Asian Fusion

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

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.

 

As conversations started, McGinnis says, adopted Koreans started asking each other what they hoped could come out of all of these newfound connections. Some wanted simply to network and socialize. Some wanted to politicize transnational adoption and reform—or even stop—the practice. Others wanted to make the experience of growing up adopted easier for younger generations. Arndt-Johns, for example, founded Rainbow World, a nonprofit organization that produces media projects geared to adoption communities.

Last May, Arndt-Johns screened Crossing Chasms for a small audience of adopted people and adoptive parents at Children’s Home Society and Family Services in St. Paul. Arndt-Johns says she organizes up to a dozen events like this every year to educate people about adoption and help members of her community discuss what it’s like to be adopted. After the film was over, Arndt-Johns fielded a round of comments. Then the group split up: adopted people in one room, adoptive parents in another. The idea was to allow everyone to talk more freely.

Other adopted Koreans have made a point of going back to their agencies and talking to them about their childhoods, explaining what helped and hindered them when they were growing up. Cox and McGinnis say that more and more transnationally adopted adults are working in agencies and other areas of the adoption field and that there have been some dramatic improvements in post-adoption services and pre-adoptive counseling for parents. “When you look at the first wave of adopted Koreans who came in the mid-1950s and [compare] their experience with the children being adopted today and the children of the ’80s, their experiences are all very different,” says Arndt-Johns. “It’s amazing to see the social changes in that time span.”

But there is still plenty of room for improvement. Currently, many agencies offer no post-adoption services; pre-adoptive counseling may be nothing more than a pamphlet. That will change if the United States ratifies the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption in 2007. That treaty will require all agencies helping in intercountry adoption to be licensed and to offer at least minimal preparation and training to help adoptive parents tackle issues of race, identity, and culture.

For her part, McGinnis is currently working on a research project that’s finding out directly from adoptees what has helped them form their sense of self. “What I’m trying to get at with my research is that [post-adoptive support] needs to go beyond culture camp,” she says. “If you send your child to culture camp to get culture [but] it’s not something that’s integrated in the family on daily basis—if you don’t bring Asian people into your home or you don’t have role models and mentors for your child—that’s not the answer. You still need to talk to your child about discrimination and racism.”

Kim Park Nelson – Photo by
David Ellis

As greater numbers of adopted Koreans reach adulthood, their influence grows.

Kim Park Nelson, who was adopted from Korea in the ’70s and grew up in St. Paul, is a PhD candidate and researcher in the Department of American Studies at the University of Minnesota. She is also teaching the first college-level course in the United States that explores Korean adoptee experiences. She is particularly interested in the ways that the changing political relationship between the United States and Korea are reflected in the lives and identities of adoptees, and how adopted Koreans’ experience of race connects with race relations in America.

Park Nelson’s research isn’t about supporting or opposing transnational adoption, she says. Asking people who were adopted transnationally whether they are for or against the practice isn’t a fair question. “I think that for adoptees the question ends up being very loaded,” she explains. “Instead of it being a question about your opinion on this, that, or the other political issue, it ends up being a question about how you reflect on your life. It’s too reductive. It’s like saying to anyone who is a parent: ‘Kids? Yes or no?’ Even if you are a person who has had a lot of problems with parenting or you have difficult children, you don’t want to sound as if you don’t love your children.”

Park Nelson says she would like to see Americans get beyond the idea that adoption is a simple win-win proposition, solving America’s infertility problems and saving babies in one stroke. And she’d like people to realize that the way transnational adoption is practiced reflects inequalities in the global economy. “Transnational adoption right now depends on rich nations and poor nations and there being this huge gap between rich and poor and being white and non-white,” she says. “The reason an American woman can be 41 and wanting to have children even though she’s no longer fertile. . . is because of the way that transnational adoption is set up. It depends on some person she will never meet and doesn’t want to think about—someone who has no options and no choices and lives in a society where single motherhood isn’t a viable option or is unfeasible economically. I refuse to believe that it’s because those women don’t want to keep their kids. Women want to keep their kids.”

Helping birth mothers keep their children is one of the many causes taken on by Jane Jeong Trenka, adopted with one of her sisters in 1972 by a rural Minnesota family. Trenka’s memoir, The Language of Blood, examines her sense of displacement as an adopted Korean and her return trip to Korea in 1995. Trenka now lives in Korea and is a co-editor of Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption, an anthology that explores the emotional, cultural, economic, and political toll that transracial adoption can take.

Trenka would like to see countries like the United States spend less of their considerable wealth on adopting foreign children and more on improving conditions in the “sending” countries, so that birth mothers are not forced to “choose” adoption. And she strongly suggests that rather than remain fixated on transnational adoption, Americans pay more attention to the thousands of children in foster care in the United States. “Even though transnational adoption has increased 210 percent over the past 15 years, there are now 118,000 American children waiting to be adopted,” she says. “I do wish that the American public would care about the happiness of those children more. The fact that there are so many American children languishing in foster care—the largest single racial group is white—seems to indicate that transnational adoption is not so much about making children happy with love and families, as it is about fulfilling the consumer desires and fantasies of potential adoptive parents.”

Naturally, such criticisms of transnational adoption raise the hackles of many adoptive parents, not to mention adoptees who don’t share these views. When blogger Ji In (she goes by her Korean first name to protect her own and her adopted family’s privacy) writes critically about adoption-related topics on the website Twice the Rice, she gets anywhere from 200 to 700 unique visitors in a single day. “When I started out my blog I didn’t have a defined audience or a defined intent for what I was blogging about,” she says. “But I think a lot of what I was dwelling on did center around my issues with adoption and my identity as an adult transracial adoptee.”

Eventually, her involvement with adoption questions became overt. After reading some blogs and discussion groups that she felt minimized the importance of race in the lives of adoptive children, Ji In typed out a provocative posting: if she had a dollar for every adoptive parent she has met who has gotten things right when it comes to transracial adoption, she wrote, she’d have almost enough money for some McNuggets and fries.

 

Some readers took this to be an anti-parent manifesto. “In retrospect, I didn’t mean to suggest that there is a ‘right’ way or a ‘wrong’ way to parent,” she says. “I think what I intended to get at, but might not have phrased very effectively, is that there’s this quest among transracial adoptive parents to seek out a foolproof way to get things right, when really, each parent must determine his or her own…philosophy. Parents who tell me that they’ve printed out my blog or have taken down notes—I really don’t know what to say to them. I want to remind them, ‘You do realize that this is my life, right? And that your daughter is different from me?’ ”

While the majority of Ji In’s visitors are lurkers, some adoptive parents write to voice their support of her right to her opinions. Others are less than civil. “I’ve been told to shut up, or that I’m polluting the minds of younger adoptees, or that I need to be saved,” she says. “Somebody hinted at the idea that I need therapy.” Ji In says that while she tries not to take these reactions to heart, the personal nature of blogging makes it hard to stay detached. Some e-mails to Twice the Rice are from adopted people who want her to know that they are very happy with their families. The fact that readers assume she is not happy with hers (an incorrect conclusion, she says) highlights one of the risks of questioning the system that gave her an American family.

With the 10th-largest economy in the world, South Korea can afford to support its children. But there are social and cultural obstacles. Changing Korean attitudes about domestic adoption and eventually ending adoptions altogether are the goals of Adoptee Solidarity Korea (ASK), a Seoul-based group of adoptees. Almost all adopted Koreans are born to single mothers, a situation that Trenka likens to the so-called “baby scoop” era in the United States—the time between the end of World War II and the mid-1970s when unwed pregnant women were sent to maternity homes to deliver their babies, and the babies were placed for adoption, often against their mothers’ wishes.

While the Korean government publicly endorses domestic adoption, Cox says the social stigma of single motherhood means that adoption is still largely taboo. “Any Korean family who adopts today does it in secrecy,” says Cox. “They move to a different neighborhood or opt for the pretense of a woman wearing clothes that make her look pregnant.” While Cox believes that the end of transnational adoptions from Korea will be cause for celebration, she’s also adamant that children should not be raised in orphanages, even if avoiding them means removing kids from the smells, tastes, and sounds of their birth cultures. “If intercountry adoptions were to stop today, there would be children who would go without families,” she says. “That’s the reality.”

Some adopted Koreans want increased recognition from their birth country. Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link (GOAL) helps adopted Koreans visiting or living in Korea. The group also promotes adoption awareness in the Korean government, in adoption agencies, and in Korean society at large. That’s no small task when you consider the remorse Koreans feel about their country’s history of transnational adoption. “I was shocked to learn the prevailing Korean belief—not necessarily the government’s—that the Korean adoption program is a national shame and tragedy,” says Trenka. “Korean adoptees are portrayed a lot in the media; all you have to do is turn on the TV and the shame, regret, pity—and quite frankly, the ignorance about our lives—are blatantly obvious. You don’t even need language to catch the meaning.

“I think most Koreans are thankful to the adoptive parents for taking care of their children, while simultaneously feeling enormous sadness about not being able to do so themselves after the Korean War and during the country’s rapid industrialization. But I don’t think the general public is aware that the adoptions still continue, even though Korea is now rich.”

Not all adopted Koreans see the issues surrounding transracial, transnational adoption through a geopolitical lens. Some have no interest in finding community with other adoptees. Some live happily in the white worlds in which they were raised. Others have forged new ties with non-adopted Asian Americans or Koreans. And still others have decided to adopt children from Korea themselves. According to social worker Johnson, a lot depends on the generation in which people were adopted and whether they are male or female. “How old they were when they were adopted, what part of the country they were adopted in—in Minnesota, whether they were adopted in the Twin Cities or in the outlying rural areas—all matter,” she says. “Whether an adoptee is the only adopted person in the family, whether they have biological siblings or adopted siblings makes a difference, too.

“You have to take into consideration the level of isolation an adopted person may have experienced—isolation not just from other Koreans or other adoptees, but from any diversity in their home communities. And you also need to consider how well adoptive parents have been prepared for raising a child of a different race and culture. My parents had a very different preparation than families who are adopting now from Korea. That preparation, or lack of preparation, really shapes how and when adoptees start to work through some of their issues of culture and identity.”

Daniel Martig is a University of Minnesota undergraduate who grew up in Lino Lakes. He has been learning Korean for four years and is spending the 2006­­–2007 academic year studying at Yonsei University in Seoul. He says that he wants to use the year to be an ambassador for the benefits of transnational adoption. “I want Koreans to see that there is a very positive side of adoption and that I know plenty of other kids just like me,” he says. “A lot of people I know have stayed connected to our birth culture. Korea is a part of me.”

Martig’s decision to study in Korea was also prompted by a desire to spend more time with his Korean father, stepmother, and two half-brothers, with whom he was united in 2002. Martig’s birth mother died right after he was born; in his grief and fear that his sickly infant wouldn’t survive in his care, his father placed Martig for adoption. Part of Martig’s drive to become fluent in Korean is rooted in his wish to have the kind of conversations about love and loss that shouldn’t be left to a translator.

Martig also wants to be able to tell his Korean father that he made a good decision. “I love my life here,” he says, sitting with his American mother and father in a dining room decorated with mementos of the family’s trips to Korea. “When I met my Korean father, I had this moment when I thought I could have lived this parallel life in Korea, but I don’t really dwell on it because it’s not my life,” he says.

What Martig is living today is a new definition of family—an experience that’s becoming more and more common as adopted Koreans searching for their birth families share their stories with each other. “I think of both my families as one unit,” he says. “When I tell people that I’m going to see my family, it kind of confuses them because I don’t distinguish between my Korean dad and my American dad. But that’s because I see them both as my dad.”

Alongside a new definition of family are new definitions of self. “At a certain point in my career I struggled with questions about what my voice is and what I was trying to say,” says Amy Anderson, a Los Angeles comedian who was raised in Excelsior. “I realized that I can’t represent Asian people. Or adopted people. Or Koreans. Or women. But I can represent myself. I know, as a transracial adoptee who grew up in a white atmosphere in a white family—but looked a certain way—that people see you and make judgments about you. And 95 percent of those judgments are wrong. I spent a lot of time in my youth being angry about that. Then I realized that’s part of what my art is: you can’t judge a book by its cover.”

For Hollee McGinnis, that same realization was made easier by having a community. “It’s not just you that’s different, but this entire group of people who are also border-crossers,” she says. “I realized that this complex identity—am I a white American or a Korean person?—was really creative. I am kind of European American. And I’m also in many ways like a fourth- or fifth-generation Korean American. In our American society you are supposed to choose. When I realized that there was a third choice—that I could choose to be both—that’s when I gained a lot of freedom.”

Elizabeth Larsen, a writer living in Minneapolis, adopted her youngest child from Guatemala.

For more information about transnational adoption, listen to American RadioWorks’ Finding Home: Fifty Years of International Adoption, http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/adoption.

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