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Choosing Ethnicity, Negotiating Race

Korean Adoptees in America

Mia Tuan, Jiannbin Lee Shiao

Publication Year: 2011

Transnational adoption was once a rarity in the United States, but Americans have been choosing to adopt children from abroad with increasing frequency since the mid-twentieth century. Korean adoptees make up the largest share of international adoptions—25 percent of all children adopted from outside the United States—but they remain understudied among Asian American groups. What kind of identities do adoptees develop as members of American families and in a cultural climate that often views them as foreigners? Choosing Ethnicity, Negotiating Race is the only study of this unique population to collect in-depth interviews with a multigenerational, random sample of adult Korean adoptees. The book examines how Korean adoptees form their social identities and compares them to native-born Asian Americans who are not adopted. How do American stereotypes influence the ways Korean adoptees identify themselves? Does the need to explore a Korean cultural identity—or the absence of this need—shift according to life stage or circumstance? In Choosing Ethnicity, Negotiating Race, sixty-one adult Korean adoptees—representing different genders, social classes, and communities—reflect on early childhood, young adulthood, their current lives, and how they experience others’ perceptions of them. The authors find that most adoptees do not identify themselves strongly in ethnic terms, although they will at times identify as Korean or Asian American in order to deflect questions from outsiders about their cultural backgrounds. Indeed, Korean adoptees are far less likely than their non-adopted Asian American peers to explore their ethnic backgrounds by joining ethnic organizations or social networks. Adoptees who do not explore their ethnic identity early in life are less likely ever to do so—citing such causes as general aversion, lack of opportunity, or the personal insignificance of race, ethnicity, and adoption in their lives. Nonetheless, the choice of many adoptees not to identify as Korean or Asian American does not diminish the salience of racial stereotypes in their lives. Korean adoptees must continually navigate society’s assumptions about Asian Americans regardless of whether they chose to identify ethnically. Choosing Ethnicity, Negotiating Race is a crucial examination of this little-studied American population and will make informative reading for adoptive families, adoption agencies, and policymakers. The authors demonstrate that while race is a social construct, its influence on daily life is real. This book provides an insightful analysis of how potent this influence can be—for transnational adoptees and all Americans.

Published by: Russell Sage Foundation

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

About the Authors

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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Chapter 1: Korean Adoptees in America

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pp. 1-19

To hear Caleb Littell recount the story, life was good growing up during the 1980s.1 Adopted as an infant from South Korea, Caleb joined a loving family consisting of his parents and, a few years later, a sister, Holly, also adopted from Korea. John and Deborah Littell raised their children in the predominantly...

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Chapter 2: Historicizing Korean Adoption

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pp. 20-39

Before turning to the interviews, we believe it is important to situate Korean adoption within the context of U.S. race relations. The history of the practice coincides with momentous social, political, and cultural changes in the United States that have had significant bearing on the lives of Korean adoptees. The first...

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Chapter 3: Family Life and Childhood Experiences

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pp. 40-66

Emily Stewart was raised in a small, predominantly Dutch community in the state of Washington. In the mid-1970s, “it was a ‘closed on Sundays’ type of community, mostly white, blond-haired, blue-eyed Dutch kids.” With her dark hair and Asian features, Emily was anything but the norm in her community...

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Chapter 4: Ethnic Explorations in Early Adulthood

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pp. 67-96

Early adulthood is an important time for Korean adoptees to pursue ethnic exploration. Far more than adolescence, this life stage initiates a higher level of personal independence and exposure to ethnic status, racial stereotypes, and opportunities for experimentation. From their childhoods, adoptees learned...

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Chapter 5: Ethnic Explorations in Later Adulthood

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pp. 97-112

In chapter 4, we showed that ethnic exploration occurs not only during adolescence but also in early adulthood, when most Korean adoptees become independent from their adoptive families. If we were to stop our examination there, we might assume that those explorations established adoptees on particular...

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Chapter 6: The Ethnic Identities of Adult Adoptees

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pp. 113-137

When asked about his current identification, Brandon Luebke, a twenty-eight-year- old river-rafting guide, stated without any hesitation, “American.” Despite engaging in cultural exploration in early adulthood through college coursework and study abroad, he did not consider himself knowledgeable enough to...

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Chapter 7: Choosing Ethnicity, Negotiating Race

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pp. 138-154

In this concluding chapter, we take a step back from examining the “ground-level” experiences of Korean adoptees to reflect upon the larger significance of our findings. An assumption we have made throughout this study is that identity exploration is important for Korean adoptees to pursue. Many scholars have...


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pp. 155-186


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pp. 187-204


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pp. 205-214

E-ISBN-13: 9781610447065
Print-ISBN-13: 9780871548757

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2011

Edition: 1

OCLC Number: 808778108
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Choosing Ethnicity, Negotiating Race

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • Adoptees -- United States.
  • Intercountry adoption -- Korea (South).
  • Intercountry adoption -- United States.
  • Interracial adoption -- Korea (South).
  • Interracial adoption -- United States.
  • Adoptees -- Korea (South).
  • Korean Americans.
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