Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Korea’s History is My History

On the first ever overnight trip organized for adoptees by KoRoot, about 15 of us were relaxing by the bay in Suncheon, Jeollanam-do. We sat singing Jindo Arirang after a day visiting the municipal cemetery in Kwangju where the martyrs were buried from the 5.18 uprising before many of them were re-interred in the nearby National Cemetery, and where more of their comrades subsequently joined them as the decades passed. I feel a profound sense of gratitude and connection to those young democracy fighters, many of whom died at the same age of my smartphone-addicted university students. Their school photos show them clad in school uniforms, and I recognize the artifacts left behind as almost identical to the same school supplies I used 6000 miles away in the USA. I tried to convey these feelings in inadequate words to the other trip participants while our hosts relayed the basic facts of the uprising to us.

I get the impression that the connection that I feel to these events and people of the 1980 come as a surprise to many people I meet in Korea. These people often try to educate adoptees and other dongpos about the intricacies of Korean customs, history, and manners, assuming we know nothing. Of these three elements of culture, the very easiest to grasp is history, even if it’s difficult to unravel the truth from nation-building myths and propaganda. Non-Korean western scholars are often called on to interpret current events for global audiences in the news media, so why couldn't those of us who are Korean-born, with more insider access to Korean communities, also be entrusted to have a basic grasp of history?

Although as a discrete population, we adoptees may seem to be the least connected by family histories from which to learn, but as a part of the farthest-flung national diaspora on earth [“World’s widest diaspora born over 100 years ago.” Korea Joong Daily. 2 October 2013] , adoptees are profoundly affected by history [Mueller, Ander R. “Adoptee justice is about social justice.” The Korea Times. 9 October 2012.] which often prompts us to learn on our own. In fact, since I have no personal history, the nation’s history is a substitute personal narrative for me, and integral to my critical understanding of intercountry adoption as part of the history of Korea.

1970s Factory worker
with her baby
For example, when I met three women who worked in garment factories in the 1970s [Song, Dae-Han. “70s Women Workers.” Solidarity Stories. 8 May 2014.]  to create the “Miracle on the Han,” I imagined that perhaps my own mother had been a part of this cohort of teenagers who worked bent over for 14 hours a day. I can easily see them in my mind these young women who migrated to Seoul or Incheon where I was presumably born, being forced to choose between mothering their children and continuing to work for incomes, ultimately relinquishing their children to the intercountry adoption industry. This part of the peoples’ history runs parallel with the history of many diasporic Koreans who were was also funding the transformation of South Korea with overseas remittances after the government encouraged emigration and tried to control population growth. In Kwangju those photos of rebellious citizens were also contemporaries of my parents. The Yushin system and Chung Doo Hwan’s martial law rule certainly affected my mother and father, as it touched everyone in South Korea. Of course I do not know my parents’ opinions about these issues, but I as I turned 4 in May 1980, I’m sure they must have witnessed the uprising and talked about it.

But the history of Korea is not only a substitute for my own personal history. Historic events created a system for intercountry adoption out of South Korea and a mythology about its necessity based on humanitarian grounds. Although the current system of intercountry adoption is usually said to have started about 60 years ago, I think the forced opening of the Hermit Kingdom, the partial Christianization of Korea, colonization and independence, the American influence on South Korea are all pertinent parts of the whole picture. This national history is as equally important as the substitute personal history in relation to intercountry adoption and adoptees are also a part of the history of South Korea.

Women in Chosun Korea selling produce in a market
Some of this national history has been obscured to facilitate the adoption industry. Take, for example, unwed single mothers. While Chosun-era society usually is depicted with “respectable” women as being “inside people,” strictly held to prescribed gender roles, what about women who had lower status? After all, they were the majority of the population. What about the peasants who certainly worked outdoors in the fields? Or female merchants with businesses? Or itinerant groups such as the Namsadang entertainers who, despite their name, had female members later in their history? What about mudang? kisaeng? What about slaves and their children? Single parenting is as old as parenting and a part of every society. This reality is not mentioned in histories of Korea, but I have no doubt it existed. This history ought to be uncovered.

Some history, however, is well known yet still counters the dominant narrative about the reasons for intercountry adoption. The story of the beginning of adoption out of Korea conventionally begins with the mixed-race children who would not be accepted by Korean society which also does not adopt non-relatives. Yet, even official Korean history is peppered with marriages of Koreans to non-Koreans and adoption. In early history the legendary Queen Heo Hwang Ok, wife of King Suro, was a foreigner, maybe from India. Later the Mongolian-Koryo alliance was supported by marriage. Finally, the creator of modern “Korean culture”, the Yi dynasty of Chosun, also had marriages to Japanese and white American women [“[HISTORY] The last prince of Korea” Life in Korea blog 26 October 2013.], plus acknowledged adoptions. During the Yi rule, too, thousands of marriages between Koreans and Japanese existed in both lands. Yet, despite this, we are told that Korea deeply values its “pure” bloodlines and has no tradition of adoption due to conservative Confucian values.

Korea’s recent and ancient history holds importance to me personally and as a way to understand the place adoption holds in this country. It connects me to an imagined past rooted in plausible reality. Exposing and publicizing the real history of Korean society, especially of women, allows for pointed questions about the justifications for adoption.

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