Connecting with Our Korean Heritage

All of the adoptees in my family share a connection to Korea via Harry Holt, the late Oregon farmer and lumberman who is credited with the widespread acceptance of international adoption. In the mid-1950s, Holt used his savings to adopt eight Korean War orphans and launch a crusade to find homes for thousands who needed families as a result of that war. Many of us were the children of Korean mothers and American GIs. Being of mixed race made it hard for us to stay in Korea because Koreans value pure bloodlines.

Experts agree,overall, that international Korean adoptions have been a success and helped pave the way for countries like China, Russia and Vietnam to create international programs. But it came with a price. When hundreds of us gathered last September in Washington, it was the first opportunity for many of us to share the experience of growing up in the early days of interracial and intercultural adoption. Some of us spent our adolescence in places like Iowa, Indiana and Tennessee, where there were no other Asians and little chance to discuss the ethnic identity issues and feelings of isolation many of us experienced growing up. One thing quickly became apparent: much has changed since we were adopted.

 

"Adoption practices in general during the 1950s were secretive, judgmental and obscure," says Susan Soon-Keum Cox, 47, a Korean adoptee and Holt program staffer who conceived and coordinated the Washington gathering."The early Korean adoptions opened the issue of acknowledgment. There was no prior history, no road map to follow, but the adoptions worked. And there certainly have been lessons learned along the way."

The most striking change that I have observed , now that I am an adoptive parent,is the ability for Korean adoptees to maintain their cultural identities by attending cultural camps,language school and agency-sponsored group tours to Korea. My daughter will have many opportunities to establish the "Korean" half of her Korean-American identity.

One reason so much emphasis is put on cultural identity today is that many of us struggled mightily trying to reconcile our Korean features with our perceptions of ourselves as American. " In the beginning, many parents believe that if they just loved their (adopted Korean) children enough, that would be all the children would need to feel good about themselves" says Joy Lieberthal, a 28-year-old Korean adoptee and a policy analyst at the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.

A study released in 1999 by the Donaldson Institute of about 200 adult Korean adoptees found that a significant shift in how we identify ourselves racially occurs as we become adults .While 36% of those questioned said they identified their ethnicity as "Caucasian only" when they were children, only 11% said the same as adult. By adulthood,64% said they considered themselves both Korean American/European.

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