Part I: Where Are You From?
Was it you who came
Or was it I who went —
I do not remember.
Was that dream or reality?
Was I asleep or awake?
Picture this: A man and a woman meet at a party and greet each other simply with, “Hello.” Maybe they shake hands, exchange names, locate a point of commonality. One asks what the other does for a living, where they went to school, if they saw the game last night. Their connection is greased by the idea that they are one in the same, that their sense of identity is nothing more than a mirror image: They might learn they are from the same town, the same state, the same demographic. They might think to themselves: This person reminds me of myself. Or, if not myself, a family member. A friend. Someone familiar. They won’t, however, suspect that the person standing next to them was not born in this country. Nor will they question where this person’s parents or grandparents or even great-grandparents were born.
Now picture this: I am also at that party with that man and that woman. I am not oblivious but I am sometimes unaware of my physicality, what I might suggest or represent externally. Part of this is that my name and surname, which, unless you meet me in person, beguiles my physicality and all that that might represent. One of them asks me my name. “Mark,” I reply. But he or she will not necessarily ask me what I do or where I went to school next. Instead, there is another question for me: One of them will ask, “Where are you from?”
I am not unprepared for this sequence, this line of questioning. Though I am at times forgetful of what my exterior physicality suggests — that I am not of this country and of this language — I am exclusively reminded of the racial barriers that still exist when confronted with that question. I tell either one, “I’m from here.” But this will not be enough. It never is. I want to tell this man or this woman, like most of the partygoers here that “I’m from Maryland, not born but certainly raised.” I want to convince them of my connection with them, that I am just like them. I want to do this in such a way that I don’t have to divulge my life story. But then I want to simply say, “I’m adopted,” because while that’s loaded, it’s also efficient, because that word signifies so much.
I am thirty-five years old and have lived in America for the past thirty-two years. I have encountered this question consistently ever since I was adopted and brought over to America. I heard this question at the grocery store with my mother when I was a child, on the playground with my classmates, in the community church, from strangers on the street. But it still unnerves me some; it reminds me of my body, of my exterior differences, of my adoption. For the transracial adoptee, the question “Where are you from?” implies a previous narrative, one that must be grounded in the foreign and never the familiar and localized, never the authentic American. Transracial adoptees can, at most, become honorary whites, reinforce or undo the model minority myth. We can choose to be viewed as either too sensitive or too indifferent with our reaction to laugh or not laugh at a seemingly benign joke at our expense for some sense of inclusivity. But what this question does in its very utterance is remind us that we are excluded in some meaningful way, that our bodies and our names do not quite align, do not quite register — must always require additional unpacking of the question, as if even though we have come from X or Y or Z country, Ariadne’s ball of string must inextricably bind us to someplace else, someplace foreign. That question also has the power to constantly unsettle our supposed resettled selves from a previous unknown master narrative, one that says we have been saved from a life of unknown hardship, one that seems to always posit a white savior who is color blind.
For most people at parties, “Where are you from?” suggests a more localized geography, if not national. It suggests a desire to know what county, what state, what region one is from. It does not necessarily seek out what country, what continent, what particular trauma. Often, this question does not require the recipient to reveal one’s paternal or maternal lineage; it does not suggest an inquiry as to the status of one’s ethnicity unless they are physically different.
I am reminded of James Baldwin’s essay, “Stranger in the Village,” where he writes about his time in a “tiny Swiss village” where he was told before he stepped foot there that “[he] would probably be a ‘sight’ for the village” (163). Though he assumed he would never return after his two weeks, he does return a year later because the village is cheap and offers no distractions for a writer. He writes, “Everyone in the village knows my name, though they scarcely ever use it, knows that I come from America — though, this, apparently, they will never really believe: black men come from Africa —” (165). I think, whenever this question arises, the person asking it, in some way, thinks that yellow people must come from Asia.
And I think, I will not quite find that common ground with him or her or them whenever this question comes up. Though I left the grocery store as a child, the playground as a student, it invariably comes up still at parties, on the airplane, in the classroom. So I want to say so much more. I want to tell you how unsettling this question can be for transracial adoptees. But how can I do that? How can I, without unloading my history, explain to you how that question makes us feel?
I wonder, then, if adoption is a kind of resettlement that is only concerned with the removal of people from one country and placement in another. Does it care to contend with all that that entails? Does it reflect on itself as a continual practice that never seeks to challenge the cause of resettlement? Does it question what has led to this moment; is there an alternative, is there ever a way back? Or, does resettlement imply only forward momentum, as if like Lot’s wife, if we dare look back, we will be punished in some way for merely wanting to know the past?
Part II: Where Are You Going?
Where are you from? Asked the man
at the border.
From the world.
Where are you going?
But where is home?
I don’t know.
— Janusz Korczak, King Matt on the Desert Island
My adoptive mother tells me how quickly I learned English. She says, “You’ve always been smart, always quick. Within four months you were fluent.” I don’t dispute this timeline. But, where she sees intelligence, I see necessity, survival. Where she sees the emergence of the ability to communicate freely with the family that has adopted me, I see, though only much later as an adult trying to recall those sounds, the utter loss of my native tongue and all that that will entail.
It will go something like this: At a party with Korean students, someone will ask, “Do you speak Korean?” as a way to create solidarity. It is in that culture so critically important to know Korean. “No,” I will say. “Your parents didn’t teach you?” he or she will ask, trying to understand how Korean parents would not instill that sense of pride in me, in our language. “It’s not quite like that,” I will say, then stop, because, again, I know where this is going.
I want to tell him or her that I did speak this language, but that I had to exchange it at the border, that resettling often means leaving your past behind. I want to say, “I used to see the world with that kind of grammar, with those calculated breaths, that cadence and rhythm, but now… I cannot see or feel it anymore.” I want to tell him or her that I am deeply ashamed at having lost that connection with my birth country, that in my inability to engage him or her freely in the language we should share, which should bind us through space and time, there is a palpable heaviness. But I will say, “We should speak English.” But in saying this, I will also imply that we must use this grammar, these nouns and verbs, those articles and prepositions.
I will tell him or her, “No, I don’t speak Korean.” I will say, because it’s quicker, “I’m adopted.” And like that, he or she will understand — not necessarily the immensity of that loss or the intensity of that shame — that I am Korean and I am not. In many ways, his or her question is not much different than the one I began this essay with: “Where are you from?” It does, however, differ in that his or her question — the specificity of it — already locates a place of origin, of culture, of some sense of home.
But where is home for the transracial adoptee? International adoption is always a game of exchange. Resettlement has always meant a permanent displacement, a sense of incongruity, of overlaps, of never quite fitting in here or there. The clothing is just a little too small or a little too big, the food too bland or too salty. The family picture will always reveal that I belong and I do not belong, that, on the surface to an outsider, that construct is created not birthed.
There is no blood shared between my adoptive family and me. My family will say, “We don’t see race and we love you all the same.” The church will say, “It was by God’s grace that you came to us, to your family, to this country.” I will try to explain to them the disconnect, the danger in being colorblind, the lack of preparation for being a visible minority in America with no support system, no guidance. But I will grow tired of repeating myself; I will grow tired of talking with myself. I will nod and accept their sentiments. I will not raise the issue or try to explain anymore. But I will also still feel at odds, never feel quite on equal footing. I will never quite feel comfortable.
I began this essay with the question, “Where are you from?” with the intention of connecting it to the second question of the title, “Where are you going?” I returned to Korea in 2003 to search for my birth family, my birth mother specifically to no avail. What I realized to some degree back then is what is magnified and intensified even now. That going somewhere is often times connoted as something to look forward to, to experience fully, to express in some form later. It is about the possibilities of exploration, interaction, reaction. In a sense, it is often times a vacation. But going away somewhere also implies a return, a return to one’s home and all the comforts and familiarities that that word signifies.
Hiraeth is a Welsh word that does not easily translate into English. Roughly it means a longing for home. But I should try to qualify the magnitude of this. It might also convey this intense desire for a sense of familiarity of a particular place. Perhaps the translation isn’t a word so much as it’s a physical place. It seems appropriate to consider a childhood home, one that still exists, one that always represented safety, stability, comfort. But this notion of home doesn’t always exist for the transracial adoptee.
What I’ve come to know is this: international adoption, with all of its immense stakes, is a kind of resettlement, perhaps assisted, perhaps coerced, perhaps forced, that has no fixable end beyond the official stamped dates of one leaving another country and entering America. In my case, this all transpired sometime in April 1983. Adoption as resettlement for me has never meant a new start, a fresh beginning, an opportunity to discard the past. It cannot represent these things if I must explain myself to others. Instead, it has meant a continual reaffirming of my Americanness, a constant reminder of the traumatic past, a potential inability to ever truly be free of what has led me to be here. The question “Where are you from?” reminds me of all I have exchanged, all I have lost, all I can never retrieve.
Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.
— James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room
I want to picture it this way; I want to go in this direction: I am at that party with that man and that woman. One of them asks me my name. I reply, “Mark.” Then one of them asks me, “Where are you from?” I will say, “I’m from Maryland.” Then, he or she will say, “Maryland? You know, I grew up there, right outside Baltimore.” I will say, “Yes, my parents grew up there, and I grew up there.” He or she will say, “Baltimore — there’s no place like it; there’s no place like home, huh?” And I will smile, nod in agreement, and think, Yes, home. There’s no place like home.