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Asian Fusion

While Korean adoptees in Minnesota struggle with questions of self, they are inventing a new identity, blending cultures, families, and values.

Asian Fusion
Photo by David Ellis

(page 1 of 3)

ONE SPRING EVENING in 1998, Jennifer Arndt-Johns’s film Crossing Chasms debuted to a sold-out crowd at the Walker Art Center. It was more than a stunning professional coup for a first-time filmmaker still in her twenties. It was also a surprise party. 

As she screened the film—which tells of her search for her Korean birth family and includes conversations with adopted Koreans now living in Seoul—she was startled by a profound and brand-new sense of connection with the scores of Minnesota-raised Korean adoptees in the audience. “I can’t even explain what it was like looking out on this sea of faces of families for whom the film was directly relevant,” she remembers. “I was blown away by the outpouring of a community I hadn’t known existed, even though I’d lived in the Twin Cities from sixth to 12th grade.”

Like many people who were adopted from Korea into the United States in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, Arndt-Johns grew up isolated from others who shared her unusual heritage. Raised in an all-white family in predominately white communities, she was shocked when, during her freshman orientation at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, she was invited to join the Asian-American Student Union and the Korean American Students Association. “It was confusing to me because I didn’t think of myself as an Asian American and I didn’t know what it meant to be Korean,” she says. “I would be on campus walking down the street, and when there were other Asian Americans walking toward me, I would look the other way or cross the street to avoid them.”

As she would later learn, Arndt-Johns’s confusion about her racial and cultural identity was not unique. “Transnational adoption [also known as international adoption and inter-country adoption] sets up a paradox where we are raised in families that are European American, and that’s what we feel internally because that’s what we grew up with,” says Hollee McGinnis, who was adopted from Korea when she was 3 and is now the policy and operations director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York City. “But when we leave our homes or the communities that know us, people only interact with our physical race and put certain expectations on us. So we need to do a lot of work to reconcile our inner experiences as being, for example, Irish Catholic Hollee McGinnis, with what people expect when they see an Asian face.”

Deborah Johnson - Photo by
David Ellis

Making those adjustments can be an uphill climb, according to Deborah Johnson, a Twin Cities social worker and writer. Adopted from Korea in the 1960s, she’s a columnist for Adoptive Families magazine and the director of the Ties Program, which helps set up homeland journeys for adoptive families. “We can walk around saying we are color blind and that race doesn’t matter,” she says. “But the fact that we live in such a racially charged environment, as a country, as a state, as a city, means that there are going to be identity pieces imposed on adoptees that they need to be aware of so that they can either accept, reject, or assimilate them into who they are, but not be blindsided by them.”

Since the end of the Korean War, thousands of American families (most of them white) have adopted more than 120,000 Korean babies and children—roughly 1 out of every 10 Korean Americans are adoptees. (Korean children have also been adopted in much smaller numbers into other countries, from Sweden to Australia.) One of the largest concentrations is in Minnesota; while there are no definitive statistics, it’s estimated that roughly half of Minnesota’s Korean population of about 35,000 is adopted.

Koreans make up the oldest and largest population of transnationally, transracially adopted people in the United States, so their perspectives on their experiences are essential to understanding the benefits, risks, and global implications of adoption from any country. Such understanding has never been more important than it is today, because transnational adoption is booming. In the past 10 years, the number of foreign children adopted into the United States has nearly tripled to more than 22,000 a year. Thanks to the star power of actress Angelina Jolie, who adopted a son from Cambodia and a daughter from Ethiopia, the trend has even taken on a Hollywood sheen.

Yet the national conversation about transnational adoption is mostly steered by adoptive parents, researchers, and adoption agencies. Go to a local bookstore’s adoption section and, in addition to Adoption for Dummies, you’ll find any number of memoirs or anthologies written by adoptive parents. Meanwhile, the accounts of transnational adoptees are tucked away on the autobiography or Asian-studies shelves. In the debate about transnational adoption that was sparked by Madonna’s intention to adopt a toddler boy from Malawi, almost every publication of note published an essay by an adoptive parent or adoption professional. Voices of those who have lived the experience were almost nonexistent outside the blogosphere. But change is in the air. Adopted Koreans, as well as people adopted from Vietnam, the Philippines, and Colombia, are not only connecting across state lines, national borders, and oceans—they’re speaking for themselves, too.

While informal networking groups of adopted Koreans cropped up here and there around the country as early as the late 1980s, it wasn’t until the rise of the Internet that adoptees were able to talk directly with each other so easily and in such great numbers. That opportunity has made a difference. “I think that community is essential in terms of normalizing most experiences,” says McGinnis, who founded a New York–based organization for adoptees in 1996. “It’s really important to be able to connect and share experiences without having to explain yourself.”

The informal networking culminated in 1999, when the Gathering of the First Generation of Adult Korean Adoptees, now referred to simply as “the Gathering,” was held in Washington, D.C., and attended by more than 400 adopted Koreans, ranging in age from the early twenties to the late fifties. According to Eleana Kim, a Korean-American anthropologist who researches the worldwide adopted-Korean diaspora, the conference (the first organized by and exclusively for adult Korean adoptees) symbolized an important moment of self-determination. “For the first time, they collectively asserted autonomy from families, agencies, and governments—institutions that had, for much of their lives, decided their fates and mediated their realities,” she writes.

The gathering was the brainchild of Susan Soon-Keum Cox, the 167th Korean child to be adopted into an American family. Today, she is the vice president of public policy and external affairs at Holt International, the Oregon adoption agency whose founders, Harry and Bertha Holt, petitioned Congress in 1955 to create special visas so that children from Korea could be adopted into the United States on an ongoing basis. “I had seen younger adoptees come together at culture camps and other events, and witnessed the profound connection they developed to one another,” she says. “Those of us who were adopted in the ’50s and ’60s did not have those possibilities. I was certain that we did not outgrow this longing for connection.” Since 1999 there have been other conferences—one held in Norway and another in Korea—as well as several “mini-Gatherings” across the United States. And networking groups have sprung up in several American cities. AK Connection, the most prominent such organization in Minnesota, was founded in 2000. The Korean Adoptee Student Organization at the University of Minnesota began last summer, after several adoptees found each via the website Facebook.

Around the same time that some adopted Koreans were starting to meet face-to-face, artists like Arndt-Johns were using their talents to explore their personal stories. Passing Through, a 1998 documentary by Nathan Aldofson, who grew up in Coon Rapids, also focuses on the filmmaker’s first trip back to Korea since being adopted. Autobiographical anthologies, such as Voices from Another Place, which was edited by Cox, and Seeds from a Silent Tree, were joined by full-length memoirs, including Minnesota-raised Jane Jeong Trenka’s The Language of Blood and Katy Robinson’s A Single Square Picture: A Korean Adoptee’s Search for Her Roots.

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