Client, Ambassador, Gift*


Like any big conference, the first morning breakfast or opening ceremony typically involves a lot of official peoples in suits giving official speeches. The IKAA opening ceremony was no different. Thanks to technology and the willingness to be on the big screen, the First Lady of South Korea, Mrs. Kwan Yang-Suk, delivered a video message to the audience (see still above). In 2004, her greeting was read to us, so this was a welcomed opportunity to see and hear her message more personally.

Other speakers included the Vice Minister of Health and Welfare, the President of Overseas Korean Foundation (a government agency that tracks Korean diaspora), a former representative or Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Susan Cox, VP of Holt International in Eugene, Oregon. As I sat in the beautiful facilities at Seoul Race Park and enjoyed an amazing buffet catered by the Sofitel Ambassador Hotel, one of the thoughts going through my mind was this chapter by Sara Dorow in her excellent book, Transnational Adoption: A Cultural Economy of Race, Gender and Kinship. There seemed to be some common themes in each of the speeches presented by these designated "officials" and economics was the overarching narrative. This narrative, and a few others I’ll describe more in detail below, was repeated by other guest speakers at our lunches and dinners the following several days.

There was, as in 2004, a collective apology issued by all of the Korean nationals. This apology most often came with a caveat – "We were a poor country" was the common explanation. "We were ravaged by war, we were overwhelmed by poverty, we did our best."  The President of OKF also gave a personal story in which he described the "hunger and poverty" of his youth (using his own story as a metaphor for South Korea) – yet he, like all the others, quickly went on to talk about how South Korea became an economic power. I personally found it distasteful to hear him describe how impoverished he was as a child and then talk about how successful he became, because on the one hand he was trying to convey to us that poverty was the main driver for why Korea began sending us adoptees for overseas adoption – yet he himself suffered under the same poverty and wasn’t sent away and still became a very successful and powerful government official.

No where was there any recognition that it is STILL poverty that drives most of the international adoption market. Abortions are illegal yet readily accessed – if you have the money for it. It is no secret that the majority of the women who relinquish children for adoption are single women who are working class or poor. – similar to the women in the US from the Baby Scoop era who could not afford to be whisked off to the private doctor for a quick "remedy" from their problem.

I’ve alluded to the dichotomy of economics before in my own writing. In my chapter Scattered Seeds for Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption I wrote about the trend towards visiting maternity homes on "Motherland tours" arranged by adoption agencies both in the US and Korea. I wrote:

"How much is this choreographed meeting with a vanload of robust, milk-fed teenagers with their American designer clothes, electronic gadgets and affectations a justification for a birth mother’s plan to hand over her own child to a family that can afford to take her relinquished child on family vacations halfway around the world?"

The two other main themes from these speeches were 1) the past is the past and let’s look forward to the future, and 2) now that you’re coming back and are successful, tell everyone about how GREAT Korea is, and come visit again!

Many times we were referred to as "bridges," "partners" and "educators" and told how "lucky we were to have TWO mother countries.

All this language and rhetoric made me think about the additional layered responses to our "return to the motherland" since the mid-1990’s. Did you know that the Holt Korea adoption agency has a travel agency connected (literally and figuratively) to their offices in Seoul? That it is probably no coincidence that we stay at one of the finest and most expensive hotels in the city? Even with the group-discounted rates, a cup of coffee at their lounge costs W 10,000 (that’s over $11).

Adoptive families and returning adoptees spend a lot of money while in Korea.

As Dorow writes,

"Client," "ambassador," and "gift" have the effect of characterizing adoption exchange as a service-oriented practice that, through the figure of the child [or adult adoptee], facilitates meaningful relationships among nations and peoples. (my words in brackets)

I doubt that the concept of "ambassadorship" is on the minds of many American or European prospective adoptive parents, as they consider Korea as the country where they will build their family, but it is pretty clear that in terms of political constructs to those in power in Korea, the rhetoric of ambassadorship is a useful one. Again, Dorow writes,

". . . adoption is read as creating positive relations between nations and cultures that might otherwise be rightly suspected of reproducing a global order of nations."

In describing Chinese adoptions, Dorow could be talking about Korean adoptions too, when she writes,

Many Chinese facilitators spoke of children as cultural bridges . . . some spoke idealistically of how these children might come back to China someday to help it develop."

This last point, about helping a country develop, is especially interesting to me, particularly as I sat and listened to speaker after speaker talk about all the special programs being set up for returning adopted Koreans. Language programs, so we can be translators as well as ambassadors and bridges. Our skills and knowledge of the "west" now being appropriated by the same country that rejected us, as we are asked to forgive and forget – and bring all our educational and financial assets with us. Not only did they not have to support us financially – or our poor families – they have received fees for adoptions (agencies receive substantially more per diem for each international adoption facilitated than for domestic adoptions, hence the incentive to continue international adoption) and they still receive charitable donations from around the world. To top that off, now we are encouraged to return and spend money in our mother land economy as well as stay and live and work here and become cultural and financial bridges between the two nations.

Of course, it is a luxury that I can afford, as a Korean Adoptee who is well-educated and financially able to spend the money on a conference in South Korea. I think of many of my friends who would like to come, but couldn’t due to financial considerations. As much as I appreciate being able to stand on my birth country’s soil, I was sad that so many don’t have the means to make it. How many more adoptees would attend IKAA conferences if they had financial support to attend?

As scholar Tobias Hubinette stated, the discourse about reunification now has a 3rd element – North Korea, South Korea and "Adopted Korea."

And the exchange of won for dollars keeps going.

Food for thought.

* From Transnational Adoption: A Cultural Economy of Race, Gender and Kinship by Sara Dorow


Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

4 thoughts

  1. Your post is so thought-provoking, and it made me feel like i have to shower. How unfortunate that at a conference like the gathering, you had to endure these “forgive and forget” speeches. Was there any talk about how the problem still exhists and what they plan on doing about it? I’m curious: Did any other attendants recognize this put-a-band-aide-on-it mentality?

  2. Very interesting to read not only what you experienced by what you came away from it with.
    Over these past few years I have begun to have a sense of adoptees coming full circle. From writings such as yours, JT moving to Korea, etc.
    Seems like so far still for you to go, though.
    For my children’s sake, thank you.

  3. “I personally found it distasteful to hear him describe how impoverished he was as a child and then talk about how successful he became, because on the one hand he was trying to convey to us that poverty was the main driver for why Korea began sending us adoptees for overseas adoption – yet he himself suffered under the same poverty and wasn’t sent away and still became a very successful and powerful government official.”
    Yes, but there are degrees of poverty and his parents may have been poor, but they chose to raise him in those circumstances. The Korean government did not have the means to take care of orphans, so they sent them away for overseas adoption. The fact that his parents raised him in poverty does not negate the fact that the Korean government did not have the means to take care of orphans at that time.

  4. jstele, if you spent any time educating yourself about Korean adoption, you would know that the majority of the children sent for adoption and placed in orphanages were NOT orphans. Most of us had either one or both living parents; also most of us have or had extended family members.
    Please do not come here to comment on things you do not know about. If you have questions or comments that further the discussion, they are welcome. Otherwise, if your intention is to be provocative and start arguments, find your own space to do that.

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