Give it up
For comedienne Amy Anderson…
who gets it in every way.
from KoreAm on-line magazine of the Korean American experience
A Korean adoptee comes to the defense of single moms like herself
Amy and her daughter Aubrey, 2008.
By Amy Anderson
My daughter is 2 and she is the most amazing human being on the planet. Sure, I’m a little biased, but she is pretty awesome. I have been blessed with a healthy, beautiful and intelligent child. I love her more and more each day. And while all mothers feel a special bond with their children, I should take a moment to mention that my daughter is the only blood relative I have ever known.
All that I know about the beginning of my life was that I was abandoned at the Yongsan train station in Seoul on September 2, 1972. I was estimated to be only a day old. After a passerby found me and took me to the police, I was adopted by my American family through Holt, an international agency known as the pioneer of overseas Korean adoption. No information about my Korean birth family has ever surfaced. The love for my adoptive family is sincere and they are indeed my “real” family, but as you can imagine, the special bond I have with my daughter is undeniably visceral.
I cannot fathom living without her.
That said, raising a child is tough. And sometimes, I feel really alone. And it’s because I’m a standup comedian who spends a lot of time traveling, working late hours, and managing an unpredictable schedule. It’s because I’m a single mom.
In my case, I have shared custody of my daughter with her father, which offers some relief, but it also presents a whole bevy of communication challenges that, at times, make the situation feel more stressful. And I’m not saying that raising children within a marriage is easy either, but at the end of a difficult day, I have to believe there is some peace in knowing you have another person in your corner to help pay the bills or lend an extra set of hands. (Anyone who has gone to Costco alone with an infant knows what I’m talking about.)
Just a few short years ago, as I was living my dream of being a comedian and actress in Hollywood, having a baby was not a planned event for my 34th year. Splitting with her father when she was an infant was also unplanned, but I decided to roll with the punches.
The struggle to establish a new life for my daughter made 2008 the most difficult year of my life. It took me months to get us on our feet and just now, I feel I have finally hit my stride. My daughter is thriving, my career is moving forward faster than ever before, and I have a wonderful new boyfriend. At 37, I actually have a life again that I really love.
Last month, just when I was thinking single motherhood was not such a bad gig after all, a friend forwarded an article to me from the New York Times, titled “Group Resists Korean Stigma for Unwed Mothers.” This article, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Choe Sang-hun, details a small group of Korean mothers who are banding together to protect their rights in a country that not only discourages, but also shuns, single moms.
Abortion is widely used in Korea as a way to avoid the shameful and ostracizing title of “unwed mother.” For the women who simply cannot terminate their pregnancies, the second most popular option is relinquishing the child for adoption—usually overseas. These birth mothers often lose all contact with their children.
Deception is rife in Korean adoption due to societal pressures and while adoption files are more accurate than they were in the past, untruths of orphanages burning down, names being concealed, identities being switched, and more, are all too common. The few women who choose the unpopular option of raising their children as single parents risk a life of poverty and social ostracism—for themselves and their children. These mothers are trapped in a no-win situation in a culture that doesn’t value them as the heroes that they are.
Korean women deserve the right to raise their own biological children with dignity and respect. Married or not.
While some American women, known as “single mothers by choice,” are now opting to bear and raise children alone (the clock is a-tickin’, Mr. Right never came along, and the sperm bank is just down the street), I don’t think any woman would describe that path as her ideal. Single motherhood is booby-trapped with emotional, financial and time management difficulties. No little girl dreams of growing up and doing it all by herself.
But as an American, I at least have the perk of being praised as somewhat of a societal hero. In South Korea, that’s never the case.
In 2008, I was selected to take an all-expense paid trip to South Korea to search for my birth family. While the trip yielded no family members for me, it did change the way I understood Korean adoption and my place in the world as a mother and adopted Korean American.
As part of this trip to Korea, which was sponsored by the Overseas Koreans Foundation, we visited babies at the Holt offices in Seoul. These were all infants who were going to be sent overseas, mostly to the United States. To say this was an emotional event would be an understatement. Holding these babies and realizing they were about to embark on the same journey that I had, more than three decades earlier, was overwhelming. Not just because I knew what they were in for, but also because as a mother, I knew how much the women who gave birth to them longed to keep them.
A few days later, I visited a city-run orphanage in Seoul: the Hae Sim Orphanage. Approximately 12 children, both boys and girls, lived in this home under the loving and firm supervision of a small staff. The children, infants to age 7, clearly loved and respected their caretakers. Even the toddlers bowed politely and greeted me with smiling annyeonghaseyos. The older boys were excited to have visitors, and didn’t want us to leave. The children were beautiful—perfect, actually—and I just could not understand why nobody wanted them. I already knew that South Koreans rarely adopted domestically but these children in the city-run orphanages had even slipped through the cracks of overseas adoption. Why?
A few days later, I visited yet another orphanage outside of Seoul. This one, in Anyang, was a much larger facility with at least 40 children. We were greeted by rows of tiny shoes, lined up neatly in the hallway entrance. With volunteers and two fellow Korean adoptees from Denmark and Canada, I arrived to make dinner (spaghetti and meatballs with kimchi) for the children.
After dinner, we played. The little ones, infants through toddlers, clung to us and cried as soon as they were set down, but the older ones, ages 5 to 7, wanted to engage and interact. Perfect children in a tragic setting. It was during a talk with one of the Korean volunteers that I finally learned the truth about these city-run “orphanages.”
She told me, “The children in these homes have Korean parents. They are mostly the children of divorced couples and very poor couples.” Another ugly truth about Korea’s highly Confucianist society is that custody is almost always awarded to the father in the case of a divorce, no matter what the circumstances. If the man does not want to raise the children, or has no relatives who will take care of them, he will often leave the children at one of these homes and the mother has no rights. The misnomer of “orphanage” is widely accepted because Westerners don’t want to hear the truth, but they are simply dumping grounds for innocent victims of an archaic cultural practice. These children are not even available for adoption because they have legal Korean parents, and while the mothers long for their children on the outside, the children languish on the inside.
These children are not orphans; they have parents that are healthy, functioning and alive. That, along with the fact that Korea is still exporting its children when they have the lowest birthrate amongst all industrialized nations, and can boast the 11th largest economy in the world, is disturbing. During a conversation with Dae-won Wenger, a Swiss-raised Korean adoptee and Secretary General of Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link, he pointed out that, “The more advanced Korea becomes, the more [Koreans] are devaluing their children.”
America’s rescue mentality towards foreign children is nothing new and, in the case of Korea, stems from a legitimate history of humanitarian aid after the Korean War. But few people seem to question why overseas Korean adoption peaked in 1985, decades after a cease-fire was signed in 1953. These numbers show that Westerners who now adopt from Korea are participating in a very profitable operation, whether they know it or not. In the majority of cases, they are adopting a single woman’s child. A child like my own.
As a single mother and Korean adoptee with a sketchy adoption file, you can imagine that I have strong feelings on the issue of single mothers’ rights in South Korea. I realized that if I lived in Korea, my own daughter probably would have been adopted out or placed in a group home, and that the choice to keep her would be intrinsically attached to a life of poverty and shame.
But a movement in Korea, though small, has begun. Brave people are finally stepping forward and with advocates like Richard Boas, founder of the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network, and allies like adoptee filmmaker Tammy Chu, birth mothers and single parents in Korea will finally have a voice and eventually be able to enjoy the rights they deserve—not just as mothers, but as human beings.
Tonight, I am writing in a hotel room in Pennsylvania, over 2,600 miles away from my little girl in Los Angeles. My upcoming performance is a very important one and may determine how much work I book over the next year. No matter how much I miss my daughter when I travel, I am proud to show her what a woman can do and I am grateful to have the right to do it.
In two nights, I will be home to bathe her, read to her and tuck her in with hugs and kisses because I am her mother and this is how it should be.