A Korean adoptee answers the question, “What’s interesting about me?”
When you’re a traveler, you meet “interesting” people. I put that word in quotes, because if you’ve been backpacking before, you know that “interesting” can mean just about anything. During my recent journey through Southeast Asia, I would sometimes wonder, “What’s interesting about me?” Compared to some of the characters I met, I didn’t think I was that special. I met a minimalist traveler; he only owned 40 things and all of them were in his backpack. I met a celiac traveler; he was on a mission to show how easy it is to travel, even if you’re allergic to wheat. I met a crazy traveler; he had thrown a grenade at a cow in Cambodia. And then there was plain, old me — “Hi, I’m David and I’m from the U.S.”. Not that cool. But what I’ve come to realize is that you don’t need to have “a thing.” Traveling is personal. We all travel for our own reasons, even if we’re not aware of them at the time. And that’s why I’m writing this article — to tell you why this trip was an especially interesting trip for me. I was adopted from Seoul and this was my first time back in Asia. And that is kind of a big deal.
As a Korean adoptee, there have been times when I didn’t feel like I belonged in America. This sense of belonging is something I’ve thought about my entire life — as do most adopted children. That said, it would help to cover my background.
In 1985, I was adopted when I was 4 months old by my loving parents. I grew up in a nice suburban town in Hunterdon County, New Jersey. My sister (also a Holt adoptee) and I were a few of the only minorities in town. My grammar school was predominately white. My high school was predominately white. By predominately white, I mean that if someone said, “He’s Asian…”, that was enough to identify me. And yes, I attended Gettysburg College, which is also predominantly white. Excuse me if I’m making this sound negative, because I don’t mean to. I love my teachers, friends, and family. I love my grammar school, my high school, my college. I was treated like any other person — it made no difference what I looked like and that’s how it should be. But let’s be real, I stood out. Throughout life, I’ve been very conscious of the fact that I was the only Asian person in the entire room. Not uncomfortable, just aware. So this made traveling in Asia a little more “interesting,” because somewhere in me was that little kid who remembered sitting in an all white classroom thinking, “Do I really fit in here?”
In October 2010, I quit my job to pursue my dream of traveling independently and chose Southeast Asia because it’s notoriously backpacker friendly. One of the things I was curious about was how it would feel to be surrounded by people who looked similar to me. It was an experience I had never truly had before. Looking back, I was naïve in thinking that I would immediately bond with someone simply because I shared some of their physical features.
After an hour on a bus or a train or a boat in Southeast Asia, I would look around — all Asian people. Everyone in their own conversations, in their own worlds. But I didn’t feel any more connected to them than if I were on a bus at home with all white people. Somewhere in my head, I thought that being in an Asian country, surrounded by all of its culture, would make me feel more comfortable — to me, it didn’t.
People would come up to me and start speaking in Thai, Cambodian or Vietnamese, and I would have to politely say that I only spoke English. Situations like these are a little awkward. One time, I was on a sleeper train in a cabin with three Vietnamese men. Even though they could only speak broken English, we were making decent conversation. I thought I’d try to explain my background and it reminded me how complex adoption can sound: “I was born in Seoul…But I’m from the America…I don’t speak Korean…My parents are white…My sister’s adopted from Korea, too…But no, she’s not my real sister. I mean she’s not my biological sister.” What a mess! They’d just do the patented tourist bale-out — the smile and nod. And I don’t blame them.
What I’m trying to say is that even at 25 years old, being adopted can be confusing. It can still feel like you’re stuck right in the middle. As a child, I certainly didn’t look similar to any of my white friends or family. And during my travels in Asia, I didn’t feel any more connected to people who looked similar to me. Yet, when I fill out any kind of form, I still mark the little checkbox that says “Asian.”
This isn’t one of those articles with a profound, happy ending. It’s one of those articles with an honest ending — if you’re adopted, you’ll always be learning new things about yourself. Even as an adult, new questions about your background will arise. And that’s what can make your journey especially interesting.
David VanArsdale | Holt Adoptee
Very great article! My 2 kids are both adopted from Korea and your insightful article will help me to understand what they might experience.