Korean looks, American eyes: Korean American adoptees, race, culture and nation by Kim Park Nelson

My dear friend and amazing scholar, Kim Park Nelson, just gave me permission to post the link to her dissertation, Korean looks, American eyes: Korean American adoptees, race, culture and nation.


This project positions Korean adoptees as transnational citizens at
intersections within race relations in the United States, as emblems of
international geopolitical relationships between the United States and
South Korea, and as empowered actors, organizing to take control of
racial and cultural discourses about Korean adoption. I make
connections between transnational exchanges, American race relations,
and Asian American experiences. I argue that though the contradictory
experience of Korean adoptees, at once inside and outside bounded
racial and national categories of "Asian," "White," "Korean," and
"American," the limits of these categories may be explored and
critiqued. In understanding Korean adoptees as transnational subjects,
single-axis racial and national identity are challenged, where
individuals have access to membership and/or face exclusion in more
than one political or cultural nation. In addition, this work
demonstrates the effects of American political and cultural imperialism
both abroad and domestically, by elucidating how the acts of
empire-building nations are mapped onto individuals though the
regulation of immigration and family formation. My methods are
interdisciplinary, drawing from traditions that include ethnography,
primary historical sources, and literature. My dissertation work uses
Korean adoptees' own life stories that I have collected and recorded in
three locations: 1) Minnesota, home to the largest concentration of
Korean adoptees in the U.S.; 2) the Pacific Northwest, home to the many
of the "first wave" of the oldest living Korean adoptees now in their
40s and 50s; and, 3) Seoul, Korea, home to hundreds of adult Korean
adoptees who have traveled back to South Korea to live and work. In
addition, I use Korean adoptee published narratives, archive materials
documenting the early history of transnational adoption, and secondary
sources in sociology, social work, psychology and cultural studies to
uncover the many layers of national, racial and cultural belonging and
significance for and of Korean adoptees.

A pdf of the dissertation is available through the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy. Link is here.

New book written by Korean birth mothers

Dreaming a World

From the publisher:

 "Dreaming a World: Korean Birth Mothers Tell Their Stories is a wonderful new follow-up to I Wish for You a Beautiful Life.

A powerful follow-up to I Wish for You a Beautiful Life,
this new book gives voice to seventeen Korean birth mothers, who tell
their stories looking back from the present to the time they were
pregnant and gave birth. They describe their situations then, the
decisions they had to make, and their lives in the time since. What
they have to tell us is both heart-breaking and compelling, from voices
seldom heard.

Proceeds from ths book support the work Ae Ran Won does together with
and on behalf of the unmarried mothers who decide to keep their babies.
These women receive very little support, financial or emotional. The
many authors of this book hope you read it, understand more about their
lives and the work that needs to be done for others like them, and give
your own financial and emotional support to Ae Ran Won and the single

Ae Ran Won's website is

The book is available at Yeong & Yeong, click here for more information.

Single mothers in South Korea

From the Korean Herald comes this story about single mothers in Korea. Some friends of mine are connected to the Miss Momma Mia's group discussed in the article.

"When I became an unwed mom, my family was the first to abandon me. But
they finally accepted me. And that support encouraged me a lot more
than anything else," she said.

Adding to the efforts of the unwed moms' association is the support
from Korean-born adoptees who recently returned home to help the
mothers who face the same difficulties as their birth mothers did
decades ago. They help promote the issue to the public as well as
educating and taking care of the kids of unwed mothers.

Click here for the article.

The International Korean Adoptee Associations (IKAA) Gathering 2010


The International Korean Adoptee Associations (IKAA) Network will
host the IKAA Gathering, the third of its kind, scheduled to take place
from August 3rd to August 8th 2010 at the Lotte Hotel in Seoul, Korea.

The IKAA Gathering is held only once every three years in Seoul, Korea
and continues to gain momentum and significance as the most
internationally inclusive and largest Korean adoptee conference in the
world. With each Gathering in Seoul, the attendance garnered has grown
at an impressive rate, from over 400 participants representing over 15
countries in 2004, to over 650 participants from over 20 countries in
2007. The IKAA Gathering 2010 is expected to continue this tradition of
development and maturity, anticipating the participation of over 800
adult adoptees.

In addition to cultivating community among adoptees, the IKAA
Gathering 2010 will differ in its efforts to promote dialogue and a
greater understanding between the global Korean adult adoptee community
and Korean society. This Gathering will encourage cultural exchanges
that provide both communities with the opportunity to forge
international relationships and become active participants in Korea’s
globalization project by offering programming that includes “membership
training” and team-building activities, as well as a business seminar
and professional networking events with Korean nationals.

Additional new programming at the IKAA Gathering 2010 will feature
a mini-film festival, which will also be open to a Korean audience, and
an “Adoptee Amazing Race,” a series of activities specifically tailored
to adoptees returning to Korea for the first time. The Gathering will
once again host the highly successful Korean Adoptee World Cup soccer
match, a comprehensive range of workshops, forums, and presentations,
an ArtGathering, and the Second International Symposium on Korean
Adoption Studies (SISKAS), where scholars from around the world will
present their research.

Early registration for the IKAA Gathering 2010 ends on March 15,
2010.  More information about registration, flight, and hotel prices
and discounts is available at www.ikaa.org.

Formally established in 2004, IKAA is the largest existing network
of international Korean adoptees, reaching out to thousands worldwide.
Common for all IKAA associations is that they have demonstrated
long-term stability, their organizational structure and membership are
comprised overwhelmingly of adult adoptees, they have a long history
and experience working with adoptees, and they organize activities and
events for their members on a regular basis.

IKAA_Gathering_2010_Banner_120x240_v4 International Korean Adoptee Associations (IKAA)

was established to better serve the Korean adoptee community, create a
strong communication forum, build global relationships and provide a
location where Korean adoptees can turn when in need of a resource.

The mission of the IKAA Network is to enrich the global adoption
community, promote the sharing of information and resources between
adult adoptee associations, strengthen cross-cultural relations and
innovate post-adoption services for the broader international adoptee

IKAA Network Organizations

Adopted Koreans’ Association (Sweden) | Arierang (The Netherlands) | Korea Klubben (Denmark) | Racines Coréennes (France) | AK Connection (Minnesota, USA) | Also-Known-As, Inc. (New York, USA) | Asian Adult Adoptees of Washington (Washington, USA)

IKAA Gathering 2010 Supporting Organizations

Korean Adoptees of Hawai’i (Hawai’i, USA) | Asian Adult Adoptees of British Columbia (Canada) | Boston Korean Adoptees (Massachusetts, USA) | Forum for Korean Adoptees (Norway) | Korean Adoptees of Chicago (Illinois, US)

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.

“Cultural Tourism” – Beyond Culture Camps Part 2

One of the study's limitations is that those adoptees born/adopted in
the late 1970s to 1989 would have had much greater access or
opportunity to specialized Korean culture camps. Korean culture camps
did exist back then, and in fact Holt first started their camps in
1983. I, as a "2nd wave" adoptee would have been 15 years old that
year. A local family camp for Korean adoptees in Minnesota, Kamp
Kimchee, began in 1978. For me, I would have liked to have know what
the age breakdown was for those who attended camps and those who did
not, and if there were any correlations between ages/year adopted and
some of the other variables such as how one identifies
racially/ethnically. My hypothesis would be that it would make a

Korean adoptees advocate for adoption reform in Korea

From the JoongAng Daily

A generation fights to reform adoption laws

11011044 Six Korean adoptees filed an appeal with the Anti-corruption and Civil
Rights Commission last year to request a probe into irregularities in
their adoption documents and possible illegal procedures at local
adoption agencies.

Now, they’re involved in a full-fledged
battle to reform adoption laws and procedures, and they’re getting help
from some heavyweights.

Adoptee rights and community groups as
well as unwed mothers, the public interest law firm Gong-Gam and
Democratic Party Representative Choi Young-hee have joined forces with
the adoptees in an effort to convince lawmakers to revise the Special
Law Relating to the Promotion and Procedure of Adoption.

The National Assembly has now taken up the issue and is exploring changes through a series of hearings.

You can read the rest 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.

Korean adoptee winner in “secret identities” superhero contest

Secretidentities_hush According to Angry Asian Man, fellow Korean adoptee and activist Juli Martin, blogger at Grinding Up Stones (and fellow knitter) is the winner of the Secret Identities superhero contest for her entry Hush.

Juli's description of her superhero:

as a newborn, Jane was adopted from Korea by a wealthy white couple at
four months. After unexpectedly having two biological children, Jane's
adoptive parents feel they have no use for her, and when she comes out
as bisexual at age 13, they kick her out. She is shuffled through the
foster care system until aging out, at which point she moves to The
Center, a cooperative home for homeless LGBTQ youth. Abandoned so many
times, she now calls herself "Jane Doe."

Jane is a
queer femme woman, slim build, 20. Her black hair is cut choppy and
asymmetrical, streaked with electric blue. Her style is edgy and
futuristic, in black, gray and blue.

governmental wheeling and dealing put The Center in the hands of
multibillionaire Elliot Rush, whose biotech firm GenFX needs secret
human testing. Believing the residents of The Center are “throwaway”
people – people no one will miss – Rush uses them as human guinea pigs.

serum takes prexisting traits in the host and amplifies them to a
superhuman level, operating under the theory that if a body has a
predisposition towards a certain ability, enhancing that trait will
give the individual intuitive control over it. Jane has a keen
emotional awareness that allows her to read people, situations,
feelings and intentions, so when exposed to the serum, her body reacts
by amplifying her existing emotional intelligence. She becomes
telepathic, and in addition to being able to read others' minds, she
can speak to them in their thoughts and share images or sounds. When
experiencing strong emotions, these feelings "radiate," positively or
negatively affecting those around her.

Because it is not
immediately known what powers are developing within each subject (and
how), Jane's telepathy allows her to learn more about Rush's intentions
than subjects were supposed to know. Using her abilities, Jane informs
the others that Rush plans to destroy them once he has the data he
needs. She and the others secretly develop their powers and plan an
escape. Their plans are interrupted, however, when Rush, suspicious of
Jane, separates her from the others.

While being held by
Rush, Jane learns that he has called for armed reinforcements. She
pleads with the others to get out and leave her behind, but they
refuse. Instead, they risk everything to rescue her, and when the
battle is over, Jane feels claimed and protected for the first time.
From that moment on, her commitment to the others and ensuring their
safety is solidified.

Rush manages to escape the
fighting, but not without sustaining severe burns in the process, and
slips into a coma. When he awakes, he has been disenfranchised by his
company and insane from a virus in his skin grafts which ate away the
logic and reason portions of his brain. Engraged, he begins to assemble
a crew of bio-engineered villains to seek revenge and destroy all who
inhibit his rise to power.

SI The Editor's description of why they chose Hush:

loved the uniqueness of Hush's background–how many other lesbian,
transracially adopted superheroines are there in comics? Not
enough!–and the rich emotions at play in her characterization. We did
end up editing aspects of her power and origin, however, both to make
her code name make sense and to bring her power away from that of other

We also liked the notion of turning a vulnerability
into a power: In this edit, Jane goes from self-imposed isolation and
emotional repression to becoming superhumanly empathic; we thought that
it was really interesting that such an ability would turn her into a
formidable opponent. Think about it: If you could instantly read a
person's emotions and responses, and react with exactly the right
physical or verbal cue, you'd be both a killer hand-to-hand combat
artist and a devastating manipulator, wouldn't you?

For more about Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology, click here. Please support my fellow Asian American writers and artists!

Remember, those of you who have adopted Asian children, it is important for them to see all kinds of powerful and strong representations of Asian Americans!!