All I have to offer

I had one of my thrice-weekly conversations with my sister, again. There is a lot I want to say to Korean society after I have my talks with her. I’m not writing this in Korean now, so I guess I’m just putting this here for myself. But I wish Korean people could read it.
Hi Koreans.

I’m an overseas adoptee. Yeah, I’m originally Korean. KOREAN. I said I’m KOREAN. Yes, I’m adopted. It doesn’t matter where I grew up. What matters is that I live in Korea now. I speak English well, you got that right. Yes, I found my mother. She died. My dad is dead too.
I work in a company. Yes, it can be tiring, but overall I like it. I like living in Korea. Oh, you’ve been overseas too?
No, I don’t want to go back to America. Because I like living here better. Yeah, I know Korea is expensive. I live in a little 10-pyeong room. It’s so small I’m ashamed to show my family because I know they’ll say it’s dap-dap hae and they’ll worry about me.

Yeah, it’s crazy isn’t it? Droves of Koreans trying to get out of the country as fast as they can, and all these adoptees coming back and living in tiny rooms just to live in Korea and eat triangle kimbab out of GS25 for a month. Just to live in Korea and breathe the Seoul air that you complain about.
I can eat spicy food. Sure I can eat the kimchi. I don’t have a favorite Korean food, but I don’t see that as an affront to my Korean-ness. Though I never take Korean-ness for granted. Or having a Korean family — I certainly never take that for granted.

You wonder why I like Korea so much. But I wonder why you hate Korea so much.

Oh, because you think Korean people are greedy and selfish? Because people care only about their own families? Because the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer? Because the place is corrupt and everything is too expensive?
Sure, I suppose if you really think that Koreans are completely without ethics, compassion, and humanity, I can see why you want to leave here.

I could see why you hate this place so much if you think the people around you are completely hopeless.

But I don’t hate this place. I don’t hate you. I don’t hate me.

So why am I so angry?

Because I know we can do better than we are right now.

I know that we are human beings who have the capability to care about one another. I believe that we can and we should, and I will hold my expectations of you and this country so high that you will never again be ashamed to say that you’re Korean when you go overseas.

What I mean by that is, I know you’re worried about your safety if you live overseas, like you want to, because you know that other people think you’re greedy and selfish and closed too. So maybe there’s a reason for that, but I don’t think we have to conceptualize ourselves like that forever. So before we start spreading that around overseas, why don’t we tend to our own nest at home? I think those of us adoptees who feel perpetually homeless know how important having a home is.

Maybe you feel hopeless, like Korea can’t be fixed, but I don’t believe that. I have great faith in what this country can do. Just look at how much you’ve already achieved. I’m proud of you. And for that reason, I will always challenge you to be as great as you can be.

You want to flee and I am going to dig my heels in and ask you to stay here and fight with me. We all deserve better. We all deserve to believe in the best parts of ourselves — sharing, truth, dignity, taking care of each other. We deserve to feel like humans and not greedy animals just scraping and digging for ourselves. We deserve to feel like a part of a community and a country. We all deserve a home to come back to so we can rest.
I know Korea is the land of bribes but we adoptees haven’t anything to bribe you with. As for me, I’m living in student housing at the age of 36, pretty much any gyopo has better Korean language skills and cross-cultural skills than I do, I went to a college you’ve never heard of, and I was raised by a factory worker and his wife. In 8th grade I realized I was never going to go to college unless I found my own way, so I studied hard and scholarshipped my way through my education 100%. I have used food stamps, and I was on public medical assistance while I worked my way through college to pay the rent. I know that’s not what you think adoption is supposed to get people, that’s my non-Ivy League, blue collar American reality. (I don’t know what they told you about adoption, but it seems like you’re surprised.)

So the only thing I have for you is my belief — in the very core of my being — that Korea can be a better place. I believe that Korean people can step up to the challenge. I believe Korean men can take responsibility for their children, and I believe that no matter how selfish and stingy you think your own countrymen are, there are enough caring people who can change Korea so you can hold your head high and be just as proud to be Korean as I am, no matter where you go in the world.

Maybe it is blind stupid optimism or naivete, but I’ve heard love is like that.

Please don’t tell me that Korea is not ready to change its social system, because it already is. Please don’t limit your imagination to self-Orientalizing stereotypes. Maybe you’d love to be a Westerner or even be white, but if adoptees can’t be white, you certainly can’t either. Believe me, I’ve been trained in whiteness. But I think it’s good enough to be Korean — especially if you take the steps to turn Korea into the place that you want to live.

I am the lowest of the low in Korean society. My body was bought on a sliding scale for between $400-$800. Being sold will probably steal your humanity away from you faster than anything. But although this happened to me, and although I am sometimes treated like a monster in Korea, I believe in my own humanity. And I believe in your humanity.

Despite having been sent away from Korea, I can see what is good and noble in about it. I can see what is generous and innovative in you. I saw parts shining so clearly and brightly that I came all this way to join you again. I see that we can build a bright future together. I can see the best part of you. I hope you’ll see that too. The mirror that is reflecting your image back to you, through my heart, is all I have to offer.


7 responses to “All I have to offer

  1. oh my, that… whoo, i have goosebumps, that was powerful.

  2. Ok, you got me. I’m in with you, Jane. Let’s change this nation starting inside and working out. We have a lot to cover in the short lifetimes we have left. I will roll my sleeves and be right there next to you as we begin to embark on a journey to bring the best humanity out of this materialistic, superficiality based country. Your story alone is an inspiration to anyone both adopted and not who feels helpless and hopeless. I have a story to share from my visit to an ob-gyn yesterday. See you tomorrow!

  3. I know nothing of your sister so don’t take offense at what I say, I have no intention of mischaracterizing her on purpose. But is her shame in revealing she’s Korean to westerners born out of actual dislike for her society, or is that dislike for her society a response to a non-Korean insinuating that one “ought to be” ashamed, thereby adopting that individuals opinion as her own? If that’s the case you’d be putting a lot of power into the hands of someone who most likely couldn’t spot Korea on a map, no less having ever stepped foot into the country. Not to say you couldn’t live life in this manner, Asian Americans both adopted and non have incorporated the greater doubts of the non-Asian population as their personal position on themselves for years now. And we’ve all been the happy recipients of those results. I’m just worried that your sister’s dislike of her society and from the criticisms that you state, are really no more compelling than those of a citizen of any country. Yet non-Asians are less likely to take these criticisms as compelling reasons to defer authority on one’s society to an outsider, despite how strident in their belief that their society is hopeless and evil. People who are willing to do this, seem readily easy to manipulate. What if westerners made the comment that her face was unattractive and it needed bright eyes and a higher nose bridge, the rebuttal is usually that a Korean has already made such statements to her however she would probably disregard that as the “materialism and superficiality” of Koreans – a society she’s not obviously happy with- can we assume she’d make the same remark of being materialist and superficial to a westerner? Or will she be endeared to that opinion, simply because it comes from a society she doesn’t despise, when it essentially results in the same criticism? None of this is to say that your sister doesn’t have legitimate issues with Korean society. But I have serious doubts with one of your commentors that humanism will somehow flourish in Koreans if we just stop conspicuous consumerism, as if materialism and superficiality are the bane of our society. Note how materialism and superficiality become a racial/ethnic failing instead of the human failing that everyone else in the world regards it as.

  4. Hi Valens, thanks for your response.

    My sis is Korean, born and raised in Korea. I’m a Korean adoptee in reunion with my family for most of my life, so I am sort of an American/westerner to her, but mostly Korean. Actually I still have Korean citizenship. To see how that happened, please read “My Adoption File.”

    I think that international adoption is a not a racial or ethnic failing but rather a failing of national welfare policy. It just so happens that most of the people living under that failed policy in Korea are — ethnic Koreans.

    Whatever turns out to be the golden key that will unlock the way to making the Korean govt take care of its own children is what I’m after. This is a matter of dire urgency for the 1,000-2,000 Korean children who will leave the borders of the country this year as international adoptees. What can we adult overseas Korean adoptees offer Korea that will make the govt interested in making sure that Korea’s children never become intl adoptees in the first place? Any ideas?


  5. Any chance your question will be answered with a flowery expository on why hope is a good thing? As a layman (layperson?) in the area of Korean social politics, I can offer no real solution and certainly not one so elegant that it would solve the issue if it were instituted immediately and save the 1-2000 Korean children leaving this year. That would require divine intervention and frankly it’s not worth it to lend credence to the zealously religious in Korea. Anyways, sophisticated persons frown on a deus ex machina, they value the authenticity of human struggle despite a less conclusive outro. Korean society is not as static as people think (most would agree that living in Korea only 25 years ago would have been a vastly different and far less welcoming climate), as society evolves and the stigma of domestic adoption lessens and international adoption numbers gradually decline, this progression of time naturally favors those who wish to see Korea’s international adoption eradicated. Could it be stopped at once, I would guess so but who in the Korean society are stepping forth and threatening a backlash when their govt. chooses not to provide for its citizens? Perhaps divine intervention can come in the form of an impending crises but even the threat of disastrous societal consequences can be slow to promote a massive change in behavior. Eventually compounding consequences over time will school countries like China and India over the danger and stupidity of low-birth rates, selective abortions, and manufactured gender disparity. Changes will occur once a country starts to face the burden it has created for itself as a direct result of their ambivalence unfortunately the change in behavior comes too late for children lost in the meantime.

    The best that adult overseas Korean adoptees have to offer Korea is themselves; professing NON-overseas Korean adoptees. It’s going to take more than half of one percent of Korean adoptees who descend on Korea once every bicentennial to go on a glorified week’s vacation. These assemblies may voice legitimate concerns but the problem is that they end, eventually they go away. What does Korean society have to deal with on the adoptee front apart from enduring the length of their hotel reservation? What I’m curious about is how many Korean adoptees come to Korea to (re)make their lives. Not coming just to vacation, backpack through Asia, teaching little muppets how to sing the days of the week to pay off school loans and split, or hanging out at foreigner bars desperate to meet more white people in exotic new locales. What we need are intelligent committed adults who come to attend university, have the determination to master the language, and reintegrate themselves back into the Korean society. It benefits us to become an unavoidable component of Korean society, a constant reminder of a continuing practice of selling their citizens overseas. If there are ideas and values we wish to interject into the Korean public discourse, then it requires our presence. Which means two things, we have to actually be willing to admit to Koreans that we are adopted (surprisingly difficult for many) and we’d probably have to sacrifice some comfort in our lives. But I’m pretty sure we’re capable of doing this, we’re Korean adoptees, we’ve mastered the art of maintaining our sanity in environments where our sanity is often under assault. The problem is in asking for people to choose this life for themselves, yes it’s probably unfair (assuming you believe life values equal outcomes). It’s probably not fair to ask this from people who have spent the majority of their lives as outsiders, who as adults may finally be finding peace with themselves and successfully fitting in and making sense of the disassociation with the rest of the population only to have an adoptee tell them to pack it up and move back to Korea to be the outsider again. No disrespect to anyone’s comfortable niche, but it’s only unfair if I were to impose it on others. Personal comfort and questions of equality aside, though it strikes us as unfair it doesn’t free us from obligation. It relies solely on us. I see no other way for Koreans to empathize with our values and our concerns if we don’t exist for them in their (our?) own country.

  6. As a Korean living overseas at the moment:

    I empathize with your plea for koreans to dispel with whatever sense of shame or dismay they may have over Korea. Thing is, it’s always risky use the presumptive collective (Koreans, in this case). I see the rhetorical force of “Koreans” in your letter, but I also find it hard to identify with the monolithic “you” that you hail.

    I make generalized statements about Korea and its people in informal conversations all the time:) But I don’t think such generalized statements actually carry any weight or force in terms of thinking about actual changes on the ground. When I think about the large number of Koreans that leave the country (esp. those who leave for educational reasons), I think of it in terms of the economic advantages the departure (seemingly) promises. Why are there so many people who want an American education these days? What is guaranteed by an American degree? Why is English, a foreign language, so important in Korea?

    These are not problems that can be worked out by a change of consciousness on the part of Koreans. Will things get better if Koreans stop hating themselves so much (and I don’t think this is true) and start some institutional reforms based on hope and optimism? Not to say that civil-society led reforms are not important. I think they are very important. But I think the larger problem here is Korea’s place within the global forces of capitalism and neoliberalism. Korean’s dependency on the U.S., which one sees in so many ways, is not going to go away any time soon because Korea is one country among many, susceptible to global influences.

    Pride cannot just be an antithesis (or an antidote) to shame. I think we see that in the ways in which the nationalism of the 1980s is being revisited and reexamined nowadays.

    Having said all this, I’m very moved by your post. I liked your book _The Language of Blood_ too. I’m not a nationalist, but I’m very much interested in Korea. It’s because I have a deep, personal connection with the country. Being relatively content doing what I want to do, I still miss my family, the busy streets, the Korean bakeries (that American expatriates talk down so much:)), the close connections you develop with people, sometimes even the annoying nosiness of neighborhood ajummas:)

Thank you for visiting my blog. I no longer have time to update this blog regularly, but I appreciate your comments, even though I cannot respond to all of them. All comments (except spam) have been allowed to go through unmoderated since June 16, 2014. Any comments you see prior to that date have been read and approved by me. Thanks again, and wishing you peace and blessings.

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