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By Moon Gwang-lip
Hollee McGinnis, an American working as a director at the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York, was 24 years old when she started to find out about Korea.
In 1996, she came to Korea to participate in the International Youth Camp (IYC) hosted by the Korean chapter of UNESCO, and the Korean adoptee said the experience transformed her from just "looking" Korean to really "being" Korean.
"It was a pivotal moment in my life," McGinnis said in an interview with The Korea Times. "In reality, I was an American with a Korean face. Going to IYC and experiencing the camp opened up the other side of who I was that was beyond just my face," she said.
"The camp connected me on a deeper level to the place that I had come from originally. And in that way, my life changed forever." McGinnis came to Korea again last Thursday to participate in the 40th camp as an invited lecturer. Along with her came 107 young people from 20 countries for a 12-day camp launched on Aug. 11.
The program, designed to link youths from all over the world, is an annual event that has been organized by the commission since 1966.
A total of 3,930 youths from 80 countries have participated in the program for the past 40 years and McGinnis was one of some 100 people joining the 31st event.
The commission invited McGinnis, who was running a nonprofit adoption agency she founded, named Also-Known-As, in New York. She describes the chance that enabled her to get a taste for real Korean society after 23 years as "magical."
"I was just starting the organization for adoptees when the Korean society invited me to come. When I about 15, I got a letter from my paternal grandfather," she said.
"When I got this opportunity to go to Korea and the Korean society paid for my stay, I thought, this must be my chance, so it was almost magical," she said. McGinnis was just one year old when she left her birthplace of Yonpyongdo, South Korea's northernmost islet in the West Sea.
Her paternal grandmother, who played mom to McGinnis, fell ill and there was no one else to take care of her. At last, at the request of her father, an American priest working at a hospital where the grandmother was admitted placed her with a family in the United States.
"I learned from the camp what it is like to be Korean. Getting to meet Korean students who are about my age and understanding how they saw and thought about the world was really very helpful," McGinnis said.
She said she also experienced Korean culture that connected her to the past and present of Korea.
"Every night, there was a culture show. I remember seeing a Korean traditional dance, "kanggangsuwolae," under the moonlight. There was a big circle in it, and it was such a good way to connect all of us," she said.
At the camp, she says she gained not only opportunities to regain her Korean identity, but also opportunities for her future.
"Sharing experiences with the camp members from diverse cultural backgrounds and seeing them linked in harmonious ways through the program, I reconfirmed my commitment to making the world better place for everyone," she said.
McGinnis majored in American Studies and earned a master's degree at Columbia University School of Social Work in May 2003 before devoting herself to the Donaldson Adoption Institute, which researches a wide range of policy issues, including intercountry adoption.
She stood on the platform last Friday at the Korea UNESCO Culture Center in Ichon, Kyonggi Province, to give a speech to the younger participants.
"I talked about my personal experience as an adopted person. Koreans seem to rarely know and are not familiar with the adoption issue," she said. "You know, I always like to talk about it. This time, I focused on showing that adoption is a very natural way of forming a family," she added.
Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the IYC, McGinnis expressed hope that the international event will create more opportunities for young people to connect globally.