By Bethan Eynon
I didnít discover that I looked Korean until middle school. I was scrutinizing my ponytail in the bathroom of my house, using a hand mirror to ensure perfection, when I stumbled across my profile. I craned my neck and stared in wonder. All of a sudden, I knew why the kids on the school bus used to call me "china doll." I thought of the silhouetted profile portraits of my mom, dad, and brother that used to hang together on the family room wall. They were taken a few years before I was adopted, when my brother was about seven. I tried to picture a portrait of my profile next to my familyís profiles, but they didnít match. Years later, I heard a news report about a survey conducted in African countries. Little girls were asked to draw self-portraits, and instead of coloring in dark hair and dark eyes and dark skin, they drew themselves as blonde-haired, blue-eyed, light-skinned girls. Those in charge of the study suggested the girlsí warped self-images were product of American television shows broadcast overseas, pervading other cultures. It made sense that children form images of themselves as reflections of those they see around them. Until middle school, I pictured myself with flowing chestnut hair and ivory skin.
I had plenty of evidence of my race. A traditional Han-bok hung in the coat closet downstairs, and I kept shoes to match and a South Korean flag in the top drawer of my dresser. My mom kept Korean dolls in the china closet in our living room, and my bookshelf was full of books about Korean games and customs. Our pastorís wife taught me how to say "hello" and "thank you" in Korean. Friends of my parents sent home Korean money and chopsticks and Korean books. I knew where my mom kept pictures of me sent from the orphanage before my adoption.
But when I used to walk in the front door crying as the school bus pulled away, my mom never said Korea was the reason why I was called names. She said everyone was jealous because I was so beautiful. The last time I cried to her was in middle school. She assumed I had had a particularly rough week. I didnít tell her someone had called me a nigger that day, and none my friends had the guts to say the word in the principalís office to prove I wasnít lying.
My parents never hid my adoption from me. New friends ask how I found out, perhaps imagining a dramatic teen-novel scenario where I discover through research at the public records office and my picture on a milk carton that I am my familyís biggest secret. I jokingly reply, "This isnít the type of adoption you can hide." My mom tells the story like this: I was one year old, and I held a little American flag as the judge finalized the papers. Then she tells the story of my baptism: I was one year old, and the pastorís wife sang "Jesus Loves Me" in Korean. My parents always told me I was no different from anyone. Then they said I was special because I was adopted, which over the years has become the same word as "Korean."
As a child, I used my heritage for social leverage. My friends had trampolines and Barbie convertibles, but I had Korea. When the little boys on my street poked their heads over the orange rubber seats of the school bus to call me Chinese, I poked my head back and retorted, "Youíve never even heard of where Iím from." I always won the fight because the only two Asian countries they knew were China and Japanóand Japan was on a good day. When friends told stories about when they were born, I told a story about how my parents waited five years to get me, and they had to drive all the way to the Grand Rapids, Michigan, airport, and the plane was delayed so they spent hours waiting and worrying! I was proud that I had a claim to difference, and I was proud that I knew more than my peers, but I was never proud to be Korean. My parents encouraged me to look at the picture books they kept in my room, but I always thought they were fiction. Does Korea really look like thatódirt roads and little hut houses? Do Korean people wear those traditional clothes all the timeóno jeans or t-shirts or sneakers? These books painted a picture of Korea as a primitive country, lacking industry and city skylines and highways. At a young age, I realized I would never know what Korea is really like because I would always be an American looking in.
I joined a Girl Scout troop in sixth grade. It was in it mostly for the crafts and my best friend. There was an international festival put on every year by all the troops in the county. Each troop chose a country and prepared its traditional food and researched its history. Troops also put on a performance about their country. My mom and the troop leader chose Korea because they thought it would be a good opportunity for me and for my friends to learn about my heritage. When I was asked if I was okay with this, I said yes. I partly felt obligated to be enthusiastic about Korea because everyone else was enthusiastic about it when they talked to me. I also partly liked the idea of being the center of attention.
The troop mothers researched recipes and chuckled at themselves when their cookies came out vastly different than the picture on the cookbook. They made Han-boks for all the girls out of cheap fabric and taught themselves how to tie the bow in the front. They choreographed our performance to traditional Korean music. At the festival, I was supposed to be more connected to our country than the other girls, but I stood by our table in my Han-bok, jealous of the troop that chose Italy. They served pizza and all the other troops liked their food the best. When girls asked me questions about Korea, I had no answers. I resented having to stand there like I was part of the display. I resented peopleís expectations that I care about Korea.
A status symbol of my troop was having an American Girl doll. The richest girls brought in their entire collection for show-and-tell. They flaunted how their dolls looked exactly like them. They opened their trunks of clothing and laid out each outfit. I got hold of a catalogue and scoured the pages for a doll that looked exactly like me. Buying a doll that looked like me was important, because then I could buy matching outfits for my doll and myself. I liked Felicity the most, but she had red hair and blue eyes. Most of the dolls had blonde hair. None of them had eyes like mine. My mom bought me the Felicity books but said we didnít have the money for the doll. I accepted this, knowing that there wasnít a doll for me, anyway, knowing that American Girl was not for all American girls.
Around the same time, a Korean family moved to Canfield. I had been the only Asian student for years and one of a few minorities. Melissa was the youngest daughter. She was in the same grade as me, but we were very different people: I was in choir, and she was in band. We looked very different, too, but everyone joked that we would be hard to tell apartóafter all, we were both Korean and we both wore glasses. I didnít take this seriously until the band director came running after me in the hallway, indignant that I didnít turn around when he yelled, "Melissa!" I was embarrassed when my high school geometry teacher mixed up our names, especially because he was my favorite teacher. Even after moving away to college, I meet girls from classes that graduated before me who ask, "Donít you have an older sister who went to school with me?" I answer, "No, that was Melissa."
I brushed off jokes about how all Asians looked alike, but quickly realized the reality behind the stereotype. At family reunion, my momís relatives brought with them a daughter they had adopted from Korea. My least favorite distant uncle swept the eight-year-old girl into a bear hug, all the while yelling my name. The family watched this spectacle in awkward bewilderment. I turned my back to the scene and slinked to a corner of the yard. I was about sixteen at the time, and I havenít attended an extended family function since.
Despite my annoyance with being identified by race, I became upset when people forgot it. Doctors who were friends of the family asked me if I had a history of diabetes or heart problems. My biology teacher, a friend of my momís, used me as a genealogy example. "Bethan has brown eyes," she told the class, "which means her mom or dad has brown eyes." I sat at my lab table mortified. The teacher apologized later, soothing her own humiliation by telling me that she thought of me as Caucasian, like everyone else. For most of high school, though, I thought little about my adoption. I had grown up with my friends, and they knew that Korea was insignificant in my life. I struck a balance between knowing logically that I was different and feeling the same as everyone else. I taught myself to ignore the fact that I was the only minority in group pictures.
Senior year, I auditioned for a role in Fiddler On the Roof. The choir teacher was surprised because I had never shown interest in performing before. She asked why I hadnít auditioned for Liat in South Pacific the year before, implying that I would have gotten the part. I shrugged my
shoulders, unwillingly to say that I didnít audition because I knew I would have gotten it just because of my race. I was called back for the grandmotheróa part that was out of my vocal range and uncharacteristic of me. I auditioned for Hodel instead. During the carpool home after
auditions, Sarah analyzed the roles as if she were a movie critic for the Oscars. For Hodel, she said I had done well, but if the director wanted the cast family to look alike, Tiffany would get the part. Her suggestion startled me, and as I drove home in the rain after dropping her off, I
thought about how whoever played the grandmother would have to wear tons of makeup to look like a ghost. I thought about how Sarah made sense, and I thought about how Korean girls arenít very prominent in Russia. I didnít get either part. Instead, I stood as the only minority on stage
in the chorus, embarrassed that my features didnít match the peasant costume I wore.
I began realizing that strangers were especially sensitive to my race. People asked my parents if I were an exchange student. People assumed my brother and I were dating. Cashiers totaled my familyís bill at Wendyís before I could order. When I came to stand next to my mom as she checked out at a store, the clerks glanced at me and asked, "Can I help you?" When I went out to eat with her, the waitress assumed we were on separate checks. I wanted to believe that people were just doing their jobs, but who assumes that a mother wonít pay for her teenaged daughterís lunch?
I was relieved when I moved to Ohio University because I no longer had to explain my existence within my family. Everyone thought my parents were Korean, which satisfied them because then nothing was out of the ordinary. Little facts of my life, though, made people suspicious: My mom is a French teacher; my dad has family in Wales. Friends concocted wild explanations when I refused to address their questions. Maybe in the 1800s, South Koreans migrated to Wales, and both Welsh and Korean people traveled to America for jobs. After breaking down and explaining that I was adopted, I had to answer questions I hadnít been asked since elementary school:
How old were you? (Ten months.)
Do you miss Korea? (I donít remember it.)
Do you know your real parents? (Yes, they raised me.)
Do you want to go back? (No.)
Can you speak the language? (Hah!)
I hate these questions because people ask them for selfish reasons. They preface, "If you donít want to talk about it, you donít have to," but the prying is in the asking, not the answering. They get caught up on my indifference to Korea. "Why?" they ask when they find out I donít want to go back. "Because," I answer, "Itís not my country." I have a friend who was born in Germany, but no one assumes sheís German.
In order to avoid these questions from strangers, Iíve gotten good at lying. A man selling jewelry in a booth at the mall tried to strike up a conversation about Koreaóhe probably thought Korea was something I could easily talk about. He asked if I were visiting the states. I paused, smiled, and said I was here to get my degree. My father was a diplomat who traveled here often with my mother. Yes, I missed home. Yes, I visited Korea once a year. Yes, I planned to return permanently after I completed school. He never questioned my lack of accent. I told him I liked his jewelry and I might be back to buy some. I walked away on a power highóI was able to use peopleís assumptions for my amusement. Later in college, I looked forward to playing the "two truths and a lie" icebreaker. I always used "Iím bilingual" for my lie, and people rarely guessed it.
Ohio Universityís 1 percent Asian population is the most diversity Iíve ever experienced. As a freshman, I was excited that there were people I thought were like me. But when I attended a Korean Student Association social, few English words were spoken. I sat with the only person I knew, uncomfortable that I understood little of what was going on yet relieved that, for once, I blended into the crowd.
As the food dwindled, an exchange student from Japan sat down next to me. He spoke in English, and I was surprised he knew that I didnít know Korean. "Youíre not Korean like them," he said. "I could tell from across the roomóAmerican girls are different." I didnít know
what to say, so I responded, "Thank you." For the first time, someone could see that I didnít blend in to either side at all.