Tag Archives: adoption

social issues covers

25 Years of KoreAm Covers: Highlighting Key Social Issues

To mark the 25th anniversary of KoreAm Journal, we’re revisiting some memorable covers from the magazine’s archives.

Take a look at some of the creative talent, athletes, influential figures, social issues and tragic events that have appeared on our cover. The panoply of images, we hope, will serve as a historical flashback, a glimpse into the people that inspired us, the issues we explored and the events that called for deeper reflection over the last 25 years.

Here are some key social issues KoreAm has covered in the past 25 years.


The Queer Issue (Aug. 1993): KoreAm explored what it was like being Korean and part of the LGBTQ community, acknowledging that in putting together the issue, “we were forced to consider life without family or the sense of community we sometimes take for granted.”


Where are all the good Korean men? (Oct. 1999): A provocative headline for the cover story that featured several female perspectives on the issue of dating Korean men.


LA Riots: 10 Years Later (April 2002): Ten years after Sa-i-gu, KoreAm put together a package of stories and reflections on the L.A. riots.


American Passage: Immigrant Heritage (Jan. 2003): KoreAm celebrates a century of Korean immigration to the United States.


The High Price of Gambling (Aug. 2008): KoreAm looks into the high stakes of gambling in the Korean American community.


Health Care Reform (Nov. 2009): Before health care reform was signed into law, KoreAm looked at how Korean Americans have one of the highest uninsured rates in the U.S.


Raising Next Crop of Korean Americans (May 2010): A story about third-generation Korean Americans, “the grandchildren of the original post-1965 wave of Korean immigrants.”


LA riots: 20 Years Later (April 2012): For the 20-year anniversary of Sa-i-gu, KoreAm retraced the days and nights of the 1992 L.A. riots.


The Adoption Issue (Nov. 2013): KoreAm hones in on adoptee perspectives, voices and experiences to dig further into the collective Korean American diasporic experience.

In the next chapter, we will share some of most influential athletes who have graced the KoreAm cover.


Read the previous chapter, Documenting Tragedy

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

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A Perpetual State of Searching

story and illustration by KAM REDLAWSK

While genes alone aren’t the only building blocks to a person’s life narrative, they are a pretty good start, as they mark the beginnings to our story. Like so many other adoptees, my genetic history lives behind a closed door I have not yet been given a key to.

When I see children with their birth parents, or scroll through Facebook and see updates about new births, I can’t help but feel deeply enthralled by the idea of sheer physical resemblance of child to parent.

It to me feels almost magical, for it’s a biological link I never had the opportunity to experience or may ever experience.

As a 36-year-old adult, I, too, have a past. Except this past takes place in white suburbia with Midwestern elements: a large, church-going family; a father who liked to fix cars while listening to oldies music; fishing; baseball; youth soccer; pasta and potato salad; and a grandma who baked homemade pies. And yet, while I treasure the memories of my traditional American upbringing, I know this is not the only place I come from.

As a child new to America, I might as well have not had a past. For my adoptive family, my life “began” when I was 4 years old. Although I remembered how confusing it felt to be taken away from South Korea and my foster mom, the memories of my native land quickly dissipated. Most of us, of course, forget our early years, but most people also have a collection of people who can tell them what they were like during their earliest years. That’s not the case for me.

I have made casual efforts to connect with my blood family in Korea, such as traveling to Korea during college and returning with my Korean adoptee husband five years later to visit Daegu, the place of my birth. While I have visited my orphanage and met my foster mom, my search for birth family has always turned up empty.

Recently, through Korean adoptee Facebook pages, I learned about 23andMe, a genetic testing service that helps people explore their ancestry and family history. My husband and I each took the 23andMe test, and three weeks later, received an ancestry composition and a list of blood relatives. So far, I have had the chance to exchange emails with and even Skype with a couple of my fourth cousins in Korea.

A common thread I’ve noticed among the community of adoptees who belong to either the 23andMe or Korean adoptee Facebook group is that everyone seems to be searching for something, whether it’s themselves, family, or anything that can help clarify their identity.

Some adoptees become strong advocates for Korean adoptees, in terms of getting their voices heard. Some are searching for a connection, a bond that someone understands them. Others are trying to free themselves out from under the rubble of trauma and identity confusion. Then, there are adoptees like myself, who don’t harbor much anger or sadness about the past, but nonetheless have a curiosity about it.

While I’ve never struggled to feel a sense of belonging growing up, I can’t deny there has always been a thread of loneliness present throughout my entire life. Thus, I am in a perpetual state of searching. I may not find what I am looking for, but at least I know something is always waiting to be found.



Kam Redlawsk’s column runs every other month. To read more from Kam, visit greengreengrass.typepad.com or her official Facebook page.

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

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A Family Portrait Triggers Adoptee Nathan Nowack’s Life-Changing Journey


FOR much of his life, Nathan Nowack defined his nuclear family as a clan of four. As a 5-month-old, he was adopted from Korea by Caroline and Gerhard Nowack, a Caucasian couple in Oklahoma already raising a 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Amy, also a Korean adoptee.

He enjoyed a childhood brimming with love, outdoor adventure and the freedom to be himself, as pictures from his family albums attest: infant Nathan cradled in the arms of his beaming mom as she holds him for the first time at the Tulsa International Airport, with his smiling big sis looking on; daredevil Nathan dressed in a “Rambo” outfit complete with sunglasses and weaponry; silly Nathan with his body buried under wet sand while on family vacation in Hawaii; and proud Nathan standing with pals in front of a homemade fort built into a tree.

F-Nathan-AM15-1AirportArrivalCaroline Nowack holds a 5-and-a-half-month-old Nathan, after his arrival at the Tulsa International Airport on Dec. 16, 1976, as older sister Amy looks on. (Photo courtesy of Nathan Nowack)

Certainly, the mere sight of this blond artist mother, curly-haired chemist father and their Asian children would attract the stares of many in their small town of 35,000, but as multiple portraits taken over the years would capture, this was their family: close-knit and happy.

And yet as beautiful as this family picture was and has always been to Nathan, now 38 and a wedding and portrait photographer living in Southern California, a part of it never got colored in. Why was I given up for adoption? Where are my birth parents? These questions would sometimes creep into Nathan’s mind, even when he was very young.

“It’s not that he was preoccupied with Korea or where he had come from biologically, but [Nathan] did reference that from time to time,” recalled Caroline Nowack, speaking by phone from Colorado, where she and her husband now live. “[Around age 7 or 8], he used his allowance to buy a Korean flag. And, once, when he was quite young, as I was putting him to bed, he said, ‘I wonder where my other mother is.’ It came out of nowhere. He didn’t really seem concerned about it, but it was there.”

Nathan’s adoptive parents always told their children—who are not biologically related—that, if they ever wanted to look for their respective birth families, they would support them. But, over the years, even as ever-curious friends asked Nathan why he hadn’t yet looked, he would tell them he didn’t feel the need to probe. He didn’t have any “emotional holes” to fill.

“I have a wonderful family,” he would reply. “I’m not looking for anything additional.”

Then one evening last spring, he saw a picture that unlocked a door he was prepared to keep closed for the rest of his life.

F-Nathan-AM15-1nathan3Pages from Nathan’s family photo album. (Photo by Mike Lee)

NATHAN and his wife of four years, Allison, were attending  the Los Angeles premiere of aka DAN, a documentary telling the story of Korean American adoptee Dan Matthews, an L.A.-based rapper whose birth search startlingly revealed the existence of a twin brother. Matthews, raised by a loving Caucasian couple in California, would have an emotional reunion with his twin, along with his birth parents and his younger biological sister during a trip to Korea.

The story deeply moved Nathan. He saw the parallels to his own life. When a photograph of a 7-year-old Matthews with his adopted older sister from Korea, along with their Caucasian mother and father, flashed across the screen, it particularly resonated. It was one of those old-fashioned family portraits, with each member of the family forming one point in a diamond shape. Nathan knew that picture: he had one just like it.

“It’s two Caucasian parents and then two adopted Korean kids in the middle—it’s that photo from my childhood that I love. It’s that awkward family photo,” he said, laughing at the memory, while seated in the dining room of his Redondo Beach condominium. It’s one that Nathan proudly displays on his photography business’ website. “That photo is, for me, iconic,” he said.

F-Nathan-AM15-1FamilyPhotoNathan, with his adoptive parents, Caroline and Gerhard Nowack, and sister Amy, in a 1977 photo that is among Nathan’s favorites. (Photo courtesy of Nathan Nowack)

Matthews’ near-identical family photo spoke to Nathan in a way nothing else had before. It seemed to say: This is you. You, too, can find your birth parents, possibly a sibling.

After the aka DAN screening, Nathan began connecting with other Korean American adoptees in Los Angeles. He also started researching adoption, learning that some 110,000 children were adopted from South Korea between 1970 and 1989. He learned that his own adoption in 1976 occurred through the Korea-based Eastern Child Welfare Society, which worked to place children through its U.S.-based affiliate, Dillon International, which happened to open an office in Oklahoma. That’s how Caroline and Gerhard, who yearned to provide a loving home for children who didn’t have one, came to think about adopting from South Korea. Their daughter Amy was among the first children placed through Dillon International.

Though Amy has never searched for her biological family because she said the details are “sketchy”—she was abandoned outside an orphanage—she encouraged her little brother, “Go for it. Mom and Dad always said, if either of us wanted to look into that, because it’s a part of who we are as human beings, they would help us or support us in any way possible.”

So, after 38 years, a thought-provoking documentary, the support of his adoptive family and a nudge from his wife—who also encouraged him to try to learn more about his family medical history—Nathan embarked on a birth search last summer. He didn’t have high expectations: The adoption agency warned that only 10 percent of adoptee searches yield any information that leads to a connection to the birth family. Nathan turned out to belong to that small percentile. Just a month after filing his final paperwork, he received a life-changing phone call.

Fast forward to March, more than six months after that call. Nathan’s expression still turns to disbelief when he remembers that moment. “I never would have expected I was the youngest of seven,” he said. “Like, wow, what?”

F-Nathan-AM15-2KoreanSiblingsAll six of Nathan’s biological siblings are in this photo from one of his sister’s weddings. (Photo courtesy of Nathan Nowack)

NATHAN was at the vet’s office getting pet food for his cat, when a Dillon International representative called him on his cell phone. In an excited voice, she began by telling him that, after the agency sent his birth search letter to the last known location of his biological parents, someone instantly responded. It was his older brother. “It was kind of crazy, I felt like the aka DAN story was happening to me,” recalled Nathan. “I was really excited at that point to know I had a brother.”

But, there was more. The agency representative told him that he also had five older sisters, and that his siblings had known about him his entire life. His oldest sister gave birth to a child within 10 days of Nathan’s birth in 1976, so whenever they celebrated the nephew’s birthday, they would think of their youngest sibling.

“This hit me pretty hard,” said Nathan. “It wasn’t just knowing I had a family, but that they all knew about me and wondered where I was. A little bit of the mystery from my past not only had names and ages, it had feelings and thoughts towards me.”

Yet the discovery about his birth family also proved bittersweet: Nathan learned that both his birth parents were now deceased. His father had died of stomach cancer in 1999, and his mother of gall bladder cancer in 2011, just three years before he began his birth search.

“I had just missed her,” Nathan said, wistfully, as he cast his eyes downward.

Later that same day, at home, Nathan opened an email from the agency that contained a photo from 1998, showing his older brother, Lee Jeong-hoo, now 49, when he was slightly younger than Nathan is now.

F-Nathan-AM15-2MyBirthParentsBrotherA 1998 photo shows Nathan’s biological older brother. (Photo courtesy of Nathan Nowack)

Staring back at Nathan from his 27-inch iMac screen was a man with the same eyes, arched eyebrows, tanned face, high cheekbones and ears that noticeably protrude out from the sides of his head. Even the spiked haircut was the same.

“Wow, he looks just like me,” a stunned Nathan remembered thinking of the photo. “I’ve never seen anyone who looks like me.”

For a photographer who has long had a fascination with doppelgangers and the magic of genetics, the moment felt surreal. One of Nathan’s unofficial hobbies is finding pictures of celebrities or random people who resemble his friends and then sending the latter a side-by-side comparison. But, in all these years of searching for look-alikes, Nathan never found any images of people resembling himself—until now.

A subsequent email sent by the agency included a picture of all of his siblings at a sister’s wedding. By now, Nathan was learning a little bit more about each of them. They ranged in age from 45 to 63 and had families of their own. He learned that his brother works at Korean Air and that one of his sisters runs a bibimbap restaurant.

The revelations proved overwhelming for Nathan. His adoptive family, admittedly a little worried that his search would yield no news or hurtful news, was also taken aback with a mix of shock and delight.

“I think it’s just incredibly exciting,” said Gerhard. “If there were just one sibling or just his parents … but to have this enormous family? That’s gotta be exciting and also a little intimidating in a way.”

Caroline said she felt as if her own family had just “increased in size.”

Within just a couple of months, this surreal experience for Nathan would feel a bit more real: Lee Kyoung-mi, the youngest sister who works for Herbalife in Korea, announced that she and her husband were planning a trip to L.A. in March to attend a company convention.

Nathan was about to meet his first blood relative.

F-Nathan-AM15-3KyoungMeeNathan with his biological sister, Lee Kyoung-mi, whom he met in Los Angeles in March.

IN THE LOBBY of the JW Marriott hotel in downtown L.A. the afternoon of March 7, Nathan and Allison stood near the front desk scanning the crowds of people. It was going to be difficult to pick out Kyoungmi among the sea of Asian faces, they thought.

Then Nathan felt a tap on his shoulder.

Sang-kil?” a voice said, calling him by his Korean name.

Still virtual strangers to each other, the smiling siblings shook hands and introduced their respective spouses. Kyoung-mi’s bilingual friend provided much-needed Korean-English translation as the group sat down at the nearby hotel bar and talked over coffee and juice.

“She kept on staring at Nathan,” Allison said of Kyoung-mi. “She said,‘I keep on seeing my older brother, but when he was younger.’”

“‘But more handsome and with better skin,’” added Nathan in a feigned soft female voice, mimicking his sister. Information about family, jobs and even hobbies were exchanged in just two hours. The siblings, who also bear a strong resemblance to each other, discovered their shared passion for competitive table tennis, an unexpected, “kind of a cool” link, said Nathan.

The conversation eventually turned to why Nathan was given up for adoption. Kyoung-mi said she remembered going hungry as a child because money was so tight. “I heard that my mother was working at a construction company trying to help pay bills … but it was tough.” Nathan said. “They really did want to keep me, but … it was financial.”

Nathan’s birth mother never forgot the youngest she painfully gave away. Her dying wish was for her children to find their baby brother. The siblings tried for three years to glean any information about their youngest, first through the adoption agency and even the South Korean government, but, because of closed adoption regulations, they hit a dead end. They would have to wait until Sang-kil looked for them.

F-Nathan-AM15-3NowackFamilyNathan, with wife Allison (far right), his adoptive parents and sister, in Christmas 2008. (Photo courtesy of Nathan Nowack)

One burning question Kyoung-mi had for Nathan was whether he had lived a happy life. Nathan assured her that he grew up with an “amazing family.” He credited his adoptive parents for raising him to be the person he is today: happy, healthy, confident and ready to start a family of his own with Allison—they are considering adoption themselves.

Before they parted ways, and after many hugs, “Kyoung-mi kept asking when we’d see her again,” said Nathan. His siblings have offered to pay for his plane ticket to Korea and also invited his adoptive parents and sister to come. Nathan isn’t quite sure when he’ll be able to make the trip, but he said it’s definitely a journey he wants to make. It would be his first to his birth country since leaving as an infant almost four decades ago.

Now that Nathan is forming relationships with his biological siblings, with whom he keeps in touch through KakaoTalk and the group chat app BAND, he said he realizes his birth search was not just valuable to himself, but was also a great gift to them.

“They’ve been wondering about me for 38 years, whereas I didn’t know I had this family until just six months ago,” said the person who once thought he could go his entire life without digging into his past.


The experience has Nathan asking questions that never before crossed his mind. “How many families in Korea are still wondering where their babies are?” he said. He admits that he regrets not searching for his biological family sooner, more for his birth mother’s sake, “so she would have known I was all right and that I appreciated the choices [she and my birth father] made for me.”

Friends have encouraged Nathan, who wrote about his remarkable experience in a blog post on his photography business website, to make a documentary like Dan Matthews. The photographer is not sure if he’ll ever go so far as to make a film, but the reason he is sharing his story publicly is because he hopes, just as Matthews’ story touched and inspired him, his story can encourage other Korean adoptees—who number 200,000 worldwide—to do their own birth search.

“I just want everyone to know, don’t be afraid of it. There could be a happy outcome,” he said. “[Knowing] that a family back in Korea might be wondering, wishing and hoping to find out how their adopted baby is doing, it’s worth it.”

Recommended Reading


“November Cover Story: Dan Matthews”

“Anais & Sam: A Love Story of Twin Sisters Reunited After 25 Years”

“Faces of Adoption: A Photo Essay”

“Why a Generation of Adoptees is Returning to South Korea”


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

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Army Veteran Turns to Social Media in Search of His Long-Lost Twin Children

by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim

Army veteran Allen Thomas had spent over 40 years unsuccessfully searching for the whereabouts of his twin children he left behind in South Korea. But since taking to Facebook just a week ago with the assistance of his daughter, the story of his search has since gone viral. It’s been shared over a million times, while the public group has swelled to over 30,000 members.

Thomas told NBC News that he would understand if his children refused to see him. “I just need to know they’re OK and tell them I love them,” he said. “These are my kids, and I’ve never stopped loving them.”

“I want to share our family health history with them, because some of it is serious,” he added. “I want them to know that I have never stopped trying to get them.”

Thomas was 18 years old when he joined the Army in the mid-1960s. When he was shipped out to South Korea the next year, he met a woman who soon became pregnant with twins. James and Sandia (who also went by Jamie and Sandra) were born on Sept. 10, 1967, and Thomas married their mother a few months later.

First BirthdayAllen Thomas and his wife celebrating the first birthdays for their twin children.

Although the initial plan was to have the entire family eventually move to the States, the marriage “disintegrated,” according to Thomas’s daughter, Charlene Roberts. Thomas stayed in Asia following his Korea tour to be close to the children, and he took a 30-day leave in January 1971 while he was stationed in Vietnam to visit them in Korea.

It turned out to be the last time he saw James and Sandia in person. Thomas’s wife did not want to follow him back to the U.S. or allow the children to leave. “He even considered going AWOL to take his kids,” Roberts said.

Allen ThomasAllen Thomas in uniform.

Thomas sent letters and money to his family in Korea when he returned to the U.S., but his wife cut off all communication with him. He obtained a default divorce, and he remarried in 1973.

In 1974, Thomas received a final offer from the twins’ mother, who said she would relinquish the children to his custody. But Thomas and his wife couldn’t come up with the money to immediately bring them over, and he found out that the children had been adopted by another American family in 1976, right after he had left the U.S. Army. According to Korean law, his permission was not needed, and the mother would not give the address of the children.

Since then, Thomas continued to search for his kids, checking with American adoption agencies and registering with Korean American groups where the twins might be members. Thomas and Roberts expanded the search to Facebook when he moved in with his daughter recently. Roberts and fellow admins have posted daily updates on the search, and you can see the latest developments on the Facebook page.


Featured image via Facebook

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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).


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‘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:

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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

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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.