SEOUL — Underneath the plexiglass window at the immigration office, I presented the officer with my Korean resident card and my American passport. Like a bank teller handing over an envelope of cash, she slid me a certificate in return.
I left the immigration office as a Korean citizen, something I hadn’t been since I was a young child. I was brought from South Korea to the United States when I was 9 months old, adopted by an American family in Minnesota. When I was a few years old, I was naturalized as an American citizen. That entailed the forfeiture of my Korean citizenship, a decision I had no choice in as a toddler.
The document I received in the immigration office in Seoul brought me closer to regaining what I had lost. It was a first step toward reclaiming my Korean identity, a process that will bring its own challenges but nevertheless comes as a relief.
Growing up in middle America, I never really identified as Korean American, as I struggled to relate to the typical Asian American immigrant experience:my adoptive family’s ancestors were from Norway, Germany, France, Poland, Ireland and Canada. My family’s American immigration story was two or three generations back. I didn’t call my mother “Omma,” and I grew up around sauerkraut, not kimchi.
I always thought of citizenship as something you were either born with or aspired to. During my undergraduate studies in Phoenix, some of my classmates were DACA recipients, with stories similar to mine — we’d grown up in the United States from a young age, feeling at home there and maybe not knowing anywhere else — though our situations were materially different. I could live or work where I wanted to in America and enter and exit the country freely, while they had to tread carefully and have faith in American bureaucracy to allow them to stay.
Given all of that, it feels indulgent, and perhaps even a bit silly, to claim South Korean citizenship just 10 months after waltzing into the country. All the more so when you consider that I barely speak the language, know only the first two lines of the national anthem and don’t intend to make a home here. But I’m simply taking back what is mine — what was taken from me without my consent.
While the exact number is unclear, about 200,000 Korean children have been sent overseas for adoption since the 1950s. According to Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link, the group that assisted me in my reinstatement process, adoption agencies actively discouraged adoptive parents from maintaining Korean citizenship for their children while naturalizing them in their new countries.
GOA’L, as the organization is commonly known among adoptees, successfully lobbied South Korea to enact a 2011 law allowing adoptees born here to reinstate their citizenship without losing their adopted nationality. The law, GOA’L says, gives adoptees “the choice to restore their Korean citizenship as a basic right of the individual.” Before the law went into effect, adoptees who had reinstated or somehow maintained their citizenship had to choose by the age of 20 or 22, depending on gender, which citizenship they wanted to keep. For me, that would have felt like choosing which life to accept: the one I had been destined to live or the one that was created for me when I was brought abroad.
Regaining my Korean citizenship is not without its downsides. I lose tax perks for expatriates, can’t cash out my pension when leaving Korea as most foreigners are able to and cannot visit the English-speaking international clinic with public insurance, as I could before. I’ll need to do annual military readiness training, though I’m exempt from the nearly two years of service that other Korean men are obligated to perform. (When I tell people I reinstated my Korean citizenship, their first reaction is usually a gasp as they ask whether I knew about the military service requirement. I am exempt because I was adopted; I interpret the exception as a sort of mea culpa from the Korean government, which has moved in recent years to lessen the number of children it allows to be adopted outside its borders.)
Every international adoptee’s story and relationship with their native country are different. In my adult life, my relationship with Korea had come in the form of occasional trips to Korean restaurants and to H Mart for Korean snacks. It was a relationship of novelty and of convenience, not an innately held part of me.
Reinstating my citizenship was, in a way, an effort to force a permanent relationship between myself and Korea. I wanted to formally declare myself a person of the country, to carry its passport as a badge of honor and an escape hatch, should the need for one arise as political fires and actual blazes threaten to burn down my adopted country.
But I also wanted to revive my identity in Korea. Before I returned in July 2021, the last record of me was as an infant, with no information about who I had become since then. Now that child is an adult, a working journalist with a Korean bank account and an apartment in Seoul.
Being able to produce at any moment a Korean identification card or passport — or simply retort that I am a Korean citizen to anyone who doubts it — may seem like a small thing, but it feels like a powerful shield, a reminder that had my life not changed drastically at the age of 9 months, I could have been one of them. But perhaps I don’t need a reason to have reclaimed it. Perhaps rather than fawning over my fast pass to citizenship, I should be questioning why I had to come here to ask for it back in the first place.
A few weeks after receiving my citizenship, I went to the local community center to apply for my Korean identification card. The receptionist, speaking to my colleague who came along to translate, said foreigners needed to go to immigration for an ID card. My co-worker reassured her that I was Korean, just adopted.
As a government worker collected my fingerprints and my photograph, I considered how strange it must be for him to go through this process for someone who couldn’t answer the most basic questions in his language.
I was the first adoptee whose ID card application he had processed, he said. When we asked how he felt about the experience, he said he at first went about the task mindlessly, but the sight of my empty family registry gave him pause — an orphan registry, as most registries are filled with generations of family members. The barren document was a reminder of how I had left the country under unfortunate circumstances, he said, adding that he was glad I made my way back and that he wished me a prosperous life in Korea if I chose to stay.
But as an openly gay man, I likely won’t. Korea is a country whose homophobia threatens to drag down its hopes that Seoul will become a leading global, modern city. “Sexual minorities” are not widely accepted, with 54 percent of Koreans surveyed by the Korea Institute of Public Administration saying they would not want a friendly or romantic relationship with a sexual minority.
I am also doubtful that I will be able to conquer the challenge of being Korean while struggling every step of the way to feel like one. Jane Jeong Trenka, an adoptee who repatriated and has written about her experience in memoirs, put it best when she wrote: “In a country where ‘American’ is used synonymously with ‘white,’ my inability to speak fluent Korean combined with my inability to be white is a deformity. I am a sort of monster, a mix of the familiar with the terribly unexpected, like a fish with a human face or a chicken that barks.”
I look ambiguously Asian, prompting daily questions from Korean shopkeepers and restaurant owners about where I am from. Answering in accented Korean that I was born in Korea forces a puzzled face; explaining that I was adopted conjures a pitiful one. I often wish I could go about my life here — enjoying the country’s food, spunky people and four starkly different seasons — without a daily recollection of the complexities of my identity or the trauma from which my life began.
Of course, I am grateful for the privileges that my adoption has afforded me: a loving family, a wonderful childhood, an American education and native English proficiency, albeit with a slight Midwestern accent. But those perks don’t undo the original sin of my bifurcated life.
Neither does reinstating my Korean citizenship. It is, however, a first step in regaining one aspect of my Korean life that wasn’t, but could still be.