Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Korean Adoptees Visiting Korea?

Dear Korean,

I am a Swedish woman originally adopted from Korea. I know that a lot of children in Korea have been adopted to western countries since the 1950's and I am curious of how Korean people in general view this - the driving forces of the adoptions, foremost within Korea, is there an active discussion for example? I am aware that there might be as many views on this as there are Koreans, but I am interested in the general discourse on the topic.


Dear Korean,

I'm a Korean adoptee who is returning to Korea for the first time to adopt my own daughter. I've heard a lot of scuttlebutt that there's a stigma against adoption in the motherland. So, I wanted to ask you what really is the Korean attitude towards international adoption? Will I be looked down on upon my return?


Dear Korean,

I have a few questions to you concerning how Koreans think and feel about people who have been adopted away from Korea. Myself, I am a 28-year old woman living in Norway. I was born in Korea, but adopted to Norway at the age of 5 months. There are actually quite a lot of Korean adoptees here, and quite a few are quite curious about going back to the biological country, and even finding their biological family. For me, that's not really an issue since I feel 100% Norwegian, and I think I would only feel uncomfortable about going back to try to find a link there which just isn't there. However, my question is how the citizens of Korea feel about people who have been adopted from Korea, both those who return to find their lost past, and those who really don't care about their birth country. Are there any sympathies, prejudices, or things Koreans are curious about?


Dear Korean,

I am an adopted South Korean raised in Minnesota USA. I have never visited the Fatherland as an adult but I want to soon. When I go to South Korea, is it true they will know by just looking at me that I am an American? Will I be shunned, ostracized, belittled by native Koreans because I do not know their language or culture, and because I am an American?

Jonathan Paul Lindberg, aka Gil Young Woo, aka Johnny Woo

Dear Questioners,

One of the more gratifying aspects of running AAK! is that the Korean is serving as a liaison for many Korean adoptees to Korean culture. It is a sobering responsibility that always makes the Korean think twice about what he writes.

Picture of a Korean adoptee (source)

The Korean previously wrote about how Koreans may perceive non-Koreans who adopt Korean children. But what do Koreans think about the adoptees themselves?

The best answer is: nothing. For better or worse, international adoption has never been featured as a big topic of discussion within the Korean society. There has been some discussion about the responsibility that the Korean society owes to orphans, and what a shame it is having to export babies rather than take care of Korea’s own children. Once in a while, there would be a human-interest feature on television or newspaper about kind-hearted non-Koreans who adopted a number of Korean children, or the journey of Korean adoptees trying to find their roots. But they do not draw much attention – Koreans just have more pressing issues to deal with in their society.

This means that on an individual level, the sentiment toward adoptees may vary widely – some people may have given a lot of thoughts on the issue, and others not at all. But generally, people realize that adoptees did not have much choice about the fact that they were adopted abroad. Therefore, broadly speaking, people would be sympathetic toward adoptees visiting Korea. In fact, news organizations and other non-profit organizations often sponsor adult adoptees to visit Korea and locate their birth parents if possible. There is also an annual event where a number of non-profit foundations in Korea invite more than 400 adult adoptees from 15 countries to visit Korea and experience Korean culture, visit their hometown, etc.

What does this mean on the ground level, i.e. when you are traveling in Korea? At this point, allow the Korean to expand the topic beyond adoptees who wish to travel Korea:

The Korean is always amused by people who think that Korea is this mystical, tradition-bound place where a single heretical move or remark would cause people on the street to hurl stones at them. Please – enough with the “How will I be treated if I traveled to Korea” questions! Korea is a regular place where regular people live. Most people are too busy with their own affairs to care about some tourist who won’t affect their lives in any meaningful way. Storekeepers are concerned with the bottom line, and they will sell you things if you have money for it. (Imagine that!) You might get stared at a little if you look really different from the locals, but so what?

STOP SENDING THOSE QUESTIONS. Seriously. Your teachers lied to you – there are such things as stupid questions, and those questions are stupid. The Korean has flamingly gay friends who traveled all over Iran. Miraculously, they were not stoned to death! (Instead, they report that there is a vibrant, if underground, homosexual culture in Iran as well.) Of course, you have to use your common sense. Tourists are targets of crime anywhere in the world. Drunken men might harass you from time to time. You might be overcharged for some things. It is a bad idea to walk around at night on your own in dark places. But really, if two gay dudes who made a habit of making out in the streets of Tehran can safely travel Iran, you can safely travel Korea no matter what you happen to be.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@hotmail.com.


  1. A few Koreans I've met report since they look Korean, they MUST speak Korean to people - mainly because it's assumed you know the language. Some gyopo and other adopted Koreans don't - coming to Korea means you'll be asked a question, by a Korean, in Korean. That person may well be taken aback by the inability to speak the 'mother tongue', and dismiss you as they might a foreigner.

    Will you fit in completely? Of course not - but I don't think that's a fair goal. You also won't feel like a complete stranger, since you'll be around people that look like yourself (or more like yourself than the Caucasian faces surrounding you). You may also speak the language, and be familiar with elements of Korean culture and history, but that depends more on parenting than anything else.

    Come to Korea. Have fun. Enjoy your time here. That's all :)

  2. Here's some news on NY Times, that adoptees from South Korea might be interested


  3. Here's a movie version about "a
    young Korean-American adoptee who returns to her homeland after 23 years."


  4. I don't know, AAK, it seems harsh to publish these emails with the people's names and then tell them they're asking dumb questions. One can understand their anxieties. I had the same ones, and as a gyopo, I had Korean parents to consult about returning and family living in Korea to visit, which adoptees do and may not.

    Because I did not speak the language Koreans did assume I was American (or often, Japanese, which was puzzling). Even so, 99% of the time everyone was VERY nice and welcoming. When they realized I didn't speak English they would go out of their way to help me find addresses and order food, for instance. Go and enjoy! It's a wonderful place with friendly people and amazing food and it's after all our ancestral home.

    p.s. I've seen that movie Jea mentions and it's very good.

  5. This reminds me of my favorite Samuel Johnson quote, except I don't remember the exact quote. Whoops. But ummm, it went something like this -- Ask yourself how little you care about strangers that you come across. Well, that's how little they care about you.

  6. I'm a KAD (Korean Adoptee) who visited Korea after college 10 years ago, for me it was a bit difficult but I'm glad I did. Here are some lessons that I learned which may or may not apply to you.

    1) Not speaking the language. If you can learn Korean or bring somebody who can speak it, it would make things much easier.

    2) Be prepared for culture shock. Korea has it's own culture which is different from the one that you grew up in. Don't expect that you'll fit in once you step off of the plane. Personally I have more in common with Korean American's that I do with Koreans from Korea.

    3) Most likely you will be treated like a tourist. Personally I was mistaken to be Japanese by a woman on the street since I couldn't speak Korean.

    4) Go with someone or have access to somebody you can talk with (especially if you are searching for your birth parents). I ended up going with somebody and I'm glad that I did. If you can't go with someone have a person you can call and talk to if need be.

    Right now there are a lot of resources for Korean Adoptees, blogs, books, etc. Here is some information that might be helpful.

    A Korean Adoptee Center in Seoul.

    10 Questions to ask yourself if you are looking for birth parents.

    KAD Blogs

  7. I recently finished a year teaching English in Korea. One of my friends who I met in Korea is a Korean adopted to Canada. Because of her Korean ethnicity she was given a different visa from most English teachers which makes it easier for her to stay in Korea longer, and eventually live in Korea long term if she wants to.

    From what I was able to gather, mostly through what my friend told me of her experiences, Korean people seemed thrilled that she was back in Korea and very much wanted her to feel a special affinity for Korea. She was complimented profusely when she wore "Korean" style (modern) clothing and haircuts rather then "Western" style.

    It seems to me that the general feeling of Korea about Korean adoptees to other countries is that of sympathy and welcome to those who were adopted, but less then thrilled with the idea of Koreans being adopted into non-Korean families. I believe this is mainly related to pride in the Korean nationality and the desire for all Korean children to be raised with the same sense of pride and culture.

    That said, most Koreans who have given it much thought also realize that adopting in Korea is fairly rare, and allowing orphans to be adopted to other countries may be the child's only chance at a better life then they would be provided in their own country.

  8. I think Korea is the safest place I traveled to. Everybody is so friendly and as a tourist, You get freebies and services everywhere!!!

  9. Nothing"? As a KAD, I could easily be offended by this statement, but I see the realism in your perspective. I wish you would have dug deeper though before your attempt to explain us away with "Koreans just have more pressing issues to deal with in their society". I believe there is nothing more pressing than human lives.

    I disagree that Korea is a regular country made up of regular people. Korea has the oldest international adoption program, which makes Korea unique. Perhaps the reason why Koreans do not openly discuss adoption or adoption isnt a common subject can be more explained by Koreans' unwillingness to discuss issues in which they feel great shame, which you did touch on lightly. I do appreciate your attempt to answer the questions though. It is through these types of discussions in which others realize there are numerous issues which contributed to the over 200,000 Koreans sent abroad for over 50 years, and those issues still exist today.

    This is not a personal attack on you or your ideas. Sadly, it's easier for Koreans to believe adoption issues lack importance, instead of solving the problems and changing attitudes, which proves KADs cannot rely on Koreans to actualize the social/cultural/government reforms needed within Korea. Fortunately there are KADs in Korea who are pushing for the Korean government to provide better assistance to unwed mother so they have the choice of keeping their children. Attitudes do not change overnight, but in order for change to occur, acknowledging a problem exists..... is the first step.

    For the KADs who asked you a question...there are many KADs who have blogs who have been to Korea or are still in Korea and are willing to share their perspective and tips.

  10. btstorm,

    I disagree that Korea is a regular country made up of regular people. Korea has the oldest international adoption program, which makes Korea unique.

    What the Korean meant by "regular" is that it is the country and the people who are motivated by the same forces as anyone else you know. Having the oldest adoption program does not make Koreans act any differently towards a random stranger on the street.

    Sadly, it's easier for Koreans to believe adoption issues lack importance, instead of solving the problems and changing attitudes, which proves KADs cannot rely on Koreans to actualize the social/cultural/government reforms needed within Korea.

    The Korean thinks you are getting mixed up on the subject matter. The question was what Koreans generally thought about adoptees, not adoption in general. As to the topic of adoptions, Koreans do have a lively discussion about it, and how they could improve domestic adoption in general.

  11. "Because of her Korean ethnicity she was given a different visa from most English teachers"

    Yes this is called a F-4 visa.

    "allowing orphans to be adopted to other countries may be the child's only chance at a better life then they would be provided in their own country."

    In the typical Hollywood happy ending this might be the case, everybody wins in the end. Unfortunately in real life it's not as simple as that. While many adoptive parents do raise their children well, there are many others who abuse and some even kill (James Gumm) their adoptive children. Being adopted from another country also complicates matters (not knowing your native language, culture, racism, etc.). So in terms of having a better life ...

  12. I understand and appreciate that there is nothing simple about international adoption, and that it is not the best option in every case. I won't even claim it's best in most cases.

    But, when a child could have a nourishing family who will meet all their physical and emotional needs, provide the child with a good education and unconditional love, I call that a better life then what they could get in an orphanage.

    I have been to an orphanage in South Korea, and while the caretakers do their best there is no way they could possibly meet the emotional needs of so many children. There are simply too many children per adult that need love and attention. So yes, I think international adoption, while far from perfect, is often a chance for a better life for the child.

  13. The question was what Koreans generally thought about adoptees, not adoption in general.

    Well, 2 of the 3 questions you quoted were actually about adoption in general, not about adoptees specifically, right? A post about the domestic debate on international adoption in South Korea would obviously be much appreciated - and perhaps it would ease the pressure on your inbox too...

  14. Dear Korean,

    I respectfully disagree that these adoptees' questions are stupid.

    I understand your point that Korea is just another place, just like anywhere else, and yes, people going through their daily lives likely wouldn't notice tourists.

    However, Korean adoptees sometimes aren't normal tourists. They are often in situations where regular Koreans will know that they are adopted, and they then must deal with the reaction, if any, that comes with this knowledge.

    In addition, the emotions that come with returning to the land of your birth - a land that some adoptees may feel abandoned them as a baby or child - have the potential to be really intense. To dismiss these questions that could very well come from a place of fear, uncertainty, or just plain curiosity does these adoptees a disservice.

    I am a KAD who's lived in Seoul for about 4 years. Before moving here, I was really scared. I did a lot of research, but I didn't know what to expect. I've had both awesome and awful experiences here, and have come to love Korea very much.

    Regarding the original questions~ In my experience (and it's just my experience, for whatever it's worth), when I've told someone I'm adopted a variety of reactions have happened. Lots of pity. Some embarrassment. Some dismissal. A little looking at me like I've grown a third head.

    People have mimed tears running down their face while cradling a baby. People have kindly told me they hope I find my parents soon. People have become embarrassed and stopped talking with me. People have said, "Really?" and treated me just like everyone else. It's always different, naturally, since everyone has differing opinions and feelings about adoption.

    Regarding resources for adoptees in Korea, as Rayet Star already posted, G.O.A.L. is an awesome adoptee resource.

    Also, KoRoot is a great hostel for Korean adoptees. I stayed there for six weeks. The staff is really, really kind and helpful.

  15. Sara,

    The Korean did not call the adoptees' questions quoted in the post stupid. Instead, the post specifically said in the first half that: "This means that on an individual level, the sentiment toward adoptees may vary widely – some people may have given a lot of thoughts on the issue, and others not at all." This comports exactly with what you kindly elaborated as reactions from Koreans when they learned that you were adopted.

    The Korean's point is only that, no matter who you are, it is a bit silly to worry about what is going to happen to you when you are visiting Korea for, say, no more than two weeks. You lived in Seoul for four years, and that's clearly a different scenario. In four years, you will have many meaningful interactions with the locals and could get a sense of how they would feel about international adoption.

    But in two weeks or so, the visitor is just a tourist no matter who she is. Certainly, there is a much stronger and different emotion involved when an adoptee visits Korea. But Korean people on the street won't notice that. So many Korean Americans (not just adoptees) send what the Korean calls Joy Luck Club questions -- "Will I stand out in Korea? How will Korean people treat me?" The Korean's point is that -- no one is going to pay attention to you!

  16. Hi. I'm an Korean and I'm very interested in Nordic society. I've had an accidental meeting with this page.

    I reccomend you to a Korean program which for Korean adoptee people.


    This is my Email

  17. Hi, I am interested in moving to Korea and I was going to go with the Holt Homecoming Program to learn Korean and teach English on the side, but I found out that 2013 was the last time they are doing that. So I have been searching for other adult adoptee programs. The NEIID is not the type of program I am looking for and I am looking into INKAS, but I do not know how I am going to make money if I'm only in school. Any tips!?


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