The Multiple Migrations of a Transgendered Korean Adoptee

By Pauline Park

I was born in Korea in 1960 but left the country of my birth seven and-a-half months later, only ‘returning’ for the first time over half a century later in the summer of 2015. At the time of my birth, Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world and had only begun its recovery from the devastation of the Korean War that ended in 1953; but the country I returned to at the age of 54 was the eleventh largest economy in the world, with large parts of its capital unrecognizable to those who knew it before the startling industrialization that transformed the southern half of the peninsula in the 1970s and 1980s.

My adoptive parents were told that my birth mother died giving birth to my brother and me and that our birth father died before we were born. It was not until 1994, when I was reading a history of Korea, that the thought occurred to me that my birth father might have been among the thousands who died in a massive popular uprising led by students and workers in April 1960 that ousted Syngman Rhee (the dictator/president-for-life installed by the United States) from power and ushered in the short-lived Second Republic, so perhaps I was born to make revolution…

The Republic of Korea’s brief experience of democracy ended abruptly when Park Chung-hee came to power in a military coup in May 1961. Of course, as an infant in an orphanage in Seoul, I was completely unaware of the tumultuous political drama that was the backdrop for my birth in 1960 and adoption in 1961, only a few weeks after Park Chung-hee’s coup d’état.

In Korea, familial blood lines are of paramount importance and orphans rarely have the opportunities for advancement that those raised in families do. And as difficult as it still is to be openly lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered in contemporary South Korea, in the 1960s and 1970s, it would have been all the more difficult to be LGBT/queer; the prospects for a queer Korean growing up in an orphanage in Seoul in that area would have been dim indeed.

For that reason and for many others, the flight in 1961 from Seoul to Tokyo on Northwest ‘Orient’ Airlines and then onto Anchorage before landing at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago was the most consequential of my life; but it was only the first of many migrations — some across national borders, some state lines, and others across boundaries of sexuality, gender, religion and spirituality; that long trip from Korea in 1961 would begin a long process of self-discovery as well as exploration of the wider world.

It is extremely unlikely that I would have survived infancy in that orphanage in Seoul, but had I lived, instead of growing up in a Korean orphanage, my brother and I grew up with a tall and balding Norwegian American father and a stout and devoutly Lutheran German American mother and her mother, who lived in the house until my senior year in high school. My parents were already well into middle age when they adopted my brother and me: my mother was born in 1916 and my father was born in 1912; my grandmother — as significant a figure in my childhood as my father  — was born in 1888 and had grown up working the family farm in northern Wisconsin with her father after her mother’s untimely death.

I had known no ‘homeland’ other than the United States, but to strangers, I was a foreigner because I was Asian. Though I had never learned to speak Korean and had never lived in Korea since my adoption at the age of eight months, my Asian features defined my status as the ‘other,’ the foreigner, the outsider. When we went out in public, the striking physical differences between my adoptive parents and my brother and me made it impossible for others not to notice and our parents were constantly asked, “Whose children are they?” But that was life in an all-white neighborhood on the south side of Milwaukee in the 1960s and 1970s; in fact, my brother and I were the only non-white children in our elementary school.

Every December 7, my brother and I were verbally harassed by the white kids at school. This happened more than twenty years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. ‘Chink’ and ‘Jap’ were hurled at us, and it made me feel ambivalent about my adoptive country. Because of this, I had a hard time thinking of myself as American; but without any opportunity to learn Korean and with none of the infrastructure of Korean culture camps like those now available to young Korean adoptees, I had no direct way of connecting to my birth culture, though I tried to do so through books; but there were none in our house on Korea — beyond encyclopedias with brief entries — and only one in the local branch library in our neighborhood; it was not until many years later that I would find books on Korea written for adults with much information about the country of my birth.

My childhood was a relatively happy one but security abruptly turned to insecurity when our father died just before my brother and I turned 13, plunging the family into financial insecurity as well as mourning; and the inevitable emotional insecurity that most adolescents feel when puberty hits was multiplied exponentially in its effect by the sudden surge of masculinizing hormones which forced me to confront not only the increasingly obvious maleness of my body but the heavy imposition of the sex/gender binary on me.

My first encounter with the sex/gender binary actually came on my very first day of school when I went off to kindergarten and came home to ask my mother if she would buy me a pair of stretch pants with stirrups that many of the girls were wearing. “But those are for girls,” she exclaimed, surprised at the request; it was at that moment that I realized that there were apparently two kinds of people in the world and that I had been assigned to the category ‘boy’ without even being consulted. Nonetheless, however gendered I was in grade school, junior high and then high school enormously intensified the oppression of the gender assignment. And puberty brought the realization that I was attracted to other male bodies.

In junior high and high school, English class and orchestra and chamber orchestra provided refuge from the generally oppressive school environment, gym class above all. My brother and I were placed in the advance placement classes, and we had some of the best teachers in our public schools because of that.

My high school English teacher Miss Riley was the teacher I remember with the most fondness; in her class, we read English and American literature from William Shakespeare to Richard Brinsley Sheridan to Henry David Thoreau and it opened up a whole new world to me.

Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” inspired the Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — both of them lifelong sources of inspiration for me.  In “Walden,” Thoreau wrote, “The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now…” That passage became a kind of literary and philosophical North Star for me, all the more so as I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod in which I was raised, especially after the synod (the largest conservative Lutheran sub-denomination in the United States) was taken over by its fundamentalist wing around the time of my confirmation.

I had never known any other home other than the house I grew up in, but just before turning 18, I left that house, never again to live there. Including the orphanage in Seoul from which I was adopted and the house in Milwaukee, I have lived in 25 different places in 13 different cities (Seoul, Milwaukee, Madison, London, Chicago, Champaign-Urbana, Berlin, Regensburg, Brussels, Paris, Lake Forest and New York — Staten Island and then Queens) in six different countries (Korea, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium and France) on three different continents (Asia, North America and Europe). With each move came a subtle shift in my understanding of home and homeland.

Milwaukee, my childhood home, was a working-class city of beer, bratwurst and bowling with a small town feel, despite its one and-a-half million residents. For the first three years of my adulthood, Madison would be home. Madison, the ‘Berkeley of the Midwest’ and the center of the anti-war movement during the Vietnam era, had a small but growing gay community when I first arrived in 1978. The Gay Center in the basement of a church on campus would be the site of my first coming out, as a gay male in my first semester at the University of Wisconsin.

London represented the next shift in venue and identity and during my two years there, I first went out publicly dressed as a woman; it was the most liberating experience of my life. For the first time in my life, I was presenting myself as I saw myself to be. Despite my nervousness and to my surprise, I encountered few problems. At the same time that I was exploring my gender identity in public for the first time, my two years in London provided the opportunity to reconsider my national identity.

I moved to Chicago in October 1983 and entered a career in public relations, but helping large corporations enhance their public image did not give me a sense of fulfillment, and so I decided to go back to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. When I finished my dissertation in December 1993, I discovered Foucault while taking a graduate seminar in political theory. Reading the work of this radical gay French theorist helped me re-think my lifelong identity complex. I had labored for years under the feeling that I was a ‘fake Korean,’ unable to live up to the expectations of others. In light of my reading of Foucault and other theorists, I came to understand that the pursuit of – or flight from – ‘Korean-ness’ was doomed to failure from the start, since there was no ‘essence’ of ‘Korean-ness’ to pursue. I came to see myself as having a distinct identity as a Korean adoptee, neither ethnically Korean in the way that Koreans or recent Korean immigrants were nor even Korean American in the way that US-born, English-speaking Korean Americans were.

I have come to understand that I am not a ‘fake Korean’ but rather a real Korean adoptee; above all, I am the real ‘me.’ And I no longer feel any need to apologize for my personal history or for a lack of Korean language proficiency. I can now locate ‘homeland’ in a way that does not diminish my own sense of wholeness or authenticity. Becoming involved with the growing community of adult Korean adoptees has also been helpful in coming to terms with my identity as a transracial intercountry adoptee.

Just as I came to reject the self-imposed label of ‘fake Korean’ in favor of an accepting myself as Korean adoptee, I also came to understand transgender as distinct form of gender identity that challenged the sex/gender binary of ‘man/woman.’ I would eventually come to call myself a ‘male-bodied woman,’ a concept radical even within the transgender community, because I reject the assumption that the presence or absence of the penis determines my gender or gender identity.

Addressing multiple oppressions has been challenging, of course; but being nested in multiple communities has also enabled me to engage in intersectional analysis not only through academic discourse and writing but also through lived experience and through a process of thinking through what it means to be an openly transgendered woman of Korean birth and American adoption in daily life. Ironically enough, being a member of multiple marginal communities has helped me see the striking parallels as well as the significant differences between oppression based on race, ethnicity and national origin on the one hand and sexual orientation and gender identity and expression on the other.

At the same time, I have seen the pitfalls of projecting one’s own identity and experiences onto others as is so common in both the transgender community and the Korean adoptee community; to be an effective activist and advocate, it is important to be able to understand one’s own lived experience and speak from it while at the same time understanding and articulating the diversity of identity and experience in the marginalized communities of which one is a member.

In fact, my move to Queens, New York in 1997 corresponded with the end of my academic career and the beginning of my activism and advocacy work in New York as well as my coming out as an openly transgendered woman. In January 1997, I worked with other Queens activists to co-found Queens Pride House, a small LGBT community center in the borough. In February 1997, I joined with other queer Koreans to co-found Iban/Queer Koreans of New York. And in June 1998, I worked with other transgender activists to co-found the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA).

I now see myself as a transgendered Asian American woman with a distinct identity as a Korean adoptee. I have gone from growing up in an all-white neighborhood on the south side of Milwaukee to living up in Jackson Heights, which one demographer determined to be the most demographically diverse spot on earth; I am now truly at home living at the epicenter of global migration. While I am not a conventional ‘immigrant,’ having come to the United States as an infant, I have in an important sense experienced multiple migrations across race, sexuality and gender as well as across multiple national boundaries and linguistic communities.

And I am still inspired by the wisdom of Henry David Thoreau, nowhere more so than by the great New England Transcendentalist’s conclusion to “Walden”:

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings…”

I have abjured a cabin passage below and have instead gone before the mast upon the deck of the world; I can now see the moonlight amid the mountains.

Pauline Park ( is the chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA) and president of the board of directors of Queens Pride House. She led the campaign for the transgender rights law enacted by the New York City Council in 2002 and participated in the first US LGBTQ delegation tour of Palestine in 2012. Park has written and spoken widely on issues of race and nationality as well as LGBT identity.

2 thoughts on “The Multiple Migrations of a Transgendered Korean Adoptee

  1. You’re a remarkable human being, Pauline, and I’m grateful that I met you.

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