Kevin Lambert (right) and his wife in Seoul.

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Growing up in North Carolina, Kevin Lambert knew he was different from his White peers. The Korean features he inherited from his mother stood out, and he “always felt outcast, always felt outside.”

“All my childhood, in the ’80s and ‘90s, all I got was: ‘Hey, are you Chinese? Do you know kung fu?’” he said.

That uneasy, ill-fitting feeling lingered into adulthood – pushing him to move to South Korea in 2009, hoping to find “the missing puzzle piece behind the couch that makes the sky complete.”

He’s one of many Asian Americans born or raised in the United States, whose parents immigrated to the US decades ago, leaving behind a poor postwar South Korea in pursuit of the American Dream – only to see the next generation make the reverse journey back.

Kevin Lambert grew up in North Carolina in the 1980s, and first visited his mother's native South Korea in 2000.

It might seem an odd desire given many have never set foot in South Korea. But the lure of acceptance and belonging in an ancestral homeland is strong, particularly when set against the racism, gun violence, and anti-Asian hate crimes rampant in the US.

These return migrants largely grew up in a time when many Americans’ general knowledge about Asia was limited to Japan and China, and even then, revolved around offensive stereotypes, said Stephen Cho Suh, assistant professor of Asian American studies at San Diego State University.

That experience of being racialized and not seen as fully American pushed many to look toward their parents’ homeland “in ways that, if (they) were wholly accepted in US society, (they) might not even consider in the first place,” Suh said.

But life in South Korea brings its own challenges – and many eventually return to the US. Some find that as Korean Americans with a foot in each world, even moving thousands of miles away brings them no closer to finding home.

‘Everyone mentions race’

Various factors have driven this reverse migration. In 1999, South Korea passed a law opening its doors to “overseas Koreans,” including children of immigrants, making it easier for them to return and stay for longer periods of time.

The 2002 FIFA World Cup hosted by South Korea and Japan, and the Great Recession from 2007 to 2009, when many took jobs teaching English in South Korean schools to escape the US’ dire job market, also played a part.

But there’s one overarching factor, said Suh, who interviewed more than 70 people as part of his research into reverse migration: “Everyone mentions race, racism, ethnicity.”