As a Korean adoptee, my relationship with Asian Heritage Month is complicated

This First Person column is the experience of Jenny Heijun Wills, a Korean adoptee, author and professor of English at the University of Winnipeg. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

Once, not long ago, my mother inquired if I’d like to be buried in Canada or Korea. What stands out from that question isn’t my response. 

It’s the fact that she asked me at all.

That’s because for much of my life (perhaps all of it) this acknowledgement that I’m from elsewhere has been averted. Maybe even opposed. It’s been tucked away as though to name it, to say it aloud, would be to admit that sometimes not enough consideration is given to the complexities of place, race, culture and community in situations of transnational and/or transracial adoption. 

I was born in Seoul, but raised by white parents in southern Ontario. I came to Manitoba in 2011 both enthusiastic and afraid to teach Asian American and Asian Canadian literature at the University of Winnipeg. 

Enthusiastic because I love those stories, and what’s more, it is by way of literature that I learned about, tried on and today attempt to express my own understandings of race and ethnicity. 

But I was also hesitant. There was always the risk that I would be exposed as only being book-smart — as opposed to life-experienced — when it comes to the culture of being Asian at all. 

We’ve always been told we should be grateful for what we have.– Jenny Heijun Wills

It’s impossible to capture the diversity of transnational and/or transracial Asian adoptee experiences, in part because there are so many variations. 

But certain threads connect us. They bind us to the obvious struggles of racial fragmentation, isolation and cultural and linguistic disparities, that make finding our biological families or information about our origins seem impossible. They braid us to one another, a community that laughs sometimes even as it grieves, that dreams of something better — even though we’ve always been told we should be grateful for what we have. 

One such theme is that of return. Sometimes this means geographic, bodily return. Homeland tours, individual pilgrimages, trips to Korea or China or Vietnam or India to name a few. 

At other times, return could be more ideological. Culture camps, adoptee groups and other modes of coming to ethnic identity, often not found until adulthood, because maybe our Asian cultures weren’t available to us in youth, maybe they were fetishized, or maybe they were deemed a threat to the kinship and “post-racial” sanctity of our predominantly white homes. 

In places, my Asian ‘heritage’ is threadbare; in others, unravelling.– Jenny Heijun Wills

But despite the fact that these ethnic homecomings are presented as going back to our heritages, how much of those heritages were ours to begin with? 

I’d like to think they were, are and will continue to be. That the dislocation of a child, the deportation of a child, does not foreclose their access and entitlement to their past, splintered as that connection may be. Yet I’ve been marginalized in too many Korean diasporic and Asian Canadian spaces to fully believe that this is true. 

It probably goes without saying, but rejection by other Asian people, because we don’t speak the language of our birth or because of our alternate immigrant experiences, hurts in ways different from other racial affronts.  

So I am left wondering how to understand my role in the Korean diaspora as an Asian Canadian. When so much of my ethnicity, as a Korean adoptee, was pieced together out of the shards of what was available at any given point in my life.  When the conventional ways that we consider culture and tradition only came to us in adulthood, mostly in secret. 

Sometimes I am invited to the table in May. But what am I to say about Asian heritage in this assigned month? Heritage, I’m told, can be defined as a thing or practice handed down from one generation to another. 

Whether positive or negative, it is about lineage. Connection. Birthright. That string was cut without my permission, only months after I was born. I’m trying my best to weave something new out of the version of culture I’ve come to grasp over the years. 

In places my Asian “heritage” is threadbare; in others, unravelling. But really, it is all I have. 

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