This article is the 28th 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 Kaylin Bower
Recently, an article was published in The Atlantic, entitled, “The New Question Haunting Adoption,” in which author Olga Khazan asks the following question: “But is adoption meant to provide babies for families, or families for babies?” As an adoptee myself (adopted from Korea at three months of age), this question has been haunting me since I read this article.
In my case, I was born into a family, a family with a father, a mother, three brothers and a sister. I was the youngest child born to my birth parents by seven years. My adoption paperwork provides some background information about my birth parents, such as where they were from and what kind of families they were from. I would argue that all adoptees were born into families of some kind, that there were no adoptees who were born into a vacuum.
Having lived for 36 years as a Korean-American adoptee who was reunited with my birth mother in 2018, after searching for my birth family for over half of my life, my answer to this undoubtedly loaded, complex and controversial question is that adoption exists to provide babies for families.
Korea is known as a “baby exporter” nation that provided babies and children via international adoption to the Western world. Purportedly, the roots of Korean adoption lie in the Korean War (1950-53), which resulted in many children who lost their parents. However, there are several aspects of this “history” and subsequent justification that do not sit well with me. Firstly, Korea was not the only country that experienced a war, yet it was the only country that sent approximately 250,000 of its own babies and children abroad via international adoption. Secondly, the height of Korean adoption was in the 1980s, about 30 years after the war. So these adoptees were not babies and children orphaned by the war. Also, the costs and expenses associated with adopting an “orphan” child from Korea were prohibitively expensive, which prohibited many prospective adoptive parents interested in adopting these “orphan” children for purely humanitarian reasons from doing so.
I believe that the “well-oiled machinery” of the Korean overseas adoption infrastructure existed to meet a known demand, which was to provide “cute, healthy, adorable” children ― who are not-so-far removed from Caucasian appearances as children of other races ― to families in Western countries who were biologically unable to have children of their own. This situation was the case with my adoptive parents and almost all of the other Korean adoptees’ parents that I know.
The babies and children sent overseas through adoption by Korea were born into families, although most adoptees’ adoption paperwork and records contain statements of woe, including mine, which reads: “After delivery, she was not equal to rear [sic] her baby at all. She thought it had better for her baby to be raised by a good family able to provide her baby with much love and good education. Hence, she referred her baby to this agency on delivery day.”
While this explanation by the Korean adoption agency of why I was being relinquished for adoption is filled with notes of sadness, loss and regret, it also fails to include important information that would call into question the agency’s assertion that my birth mother “was not equal to rear her baby at all,” namely that she had been and was still raising 4 other children at the time of my birth. Apparently, she was able to “equal rear” these children, but not me.
This statement raises a question about the role of Korea’s private adoption agencies as supposed institutions of child welfare and protection. In regards to my birth mother’s situation, Eastern Social Welfare Society (ESWS) felt justified in accepting me for adoption because my birth mother could not raise me, yet ESWS had no concerns about the four other children in my birth mother’s care after they had deemed her “not able to rear (me) at all.”
In the official narrative of international adoption in Korea, the creation of families via these adoptions is praised and celebrated. Pictures of adoptive parents with tears of joy streaming down their faces when receiving their adopted babies for the first time are shown as evidence of the wonderful “miracle” of adoption and of the “happy” families forged through this process. However, this narrative leaves out the other side of this story, that of the families which were divided and torn apart in order for new ones to be created.
Through the adoption agencies’ heart-wrenching wording that was used in even my own records, adoption agency staff spun a tenuous tale of birth parents unable and unwilling to raise their children, thus justifying the status of these children as “relinquished” and “adoptable.” Through this process as well, I believe the adoption agencies also attempted at best to minimize and at worst to negate the undeniable family bonds and relationships that were severed between the birth family and the adopted birth child/children, to make it seem as if these “adoptable” children had simply been dropped off by the stork at the doors of the adoption agencies, rather than born into actual families too.
In closing, my answer to the original question posed by The Atlantic article is that adoption was meant to provide babies for families, most often families that could not have become families with children without adoption. Adoption wasn’t meant to provide families for babies, because the babies and children that were adopted were already born into families, a fact that we must never forget or lose sight of, despite the undeniable efforts that the Korean adoption agencies went to in in order to try to deny and distort it. Whether the families were unmarried parents, parents of different races/ethnicities, uneducated or poor, they were still families.
We must critically analyze and call into question the official narrative of Korean international adoption that presents a very one-sided story that focuses only on the families created by these adoptions, not on the families decimated and divided by them. It is the least we can do for the adoptees and birth families who must face the never-ending feelings of separation and suffering, grief and guilt, loss and longing, and pain and powerlessness.
Kaylin Bower is a Korean-American adoptee who currently resides in the state of Pennsylvania with her husband and son. She is involved in numerous Korean adoptee organizations and is a passionate advocate for reform of the adoption system in Korea, especially in the areas of the right to origin and birth family searching.