The following article presents an art project of Sara Sejin Chang (Sara van der Heide), an internationally acclaimed Dutch Korean artist, who is exhibiting her artwork for the first time in Seoul. ― ED.
By Lee Kyung-eun
Korean adoptee artists have garnered attention in the western countries where they live, but their works remain relatively unfamiliar to people in their country of origin. This obscurity isn’t due to a lack of effort on the part of the adoptees. Despite their attempts to engage with Korean society, Koreans have yet to reciprocate in kind.
Therefore, the artistic endeavors brought to Korea represent more than the creative expressions of the individual artist’s experience. They additionally serve as part of the collective discourse of adoptees and their attempts to cultivate a dialogue with Korean society. Whether through performances, paintings, or written words, these artists raise questions that often confront and challenge the dominant adoption narratives in Korea.
One such prevalent belief among people in Korea insists that if a person enjoys comfortable conditions in the present, then there’s little need to broach questions about the past, including inquiries about one’s roots.
This notion remains prominent in adoption representation, having been historically constructed first by adoption agencies and now reproduced by overly sentimental media portrayals of adoptees. However, the recent work of Sara Sejin Chang (Sara van der Heide) counters such accounts by employing art that unravels persistent untruths that adoptees are orphans, and she critically examines the colonial narratives around adoption. Her long-term project, “The Mother Mountain Institute,” centers on the mothers who have been dehumanized and silenced by the lucrative transnational and transracial adoption industry.
In this installation, the audience listens to the testimonies of women whose children were stolen and trafficked. The film, “Brussels, 2016,” shows a video letter from the artist to her mother in Korea and speaks about the processes of racialization towards citizens of color, including the experiences of racism experienced by adoptees in their predominantly white adoptive countries.
Although origin represents a common theme for adoptee artists, one could mistake the adoptees’ yearning to know their roots as merely a search for their birth family members. But this simplistic assumption overlooks the fundamental essence of human nature ― that the search for one’s roots is the journey to find one’s self. The elements that forge our identities are derived from the knowledge of our beginnings.
Consequently, most of us never give this idea a passing thought; it’s something that we take for granted. However, adoptees must contend with the fact that their sense of self rests on the legal fiction of their adoption.
They must try to reconcile their genealogical truth with the fabricated stories thrust upon them by adoption agencies and the Korean government. Consequently, this act, which is violent and burdens them with the paradox of their identities and uncovers the Korean identity, risks destabilizing the fictitious foundations that underpin the adopted identity. Such violence does not cease at the individual level, though.
On the contrary, the deliberate and systematic erasure of adoptees’ birth information by the Korean government also amounts to a form of violence at the collective level. This is evident in the official birth documents of Korean adoptees. The lines reserved for the mother and father’s names remain empty, and the address of origin is listed as the adoption agency. The adoptee will have a name, but even this is suspect.
In Korea, surnames are distinguished by their “bon,” which literally means root and signifies a clan’s geographic origin. For adoptees, their bon is listed as Hanyang, the old name of Seoul. However, no Korean clan has this location as its origin. The discrepancy can be explained by the Korean government’s desire to produce adoptable children for families overseas.
To satisfy the qualification of adoptability under the legislation of Korea and the receiving countries, the government needed to establish a child as an “orphan” by fully severing the child’s kinship ties. It fulfilled this requirement by issuing a new surname and family register to classify the child as abandoned regardless of whether that child was already registered or whether the child’s parents were known.
This administrative maneuver was part of a larger scheme. Korea and the receiving countries needed to ensure the legality of inter-country adoptions and achieve legal congruence between their laws. Therefore, they exchanged officially certified documents that designated children as “abandoned orphans,” which entailed separating children from their families.
The birth of this system emerged as a solution between Korea and the U.S. in the 1960s to facilitate the transfer of children across national borders. By the 1980s, these practices had spread throughout the world and given rise to the current inter-country adoption regime. In under a century, more than 500,000 children of color from over 80 countries in the Global South have been adopted by mostly white middle-class families in 24 wealthy countries in North America, Western Europe, and Australia.
Despite this expansion, South Korea has secured its legacy as the world’s largest exporter of orphans. For seven decades and counting, Korea has managed to send over 200,000 children abroad. Such figures cannot correspond to acts of charity. In truth, Korea facilitated the relinquishment of children under the guise of “social welfare measures,” while simultaneously trying to evade accountability.
On a more positive note, there have been recent efforts in Europe to launch adoption truth-finding investigations. This step is commendable, but these investigations require the participation of sending countries, such as Korea, to achieve concrete accountability.
Without any such actions and fundamental reforms to the legal system, then achieving genuine progress for the rights of inter-country adoptees remains elusive. We must also bear in mind that facts and evidence alone will not move people to seek the truth. Rather, we need other means to express the depths of injustice and the imperative of accountability.
It is for this reason that the work of Sara Sejin Chang (Sara van der Heide) is so important ― it prompts us to reflect and examine that which constitutes the truth of our beginnings and our identities. This truth deserves our attention as it is something that adoptees have fiercely sought for and continue to pursue.
Therefore, I hope we remember this and appreciate the art of adoptees as more than pieces of individual expression, but as a collective body of work that serves as a campaign for fundamental change in Korea. I hope that this exhibition is another step on the path towards solidarity of human rights and that we remember that these infringements against adoptees are not isolated to individuals but threaten us all.
Lastly, I also wish to emphasize that we need voices that are loud enough, courageous enough, and determined enough to demand truth, justice and rectification from within Korea. But these voices are not only those of adoptees, but also our own. And when we add our voices with theirs, then all of us may arouse the movement we seek in this country.
Lee Kyung-eun is director of Human Rights Beyond Borders and author of the Korean-language book, “The Children-selling Country.”
*This article was originally published in The Korea Times