My parents - like most families who adopted from Korea in the '50s and '60s -did not shun my birth culture out of shame or disgust. They simply didn't have the resources, or the experience, to show them the importance of our retaining a piece of our "Korean selves." Our families experienced comments from strangers who were baffled, and on occasion disturbed, by the sight of white parents pushing strollers occupied by Asian babies. It also was hard to talk about Korea without having to talk about painful memories of loss and separation.
Over time, they saw that no matter how blind they were to our race and ethnicity, others would have problems understanding how Korean-looking children could have all-American names and lifestyles.
Patricia Palmer of Ankeny, Iowa, and mother to five adopted Korean children, says that when she first adopted from Korea in 1969, she was told to raise her Korean children just like she was raising her two birth children. "We know now that things should have been handled differently," she says. "As our Korean kids were growing up, we realized they needed out help if they were to form positive Korean-American identities."
She started taking her kids to a Korean church and language classes and started a culture camp for families in her area with adopted Korean children.
"Many of the early adoptees were abandoned with little or no information about their birth families and histories. Today, many children who are adopted internationally from Korea are given a substantial amount of information," says Nancy Wahlin, coordinator of the Korean adoption program at Spence-Chapin Services to Families and Children in New York.
But there are still some misperceptions on the part of new adoptive parents surrounding issues of adoption vs. race. For example , many emphasize adoption issues, like why their adopted children were not kept by their birth parents and who their birth parents were, but do little to address the larger racial issues that affect all Korean-Americans. Anu Sharma, who did research for a comprehensive 1994 study of about 200 Korean adopted children when she worked for the Search Institute in Minneapolis, says research indicates that race is actually a bigger concern for Korean adoptees.
"The first generation of adopted Korean children opened the gate and redefined the American family," says Sharma, now a research scientist who specialized in adoption at the Minnesota Institute of Public Health. "And when you infiltrate the American family, you infiltrate the American system at its very core."
This article originally appeared in USA TODAY