Friday, March 14, 2014

Renegotiating "Homeland" for Korean Adoptees

Andrea Kim Cavicchi, a PhD candidate in Modern Korean History at the UCLA gave this presentation on "Rediscovering 'Homeland' and Negotiating Belonging for Overseas Korean Adoptees in Korea." Her research in diasporas, transnationalism, globalization, multiculturalism, nationalism, race, ethnicity and identity brings her to Korea to explore the return migration of many of the Korean babies and children who were sent abroad for adoption and return as English teachers, researchers, students, and visitors in search of a glimpse of their ethnic heritage that they were severed from at a very young age. I believe she said in her presentation that she is not one of the adoptees, although she is of Korean heritage raised in the United States.

Her research project explores the lives of Korean adoptees who were born in Korea, adopted overseas to Western nations as infants or young children through the practice of overseas Korean adoption, and who return to Korea for a brief visit or for a span of living as adults. It is estimate that approximately 200,000 children have been adopted from South Korea to Western nations since the 1950s. Since the late 1990s and early 2000s, roughly 2,500 of these not adult adoptees return to their birth country every year to search for birth families, teach English, study Korean, attend conferences that aim to cultivate an international community for Korean adoptees. She is investigating how these adult Korean adoptees negotiate the question of belonging in relation to institutional and social structures, and conversely, the different ways that the Korean state deals with these adult Korean adoptees.

click to enlarge
click to enlarge
Her project is shedding light on the issues that adult Korean adoptees confront as they maneuver the shifting discourse of Koreanness in Korea. One aim of her project is to investigate ways in which overseas Korean adoptee subjectivities have been constituted through shifting fields of power and managed through historically particular, geopolitical, social, and economic discourses, all linked to the Korean state. Another aim is to investigate the creative ways that adult adoptees construct and imagine their own identities, empower themselves, and subvert the very institutions and sources of power that constitute their subjectivities as Korean adoptees.

Her main questions to be addressed are:
  1. What compels these Korean adoptees to return to Korea as adults, and why do many of these adoptees search for their birth families?
  2. Why have a number of "lucky" Korean children, who were adopted by parents living in affluent Western nations, returned to Korea as adults and formed an activist adoptee community that advocates immediate adoption reform and for the rights of unwed mothers? [Unwed mothers needs to be defined: unwed mothers are distinguished between single mothers who could have been married but when they gave birth were divorced, separated, widowed or other. Unwed mothers were not married prior to giving birth.]
  3. Why does a nation that boasts one of the most powerful market economies in the world and expresses so much shame over sending its children overseas through media publications and government policies continue its overseas adoption practices in 2014?
Some informative snippets shared on the initial motivation for international adoption and more recently the return of those adoptees are:

Korean adoption didn't start until the late 1950s. The Korean War (1950-1953) left a shattered and desolate country with documentation of over a million displaced people in 1954. The country was in poverty, children were being born of mixed parentage from the large numbers of foreign soldiers present and who interacting with Korean women, and the first children internationally adopted were those mixed blooded children, the unwanted children in a country that was intolerant of racial mixings of blood. However, the poverty of the nation soon provoked impoverished families who couldn't raise their children to give up their young ones. Later, and especially in the 1980s during Korea's rapid industrialization, unwed women were giving birth to pure-blooded Korean children, but the shame in this was the connotations of sexual frivolity besmirching extended family honor. Those children could not be raised by single mothers with family support and therefore, new homes--mostly overseas--were found for those also unwanted children. In the mid-1980s more than 8,000 children were adopted overseas a year. This was abruptly curtailed for a brief time during the Seoul Olympics as the media picked up on the fact that South Korea was "marketing" their children abroad. North Korea was particularly censorious of the act, and the shame of the North Korean criticism did bring about a brief moratorium on international adoption and then a decline in the numbers adopted overseas.

Some historial kilometer markers in the history of population control in Korea ...
which of course affected adoption policies too.
In the 1990s these adoptees sent outside of Korea were starting to return to Korea, to learn about their ethnic heritage, to question why perhaps they were adopted. South Korea was ill-prepared to "welcome" the adoptees back and many citizens were downright rude to the Korean blooded young people who didn't know the Korean language ... as if that were their fault. In Korea, family means everything, and therefore, these family-less adoptees were to be scorned ... and they often were. In more recent years, however, attitudes have been changing and the Korean adoptees are now given tours by the government, some get study scholarships, and the Korean people have become more open-minded to adoptees returning to Korea. Much of the open-mindedness is a result of adoption being heavily featured in Korean dramas as well as movies. Obviously, for the topic to peek its head in so many types of media is to reveal a country that has a strange fascination with the topic.

"Homeland" is a perspective term. While it might mean the land of one's birth, it does not always feel like "home", and the term needs to be deconstructed and reconstructed. There is certainly an issue of belonging and yet not belonging with the returning adoptees. Many say it feels good to "belong" because "everyone looks like me", but on the deeper note, they don't really "belong" as their upbringing values have been shaped differently; their expectations of the other are different as well.

Many of the adoptees go in search of their biological families. This is a very hard process, and one that often involves a cluttered paper trail, and unwilling adoption agencies who are more protective of homeland citizens (the mothers who gave up the children) that the Korean children who were forcibly expatriated. Some adoptees have a deep desire to be reunited with their birth families, usually only locating the mother is possible; some have no desire. Some are curious, having no particular desire, but as they interact and form bonds with other adoptees who are searching or are of the few who have been reunited with family members, many of the mildly curious become interested in the search too.

Some of the organization within Korea now and which help returning adoptees are:

GOAL (Global Overseas Adoptees' Link) - more of a service based organization for helping returning adoptees adapt to Korea (language assistance, study scholarships ...) as well as help adoptees locate birth family members.

ASK (Adoptee Solidarity Korea) - their mission is to address associated problems with Korean overseas adoption. Through education and activism, they aim to raise awareness, activate change, and support alternatives to overseas Korean adoption.

TRACK (Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community in Korea) - Their goal is to raise awareness, make change, and set the record straight on adoption practices that do not consider either truth and transparency or the rights of the child who is treated in a top-down fashion.

KoRoot (the house of Korean roots) - KoRoot is a guesthouse for Korean adoptees from all over the world and who return to visit their "mother" country. It is also a NGO finding solutions on overseas adoption matters.

INKAS (International Korean Adoptees Services) - INKAS is the only organization included in the big five organizations helping adoptees that is not run by adoptees or a combination of adoptees and native-born Koreans. Their activism stems from within the country of Korea itself and the change they strive for isn't led by returning adoptees but Korean-born Koreans.

While Korean adoption is a very hot and controversial issue in Korea with the government making laws that deny the rights of children thought "best" to hide in non-transparent adoption situations, the returning adoptees are speaking out on behalf of the future adopted children. The adoptees feel well within their rights as objects of the "sociopolitical exchange" to represent those undergoing more modern sociopolitics in finding "homes" for more "unwanted" children. And one of the hottest, most contested issues in the non-transparent adoption world in Korea is the practice since 2009 of the Baby Box. The Baby Box is basically a "safe" place where a mother can deposit her unwanted baby in a designated box, ring a bell and disappear knowing that she won't have to raise the baby but someone will take the baby in and give it a home. Adoptees who are blockaded from finding their birth parents because of Korean bureaucracy know that a paper trail to their mothers at least does exist but just can't be accessed. However, for the babies deposited in the Baby Box there is no trail and these babies who question who they really are at a later date will forever be frustrated by never knowing who their parents were ... not to mention the fact that a government which allows, in fact encourages, a mother to drop off her baby as she would a load of laundry is a government that needs to be censured and a practice that demands change.

Another point of harsh criticism is the Special Adoption Law (SAL). "Special" in English suggests something positive, something gratefully received or viewed, but there is nothing "special" about this hated new ruling. The Special Adoption Law is very new (sorry, don't know the initial year it was enacted) but it was underwent great revision in 2011 with amendments being enforced in Jan 2012. The law basically revised ruling on (1) Family Preservation, (2) Domestic Adoption, (3) Overseas Adoption, and (4) Institutional Care. ASK, TRACK, KoRoot, Gong-gam, KUMFA, and Mindullae represent the child in these new amendments and they are NOT happy with how the child is viewed as a commodity in the law and not treated as a citizen with equal rights. [Large argument, small space here, so I can't begin to give details.] They argue that the law is rife with contradictions, loop holes and possible arbitrary interpretation possibilities. As these groups stubble to access adoption records and reunite adoptee with birth families, the law does not facilitate nor support the adoptee and not even the unwed mothers and their children, which the law should be supporting so as not to create more adoptees in society. The law also supports the creation of a National Adoption Day which was established by the Ministry of Health and Welfare as May 11, starting in 2005.

Basically there is no conclusion to the problem as "orphan" children, who are not orphans but almost always have two living parents, are still being sent overseas or adopted domestically or being locked into an orphanage where they "live" until adulthood because they cannot be adopted as their parents, for whatever reason, will not sign them out of the orphanage giving permission for adoption. And so the battle continues ... there is no conclusion ...

No comments:

Post a Comment