There are lots of ways to get hooked on Bravo’s Top Chef, some of them less savory than others. But the main reason my small family has now watched all ten seasons, playing catch-up for several years by downloading previous episodes, has nothing to do with cooking, fist fights between contestants, or what glamour-puss host Padma Lakshmi is wearing. It’s about my son’s identity as a Vietnamese adoptee.
Even without the adoption connection, our dedication to Top Chef is not as weird as it sounds: My husband is a foodie; my son, picky eater that he is, likes to make his own concoctions; and I’m a sucker for stories about driven, creative people, no matter how schmaltzy or manufactured the reality-show narratives seem.
Still, Korean adoptee Kristen Kish, Season Ten’s recent winner, sealed the deal. My son always cheers on the Asian contestants. (He and I had a mischievous love of foul-mouthed and explosive Dale Talde from Season Four, for instance.) The Season Three win of Hung Huynh was bottled happiness for us.
But Kristen Kish was my son’s equivalent of a knight in shining armor. From the time it was revealed in the seventh episode that she’s an adoptee who doesn’t know her birth parents, he’s been in her corner, personally invested in her dream of returning to Korea for the first time as an adult.
When she won the finale last week, we all whooped. But my son hopped up and down, as if he couldn’t contain the electricity coursing through him.
This was a big moment for the international adoption community, although the mainstream press barely gave it a nod. The duality of an adoptee’s experience—two sets of parents, divided loyalties, the need to craft an identity that is both and neither—is a profound aspect of who an adoptee is. It’s so profound and deeply felt that my eleven-year-old loves to tell me, “You don't know.”
He’s right. That’s why last week’s Top Chef finale was so validating for him and many in the Asian adoption community. As the blogger of [my Korean adoptee story] put it last week:
I’m biased and not ashamed even a little bit. If there’s an Asian contestant, I’m rooting for them. Because us Asian kids living in America just need a role model. To be able to look on the TV once [in awhile] and see a face that looks like ours and isn’t being the stereotypical Asian nerd or ninja or hypersexualized slut….
Today was the finale and Kristen took home the title. She, again, mentioned wanting to visit Korea after winning and I was all bawling and happy. I’ve never been rooting for a contestant so much….
She could have been channeling my son. Rarely is the cognitive dissonance an Asian adoptee feels expressed as clearly and sweetly as it was on that Bravo episode—especially given the dismal record of mainstream TV series like Parenthood and Modern Family in dramatizing the complications of adoption.
Ironically, the hokey emphasis on people stories and emotional arcs in reality TV programming may get closer to the messy truth, at least sometimes. For one thing, when a contestant on a reality show talks about being an adoptee, that normalizes it.
Kish tearfully acknowledged the longing to know her birth country and parents. My son gazed, rapt, at the photo of baby Kristen when she was first adopted, which was accompanied by her voiceover: “The one thing I miss is two people who look like me. I just want to see where I came from.”
At the same time, at the finale taped in front of a live audience of former Top Chef winners and family members, Kish hugged her white father and brother, leaning against her dad’s shoulder as he kept murmuring how proud he was.
Both Korean and American and neither—for all to see on a popular cable show.
I’m not surprised that most of the media coverage of Kish’s win offers little to no commentary about how her adoption story was handled. But I do find it depressing that few reporters view this as a story all on its own, one in which adult adoptees could have been interviewed for more insights.
Instead, most accounts of her Korean adoption were oddly muted, displaying an absurd reticence considering the usual 24/7 dishing.
Last week’s reports talked about everything else: her cooking strategy, her nerves, her job with famed Boston chef Barbara Lynch. (Yes, Kish lives and works in Boston, too, another hook for us.)
So, the Boston Globe’s recent Q&A with Kish focused on her work with Lynch, with no reference to her adoption story. For instance:
Q. Coming from Boston, do you have any advice for aspiring local chefs?
A. Just be true to who you are as a chef.
Ho hum. Granted, this is a show about cooking, and its fans are foodies and wannabe chefs. And in an earlier interview with Boston magazine, Kish did joke around about “white person Asian food”. When asked why she coined that term, she replied:
“Well, for me, I don’t know how authentic things can be, but I know what tastes good…. I hope I’m not offending any Asian people. But...I was raised by white parents. But I’m Asian. But I kinda don’t know a lot about Asian cooking.”
Most other Q&A’s, if they mentioned her adoption at all, only touched at the end on Kish’s plans to return to Korea. Here’s Esquire’s takeaway:
ESQ: On the show, you mentioned that with your prize money, you're going to head to Korea. Is that still happening?
KK: Oh, 100 percent.
ESQ: What's the best thing you will eat over there?
KK: I just want authentic kimchi. Not the stuff you can buy in a jar. I just want the stinky, fermented stuff from the bottom of the ground.
If Kristen were reticent herself, I’d say, okay, fine. But she’s not. The week before she won Top Chef, Korean-adoptee Kevin Ost-Vollmers interviewed her for his site, Land of Gazillion Adoptees. In this Q&A, Kish says that “[b]eing adopted has always been a part of who I am, and I am extraordinarily lucky to have my family.”
When Ost-Vollmers asks her about “traveling back to South Korea, where you were born,” the contrast with other media accounts is clear. Here’s how he candidly frames the question for her:
LGA: Would you mind elaborating, because that sentiment is something many Korean adoptees say, but for a variety of different reasons.
Kristen: I need to go back, not to find biological family, but to see where I was born and learn about Korean culture. For me it’s important to know where I came from, not necessarily who I came from. I would love to visit the clinic where I was born. I think it will be a huge moment for me.
The press rarely acquits itself well with adoption. It’s a social hot button, which makes it an equal-opportunity offender in the hands of writers who know little about it. Worse, the media tends to focus on the perspectives of white adoptive parents and the conventional wisdom that adoptees from third-world countries should be grateful, happy citizens in their new countries.
So when a show like Top Chef—which, in fact, included three adoptees among its tenth season contestants—conveys both the joys and the sorrows of being adopted, I’m thrilled. I can dismiss every criticism (well, almost) of the finale’s cheesy game-show atmosphere, its flashing lights, its relentlessly upbeat form of gourmet product placement.
I congratulate Kristen Kish, especially for speaking publicly about her experience as an Asian adoptee. But I also say bravo, Bravo. You’ve provided a positive and public forum for “adoptee” as a form of identity. In the most unexpected way—in a cooking show, for crying out loud!—you’ve given adult adoptees a voice.
As we watched the crowd roar its approval of Top Chef’s first Asian female adoptee winner, my son dove onto the couch where I was sitting and hugged me. Hard. He was almost in tears himself.
Perhaps more than most people, adoptees like my wonderful, determined, questioning boy need to know that their confusing feelings make sense—and that they’re not alone.
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