Wild Geese: Reverse Migration and Finding Belonging
Listening to the experiences of overseas adoptee women: The joy of belonging
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.
Introduction: Hana was born in Jeonju in 1984 and adopted to Australia in 1988. She first returned to Korea in 2010, as part of the GOA’L First Trip Home program, when she was also reunited with her birth family. Back in Australia, she founded the Korean Adoptees in Australia Network and worked for post-adoption support organisation VANISH. Over the years, she has advocated for adoptee rights and birth family preservation, with NGOs including Koroot, TRACK, and SPEAK. She has performed as a singer at events such as the annual Single Moms Day conference and recently, at the press conference and memorial service for fellow adoptee Jan Sørskog in Gimhae. She lived in Seoul for one year from 2017-2018.
My first migration was at the age of four when my great uncle left me at an adoption agency in Seoul. “Great uncle”(the husband of my maternal grandmother’s younger sister) I begged, distraught, “Don't leave me here – I’ll be a good girl.” Six months later, I found myself across the equator in a small town in Tasmania, Australia.
I don’t tell that story to be dramatic, or to incite pity, but because that’s basically where my story starts. From the earlier years of my life I have a handful of second-hand memories - tidbits that my Korean birth family has since told me, but I can never really know if they are true. My uncle told the rest of the family that he will never forget that day and nor can I. The fear of abandonment lives deep in my body and even 30 years later, I am dealing with the aftershock.
Why it took me eight years to actually move to Korea
By 2017, I had already visited Korea seven times. Seven whirlwind trips, followed by the inevitable “post-Korea depression” - well known to so many adoptees - upon returning and readjusting to life in Australia. On some trips I’d stayed for a couple of months and yet I felt like I’d only scratched the surface. Pandora’s Box had been opened and it only became deeper. My hunger and curiosity for Korea kept gnawing at the back of my mind until finally, I decided to move there. Ostensibly, I was only moving for a year to study Korean language, but secretly, I wondered if I could stay indefinitely if things worked out.
It took me eight years to finally make the move. I had been thinking about it and making excuses about why I couldn’t do it for eight years. Why? Partly because I had internalised the expectation that I should be happy in Australia. I was adopted and I was given a better life, right? I had a loving, only-slightly-dysfunctional-to-a-normal-degree family, a good education without Korean-style pressure during high school, opportunities to travel overseas, etc., etc. I was slightly ashamed that despite everything, something felt missing and disconnected within me, and that moving to Korea would be some kind of admission that my adopted life in Australia had failed. That despite my desperate attempts to assimilate and fit in and “be happy”, on some level I had failed.
So part of me was hoping that I would hate the experience and “get it out of my system”. To be able to turn my back on Korea, my birth family, and my adoption issues, forever. To find something akin to closure, that mythical, seductive unicorn of an idea. That is also what people expected of me. To go and be done, come back and move on with my life.
In the beginning it was tough. Of course, I was a local-looking foreigner with the language abilities of a three-year old. A strange reversal of life as an intercountry, transracial adoptee in Australia, where I am a local perceived as a perpetual foreigner. I would wait for the routine shock and then recovery on the faces of Koreans during my daily interactions when I started to speak.
For four hours every day I struggled to keep up in a Korean class for foreigners. The Korean syllables rolled around in my mouth clumsily like oversized candy. Most of the other students were either young adults from China, Vietnam, and Mongolia, or Westerners married to Koreans. The approach at Yonsei University was rote learning and repetition and cramming for tests. I heard it was typical Korean style. It was probably the least enjoyable, and to me, least effective educational experience of my life. “You’re getting an insight into the Korean education system and that will help you understand Koreans more,” another adoptee advised. I don’t want to understand Koreans better, I thought to myself - I’m just trying to learn this damned language.
I’d feel strange waves of anger as I walked through the crowds or jostled past pushy ajummas on the subway, and at first I wondered where it came from. Everyday Koreans have nothing to do with your adoption, Hana, I reminded myself. You can’t take out your anger on all Koreans. Look, basically I was rejected and sold for thousands of dollars by my own country, and now I was facing that society.
When asked, I would freely tell Koreans that I was adopted – both for efficiency (it was surely the fastest way to explain my Korean appearance and rudimentary language skills) and out of curiosity for how Koreans would respond. Sometimes their faces would fall and they would go quiet, sometimes they would say sorry, sometimes – if they happened to be a MISSHA cashier – I swear they gave me extra free samples, and sometimes they would completely ignore what I had said. I found the latter experience the most puzzling:
Middle-aged shopkeeper, bluntly: You look Korean. Where are you from?
Me, in simple Korean: I’m from Australia. I was adopted from Korea.
Shopkeeper, completely ignoring the adoption part: Oh my son/daughter is living in Australia! He/she’s a successful lawyer/doctor/accountant now.
Me: That’s nice.
I wondered what the hell I was doing. I called my poor encumbered best friend, multiple times, and asked him what the hell I was doing. I had just moved to a foreign country so naturally, I was lonely. At night I bathed my ears in English shows on Netflix and ate chocolate corn star-shaped snacks from the convenience store, bemoaning the lack of decent chocolate in Korea (don’t argue, it’s improving but it’s definitely lacking). I even considered coming back early. But once in a blue moon, my (adoptive) Mum gives me good advice. Just treat it like a holiday, she said, and appreciate what you can because you’re coming home soon. It was really quite helpful, and a small turning point in my journey.
As all adoptees in Korea would know, there are Good Korea Days and Bad Korea Days. On the good days I would feel daring! and independent! I would have at least one successful conversation in Korean, I would navigate the bus system like a local and I would manage to buy something obscure from the pharmacist. Oh, and clothes fit like a glove! On Bad Korea days, I would get lost, no one would understand my Korean, none of the taxis would stop for me, and again, I would wonder what on earth I was doing here.
But gradually, imperceptibly, things were getting better. At some point I reached the absolute minimum level of Korean language required to buy things and get around. I could put my head down and quietly pass for a local amongst the masses of Seoul. The anonymity of being just another Korean face, in a sea of people already looking at their smartphones, felt wonderful.
Eventually I had less need to attend random meet-up groups for expats because I was starting to make actual friends. Most of them were fellow adoptees. A couple I had met years ago on previous trips. Some were fairly new to Korea and also studying Korean, while others had been living in Korea for 10+ years, founts of knowledge to newbies like me. One or two were socially awkward and made people feel uncomfortable at big adoptee gatherings, but they were still endearing, like that weird uncle in your family at Christmas time. Everyone was part of the community.
We were all individuals and our adoption experiences differed wildly, but we also had so much in common. We all had a deeper curiosity about Korea compared to adoptees who only visit (or never visit at all), many of us were navigating relationships with our Korean families, we were all learning Korean at varying levels, and some of us were involved with adoptee advocacy. It was like we’d all taken the lid off the Korean adoption system and our whitewashed Western upbringings, to grapple with the failings and falsehoods. Did that make us happier? Not necessarily (ignorance is bliss) but at least we were no longer in denial.
I felt much more akin to the adoptees in Seoul than with those back in Australia. We could talk about so many things… adoption, race, identity, family, mental health, activism…and we shared so many deep, nourishing discussions and big belly laughs. I would run along the Han river or the Cheonggyecheon stream with my adoptee running group and then we would go to BBQ restaurants or Shake Shack, because they could accommodate large groups. At one point, sitting together at a BBQ place late at night, I realised that I felt a deep sense of belonging and my heart felt light. It was also, admittedly, a new feeling for me. In the words of E. Alex Jung (a much better writer who wrote a much better article for BuzzFeed), “How can I describe what it feels like to be in a place where you belong? It sounds like a sigh. It tastes like electricity.”
Community. Group Advocacy. Belonging. I had never truly experienced these things and I lapped it up like someone who had been starving; I couldn’t get enough. At the same time, there was a recognition, and mourning, of a sense of relative un-belonging from the rest of my life in Australia. In that case…what had that life been? A life half-lived? A performance? Merely survival?
Only shortly after the real story had just begun, I returned to Australia. I had run out of money and I needed to go home and work for a while, and visit my family again - or that’s what I told myself. I didn’t want to leave and yet I felt that I had to. In a strange way, the emotional experience seemed to echo my forced migration as a four-year-old.
The aftermath and the transition back to Australia was…not pretty. I missed Korea and the adoptee community – my community – there. In Australia, I do not fall neatly into one of the existing migrant groups. I am no longer a typical well-assimilated intercountry adoptee and I’ll never be a well-assimilated 2nd generation Asian Australian. My anomalous cultural identity is in a clumsy process of de-assimilation, if such a thing exists. I will always love Australia but I struggle to find my place within Australian society. I guess I always have.
I realised that I had had a lovely year’s break from racial microaggressions while in Korea, but now I have to face them again on a regular basis. It’s so nice when colleagues get my name mixed up with the other young woman of colour at work, or when strangers start to speak more slowly or use hand gestures just in case I might not speak fluent English. But the real pain is having a lack of friends here who understand…who kindly suggest that I “don’t need to let these experiences stick to me”. I’m sorry white people, but I too need to give up talking to you about race (sorry not sorry.)
Looking back, I can’t fully articulate why I was happier in Korea. Somehow my heart and my life blossomed, clichéd as it sounds. Despite the language barriers and the air pollution (and my deep yearnings for good pasta that wasn’t drowning in a spicy sauce-soup?), I felt lighter and more whole. But maybe I don’t need to explain it. What if I can simply go back, without any justification to myself or anyone else, and follow that sense of belonging?
A wise friend advised me that, counterintuitively, it does take some going back and forth to realise that one can be happier in Korea, and I cling to her words as solace. It might have taken eight years. But I think I’ve realised now.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
- “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver
By Hana Lee Crisp
Published Aug. 5, 2018
Korean article: http://ildaro.com/8274
◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).
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