Korean-born in U.S. return to a home they never knew
Many locate lost families, others work to change international adoption policy
Vanessa Hua, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, September 11, 2005
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Seoul -- In a tiny neighborhood restaurant south of the Han River, Yun Jin Carson tackled a bowl of cold noodles with a pair of scissors.
"That's how Koreans do it," said Carson, 24, deftly cutting into the naeng mien, a traditional dish on hot summer nights. She paused.
"I still can't say we do it."
Carson wants to belong in this place that is home but not home at all.
Home was 5,600 miles away in Northern California until she spent the summer two years ago in Seoul, a city she did not remember, searching for the birth mother she never knew. Now, she is back to reclaim her cultural birthright.
Seoul is home to a vibrant community of adoptees who have reversed the overseas crossing made by more than 150,000 children in the last half-century, the world's first and largest wave of international adoptions. Many are coming to immerse themselves in their ancestral culture or reunite with their birth families.
Some are here on a mission: to change the society they were born into but were forced to leave as children. They run nonprofit organizations to help one another, make political art and punk music together, and rally for their rights. There's even a new movement that seeks to end international adoption from South Korea.
Carson delights in her newfound half sister (they have the same chunky hands), in Korean food (Korean sushi, gimbap, is better than Japanese because the seaweed is softer and tastier, she says) and in Korean friends (baristas from the cafe where she studied Korean). Since she moved here last fall, her life in Seoul has come to include adoptee support group meetings, Korean classes and work as an English teacher.
But she struggles to forgive her birth mother, with whom she was reunited in 2003. When she sees how well her mother knows her other children and she hears them speak the same language, Carson is pained and angry that she must build that connection from nothing.
"I really want to speak Korean, to communicate. Relationships are the most important thing," said Carson, who grew up in Danville and Chico. "If I can't speak Korean, I'll never understand my mother or my family."
An exodus of children
About 2,000 South Korean children are adopted outside the country each year, behind only China and Russia. Since the 1950s, American families have adopted about 110,000 South Korean children, the other 40,000 or so scattered worldwide.
At first, the children were war orphans and the offspring of Korean women and U.S. soldiers. Now, they are most likely to be from poor families or be the children of single mothers. South Korea spends relatively little on Western-style social programs to support the needy.
In an effort to stem the exodus of children, the government has tried to encourage Koreans to adopt. May 11 is now national Adoption Day, and the government offers financial incentives to Korean families who adopt. But traditional reverence for familial bloodlines and the social stigmas attached to adoptees as well as children who are disabled, mixed race or born out of wedlock limit local enthusiasm for the program. Thus, international adoption continues to outpace domestic.
After Carson's biological mother separated from her father, she tried to make it on her own but had to put her child up for adoption.
Carson spent much of her childhood in Danville "trying hard not to acknowledge that I'm not white," she said. When another Korean adoptee at her private school wanted to be friends, Carson avoided her.
She had a rocky relationship with her adoptive mother. Carson felt demeaned and that she was not treated as well as the family's biological children.
Her adoptive parents split when she was 7. As a teenager, she decided to move to Chico to live with her adoptive father, who gave her the freedom to become outspoken and opinionated. Carson entered therapy and began taking long-dreamed-for piano lessons.
At Chico State, she studied music and feminist theory and began to think about how the politics of race and power applied to her life. Three years ago, she changed her first name from Susanna back to her birth name, Yun Jin. Just before she left for South Korea, she had a falling-out with her father and is now trying to repair the relationship.
"The whole racial thing, it's hard for my father to understand," said Sarah Carson, 30, her adopted sister, who is also South Korean by birth and lives in Los Angeles. "Everyone here is Caucasian, and they don't think about it. He lives in this bubble and (Yun Jin) tries to pound it in."
Looking local, feeling foreign
In the 1990s, adult Korean adoptees began to organize themselves with the help of the Internet. When they started moving back to South Korea, they struggled because they knew no one and yet looked like locals. So they founded groups to help each other find home-stays, employment and their birth families.
When adoptees took over Seoul's Hippo Bar one recent evening, Dae Won Wenger, known as the "father" of their community, worked the room with his digital camera.
At 38, he is a decade older than most returned adoptees and has thick black hair shot through with silver. He is the volunteer director of the organization where Carson attends a support group and serves as newsletter editor.
"I want to support adoptees so they will not have so many problems, to help them adapt to Korea," said Wenger, who grew up in Switzerland.
On weekends, he tells more than 100 adoptees by text message where to meet. He is their guide to Seoul, one of the world's largest cities, with a population over 10 million. It is a metropolis of huge apartment complexes and shiny office towers, much of it built after the Korean War.
English is the adoptees' common language because many speak only basic conversational Korean. That night, a biracial adoptee from Denmark talked about how his birth mother had asked the adoption agency to send him to the United States, where there were more blacks and he might be treated better. His mother dreamed that he someday would enlist in the U.S. military and return to find her. A Dutch woman explained how she was scheduled to appear on a weekly television show to find her family.
Since Carson was reunited with her family, her mother has been hospitalized with lupus, gone through a divorce, lost her job at an underwear store and found a new one selling medical supplies. Only recently did Carson's teenage half sister learn of their true relationship. Carson's half brother, also a teenager, still thinks she's a family friend from California. She calls her birth mother omani, the Korean word for mother and also a generic title of respect. Carson has had three mother figures in her life: her birth mother, her adoptive mother and her stepmother. But she lacks a "mom-mom."
"It's too late. I'm grown," said Carson, who visits her omani in Pusan, about 200 miles south of Seoul, every few months. She met her birth father last month and was jubilant to find that she resembled him.
Sometimes her omani takes her clothes shopping, perhaps to make her more Korean, said Carson, who favors funky glasses, jeweled hair clips and T-shirts with slogans such as "The world existed before mascara."
"I couldn't really say no," Carson said. "I spend so much time trying not to hurt her by who I really am. I try to keep everything happy and light."
Back in Seoul, Carson escapes her cramped studio apartment at night and often spends hours at the PC-bang, or computer lounge, in her smoggy, sprawling neighborhood in Seoul. She plays computer games and writes in her online journal: "All of a sudden my mom buys me a cup of coffee when yesterday she was only a dream ... ."
Indeed, even as adoptees learn more about themselves, some feel they have to closet some part of their identity here.
Pam Park Jost, an adoptee who moved to Seoul from San Francisco, often tells strangers who ask where she's from that she is Japanese or Chinese, to prevent follow-up questions about why she doesn't speak Korean and whether she has looked for her birth mother. At work, she did not reveal she is a lesbian to avoid losing her job.
"As much as I don't want to be rejected, though, I have to deal," concedes the 35-year-old Jost, who grew up in a small, working-class town in central New Jersey and is now a musician in Seoul.
A victory on visas
Having found each other, many adoptees want to go beyond socializing and into what they see as the next step: political organizing.
Among their victories, they won the right to F-4 visas in 1999, which allow them to stay in South Korea indefinitely. Just like other native Koreans, adoptees with the visas are now allowed to buy land and open businesses, and they no longer need visa sponsors. Some universities also offer them scholarships for language classes, following adoptees' efforts to publicize their needs.
A small, passionate contingent is challenging international adoption, which they say strips South Korean adoptees of their cultural identity. They compare it to cultural genocide, akin to taking American Indian or aboriginal children from their communities and placing them with white families to "civilize" them.
Tobias Hubinette, a Swedish academic and Korean adoptee, likens the practice of international adoption to slavery and the 19th century thinking that African slaves were better off among white masters.
Hoping to end international adoption from South Korea, founders of the 1-year-old Adoption Solidarity Korea hold monthly forums and lobby legislators.
"One of the main things about ASK is that it's not about personal stories. It's not angry adoptees who are pissed at their parents," said Kim Stoker, 32, a co-founder.
Lively and sarcastic, she has lived in South Korea for much of the last decade and now teaches an American culture class.
"Why does Korea still send its babies abroad?" she asks. "It ain't no Third World country anymore."
With a gross domestic product of $679.6 billion last year, South Korea ranked as the world's 11th largest economy.
Personal to global
While activists say they don't want abandoned children to remain in South Korea only to grow up in an orphanage, they criticize the government for failing to develop a welfare system to help more poor families afford the children they now give up for international adoption.
South Korea has one of the lowest birthrates in the world, they point out, suggesting the country could do much more to promote domestic adoption as a way for couples who can't conceive to start families.
The adoptees who have returned from abroad are "the spark to trigger the social consciousness of Korean society," according to the mission statement of an art installation called the "Awareness Wall." To be unveiled this fall in subways in Seoul, Gwangju and Busan, each exhibit will feature photos of 3,000 overseas Korean adoptees as babies and adults.
"No one talks about it, and we keep on denying it," said project leader Sebastien Hootele, 36, over lunch in his expatriate neighborhood. "We have to find a solution."
Witty, with a strong jaw and athletic build, Hootele was adopted by Belgian parents when he was 5. He moved to Seoul last year and is in the process of becoming a South Korean citizen, even though he'll lose the benefits of carrying a European Union passport.
Adoption activists have won support among community leaders. The Rev. Do Hyun Kim, a Presbyterian minister, and his wife run a 16-bed adoptee guesthouse, founded by another minister and the former president of a women's college. Set in a cool, green garden, the downstairs features searing political artwork by Nathalie Cho, a Belgian adoptee who has lived in South Korea since 1993.
"This is a kind of place for asylum seekers," Kim said as he opened the door to a room with several beds.
After another year in South Korea, Carson plans to attend graduate school in gender studies in the United States and then return to work to help stop international adoption.
"It's my responsibility. I was born into it, and was a product of it," she said one evening at a Starbucks in a bustling mall where the young throngs exemplify South Korea's prosperity. "Since I've been here, it's become less of a personal mission and more of a global one."
Years will pass before Korean society comes around, Carson knows. She hopes to adopt a daughter of her own and remain in South Korea at least until the child finishes elementary school.
"Korean children have a right to their language and their culture," she said, "to families who can understand their position in life."
Resources in South Korea
-- Global Overseas Adoptees Link, www.goal.or.kr
-- International Educational and Cultural Exchange Foundation, www.iecef.org
-- Adoption Solidarity Korea, www.adopteesolidarity.com
-- Adoptee Awareness Campaign in Korea, www.ibyang.com
-- Koroot adoptee guesthouse, www.koroot.org
-- International Korean Adoptee Service, www.inkas.or.kr
-- Overseas Koreans Foundation, oaks.korean.net/index.html
-- Global Adoption Information & Post Service, www.gaips.or.kr
-- Mission to Promote Adoption in Korea, www.mpak.com
- Vanessa Hua
E-mail Vanessa Hua at email@example.com.