I am here to make a difference
Listening to the experiences of overseas adoptee women: Why I’m here(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.
The adoptee community and the role models who gave me hope
The constant challenge of living in a blatantly patriarchal society has made me hyperaware of the roles of the women around me. When I first came to Korea, I wondered if my Korean mom was one of the women squatting by the side of the road selling wilting vegetables in the hot sun on the way to a temple.
A few years after I had reunited, I learned that my middle-aged sister had moved back in with her ex-husband after he cheated on her, left her, and married and divorced another woman, simply because she was struggling to survive on her own with no independent savings and no marketable skills. Society and younger generations are changing, particularly with the rise of social media, but the movement seems slow because when I was ready and wanting it the changes weren’t so visible and public.
What I struggled to find in Korean society, I found through my involvement in the local adoptee community where I encountered Korean adoptee women who were doing exactly what I wanted to do—working to make a difference in many people's lives and changing Korean society through grassroots efforts. Affecting change.
They were creating activities and programming for adult adoptees returning to Korea, like domestic trips, international newsletters, teaching English to Korean birth family members, and running domestic campaigns to gather attention about adoption-related issues, including the politics of it. There were also a number of Korean national women helping to support this work as well as other initiatives that all served the same purpose—to connect people and spread awareness.
Later I became friends and worked alongside with some of these ambitious, humble pioneers, which only increased my respect for them. How often do people get to work beside their role models? They taught me lessons through their conversation and works, and helped to remind myself of my value. Their experiences and insights grounded me, and through their existence, it gave me the confidence that I could do things like that, too.
One of the greatest lessons I have learned is that a leader must take care of herself before she can take care of others, whether it be family or community. I try to practice mindfulness and compassion. Sometimes I fail. Self-love is a tough lesson. By working with adoptees, I learn about myself, from preconception, childhood and into my adulthood; I evolve as a person, as an adoptee.
The transience in the community means that the majority of my closest friends have returned to their home countries. Watching those with passion and leadership disappear from the landscape here, I feel sad yet hopeful. They have been my role models, inspiration, and have set my expectations for myself and others.
Through my work, I hope that I can be a kind of a guide; yet, I too want a guide. I also want to know what I'm up against and how to regulate my expectations. It has been scary and thrilling to be on both sides as a leader in the community and as just another adoptee trying to figure everything out for myself.
The difficulties of helping returned adoptees
While working with adoptees in these spaces is a unique privilege, to go through these intimate experiences with another person is also intensely draining mentally, emotionally, and physically. As much as it is rewarding, working in the field inevitably leads to certain numbing. There is a normalcy to it all that develops. It is listening to variations of the same stories in different packages. At the core of it, the stories are the same, but the details are different—parents who did not relinquish their children, discovery of information in files years after they allegedly had burned in a fire, abusive adoptive families, twins and other siblings discovering one another’s existence. It is explaining the same things over again.
It is always deeply personal. Simultaneously, there is a growing need for self-preservation. Reflecting and distancing go hand-in-hand. For those of us on the service side, not everyone's hand can be held no matter how much either person may want or need it. In trainings, I refer to the blurred boundaries of the personal and professional. Indistinct, undefined, but necessary boundaries.
I meet people at moments in their lives where they are incredibly vulnerable, hopeful, eager. When it comes to searching for family, information, or to just experience Korea, some are more anxious and desperate for their fantasies to be made real; others bury it under claims that they don't care, that they've moved beyond it, or it doesn't matter.
And to know the reality, in the case of those doing birth family search, for example, most will never reunite, that their searches will stagnate, how do you help keep them hopeful and realistic? Then again, do fantasies ever really die? How often does that happen? Even if dreams are crushed, perhaps their roots always remain inside of us.
Being part of peoples’ trips to Korea, I see the visceral and raw experience of unexposed parts of lives in real time that even those closest to these adoptees may never know. It is an incredible, powerful privilege that I try to never take for granted. I get to remind adoptees that this is not their first time in Korea, that when they come back to Korea, it will not be their first time in their home town or visit their orphanage—it is a return where their lives began before the life they know now, to confirm that they existed in these spaces, regardless if they actively remember it or not—to experience something not just as an imagined feeling but a tangible, memorable reality.
Confronted with alternatives to the dominant narratives of adoption by the media and the well intentioned, we are left with the daunting task of deconstructing ghosts, whispers, shadows of childhood fears and fantasies of our mysterious pasts and what could have been that even as adults is difficult to articulate or understand. Even when we feel things, sometimes we don't know how to explain to someone else exactly how we are feeling or why we are feeling that way. As a child, we may not have the language or knowledge to understand it. However, as an adult, there is a societal expectation that we should be able to recognize and identify what we feel and why. But, I think it is so much more difficult to do this when it is mixed with unexplored feelings from childhood.
An area of growing frustration has been to meet adoptees (in person or online) with good intentions but limited knowledge and experience advising other adoptees with misinformation. So many adoptees come to Korea or contact an organization in Korea, and we, those based in Korea, have to address all of the misinformation, which goes against a source that the adoptee has already worked with or trusts.
When an adoptee new to the community declares they know more or better than others who have been living or working here longer because their experience was different, they start blogs, create events, and really only consider what they know, it feels discouraging. And because no matter what you say, people will somehow still think—that might have happened to them, but that won't happen to me. What can you say or do when someone is so adamant that they are the exception? When you know how much a person wants to believe it? When perhaps you believe that about yourself?
I understand that there is a desire for some kind of authority, followed by skepticism, because who is an authority on these kinds of matters? What can these adoptees compare it to? Maybe only the stories of other adoptees that they’ve read about or individuals they happen to know. In a world where there are so few authorities on these kinds of things and particularly in the digital age, who do we/they trust? When the very foundation of information (our adoption files) that we adoptees rely on to convey our origin story is built on a premise and aged web of lies, deceit, and cover stories, how can we trust? What is truth, really? Whose truth is it?
It is reassuring to know that there are people, organizations, books, etc. that have an expertise or knowledge on something that you are interested in. However, what about when something like that doesn't exist or it's not clear who or what is an expert? For example, for birth family search, every adoptee's case is different because of their family circumstances, so how can there be an authority for every case? There are also so many organizations that offer birth family search, but who do you trust? Who is recommended and why?
If you are traveling, you can rely on each place to have a designated travel center to help you plan, adjust your expectations, etc. This is generally not the case with a lot of issues that adoptees have, even though we may wish there was some kind of authority that existed for everything that we have to encounter as adopted people. Because of this, many adoptees are skeptical about the information that they read or hear about because there is no "authority."
I’ve watched and listened to others with familiar struggles. I witness the repeated movements of adoptees through the stages of grief. It is difficult to see people who are confused, afraid, and hurting, often not understanding how or why, especially when you can see yourself, glimmers of your own story reflected back.
I am here to make a difference
When working with the expat adoptee population in Korea, I've chosen to focus on the importance of mental health and having sensitive, adoption-competent professionals to help adoptees on their journeys. After a suicide attempt in high school, I attended individual and group therapy on a regular basis. I resented having to go and didn't connect well with my first therapist. Eventually I saw someone that challenged me, pointed out my contradictions, and pushed me firmly onto a path of healing.
It has taken me years to find peace and reconcile the struggle between wanting to be identified (internally and externally) as a Korean while being acutely conscious of how Western and unKorean I felt, looked, and was identified/categorized by others. In a society that values and emphasizes the importance of appearance, physical and otherwise, it has been a challenge to maintain a healthy self-confidence as a short, barefaced, sun-freckled Korean.
My husband has now lived longer in Korea than he had in the US—most of his childhood and the majority of his adult life. I have lived here for most of my adult life. For my husband who was primarily raised by family and then spent some time as the oldest kid in an orphanage before being adopted toward the end of his elementary school years, he has had a different experience and perspective than someone like me who was adopted as an infant with virtually no memories. Although there are parts that are shared, adoption—our experience and all of its connotations—is different for both of us.
Having lived in Korea for this long, it is also the challenge of finding people who stay. I watch people come and go, and still I am here. With time, I find myself wishing more often that the passion I have for working with adoptees would diminish so that I could have some reprieve. But I only find more areas where it is rekindled that I am excited to explore or develop. Perhaps it’s separation anxiety stemming from my adoption that I struggle to move beyond, that hinders my ability to fully let go. Someday I think there will be a kind of resolution. At least that's what I want to think.
Working with and being with adoptees has been my personal and professional life. I know how one person can make a difference. With my life in Korea, I have chosen to be an advocate for myself, my family, and for those who can’t, don’t know how, or aren't ready to advocate for themselves. I hope others will have the courage to be or continue to be informed and get involved to make a difference in their communities.
Published Oct. 6, 2018
*Korean article: https://ildaro.com/8321
◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).
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