This article is the 11th in a series about Koreans adopted abroad. Among the first wave of transracial adoptees from Korea to the United States, Alice Stephens shares her journey to the truth of the origin of her life. Her story enlightens us to the fact that adoptees’ lives are closely intertwined with the political turmoil of Korean’s modern history beyond our imagination.
By Alice Stephens
Born in 1967 to a Korean mother and an American soldier father, I was one of the first generation of inter-country adoptees.
Indeed, inter-country adoption began because of mixed-race children like me. We were considered as a blight upon the blood-line, unworthy of being Korean. According to the system of census taking that existed then, in order to be entered into the family registry, the child had to be fathered by a Korean man. Those of us with foreign fathers were unable to be registered, and therefore ineligible for essential government services, such as education and medical care. From the beginning, the bureaucracy conspired to erase us from existence.
Ironically, women like my mother were crucial to Korea’s struggling economy, bringing in desperately needed U.S. dollars. Though prostitution was ostensibly illegal, the government not only tolerated but abetted it. U.S. military and Korean local and national government officials coordinated efforts to regulate prostitution and monitor sex workers for sexually transmitted diseases. Both countries saw the sex trade as vital to keeping the massive contingent of U.S. troops in the country, their presence essential to the national economy.
But the government’s profit-taking off these women’s bodies did not stop there. When the women had babies, another business opportunity presented itself. Americans like Henry Holt and Pearl S. Buck offered to take these unwanted children away. It turned out that white couples in wealthy nations would pay money for them.
But how to make the export of children morally palatable, both for the sending and receiving nations? By reframing the narrative from that of poverty, prostitution and military colonialism into one of rescue and redemption. By extirpating the past, doctoring documents, and rebranding the children as orphans.
With this influx of Oriental orphans, adoption in the Global North went from shameful secret to inspirational story of the human capacity to love even across racial lines (the vast majority of inter-country adoptions have been into white families). I was part of that changing narrative when my adoption story was featured in a national magazine under the headline “Instead of Their Own: The heartwarming story of one young couple’s ingenious answer to the population explosion.”
But I was not an orphan. I had a mother, and a father, too, who had returned to America three months before I was born. My mother sent him my baby photos, but she must have known it was futile because shortly after I was born, she relinquished me to Korean Social Services, Inc. (KSS).
For the first 51 years of my life, all that I knew of my origins was to be found in my KSS, case study. A mere three pages, this sacred text revealed my Korean name, description (eyes are Caucasian shaped), and date and location of birth; as well as was my mother’s name, physical description, city of birth, brief biography (ran away from abusive school teacher husband), and her summary of my birth father (“SP/4 in the U.S. Army…sturdy built…common law husband”). His nationality is noted as “Caucasian-American.”
It wasn’t until I received the results of a DNA kit in 2018 that I began to question the details of the KSS case study. Turns out, my birth father was not Caucasian but Mexican American. I was simultaneously thrilled to discover Native American and Latino roots and devastated to know that part of my heritage has been taken from me forever.
The following year, I visited KSS and was shocked to discover that my mother’s name was an alias, the Korean equivalent of Jane Doe. I knew then I could believe none of the information in the study, not my Korean name (the first name distinctive for being monosyllabic), not my birth date (suspiciously, the same date the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed), not the location of my birth.
The more closely I inspected my adoption documents, the more discrepancies I noticed. The date of my relinquishment varies from document to document. My birth place is described as Uijeongbu, Seoul and Andong. My health document is a single piece of paper with no medical statistics.
Most damning of all, though, is the state-issued “orphan hojuk,” falsely declaring my parents as unknown. My mother was known. She relinquished me. At KSS, I saw a document bearing her fingerprint in the same vermilion ink used for official seals.
Decades after the first children were adopted out, the Korean court system is being forced to confront the many legal issues that have arisen due to dubious adoption practices. The country is forced to accept back adoptees who have been deported from their home countries because their adoptive parents neglected to naturalize them.
Last year, when I inquired at the Korean Consulate in Washington, D.C., about regaining Korean citizenship, I was told that the first step in applying for Korean citizenship was to renounce my Korean citizenship.
From the accumulating evidence of my own search, as well as anecdotes from other adoptees, it’s clear that Korean adoption policies were made on an ad hoc basis, driven by private adoption agencies, with mixed-race babies like me the test cases for an industry that would eventually flourish to include full-blooded Koreans born to married couples.
Because of the opacity of the adoption system, we will never know how many babies died in the care of orphanages, how many children were relinquished without the agreement of their parents, or even how many children were sent away for adoption.
Unlike Korea’s other major exports, adoptees are human beings. Cars, phones and refrigerators do not wonder about their origins, but human beings have a deep, innate need to know from whence they come.
The narrative of adoption is being rewritten once again as adoptees return to Korea to search for family, culture and identity in ever increasing numbers. We are demanding answers, reform, legal equality, and our basic human right to know our origins. There are now three generations of us. We will not stop coming back.
By declaring us orphans, the Korean government sought to erase us from their national history. By searching for our roots, we are taking the truth back.
Alice Stephens was adopted by an American couple in 1968. She is the author of the novel, “Famous Adopted People,” essayist, editor of Bloom and writes book reviews for the Washington Independent Review of Books.
Originally published in The Korea Times.