EDITOR’S NOTE: The following story is excerpted from The New York Times Magazine article “Why a Generation of Adoptees is Returning to South Korea” by Maggie Jones.
by MAGGIE JONES
Laura Klunder’s newest tattoo runs down the inside of her left forearm and reads “K85-160,” a number that dates to her infancy. Klunder was 9 months old when her South Korean mother left her at a police station in Seoul. The police brought her to Holt Children’s Services, a local adoption agency, where a worker assigned Klunder the case number K85-160. It was only two weeks into 1985, but she was already the 160th child to come to the agency that month, and she would go on to be one of 8,800 children sent overseas from South Korea that year. Klunder became part of the largest adoption exodus from one country in history: Over the past six decades, at least 200,000 Korean children — roughly the population of Des Moines — have been adopted into families in more than 15 countries, with a vast majority living in the United States.
Klunder, who is 30, has a warm goofiness and a tendency toward self-deprecation. (“I was the chubby kid with glasses wearing Lisa Frank T-shirts,” she said, shaking her head at the memory of her middle-school self.) But she also resonates intensity. She chose the tattoo of her case number as a critique of adoption, she told me. “I was a transaction. I was a number in the same way that people who are criminalized and institutionalized are given numbers.”
Klunder, who was raised in Wisconsin, moved back to South Korea in 2011, which is where I met her one night last February along with three of her friends, all adoptees from the United States. We were at a restaurant in the Hongdae section of Seoul, known for its galleries, bars and cheap restaurants. Outside, the streets teemed with university students, musicians, artists and clubbers. The neighborhood is also a popular spot for the approximately 300 to 500 adoptees who have moved to South Korea — primarily from the United States but also from France, Denmark and other nations. Most lack fluency in the language and possess no memories of the country they left when they were young. But they are back, hoping for a sense of connection — to South Korea, to their birth families, to other adoptees.
That night, Klunder and her friends passed plates of bibimbap (rice topped with meat and vegetables), soondubu jjigae (tofu stew) and pa jun (scallion pancake) around the table and ordered bottles of beer and soju. Everyone there was a member of Adoptee Solidarity Korea, or ASK. It was started as a reading group in 2004 by a handful of politically progressive Korean female adoptees (and one man) in their 30s, who began to discuss why Korean single mothers felt pressure to give away their children — 90 percent of those who place their children for adoption are not married. They talked about a culture in which single mothers are often ostracized, one in which employers typically ask women about their marital status in job interviews; parents sometimes reject daughters who raise their children alone; and the children of single mothers are often bullied in school. They also questioned why the government offered little aid to mothers to help keep their families intact. At an adoption conference organized a year after the group was created, members handed out fliers that read, in part, “ASK stands in opposition to international adoption.” They sold T-shirts, designed by Kimura Byol-Nathalie Lemoine, an early adoptee activist, that depicted a wailing baby with a large stamp on its rear end: “Made in Korea.”
Over time, ASK backed away from its message of ending adoption. It was too polarizing, adoptees said, and “hard for people to hear anything we said after the word ‘stop,’ ” Jenny Na, one of the group’s founders, wrote in a history of ASK. But in recent years, members — along with other Korean adoptee activists — have built an improbable political campaign, lobbying for legislation that has helped reduce the flow of Korean children overseas. In the process, they have emerged as leaders in a movement to question the very concept of international adoption, one that has galvanized other adoptees around the world.
Some of those leaders, including Klunder and her friend Kim Stoker, who was also at dinner that night, want to stanch the flow of Korean children entirely. “I get parents’ desperation to have children,” said Stoker, who at 41 was the oldest of the group at the table. “Accepting diverse families is great,” she said. But, she added, “I don’t think it’s normal adopting a child from another country, of another race and paying a lot of money. I don’t think it’s normal to put a child on a plane away from all its kin and different smells. It’s a very modern phenomenon.”
Neither Klunder nor Stoker believes international adoption will stop in South Korea any time soon. But ending it is what they want. As Klunder put it, “Our goal is to make ourselves extinct.”
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Before Laura Klunder left South Korea as a child, she lived with a foster family with whom she learned to take tentative steps holding an adult’s hand. She could say “omma” (mommy) and understood other Korean words. Then on April 27, 1985, nine days after her first birthday, she boarded a Korean Airlines flight with an escort provided by the Holt agency and flew 6,500 miles to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.
In Franklin, Wis., a largely white suburb of Milwaukee, Klunder attended a Lutheran school where she was taunted by one boy for years: “Why is your skin so dirty?” “You look like a black Barbie.” “Did you fall in the mud?” Her parents had good intentions and, Klunder says, “were loving in more ways than they were not.” But they didn’t acknowledge how central race was in their daughter’s life. “My parents told me they didn’t see color,” Klunder said. “They couldn’t engage on that level.”
When I recently talked to her mother, she said: “I could see how upsetting certain things were to Laura. But I said, ‘You can’t let these things bother you so much; there will also be people like that in the world.’ ” When the issue of adoption came up, Klunder’s mother told her that her birth mother loved her very much but that God had a different plan for her. As a teenager, furious that her parents didn’t understand her feelings and experiences, Klunder repeatedly lashed out at them. They were angry, too. When she was in high school, Klunder told me, her father would say: “I didn’t sign up for this. Send her back.” (He says he remembers saying something like that only once.)
This was in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when adoption experts had already shifted from telling parents to “assimilate” their adopted children, instead encouraging them to talk openly about adoption, to acknowledge racial differences and to embrace their children’s birth culture. Some parents signed up for “homeland tours” to Korea or sent their children to Korean summer “culture camp,” where kids gathered in the woods of Minnesota or California to study the Korean alphabet, dance to Korean pop music and learn taekwondo.
Klunder’s family occasionally ate dinner with friends who had adopted Korean children, and they attended an annual Korean adoptee picnic near Chicago. Klunder felt ambivalent about it. The food was delicious, and the Korean women who danced in their hanboks were beautiful, but she didn’t identify as Korean. “They were telling me this is my culture, but I didn’t see myself in that traditional dress and tight bun.” And though she knew one other Korean adoptee as a child, by the time Klunder was a teenager — when difference is a stigma most kids work to avoid — “I wanted nothing to do with adoptees.”
In a 2009 survey of adult adoptees by the Donaldson Adoption Institute, more than 75 percent of the 179 Korean respondents who grew up with two white parents said they thought of themselves as white or wanted to be white when they were children. Most also said they had experienced racial discrimination, including from teachers. Only a minority said they felt welcomed by members of their own ethnic group. The report recommended that parents do more than just celebrate multiculturalism or sign up for culture camp. Adoptees should have “lived” experiences related to adoption and race: traveling to birth countries, attending racially diverse schools. Those things might have helped, Klunder says, but only if she had parents who were willing to be honest about racism. “You need parents who can talk about white privilege, who can say: ‘You might experience some of this. I’m sorry. We are in this together.’ ”
In college, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Klunder found a group of like-minded friends and joined the multicultural student coalition. After receiving a master’s degree in social work, she took a job at Macalester College in Minnesota, advising minority and feminist groups and working on the school’s response to sexual assault. Her immersion in those issues served only to make fights with her parents more disheartening. “I knew that I was the only person of color in their life, and it was too easy for them to invalidate my point of view as another ‘anger issue.’ ” At some point, she said, “I felt hopeless to create change in my adoptive family.”
Eight years ago, she stopped talking to them, though she says she hopes that will change one day. Her mother, who misses her daughter, said: “I’m sorry for anything we didn’t do correctly for her. But we didn’t know how she felt. I couldn’t get her to talk about anything important or what was inside her.”
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As I talked to dozens of adoptees in Seoul about what drew them back, the conversation, inevitably, shifted to what might push them to leave. For many, the experience of living in Seoul veers between warm familiarity and occasional alienation. (A different version of growing up as an Asian adoptee in a white family in the United States.) “Korea is home,” Amanda Eunha Lovell, told me. “But it’s not one I’m completely comfortable in.”
Lovell, who is 36, teaches English to elementary-school children and is a graduate student working on a documentary about adoptees returning to South Korea. She grew up in Ipswich, Mass., and has lived in Seoul for six years. She has an advantage over many adoptees: She speaks Korean fairly well, which makes her feel more at home. But like every other adoptee, she has had to adjust to different social norms, including Koreans’ well-intentioned bluntness, especially when it comes to women: How old are you? Are you married? Are you tired? Why don’t you wear more makeup?
Lovell was one of the very few female adoptees I heard about with a Korean boyfriend. He’s a musician who tells her he is “not a typical Korean guy.” Still, “he scolds me, saying, ‘You should be doing this,’ ” she said, imitating a paternal voice. Laura Klunder also pointed out the various ways gender roles are ingrained in daily life: Female adoptees are often viewed as masculine when they wear clunky shoes and carry their own bags of groceries — a sharp contrast to the young Korean women in high heels, short skirts and meticulously applied layers of makeup. Koreans also consider it unladylike for women to smoke in public. And if a handyman arrives at a woman’s apartment to fix something, he will often ask to speak to the husband. “In the U.S., I feel my race,” Lovell said. “Here I feel my gender. This is what it must have been like in the United States during the ‘Mad Men’ era.”
For many adoptees, those cultural divides — coupled with the fact that they can’t speak the language, a frustrating and often heart-wrenching obstacle in their own birth country — solidifies the feeling that they hover in between: not fully American, not fully Korean. Instead, they live in a third space: Asian, Western, white, adopted, other. It’s a complicated place but not always a bad one. “I am, maybe, in a way, proud of my in-betweenness,” Lovell recently wrote me in an email.
You can read the full article online at NYTimes.com.