Amy Mihyang explores the diversity and complexity of Korean adoptee experiences in her one-woman show, between: growing up (adopted), which opened in Seoul this past spring.
by tammy ko Robinson
A growing number of adult adoptees have been returning to Korea to learn about their cultural and biological roots. And many are not just going for summer motherland tours and birth family searches, but are relocating there to live and work.
Amy Mihyang is one such adoptee. She was adopted by a white couple when she was 3 months old and spent her childhood in upstate New York, where she was in her first play at age 5. Around the same time, she began voice work for a local radio station and in her early teens appeared in her first professional stage production, Inherit the Wind. She has since performed in shows in the United States, the United Kingdom and South Korea.
In recent years, her theater work has been influenced by her personal odyssey to find her birth family. In 2004, she reunited with her birth mother during a trip she took to South Korea with her adoptive father. She even lived with her birth family during a monthlong stay in 2006. Then, two years ago, Amy Mihyang (Her surname is Ginther, but she goes by the stage name of Amy Mihyang, which combines her first name and Korean name) decided to move to Korea to live and work. Last year, she starred in Seoul Players’ production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
This past spring, Amy Mihyang, who has studied the Korean language and pansori, performed a show she had written called between: growing up (adopted), which opened in Seoul to positive reviews, and she hopes to bring it to the U.S.
She came up with the idea for the one-woman show, in which she plays a half-dozen Korean adoptee characters, while studying at Hofstra University in New York. Her research for the show connected her with other Korean adoptees around the globe and served as her “education into our collective adoptee experience.” She is part of an adoptee community that has come to see itself as part of a distinct diaspora. Nearly 300,000 children from South Korea have been adopted into primarily white families in 15 countries across North America, Europe and Australia since the end of the Korean War. These children often contend with issues of loss, race and culture on a complex level, and even the most loving adoptive families cannot fully identify with the nature of these experiences.
Her play’s run in Seoul came amid a sea change on the issue of intercountry adoption within South Korea. Because the majority of South Korean children placed come from single-parent homes, campaigns and new laws to overturn the longtime stigma and lack of social support for single mothers have emerged.
Amy Mihyang, along with many other adult adoptees, has been part of this movement, and in fact, all the proceeds from the South Korean performances of between benefited the Korean Unwed Mothers and Families Association, which advocates for the rights of unwed mothers and their children.
During between’s run at Club After Mainstage in Seoul’s Itaewon, Amy Mihyang was able to perform before her own birth mother, who wept.
tammy ko Robinson: Let’s start with the title and this idea of “betweenness.”
Amy Mihyang: All of the characters are experiencing different kinds of “betweenness.” For example, Jenny is a character we meet when she is between 6 and 8 years old, and there is a sense of racial and cultural assimilation she is negotiating as someone being raised in the U.S. She desperately wants to fit in, but she knows she is not fully within a community and doesn’t know what the alternative is. One of my favorite scenes is when Jenny has this fantasy moment where she attempts to conjure up her birth mother. She wishes to see her; she wishes to be found. She has no idea that there is a bigger collective of us who have experienced a similar wish. It’s like she doesn’t even know there are other circles in the Venn diagram of her life that exist.
For Yunjin, the older and outspoken adoptee character in her 20s, her “between” state has a lot to do with her reunion with her birth mother. It hasn’t been the resolution she had hoped it would be.
Sarah Kim, an adoptee raised in the South, has de-emphasized the significance of her adoption for thirty-something years. When the audience meets her, right off the bat, it is interesting how she clearly is in the beginning stages of therapy. It’s pretty much her first visit, and she’s sitting on the edge of her chair saying, “I don’t really need to be here … My adoption was great.”
She intrigues us because even with this disavowal or attempt to distance herself ideologically or narrative-wise from other adoptees, she is there. What’s changed for her is that she has had a specific experience carrying her baby to term, and it has raised new questions about what challenges her birth mother may have experienced during the first two years of Sarah’s life before she was adopted.
In my experience, some [adoptee] voices are more public than others, like Yunjin’s compared to Sarah’s, in either validating and/or critiquing intercountry adoption as a practice or social experiment. And in my experience, sometimes adoptees do not always have a lot of patience in talking to one another across our different positions and experiences. But in this show, we hear and see across them all.
tkR: What was your research process for developing these adoptee characters?
AM: When I was first developing this show, it was based on Internet research, as adoptees were coming online internationally and joining listservs and creating blogs, and also based on speaking to as many people as possible. Yunjin’s character is based on an individual’s blog that emerged around that time, and eventually she and I made contact and became friends. And the unwed mother character was informed by content from a web diary that had been translated into English that I later translated back into Korean for the purposes of the show.
My impulse is to develop and look at these characters that are based on actual experiences in a very intellectual way, but as an actor, I also try to get into the characters’ bodies and find where their breath, tempo and movement are coming from. My director is a very physical director, and encourages a lot of this kind of work. For example, you can see how the unwed mother rests and how she protects herself.
tkR: Renowned writer/performer Anna Deavere Smith, in one of her interviews, cited a conversation with a linguist who had suggested it is imperative to ask the questions: “Do you know the circumstances of your birth?” and “Have you ever come close to death?” Jenny’s character appears to be really struggling with this first question, and by the end of the show, another character is talking about coming to terms with the passing of her adoptive mother. Could you talk about what you had hoped to achieve in crafting the arc of the show this way?
AM: There was an adoptee who attended one of the shows who had just remigrated to South Korea. She told me afterward that she felt she had been able to talk openly about the recent passing of her father during the [show’s] Q-and-A because of what had been expressed by these two characters. Hopefully what this show does is create a space for this affective knowing, and allows us to productively start our conversations based on our empathies and questions that have emerged during our life course, rather than from an already determined political viewpoint of good or bad.
Some ask me how it was being adopted to the U.S., but the thing is, when you’re a child, or even as an adult, we do not necessarily know what the politics or ideologies are that undergird our experiences. More importantly, we do not necessarily know an alternative is possible, nor did we have someone to advocate with us or with our birth parents. Hopefully this show presents some of this range.
tkR: In your introductory soliloquy, you pay homage to your adoptive mother, who served as an advocate for you and sent you to Camp Mujigae, a cultural camp for Korean adoptees. You refer to the latter as a sanctuary from the discrimination you encountered going to a school with a predominantly white student body.
Although I was likewise adopted from South Korea to a couple that raised me in the U.S., my adoptive mother wasn’t white and I didn’t attend a predominantly white elementary school or a culture camp. So, in these scenes I was particularly struck by how different our experiences of adoption have been. Could you talk about whom you envisioned as the primary audience for this show?
AM: It is interesting to learn how different Korean American adoptee experiences have been. For example, I would like to develop an adoptee character that is experiencing deportation by the U.S. government, but perhaps that’s for another show. I also sense much more of a divide between Korean American adoptee and Korean European adoptee experiences. However, I have had a number of adoptees from various countries come up to me and tell me how much they’ve connected with the show as it is. That said, I categorize the intended audience into three: adoptees, Korean audiences and non-Korean non-adoptees.
The biggest thing for me, for Korean audiences, is to tell a story about unwed mothers’ experiences within South Korea, and to fill in nuances of our adoptee experiences abroad that are not covered in the two [current] Korean broadcast TV reality shows that focus on birth family search and reunions.
I don’t believe Koreans are fully capable of empathizing unless they have lived outside of South Korea and experienced the racial adversity that we [adoptees] have lived through. For them, I think of Jenny’s “Princess Barbie” monologue where she expresses the ideal that blonde is best. I think Koreans definitely have internalized standards of beauty, but witnessing how this young adoptee experiences this conflict and then later attempts to magically conjure up her birth mother might speak to them.
I also think for birth family members, like my mother and sister who saw the show, while it doesn’t necessarily show them anything new or surprising, it helps them realize that our family wasn’t alone in the separation we experienced. My mom cried a lot, and I felt as though my sister got a better sense of who I am as a result, but more than this, they got the idea that they are part of this bigger diasporic experience.
For non-adoptees, I believe there are some who are interested in adopting and/or are acquainted with adoptees as friends or family. For them, my hope is that this show is educational. Intercountry adoption is complicated, and it is not simply a form of charity.
tkR: Since you first performed between, a few characters have been added. In particular, could you speak to any changes in developing Ki-Bum, the unwed mother character? To me, the stage time dedicated to her is some of the most compelling because she is based on your work as an adoptee researcher who has worked in solidarity with real-life unwed mothers in South Korea.
AM: As an actor, memorizing the lines in Korean and learning where the breath comes from for the character of Ki-Bum has been the most challenging of my career. In particular, it has been challenging to explore the strength of this character’s physicality, combined with how weakened she becomes as she nears the birth of her child and is surrounded by social and familial pressures that contradict her ideals. For her, as an unwed mother, although she wants more than anything to raise her child, she is conflicted by what her doctor, social worker and her society think is right for her child.
I want the audience to fully believe that I am this Korean mother before them, but I have accepted the fact that, to a Korean-fluent audience, there really is no amount of voice work I can do to achieve this. It’s interesting because non-native Korean speakers have told me that this character is the most affecting, and this is from the group who has to rely on subtitles I’m providing. There’s a really interesting debate on subtitles and performances, and it isn’t my intention to break this fourth wall.
But, you’re not the only one to intimate that part of what is moving about this performance of Ki-Bum is how hard and perhaps how imperfectly I, as an adoptee, am trying to portray this character to audiences here in South Korea.
tkR: Notably, there is no “reunion” scene between adoptee and birth mother in your show. I believe this was intentional on your part.
AM: I often worry that there is too much emphasis on the reunion between an adoptee and the birth family in broadcast media or other performance pieces. It is commonly the climax, therefore neglecting the important work an adoptee is doing leading up to the reunion, and needs to do in the critical post-reunion phase in building a relationship without a shared language. I try to address this expectation in my production by never actually giving the audience the satisfaction of Yunjin or any other character’s reunion scene. I think this dilutes the complexity and richness of the experience that the continuously progressing relationship demands and deserves.
In my own case, meeting my birth mother was simply surreal. There was no emotional pay-off or feeling of re solve, and I had to work actively on myself to make sense of it all. This is an ongoing process. In the initial meeting, I only met my birth mother. Later, I met my two sisters, one brother and my two nephews.
[I learned] my birth mother was married to my birth father, and I was the third daughter. My birth father forced her to give me up for adoption, and she complied in fear that he would leave her and the family. He eventually left anyway. My papers were changed to comply with the U.S. law that adoptees had to come from unwed mothers only. I grew up thinking my birth mother was unmarried. This was not the case.
tkR: In the U.S., we see a diversity of opinions on adoption, ranging from those who talk about the negative effects of children being separated from their birth mother, to those who highlight “successful adoptions.” I wonder what you think the response in the United States would be to your show?
AM: When I first got here to South Korea, I encountered an ideology that intercountry adoptive parents, on the least harmful end of the spectrum, were naïve or, on the most harmful end, racist and ethnocentrist in how they determined themselves as rightful parents. This has been changing, just as positions among adoptees have. In the character of Sarah, for example, she’s at first really defensive and insists her intercountry adoption was great, but I wanted to share how her position has changed since she herself has had a baby. She is attempting to comprehend what has made it impossible for a birth mother in South Korea to keep her child, and for a parent in the U.S. to adopt.
In the United Kingdom, we really struggled to build an audience and, interestingly, the biggest response came from mothers who had adopted children from China.
Conversely, we have always said there was potential for a university campus tour in the U.S. in adopteeheavy areas of the country. I would want to keep the philanthropic connection with the show and have it support fundraising efforts for adoptee-led support groups in the U.S., as well as continue to support work that addresses the root causes of cases of intercountry adoption out of South Korea.
tkR: What does this show mean to you on a personal level?
My voice, my story is just one of many woven together in a shared experience of loss, gain, diaspora and transcendence. Creating this show and performing it for different communities has given me a visceral sense of these things, beyond all the courses, research and activism that I have engaged with, in the adoptee and academic community.
In addition to the themes of international adoption, the show is important because it keeps me in awe of the power of artistic performance to move people into new thoughts and, ultimately, action in a way that other means simply cannot.
tammy ko Robinson is an artist-researcher currently living in Seoul. She serves as an associate professor of Applied Arts at Hanyang University, and her writings on arts and culture in South Korea have appeared in The Hankyoreh, Pressian, and ArtAsiaPacific.
This article appeared in the October 2011 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today!