Like aliens in a strange land, far outside the Korean border, many of us struggle with feelings of loneliness and of being outcasts. We grow up looking different from those around us. Some of us wake up, sooner or later, and go on homeland tours and adoptees’ gatherings, and a whole new world presents itself up to us. Suddenly we’re able to see that each of us is no longer a lonely alien individual, but that instead we are parts of a group of many aliens, strangers with similar backgrounds, and similarly out of place. A true eye-opener.
And we realize that we could all have grown up anywhere, anywhere in the world: here, there, or anywhere else. Ending up where we did was just as random as a lottery ticket. And just as there are winners and losers in the weekly lottery draw, and just as no-one can tell in advance who will win and who won’t, some of us were lucky enough to be put in good homes with suitable adoptive parents, whereas others … well, not so fortunate. And just like with the lottery, the losers by far outnumber the winners.
But how much is that golden ticket really worth? And why were we selected for the lottery?
We are the debris left behind from the Joseon* (see description in the frame below) or Cho-sen period, when much of the Korea that we know today was formed. This includes the social norms, and specifically the attitude of the government and of people in general towards orphans and children of single mothers: Neither are in very high regard, and society would rather we had been swept under a rug and forgotten about if that was possible.
Then came the 1950’s, and the Korean war, after the end of which, in 1953, the adoption frenzy began. In addition to the usual Korean orphans, a new wave of children were born of Korean mothers and American fathers. Those fathers were soldiers who for the most part had returned to the United States, if they had not been killed in battle. Left behind were single, unwed young women and their fatherless children, along with the shame that followed in the eyes of Korean society.
In 1955 commercials started to appear, mainly in USA, advertising the need for adoptive parents to take in orphans from Korea, particularly those of mixed race. Korea then became known as the Land of Orphans, a view that it unfortunately has been stuck with ever since. The process was fuelled and fired for a great part by Harry and Bertha Holt who, according to themselves, went into the adoption business for good Christian and humanitarian reasons, although the fact that they made a great deal of money in the process did not seem to slow them down even the slightest.
The children who were sent out to be adopted during the first wave, from 1955 to around 1970, were considered true war orphans. Later, through the Eighties and Nineties and to this day, they are mainly children of single mothers, yet still considered orphans for the purpose of adoption. Unfortunately, little has changed in Korea in terms of attitude towards orphans and single mothers since the war. For almost every single “orphan” that gets sent out of Korea, a mother is left behind, heartbroken and very much alive, wondering where on Earth her precious baby is.
So are we really fortunate, or what? Our golden ticket is a leftover from the legacy of the Joseon era, making us truly the Cho-sen ones, sent away not because we were lucky, but because we were an inconvenience, a symbol of poverty, a burden of shame, and … surprisingly easy to get rid of.
However, many of us visit Korea, once we grow up, and find that our lives have been based on lies. Many of us have families in Korea, or at least had at the time of our adoption, meaning we were never really orphans. In order to be an actual orphan, you must be without living natural parents. For a bewildered number of us, this turns out not to be the case. Many have found their families, even their parents, still alive. Others were not so lucky: To use myself as an example, I was sent away for adoption when I was one year old, yet I learned from my living family in Korea that my father lived until I was five, and he had been searching for me until he died.
Today Korea is forced to face their shame: Not that of having to deal with orphans and single mothers, which is why they entered the adoption race to begin with, but that of having to admit the lies behind the adoption trade when the adoptees return to find out the bitter truth. Finally, matters are beginning to get addressed, but Korea still has a long, long way to go. Despite being “found out”, they keep on doing it. Despite the country’s low birth rate, babies are still being sent abroad for adoption as orphans, whether they are really orphans or not. Single mothers are still being pressured, and pressured hard, to give up their newborn. Even today, divorce is considered an acceptable and legal reason for putting your kids up for adoption, and the horror is that these children have living parents.
As I have said in my earlier posts, Korea needs to part with its medieval ways and bring themselves into the twenty-first century. To allow more generations to grow up as victims of the outdated and ruthless adoption practice is unacceptable. Those children need to grow up in their natural surroundings, and if possible with their natural family. Even actual orphans would be better off growing up in the country where they were born. The war is over now. Korea is no longer the poor country that it once was, back when this all started. In fact, their financial growth has been built in part upon the adoption business. The Holts have caused more than enough damage. It is high time to turn things around. No more mothers should be forced to give up their children, and no more children should have to grow up without their mothers or their natural family. It is madness, and it must end.
Korea, the land of Morning Calm. No wonder why you are called that. Since you’ve sent away so many of your children, for generations now, your mornings must be exceptionally quiet. The ghosts of Harry and Bertha Holt must be exorcised, but it will take time for the wounds to heal. Meanwhile children will continue to suffer … but now they cry for justice, and the world needs to hear them. Be quiet no more.