I was born in Korea in 1964. My birth mother was 16 years old and my father was a young medical worker with the United Nations. Upon learning of her pregnancy my birth-mother went to live with her grandfather in the countryside. I was raised by my birth-mother’s grandfather until I was 2 years old.
In 1966, I was sent to Holt Orphanage in Seoul like most mixed race children who were born after the war; we were abandoned by nearly everyone: by our foreign birth fathers who rarely remained in Korea; by our Korean birth-mothers who endured ostracism and social stigma; and by the Korean government which endorsed a politics of racial purity and sought to expel mixed-race children from the public eye, hide us in orphanages and promote international adoption as a way to try and cover up the shame they felt.
It was not until 1967 that interracial marriage was made legal by the US supreme court. I have often wondered that if this ruling had been made earlier, say before the war, would some of the USA soldiers have actually married the Korean women they left behind?
1967 also happens to be the year that I was adopted by Pastor and Mrs. James Larson of Hood River, Oregon. My adoptive parents already had 5 biological children and were led to support Harry Holt’s mission of finding homes for Korean orphans based on their Christian faith. I would become the first of 10 children my parents would eventually adopt from various races, ages, and backgrounds. I have always felt a deep gratitude for the sacrifices my adopted parents made to give me a new life.
Growing up in a mixed race family in the late 60’s and early 70’s era in the USA was not without its challenges. We lived in a small town and to most people we were an oddity. We were kind of a mash-up of the Brady Bunch and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. I think generally, the fact my father was a fairly prominent pastor in the region made it more acceptable to most folks who were inclined to think we did not really belong. We had to endure the requisite comments like “where are you from?”, “North or South Korea?”, “Do you speak English?’, “Do you speak Korean?”, “Do your parents have their own kids?”, “You are so lucky your parents saved you”, “You don’t look Korean” and so on. I was on the receiving end of a lot of racism – name calling and exclusion. Neither my ethnicity, nor my heritage were reflected in the way I grew up. I felt I didn’t belong anywhere.
This perceived isolation was my main psychological challenge growing up. I was always searching to find some kind of connection to an ethnic identity and to some extent cultural identity. My parents meant well and did their very best but lacked an understanding of the importance of ethnic identity. My parents, like many of this era felt that a loving family, faith in God and “being an American” was all that was needed and fitting in was simply a matter of conformity and socialization. I remember the big celebration we had around my US citizenship. I was officially American in nationality…but not in ethnicity. I certainly felt American since I knew nothing else but I was constantly reminded that I did not look American. I also lacked a connection to my Korean ethnicity since I was mixed race. The comment I heard often that I did not look Korean always stuck with me because being Korean was the thing I craved the most. If I did not look Korean and I did not look American, what was I?
I consciously hid my resentment and bitterness because I felt sincerely grateful to my parents and did not want them to think they had somehow failed. Only occasionally did this chip on my shoulder boil to the surface but for the most part I was successful in repressing these feelings. I think most people would tell you that I appeared like a pretty well-adjusted kid.
I was fortunate enough to have had older adopted brothers who were also mixed-race Koreans. My brothers helped give me confidence in who I was and made me proud of being Asian but I still felt ethnically disconnected. My brothers were adopted at an older age and had suffered through tremendous hardships as mixed race orphans in Korea. They both spoke fluent Korean and I was always jealous that they could have “secret” conversations. Neither of them looked Korean so it was amusing to see the surprise on the faces of other Koreans when they spoke. They’re both very tough kids having survived living on the streets of Korea. There were many times that they came to my defense growing up. They were both black belts in Taekwondo and in the Larson house…everybody was Kung-fu fighting. They’re tough guy reputations served me well growing up and were enough to make a few would-be bullies think twice about starting fights or using racial slurs.
There were very few Asian role models during my formative years, besides Bruce Lee and Sulu from Star Trek. Most people thought I was Mexican and for a long time I was offended by that. I had my own brief moments of a racial superiority, learning from a conditioning that in the racial pecking order Asians may not be better than whites but surely we were superior to Mexicans. Shameful and ironic for a kid lacking in racial identity. I have since embraced my “otherness” and am proud to be mistaken for being Hispanic, Filipino, Indian, etc.
The tipping point for me came in 1983 when I was able to visit Korea for the first time. I was 17 and participated in one of the original Holt sponsored “ Motherland Tours”. This visit to Korea and the relationships I made with other Korean adoptees would change my life forever. I gained a keeper appreciation for the identity struggles of others and this became a common bond with many of my new found friends. I was also able to discover some details about my birth-mother and the circumstances around my brief time as an orphan. While I did not have any memories of Korea as a child, going back was hauntingly familiar to me. My time in Korea and my fellowship with other adoptees was a revelation. I gained a new self-confidence and self-esteem. My feelings of ethnic displacement were replaced by feelings of belonging and inclusion. I belonged with this group. These were my people; my tribe.
Once I returned from Korea, I started volunteering as a camp counselor for Holt’s Korean Heritage camps. These camps were designed to help adopted kids connect to their ethnicity and build relationships within the community of adoptees. I have formed life-long bonds with these kids and with the other adoptees from both the heritage camps and from the heritage tours.
It was from this connection to Holt that I met Julie, Tami, Katy, Anita, and Barb….all amazing women who make up the board of Love Beyond the Orphanage. We all share a common vision to support our brothers and sisters who remain in Korea, who have aged-out of the orphanages without being adopted and who now face enormous challenges to transition into independent life.
It has been a long journey to turn that adolescent chip on my shoulder into a spirit of gratitude. I have my community of adopted friends and family to thank for this.
In 2002, my wife, my two sons and I traveled back to Korea to bring home our adopted daughter Emily. Our family is now complete and we are so grateful for her. She will grow up knowing who she is from the very beginning surrounded by her tribe of adopted Korean Aunts and Uncles.
As I look to the future, I am hopeful that attitudes of Korean acceptance for orphans will change and that adult orphans will be fully accepted and not ostracized or shunned. I will continue to work toward helping to change hearts and minds through education and leadership. I am very proud to be on the board of the Love Beyond the Orphanage.