Monday, August 23, 2010

What I learned as a 5th grade Korean-American Adoptee

Lesson #1002:

Korea = 0

During the fifth grade, while my family and I were living in the Philippines, I remember a girl named Jill. She and I were in the gifted class together at the elementary school on the U.S. military base, Subic Bay.

I remember her so well because everyone thought we were sisters. We were the same height. We both had long, straight hair--slick and black like motor oil--and almond-shaped slits for eyes. Our skin was the color of burnt caramel from playing on the jungle gyms in the tropical sun during recess. Our birth dates were even the same, June 5, 1975.

But the similarities always began to fall apart when the knowledge came out that she was Japanese and I was, well, what are you?

Korean? What’s Korean? Is that like Chinese? Is that a country? I’ve never heard of Korea. Are you lying? Are you making this up? Tell the truth.

* * *

Although we were living in the Philippines, we were living on a U.S. military base, attending schools consisting of primarily Caucasian children who had not yet been alive long enough to know that the world was inhabited by other Asian countries beyond China, Japan, and Vietnam.

People often refer to the Korean War as the forgotten war.

While I was growing up trying to explain to my friends from where I had come, it wasn’t only the war that had been forgotten. It was as though the country had been forgotten, and with it, as though the people from whom I had come never existed.

Sometimes, I would wonder if Jill really was my long lost sister. Maybe I was really Japanese, but for some reason, my papers had mistakenly or subversively identified me as “100% pure Korean.”

Maybe Korea was a make-believe far-off land contrived to keep children like me in the dark, away from the families to whom we truly belonged, or maybe to protect us from peril that would otherwise endanger our lives.

Or maybe, I was who the papers said I was, and it was simply that Jill was not my sister, and I was not Japanese, and Korea was an insignificant place, so poor and so forgotten, that no one cared to inform their children of its people or their existence.

* * *

[Click here to read the entire series on "Growing Up as a KAD"]


Anonymous said...

when i lived in hawaii in elem school, i was teased by japanese kids, telling me i was a slant eye, a flat face. it used to confuse me so much that someone who looked like me was teasing the way i looked. i learned quickly that there was a hierarchy of asians in that state, and koreans were at the bottom, apparently.

i then moved to an all-white area where they told me to "go back to china, chinagirl" or "can you see out of those slits geisha girl." they couldn't even get their insults right...

sounds like we had the same education.

Melissa said...

Yes, Sona, I think a lot of us received a similar education. That's in part why I wanted to share this (and I've got another one on the way), because I know I'm not the only one who grew up this way...and it amazes me, that even today, I still experience similar interactions and encounters with adults...

Raina said...

Sona, it's more of an equal hate between Japanese and Koreans I think. Like Palestinians and Jews. Like Northern and southern Ireland. Not everywhere, just where the cultures are strong. At least, this is what I understand.