Part 3: I Have Become an American

by KJ Roelke | Published March 11, 2021
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“Where are your parents from?”

“Oh, my mom’s from Arizona, and my dad’s from Wisconsin, but they met in Dallas…”

“He’s from Korea,” my roommate answered, cutting me off.

“Oh!” I exclaimed, the meaning of the question finally clicking in my head. “Yeah! I’m adopted.”

Like many, college was a time of self-awakening, but, as is the case with me most mornings, I struggled to get my eyes open. I got used to the rhythm of meeting new people: “Where are you from? What’s your major? What brought you to Greenville?” This banal small talk was familiar and annoying to me: aren’t we more than our majors and hometowns? I wanted to meet real people, not hear their social media bios.

Eventually, as I joined the choir and went on tour, I got to meet more people as we stayed in host homes throughout the Midwest. Enter more small talk from well-meaning, older white folk who would ask me, “Where are you from?” What innocuous small talk for a family that was hosting some college students during their choir tour. I couldn’t hear the real question because I thought I knew what they were asking.

That moment haunts me. It was the first time I faced the reality that other people saw me as Asian American—and adoption never crossed their minds. I didn’t understand it at the time, the micro-aggression of being seen as a foreigner, or unAmerican, because I had made it. America had done its job—I was American.

“Wake up,” Life called. I simply rolled over.

In 2014, after Michael Brown was killed, our whole campus was reeling. Ferguson was only an hour away, but I couldn’t be further from the issue at hand. “All lives can’t matter until Black lives matter,” some said. I tended to agree, but the phrase was just a cute way for me to keep the issue at arm’s length—I had school to focus on. It was sad, I guess, but what did it have to do with me?

”Time to wake up,” Life called. I pulled covers tighter.

In 2015, my (now) wife asked me, “Have you heard of AAPI Month?” 

“Asians have a month?!”

I was ecstatic. I was also about to graduate, trying to find a job, and trying to figure out how I was going to save enough money to propose. I did a quick google search and found that Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage month had been around for quite some time, yet somehow 2015 was the first I was hearing about it. Also, the University of Missouri was celebrating in April because who wants to clutter up May and graduation posts with stories celebrating the rich, wonderful, tragic and diverse history of Asian & Pacific Islander Americans? As I told my (now) wife about what I was learning, she asked me a simple, honest question.

“Why do you keep saying ‘they’ when you talk about Asians?”

I didn’t realize I was doing it. I had assimilated so perfectly into white Americana that I no longer understood myself as Asian, even while I knew I was ethnically Korean. This was the moment I began to “come out of the fog of adoption” as transracial adoptees are fond of saying. I took a moment to think about it and watched Dan Matthew’s documentary on returning to Korea as a Korean adoptee and reuniting with his biological family, but that was really all I had time for. Graduation was coming.

“Wake up,” Life called. I opened my eyes, but I didn’t get out of bed.

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