Adoptees’ paths lead them homeThis is a journey home, if home is the country where one is born. But for many of the 400 participants at the Korean Adoptee Gathering 2004, the journey to Korea brims with deeper significance.
“I bought a one-way ticket here,” says Julayne Eun Jin Lee, a 35-year-old educator from Minneapolis, Minn. “When I left the States, everyone asked me, ‘Do you have family in Korea?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’” She shrugs her shoulders and laughs brightly, sounding optimistic.
She’s standing near the entrance to the ballroom of the Sofitel Ambassador Seoul hotel with her friend, Susannah Kraeuter, an adoptee from Trenton, N.J. The energy is palpable as people bustle about, speaking languages from 15 different countries. Here, there’s conservative Midwestern U.S. fashion; over there, sleek European wear; in another corner, frills, in yet another, power suits. It’s overwhelming, exciting, poignant, hopeful and very emotional.
The gathering officially began on Wednesday and is due to wrap up Sunday, after a series of workshops ― on racial identity, search and reunion, marriage, relationships and children, and living in Korea ― and a tour of the Blue House. For adoptees, this is a chance for empowerment. As Susan Soon-keum Cox says in a welcoming speech, “We return to the motherland, not as orphans, but proud adults.”
The first such gathering was in 1999 in Washington, D.C. It was an opportunity for adult adoptees to connect and build a community. Unexpectedly, a few Korean parents showed up looking for babies they had given up years before. The second gathering was in Norway in 2001.
The participants, and their spouses, have been sharing stories about adoption. But their lives have played out in different countries, on different paths.
There’s Ms. Lee, who came to Korea to be part of what she calls “a historic event.” There’s Ms. Kraeuter, a massage therapist who is already worried that the gathering’s end “could be emotionally overwhelming.” There’s Todd Kwapisz, who, whenever people ask whether he wishes he’d never been adopted, replies, “No. I am who I am today because I was adopted.”
There’s Daryl Pedersen, who celebrated his 25th anniversary with his wife, Mary, last year. He came to the gathering to support his wife, who attended the first gathering in the United States. The two have three children. There’s Charlotte Gullach, a Norway-based consultant, who came to Korea before the gathering began to search for her birth parents.
“I’m trying just to get dates, names, facts. What I found out is that I couldn’t find anything,” Ms. Gullach says.
“The things I am longing for are not going to be. Is my age really my age? Is my name really my name? I have this double identity, and I think it grew worse.”
These questions, these longings, form an instant bond, what Ms. Cox calls “an incredible emotional connection.” She adds, “Even though they didn’t know each other, it was as if we knew each other.”
Ms. Lee agrees. “You don’t have to explain how you feel to the other person,” she says. “You have this unbreakable bond. You didn’t choose to join this group. You couldn’t pay a membership fee to join.”
During and after the Korean War, as social workers pondered the plight of the country’s orphans, one solution was to match them with familes overseas. As it turned out, the solution outlasted the war by decades.
Around the mid-1980s, after dwindling for years, the rate at which children were abandoned began to rise. Seong Kyun-hee, chief of post-adoption services at Holt Children’s Services, cites a number of reasons. The divorce rate rose around that time. Korean wives whose husbands were abroad gave up babies who resulted from extramarital affairs. Unregulated use of industrial chemicals meant more birth defects.
“For many reasons, parents wanted to send their children to an orphanage, or relinquish them,” Ms. Seong said. “They even left them at railroad stations or bus terminals.”
But adoption was socially discouraged in Korea, with its strong emphasis on blood lineage. So babies were again sent overseas in large numbers. Holt helped with the overseas adoptions of more than 3,000 babies per year in the mid-1980s. That number has since decreased to 900 a year.
In the meantime, the babies of the ’50s have grown up to become parents; some are grandparents. The babies of the mid-1980s are becoming young professionals. And they are searching ― for answers, roots, solutions, if not their birth parents.
Adoption by parents of the same race is difficult enough. International adoption might have given many of these children a future and a way out of poverty, but it also came with its own set of problems.
“I’m really looking for my birth mother,” Mariann Howarth says with soft determination. Looking for birth parents during the gathering is discouraged, but some participants have come early, or are planning on staying late, in order to look.
Mrs. Howarth, 31, started her research in Norway, and came to Korea briefly in April to continue her search. It was unsuccessful; as a last resort, she and her adopted sister, Yvonne Olsen, will appear on a KBS TV program next week in an attempt to find their respective birth parents.
All Mrs. Howarth knows about her origins is that a passerby found her on April 21, 1974, in front of a house owned by Kim Ki-soon in the town of Shineup in Gyeonggi province. She was wearing a blue knit shirt. Her hair was permed. She was wrapped in a pink blanket.
Those few details, and the lack of any other information, have haunted her. Her Norwegian parents adopted another Korean girl a few years after her, and the two grew up in what they describe as a loving family.
On the outside, Mrs. Howarth is an adoptee success story. Her adoptive parents are “wonderful.” She speaks eight languages. She’s well traveled, had a modeling career and is now a stewardess for Scandinavian Airlines. She married in 2000.
But growing up, the search for identity as an adopted Korean in a land of Scandinavians led to depression and thoughts of suicide. The birth last year of her daughter, Yasmine, again stirred a longing for closure on her past. “I’m a mother now,” Ms. Howarth says. “If I had to give my daughter away, it would be devastating. I’m not bitter with my mother, but I would like to see her.
“How is she like as a person? Do we look the same? Do we have any interests in common? Do I have any siblings? And I’d like to tell her I’m okay. It’s not about finding new parents, because Mom and Dad in Norway will always be my mom and dad,” she says. “It’s about inside, and peace of mind.”
That search for peace of mind is not limited to adoptees. During Mr. Kwapisz’s search for his birth parents, two different sets of parents stepped forward hoping he was the baby they had given up years before.
Korea may have turned these adoptees away, but as they come back, what will they find? Korea has changed in the years they have been gone. Not only is the international adoption rate going down, but the domestic adoption rate is slowly climbing up.
Then there’s the matter of the future of the gathering. This conference, organized entirely by adoptees themselves, has been a celebration, what one attendee calls “the honeymoon.” They have not made it into a political platform, as opinions on adoption run the gamut. Says Ms. Cox, “We will likely never achieve full agreement on adoptee issues, but our voices should be heard.”
by Joe Yong-hee