What It Means to Be Korean-American

Adoptee Nathan Campbell shares how adoption and a recent birth search have shaped his identity as a Korean and an American.

Nathan Campbell is a rising junior at Davidson College in North Carolina, and is one of three 2017 Holt Adoptee Scholarship recipients! His submission included a multimedia presentation, below. 

In both negative and positive ways, adoption has shaped my physical, social and cultural identities. Growing up my entire life in a small, 95 percent white town with white parents who look nothing like me certainly impacted how I viewed myself. Having no knowledge whatsoever of a Korean lifestyle, the Korean language or the culture in general, I ultimately identified my race as white throughout elementary and middle school: I played football and basketball, only had white friends, and only ate American-style cuisine for breakfast, lunch and dinner every meal of my life. This stigma of appearing phenotypically different than everybody else around me never really bothered me. Rather, I just considered myself one of them, because those were the family, people and friends that I grew up with, went to school all 12 years with, and played sports with. Speaking with a distinct Southern Ohio country accent paired with the fact that my name is Nathan Campbell pretty much confirmed my unknown and mysterious ancestry.

Nathan stands between his birth mom, Minee, and his adoptive parents, Kenda and Jon.

However, everything changed in December of 2014. Two months prior, on my 18th birthday in October, I had filled out the paperwork in hope of finding information about my birth mother. This is something I had wanted to do my entire life — mostly out of pure curiosity and wishing to visit the country where I was born. With statistics, unfortunate stories and long waiting periods against my odds, by the grace of God, I received an email from Holt with letters from my birth mother written in Korean that translated to the fact that she had been waiting for this day her entire life and actually wanted to meet me. This miracle would change my life and identity forever.

Nathan with his birth mom in Korea.

One of the first things I soon found out about my birth mother was that she knew zero English, which made things difficult and frustrating. I believe that the majority of the change in my identity grew from this barrier, because it gave me a relentless motivation to learn the language. After briefly self-teaching myself the language, I started to become interested in Korean culture; things like K-Dramas, skin care, Kakao Talk and developing a craze for Korean food. Meeting my birth mother for the first time was an experience that I cannot put into words: A connection that I have never felt before and developing a mother- son bond through our cultural differences and my broken Korean. Although I felt frustrated that I could not communicate clearly with her — and really just out of place in Korea despite looking like everybody else for once — it pushed me to learn more.

As of now, I have visited Korea twice in order to see my birth mother, once with my adoptive family and a translator, and the second time by myself. I have also completed two semesters of Korean language at my college and am continuing to study on my own. The adoption process took my identity on a roller coaster. In reality, looking unlike my parents in the States is nothing compared to going to your home country and feeling like even more of a foreigner. Despite these obstacles adoptees must face, I have come to realize the importance of both identities and embrace both cultures. I appreciate the journey of finding my true self and cannot be more grateful for both my adoptive family and Holt for making everything possible. I truly consider myself Korean-American; not just white or not just Korean, but a mixture of both. Discovering myself and this process is not over as I will continue to build a relationship with my Korean family while at the same time be grateful for all that my adoptive family has provided me with. I am adopted and proud!

Nathan Campbell | Adoptee

View Holt’s other two 2017 winning scholarship submissions here and here.

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