Over the past few years, the question that I have gotten most frequently when first meeting someone is, “Where are you from?” This single question and the response that I could give are more complex than the person asking could ever know. Usually, my response is “I’m from Pennsylvania,” which is where I spent the majority of my life. For many people, that is not the answer they are looking for. But it is the one that I give most often, hoping that the questions will stop there (they usually do not). By asking this initial question, a door to my life (which many times, I do not wish to be opened) is forced open by a perfect stranger.
As a child, my parents were asked this question numerous times about me and where I came from. They became accustomed to it and formulated a well-suited response. Unfortunately, as I started getting older, this question became more and more prevalent and was asked directly to me. There is no class or formal training on how to respond to questions like this. I can remember getting this question occasionally in elementary school, especially since I was the only Korean in a predominately Caucasian school. As I continued to progress through grade school, this question did not bother me or affect me in any way. I just took it as people being curious or interested in my heritage, which I really knew little of.
In college, my peers asked me this question several times, and I did not mind opening up to them about my adoption or past. For the most part, many professors and students that I had contact with were very conscious of not crossing boundaries or prying too much into my past, which I greatly appreciated. If I was willing to open up and share a bit of my past, they were definitely interested in listening. In fact, I was very proud of being Korean, even if at that point, I had not completely embraced my heritage yet. I found that my Korean face helped to make me stand out versus just blending in with the crowd. I was able to accomplish a lot in college and then enter the workforce.
It really was not until I moved to Tennessee when I really started getting the question of, “Where are you from?” on a daily basis. I have always had a very outgoing personality and am able to talk to anyone about anything. Within the first month of living in the South, I realized that life had changed. I was accustomed to the Northern way of life, and I can say from experience that there is a genuine difference between living in the North versus living in the South in the U.S. In the North, people just live their lives and are courteous, but stick to their own business and daily affairs. In the South, everyone wants to be your friend or know every bit of information about you, even if they are a perfect stranger. In my first month of living in the South, I helped an elderly woman who told me I was the “nicest little Oriental man” she had ever met. I was completely stunned by that comment and wanted to correct her by saying that I am not a rug, but a person. I held my tongue and realized that it probably would not make a difference, so I just thanked her and continued with my day.
They asked, “Where are you really from?”
This question opens the door to some of the most intimate parts of my life.
The following month, I heard those four words come out of a couple’s mouth: “Where are you from?” I politely responded, “I’m from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.” They then followed it up with the question that I have started to dread: “No, where are you really from or where are your parents from?” This question opens the door to some of the most intimate parts of my life. These perfect strangers have no business asking or having access to this information. I personally do not ask people this question because it is none of my business. If they want to share with me about their life, they are more than welcome to and I will be happy to listen to them. As an adoptee, I have found that I have two ways to answer this question. Either I can say, “My parents are from Pennsylvania, which is where I am from” or “I was adopted from South Korea at a young age and grew up in Pennsylvania.” Since this specific couple had access to my last name, which is Fritz, I told them that I was adopted from South Korea and grew up in Pennsylvania in order to get them to stop asking questions.
I wish I could say that this was the only time I was asked this question since living in the South, but it has become a common occurrence. I believe most people do not realize how deep this question really is or how it makes the person on the receiving end feel inside. Many days I ponder that question and the answers I hope to find someday. When I think of where I am from, I know that I was born in Busan, South Korea (or at least that is where my birth certificate says I was born). I do not know much about my birth parents or if it was a joint decision to put me up for adoption. When I think about the nine months that my birth mother carried me in her womb, I can only imagine what she must have been thinking prior to relinquishment and how hard of a decision that must have been. Did she go back and forth in her decision to surrender me for adoption all the way up until the day I was born? Or did she choose to give me up from the beginning of her pregnancy? Did my birth father have any input in the decision? Was he even a part of my birth mother’s life at that point? Was I the first and only child, or did I have siblings? All these questions swirl in my mind. I currently do not have answers. Someday I may be fortunate enough to find out, but that will only happen if/when I am ready to take that next step.
I am definitely not ashamed of being adopted or sharing that with individuals whom I feel comfortable with. My adoption is just another chapter in the story of my life. I know that people will be curious and ask questions, but sometimes those seemingly harmless questions bring up issues that are hard for them to understand and that are better left untouched for the time being. I do not have a crystal ball telling me what life has around the corner or if I will ever find by birth family or even start a search. I do know that the more I am asked, “Where are you from?” the more I start asking questions myself and weighing if finding the answers to those questions is worth the risk.
-Whitney & Lee
To see this original post and to find out more about Whitney & Lee and their adoption stories, visit WE THE LEES.