Like many Midwesterners, I was raised on casseroles created from the recipes on the back of Campbell Soup labels. My mother made comfort food like taco pie, tuna and noodles, and chicken, broccoli, and rice casserole. Our more formal dinners consisted of baked potatoes, Omaha Steaks, and corn on the cob.
I never felt like I truly belonged in Omaha. I was born in Seoul, South Korea, but at three months of age, I left my home for the heartland, where I was adopted and raised by white parents.
It was difficult to find Korea in the flat lands of Nebraska. Because of this, my parents tried to expose me to Asian culture by taking me to Chu’s Chop Suey House, the most popular Chinese restaurant in town.
Entering Chu’s felt like walking into a palace: the dark oak doors were etched with an ornate, floral pattern and red lanterns with gold writing hung overhead. The waitress always spoke to me in Mandarin, because she assumed that I was Chinese, too.
I was both elated and confused by her greeting, so I remained silent. I felt validated that she acknowledged that I was not white, but I didn't know how to tell her that I wasn’t Chinese. When our almond chicken, chow mein, and egg rolls arrived, she gave my mother a fork while she handed me a set of chopsticks.
Over a decade ago, at age 29, I moved from the midwest to San Francisco, closer to the country of my birth. In Nebraska, I felt as if my Korean identity stood at a standstill. But the Bay Area was a different story.
“I’m taking you back to your roots,” my co-worker told me my first year in San Francisco. A Bay Area native, she knew about all of San Francisco’s hidden culinary corners. At her urging, I tried Korean BBQ at Brother’s BBQ in the Richmond district—the first time I’d tried any of the foods from my birth country.
Walking along Geary Boulevard, I was amazed by the neighborhood’s diversity. People of Asian and Indian descent breezed by me on the sidewalk. In the streets of Nebraska, I had stood out as the only minority. But now, for the first time in my life, I felt at ease, because I blended in with those around me.
Inside Brother’s BBQ, a grill sat in the middle of a long, wooden table. The server brought over a square, silver cart holding strips of bulgogi (sirloin) and kalbi (short ribs), as well as little white dishes filled with strands of relish that resembled sea life. These dishes sat beside other petite bowls filled with cabbage covered in a bright orange sauce (kimchi) and purple pieces of eggplant (gaji-namul) covered in soy sauce.
Once the meat hit the grill, a haze of smoke curled into the air. As I placed the first sizzling piece of kalbi on my tongue, it tasted as strange to me as I imagined broccoli casserole might taste to my San Francisco friend. My mouth felt like it was on fire as I tried the kalbi mixed with bright red chili sauce.
When we left the restaurant that day, the waiter turned to us and said “Gomabseubnida"—“thank you" in Korean.
Those words offered me more than a polite salutation. The phrase connected me to a language I had lost when I came to America.
During that year, I visited many of San Francisco's historical sites, including curvy Lombard Street, the hippie Haight-Ashbury, and the Italian district, known as North Beach. But it wasn’t until I set foot inside of the landmark Castro Theater that I felt a tug of recognition, because I finally saw other Korean adoptees wrestling with the same questions that I had struggled with throughout my life.
The Castro Theater sits in the Castro district of the city where rainbow colored stripes in hues of red, blue, yellow and green line the streets. The theater hosts several national and international film festivals each year, including the Asian American Film Festival.
I attended the festival, where Deann Borshay Liem, a Korean adoptee filmmaker, showed her documentary, First Person Plural. In it, she chronicles how she tried to reconcile her identity as an adopted daughter of white parents with her unknown history in Korea.
In the darkness of the theater, I saw another adoptee’s story projected onto the wide screen—one that echoed my own and reflected a familiar part of my narrative back to me. After I watched the movie, I also connected with the Korean adoptee community in San Francisco, where I met two of my closet friends.
Two years later, I became a mother surrounded by the support of these women. We continue to talk about the unique dynamics that parenthood brings, especially when your child is your first known biological relative and the rest of your lineage is unknown.
Now, over a decade later, I often stroll along Crissy Field with my daughter. As we look out at the water, I’m reminded of the ocean that separates me from my birth country. But despite the distance, Korea doesn’t feel so far away. I’ve settled into a city that finally feels like home.