Oh Myo Kim, a Korean American adoptee and an associate professor of the practice at Boston College, hugs her son. Courtesy of Oh Myo Kim
Many adoptees first feel biological connection when giving birth
This article is the sixth in a series about intercountry adoptions. While over 160,000 Korean children have been adopted abroad since the 1950-53 Korean War, it is believed that many cases have infringed on relevant laws or violated children’s right to know the truth about their filiation. The series will review such violations in transnational adoptions of Korean children and elsewhere, and discuss receiving countries’ moves for their own investigations. This series is co-organized with Human Rights Beyond Borders. ― ED.
By Oh Myo Kim
When I was first pregnant, someone told me that I was once a tiny egg in my mother’s ovaries when my grandmother was carrying my mother inside her womb. I remember imagining it like a Russian nesting doll, and I was inside my mother who was inside her mother, and now my child is inside of me. This physical connection of women felt particularly significant because though I imagined my mother during my whole life, I had never once thought about my grandmother. In that moment, my grandmother carried us all.
I have been a professor and researcher for the past nine years, studying adoption, race, ethnicity and identity. My most recent project, which was presented at the International Korea Adoptee Association conference in Seoul in July, involved 41 Asian American adoptees who experienced pregnancy and childbirth. Inspired by my own experience of meeting my first biological relative when giving birth to my son, the participants in my study discussed feeling an “irrational” fear and anxiety about losing the baby or separating from the baby. Sarah (alias), a 34-year-old Korean American adoptee mother, said that her feelings “felt so inexplicable.”
“Why would I have such an intense feeling of dread or fear? I felt it on … like a cellular level … it just felt like, ‘oh, I’ve experienced a separation between my first home, my biological mother.’ And so if that’s been my experience, I don’t know another, I don’t know another experience or another way,” Sarah said during an interview for the project.
Many adoptees, including myself, think about their birth mother at different times throughout their lives, but for participants like Grace (alias), a 39-year-old Korean American adoptee, the physical act of pregnancy awakened a connection to their birth mother for the first time.
“I remember I went running, and I just started crying, like just crying out and like, tears and just asking for my birth mom to be with me. Like, I just wanted her to be with me. And I didn’t have anyone to rely on to tell me what to do … And I just felt so lonely. And like all I wanted was my birth mom. And I’d never felt connected to my birth mom before. And that was the first time that I felt that connection,” Grace said.
Participants spoke about the power of meeting their first biological relative when they gave birth, and then imagining what it must have been like to be separated from their own birth mother and subsequently sent to the U.S. at such a young age. Adoptees in this study talked about the realization that babies are so aware and attached to their parents from such a young age.
All of the themes we identified from the interviews touched on the intergenerational trauma of adoption. The stories were marked by an understanding that there is a lineage of trauma that extended from mother to child to child, and to reclaim that lineage by birthing, keeping and raising the next generation was a step toward healing. For adoptees, the raising of our babies is an act of reclamation.
“I kind of reflect on it as having this dual experience, like I was walking in the past with my Korean mom while having my own pregnancy experience,” said another 44-year-old Korean American adoptee. “And for me, it was very, it felt very healing because I knew the end result was … it was a bit of like a cycle break, right? Like, I, I didn’t have to make hard choices. I wasn’t going to relinquish my child and you know, so that was for me, that was a really powerful experience to be able to think I was doing something that she couldn’t or didn’t want to do.”
Most adoption agencies do not provide information about birth parents to adoptees, citing privacy laws. gettyimagesbank
I thought about the connection with my birth mother a lot during my own pregnancy as well. I first started searching for my birth family when I returned to Korea almost 20 years ago. Holt Children’s Services, an international adoption agency in Korea, confirmed that my birth parents had filled in the paperwork, they were poor and married, and hoped for a boy, but instead received a fourth daughter. They told everyone I had died.
Like so many adoptees, I was told that “it is against the law” for my agency to give me my birth parent’s identifying information. Hosu Kim, associate professor of sociology and anthropology at City University of New York who has studied transnational adoption, calls this phenomenon, the deliberate withholding, erasure and manipulation of adoptee records, an “ongoing archival violence.” This was the first time I ever heard my experience labeled so accurately. It had the dryness of paperwork and filing cabinets, but it was such an intimately violent act. To wield this type of power over one’s identity and one’s life trajectory, to politely hide behind the protection of privacy laws, is such a dehumanizing act and it takes my breath away every time.
When I returned from Korea this past summer after visiting for a few weeks, I experienced tiny waves of grief ― short bursts of tears in my office when I closed the door. It was a realization that I started searching so long ago and I always expected that it would just happen one day. I would get an email. Someone would google my name and find me. My DNA would find a match. But it never did, and now years and years later, I still do not have access to my original file. Names, birthdates, anything that could actually help me search are hidden away by social workers who carry notebooks emblazoned with: “Love in action.”
As I see my two children grow, I wonder about the loss they will carry, the intergenerational trauma, and the lineage of archival violence that will be passed down. I think about the irony of the low birthrate in Korea and the fact that 200,000 children were sold to foreign countries for the sake of capitalism under the guise of social welfare. I think about the quote of British psychologist John Bowlby, “If a community values its children, it must cherish its mothers,” and I wonder if Korea is cherishing me in the same way my mother was cherished. And when I go too deep down this path, I kiss the chubby folds of my kids and search their faces for something familiar. It does not stop the yearning, but it softens the edges.
Oh Myo Kim, a Korean American adoptee, is an associate professor of the practice in the Counseling, Developmental, and Educational Psychology Department at Boston College. She was raised with her two adopted brothers in New Jersey and currently lives with her family near Boston, MA.
Original article published by The Korea Times.