By Patrick Armstrong
Hi! My name is Patrick Armstrong and I attended KAAN for the very first time in 2021. It was a surreal, full-circle moment for me on my journey to embrace and understand my identities as Korean, Asian American, and an adoptee.
Like many adoptees I’ve come to know over the past year, my journey did not start until I was well into adulthood—30 years into it for me. Adopted in 1990, I grew up in a white family with white friends in a predominantly white town in rural Indiana. Devoid of much diversity, I (along with my sister, also a KAD [non-biological]) made every effort to assimilate to my surroundings and fit in; no matter how hard I tried, though, I always felt different.
Feeling different did not stop me from internalizing the whiteness of my environment. While my adoptive parents were really amazing and provided my sister and I with a solid moral foundation from which to grow, it didn’t mean there weren’t struggles, particularly when talking about race. We were raised via a colorblind approach—aka we didn’t talk about it.
That internalized whiteness stayed with me throughout my college and most of my adult life. After leaving for college, meeting new people, and experiencing new cultures and actual diversity for the first time, I still struggled to identify as anything other than “American”. I was still resistant to the idea that I was Asian; I told myself that I was actually white and continued to hang out with the same group of friends I always had.
Fast forward to 2020: it’s a hot summer and an even hotter social climate. George Floyd has just been murdered by a white officer of the Minneapolis Police Department and protests have erupted across the country. It’s a moment of reckoning for many, and I was no different.
Learning about what it means to be anti-racist led me to question that whiteness I had internalized. I realized that for most of my life I had fought against myself and suppressed my Korean and Asian American identities. Why did I do this? There are many answers, but in those first moments I was realizing just how much I had given up to stay comfortable.
In June of 2020 I made a conscious effort to explore my heritage and culture. As a podcast listener, I searched for Asian American podcasts and found a show called Dear Asian Americans. This moment would alter the trajectory of my life—after listening to the first episode, I knew fate had intervened in my timeline and nudged me down the path that I find myself on today.
That episode of Dear Asian Americans led to me guesting on the show and through a random/not-random series of events, led to me starting a podcast of my own with two other Korean adoptees (Nathan Nowack and KJ Roelke) called the Janchi Show. Not only would this be a platform for us to celebrate our identities and share other KAD stories, it would serve as an outlet for me to document my journey and to process the many emotions and revelations and discoveries I would have on this journey in real time: another pivotal moment.
At one point, we had the great honor of having Glenn Morey as a guest. Glenn is a fellow KAD and filmmaker and directed the documentary Side by Side—a series of interviews with adopted Koreans and Koreans who grew up and aged out of Korean orphanages.
During the interview, he told us how he went to KAAN for the very first time and the experience was “transformational.” I think the way that he described the feeling of being amongst so many other KADs and Asian adoptees really hit home for each of us. Having never been to a conference of that type before (and having never met each other in person, either), we were really intrigued about the possibility of one day attending a gathering and seeing what it was like for ourselves.
Then, the next day I came across an ad for KAAN that said it was the last day to register for a panel slot and it took all of five minutes for KJ and Nathan to say, “FILL THAT OUT!”
The Janchi Show had the ultimate privilege of being the welcome video for the conference. The KAAN team made it very easy for us to integrate the show. We sat down with Katie Bozek, KAAN’s Executive Director, and Kyle Ashlee, an advisory board member and KAD-partner. Through this conversation, filmed in advance of the actual event, we were able to get our first taste of what KAAN would be like—it definitely helped that we were able to do that in the familiar confines of our show!
As first time attendees, the virtual format also made it a lot less intimidating to engage with other conference-goers. During the initial meet-and-greet panel, we broke out into smaller groups to get to know each other. My group had all introverts and one extrovert; it was great! Breaking out into smaller spaces made it much more appealing to share. Most of us were joining for the very first time, and I know from personal experience that meeting a bunch of adoptees for the first time can be nerve-wracking.
That meet-and-greet panel helped set the tone, though, and the entire conference experience was enriched because of it. It left me with a surreal feeling, thinking back to a year prior when I was just beginning to think of myself as Asian for the first time, before I had ever even heard the word “adoptee,” let alone knew that there was an entire community of us. It was a full circle moment, and it was the next pivotal step in my journey.
It also left me feeling reinforced in my beliefs that the adoptee community is truly remarkable. One of KAAN’s best features was an always-available chat function. As I said before, there were quite a few introverts amongst the attendees, so the chat made it really easy and low-stakes to enter into conversations and interact with others; I watched new friendships form, saw difficult topics broached and discussed, and there were a lot of laughs. So. Many. Laughs, including a conference-long conversation using KAAN puns. It was KAANtagious (okay I’ll stop that).
That’s why I wanted to go to KAAN in the first place—to be amongst people that get it, my people. Through these interactions, through the messages shared and the chats reveled, I found myself in community with so many other adoptees that it boggles the mind. It felt great; not only did it feel great, it felt right. It felt right because I had been missing this my entire life. I didn’t go to culture camp. I didn’t have other Asian friends. I didn’t know any adoptees. I had missed this for 30 years, and even something as simple as typing a message to a guest or reading a powerful, informative comment from another filled the gaps in my soul that had been missing for so long.
For a first-timer, I could not have asked for a better experience. From learning and listening to a host of incredible speakers to meeting and greeting many new friends and allies, KAAN 2021 exceeded the hype.
If you’re reading this and you’re on the fence about attending, I feel you. Before speaking with Glenn Morey, I felt the same way; while I, like Glenn, had a transformational experience at my first KAAN, that doesn’t mean everyone will—and that’s okay. However, KAAN is a great way to be a part of a community that many of us don’t know about until we’ve lived half a lifetime.
When you’re ready to go, though, I’ll be there to meet you, greet you, and support you in whatever way I can.
Patrick Armstrong is one of the co-hosts of the Janchi Show, a podcast that explores and celebrates the experiences and stories of Korean adoptees everywhere. He is also the president and co-founder of All Times Are Local, a Chicago-based nonprofit focused on helping older foster youth. He was born in Seoul, Korea and adopted by a white family in Indiana. He attended college at Purdue University in West Lafayette and currently resides in Indianapolis.
Janchi Show: janchishow.com