Ron Nixon writes for the New York Times.
As a child, Kim Eun Mi Young hated being different.
When her father brought home toys, a record and a picture book on South Korea, the country from which she was adopted in 1961, she ignored them.
Growing up in Georgia, Kansas and Hawaii, in a military family, she would date only white teenagers, even when Asian boys were around.
“At no time did I consider myself anything other than white,” said Ms. Young, 48, who lives in San Antonio. “I had no sense of any identity as a Korean woman. Dating an Asian man would have forced me to accept who I was.”
It was not until she was in her 30s that she began to explore her Korean heritage. One night, after going out to celebrate with her husband at the time, she says she broke down and began crying uncontrollably.
“I remember sitting there thinking, where is my mother? Why did she leave me? Why couldn’t she struggle to keep me?” she said. “That was the beginning of my journey to find out who I am.”
The experiences of Ms. Young are common among adopted children from Korea, according to one of the largest studies of transracial adoptions, which is to be released on Monday. The report, which focuses on the first generation of children adopted from South Korea, found that 78 percent of those who responded had considered themselves to be white or had wanted to be white when they were children. Sixty percent indicated their racial identity had become important by the time they were in middle school, and, as adults, nearly 61 percent said they had traveled to Korea both to learn more about the culture and to find their birth parents.
Like Ms. Young, most Korean adoptees were raised in predominantly white neighborhoods and saw few, if any, people who looked like them. The report also found that the children were teased and experienced racial discrimination, often from teachers. And only a minority of the respondents said they felt welcomed by members of their own ethnic group.
As a result, many of them have had trouble coming to terms with their racial and ethnic identities.
The report was issued by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a nonprofit adoption research and policy group based in New York. Since 1953, parents in the United States have adopted more than a half-million children from other countries, the vast majority of them from orphanages in Asia, South America and, most recently, Africa. Yet the impact of such adoptions on identity has been only sporadically studied. The authors of the Donaldson Adoption Institute study said they hoped their work would guide policymakers, parents and adoption agencies in helping the current generation of children adopted from Asian countries to form healthy identities.
“So much of the research on transracial adoption has been done from the perspective of adoptive parents or adolescent children,” said Adam Pertman, executive director of the institute. “We wanted to be able to draw on the knowledge and life experience of a group of individuals who can provide insight into what we need to do better.”
The study recommends several changes in adoption practices that the institute said are important, including better support for adoptive parents and recognition that adoption grows in significance for their children from young adulthood on, and throughout adulthood.
South Korea was the first country from which Americans adopted in significant numbers. From 1953 to 2007, an estimated 160,000 South Korean children were adopted by people from other countries, most of them in the United States. They make up the largest group of transracial adoptees in the United States and, by some estimates, are 10 percent of the nation’s Korean population.
The report says that significant changes have occurred since the first generation of adopted children were brought to the United States, a time when parents were told to assimilate the children into their families without regard for their native culture.
Yet even adoptees who are exposed to their culture and have parents who discuss issues of race and discrimination say they found it difficult growing up.
Heidi Weitzman, who was adopted from Korea when she was 7 months old and who grew up in ethnically mixed neighborhoods in St. Paul, said her parents were in touch with other parents with Korean children and even offered to send her to a “culture camp” where she could learn about her heritage.
“But I hated it,” said Ms. Weitzman, a mental health therapist in St. Paul. “I didn’t want to do anything that made me stand out as being Korean. Being surrounded by people who were blonds and brunets, I just thought that I was white.” It was not until she moved to New York after college that she began to become comfortable with being Korean.
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J. Michael Short for The New York Times
Ms. Young's visa and items that came with her from South Korea when she was adopted in 1961.
Times Topics: Adoptions
“I was 21 before I could look in the mirror and not be surprised by what I saw staring back at me,” she said. “The process of discovering who I am has been a long process, and I’m still on it.”
Ms. Weitzman’s road to self-discovery was fairly typical of the 179 Korean adoptees with two Caucasian parents who responded to the Donaldson Adoption Institute survey. Most said they began to think of themselves more as Korean when they attended college or moved to ethnically diverse neighborhoods as adults.
For Joel Ballantyne, a high school teacher in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who was adopted by white parents in 1977, the study confirms many of the feelings that he and other adoptees have tried to explain for years.
“This offers proof that we’re not crazy or just being ungrateful to our adoptive parents when we talk about our experiences,” said Mr. Ballantyne, 35, who was adopted at age 3 and who grew up in Alabama, Texas and, finally, California.
Jennifer Town, 33, agreed.
“A lot of adoptees have problems talking about these issues with their adoptive families,” she said. “They take it as some kind of rejection of them when we’re just trying to figure out who we are.”
Ms. Towns, who was adopted in 1979 and raised in a small town in Minnesota, recalled that during college, when she announced that she was going to Korea to find out more about her past, her parents “freaked out.”
“They saw it as a rejection,” she said. “My adoptive mother is really into genealogy, tracing her family to Sweden, and she was upset with me because I wanted to find out who I was.”
Mr. Ballantyne said he received a similar reaction when he told his parents of plans to travel to Korea.
The Donaldson Adoption Institute’s study concludes that such trips are among the many ways that parents and adoption agencies could help adoptees deal with their struggle with identity and race. But both Ms. Towns and Mr. Ballantyne said that while traveling to South Korea was an eye-opening experience in many ways, it was also disheartening.
Many Koreans, they said, did not consider them to be “real Koreans” because they did not speak the language or seem to understand the culture.
Mr. Ballantyne tracked down his maternal grandmother, but when he met her, he said, she scolded him for not learning Korean before he came.
“She was the one who had put me up for adoption,” he said. “So that just created tension between us. Even as I was leaving, she continued to say I needed to learn Korean before I came by again.”
Sonya Wilson, adopted in 1976 by a white family in Clarissa, Minn., says that although she shares many of the experiences of those interviewed in the study — she grew up as the only Asian in a town of 600 — policy changes must address why children are put up for adoption, and should do more to help single women in South Korea keep their children. “This study does not address any of these issues,” Ms. Wilson said.
Ms. Young said the study was helpful, but that it came too late to help people like her.
“I wish someone had done something like this when I was growing up,” she said.