Tuesday, November 10, 2009

NYT on identity issues among Korean (and other) adoptees

The New York Times is on a roll today with stories on Korea and racial identity. This piece (actually from Sunday's paper) explores a perennial favorite of journalists: the personal journey of American adoptees from South Korea. This is occasioned by the release of a study on this issue by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.

From the article:
As a child, Kim Eun Mi Young hated being different.

When her father brought home toys, a record and a picture book on South Korea, the country from which she was adopted in 1961, she ignored them.

Growing up in Georgia, Kansas and Hawaii, in a military family, she would date only white teenagers, even when Asian boys were around.

“At no time did I consider myself anything other than white,” said Ms. Young, 48, who lives in San Antonio. “I had no sense of any identity as a Korean woman. Dating an Asian man would have forced me to accept who I was.”

It was not until she was in her 30s that she began to explore her Korean heritage. One night, after going out to celebrate with her husband at the time, she says she broke down and began crying uncontrollably.

“I remember sitting there thinking, where is my mother? Why did she leave me? Why couldn’t she struggle to keep me?” she said. “That was the beginning of my journey to find out who I am.”
Of course, her story is just a hook to talk about a wider phenomenon:
The experiences of Ms. Young are common among adopted children from Korea, according to one of the largest studies of transracial adoptions, which is to be released on Monday. The report, which focuses on the first generation of children adopted from South Korea, found that 78 percent of those who responded had considered themselves to be white or had wanted to be white when they were children. Sixty percent indicated their racial identity had become important by the time they were in middle school, and, as adults, nearly 61 percent said they had traveled to Korea both to learn more about the culture and to find their birth parents.

Like Ms. Young, most Korean adoptees were raised in predominantly white neighborhoods and saw few, if any, people who looked like them. The report also found that the children were teased and experienced racial discrimination, often from teachers. And only a minority of the respondents said they felt welcomed by members of their own ethnic group.

As a result, many of them have had trouble coming to terms with their racial and ethnic identities.
As The Marmot was once fond of saying, read the rest on your own. This is certainly an issue near and dear to my heart.

For those of you living in South Korea, one of the most valuable things you can do with your time is volunteering to teach English or just play with kids in an orphanage there. Those I know who have done so have found it to be a rewarding experience, and you end up doing so much good. I really ought to put together a list of such venues. I wonder if anyone out there can help me with that.


  1. Please do let me know how I can volunteer as a teacher. I worked for a very expensive hagwon and it bothered me how I just helped make rich kids smarter. I started to look into it near the end of my year there, but didn't get anywhere. I'm going back to Korea soon, and I'd love to be able to help someone.

  2. Adeel, I might try to put out a post or something on that soon. Maybe a new HABO post to replace the old one.

  3. Oh, and I know how you feel about helping rich kids get further ahead. I quit doing SAT instruction in Orange County for that very reason.

  4. http://joongangdaily.joins.com/article/view.asp?aid=2912372

    any interest in posting about the current movement in korea that is working to end international adoption by focusing on keeping families together?

  5. Kim Chee Love, I did see that and was planning to include it at least in a "Loose Change" post, but if I get the time, I would like to expound a bit on it.

    I do understand the grievances that some adoptees have, and I agree some of the grievances are big, but at the same time I sometimes feel that some people are naïvely looking at this as if the two possibilities they faced were overseas adoption on the one hand and being raised in a comforting, loving home in a family of means on the other.

    For most adoptees, the latter simply was not the case, and even if they have ended up with identity issues — something that isn't all too different from other Asian-Americans in Middle America — odds are they almost certainly still ended up better off than if they'd stayed in South Korea.

    I say this because I have spent considerable time interacting with the unadopted ones (e.g., through an ex who taught English at an orphanage) and I am somewhat familiar with their plight as adults in family-centric South Korea.

    Frankly, I think some of the rhetoric used to describe overseas adoptions is very unhelpful, including in the JAD article you linked. Calling South Korea (or any other country) a baby-exporting country is commodifying the children in a way that is not otherwise done. Yes, adoption costs money (as it should, since it's a means test), but the family is not buying a child, they are bringing in a child to their home and taking on a responsibility of love and care. Why talk about this as if they're buying a car or a flat screen TV?

    And the parents who give up their child... I don't want to paint them as villains either. Such a move would have to be heart-wrenching, something only done if the parent really felt as if she had no other choice (even if that judgement may actually be wrong).

    I don't see villains among the vast, vast, vast majority of the players in the overseas (or domestic) adoption scenarios I've seen. I can pick up on insensitivity born of ignorance, but it is not malicious or selfish or anything like that.

    Okay, it looks like my comment is turning into that post I'd planned to write, so I'd better stop now. I'm tired and I need to go to bed.

  6. As you have found out Serenity has some issues regarding her situation. Uncomfortable questions were asked by me (just that I couldn't understand why ANYONE wouldn't learn the language of the country they planned to live and work in) She has a very short temper(SHE says this) and is not prepared to dialogue on this matter.
    I think I am the reason for her last blog post.
    If you read her blog you will note the constant theme of KOREANS asking her why she doesn't speak Korean.
    This makes her very angry.
    More so since she cannot respond in Korean to her harrassers.
    She does need some help and I do hope she reaches out to you.


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