Life as a banana – Korean adoptees speak at Cambridge

LKL reports from last Saturday’s half-day conference at Cambridge: “60 years of overseas Korean adoption and the Korean adoption issue”.

What is it like to be yellow on the outside but white on the inside? Adoptees freely joke about the banana analogy. But simply being a white person in a yellow skin is only part of the complex web of issues which can face adoptees. The conference at Cambridge was a fascinating introduction to some of the issues, which South Korea as a nation has the unenviable privilege of being a pioneer.

Tobias Hübinette gave us a potted history of Korean transnational adoption, also pointing out that domestic adoption was not unknown throughout Korean history – for example the famous Admiral Yi Sun-sin adopted a son, while Queen Min and her husband were both adopted. More recently the Yi royal line has been “preserved” by the posthumous adoption of the latest crown prince.

It was the Korean War which first gave rise to the need and the opportunity for transnational adoption. While there were around 5,000 “institutionalised” children at the end of the Pacific War in 1945, the number after the Korean War was closer to 50,000. Not only were there many orphans, but also mixed race offspring of US GIs and local women. Children were adopted and taken home “like mascots”.

Things started getting organised in the US when Harry and Bertha Holt saw a documentary about Korean orphans – that was in December 1954 and since then the Holt organisation has become synonymous with Korean transnational adoption to the States.

During the 50s and 60s, transnational adoptions ran at around 1,000 per year, but it was the 70s and 80s which saw the peak of up to 9,000 per year. All-told, it is thought that up to 200,000 Koreans have been adopted overseas over the past 60 years – which represents 20% – 25% of all transnational adoptions globally. Over half of the adoptions have been to the US, with the remainder being to Europe, particularly the Scandinavian countries. Adoptees in the UK number fewer than 100, mainly because of policies against transnational adoption in many authorities.

Kimberly McKee later told us that around 80% of Korean adoptees in the US are female: whether the mix was driven by supply or demand was not addressed, though this would make for a seriously interesting discussion.

Madonna is not the first celebrity to have adopted a child from overseas: Andre Previn and Mia Farrow adopted eight-year-old Soon-yi in 1978, having already adopted two Vietnamese children a few years earlier.

With the adoption process becoming something of an industry, other countries started to notice. Needless to say, propaganda from north of the border portrayed the South as selling Korean children into slavery, while at the time of the Seoul Olympics the one thing that many foreign journalists knew about South Korea was that babies came from there. The cover of one US magazine covering the issue had a picture of a Korean baby with the caption “Made in Korea, sold in America”.

Kim Dae-jung, on meeting adoptees overseas after the beginning of the post-Olympics democratisation process felt shame at the situation and when President apologised to the adoptees for their treatment. Successive governments have pledged to end the practice of transnational adoption. But throughout the last decade such adoptions have been running at around 1,000 per year. For the first time in 2008 the number of domestic adoptions exceeded the number of overseas ones – though a member of the audience pointed out that it was not uncommon for domestic adoptees to be later handed back to the adoption agency.

It was a shame that Tobias Hübinette didn’t have more time, because he had another half hour’s worth in which he could have analysed the portrayal of adoptees in popular culture such as film and TV drama. A treat for another time.

Time is always at a premium in these events, and presenters inevitably have to rush through their material. I always think that those who speak from slides and bullet points should be given more time, at the expense of those who read verbatim from their (no doubt ready-for-publication) paper. When a lecturer is simply reading the text, the words go in one ear and out the other. While there was much food for thought in Kimberly McKee’s and Eli Park Sorensen’s talks, its richness and density did not make for easy digestion.

Daniel Schwekendiek also had a lot to get through in a short time. His project was studying heights and weights of adopted Koreans to try to draw conclusions about their biosocial welfare. With a wealth of statistics, he explained how adoptees are 2-3cms shorter than non-adoptees. Unfortunately because we were pressed for time it was not clear whether the benchmark population was native Koreans back in Korea (South Korea, of course, because North Koreans are significantly shorter than Southerners) or Korean Americans brought up with one or both natural parents. But moving on from the statistics he moved on to something which everyone could relate to: getting laid. Research showed that some adoptee males found it difficult to get a date because of their (lack of) height, while the dating success of female adoptees seemed to be marginally impacted by a higher body mass index.

We moved on to more complex issues relating to identity and emotion. Linnaea Manberger gave a very personal view of her own experience growing up in Sweden, remote from anything to do with Korea. Inevitably referred to by her classmates as a “damn Chinese”, she initially felt resentful of Korea. More personal stories came out of the discussion afterwards of which here are a few samples

  • Adoptive parents are usually told that their adopted children are orphans. This is often not true. Children may be given up for adoption because they are disabled, or because their parents have split up, or because the mother is single. Adoptive parents prefer orphans – it’s cleaner.
  • When trying to trace their birth parents, adoptees often find that their real family name is not what is on their adoption papers.
  • “You must be really grateful to your adoptive parents” adoptees are told, until they come to believe it. The assumption is that the child has been rescued from a life of starvation, destitution or prostitution. Meanwhile, often they have been adopted because their adoptive parents are infertile, and they have to compete with the ideal child that the adoptive parents never had.
  • When they grow older in a white community, people who do not know them assume that they are their adoptive family’s nanny, or if the adoptive mother is no longer present, a mail order bride.
  • On returning to Korea there is another sort of discrimination: they look Korean but they can’t talk Korean. Often the only asset they have to sell is their English language skills, but often the private tutorial market prefers white teachers.1

Having been the first country to support transnational adoption, Korea is now leading the way in studying and supporting the adoptees. A Journal of Korean Adoptee Studies has launched – they are calling for papers for their third issue – under the umbrella of G.O.A.’L. (the Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link). The British Association of Adoption and Fostering is working on a collection of writings by transnational adoptees, so it seems there is a reasonable amount of interest in the adoptee issue in the UK. Maybe Linnaea Manberger can be persuaded to come down to London to talk at the KCC.

  1. In addition, while researching and fact-checking this write-up I came across this adoptee’s blog, which makes for unsettling reading. []

5 thoughts on “Life as a banana – Korean adoptees speak at Cambridge

  1. I do think it is the “more complex issues” for us trans-racial/bi-racial adoptees that are important to understand and process in our lives…International adoptees have a unique set of factors in life to deal with and the more the discussion the better. There is certainly the balance of honesty…the pain of loss but equally the opportunities given upon us adoptees…The need to understand the issues and psychology of it all is vital….the acknowledgment of what our lives could have been or not been had we been left in Korea. For me as a bi-racial adoptee…the reality is not a pretty picture for sure. So yes, I try to work through the grief and loss and separation from my birth family…but I also celebrate my family in the states and opportunities given…The racism aspect…the only minority in a white community aspect….I so get it all. Thank you for this discussion.

  2. Thanks for visiting Nancy. It really was an eye-opening discussion for me and I wish the informal discussion could have been longer. In fact, it probably continued over dinner but I had to get back to London so I missed out.

    The organisation of the conference was really a lucky coincidence of a couple of adoptees being at Cambridge wanting to put something together. As always with these conferences, we could have done with more time.

    When I first heard about the conference I was really puzzled. Who were all these Swedes involved in transnational adoption issues and why? It was only later that I realised they were all Korean adoptees themselves. There are so few Korean adoptees in the UK (I’ve only met one, plus a Dutch one who’s moved to London, though I’m told there are nearly 100 in all) that I really wasn’t aware of the adoptee “issue”.

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