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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.

Will There Be a Golden Age for Korean Adoptees?

Kim Park NelsonKim Park Nelson's research explores the many identities of adult Korean adoptees, as well as the cultural, social, historical and political significance of more than 50 years of Korean adoption to the United States. She was adopted from Korea in 1971.


The release of Deann Borshay Liem’s film First Person Plural in 2000 came at a critical time in the history of Korean transnational adoption. Despite 50 years of adoption from Korea, the experiences of Korean adoptees remained largely absent from popular and academic discourse at the end of the 20th century. But as the children adopted during the peak years of Korean adoption reached adulthood, a wave of networking efforts by Korean adoptee organizations, many then recently established, was gaining momentum; at the same time, new culture-based approaches to researching Korean adoptee communities were achieving acceptance in academia.

In the decade since the release of this seminal film, the explosive growth in cultural and artistic production by Korean adoptees has been accompanied by a dramatic increase in the amount of research on Korean adoptee experiences. A critical mass of adoptee artists, activists, authors and researchers has emerged and gained visibility — not only to the general public, but, just as significantly, to one another. I now wonder if the beginning of the 21st century will come to be regarded as a golden age for Korean adoptees, as it is poised to be a time when the largest generations of Korean adoptees reach adulthood, but the demise of transnational adoption from Korea, already predicted by many, has not yet occurred. In my ethnographic work on Korean adoptee communities, the theme of isolation has been almost ubiquitous, explained perhaps by the fact that my informants are usually the only (or among the few) adoptees, Koreans, Asian Americans and/or people of color in their families, schools and communities. Against this background, the synergy among members of this burgeoning community should not be underestimated, as one adoptee voice inspires, encourages and amplifies another.

The practical and emotional difficulties involved in searching for Korean family, and of making sense of the lost relationships that may be regained as a result of that search, are central themes for Liem in First Person Plural, as they are for the thousands of adoptees who have searched, found or even contemplated searching for Korean family members. This emotional turbulence makes First Person Plural a compelling drama, but through her films, Liem also occupies the position of adoptee-educator within the Korean adoptee community. By embedding her own experiences in the histories of war and social inequity that have created and sustained Korean adoption, she teaches adoptee viewers about the history of our community and about the procedural intricacies of adoption — including the practice of falsifying records. First Person Plural set off a sea change in Korean adoptee communities as adoptees who saw the film began to think about the possibility that the most basic information of our origins, including our Korean names, birth places and even birth dates, might well be false.

The consequences of this falsification are the subject of Liem’s recently released second feature documentary, In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee. Born Kang Ok Jin, Liem was renamed Cha Jung Hee in a South Korean orphanage so that she could fulfill the plans made for the first Cha Jung Hee, who had been reclaimed by her Korean family after being promised to an American family. As Liem searches for the Cha Jung Hee whose identity she had been assigned, she explores the many lives of Korean women whose name she shared and whose lives she might have lived if she had not been adopted. This reflects the cycle of “what if” questioning that many adoptees experience as we contemplate the lives of the Koreans we could have been. Through its complex depiction of Korean women, the film also shines new light on the assumptions made about Korean adoptees — that we have been saved, through adoption, from lives of abject poverty, starvation and prostitution.

In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee takes place almost entirely in South Korea, and return migration to Korea has become more common among Korean adoptees. Liem chronicles her journeys to South Korea through the lens of her own complex and ambiguous identity: at once a native and a foreigner, a daughter and a tourist. Liem once again operates as historian and educator for adoptees. Since reuniting with her Korean family, Liem's relationship with Korea has deepened, and through the exploration of her alternate selves, other Cha Jung Hees of her generation, she gives us a window into the lives of other Korean women. By splintering the idea of a single, monolithic Korean identity into a diverse range of life experiences and perspectives, she also reminds Korean adoptees that we, too, are Koreans.

Relationships between Korean adoptee communities and the Korean nation have also deepened in recent years. Conferences organized by the International Korean Adoptee Associations in Seoul in 2004, 2007 and 2010 have brought hundreds of Korean adoptees from around the world back to their birth country. Beyond their programming for adoptees, the most important function of these gatherings may be the creation of spaces for Korean adoptees and adoptee discourse in South Korea. The severing of legal and social links to South Korea has made our current identities possible, but at the expense of our identities as Koreans. Liem’s documentary memoirs contain many examples of these paradoxes of identity. While her own identity is built on her experiences as a child of a white American family, she discovers biological roots in her Korean family and social ties in the fraught world of transnational adoption, where her birth story was constructed from the lives of others in order to facilitate her adoption.

While few organizations recognize the layered nature of Korean adoptee relationships to both birth and adoptive societies, there are a few adoptee-centered groups that have worked to establish space for adoptees in their adoptive countries and in South Korea. One of these organizations, the Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link, based in South Korea, recently worked within the South Korean political system to establish the possibility of dual citizenship for Korean adoptees, who lost Korean citizenship upon their transnational adoption out of the country. As Korean adoptees spend more time in South Korea, become politically active there and produce art, literature, film and research in, about and for Korea, the social, cultural and political relationships between adoptee communities and the government and people of South Korea deepen and become more complex. The dual citizenship effort and Liem’s films are just some of many Korean adoptee forays into South Korean politics and society, and there are sure to be more in the future. Adoptees are no longer war orphans, and our roles in Korean society are evolving and changing but remain paradoxical: We are objects of shame or of pride, carriers of Western culture or Korean blood, social critics or national advocates, activists for members of the Korean underclass or symbols of Western wealth, reminders of the lies that were used to create so many Korean adoptees or symbols of universal truths of human unity.

 

Kim Park Nelson Kim Park Nelson’s research explores the many identities of adult Korean adoptees, as well as the cultural, social, historical and political significance of more than 50 years of Korean adoption to the United States. She was the lead organizer and proceedings editor for the First and Second International Symposia on Korean Adoption Studies in Seoul in 2007 and 2010. Park Nelson is department chair and an assistant professor of American Multicultural Studies at Minnesota State University at Moorhead. She was adopted from South Korea in 1971.





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First Person Plural | Adoption History

Learn more about the history of international and transracial adoption, featuring an overview of adoptions from South Korea. Explore an interactive journey into the contemporary history of Korea, mapping out the stories and events which contributed to South Korea's adoption policies.

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