At the recent Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, the end of the games came with the somewhat surprising appointment of Marissa Brandt, a Korean adoptee ice hockey Olympic athlete. Brandt did not play on behalf of the USA, where she was adopted, but was instead part of the South Korean team playing under her birth name.
It struck me as curious that someone would play for her birth country over her adopted one. Then I recalled a rather difficult conversation when I was younger about who I would fight for if I had to join a war between the Koreas and the USA. Even today, my pacifist nature still leans against common logic, causing confusion in my mind between the origins of my Korean blood and the love of my American family.
In moments like this, I take for granted that everyone who is adopted, and knows they are, talks about it or thinks about where they came from. If not constantly, then at least on a fairly regular basis.
I assume that every adoptee, especially those who are internationally adopted, identifies or struggles with being a person between identities—displaced from their native land, culture, language, food, and people.
Despite the hundreds of thousands of international adoptees from Asian countries like Korea, China, and Vietnam, or other countries such as Russia, the number of those who speak out remains an extremely small minority.
For years Korea has been faced with the harsh reality that they have sent, and still continue to send, over 200,000 children to be adopted around the world.
South Korean organizations and activist groups like IKAA, G.O.A.L., and KoRoot, amongst others, work to support the return of adoptees who want to search for their birth families. Some also create programs and awareness for birth mothers to be supported by society, so they can keep and raise their children. These groups are often spearheaded by adoptees who are healing from their experiences and helping others to make the most of their own.
Still, what remains most surprising of all are the suppressed voices of the adoptees.
When you actually engage with an adoptee and hear his/her story, no one is the same. This is because the reason for our abandonment changes the course of our lives and like a deep-rooted tree torn from the ground, the direction of any one root is difficult to follow.
From my experience, the vast majority of Korean adoptees I know are living life like any typical person, who is not adopted, might within their Caucasian communities. Even though there might be issues of identity or origins, most just live in a conventional way—assuming they were blessed by the universe to have an uneventful and undramatic adoption experience.
Unfortunately, there is another, too large, population to whom fate was less kind. These are the voices that are starting to be heard because the outward expression is required to heal from abuse, or to reconcile inherited instincts with an environment forced upon them. Many of the first adoptees from Korea are now of age where they feel ready and comfortable to speak out.
As for me, I fit somewhere in between, which often vexes me, as there are times when anger strikes at my loss of the opportunity to know my origins and the abuse that I was forced to endure. At other times, my love for the family that I call my own runs so deep and strong that the mere matter of sharing DNA is an unimportant and unnecessary detail.
Fast forward nearly 70 years since Korea’s international adoption phenomenon started. Times have changed.
The fast-paced information and Internet-based society that we now live in has given our suppressed voices a platform as well as a willing and waiting audience.
It is the stories that connect us.
While in the past, it was taboo to talk about adoption—even if the fact of it stared at you every day when you sat around the dinner table—today it is being brought out into the open more and more.
There are many adoptee stories
There are growing numbers of documentaries about the adoptee experience:
- Voices of Adoption: Korean Adoptee Perspective is a touching rendition of Korean adoptee Heather Elizabeth Hwa Sook Lee Papp’s story, one of the First Person Plural stories.
- First Person Plural encompasses the rest of Deann Borshay Liem’s emmy-award-winning documentary series.
- In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee — Deann Borshay Liem’s follow-up to First Persona Plural, investigating her own background and how the adoption of Korean children became a multi-million dollar industry.
- Adopted reveals the grit rather than the glamor of transracial adoption. First-time director Barb Lee goes deep into the intimate lives of two well-meaning families and shows us the subtle challenges they face.
- Ricki’s Promise deals with a Chinese adoptee discovering that she had been seized by government officials and funneled to an orphanage for international adoption against her biological parents’ will.
- Somewhere Between follows the lives of four teenaged girls adopted from China and now living in the United States.
- Twinsters is the chronicle of French fashion student who discovered via the Internet that she had an identical twin she never knew existed.
- Lion is a more mainstream movie, based on the experiences of the over 80,000 children who go missing in India each year. It follows the story of a 5-year old boy who gets lost in Calcutta, is adopted to Australia, and then 25 years later sets out to find his lost family.
Two podcasts that delve into the adoptee experience are:
- A Family in China is a podcast about adoptee birth parent search. It examines the quest of many international adoptees, now grown, to begin to solve this great personal mystery: Who were my birth parents and why did I end up in an orphanage and adopted?
- Adapted is a podcast that explores the experiences of Korean adoptees who have repatriated or resettled in Korea.
There are also many blogs of all kinds written by adoptees and those connected to the adoption world, where the stories of adoptees are shared, making their voices heard.
It is not just the Korean adoptees who are speaking out, but also those from other countries. With adoptees combining their voices, the volume is increasing to a noticeable level. It helps that what was once a taboo subject is now becoming mainstream and it is no longer uncommon to know someone who has been either internationally or domestically touched by adoption.
So, although Marissa Brandt may have an official title, as an ambassador for adoptees, all adoptees are also their own ambassadors. It is time to let all our voices be heard through every form of expression we find to connect and share our stories with the world.