LSA sophomore Rachel Hyerim Shin has been searching for her biological parents for three years. Although she grew up with a “wonderful, loving family” in a small rural town, she feels she has a gap she cannot fill until she finds her birth mother.
Shin, who was adopted from Seoul, South Korea in 1985 at the age of three months, said finding her birth family is a frustrating and painful part of the process of connecting to the culture of her biological heritage.
“It’s a self-identity thing,” she said. “Some people are really satisfied not ever knowing, but for me it was really important from the very beginning.”
Alison Adema, Korean program coordinator for Bethany Christian Services, the largest adoption agency in the nation, said while it is common for adoptees to search for information on their biological parents, they often have difficulties locating relatives.
“We get calls probably on a daily basis from adoptees who want to search for birth parents … That number has been growing and probably will continue to grow,” she said.
However, BCS’s ability to help these adoptees is limited. Several laws in Korea regulate adoptees searches for biological families, Adema said. For example, adoptees are not allowed to request information on their birth families until they are 18, and even then, adoption agencies are very limited in the amount of information they can release.
Unfortunately, for Shin, connecting with her biological heritage has been difficult. She has searched newspapers, a television network specifically devoted to reconnecting adoptees and their biological parents, and has even traveled back to Korea in search of her family. At one point, she thought she had found a relative, but a DNA test revealed they were not related.
WAR AND ADOPTION
Shin is certainly not alone. According to Holt International Children’s Services, one of the largest international adoption agencies in South Korea, Americans adopted 19,360 Korean children between 1992 and 2002. South Korea annually ranks among the top five countries in the world sending adopted children to the United States.
Henry Em, professor of Korean history, said the causes of South Korea’s high adoption rates reach back to the Korean War, in which over three million Koreans died — almost 10 percent of the population. These deaths left millions of Korean children newly orphaned and completely destitute, he said.
It was after the Korean War, he added, that Christian organizations first founded adoption agencies in Korea, motivated by the impoverished existence of many Korean children who were devastated by the war.
These agencies served a growing need as international adoption rates stayed high in South Korea well into the 1970s and ’80s, he said, adding that unwed mothers faced intense cultural and legal pressure to give up their children.
“In Korea, you have a system where birth is recorded in a family registry,” Em said. “Because of the patriarchy, women were not allowed to be the head of a household. The children of unwed mothers literally could not have their child’s name recorded in the household registry.”
Em explained that because unwed mothers could not establish their own households, their only option was to register their children as children of their own parents. Legally, the woman’s child would become her younger brother or sister, he said.
Biracial children, too — often born of a union between a poor Korean woman and an American soldier — were commonly abandoned or offered for adoption. Historically, Em said, Korean society is not accepting of biracial children. There was a “lingering suspicion or stereotype that a woman who had a child with an American G.I. came from a prostitute background,” he explained, adding that this stereotype came from the large number of bars and brothels that percolated around American military bases.
FINDING A PLACE
A study done by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in June 2000 found that 64 percent of Korean adoptees surveyed said they considered themselves Korean-American, or Korean-European, depending on the country to which they were adopted.
LSA junior Trista Van Tine, who was adopted when she was four months old from an orphanage in Seoul, South Korea, said being raised in a white family and community led her to feel like an “an Americanized Asian.”
“I don’t see myself as Asian so much as I see myself as a woman, or a 20-year-old,” she said. “But I am aware of how other people may see me. The times I feel most Asian are when I am seeing myself through the eyes of others.”
“It is funny actually, because people who haven’t met me but have heard of me expect to see a white, blonde girl,” she said.
Van Tine added that her Dutch last name often causes confusion among friends, and she is frequently asked about the perceived contradiction between her European last name and her Asian physical characteristics.
While Shin said her adopted family has encouraged her to learn more about Korea, taking her to cultural events and reading her books about her homeland, she still struggles to find where she fits in culturally.
Growing up, she said, she tried to blend into the culture of the white community where she lived.
“I was in denial for like 10 years, saying, ‘No, I’m white,’ trying to be like everyone else,” she said. “That’s what kids want to do — they don’t want to be different.”
Not only did her appearance make her feel unaccepted in a largely white community, but her upbringing made her feel alienated from the Asian community.
“Sometimes I feel I’m not Korean enough because I don’t speak the language, even though I look like I should,” she said.
Both Shin and Van Tine reported various experiences with discrimination while growing up. For both, this was confusing.
Van Tine recalled an incident when she was talking on a payphone outside a store. There was an elderly couple watching her, she said. She paid little attention to them until she picked up the receiver and said “hello” to the person on the other end of the phone.
“The old woman turned to her husband and said, ‘That’s probably the only thing she knows how to say,’ ” Van Time said. “I was kind of dumbfounded, but I guess I just brushed it off to the fact that I lived in a small town where a lot of the people honestly don’t know much about the world.”
“Thinking about it later I was really angry that people can be so rude and have such prejudiced preconceptions about others,” she added.
Shin also faced prejudice while growing up. She recalled “people reaching out and touching your hair, saying, ‘Oh, why is it so black?’
“It’s harmless children’s curiosity, but it still hurts,” Shin said. “I remember being really hurt in kindergarten by kids saying I couldn’t open my eyes all the way.”
In high school, Shin continued to encounter insensitivity because of her biological race. There were only two other Asian students at Shin’s high school, one an adoptee and the other an international student. “The other Asian (student) who was adopted was a male, and people would always tell us to date because we would be cute,” she said.
Van Tine said that although she is sometimes surprised at the discrimination she sees, she faces it just like anyone else who must deal with prejudice.
“I think that people who discriminate against others do so out of a lack of understanding, whether it be about the person, their surroundings or themselves,” she said. “Students at this university or in towns like Ann Arbor may take for granted that their education and diverse surroundings have made them knowledgeable about many different cultures.”
DIFFICULTY AND OPTIMISM
While both women have faced difficulty because of their conflicting ethnic identities, they share sentiments of gratitude toward their adopted parents.
“If I had not been adopted, my life would be completely different. I have a great family and great friends,” Van Tine said, adding that she feels her adoption as a U.S. citizen has given her opportunities she would not have had in South Korea. “I feel that being adopted into a culture different than my biological one has also made me a more aware and open-minded person.”
As Shin continues to search for her birth family, she tries to stay optimistic about her mother’s reasons for offering her up for adoption. “I try not to think of it as her abandoning me or throwing me away, but trying to give me opportunities that she could not have provided for me,” she said. “(It’s) just the idea that she left me to be found rather than she left me period,” she said.
“I have such a wonderful life, I have so many friends and a wonderful family who loves me. (These are) people who I know that I wouldn’t if my birth mother hadn’t left me for someone else.”