This article is the sixth in a series about Koreans adopted abroad. For adoptees, coming to Korea in search of their origin is a huge decision. It takes time, money and, most of all, the nerve to face the language barrier and private agencies hiding behind the curtain of privacy protection. Rebecca Kimmel, an American adoptee who decided to come to Korea during the pandemic for her origin search, tells us her version of the meaning of identity.
By Rebecca Kimmel
“In the beginning was the word,” but in my case, the word was false. My adoption paperwork states that I was found with a “paper-slip” and that the information about my birth parents was unknown. What was actually unknown to me for years was that this information was a copy-and-paste lie, one that’s disturbingly common in Korean adoption paperwork.
What’s equally common among Korean adoptees like myself are the misconceptions about our often falsified origin stories, based on fragmented information that is interpreted from what adoptive parents pass down to us. For years, I believed that I had been discovered at a police station with a note stating my name and birthdate. But this story isn’t even what’s on the adoption paperwork that my adoptive parents received before I arrived in the U.S. What the adoptive child study summary from my Seoul-based Korean adoption agency actually says is:
“Presumed that she was born probably in Kwangju City where she was found as an abandoned baby in August 1975 (…) she had been under custody of (the orphanage) before she was transferred to the (adoption agency in Seoul) (less than one month later). According to the referral records of the orphanage she was placed to as an abandoned baby through Hakdong Police Office and her name was given by the Superintendent. (Her birth-date were know by a paper-slip, found in her clothings).” (sic)
This brief summary was probably read a few times by my adoptive parents, and then put away in a drawer. After all, life in the present probably seemed more important than these few simple words about the past. I would not see my adoptive child study summary until I was 43 years old in 2018, which was the first year I returned to Korea as an adult. It was prior to this “homeland tour” that I corresponded for the first time via email with my adoption agency in Seoul, and through this correspondence that I first became aware of the adoptive child study summary’s existence. There was another surprise ― according to this document, I had been found in front of a birth clinic in Gwangju, a place not mentioned in the files written in English, but only noted in the files written in Korean, which adoptees and their adoptive parents are not usually permitted to see.
Before finding out this information in 2018, as a child I had concocted simple visual fantasies based on the limited (and slightly erroneous) information I had of having been found at a police station with a note attached to my clothes. Like a Korean Moses, I imagined myself being secreted across a deserted street in a basket in the pre-dawn hours, by a faceless and hunched-over woman who scurried across the street and back, disappearing into the shrubs. In 2018 in Gwangju, when I actually met the woman who had been the primary doctor at the clinic in the year of my birth, and after she had told me that, in all of her years at the clinic, she only recalled one orphan having been found outside, I cried and had a brief but vivid vision of a rabbit scurrying away in the dusk. In retrospect, this vision seems like some kind of subconscious echo of my childhood fantasy. I additionally wondered: was I found on the street in front of the clinic, or was I born in the clinic itself?
As I have unfortunately found, an adoptee’s sense of identity is too often mutable, based on the information we discover while digging through the shifting sands of our pasts. After returning to the U.S. following my first trip to Korea in 2018, I discovered that it was likely that my identity had been switched with that of another orphan. I had grown up with her baby photo and presumably her paper identity, though I cannot know this for sure. The one thing I do know is that the baby photo that was sent to my adoptive parents prior to my arrival to the U.S. in 1976 is not of me, and that was scientifically confirmed by a world-renowned expert.
Furthermore, I realized that my personal adoption story was interconnected with the dark history of Korea’s human rights violations, which took place under the guise of social welfare or of the “purifying society.” The founder of my Korean adoption agency, who was also my legal guardian, who relinquished me to my U.S. adoption agency, and who had the power to give consent for my adoption, had been the president of Seongam Academy, a notorious concentration camp where mass murder, forced labor, torture and violence reportedly occurred, and which is now under the investigation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This perfect storm of lies within my identity resulted in my returning to Korea again in the midst of a pandemic.
Because my Korean adoption agency only shares file information with adoptees in person and only limited information through email, in order to discover anything about my true identity, I had to return to Korea. Consequently, I underwent the two-week quarantine, a requisite step in order to get answers to questions that had been fueled by the specter of existing for over 45 years with a switched identity.
The problem which adoptees like myself face in discovering our identities, even for those that were not switched, is that we have zero rights to our adoption records in Korea. Also hampering birth search efforts, is the grim fact that the National Center for the Rights of the Child (NCRC) previously only had three dedicated workers for adoptee birth searches, and I have recently learned that they are now down to just two workers. Adoptees face up to year-long wait times for replies to emails sent to the NCRC.
I made an attempt recently to track down “baby cards” in Gwangju. Baby cards are records of abandoned children who were in the care of police, and such cards are possibly the earliest records of abandoned children. A Gwangju public official said that they did not have any baby cards. We then went to the eastern district office of Gwangju City Hall, which we had heard only had baby cards from the 1980s forward. We met with officials there, who acknowledged that they did have baby cards from the 1970s forward, but that the records were in the process of being digitized for the NCRC. We were not allowed to access these cards, so I was unable to find any personal information.
These baby cards are likely to be in the hands of either the Korean adoption agencies or orphanages, depending on which official is asked, but at least in my case, my possible orphanage denies having any files or records. Whether or not orphanages like mine have records they are willing to share may depend upon chance, or sometimes upon the specific amount of a “donation.” The fact that adoption agencies and orphanages were and remain mostly private organizations means that no one, not even the government, seems capable of ensuring that the precious records of adoptees’ earliest origins are accessible in any logical, consistent or fair way.
Originally published in The Korea Times.