| A thought for Chuseok: 'Keep families together!'|
Ask Nathalie Lemoine, 37, a French-speaking Belgian adoptee, artist and former activist who returned to Korea in 1993, about her plans for this coming Chuseok and she starts a debate about the reasons behind international adoption.
"Keep the members of families together. Don't separate them and don't think international adoption is the only solution to escape Korean social responsibilities," says Lemoine, talking about issues concerning domestic and international adoption, the lack of a social welfare system and the problems inherent to Korea's patriarchal society.
"Everybody wants to do something to help 'adoptees' returning back to their homeland, especially around Chuseok or Sollal but why Koreans don't start to help their own birth mothers or orphanages in the first place?" she said.
For her, adopted Korean adults coming back are not as disturbing for Korean society as the source of the adoption: Birth mothers forced to give up their children because of a lack of social support.
Through the media and the success of some sitcoms, portrayal of adoption has often been distorted, and even though the subject has become less taboo in some ways, working on awareness is still much needed, she says.
(From left) Tammy Chu, Nathalie Lemoine, Rev. Kim Do-hyun [Vincent Sung]
ASK, an independent group for adoptees, organizes activities that are geared principally toward that aim with activities such as monthly forums where invited guests discuss and educate families and Korean adoptees about current domestic social issues.
Tammy Chu, 30, a Korean-American adoptee filmmaker currently living in Korea, explains, "No agencies are doing this kind of work. We are an independent group thus we can be more critical instead of victimizing 'adoptees' such as pictured in the media.
"If you look at how adoption used to be and still is in this millennium where Korea is considered the tenth largest economy in the world, the demand to adopt Koreans is still very high. Back in the '80s, social workers from the four official adoption agencies were like 'blood suckers,' taking babies away and sending them abroad to provide the demand from overseas instead of trying to find a domestic family to adopt them." Between 10,000 to 15,000 children a year were sent away for overseas adoptions during the '80s.
Within Korean families, mothers usually had no right to put their children on the "hojok" (blood lineage for family registry) which is a patriarchal right. Very often, fathers don't want to take responsibilities and keep a child without his mother in order to get remarried easily. The child is then usually sent away or abandoned by his father or the paternal grandmother.
In many cases after some years, biological mothers search for their children without being aware that they have lost every legal right to their children.
"Serious social changes need to take place to keep families together from the very beginning instead of believing that international adoption is the easiest and best solution," Chu said.
Recent works of Chu, in charge of public relations and media for ASK, mostly focus on raising awareness among families and she has started to search for birthmothers willing to be interviewed, to tell their stories and to empower them.
She hopes to help them realize the fact that they are not alone and that larger social causes might have forced them to relinquish their child.
As a filmmaker, she was approached by the Rev. Kim Do-hyun, the director of Koroot, a guesthouse providing guidance for adoptees returning to Korea, to produce a documentary. The documentary film will mainly focus on birthmothers and their real-life struggle. Rev. Kim says, "The patriarchal system in Korea is evil. It destroys people's lives; men, women and their children," drawing a map of the peninsula where at the center would be the strongest and at the edge the weakest ready to fall with the children being sent away.
He cites an example. "One adoptee woman came here from Europe to look for her biological parents. She was able to reconnect with her birthmother and kept in contact with her. But she failed on the first visit to find her father. Later on we were able to find him and contacted him by phone. He was remarried and had two sons. We immediately announced to her the good news. She then decided to travel again to Korea in order to meet him. During that time, her father had changed his phone number.
"Men are cowards and avoid their guilt, trying to forget their past in order to remarry and have a 'happy family' instead of taking responsibilities as much as women would do," he said.
Family values in Korea are slowly changing, especially among younger generations. Marriage matters and building family values for women are slowly shifting as new trends are starting to take shape. For example, women now marry men with children and older women date younger men.
Adoption issues are still under the social pressure of blood lineage which leads to certain forms of discrimination.
In 2004, the government declared May 11 as a national adoption day. By next year, Koroot hopes along with adult adoptees and adoption communities to unify their efforts and to organize a better overview of all the different opinions from each group.
In a more informal upcoming activity, Koroot invites all adoptees and their friends to share a casual afternoon for Chuseok this Sunday, starting at 2 p.m. where a film screening and 'songpyeon' (traditional rice cake) making will be held along with a Chuseok dinner.
Lemoine as much as Chu and Rev. Kim believe that social changes are urgent in order to improve family happiness especially at the approach of Chuseok.
For more information: www.adopteesolidarity.org, www.koroot.org, www.chomihee.org
By Vincent Sung