Interview with Eleana Kim

(Yonhap Interview) Korean adoptees seek identity through community

By Kim Young-gyo
SEOUL, Aug. 5 (Yonhap) — After many years of soul searching, an increasing number of Korean adoptees abroad are taking a curious look at their newfound position as a “transnational” bridge between their birth and adoptive countries, a U.S. scholar said this week.

The transnational movement taking place among Korean adoptees abroad is helping answer complex questions they have from being displaced from Korean family and nation, said Eleana Kim, a professor of anthropology at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York.

“I think this movement is a free circulation of information and travel. And this is what really defines a lot of adoptees’ communities now,” Kim said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency, stressing that adoption is “transnational” rather than international or inter-country.
“Rather than thinking of adoption as from the birth country to the adoptive country, which is a one-way trip, adoption now really is becoming much more transnational, where you have a constant flow of people, information and things moving back and forth.” she said.
Kim was in Seoul this week to appear at an international symposium on Koreans adopted abroad, part of a six-day meeting of about 650 Korean adoptees that ended on Saturday. The Seoul meeting was the fourth of its kind since the first one in Washington in 1999.
The bonds built through the “communities” for adoptees, Kim said, has helped them meet their needs, which they could not satisfy otherwise.

“For instance, the gatherings here brought hundreds of adoptees to South Korea. They travel back and forth many times and maintain connections with each other through the Internet,” she said.

As South Korea is becoming increasingly globalized and multicultural, she said, a variety of people live together in the country with different cultural backgrounds and tradition, including adult adoptees who often visit their birth country.
Kim praised the South Korean government for trying to give a helping hand to the adoptees.

“I think the government has made a lot of important gestures to adult adoptees. The government realizes it has to respond to the main population of the Korean adoptees,” Kim said.
The scholar said, however, that there still remains one key question that should be addressed by the Korean government: whether South Korean society should treat the adoptees, who do not have any connection to the society legally or socially, as a special category.

“From the government’s perspective, are adoptees Korean, or are they foreigners? Are they adults or children? How much will they give back to Korea and how much do they deserve to take? I think it’s still being worked out,” she said.

South Korea, the world’s 11th-largest economy, has been criticized both at home and abroad for its low rate of domestic adoption. Government figures show that there have been about 87,500 domestic adoptions versus 158,000 international adoptions since the Korean War ended in 1953.

Even though the government is now promoting domestic adoption, Confucianism, which stresses patriarchal bloodlines, and social stigma against unmarried and single mothers and their children are commonly cited as the reasons for the low domestic adoption rate.

The daughter of a first-generation immigrant couple who moved to North America from South Korea in the 1960s, Kim began researching the issue of Korean adoption in 1999 and published articles in periodicals such as Anthropological Quarterly, as well as in a number of edited volumes, including Cultures of Transnational Adoption.

She said the Internet has helped Korean adoptees stay closer together.

“I think the Internet was really an important way, technology, for them to connect to each other,” Kim said. “Often they would say they thought they were the only ones, and suddenly they realize there are thousands of others that were also adopted like they were.”
The Internet also provided the adoptees with a way to participate in the adoptee community in a comfortable and safer way, even being able to open up to those who might have felt uncomfortable about talking face-to-face about the issue, she said.

Adoptees who used to feel they belonged neither to the birth country nor to the adoptive country have now started to accept the fact that “where they are is where they belong.”
“Adoptees often feel likely to choose between one and the other — Korean and American, Korean and French, or Korean and Swedish. Through the community, however, a lot of them were able to say with confidence, ‘I’m a Korean adoptee.'”
ygkim@yna.co.kr

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