This article is the 24th in a series about Koreans adopted abroad. Apparently, many Koreans never expected that the children it had sent away via adoption would return as adults with questions demanding to be answered. However, thousands of adoptees visit Korea each year. Once they rediscover this country, it becomes a turning point in their lives. We should embrace the dialogue with adoptees to discover the path to recovering our collective humanity. ― ED.
By Leslie Maes
We adoptees are the embodiment of “han,” a term that could be described as an “internalized feeling of deep sorrow, grief, regret and anger.” Sharing this feeling makes us so very connected to our ancestors. As adoptees, besides what we carry genetically, we are spiritually very Korean.
My Belgian name is Leslie. I was born in Busan in 1978. My mother’s name was Lee, so after adoption I became Less Lee. I was taken away from my birth environment when I was few months old. It was traumatic, but I couldn’t realize it, nor express my feelings about it. Other adoptees have similar or other traumatic experiences from the start.
There are many horrible stories of adoptees growing up. People tend to try to measure the misery of adoptees’ lives, but abuse, loneliness and desperation shouldn’t be measured; they are always a heavy weight.
When I accompanied a Korean adoptee friend in a reunion with their siblings, it struck me that the siblings living in Korea were so envious and jealous of my friend. Many Koreans have an image of adoptees as children who won a “golden ticket.” And yes, some adoptees may truly feel like that, and feel very grateful for being adopted too. But it’s just prejudice when you don’t know someone else’s life.
During a homestay in Korea, I got a tour of a poorer part of the city by my host, showing homeless people, buildings in decay, closed up and vandalized shops. I guess my host was assuming that all adoptees live in castles. As we try to change the narrative of adoptees needing to be “grateful,” we also need to change this idea of the adoptee as “The Golden Child.”
Then there is the infantilization of adoptees. Let’s talk about that tradition of treating adoptees as “lost children.”
In the advocacy movement for adoptees’ rights, we try to make clear that many adoptees are adults and claim the right to know their origins, as a fundamental human right, and ask for support for all the specific needs of adult adoptees. Adoption is not only about children; children grow up.
That change in the image of adoptees as “children” has to evolve in Korea too. You may notice the strange way Korean people often talk to adoptees in the media and on talk shows.
Besides our lack of Korean language abilities, we also lack knowledge of Korean codes of social conduct, and this lack can be interpreted as “strange,” “clumsy” and “helpless” by ignorant Koreans. Sometimes I wish I had enough Korean language skills to tell people here how many languages I actually do speak fluently.
I don’t think I have any obligation to learn the Korean language, nor to try to be as “Korean” as possible, as I already have Korean ancestry as life’s basic building blocks, in addition to a Belgian lifestyle and education. I should be respected for who I am, and not be expected to become anything else.
In Korea, I sense that there is a will to restore the image of the country concerning its history of adoption, and that there’s effort to make adoptees more “Korean” again. Those purposes are not the same as the willingness to know the actual needs of adoptees and to help them with those.
I guess this situation is what makes us adoptees feel “han” again.
“Jeong” can be described as “a feeling of loyalty and of strong emotional connection to people and places. It goes deeper than love and friendship, and grows stronger with time,” according to Forbes, a popular business magazine.
We as the adoptee community are the embodiment of “jeong.” This emotion is the true gift we get from adoption, and one of the things I am really grateful for.
When looking at the difficult lives some adoptees have had, and how poor adoptee support systems are, it is comforting and reassuring to see how supportive and organized Korean adoptees are, globally. Sure there’s a lot of politics going on within groups and between community leaders, as in any kind of community.
But with a difficult start in life, often no support from Korea, nor from the receiving countries, adoptees are doing a great job in creating and connecting. Most adoptees are doing this work for free and in their free time.
Compared to adoptee groups from other sending countries, Korean adoptees are the only group where there are so many initiatives and results. We are the only group where a great sponsor bought an enormous number of DNA-test kits, just to distribute them freely amongst adoptees worldwide and to Korean family members. How amazing is that!
Recently, I was attending an online meeting with a Korean post-adoption service. When I asked for more clarity about possible funding and sponsorship, I was given the answer, “Start a kimchi factory and get rich.”
That answer made me feel bitter, because I actually did make kimchi in the past, selling it to raise enough funds for a DNA testing event. Little did that person who answered the question know about the actual efforts adoptees put into being supportive to each other.
All of our events and initiatives are only possible through the support and solidarity of other adoptees. The day adoptee groups get enough funding and sponsorship from the government is still far away, I’m afraid.
Meanwhile, we Korean adoptees are inventive, able to find solutions and ways to get things done. We are so supportive to each other, fighting for a greater good.
The latest adoptee project aims to group all adoptee-run businesses on a website, representing adoptee-owned restaurants, adoptee artists, freelancers and all kind of professionals. This website is designed so that adoptees can support each other, even when travelling abroad. Professionals that want to be represented are asked to make a small donation. Those donations are spent on mental health support for other adoptees. This website is another great example of adoptees creating possibilities to help each other.
Adoptee communities actively spread Korean culture and get together worldwide. They organize their own dinners together to create feelings of family. Adoptees organize their own kimjang events, their own Chuseok, Seollal and Daeboreum festivities, among others. Even if they are not correctly done by “Korean standards,” adoptees still build strong traditions and honor the Korean spirit.
I’m sure that our ancestors would love to see our people united like that.
Leslie Maes is an adoptee community leader in Europe for “Jeong Belgium,” a group helping Korean adoptees in their efforts to reconnect with Korea, Korean culture and creating a sense of belonging in the adoptee community.