Korean Cultural Authenticity

Recently there was a discussion of cultural authenticity on the K@W listserv. The question was, how do KADs navigate the issue of their own cultural authenticity once they are no longer physically or visually associated with their APs. One person mentioned that it was almost as though when you are no longer questioned on face value within your family on family outings etc., people just look at you as Korean/Korean American. It made me recall similar feelings and situations that I have encountered in the past that I ended up writing about and sending in response to the post, which I’m reposting with some edits.

I think it’s an interesting issue-this whole idea of cultural ambiguity once we adoptees are no longer living with our ap’s. I have dealt with it a number of times this past year as I transitioned into two new jobs where I met a lot of people really quickly and was asked many times about “good Korean restaurants” in the area. I’ve also been asked about being bilingual in Korean and English from those who do not know I’m an adoptee. And I think the whole issue of racial and cultural authenticity really comes into play in this case. Americans are so tuned into this authenticity issue, that KADs are often seen as not quite as authentic Koreans due to our upbringing. Many times, when asked questions about Korean culture (by other Asian Americans) which I know I can answer, I do so-but a few times those friends who do know I am adopted have questioned my cultural competency saying things like “But he’s adopted, so it’s not cultural, he just learned that…” (or other comments to that extent). So it’s even also like my friends want to preserve their own cultural authenticity by calling into question my own claim to being “culturally korean.”

I remember another situation where I went out with a few friends (predominantly Asian American), and their friends to eat at a Japanese hot pot place. Someone asked me if I liked spicy foods and I said “yes,” to which he replied, “you Koreans and spicy food.” I just smiled and didn’t say anything. One of my friends who knew I was adopted looked sort of concerned that I didn’t necessarily address this issue of my adoption, and piped in with “But he’s adopted, so he just ‘Likes spicy food’ it’s not that his parents brought him up on it.”

This whole idea of cultural competency, or authenticity for KADs is a hard one. On one hand I do believe some of us hope to project our Korean authenticity as we learn our own culture. But it always becomes this question of how much should we reveal? If we are being addressed by white people, it’s much easier to answer the question (if you know the question being asked about Korean culture) and project yourself as a Korean/Korean American. But when asked by other Asians or other Koreans how much do we really want to expose, and how much MUST we expose? When asked about experiences growing up Korean or by Asians and Koreans I almost feel like I must tell the truth because there is some lie detector that will go off over my head with parentheses that read “he is just saying this, he’s actually a Korean adoptee and knows not by first-hand experience.”

But in so many ways I want to ascribe to these cultural elements of my national heritage. I want to be able to sort of slip into the Korean/Korean American Diaspora (Whatever that may be exactly) through validating my identity. It’s this visceral need to belong to a particular group that I think a lot of adoptees feel as a result of their identity existing within this “Third Space.” -Being pressured to pidgeon-hole oneself into an identity that is easily classifiable and recognized as a legitimate authentic identity space. When I am with new people who don’t necessarily know that I’m adopted, that’s not my top priority to tell them. If it’s about cultural authenticity I almost want to prove this authenticity as much as possible-And it’s sometimes easy to do this when all I have to do is pretend to acknowledge a shared experience of another Korean American, or assert some cultural competency when those who are not familiar with Korean culture are inquisitive. But most often when I attempt to assert my own cultural authenticity and am successful in proving my identity as such, why do I feel like a fraud, or a cultural appropriating non-Korean? We KADs are forced to choose sides, but the reality is we really can’t. By society’s classifications of both Identities ‘Korean’ and ‘American’ we are stretched to fit ourself neatly into either box.

So we exist outside these two narratives, yet ironically within them as we sometimes share the experiences of being perceived as Korean, or Asian American-the shared experiences of racism, discrimination, and othering by those who see us AS IS. This cultural Third Space of identity is never acknowledged as a legitimate as many of our bi-racial allies may attest to. Those who perceive themselves within this distorted understanding of “multicultural” are not allowed to assert their duality as a legitimate identity. It’s all about checking the boxes that apply, choosing one of the other. For the same reasons America can no longer primarily consider race relations within a White vs Black binary, identity should no longer be legitimized by the essentialized and narrowly divisive pidgeon-holing of individuals. Many of us exist outside the commonly understood notions of racial identity, which further proves that race itself is a social construction upholding systems of power and oppression.

I can’t say whether or not I feel completely comfortable claiming Korean culture as my own, but I do think I have every right to claim my identity as a Korean American. Whether others feel I have no right to claim the Korean culture as my own as a TRA KAD, I have every right to it as a nuanced member of the Asian American Dispora. I feel the forces of race, oppression, categorization, stereotypes, sexualization the same as any other Asian American and/or any other Korean American for that matter. I was born in Korea, and while it wasn’t my choice to necessarily become “Americanized” it is my right to claim the culture as my own because it is inherently and indelibly etched into the history of my Korean birth family, and the forces that brought me to the U.S.


2 Comments on “Korean Cultural Authenticity

  1. “One of my friends who knew I was adopted looked sort of concerned that I didn’t necessarily address this issue of my adoption, and piped in with “But he’s adopted, so he just ‘Likes spicy food’ it’s not that his parents brought him up on it.”

    this would have made me so angry. i mean…why did they need to say that? ouch.

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