This article is the 26th in a series about Koreans adopted abroad. We are deeply grateful to Seo-vin for sharing his insightful perspective as a second generation Korean-Dutch. His story reminds us that adoption not only affects one’s lifetime but ripples through the generations to come. ― ED.
By Bastiaan Flikweert (Shin Seo-vin)
I vividly remember the grand ceremony at the Korean Ministry of Justice in 2011 when both of my parents’ Korean citizenship was restored. It had been more than two years since we had moved to Korea as a family, and I remember feeling proud ― proud that my parents had completed their journey back home, and proud to be their “Korean” son. While my parents seemed to have completed their journey, mine had barely begun.
Korea had always played a role in my life. I looked different and was bullied for this, but simultaneously could not explain to myself why I looked different. I had a hard time explaining to my peers on the playground that my parents were adopted and that I, therefore, was Dutch. Why did I have to explain myself in the first place? Were my parents not ordinary Dutch people? It took me a while to realize that most people did not see it that way: To them, I was a second-generation immigrant. For a while, I attempted to explain that this was not ― no, could not ― be the case. My parents did not choose to come here in the first place! Why are they not seen as just Dutch people? They were adopted! Well, it turned out that adoption was the problem.
After moving to Korea and coming back to the Netherlands, I realized that this “misunderstanding” was not only because of my appearance. In Korea, I was bullied as well, but this time for my inability to act “Korean.” I looked like one, why couldn’t I act like one? I quickly learned to explain that this was a result of my parents being adoptees which was, again, a concept that my peers did not really understand. Yet, I felt more at home in Korea than I had felt in the Netherlands; manners can be learned, appearance is given. Soon we moved back to the Netherlands, but what was supposed to feel like coming home instead became the start of an identity crisis.
Because I was only nine when we moved to Korea, living there had a tremendous impact on my view of the world and my education. Moving back at the age of eleven made me realize that adoption and my parents’ quest for “belonging” was a burden that I was going to carry with me my whole life as well. The reason why we as a family moved to Korea in the first place was that my parents wanted to grant us, their children, a childhood in Korea ― an experience they thought they had been robbed of. For a long time, I resented my parents for their choice. Living in Korea for only a few years resulted in feeling like I did not have a home anymore. Was I Korean or not? Did Korea ever fully accept me? Why was I not able to get a Korean passport, like my parents? I wasn’t adopted, so why did I have to struggle with these questions?
Within the discourse of transnational adoption, there is barely any attention for the offspring of those who have been adopted. The mostly mixed-race children of the thousands of Korean adoptees worldwide must range in the thousands as well, but there is rarely any mention of them. As a child of two transnational adoptees, I am aware that the so-called ‘second generation’ is even more diverse than the first. While my siblings and I were lucky enough to experience life in Korea and have been able to make it our home for a while, most children do not have this opportunity. They grow up as ‘half-bloods’, unable to fully explain their heritage. This is a distinctly different experience from that of the “kyopo” (Korean diaspora) or “honhyeol” (mixed blood) because neither of the parents has a meaningful connection to Korean culture and language.
There are a few ways the children of adoptees deal with their heritage. Some have grown up without worry, ignoring their parent or parents’ history, either willfully or unbeknownst to them. This is possible only in an environment where heritage is not a subject of interest, so where both parent and society surrounding the child do not raise questions on the topic of mixed-ethnicity or heritage. An important point that has to be taken into account when talking about adoptees and their experiences is that not all adoptees (and therefore their children) have issues with feelings of belonging or a strong urge to look for their “true” heritage. Some have fully adopted the salvation narrative (the idea that children needed to be saved from their circumstances by parents in the West) and are happy in their own way.
But this is not always the case. Eventually, either through a parent or social circumstances, the second-generation adoptees will raise questions about their adopted parent’s heritage. These adoptees are stuck between two sides. Their parents raised them without the burden of adoption, but they may still develop personal issues with their heritage due to social circumstances. Some of my second-generation friends were bullied because of the way they look, some question their heritage due to contact with other Koreans and the possibility of rejection by them. This does not mean, however, that raising questions about identity has to be a major identity crisis for them. One can talk about heritage without feelings of resentment or loss, as is the case with some adoptees who do not problematize their adoption.
Some second-generation adoptees do have an identity crisis, regardless of whether their parents experienced one or not. Some will follow in their parent’s footsteps, tracing the journey back to Korea that their parent has already started, seeking answers to questions on identity by going to Korea and diving into Korean culture. There are also those like me and my siblings, who can build on their parents’ Korean heritage that they have built up over the years. Again, a very different experience compared to that of a “kyopo” who might return to Korea because they have a strong link with the country. A second-generation adoptee, however, has to build on the fact that their parent was adopted. This is a very fragile link, one that can be easily broken off if not dealt with carefully. Whether this re-adopted Korean heritage is considered authentic or not by Koreans is a separate issue; South Korea can be a very harsh place, and rejection by the motherland is something that we second-generation adoptees deal with as well.
The time is ripe for research into the diverse experiences regarding identity, heritage and Koreanness of the second-generation Korean adoptees. Transgenerational perspectives on adoption have been missing from the increasing critical adoption scholarship. To fully understand the scope of adoption and its effects, it seems only natural to start by expanding the conversation beyond the current first-generation adoptees and see how their children are faring. I am sure that I am not the only one out there with questions left to be answered.
Bastiaan Flikweert is an International History graduate and is currently finishing his Korean Studies degree. Also Assistant Teacher at Leiden University, he is currently researching the institutional history and experience of Korean adoptees in the Netherlands.