exposing the dark side of adoption
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Genes, Schemes and International Adoption

Solo show 'Black Tie' puts Korean adoptee Miriam Yung Min Stein's search for identity on the stage

By:  Jan Creutzenberg (RhusHeesen) /Ohmy News

17 December 2008

In the Old Testament, Miriam is the Hebrew woman who hides baby Moses in a reed basket at the shores of Nile and watches how an Egyptian princess finds and subsequently adopts the future prophet. The story of another Miriam begins quite similar, but it did not happen in biblical times.

It was in 1977 that Park Yung Min was found in a cardboard box, standing in front of the city hall of Daegu, South Korea. Terre des Hommes brought the infant to Germany where a family adopted her and expanded name to Miriam Yung Min Stein.

The practice of international adoption of children, although common until today, has long been a taboo in Korea. For some years, however, stories of Korean adoptees that were brought to Europe and America and, having grown up, struggle with their "hybrid identity," regularly pop up in newspapers and on the Internet -- there is even a TV show that reunites Korea's "lost children" with their biological parents.

Miriam Yung Min Stein chose another way to deal with her unknown provenance: Using a wired glove to pile up pictures on a screen she presents her research live on stage. "Black Tie," thus the title of the stunning performance lecture, premiered last week at the Berlin theater "Hebbel am Ufer." The evening was very informative, yet deeply touching and at the same time critical towards "easy solutions" like the aforementioned TV reunions.

"Some children come from the belly and some come with the airplane," Stein's adoptive mother once said to her.

The feeling of being different accompanied her since early childhood. Browsing through family photos that show the little "Asian" girl between her blond siblings and adoption forms that describe her character as a one-year-old, she vividly remembers an evening at a Chinese restaurant, where "everybody was trying so hard to pretend they like it."

To attain clarity about her past, Stein takes various courses: First, she inscribes her personal story in the history of modern Korea. Her adoption is the last link in a chain of events that includes Japanese colonisation, the Korean War, Harry Holt, who organized the first adoptions of South Korean war orphans, and the dictatorial Park Chung-hee regime during which thousands of homeless babies were sent abroad.

She also imagines an alternative biography that later turns out to belong to her friend Hye-Jin Choi, who appears on stage as a counterpart to the restless Miriam. Choi came to Germany eight years ago to finish her studies. She is working in politics now and has a picture of her family hanging on the wall. She tries to teach Korean to her friend and puts some of her rather stereotypical views on Korea into perspective.

Stein is not only harsh on her "home country," but also rants and raves about the institutionalized altruism that brought her to Germany, highlighting the dark sides of feel-good charity.

"I am not ungrateful, but international help makes me puke. People like Angelina Jolie or Bono make me puke."

While she knows that her German parents meant well and gave her more than she can ever return, it is also clear that the act of adoption affected her life in incalculable ways.

When Stein visited Korea for the first time in 2006, she had an epiphany when looking at the shiny windows of the shuttle bus at the airport: "In the reflection, I could not single out myself instantaneously. Finally I was one among many."

This feeling lasted only for a moment, however: When the bus driver asked here where she wanted to go she could not understand him. Strolling through downtown Daegu, Stein hoped to run into her biological parents by "genetic incident."

After her return to Germany, she approached her roots by means that appear less random at first sight: She ordered personal DNA analysis from biotech companies in California and Iceland to find out more about the traits her parents passed onto her. But the results are scarce -- besides the fact that she is not genetically related to Bono, Stein learned about a slight risk of prostate cancer as wells as Alzheimer's disease.

In the end, the "black ties" that link Miriam Yung Min Stein to her origin remain in the dark. In the theater, however, the lights turned bright after her last words on memory loss and shyly she accepted much applause from the sold out auditorium.

Her authentic life presence backed up the informational input that could sometimes be overwhelming. But what about the theatrical potential of this form of one-woman-show?

The organizers of the project, Swiss-German performance group Rimini Protokoll, are renowned for their collective productions with so-called "experts of everyday life." These amateurs in acting contribute their job experiences to the creative process and also appear on stage -- in a sense playing themselves and reflecting on their professional role at the same time.

Earlier works presented different perspectives on subjects such as funeral services and the industry that provides them ("deadline"), the process of jurisdiction with its various rules and rituals ("Zeugen," witnesses), the outsourcing of commercial service hotlines to low-wage countries ("Call Cutta") or the global circuit of TV broadcasting ("Breaking News").

With its focus on an individual position "Black Tie" marks a break with Rimini Protokoll's documentary approach. Not surprisingly, a German review criticizes the "polemic onesidedness" and the "judging perspective" that was characteristic of Stein's performance.

Indeed it seemed as if she was given every liberty in designing her self-presentation. Her autonomy in using the given room, her oscillation between insecurity and self-confident jockeying with the traces of her own past as well as the straightforward egocentrism of her performance that is reflected early on when she mentions that she will use the word "I" 276 times...

All these gestures of self-empowerment make "Black Tie" a very convincing event -- not as theater in the classical sense, but as the subjective expression of one person's opinions on a matter that is essential to her existence. The theater offers a stage for a statement that made this evening a memorable one.


Following six performances in Berlin this December, "Black Tie" will be shown in Zurich, Rotterdam, Wien and New Delhi in 2009. So far, a presentation in South Korea is not planned.

For further information on Rimini Protokoll and "Black Tie," see www.rimini-protokoll.de (in English and other languages).

Miriam Yung Min Stein's personal website offers some information on her work as a journalist: www.miriamyungmin.com (German only).

She also published a book on her trip to Korea this fall: "Berlin - Seoul - Berlin: Auf der Reise zu mir selbst" (on a trip to myself), ISBN: 978-3810519382 (in German).
2008 Dec 17