On a warm summer afternoon, the central Seoul neighborhood of Itaewon was buzzing with the chaotic energy of an international city. Neon storefront lights flashed across the sidewalks, mixing with the Korean pop music that wafted from the local shops. Yellow taxis whizzed past the herds of tourists on the streets. And deep inside the bowels of an underground restaurant, a tattooed, unusually muscular Korean man, who goes by the name D, was rushing to prep dinner service.
He hollered in English to his line cook, “Look, it’s nothing but cilantro. It’s not even like pico de gallo. It’s like cilantro de gallo.” Then he rushed over to stir maize for Mexican tamales, a recipe he learned from his abuelita, or Mexican grandmother.
Fusion cuisine may be trendy these days, but D’s path to cooking Mexican food in Korea wasn’t the result of culinary passion. He was born in Korea and orphaned at a young age. In 1979, when D was 5 years old, an American woman named Cheryl Markson, who ran the now-defunct Friends of Children of Various Nations adoption agency, found him. (FCVN closed in 2007 after the state of Colorado investigated the agency for fraud.) Markson brought him to the United States to be placed for adoption with a family living in the Portland, Oregon, area.
But that Portland family handed him back to Markson, and by the time he was a teenager, Markson had moved D to several different homes—family, foster, and group. His only fond memory from childhood was the time he lived at a foster home in East Los Angeles, where he spent hours in the kitchen beside the woman he still describes as his abuelita, learning her recipes. As the family matriarch, D’s grandmother was the closest he’d ever had to a family member.
“My grandmother protected me and gave me a home,” he told me when we met in the tiny, one-room apartment he shares with his Korean wife and creamsicle-colored cat.
But their cherished time together wasn’t enough to carry D through adulthood. At 17 years old, he began to run with gangs and organize drug deals, he said. He looked up to the gang elders—his “Mexican uncles,” as he still calls them—as father figures. D wasn’t surprised to find himself on the wrong side of the law more than a couple of times. But he was shocked to find that his crimes made him deportable—to Korea, a country he had no ties to—because he was not a United States citizen. He had always assumed he was.
Before 2001, the United States did not grant automatic citizenship to foreign-born adoptees. It was up to new American parents to naturalize their adopted children. If the parents didn’t, for reasons ranging from negligence to honest ignorance, the children suffered the consequences. D is one of an estimated 15,000 Korean-born adoptees who grew up and lived in the United States without citizenship—leaving them vulnerable to deportation at any time. While Korean adoptees represent a majority of those who have been snared by this loophole in the law, foreign-born adoptees from countries such as Vietnam, Mexico, and India have also grown up in the United States only to discover, as adults, that they are not actually American.