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International Adoption: Lessons from Korea

Since the 1950s, South Korea has placed an estimated 150,000-200,000 children in North America, Europe and Australia. Adoptees, activists and experts weigh in with perspectives on In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee, what we can learn from the largest international community of adoptees and the answers that they seek.

Susan CoxSusan Soonkeum Cox is the Vice President of Public Policy and Advocacy at Holt International. She was adopted from Korea in 1956. She shares how Deann's story struck a chord with her own personal experience.


 

Deann Borshay Liem has exquisitely captured her long journey to learn the real story of Cha Jung Hee, which is, of course, her story as well.

As Deann describes how she felt that she had been “walking in Cha Jung Hee’s shoes” all her life, it is easy to see how this experience would be disquieting for a young girl, and how it would be impossible to disassociate Cha Jung Hee from her own identity.

I love the poetic use of enlarged photos and images that Deann uses to weave together her story and her narration that is so thick with feeling. The home movies that Deann's family took capture the transition of a little girl who arrived from Korea as she grows into a woman, but the images that we see of the sparkling, pretty girl who smiles into the camera over the years mask the authentic feelings behind that smile.

The juxtaposition of the happy family pictures as Deann describes how “my world began to fall apart” is a sharp contrast to the difficult reality of her search in Korea for Cha Jung Hee, and the difference in culture and understanding on the part of the Korean orphanage staff who assist her. When the translator says, “We think it is wise to forget the unfortunate past,” it reminded me of my own experience with searching for my birth family, and how different the expectations and longing of adoptees are from those who stand between the quest and answers.

When the orphanage director says, “I’m sorry it is still haunting you,” I ached at the disconnect that was unfolding on-screen between Deann and the Korean staff looking at her. I believe they were sincere in those expressions and meant them to be comforting. But I also know these words are not comforting, or easy to hear, and especially to accept, when you know you are entitled to your feelings.

In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee is a powerful film. It articulates the complicated and nuanced issues of intercountry adoption. I know Deann’s adoption is not entirely unique — other adoptees have discovered inconsistencies and untruths about their lives in Korea before they were adopted. But I also believe that in those early years after the Korean War when intercounty adoptions were just beginning, there was no road map for how it should be done. No one in Korea expected or anticipated that adoptees would return to learn about themselves.

More than 50 years later, it is clear that adoptees are returning — and will continue to return — to their birth country. I believe it is our birth right to have all there is to know about ourselves. I also believe there are many in Korea who are dedicated to making this possible. However, good intentions aside, adoptees are entitled to this as a matter of practice. Hopefully this film will bring clearer understanding of why this is important.

In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee tells a deeply personal story, and Deann has shown courage and generosity in sharing this with the rest of us — I am grateful for that.

 

Susan CoxSusan Soonkeum Cox is the Vice President of Public Policy and External Affairs for Holt International Children's Services. She has worked with international adoption and child welfare issues for more than 25 years. Adopted from Korea in 1956, her life experience as an early international adoptee gives her a unique and personal perspective. Susan is a frequent presenter and trainer and has testified before Congress on issues related to adoption, child welfare and foreign affairs. She is a member of the Hague Special Commission on Intercountry Adoption





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