When “Adoptee” ≠ “Orphan”

I would like to thank a certain Korean somebunny for calling me an “orphan” to my face, another certain Korean somebunny for calling me an “orphan” behind my back, and a handful of other Korean somebunnies for letting me know whether to my face, or back, that they don’t mind having “orphans” around — implying that other people would mind having “orphans” hanging around, but they’re more open-minded than that.

I called my older Korean sister to talk about. She says that I am not an “orphan” — because I have sisters and a brother. I thought that was really interesting — because I thought that being an orphan means that your parents are dead. Our parents are dead.  But we siblings still have each other. Her point was that I know where I come from.

I think what I am finding out is that “orphan” in Korea/in Korean means something slightly different than it does in English. It seems that the word “orphan” in Korea/Korean has a much stronger meaning; it implies complete alienation from any sense of family — brothers, sisters, extended family or otherwise — and you don’t know at all where you come from. For some reason the Korean concept seems more harsh to me than the American popular concept –and most certainly the definition of an orphan per U.S. immigration laws. (blah blah blah blah blah … how long does it take to describe what an orphan is?) It seems like anybody can be made an orphan under that definition for the purpose of international adoption. (Wait a minute … I think I’m onto something … )

I have professed for a long time that, while I am obviously an adoptee, I was never an orphan. However, it is only recently have I begun asking Korean people what an orphan is (to them), and it seems that everyone agrees that I am not an orphan. That is because I have a Korean family, and I know where I come from.

So here are all these reunited  adoptees running around Korea who are not now and never were orphans. No wonder Koreans always sit up straight in their chairs and drop their jaws when I show them my “orphan” family register after I tell them the story of my family — because to them, I WAS NEVER AN ORPHAN. That is very clear to them. If you know who your family is, you are not an orphan.

So while Americans think it is OK to cook up “orphan” visas, Koreans, it seems, on an emotional level, cannot really believe that any bureaucrat would be so cynical as to just manufacture a family register that so completely denies the reality of a child’s connectedness with her original family. Or to be so mean as to simply fabricate a reality that is so, so harsh to Koreans. No wonder so many adoptees have been told that they were found outside abandoned on the street, at the police “box” (which is just a small station)  —  because that’s the only way they could really fit the Korean concept  of what it means to be an orphan — completely alone in the world, cut off from any family, without hope of ever finding any living relatives, and a danger to come into close contact with. And that was the only way the Koreans could fulfill the Western demand for documentation. (Keep an eye on North Korean “stateless refugee orphans” on this topic of documentation.) If we were not made into “orphans” to match the Western systems that demanded documentation or “confirmation,” then we couldn’t have been adopted. (The way that Westerners trust that what is written on paper is always true is really amazing to me. Why so naive!?!?) And then I guess we would have cost the Korean government a lot of money in social welfare expenses. Therefore we have been stigmatized to social death , on paper completely disembedded from our families, walking around carrying the burden of bureaucrat’s lies and other people’s prejudices a for a lifetime — in order to save the government some money. What an insult to our families.

I have no idea whose mom this is, but I think I like her.

So I’m not an orphan. “But even if I were,” I would like to ask those somebunnies, “what would that matter? So what if I were a real orphan?” When ignorant people voice or act on their prejudices, it says a lot more about them than it says about me. I’m amazed at the kind of presumptuous crap people think just because I’m adopted. What a loss for them that they are not interested in real human relationships, and just operate on stereotypes instead.

Koreans have shown me a million creative ways to be prejudiced that I never knew existed before. That’s why Korean people have to hide and lie so much — because they’re afraid of how other Koreans judge them on their personal background. It just makes everyone miserable, paranoid, and even more judgemental and hierarchical toward others . Why does anybody want to play that game? I don’t.

Does this mean I’m happy that I was adopted out of Korea? Nope. Anybody can be prejudiced for any reason, and it is just some select people who are like that, and it doesn’t make a difference whether they are Korean, American, European, or anything else. It is too bad when people are like that. But hey, I was not born the daughter of my fierce Korean mother for nothing. I will just have to change their minds, that’s all.

Anyway, I’d love to hear from other people about what they understand the meaning of “orphan” to be in Korea/Korean language. Thanks to you for reading, and thanks to somebunnies for giving me something to think about.


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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