Question Of Identity -- American Adoptees Born In Korea Search For Their Cultural Roots In Second Homeland

Date: 1992-03-12
Source: seattle times

By Ferdinand M. De Leon

Paull Shin doesn't remember exactly when he knew he had to learn to be Korean again.

The feeling came gradually, building slowly over a long period of time. Ever since Shin came to the United States as a teenager, adopted by an American soldier during the Korean War, he was determined to become American.

He lived with his new family in Salt Lake City, became a Mormon, and took the mantle of responsibility as the older brother to his three younger brothers. Then he went to Brigham Young University, joined the army and worked for two years as a missionary.

But although he adjusted well, and created a good life in his new homeland, the side of himself that he had ignored refused to go away. It wasn't until he lived in Hawaii, where he was exposed for the first time to a mix of cultures, that he began re-examining his Korean roots.

"We all want a sense of belonging and identity, but if one side is ignored then there's conflict," said Shin, who is an instructor at Shoreline Community College. "You don't live in the past, but you can't forget the past, you can't extinguish your racial heritage. I knew that there was a part of me that was empty and it was haunting me."

Questions of identity are central to most immigration experiences. But for children who are born in foreign countries and adopted into American families, they are difficult issues complicated by isolation.

Since the Korean War, a steady influx of children from South Korea have been adopted by American families. For some parents going through the adoption process, adopting children from abroad is a faster and less complicated option.

Shin, who co-founded Korean Identity Development Society (KIDS), a Seattle-based group that promotes cultural identity in adopted children, estimates that there are about 3,000 Korean children in the state.

Those very questions of identity are also at the heart of "Yeb-Yang-Ah, Whose Kid Is That?" a children's play being produced by the Northwest Asian American Theater. The production is scheduled to open next Wednesday and continue until April 11.

The play examines the issues faced by Brian O'Casey, a Korean child adopted by a white American couple. It follows him from childhood to the time he is in college, tracing the process in which he achieves the balance between the two cultures.

It also touches on his relationship with his white parents and friends, and his encounters with other Korean Americans, who call him a banana - yellow on the outside, white on the inside.

Bea Kiyohara, the theater's artistic director, said the play - the first the theater has done focusing on Korean Americans - examines a unique form of assimilation into American culture.

"What does a person have to deal with when they don't have even have a family structure to reassure them about their identity?" Kiyohara said. "When your family is white, and you don't even have your name, what's the psyche of a person coming to terms with their identity?"

The play was co-written by Lenore Bensinger and Christopher Johnson, a 22-year-old University of Washington theater student who was born in South Korea, then adopted and reared in Kansas City.

Like Shin, Johnson's experience with adoption has been largely positive.

He remembers that when he was young, his father used to bring him to the bathroom mirror and point out the differences in their features, Johnson said. His culture was never ignored, and he welcomed the extra attention he received.

"I felt I was different and special, and I would constantly pursue things that were probably beyond me," Johnson said. "When I was young I got Korean phrase books, travel guides, I went through a chopsticks phase, and I was taught that Korea was OK, and that it was something I wasfree to explore."

Yet Johnson, who would have faced added discrimination in Korea because he is half-white, said that he has chosen not to learn more about the country where he was born.

"Korea is a memory and a history for me, and something that I've had a hard time embracing until working on this show," he said.

The idea that Korean-born children should be exposed to their culture as they grow up is one that many parents have embraced.

Jeanne Stephens - who has three adopted Korean children, ages 2, 4 and 6 - said that she and her husband have tried to weave aspects of Korean culture into their children's upbringing.

Each of the children has a Korean hanbok - a traditional costume - and each has had a big first birthday celebration, a tradition in Korea, where mortality rates among babies made the first birthday a special event.

Stephens and her husband also have kept the children's birth name as their middle name, and have attended Korean lunar celebrations. When the children are older, the couple plans to take them to Korea and may send them to a Korean culture camp.

"It's certainly a part of them - even though they are very much American," Stephens said. "They can choose when they're older how much the Korean culture is going to become a part of them, and how much of it they'll shed."

Last month, the issue of Korean adoption garnered some unwelcome attention when Noreen Erlandson of Bothell was found guilty of fatally beating her 2-year-old daughter, Kayla, in April. Kayla and the Erlandsons' other adopted child were born in South Korea.

The case was closely followed by the media and government in South Korea, where the adoption of Korean children has become a sensitive topic in the past few years. Embarrassed by its image as a baby market, the country has begun promoting adoption within.

When Erlandson was found guilty, South Korean adoption officials ended their affiliation with Travelers Aid Society, which placed the children with the Erlandsons.

"It was an unfortunate case of child abuse and the child happened to be Korean," Shin said. "As the recipient of the blessings of inter-cultural adoption, my hope is that other children will continue to have that opportunity."


Question Of Identity -- American Adoptees Born In Korea Search F

Thank you for this post. I can relate to so many points mentioned..and believe that many other adoptees feel the same way. I am a Korean American Adoptee. I was adopted when I was around 7 years old. I recently created a site to share my personal story of adoption and being Korean American Adoptee. I have linked this site to my Blog so others can read your posts. Thank you!From KyungMee at

Outside the country adoptions

I am so glad this site covers so many topics surrounding the issues of adoption. Posts like these and others have opened my eyes to the added burden children from other countries feel trying to find there own way through an adoption that took them so far from their heritage/roots. I'm glad this site appeals to all adoptees who have lost their God-given identity, no matter where they'er from and that they will share the experiences they have had,(good or bad) to make it better understood for those of us who never knew what it is like to walk in their shoes...

Slant Eye for Round Eye- good article

Choi Hyong-Sook, a Korean unwed mother who was coerced by an adoption agency to give up her child, has fought to take him back and is now raising him as an unwed mother, and also working to help other single mothers raise their children. Choi is the PR Manager for Korea Unwed Mothers & Families Association . Choi also runs a beauty shop. She is 39 years old and has a six year old son. She's been with her son for six years, and though it's been difficult at times, it's also been joyful, as he is the hope in her life. Choi continues to work hard for the benefit of her son's future.

To read Choi's article, please click here.

Jane Jeong Trenka was adopted from Korea, eventually went back, found her parents, and is now helping adoptees and single mothers. She works with unwed mothers to help them keep their children. Jane is uncovering the truths behind international adoption. She has written a four part series called "Structural Violence, Social Death, and International Adoption" for *Conducive Chronicle*. The series explores the cause and effect of adoption issues in Korea.

Jane has also written two memoirs The Language of Blood, Fugitive Visions, and co-edited Outsiders Within: Writing and Transracial Adoption. Jane founded the organization TRACK (Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea) which advocates to understand the practice of adoption, both past and present, and to improve the human rights of children and families affected by adoption. Jane currently works as a journalist in Korea.

To read Jane's four-part Series on Korean Adoption click on the links below:

Structural Violence, Social Death, and International Adoption: Part 1 of 4

Structural Violence, Social Death, and International Adoption: Part 2 of 4

Structural Violence, Social Death, and International Adoption: Part 3 of 4

Structural Violence, Social Death, and International Adoption: Part 4 of 4

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