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My millennial daughter has a new favourite TV show. In the fierce competition for her attention, it has managed to entice her away for 23-minute periods streamed online to the exclusion of all else. It’s not Stranger Things or 13 Reasons Why. It’s Kim’s Convenience.
Kim’s Convenience is a CBC production set in Toronto about two first-generation siblings navigating their relationship with their traditional Korean parents and their Canadian lives. Yes, the parents own a convenience store and speak with an accent but the twentysomething children don’t. They grew up in Toronto and know what “Netflix and chill” means. It’s an important show for many reasons, but for my daughter, it’s especially poignant.
My daughter is a mixed-race child of a transracially adopted Korean – namely, me. Broken down, this means that my daughter is half Korean, half Finnish and she grew up with a Korean mother and white grandparents and uncle. If you’re confused, it’s okay. It is and was confusing.
It was confusing for me growing up in a very white Thornhill, Ont., in the eighties. Adopted from Korea when I was 2 to German immigrant parents, I had an older sibling, who is my adoptive parents’ biological son. Amid my cousins and aunts and uncles, I was the sole person of colour. I was the only Korean for miles around. I also went to a private school that did not and could not teach me about my Korean cultural heritage.
Children adopted internationally in the seventies and eighties have since grown up and changed the landscape of transracial international adoption. Based on our experience of growing up in a cultural blackout, children adopted from China and Korea now attend culture camps and go on state-sponsored motherland tours to keep them in touch with their heritage.
Like many internationally adopted adults, I spent my 20s doing advocacy work with adoption agencies and prospective adoptive families. After returning to Korea at the age of 32, I did a cursory search for my birth parents but with no identifying information about where or when I was born, or how I was put up for adoption, I returned to Canada, more heartsick than I’d expected to be.
Like most journeys in life, we start off with determination and sometimes a touch of anger and righteousness. I was no different, carrying my torch of advocacy. But after my trip to Korea, I let go of the fantasy of reunion. And like all things, I mellowed with age, and now at 43, the mother of two, I thought I’d laid my adoption-advocacy days (gratefully?) to rest.
Except I was naive to think that I could. It seems after all these years, adoption is confronting me again, this time in parenting my two beautiful daughters. In a city such as Toronto, discussions of intersectionality between culture and race are not new. Add to that stories from Truth and Reconciliation and the Sixties Scoop, where First Nations children were taken from their families and put into white ones, and this discussion on identity with shifting faces is certainly familiar. But what it has taken me this long to understand is that the legacy of international transracial adoption does not stop with me.
It affects my 22-year-old daughter who, at five-foot-nine, with porcelain white skin and dyed blond hair, looks like a Nordic goddess. It affects my six-year-old, who, as another mixed-race child, is dark skinned and wavy-haired. When we go out for dinner with their grandmother, we look like the United Nations, a true celebration of Canada’s diversity. Except this Canadian dream isn’t as easy to navigate as you’d think. At the age of 2, I was soft and impressionable and melted into the proverbial pot with the desperation of an orphan wanting to assimilate. As a result, the only Korean things I had growing up were my black hair and monolid eyes. I’ve already had the talk with my older daughter about being mixed race, neither fully white nor fully Korean, and tried to help her understand that the Korean part may feel even more diluted, since it came in a sort of disguise.
How do I teach my daughters about Korea when I grew up on a steady diet of Swish Chalet and Three’s Company? I look the part, but it’s not a case of fake-it-till-I-make-it. I’ve taken the Korean classes, I’ve made Korean friends, but it’s not a skin I feel comfortable in. My daughters and I therefore walk a paper-thin bridge between cultures, stepping lightly around customs and norms, trying on what we like, discarding what we can’t comprehend. For me, it’s eating kimchi, cooking japchae (the simplest of dishes) and shopping at the Korean grocery store. For my older daughter, it’s wearing a hanbok on Lunar New Year, connecting with Asian peers on Facebook and watching Kim’s Convenience: learning how to be in a Korean family, even if only a fictional TV one.
My youngest daughter is still trying to figure out who I am. “How many Korean words do you know?” she demands and doesn’t believe me when I tell her only two. “Hello” and “thank you.”
Is this all? Is this enough? Are the nuts and bolts of culture, namely language, food, and customs, what it takes to be considered Korean? If so, then my daughters and I barely pass muster.
But I believe there is something more, something elusive but present in all my interactions with my daughters. It’s the courage to stand between cultures, to have an identity when there is no foundation to build it on. In future generations, my Korean blood may get thinned out until my existence is only a tiny sliver in the DNA pie charts of grandchildren and great grandchildren, but for now, I hope their Korean genes will inspire my daughters to carve out their unique identities, to take up space, to tell their stories. And perhaps the journey for my oldest daughter starts with watching Kim’s Convenience, to help her understand that, although I couldn’t give it to her, she has a lineage in Korea, a whole story yet to be uncovered.
Hilary Hahn lives in Toronto.