For expatriate adoptees in Seoul, Korea, the city’s outré nightlife center of Hong dae is the one that matters. Every weekend, a community of adoptees—a hundred strong and growing—gathers there at a kitschy watering hole called Hippo. Huddled over glasses of soju, the group weaves in and out of foreign vocabulary, and trades tragicomic stories of adoption and good-natured complaints about life in Korea.
But it’s not just their conversation that makes the adoptees stand out from the natives they call “Korean Koreans.” Their expat status is betrayed by their fashion sense—Europeans in their Diesel clothes and spiked hair, Americans in jeans and t-shirts—and their raucous air of celebration. Together, they mingle, hug and down shots before migrating to a nearby club to dance until dawn.
As the sun rises, they drag themselves to a local café for an early ramen breakfast.
In recent years, as an increasing number of adoptees have returned to Korea for extended stays, this festive scene has played itself out innumerable times. “It’s nice, because a lot of us grew up feeling isolated,” explains Vincent Kuneen, a 29-year-old American adoptee who’s a regular presence at Hippo. “It’s like this big statement: ‘OK, the adoptees have arrived!’”
But the adoptee social scene isn’t all nightclubs and cocktails. As more adoptees make the move to Korea, the burgeoning community has expanded to include volunteer work at orphanages, lectures at an adoptee guesthouse called KoRoot and government-sponsored field trips. In the process, they’re making their presence felt, forging a diverse subculture and asserting divergent political views on adoption. The result is a new diaspora that is fast becoming the heart of a growing global network of Korean organizations that is changing and challenging the institution of international adoption.
Since the Korean War, South Korea has sent approximately 200,000 children abroad for adoption, with more than 75 percent embraced by American families. But more and more are returning to their birth country as those who left during the peak years of adoption—between 1974 and 1988—are getting older and learning about Korea from the Internet.
According to one of the largest Korean agencies, Eastern Social Welfare Society, the number of adoptee visitors to the agency’s office in Seoul has grown sixfold since 1991, from 41 in the early ’90s to 262 in 2003. And still, they keep coming.
In 2004, a year that marked the 50th anniversary of Korean overseas adoption, the community swelled even further with “the Gathering,” a biannual conference that attracted 430 adoptees from 15 countries. After six days of bonding and reconnecting with their birth culture, some attendees decided they didn’t want to leave.
Starting in the 1970s, most people who returned to Korea came on short “motherland tours,” an experience Ethen Reiser, a 25-year-old Minnesotan somewhat cynically describes as “a week and a half with Korean people who are taught to treat you nicely and give you things.” Nowadays, more adoptees are making the trip solo and staying longer, aided by a special renewable visa that allows them to live and work in Korea indefinitely.
“Right now there are so many of us, it’s really a subculture,” says Dae-won Wenger, a 38-year-old from Switzerland who plays
a paternal role amongst the mostly younger adoptees.
Though there’s diversity in their home country, language and experience with adoption, they all share a bond in having journeyed halfway around the world in search of something they believe they can only find in their birth country.
But they also share the burden of a sometimes-painful past they are forced to confront daily. “It’s in your face all the time, like seeing a kid on the subway with his mom, or having Koreans ask you where you’re from,” explains Julayne Eun Jin Lee Smith, a 35-year-old from Minnesota.
In 2002, Didier Schonbroodt, a 29-year-old graphic artist and house music DJ from Belgium, realized that he had an insatiable need to meet his birth family. The idea came to him suddenly as he watched the World Cup soccer match, hosted by South Korea that year. In a match between his birth country and Belgium, he surprised himself by rooting for Korea.
A year later, he made his first trip to Seoul, encouraged by his adoptive parents, though it would take three more trips before his adoption agency located his birth mother. Once they found her, Schonbroodt decided to move to Korea in order to forge a relationship with his mother and immerse himself in local culture.
At first, Schonbroodt and his birth mother met in secret since her husband and daughter didn’t know Schonbroodt existed. Later the family gathered every few weeks at her apartment in the southern city of Pusan, often accompanied by a volunteer translator. Schonbroodt says he used to think of her as a stranger but now feels he and his birth mother have “an innate bond.”
Though he has since moved to Luxembourg for a graphic design job, he plans to return to Seoul next year. And although he admits, “now more than ever I don’t know who I am,” he also says, “I wanted [to have a relationship with my birth mom] so badly.”
But other adoptees, like Amy Harp, didn’t return to Korea to reunite with family. “I came to see the country on a day-to-day basis and not through the lens of a tourist,” explains the 31-year-old from Michigan, who arrived in Seoul in 2000 after finishing a master’s thesis on adoption at San Diego State University.
Harp, who is petite and matter-of-fact, says that she used to feel a bit out of place, especially because she didn’t speak Korean fluently. But now she feels more at home there—so much so, she says, she may never leave. “For some people, coming to Korea opens questions,” she says. “For me, it’s answered more questions than it’s opened.”
The adoptees that settle in Korea acknowledge they’re not typical. Compared to the thousands who never return to Korea, they are more curious, more introspective or more open to adventure. A growing number are motivated by the idea of adoptees helping other adoptees.
Sebastien Hootele, a 36-year-old Belgian adoptee, says he gave up everything to move to Korea. Formerly employed as a computer network administrator in Belgium, he now works part-time at a French-themed café in Seoul. Chatty and charming, Hootele is a seeming contradiction: He appears to have come to terms with his unique family situation, but he’s also highly critical of the adoption system in Korea, which is, in fact, a common stance amongst adoptees, who often feel both privileged and disadvantaged by their unique upbringing.
“I had a pretty good life in Belgium,” says Hootele, who was adopted when he was five. “But only here do I feel 100 percent of a person. When adoptees leave Korea they lose their family and cultural identity. It’s not right.”
Inspired by the in-your-face aesthetic of Benetton ads, Hootele is planning a public exhibition called the Adoptee Awareness Wall to air his political views. His idea? Pasting photos of 3,000 Korean adoptees in the subway stations of Korea’s three largest cities. “My hope is that it will be seen by as many people as possible, who will wonder why they keep sending us abroad.”
Despite his brusque opinions on adoption, Hootele’s affability has made him a favorite amongst adoptees and Korean volunteers alike. During an all-adoptee bus trip to the southern city of Mokpo—partly sponsored by the Korean government—it’s clear he’s a popular veteran of previous tours. On his way to a visit to a local orphanage in Mokpo, Hootele boards the bus bearing sacks of presents for the residents like Santa Claus. But he grows pensive after meeting the children, ages five to 15. “When I see these kids, the natural question is, ‘Why did I get adopted and why not them?’”
Tammy Chu came to Seoul by way of Queens in June 2000. Like Hootele, Chu believes there are better alternatives to Korean international adoption and for the past year, she’s worked hard to stop it.
Chu says she first started to question intercountry adoption in college, after reuniting with her birth family in 1996. In 1998, the cinema major turned her wrenching experience into an acclaimed documentary, Searching for Go-Hyang. Influenced by the film’s Korean American co-producer, who had done academic research on Korean
adoption, Chu began looking at adoption from a political and human rights perspective.
In spring 2004, armed with a logo depicting a fist full of money and a wailing baby with the phrase “Made in Korea” stamped on its buttocks, the 29-year-old filmmaker and five friends formed a group called Adoptee Solidarity Korea (ASK), the first Korea-based organization dedicated to ending international adoption.
Adoption out of Korea, ASK members believe, “perpetuates racism, sexism, capitalism and the imbalance of power between Korea and the receiving countries.” The solution, they say, lies in promoting social welfare and social justice work in Korea by preventing teenage pregnancy through sex education, monitoring orphanages and foster care, increasing domestic adoption and expanding welfare programs for single mothers.
ASK is part of a growing community of activists that stems from the late 1990s, when the Korean government canceled a well-publicized plan to phase out international adoption due to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) crisis. These days, with Korea currently ranked as the 13th largest economy in the world and its birth rate at an all-time low, more and more adoptees have begun to question why the country is still sending over 2,000 children abroad for adoption every year.
“If poor or needy families were given assistance, they wouldn’t be put in a position where they are forced to give up their children in the first place,” posits Chu.
Chu operates from an activist perspective and she admits that some of her adopted friends don’t necessarily agree. But, she says, “ASK is not about being angry or wanting to meet and vent. And it’s not about persuading people who aren’t ready.”
Jaesik Kaufman, a 30-year-old ASK co-founder from Oregon whose adoptee wife is also in the organization, says the fact that the group exists is a sign the Korean adoptee community has matured. “There’s been a movement bubbling for years with adoptees writing, performing and talking about adoption. [Through ASK], we’ve just focused and institutionalized it.”
When Dae-won Wenger first visited Korea in 1990, there was no Korean adoptee community to speak of. A polyglot from Europe who has also lived in the United States, Wenger says he survived that first visit using elementary Korean phrases he picked up from classes in his native Switzerland.
When a new organization called Global Overseas Adoptee Link (G.O.A.L.) was started in 1998 by a coalition of European and American adoptees to help newcomers acclimate to their new home, Wenger—who had returned to Europe, but remained active in the international Korean adoptee community—watched with interest. He formally joined in 2003 on a return trip to Korea. In February 2004, the bespectacled and silver-haired Wenger was made G.O.A.L. secretary general and began helping adoptees with practical matters like finding an apartment, landing a job and buying a cell phone. Wenger and G.O.A.L. fill an important space—though there’s been an expansion in post-adoption services in Korea, the adoption agencies say helping returning adoptees in their daily lives is outside their domain.
Wenger is also there for emotional support. “Every adoption starts with a loss of identity and personal history, even if there is a corresponding gain in terms of adoptive family and culture,” says Wenger, who works out of a drab four-room office in an apartment building in northwestern Seoul. “It’s why I want to be here and work for the next generation.”
Since its creation, G.O.A.L. has been fighting for support and acknowledgement from the Korean government. The organization had to apply for non-governmental organization (NGO) status—which would enable it to receive tax-deductible donations—four times before it was finally accepted in 2003, and it had its government office spaces yanked last year. To Wenger and other adoptees, this struggle reflects the country’s failure to understand their experience, though the government has recently begun praising adoptees as “cultural ambassadors” uniquely suited to helping Korea modernize and westernize.
“Lots of people have no idea there is a community of adoptees living in Korea,” says Eleana Kim, a cultural anthropology doctoral student who has studied the Korean adoptee community for the past five years. “Even though G.O.A.L. got a lot of media attention when it first started, the public memory is quite short.”
Despite the challenges, Wenger remains passionate about his full-time volunteer work on adoptee issues. In addition to legal reform, his big dream is to build a culture center for adoptees in Seoul, modeled after ones he saw in Switzerland.
But founding the center will be an uphill battle in a country where adoptees are still widely called Ipyanga, or “adopted children.” Wenger, who is nearly 40, bristles at the outdated term. “We’re the pioneers of international adoption and 20 years ago, no one thought we would come back. But we’re here.”
“We’re here,” he says, throwing his hands up in exasperation.
Mihee-Nathalie Lemoine is a prolific writer and artist who has lived in Seoul for the past 12 years. A Belgian adoptee, she’s been profiled so often by the Korean media that many Koreans consider her the face of overseas adoption. With her short hair and clunky shoes, she looks boyish, mischievous and much younger than her 36 years.
Living in Korea inspires her, she says, and in addition to exhibiting controversial adoption-themed artwork around the world, Lemoine and fellow adoptee Kate Hers, an American, coordinate the O.K.A.Y. book series, a funky compendium of artwork by overseas Koreans.
Last fall, the Lemoine formed a new group called Adoptees Vivant En Coree (AVEC) to address the language divide that exists between American and European adoptees. The group plans to translate articles and essays on adoption for the approximately 14,000 Francophone adoptees currently living in France, Belgium, Switzerland and Quebec.
“More and more French speakers are coming to Korea, but all the translation here is done in English,” says Lemoine. “So we come here and have to learn two languages, Korean and English. It gets very tiring and people give up.”
The creation of AVEC belies the subtle class difference that exists between American and European adoptees. With their ease with English, Americans hold lucrative teaching jobs while European adoptees work in restaurants, bars or small stores and struggle to be understood.
At a recent AVEC meeting, which are held every week at a café in the international neighborhood of Itaewon, Lemoine moved easily between multiple languages, answering her cell phone with the traditional Korean greeting, yoboseyo, followed by an enthusiastic oui! Still, she waves away questions posed in Korean, insisting “I don’t speak it.” The reason, it turns out, is less tied to ability than preference. “We are a minority within a minority. Always people expect adoptees to speak Korean or English like it’s natural for them. But language is identity.”
Faced with these daily challenges and annoyances, Lemoine often says she would prefer to live in a more cosmopolitan city such as New York or Montreal. But, like many of the adoptees currently in Seoul, she cannot seem to break her ties with Korea. For Lemoine, it’s more than the comforts of the warm, pulsing crowd at Hippo bar. The country is her muse and, for the moment, she says, she is staying put.
Elizabeth Woyke was born in South Korea, grew up in New Canaan, CT and returned to Seoul in 2000 to reunite with her birth family. She wrote this story while on a Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
“Only here do I feel 100% of a person.When adoptees leave Korea, they lose their family and cultural identity. It’s not right.”
Coming to Terms
They answer to the terms, “Korean adoptee,” “Overseas-adopted Korean,” “Korean American” and “Korean European.” However, given the choice, many adoptees prefer to describe their identity in a more nuanced way. Amy Harp uses verbs as descriptors. “I’ll say, ‘I live in Korea,’ ‘I lived in America,’ or ‘I have American nationality’.” Ethen Reiser is “an American with Korean blood.” Kelli Donegan thinks of herself as American, but “Korean in some sense.” And Julayne Eun Jin Lee Smith calls herself, “an adopted Korean American,” because she identifies with the larger Asian American community.
European adoptees, of which most grow up in countries without significant Asian populations, use different syntax. Rather than being “adopted Korean Europeans,” they are “adopted Koreans from Europe” or Denmark or France. Belgian adoptee Mihee-Nathalie Lemoine calls herself a “Korean-born/ foreigner.”
“Even if they never come to Korea, all adoptees should think about this,” says Dae-won Wenger, who self-identifies as a Korean adoptee, then Korean, then Swiss.
“Adoptees who say ‘I’m 100 percent Swiss’ or ‘I’m 100 percent American’ often end up changing their minds.”
What’s in a Name?
When children are adopted from Korea they leave the country with little more than the clothes on their back—and their names. What they choose to do with those names when they return to Korea is as much a matter of preference as an assertion of identity.
An increasingly popular option is to mix the two names as a way of reflecting mixed identity. Mihee-Nathalie Lemoine hyphenates her Korean first name with her given Belgian name. The combination, she says, acknowledges and honors the fact that she was adopted. While in Seoul, Didier Schonbroodt uses his Korean surname Yoo because it is simpler to say and spell. In Belgium, he reverts to Schonbroodt, out of respect to his adoptive culture
Other adopteees change their names as a way of consciously breaking with the past. Tammy Chu, who hasn’t been in contact with her adoptive family in years, has reclaimed her Korean surname.
Still other adoptees reject their Korean names completely because of their dubious origins. “I was an abandoned child, so it’s a given name from the orphanage,” says Vincent Kuneen. “It just doesn’t feel right using it.” His solution? A new name, “Jjang Go-su,” which combines Korean slang meaning “the best” with the name of a popular actor. “The combination of the two is really ridiculous,” he says with satisfaction.
In South Korea, the most wired country in the world, adoptees have no shortage of online resources available to them. Adoptees can do a family search at the Global Overseas Adoptee Link (G.O.A.L) website (goal.or.kr), post a message at KoRoot (koroot.org) or browse through pages for several Korean-run organizations. But the most popular online resource for adoptees in Korea is a personal webpage named after the Korean word for mountain rabbit (santoki.ch).
Swiss adoptee Dae-won Wenger started Santoki as an online journal in 1999 and expanded it into a platform for Korean adoptees after moving to Korea in 2003. The site has an informal tone and simple interface, but its coverage of the adoptee community in Korea is authoritative and exhaustive. In his official role as G.O.A.L. secretary general and unofficial role of party photographer, Wenger hops from event to event around Seoul, his digital camera in tow. The site’s many devotees log in, often several times a day, to read his frequently updated entries and view the latest photos.
Santoki also hosts a dozen discussion threads on adoption and publishes adoptee poems and essays. Biweekly polls on topics such as ‘dating preferences’ further encourage adoptees to weigh in with their opinions. Wenger says the site, which has more than 170 members, is popular for a very simple reason: “People like looking at pictures of familiar faces.”
Writer Elizabeth Woyke Artist Rebecca Szeto.
Photographer Miriam Akkermann