I’m currently aboard a flight destined for Rochester, Minnesota, where my parents live, and home to the Mayo Clinic, a slice of middle-class America.
My parents are great people. My mom stayed home with my brother and me until we were in middle school, and now works as a preschool teacher. My dad served as an educator as well, and now spends his time driving and bonding with residents of an assisted-living home. They’re polite, happy people, who in typical Minnesotan fashion say hi to strangers and can keep a conversation going about anything, especially the weather.
My parents are white and ethnically German. They adopted me from South Korea when I was four months old.
I am no longer four months old, and was never white, but have learned German American culture like it was being distributed at a potluck on Sunday at the local Lutheran church.
I am Megan Lynn Wetzel.
My entire life I roamed the streets with the other kids —- the Smiths, the Schultzs, the Browns. Except for two other Korean adoptee playmates, I was the only one without Caucasian features. It usually didn’t bother me. After all, I didn’t make a habit of questioning who I was on a daily basis when I was ten —- that came a few years later. My life was good and safe.
My parents did all of the “right” things that adoption agencies and other parents with adopted kids say to do —- I was an annual attendee of Korean culture camps, I was enrolled in summer language courses to learn the basics of the Korean language, I was given books about South Korea and fairytales about its princesses.
It’s not their fault that that upbringing did not fill the holes gorged out by my adoption.
In my experience, adopted children can take one of two routes. Some walk a path with few questions about who they are, where they came from and how they are different from any other child of any other parent. Others take the path where adoption means a whole damn lot about who one is.
I am walking on the second path. I found myself on this road a few months ago. I was enrolled in a Korean history and culture class at the University of Pittsburgh. Everyone in the class was Korean. Some were international students who were only in the U.S. to study before returning to South Korea after graduation, others were U.S. citizens but Korean by culture, and then there were the rest —- the adopted ones. It wasn’t like we were tagged or branded; we didn’t have to be. It was in our swagger.
The class itself was a letdown. I didn’t learn a great deal from the professor about my birthplace. However, it did catalyze my movement into the Korean American community.
A few weeks after the class began, I found myself in situations involving kimchi, soju, and where I had to try to finesse my Konglish. I began using chopsticks, which at first added at least 15 minutes onto every meal. I went to noraebang (karaoke). I started attending a Korean church and spending most of my time with other Koreans, a consequence of proxy rather than marked decision. I was enjoying the American, youth-infused version of the culture of my other parents, the ones in Korea.
I am Noh Kyeong Mi.
Then it happened, the inevitable wake-up call that one cannot always have the best of both worlds.
I was among friends. One friend played the role of the oppa, the older brother. The other took on the role of the dongsaeng, the younger sibling. I was older than both, but was never given the title and responsibility of noona or unnie, the older sister. Anyway, the dongseng was faced with the temptation of her first cigarette.
She was 19, and in my opinion, old enough to decide for herself what she wanted to do with her lungs and money. My friend and habitual smoker, the oppa, disagreed. He said she was being ridiculous and forbade her from smoking a cigarette. I told him that some of life’s experiences needed to be learned firsthand.
He retorted under his breath, “You wouldn’t understand. You don’t speak Korean. You’re not Korean. It’s different.”
I did not have a logical, poignant counter argument because what he said is true. I am not fluent in Korean language or culture. There are some walls that I will never be able to do more than scale. This conversation gave way to my passage into a new era of becoming a self-actualized adoptee. I use the term self-actualized to describe the state where I both acknowledge and accept all the facets of who I am because of my Korean heritage and adoption in American society. Prior to this experience, I had dealt with rejection by many Caucasians. There were double standards in my extended family and elementary school. I have put up with my fair share of Asian jokes, racial classification and the occasional boy who’s afraid to tell his parents that he likes a Korean girl. There were moments when I truly believed that I would have been more welcomed and loved had I been adopted by a Korean family or raised in the Korean community.
In some ways, this belief was brought into fruition. There is a bond shared among Koreans. We have an ancient, beautiful culture, a successful economy, a country all our own. We have fight. We have pride. These things are not lost in an adoption.
Even so, fellow Koreans haven’t always treated me with respect and dignity. Many times, I’ve had to wear the scarlet letter of my biological mother who had a child out of wedlock. I’ve had to defend my existence, intelligence, and abilities. Along with my physical features, I’ve seemingly inherited my parents’ promiscuity, dishonor and embarrassment. I’ve also had my fair share of Korean suitors tell me that they can’t tell their parents they’re interested in an adopted Korean girl who has white parents. A person can be strong, but those reactions are still hurtful.
I do believe there is a happy medium to all of this. I know who I am —- I am Megan Lynn Kyeong Mi Noh-Wetzel. At times, I still fear that others will not see more than a German last name or more than a Korean face. I love and appreciate all of my parents, but it does not change the fact that I have more than one set, each one impacting my life in a different way.
The adopted Korean, who chooses to acknowledge such a blessing, fights many battles unbeknownst to others, but the product is beautiful. It’s in our swagger.
Megan Wetzel attends the University of Pittsburgh and hopes to one day know enough about the body in order to be your doctor.
Reprinted with permission from Korean Quarterly Fall 2008 edition. Korean Quarterly is an volunteer non-profit newspaper of the Korean American community of the Twin Cities and Upper Midwest. Subscription and advertising information is available on the KQ website at: www.koreanquarterly.org. Contributions are tax-deductible. Write to us at: firstname.lastname@example.org