Tag Archives: adoption

Cosmic Womb 2

JooYoung Choi’s ‘Cosmic Womb’ Delves into Issues of Adoption, Race and Identity

Above image: “The Sacrifice of Putt Putt,” by JooYoung Choi

by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim

When JooYoung Choi was growing up in an adopted American family, she was one of the very few Asians—let alone adoptees—in her hometown of Concord, N.H.

“Often I was reminded by other children that I looked ‘different’ or I was so ‘weird,'” the 32-year-old Choi told the Huffington Post. “As a child, I used popular media and art to make sense of my situation of feeling and looking so different than those around me.”

Cosmic Womb 4“Blue And The Helping Hands At MC Customs Body Shop,” by JooYoung Choi

Choi’s would create a “tribe” of media figures, from figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles‘ Lotus Blossum. When she became older, her tribe characters and themes of “adoption, race, systematic oppression, loss and liberation” would become the premise for the Cosmic Womb, a “parallel planet” portrayed through a series of paintings and video art.

Choi was influenced by a 1993 book called The Primal Wound, by Nancy Newton Verrier, which delves into the effects of disrupting the connection between a mother and child by adoption. The name “Cosmic Womb” is a reference to the Korean word for womb, jagung, which translates to “baby house.”

Cosmic Womb 1“Thanks For the Cosmic Knowledge,” by JooYoung Choi

“I decided that if there is a possible primal wound that affects adoptees, there must also be a Cosmic Womb for them to heal [in],” Choi added. “The idea that Koreans saw the womb as a house or location versus an internal organ interested me… I thought, what if my art could provide a place for the healing of loss, for the things that we lose in life, or have never known or have been forgotten?”

Choi met her birth parents in 2007 and 2008, and the artist began developing the Cosmic Womb in 2010, coining the term in that same year. It became a part of her MFA program at the Lesley University in Massachusetts.

The Cosmic Womb is populated by beings called “Tuplets” that look like East Asian girls and represent a part of the self: shyness, nervousness and happiness, among others. Their adventures are captured in Choi’s paintings—an effort to increase the visibility of Asians that the artist didn’t experience as a child, Choi says.

Choi sometimes appears in her work as a “former denizen of Earth” or as Queen Kiok. The national motto of the Cosmic Womb—”Have Faith, For You Have Always Been Loved”—is a way for Choi to address her troubled past self. Through the parallel planet of Cosmic Womb, Choi “mitigates the oppression, rootlessness and sorrow” she encounters on Earth.

Cosmic Womb 3“Have Faith, For You Have Always Been Loved,” by JooYoung Choi

You can read JooYoung Choi’s full conversation with the Huffington Post here.


All images via JooYoungChoi.com

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Homeland Tour for Biracial Adoptees

Hapa Mosaic Tour participants, including Katherine Kim (in hat), at Haemil School.

photographs by DENIS JEONG

International adoption began in South Korea in 1953, as thousands of Korean children were left parentless and/or homeless by the Korean War, while many others were born to Korean women and fathered by American GIs or soldiers from one of 16 UN countries stationed in the country. Late last year, the Me & Korea Foundation and MBC Nanum hosted the first-ever homeland tour of Korea tailored for mixed-race adoptees. The co-authors were two of the 25 participants on the 10-day-long tour, which was funded by Korean Adoption Services, the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Jesus Love Presbyterian Church in Seoul. The following is a personal reflection of the authors’ experience returning to their birth country. 

As half-Korean, half-white adoptees who came to the U.S. as toddlers more than 50 years ago, we were raised in white communities by white parents having little to no understanding of our Korean roots. A Korea homeland tour tailored to mixed-race adoptees, we believed, was a start to understanding this painful chapter in our personal histories.

For adoptees as a whole, a visit to Korea is more than about just travel and tourism. It can trigger profound feelings of loss and rejection. For mixed-race adoptees born during the post-Korean War era, those feelings are further complicated by the fact that we look neither fully Korean nor fully Western, and are a minority among more than 200,000 Korean adoptees worldwide.

While Korean War orphans were cast as “nobodies,” having lost their family lineage, mixed-race children fathered by American GIs or other UN soldiers during the war were thought of as even more inferior—we were known as tuigi, slang for “devil’s child.” We were labeled the “dust of the streets,” the lowest of the low. Within that bottom hierarchy even, Korean whites were treated better than Korean blacks.

Regardless of the nationality of our fathers, most mixed-race adoptees were born stateless, as our Korean mothers, often abandoned by these servicemen, could not confer citizenship onto us.

We were, and still are, the in-betweens.

* * *

Pot-Comment-FM15-groupFrom L-R: Stefanie Blandon, Insooni, Katherine Kim and filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem. Their shirts reflect their birth year (1957) and ages (57).

The participants’ ages on the Mosaic Hapa Tour, which took place between Oct. 30 and Nov. 8 last year, ranged from 32 to the early 60s, with most of us in our 40s and 50s. Two live in the Netherlands, while the rest were from the U.S. In total, we were nine Korean blacks and 16 Korean whites, 21 females and four males. For more than half the group, the trip marked the first visit to Korea since leaving as adoptees.

Activities on our tour included learning about traditional Korean tea, visiting Naejangsan to take in the fall foliage, taking a river cruise on the Han River, eating dishes such as bulgogi and bibimbap, and visiting such orphanages as Ewha Orphanage in Naju and the Choonghyun Orphanage Museum in Gwangju.

A highlight of our tour, however, was visiting the Haemil School, a boarding school that sits on a small campus in Gangwon Province in the city of Hongcheon. There, we met and spent time with Insooni, the acclaimed R&B singer who, like us, is a mixedrace Korean.

Insooni founded Haemil in 2013 for mixed-race children and other local students. Presently it houses about 21 students between the ages of 12 and 15. Haemil, which means “clear sky after the rain,” exists so that mixed-race kids in Korea don’t have to weather the same hardships that Insooni did, growing up mixed race in post-war Korea.

Pot-Comment-FM15-stageTour participants sing and dance along with Insooni on a stage at the Haemil School

On the day our tour group visited the school, it was a cloudy Saturday afternoon, the day of the school fair. We stepped off the bus at the school’s entrance, where Insooni was waiting to greet us. She was pixie cute, looked far younger than her 57 years, and exuded a warmth and radiance that was palpable to all. She hugged each of us as though we were long-lost friends. Although many in our group had never heard of Insooni, it didn’t take long for everyone to warm to her.

The school fair featured a variety of activities. There were craft events such as weaving egg baskets from straw and creating handkerchiefs by hammering fall leaves onto fabric, plus outdoor games like badminton. The school served snacks like hotteok, the sweet Korean pancake, and lunch items such as ddeokbokgi, rice cakes smothered in spicy chili sauce. For entertainment, the Haemil students performed energetic dance and traditional Korean drum routines on an outdoor stage. Insooni also performed and sang for us. Abuji (“Father”), a song about separation and heartache, brought us to tears while other numbers had us joining her on stage to dance and sing along.

* * *

Pot-Comment-FM15-AutographJamey Rawls Mickelbury receives an autograph from Insooni.

Between 1953 and 1965, more than 4,000 mixed-race children in South Korea were put up for international adoption, mainly to the U.S. Many mixed-race adoptees from this era were relinquished by single mothers who were ostracized by their kin and communities for birthing us or unable to raise a child due to financial hardship.

In the early years of international adoption, more mixed-race children were sent away for adoption than full-Korean orphans, a practice that was fully embraced by the Korean government. Missionaries such as Robert Pierce, founder of international charity organization World Vision, and Harry Holt, who established Holt International Children’s Services, drew the world’s attention to the orphan plight in Korea, particularly that of mixed-race children.

As most members of our tour group were born between 1951 and 1967, and were sent away as infants or younger children for international adoption, we have no memories of our birth mothers and know almost nothing about our birth fathers.

A few participants were raised in Korea until they were teens and experienced extreme bullying and abuse. One tour member recalled getting beaten up  by other kids on a daily basis. She was called degrading names, was spat on, kicked and stoned, and even had her natural reddish-brown hair set on fire by an old [Korean] man, “simply because [it] was not black,” she recalled.

For those of us who left Korea in the 1950s and 1960s, the concept of transracial adoption was still so new, there were no best practices in place. Adoptive parents were told to love and raise us as their own without regard for the loss and trauma that accompanies any adoption. Overlooked was the fact that many of us looked nothing like our adoptive families or the communities in which we lived.

Thankfully, much has changed in the last 62 years in the area of transnational adoption, and there are far more resources now to help Korean adoptees with questions of cultural identity.

* * *

Pot-Comment-FM15-talkingTour participants listen to Insooni recount memories of growing up in Korea.

One of the most memorable moments of our group visit to Haemil School was listening to Insooni speak about growing up in Korea. We sat in a circle on the floor inside a classroom, introducing ourselves using our Korean names. Insooni spoke in Korean, her words translated into English by an interpreter from Me & Korea.

Born in 1957, like a few of us on the tour, Insooni, we learned, was raised by a Korean mother and fathered by a black American GI whom she never met. Once, when she was a young girl riding on the bus, two boys behind her kicked her seat. Taunting her, they asked where she was “made”: “Are you Camp Itaewon, Camp Paju, Camp Songtan?” they said. Things got so difficult, Insooni even went to Holt Services and asked to be sent away for adoption. Recounting the memory, she said she was told she was too old to go through the adoption process.

Yet, Insooni also talked about the hardships her mother faced and of her courage in raising a mixed-race child when she was marginalized by her own culture. No matter how bad the bullying became, Insooni persevered, following her dreams of becoming a singer. Today, the Korean public has come to embrace her as a beloved performing artist.

To our tour group, Insooni spoke about the choices our mothers and fathers faced when they were so young, living during such an impoverished chapter of Korea’s history. She asked us to forgive the men who left their children behind in a country that treated our mothers and us like dirt, in a country whose only social solution to our births was encouraging our adoption. A country where, had we remained, we would have lived under a cloud of racism and discrimination.

Insooni told us about a concert she performed at New York’s Carnegie Hall in February 2010 for the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, an event attended by many U.S. veterans. The singer told the veterans that, if any of them felt guilt over possibly leaving a child behind in Korea, they should shed their burden and forgive themselves. Many of the men who had served in Korea, including her own biological father, were really just children themselves, Insooni said.

As we sat listening to her, we realized there is a lightness of being to this person, a lightness from having forgiven both her father and her mother. To hear Insooni speak of forgiveness was a powerful message, for we knew she shared a similar background to ours, and her words offered for some a comforting message.

“Although my [biological] father was not young and was married already, and I have plenty to fault him for, he and my mother both gave me life, and for that I have to forgive,” Cynthia Gordon-Burns, 50, one of our group members, reflected afterwards. “Their choices were impossible, and I cannot say what I would do if given the same discouraging options.”

As we left Haemil School grateful for the generosity of time and spirit shown to us by Insooni, we realized that a homeland tour for adoptees isn’t really about coming home—home, we know, is where our loved ones are. Rather, a homeland tour is an opportunity to uncover parts of our past, to visit old wounds and to try to make peace with them.

As a fellow tour member said to us later, “When we forgive, we free ourselves from all the anger and the hatred. Life is too short … [and we] must travel light.”


Katherine Kim lives in Boston and is the mother of two teens, one of whom is adopted. She is active in hapa adoptee issues, including bringing awareness to the planned construction of a memorial park in Paju City close to the Demilitarized Zone, to honor those who were part of the military camp culture during the Korean War.

Dawn Tomlinson is a hapa adoptee who lives in Minnesota with her four children. She has returned to Korea five times, hoping to find her birth family; her search continues. She serves as president of AdopSource, an organization that hosts the annual Minnesota Transracial Film Festival in Minneapolis.

This article was published in the February/March 2015 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the February/March issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days)

This article was published in the February/March 2015 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the February/March issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).


Drop_Box_Official_Image.jpg  800×532

‘The Drop Box’ to Screen in Select Theaters Nationwide March 3-5

For just three nights, The Drop Box will be available to watch in select theaters nationwide through Pine Creek Entertainment in association with Focus on the Family, Kindred Image and Fathom Events.

Directed by Brian Ivie, the feature-length documentary tells the story of one man’s efforts to protect and care for newborn babies who might have otherwise been abandoned on the streets of Seoul, South Korea. Pastor Lee Jong-Rak built a “baby box”—a safe harbor to welcome and care for these babies. So far, more than 600 babies—many of whom have disabilities—have been helped. A portion of the film’s proceeds will go to support Pastor Lee’s ministry.

Here is a behind-the-scenes look at the documentary:

PastorLeewithChildren2.jpg  800×532

PastorLeeandBrianIvie.jpg  800×532Pastor Lee Jong-rak (left) and film director Brian Ivie.

After the movie screening, audiences will also be able to watch a group discussion with the film’s director Brian Ivie; musician Steven Curtis Chapman and his wife, Mary Beth; and Focus on the Family President Jim Daly. The panelists will address issues related to adoption, orphan care and the sanctity of human life.

From March 3-5, you can visit The Drop Box website to find out when and where the film will be screening near you.


Images courtesy of The Drop Box

Dog Cafe

L.A.’s First Dog Cafe Seeks to Revolutionize Dog Adoption

by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim

Cat cafes are all the rage in Asia and Europe, and their popularity seems to be increasing even more afer the first American cat cafe opened in Oakland, California last November. But what about dog cafes?

Sarah Wolfgang recently launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for the Dog Cafe, the first of its kind in the U.S. The cafe will give patrons the opportunity to enjoy a cup of joe with a pooch at their side, but its larger goal is to address the overcrowding of L.A.’s animal shelters.

“The Dog Cafe is going to put a spin on the way people adopt by totally reinventing the way we connect with homeless dogs,” Wolfgang writes on her Indiegogo page. “We want to provide you with the opportunity to see these highly adoptable pooches in their true light. And even if you’re not looking to adopt, you can still enjoy all of the sloppy kisses you’ve ever wanted.”

Wolfgang assures future patrons that the cafe is, in fact, legal. Kind of. According to the city health department, the Dog Cafe will need two separate locations–a cafe and a dog zone–that are not connected in any way. A good amount of the $200,000 goal will go towards finding a large location where dogs can run and frolick, as well as hiring a staff to take care of the dogs. Meanwhile, the coffee will be fittingly provided by Grounds & Hounds Coffee Co.

Perks include pre-paid entries to visit the cafe and chill with the dogs while enjoying free drinks, as well as a pre-sale voucher to a “Pup-Up” event in Downtown Los Angeles from Jan. 22-25. Bigger perks include a private puppy party, assistance in adopting a dog and getting your own plaque on a table in the cafe.

The Dog Cafe’s Indiegogo campaign will run until Feb. 5.

mark neville the ny times

Why a Generation of Adoptees is Returning to South Korea

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. 



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.”

* * *

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.”

* * *

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



L.A. Forum Highlights Korean American Adoptee Experiences

Above image: (From left) Julayne Lee, Steve Morrison, Jenna Ness. Photo courtesy of KAYLT.


The subject of adoption has a long, diverse and sometimes controversial history in the Korean American community. Some estimates say that as many as one in 10 Korean Americans is adopted. In other words, adoption is a major part of Korean American history.

In an effort to help educate the community, especially the younger generations, about the unique experiences of Korean American adoptees, members of the Korean American Youth Leaders in Training (KAYLT) program hosted a forum in Los Angeles on Tuesday night. Among the speakers were Korean American adoptees Julayne Lee, Steve Morrison, Jenna Ness and Emile Mack, who shared their stories and also talked about some of the complex facets of adoption from Korea—an issue still debated today.

One common theme among the speakers was the issue of acceptance, or lack thereof.


Emile Mack, was adopted into an African American family with parents who “never treated [him] differently,” but as he grew older, the question of his identity began to loom larger.

“As I had my encounter with different identities, I would get the thing of, when I meet Asians, they would say, ‘You look like us, but you don’t act like us,'” Mack said. “When I bump into African Americans, they’d say, ‘You sure don’t look like us, but you kind of act like us. … He’s the Asian kid that has rhythm.'”

Despite a rough childhood, Mack said those experiences helped make him tougher, and growing up being accustomed to feeling different helped him face deal with some of the racial issues going into his career. When he first began as a firefighter, he profession was dominated by white men.

“The things that you guys are going to go through, although adverse, in the end, are going to help you help you grow stronger, more determined,” he told the students. “Never be a victim, and allow anything to stop you. When you become a victim, you’ve made yourself a victim.”

F-Emile-0211-EMS-0327Emile Mack with wife Jenna and their daughter, Mia in their Redondo Beach home.                                       Photo by Eric Sueyoshi/KoreAm.

His parents’ influence played a part in Mack adopting his daughter Mia.

Steve Morrison, founder of the Mission to Promote Adoption in Korea (MPAK), also adopted two of his five children. He said his decision to adopt was largely due to his experience with his adoptive parents. “No adoption is perfect, except mine,” he lightheartedly remarked.

Morrison still acknowledged, however, that not all adoptions have had positive outcomes.

The issue of international adoption from Korea is a controversial one, as an estimated 200,000 Korean children have been adopted, mostly into white families in North America, Europe and Australia, since the end of the Korean War. The number of intercountry adoptions remained high even after Korea emerged as an economically stable country, and many blamed this on the strong social stigma against single mothers. In recent decades, under pressure from adoptee activists, South Korea has enacted laws designed to encourage single mothers to keep their children and promote domestic adoption. As a result, the number of Korean adoptees has decreased significantly over the last 20 years.

Yet, Morrison and other speakers said, despite these legislative changes, single mothers still contend with stigma and babies continue to be abandoned.


“I’m coming at [the issue] from a human rights standpoint, that a family has a right to stay together,” said Julayne Lee, an adoptee from Minnesota–the Land of 10,000 Korean American adoptees, as she put it. Lee was a member of G.O.A.’L (Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link), and she served on the ASK (Adoptee Solidarity Korea) steering committee until 2008 in South Korea, working with other adoptees to approach inter-country adoption from a more political, critical perspective.

Along with advocating for more comprehensive social welfare programs to increase domestic adoption and help single mothers, Lee also worked on a campaign that allowed a number of Korean adoptees to reclaim Korean citizenship on the condition that the receiving country recognized dual citizenship.

“I think it has given some people a piece of their identity they wanted for a long time,” Lee said.

Jenna Ness spent years trying to come to peace with her own identity as a queer Korean American adoptee.

“With the LGBTQ community, their ‘coming out’ is a huge issue,” said Jenna Ness, who identifies as a queer adoptee. “It’s been part of my journey–coming out as queer, but also coming out as an adoptee.”

Ness has organized gatherings for queer adoptees with Also-Known-As (AKA), an adoptee-led community organization in New York City, and she spoke on a Queer Asian Adoptee Panel at the New York City Asian American Student Conference (NYCAASC). She and her two triplet sisters successfully found and reunited with their Korean family in 2010, but she said she hasn’t come out to them because she doesn’t know how they would respond.

“I think as Korean adoptees, we all obviously have diverse stories, but I think many of us can relate to is feeling different and feeling unaccepted,” Ness said. “I’d like to see the Korean adoptee community … push the boundaries in terms of, who isn’t accepted, who’s marginalized in society and how we can be better about accepting people who are different and how we can challenge social norms and challenge oppression.”

About 40 people, many of them high school- and college-aged, attended the forum, held at the offices of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles. KAYLT is a program of the nonprofit K.W. Lee Center for Leadership, which was founded to help nurture “community consciousness”—a quality of the organization’s namesake, journalist K.W. Lee—among young people.


Adoptees Shed Their Clothes In A Powerful Issue Of ‘Gazillion Voices’


When online magazine Gazillion Voices launched last year, the cover story for their inaugural issue portrayed adoptees ripping tape off their mouths. It was a message to the world that now is the time for adoptees, along with their friends and allies, to share their thoughts and perspectives on their own terms.

Since then, Gazillion Voices published 12 issues, with the latest marking a one year anniversary for the magazine. To celebrate, it poses another important question in the cover story: Do adoptees feel comfortable in their skin?

Aptly titled “The Skin Issue,” the series of images by photographer Denis Jeong and the accompanying testimonies show adoptees shedding their clothes and revealing narratives that are but the beginning to complex, layered and emotional conversations in the adoptee community.

The hope is that with this story, the shared commonalities will resonate with members of the immigrant, LGBTQ and People of Color (POC) communities.

“I feel great about the first 12 months of Gazillion Voices,” said founder and co-editor Kevin Haebeom Vollmers, who started the Land of Gazillion Adoptees blog in 2011. “I know we have a lot of work ahead of us, but it is truly an honor to work with a team that is so dedicated, talented and forward-thinking. Gazillion Voices has made its mark, in adoption and beyond and I am looking forward to pushing the envelope in the next year.”

If you are in the Minneapolis area, the images will be on display at Boneshaker Books in the Seward neighborhood next month. The opening reception for the two-week exhibit will take place Aug. 14 at 7 p.m.

Here are a few excerpts from “The Skin Issue.” You can check out the full story on the Gazillion Voices website.



Name: Ashley Wilson
Age: 28
Gender: Female
Identify as: American

Have you always felt comfortable in your skin? The short answer is, “No, I haven’t.” Not until the last few years have I really started to feel comfortable.

Now for the longer answer. What it really comes down to for me is understanding my place in this world as “me” and not as what society believes “me” to be. This has been a difficult thing to do, and I imagine it would be for anyone of any demographic. Society has a twisted way of making people feel bad about themselves.

Being a woman is one thing to handle in this society, but add to that being of Asian descent. On top of being both a woman and Asian, now add the fact of being adopted. Then consider being adopted into an American family, which happens to be Caucasian. But, it doesn’t end there. Now place that Caucasian American family in a small, rural town, where few, if any, people look like you. With all of that to work on, a person is expected to feel comfortable?

It’s not easy. There are a lot of ignorant people in society. It can be difficult and sometimes emotionally painful to have to deal with the careless words people can use in everyday, casual conversation. There’s an old saying that only you can control how you feel about what is said or done in your presence. While this may be true, there should still be accountability by the other party as to what develops in their brain to come out of their mouth. It seems very one-sided that I should have to deal with rude and hurtful words spoken by others. Perhaps they should take a few moments before speaking to think about what they’re about to say. That’s the core of the accountability issue.

Fun fact: I have five parents. I can hold a conversation in Swedish.

Favorite hobby: My newest obsession would have to be Ultimate Frisbee. It’s so much fun and a great workout!


Name: Luke Bengston
Age: 28
Gender: Male
Identify as: Korean

Have you always felt comfortable in your skin? I haven’t ever really felt comfortable in my own skin. I feel most at home and most comfortable with myself amongst other Koreans and in my natural habitat—Korea. I always felt like an alien here in Minnesota my whole life, though making friends in the KAD community has helped me become more at peace with myself and who I am.

Favorite hobby: Exercise and skateboarding



Name: Niki Burns. My given Korean name: Kim, Sung Mee
Gender: I’m a woman
Age: 34
Gender: I’m a woman
Identify as: Asian American/Korean American/Korean with a side of Sassy

Have you always felt comfortable in your skin? No, especially growing up in a predominately white community. I grew up in the suburbs of St. Paul where my sister and I made up the majority of minority people in our schools. Didn’t really start to feel comfortable until after high school.

Fun fact: I’m a twin.
Favorite hobby: Hiking, camping, biking, walking, live music, bonfires, sports, etc.

Images by Denis Jeong/Gazillion Voices


Andy Marra Shares Her Story

A Single Spark

A Korean American adoptee, transgender woman and LGBT activist, Andy Marra has found that sharing her story carries the power to move and inspire.

photographs by VICTOR CHU

The Arcus Foundation in New York has two goals that don’t seem to have a lot to do with each other: social justice for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people; and the protection of the great apes. The two goals reflect the passions of the founder, John Stryker, an architect and one of the heirs to his grandfather’s medical technology fortune. It makes a certain sort of sense, I guess.  Stryker is gay, and he owned a pet monkey when he was growing up that he eventually gave to the local zoo.

A recent Arcus hiree could perhaps be forgiven for lacking a fluency in both missions. But as its new communications director, Andy Marra has to possess just that.
“I’ve got a lot of reading, a pile of books on my desk,” she said, sighing theatrically. She was prepping for a trip down to Florida to visit an ape sanctuary when I met her at the Arcus Foundation’s offices in midtown Manhattan, on a blustery day when winter almost seemed resentful that spring was nigh. Like any New Yorker, she had dressed hopefully, in a black-and-white striped miniskirt and a thin blousy top. We’d planned on walking, but decided to stay inside.

So Marra will have some reading for the plane. As for the other mission, her qualifications could hardly be more suited for Arcus, the largest donor to LGBT causes in the country. The 28- year-old transgender woman’s resume includes public relations work for the LGBT advocacy group GLAAD, as well as with GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network. The Advocate magazine chose her as one of its “Forty Under 40” LGBT movers and shakers, the White House and the City of New York have both honored her for her work, and a slew of organizations have given her a mantle’s worth of awards, including one recently from the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance.

She’s also a Korean American adoptee, and has worked as the co-director of Nodutdol, a fiercely progressive Korean American activist organization focusing on reunification and demilitarization in the peninsula.

She’s a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, among other outlets, and is an outspoken advocate for LGBT and Korean unification issues. Her new job allows her to utilize her skillset, albeit from a slightly different vantage point.

“At Arcus, a lot of our grantees are organizations I’ve worked with or had connections with over the years,” said Marra. “I’m able now to help elevate their stories and connect it to our support, making a really big difference on the ground that probably everyday people on the street aren’t aware of. Their stories matter.”

She recently became prominent for her own story, though, writing on HuffPo about coming out as a transgender woman to her South Korean birth mother. The story ended up going viral.

“I kept telling her [my biological mother], ‘You have fans! Everyone loves you! I had to ask, ‘Do you have anything you want to say to your fans?’ And she said in her broken English, ‘Thank you. I love you. Goodbye.’ I said, ‘OK, mom.’”

Marra’s tone was teasing, adolescent, playfully insolent, and it struck me that over the course of a few minutes of talking to her, she had channeled a preacher’s cadence, a PR professional’s informational authority, an insolent teenager, and, well, herself, a transgender Korean American adoptee woman with an easy laugh and a sharp wit. Her warmth exemplified the inclusiveness her very existence demanded. In other words, if I ran an organization, I’d probably want her to be speaking for it.

Marra’s story starts in South Korea, at an adoption agency. She was part of the wave of South Korean babies adopted by families abroad, which started after the Korean War and peaked in the ’80s. An American family adopted Marra, and they brought her to upstate New York.

“I grew up in a Caucasian family. My parents were white. Are white. They’re still white,” she said, laughing, then adding, “I stuck out like a middle finger.” Her adoptive mother, a dietician, proved to be an early influence. Marra’s family volunteered actively in their community, and despite being Lutherans, the emphasis on the importance of service displaced any doctrinal issues regarding the LGBT community that may have been present.

“Because of [my mother’s] work, because of her experience, and because of her good heart, she ended up volunteering with LGBT support groups, lobbying for health care groups to support transition,” Marra said. “I think that’s where the spark started. That was the first spark.”

Growing up, Marra always knew she liked boys, and never saw anything wrong with it. “There was never an ‘aha’ moment or awareness,” she said. “It was how I always felt growing up as a child. I never felt anything wrong with being attracted to boys.”

She first came out to her parents, as gay, in the sixth grade. The experience was not an easy one.

“I don’t think any family or any parent expects their child to be gay. I think that is a safe assumption for many parents and families. When I came out, it wasn’t easy … But—,” she paused. “I was who I was. And my parents were OK with that.”

Being a gay male is, of course, different from being a trans woman; gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same. “As an American child, I didn’t have the word trans or transgender in my vocabulary,” she said. “I didn’t know there was an identity that existed that defined who I was.” So Marra continued to identify as gay, and even came out a second time during high school, an affirmation of sorts.

“At the time, I think my parents were struggling with the question of: Is this a phase? Is this not a phase?” she said. “I wanted to let them know that my attraction to guys was not going to change.”

Inspired by the example of her adoptive mother, Marra started looking for ways to serve the community she identified with, and joined the GLSEN chapter in upstate New York. The experience expanded her exposure to the range of sexual orientations and gender identities, and helped show her where she fit.

“I remember in summer of 2003, I took a job with them, went into the offices, and I came out as trans,” she said. Marra recalled thinking, “I know who I am. This is who I am. And I don’t know where to begin in figuring out the next steps.”

One of the first steps she did take was to tell her parents. But for this third coming-out, instead of announcing it, as she had the first two times, she decided to write a letter.

“I think writing is very therapeutic, a very individual act. It’s also liberating,” she said. “In a conversation, sometimes it can get heated. There can be misunderstandings. Sometimes the point you’re trying to make is shadowed by something you didn’t want it to be shadowed by. Writing allowed me to freely accept my feelings. I didn’t want to have an argument with my family. And I wanted to allow them time to respond.”

There is an old saw within the LGBT community that one never stops coming out, but Marra’s journey still stands out. She recently spoke about her relationship with her adoptive parents, recounting the Christmas mass she’d just attended back in upstate New York. It was the first time she’d gone to church with them since she’d come out as trans. “They wanted me to be comfortable. So here I was, flanked by my parents, and the response from friends and colleagues and my godparents was very positive. And it was really therapeutic to be able to go into a space where people knew me as male, and to be my authentic self, to not be embarrassed about who I am.”

After high school, Marra got out of upstate and headed to New York City, where she immediately felt at home. “There is obviously a huge representation of people of color in the city,” she said. “Also a vibrant Korean American community, and it felt like I was with my people, and I could just be myself.” The diversity within the LGBT community made itself apparent as well. Marra, as a trans activist, found herself in the midst of a long-simmering source of tension within the community.

“There is that feeling of ‘we have been thrown under the bus.’ The needs we have are being undersupported or underrecognized,” she said. Laws at both the state and federal level prohibit discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation. There is no such protection for transgender people, at the federal level or in many states, including New York. Even the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders continued to list Gender Identity Disorder as a condition, long after homosexuality had been removed (GID has since been replaced with the less immediately damning but still hacky feeling “Gender Dysphoria,” which refers not to the state of feeling like one is the opposite of one’s biological gender, but the negative feelings that arise from that state).

“Employment nondiscrimination is a huge issue … If you can’t get a job, how are you going to support yourself? And it raises the question: What about access to credit, or housing?” While transgender rights movement has not progressed as quickly as the fight for gay and lesbian rights, the shared history of the groups make them allies in the end.

“The community is very diverse, and with that diversity comes a rich complexity of ideas and identities and experiences.” the activist said. “There will always be tension in any kind of diverse community. I think what matters though is that, when sh-t hits the fan, so to speak, everyone comes together and everyone supports one another.” And the tectonic progress made by the gay rights movement gives Marra a sense of how quickly things can change.

“The landscape in the country is that the majority of Americans support marriage equality. I think it’s from a lot of work of sharing stories and being visible,” she said. And the kind of storytelling that Marra engages in fits into that activist tradition.


The idea for sharing her story came from a friend, who had seen Marra put “silly pictures of her birth mother online,” Marra said. “She’s very active in her church, and she was traditional Korean fan dancing to worship music.” Marra had met her birth mother while taking part in KEEP, the Korea Education and Exposure Program, a trip to South Korea organized by Nodutdol that connects activist-minded Korean Americans with their comrades in the peninsula.

Marra remembers writing her account of the trip while Hurricane Sandy roared outside her window. When she was done, she showed it to her adoptive mother, who called it a “home run,” Marra said. And after receiving permission from her biological mother to run it, the piece took on a life of its own.

“I’ve had crazy offers. People want to make movies, people want to make theatrical performances. I even ended up in a church sermon,” she said. But more important than the media’s response, or the likes and retweets, were the actual emails and letters she received.

“I heard from other adoptees who were LGBT who were grappling with similar questions. I heard from parents of adoptees whose children had come out as trans. I heard from Koreans and Korean Americans who were apparently so inspired by reading my piece that they ended up coming out to their families.

“You just can’t help but realize how powerful the word is. So I was very blessed and very fortunate,” she added. She’s now planning on writing a sequel about what’s happened since the piece went up, a few more details about what she’s learned regarding the circumstances surrounding her being given up for adoption, and her new fiancé, a chef in New York who is also a Korean American adoptee.

“Yeah, I’m in love,” she said, rolling her eyes a little bit at herself for being such a cliché, then smiling happily. They’ve been dating for about a year, and Marra now plans to take him to South Korea for his first trip back as an adult, and to introduce him to her biological mother. Once there, Marra plans on helping guide him through the country, just as others had done for her a few years ago, as she searched for her biological parents. She’s looking forward to the trip, but there is one thing she won’t be looking forward to.

“Not skirt friendly,” she said. “Those low tables, let me tell you, man. Give me a blanket.”

This article was published in the May 2014 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the May issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).