A house where the search for roots begins

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A house where the search for roots begins

Karl ?ie, 30, fixates on the floor. “The thought of sitting alone in a strange room,” he begins in a quiet Scandinavian lilt, “was what scared me most about coming to Korea.”
But then he looks at the activity around him. Young men and women are making toast, reading magazines ― and intently tracking down adoption agencies over the phone. A Dutch-speaking man hovers by the door, hoisting his backpack to go meet his birth family for the first time.
This is KoRoot, or Ppuri-ui-jip (“House of Roots”), which opened in 2003 to ensure that people like Mr. ?ie ― born Kim Do-kyung and adopted by Norwegian parents ― wouldn’t find themselves alone in a strange room upon returning to the land of their birth.
A guesthouse and nonprofit organization for adoptees, KoRoot, tucked behind Gyeongbok Palace, was founded by the Reverend Seo Kyung-suk and Kim Gil-ja, who donated the house. Its mission is to provide affordable lodging for adoptees and their families ($10/night, free international calls and Internet access), to foster a support network and to raise awareness about the adoptee experience.
“We want to introduce Korea to returning adoptees, but beyond that, we must present their voices to Korean society at large,” says the Reverend Kim Do-hyun, KoRoot’s new director-in-residence, who has worked extensively with Korean adoptees in Switzerland.
KoRoot is celebrating its first anniversary with a solo exhibition by artist and activist Mihee-Nathalie Lemoine, who was adopted by Belgian parents in 1969. The geometric grids and pop-art colors of Ms. Lemoine’s recent works are on display until Sept. 5 throughout the stately house.
“It’s popular now to invest in the gyopo experience, but the adoptee one is still taboo,” Ms. Lemoine says. She attributes this reluctance to what she calls Koreans’ “ping-gae culture,” which cites postwar poverty as an excuse for having abandoned their babies. “Korea supplied an international demand,” Ms. Lemoine says, gesturing toward “Advertising,” which depicts the commodification of Koreans as “short, obedient, quiet children” to white parents.
Ms. Lemoine is fiercely committed to causes like improving post-adoption services and confronting the hushed topic of adoptee suicide. Ms. Lemoine, who uses phrases like “sent away” and “cut off” to describe overseas adoption, reflects in both her art and activism a sort of wistfulness about adoptees’ forced dissociation from Korea.
“Some of these are quite sad,” says Karl ?ie, turning from KoRoot’s sun-drenched bay window towards Ms. Lemoine’s “100 Baek-in, 100 White Koreans,” a stark grid of personally contributed adoptee portraits, captioned in yellow with words from “abandoned” to “Zen.”
Indeed, as thousands of adoptees return to Korea each year, without family or knowing the language, their visits dictated on Korea’s terms, they often describe themselves as “rejected twice over,” says Rev. Kim. That’s why he describes KoRoot’s job as that of “cultural interpreter.”
Ultimately, both Ms. Lemoine and KoRoot challenge Korea to face up to its adoption history. Ms. Lemoine states firmly that “it’s about social integrity,” while Rev. Kim sighs more softly, “We let our children go too easily.”

by Kim Sun-jung

From Gyeongbokgung station, line No. 3, exit 2, follow the road for 15 minutes until you pass Kyungdong Boiler. Turn left at the alley; KoRoot is 20 meters ahead on the right. For more information, call (02) 3210-2451 or go to www.koroot.org. Mihee-Nathalie Lemoine’s Web site is at www.chomihee.org.
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