Interview With an International Adoptee
Layne is a graduate student at the University of Michigan. She was adopted from South Korea as a baby.
So, what do you know about your birth parents?
Not much! I know she was 17, he was 19, and they weren’t married. I think my biological father had just joined the military service, and it was sort of a fork in the road — either they could get married and raise the child, or he could stay in the service, but not both.
How old were you when you were adopted?
I was born in September 1985, and I got to America on January 15, 1986.
Did your adoptive parents fly to Korea to get you?
Actually, no — I was flown to O’Hare with a minder. That’s the thing about Korea — there are lots of international adoption agencies, but when I was born in the mid-’80s, Korea was the one country that would send a baby to you. Very convenient!
There’s some statistic, actually, that pinpoints like 10 percent of Korean-Americans born between the mid-’70s and ’90s as adopted. Also, this is purely anecdotal, but a friend of mine in Korea says that there are some problems with men my age finding wives as a result — like, maybe it was the sort of society where you might keep a boy baby but give away a girl.
Anyway, my parents describe the situation as just this exhausted-looking Korean man coming off the airplane with two infants. My parents had made friends with the other couple who was also waiting. The two dads went up to the baby handler, and each of them pointed at the baby they recognized from their photos and said, “That one’s mine.” I was wearing a cobalt blue snowsuit that was toddler-size, just swimming in it.
How long had your parents been thinking about adoption?
My mom had suffered from tubal pregnancies, and I think shortly after that, they decided to adopt — the physical risk for her was just too high.
How did they choose an international adoption versus a domestic adoption?
The wait list for domestic adoptions is much longer, and I think they didn’t want to wait. When they adopted me my mom was in her late twenties and my dad in his early thirties. And this may be me coloring the situation, but I think they also wanted to make sure there were no complications. With international adoptions, the biological parents almost never seek out the child later in life.
And you said that they got the money to adopt you from a radio contest?
Yeah, this story is crazy! So, the two of them used to own a mailbox center, right? And one day my mom shows up, it’s around St. Patrick’s Day, and there are tons of dudes on Harleys in front of her store. She goes up to them, she’s like, “Can I help you?” and they ask her over and over about some prize they were looking for. They keep saying, “It’s here, it’s here.”
She tells them that the store isn’t open for another hour and she doesn’t have any idea what they’re talking about. Then, later that day, she’s clearing out mailboxes and she finds this case of green beer.
It turned out that all those dudes were all doing this treasure-hunt contest sponsored by a biker rock station. Every morning there was a different clue that would lead people closer to a case of green beer. Whoever found the green beer got $10,000. And so she called in and claimed her prize, and of course, this being 1986 dollars, the money pretty much covered all of their adoption costs.
That is amazing.
Yeah. All the clients at my mom’s Mailbox, Etc called me a mailbox baby.
Do you remember the conversation when they told you that you were adopted?
I actually don’t. And they don’t remember either. Isn’t that bizarre? I do have a book called Why Am I Adopted, which was clearly written in the ’70s as part of some awkward family of books like Why Are We Moving and Why Are My Parents Getting Divorced. It’s written for kids, and there’s this one part where it says, “Some babies are adopted because of war,” and there’s a picture of a Vietnamese baby with an army helmet.
So, for a really long time, I told people that I was adopted because of the Korean War, even though that wasn’t true in the slightest. It just made sense to me, in that kid way.
When did you realize that you were a different ethnicity than your parents?
First grade. Everyone in my class had brought in their baby pictures, and we guessed who was who, and everyone was like, “Of course, that one is you.”
I was like, “What? How do you know??” I started to get it then that I was actually different. Before that, I’d assumed that I would just end up being white when I grew up. I saw people getting taller, saw their skin color changing in the summer, and my dad had dark hair like me, and I just thought that I would start looking more like my parents. When I realized that I wouldn’t, it blew my mind — I realized that there was something fundamentally different about me and my family.
That being said, it was about time for me to catch on. People would do that racist Asian thing where they pull their eyes, and I remember I played both Sacagawea and Martin Luther King, Jr. in our first grade plays — my mom likes to say I was an effective public speaker, but I was also the only non-white person in my class.
Did you talk to your parents about this? Do you remember how they explained family to you?
I remember them telling me where I came from and showing me my baby pictures, being very open and easy about it. When I was young, I really wanted to go back and find my birth parents, but as early as middle school I discarded that idea.
Partly I started to lose interest, and then I also started thinking about what my mother’s experience was probably like. I thought about how traumatic it would be to give away your child and then suddenly have her reappear out of the blue.
I did wish, and I still sort of wish, that I could send her a letter and tell her that she made the right choice. When my biological mom was 26 — the age I am now — I was already nine years old. To have a nine-year-old at this age, good lord. So yeah, I’d love to tell her that I hope she never doubts what she did.
I don’t know if I’d ever want to physically meet them, though.
Could you meet them if you wanted to?
It would be hard. The agency doesn’t exist anymore.
Did you ever go through a period of being upset about being adopted?
Well, my parents got divorced when I was 11, which is just an awful year to be alive in general. So I did go through a period of feeling like, am I really supposed to be here, why is my family so messed up — but I think that might have been more about the divorce. Maybe my adoption angst got subsumed by all of that.
Then your mom got remarried, right? And your stepfamily is black?
Yes. So my parents are Irish/German, my mom is this blue-eyed blonde woman, and she got remarried when I was 12 — very soon after the divorce. It was a culture shock, not even because of race specifically but because my stepfather is so religious. We started going to a Pentacostal church in Detroit, which was like, I was promised waffles and then ended up watching people speak in tongues for three hours.
And the town where I am from is just not diverse at all. I can look back now and see how tense things were — being in the car with my stepdad when he got pulled over, and just the clear racism. There were tensions in my family. The speed of the remarriage after the divorce was exacerbated, I think, because of the race aspect.
But now it’s all good. It’s mostly funny to see people’s reactions when my white mom, my black dad and I all go out together. People just do not know what to do with us. When I’m with my dad alone, people will often assume that I’m his wife, which is just — my dad is not Woody Allen.
Given the lack of diversity in your home community, how did your mom end up meeting your stepdad?
Well, considering the timeline of their relationship and the end of my parents’ marriage, I didn’t ask. I don’t want to know. Willful ignorance! The party line is that they had “mutual friends.”
With my stepdad, I was resistant to being parented by him for a long time. I was like, “I’m a 4.0 student, I do everything right.” But now we get along really well, and I love him and I’m glad he’s been in my life.
So today, who do you consider your parents to be?
My adoptive parents. I have never not considered them my parents. I’ve gotten in drag-out fights with people who want to tell me that adoption isn’t natural.
What does that even mean? Animals adopt other animals sometimes.
Well, they say, “I couldn’t adopt, I just couldn’t raise a child that wasn’t mine,” stuff like that. I sort of feel like — sure, that’s fine, maybe you shouldn’t be parenting a kid anyway.
I’m very much of the opinion that adoption and foster care are really important for society. I think it should be much easier for gay couples to adopt, and I don’t understand pro-life people who do not support fixing up the adoption and foster care system. You have to support the whole process, the whole endeavor of giving someone a good life.
And I come from a position of gratitude, of having this sort of shadow idea of the person I could have been. My original name, I’ve thought about getting it tattooed on my back, behind my heart — it means “kind-hearted” in Korean, and I don’t know if that’s just like their equivalent of Jane Doe; I don’t know who gave me that name. But I do know that that name is the life I would have had if my parents hadn’t adopted me.
What do you think that life would have been like?
I can’t imagine that my parents were well-off. Even just controlling for the factor that they were 17 and 19, I can’t help thinking I would not have been afforded the life I have had in America.
What are your thoughts on the relationship between unplanned pregnancies, adoption and abortion?
I am very pro-choice. I don’t think I would give a child up for adoption if I had an unplanned pregnancy. I’ve had people try to use my adoption as pro-life ammunition, like, “You could have been aborted, how dare you be pro-choice?”
And I’m just like, “So what? If I’d been aborted, I wouldn’t be alive, and I wouldn’t care.” Also, we could all have been aborted.
Do you ever think about the half-siblings you might have out there in South Korea?
Totally. I sometimes use this as a cheap shot in Never Have I Ever, like, “Never have I ever interacted with someone I am biologically related to.” But yeah, I do think about that sometimes.
Would you adopt a child if you couldn’t have kids biologically?
I think so!
I’ve always thought that, yeah. I mean, it’s what my parents did, and it’s where I’m from. But I do know that in less developed countries, people sometimes give up children through inappropriate middlemen. I wouldn’t want, you know, a “conflict baby.”
If you adopted in America, would race be a factor?
I could adopt a white kid or a black kid and they would fit in quite well with my family.
How much do you think about being adopted now, as an adult?
Oh, I don’t know. I sometimes think it’s funny that my parents paid $10,000 for me. I asked some of my economist friends to estimate whether I had appreciated or depreciated in value. Some of them said depreciated!
And I do like to be able to give people weird answers when they ask those obviously racially-inflected questions like, “Where are you from? Wait, but really, where are you from?” I say Michigan, and they’re like, “Where’s your family from?” and I say, “Michigan,” and they say, “What is your family, like what ethnicity,” and I say, “They are Irish/German and my stepfamily is black.”
Jia Tolentino is a writer in Michigan.