Legitimacy and Being Korean

This post was posted in its original form at 10:37 PM, November 8, 2009 on my former blog.

Issues of legitimacy have affected for nearly as long as I can remember. Nowadays, I have a whole bunch of ways in which the legitimacy of my membership to an identity group is questioned, but when I was younger, there was really only one identity that was challenged. Still, I’ve dealt with questions of legitimacy for nearly my entire life.

I’m a person of color, as most of you know. I’m Asian — Korean, if you want to be specific. I’m also — and here’s one of the big reasons why there are legitimacy issues — I’m an adoptee. I was adopted as an infant and raised by my two wonderful (and very not Korean) parents in the heartland of the grand U.S. of A. In a lot of people’s eyes, that’s makes me not Korean. Never mind my brown skin, my birth in the Republic of Korea (that’s the official name for South Korea), my status as a naturalized citizen (which, by the way, makes me ineligible for presidential candidacy), my self-identification as Korean, or the fact that people here in the States see me as “other.” I wasn’t raised by Koreans; I don’t speak Korean: ergo, I am not “really” Korean.

Growing up, legitimacy was both a really sensitive topic and not too much of an issue. I didn’t actually name it an issue of legitimacy until I was older, but the feelings were there. Where I’m from, there’s actually quite a vibrant community of Korean adoptees and Korean Americans, despite it being a stereotypically Scandinavian state in the center of the country. I was in a traditional Korean dance group for adoptees; I went to summer camps for Korean adoptees. There were Korean restaurants; there was even a local quarterly newspaper for the Korean American community. Nearly all of my Asian friends were fellow Korean adoptees.

We certainly felt the assumptions people made about us, about whether we were “really” Korean, about whether we were Korean “enough.” But we were generally able to weather those judgements as a group. We had each other. When we were little, we knew that we were different from other Korean kids. We called non-adoptees “Korean-Korean” — they were the first generation kids, the second generation kids, the ones who grew up speaking Korean. They grew up immersed in Korean culture, whereas we scrabbled together what we could of our heritage.

Our culture, what I’ve often thought of as Korean-adoptee culture, is separate from “Korean-Korean” culture. We grew up eating “American” food — as children, our introduction to Korean food was generally either the faux-Korean/Korean-influenced sort of food that they’d serve at the Korean culture camps during the summer or the rice, bulgogi, chapchae, mandu, and kimchi that was served buffet-style at the Children’s Home Society benefit dinners that raised money for orphanages in Korea. That’s what we knew. We’d make mandu at home, sometimes — basically deep-fried dumplings — and we’d always also make cream cheese wontons. Not Korean — not even Asian, by any stretch of the imagination — but we loved them. We knew a little Korean — hello, thank you, yes, no, I love you, a few numbers. We took we had had, what we knew, and we created our own culture.

In the end, even though issues of ethnicity, heritage, and Korean-ness are no longer at the forefront of my questions about legitimacy, they still linger. I think that the single thing that makes me most feel like I don’t belong in any sort of Korean community — particularly since my connection to that Korean-adoptee culture of my youth is fading — is that I still don’t speak Korean. Not understanding when I hear people speak in Korean immediately wipes away my years of experience with Korean dance, my multiple trips back to Korea, and my long-held identity as a Korean American, and it makes me feel like an outsider.

Intellectually, I know that the concept of legitimacy is problematic and ultimately doesn’t mean much. I know that not fitting someone else’s definition doesn’t make me lesser. I know that not speaking Korean doesn’t actually make me not Korean. And typically, it’s not something that bothers me overmuch. But overhearing even a few sentences of Korean that I don’t understand can cause that sense of illegitimacy to wash over me in a wave of longing mixed with regret and embarrassment, and all of the knowledge I have doesn’t make it easier to handle emotionally.

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