“Soul mates.” “Brother and sister.” These words describe the bond between Saul Tran Cornwall and Amy Moline Pak—Asian American adoptees from two different worlds and from two different families, but drawn to one another because of their similar paths. Both were adopted by middle-class, White families and both became involved in adoptee activism and community work.
My interview with these two “soul mates,” explored the topics of identity as an adoptee, identity around being Asian American and how they reconciled their beliefs to establish a unique, true sense of their self. The issue around adoption has many political ramifications and there is a strong movement in this area, especially in light of the devastation in Haiti, but my article does not address these issues. My article is a personal, human story on what it is like to be in their shoes.
Tran-Cornwall was adopted in 1975, from South Vietnam. He recalls his biological father relinquished him to an orphanage in Vietnam. He was born with a cleft palate, a medical condition that makes feeding hard and can cause permanent damage to speech and hearing if left untreated. His foster family, unable to endure all his necessary medical needs placed him back in the orphanage. Tran was then adopted by his family from Portland, Oregon.
When asked how he grew up, he remembers having a normal, happy childhood. Notions of cultural identity or being “Vietnamese” never came up. As a child he was immersed in the American culture and wanting to fit-in. He did not see a difference. Tran recalls, “I wanted to be Black. They were the only people of color I saw that was somewhat like me, so I listened to hip-hop and tried to be like them.” Even in high-school, when Tran was being picked on daily because of his Asian background, he never acknowledged it because of his own internalized oppression. “It wasn’t until college that I distanced myself from my small town, my family and found my Asian side.” Tran describes not purposefully separating from his loving, supportive family, but he felt in order for him to discover his “difference,” he had to raise his racial consciousness.
Mirroring his experience, Amy Moline Pak remembers challenging her White parents but realized her distance from them was a pivotal moment in her own personal growth. She was adopted in 1980 from South Korea into her family, who lived in St. Peter, Minnesota and named “Amy Hyunah Moline.” Pak describes her childhood as being “Idyllic. My parents were supportive, loving and family was important.” Much like Tran, Pak wanted to be popular and have lots of friends growing up. She reflects her parents having a difficult time with that, but believes the motivation came from her desire to belong.
During college, Pak was able to immerse in the Asian American community in Seattle which gave her a strong sense of Asian pride that she never experienced before.
Pak and Tran met through their work and advocacy in the API community. Both, in their early to mid-twenties, worked in the International District with the International District Housing Alliance’s WILD program and the API Women and Family Safety Center in the same building. They both volunteered for the HOLT International Adoption Agency working as youth counselors to help shape and share their own personal experiences with other young, trans-racial adoptees. Their passion for working with inner-city youth brought them to Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS), where I had the pleasure to work along side them.
Pak remembers, “We were so involved with various community activities and wanted to show our youth our Asian pride and help build a collective consciousness around the positive qualities of being Asian American.”
Tran is now married to Karen Nakayama and returned to work for ACRS as a Children’s Mental Health Counselor after getting his Master’s in Social Work. Pak has lived and studied abroad, achieved her Master’s in Social Work, and now works for the University of Washington in the Office of Minority Affairs. She is married to Daniel Pak and their little boy will be turning one year-old this year. She relishes in her motherhood, in her family life and feels having her son, her only blood-relative, “legitimizes my beginning. It gives me a stronger connection to the world.”