Adoptee’s journey tracing her mother, origin and heritage
The following is a presentation by Sun Hee Engelstoft at an international conference held by the Presidential Committee on Ageing Society and Population Policy on Jan. 24. She shared her personal story with us to help us understand the reality that transnationally adopted people have to live with. ― ED.
By Sun Hee Engelstoft
I feel the weight of knowing that I represent one out of hundreds of thousands of Koreans who were sent overseas through international adoption. I’m an independent film director and I have spent most of my adult life trying to find my way back to Korea to look for profound answers to my origin and heritage.
Today I want to share some insight into the journey I’ve gone through and also share some of my findings from making the documentary film, “Forget Me Not ― a Letter to My Mother.” This is a highly personal film, but I seem to always find that anything related to adoption is extremely emotional, as it is about family.
My official name is Sun Hee Engelstoft. This name I have given myself. Before that I was Lisbeth Engelstoft and before that I was Shin Sun Hee with the number, K82-Z150. I don’t know when I was born and I don’t know who gave me my name. I don’t know who my parents are and who I’m related to. I don’t know the medical history of my family. And I don’t know if I will ever reconnect with anyone from my family or know the story of my origin.
My different names and number illustrate the different identities I’ve gone through and all the things I don’t know about myself. And wherever I turn I can’t get any answers. I will try and explain the situation. My Danish mother and father couldn’t tell me about Korea, as their knowledge of it was minimal. They had never been to Korea. Throughout my school years, no one knew about South Korea and information about it was scarce. But my job was also not to be Korean. My finest task was to become Danish and I tried so hard to do so, but there were simply things I couldn’t change. When I came back to Korea for the first time when I was 20 years old, an older woman, a stranger in a supermarket, said to me that I had such a Korean face, and I started to cry. I had never felt this recognition of where I belonged.
I was born in Busan in 1982, sent to Nam Kwang orphanage the day I was born and adopted to Denmark through Holt International when I was 4 months old. I grew up as an only child with my two white parents in the countryside. Any other Korean that I would encounter in Denmark for the first 15 years of my life would have been a Korean who was internationally adopted, living with a white Danish family. There are more than 8,000 Korean adoptees in Denmark, which is a country of only 5.5 million people. So, long before Hyundai and Samsung, K-pop and “Parasite,” what South Korea was known for in Scandinavia was all the babies coming in ― a series of transactions that have never stopped.
I grew up being told by my adoptive parents that I was given away by my Korean mother as an “act of love.” That my biological mother wanted the best for me and so she had given me away. For the first 20 years of my life, I never questioned this narrative. It wasn’t until I went to South Korea several times in my 20s and also attended the first IKAA (International Korean Adoptee Association) Gathering in Seoul with the delegation from the Danish association, Korea Klubben, that I was exposed to different perspectives on international adoption and really, truly understood that I as an individual would never have been able to accumulate this much information about international adoption and the consequences of it, without the collective work of the global adoptee community.
I remember experiencing Korean women demonstrating in the streets in 2004, saying that they had their children stolen from them by adoption agencies. And I learned by accident that South Korea had institutions for pregnant women, because I was on a “motherland tour” that had arranged a small field trip, which ended up at such a “home” run by Catholic nuns. There, I met a woman who was eight months pregnant, who came over to me and asked me directly, “Are you happy to be adopted?” I didn’t know what to tell her. First of all, no one ever asked me that. Secondly, her underlying question was, “Is it okay for me to give my baby up for adoption?” I had no good answer for her. But it changed my perspective from the narrative I had grown up with. I suddenly understood that my identity issues were questions that were connected to other people than myself. To the mothers and their circumstances. I had to look elsewhere and outside of our adoptee community to find answers about adoption.
After graduating from The National Film School of Denmark, I knew that I wanted to know much more about women in South Korea. And because I couldn’t find my mother or any other family members there, I saw this as an opportunity to learn about what she might have gone through.
Little did I know what I was about to encounter.
“Forget Me Not” follows three women who all have to make the decision of whether to keep their babies or give them up for adoption. None of them succeed in keeping their children, although all of them want to. The film exposes how three young women end up losing their babies in three different ways.
I discovered that there were over 50 institutions for pregnant women ― many of them not married. Over half of them were at the time run by adoption agencies who were known to reject taking women into their shelters if they wanted to keep their babies. Later it became illegal for adoption agencies to run those shelters.
The institutions were a place where the women could hide during pregnancy. They would hide from their families, close environment, work, school, their boyfriends or partners. They would hide because they didn’t find help anywhere else, or they would be sent there by their family and were told not to leave. Some of them came there voluntarily to get some peace and guidance on what to do. For some of the women, it was a shelter and for some it was a prison.
Women of all ages and from all layers of society came to stay at the shelter. In fact it was such a diverse group that the only thing that they had in common was that they were women and either they were pregnant or had already given birth.
When I met Mrs. Im ― the director of the independent shelter where the film is shot ― she said she’d always wanted someone to expose the women’s conditions. She had encountered other adoptees and she really understood how much we needed to reconnect with Korea and the culture, but also understand the women she encountered in her work. She also thought that the women would be able to ask me questions in return. So she invited me to stay and live at the shelter and this is what I did. I lived there on and off for two years, although the footage was filmed over five years.
I don’t speak Korean and most of the women didn’t speak English, but somehow we did communicate. For me it was eye-opening to be living with other Koreans and their babies, get familiar with their customs and to be racially mirrored and accepted as one of them.
All of these experiences and the things I saw with my own eyes made me question everything I had been told about adoption ― especially the phrase that my mother had given me away as an “act of love.” I learned that women give up their children due to desperation and blackmail.
The women I encountered wanted to keep their children. They just didn’t get the help they needed. If some women stated that they didn’t want to keep their children, it was because they were told that their futures and everything they ever dreamed about would disappear, and their families would cut all ties with them.
There is no doubt in my mind or heart that international adoption is a violation of human rights. It is both a violation towards mothers and fathers, forced to relinquish their babies. It’s a violation of human rights towards the babies that will have no way of having fundamental knowledge about themselves, their families and their culture. It will affect my children not to know their Korean heritage.
Time has changed. South Korea is relatively rich and has one of the lowest birth rates in the world. So why not try and solve this issue by protecting and taking care of the babies born in this country. Instead of sending them away, include them in society and let them be part of the Republic of Korea as they were meant to be. Support vulnerable mothers and fathers who need support for keeping their babies by giving them options and social security, giving them possibilities to advance in society so that they can provide for their children.
Sun Hee Engelstoft Shin is a film director based in Copenhagen. She was born in Busan, South Korea, in 1982 and adopted to Denmark. Having attended several schools for photography, she was accepted at the prestigious National Film School of Denmark, from which she graduated in 2011. “Forget Me Not ― A Letter To My Mother” is her debut feature-length documentary which first premiered at CPH:DOX in 2019 and later premiered widely in cinemas across South Korea in 2021 and has since travelled the world. Shin is now a women’s rights issue speaker at conferences, universities, political arenas and global communities, advocating and raising awareness of first family protection. She is now developing her first feature fiction film and her second feature documentary.
*This article was originally published in The Korea Times