We should be included into the global history of Korea
Listening to the experiences of overseas adoptee women(2)
Editor’s note: South Korea has a long history of sending its children abroad for adoption. The issue of overseas adoption is connected to issues of women’s and children rights, poverty and discrimination, and race and migration. By listening to the voices of women who grew up in other societies and then returned to the country of their birth, Ilda hopes to hear their experiences and the messages they hold for Korean society. This series is supported by the Korea Press Foundation’s Press Promotion Fund.
From adoptee ‘activist’ to ‘artist’
In 1991, after coming back to Belgium, I co-founded a Korean adoptee association named Euro-Korean League (EKL) with another adoptee, David Park Nelissen and a Belgian-Korean couple, Jung Miaie Coulon and Philippe Coulon. As E.K.L needed more ‘direct’ information with Korea, I decided in 1993 to be a correspondent for one year to send news back to the adoptive country to serve our community.
This one planned year turned into 13 years. Korean called me by my Korean adoptive name: Cho Mihee. It was easier for them. Nathalie Lemoine sounded too foreign and maybe reminded them of their shameful choice to get rid of us far away… so far away where they never thought we would want or like to come back.
As I studied the Korean language and English at the same time, learned Korean culture and tried to understand their way of doing, of thinking, one year passed so quickly. I stayed one more year to establish not only the Korean Branch of E.K.L but also the first association of Korean adoptees returning to their birth-land. With the help of Elizabeth Eriksson, a Swedish Korean adoptee who was studying Korean language with me and with her good organizing skills, we alliedwith Korean students in Foreign Language and members of an English club. I learned so much with them and it was a great time experiencing Korea with its emotional ups and downs and frustrating moments. It was a cultural shock for me because I didn't know about Korean culture, and the Korean students treated me like the exchange students from America and Australia that they knew. However, I am European, so things they were telling me or expecting from me didn't really match with the culture of my upbringing.
As the association E.K.L. in Belgium changed its name to Ko-Bel, I changed E.K.L-Korea Branch into K.O.A. (Korean Overseas Adoptees) – K.O.A. in Korean language means ‘orphan’. The focus was on searching for adoptees’ birth families and adoptees rights such as getting the right to stay in Korea, not as a simple foreigner but as a part of the Korean diaspora. So we made sure we could access the F-4 visa that was, at the time, given only to 'gyopos' who were born or left Korea after 1953. As Korean adoptees, we all were born on Korean land and were adopted after 1953, so we were eligible to be included in that special visa even though the word 'adoptee' was not mentioned.
During the Seoul Olympic games in 1988, South Korea was criticized by North Korea for sending its orphans to the West. So, South Korea, at that time, promised to end overseas adoption until 1996. 1996 was the year to question international adoption and Korea made a point in the media. Many articles and TV programs focused on adoption, especially adoptees returning to Korea. As the association K.O.A. was known as a reference for adoption issues, I was invited to express my opinion on it. I believed the media trusted me because I stayed for longer in Korea than adoptees would usually stay.
I was stable in Korea even though I couldn’t count on the same economic level as Korean-American adoptees who easily was able to find English teaching jobs which made a big difference in the economic reality between European-Korean adoptees and their Korean-American counterparts. It was definitely a different experience as Korea was colonized by American, not Europe. It was a fact I was witnessing sadly, and my own finances were getting lower and lower.
Luckily, I was making art on the side. I met people who believed in me and gave me the chance to curate my first show with two other Korean-European artists. Our ‘West to East’ exhibition was well-covered by the media and was a success. I started to be recognized not only as an activist but as an artist-activist at first, then as an activist-artist, then as an artist. Because of the Korean age hierarchy they considered artists less than 40 years- old not as professional but still as emerging. I was making art for 20 years even though I was not commercialized or bankable. I didn’t have a family to back me up for a 10,000 dollar art show. But it didn’t stop me from pursuing my work and I found my own way to show works not only in café galleries but also in professional galleries. I guess my in-betweenness status as Korean and Foreigner at the same time opened doors for me but also closed doors for the same reasons.
Korea which didn’t consider ‘the cultural difference’ sending babies abroad
As I started to feel more myself I had my first love experiences with a woman during that period. I found myself losing my hetero-normative privileges and I faced prejudices, unfairness and violence. I faced prejudices not only because of my 'ugliness' but also because I looked like a boy and had more Japanese features (I have no moon face). My unlucky features made me experience violence from ‘ajeoshis’ (Korean middle-aged men) and ‘ajumas’ (Korean middle-aged women) on the streets or at stores and restaurants. I was slapped in the face for no reason, put down by a taxi driver and beaten up, and 'fired' by Munhwa newspaper because I was talking about being gay in my column.
As I felt freer, I stopped dressing as Korean society expected from cis-women. Because of my height, over-average for Asian women and more like Asian men of my age, I started to buy clothing at American stores and mens clothing shops, simple unisex T-shirts and sweaters. Since I didn’t really like girlie clothing from the beginning and was ashamed of my Asian body, I liked to cover my skin as much as possible. I was even more often mistaken for a boy, a ‘haksaeng’‘student) even though I was in my late 20s.
Layers of identity were adding over the years in a way I didn’t expect. Embracing them was not a painful process but was like peeling an artichoke leaf by leaf, discovering answers to my uneasiness.
Not having strong ties with either my birth or adoptive families, I was not in debate as to whether or not I was hurting them or their ‘image’. They did not lose face because of my chosen family made of adoptees, Koreans and others that were accepting of a diversity of identities. My chosen family themselves were often dealing with one or another of their identities. It enriched me to have them around, meeting them through networking or random parties, as I was slowly recognizable from time to time appearing on TV and newspapers. I was not shy to talk my mind openly so it got me attention from some Korean filmmakers and writers.
When Korean adoptees claim that it’s great to have two cultures, I am often surprised by how much they don’t know about Korean culture. They often have never even been back in Korea, or if they did it's often just for a short trip. Adoptees who were living in Korea for more than a year or two, often realize how much they don't know about Korea. Those who are coming for a short period of time maybe create their own Korean culture. But could it be a culture in itself? A kind of ghost culture that feels like a shadow following us and moves away as soon as we notice it is something unreachable?
The whole issue of cultural genocide is even though the Korean government didn’t think twice about the dimension of ‘acculturating’ their orphans while sending them FAR away, this was nothing compared to the ‘well-being’ of those kids who would ‘of course’ remain and BE Korean.
The quest of what is in the genes and what is learnt was answered when I came back to Korea to live and experience its culture and social behaviors. I surprisingly found myself Korean on many more points than I expected. It was nice to discover that kind of inner energy that I had in me and felt that was slowed down in my upbringing in Belgium. I also was able to recognize the high temper that was a social misconduct in Belgium was accepted by Korean society as ‘normal’. After that long decade living in Korea, I could tell myself that NOW I have two cultures.
We should be included into the global history of Korea
I believe that from Berlin Report (fiction, 1991), Susan Brinks’ Arirang (fiction, 1991), 1.5 (MBC, drama, 1996), Lady Vengeance (fiction), to Ode to my Father (fiction, 2007) there are very little changes in the way Korean media likes to portray us.
Since I was living in Korea and had opportunities to have interviews in newspapers, TV and radio, I fought for changing the word from Adopted-child (‘Ibyang-a’) to Adopted person (‘Ibyang-in’), because we grew up even though we were adopted as a child. I argued that we didn't call Korean adults Korean-child (‘Hanguk-a’) but we say Korean-person (‘Hanguk-in’) even though they were born as a child. Slowly this awareness got a bit in the brain of some reporters who paid attention to this slight difference that actually could make a big difference in how Koreans talked to us, as adoptee adults. As I’m a foreigner-non-native speaker, they often were surprised that I was teaching them their own language. So, from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s (the time I left Korea) we could read more and more the word ‘Ibyang-in’ in newspapers. I was very picky with journalists about writing ‘ibyaing-in’ and not ‘ibyang-a’. But as soon as I left, no one was really reminding them. When adoptees were giving interviews they didn't care much about this linguistic detail that was an important thing to my eyes.
Through Korea media coverage and Korean ‘pop’ culture, I would stress Korean society to write ‘us’ into global Korean history along with the German nurses and miners, the Korean women sex slaves during the Japanese occupation, the Koreans in Kazakhstan, the Zainichi in Japan, the Koreans in China, etc.
“Why did Korea send babies to faraway countries?”
On May 28th in 2018, the artist-writer-filmmaker, South-Korea-based activist Tammy Ko Robinson invited me to be part of a celebration titled: ‘1988-2018: 30 Years of Korean Adoptees return’. Korean adoptees and allies gathered at the ‘petit chateau’ Koroot Guesthouse, located close to Gyeongbokgung Palace. Among the invited Korean adoptee guest speakers were Simone Eunmi (Koroot Guesthouse), Boonyoung Han (T.R.A.C.K.), Jenny Na (co-founder of A.S.K.), Kris Pak (co-founder of SPEAK). At that great gathering, Korean allies Do-Hyun Kim (Koroot Guesthouse), Meggie Kim (K.U.M.F.A.), and Pilkyu Hwang, a lawyer from Gonggam Public Interest Lawyers Group joined the conversation. Everything was smoothly moderated by the former president of A.S.K., Kim L. Stoker.
It was great to meet people I had known from my time in Korea (1993-2006), and new (younger) activists to catch up with continuous Korean adoptee issues in Korea and overseas. The speech from each of the participants and questions and comments from the public was moving, and also make me frustrated and want to be involved in some sort fighting for more rights for birth mothers and social issues in Korea to prevent overseas adoption.
I believe that we, or any society, won’t be able to stop people from abandoning their babies or children. But I believe we can bring an awareness to people who ‘send away’ their kids without giving them a bit of information such as a first-name and a date of birth. For most people, it’s a privilege they don’t even think is important, but for an adoptee it becomes something that can help them through their life and ease the process of searching for their identity. It doesn’t cost anything. It doesn’t put them in danger. If the adoption agency would respect that wish of giving bits of identity to the person to be adopted abroad, it would already be a big step. As an adoptee abroad, I suffered the most from not knowing my birthday and name… if it was real or fake, if I was so worthless that people didn’t even take the time to give me a name or a real date of birth. That was what came out of our gathering of all those great community activists and builders.
We Korean adoptees belong to Korean history, the dark part of it. Overseas Korean adoptees who have children will pass on the after effects of this history and those children will have the right to know that the Korean government and society chose to send their parents away for adoption. ‘Why did Korea send them away?’ Legitimate questions.
Published Oct. 16, 2018
Edited by Annie HS Kim
*Original Article: https://ildaro.com/8327
◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).
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