Dispersed and Returned

Am I anywhere different?

The scenery doesn’t really change.  I’m still inhabiting this body.  I’m still outside looking in.

This is my first myspace generation type narcissistic self photo, taken in the bathroom of the Seoul Folk Flea Market.  I like how it could have been taken anywhere, and I am standing still and the rest of the world is moving around me.   It just seemed like what I should do at the time.  And later, after attending the Disbursed and Returned exhibit about returning adoptees, it wanted me to post it and write about it.

Rev. Kim Do Hyun, speaking to the Korean audience of subway go-ers passing through the exhibit, wrote:

Having to continuously explain your existence is not necessarily a pleasant thing….When international adoptees no longer have to explain and justify their existence, the returnees are liberated from the coercion of continuous self-explanation.

And yet I don’t have to do that here, not really. I recognize Rev. Kim is trying to elicit understanding from the Korean people, and the point he made later was that it is not us adoptees who have explaining to do:  it is the Korean people who should be making explanations to us.

Here, I WANT to explain my existence, but nobody really wants to know.  As soon as you open your mouth, they can tell, and they’d rather not talk about it.  You are a reminder of their shame.  And in the United States, with every new encounter, I had to explain my existence.  And the best one of all, that I got with alarming frequency, was, “What ARE you???”  I am not one of you, obviously…

Here, I blend in.  Here, I am not one of you, though it’s obvious I should be.

I really liked what Maria Hee Jung, returning adoptee from Denmark wrote.

I think most adoptees realize that they don’t really have a country that is truly theirs, when they come to Korea.  I think it would actually be easier for me to be accepted and to feel comfortable in a third nation without blood relation and anything else.

Tobias Hubinette, Swedish adoptee, wrote in Comforting an Orphaned Nation

It is precisely in the interstitial space, oscillating between this still unfinished reconciliation with the past and still on-going imagining of the future, that the adopted Koreans are appearing as comfort children in order to ease and console the homeless and orphaned Korean nation.

Our return, for the 500+ of us who have done so, is perhaps even more important for Korea than it is for us.  We adoptees were sacrificed in exchange for a better life: because they couldn’t see that they were already free, that it was only their colonized mind-set that enslaved them, and that they had the power to make change within themselves.  They need to see and recognize us so they can move on to the next phase of their personal development.

A particularly well-written assessment of Korea’s desperation to do ANYTHING to get ahead, the later shame of such desperate acts, and the denial of desperation and erasure of those acts, was written as an article entitled, The Korean Adoption Syndrome by Dr. Kim Su Rasmussen, PhD in History of Ideas, Seoul National University:

International adoption is a vector of deterritorialization in modern Korean society.  The Korean adoptee syndrome is a politico-historical phenomenon that involves more than 150,000 adoptees who have been subjected to involuntary migration.  And with the exception of a hyper-sentimentalized portrait of adoptees and their reunions with their birth families, which merely functions as a screen-memory, it is a phenomenon that has been wiped from the collective awareness in Korea.  There is no mention of international adoption in Korean history books, nor is it part of the curriculum in Korean elementary or middle schools. Myths and deliberate distortions of the history of international adoption are widespread.  Only the most progressive elements of Korean society are able to see international adoption as a dark side of the militarized industrialization of the modern Korean society.  International adoption is a constitutive blind spot in the modern Korean society.  The Korean adoption syndrome raises a number of questions about the phenomenological experience of adoptees returning to Korea and their historical and political position in the Korean society.  While the traditional approach is to explain international adoption by referring to various antagonisms in the Korean society, I maintain that the study of international adoption provides a unique opportunity for us to gain understanding of modern Korea and its phenomenal rise in the international order of industrialized nations.

My journey to Korea has been forty years in the making.  My radicalization has been forty years in the making.  It is not enough to sit back and observe and let this life happen to me.  Fatalism is not productive.  And people who read my works volley back to me that I am negative or angry.  And to that I say:  Sorting through this morass of complicated issues is a positive action.  Coming here to live is an act of bravery.  Confronting Korean society and questioning the world’s assumptions about adoption is based upon a love of humanity and a faith in the capacity of people to change for the better.  You must turn over the soil and make a new bed before you plant new seeds.

Dr. Kim Su Rasmussen also wrote about Self-Rejection and Emancipation:

Returning to Korea is a journey of discovery.  It is a discovery of an entire world of sounds, smells, and extraordinary sensations.  The magical country that was only a vague fantasy during childhood and adolescence suddenly becomes very concrete:  the pushing and jostling in the subway during rush hour, the army of impeccable suits and high heels, the ringing of a bell in a Buddhist temple, the unbearable hot and humid summer.  It is a pleasing shock to discover that for some people, the Koreans, this is the center of the world.

However, returning to Korea is first and foremost a journey of self-discovery.  It is an experience of radical disjunction between the past and the present, the West and the East, the mind and the body.  It is  a threatening experience that destabilizes and decenters the world of the adoptee:  returning to Korea is an experience of oneself as an other;  it is an experience of radical deterritorialization in which everything, including the very core of our self, is being questioned;  and it is, at least potentially, an experience of emancipation and empowerment.

So yeah, I’ve been abandoned and exiled and abused and marginalized and silenced and OF COURSE that makes me angry!  But once upon a time, I didn’t know I was angry.  I was uncomfortable, but couldn’t verbalize it.  Later, I realized that internalizing discomfort was really hurting me.

I can ignore my discomfort and swallow my anger and hurt myself, or I can work to make it so no child in the future has to experience such avoidable trauma.  Righteous anger has powerful energy, and channeling that energy is how the world changes for the better.  I am certainly destabilized here, and it effects me.  But I try to learn from the past and persist into a future where I can contribute to society in the most meaningful way possible.

This is what optimism looks like.

9 thoughts on “Dispersed and Returned

  1. hmm, i like the idea of returning adoptees actually being more comfortable in a 3rd country. it makes sense why that would be true. i mean, sometimes i feel more comfortable and truly able to be myself when i’m NOT in the USA, and i had no “ties” (or anything) to korea or any country i’ve ever visited, i kind of just show up expecting to like it and grow and experience new things. i think it’s just because it’s so different for me, and i don’t have the unbelievable “mission” that you do, so i’m not set up for any sort of expectation ,etc (you have some serious balls, btw….)

    i just woke up i hope this makes sense.

  2. All of my family pictures show alot of irish/german/finnish/norwegian influenced fellows, big smiles with lots of teeth and slightly flushed from too much laughing. Then I’d be shuffled in the back (despite the fact I was short), dark, awkward and unsmiling. I’ve always wondered if I’d ever have a family photo that I really looked comfortable in.

    It’s a little sad though, as I think America was supposed to be that third country, but now it’s not. I’m not sure what it is now.

  3. this is so true. i was sooo comfortable in Jamaica. i was just a foreigner there: nothing more, nothing less. a much easier hat to wear.

    i don’t have balls. i just have nothing left to lose.

  4. papercraneprayers,

    you’re a good writer.

    i think all of us adoptees have felt that way. it’s a monumental effort every day of our lives, trying our damnedest to be at ease with something so visibly not natural.

    i don’t think our country really exists. it floats in the sky and moors on occasion. that is what is so exceptional about this diaspora: it was scattered and without mutual aid. we’ve had to manage on our own, so that isolation is second nature. 200,000 islands unto themselves.

  5. note to readers:

    There is mention of 150,000 or 160,000 or 200,000 adoptees sent abroad. the disparity is due to the record keeping, of course. There were just under 160,000 recorded about four years ago. So you have to also add in the two thousand each year for several years afterwards, and the one thousand per year now. Plus, those who watch these things say that these figures are only counting the adoptions through the major adoption agencies. Nobody was counting before 1958. The first “official” adoption taking place in 1955. Plus, they claim there were thousands and thousands of private adoptions prior to the industry being regulated.

    170,000 or 200,000. It’s still xxx,000 too many.

  6. Great post. I totally feel the same way. I like how you talk about this whole idea of internalizing discomfort. Some people have told me that by thinking about “my issues” that I have disturbed my own well-being, and that I was “fine” before and that I “chose” to bring discomfort on myself for thinking about my own discomfort. Anyways thanks for putting words to my thoughts. -GS

  7. Bringing discomfort on oneself. Ha! How does one do that? Why would anyone do that? What a preposterous thing to say. Even more preposterous to do. Those are the words of an abuser blaming the victim.

    So many times in my life, I have asked myself, “What just happened here?” Only to explain it away, or to file it away, or to let it slide. Only after a lifetime collection of these moments, the drawer becomes too full, and it can’t be ignored anymore. These feelings are nebulous and intangible, and yet they reside in our bodies physically until they ache. This discomfort is real. And surveyed, we can begin to see the patterns and recognize where it starts and how to end it.

    No, We do not do this to ourselves. Ask any person who has had their civil liberties taken away, or been denied their identity, or been discriminated against, or been expected to be grateful for half as much. Ask them about discomfort. And who’s doing what to who. Racism, for example, is nebulous and intangible, but we know it leaves scars, yet for every one scar you can see there are a thousand you can’t see.

    We HAVE TO explore this discomfort. It is only a matter of WHEN. Only by cleaning house can we free ourselves from the oppression of other’s garbage. And stop being foundlings and charity cases and start being fully emancipated people.

    My heart aches for all adoptees because of this. Knowing how much b.s. they will have to wade through in their lifetimes, hoping and praying they will come to a place one day where they can rise above it all. May they all recognize their discomfort early on and embrace a sense of self.

    I wish I’d acted up decades ago…

  8. I look at as much adoptee written stuff as I can find, and I have to say this particular post helped me understand more than anything I have read.

  9. Thanks, Ed.

    The true work is by those who I quoted: I just knit it together through my own lens, as if I were the editor of an anthology.

    You’ve given me the best I can hope for: that others may understand what it is to have experienced disruption, displacement, racism, and separation from our own identities.

    I believe we change the world most effectively one person at a time. :)

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