Watching Adoptees Pass through Stages of Confusion and Sadness

Listening to the experiences of overseas adoptee women: Why I’m here(1)

Mee Joo Kim | 기사입력 2022/04/13 [17:04]

Watching Adoptees Pass through Stages of Confusion and Sadness

Listening to the experiences of overseas adoptee women: Why I’m here(1)

Mee Joo Kim | 입력 : 2022/04/13 [17:04]

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.


My writing for this essay comes during a year of tumultuous transitions. I share with you some of my thoughts about the work and experiences I have had personally and professionally as a Korean adoptee. Since 2005, the joy in my adult life in Korea has been spent working on behalf of returning adoptees, including being a proponent of mental health services for adoptees in Korea, becoming the wife to another adoptee, and learning about motherhood. My perspectives are based on my own experiences, including over a decade of working with hundreds of Korean adoptees.


▲ Koreans think that overseas adoptees are all the same, but actually we all have different experiences and images. ©Ilda (Illustrator: Doona)


Talking to Koreans about overseas adoptees


Whenever I meet Korean people, I will often include that I am adopted to provide them with some context in regard to my background. Though the questions that follow can be uncomfortable and sometimes inappropriate, I understand that many people come from a place of ignorance and insensitivity to the topic of adoption, which they fail to realize is deeply personal for those with first-hand experience. So, I use these interactions as a platform to educate.


How many overseas adoptees does the average Korean person meet? What if this person was someone whose family member had relinquished a child for adoption or was an unacknowledged parent? If I had a few minutes to talk to such a person, what would I share with them and want them to know? Too many times interaction with just one individual can change how we view an entire group of people. Despite our knowing that every life and every story is different, so often an interaction with just one can be representative of many.


So, if this were such an opportunity, what would I say about myself and the many whom I represent to such a person? Sometimes it's easier to disclose personal things to a complete stranger. I’ve had taxi drivers confess that a family member had given a child up for adoption.


While I am relatively okay, I don’t want them to superficially think that because I grew up in a Western country and speak English fluently that I have had a good life and everything has worked out—especially since I’m in reunion. (This is inevitably part of the second question that follows after they want to know why I look Korean but don’t sound like a native speaker, and I tell them I am adopted.)


In a society inundated by images of so-called successful adoptees, and adoptees who are searching and reuniting with their Korean families, I know many of the challenges I am up against, such as these portrayals of us in the media. So, I intentionally attempt to make these people I meet feel a little uncomfortable when I respond; I want to encourage them think beyond the superficiality. The reality is that it’s tough trying to convey so much in so little time, a few sentences even. There is so much more to realize and understand.


The difficulties of making and maintaining relationships with our Korean families


Amongst the things that I have loved doing in my work with adoptees is having facilitated reunions, moderated panels and discussions, organized tours, conducted training sessions for professionals working with adult adoptees, and largely developed what is currently the only stable mental health services programming for adult adoptees in the nation.


Mental health is not typically perceived or treated in Korea as it is in Western countries despite a variety of alarming national statistics related to the matter, so it can be difficult to access services, even more so in English. Knowing that some people will actively choose not to use such services, I still wanted there to be resources that could be utilized if and when someone was in need. Sometimes there is security in just knowing that something exists.


▲ Books I worked on: (left) fourth edition of a book featuring adoptees searching for their Korean families as part of Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link (G.O.A.’L)’s 2010 Annual Birth Family Search Campaign; (right) book that I co-wrote. ©Mee Joo Kim


I'm sure my Korean family has almost no idea about any of the work that I do with adoptees. Recently, a couple of my sisters found my business cards related to my mental health work. I wonder what they think of it. I already know that they don’t understand why I work with adoptees—why I can’t let that part of myself go.


My Korean mom and older sisters will call sporadically to ask if I've eaten yet, comment on the weather in Seoul, ask how I've been, occasionally give me an update on their lives, and remind me to eat well before ringing off after a few minutes. I had suspected the conversations had gone like this because my Korean level wasn’t high enough and they didn’t know what to say to me. When a Korean friend told me that this is usually how her conversations are with her family, I thought she was saying it to be nice. It took years for me to finally accept that this was simply normal; I was convinced it was somehow related to me being adopted, which I thought made things awkward and exacerbated my deficiencies and the differences between us.


Even with 13 years of reunion, having lived 11 of those years in Korea, normalcy varies in my relationship with my Korean family. They know nothing beyond what they see and what I tell them about my life, and vice versa. It makes sense, but somehow I want things to be instinctive so that I don’t have to explain so much. I wish things could be more natural so that we could just “know” things because we come from the same family, culture, etc.


We wouldn’t have to think too deeply about so many things that are common sense or common practice or knowledge in one culture that are not in the other culture. Like after I got engaged, having to explain how a typical wedding ceremony and reception are planned and conducted in the country where I grew up, which is very different to how Koreans generally celebrate weddings.


On one hand, it’s not a big deal to have to explain these things; on the other hand, I have a big family and so it’s never just a one-time conversation. Even if it’s with the same person, I’ll be asked about the same thing multiple times, because sometimes we’re just not sure that we completely understood it the first time around, especially if the information that has been given is new or doesn’t make sense to us (like describing bridesmaids and their purpose). And there are just so many differences.


Having a Korean adoptee spouse has also given me a new first-person perspective. While I continue to navigate my own relationship with my Korean family, I find that I must also facilitate my husband's relationship with his Korean family. Because I have been in reunion much longer, I find that I tend to prioritize time with my husband's Korean family before mine. It means that his mom has seen our son more than my Korean family has gotten to see him, and I'm mostly okay with it since I’ve had a hand in the arrangements, but it stings a little.


When it comes to making decisions involving his Korean family, my husband appreciates that I'm willing to initiate conversations and check in regularly with him so that he has space to reflect, process, and take action, and he lets me know when he's feeling overwhelmed. We trust each other and try to maintain boundaries so that this is still his journey. It helps that this is part of what my role has been for myself and others for years.


But, because my husband tends to be avoidant and I tend to be more confrontational, it sometimes feels like I am steering instead of supporting. Sometimes this role I’ve taken on wears me down, and I find myself wishing my husband thought about my Korean family a bit more and that I had someone with more knowledge and experience looking out for me.


Parenthood in a country with no family or government support


Becoming a parent has been one of the most isolating experiences I have had in Korea—I did not expect to have such feelings of loneliness or aloneness.


▲ A sonogram of one of my children. Becoming a parent in Korea has been isolating and difficult. ©Mee Joo Kim


Amongst the adoptees I know who have had children born here, only one person was not coupled with a Korean national. Having a Korean national partner or spouse provides access denied to purely foreign couples, such as an understanding of Korean systems, language, culture, financial assistance, family support, government support, etc. While not every Korean national has great family support or financial assistance, we now know how difficult it is to have none of that here, and this has deepened our respect for parents who raise their kids independent of such help, particularly single Korean moms.


To combat their struggles with having the lowest birthrate in the world, in recent years the government has developed incentives and programs to support couples starting families, including multicultural families that consist of a Korean national and a foreigner. Although my husband and I were both born as Korean citizens in Korea, our Korean citizenship was revoked without our consent through our adoption. We became naturalized US citizens, which means now we are foreigners living in Korea. Our son was born in Korea, and I will give birth again in about a month, but we are ineligible to receive aid or benefits from the government because we are no longer Korean citizens and are not considered multicultural.


Korea fails to see the irony that it still sends its children overseas for adoption, now has the lowest birthrate in the world and has had to create incentive programs to promote couples to have children, including supporting multicultural families (despite the shame it continues to feel over international adoption having begun as a result of children of mixed-race relationships).


When I think about it, I cannot help but feel some bitterness over the contributions we are making as citizen-born Koreans living and working in Korea, increasing the members of our family, and the benefits we are denied. Our family has had to make some hard decisions because we lack financial and emotional support. For such practical reasons, last year we decided to live apart.


▲ A brochure from the Multicultural Family Support Center, which is supported by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, describing benefits available to families with one parent who is a Korean citizen. These include translation and interpretation services, help with raising children and creating a bilingual family environment, career and counseling services, and in-home Korean language education programs for parents and children. Such families also receive a monthly stipend per child and breaks in education costs. ©Source: Danuri Portal


Since last year, my husband has been the core caregiver for our son and I have been the sole paycheck earner with my part-time job. My husband and son live with my American parents in the US while I live with our cat in Seoul. It is strange to go from a partnership to a family and suddenly live a single life again without really being single.


We video chat as often as possible and have managed to see each other every couple of months in person for extended periods of time. What hurts most is knowing my son is growing up without his mom and he doesn't understand why—knowing that I am passing on one of my deepest fears of abandonment. It is wondering if emotional and genetic intergenerational trauma can ever be broken.


Published Oct. 6, 2018

*Korean article:


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