2015, the controversy surrounding Rachel Dolezal, a white woman in Spokane, Washington living her life as a black woman, introduced the novel idea of “transracial” identity. In that context, “transracial” meant identifying with a race other than your own, but the word, for decades, has already had a significant use ― for children adopted by families of a different race than their own.
Adoptees may face all kinds of hurdles, but transracial adoptees can face a specific kind of hardship given the fact that they grow up in between two worlds, or sometimes in one with a foot standing precariously, hesitantly in the other.
In that way, Corey O’Connell, a 29-year-old grad student and nonprofit database consultant based in Brooklyn, but who grew up in New Jersey, and Kristin Lauritsch, a 27-year-old Peace Corps Volunteer from Virginia but currently stationed in South Africa, share a lot in common.
Both young women are South Korean transracial adoptees, raised by white parents in predominantly white towns. But each have been on two very unique journeys in coming to terms with and processing what it means to be adopted and American.
Below, Corey and Kristin share how growing up with white adoptive parents in two different communities has shaped their perspective, and their lives.
HuffPost: Where were you born? At what age were you adopted? And where did you grow up?
Corey (New Jersey): I was born in Pusan, South Korea, immediately placed in a foster home, and adopted when I was 4 months old. I grew up in Toms River, New Jersey.
Kristin (Virginia): I was adopted when I was 5 months old from Chollabuk-do, South Korea. I lived in New York until I was four at which time my family moved to the suburbs outside of Richmond, Virginia. Growing up outside of the former capital of the confederacy, there are still a lot of people with outdated mindsets. I was raised in an area that’s predominantly white with limited racial or cultural diversity.
Tell me about your parents, what were they like when you were growing up?
Corey (New Jersey): My parents are both white, both retired educators. My dad was a curriculum supervisor for my school district and my mom was everyone’s favorite math & science teacher. They were always (and still are) extremely warm, loving, encouraging, and supportive.
When/how did you and your parents first discuss the fact that you were adopted?
Corey (New Jersey): My being adopted was something I never remember NOT talking about. I have a younger sister who was also adopted, so I had to meet with the social workers and adoption agency representatives when I was a small child. Every year, my family celebrates the days that my sister and I arrived from the airport, our “Special Days,” and to me, it’s more significant than my birthday in a lot of ways. As soon as I was able to write, my parents sat down with me and helped me write a scrapbook with the story of my adoption ― how they had wanted a child, they were so excited and prepared my bedroom, all my relatives went to the airport with them to pick me up, and after that we were a family. We would read it together every year on my Special Day. I was taught from a young age to own my story and embrace the fact that it was different from most of my peers’.
Kristin (Virginia): I had a really amazing conversation once talking to a man who had adopted his son with his partner. We were discussing sexuality, and he talked about how he never ‘discovered’ he was gay, he just always knew. He asked me ‘when did you know you were adopted?’ which absolutely clicked for me ― because I too, just always knew. When I shared the story with my mom, she told me that she and my dad had actually had a conversation with me before I started kindergarten, but I don’t have any memory of it.
When did you first begin to think about race?
Corey (New Jersey): I remember being in kindergarten and playing Power Rangers or Captain Planet at recess. All the other kids always told me I “had” to be Trini, the Yellow Ranger, or the Gi, the Water Planeteer, because they were Asian and I looked like them. Even when I wanted to be Kimberly, the Pink Ranger, or Linka, the Wind Planeteer, I was told, “You don’t look like them so you can’t.” At Halloween, I was Belle from “Beauty & the Beast” because I loved books just like she did, but everyone told me I should have been Jasmine, because I looked like her. I never understood why I had to look like a character in order to like them. My mom also tells me that when everyone brought in baby pictures and people would try to guess whose was whose, I never understood why everyone automatically identified me, the only Asian kid in the class. For a long time, these were just things that happened... I never thought much about them until I was older.
The first time I really thought about the dichotomy between my Irish name and my race was when I took an online course in 9th grade through Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth. Almost all the other students had Western first names and Asian surnames, like “Joyce Chang” or “Michael Kim.” I realized that if they only saw my name on all my posts, they would have no idea I was an Asian girl, not a white boy.
Kristin (Virginia): Unfortunately I was not very aware of race growing up and had never really processed what it meant to be Asian or anything other than white. Although I was not conscious of race at a younger age, I was not immune to its effects. It’s impossible not to think about race right now in the States, and living in South Africa, a country that’s still healing post-Apartheid, has also led me to reflect a lot on race, identity, and privilege.
How do you feel about “whiteness?”
Corey (New Jersey): I have a lot of complex feelings about whiteness. Culturally, I’m not Asian at all. I grew up with white parents in a white town with mostly white friends. Culturally, I feel “white.” Over time, I’ve realized that often, I only ever feel like a person of color when other people treat me differently because I am a person of color. I still get stereotyped, fetishized, and harassed for it. I still get pigeonholed by both white and nonwhite people. I often feel guilty because I recognize that I come from a position of privilege as an East Asian versus other Asians and other people of color, and because I come from a white middle class family, and it makes me feel like I’m not enough of a person of color to claim to be oppressed in any way. But at the end of the day, in the United States, Asians are still persecuted. We still suffer from prejudice and bigotry, from the persistence of the model minority myth and lack of representation in media or politics. I sometimes struggle with reconciling the fact that my identity was shaped by the white culture and family I grew up in, but that same culture is, in ways, harmful to me and people who look like me. It feels hypocritical at times to criticize “whiteness” when I am, in ways, complicit in perpetuating the oppressive social structures that support white supremacy, purely because I was raised as belonging to that culture and that is what is familiar to me. I try hard to check my privilege and educate myself about others’ struggles. It’s an on-going journey.
Kristin (Virginia): Whiteness is something that I’ve been struggling with, because culturally I am white. In recognizing my own internalized oppression, its been difficult to figure out how to move forward. A lot of who I am is influenced by ‘whiteness,’ but I don’t necessarily have strong cultural ties that would make exploring Asian culture feel authentic.
Have you ever felt the need to become more connected to/learn more about your Asian side?
Corey (New Jersey): As I was adopted through the Holt Agency, there was a built-in support group for families like mine: mostly Asian children and non-Asian parents. I was a little interested in the culture as a child, but as I grew older, that small interest dissipated completely, and I didn’t try to revive it. I had other friends more interested in learning Korean or Mandarin, in taking classes to learn more about the cultures of the countries where they were born, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt that where I was born didn’t define me in any material way. I didn’t feel like I should feign an interest in Korea just because I was born there, when I had literally no ties to the country or culture otherwise. I don’t think that it’s wrong or weird for other adoptees to be interested in their birth countries ― I know a lot of other Korean adoptees in particular who are around my age have been going back to visit Korea ― but I also don’t think it’s wrong or weird for me to not be interested.
Kristin (Virginia): I’m interested in Korean culture but to the same extent I’m interested in other cultures in general. It doesn’t feel authentic or innate to me at this point. Growing up, my parents made an effort to connect me to my ‘Asian side,’ but I wasn’t interested. I recently heard that by 15 months children have already started identifying differences in race. At a young age I had already decided that I wanted to assimilate with those around me, which meant eschewing my ‘Asian side.’
More recently I have been thinking about traveling to South Korea. People have asked me before if I have any interest in returning and for a long time my answer was always ‘not particularly.’ However, at some point I had to self-reflect as to why I have such a strong interest in travel and experiencing new places and cultures but have never wanted to visit the place where I was born. It brings up a lot of questions, a lot of which I don’t think I’ve been ready to confront... but it’s a work in progress, so we’ll see.
Were there other POC/Asians in your town/school growing up? If not, how did you navigate being “the only one?” If yes, were you able to connect/relate to them?
Corey (New Jersey): There were barely any other people of color in my schools growing up. My hometown was literally 89.9% white, mostly people of Irish and Italian descent. In high school, my white friends would tell me that they would forget that I’m Asian because I was no different from them beyond my physical appearance. Others would say, “You’re only Asian when it’s convenient for a joke.” I would laugh good-naturedly because I was a teenager and I didn’t want to be perceived as that person who “didn’t have a sense of humor” or “made everything about race,” especially when ultimately, I didn’t feel remotely defined by my race. By then, I had a few other Asian friends who came from Asian families, but even then, I felt I had more in common with my white friends. I always felt a little on the outside with my Asian friends in a way I didn’t feel with my white friends, even though many of my white friends would make racist jokes to me pretty often.
I can recall those racist jokes, the crude caricatures drawn in my yearbook, the racist things said about other people of color, the casual use of racial slurs, and part of me wishes I had been capable of telling these people that these things weren’t okay ― not so much for me, but for everyone else who they behaved this way towards. I didn’t have the right words or understanding to be able to do this when I was younger, but I wish I had.
Kristin (Virginia): I grew up in a predominantly white community. In elementary school there were few POC and only one other Asian American student who was one of my best friends up until I changed elementary schools in third grade. Afterwards, we lost touch. My high school was more diverse, but there was still little Asian American representation. I was aware of being different and singled out but never confronted those feelings. Instead, I directed my energy into fitting in with my peers, who were predominantly white.
Was there a specific moment you can remember where you and your parents talked openly and honestly about race? Have you always been able to do so?
Corey (New Jersey): The only specific conversation I can remember right now is when my parents explained to me that I am Korean, and I am American, but I am not Korean-American. I don’t really remember any others, but my parents have always been very present and willing to listen. They’ve always been pretty progressive. When I mention the casually racist or prejudiced things that people say to me at hair salons, restaurants, and so on, my parents get more indignant than even I do, and apologize to me for having to go through this. I think they’re aware that they can’t truly comprehend what it’s like to experience these things, and I appreciate that they recognize that but still always back me up, no matter how minor an incident seems.
Do you have siblings? How has that informed your identity?
Corey (New Jersey): I have a younger sister who is also adopted, not related to me by blood. Some of my earliest fully-formed memories are of picking her up at the airport when I was 4. I never felt like our being adopted had any impact on our relationship as sisters ― she never felt like less of my sister because she was adopted, the same way my parents never felt like they weren’t my “real” parents because I’m adopted.
Kristin (Virginia): I’m an only child, and despite the bad rep that only children get I think it’s played a vital role in developing my identity and personality. As a result I am very independent and self-sufficient, and it’s also given me the opportunity to explore and figure myself out without the pressure of following in the footsteps of an older sibling.
What do you feel about people who say that transracial adoption is wrong/leaves POC children at a disadvantage?
Corey (New Jersey): I don’t think that as a general statement, transracial adoption is wrong or bad or a disadvantage for children of color. I think it very much requires for the adoptive parents to be aware of what they’re signing up for. They need to understand, especially if they adopt an older child of another race from a different country, that there might be some emotional problems and growing pains ― too many adopted children end up being abandoned again because of this lack of understanding in advance. Also, I think white parents in particular need to understand that there will be things that their child experiences as a person of color that they can never fully understand, and their child might need to be exposed to a more diverse group of peers and adults to feel comfortable with themselves. Even as a child, the adoptee will see and experience the world differently than the parents will because of the color of their skin. I think adoptive parents need to really be prepared for that... as much as they could be, at least.
Kristin (Virginia): Personally, I very much so appreciate the experiences that being a transracial adoptee has given me and was adopted into a family that I love and that loves me incredibly. I am privileged to have had a successful adoption, which I know is unfortunately not the case for everyone.
There are undoubtedly challenges that come along with transracial adoption. I think that it’s important to acknowledge race and that adoptive parents should be aware and sensitive to the challenges they and their children will face. There are steps that can be taken to build consciousness and awareness for both the adoptee and his or her parents in regards to race and identity. But at the end of the day, in my opinion, giving a child the opportunity to grow up with a loving family takes priority over the challenges transracial adoption presents.
What, if anything, has been the greatest lesson you’ve learned growing up as a transracial adoptee?
Corey (New Jersey): I used to really struggle with the idea that culturally, I felt white, and racially, I’m Asian, so when people see me, they automatically assign me a Korean identity that I don’t feel is an accurate representation of me. At the same time, people who see me only on paper assume from my name that I’m a white man. Even now, I sometimes feel like I don’t fit in anywhere: I’m not racially white so I’m not white, I’m not Korean enough culturally to identify as Korean, and as an Asian, I’m not enough of a person of color to even call myself that. More and more, though, I’ve become comfortable with the idea of existing between fixed identities. I don’t have to be “Korean” or “Asian.” Your identity can be fluid, and you can create a space for whatever you feel you are, even though other people will always try to label you as one thing or another for their own comfort. I’ve also learned to reserve judgement and try not make assumptions about other people’s identities by extension. It’s so conditioned in us to do this, I understand why people do it to me ― but understanding doesn’t make it any easier.
Kristin (Virginia): Being ‘other’ and not fitting neatly into a predetermined box is a unique experience that is hard to describe to those who have not had the experience, but it’s helped me build empathy and a sincere interest in understanding varied perspectives. It’s part of who I am.
What is one thing you want people to know about being an American, transracial adoptee?
Corey (New Jersey): When people ask where I’m from, I tell them New York or New Jersey. When they follow up with, “Yeah, but what ARE you?” I usually say, “American.” The fact that I was born in another country doesn’t make me less American. It sounds really corny, but my heart and life are here, and that’s what matters.
Kristin (Virginia): You know the old adage ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’? As trite as it sounds, it’s true. Don’t make assumptions about peoples’ abilities, families, and backgrounds ― and that goes for all people, not just those of us who are adopted. It’s easier said than done, and our brains are hardwired to make assumptions. Take into account the millions of images our brains are infiltrated with from media and social media, we develop a lot of ideas about how people should sound or dress or behave based on how they look. But it’s up to us to challenge ourselves and give people a clean slate; really take the time to get to know individuals for who they are.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.