I was asked to give a speech at GOAL’s Post Adoption Survey final forum on the topic of adoptee identity from an older adoptee’s perspective. I thought I’d share it here.
I don’t remember where I got all the images. If you’re an image owner and protest its use, I will gladly take the image down.
Here it is, paraphrased (with the odd thing I forgot to add during the speech):
For the first waves of adoptees, we were scattered across America, predominantly to small towns.
These were insular communities, unaccustomed to and fearful of foreigners and devoid of people of color.
Our peers looked much like the students in this class photo. Note not one ethnic face. This was typical outside of cities. It was all WE saw, and they saw us as something totally different.
Back then, there was little or no vetting of adoptive parents. The only requirement was that they had an income, they professed to be Christians, and could get personal references. As a result, many of us were sent to religious extremists. Some were even sent to cults. Jim Jones adopted from Korea. Adoptees sent to cults have told me of parishioners being encouraged to adopt as many Korean orphans as they could. They were exposed to cruel physical and emotional abuse. Other adoptees have told me of being used as farm labor and experiencing physical abuse. Our isolation allowed these things to happen without intervention.
Because we were a minority, oftentimes the ONLY minority, we experienced a lot of cruelty. All adoptees have experienced some racism, but back then it was extreme. The year I graduated from high school, in a town near mine, Vincent Chin was beaten to death with a baseball bat by unemployed autoworkers, simply because he was Asian and all Asians reminded them of the Japanese stealing their jobs. His assailants got 2 years probation and a $3,780 fine. The climate of racism was a very real threat.
And so we carried on as best we could, in our all white communities, with our all white friends, like this church youth group of the 70’s.
Naturally, since this monoculture and monorace was all we were exposed to, IF we happened to meet an Asian, we were afraid of the way they looked and how to deal with them.
IF we saw other Asian youth, we noted how our community regarded them, and we didn’t want to be regarded the same way, so we avoided them.
Even though we made white friends, we were aware that we never really fit in.
Later, IF we saw Asian American youth and their tight communities, they seemed impenetrable to us.
We never felt like we could belong to any of them. A lonely, scarey place to be.
Growing up, there wasn’t any literature for children about adoption. Only about orphans.
Not like today, where there are all kinds of books about being adopted. (although I prefer P.D. Eastman’s book Are You My Mother, because at least in that book the orphan isn’t really an orphan and finds his real mother – while many of these books over emphasize the child’s specialness and the agenda to be grateful strongly permeates between the lines)
We didn’t have adoptee groups or culture camps either. We had to deal with our uniqueness on our own, and we couldn’t (and oftentimes were discouraged from) talking about being adopted or of a different race with our families. We had to censor what we said so as not to appear ungrateful. The result of all of the above meant we had to suppress our feelings about what happened to us and how we dealt with being different/ being adopted. Isolating our inner selves became our way of being.
Our isolation was complete due to the times and location. We barely use cell phone or computers. (we had no computers growing up and were late to accept technology. Very few of us use social networking. Many are just now discovering the internet.
Searching for us is especially problematic.
Because talk of adoption was off the table, many of us had to wait or continue to wait until our parents pass away. In my case, I had suppressed the fact that I was an adoptee so thoroughly that I didn’t even look at the files that were sent to me when my parents passed away. They sat unopened for years and I didn’t discover them until after I had later decided to search, having completely forgotten they existed.
IF we finally recognize that our adoption is an issue that needs to be resolved, then finding out about our past enters our thoughts. For me, it took a personal crisis. By that time, we don’t know anywhere to look except the adoption agency we came from.
That is, if we know. If we don’t know, there are so many to sift through. Quite often, these adoption agencies fold and their files are sent to other agencies, or their names change…
Then, you can only get your files from your adoption agency IF your state has open records laws.
And/or, if you were not adopted directly from one of the major international adoption agencies, then you have to find out which one of them your local agency brokered with.
Then you find out that your international adoption agency isn’t the last word source for all your records, that there is another entity in Korea.
OR, if you were adopted privately, you have to hunt down the lawyer who drafted your adoption, if you can find him and he’s still alive.
Only then you might realize that your International agency is actually a “partner” of one of the four licensed Korean adoption agencies allowed to send children abroad. If, like me, the International adoption agency in your country fails to advocate for you, then you have to try and get your files yourself from one of the four Korean adoption agencies who are licensed to send children for adoption abroad.
Remember, this is the older isolated adoptee who has grown up fearing Korea.
Many older adoptees are easily dissuaded at the first setback. Because our cases are more likely to have irregularities, we are often more likely to experience arbitrary treatment or withholding of documents by the adoption agencies to save face and reduce public exposure to just how many mistakes and/or ethical violations occurred back then. And so, we are an especially vulnerable population.
If attempts to get your information is unsuccessful from the country you were sent to, then a trip to Korea is in order to try and see if you can get more personally. Then, of course, if you are older the odds are smaller that any information which can lead to search and reunion will appear and if it does then you’ve not much time to search. Time is the older adoptee’s greatest enemy.
Then you must take what little facts there are and investigate if there is some hope of local records or a person who can provide more information or leads.
Unfortunately,if you are older, most of the orphanages do not exit. And many hospitals also no longer exist.
Then there is always the option of going on t.v.
Obviously, this is a confusing and arduous process. The Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare provides funding to adoption agencies and organizations to help us sort out the maze, but it’s often not in the adoption agency’s interest to help us. Instead of this maze, we need to have one central place where anywhere we inquire will point to. I was not born to the country of Holt, and my identity documents should not be in the hands of a private corporation. They should be in the hands of the country I was then a citizen of, who can protect those who want to remain anonymous just as well and who there is no doubt there is no conflict of interest. We are tired of being the victims of adoption agencies saving face for past mishandling of cases. We have no confidence in them.
Now, when we come to Korea on this life-changing identity exploration, we don’t want to be treated like tourists. We don’t want the Korean government’s money spent on programs which give us such a superficial view of culture.
Instead of pity, we would prefer sympathy. We want to be welcomed and included.
I also left copies of this wonderful dialogue that transpired between myself and the daughter of an aging adoptee, perplexed as to why her mother was so inaccessible when the topic of adoption came up. I hope it sheds some light on what peculiar creatures we can be at times.
Here are some of my suggestions for improvement to Post Adoption Services…
KCARE is the government-funded institution set up to eventually become the “Central Authority” – supposedly an independent body – to satisfy the Hague Convention’s requirements in regards to protecting adoptee identity. It replaces GAIPS, the previous failed attempt to centralize services for adoptees. Essentially, it is the same as GAIPS and uses the same inadequate database and methods. The only thing central about it is that it supposedly contains information on all adoptees in one location. However, the contents of its database tell the adoptee nothing they don’t already know: the adoptee’s name, the adopting parent’s name, birth date, adoption date, the country the adoptee was sent to, and which adoption agency facilitated the adoption. Case workers who handle Birth Family Search requests for adoptees can do nothing more than ask adoption agencies for an adoptee’s records. On occasion, individual workers have advocated for adoptees by being persistent when information was withheld, but those individuals no longer work there.
Problems that need to be addressed and how it needs to be improved:
Adoption advocacy is impossible – with no power to directly access files, case workers must maintain friendly relationships with adoption agencies because any sharing of file information is a gift of cooperation from the adoption agencies. Therefore, adoption agencies can continue to arbitrarily withhold information when it suits them. All power over adoptee identity is held by private corporations, and the good relations required to maintain cooperation weakens advocacy attempts in contentious cases.
Outreach is terrible – none of the agencies or organizations refer to KCARE, so there’s nothing central about their “authority.”
Their website user interface is terrible and no instructions are given for adoptees to follow on basic information, such as how to conduct a Birth Family Search or how to get your case posted in their on-line registry. Like many websites in Korea, they utilize images and programs which render the Korean language portions of their websites untranslatable by machine translators such as Google Translate.
Up until just recently, Korean families registering their searches for their lost children were LEFT IN KOREAN, so adoptees couldn’t access the information, destroying any effectiveness or even the point of having a registry. As of this update, only 2 pages of 6 have been translated into English. Many adoptees who have registered have yet to have their cases even posted. Translation services and website entry are obviously understaffed.
Services are not central – Take Birth Family Search away from adoption agencies. The search landscape is splintered, confusing, and arbitrary.
Birth Family Search (BFS) is that portion of Post Adoption Services (PAS) that the government subsidizes. Because International adoption negated the need for the Korean government to include adoption as part of social welfare programs, the government can only allot grants to parties (adoption agencies and organizations) who propose to care for our welfare.
BFS funds can be better spent – agencies manage their funds poorly and provide weak services. In the past they have misappropriated funding earmarked for BFS as well. Holt spent BFS money on pro-adoption campaigns recently. Despite receiving large sums of money, when adoptee searches extend for upwards of nine months, they complain that the blame is in lack of funding.
I say it’s THEIR RESPONSIBILITY, and it (and other post adoption services, such as culture programs and counseling) is part and parcel of pronouncing a child adoptable. If they can’t provide for their responsibilities towards a child subject to adoption, then they should get out of the business. I feel taxpayer money to private interests – especially with such a history of mismanagement and misappropriation – is tantamount to corporate welfare.
Now, adoption agencies claim they must control adoptee files in order to insure protection of those parents who they signed relinquishment contracts with. Holt used these arguments with me to rationalize not giving me my full records, even though I was abandoned so there never was a relinquishment contract. They also used this argument to rationalize why they don’t send an adoptee’s full file to their partner International adoption agencies. I and many other adoptees subject to being denied access arbitrarily feel that the government is the only institution we can trust to arbitrate our cases fairly for the best interests of all parties, as they have no conflict of interests.
Culture Programs are part of Post Adoption Services and were instituted to give adoptees a sense of Korean identity. It has been argued in the past that this was done as part of the counting of all diasporic Koreans to strengthen the relevancy of Korea politically. Whatever the reason, it has resulted in subsidizing of culture camps and homeland tours as mandated by the Korean government of the International adoption agencies.
Programs for adoptees who choose to live here are nearly non-existent – They are not much better than for average tourists. Fulbright scholars get much richer, more in-depth cultural experiences than adoptees do, as well as home-stays and job opportunities. Korea could create a program like Vista where we could actually directly help improve Korean society while learning about it and getting enough to survive on.
Language programs are a serious need for adoptees, as we are not given the same amount of grace that non-native foreigners receive, and some of us may end up living here permanently and/or becoming full citizens. However, instead of increasing funding for these programs, they are being cut.
Programs are too overwhelming – In addition, language programs scholarship are arduous full commitments that don’t allow adoptees enough time or attention to support themselves. I, personally, have no desire to learn language to the level of being able to write a scholastic paper in Korean. For me, I needed (still do) classes on basic survival Korean, do-able with m and it would have been great to have had that when I first got here, so I could have gotten off to a running start.
Programs discriminate against age – The NIEED scholarship has a cut off age of 40, so older adoptees (who have many valuable years left, I might add) are left out.
Finding Employment in Korea is, as my readers know, challenging. One of the few jobs available to foreigners is language education, and adoptees are consistently passed over by Caucasian foreigners or Korean foreigners who are bi-lingual. Our non-native English speaking European/Scandinavian brothers and sisters are especially effected.
Our talents are unrecognized and we are undervalued. A lot of adoptees come value-added and we waste our skills here in Korea. A civil servant at the Employment Office should be assigned to adoptees and hopefully match us with businesses that could benefit from our skills. Copy-editing is always in need of improvement here and we could be very valuable as consultants for businesses as Western consumers.
In general, I told everyone that I am socially minded and liberal yet fiscally conservative. I don’t think the government should create a billion new programs for us, but that they should make the programs they started for adoptees work and incorporate us into existing programs already serving Korean citizens. They should protect our interests and safeguard our identity documents; get out of adoption agency welfare and serve us directly.