In the spirit of John Green’s book of the same title, our theme for the month of October is “the Anthropocene reviewed.” Writers were asked to review and rate some facet of human experience on a five-star scale.

In a way, I’m very fortunate. 

Unlike some kids, my adoptive parents don’t have a common last name. In another universe, I could’ve been Mitchell Smith. Barbee, despite being a homophone for a famous doll, is such an uncommon last name that researching the origin of the name took several trips to the librarian when I was at Calvin. 

Similarly, my parents knew that Korean surnames came first, which prevented them from making the mistake some adoptive parents make when they cluelessly use the surname of their east Asian child as a first or middle name (ex. Joel Kim Booster). 

At the same time, I’ve always wished that my Korean name, 민섭 (Min Sub), was a part of my legal name. My middle name has always felt out of place, a misnomer for someone who’s supposed to be “Korean.”

Of course, having a Korean name wouldn’t have made me a “real Korean.” Growing up, what it meant to be Korean was completely lost on me. 

It’s not shocking that being raised in a town where my siblings and I probably made up ten percent of the entire Asian population, I didn’t have exposure to what Korean culture, much less Asian culture, looked like. 

Instead, we embodied caricatures of Asian stereotypes as defined by white people (hey, at least I was good at math and I was “a cool asin” as one kid wrote in middle school when we went around and wrote compliments on plates). 

As I got older, I discovered transracial adoptees born outside their adoptive country have three options when it comes to addressing their racial identity: embrace the birth-country culture, attempting to learn about everything secondhand, including the language; dabble into the culture like a tourist who goes to a country for a week; or completely reject it entirely. 

The easiest option is to reject the culture entirely. Then, you can’t be disappointed when the birth culture rejects you for not understanding the nuances of culture you can only acquire by growing up within it. Instead, you live in blissful ignorance, even if that means accepting racist stereotypes from time to time. 

The other two options are bound for disappointment. Whether it’s being spoken to in English by the immigration officer when you’ve spent the past six months trying to learn Korean, not knowing basic foods, or being outright rejected by people within the culture. No matter how much you try to learn, not having firsthand experience of the culture growing up deprives you of fully being within that culture.

Not all is lost for transracial adoptees, however. Despite the inevitable rejection at some point, you do develop deeper respect for the color of your skin, for cultural diversity, and, at the most basic level, an expanded palette for food (how did I live so long without sesame oil?).

This, of course, is not to dissuade people from adopting kids, either. Nor is it to shame adoptees who don’t have the desire to learn more about the country of their birth. After all, being adopted from a different country was a result of that country rejecting them first. 

However, I would implore prospective adoptive parents to ask themselves why they prefer infants from “exotic” countries over young orphans in their own country. I saw a feature on the local news when I was a kid about a teenager hoping to be adopted. I sometimes wonder if he ever found a home, or was kicked out of state care when he was eighteen.

I would also encourage prospective parents, if they do choose to adopt children from far-off lands, to not neglect the color of their children’s skin.

Just because you love them unconditionally and see them as your own does not mean the world will. No matter how much you raise your children to believe that race is irrelevant, they will inevitably face situations where it’s clear that it is. Whether it’s minor microagressions (“you’re English is so good!”) or explicitly racist remarks, pretending this won’t happen countless times in their lives isn’t going to help them confront these situations. 

Still, leaving kids in orphanages isn’t really the solution, either. I can’t pretend that I haven’t benefited in countless ways from being adopted. I am a very privileged person. While this isn’t the reality for all adoptees, given the cost of international adoption, adoptive parents tend to be of a higher socio-economic status, and with it, to have more stability.

There are things about transracial adoption I wish were different, but it’s hard to completely dismiss a system I’ve benefited so much from, flaws aside. 

I give transracial adoption three stars.

1 Comment

  1. Becky Barbee

    Mitchell, all I know is that I am so grateful everyday for you and Jamie, Jackson and Anne. I have received so much joy, blessings, sweet memories and love from having each of you in my life.
    Love you so


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