Category Archives: Adoption (the industry)

To Willow Janowitz: You’re not alone….

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I’m a bit incredulous, given the fact that this is the first time in months that I have logged into WordPress to actually blog rather than delete my spam comments. I’m not sure if anyone will read this anytime soon, but I am clawing my way out of obscurity to comment on the insulting and highly offensive blog post that Tama Janowitz wrote over at The New York Times‘ new blog series, Relative Choices.

In “The Real Thing,” Ms. Janowitz writes:

A girlfriend who is now on the waiting list for a child from Ethiopia says that the talk of her adoption group is a recently published book in which many Midwestern Asian adoptees now entering their 30s and 40s complain bitterly about being treated as if they did not come from a different cultural background. They feel that this treatment was an attempt to blot out their differences, and because of this, they resent their adoptive parents.

So in a way it is kind of nice to know as a parent of a child, biological or otherwise – whatever you do is going to be wrong. Like I say to Willow: “Well, you know, if you were still in China you would be working in a factory for 14 hours a day with only limited bathroom breaks!”

And she says — as has been said by children since time immemorial — “So what, I don’t care. I would rather do that than be here anyway.”

Although the entire post is breathtakingly dismissive and flippant of the very real and serious differences between raising a biological child and raising a transracially & transnationally adopted child, the above section is what has been cited by Lisa Marie Rollins, Ji In at Twice the Rice, Jae Ran at Harlow’s Monkey, Susan at ReadingWritingLiving, Carmen at Racialicious, Resist Racism, Kev Minh at Borrowed Notes, Paulo O. at Heart, Mind, and Seoul, and Sun Yung Shin. And it is also the section that had me shouting, “What the f—???” at my computer screen at the end of Monday.

There are many reasons this struck a nerve amongst so many of us, #1 being that such a glib, self-satisfied piece came immediately after a heart wrenching and thoughtful post by Sume; reason #2 being that even though this is a blog in the Op/Ed section, c’mon people—it’s still the friggin’ NYT. It’s a huge platform, prestigious, enormous readership, blahblahblah.

A lot of the aforementioned people (my fellow adoptees/bloggers and allies) who are more widely-read and more frequently published than moi (I’m including Shannon Gibney and Bryan Thao Worra in that group as well, although I know your responses have not been published yet) have made much more eloquent and incisive critiques about “The Real Thing” than I was able to muster at 5:36 p.m. PST on Monday evening. But what we all have in common is that we submitted comments on Ms. Janowitz’s post–and we were all censored. No, our comments weren’t edited, they weren’t published at all.

Here is what I wrote:

“Well, you know, if you were still in China you would be working in a factory for 14 hours a day with only limited bathroom breaks!”
This is the type of emotional blackmail that so many transnational adoptees have to deal with, and it is the source of a lot of pain and guilt. Parents who make this kind of statement do two things: 1) reinforce the “savior” myth by showing how bad & dirty the Third World is and how lucky the adoptee is to not live there and 2) guilt the adoptee into being “grateful” for being adopted.

Another thing that transnational and transracial adoptees often have to deal with is being perpetually characterized and dismissed as petulant adolescents, forever “bitter” and “complaining” as this blogger characterizes a recent anthology by some “Midwestern Asian Adoptees.” Being critical of our experiences as adoptees and also being critical of the systems that make up adoption does not necessarily mean that one hates one’s parents. There is tremendous loss (as well as gain) in any adoption, and acknowledging this loss does not mean that all of these adult adoptees resent their adoptive parents. Many of us wonder about our biological parents–who even though we may not have met them (or may never meet them), are very much real in that they exist, or at one time existed, on this planet.

Short and sweet, right? (Maybe not sweet, but it was well less than 400 words, as I was told is the word-limit for blog comments at Relative Choices.) No profanity, no name-calling, I didn’t personally attack Ms. Janowitz, etc. However, my comment was not approved, and yet this comment was deemed acceptable:

That you can blithely joke about stereotypic Chinese children’s labor to your child–even if it was planted in this column just to be kind of mindlessly provocative (as I suspect it was)–speaks to a deep moral obtuseness. It doesn’t matter if you were joking.

The difference? The above comment was made by an adoptive parent, not an adult adoptee. I suppose directly calling Ms. Janowitz morally obtuse was more palatable than what I had to say about the emotional blackmail. Do all adoptive parents engage in this kind of projection of parental insecurity that passes as joking? No, and I didn’t say that they all do. But there sure are a hell of a lot out there that still say these things, although I have recently been lulled into thinking that such archaic ideas were a thing of the past since the types of adoptive parents I’m apt to run into at conferences these days are the ones hysterical with being culturally sensitive, etc.

This just feels all too familiar as well, because once again, people of color are being told by the white liberals to “relax” and “lighten up” and “find the humor.” How many times has this happened? I’ve lost count—both in media representation and in my own life (see: Stereotype Party at the Evans School!). So of course, the majority of the comments that were approved on Ms. Janowitz’s post all say things like, “Brava!” “Hilarious!” “So true.” Meanwhile, those of us with a rather different interpretation have been shut out in the cold, save for the two or three that made it through.

Even though I agree with Shannon Gibney in that the personal narrative genre in adoptee writing is dead or near-dead, I am going to inject some of my personal background and thoughts here since my fellow TRAs are doing such a good job dissecting how purely awful Ms. Janowtiz’s post was.

What made me incredibly sad while reading the post was thinking about the all-too-real pain that the blogger’s daughter, one Willow Janowitz, must be experiencing at being the butt of her high-profile mother’s jokes. Whether or not she has read or will read “The Real Thing” (and whether or not she will read/not read my little blog post here), I would like to say to you, Willow, that you are not alone. There are hundreds of thousands of other adoptees who, like you, have grown up in families where the insatiable need to normalize, to forget, to erase difference drives parents to say such (unintentionally) hurtful things to their children. It is so hard—SO HARD—as a 12-year-old transracially/transnationally adopted child to articulate why we sometimes feel conflicted, confused, and sad. And so sometimes we express this complex whirl of unremembered memories, feelings, and thoughts in reduced phrases—“I hate you.” Yes, I said this at times to my adoptive mother while I was growing up. Yes, my adoptive mother loved (and loves) me fiercely, as much as your mom blasts all over the NYT that she loves you, Willow. Yes, I still speak to my adoptive mother today, at least once a week and often more. Yes, I love my adoptive mother. But I still remember those fierce arguments we had. I still remember those hateful things that my adoptive mother said to me, out of maternal insecurity and fear. I still remember every time that I told her, “I hate you.” And I still remember how another part of my heart iced up–frozen and locked away–each time it happened.

So yes, Willow, I agree with your mother in that I do think you should write everything down. Girl, write all of this shit down. So not only can you tell your therapist (there is no shame in therapy!!!), you can tell the other adult adoptees that I hope you will one day meet. Because there are a lot of us. In fact, there is a global community of us. We are out there (even though by reading the NYT one wouldn’t think so), and we have voices, and we support one another. And we would support you. The whole “biological” vs. “real” competition is a farce. Our birth mothers were and are real. I wrote that they were real because they existed on the planet—and I meant to also add that they’re real because they exist in our hearts. And no matter what kind of sarcastic trumpeting your adoptive mother writes about how she is so for real, it’s ok for you to know that our first mothers loved us, too. My Korean mother died six months before my first trip back to Seoul. But I know–I KNOW–that she loved me. Our first mothers loved us, and it’s ok for us to love them back. It has absolutely nothing to do with the love you have for your adoptive mom. It doesn’t make that love any less, even if she worries it will. Because it is different, and being an adopted child is different than not being an adopted child.

So write it all down, because it’s not about holding onto grudges, it’s about processing. Catharsis. We can laugh together at the misplaced humor, at the bullshit. Because this is some bullshit. And you can one day forgive (or not forgive) your mother, as I have come to terms with and forgiven my parents, for their unintentional ignorance, and be happy in yourself and your life as a whole person.

But I do not forget. Forgive, yes. Forget, no. Because if we forget, then we are silenced.

Can’t wait to hear what you have to say one day, Willow.



Filed under Adoption (the industry), Media/Arts/Pop Culture, Musings, Revisiting the Past

Interesting Weekend+

I wasn’t going to post until the end of the month, but the last four days have been extremely interesting, and I want to blog about it. Plus, I also want to procrastinate. (No surprise……. however, I don’t know when/if I will ever get around to addressing the things that I listed previously. I’m always doing that….making lists of things to blog about and then not doing it. One of the people I met this weekend said in her brief bio that one of her hobbies is making lists–which she regards as its own literary form.)

Anyway, I spent Friday–Sunday at the Wallace Falls Lodge for the opening retreat of the ACLF Community Leaders Program. I actually first heard about this program two years ago when I was apartment-hunting after first returning to Seattle from my year in Korea. One of the rooms I was looking at was in a condo owned by a Vietnamese American guy in the Central District. The room was too small, but he was nice and when I told him I was going to be starting at the Evans School, he recommended that I check out the ACLF program. I looked up the website, was intrigued, and made a mental note to look again another time. Later that year, the ACLF program coordinator (and Evans alum) sent a message to all current Evans students regarding a one-day ACLF conference in Shoreline. I attended and felt relieved to be in a room full of politically-active and community-minded APIAs. It was a great networking opportunity, and I loved being able to talk to the Evans alum who understood and sympathized with a lot of my frustrations regarding grad school.

I’d wanted to do the ACLF Community Leaders Program last year, but the majority of the program takes place during the summer, and of course I spent last summer in Seoul. So this time around, I am really thrilled to be able to participate in the program, mainly because I want to be able to network with other local APIA leaders in a way that goes beyond “hi & goodbye” (which is what I mostly experience at local events). Emphasis here being on “local” and “APIA”—I love networking & establishing relationships with other community leaders, but most of the people I meet are specifically Korean adoptees who are decidedly not local to Seattle.

So, I carpooled to Wallace Falls with two of the other participants, dozing off due to being exhausted from worrying about (yet not writing) my DP. When we arrived, many of the ACLF board members greeted us. One of them asked us, “Are you ready to have an intense weekend?!” Err…yes? I was a little surprised by the question, because I had the impression the weekend would be a relaxing time in the woods. The weekend did end up being more intense than I’d anticipated–although it wasn’t a bad thing, I think, as I’ll explain later.

I am NOT a fan of ice breakers, but the one we did after the welcoming dinner was the best one that I can remember doing. We each gave the background story and meaning behind our name(s). Even though the room was chock-full of people (there must have been at least 30+ people in the room), I was interested in every story. And I was struck how this was the first time I’ve ever been in a structured program designed for the APIA community as a whole. The diversity in the room was incredible. And even after the board members left and only this year’s CLP class remained (along with our facilitators), we were still a very diverse group (Chinese American, Korean American, Japanese American, Filipino, Vietnamese/Laotian, Pacific Islander, hapa/mixed, Iranian American, etc.).

It had been a long time since I’d been on a retreat (not since my AmeriCorps days) and even longer since I’d been on such a touchy-feely retreat. (Touchy-feely in the sense of emotional and personal… hanky panky ensued.) Probably not since my CCSJ days at Creighton have I been in a group that emphasized personal sharing so much. I definitely enjoy personal sharing; however, I left the weekend with little insight into what my fellow participants do in their professional/organizational positions. I’m hoping that I’ll learn more about that as we go along in the program.

Since the weekend was full of sharing our personal backgrounds/heritage/stories, naturally a lot of what I shared had to do with being adopted. During the names-ice breaker, I shared how my new Korean name is Mi-ran (in order to match my sisters, Mi-sun and Mi-hye). Afterwards, one of the other participants said quite sincerely how my story sounds so sad, and asked, “What was it like meeting your Korean family?”

I never know how to respond to this question (although I didn’t mind that she’d asked it). It’s not something that’s easily summed up into a one-sentence answer, so I usually just say, “It was complicated.” Throughout the rest of the weekend, I was a bit paranoid about coming off as the “sad adoptee.” (Like that photo of me in ColorsNW which seems manipulated to make me look like the “sad adoptee”–but it was eyeliner, not a tear!) The reality is that there is indeed a lot of sadness (if that’s even the right word) in my personal story and in a lot of stories about adoption–because there is a sense of loss, identity confusion, etc. However, I think the “sad adoptee” label can often be dismissive, and people can make the assumption that an adoptee’s acknowledgment of loss somehow translates to rejection of adoptive family, bitterness, lack of objectivity, etc.

I hadn’t been in a retreat environment like this since doing my year in Korea, and I realized that I hadn’t openly shared my stories from my current perspective to complete strangers before. Well, I have talked about my experiences, but usually I’m talking to other adoptees or classmates from grad school, or I’m in a more professional setting like an interview. Normally, I’m pretty calm when I relate my story, precisely because I want to dispel the image of the “sad adoptee,” and I don’t want to give the impression that I have “issues”–because then I fear I will lose credibility.

For some reason, though, on Saturday night, during our “personal symbols sharing,” the environment in the room made me feel extremely anxious about appearing vulnerable. I think it might have been the language we kept using about “safe spaces”—something that I value, but it contributed to the atmosphere of group therapy. My face felt flushed the entire time as I waited for the moment when I felt comfortable to share; others were tearing/choking up only mildly during their sharing. I ended up going after the other two Korean Americans shared; most of us talked about our families, and I was no different.

I brought this random folder that I keep in my room that is labeled “birth family” and has bits and pieces from 2004-2005 when I was in Korea. It has translated letters and email correspondence between my Korean family and myself as well as various photos (including a group picture of all the Korean adoptees from the 2004 Gathering). All the activities we’d done earlier in the day had been leading up to me talking about how I found my Korean family, so I started relating the story–a story I’ve told many, many times since everything happened two years ago.

My voice was shaking, though, which is not normal for me, and then I was horrified when I tried to keep talking and no words were coming out. I was talking about the irony of how my Korean mother passed away just six months before my first visit to Korea in 2001 and how I never had the chance to meet her. Before I knew it, I was crying in front of the group and ready to die of embarassment. And I’m not talking about just a trickling tear, I was actually trying not to sob while my eyes and nose were running. Everyone was incredibly supportive, however, and eventually I was able to finish the story while clutching tissues someone handed me and focusing on a log pole in front of me. There is something gutteral about the emotions surrounding adoption, I think, because it is such a major event in our lives that happens (most of the time) before we are fully conscious and self-aware.

I was worried about this public display of raw emotion, because the nature of this program is professional, and also I was worried about my aforementioned fears of being labeled “sad,” etc. I’m also a bit concerned because during the weekend I didn’t get to talk much about my involvement with the adoptee community beyond my own issues, and there were also no opportunities to talk about the complex transnational issues in adoption. But I trust that these opportunities will present themselves in one way or another during the next six months of the program. I’m hopeful that it was a good thing to have such an honest reaction in front of the other participants… long as they don’t think I’m crazy. 😉

Overall, I am really excited about embarking on the CLP program. The retreat was a nice opening, and I was amazed how I was connected to almost everyone there through mutual friends. I continue to marvel at how small the active APIA community is in Seattle….


The other interesting part of the past few days was hosting Kim Park Nelson and Laura Briggs for a seminar on transnational adoption at my university on Monday. All the maneuvering it took to bring them both here paid off, because the seminar was thought-provoking and a nice break from my regular routine. We were even able to sell three copies of Outsiders Within. 🙂 I hold a lot of admiration for both of these women for being so fiercely intelligent and unafraid of confronting the dominant (sentimental) rhetoric surrounding transnational adoption.

My Korean professor actually canceled our daily class so that everyone could attend the seminar (she even threatened to take off points if people skipped it.) And then she proceeded to ask some of the most interesting questions during the discussion period. There was also a Brazilian transracial adoptee in the audience who was visibly moved by the seminar and thanked all of us profusely for holding it. (A few of my Korean classmates left early, and it was obvious that they had been forced to attend. And one elderly white woman left in a huff–Laura guessed that she must have been an adoptive parent.)

So even though the seminar attendance could have been better (I especially wish that more of the faculty members who I know have adopted children had come), the seminar itself was meaningful for a few people, and that’s what matters.


I will end with a hilarious vignette that took place on Sunday night.

KPN joined a few of us for dinner & discussion at Tamarind Tree, a popular Vietnamese restaurant here in Seattle. It was KPN, two of my Korean adoptee female friends, and myself. We had a really great talk about a wide variety of topics–Kim’s piece in Outsiders Within, her course on Korean adoption at the University of Minnesota, issues within our community, etc.

All of a sudden, this random white woman approaches our table. She leans down and places her hands on KPN and JB’s backs. I think she must know KPN personally, so I look at her expectantly.

She says,

I’m sorry to interrupt, but I just had to come over here to tell you that you are all SOOO beautiful.

As soon as the words tumble out of her mouth, I immediately start laughing hysterically. I was laughing so hard, I couldn’t breathe. Meanwhile, KPN has a look of confused irritation and JB & HP have their lips pressed shut with disdain at the woman.

KPN eventually says, “Ok…….Thank you????”

I think the combination of my laughing fit along with the others’ annoyance gave the lady a definite “go-away” vibe, so she quickly apologized again for interrupting and then scurried back to her own table.

It was all so incredibly bizarre. The room was full of Asian people of varying ethnicities, including the restaurant servers and owners. HP and I were wearing rumpled fleece, and I still smelled of campfire smoke from the night before. Possible reasons for her approaching us:

  1. She’s an adoptive parent, and she was excited to see what her daughter might someday grow up to be (Sassy Hour ladies, you can feel me on this).
  2. She recently returned from a trip to Asia.
  3. The four of us really are that stunning.

I expect weirdness like that in Kansas City, but not Seattle….. guess it never hurts to have these kinds of reminders of what’s out there!

Everytime I think of that lady, I start laughing to myself now–I’m sure she’s glad to have had that effect on me.


Filed under Adoption (the industry), APIA Community, Community, Korean Adoptees, Korean family, Ranting, Seattle, Updates


1) People were buzzing about this at the conference this weekend. It’s heartbreaking to read about the boy’s father….

There are just so many things wrong with this scenario . . . difficult to know where to begin. This is a case study of how international adoption can be so incredibly f*cked up. The colonizers and the colonized. Now I have to add Madonna to the same list of celebrities (Angelina Jolie, Gwen Stefani, Woody Allen) whose artistic work I respect but because of their ignorance and obliviousness about their white privilege I can’t f*cking stand them. I suppose Madonna has always been a master at cultural appropriation, so this is just taking it one step further. Not sure I’ll be able to listen to The Immaculate Collection the same way again.

(Updates on the trip to NYC forthcoming. Yogurt soju, you’re a friend of mine.)


Filed under Adoption (the industry), Ranting

Immigration Rights for Adoptees to Sponsor Birth Family Members

Given the situation with my Korean sisters, it might be the case that someday one of them might need to live with me in the States….. and also, of course, at the very least, I want them to be able to visit me….

But the Korean and U.S. governments do not recognize that we are, in fact, sisters. (And we are sisters, despite me being “deleted” from our family registry in Korea.)

Many adoptees are in situations similar to mine. If you haven’t already signed it, please take a moment to click on this link and read the following petition (created by Jane Jeong Trenka). And pass it on. (Thank you, JJT! I just bought my copy of Outsiders Within yesterday…)

(**P.S. I will be in NYC for this conference on transracial adoption, Oct. 12-15. Exciting! I was in New York at about this time a year ago… To those of you who know what happened a year ago–this trip will be nothing like that one. Cross my heart.)

(***P.P.S. I just bought my ticket to go to Chicago for the mini-gathering next month…. Nov. 9-12. Anyone out there going??)


Filed under Community, Conferences, Korean Adoptees, Policy, Traveling

Article: Suspension of Intercountry Adoptions from South Korea

Did anyone see this article yet? It’s from an Australian newspaper. Of course, it’s coming from the a-parent side. Has anyone seen news of this reported in the American media yet?

(And Ji-in & Jae Ran–I’ll be listening to the podcast soon, assuming iTunes has it up later tonight or early tomorrow….)

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Filed under Policy

Relinquishment and Resilience: Uncovering the Past

미선언니 (Mi Sun, my older sister), 4th 이모 (my mother’s younger sister), me. 2006.8.19


Last weekend, I went to 신림동 with 미선언니 and 보림 (친구, Borim) to visit one of my imos (이모=aunt on mother’s side). It was meaningful, because Borim was the first Korean friend I ever had. We met at Creighton University in January 2001–the same month that my Korean mother passed away. (My Korean identity was reborn while at the same time my Korean mother was dying, unbeknownst to the both of us.) Borim also accompanied me when I met my Korean sisters for the first time in 2005. I wanted Borim to come with me last weekend, not only because I wanted to spend time with her, but I intended to ask my imo some specific questions regarding the circumstances surrounding my adoption.I first met 4th imo (I say “4th” because my family sometimes refers to her that way. She was the 4th child out of seven total to my maternal grandparents) last year at my grandmother’s 80th birthday celebration. I mistakenly blogged about her as being my “5th” imo. Anyway, she used to live very close to my mother. After I was born, she visited my mother daily in order to take care of Mi Sun while my mother cared for me. Last year when I met her, she gripped my hand tightly as she scrutinized my face (she loves to tell me that my face is the same as it was when I was a baby), tears rolling down her own plump cheeks.

At that first meeting, 4th imo questioned whether October 21, 1978 is my actual birthday. She insisted that it was an extremely cold day when I was born, and October in Korea is generally a mild month. None of my other relatives could confirm the validity of the date, so I began to wonder if October 21 was really the lunar date (which would mean that the solar date was somewhere around November 21).

Meeting my Korean family last year was always very intense, and although I was pretty committed to journaling regularly, it was difficult to sort through all of the stories my relatives told me. I didn’t know the specifics of my mother’s cancer, and I’d heard a vague account of my mother trying to reclaim me after taking me to Holt.

So last weekend, I went to visit 4th imo to see her house, eat some delicious food, and uncover some of the past. With the aid of Borim and my electronic dictionary, we were able to discuss many things in more detail.

4th imo lives in 신림동, close to Seoul National University. As we waited for 4th imo to meet us at the bus stop, Mi Sun said that she hadn’t been to 4th imo‘s house since her childhood. 4th imo eventually greeted us enthusiastically and walked us to her house nearby. It is small, but clean and decorated with photos and hordes of small knick-knacks (which always speak to me of fussy old ladies). 🙂 My uncle and cousins were absent, due to work and school obligations.

I’ve often wondered whether Holt or my parents gave me my Korean name, 현아 (Hyun Ah), because my two sisters have the same “middle” name (미선 Mi Sun and 미헤 Mi Hye). So I asked 4th imo about my name, and she said that I was nameless for a while. My mother told my aunt that she was waiting to name me. 4th imo said that 선아 (Sun Ah) was one of the names that she mentioned as a possibility. Then we discussed the fact that while it is common to have children named similarly (e.g. my cousins are 재은 Jae Eun and 재준 Jae Jun), sometimes parents choose to “break the rules” and choose totally different names.

After talking about my name, the topic of my birthday came up. 4th imo realized that she had probably been confusing Mi Sun’s birthday with mine (Mi Sun was born in November 1976), and October 21st is most likely my “real” birthday.

4th imo then began to reminisce about those days, and said that she was waiting for my 100-day celebration (a traditional party that celebrates infants’ good health in Korea). But my party never came, and when my 4th imo asked my mother about it, she discovered that my parents had taken me to Holt. My father was bitterly disappointed that I was a second girl, and he threatened to divorce my mother if she did not give me away. Eventually, my mother gave into my father’s bullying after I was two-months-old. They took me to the Holt Reception Center in December 1978.

My mother described to 4th imo about signing the papers that relinquished all parental rights, including the right to search for me in the future. 4th imo became extremely angry at my mother, and said to her “You should have given her to me to raise!” And so they went together to Holt in February 1979 in order to reclaim me, but Holt told them that I had already been adopted and was in America.

Which was a lie.

I did not go to America until September 1979, with my adoption finalized a few months prior. My story is not unique . . . I have heard many other stories with similar accounts of adoption agencies slamming the door in anguished birth mothers’ faces.

4th imo was very angry with my mother. She said that she didn’t talk to my parents for almost a year after they relinquished me. When Mi Hye was born, she was a very sickly baby, and 4th imo chastised my mother, “You know that Mi Hye is sick because you sent your other child away.” My female cousin was born shortly thereafter, and 4th imo cried bitterly in remembrance of me.

Over the years, 4th imo would watch the search shows on Korean television that showed Korean adoptees looking for their birth families. She was hoping to see me.

I asked whether she had any photos of me as an infant. My sisters’ family photo albums do not have any pictures of me. 4th imo said that she used to have a few, but they floated away in a sudden flood many years ago.

My mother was racked with guilt over giving me away. In 1994, she discovered large black spots on her skin that grew and grew. She was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in addition to a particular kind of leukemia (Borim originally kept saying that my mother had a “black tumor in the blood”).

Our father (who abused and fought with my mother and sisters daily) finally divorced our mother in 1998. My imos and grandmother have told me numerous times that despite my father’s handsome face, he was very cruel. After my mother passed away in 2001, he took all of the insurance money, leaving my sisters with nothing. My father is remarried and living in Incheon now with his young wife and son. I still have not met him and am ambivalent about doing so.

My family has told me that my mother wondered about me often. They all wondered what had happened to me. As she was dying, my mother was convinced that God was punishing her for having sent her daughter away.

I spent some time in 2005 naturally grieving for my birth mother. It was intense in the beginning, as I wrote about in a journal entry from that January:

I think I must be grieving for umma, for her hard life, for the pain she lived through, both emotional and physical. The pain that came from her husband, from losing a daughter. I’m grieving for the fact that I’m not going to meet her, that she never knew what happened to me, that I turned out okay.

I still think of my mother often, but that intensity has subsided. Although we talked about some serious and painful memories last weekend, the majority of my visit with 4th imo was happy and filled with smiles as she showed us photo after photo (after photo) of her family’s recent European tour. As we parted, she gave me a firm hug, and instructed that the next time I visit, I must spend the night and have time with my cousins.


International adoption is complex. What you’ve read above might indicate that I only associate my adoption with pain and sadness. Perhaps I am a “bitter and angry and negative” adoptee. The kind that adoption agencies point the finger at. I think it is incredibly glib and short-sighted to only look at the happy-happy-joy-joy aspects of adoption. Why does acknowledging the sadness associated with adoption automatically label me as being “negative”?

As the wonderful T.S. Eliot quote that Tharon & Della put on their blog says:

We shall never cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will to be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time

As many others have written recently on their blogs, I reject the false dichotomy and reductive binary of “happy” vs. “angry” adoptees. I also do NOT believe that every adoptee ultimately “evolves” into re-assimilating to Korean society. Certainly, I do not ever see myself living in Korea again permanently. But some adoptees choose to do so, and I think that vilifying the adoptee community in Seoul without knowing them or speaking to them is ignorance at its worst.

Some of the reforms that Korean people are calling for in regards to international adoption include giving birth mothers a longer grace period in order to change their minds about relinquishing their children. Currently, such a grace period is practically non-existent (around seven days). In the U.S., birth mothers have several months to deal with the complex emotions accompanying relinquishment. Sometimes, it can take many months to determine whether a kinship adoption (such as in my story) is possible.

This questioning that I have is not about trying to re-write the past or to wish that my life had turned out differently. And it is NOT about rejecting my adoptive family and their love (on the contrary, coming to Korea and meeting my birth family brought me closer than ever to my adoptive parents). It is to acknowledge my mother. And it is to acknowledge the thousands of mothers and families that lost something in the process–as well as future birth mothers.

They have stories that are worth hearing.


At the KoRoot 3rd Anniversary party this July, I was privileged to be able to view a screening of Tammy Chu’s new documentary film (a working version), Resilience. The film was also shown at the G.O.A.’L Conference, with the following description:

Resilience tells the stories of Korean birth mothers who gave their children up for overseas adoption. The film explores the reasons and circumstances behind their decision, which was often due to lack of social welfare support and women’s rights. For the very first time, despite stigma and discrimination from their own society, birth mothers bravely come forward to tell their stories of loss, struggle, and ultimately, of courage and strength.

The film is incredibly moving and powerful. I highly recommend viewing it when the opportunity arises (Tammy is planning to submit the finished version at various film festivals world-wide).

Finally (whew! Long post. Knew it was coming, since I’ve hardly blogged this summer), I will share with you a column from a recent edition (2006.8.18) of the Chosun Ilbo, Seoul’s pre-eminent newspaper. The column is Oh Tae Jin’s “Weekend Letter–Finding the Puzzle Pieces Lost for Adoptees.” (In Korean, 조선일보, 오태진의 주말편지, English translation of column provided by G.O.A.’L) I think it shows that Koreans are looking critically at international adoption.

In the dark, young adults were sobbing; some sighing deeply, and some lamenting. 150 overseas Korean adoptees residing in Korea and abroad were watching Resilience, a documentary last Saturday evening. The viewing of the film was the last part of the three-day G.O.A.’L annual conference held in Daebang-dong, Seoul. The 38-minute documentary brings out in the open the hidden voices of guilt-stricken birth mothers, at whom a finger of blame is pointed.

Mother 1: “I got pregnant after coming up to Seoul to work. I left my baby in the care of my relatives, and I was staying in the single-mother shelter. Meanwhile, my brother put my baby up for adoption, not discussing it with me at all.” She is married with the man who is the biological father of the baby. A while ago, her son contacted her from France.
“I was afraid of not having any excuse for abandoning my son. I could spot my son right away in the airport. It was so good to see him, but it was heart-breaking to let him go back to France. I talk with him on the phone, but it is painful not to be able to see him. I have done nothing for him. I hope he knows that I’m praying for him all the time, and I hope he understands the situation and why I could not keep him.”

Mother 2: “I got raped in my room, while I was working at a factory at the age of 16. I left my baby in the care of my relatives, and then my mother told me that she sent away my baby to a rich Korean family. I went on a mad search for my son for years and then finally gave up. Just one day, my son came back from the U.S. It was my happiest moment. I was thrilled to see him again. He told me that he was missing me, too. I didn’t want to let him go, but . . . “

Mother 3: “I ran away from home to escape from my father’s abuse when I was a middle-school student. While I was working at a gas station, I got raped. I realized my pregnancy after 7 months. I went to the Han River to commit suicide. But, I couldn’t make it and just cried my eyes out. The nurse showed me the baby at the hospital, but I didn’t take a look at him and just let him go.”

Her face is blurred out, and she sounds young. “There was no shoulder to cry on to ease my pain of being a mother at an early age. I think of my son whenever I have a hard time. How tall would he be? What kind of personality would he have? I want to be proud of myself when I meet him. Although I’m not a wonderful cook, I want to make him food and take photos with him. I want to see him and tell him how much I love him. I believe he will come and find me some day.”

The documentary ended with the narration, “Mothers took if off their chests and gained hope and reconciliation.” It was adoptees who gave an outlet for birth mothers to tell stories that went unheard before.

Tammy Chu, a documentary director who studied film in New York, said “I learned mothers gave up their children in large part to society.” That is, adoption is more attributable to a patriarchal society and social ignorance rather than the lack of maternal love.

Korean adoptees who steered their lives toward the birthland established an association for overseas Korean adoptees seven years ago. They admit there is emptiness in the heart where the birth family, motherland, Korean language, culture, and people should have been. Adoptees feel confused until they learn what they have missed. Now, they become grown-ups and try to find the missing piece. I hope that Koreans will be able to help them learn about their mother country.

Adoptees share pains and dreams and rely on each other. They are trying to understand their mothers and the country that gave them away. They spend years volunteering at child-care facilities where they used to stay, while leading campaigns to promote domestic adoptions. However, it is regrettable that Korea, their mother country, is still giving up its children for overseas adoption. In contrast, Korean adoptees grow toward becoming proud members of Korean society.

I support adoptees who return to Korea and choose to stay. I support adoptees who prefer to live in our adoptive countries. Most of all, I support what Oh Tae Jin writes in the last paragraph: “Adoptees share pains and dreams and rely on each other.” (He refers to the establishment of G.O.A.’L and other adoptee-founded organizations.)

And I support being honest about the past, sharing our complex stories. Stories that cannot be simplified to good vs. bad, happy vs. angry.


Filed under Adoption (the industry), Community, Conferences, Korean Adoptees, Korean family, Life in Korea, Organizations, Policy

Spotless Minds

It’s been a relatively long time since my last post, and there are a few explanations as to why….
1) I’m pretty much on the computer all day at my internship, so it’s the last thing I want to do when I’m not working.
2) Sometimes the online connections at KoRoot are either occupied or finicky.
3) I don’t always have access to my laptop (for various reasons) during my free time.
4) While I was in Seattle, I used my blog to especially ponder Korean adoptee issues and connect with like-minded individuals. Here in Seoul, I am able to do this in-person bascially 24/7, so I think I feel less compelled to jump online.
5) Some of the things I’ve been turning over in my head are better suited to my private journal rather than a public blog.
6) Living at KoRoot ensures that there are people around to distract me at almost all times.
7) I’ve been spending most of my evenings/weekends socializing and catching up with people I knew from my year here (’04-’05), my Korean family, and fun, new people I’ve met recently.

I had envisioned writing posts nearly every other day while I was here this summer! Sadly, this has not been the case, and writing in my personal journal has been almost non-existent. I’m reminded of when I first moved to Boston and went from living with just my parents to suddenly living with eight other energetic, entertaining individuals. During college, I was consumed with studying while pursuing my alternate-life track, so I had kind of missed out on the frenzy of having lots of people around. Thus in Boston, I felt a little like I’d been released from prison (prison = being a pre-med only child in the Midwest), and I reveled in being constantly surrounded by like-minded people. My extroverted self (that had been repressed for several years) was unleashed, and I indulged it continuously by exploring the city with my housemates and having vibrant conversations in our kitchen until 3 a.m. The result, however, was that I was hardly ever alone and never took the time to reflect. Mid-way through, I made a conscious effort to remove myself sometimes from the living room/kitchen to go do yoga or journal in my room.

It’s not as though there aren’t social opportunities for me in Seattle–it’s just that there, I often have school tasks that make me feel obligated to sit alone in front of my laptop. But instead of writing or reading as I shoud, I often surf the Internet . . . and blog.


Anyway! This afternoon I went to Holt in order to pick up some paperwork (adoption certificate & family registry) that I need to renew my F4 visa tomorrow. It was a little surreal walking over there, since the last time I’d been there was two years ago when I had my appointment with a social worker to view my Korean file for the first time. I remember being extremely jittery and looking at the KoRoot volunteer who accompanied me, Jun, with skepticism at his ability to translate. As it turned out, his presence was unnecessary for translation, but I appreciated having him there for moral support.

I had steeled myself in preparation for the visit, knowing that Holt has a reputation for being difficult and uncooperative. I fully expected the social worker to show me all of the same papers I already had copies of from my American adoption agency. At the most, I was hoping to see some new baby photos of myself and later have the opportunity to meet the foster mother who cared for me for eight months.

I’d grown up with the story that I’d been “abandoned,” that I miraculously appeared on the doorsteps of the Holt Reception Center at two-months-old. No one knew who left me or where I had come from. In cases such as mine, I knew that my only options for searching for my birth family were through the media (newspapers, exploitative television shows). The idea of a media search made me queasy, and I figured I’d cross that bridge at a later date.

I don’t remember what the Holt social worker (I don’t even remember her name now, I just remember that she was pregnant at the time) said exactly to me that day two years ago, but in my memory, Jun and I sat down, she offered us a drink, and then my world turned upside-down.

“Your mother passed away in 2001 . . . . your father is re-married . . . you have a sister . . .”

The story that I’d been abandoned was just that–a story. My parents actually took me to Holt themselves. My Korean files had all of their information all along. Holt had even contacted my father after my first impromptu visit to the Holt offices in Seoul back in 2001.

As the social worker continued to tell me about my Korean family, I was in shock–embarassed as I could not stop crying and was on the verge of hysteria as Jun handed me “tissue” (Koreans use rolls of toilet paper as all-purpose tissue). Jun kindly spent the rest of the day with me, taking me out to lunch and a movie as I walked around in a red-eyed fog. [Sidenote: I am to this day grateful to Jun for being supportive that day, but I stopped returning his calls after he began persistently suggesting that I would feel all better if I would just go to church. Mmmm-hmmm.]

When I was very young, I had a strange game that I would play with myself. I would somehow convince myself that I was not “Sarah,” and that everything I knew about the world was wrong. My consciousness would change, and it was a strange feeling that inspired both uneasiness and curiosity as I came back to reality. I’m not sure if this childhood game was a result of being adopted (or maybe I was just a weird little girl) . . . . But that day at Holt two years ago was like someone else playing this game with me, only it wasn’t a game, and instead of going back to what I knew as reality, an entire new, complicated chapter of my life opened.

This afternoon, I had to ask my co-workers how exactly to get to Holt from the G.O.A.’L office. As I neared the building, however, my instincts correctly led me away from what appears to be the main part of Holt and toward the reception center where the post-adoption services offices are located. I was in a bit of a rush, and quickly exchanged my shoes for indoor slippers as the doorman tried his best to give me unnecessary instructions. Once upstairs, I passed the room where Jun and I had sat two years ago, and I saw an adoptee sitting in there with what appeared to be her adoptive family and a Korean social worker. I quickly received my papers, nodded my head and said, “고맙삽니다,” and left. I was probably in the building for a mere total of five minutes. So simple. No hysterics.

As I was walking to the subway tonight, Santoki and I were looking at my family registry. It has my Korean name, with “제적” in a bold box underneath. Santoki explained that “제적” means that I have been “deleted.” Erased from the family, at least legally. But paperwork did not result in spotless minds for my Korean family, particularly my mother. It did for me, however, because while growing up I had no memories of Korea, except for abstract dreams that went away once I entered school.

I’m thankful now that my mind is no longer spotless and has been sufficiently muddled . . . .


Filed under Adoption (the industry), Korean Adoptees, Updates