More Than Serving Tea

Identity Formation & Barbie

I grew up with Barbie and her knock-off cousins. My sister and I had the townhouse with the elevator. The pool. The dream house. With all of the furniture. The remote-controlled Corvette.

The collection finally made complete after a family trip to the Motherland where, in the Itaewon shopping district, we found the perfect outfit for our blonde, blue-eyed and busty dolls – a Barbie-sized hanbok (traditional Korean dress). All Barbie needed was some major surgery, hair dye and contact lenses and she would look just like me and my sister on New Year’s Day.

So when my firstborn came of age I vowed to never buy her a Barbie. She received them as gifts and we did let her keep a few, including Mulan Barbie, and I even broke out my vintage Barbie Dream house and furniture.

I still have the dream house and furniture in the basement, as well as the Barbie hanbok. But hen again, there is a lot of other garbage in my basement.

Admittedly it is a love-hate relationship with Barbie because for all of objectification and stereotyping, she was a part of my childhood which included more friends who looked more and lived more like Barbie. And I wanted friends. I wanted to belong.

I still want to belong. Somewhere.

So when friends posted this link about an ‘adoption Barbie’ I needed a few days to digest it all. The doll has been around for a few years, but the conversations around adoption, identity, desire, broken cultural systems, cultural appropriation, family, assimilation, gender preferences, and citizenship are ancient. Take a look at the Bible and read about Ruth, Esther, the Samaritan Woman, the Bleeding Woman, and a host of other Sunday School classics with grown-up eyes. In many ways, as we
Americans open our eyes to human trafficking, we can see how the world has not changed in how it sees women and girls. We are a commodity that can be dispensed of or used for the benefit of others.

But our genuine desire to find ways to connect our personal stories and experiences can make the adoption Barbie seem rather innocuous of even helpful as a way to commemorate an adoptive child’s “gotcha day”.

My husband and I have been a part of three adoptions, vouching for our friends and writing letters for their case files. We have celebrated with many more friends who have journeyed years through adoption, some with unconditional support of their families and some with reserved support.

And as a mother of American-born Korean children I notice the abundance of blonde dolls and Caucasian role models.

Seriously. Why do you think I went out and bought a copy of Sports Illustrated?! Sports Illustrated?


Years ago I cried with a friend as I told the story of how my daughter wanted a doll with ‘pretty hair’, which I learned was code for blonde hair. I’m still waiting for an Asian American American Girl historical doll. I just don’t know how they would market Jade – the Japanese internment doll. (In my mind, Ivy doesn’t cut it. She’s just Julie’s best friend.)

So the adoption Barbie doll makes me a bit uneasy and leaves me confused. What do you think? Great idea? Weird idea? Savvy marketing? Opportunistic?

And how many of you still have a Barbie or one of her accessories from childhood?

No judging.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks


  1. * Jean says:

    Sorry, a Chinese adopted doll for blonde Barbie? Good heavens. If they do that, they had better create a white adopted doll for Barbie.

    Who dreams up of these harebrained ideas? Just create an Asian doll wearing ordinary modern clothing and be done with it. I know…too practical, aren’t I?


    | Reply Posted 9 years, 4 months ago
    • * Kathy Khang says:

      Yes, because why would an Asian doll wear ordinary modern clothing 😉


      | Reply Posted 9 years, 4 months ago
  2. * Michelle says:

    granted, these are white dolls, but the mom had flat feet, even wore something like Birkenstocks! They had accessories like a tandem bicycle. I remember thinking my friends Barbies were freaky. I too am always looking for toys that reflect my sons. It was easier for boys because all through the early 2000, if you wanted to know the NEXT BIG THING, you just went to the Japanese toy store and you were ahead of the game. Even Power Rangers was a recycled show my husband watched as a little kid in LA>


    | Reply Posted 9 years, 6 months ago
  3. * Melody says:

    I don’t have any answers, but I appreciate that you are asking these questions. I learn from your heart, as we are pushing and pulling our way toward truth.


    | Reply Posted 9 years, 6 months ago
    • * Kathy Khang says:

      Thanks, Melody. I’m glad we can learn from one another!


      | Reply Posted 9 years, 6 months ago
  4. My mother resisted buying a Barbie for me for years! I had her knock off 1950’s cousin Ginny. It wasn’t the same. Finally, when I was 10, I was allowed to buy Skipper with my own money. Let us Rejoice. I think my first REAL Barbie was when I was in the 6th grade. Too late.

    Regardless of my small interaction with Barbie, I still have a warped self-image/body-image. I’m not really sure Barbie had anything to do with that.

    Our society needs to open up its definition of beauty in terms of Race, Size, etc. We need to remove stigma.


    | Reply Posted 9 years, 6 months ago
    • * Kathy Khang says:

      I always wanted Skipper.

      Barbies or not, I agree with you. The current definition of beauty is so limited and truly unattainable. We do not walk around air-brushed and photo-shopped. And to think that somehow the lies will continue with a generation of children (predominantly, but not exclusively, girls adopted from outside of the US) makes me incredibly sad.


      | Reply Posted 9 years, 6 months ago

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