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Assimilation, Adoption and Identity: How Being a Korean American Shaped Me

The post was first published on LinkedIn.

In recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Month and recent events in the U.S., I felt compelled to share a snapshot of what my own experience has been like growing up as a Korean American adoptee and immigrant. Since the pandemic began, over 6,600 hate crimes against Asian Americans have been documented by the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center. While this statistic is staggering, many other incidents go unreported due to the fear and shame of recipients. Elevating Asian American experiences and perspectives is critical to broadening awareness, recognition, support and action.

As a woman and Asian American CEO and business owner, fostering a diverse and inclusive company is a key priority of mine. I have first-hand experience with the cultural stigmas and systemic barriers that are present in the business and marketing industry. Sharing my story is an opportunity that supports my values, Avenue’s values and the anti-racism initiatives we are working on by shining a light on a historically undiscussed problem. With awareness comes the ability to take action to make workplace equity and leadership potential more accessible to Asian Americans and all people of color. I hope readers of this article will consider joining me and Avenue in this journey.

Who Am I?

Let’s go back to where it all began. As a Korean American adoptee and immigrant, I struggled throughout my childhood and early career to understand where I fit in when the dominant culture was so effective at telling me where I fit in through the model minority myth, cultural stigmas and racial biases. The narrative of who I am was often shaped by social norms and outside influences that I was unaware of as a young child. Looking back, it has become clear to me that the culmination of all of these experiences trying to fit in, made it confusing and difficult for me to understand and answer the question of, “who am I?”

(Photo: Me as a baby choosing my career, a Korean tradition)

My fast-track career left little time to ponder the question in adulthood, and to achieve my career goals it didn’t even feel safe to ponder the question. It wasn’t until I embarked on my current journey of founding a business and creating it on my own terms that my desire to understand who I am was intensified. The supportive curiosity of my husband and parents also helped me to feel safe asking this question and empowered me to think about it more deeply.

The concept of being an adoptee and an immigrant is an interesting conundrum. I grew up with an endless amount of love, support and acceptance from my adoptive parents and immediate family. However, by no fault of their own they could not teach me about the intricacies of my Korean heritage or native culture. And no amount of support could remove the stigma, bias and racism that was present outside the four walls of our home. When I was a child, I was not proud to be Korean.

When I started to receive comments from classmates at an early age about the shape of my eyes, the food that I ate and the language that I spoke, I didn’t know how to respond. All I knew was that the comments made me feel ashamed of who I was, and that as a child, I was desperate to brush aside comments (like the below) in order to fit in.

  • “Konnichiwa!” (even though I’m Korean), or

  • “You must like rice,” (I do, but…) or

  • “Your English is so good, but why can’t you speak Asian?” (I’m adopted and Asian isn’t actually a language...), and

  • “How can you even see like this?” (pulling eyes back into slits)

I would look at my classmates and wish I looked like them, while at the same time realizing for the first time that I stood out and that standing out wasn’t a good thing.

(Photo by Reed Emerson: My husband Cameron, me and our son Ian)

Years later, I began to think about the impact that the loss of connection to my origins had on me. This journey of exploration was accelerated by reading fellow Korean American adoptee Nichole Cheung’s excellent book, All You Can Ever Know, about how her pregnancy inspired her to find her biological parents and reckon with her full identity. Now, with a one-year old son of my own, I finally have someone in my family who looks like me. A friend texted me in quarantine after I sent a photo of him around and gushed, “he looks just like you!” Until that moment, I didn’t realize how important it was to me to have someone in my immediate family who looks like me. At the same time, and despite my pride in who I am and where I am from, I was thinking to myself, I hope his eyes and features look less Asian so he won’t be the target of racist comments when he grows up.

(Photo: Me with Nicole Cheung, author of All You Can Ever Know at her book signing at Broadway Books in Portland, Oregon in 2019)

Assimilation in The Real World

Due to the above experiences, I learned very quickly how to build the skill of assimilation in varying situations and environments. I was fortunate to be able to go on a month-long trip to Korea in the fifth grade with my parents, complete with Korean language classes and Korean food. However, as a middle schooler, I was too busy trying to fit in to explore the Korean part of my identity. Instead, I largely ignored my Korean heritage while growing up and embraced my American identity full-on: the identity that allowed me to fit in. Assimilation was key to my effort to do so. By watching other kids my age and learning about American pop culture, I became obsessed with following it to the T in order to prove how American and “just like everyone else” I was.

As I transitioned into my career, assimilation was also key to adopting the social norms of workplace culture and acquiring the skills to advance and climb the ladder. Prior to founding Avenue, I worked at five different marketing agencies, and at different points in my career I was asked to adopt or acquire white male leadership traits in order to be more successful in my role (e.g. “be more like X”). In order to succeed, the message was “be a different person or this job is not for you.” No mentor or manager ever looked at my quiet, shy, introverted personality, fear of public speaking or other inherent leadership traits to help me cultivate them for greater success. For many years I believed I was better off being someone else in order to advance in the workplace.

The Model Minority Myth in the Workplace

While it wasn’t until much later in my life that I began to think deeply about my identity, in doing so, I began to finally see the biases and injustices for what they were. This realization has been a catalyst for me in taking action to engage in the real work of bringing awareness to the systemic injustices that underserved communities face through anti-racism work at Avenue.

Throughout my career, I have had people imply and/or tell me directly that I am too young to have “real experience” or that I don’t look like “a real executive/CEO.” This part of the model minority myth is a combination of cultural stigma and biases towards Asian Americans that puts us in a box where we are perceived as smart, hardworking and easy-to-manage employees, but not the charismatic, extroverted or bold leaders who make it to the top. I dutifully played the role of the model minority throughout the early part of my career by working hard, being smart and ignoring or accepting biased treatment, harassment and assumptions, and without recognizing the actions for what they were.

In my entire career in advertising agencies and digital marketing, I have never worked with or for an Asian American leader, let alone a woman Asian American leader. I cherish the mentorship I now have from Su Embree, a Korean American who is on Avenue’s Advisory Board. Without Asian American representation in management and leadership positions, younger professionals like myself, including Avenue’s AAPI and BIPOC team members will have a harder time finding the right mentors and sponsors to support their career advancement. And so the cycle is perpetuated.

Who I Am Today

Over time I have learned to embrace my differences and inherent traits and style. They have become my leadership superpowers as an entrepreneur and business owner. As an introvert, I don’t exude the charismatic, extroverted and gregarious traits that are so highly valued in traditional leaders. Instead, my understated, thoughtful and empathetic approach to listening and including everyone on the team has built trust in communication and a commitment to other team members and the greater good of the company. Assimilation has also made me a more flexible and adaptable decision-maker, calm in the face of a storm and resilient when times get tough.

My experiences as a Korean American adoptee and immigrant have inspired me to prioritize anti-racism, diversity, equity and inclusion work at Avenue, while also laying the groundwork for a company that supports dismantling white supremacy culture in the workplace. These learnings have also helped me to see how I, as a member of the Asian American community, can play an active role in spreading awareness through storytelling. Most importantly, I’ve learned to embrace who I am as a Korean American adoptee and immigrant. I’m Korean. I’m adopted. I’m an immigrant. And I’m American. I am proudly all of these things, and I continue to learn, grow and thrive in ways I never could have imagined.

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