Korea's Lost Children
"I suppressed any notion
of being Asian and just thought of myself as white." Suki Leith was
adopted by an American family in the 1960s, she tells the BBC why the
Korean government needs to change the laws regarding international
Even though I study adoption and write about adoption and read countless media and academic articles about adoption; even though I read books and memoirs and watch films by adoptees and adoptive parents; even though my personal social circle is heavily populated with adoptees – domestic, transracial, international, same race – believe it or not, most of the time I do not sit around thinking about adoption losses.
Most days I get up and go to work, take care of the household chores, talk with my kids, take them to their activities, make dinner, take the dog for a walk, do the dishes and laundry, study and read and study and read, hang out with friends, and participate in numerous volunteer or community events. Most days I don't think about what I've lost by being a transnational, transracial adoptee.
But today, I am thinking about those losses. Several hundred adoptees like myself are in Seoul right now, attending the IKAA Gathering, and I am at home. There is both a sadness and a sense of relief of having to be stuck at home studying this August instead of being with many friends and fellow Korean adoptees at the conference.
I've been to the past two IKAA Gatherings and there is no way to adequately express what it feels like to be surrounded by 600+ others who have experienced the same life experience of being adopted out of our country of birth. 600 of us is a small number compared to the 200,000+ in South Korea's 50+ year history of adoption, and I am sure if it did not cost so much to travel to Korea, many more would be there.
It is hard to convey what it feels like to know you don't have to explain why you are who you are – why you look Korean but don't speak the language, why you always have to explain how you fit in your family, and why you sit on the fence between a cultural identity you don't physical match and a racial identity you don't culturally match. Who else knows the frustration of being told constantly through our lives that we should be grateful for not growing up in this country where we are now spending lots of our hard-earned money so we can get a tourist's version, a "Korea 101-lite" and trinkets at the market to put up on our walls than someone else – in fact several hundred others – who have been there and done that.
And yet, being in Korea at the IKAA Gatherings sometimes makes me very angry. I get angry that the country that didn't want me and wouldn't provide for me now wants me to come back and put on a happy, smiley face. I get so damn frustrated when I meet adoptees from all ages and backgrounds who share how unprepared their adoptive parents were in dealing with racism, racial identity struggles and understanding adoption losses.
There were times, when I was at past Gatherings, that being with 600+ other adoptees who all experienced this huge loss made me overwhelmingly sad. Looking around and seeing so many others who had lost their Korean families and had been adopted to mostly white European, American or Australian families – how could I not feel sadness, when basically, we were a room full of survivors – a room full of people abandoned, abused, neglected, rejected – who somehow found the means to find each other. It's basically one huge support group.
Most days, I don't think about these things. I don't want to think about these things. I don't want to feel the pain and sadness associated with being adopted. But then I listen to a documentary like this BBC report. I read and view an art installation, A Collection of One, that showcases the impact of all of us who have been adopted from South Korea.
Or, I read something poignant by a fellow adoptee. Yesterday, another fellow adoptee posed on her facebook page the question,
A diagnosis is not a destiny. Or does it have to be? Once
called "at-risk & special needs" and more, I can testify that one
can out-do and out-live a diagnosis. At least to live a productive,
happy, and fulfilling life. But how often do people live up to the
expectations of a diagnosis, just because that's expected?
My response was this: "I think it's easier for some to live a self-fulfilling prophecy than to
spend our lives convincing both ourselves and others that we are more
than the sum of our childhood losses."
I rarely write about my personal feelings about my adoption experience, especially in the past several years. I also turn down any request for interviews with the media, like this BBC documentary, when I believe they want me to walk down that path of "do you get along with your adoptive parents?" or "how was your adoption experience?" I turn down such requests for a few reasons: first of all, my adoptive experience is much more complex and layered and nuanced than a sentence or two that is published in an interview can adequately express and it always ends up being framed as "good" or "bad." I hate that dichotomy, and I hate it when something that might be negative gets turned into a statement about my adoptive parents that portrays them as bad parents. So while I want to write about some of the not-so-great things about being a Korean adoptee, I don't want to be pathologized nor do I want people to judge and pathologize my adoptive parents.
Secondly, I tend to really want to focus on the larger structural issues that are at play in the adoption-industry machine and to always frame adoption as one family's story negates those larger structural problems and societal attitudes. As often as possible, I want to focus attention on the ocean, not on the individual starfish.
But I'm going to be honest today, and admit that today, I'm feeling sad. I'm feeling loss and grief. Several years ago, my grandmother passed away. I was very close to my grandmother; she was the one person in my family that constantly made me feel that she was the lucky one to have me in her life. Last weekend I saw my grandfather and his new wife. While I think highly of my grandfather's wife and am very happy she is in our lives, every time I see her I can't help but feel sadness over the loss of my grandmother. It doesn't mean I don't love this person, it just means she is not my grandmother and I have the right to love the one without feeling guilty for having loved the other. And no one in the family has the expectation that we'll all forget about my grandmother because my grandfather remarried. It would be ridiculous.
I may have gained many things by being adopted to the U.S., but I've also suffered many losses. And while I believe I am much more than the sum of my childhood losses, there are days when sadness bubbles up and overwhelms me. Because it's hard. For many of us adoptees, it would be easier to just shove all those feelings of loss and grief way down deep, compartmentalize them, and throw away the key. For others, it is easier to let ourselves stay overwhelmed with grief. I totally understand why many adoptees don't make it. As difficult as it may be to believe, every time I hear about an adoptee who has killed themselves, I understand. For many adoptees it IS easier to live up to the expectation that we are no more than the sum of our losses and our "at-risk" and "special-needs" diagnoses. I've had to work hard to convince myself that I am more than the sum of my childhood losses – and having to constantly prove to greater society as well takes a heavy toll.
My adoptive parents were great parents and I'm fortunate that we still have a good relationship. However, having a good adoptive home did not erase the losses I've suffered. There is nothing that my American, middle-class upbringing could have done to erase the loss of my Korean family and culture and language. I am tired of this prevailing assumption that as long as the adoptive parents are "good" ones, the adoptee won't ever feel loss and grief. I'm really exasperated at this notion that a "well-adjusted adoptee" is one who never questions adoption loss, who never feels sadness or grief, or who never goes through an identity crisis over who s/he is and where s/he belongs. I hate that we are constantly told that we should "get over it."
I'm not going to defend adoption – in any manner, shape, or form – today. I'm not going to add a caveat that "it's better than an orphanage" or "it's better than lingering in foster care." I'm not going to be "balanced" in my analysis. Because this isn't an analysis. This is about feelings. Which I, and every other adoptee, is allowed to have, without justification and without a parenthetical about how of course we love our adoptive parents. I'm not going to accept comments on this post either, because this isn't about anyone else but how I'm feeling right now, right here, and I don't want advice on how to "get over it" or suggestions that I get therapy or any of the things that we adoptees are often told.
Recently I heard one adoption "expert" (not an adoptee, of course) state that despite the losses involved in adoption, as an institutional child welfare practice, "adoption is still the best intervention we have for children who are parentless." Every generation of adoptive parents think they're doing a better job
than the ones before, and some are downright glib and smug about
it. Get over it. As an "intervention" adoption gave me a home and a family but it did not "cure" the losses that caused me to be in need of a home and a family. Adoption is not a cure, it's a treatment that – if the adoptee is lucky and it's done well – potentially helps makes the sorrow manageable.