A Story of Overcoming Prejudices about Korean Adoptees
Listening to the experiences of overseas adoptee women: My return to Korea
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.
A difficult childhood in a Japanese-American community
According to the birth records in my adoption file, I was born in Mapo-gu, Seoul at the tail end of the 1980s, on a Friday afternoon at the start of a very cold winter. As soon as I came into this world, I was bundled away and delivered to a foster family who looked after me until I was old enough to survive an international flight to the United States. I spent the first months of my life with this foster family of four--mother, father, teenage son and daughter. My adoption record describes me as an “adoptable big-sized baby.” The social worker reported that I cried when left alone, giggled when held, and was especially close to my foster father and brother.
My adoption was an open secret, or maybe a well-known but mostly unspoken fact. From time to time I was teased by my peers about being adopted, usually comments like, “My mom says your real mom didn’t want you.” In fifth grade, a group of Japanese American boys I had grown up with would harass me as I walked home after school. Following me down my sunny suburban street, they kicked rocks at my back with their Nikes and chanted “Korean, Korean, Korean.” At night, they would call my house and left messages on my answering machine, “Fucking Korean, dirty Korean.” But for the most part, my adoption was not talked about, either publicly or in my family. And because I was Asian like my adoptive parents, I avoided the stares and questions from strangers that many transracial adoptees experience.
However, I was conscious of being Asian American from a young age. My extended family, born and raised on a small peach farm in the California Central Valley, had been incarcerated in American concentration camps during WWII, and the traumatic legacy of that experience was one of the defining aspects of my family and community.
As a child, I remember my family being denied entry into stores and service at restaurants. White supremacists firebombed our friends’ homes, a Japanese American community center, and the office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). After that, as a precaution, my parents installed a deadbolt on our front door and stopped attending community events together. They were worried about what would happen to our family if they were both hurt in an attack.
Strangers would pull their eyes back in an Asian stereotype or say “ching chong” or “ni hao” to me as I packed my groceries at the store, or ate dinner at my college cafeteria. There were a variety of microaggressions, from people asking where I was “really” from to jokes about Asians being good at math and bad at driving, to expectations that Asian women are hypersexual and submissive.
Regardless of being called the “land of the free” and having our first Black president, the United States is a deeply racist country. Hate crimes, police brutality against Black and Brown people, xenophobia, Islamophobia, racist immigration policies, warmongering, redlining, voter suppression, and a racist criminal justice system affect the lives of people of color on a daily basis. The United States’ history of slavery, colonialism, genocide, and institutionalized racism manifests itself in both interpersonal relationships and continues to exert its power in structural, violent ways. Growing up in the United States as a young person, my identity developed and I became politicized as a queer Asian American. My consciousness as a Korean person came later.
Learning about the history of Korean adoption as an ‘industry’
In college, I took an Asian American studies course on Korean American history. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings for fifteen weeks, I studied my own history for the first time. I learned about adoption from South Korea as a part of history, influenced by geopolitics, the Korean War, nation-building, discrimination, globalization, and capital. I discovered that adoption out of South Korea is a structural, societal issue that hindered the development of a domestic welfare system.
After the Korean War, most babies sent abroad for adoption were the mixed-race children of US GIs and Korean women. In 1955, white American Christian fundamentalists Harry and Bertha Holt founded Holt International adoption agency, which industrialized adoption from South Korea.
It is well-documented that Holt’s business practices were questionable--they conducted “speedy procedures, made ‘mail order’ babies possible, disregarded minimum standards, chartered whole flights filled up with children which were perceived by many as modern slave ships, and accepted couples who had been rejected by other agencies.” (Tobias Hübinette, “Korean adoption history” http://www.tobiashubinette.se/adoption_history.pdf)
Without Holt, international adoption starting from South Korea and spreading to other countries around the world would probably not have become the business that it is. Even today, it costs around $40,000 USD to adopt a Korean child through Holt.
As South Korea industrialized in the 1960s and 70s in large part through reliance on female labor, most babies sent abroad for adoption were born to young factory workers. Many named poverty as the reason for giving up their child. As South Korea struggled with overpopulation and mass poverty during the authoritarian regimes of Park Chung Hee (1963-79) and Chun Doo Hwan (1980-88), both family planning and emigration were used to decrease the population. International adoption was a combination of both of these tactics.
This coincided with an increased demand for international adoption in the United States. In the US, international adoption had become a last resort for infertile middle-class couples who sought to create a nuclear family unit. After the the strengthening of women’s rights in the US after the 1960s sexual revolution, abortion was legalized, and there was increased access to contraceptives and growing social tolerance and government support for single mothers. As a result, fewer children were available for adoption domestically.
Adoption from South Korea peaked in the 1980s, and almost all of the babies sent overseas were born to unmarried women. It was around this time too that many of the numerous agencies in South Korea participated in profit-making activities and real estate investments, as well as ran their own delivery clinics, foster homes and temporary institutions. In the late 1980s, 6500 to 9000 babies were being sent abroad each year for adoption, including me.
Today, although South Korea boasts the 11th largest economy in the world and the lowest fertility rate in the OECD, international adoption out of Korea continues, albeit slower in recent years. Over 90 percent of children given up today for adoption are born to unwed mothers.
Setting foot in Korea – and being snowed on – for the first time
As a child, I had considered my adoption a personal, individual matter--someone had given birth to me, and had decided not to raise me. I didn’t know why, and I tried not to think about it too much. As an adoptee, I had a stable childhood, a college education, and a family that cared about me. I thought that I should be grateful for what I had, and thinking about Korea and my life before adoption seemed pointless. My adoptive parents had told me they knew nothing about who I was before I was adopted, and forbid me from searching for any birth family. I think that they felt threatened when I asked questions about my adoption, so I didn’t. I didn’t want to hurt them, and I tried to protect them from the confusion and loss I was feeling.
After learning about the history of international adoption though, I began to view adoption through a structural lens, and started to think about where my story was located historically. Through this lens, I started to piece together how I become an adoptee. For the first time, I had the tools to see my experience as part of something larger than just me.
During my studies I also learned that some adoptees had returned to South Korea as adults to live, and were working to change Korean society. Immediately, I wanted to join them. I felt a strong draw to meet other adopted Koreans who were interested in taking a critical look at the adoption system.
As I graduated from college and started working, the pull to move to Korea didn’t go away. If anything, it grew stronger, until it became an inevitability. It was a matter of when and how--not if--I was to return to Korea. After working for a few years, I had saved enough money for the move.
I stayed at KoRoot for a month. A warm, welcoming space for me to get my bearings, it was the softest landing I could have asked for. Moving to Korea, I knew no one and my biggest fear was being isolated, without friends, community, or support. Staying at KoRoot however, I became close with some of the others who were living in the communal dorm with me. I think there is a special bond between adoptees who return to Korea around the same time and navigate the experience together.
Resilience and how to cook the perfect sweet potato
Returning to Korea has been the most defining decision I have made in my life so far. There have been many ups and downs during my last four years here. I joined the activist organization Adoptee Solidarity Korea (ASK) and became involved in adoptee activism and organizing. I built community with adoptees and felt kinship in a way I hadn’t experienced before.
I struggled with anxiety and a deep, dark depression. I endeavored through Korean language school for sixteen months, failed, unenrolled, re-enrolled, tested back into level 1, and did it all over again. I found queer community, perfected my sweet potato-cooking skills, and adopted two dogs. I practiced saying “I love you” to them over and over, until the sentence no longer sounded strange to my ears.
I saw my favorite singer Kim Yeon Ja perform live at the Mapo-gu Fermented Shrimp Festival and she couldn’t have been any more perfect. I moved house three times--from a goshiwon at the top of a giant hill in Sinchon to a half-basement filled with bouncing spider crickets, to a rooftop room in Hapjeong, five hundred meters from where I was born.
I joined millions of my neighbors on the streets every weekend during the Candlelight Revolution. I traveled to Soseongri and blocked the roads with fierce elders to stop supply trucks from bringing equipment to build weapons into their town.
I attended weddings of new friends and the funeral of one of our own we lost to suicide. I was frustrated and heartbroken by the many issues confronting the adoptee community, and humbled by the dedication and resilience adoptees hold in the face of it. I learned about struggles for democracy, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, workers’ rights, economic justice, disability justice, and environmental justice and I saw how people have organized and uplifted each other in struggle for generations.
I have struggled with learning Korean for a long time and still do. As much as I have tried to intellectualize the process, it has been undeniably emotional for me to learn to speak the language of the place I came from. In the recent movie Black Panther, there’s an herb that, if eaten, transports you to your ancestral plane where your ancestors are waiting to speak with you. After I saw the movie, I kept wondering whether or not I’d be able to communicate with my ancestors if I ever go to my ancestral plane. Would they even know to meet me there?
These days, after countless hours of self-study and language school, I can now speak Korean at an intermediate level. However, I am obviously not a native speaker, nor will I ever be. I used to feel insecure about my accent, and thought I needed to speak fluently in order to prove how well-adjusted and “Korean” I was. I avoided speaking in groups or with strangers because I worried they would judge me, and because I judged myself. Sometimes people do judge me, but over time, I’ve come to accept my style of Korean--I’m okay with my mistakes and clumsy grammar, much like I’m okay with being an adoptee. How I speak is a reflection of who I am and where I have come from.
I do have the same conversation with strangers though, who often make assumptions about me based on the way I speak. At least a few times a week, I’ll open my mouth to say something and the response will be “Oh! You’re not Korean?” or “Oh, you’re a foreigner?” or they’ll simply start naming Asian countries: “China?” “Japan?” “Taiwan?”
“No, I am Korean,” I reply. “I’m an adoptee. I was born here and grew up in the United States.”
Other times I’ll say no, I haven’t found my mom, and I’ll get other responses. Oh, I’m so sorry, your poor mom. Why haven’t you looked for her? Why can’t you find her? Have you gone on TV to find her?
I answer differently depending on the kind of conversation I feel like having at that moment, but sometimes I can’t get around having a conversation I don’t particularly want to have as I’m trying on glasses, eating fish cake on a stick, or tagging along with a friend running errands. I am a private person, and these are very personal questions that are often based on assumptions people have about adoptees.
Not all adoptees search, want to search, or are able to search for family. Some people have searched, but found their family doesn’t want to meet, or that their records were lost, falsified, incomplete, or switched with someone else’s. Adoption agencies have not kept complete and accurate records, and even if there is information in a file, adoptees are not allowed to see the complete file because of privacy laws. It can be a difficult, frustrating process--only about 5 percent of adoptees who search for birth family are successful.
For adoptees who do locate birth family, the journey is just starting. There are often huge language and cultural differences, and navigating a relationship with birth family can be complicated. There can be joy and healing, but sometimes wounds can be torn open or created.
Meeting my mother
I started my search at Korea Adoption Services (KAS) over three years ago. KAS is the government agency under the Ministry of Health and Welfare that handles birth family search. My mother’s name and ID number in my file at KAS were accurate, but I was told that I wasn’t allowed to see any information about her without her consent.
KAS sent a telegram to my mother to get her consent, but told me they had not received a reply. I asked for a copy of the telegram receipt. KAS had blackened the tracking number on the receipt, but on the bus ride home I held the paper up to the window. As stores zipped by and people hurried to their destinations, I could faintly see the tracking number through the black ink.
Through that tracking number I was able to find her address. When I showed up at her apartment, it was pouring rain. The entrance to her building was crowded with bikes, baby strollers, and a child-size yellow plastic car. I climbed the stairs to the second floor and knocked on her door. She answered.
I learned that she had been looking for me too. She had contacted both Holt and KAS asking about me in the weeks and months before, but hadn’t received a response back. If not for that telegram receipt, we may not have been able to locate each other. When I realized that, I couldn’t help but think of all the other stories I’ve heard about incomplete and inaccurate files, and about KAS and adoption agencies mishandling birth family search cases. I was so angry.
Some people say that I’m lucky to have found birth family. In the sense that I’m part of that 5 percent of adoptees who are able to find birth family, I know I am rare. But to say that adoptees are lucky erases the fact that knowing where you come from, and having access to your birth record is a human right that has been denied to many adopted people. I am privileged that I was able to search successfully, but a successful search shouldn’t actually be a privilege.
After we were reunited, my mother and I started to meet regularly. We shared meals, shopping, and strawberry shaved ice while trying to get to know each other despite our significant language barrier. She told her husband about me, and I met him too. He said that his aunt had given his cousin up for adoption too. They had been reunited when she was an adult. She lives in Los Angeles.
My mother told me I have two siblings, a brother and a sister. I have never met them and my mother and her husband don’t want to tell them about me. They think it will make it hard for my siblings to get married if people know there is an adoptee in the family. Instead, I follow my siblings anonymously on their public social media accounts, and have been able to see photos of my grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, ancestral home, and the town our family is from. It sometimes feels weird and one-sided to learn about my family through a computer screen, like I’m watching a TV show about a Korean family that I’m not a part of.
Over the months, contact with my mother became less and less frequent and it would take days to get a response to my Kakao chat messages. We eventually fell out of communication a year after we found each other. Our time together, while joyous and fulfilling on one hand, was at times complicated for me and challenging for her in a way that I don’t fully understand.
I feel frustrated that our society is still at a place where single and unwed motherhood, adoption, and women's sexuality are so stigmatized. But I am hopeful that in time, social and family acceptance will expand to include everyone that struggles with acceptance, including me, my mother, and our fellow single moms and adoptees.
A better, more inclusive society is coming
Adoptees have been returning to South Korea for the past thirty years. Those who returned in the 1990s and 2000s were the trailblazing pioneers of our community, who pushed back against overwhelming odds to create community, change laws and policies, build organizations, and open up access to the resources that make it possible for returned adoptees to continue to live, work, and fight in South Korea. As we organize, struggle, and simply live our lives, we continue to challenge the narrative of what it means to be Korean and what it means to be an adopted Korean. We’re not pitiful victims, lucky cultural ambassadors, or lost children. We’re a diverse, incredibly resilient community of people living our varied lives and working to create a better, more inclusive society.
In many ways, adopted Koreans have more in common with non-adopted Koreans than most people acknowledge. We are not all that different from each other. Koreans, adopted and non-adopted, were and continue to be affected by the same forces that determine who is valued, who is excluded, and who deserves to be punished in society today--patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, racism, capitalism, classism, ableism, nationalism, militarism. Transnational adoption and the forces that birthed and propagated it continue to affect all of us. As we continue to struggle together and live side by side as adopted Koreans and non-adopted Koreans with a vast range of identities and experiences, I feel hopeful that together we are creating the kind of world that we need. In the words of feminist and activist Arundhati Roy--
Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.
By H.S. Kim
Published July 25, 2018
Korean article: http://ildaro.com/8266
◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).
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