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A Black Man Talks Race, Culture, and Identity With a Korean Adoptee: My Conversation With Aaron Cunningham

For much of my youth I grew up in rural, very white Minnesota where the Dakotas and Minnesota meet.  As you can imagine, when it came to talking about race, culture, and identity, the conversations generally revolved around the Western European experience.   Even if I had been remotely capable of having a serious discussion about what it’s like to be Asian American (which I wasn’t until much later in my life), they would have been at best awkward.  Similarly, I didn’t have many substantive conversations about the “minority experience” while attending Gustavus Adolphus College.  How could I?  The population at Gustavus was (and remains) predominantly white, drawing heavily from students who, like me, grew up in the sticks.  More than that, I wasn’t comfortable talking about these types of issues.  I wasn’t comfortable being me.  In hindsight, a part of the reason why I chose to attend Gustavus was because of the fact it was so white; the dynamics between race, culture, and identify percolated quietly.

Fast forward to my four years living in Washington, DC, a city where race, culture, and identity exude from the city’s pores.  By then I welcomed the conversations, and that’s a part of the reason why I appreciated meeting folks like Aaron Cunningham, whom I feature below.

Aaron, a true hipster, is a great friend and an incredibly caring and sympathetic person.  And talking with him about what his experience as a black man in the US has given me tremendous insights into my own experience as an adopted Korean American.

Enjoy.

Land of Gazillion Adoptees: One of my claims to fame is that I know people WAY cooler than me, including you.  So, what are you doing these days to keep yourself busy in DC Metro?

Aaron: I can’t vouch for being cooler than anybody, and so let me stipulate that up front.  As far as what keeps me busy, let’s see…  I try to spend as much time as humanly possible with my girlfriend because she’s amazing and I’m incredibly lucky to have her in my life.  I work at an inspiring education non-profit, which is a dream come true.  I have a great boss, I’m on a great team, and my co-workers are fantastic.  So that’s nice.  Since DC has been about a billion degrees all summer, I’ve been trying to stay cool.  So I’ve seen a few movies.  I’ve been doing some writing recently, too.  And I’m back in the gym, eating organic, and trying to get the diesel cranked up again!  I guess that about covers it.

Land of Gazillion Adoptees: (Boring…)  You know a handful of us brown, male adoptees.  Besides being really good looking, what’s struck you about us, especially when we do the occasional “adoption banter.”

Aaron: I don’t wanna seem contrarian, but I can’t vouch for any of you being really good looking!  Ha, ha, ha!  Just playin’.

In all seriousness, adoption is something I’ve thought about a lot because I’ve learned a ton from you and the guys.  Prior to meeting you, I think I’d really only considered adoption from the perspective of adoptive parents.  (I have family and friends who have adopted and friends who have been through the ringer with the process and not been able to adopt).  It has been eye-opening to hear your stories, and I appreciate what you’re doing with the site.  You’re shedding light on a culture and a group of people who, to an unfortunate and significant degree, doesn’t have their perspectives presented in mainstream culture.  I think people need to know that it’s not all happiness, light, and kumbaya.  And I think people need to hear about your challenges in order to understand how you’re overcoming them.  For my part, hearing your stories has made me really evaluate what I want to bring to the table if I’m ever fortunate enough to be a parent.  All of your stories have made me reconsider the meaning of family.  They have made me re-think cultural identity from the standpoint of “what you see when you look in the mirror” vs. “what other people might see when you’re walking down the street with your family.”

That said, while I appreciate the fact that being adoptees has had a significant impact on your experiences as you navigate life, it took me a long time to integrate those specific conversations into my idea of who you are as individuals.  Now that I’ve had some time to integrate those stories into my thinking, I still see you guys as brilliant, thoughtful, creative, and hilarious goofballs (and better friends than I deserve) before I ever think of you as adoptees.  But hearing those conversations helped me really start to understand how those experiences might impact aspects of your daily life in ways that I never would’ve anticipated.  I’m incredibly grateful for that.

Land of Gazillion Adoptees: You and I have had a number of discussions about race and identify formation (usually after a few drinks).  What, if any, similarities do you think that African Americans and adoptees of color have in common?

Aaron: The most striking thing has definitely been the tightrope we all walk between race,culture, and identity.  For my part, I’ve had so many experiences where what other people might have expected of me based upon my skin color or where I grew up don’t match up with my interests, values, or upbringing.  Having been raised in the Midwest by Southern parents, in a city that people basically think of as hell on earth, there have been things that have shaped who I am (or who I think I am) that aren’t reflected in popular culture, for better or worse.  And yet I turn on the TV and I see an image being projected – that people who look like me are supposed to rap about how awesome McDonald’s is, do the running man, or wear big chains and baggy clothes.  That’s not me.  And it’s not really anyone I know either.

Before we met, I don’t think I really knew that what I’ve experienced might be experiences that adoptees, particularly adoptees whose parents and/or siblings are of a different ethnicity, could relate to or understand.  I just don’t know that I’d ever thought about it.  So hearing your stories and the stories of other guys in our circle of friends really gave me a healthy appreciation for the idea that there are a lot of different ways to arrive at a point of deciding, “To heck with this.  I’m going to embrace the aspects of African-American culture that resonate with me, embrace the aspects of humanity that resonate with me, and believe in myself regardless of what anybody else expects.”

For me, that realization was born out of having parents who are biologically similar, but culturally very different in a lot of ways, and having to wrestle with that and come to terms with it.  I love NASCAR.  I love hockey.  Neither of those things came from my family.  Neither of those things came from my experiences within the African-American community.  But they do come out of the culture I grew up in.  And I like that those things fuck up people’s attempts to pigeonhole me based upon their expectations.

I also love having lived long enough to realize that life is completely absurd, which has taught me to be able to have a laugh about it.  Traveling has been instrumental.  When I walk down the street, people don’t always assume I’m African-American, which means I get to hear some things that people might not say to me if they knew otherwise.  To see the humor in stereotypes and assumptions that people don’t realize they’re expressing, rather than feeling like I have to confront people or try to explain to them that, “No, I’m not particularly stoked about watermelon or Tyler Perry movies.”  (And as a black guy with big feet and big hands, I’m more than willing to have a laugh about the assumptions that people make about that!)  I don’t have to be defiant.  I don’t have to care about what anyone else thinks about who I am if that’s the way they came to their assumptions.  As Ed Vedder put it, “I.  Am.  Mine.”  I see that same strength reflected in you and in the conversations we’ve had, and it’s a huge part of my respect and admiration for you.

Land of Gazillion Adoptees: Thanks, Aaron.  As always, you’re a Rockstar and you give me way too much credit!  I’m looking forward to seeing you and others in DC soon.  Perhaps we’ll film an episode of “MN Brews With A KAD” then.  And, you know, as a Korean man with small feet and small hands…

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  1. “I went on one date with an Asian man, but couldn’t do another because I was convinced I wasn’t Asian enough for him. I didn’t have Asian parents or Asian friends. The whole time we were on our date I was waiting for him to yell, ‘Phony!’ and

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