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A Korean international adoptee or KAD is a person who was adopted from South Korea through the international adoption of South Korean children as a child and raised in another country, often by adoptive parents of another race, ethnic background, and culture.
Historical context and the impact of South Korean nationalism
Not until the 1990s did the South Korean government and South Koreans, both in South Korea and in the diaspora, pay any significant attention to the fates of KADs. The nation was not prepared for the return of their 'lost children.' But the numerous adult KADs who visited Korea as tourists every year, in addition to raised public awareness of the KAD diaspora, forced Korea to face a shameful and largely unknown part of their history. South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung invited 29 adult KADs from 8 countries to a personal meeting in the Blue House in October 1998. During this meeting he publicly apologized for South Korea's inability to raise them (Kim, 1998).
One factor that helped making KADs visible in the South Korean discourse, was a 1991 film called Susanne Brink's Arirang, based upon the life and experiences of Susanne Brink, an adult KAD from Sweden who stated to have suffered abuse and racism in her adoptive home and country. After the movie she became a celebrity in South Korea, and many South Koreans started to feel shame and guilt for the children their country had sent out (Hübinette, 1999). Since then, South Korean media rather frequently reports on the issues regarding international adoption. Most KADs have taken on the citizenship of their adoptive country and no longer have Korean passports. Earlier they had to get a visa like any other foreigner if they wanted to visit or live in South Korea. This only added to the feeling that they were 'not really South Korean'. In May 1999, a group of KADs living in Korea started a signature-collection in order to achieve legal recognition and acceptance (Schuhmacher, 1999). At present (2009) the number of KADs long term residents in South Korea (mainly Seoul) is estimated at approximately 500. It is not unlikely that this number will increase in the following decade (International adoption from South Korea peaked in the mid-1980s). A report from Global Overseas Adoptees' Link (G.O.A.'L) indicates that the long term returnees (more than one year) are predominantly in their early twenties or early thirties.
The first ever association to be created for and by adult KADs, was the Swedish Adopterade Koreaners Forening (AKF) in 1986 (Hübinette, 1999). Since then, similar groups have emerged in most Western European countries, various US states and cities, as well as in Canada, Australia and Korea. Before this, most organized events and activities for KADs had been arranged and administered by adoptive parents and Korean immigrants. These arrangements included culture camps and social gatherings, with a main focus on adoptive families and their children.
With the formation of the adult associations, KADs for the first time were gathering with others who shared a common experience, on their own terms and by their own initiative. KADs were making statements both for themselves and towards the public, that they were no longer children, but independent adults with their own unique concerns and issues. Together, these varied groups and associations have tried to raise awareness locally and internationally about KADs' unique position in relation to South Korea and their adoptive countries. In 1995, the first KAD conference was held in Germany; in 1999, conferences were arranged in both the US and South Korea (Hübinette, 1999). During the last couple of years, numerous adult KAD conferences and social gatherings in various countries have been arranged, including world gatherings that draw participants from across the globe. In addition, works of KADs have become known both in art, literature and film-making. Other KADs have received celebrity status for other reasons, like Soon-Yi Previn who is married to Woody Allen, actresses Nicole Bilderback, and Jenna Ushkowitz, Washington State Senator Paull Shin, former Slovak rap-artist Daniel Hwan Oostra, and recently, Kristen Kish of Top Chef - Season 10.
Race and national control
Most of these adopted South Korean children grew up in white, upper- or middle-class homes in suburban settings. In the beginning adoptive families were often told by agencies and ‘experts’ to assimilate their children and make them as much as possible a part of the new culture, thinking that this would override concerns about ethnic identity and origin. Many KADs grew up not knowing about other children like themselves (Meier, 1998). The first generation of KADs have now reached adulthood. Every year, South Korea welcomes back a few of the children it has sent abroad for adoption. Among the adult KAD returnees are Swedes, Americans, Danes, French, Belgian etc. In this respect the so-called re-Koreanization of the KAD's is often reproduced in South Korean popular media (e.g. the blockbuster 'Kuk'ka Taep'yo/National Representative/Take Off). The 're-Koreanization can be reflected in Korean ethnic based nationalism (both North and South of the 38th parallel). Even in its capacity as a global economy and OECD nation, Korea still sends children abroad for international adoption. The proportion of children leaving Korea for adoption amounted to about 1% of its live births for several years during the 1980s (Kane, 1993); currently, even with a large drop in the Korean birth rate to below 1.2 children per woman and an increasingly wealthy economy, about 0.5% (1 in 200) of Korean children are still sent to other countries every year.
To stem the number of overseas adoptions, the South Korean government had introduced a quota system for foreign adoptions in 1987. And under the system, the nation reduced the number of children permitted for overseas adoption by 3 to 5% each year, from about 8,000 in 1987 to 2,057 in 1997. The goal of the plan was to totally eliminate foreign adoptions by 2015. But in 1998 the government temporarily lifted the restrictions, after the number of abandoned children sharply increased in the wake of growing economic hardships (Shin, Korea Herald, 1999). Notable is a focused effort of the current South Korean government (2009) to seize international adoption out of South Korea (with the establishment of KCare and the domestic Adoption Promotion Law (2009).
For several decades, the South Korean international adoption program provided homes for more orphans per state than any other country in the world. Some called it a national shame considering the country's economic prosperity, but domestic adoption is rare in this nation that clings strongly to patriarchal bloodlines (Elliott, 2002). Official numbers show that approximately 170,000 Koreans have been adopted by North American, European and Oceanic peoples (Overseas Korean's Foundation), but the actual numbers could be as high as 200,000. It is a curious fact that Scandinavians are much more likely than those of other countries to adopt South Koreans, especially when population in Scandinavian nations is taken into account (see statistics here).
Based on experiences of discrimination and feelings of alienation both in South Korea and in their adoptive societies, some KADs have increasingly begun to see themselves as separate and different from both South Korea and the culture of their adoptive countries. As (visible or cultural) 'minorities' within both societies, they are dispersed around the world, but they still belong to a unique culture (with multiple subcultures and factions inside) and common identity. The creation of a KAD culture emerged from ethnogenesis, the evolution of a new ethnic group through the blending of other cultures with subsequent creation of a new and distinct culture (Ignance and Ignance, 1998: 140) which is made up of more than merely the sum of its parts. Depending on how to define 'ethnic group', in its simplest form, it means that members identify themselves as belonging to the same general category, which again can be subdivided depending on various classification systems. Identity is more about self-identification than clear-cut, scientific boundaries. Multiculturalism is also key to the KAD 'ethnic group'. Despite the diverse experiences and even origins of its members, many KADs still manage to maintain a common identity based on shared experiences and circumstances.
Creation of KAD ethnicity and culture started with KADs themselves. In reclaiming their own culture and heritage, KADs aimed to overcome feelings of not belonging in either South Korean culture or in the cultures of their adoptive countries. For example, among the first generation of KAD, local adoption policies stressed the importance of full assimilation, the idea of 'a better life', removal and replacement of Korean names, language and culture, a lack of respect for South Korean heritage, racism, and discrimination. Upon their return to South Korea, KADs sometimes felt pressure to be 'more Korean', learn Korean language, and be interested in South Korea and Korean culture.
Transcending these narrow paradigms of identity and cultural belonging is the first step towards forging a meaningful and fulfilling form of KAD identity. Recognizing that KADs comprise their own ethnic/cultural group (which cannot be simplistically distilled into a dichotomy of 'Koreans' or '_____'), enables them to embrace their identity and heritage in a way that is not constrained by the stereotypes, expectations and preconceptions of either Korean or adoptive societies. That is the point from which KADs can educate themselves and later the world about who and what KADs really are, and thus dismantle myths and stereotypes and move beyond notions of inferiority about belonging.
Since international adoption from South Korea took off in the 1950s, KADs are still a very young population. The current adult KADs are among the very first generations in creation of KAD culture, so a lot of the path has to be made while walking it. Since full assimilation was the leading ideology for parents raising the first generation of KADs (Beckwith, 2002), many did not become aware of or further explored their South Koreaness until adulthood, meaning that even adult KADs have a lot to learn. Some have legally reverted to their Korean names at an older age, while others use it in their e-mail addresses and computer id's.
Some defining characteristics of KAD culture include leaving Korea as an infant or child and being raised outside of the birthcountry, the majority also outside of Korean culture and race, varying degrees of assimilation into new environments, and being given new names and a new mother tongue. However, KADs often remain tied in some ways to their origins, in addition to incorporating experiences from upbringing and new influences. Many common experiences and issues are faced by a large number of KADs, such as racism, stereotypes, feelings of alienation, conflicts about cultural belonging, lack of biological ties, lack of medical history, and unknown past and heritage. Adult KADs are spread out across the globe, but there seem to be a tendency to cluster around certain geographic locations, often larger cities or areas with a high concentration of Asians/Koreans already existing. This has created a number of geographic anchors for the KAD community. Some of these centers are Los Angeles, San Francisco, the Minnesota Twin Cities, New York, and Toronto in North America, Seoul in Korea, and Stockholm, Amsterdam, and Brussels in Europe.
As a result of growing up in predominantly Caucasian areas, some KADs avoided other Asians in childhood and adolescence out of an unfamiliarity and/or discomfort with Asian cultures. These KADs sometimes express a desire to be Caucasian like their families and peers, and strongly identify with white society. As a result, meeting South Koreans and Korean culture might have been a traumatic experience for some (Meier, 1998). However, other KADs, often those raised in racially or culturally diverse communities, grew up with ties to the Korean community and identify more strongly with the Korean aspect of their identities.
Increasingly, adoptive families have relied on an expanding network of resources (adoption agency post-adoption services, Korean culture camps, mentoring programs, Korean language programs, etc.) to incorporate Korean culture into the adoptive family's life and to build ties for the KAD with other KADs and with Korean Americans from an early age. Many adoptive parents today seem to explicitly recognize the importance of helping the KAD to claim a tie to South Korea and Korean culture, and such families often choose to "adopt" Korean culture into their entire family structure via family trips to South Korea, family, Korean language lessons, etc. Some adoptive parents, however, go to extreme of appropriating the KAD experience, presenting themselves as the 'experts' in the area.
Only recently have adult KADs been able to unite and come together in organized ways in order to claim a space and an identity for themselves, opposed to the original beliefs that they would eventually assimilate and become part of the mainstream adoptive culture (Beckwith, 2002). Included in this unification is outreach to younger adoptees, such as volunteering as camp counselors and mentors at Korean culture camps. Many of these initiatives originated from efforts by adoptive parents with younger children, and now have grown into KAD-run enterprises.
One thing that distinguishes KADs from most other groups is the fact that the majority of KADs are not raised by 'their own,' but instead by parents and families of another culture and background. In addition to being racial minorities in society KADs are also minorities in their own families, making it hard for some to turn to adoptive parents for support and advice, particularly regarding issues of racism and stereotyping. Nor do most share their adoptive status with adoptive parents. This has led some KADs to themselves adopt children either from South Korea or elsewhere, while others find spouses and significant others who are also KADs. Many make close friendships and ties with other KADs. This might indicate a strong need to identify with and bond through common experiences when creating their own families and social networks. These enclaves of tightly knit KAD organizations, friends, families and couples is the foundation which future KAD nationalism and ethnicity will build upon.
In 2007, Asian American filmmaker and Korean American adoptee Joy Dietrich released her first full length feature film titled Tie a Yellow Ribbon that follows the story of Jenny Mason (Kim Jiang), a Korean adoptee and aspiring photographer as she spends her days are with white friends and colleagues and her nights with white men. She has no contact with her Midwestern family due to a childhood indiscretion with her white brother, Joe (Patrick Heusinger). She rejects any attachment, dumping men as fast as she can pick them up. Yet she longs for a connection that would make her feel at home—a home that she has lost and is forever seeking. The movie aired nationwide on PBS in May, 2008.
In 2010 the South Korean Government legalized dual citizenship for Korean adoptees.
- Beckwith, Ryan Teague, Adopting a Culture: Woman's Struggle for a Korean Identity, 2002, accessed 11/11/02
- MEIER, DANI ISAAC, LOSS AND RECLAIMED LIVES: CULTURAL IDENTITY AND PLACE IN KOREAN-AMERICAN INTERCOUNTRY ADOPTEES, GRADUATE THESIS, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA, MARCH 1998
- Hübinette, Tobias, Korea - adoptionens historia, Um & Yang, 3/1999, accessed 09/11/02
- Ignace, Marianne, Ignace, Ron, First Nations Studies 101-3 STUDY GUIDE, Simon Fraser University, 1998: 18, 140
- Jang, J, Adult Korean Adoptees in Search of Roots, Korea Herald, 1998/12/10
- Kim, Dae-Jung, President Kim Dae Jung's Speech: October 23, 1998 at the Blue House, in Chosen Child, vol 1, no 5, May 1999: 15-16
- Schuhmacher, U, Korean's Jungle Book Story, Korea Herald 1999/05/06
- Jones, Maggie (January 14, 2015). "Why a Generation of Adoptees Is Returning to South Korea". The New York Times.
- "Dual Citizenship Campaign". Global Overseas Adoptees Link. Retrieved 27 March 2012.
- Global Overseas Adoptees' Link (G.O.A.'L)
- International Korean Adoptee Associations (IKAA)
- Asian-Nation: Adopted Korean- and Asian-Americans
- International adoption of South Korean children