Hapa Mosaic Tour participants, including Katherine Kim (in hat), at Haemil School.
story by KATHERINE KIM and DAWN TOMLINSON
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.
* * *
From 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.
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.
* * *
Jamey 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.
* * *
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)