In Minnesota, Korean American Adoptees Are Reclaiming Their Identities

AAPI adoptees are an oft-forgotten part of the Asian diaspora. Four such adoptees who grew up in cities across Minnesota, all of Korean descent, share their experiences of feeling in between cultures, growing up in communities with little representation and connecting with their birth cultures and families. Woven into these narratives are the love, loss and complexities associated with adoption. Cover graphic by Ruth Chang for Midstory.

Born in South Korea, Wayne Berry was adopted by an American family when he was two years old. Decades later, in a search to rediscover his roots, he found out he had a biological cousin in the United States. In 1995, they met and found they had more in common than just blood: they both played the alto saxophone, football, basketball and baseball in high school; they also both grew up in small towns in Minnesota and are avid fans of the Minnesota Vikings and Minnesota Twins.

But it’s not all coincidence.

Minnesota has the largest population of Korean American adoptees in the United States. Adoption programs began after the Korean War in the 1950s, expanding over the next three decades and continuing until today.

Left: Wayne Berry, a Korean American adoptee who grew up in central Minnesota. Right: A family photo of Berry (far right) with his adoptive parents, two sisters and brother who is a Native American adoptee. Images courtesy of Wayne Berry.

While Berry was growing up in a rural town in central Minnesota about 100 miles north of the Twin Cities, Sara Weinberger spent her childhood in Sauk Rapids.

Born in Seoul, South Korea, Weinberger was left on police station steps before being placed in foster care. Five months after her birth, an American family adopted her.

Weinberger, now 51 years old, is a third-grade teacher with Edina Public Schools. After teaching for 25 years in Minnesota, Weinberger went on a leave of absence for the 2023-24 school year to teach third-grade students at a private school in Geojedo, South Korea’s second largest island in the south.

Although Weinberger was forced to return to the U.S. in October 2023 after being diagnosed with breast cancer, her time in South Korea helped her connect more with her birth culture and the international Korean adoptee community in ways she had not been able to while growing up.

“I was surrounded by whiteness. It’s how I learned to navigate the world,” Weinberger said. “Until I left the nest and went to college, where for the first time, my Asian-ness hit me in the face with the harsh reality that no one knows I have a white family, and they wondered why I didn’t know anything about Korean culture or language. The realization that I don’t fit in here and I don’t fit in Korea — we are othered in both places.”

These feelings are echoed intergenerationally among Korean American adoptees.

Berry also grew up in a predominantly white community, a fact made more apparent by the size and remoteness of his small, rural hometown. He found his outlet through athletics.

“Being involved with sports was, in a lot of ways, my saving grace; it was a platform to kind of be in a group and kind of be accepted,” Berry said. “I didn’t want to bring attention to it [being adopted], so I didn’t outwardly talk about it or even really have a lot of pride about it. I just wanted to be like the rest of my friends.”

Decades later, Jack Garfin tells a similar coming-of-age story. Now an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from Edina, Minnesota, Garfin was adopted from South Korea when he was five or six months old.

“It’s kind of like you’re in the middle,” Garfin said. “Because I’m not really connected to Korea, like culturally, but I’m from Korea and I look Korean. But also I’m not white or whatever, but I only speak English [and] I play pretty American sports.”

Jack Garfin, a Korean American adoptee from Edina, Minnesota. Images courtesy of Jack Garfin.

Jenna Dailey is a 31-year-old Korean American adoptee who grew up in Golden Valley, Minnesota, and currently lives in Denver, Colorado.

“I think I’ve always identified as very white and, not that I didn’t know that I was Asian, but there are certain milestones where it was just more apparent for me where I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, my eyes are different,’ you know, putting on makeup with girlfriends,” Dailey said. “There were many years where I was a little bit unsure of and just wasn’t comfortable being Asian.”

Growing up in a white family, neighborhood and town in Minnesota, Dailey felt like she inherently stuck out. Dailey recalls wanting to look like she was white, especially with her eyes, and wanting to get surgery when she was younger to fit in.

After growing into herself, she has now come to embrace her Asian features. Dailey currently works in social media and is also a freelance photographer and yoga instructor.

Jenna Dailey, a Korean American adoptee who grew up in Golden Valley, Minnesota. Images courtesy of Jenna Dailey.

In the Midwest, it is not uncommon for Asian American adoptees to grow up in communities with few Asians. As of 2019, the Midwest had the lowest Asian American population in the U.S. at 12%, compared to 19% in the Northeast, 24% in the South and 45% in the West. Even so, transracial adoptions over the past few decades have led to a sizable Asian American adoptee population in the region.

“I feel very fortunate because I have a really great family. And I’m very close to my brothers and my parents. That got me through it,” Weinberger said. “I had lots of friends, but it was hard because I was the only Korean in my whole town.”

For Asian American adoptees in the Midwest, stigma comes from multiple angles. First, being adopted.

“Whether this is a Midwest thing or just not being exposed to adoption people, I get a lot of, ‘Oh, you’re adopted. I’m sorry.’ I’m like, ‘You don’t have to be,’” Dailey said. “Everyone has different experiences, but I think people generally don’t understand the loving side of it, where a mom is choosing to give up her child for the chance of a better life.”

Second, looking “foreign.”

“We’re always others,” Weinberger said. “It’s always assumed I’m not from here, I’m always from somewhere else. I can’t just say ‘I’m from Minnesota,’ and have that be ‘Oh.’ It’s always a follow-up [question].”

Garfin does not see himself as different from everyone else, but he also thinks that being a Korean American adoptee is something that he has to accept as part of his identity and that has made him more resilient. He believes the comments he has faced in the past have contributed to him being someone who is level-headed, calm and a hard worker.

“There’s definitely been some things like a little bit of adversity I’ve had to deal with just in terms of people … making jokes about me being Asian or being adopted,” Garfin said. “Being an Asian American adoptee, it’s always felt like I’ve had to work twice as hard to be respected as a peer.”

Weiberger noted the lack of representation not only in the community around her, but also in the media she was exposed to while growing up.

“The only time that I saw someone that looked like me on TV was a very stereotypical representation. But I didn’t have people to look at [in] magazines or to be on TV or in music,” Weinberger said.

The only Asian female in popular culture that Weinberger could remember was the news anchor Connie Chung; while Weiberger couldn’t really relate much because of the vast age difference, her white friends at school jokingly called her “Connie.”

“When you’re surrounded by it all the time, you start to believe the narratives that are before you. So I sort of believed some of those stereotypes of Asian people because I didn’t have any other access to anything else to tell me otherwise,” Weinberger said.

Exploring Korean heritage

Despite the small AAPI population in the Midwest, the growing community of Korean adoptees in Minnesota has led to the formation of groups and culture camps where adoptees and their families, first-generation Korean Americans and people interested in Korean culture can learn about Korea. These spaces help adoptees learn more about their birth cultures, address the struggle of feeling “in between” and connect with other individuals who share their experiences of being transracial adoptees in the Midwest.

In elementary school and junior high, Dailey attended Korean culture camps such as Kamp Kimchee and Camp Choson. She then worked as a camp counselor while in college.

“To be surrounded by people that look the same as you was just very comfortable … I just felt like I blended in more,” Dailey said. “I started to not be ashamed of the cultural side and start[ed] to embrace it more.”

Berry taught at various Korean culture camps throughout Wisconsin and Minnesota in the mid-1990s, including the Korean Culture Camp of Minnesota, a weeklong summer retreat where campers can take classes in Korean language, history, music, self-esteem, taekwondo and dance.

Berry valued the opportunity to find people with backgrounds similar to his.

“We didn’t have to explain things to each other because we have walked in these footsteps that each other has walked in, and there was a lot of just appreciation for that,” Berry said.

At Korean culture camps, Berry taught self-esteem classes, where he talked about self-identity and having pride in one’s Korean ethnicity, as well as being raised in an adopted family. In these classes, he shared his own upbringing and the experiences of other Korean adoptees.

Weinberger also taught these classes and met Berry at Korean Culture Camp.

“The self-esteem classes were about helping adoptees to feel good about themselves and to provide a space where they could share the challenges they had living in predominantly white communities,” Weinberger said.

The campers’ ages range from kindergarten to middle school, and some remain involved in the camp later as volunteers, helping out during and after high school.

Garfin started going to the Korean Culture Camp of Minnesota when he was in kindergarten or first grade, and he has been attending every summer since then, as a camper, a teen volunteer and as a counselor.

Left: Garfin (far back and center) with other teen volunteers during his first year of volunteering at the Korean Culture Camp in Minnesota. Right: Garfin (second from left) with other volunteers, including Weinberger’s son Peter and daughter Lauren, at the Korean Culture Camp in Minnesota. Images courtesy of Jack Garfin.

“It’s just a place to connect with other Korean Americans and Korean American adoptees … I’d say it’s a pretty comfortable environment for me, at least, to grow up in as an adoptee,” Garfin said.

Garfin was very interested in learning Korean at the culture camp because he views it as a great way to connect to his culture and be a little bit “more Korean,” and he hopes that knowing the language will be useful if he travels to Korea.

In addition to participating in the Korean Culture Camp, Weinberger has also found community by joining adoptee groups on social media and attending adoptee events. In 2023, she talked about her adoption story and her decision to move to South Korea in a panel discussion for Adoptee Hub, a nonprofit that provides resources and builds community for Korean adoptees in Minnesota.

“The thing I love about being connected with and knowing other Korean adoptees is that there is an instant connection because of our shared experiences,” Weinberger said. “I can share my feelings without having to explain with further examples like I do with my non-KAD (Korean Adoptee) friends — they just understand.”

Connecting with biological families

For some adoptees, visiting their birth countries and reconnecting with their biological families is an important journey.

In 1994, Berry decided to search for his Korean family and sent 100 letters to adoption services and to local media outlets across Minnesota. When WCCO, a local CBS affiliate television station in Minnesota, replied to him for a potential human interest story, Berry agreed. Berry had the video segment translated into Korean and sent it, along with his baby photo, to three Korean television stations in Seoul.

A week before Berry left to visit Korea in the summer of 1995, he received a call after his segment aired abroad: some people had come forward, saying they were his family members. When Berry visited Korea in 1995 for one week, he was able to reunite with his biological parents.

Berry reunited with his biological parents during a weeklong trip to South Korea in the summer of 1995. Image courtesy of Wayne Berry.
Left: Berry (center) has three older sisters and one older brother on his birth father’s side of the family. Right: Berry (second from right) has three younger sisters on his birth mother’s side of the family. Images courtesy of Wayne Berry.

“Everything was very foreign to me, even though I looked like everyone around me,” Berry said. “Through that experience, and again meeting my Korean family, it pushed me to, when I got back, to want to learn more about Korea, my background, my family, the language.”

That’s also when Berry discovered his biological cousin. After hearing of Berry’s birth search, his maternal aunt in Korea was interested in finding her second son, who was also adopted. After working with a Korean adoption agency to reach out to the adoptive family, he met his cousin in 1995 in Minnesota. They are close today and hope to visit Korea together again someday.

Berry took Korean language classes at the University of Minnesota before moving to Korea in 1997 for one year to spend more time with his Korean family, study the language and learn more about the culture. Since then, he has visited Korea several times.

“I was very ‘whitewashed’ growing up and never carried a lot of pride about being a Korean person. As I got older and had the experiences I had of meeting my Korean family, moving to Korea for one year, and working with Korean-adopted kids and teens — I felt moved to become more involved with our Korean-adopted community and took on leadership roles to help connect and guide our community in both local and international roles,” Berry said.

Now 53, Berry currently works in property management and lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and children.

“We try to teach our kids about Korean culture and being proud of their Korean heritage. Our hope is to take a family trip to Korea someday. My three oldest kids have been to Korea and met some of my family members, but it’s been a long time and I would like for all of us to take a trip back to see family again and for them to see where their heritage begins,” Berry said.

A family photo of Berry (far right) with his wife, who is Korean American, and their four children. Image courtesy of Wayne Berry.

Dailey and Weinberger have also sought out their birth families but haven’t been able to reconnect as of yet.

When Dailey was in third grade, she visited Korea with her adoptive parents and her brother, who is also a Korean American adoptee. She started the search process for her biological family through the Children’s Home Society of Minnesota a few years ago, but the messages they sent out received no answers. Nonetheless, she has not given up on looking for her birth parents.

Weinberger has gone on a homeland tour in Korea with her parents and husband through the Children’s Home Society of Minnesota and tried to search for information about her birth, but she was unable to find out more about her biological family. During her most recent stay in Korea, she submitted her DNA to the Seoul Mapo Police Station to be on record in the event that she is reported as a missing person.

“I don’t have any expectations for reunion with my first family and I am aware that the older I get, the chances of my birth parents being alive are low. But, I felt that I had to at least try,” Weinberger said.

In the meantime, Weinberger has focused on connecting with her children through their shared Korean heritage. The pandemic allowed her to discover K-pop — a passion she shares with her children, Peter and Lauren, who were already K-pop fans.

Weinberger has been studying Korean independently and through language courses and lessons while her children take Korean classes. The three of them enjoy listening to all kinds of Korean music, watching Korean TV shows, going to K-pop concerts, and eating traditional Korean cuisine such as kimchi (fermented vegetables), bulgogi (Korean beef barbecue) and chap chae (stir-fried sweet potato starch noodles).

Left: Weinberger with her daughter Lauren and son Peter at a South Korean boy band concert in July 2022.
Right: Weinberger (far right) with her daughter Lauren and son Peter at the Korean Culture Camp of Minnesota in July 2022. Images courtesy of Sara Weinberger.

Love, loss and the complexity of belonging

“I think that something that’s really hard about being adopted is just not knowing so much. And there’s no easy answers,” Grace Newton, a PhD student who studies adoption and adoptees at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice at the University of Chicago, said.

When she was 3 years old, Newton was adopted from Nanjing, China, and grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. Now, Newton writes about her life experiences and issues of adoption on her blog Red Thread Broken, is an advisory council member for the Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network (KAAN), and is an adoption scholar.

“I think ultimately, we’re all looking for belonging,” Newton said.

Left: Grace Newton, a Chinese American adoptee who grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, and is an adoption scholar. Right: Newton (far right) speaks at a Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network (KAAN) event in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2018. Images courtesy of Grace Newton.

Newton noted that some common themes between her experiences and the experiences of other Asian American adoptees include racial isolation, cultural loss, shame and feelings of inadequacy.

“The message that adoptees have really been trying to say for a long, long time is that adoption is so complicated,” Newton said. “We can love our adoptive families, but we might always want to know and want to love who we came from. We can be glad for the life that we have, but we can also long to know the life that we could have had in our home country.”

For example, Weinberger loves and feels part of her adoptive family, but she also feels a sense of loss that she does not have a Korean family.

“I love all the representation and everything that I have access to, and also there’s this deep sadness that I have because I don’t have a grandmother or a mother to pass down how to make something,” Weinberger said.

Garfin said that adoptees can feel disconnected from their birth, their adoptive parents or society as a whole.

“Even though people know about that, I feel like it’s not talked about enough because the mental health effects that they can have on people is more significant than some people think,” Garfin said. “Because when you feel disconnected from the people who are raising you, that can be a pretty big deal. And then also, if you just feel like you don’t fit into society in general, that can be a big problem.”

Left: Garfin (far right) with his father and younger brother. Right: Garfin plays baseball. Images courtesy of Jack Garfin.

According to Newton, people can support adoptees by facilitating family connections, allowing adoptees to explore their cultures, encouraging parents to process their feelings about adoption, connecting adoptees to their larger community when they are young, and talking about all aspects of adoption in age-appropriate ways.

“Taking time to get to know yourself and what your place is in the world … it’s so important to embrace that,” Dailey said. “And once you embrace it, it’s just like you don’t have to be at war with yourself. You can really focus on the things that matter, and you can grow.”

This story was updated on March 21, 2024 to more accurately portray the adoption timeline of Sara Weinberger.

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