I Might Appear Korean, But . . . (Musings of a Korean-American Adoptee)

by Kasey Buecheler

Just like any culture, there are positive and negative traits that make it what it is.  Growing up as an American, I am used to life in America.  Even with a Korean exterior, I consider myself a true American and I don’t think I have ever considered myself truly Korean.   During my time in Korea, I became more and more aware of how different my friends and I were from those around us.

Outer appearance is something that everyone is fixated on.  Korea has a very different idea of beauty from the typical Western ideal, and I could probably spend multiple blog posts on my opinions of this. They treasure pale skin, larger eyes, and having a small v-shaped face.  Korea has gained some negative publicity as a country with a high rate of plastic surgery in order to achieve this ideal look.  The clothing style is a lot more posh, and there is not much variation among the general population.  Walking around Seoul, anyone could pick us out of a crowd as Americans, with our tanned skin and Abercrombie and Fitch.

The Korean ideal is seen in most Korean commercials. They frequently choose celebrities or models to endorse their products, whereas in the United States comedy is often the main focus of commercials. Thus, the prettiest women and most attractive men get cast most often in Korean commercials.  Yoona is considered a “CF Queen.” The following video is a sample of Yoona’s work:

Korean social etiquette is another area in which there is a big difference.  Even for something as small as accepting a drink from an elder, there are particular ways in which Koreans do these things that we as Westerners are not accustomed to.  I remember being lightly scolded by a parent of a previous boyfriend for not properly greeting them before I even knew that I had done anything wrong.  Elders in Korea have a high expectation for respect from the younger generation, which is reasonable.  In another instance, I was riding a bus and accidentally bumped into an older lady who was sitting beside me as the bus went over a bump in the road.  She began to yell at me, in Korean, so loudly that everyone in the bus was staring because I did not immediately apologize.  Luckily, I was with my previous boyfriend at the time, who was a native Korean, and he was able to stick up for me and we promptly exited the bus.

For Korean Americans, these kinds of differences can be difficult to adjust to.  However, I do feel being raised by Korean parents, even in America, exposes non-adoptees to these kinds of cultural differences.  They might not be raised in an environment where these customs are practiced, but I feel that they are at least made aware.   I have Korean American friends who do not speak a word of Korean, but are familiar with Korean food, manners, and traditions.  They see certain Korean behavior as a “pain in the butt” and may not agree with it, but they still know how to behave themselves when around Korean elders.

Korean adoptees, like myself, are not raised with this sort of exposure.  Going to Korea, we are more similar to the foreign visitors from places like Europe on tour groups.  We go into it not knowing what to expect, exactly.  Koreans are typically understanding in regards to foreigners not being completely familiar with Korean customs.  They may offer help to a foreigner on the street that they see is struggling with a map, or some may simply walk by.  Regardless, they recognize that individual as a foreigner and recognize that they are not familiar with their surroundings.  Where it gets complicated is the fact that Korean adoptees appear Korean.  We have a Korean exterior, and while we may look Americanized, there is still that expectation from native Koreans that we are at least familiar with Korean customs and language as non-adopted Korean Americans are.  Even on the plane ride over, the Korean stewardesses would ask me about my beverage/meal choices in Korean, and I would repeatedly have to tell them “I don’t speak Korean” and receive a puzzled look before they switched over to using English.

Each year, I felt I went to Korea a bit more prepared than the year before.  Because of the amount of time I have spent there, I feel that I have gotten a good idea of what living there is like and what to expect.  As an adoptee, I can say that traveling to Korea was emotionally fulfilling, but there were many hard times as well.


This post was originally published 15 months ago when this blog was very new and had few readers. Here is a brand new article about jaw-cutting surgery (to achieve the look seen in the above video) in KoreAm.double-jaw-surgery_03


  1. Your experience as an adoptee is certainly different from mine in that when I was an infant the Catholic Charities agency tried to actually match up babies with parents that had similar ethnic backgrounds. I guess it was so that adopting parents would have the option of keeping their baby’s adoption a secret from them. My problem of identity has always been that (whereas you know you look Korean) I have no clue as to what my ethnicity is. I look like any other homogeneous white guy! Thanks for an interesting post, I look forward to reading more!

    • Thanks for reading, William. Your story on your blog is fascinating. Kasey (the writer of this piece) is currently studying in Korea, so she probably won’t respond, at least not soon.But your comment is helpful to others who read this blog. When I was 7 my brother was adopted (I was not), and I remember the caseworker talking to me about trying to “match” my new brother to my family (my parents and me). So my brother and I both had brown hair and blue eyes. My kids are Korean.

      • Luanne
        Thanks for your reply, it’s great to read other people’s stories and I’m so glad I found your blog. Kasey is an excellent writer! People always used to comment that my brother and I looked alike, even though we were both adopted. I guess it helps prevent you from having to explain about your adoption to everyone in the world.

  2. Fascinating. It’s great that you’ve been able to visit Korea so many times

  3. Very interesting and very insightful. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I can only imagine some of the things you had to deal with growing up. You seem like you handle these variances very well. Kudos to you and I imagine you have some great parents as well. I am glad you get to enjoy your native culture. Our girls are still small but we hope to visit their ancestral country too when they get older. Your bus story make me want to read up on th elocal culture a little bit more before we go! 🙂 thanks again….

  4. I was really into the Korean drama, “Boys Over Flowers,” and noticed that the actors and actresses were all gorgeous with pale skin and large eyes. I was seriously hooked on the show! I think that there is a lot of pressure in the industry in Korea to look a certain way, and sometimes for young women, to behave a certain way. A Korean friend of mine told me of multiple suicides among young actors and actresses in Korea apparently due to this kind of pressure. I’ve definitely had my share of body image struggles, so it saddens me to hear that plastic surgery and the desire to look a certain way is so prevalent in Korea. Thank you for sharing this post!

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