On “Feeling White” in Korean Spaces

This past weekend, Sara and I went to Zion Market to grab some pre-made Korean food for a New Year celebration with some friends. As we walked up to the store, Sara asked me,

“Do you ever feel…white…walking into stores like this?”

It gave me a lot to think about. High-school-KJ would’ve said, “yes,” but high-school-KJ was lazy. In this case, “feeling white” wasn’t so much about feeling white as it was about feeling white. I know that many of my fellow transracial adoptees have lots of thoughts and experiences around the desire to be white, but that was never a part of my story. I said “yes” because I couldn’t express the cornucopia of feelings that assaulted my brain and my heart when I walked into Korean ethnoburbs.

My local Zion Market, courtesy of Google

These places ignite a visceral reaction that forces the reality of my adoption into the forefront of my mind in wholly unfamiliar ways. They generally make me sad and uncomfortable and sad because I feel uncomfortable.

Past-KJ said, “yeah, I feel white when I go here,” because he couldn’t deal with all of those feelings—he was still struggling with “normal” teenage angst. He didn’t have the language to express everything that flashed through his body.

But I’m not high-school-KJ.

When Sara asked me about feeling white, I was able to (slightly more eloquently) talk about what I was actually feeling—courtesy of a ton of practice on The Janchi Show.

When I walk into Korean spaces—whether it’s a grocery store, a restaurant, or my local SuperCuts where all the employees are Korean and speaking in Korean—I feel a whole lot of things:

  • joy to be in a space of my own people
  • joy to hear my own language spoken, and for the opportunity to practice
  • sadness because I can’t speak our language, thus interrupting the safety of the space
  • sadness because I remember my adoption, the forced removal of a life from its place of origin
  • pride and love, because I’m with my people
  • laughter, when my people realize I am one of theirs (“Oh, you’re Korean?”)
    • This is sometimes accompanied by a free donut, or asking if my dad introduced me to them when I was a baby
    • Also, it’s hard to tell East Asians apart sometimes, yo.
  • compassion, because being an immigrant or early-gen American is hard
    • Side note: many of these feelings pop up in more Asian American spaces, but some of these are unique to being around Korean Immigrants
  • sadness because I’m adopted, and spaces like these that other Asian Americans think of as a safe haven I think of as an exploration and opportunity to learn
  • happiness, because this is an exploration and opportunity to learn

This list is not exhaustive, and all of these feelings hit within the first “안녕 하세요,” the first three seconds of the interaction I have with a person.

When I walk into Korean spaces, I feel whole and I feel broken. I feel seen and I feel an unknown. “Feeling white” was code for “feeling ignorant of my own culture and sad about my ignorance,” but I know better. I’m at peace with the reality of my life—namely, the adoption part—and I can be more specific now.

I feel a lot of things. “White” is not one of them.

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