Review: Ghost of Sangju: A Memoir of Reconciliation

imgresMemoirs are tricky business. I have known for a long time that I would never attempt to write a memoir because they are so difficult. They must draw the reader in, excite without being overly melodramatic and yet be approachable so the reader can relate and empathize. Ghost of Sangju: A Memoir of Reconciliation by Soojung Jo, meets these criteria in both ways.

I first came upon Soojung Jo’s writing when she was blogging at Faith and IllusionsI’m not quite sure how I stumbled upon her blog, but I recall being interested in her take as both a Korean adoptee and as an adoptive parent. I was disappointed when she stopped blogging, but found her through other social media sites and remember when she reunited with her Korean family. Ghost of Sangju details her reunion but for me, it is her description of her childhood with her adoptive family that was most engaging and relatable.

imgres-1The book begins with a prologue describing the horrific events that led to her birth and relinquishment and segues into how Soojung/Raina is found by her omma, her birth mother. The remainder of the book intersperses segments of omma’s letters to Soojung with narratives of her childhood, time in the military, and being a mom. As you get to know Soojung, little by little, you also get to know her omma. Like many Korean adoptees who were adopted to rural white communities in the U.S., navigating life as a perpetual outsider, even within a family’s enveloping love, was difficult. A few sections stand out in particular. Soojung describes her adoptive mother, in particular, with such tenderness that as a reader, I could feel that maternal love emanate from the page. As a mother, I also appreciated the way Soojung describes her pregnancy and new parenting as an adoptee.

Although I have not reunited with my Korean family, I have had many friends who have, so Soonjung’s descriptions of her reunion – while unique to her family – were strikingly similar to other narratives of reunions heard firsthand or read from intercountry adoptees. That Soojung’s descriptions in this book of feeling like an outsider, of compartmentalizing her emotions, of being overwhelmed with a birth family’s desire to make up for lost time, and dealing with hurt adoptive parents are similar to many Korean adoptees’ narratives speaks to how adoption practices have largely discounted and minimized the emotional tolls that relinquishment and adoption place on everyone involved.

In the prologue, Soojung writes, “Omma has had many years to live with her ghosts…she has tasted every flavor of loss, but she never swallowed bitterness. The only reason I know about her story – our story – is because she never sowed those seeds of hate and despair.” Soojung Jo’s omma has indeed had many years of living with her ghosts, as I imagine many birth mothers, birth fathers, and extended birth relatives do; and we cannot forget that adoptees also live with these ghosts whether or not we know them. From outward appearances, Soojung is a “successful” adoptee judged by her strong leadership and business skills, distinguished military service, loving parenting and even adopting herself – yet even all these accomplishments cannot erase the losses that are inherent in adoption. An important lesson is gained through reading this memoir: that grief and loss must be acknowledged, and secrets brought to light.

Ghost of Sangju is a valuable contribution to the adoptee-memoir canon, and I recommend that adoption professionals and prospective adoptive parents in particular read this book. It might be difficult to read and tempting to discount Soojung and her omma’s story as only one story; it is one story, but it resonates because it is, in fact, many of our stories. It is time that these narratives are honored and validated, so that birth families and adoptees do not have to exist, as Soojung writes, as “a spirit suspended between two worlds and two families, to be forever in between.”

Ghost of Sangju: A Memoir of Reconciliation will be available soon through Gazillion Strong. For more information, click here.


Spotlight – Andy Marra

Screen_shot_2012-03-15_at_8.53.47_PMaI was privileged to meet activist, Public Relations Manager for Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and one of the Advocate's Forty under 40 of 2012 Andy Marra a couple of years ago at an adult adoptee conference to celebrate AKA New York's 15th anniversary.

At the conference Andy shared parts of her story that are now public in her Huffington Post article, Beautiful Daughter: How My Korean Mother Gave Me The Courage To Transition. I was so excited to learn that Andy was going to share her story because it was one that I have thought about a lot since I first heard her speak. Go immediately and read it here.

Then, hear Andy on NPR

Have some Kleenex® handy. 

New memoir by an adoptee

This book (along with the one by Korean birth mothers) arrived in my mail box this weekend. I read a draft of the other book but my friend, Sarah Park, a Professor of Library Science, gave me the heads up on this one! I'm very excited since there are so few books written by Native adoptees about their experiences. And, in a happy coincidence, I've been doing research lately in the Social Welfare History Archives, looking through the Child Welfare League of America collection, and had just read through the Indian Adoption Project documents. The Indian Adoption Project was a joint program by the CWLA and the Bureau of Indian Affairs that specifically promoted the adoption of Indian children to white families from 1958-1967.


One Small Sacrifice: Lost Children of the Indian Adoption Projects.

The expectations of Korean adoptees who return to their country

From the LA Times comes this story of the difficulties Korean adoptees face when trying to make connections with their Korean culture. What I think is most interesting about this article is that it isn't focused much on the adoption aspect, rather, that adoptees as well as other gyopos, face some of the same barriers in South Korea when we attempt to return and connect with the culture and people.

South Korea's complicated embrace of gyopo

welcome the many ethnic Koreans raised abroad who come each year to
reconnect with their roots, but they also judge these gyopo by very
high standards, expecting them to fit in seamlessly.

Expatriate in Korea

Ann Babe, who was abandoned as an infant and adopted by an American
couple, has returned to South Korea to reconnect with her cultural
roots. (January 29, 2010)

In South Korea, returnees such as Babe are known as gyopo.

The term connotes "our Koreans who happen to be living overseas in
another country," said David Kang, a second-generation Korean American
and director of Korean studies at USC.

He emphasized the tribal focus of the word: "It's this very atavistic view of Koreans as our blood overseas, almost."

For some ethnic Koreans who come here, the term gyopo has carried a negative connotation, singling them out. But most accept it as a practical label.

About 7.5 million ethnic Koreans live outside Korea, 2.5 million of them in the United States, Kang said.

You can read the entire story here.

Adult adoptees speak – Beyond Culture Camps Part 1

 The executive summary of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute study, Beyond Culture Camps: Promoting Healthy Identity Formation in Adoption begins with the quote from one of the study's Korean adoptee participants:

I realized I never could change my ethnicity/race. I also developed a pride in being Korean and Asian. I reviewed things I liked about being Asian that European Americans did not have. I also grew comfortable with things I did not like about being Asian. As an adult I learned how to deal with racism/stereotypes in a way that makes me feel OK about being a “border person” and a minority.

Beyondculturecamp-donaldson As a social worker, I immediately recognized the position this beginning quote meant to convey – what we call a "strengths-based approach" to an issue. My impression is one of, "hey, we may have had some identity issues, but now we're okay!" I wonder whether if this had been written for an academic audience in a peer-review journal, if that would have been the quote that opened the report. It's a bias – one can never quite remove bias – and I believe was intentionally framed this way. I'm not going to give an opinion as to the merits of this approach, but I did want to begin stating this because I think it's important for people to understand that all research has its biases and limitations. The questions that are asked, the way the report is written – even the fact, as Sang-Shil writes in her blog post here, that if this is about adult adoptees, why are children featured prominently on the cover? say something about the way a research study is framed.

I look at this study from multiple perspectives – as someone who fits the demographic of the study participants, as a social worker who has worked in the adoption industry, and as a new researcher.

Some of the feedback I've been reading centers on the idea that the findings aren't anything "new." Well, I both agree and disagree on that point. I agree that the results don't seem surprising to anyone who has been around a lot of transracial adoptees. If you've read my blog, or any of the other Korean adoptee/transracial adoptee blogs, or read Outsiders Within or participate in some of the Yahoo groups like IAT, then no, these findings are nothing new. We (meaning adult transracial and transnational adoptees) have been speaking out publicly for a good 20 years or so now. When I read the results, I just nodded my head in affirmation, like a non-verbal "yep."

From a research perspective, however, this report is significant, since in many disciplines these days (especially social work and psychology) the Very Big People want "evidence based research" and so this study goes a long way in providing some of that. Anecdotal stories are considered non-significant since they are just "one person's view." This study of 468 adult adoptees (of all race/ethnicity) so far is hailed as the largest sample of adult adoptees surveyed (and the Korean adoptees made up the largest portion of the adoptee respondents at 179 participants). This study now produces some "evidence" and even more important to me, evidence that reflects changes from some older studies that reported little or no struggle with identity for transracial adoptees.

One of my big criticisms of a lot of the previous studies on transracial adoption is that the questions they ask and the measurement instruments that were used (that is, surveys or interviews) were either misleading (to me), or did not ask the kinds of questions I thought were important, or relied on adoptive parent reports about the adoptee's identity or asked children and youth themselves. Why would I think asking the child/youth a problem? I've said it before, but for those of you who haven't heard it before I'll state it again – when it comes to asking transracial and international adoptees (or maybe even same race adoptees) questions about adoption and identity, the questions often seems framed in ways that make me wonder if the adoptee would answer honestly.

Remember, that for an adoptee there may be a subconscious worry that there is a "right" answer, and adoptees are often very protective of their adoptive parent's feelings. When I look at some of the older studies and see answers to different questions that seem to contradict each other, it makes me wonder if or how much the adopted child or youth answered more according to what s/he thought would be safe versus how they truly felt. I have no way of knowing and I could be way off base, but those are some of my concerns about some of the older studies I've read. I don't discount those studies all together, however, and I think it's important to consider the responses by younger transracial and international adoptees. I just think that we need to be critical thinkers and to realize that there are some limitations to those studies.

Beyond Culture Camp expands on the previous assumption that identity work is done mostly in adolescence and tapers off as the individual becomes a young adult. I was not at all surprised personally to see that in this study, the Korean adoptees reported that racial and ethnic identity development not just continues but grows throughout adulthood – 60% reported that racial/ethnic identity was important to them by middle school, 67% during high school, 76% through college and 81% by young adulthood. I might hypothesize that adult adoptees may feel less of a burden to answer in a way that protects their adoptive parent's feelings (of course, I could be wrong about that, but I think adults answering an anonymous survey would be more likely to be honest and less likely to try and protect adoptive parents).

In addition, what children and youth think about race and ethnicity when they live in a home where they are the minority is likely going to be very different than what they think if as a young adult or an adult they move to a more diverse place and have a diverse group of friends and acquaintances. The study states:

"most Korean adoptees grew up in communities that were less than 10 percent Asian, but almost half (47%) indicated there are larger numbers of Asians in their current communities. This shift  also was reflected in the fact that 67 percent of the Koreans described the extent of diversity in their childhood communities  as “not at all” to “not very much,” whereas many (42%) indicated there is “very much” diversity in their communities as adults. This indicates a shift for most from living in settings where they were very much in the minority as a child to living in communities with greater racial diversity. This change may be reflective of overall shifts in the American population, as well as the choice of Korean adopted adults to live in more diverse communities." (p.25).

In this study, I think it's important to consider that it was aimed at adoptees 18 years or older. The study was conducted from October 2006 to February 2007, so the youngest of the adoptees who responded would now be about 20-21 years old (if they were <1 year at the time). Adopted adults responding to this study would h
ave been adopted in 1988-1989 or so or earlier.

One note – the NYT article and other folks have been writing as if this study was of the "first wave" or "first generation" of Korean adoptees, but that is not true. Many of us who study Korean adoption or are part of the Korean adoptee community would classify the first generation of Korean adoptees as those born and/or adopted during or in the first decade after the Korean War, so those from 1950-the mid 1960's. I just barely escape that designation because I was born in 1968.

A few other notes about this study – the average age of the respondent was 31 years old, and 82% were women. Fifty percent married or partnered at the time of the survey, 26% had children and of those with children, 31% had adopted children (I find that fascinating and would like to see more research done on this topic!). Of the 88% of the respondents who had siblings, 74% of them had at least one sibling who was also adopted (although the findings do not specify if they were of the same race/ethnicity or not).

It is important to keep in mind that the participants in this study are not a randomized sample and therefore the findings cannot be generalized beyond the scope of the study participants. For example the report states that 62% of the respondents belong to an adult adoptee organization, 73% are members of an adoptee listserve or e-group, and 49% had participated in an adoption conference. Frankly, that seems awfully high to me. It makes me wonder if these numbers reflect an active participation in adoption related organizations and groups led to participating in this study, and if so whether these findings say more about adoptees that interact with other adoptees. I wonder about the adoptees who are more isolated or don't care about or don't participate in transracial or international adoption related activities. I myself saw the call for participation on several list-serves and on blogs and or adoption-related newsletters.

So this ends my first blurb of random thoughts about the study, and I apologize if it doesn't flow well. I didn't really have time to edit it. Over the rest of the month I will continue to post on the findings of this study.

What the research says about Me

The big news, if you haven't heard, is that November is National Adoption Month and that means it's an extra busy month for me, being all about adoption, ya know. I've wanted to respond to a number of things I've seen around the blog world, but wow, that would take me more time than I have right now. I really do wish I had time though, there is some interesting stuff being written.

Although I wasn't quoted, I spoke to the reporter of the New York Times piece at length about the Evan B. Donaldson study that was released on Monday. This study is actually so big and there are so many aspects to it that I think it will take me a few blog posts to get all (most) of my thoughts written down.

I'm going to try and tackle the Korean adoption identity part first; later on I do want to address some of the other aspects of the study, namely the white, domestic, same-race cohort that was used as a comparison to the Korean adoptee cohort, and I also want to address the New York Times piece itself, and then discuss the policy and practice recommendations from the report. I'm not sure if anyone else cares, but I want to mention aspects of the methodology as well, since it matters to anyone who is attempting to interpret the findings. The report is insanely long, at 113 pages so I hope this will help break it down for people who don't love to read research articles!!

So hang on folks and please be patient as I try to carve out time to get these posts written (as it is, I'm taking a break from working on my final presentation for one of my doctoral classes, Ethical Issues and Moral Dilemmas in Family Life. For those who are interested, my presentation will be a case study look at the situation of the Nyberg adoption story featured on This American Life last spring).

New York Times article about new Evan B. Donaldson study

This New York Times article features several fellow adoptee friends! It's great to hear their voices.

Adopted from Korea and in Search of Identity

As a child, Kim Eun Mi Young hated being different.

…Growing up in Georgia, Kansas and Hawaii, in a military family, she
would date only white teenagers, even when Asian boys were around.

“At no time did I consider myself anything other than white,” said Ms.
Young, 48, who lives in San Antonio. “I had no sense of any identity as
a Korean woman. Dating an Asian man would have forced me to accept who
I was.”

It was not until she was in her 30s that she began to
explore her Korean heritage.

…The experiences of Ms. Young are common among adopted children from
Korea, according to one of the largest studies of transracial
adoptions, which is to be released on Monday. The report, which focuses
on the first generation of children adopted from South Korea, found
that 78 percent of those who responded had considered themselves to be
white or had wanted to be white when they were children. Sixty percent
indicated their racial identity had become important by the time they
were in middle school, and, as adults, nearly 61 percent said they had
traveled to Korea both to learn more about the culture and to find
their birth parents.

Like Ms. Young, most Korean adoptees were
raised in predominantly white neighborhoods and saw few, if any, people
who looked like them. The report also found that the children were
teased and experienced racial discrimination, often from teachers. And
only a minority of the respondents said they felt welcomed by members
of their own ethnic group.

As a result, many of them have had trouble coming to terms with their racial and ethnic identities.

You can read the whole article here.

What No One Told Me About Adoption

Grown In My Heart hosted a blog carnival this past weekend called What No One Told Me About Adoption.

Interestingly, several years ago I wrote a piece for a project that was never published, an anthology of creative writing by Asian/Pacific Island women living in the Midwest. I titled my piece, Things They Never Tell You When You're An Orphan In Korea.

When I wrote this piece I had just started coming to terms with realizing the impact adoption had had on my life. The mask I'd been wearing as one of those "happy, well-adjusted" adoptees crumbled. I had not yet gone back to college, I had not yet become a social worker. I had just returned from my first trip to Korea, a trip that did not go well. I had not yet found "my people," those adoptees with whom I could really understand, who "got me." I felt I was being honest with myself but was conflicted because my feelings were not being recognized or validated in the books I read about adoption or in the volunteer work I was doing with adoption agencies. I was definitely a work in progress.

Reading the blog carnival made me go back and look at what I'd written a very long time ago now. And while I no longer necessarily agree with everything I wrote back then, there are definitely some nuggets that still resonate. I'm posting an excerpt of that piece today. Although I won't post the whole thing (there are some very private and personal things I included that I wouldn't want made public, like where I lived and my birthdate), I wanted to give you readers a small glimpse into the Me I Was Back Then. Those of you who are adoptive parents might want to keep in mind that I was in my late 20s-early 30s during this period. If you had asked me even a few years earlier I would have told you that everything was fine, that I had no negative feelings about adoption ever, that adoption was always a wonderful thing. Of course, that wasn't entirely true.

The point is not that there is a right way or wrong way to feel about adoption, the point is that every person who is adopted has a right to own their feelings, either way. And, things change. Having children changed things for me. Going to Korea changed me. Reading and educating myself about adoption changed me. Working and volunteering with adopted children changed me. Working at adoption agencies with prospective and adoptive parents changed me. 

However an adopted person thinks or feels about adoption comes from their own experiences. Adoptive parents and adoption professionals will never know what an adoptee will think or feel about their adoption experience. What I do know is that whether you personally agree or disagree with an adopted person's opinion about adoption it is not your place to tell someone that how they view their experience is wrong. You can support, you can empathize, you can offer other perspectives. But remember that those other perspectives are just that – other perspectives. Your perspective as someone who is not adopted is not better or more correct than the adoptee's perspective.

In my experience the more you try and tell an adoptee how they are supposed to feel, the more likely they will stop telling you how they feel altogether.

Continue reading

Will Michael Jackson’s kids be in a transracial placement?

I have a lot to say about the custody of Michael Jackson's children, but haven't quite sorted out what I want to say. So in the meantime, here is an article in which a friend of mine, Robert O'Connor, was quoted.

From ABC News: How will Michael Jackson's White kids get along with Black family?

In the coming months and years, 11-year-old Paris and her two brothers,
Michael Joseph Jr., 12, and Prince Michael II, 7, will have many
adjustments to make without their famous father — not the least of
which may be growing up in a family in which their fair skin will
noticeably set them apart.

There's nothing unusual about black families
taking in their kin. Historically, they have often done so, but when
the children look more white than black, eyebrows — and stereotypes —
get raised.

Even with trans-racial adoptions on the rise, it's still far more common to see white parents with adopted Asian or black children
n the reverse. Steve Martin made a joke out of being adopted by
black parents in the movie "The Jerk," but all kidding aside, it's
still extremely rare for black parents to adopt a non-black child.

"It's much less of a two-way street," said Robert O'Connor, an
assistant professor at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul,
Minn., who studies trans-racial adoptions.

Since we don't know if MJ was the biological father of these children, we don't know if they are actually biracial or monoracial. If they were White and MJ is not the biological father, then they were already in a transracial family – not really recognized because MJ's skin was so fair – so their living with the Jackson family isn't changing that. And if MJ was their biological father, then again, despite MJ's skin color they were still used to their extended family being Black. It appears that these children have long had a relationship with the Jackson family.

Anyway, it is intriguing. The article in full is here.