Discovering and Defining Your Identity with Lily

In partnership with Undiscovered Worth, we are publishing a series of interviews over the past few weeks with radical women about universally relatable topics like failure, self-care, identity, and more. We are psyched to be collaborating with Kashara Johnson of Undiscovered Worth—make sure to visit her space and follow along with her special work.

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Lily discusses discovering her identity, embracing her Asian culture, and meeting her biological parents.

 Credit: Holly Ravazzolo

Credit: Holly Ravazzolo

ON GROWING UP IN A MAJORITY WHITE CULTURE

I grew up in Birmingham. I was adopted into a very privileged family. My parents are White and my dad was a doctor at Children's Hospital. My mom is a homemaker. We moved to Mountain Brook when I was 9 or 10 so I had to endure that environment being the only Asian kid besides my sister who is also adopted from Korea. Growing up, I never really thought of myself as Asian. I would just look in the mirror and see myself as Lily. I basically thought I was White because I didn't think that I was Asian. When you don't know, the default is always White. If you're whole community and family is White, what else are you supposed to think?

When you don’t know, the default is always White. If you’re whole community and family is White, what else are you supposed to think?

ON FINDING HER PLACE AND INTRODUCTION TO ASIAN CULTURE

But then life got really good, which leads to my second defining moment. I went to the Alabama School of Fine Arts. I was kind of a shit student at the time. I didn't really feel like I worked hard. Because I'm such a perfectionist, I always felt like there was room to improve. Perfectionism has always been a part of me along with being tenacious. ASFA was great because I finally got to be in a community that wasn't all White. I met my friend Joyce who is actually still my best friend. I thought that she was really weird, but I liked her and she seemed to like me. She kind of opened the door to her Taiwanese culture and so it was interesting seeing the ways that her family did life. It was very different than what I was used to back at home. They would use the dishwasher as storage and they always had rice in the rice cooker. That was something that was very foreign. My mom really did try to teach us about our Korean culture, but at the same time, there's only so much that she could teach us. I still feel that my mom has this fear that I'm going to leave her for my Korean parents who I've met.

 Credit: Holly Ravazzolo

Credit: Holly Ravazzolo

ON MEETING HER BIOLOGICAL FAMILY

My adoption was closed, but my mom had to file as single in order to make me eligible for adoption. I was adopted because of limb abnormalities. At 16, I told my mom that I wanted to reach out to my Korean parents and send them a letter. My mom had to contact the adoption agency in order to find them. They had to search through a lot of files, but they were eventually found. They are actually still married which I thought was kind of crazy. My Korean dad wrote me a letter saying that he thought he'd never hear my name again. In his letter, you could tell that he was a very kind and gentle man. Apparently, in Korean culture, that's not very common and men aren't very emotional. We were pen pals for like 3 years. Finally, when I was 19, I got to go visit them. I have three sisters so I got to meet them, my mom, my dad's mother, aunt, uncle, and a lot of other people.

I don't speak Korean and they only speak Korean. I can't really converse with them. We communicate through Google Translate. It's always very gestural. My mom talks really slow. It's really cute. They're really cute people and they kind of look like me which kind of creeps me out.

I wasn't sure if they were even still out there. All I had was a little note written in Korean saying that they were sorry and that they believed that giving me away was the best thing for me. It's so sad, but I do think it was the best thing for them and me. I wouldn't have been happy there and I can't even imagine living there. It's very conforming. They probably think I'm Lily, the "crazy American" one.