Provocation: Talking Transracial Adoption
As the hotly anticipated K-BOX hits rehearsals, singer and writer Hana Crisp writes about difficult conversations, and why she & Ryan Gustafsson started the podcast Adopted Feels.
By Hana Crisp
Posted Aug 19, 2022
When I was 15 years old I wanted to become an actor.
Back then, I spent most of my time absorbed in books or movies, or in my own head, or in front of the mirror—in ill-fated attempts to apply smokey eye make-up techniques from fashion magazines to my non-existent eyelid crease.
Luckily, one of our family friends was an actor. She was in her late 20s at that time, I think—old enough but not too old to seem cool to me—and she took me out a couple of times, just the two of us. One night, after watching Girl, Interrupted at a local cinema, she drove me home and we marvelled at how Winona Ryder looked so perfectly gorgeous in every scene, despite going through an emotional breakdown. She also told me that there’s something I need to know if I really want to be an actor.
I tilted my chin upwards towards the driver’s seat, eagerly awaiting some pearl of wisdom.
I need to know that I will get typecast, she said. Because of my appearance. She didn’t need to say anything about race or being Asian. She gets typecast herself as 'quirky', 'eccentric' characters just because of her hair, she said, gesturing towards her tight curls.
I decided not to become an actor.
There was no way that I could have survived in such an industry, when I wasn’t sure if I belonged there in the first place.
Uncomfortable in my own skin, with a very tenuous grasp on my complicated identity as a Korean Australian adopted person in a white family, I didn’t have the self-esteem or self-confidence to try, and I knew it.
Instead, I became a classical singer. And some ten years ago now, when I was a gigging singer I met Ra Chapman, a gigging actor, who would one day become the award-winning playwright behind K-BOX. Recalling my family friend’s advice, I was curious about Ra’s experience as an Asian female actor in Australia, and she told me about most of the roles offered to her. Refugees, prostitutes, sex workers—mostly side characters, not necessarily well-developed. Perhaps my family friend had been right.
We were also two Korean adopted people navigating recent trips to Korea and reconnections with Korean relatives. We were starting to unpack the Pandora’s Box of adoption stuff—a box that, until now, had been safely packed away on the back shelf of the psyche. We were 'coming out of the fog', as some might say in the adoption community, like the rug had been pulled out from under your feet and the foundations of your home, family, and identity were all in question. Realising that you’re not white like your family and most of your friends—you’re a person of colour, you’re Korean—but you have no idea what this means to you, or how to disentangle the internalised racism you’ve spent years accumulating. I think they call it an existential crisis. But talking with Ra, at least I knew I wasn’t the only one.
Much to the surprise of my younger self, with the recent shift towards more ‘diversity’ in storytelling, there’s been an increase in Asian representation in film and TV. We even have transracial adoptee central characters, though few–Randall from This is Us, Saroo from Lion, and real life Korean adoptee Kevin Kreider from Bling Empire, with his frequently displayed six-pack abs and super relatable crazy-rich-Asian LA life.
While I am delighted to see such characters at all, the narratives around transracial adoption can feel one-dimensional and emotionally manipulative: usually centred around the adoptee’s birth family search and reunion—why are people, like, obsessed with this?—tugging at the audience’s heartstrings, with a little trauma porn and white saviour industrial complex thrown in.
Perhaps we don’t see more complex, truthful portrayals because transracial adoptees haven’t held many seats at writers’ tables. Or perhaps it’s because of that extra burden often felt by adoptees who make art based on their lived experience: the fear of offending someone, including the very people that you love most.
This fear is very real. For some reason, still unbeknownst to me, everyone, even my Uber driver, has an opinion on adoption. It’s a touchy subject. And one needs only to scroll through the comments of an adoption-related article or YouTube video—why I still do this is also unbeknownst to me—to familiarise oneself with the landscape of this public opinion.
Over the years I’ve come to recognise three main types of responses:
(1) 'Why aren’t you more grateful for being adopted at all?';
(2) 'What about your poor parents? How do they feel about you searching for your birth family/living in your birth country/exploring your pre-adopted roots?' (Or in other words, 'Why are you so selfish, or rather, ungrateful?' This is essentially a variation of number 1); and
(3) 'I know an adopted person and they’re fine. They don’t seem to be having the problems you are having.' (I am strangely impressed by this one; it is admittedly effective in shutting down the conversation.)
At some point I decided to take the narrative into my own hands by way of a podcast, with my friend Ryan Gustafsson, called Adopted Feels. It’s complicated, nuanced, and unapologetically niche. But there is such joy and satisfaction to be found in making exactly the kind of content that you want to see in the world, and saying exactly the thing that you’ve always wanted to say. Making it has felt liberating for us, and hopefully for our listeners, too.
And now we have K-BOX, which takes adoption trauma and treats it with surrealist humour. Reading it, I felt seen, not just because we have Lucy, an Australian Korean adoptee character at the centre, but because of the nuance and complexity in Ra’s writing, the lack of easy resolution, and Lucy’s inability—in fact, her refusal—to articulate everything that is happening inside her.
I felt seen by the hard, sometimes painful conversations between the characters that mirror those that transracial adoptees and other people of colour have long struggled to have with their white friends and family, particularly in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and Asian hate crimes across the US. K-BOX shares uncomfortable truths that I have heard spoken in private between adopted people, but never on stage or screen.
The fact that this play exists now is still surreal to me, honestly. I’ve followed its journey, but I don’t know if it will sink in until I see it—feel it—reverberate through the Beckett Theatre. I wasn’t sure if this would happen in my lifetime, in theatre, in Australia, a country that I often felt, growing up, would prefer to deny the existence of racism altogether.
But we are doing it. Ra is doing it. We are here: at writers’ tables, writing main characters for mainstages; in Australia, at the footy beside our white middle-aged Dads; or in Korea, fumbling over the language while ordering food.
We belong here.
Hana Crisp is a singer, writer, and podcaster based in Seoul, Korea. She has worked with VANISH, co-founded KAIAN, and is the co-creator of the Adopted Feels podcast. You may have seen her in our 2015 production I Am A Miracle by Declan Greene.
Listen to Adopted Feels, including their recent interview with Ra Chapman, at adoptedfeels.com or anywhere you get your podcasts.