By Lia Reichmann, AsAmNews Staff Writer
A soft-spoken voice talks over a short video of someone making a Korean rolled omelet dish with the soothing tones of a piano in the background. At less than a minute long, the video has the makings of a viral TikTok. It is only after listening closely to the words being spoken that one realizes the deeper meaning of the video.
Eun ‘Emily’ Ae Koh, a transracial Korean adoptee, uses her Tik Tok videos to document her often complicated feelings about being adopted and her journey to connect with her heritage.
Koh shows a vulnerability and honesty that is often hard to find in today’s fast-moving world, where these kinds of feelings can go unheard. As she processes her own personal experiences as an adoptee, she takes her viewers, often fellow adoptees, with her.
In that omelet cooking video, Koh describes her feelings after reading in a recent article that almost 300 South Korean adoptees have filed applications to South Korea’s government asking them to investigate their adoptions and the circumstances surrounding them.
“Why have I been breaking my back, and then sometimes it really feels like I’m breaking my soul open, to reconnect to a country who shipped me off to the highest bidder?” Koh asked in that video. “I don’t think people understand that when you’re a transracial adoptee you never quite fit anywhere cause even if you have an adoptive family that loves you to your core, as mine did, all anybody else can see is how you don’t fit there.”
Koh is not alone in her feelings, with many other transracial adoptees struggling to understand their racial identity.
Adopted at eight months old into what was at the time an all White family, Koh said it was “survival to fit in” to her all White farm town in central IL.
“I lived in a very racist area of the country. I dealt with a lot of racism from classmates growing up, and so I felt that the way for me to survive was to be as White as possible and try to act as White as possible, even though I clearly wasn’t,” Koh said to AsAmNews.
She recalled growing up she was told by others “‘Well, you’re not even like Asian and you’re like a White Asian person.’” Although she knows those people didn’t mean it in a derogatory way, looking back she feels those types of comments were “essentially saying being Asian is wrong.” These comments and her predominantly White environment influenced the way she saw herself, never seeing herself as Asian, but more aligned with White people.
“When I was younger, I didn’t worry about being Korean enough, I didn’t want to be Korean because I felt like it put a target on my back,” Koh said. “But then now, in the last few years, and trying to reconnect with my heritage, it’s the opposite where I feel like I sort of don’t belong anywhere because I shunned the Korean part of myself for so long that now I felt like I wasn’t Korean enough because I turned my back on it for so long. But you know, I’m obviously not White, so I don’t belong there either.”
Koh didn’t grow up discussing her adoption and adoption wasn’t that common in her area. Koh’s family would get together with a group of around 15 Korean adoptive families once a year until she was maybe four years old. With no recollection of the gatherings, she only found out about them after seeing pictures as an adult.
Some adoption agencies are trying to offer services to help adoptees and adoptive parents navigate their complex feelings.
Based in Eugene, Ore., Holt International Children’s Services has placed more than 45,000 children into international adoptions since its founding in 1956.
Holt also provides services other than adoption, including family reunification and education. Their post-adoption work started in the 1980’s with David Kim and the introduction of culture camps for adoptees. In these camps, according to Susie Doig, a senior executive for Holt’s U.S. programs “adoptees could come together and learn about their birth country heritage.” Kim, along with Holt founders Harry and Bertha Holt, also helped implement heritage tours, where adoptees visit their birth country.
“It was really as those first generation of Korean adoptees were starting to grow up and turn into teenagers and young adults, that [Kim] saw that adoption wasn’t a point in time, adoption was a lifelong process that was complex and it impacted adoptees identity, sense of culture, sense of self,” Doig said.
These camps still exist today, although now called Holt adoptee camp. Doig says Holt camp had a turning point when the camp director at the time realized they needed to do more than teach adoptees about their birth culture.
“The big takeaway is that they’re around other people with a shared experience, where they get to have what they’ve experienced validated, and really understand what questions…they have and the process that they’re on to understanding and making sense of their identity,” Doig said. “He really helped turn the focus of camp into focusing on adoptee identity, that camp would be a place where adoptees of all sorts of backgrounds could come together and really explore what it means to be an adoptee.”
Another one of the services Holt provides is birth searches. Doig said “usually” over 2,000 people a year come to Holt to ask questions or want access to their adoption records. Adoptees can go to Holt for birth searches even if they weren’t adopted via them, although it is harder as they don’t have those adoption records.
In the last year and a half, Koh herself has started the process to try and find her birth parents, something she was really hesitant to do for a “very long time.”
Coinciding with this search, she will be leaving in about a week to go back to South Korea. Although she was delayed with the COVID-19 pandemic, she says this has been a “long time coming.”
“I just felt like going back was sort of the missing piece for me with all of the work that I had been doing, and sort of the journey that I had been on, it was time for me. I could read all of the books, I could study the language, I could eat all of the food, but I needed to go back,” Koh said. “I think for a really long time I was really scared to go back because I just felt like I don’t belong there or it’s going to be hard because all I’m going to [do is] think about the ‘what if’s’ like what if I see a girl walking down the street that’s my age. What if my life had been like her if I’d stayed or you know, things like that, and I just wasn’t ready to know those answers or to feel that way. I know it’s going to be really hard, but it’s time and I just sort of had this feeling that I knew that it was time.”
Koh explained this trip needed to be one she took by herself, without her two young children to care for and without friends and family to worry about. She needed to get out of her comfort zone, to be able to focus on and experience whatever emotions come up. By herself.
“I’ve done so much in this process over the years, even as a child repressing how I feel about being an adoptee, being Korean American, being Korean on its own,” Koh said. “And just to have the privilege to experience those feelings on my own time felt like the best gift that I _could give myself and something that I feel like I’ve earned after putting in all of this work.”
After telling people about her trip, she said they seem to not understand why she is doing it. Some would immediately ask her “‘Oh, so you hate your parents?’” Her own father had a hard time with the news–she thinks he sees it as her being unhappy in America and not “appreciative of the life I was given here.”
“There [are] multiple layers to this and you can both love your adoptive parents and also want to know where you came from. You can also want to find your birth parents [and] that has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with how you feel about your family that you were adopted into and people don’t seem to understand that,” Koh said. “It’s a hard thing to understand unless you’re sort of in it…I think oftentimes, I do feel pretty isolated. So even though I do have good friends, it’s just they don’t really get it.”
Koh doesn’t hide how she’s feeling in her videos. Sometimes she’s feeling hopeful for her upcoming trip, in others, she struggles with insecurities and doubt. She does all of this in front of thousands, who flock to her videos that give them comfort.
At the time of writing this article, Eun Ae Koh has amassed a following of over 160,000 people and 5.3 million views on her TikTok account @eunaeemily.
Koh created her TikTok account in October last year, and she jokes she only had two followers; one she’s sure was a robot and the other her best friend. She decided to do it spontaneously and “didn’t think anyone would ever see it.” TikTok became a place to openly talk about adoption, it became an outlet for her.
There have been some negative comments from people that made her question her continued involvement with the app, often stemming from those she thinks may have a “prepackaged view on adoption.”
Koh said those comments are exactly why people need to be talking about adoption as there are “many people” who “don’t really understand all of the nuances of adoption” and the layers “to it.”
To those that have followed her journey, Koh expresses great gratitude for allowing her to be brave.
“I don’t think I can ever fully show how thankful I am for that because it may seem silly, because it is just you know, the internet, right? Like me going to Korea, I think it would have been a lot easier for me to back out if I hadn’t told all those people I was going. I think even if I had booked all those things and how I said I backed myself in a corner to do things I’d still have a little bit of an out,” Koh said. “You go through so much of your life, with nobody really seeing you for who you are or being willing to listen and to have all of these people willing to do that for me. I mean there’s nothing better than having people see you for who you are and accepting that.”
Koh recognizes that not every adoptee feels the same way she does and says that it is okay.
“I think there’s some adoptees that absolutely feel that way [about not wanting to learn about their heritage]”…I think something to remember is that it is still a very individual experience and you have to do what is best for you,” Koh said. “Every adoptee’s experience is unique and you have to follow what feels right to you.”
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