Choosing Ethnicity, Negotiating Race

Choosing Ethnicity, Negotiating Race: Korean Adoptees in America

Mia Tuan
Jiannbin Lee Shiao
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 224
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Choosing Ethnicity, Negotiating Race
    Book Description:

    Transnational adoption was once a rarity in the United States, but Americans have been choosing to adopt children from abroad with increasing frequency since the mid-twentieth century. Korean adoptees make up the largest share of international adoptions—25 percent of all children adopted from outside the United States—but they remain understudied among Asian American groups. What kind of identities do adoptees develop as members of American families and in a cultural climate that often views them as foreigners? Choosing Ethnicity, Negotiating Race is the only study of this unique population to collect in-depth interviews with a multigenerational, random sample of adult Korean adoptees. The book examines how Korean adoptees form their social identities and compares them to native-born Asian Americans who are not adopted. How do American stereotypes influence the ways Korean adoptees identify themselves? Does the need to explore a Korean cultural identity—or the absence of this need—shift according to life stage or circumstance? In Choosing Ethnicity, Negotiating Race, sixty-one adult Korean adoptees—representing different genders, social classes, and communities—reflect on early childhood, young adulthood, their current lives, and how they experience others’ perceptions of them. The authors find that most adoptees do not identify themselves strongly in ethnic terms, although they will at times identify as Korean or Asian American in order to deflect questions from outsiders about their cultural backgrounds. Indeed, Korean adoptees are far less likely than their non-adopted Asian American peers to explore their ethnic backgrounds by joining ethnic organizations or social networks. Adoptees who do not explore their ethnic identity early in life are less likely ever to do so—citing such causes as general aversion, lack of opportunity, or the personal insignificance of race, ethnicity, and adoption in their lives. Nonetheless, the choice of many adoptees not to identify as Korean or Asian American does not diminish the salience of racial stereotypes in their lives. Korean adoptees must continually navigate society’s assumptions about Asian Americans regardless of whether they chose to identify ethnically. Choosing Ethnicity, Negotiating Race is a crucial examination of this little-studied American population and will make informative reading for adoptive families, adoption agencies, and policymakers. The authors demonstrate that while race is a social construct, its influence on daily life is real. This book provides an insightful analysis of how potent this influence can be—for transnational adoptees and all Americans.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-706-5
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. CHAPTER 1 Korean Adoptees in America
    (pp. 1-19)

    To hear Caleb Littell recount the story, life was good growing up during the 1980s.¹ Adopted as an infant from South Korea, Caleb joined a loving family consisting of his parents and, a few years later, a sister, Holly, also adopted from Korea. John and Deborah Littell raised their children in the predominantly white suburb of Renton, Washington, just outside of Seattle. Deborah, an attorney, and John, the director of a nonprofit as well as a minister, chose Korea because of its reputation as a reputable source of healthy children. Caleb was the answer to their dreams, and his arrival...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Historicizing Korean Adoption
    (pp. 20-39)

    Before turning to the interviews, we believe it is important to situate Korean adoption within the context of U.S. race relations. The history of the practice coincides with momentous social, political, and cultural changes in the United States that have had significant bearing on the lives of Korean adoptees. The first wave, those who came in the 1950s and 1960s, joined their families as the civil rights movement was gaining momentum. The evening news was dominated by accounts of protest marches, unrest, and legal action contesting the prevailing racial order. At the same time, adoptees were influenced by popular television...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Family Life and Childhood Experiences
    (pp. 40-66)

    Emily Stewart was raised in a small, predominantly Dutch community in the state of Washington. In the mid-1970s, “it was a ‘closed on Sundays’ type of community, mostly white, blond-haired, blue-eyed Dutch kids.” With her dark hair and Asian features, Emily was anything but the norm in her community. Her parents, Faye and Gary, decided that the best way to help their daughter adjust would be to teach her that racial and cultural differences did not matter in family or community life. People were people—individuals rather than members of racial groups.

    Then Emily started dating, and their tune changed....

  8. CHAPTER 4 Ethnic Explorations in Early Adulthood
    (pp. 67-96)

    Early adulthood is an important time for Korean adoptees to pursue ethnic exploration. Far more than adolescence, this life stage initiates a higher level of personal independence and exposure to ethnic status, racial stereotypes, and opportunities for experimentation. From their childhoods, adoptees learned that race could matter in a variety of ways—from hearing their own family’s comments about other racial minorities to being the recipient of comments from family, friends, and strangers. For most adoptees, these lessons were neither comprehensive nor routine; instead of being experienced as normal events, they were disruptions to be minimized at best and at...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Ethnic Explorations in Later Adulthood
    (pp. 97-112)

    In chapter 4, we showed that ethnic exploration occurs not only during adolescence but also in early adulthood, when most Korean adoptees become independent from their adoptive families. If we were to stop our examination there, we might assume that those explorations established adoptees on particular ethnic paths through their later adulthood and into their present circumstances. And yet, cases such as Margaret Houston’s call that assumption into question. Prior to attending the Gathering, Margaret had only a modest interest in ethnic exploration. Although she was initially hesitant to attend, the experience shifted Margaret’s attitude toward learning about her roots...

  10. CHAPTER 6 The Ethnic Identities of Adult Adoptees
    (pp. 113-137)

    When asked about his current identification, Brandon Luebke, a twenty-eightyear-old river-rafting guide, stated without any hesitation, “American.” Despite engaging in cultural exploration in early adulthood through college coursework and study abroad, he did not consider himself knowledgeable enough to claim an ethnic label: “To consider myself Korean American . . . I would probably have to know a lot more about Korea itself. You know, I’d want to be able to say that I knew a little bit of the language and knew a little bit about the culture and the way that their society runs itself.” In contrast, identifying...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Choosing Ethnicity, Negotiating Race
    (pp. 138-154)

    In this concluding chapter, we take a step back from examining the “groundlevel” experiences of Korean adoptees to reflect upon the larger significance of our findings. An assumption we have made throughout this study is that identity exploration is important for Korean adoptees to pursue. Many scholars have documented the link between identity development, psychological well-being, and mental health (see especially Arroyo and Zigler 1995; Basow et al. 2008; Erikson 1963; Martinez and Dukes 1997; Thoits 1983; Vleioras and Bosma 2005; Wakefield and Hudley 2007). Jean Phinney (1989, 1992, 1996b), in particular, has emphasized the importance for racial minorities of...

    (pp. 155-178)
  13. NOTES
    (pp. 179-186)
    (pp. 187-204)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 205-214)