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
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 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.