America's Korean Adoptees, Part 4: Return To The Motherland

by Sarah Idzik

Mark, a 50-year-old Korean adoptee from Chicago, has an impressive display of facial hair: a full moustache and beard, something you don’t see that often on Korean men. (My brother, who, like me, is a Korean adoptee, has tried this before and gotten a woefully undergrown result.) When he was preparing for his first trip back to South Korea, Mark struggled with what to do about his facial hair. In homogenous Korean society, he knew that the beard would be “a big deal.” Should he make life easier and shave it, or stay true to himself and keep it? It was, as it turned out, a profound decision, one that would set the tone for his entire relationship with his birth country. So what did he do?

“I decided to keep my facial hair,” he said, “even though I knew it would be weird.” The result was much as he expected: “They stared at me constantly,” he said. “Everyone assumed I was Japanese.”

Not every adoptee chooses to return to his birth country for a visit, but such trips have become increasingly common in recent years. For many it’s an undeniable rite of passage — one that’s often difficult. Kathleen, a 24-year-old adoptee from upstate New York, described her trip back to Korea as “not a vacation. It feels like work.” Mark said, “It’s an intense experience” no matter how prepared you think you are. The first trip back for an adoptee is so much more than taking an east Asian sabbatical: it’s a point of no return. The decision to brave the journey is a choice to consciously confront the reality of your dual existence: an acknowledgment that despite your thoroughly American upbringing, this completely different world is somehow still tied to you.

“I came from this place. I spent the first six months of my life in this country, with these people, in these hospitals, eating this food,” Kathleen said of the realization she had during her trip. Eleana Kim, an aassistant professor of anthropology at the University of Rochester and author of Adopted Territory: Transnational Korean Adoptees and the Politics of Belonging, said that as an adoptee back in Korea for the first time, you often wonder “whether or not the people you’re passing on the street could be your relatives.” It can be, she said, “really destabilizing” to experience such a shock to “a life and an identity that was [previously] not questioned.”

At its best, the trip can help an adoptee piece together parts of a cultural identity that they may have felt was missing. As Caroline, a 24-year-old adoptee who teaches English in Korea, wrote me, it can fill in “a little bit of the hole that I think a lot of adoptees have.” Soo, who is also 24, remembers feeling “a little more mature” after her first trip back. Taken when she was ten years old, the trip gave her “a better understanding of where I came from.”

Paul Kim, who directs programs in Korea, Mongolia and Nepal for the adoption agency Holt International, explained to me that gaining more of an understanding of their birth country is an empowering experience that leads many adoptees to gain “a sense of understanding and pride, and a greater sense of self.” Holt operates Motherland Tours to Korea for adoptees, and Mr. Kim said that adoptees often contact Holt afterwards to ask about other opportunities to return to Korea.

Disconnection And Disillusionment
Cultural misunderstandings are a part of travel, but when you’re an adoptee in your birth country these issues are amplified. Take language. One of the first Korean phrases Heather, an adoptee from Baltimore, learned before her visit was “I don’t speak Korean.” Nobody believed her. And Caroline said that Koreans actually seemed to disapprove of her inability to speak the language.

Then there’s the sensation, sometimes as disconcerting as it is heady, of finding oneself a part of the majority. Ms. Kim described the process as having two stages: first, the relief at finally blending in, followed by the realization that “I can’t communicate with them. As soon as I open my mouth, they know I’m not one of them.”

The biggest source of disconnection comes from the responses of Koreans when they realize they’re talking to an adoptee. Envy is one facet: according to Ms. Kim, many Koreans envy adoptees because they were able to get on the “fast track to assimilation.” (Heather was told by some Koreans during her stay that she “was so lucky that I was adopted because my English was perfect.”)

Pity is also a common response. Steve, an adoptee from Nashville, said that while he didn’t feel shamed for his ignorance of the language and culture during his visit, “bringing up the adopted thing more often triggers a kind of pity response, which is awful in its own way.” Heather, who “actually had people apologize” to her for her adoption, knew adoptees who had gotten free meals or gifts from Koreans, perhaps because, she hypothesized, Korean cultural pride leads to collectivist Korean guilt. In fact, she rarely divulged her adoptee status because she “didn’t want them to feel sorry for me. I would occasionally get the pity face after I said that. And I hate that shit.”

Then there are the problems of cultural difference. Mark, my new, impressively bearded friend, found himself disillusioned by what he deemed a “really, really, really conformist” Korean culture. The facial hair, his Western appearance, the fact that he is gay, and his age — in his 40s for all three of his trips to Korea, well past the time he likely would have been married as a cultural Korean — all led him to being treated as an “outsider.” “I felt so alienated by Korea each time,” he said. “There is no space in South Korean culture for being different.” He described Koreans as determinedly uniform, both aesthetically — including the omnipresent double-eyelid surgery for women — and socially, an environment that makes it near impossible for adoptees to, as he put it, “get in.” He once met a Scandinavian adoptee who had done everything to fully assimilate in Korean culture, but Mark insists that the jig will be up when she gets a boyfriend and meets his family. “The family will reject her like that, because she’s an adoptee,” he said. He was also disappointed by what he perceived to be an intolerant and restrictive culture. “In Korea,” he told me, “[saying] ‘people will talk’ is like [saying] you boil babies and eat them for breakfast.”

Kathleen, who traveled with Mark on a 2006 tour with the Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network (KAAN), met similar problems. Korean women are very thin, she told me, and at a healthy but non-size-two weight, she was subjected to a lot of unwanted attention. The worst moment was when an elderly man told her she needed to exercise during a tour of her adoption agency. “It was so incredibly offensive, and it was so hurtful,” she said, that she’s not sure when she wants to return to Korea, if at all.

Idealizing your birth country is a dangerous proposition for an adoptee, and coming up against its reality can lead to some painful revelations and disappointments. It’s hurtful to feel rejected by the hallowed country of your birth for simply being … well, you. “The real problem,” Steve said, “is when a place has symbolic value, and is nothing but a myth. When you idealize something so much without ever seeing it or experiencing it, that can be very dangerous.” When I confided that one of the factors preventing me from seriously contemplating visiting Korea was my fear that I just won’t like my own birth country, a somewhat traumatic idea for me, he said, “That would be healthy! I think I realized I could never live there. And that’s a good thing. That’s a kind of closure.” Though he wants to go back, he realized that he “can’t go back there and reclaim something that isn’t there to be reclaimed. And I had to go there to realize it wasn’t there.”

As for returning to Korea, Heather told me she “would go [back] in a heartbeat.” “It was seriously one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” she said. But not all adoptees connect as strongly, or even at all, with their birth country: To Kathleen, Korea was “a huge, unwelcoming, foreign place” that effectively alienated her. While Kathleen and Mark recommend that every adoptee take the trip back to Korea, neither of them really wishes to return.

Meeting Your Birth Mother
Another major element often thrown into these already turbulent trips is the birth family search. This is a “huge question for many adoptees,” Mark told me. “Imagine the intensity, and then cube it.” It’s a major decision and, as Mr. Kim said, “a door that, once opened, you can’t close again.” How far are you willing to go? This isn’t just some long-lost or estranged relative: this is the woman who gave birth to you, who then, for whatever reason, gave you up for adoption. What would your life have been like with her if you’d never left? Who would you have become?

Understandably, plenty of adoptees decide they’re not ready. Mark is among them. “It might be really traumatic, you know?” he said. “People don’t just give up their babies for no reason.” Soo also decided against a birth family search and doesn’t regret it. Only ten when she made the trip, “I wouldn’t have fully grasped the gravity of making that choice.”

For Kathleen, her reunion with her birth mother was not quite the warm and happy meeting she had imagined. She had friends on the tour who had wonderful reunions with their birth mothers, and she found herself disappointed by the reality of her own encounter. Her mother was a no-show for their first scheduled meeting, and when they finally did meet up, “she was kind of a diva,” Kathleen said. And though presents weren’t expected, she had presented her birth mother with a gift and not received one in return. Basically, Kathleen said, “I didn’t particularly like her.”

But the door had been opened. Once Kathleen returned to the United States her birth mother started calling. Even though they couldn’t communicate because of the language barrier, she called every day for two weeks. Her family finally had to take the phone off the hook.

When Heather’s adoption agency contacted her while she was in Korea to say they had located her birth mother, she was stunned. “I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I had honestly never expected to find her.” When they finally met at her adoption agency, “it was emotional. There was just so much sobbing. I had no idea what to expect, but it was a really positive experience.” Heather’s adoptive parents were even able to visit, meeting with her birth family for an emotional meal. The only thing that makes Heather sad is that her birth mother feels guilty about giving her up; her birth mother remarried, but, having given up Heather and her sister, she felt she “didn’t deserve any more” children. Heather told me that “there is certainly a sense of closure” now that she’s reunited with her birth mother, but that it also had raised a host of other questions. Before her birth mother had been an abstract concept. Now she has a real-life form.

Steve has never tried to meet his birth mother, and “basically has nothing to go on.” Do you wish you could? I asked. “Of course. In a way it’s easier to compartmentalize, because it’s a dead end. But yes, part of me will always wonder. How could you not?”

All Aboard The Orphan Bus
“Motherland tours.” The name sounds antiquated, even creepy, conjuring images of a state-sponsored journey through a falsely idyllic Korea, with scenes engineered to welcome long lost sons and daughters back into the fold. Yet while this is not an entirely false perception, the consensus among the adoptees I talked to was that if you want to travel back to Korea, a motherland tour is one of the best ways to do it.

A motherland tour typically consists of a large group of adoptees, with or without their families, traveling to Korea accompanied by staff and guides. It’s a package tour, and the itinerary usually includes visits to important sites and places of interests, with stops at adoption agencies and the possibility of a birth family search.

Tons of organizations run them, both in the United States and Korea, although the tours haven’t been around that long. Adoptees didn’t start going back to Korea in significant numbers until the early ’90s. Strangely, one reason for the increase in interest was a series of negative stories in the media scrutinizing the country’s adoption practices. During the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, NBC’s Bryant Gumbel reported on Korea’s baby “exportation” industry, claiming that the country’s babies were also its primary export commodity. The ethical questions surrounding Korean adoption received more attention with The Progressive’s unapologetically titled essay “Babies for sale. South Koreans make them, Americans buy them,” and a New York Times article published shortly thereafter, which characterized adoption in Korea as a well-run business — and a national source of shame for Korea. But even negative press brings heightened awareness. The first motherland tours catered mostly to adult adoptees, but over time, “tourism has evolved in response to customer demand, as it were,” said Ms. Kim. Nowadays, adoptees’ families, wanting to share the experience of a birth country visit with their children, are often the ones initiating the trips.

“It’s a very safe way to introduce adoptees who had never been to Korea to the place,” Ms. Kim said to me. She means “safe” in more than one sense. The tours provide logistical guidance, support, translation services and the comfort of traveling in numbers — all immensely valuable to anyone visiting a new country for the first time. But there’s another component as well. As Soo said to me, “These trips have the potential to get heavy,” and many adoptees value the emotional support found on a group tour. It means they’re not alone on the intense emotional rollercoaster that often marks the experience. “I purposefully went alone the first time,” Mark told me. “I wanted to see what it would be like. After I went, I was like, okay, I don’t need to go alone again.”

Of course, there are downsides. “The recurring complaint has been the sense of infantilizing and paternalism,” Ms. Kim said. On the first such tour that Ms. Kim (who is not an adoptee) accompanied, the group traveled on a bus with a huge banner identifying it as a being full of adoptees; the banner elicited so many responses of pity from onlookers that the group took to calling it the “orphan bus.” Mark told me a strikingly similar story of an adoptee friend on a tour whose bus bore a banner proclaiming it to be a bus of “Korean orphans.” Motherland tours have also been criticized “for being kind of unrealistic,” Ms. Kim added, and for “presenting a very limited view” of Korea.

Still, being a “bubble” has definite benefits. “One of the main things about these tours for adoptees,” Ms. Kim said, “is that the bubble [has] the positive effect of helping adoptees really bond with each other and develop these intimate exchanges about what it means to be adopted. In a way, the tour provides the space for that to happen.”

When adoptees return to their birth country, the collision of their two worlds can be confusing, chaotic, emotional, even traumatic. Sometimes they find closure, or connections, or lasting relationships. Or they very well may find that there’s nothing left in Korea for them to reclaim at all. But as Steve told me, “there’s something very powerful about just touching the ground you were born on.”

Previously: Part 1: What’s Your Name?
Part 2: When Adoption Became Visible
Part 3: Dating Inside And Out

Sarah Idzik is a writer living in Chicago.

Photo by redslmdr.