Once They Hear My Name

Korean-American adoptees talk about their experiences growing up in a predominantly Caucasian world.

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“When I got to college I said I was adopted, right off the bat,” says Todd Knowlton, a 33-year-old Korean-American adoptee. “It doesn’t bother me, but once they hear my last name, people always ask uncomfortable questions.”

The new collection, Once They Hear My Name: Korean Adoptees and Their Journeys Toward Identity edited by Ellen Lee, Marilyn Lammert, and Mary Anne Hess, echoes Knowlton’s sense of the disconnect shared by many transracial adoptees.

In the 1950s, long before Angelina Jolie and Madonna put transracial adoption in the headlines, Korean children were already arriving on US shores to join predominantly Caucasian families. According to various estimates, some 100,000 to 120,000 Korean adoptees reside in the United States alone, with a 50-plus-year history of becoming Americans.

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According to the US Census Bureau, even with the rise in adoptions from China, Vietnam, Guatemala, and Ethiopia, Korea remains the largest single-country source of foreign adoptees under the age of 18.

The nine voices represented here are all those of adults, with ages ranging from 25 to 53 and a variety of backgrounds and chosen professions. Regardless of individual circumstances, certain similarities are clear.

For adoptees, growing up without access to a Korean- or Asian-American community can be problematic. Even in the most nurturing families, an adoptee’s sense of being jarringly different from the rest of his or her family may be thrust upon them in the form of racial slurs or even violence.

Then, ironically, even as adoptees fight that prejudice at home as a result of their “forever foreign” faces, they are still recognized as typically “American” when they travel abroad. For some adoptees, however, traveling to Korea can bring a sense of relief at no longer being the minority.

This book potentially serves two purposes: For adoptees, it offers a sense of community, a feeling that, “I’ve been there, I’ve felt that.”

For adoptive parents, it can serve as a guide to the growing number of resources to help families teach transracial adoptees to celebrate rather than regret the cultural riches that come with their backgrounds.

(In addition to “Once They Hear My Name,” here are other collections to consider adding to the family library: “Seeds from a Silent Tree: An Anthology By Korean Adoptees,” edited by Tonya Bishoff and Jo Rankin; “Voices from Another Place: A Collection of Works from a Generation Born in Korea and Adopted to Other Countries,” edited by Susan Soon-Keum Cox; “I Wish for You a Beautiful Life: Letters from the Korean Birth Mothers of Ae Ran Won to Their Children,” edited by Sara Dorow; and “Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption,” edited by Jane Jeong Trenka, Julia Chinyere Oparah and Sun Yung Shin.)

Terry Hong is media arts consultant at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program.

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