Laura Johnson had always envisioned raising her own family in her hometown of Duluth, Minn. After all, the northern city on the shores of Lake Superior provided a backdrop for many warm and nurturing years growing up. The youngest of three children, she was only occasionally reminded that she had been adopted as an infant from a world away, in Korea.
The uncomfortable moments happened when her parents and two older brothers, all of whom are white, were absent. She soon realized those experiences would not be shared.
“I grew up very much with a sense of color blindness. I remember in elementary school, somebody asking why I didn’t look like my mom, and I said it was because I looked like my dad. It just made sense to me at the time,” Johnson recalled.
The magnet school she attended as a child was racially and ethnically diverse. But it did not shield Johnson from probing questions and racial comments from strangers and even people she knew.
“I started to feel very aware of my difference about myself in college,” she said in describing an awakening that made her realize that she wasn’t white, herself. “Especially being around other Asian people. I would make it a point to not be around other Asian people. And so, I think there was some internalized oppression happening there.”
Johnson is one of more than an estimated 12,000 children from Korea adopted to Minnesota since the 1950s. A common denominator for these adoptees, who are often the only immigrant in their new families, is that the adoptions were across race, culture and nationality.
For many years, Johnson worked as a waitress and recalled the comments she sometimes got from customers who complimented her on her English – or asked her where she was “from.”
Johnson was adopted by her Minnesotan parents at the age of four months old.
“Those are questions as I become more aware of the transracial adoption experience, and just what it means to be Asian in this country, that I think are very common, but they’re questions that I’d never been confronted with before,” she said.
In 2007, she married her college sweetheart and, a few years later, gave birth to a daughter. In those nine months leading up to the birth, she had time to think about how her child would identify and occupy space in the world.
“As a product of a Korean woman and a white man, I realized in order to help her navigate some of those conversations of identity, I needed to do some of that reflection myself,” she said.
Prompted by the birth of her daughter, she started to tackle questions about who she was for the first time, as well as reflecting on her adoption from Korea and the biological family that she came from.
That sparked a desire to go back to Korea and explore what it all meant. She went back on a type of homeland tour sponsored by a local organization along with two other Korean adoptee women. They met local Koreans, traveled the country, visited an orphanage, took part in cultural activities and sampled authentic Korean cuisine.
“It was one of the most transformative experiences of my life,” the 35-year old said.
It was a trip that opened her up to feelings and thoughts she had buried for many years. Upon return, she sought out other Korean adoptees who, not only understood what she was going through, but also provided emotional support.
She turned to online forums where adoptees virtually congregated. There, she met a fellow Korean adoptee named Amy Davis, who also lived in Duluth. The two hatched a plan to form a group for others like them who lived in the area. They named their burgeoning group Minnesota Arrowhead Region Korean Adoptees and organized meetups each month.
Dozens attended. They soon realized that there was a need in northern Minnesota for a network where adoptees could meet each other face to face. It has fostered a community and a sense of belonging that many transracial adoptees say they lacked.
For decades, adoption agencies counseled adoptive parents to take a color-blind approach in raising their children; stories about their child’s origin histories were often treated as historical footnotes, but rarely talked about in any detail. Researchers say that approach often set up a dissonance for adoptees within their families; and the message they received was to gloss over or even dismiss the value of their own racial and biological identities.
Today, that narrative has been changing. Adult adoptees are sharing their lived experiences with each other and to a larger community. It’s leading to change in what often could feel like pre-written scripts.
“Adopting a child from South Korea in some ways plays on what later would become the model minority stereotype. There was also this idea that adopting from another country is carte blanche, that’s a child that can grow up in this country, ostensibly as an honorary white,” said Richard Lee, a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota.
Lee has studied the dynamics within transracial adoptive families for years. He said adoptions started as a humanitarian effort from post-war Korea. White adoptive parents didn’t see their children through a racial lens. And that attitude was passed down to the adoptee, which resulted in an often delayed exploration of racial identity.
Life events such as marriage, having a child or just the aging process, itself, can spark personal journeys.
“Sometimes it’s within Korean culture or it’s with other Korean adoptees,” Lee said about the ways adult adoptees explore their identities. “In some ways, it’s a catch-up experience, rather than have it be a gradual development. It’s dormant, dormant and – boom – you see that happening later. It’s a lifelong process.”
Amy Davis, one of the founders of the Duluth area adoptee group, said that connecting with others who share her experiences is helping her to find her own voice.
“Life is richer, the connection we have is very powerful. We can lean on each other. We can share our joys. And we can also bring out some of that pain and loss. Or the difficult situations and be there for each other,” she said.
Born in Korea and raised in Willmar, Minn., Layne Fostervold felt a similar urge to reconnect with his Korean heritage. After finding his biological mother, Fostervold moved to Korea to help her recover from a bout with breast cancer. But on a recent visit to Minnesota, his two mothers – one biological, the other adopted – met for the first time. Don’t miss this story from One Greater Minnesota reporter Kaomi Goetz.
Goetz recently shared this story about a group of Native American women who are helping one another revive an age-old tradition of women’s drum and song circles.