TED series on Korean adoption

Thanks to Margie at Third Mom for bringing this to my attention. "A Girl, A Photograph, A Homecoming."

I normally really enjoy the TED series of talks and presentations, but this particular story brought up all kinds of feelings – anger, frustration and outrage.

The White/American/Western rescue/savior story played out all over again. I keep going back to the Uncle’s statement to this photographer.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

16 thoughts

  1. This video pissed me off also, and not just the “white savior” thing (which Rick admits to wondering about briefly in the context of the fire, but then seems to rationalize in the rest of his presentation), and not just the fact that she HAD a family, but also the theme of race-matching. It seemed that a large part why he wanted to take the girl out of Korea was because she didn’t fit in and was getting teased for looking white, and even uses the phrase “psychologically damaged” to describe the result of this teasing. His conclusion seems to be that she should be in America surrounded by people who looked like her.
    But of course, it’s okay to take ASIAN-looking kids out of their ASIAN countries and bring them to communities where they don’t look like anybody else, and then feed them that old sticks-and-stones line when they get teased, right? Where’s the concern for “psychological damage” now? Or is that reserved for people who look white?
    This is one of the most unethical “adoptions” I’ve heard of in a long time.

  2. What I don’t understand is why the grandmother wanted her brought to the US when she had a son that could raise her. She spent her life hiding that grand-daughter from Westerners and then wants her to go to America? I really don’t get that.

  3. It’s been a number of days since I’ve seen that video, and I am still so unsettled by it I don’t have the words to coherently string words together to describe them.

  4. I only watched half the video, so I don’t want to comment about the adoption part, but I do think I understood the grandmother’s fear and motivation.
    I’m also half-white/half-Asian hapa, though I look much more Asian than the girl in the video, who can easily pass for white. But in Japanese kindergarten I already began to notice racial slurs and xenophobia directed against me.
    We ended up moving to America, and one main reason was that my mother didn’t want me raised in the Japanese educational system. I got plenty of racial slurs directed at me in America as well. But even with all the difficulties I had in America, I think I would have faced more racism and even greater psychological damage if I’d been raised in Japan.
    This is just my perspective as a relatively privileged multiracial Asian.

  5. As background, I am the parent of an 8 y.o. girl who joined my family via intercountry adoption from China.
    I was deeply disturbed by this video on many levels. Why do we think that being raised in the US is automatically a better option than being raised in one’s own country by a family member? Who says that the material benefits that may be part in parcel of life in the US vs. Korea offset the losses experienced by a child who is adopted by parents of a different race and culture?
    While I am certainly glad that Natasha’s parents had the forethought to try and keep her connected to her Korean heritage and that she seems to have thrived that doesn’t take away the fact that the photographer decided it was his responsibilty to play God in this girl’s life.
    I am not naive-I can understand that Natasha would have faced many challenges as a multi-racial Asian had she stayed Korea, but no one has the right to swoop into a child’s life and do what the photographer did.
    I love my daughter like crazy, but i am under no illusion that the life she has now replaces and/or compensates for the losses she has suffered. In my opionion she has gained and lost in equal measure-hopefully equal measure.
    Sometimes our American arrogance knows no bounds.
    Natasha is indeed lucky. She does seem like an incredible person and her family and friends likely have and had good intentions, but who knows what her life would have been like had she been able to stay in Korea?

  6. i cried while watching this video.
    i’m sure the atlanta couple had only the best of intentions, but her uncle’s words haunt me, too. sadly, no one will ever know what her life may have been like if she’d stayed. i can only hope natasha is happy.

  7. I saw the video a few days ago. At first I was taken aback by some of the comments as well. But then I remembered a man I met about 8 years ago. He was hapa, from Korea and had been internationally adopted by a family in the US. His birth father was a black serviceman, his mother Korean. He was in his late forties, early fifties when I met him.
    He told me that until he was about 9 or 10, he was raised by his grandmother. She was the one who placed him with Holt for adoption. He said that being biracial in Korea was always hard but when he got to be 9/10 years old, it became impossible. He was in so many fights and was so badly hurt that his grandmother was afraid he was going to be killed. So she signed all the papers and he was adopted to the US. This was not something someone told him: he remembered the fights and coming home beaten and bleeding and being scared.
    After the adoption, he grew up in California and even with the strained race relations here and the difficulty of adoption at that age, life was far better than things had been in Korea. He said he knew how hard it was for his grandmother to do what she did but that he was forever grateful that she made what he believed was the best choice for him.
    In watching the video, I got the impression that the uncle lived someplace else and wasn’t in daily contact with his niece or her life. Only the grandmother and the girl knew what things were really like. The photographer, in my opinion, didn’t “swoop down,” he responded to the wishes of a dying woman. I didn’t see the uncle as forced into anything: I suspect that after having his niece in his house for a while, he began to see how things would really be for her.
    Personally, I think there is just as much arrogance in saying that things would have been fine had the girl stayed in Korea. While we in the US have–in recent years–become very accepting of people who are biracial, that was not always the case. And that is NOT the case in many other countries. I think back to the photography exhibit of all the hapa people–can’t recall the photographers name–and how many of them said they were both and not more of any one thing. From what I read there, I think that Natasha has as much of a claim to the US as she has to Korea. And being comfortably sitting in my home, all of one race, I am not really in a position to judge.

  8. I’m Korean/Japanese mix. For those who don’t know, to be Japanese in 1970s Korea was in many ways just as bad as being “western.”
    While at times during this story I was very upset at the photographer, you must remember that it wasn’t he who initiated the conversation about adoption. The grandmother first requested she be adopted.
    And while I know that at least she was living with her uncle after her grandmother’s death, we can know very little about that situation.
    I know that if I was forced to live with my ajoshi in Korea, I would have a vastly different life than what I had with Halmoni.
    What is most compelling to me about this story is how “Natasha” looks in the photographs. In several shots she looks extremely happy with her friends in school, and there seems to be very little evidence of her being ridiculed.
    And while I am not sure about her adoption, the only picture that made me cry was when she was feeding her adoptive father with chopsticks. That single image of such a personal act, where she is smiling and so is he, shows to me the goodness of that adoption. In that moment, she was happy.
    I know we have issues with Adoptive Parents and their reactions, but considering the time of her adoption, I applaud the efforts of the adoptive parents to learn Korean language and culture.
    I am not pissed at this, and I didn’t see the photographer as a “rescuer.” Yes, he did say he felt that way, but I don’t think he was viewing himself as an honest rescuer, just as someone who was trying to do what he thought was best.
    I do wonder though exactly how Natasha feels today about her adoption.

  9. As an Asian who was a teenager living in Asia and in Europe during the timeframe when Natasha was adopted, I find her to have been extraordinarily mature for her age for all she has had to face in life. I believe this has much to do with her fine upbringing by her grandmother who instilled a lot of love and confidence in her.
    In thinking about what might have been going through her grandmother’s reasoning, I would venture to guess that she was afraid of two things:
    (1) Possible North Korea invasion; 1978 was still very much a time of speculation in Asia about Communist takeover, and
    (2) Life corrupted by going to live in (outskirts of) Seoul where children may be lured into the underworld.
    I believe her grandmother trusted that Rick was a decent person who would do whatever is necessary to find Natasha a good home. And he did. Natasha’s new family is obviously very suitable, embracing her cultural heritage, and this is a blessing for them all.
    I think Rick may have over-reacted when he met Natasha again at her uncle’s house. Obviously she would not be her usual bubbly self — her grandmother just died, for goodness’ sake! Besides, when you are in an Asian culture, some gestures might seem demeaning to westerners but it is a show of respect toward elders, which was probably why her grandmother did not want her to meet westerners who might turn her otherwise. There was probably something about Rick’s more humble gestures that convinced her grandmother he was okay to let meet her granddaughter. On the other hand, what an absolutely outrageous idea to simply pick out two complete strangers just because they were Amerasians and use them as examples of what she was likely to become! It is a complete insult to all of them — the two strangers, the uncle and their family, including Natasha. But, well, I guess he was 28 and not thinking too clearly in his panic…
    What made it work is that Natasha is a highly adaptable person. If she ever experienced any teasing (and what kid hasn’t), I would hardly consider her “psychologically scarred” by it, either on the Korean side or the US side.
    What struck me as most impressive of all of her upbringing is seeing her when she returned to visit her hometown years later, that she still maintained respectful Asian gestures. She is very much able to comfortably straddle both cultures, East and West, with much grace and beauty.

  10. I think Natasha’s adoptive parents were incredibly insightful and went way above and beyond what typical adoptive parents did(and I know for the time period it was definitely ahead of the times).
    What disturbs me the most is: that Natasha was being cared for by her family and that Rick did not know or understand grief and loss and it’s very possible he mistook Natasha’s “mood” as being ill cared for. That is why I kept thinking about how the Uncle confronted Rick, saying that he loved her and wasn’t treating her like a slave. Rick’s experience with Natasha previously was as the part of a duo with the grandmother – two females living alone. There is a lot of cultural issues in living as part of a larger Korean family that Rick did not attempt to understand in context.
    Also, I agree with Pam that it was highly inappropriate to use two other biracial adults to come to the meeting with the uncle.
    We can all play the “what if” game and we’d probably all be wrong. I can’t say Natasha’s life would be better had she stayed in Korea, neither do I believe her life in America was necessarily “better.”
    I’m mostly commenting on the hubris and arrogance that Rick displayed. Not to say he wasn’t displaying the best of human nature, which was to take care and responsibility for another person he cared about and did what he thought was best.
    My issue is that he acted out of white, American privilege and didn’t really consider the cultural ramifications.
    My only consolation is that Natasha kept her Korean language skills, thanks I’m sure in part to her adoptive parents – and that it appears she may have kept in some contact with her birth family (or at least knew how to contact them when she went to Korea).
    I also realize that Natasha and I would only be a year or so apart in age. Maybe in some ways, I’m projecting here a little.

  11. I can only surmise that Natasha was not too upset by her adoption and story or she would not have appeared with Rick in the segment.
    I think what is important is that Rick had just spent over 6 months researching and documenting AmerAsians lives. When he says things were bad for them in their country, I believe him.
    The grandmother initiated the adoption talk and furthered it by “willing” her granddaughter to Rick. Otherwise, he would not have come back to see her and find out what happened.
    IMHO, I think of the prejudice and hardships faced by these children as similar to those faced by others of color before the Civil Rights Acts and marches of the 60s where their futures/lives were definitely affected by prejudices. That is not to say that children of color today do not face bullies, name-calling and scarring from all-white communities or that it is any less damaging but I think Rick showed that she did have a future here as opposed to those children he had seen.

  12. I am clearly not going to make any friends here by saying this, but I strongly question why the wishes of the dying grandmother should be held in such unquestioned esteem. Just because someone — whether they are dying or not, whether they are an elder or not, or are someone’s primary caretaker or not — says what they want done, should we automatically do it, without first thinking about it ourselves and whether or not we agree with it? People desire and request a lot of things, many of which they think are in somebody’s “best interests,” but just because they think it’s in somebody’s “best interest” doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. I don’t mean to be disrespectful here; all I’m trying to do is be a critical thinker and question assumptions that people seem to be taking for granted.
    I want to be absolutely clear that I certainly don’t know what those best interests are either, and am speaking in generalities here rather than Natasha’s situation specifically. I have no idea of the details behind this story, and am certainly not making an argument for “better” or “worse” — in either direction. I have no desire to play either God or judge.
    And for what it’s worth, Smolan’s good intentions may excuse/mitigate what he did for some people, but not for me.

  13. To continue with Sang Shil’s line of thinking, one of very striking think for me while watching this video was the absence of two very important aspects to the story:
    (1) WHY did the grandmother want RIck to take her granddaughter to the U.S.? My impression is that RICK decided that it was because of the hardships she would have faced as a biracial person in Korea. But it seems to me we don’t really know. Did she worry about that too? Did she buy into the “West is best” mentality? Did she feel that the remaining family members in Korea would mistreat her granddaughter? We really don’t know.
    (2) This young lady was more than old enough to be able to voice an opinion on this at the time all these grownups were making decisions about her future. Yet we never hear about what SHE felt and/or wanted to do.
    I was SO incredibly disappointed and frustrated the video ended the way it did. I was thinking we were going to be able to hear Natasha speak for herself at the end.

  14. Oops, that should read “one of the very striking things for me.” Yes, I can form coherent sentences…sometimes….

  15. Much of this video makes me quite angry. To echo the thoughts of a few people here, I also find it HIGHLY unethical for him to bring the two biracial adults to meet with Natasha/Eun-Sook and her uncle–like physical embodiments of what her “wretched” life would be like if she, as an Amerasian child, stayed in Korea. Who can really say what’s better or what’s worse? Of course, it’s the place of a white American–the male protagonist in this story who even admittedly asks “what would the hero do?” Yes he does acknowledge “playing God” does result in hardships for people (during his description of the hotel fire) but it still baffles my mind that (as psychobabbler points out) what NATASHA/Eun-sook wanted was never discussed.
    Also, just had to say that it bothers me to no end when a child is adopted and people continually point out how much they look like their adoptive mother or father. People did that with my mother and I, and it was like, who are you kidding?! As if looking for physical similarities is needed to further justify the validity of their parent-child relationship.

  16. I have to say that this story was definitely one sided. I can’t say whether the adoption was right or not because I don’t feel that the story gives enough information to make that conclusion. I am just left with too many questions. Given the gravity of the situation I think a deeper discussion with the grandmother, as to why she wanted her granddaughter adopted should have been initiated by the photographer. As was pointed out here, it seems that no one asked the girl herself what she thought, and I think she was old enough to have some input into the decision. There was absolutely no discussion in this piece as to what the girl’s relationship with her uncle was prior to her grandmother’s death. Was he involved in her life at all? How did he treat her up to that point? What did he think the future held for her in Korea? Why was the grandmother not asked if there were other family members to care for her, and if there were, why she did not think it was in the girl’s best interest to live with family? Bringing the two other amerasians to meet the uncle was just in poor taste and completely without merit.
    I don’t agree that the photographer just “swooped in” to “play rescuer”. I think he was very young and trying to do what he thought was right by following the wishes of the grandmother. Not having any other information, the only person in this story whom I would trust to determine what was best for the child would be her grandmother who obviously loved her and did an incredible job of raising her to that point.
    What we don’t know is why the grandmother decided to do what she did and I think that information is crucial. As responsible parents, my husband and I have set forth in our wills who our daughter should live with should anything happen to us. I have a brother who is in no position financially or emotionally to raise a child at this point and he has not been designated as her guardian. I would hate to think that some strangers would come in and override our decision, saying she would be better off with family rather than the friends we have designated as her guardians. Again, I am not saying that the grandmother was right, but I do think that her opinion was worth more than anyone else’s in this story.

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