By Megan Hammerschmidt
The legacy of adoption does not stop with the adopted child. Instead, the implications of adoption are passed through to their children, their children’s children and so on. As more children of Korean adoptees are reaching adulthood, we may see more answers to the questions of how their parents’ adoption has impacted their lives, their perspectives, and their outlook on adoption, race and life in general. I’m one of those children. My name is Megan, I am 26 years old. My mother was adopted as an infant from Seoul into a white family in Utah in the 1970’s.
My mother’s adoption story is her own story, one that she is hesitant to tell or acknowledge. As I’ve reflected over the past year on what her adoption means to me, I have had to work consciously to not tell too much of her story when I tell mine, though they are deeply connected. Her story is part of my story. We share the same hidden culture. We share the same unknown family, and we share a love for kimchi jjigae. While I would love for her to one day be more open to her own story, for now, I can only speak on my story.
I graduated with an Environmental Studies degree from California State University San Marcos in 2020, where I focused on inclusive sustainability and environmental justice. I’m currently pursuing a master’s degree in Social Innovation and Sustainability at Goddard College, where I began my degree focusing on including the lived experiences of people of color in the environmental movement. I have since shifted my focus toward breaking white supremacy’s hold on the Asian American identity, environmentalism and the ability to practice inclusive activism. Five years ago, I would have never, ever pictured myself focusing on my Asian identity... because it was something I ignored for the majority of my life.
I was born to my Korean adopted mother and my white father in Utah in 1995. Aside from my mother’s late adopted Vietnamese brother (and his children) and my own siblings, my entire family is white. I could tell you a million stories about microaggressions and racism that I experienced growing up in the highly conservative (and white) state but will skip that for now. Growing up as a racialized ‘other’ in Utah, all I ever wanted was to fit in with my friends and the rest of my family. All I wanted was to be white. I ignored my “Asian-ness” and in the process internalized a lot of racism and self-hatred that I continue to work through today.
In October 2018, on a whim, my mom decided she wanted to visit Seoul - something that she had never expressed interest in before. She and I went for a week, visited the orphanage at the Eastern Welfare Society, who had handled her adoption, and searched for answers. Ultimately, we found none in regard to her birth family (note: I have struggled with what to call her birth family in relation to myself. While I know my parents and my mom’s adoptive family, is her birth family not also my family? Do I have a right to know them? To have something to call them?). What we did find during that trip was a connection to the culture that we had never felt before. My mom joked that she kept losing me in the streets because I looked so similar to everyone else. I had never been in a place where so many people looked like me.
In 2019, we visited Korea again, this time taking my younger siblings, ages 16 and 19 at the time. It felt so right to be in Korea. We visited the same stand in the Insadong area that we had bought Kkul-tarae, or dragon’s beard candy, at on the trip before. The man working the counter immediately greeted me, remembering me from the year prior, and said he would always remember my eyes. This was the second person who had said something about my eyes while in Korea – distinctly Asian, but with western-style make-up and eyeliner that proved I was from the United States. After the terrible last couple of years we’ve had, I wonder if he would still remember me. While we were visiting the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between South and North Korea, I received an email that I had been selected by my university’s president for the Student Champion Award for Inclusive Excellence and Diversity for my work on campus to connect social justice and environmental issues. It was surreal! But I also felt something else - guilt. Was I truly a person who deserved this award? Should another person of color get this award? Am I Asian enough? Throughout my life, I have felt guilt. I have felt like an imposter and a fake - what gives me the right to claim a heritage that I don’t actually know? I felt guilty for wanting to claim my Asian identity, what would the rest of my family think? When my mom lost her culture twenty years before I existed, I lost it, too.
I spent most of my undergraduate years actively ignoring my own identity, just as I had always done. In the last year of my environmental degree, I began to notice the glaring whiteness and privilege in the environmental realm and shifted my focus away from business sustainability toward environmental justice and inclusive sustainability and decided to pursue graduate school. It wasn’t until I began my graduate work further researching environmental racism, initially particularly in Black and brown communities, that I had to really ask myself who I was. Where does my voice fit in these movements? Who even am I? Where and how can I make a difference? The second semester of graduate school was the first time in my life that I ever purposefully read and annotated books and research by Asian American scholars and writers - and what I found surprised me. I resonated with it and I was so angry. Angry that I lived in and perpetuated the model minority myth, that I let white supremacy control my Asian identity, pretending that I was white even though I was always viewed as an ‘other’. I was forced to, for the first time in my life, confront who I was and why it mattered and I never looked back.
I’ve written and rewritten this post more times than I care to admit. I have so much to say, but don’t really know how to say it. There have to be others out there like me. I can’t be the only child of an adoptee that has truly felt lost in their own identity and doesn’t have a sense of community. Since my mom is not really interested in being part of adoptee networks, I have had a hard time finding a community of people who might have similar experiences. I’m currently working with Adoption Mosaic (adoptionmosaic.com) to create a space for children of adoptees to share resources and connect. As more and more children of adoptees become adults, the importance of this dedicated space grows.
I’m still working through my own identity and my own internalized whiteness and trying to understand the implications that my mother’s adoption has on my life and my ability to practice inclusive social activism. But my identity matters. I sometimes mourn the first 24 years of my life that I suppressed my Korean heritage, and at the same time sometimes worry that I am romanticizing a culture that has its own set of problems and social injustices. Despite this, culturalizing myself into my Korean identity has been liberating. My name is Megan and I am Korean-American.
Megan Hammerschmidt (she/her) is the daughter of a Korean adoptee. She currently lives in Oceanside, California and is a Social Innovation and Sustainability graduate student at Goddard College. With a degree in Environmental Studies from California State University San Marcos, she focuses on Asian identity and environmental activism. She and Adoption Mosaic (www.adoptionmosaic.com) are looking to start a network for children of adoptees. Megan enjoys drinking coffee, traveling and playing with her mini aussie puppy. She can be contacted by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or via Instagram @meganjustis.