' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Adopted from Korea and in Search of Identity

Monday, November 9, 2009

Adopted from Korea and in Search of Identity

The hunt for the natural parents of Korean adoptees made news today with the release of a new report from the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. And there are a lot of people who fall into this category: From 1953 to 2007, an estimated 160,000 South Korean children were adopted by people from other countries, most of them in the United States, and they make up the largest group of transracial adoptees in the United States, according to BEYOND CULTURE CAMP: PROMOTING HEALTHY IDENTITY FORMATION IN ADOPTION.

Many of the 179 Korean adoptees with two Caucasian parents who took part in the survey said they began to think of themselves more as Korean when they attended college or moved to ethnically diverse neighborhoods as adults. And this surprising finding caught my eye:
An unexpected finding was that a high percentage (49%) of the Korean adoptees had searched as well and 30 percent had experienced contact with birth relatives, despite the common assumption that those adopted from Korea have little access to information about their families of origin.
Also from the report:
While most Korean adopted respondents reported achieving some level of comfort with their race/ethnicity as adults, a significant minority (34%) remained uncomfortable or only somewhat comfortable. Two factors were significant predictors of their comfort with racial/ethnic identity: self-esteem (those having higher self-esteem felt more comfortable with their race) and their scores on the MEIM (stronger ethnic identification predicted greater comfort with their race/ethnicity). Also, experiencing less racial discrimination and having higher life satisfaction were associated with greater comfort with their racial/ethnic identity. For Koreans, experiences of racial teasing - which were prevalent - also were associated with lower life satisfaction and lower self-esteem.
While the report goes on to recommend that adopting parents become better prepared to deal with cross-cultural issues, and we heartily agree with that, we also think that that is like making sure that the ambulance is at the bottom of the cliff. Instead of telling adopting parents how to deal with their children, we believe in helping women in poor countries keep their children, so that they do not have to deal with the grief and sorrow that invariably follows giving up a child, even if it seems as if it is to give that individual a better life. In a previous post, we talked about efforts being made to give support to single women in South Korea who keep their children, but it is not an easy road.

In reading the New York Times account of the report today (11/09/09)  I was struck by the common refrain of fear of hurting the adoptive parents. From Joel Ballentyne, a Korean adoptee and teacher in Fort Lauderdale:
“This offers proof that we’re not crazy or just being ungrateful to our adoptive parents when we talk about our experiences,” said Mr. Ballantyne, 35, who was adopted at age 3 and who grew up in Alabama, Texas and, finally, California.

Jennifer Town, 33, agreed.
“A lot of adoptees have problems talking about these issues with their adoptive families,” she said. “They take it as some kind of rejection of them when we’re just trying to figure out who we are.” Ms. Towns, who was adopted in 1979 and raised in a small town in Minnesota, recalled that during college, when she announced that she was going to Korea to find out more about her past, her parents “freaked out.”
“They saw it as a rejection,” she said. “My adoptive mother is really into genealogy, tracing her family to Sweden, and she was upset with me because I wanted to find out who I was.”
Quite frankly, this gives us a headache. We also recall that about a year ago we posted the story of a woman searching in South Korea, and posted the photograph and referred to the story in the Korean newspaper. The adoptee saw our post and freaked out because she was afraid that her adoptive mother would see the story. How can adoptees get across to their adoptive parents that searching for their identities before they were adopted is, quite often, totally separate from their feelings--good or bad--towards their adoptive parents?

After all the years we have been involved in adoption reform, after all the television shows and interviews in the media about search and reunion, after the movies and television dramas showcasing reunion, why must adoptive parents still look upon this search for roots as a rejection? That is where the education needs to be: adoptive parents need to understand that in adopting a child they are not taking in a blank slate, a tabua rasa--an erased mind--but a fully formed individual with a mother and a father who bore them, no matter how, and whose DNA they carry, no matter what; dozens, hundreds, nay, thousands of relatives and ancestors, and a rich history that goes back through the ages. We must make adopting parents understand that the need to feel connected to that identity and culture is normal and natural. To not be interested in one's own roots is the unnatural, is the killing of curiosity--always seen as a sign of intelligence in any other realm--and signifies a cutting off of oneself from the tree of life in the most basic way.

Given that the comments we see all the time that amount to--I'm afraid to let my adoptive parents know I'm searching--we have our work cut out for us.


  1. I think that anyone that can't see their way to find out who they are, well, they are fooling theirselves. I know a sick young woman now, who won't even look. When I asked why not, she told me it was simply that if her "mother" wanted to know her then she would find her. If not, too bad!

    Oy! You have to wonder who killed this child's sense of self!

  2. "After all the years we have been involved in adoption reform, after all the television shows and interviews in the media about search and reunion, after the movies and television dramas showcasing reunion, why must adoptive parents still look upon this search for roots as a rejection?"

    Because after all that, some of them just haven't been exposed to enough information that would cause them to rethink their views or reflect on their feelings--never mind changing them. Unless they are actively seeking out info about adoption, which many of these folks aren't, they just won't be motivated to look at it any other way. We need more stories out there to dismantle the fiction that a child can't have two families and people need to realize that knowing original family is all about gaining something.

  3. The report focused on Korean adoptees who obviously did not look like their white adoptive parents so there was no denying they were adopted.

    I see a correlation here to adoptees who are of the same race as their adoptive families but are forced by that circumstance to repress their feelings of being "different" expressed by the Korean adoptees.

    I hope that more research will be done to publicize that these issues are relevant in all adoptions.

    I can only speak from my personal experience as a first mom reunited with her son. Since we have been reunited he is only now allowing himself to explore his "adoptiveness."

    His afamily is not pleased and it is complicated by the fact that he looked a bit like his adad. However he looks exactly like me and has my personality which no one can deny.

  4. Ladies, the reason that this kind of article and books by First Mothers and books by adoptees - unless they are anti-reunion - do not get publisized....it's simple. We all know the reason.

    We are corning a giant industry. An industry that is not there if the truth was known, the truth about how we never heal. The truth that no one could ever be our childrens' real parents, except us. The truth about everything.

    Worse, we sit around talking about it - and none of us are willing to face it out there in the world and PUSH THEIR FACES IN IT!

    All these disgusting right to life people - they are led by women that are self proclaimed humanists - they are humanists all right - they believe that adoption is a good things so that their narrow butts stay narrow.

    Why do we sit in the shadows, moaning, when we should be standing and marching in front of these agencies and churches that push adoption with their lies and bull - telling all the young women and men about the truths of adoption.

    Yes, I know totaly radical, it will hurt our kids feelings, yada yada yada - What about our feelings?

    Just me having a really bad morning.

  5. Lori, if you or anyone think marching and picketing agencies and churches is the way to go, do it. What's stopping you? Go ahead and "push their faces in it" if that is what you want to do.

  6. "How can adoptees get across to their adoptive parents that searching for their identities before they were adopted is, quite often, totally separate from their feelings--good or bad--towards their adoptive parents?"

    Because adoption remains focused upon the adoptive parents. Adoptees are supposed to be the blank slates, the commodities, while the mothers are supposed to be nonexistent. It's easier for the industry that way. Until adoption agencies and facilitators start managing the expectations of prospective adopters, this will continue, but of course they have no vested interest in doing so because they are content with the status quo. My adoptive parents took my search very badly. It was a personal affront to them instead of being a natural need to know my origins.

    Lori, I feel your anger and agree with it. I think many people do try to publicize what is going on, but there is such a lack of understanding among the general public about adoption. For example, and I think Lorraine mentioned this before, it is very difficult to get, say, a book or article about adoption published if it doesn't sing the happy adoption mantra. I think blogs like this one help because they get out the unfiltered word. I have seen articles lately with more realistic viewpoints of adoption and I hope that means that our voices are being heard. But it's still a struggle against a corporate machine that makes money off adoption, and the mass media are part of that hence the general public's lack of comprehension.

    All we can do is keep trying.



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