Beyond Infantilizing Portraits: South Korean Adoptees Speak Out
Perhaps the world’s best-known Korean adoptee today is Adam Crapser. After living in the U.S. for almost four decades, Crapser was deported to South Korea late last year because his adoptive parents had never filed for his American citizenship.
The twists and turns of Crapser’s story were splashed all over the news: his traumatic childhood and abusive adoptive parents; his criminal history and earnest attempts to turn his life around; his legal battles to stay in the U.S.; and, ultimately, his deportation to South Korea, where his birth mother struggled to learn English as she waited for her son.
Crapser’s tale is certainly dramatic, and it is important to recognize the reality of struggles like his. But the media’s dramatization of such cases can create a one-dimensional narrative of adoptees, often as helpless victims without a clear sense of identity. Others portray adoptees as eternal children, fixating upon grainy black-and-white baby photographs from orphanages or adoption agencies.
More than 200,000 Koreans have been sent overseas for adoption since the 1950s. Because the roots of adoption lie in the post-Korean War humanitarian effort, there is still a common perception of adoptees as orphans who should be rescued, pitied or regarded with guilt.
“When you tell [Koreans] that you’re adopted, they immediately say they’re sorry, speaking collectively for the country,” said adoptee Hojung Audenaerde.
Some of this guilt stems from press coverage during the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Despite South Korea’s flourishing economy, thousands of babies were still being sent abroad for adoption every year. Some foreign media outlets, including those in North Korea, likened adoption to “exporting” or “selling” babies. South Korea was humiliated.
Another persistent but troubling perspective in adoption discourse construes the practice as a “gift” or “blessing,” which adoptees are “lucky” to receive. The adoptee’s birth family, country, and culture are often dismissed as negligible losses when compared to the “better” life granted by the adoptive family.
“I was told to stop crying about my [birth] mom, my sister, Korea,” Crapser told the New York Times. “I was told to be happy because I was an American.”
Despite this “assimilation philosophy,” around 3,000 adoptees visit South Korea every year. The South Korean media often trumpets these visits as adoptees’ “search for their roots,” highlighting the first time they don hanbok or make kimchi. But adoptees’ motivations for returning to South Korea — and choosing to stay — are much more complex.
Approximately 700 adoptees currently live in South Korea, weaving themselves into the fabric of society and forging their own paths. They are not “lost children,” “sad victims” or “lucky escapees” but independent adults, keenly aware of the dominant discourse — and working to change it. Here are just a few of their stories.
Lauren McCullough, 26
“As people who look Korean but aren’t Korean, there are so many different levels of being distanced from Korean society,” said McCullough, who moved to South Korea in 2014. “There’s the linguistic aspect, of living in Korea when you don’t speak Korean — but when people see you, they expect you to speak Korean.”
McCullough said it could be difficult to break through the surface of Korean culture, but that she had eventually found her niche in a trail running community. She arrived at a gymnasium on Jeju Island without knowing a single person, and was quickly welcomed into a group of South Korean runners. They went on a three-day, 100 km race together, racing over Mt. Halla by day and sharing food and stories by night.
“For me, that felt so welcoming and caring,” McCullough said. “It felt like family, and an aspect of Korean culture that I really identified with — that Korea isn’t all about [K-pop] idols and music, but building jeong with people and sharing food and spending time together outdoors.”
Jeong, difficult to define even in Korean, denotes a certain type of affection or emotional bond. “I think the longer I’ve lived here, the more I’ve been able to intrinsically understand aspects of Korean society, like jeong,” McCullough said.
Laura Wachs, 28
“I don’t have a relationship with my adoptive mother or my birth mother,” said Wachs, who was adopted by Americans at six months old.
Wachs works with KUMFA (Korean Unwed Mothers’ Families Association), teaching poetry to single mothers in South Korea. It’s a cause close to her heart: Over 90 percent of adoptees were born to single mothers, who are often pressured to relinquish their children. Even today, this stigma against single motherhood is still prevalent.
“There’s a permanent estrangement with my adoptive parents; partly because of that, I haven’t wanted to look for my birth family. But [the single moms] are the epitome of the definition of a good parent. [The moms] and their kids are so happy together. Even despite the endless challenges and hardships they face, they love their kids so much.”
Wachs, who has lived in South Korea since 2014 but does not speak Korean, was prepared to face the language barrier when teaching the women. But cultural and literary differences made the process even more complicated.
“Working with this oppressed minority group who has never been given permission to express themselves — especially through poetry — it’s been trial and error,” she said. “There are so many words that just aren’t able to be translated and so much nuance that gets lost in translation.”
Matt Blesse, 30
Blesse first came to South Korea in 2011 and spent two years teaching English in Jeonju. He then moved to Seoul to pursue his interest in cooking.
“I think the way that I built community in the States was through language and poetry, but when I came to Korea that was not available to me,” he said. “So I gravitated towards food, since it’s a very important aspect of the way that Koreans build relationships.”
Blesse has spent the past several years working in the heart of Seoul’s ever-evolving restaurant scene. He is currently a sous chef at Mishmash, a Euro-Korean fusion restaurant in Hannam-dong.
“Actually, adoptees — and in a larger sense, transnational Koreans — have been a big part of introducing [Western food and fusion] back to Korea,” said Blesse. “You look at the foreign food scene and how it’s changed in recent years, and it’s mainly been driven by transnational Koreans, including some adoptees, returning to Korea.”
Blesse describes cultural work like sharing cuisine as “the most digestible, the most relatable, the most communicable of ways to transform people’s consciousness.”
“Ultimately, activism needs to include engagement of Korean society,” he said. “I think things like the ways people cook, the ways people do art, or the ways people teach can really bring that.”
Hojung Audenaerde, 44
Audenaerde has returned to South Korea several times, including trips to meet her birth father in 2012 and her birth mother in 2014.
At the time of reunion, her mother was paralyzed and had been unable to speak for years due to a stroke.
“I felt like I somehow transmuted into my mother,” Audenaerde said, remembering the experience. “I was unable to coherently speak about how that experience affected me. I became paralyzed internally within myself.”
Driven by the experience of her birth family reunion, she and her partner, Bruno Figueras, formed the creative duo visibleINvisible. Earlier this March, they displayed their first artistic collaboration, “broken whole,” in Insa-dong.
“Adoption discourse usually has not included the adoptee’s voice, so I think it’s very important to actually get the adoptee’s voice out there, in whatever expression it is,” Audenaerde said.
“Ultimately, these are very human experiences, so I would like non-adoptees to see my work and relate to the emotions being expressed around loss, around separation, around things that everyone feels.”
Adoption is still seen as an awkward problem in South Korea: humiliating, regrettable, and difficult. But by their mere existence, and through their activism, adoptees create an opening — a new possibility for what it means to be Korean. This new discourse, unfortunately, faces incredible cultural challenges.
“One thing I fight with is a very constricting definition of what ‘Korean’ means — that ‘Korean’ has to mean born in Korea, lives in Korea, has a Korean family,” McCullough said. “Even now, some of my friends introduce me as a foreigner. I don’t even know that I see myself as Korean, but I want the opportunity to be able to claim that, and that doesn’t always exist.”
By challenging the conventional view of adoptees in South Korea, these individuals also turn the so-called adoption issue upside down. The shameful problem they are saying, is not that of adoptees; rather, it is that of South Korean society and its failure to acknowledge the complex nuances of adoptees’ experiences and its ignoring of the systemic issues at the root of adoption.
“There is still a lack of consciousness that adoption is not an individual problem, but a societal problem,” McCullough said. “Sometimes, when I tell people that I’m adopted, they’ll say, ‘Oh, your poor mother.’ But I want to say, ‘Oh, no, poor Korean society’ — because how did this happen?”