Thursday, December 28, 2006

The misfortune of MiRim Kim

Does ethnicity matter? The answer for MiRim Kim, who was left in a Korean orphanage as a baby and adopted by American parents, is a definite yes. Her complaint about her adoption is not mistreatment by her parents or by other Americans, but a confusion of identity and belonging.

This is how she describes her situation:

Throughout my life, I have had to hear people say how lucky I was to be adopted ... Lucky means that one gets something one does not deserve. I was not lucky. I will protest to my last breath that I am not lucky to be an adoptee, not lucky to lose my culture, and not lucky to be thrown away for America to salvage ...

I love my American mother, and I appreciate many non-Koreans who have also been role models, but at the same time I feel I can never be quite like them. When Kim Seunsengnim caressed my cheek and said, "Mi-Rim cham chowa-heyo," (I like Mi-Rim so much), it sounded like the Korean mother I never knew. It was as if I needed to see myself reflected, physically, in someone I admired.

In so many ways, I have been blessed. But is that lucky? Is it lucky to be a permanent nomad, always between two cultures? Some people say that all U.S. immigrants face the same dilemma, but I disagree. People who immigrate to the U.S. by choice have family, history, roots somewhere. Adoptees do not. Caucasian immigrants in particular, can assimilate racially into mainstream American society. Korean adoptees cannot.

Korea is no longer my country, but to some extent neither is the U.S. It is easy to say that you can be both Korean and American at the same time, but the bottom line is that one must choose where to live, what language to speak and where to work. I cannot live in both places simultaneously, and I cannot be fully Korean and American simultaneously.

Yes, many very good things have happened to me. I love my adoptive family (my "real" family, whatever that means) dearly, and I will always remember with love the kind people I met on this trip. But to call me lucky is to belittle and disrespect the pain which I have suffered, along with other Korean adoptees.

What MiRim Kim is telling us is that ethnicity is important to who she is, and that she has suffered a misfortune in being separated from her Korean ancestry, culture, history and language. A core aspect of her self-identity has been denied her.

This serves as a clue that ethnicity is not a restriction people want to be liberated from, as modernists would have it, nor is it something to be sacrificed to prove our status as non-discriminators.

Nor is it adequate to treat politics purely from the standpoint of the autonomous individual, as we don't stand wholly alone in what matters most to us.


  1. This gets to what I think is the most important question facing whites in the West: is it legitimate for us to see ourselves as a people based on our ethnic similarity and to take action to protect that identity by excluding non-whites. Liberals argue that race is a trivial matter and that identity should be based on shared acceptance of certain beliefs. It's easy to accept that idea because we all have known wonderful people of other races whom we'd hate to see excluded from the West (which means effectively excluding them from living in a civilized society) simply because of their race.

    All the other components of one's national identity are maleable. You can learn a different language, eat different foods, adopt different customs and holidays, change your religious beliefs. But you can't change your race. If race doesn't matter much, then the liberal hope of a universalist world united in a common peoplehood is attainable through a prolonged propaganda/education campaign to get everyone in the world to believe in the same basic liberal canon of beliefs. But you can't change a person's race, and if race matters, that means that no amount of liberal educational or propaganda initiatives are going to result in a one-world peoplehood and the peaceful utopia that liberals envision. In short, I think you could say that the success of the liberal project depends on race not being important.

    Clearly, though, it is important, as this post illustrates. Trying to make race unimportant is as doomed a project as trying to make gender unimportant. It's just wired into us in the same way it is wired into us to feel connected to our biological parents and children. The way forward towards world peace - if that is even possible, and I doubt that it is - is to acknowledge that and see that each people has their own nation and that they feel secure in their own nations. Then we can be friendly and welcoming to one another in ways that aren't possible when our existence is being threatened by the fecundity of competing peoples in the same geographic/political state.

    The $64,000 question is how quickly the importance of race will become apparent to liberal whites. Stories like this of non-whites who long for their racial homelands are important because liberals respect the racial insights of non-whites in ways that they wholly reject when coming from fellow whites.

  2. So much is based on personal experience and personality. I am a Korean adoptee and I have never felt that I didn't belong.

  3. Mo, I'd agree with you that there will be differences in the extent to which people feel such matters.

    Even so, the MiRim experience is likely to be widespread. Just this morning I was reading an article in the Melbourne Age about the wedding of Kabita Dhara.

    She is of Indian ancestry, though she grew up in Britain, Singapore and Australia.

    She is marrying an Australian man and intended to have a Western wedding. But, she writes, "we underestimated ... the power of my Indian genes ... dormant instincts and longings led me to start incorporating Indian ritual and style into my ideals for the day."

    The wedding was preceded by all kinds of Indian ceremonies which helped her to release:

    "All the anxiety I had ever felt growing up and straddling my Western reality and Indian identity ... It had taken me 27 years, and something as momentous as my wedding to recognise how my Indianness fitted into my Australianness."

    Isn't it unfortunate that someone should have to spend most of their life trying to figure out how to fit an Indian identity into an Australian reality?

    The political ideal shouldn't be mixing together diverse populations, but allowing people to have a homeland in which their identity can match the reality of the community they live in.

  4. smenitaSurely it is the liberal left that is most taken up with race? It is they who see racism at every turn and who now completely reject "colourblind" policies of any sort, because they are convinced that rce can never be forgotten. In contrast, most of us Tories don't really care. We are proud of our culture, but that is different to race.

    Maybe the case is that you have mixed up the two concepts.

  5. Anonymous,

    Neither the liberal left nor the liberal right (mainstream "conservatives") wish to defend the existence of the European races.

    The liberal left, though, are caught up in a contradiction.

    On the one hand, they follow the usual liberal idea that individuals should create who they are out of their own will and reason, and that race as a biological inheritance cannot be self-created, and that therefore race must be made not to matter (usually by being held to exist only as a social construct).

    However, left-liberals also hold to a view that inequality is to be explained as a power grab by one class of society over another.

    Therefore, as whites appear to be a dominant class in the West, the left view this as a product of a systemic racism perpetrated to the cost of "the other".

    So leftists therefore walk an ideological tightrope. On the one hand they insist that race is a social construct; on the other, they invoke races as classes of oppressor and oppressed.

    There is a logical tension involved here, which the left is rarely called to account for.

    The right-liberal (mainstream "conservative") position is more logically consistent. Right-liberals usually want high levels of immigration combined with assimilation.

    However, the right-liberal position has its own flaws.

    First, large-scale immigration inevitably creates race-based policies - even by right-liberal governments.

    In part, this is because it's thought too dangerous to leave any immigrant groups floundering. It's also due to attempts at "electoral outreach" by parties of both the left and right.

    Second, right-liberal parties don't even seek to conserve the host culture. When push comes to shove, all that they really identify as a national culture are aspects of a transnational liberalism ("tolerance", "diversity" etc).

    The line goes: we are British/Australian/American/French/Swedish etc because we are tolerant and diverse and we expect immigrants to assimilate to this.

    At best, you get a few members of the mainstream right add on the idea of the West being Judeo-Christian.

    But they do nothing to conserve even this aspect of their cultural inheritance. They readily assent to immigration policies which will change their own country from majority Christian to some other faith.

    Finally, I'd like to point out that you are unlikely to conserve a culture if you replace the people who created that culture.

    First, because people aren't all the same. The Japanese are not the same as the Mexicans who are not the same as Rwandans.

    Second, because a culture will be held to most closely by people who feel connected to it by ties of ancestry.

  6. As the author of this article, I am very surprised to see it quoted in this context. I do feel that some effort could have been made to contact me in order to re-post on your blog, particularly when you are using my words out of context in order to support your idea that "our (meaning white)existence is being threatened by the fecundity of competing peoples in the same geographic/political state."

    Let me state, unequivocally, that this was not my original intent and not supported by my original article. Even personal blogging should have some accountability when it uses words of others.

    Please remember that the words you quote belong to the author, no matter where they are published. I would like to make it clear that I disagree with your argument and your application of my article.

  7. Mirim, I didn't quote out of context. Furthermore, I linked to the original piece so that people could read your article in its entirety.

    Nor did I quote you to support the argument you claim I did. It's very clear that the argument I drew from your quote is that ethnicity is important to people - to all people.

    Finally, I didn't re-post your work, I quoted from it. This is standard procedure and usually doesn't involve contacting the author.

  8. I would like to echo Mirim Kim and say that I feel that you have misunderstood my article and used to
    it out of context. I don't mind being quoted without being asked but I do not agree with the sentiments in this blog post. Multiculturalism has made my life richer. Any crisis in identity that I feel or felt is only one aspect of my life. It has not hindered me and I am certainly not complaining about it.

  9. Kabita Dhara,

    I didn't expect you to endorse a traditionalist politics. But I did accurately quote a comment you made about the anxiety you had growing up trying to fit together an Indian and an Australian identity.