Korean adoptee

From Academic Kids

A Korean adoptee or KAD is a person who was adopted from Korea through the international adoption of South Korean children as a child and raised in another country, often by adoptive parents of another race, ethnic background, and culture.


Historical Context and the impact of Korean Nationalism

Not until the 1990s did the Korean government and Koreans, both in Korea and in the diaspora, pay any significant attention to the fates of KADs. The country was not prepared for the return of their 'lost children.' But the numerous adult KADs who visited Korea as tourists every year, in addition to raised public awareness of the KAD diaspora, forced Korea to face a shameful and largely unknown part of their history. South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung invited 29 adult KADs from 8 countries to a personal meeting in the Blue House in October 1998. During this meeting he publicly apologized for Korea's inability to raise them (Kim, 1998).

One factor that helped making KADs visible in the Korean discourse, was a 1991 movie called Susanne Brinks Arirang, based upon the life and experiences of Susanne Brink, an adult KAD from Sweden who suffered abuse and racism in her adoptive home and country. After the movie she became a celebrity in Korea, and many Koreans started to feel shame and guilt for the children their country had sent out (Hübinette, 1999). Since then, Korean media frequently reports on the issues regarding international adoption. Most KADs take on the citizenship of their adoptive country and no longer have Korean passports. Earlier they had to get a visa like any other foreigner if they wanted to visit or live in Korea. This only added to the feeling that they 'not really Korean'. In May 1999, a group of KADs living in Korea started a signature-collection in order to achieve legal recognition and acceptance (Schuhmacher, 1999).

The first ever association to be created for and by adult KADs, was the Swedish Adopterade Koreaners Forening (AKF) in 1986 (Hübinette, 1999). Since then, similar groups have emerged in most Western European countries, various US states and cities, as well as in Canada, Australia and Korea. Before this, most organized events and activities for KADs had been arranged and administered by adoptive parents and Korean immigrants. These arrangements included culture camps and social gatherings, with a main focus on adoptive families and their children.

With the formation of the adult associations, KADs for the first time were gathering with others who shared a common experience, on their own terms and by their own initiative. KADs were making statements both for themselves and towards the public, that they were no longer children, but independent adults with their own unique concerns and issues. Together, these varied groups and associations have tried to raise awareness locally and internationally about KADs' unique position in relation to Korea and their adoptive countries. In 1995, the first KAD conference was held in Germany; in 1999, conferences were arranged in both the US and Korea (Hübinette, 1999). During the last couple of years, numerous adult KAD conferences and social gatherings in various countries have been arranged, including world gatherings that draw participants from across the globe. In addition, works of KADs havebecome famous both in art, literature and film-making. Other KADs have received celebrity status for other reasons, like Soon-Yi Previn who is married to Woody Allen, actress Nicole Bilderback, and Washington State Senator Paull Shin.

Race and National Control

Most of these adopted Korean children grew up in white, upper or middle class homes in suburbian settings. In the beginning adoptive families were often told by agencies and ‘experts’ to assimilate their children and make them as much as possible a part of the new culture, thinking that this would override concerns about ethnic identity and origin. Many Korean adoptees grew up not knowing about other children like themselves (Meier, 1998). The first generation of Korean adoptees have now reached adulthood. Every year, South Korea welcomes back a few of the children it has sent abroad for adoption. Returning as adults - and as Swedes, Americans, Germans, or whomever-they encounter a culture overcome with guilt for having sent them away and enthusiastic to educate them about Korea. Some Koreans even urge these foreigners to become Korean - it is, after all, they say, their biological heritage. But even with this nationalism - and the capacity of a postwar industrialized South Korea to provide its babies with a high standard of living - today's orphans are still sent abroad by the thousands(Baker, Christian Science Monitor, 1997). The proportion of children leaving Korea for adoption amounted to about 1 percent of its live births for several years during the 1980s (Kane, 1993).

To stem the number of overseas adoptions, the Korean government had introduced a quota system for foreign adoptions in 1987. And under the system, the nation reduced the number of children permitted for overseas adoption by 3 to 5 percent each year, from about 8,000 in 1987 to 2,057 in 1997. The goal of the plan was to totally eliminate foreign adoptions by 2015. But in 1998 the government temporarily lifted the restrictions, after the number of abandoned children sharply increased in the wake of growing economic hardships (Shin, Korea Herald, 1999).

Korea was the world's number one exporter of orphans for decades. Some called it a national shame considering the country's economic prosperity, but domestic adoption is rare in this nation that clings strongly to patriarchal bloodlines (Elliott, 2002). Official numbers show that approximately 150 000 Koreans have been adopted to North America, Europe and Oceania (Elliott, 2002), but the actual numbers are most likely closer to 200 000.

Independent Identity

Based on discrimination and feelings of alienation both in Korea and in their adoptive societies, KADs have increasingly started seeing themselves as separate and different from both Korea and the culture of the adoptive countries. As (visible or cultural) 'minorities' within both societies, they are dispersed around the world, but they still belong to a unique culture (with multiple subcultures and factions inside) and common identity. The creation of the KAD culture emerged from ethnogenesis, the evolution of a new ethnic group through the blending of other cultures with subsequent creation of a new and distinct culture (Ignance and Ignance, 1998: 140) which is made up of more than merely the sum of its parts. Depending on how to define 'ethnic group', in its simplest form, it means that members identify themselves as belonging to the same general category, which again can be subdivided depending on various classification systems. Identity is more about self-identification than clear-cut, scientific boundaries. Multiculturalism is also key to the KAD 'ethnic group'. Despite the diverse experiences and even origins of its members, KADs still manage to maintain a common identity.

Creation of KAD ethnicity and culture started with KADs themselves. In reclaiming their own culture and heritage, KADs aimed to overcome the shame and inferiority-complex that have been forced upon them by adoptive families and cultures. For example, in their adoptive societies, KADs were subjected to attempts of full assimilation, the idea of 'a better life', removal and replacement of Korean names, language and culture, a lack of respect for Korean heritage, ridicule, racism, and discrimination. Upon their return to Korean society, KADs also felt pressure to be 'more Korean', learn Korean language, or were expected to be interested in Korea and Korean culture.

Breaking out of these narrowly-set frames and realizing that they are not inferior to the mainstream culture and society that is seen as 'saving' them (from what?) or the culture in which they were born, is the first step towards self-acknowledgement and acceptance as a unique, distinct culture. Only when KADs are recognized as an own ethnic and cultural group (and not only as 'Koreans' or '_____'), can own identity and heritage be embraced with pride without being judged by stereotypes, expectations and ideas of either Korean or adoptive society. That is the point from where to start educating themselves and later the world about who and what KADs really are, dismantling the myths and stereotypes and move beyond inferiority.

Contemporary Activism

Since international adoption from Korea started in the 1950s, KADs are still a very young population. The current adult KADs are among the very first generations in creation of KAD culture, so a lot of the path has to be made while walking it. Since full assimilation was the leading ideology for parents raising the first generation of KADs (Beckwith, 2002), many did not become aware of or further explored their Koreaness until adulthood, meaning that even adult KADs have a lot to learn. Some have legally reverted back to their Korean names at an older age, while others use it in their e-mail addresses and computer id's.

Some cornerstones making up KAD culture includes being sent out of Korea and raised outside the birthcountry, the majority also outside own culture and race, the attempts of assimilation into new environments, as well as being given new names and a new mother tongue. Still they are a result of their origins, in addition to incorporating experiences from upbringing and new influences. A lot of common issues are experienced by a large number of KADs in similar manners, like racism, stereotypes, feelings of alienation inside own family, and unknown past and heritage. They also share somewhat of a common history. Adult KADs are spread out across the globe, but there seem to be a tendency to cluster around certain geographic locations, often larger cities or areas with a high concentration of Asians/Koreans already existing. This has created a number of geographic anchors for the KAD community. Some of these centers are Los Angeles, San Francisco, the Minnesota Twin Cities, New York, and Toronto in North America, Seoul in Korea, and Stockholm, Amsterdam, and Brussels in Europe. A few majority languages are used to tie the community together, such as English, French and 'Scandinavian,' but in addition, a large number of other languages spoken by sub-groups.

Being surrounded entirely or mostly by white society, many KADs avoided other Asians in childhood and adolesence in attempt of denying own race and heritage. Many wish they had been white like their families and peers, and strongly identified with white society. At the same time, meeting Koreans and Korean culture might have been a traumatic experience for some (Meier, 1998). The result might be a sense of non-belonging and rootlessness.

Only recently have adult KADs been able to unite and come together in order to claim a space and an identity for themselves, opposed to the original beliefs that they would eventually assimilate and become part of the mainstream adoptive culture (Beckwith, 2002). Included in this unification is outreach to younger adoptees, such as volunteering as camp councilors and mentors at culture camps. A lot of these initiatives though, originated from adoptive parents with younger children.

Some KADs have come to see their identity and belonging to the KAD culture as stronger than their ties to either the birth or adoptive culture, often based on feelings of inferiority and unfair expectations from both without ever being fully accepted. A sense of not fitting in, or having no home, is also strong amongst many KADs (Meier, 1998).

For some, this has led to a loyalty and nationalism towards other KADs and the KAD community. One thing that distinguishes KADs from most (all?) other ethnic groups, is the fact that the majority of KADs are not raised by 'their own,' but instead by parents and families of another culture and background. This makes KAD identity and culture an individual discovery, not one shared by the family as a whole. In addition to being minorities in society KADS are also minorities in their own families, making it hard for some to turn to adoptive parents for support and advice. They do no learn at home the essential survival skills needed to live as minorities in a racist society. Nor do most share their adoptive status with adoptive parents. This has led some KADs to themselves adopt children either from Korea or elsewhere, while others find spouses and significant others who are also KADs. Many make close friendships and ties with other KADs. This might indicate a strong need to identify with and bond through common experiences when creating their own families and social networks. These enclaves of tightly knit KAD organizations, friends, families and couples is the foundation which future KAD nationalism and ethnicity will build upon.

See also


  • Beckwith, Ryan Teague, Adopting a Culture: Woman's Struggle for a Korean Identity (http://www.jrn.columbia.edu/studentwork/race/2002/korea-ryan.shtml), 2002, accessed 11/11/02
  • Hübinette, Tobias, Korea - adoptionens historia (http://hem.passagen.se/akf1/UmYang/Artiklar/historia.htm), Um & Yang, 3/1999, accessed 09/11/02
  • Ignace, Marianne, Ignace, Ron, First Nations Studies 101-3 STUDY GUIDE, Simon Fraser University, 1998: 18, 140
  • Jang, J, Adult Korean Adoptees in Search of Roots, Korea Herald, 1998/12/10
  • Kim, Dae-Jung, President Kim Dae Jung's Speech: October 23, 1998 at the Blue House, in Chosen Child, vol 1, no 5, May 1999: 15-16
  • Schuhmacher, U, Korean's Jungle Book Story, Korea Herald 1999/05/06

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