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SPOTLIGHT ON MEEJA RICHARDS: NAVIGATING BLENDED IDENTITY & BUILDING COMMUNITY

May 12, 2024

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What does your name mean to you?

My first name is one of the most important things in my life. It is intangible, yet has kept me most connected to my Korean heritage when I had nothing else. It is an old-fashioned, farmer-like name that provides the history of my mother’s story and her family’s past life in Korea during that time. My name first belonged to my mother in the orphanage due to her likeness in appearance to the famous Korean trot singer, Lee Mija. Once my mom was adopted, she was given a Westernized name when she moved to the States, and so I believe she named me Meeja to keep a part of heritage. I have always remembered being proud of my name growing up, even when others made fun of it. My name translates to “beautiful daughter.”

Even when my mother started with nothing and could give me nothing, she gave me the world when she gave me her name.

Meeja Richards

Describe your personal journey growing up as the descendant of a Korean adoptee.

Identifying as a descendant of a KAD has been a very recent part of my journey. Growing up with Deaf parents in the Midwest, I primarily identified as a Child of Deaf Adults, colloquially known as a CODA. There is a large Deaf community in the Indianapolis area where I was raised. I was always aware that my mother was adopted from Korea, but because we had no access to a Korean community, it was just a part of my identity that I was never able to explore deeply. When I was young, the only Asian diaspora that people in the Midwest knew about was from China. As a result, I decorated my room entirely with Chinese decor and I even viewed Mulan as my role model (who, now looking back on it, also influenced my perception of gender identity). Now that I’m an adult based in a city with so many other Koreans, I’m able to process my childhood more and connect with my heritage.

How did your parent's experiences as a Korean adoptee influence your own sense of identity and belonging? How did you navigate the intersection of your blended backgrounds?

I think the influence on me is very apparent. Not only do KADs themselves have barriers to connecting their heritage, but the descendants of KADs have that additional layer preventing access to their Korean roots. At the same time, the yearning for Asian-ness was also contradicted by the primitive need to assimilate to my surroundings to feel safe. I’m also very aware that the trauma my mother experience growing up was fostered in me as a child and so I believe that my abandonment fears and scarcity mindset come from the time she was raised in the orphanage, as well as being abruptly dropped in the mountains of North Carolina isolated from anything she knew once adopted at the late age of fourteen. The religious influence of my adoptive grandparents also shaped the way I viewed the world and indoctrinated the concept of guilt and shame deeply in my mind. My mom had a hard time connecting with people and keeping friends and sometimes I, too, feel like an alien that just mirrors people. Intellectually, I understand emotions, but struggle to actually FEEL them at times; worrying whether the “nothingness” I feel is calmness, apathy, or numbness.

I think the intersection of my identity was exactly what led me to understand my identity as a descendant of a KAD. I was so familiar with the experience of a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA) which is a globally known term, but realized once I started exploring my Korean heritage that there was a widespread, albeit almost invisible, community of descendants of KADs that needed to be addressed.

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What significant moments or experiences shaped your understanding of being a descendant of a Korean adoptee?

I think there were three most significant moments that helped shape my understanding of being a descendant of a Korean Adoptee. The first was going to therapy to confirm my diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, associated with an extreme fear of abandonment and self-harm, and learning about attachment theories. The second was when I started an online fitness company and hired a business coach who taught me how generational trauma influences a scarcity mindset. The third was connecting with so many generous KADs through my Return to Jeong account, which showed me how parallel the experiences of descendants of KADs were to mixed Koreans, KADs themselves, and Korean/Korean Americans transplanted in a predominantly white environment.

What role did your family play in fostering a sense of community and connection to Korean culture within your upbringing?

My mom did the best she could with the environment we were in. She would take us to the single Asia mart in the region and we would go to the single Korean restaurant whenever we had a special occasion. Every so often when she had enough time and energy to go out of her way to purchase the ingredients, she would make kimbap, and that would be one of my favorite things she ever cooked. My mom also gave me and both of my brothers Korean names. We do not have Westernized names, which surprises many people because of our white-passing appearance and having been raised in America. We had no Korean community because my parents are also Deaf, so any Koreans that we would come across felt estranged due to the language barrier.

Did you encounter any misconceptions or stereotypes about being the descendant of a Korean adoptee, and if so, how did you address them?

The concept of descendants of Korean Adoptees is so new and vague at this point in history that I don’t even know of any stereotypes that might exist personally. Many of us go on with our lives not realizing that our KAD parent’s experiences may have shaped the way that we view the world. I think right now my priority is to continue to get the word out that we exist. Enough time has passed post-war and the bastardization of Korean adoption for profit is slowing down to allow us to finally take a breath and realize the lasting effects. I imagine the stereotypes that will eventually evolve will be similar to the ones our KAD parents have.

How did your upbringing influence your perspective on adoption, identity, and belonging within the broader context of society?

My upbringing with a KAD parent always made me dream about wanting to adopt children myself. I was always adamant that at least one of my children would be adopted. I have spoken with a couple other descendants of KADs who also expressed this same desire growing up. However, since becoming closer with the KAD community, I have been exposed to the dark side of adoption and want to encourage people to avoid transracial/transnational adoptions. There becomes a fetishization and savior complex that blindfolds well-intentioned parents to deprioritize the descendant's connection to their heritage. It has also really impacted my feelings towards my adoptive grandparents, which is a peculiar feeling to reckon with so late in life.

Have you been involved in any organizations or initiatives aimed at supporting descendants of Korean adoptees in New York, and if so, what impact have they had on your life and community?

I am not aware of any organizations or initiatives that focus primarily on descendants of Korean Adoptees, however Mixed Asian Media film fest was one of the first events that opened my eyes to the huge Asian community in New York. In addition, the philanthropy called “Also Known As” Inc., has been very welcoming and has invited me to attend events. Some of the members from that organization have been really inspiring for me and have allowed space for me to understand who I am.

In what ways did you find support and community among other descendants of Korean adoptees and/or members of the local Korean American community?

It’s amazing having moved to New York to build this community, but I have to really emphasize the power of social media (Instagram, specifically) when used correctly. It has taken me just over a year and hundreds of dollars worth of meals eating out to finally gather a group of fellow Korean Americans that meet in person. I’m so proud of all of them and their willingness to make the time and effort to meet up with me and have conversations about their identities. The descendants of KADs are harder to nail down in America because we have no nomenclature for this aspect of our identity. This appears to be more recognized in other KAD-prevalent countries, such as France and the Netherlands. As a result, I’ve connected with them through a Facebook group, in which those countries use the label as Second Generation Korean Adoptees. However, there is discourse about this label and discussions around changing it. While many KADs add that label on their social media profiles, and therefore are easier to find, the descendants of KADs do not collectively have a nomenclature prominent enough to identify with as a label. There are researchers out of Boston College that are interviewing this demographic currently - https://www.childrenofadoptees.com/people to learn more.

MEEJA RICHARDS | RETURN TO JEONG

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Meeja Richards is a dedicated advocate for diversity and inclusion. She is employed as the manager of medical insights and research at Major League Soccer, as well as being the Chair for the Asians in MLS employee resource group. With a background in freelance writing for Mixed Asian Media and work in film as a head production assistant, Meeja is committed to amplifying underrepresented voices and creating positive change within the estranged Korean diaspora and Asians in sports.

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