Unfortunately the article’s title is sensationalistic, causing it to be misleading. It implies that an entire generation of adoptees has returned to Korea when in fact about 500 have taken up permanent residence in their birth country. I wonder if the title was her choice or that of the New York Times editors.
That said, where there is adoption, there is loss. Where there is diaspora, there is hurt, anger, and longing. Where there is transracial adoption, there is inevitably a painful gap in understanding between white parents and racially different children who leave their white homes each day to navigate a racist society.
When we speak of adoption over the past six decades during which time approximately 200,000 Korean children were adopted out of their birth country, we are looking at multiple histories. We are looking at the history of a country, the history of adoption, and the history of each individual involved. The truth is nuanced, not black-and-white.
In order to listen to these histories and the wisdom they have to impart, it is useful to take a deep breath. As an adoptive parent reading this article, one needs to face the fear that one’s child will leave to return to his or her birth country and/or family leaving behind an unimaginable void filled with the bitter sense that one has given everything only to receive the news that it is not enough.
As parents, we cannot give our children all that they need. As adoptive parents, we can give our children many things, but we cannot restore the identity they lost when we claimed them as our own and shared what we have to offer: our love and our own cultural identities. What we can do is listen to their feelings about their experience and work as hard as we can to keep an open heart, not take it personally and not take it as rejection. Being relinquished for adoption has caused our children to feel rejected and so sometimes they will want to make us feel that way as well so that we can understand.
I remember going to the St John’s University biennial adoption conference in 2012 entitled: “In the Best Interests of the Child?” This is a conference that sheds light on a range of adoption practices and provides a forum for adoptees to speak the truth of their angry conflicted feelings about their histories. There I met many international adoptees who had taken back their original names. I listened to adoptee’s speeches of outrage at their losses and their adoptive parents’ inability to hear and see them. In the middle of it all, I realized that by giving my white son, adopted from Appalachia, a name from my Russian heritage I had robbed him of his identity. And in that same moment I understood that in trying to claim him as a member of my own tribe, I was offering him my love and inclusion. Epiphany! This is the double bind of adoption.
The history of Korean adoption contains elements typical of most international adoption: a need spawned by a political and economic crisis, lack of support for mothers to keep their children born either out-of-wedlock or into poverty or overpopulation, and a demand for babies in first-world countries with greater resources. What began as a solution to needs on both sides became corrupted by demand and profit instead.
Here is the tricky territory of adoption. There is no doubt that many birth mothers around the world have experienced pressure, if not coercion regarding the relinquishment of their children. These pressures have been culturally and economically driven as much as profit driven by the adoption industry. Uncovering these unethical practices is good because they must be stopped.
There are also children who have been abandoned and in need of homes throughout the world. For some birth mothers of these children, there is relief and help in the option of placing their children for adoption, the pain of the loss notwithstanding. It is also unfortunate that the abuse in adoption practices will now make it harder for these children to be placed in homes as adoption is closing in many countries.
Any adoption entails loss. In international adoption there is not only the loss of birth mother and family, but also the adoptee’s loss of birth country and culture. Just as actual birth parents may not be the wished for ones, so also a birth country might not match the adoptee’s fantasy. This is a specific instance where there is a collision of their fantasy and reality. Those who have returned to Korea in the New York Times article, particularly the women, are faced with gender issues and the fact that adoption is not favored in Korean culture.
Jones accurately reports that the advice given to adopting parents in the early days of international adoption, which began with Korea, was very different than the advice adopting parents receive now. It seems quite ignorant to us now, but people actually were advised to play down difference and in effect be “race blind,” as though that were possible. Asian babies, especially girls, were viewed more as cute little dolls than as people who would encounter bias. This was particularly true in all-white areas like the Wisconsin town in which the Korean adoptee in the article Laura Klunder grew up. Her rupture with her family is indeed sad and frightening to an adoptive parent. The erasure she experienced because of her mother’s refusal to see her race and her father’s rejection of her anger, also explain her need to break free in order to find herself. The tattoo on her arm of her case number as an infant is a protest against the objectification she felt as a commodity imported into white America from Korea.
On the other hand, the story of Benjamin Hauser, another adoptee in the article, is quite the opposite. His parents go to visit him and his brother who have both returned to Korea. They have been able to respect their children’s decision and have not reacted to it as a rejection. They have kept their connection as parents and honored their children’s choices.
The truth is that all children leave. We cannot decide where they go. If they go back to their birth countries searching for what they have lost, we can make the choice to support them as their parents, reinforcing our love and connection. How we understand this need is so important for maintaining the integrity of the relationship we have with them.
Today, adopting parents are counseled to honor the culture their children come from, look for diverse environments to raise children of other races in, stay in touch with other families who have adopted from the same country as practiced by those of you in LAPA. These practices alone are a world apart from the advice given to the parents of the adoptees in Jones’s article who have returned to their birth country looking for a home and an identity they feel they never had.
Interestingly, this community of “KADS” has formed their own expat family. Perhaps it is among themselves that they feel the most comfortable and are able to find a reflection for their identity.
Today also, international adoption has all but ended, perhaps as a result of the unethical practices that have been exposed. Adoptee outrage about loss of culture and identity has added to the dialogue. Thus, as people raising children born abroad now, you may be bringing up the tail end of a social experiment that is perhaps coming to an end or stopping for a period of time. You will be faced with your children’s and your own feelings about their adoptions as they grow and mature. You will be challenged to hear their losses and their questions about why they lost not only a family but a country. To truly understand them, those of you who are white will need to step outside of white privilege and examine racism in and around you. You will be challenged to grapple with the social injustices that made your children available for adoption and your own private wish to love a child and have a family. Maggie Jones asks us to do all these things in her article. These are not easy things to do. They require courage and honesty. However, in the end, these are some of the greatest qualities to live by and to impart to our children.
*This was written in response to an article by Maggie Jones entitled “Why a Generation of Adoptees is Returning to Korea,” which appeared on January 14, 2015, in The New York Times Sunday Magazine.