by Joel Hoekstra
Photo by Leo Kim
Assistant professor, psychology
B.A., Boston College; Ph.D., Virginia Commonwealth U
Early Career Award, Asian American Psychological Association
The music and art scene. And the cultural vibrancy.
“… so resilient and trusting and optimistic. That's inspiring. But they also keep a lot inside. They’re quiet sufferers. Kids often have a lot more emotional strength than adults, I think.”
Travel to Korea. And build an icehouse. “Some of my friends want to construct one—not for actual fishing, but more as a work of art.”
“I thought about being a philosopher or maybe a theologian. I always thought being a cartographer would be cool, too.”
Psychology professor Richard Lee examines how the development of a positive ethnic identity helps Korean adoptees walk between two worlds.
Richard Lee didn't spend much time reflecting on ethnic identity while growing up—especially not his own. The son of Korean immigrants, he mostly wanted to fit into the dominant culture of the Connecticut town where his family had settled. “I acculturated pretty mainstream white,” Lee says. “At age 11, I remember, I told my parents that I didn't want to speak Korean anymore. I liked the food my mother made, but I didn't like that our house smelled like that kind of cooking. When you’re a child, you want to fit in with your peers.”
His parents didn't talk much about being Korean, either. But years later, Lee realized that he’d imbibed much of their ethnic pride and learned from them a lot about being a minority in a sometimes hostile society. By then, he was working on a postdoc in professional psychology at the University of California, Davis, and working full-time at the university's counseling center.
“I was working with a Korean adoptee who was having some problems and who often referenced her adoption experience in our sessions,” he recalls. “That led to a conversation on identity confusion. She didn't seem to know who she was. So, since we were both Korean, one of the things that I threw out was that she might want to explore what it meant to be Korean.”
His client's exploration of her ethnic roots seemed to help. But Lee quickly recognized that adoptees didn't enjoy the same connection to a racial heritage that he had developed during his childhood. Since many Korean and other adoptees are brought up by white parents, they don't have the insider's understanding of culture, traditions, or even language that children raised by Korean parents generally do. Whatever similarities of appearance they might share with other Korean Americans, Korean adoptees found Korean culture and Korean-American communities mystifying and foreign.
While still in California, Lee decided to devote his professional life to examining how Asian adoptees integrate their racial heritage into their personal identities. When he joined the psychology faculty at Minnesota five years ago, the move was a double boon to his studies. Minnesota was already well established as a nationally known center for adoption research. What's more, the Twin Cities and their environs were home to numerous Korean adoptees.
“There are no national statistics, but it's generally agreed that Minnesota has among the highest rates of international adoption,” Lee says. “It's estimated that about half the Korean population in Minnesota is adopted. That's unparalleled anywhere.”
At the University, Lee joined a number of colleagues already working on a large-scale research effort known as the International Adoption Project. Survey data collected by mail from more than 2,000 families are being used to assess the impact of adoption on young children. Roughly a third of those families, it turns out, have adopted children from Korea. “I’m interested in the attitudes of parents and what they do or don't do to cultivate a sense of ethnic identity in their children,” Lee says. “Is it enough that they’re racially aware? Does that translate into culturally specific parenting?”
Most white parents raising adopted Korean kids make some effort to promote some level of positive Korean identity. Some parents—those who are strongly committed to cross-cultural socialization—might bring their kids to a Korean church or playgroup and to Korean language classes. Others might wait for their children to take the lead in cultural discussions. Still others might do little or nothing, content to let their kids blend into the American mainstream.
Up to now, there 's been little research into what parents try and what works best. But with Lee taking the lead, one day before long we’ll have some answers to what he calls “the million dollar question”: “Does any of this facilitate positive development of an integrated personal ethnic identity?”
To better assess the impact of different parenting approaches, Lee teamed up with psychology professor Matt McGue in a study of teenage adoptees. McGue had already launched the ongoing study of 400 families with nonadopted children and 400 families with adopted children when Lee expressed an interest in assessing the data. But Lee brought a different lens to the survey, says McGue, whose interest is chiefly in factors that lead to adolescent substance abuse: “One of the questions that Rich is addressing—a terribly important question for Minnesota families—is this: To what extent have [culturally oriented] programs and approaches been successful in fostering a positive sense of ethnicity?”
By examining the actual experiences of both the parents and their adopted Asian-born kids in the socialization and acculturation process, and the impact of those processes on ethnic identity development and psychological adjustment, Lee is in the vanguard of research on international adoption. “Most previous research has focused almost purely on outcome,” McGue says. “Do children who are internationally placed fare well? The research hasn't looked at the factors that underlie such well-being.” Discovery of these underlying factors by researchers such as Lee could help ensure the well-being of future generations of adopted children.
Last year, Lee began teaching a course on Korean identity among adoptees. The class garnered considerable interest among students, and even fellow psychologists. “We can't assume that one size fits all in terms of family development or child development,” Lee says of his approach. “In psychology, we often ignore culture and race—but they play a part in development. My job is to bring that to the fore.”