| Korean adoptees are flocking to their birth country in mass numbers — changing the landscape of international adoptions in the process. |
Writer Elizabeth Woyke Artist Rebecca Szeto
Photographer Miriam Akkermann
From Issue 6, Summer 2005 -- Receive a full year of Hyphen now!
FOR EXPATRIATE ADOPTEES in Seoul, Korea, the
city's outré nightlife center of Hong dae is the one that matters. Every weekend, a community of adoptees — a hundred strong and growing — gathers there at a kitschy watering hole called Hippo. Huddled over glasses of soju, the group weaves in and out of foreign vocabulary, and trades tragicomic stories of adoption and good-natured complaints about life in Korea.
But it's not just their conversation that makes the adoptees stand out from the natives they call "Korean Koreans." Their expat status is betrayed by their fashion sense — Europeans in their Diesel clothes and spiked hair, Americans in jeans and t-shirts — and their raucous air of celebration. Together, they mingle, hug and down shots before migrating to a nearby club to dance until dawn. As the sun rises, they drag themselves to a local café for an early ramen breakfast.
In recent years, as an increasing number of adoptees have returned to Korea for extended stays, this festive scene has played itself out innumerable times. "It's nice, because a lot of us grew up feeling isolated," explains Vincent Kuneen, a 29-year-old American adoptee who's a regular presence at Hippo. "It's like this big statement: 'OK, the adoptees have arrived!'"
But the adoptee social scene isn't all nightclubs and cocktails. As more adoptees make the move to Korea, the burgeoning community has expanded to include volunteer work at orphanages, lectures at an adoptee guesthouse called KoRoot and government-sponsored field trips. In the process, they're making their presence felt, forging a diverse subculture and asserting divergent political views on adoption. The result is a new diaspora that is fast becoming the heart of a growing global network of Korean organizations that is changing and challenging the institution of international adoption.
SINCE THE KOREAN WAR, South Korea has sent approximately 200,000 children abroad for adoption, with more than 75 percent embraced by American families. But more and more are returning to their birth country as those who left during the peak years of adoption—between 1974 and 1988—are getting older and learning about Korea from the Internet.
According to one of the largest Korean agencies, Eastern Social Welfare Society, the number of adoptee visitors to the agency's office in Seoul has grown sixfold since 1991, from 41 in the early ’90s to 262 in 2003. And still, they keep coming.
In 2004, a year that marked the 50th anniversary of Korean overseas adoption, the community swelled even further with "the Gathering," a biannual conference that attracted 430 adoptees from 15 countries. After six days of bonding and reconnecting with their birth culture, some attendees decided they didn’t want to leave.
Starting in the 1970s, most people who returned to Korea came on short "motherland tours," an experience Ethen Reiser, a 25-year-old Minnesotan somewhat cynically describes as “a week and a half with Korean people who are taught to treat you nicely and give you things.” Nowadays, more adoptees are making the trip solo and staying longer, aided by a special renewable visa that allows them to live and work in Korea indefinitely.
"Right now there are so many of us, it's really a subculture," says Dae-won Wenger, a 38-year-old from Switzerland who plays a paternal role amongst the mostly younger adoptees.
Though there's diversity in their home country, language and experience with adoption, they all share a bond in having journeyed halfway around the world in search of something they believe they can only find in their birth country.
But they also share the burden of a sometimes-painful past they are forced to confront daily. "It's in your face all the time, like seeing a kid on the subway with his mom, or having Koreans ask you where you're from," explains Julayne Eun Jin Lee Smith, a 35-year-old from Minnesota.
IN 2002, Didier Schonbroodt, a 29-year-old graphic artist and house music DJ from Belgium, realized that he had an insatiable need to meet his birth family. The idea came to him suddenly as he watched the World Cup soccer match, hosted by South Korea that year. In a match between his birth country and Belgium, he surprised himself by rooting for Korea.
A year later, he made his first trip to Seoul, encouraged by his adoptive parents, though it would take three more trips before his adoption agency located his birth mother. Once they found her, Schonbroodt decided to move to Korea in order to forge a relationship with his mother and immerse himself in local culture.
At first, Schonbroodt and his birth mother met in secret since her husband and daughter didn't know Schonbroodt existed. Later the family gathered every few weeks at her apartment in the southern city of Pusan, often accompanied by a volunteer translator. Schonbroodt says he used to think of her as a stranger but now feels he and his birth mother have "an innate bond."
Though he has since moved to Luxembourg for a graphic design job, he plans to return to Seoul next year. And although he admits, "now more than ever I don't know who I am," he also says, "I wanted [to have a relationship with my birth mom] so badly."
But other adoptees, like Amy Harp, didn’t return to Korea to reunite with family. "I came to see the country on a day-to-day basis and not through the lens of a tourist," explains the 31-year-old from Michigan, who arrived in Seoul in 2000 after finishing a master's thesis on adoption at San Diego State University.
Harp, who is petite and matter-of-fact, says that she used to feel a bit out of place, especially because she didn’t speak Korean fluently. But now she feels more at home there — so much so, she says, she may never leave. "For some people, coming to Korea opens questions," she says. "For me, it's answered more questions than it's opened."
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Elizabeth Woyke was born in South Korea, grew up in New Canaan, CT and returned to Seoul in 2000 to reunite with her birth family. She wrote this story while on a Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.