Been working on this off and on the past few days. You know, all my life I romanticized becoming a radical activist and since the gulf war I have dipped my foot in that pool off and on – from buying a commercial photocopy machine and printing a weekly paper out of my apartment in junior college, to starting my own little organization to increase consciousness raising around homeless issues which failed due to lack of consensus, to working for the Displacement Coalition, to assisting in fund drives for NARAL, and other minor forays into volunteering – I’ve put in a lot of time, but never to the level I have with TRACK.
It’s been energizing working to raise awareness of single mom’s issues in Korea, and why I joined them in the first place. But I’m not a doe-eyed would-be Angela Davis anymore, and I’m not a co-ed anymore: I’m older and I’ve watched organizations push and fail and worked for the uber rich and know how they think and lived with the opposition and understand them better. And the thing is, we all want what we think is best for society. Well, Haliburton types excluded…there ARE some truly evil people in the world…But mostly, the world is not so black and white and for progress to be made, sometimes compromises must also be made, and that’s okay if things improve a little. Short of revolution, that’s the best we can hope for – improvement – and that’s no small thing! This is the hope of activism.
I’ve also realized that the EFFECTIVE value and function of activist organizations is not total change, but to keep balance in a world where those in power have the advantage. And that, too, is no small thing! Real activism requires a long, sustained commitment.
Fanaticism, however, lacks this kind of mature commitment and is not grounded in the real world. Its energy is negative and voracious and impatient. It feeds on itself and has a short life. And, ultimately a short life doesn’t serve anybody well. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize this type of activism, especially if you can’t see the forest through the trees, but you can begin by listening to every niggling question that crosses your brow and by exploring a mission carefully and trying to uncover the true motivation.
Sometimes I’m a little slow on the uptake. OK. OFTEN I’m a little slow…But that’s okay, too. It’s all part of the education progress. And what did I learn? I learned that I am not a true radical. Or a fanatic. And that’s a good thing. Not as romantic, but a good thing nonetheless…
Almost May and it’s 7 degrees Celsius right now. (44 degrees Fahrenheit) The snow is gone from the mountaintops, the cherry blossoms are about spent, and the deciduous trees are growing lush with new green leaves, but still I blow on my hands and cover my nose to stay warm, desk-sitting.
While the students have been taking their mid-term exams, I have mostly been processing leaving TRACK and also editing learning-Korean videoclips to become learning-English videoclips and trying to find copies of American t.v. shows to share with the students.
I still want to help Korea improve it’s image of unwed moms and have offered my services at organizations around town. For a week or so there, I thought I was going to be persona non-grata among KAD’s, but actually I’ve found a cold reception from only one person that is not KAD. And also, I’ve found that among adoptee activists here in Korea, my leaving came as a personal surprise to them, but one which they totally get. I didn’t understand why these organizations weren’t more radical, but now I do. But maybe you have to live in Korea to understand…
There really are only polar extremes for adoptees to chose from right now: the adoption industry’s rose-tinted embrace or the stirring call to arms of sometimes reckless adoptee activists. But do either of those extremes represent reality? None of the adoptee organizations are exactly what I think adoptees need, (though some are better than others) because I think that the vast bulk of adoptees recognize there is no black and white and are more just in a quandry as to what positive things they can do with their hurt and/or anger, and there is no group representing them. Most of the adoptee organizations are partially funded by the adoption industry: IKAA and their member organizations, KAAN, and GOAL. Those that aren’t are courted and pressured to be. There is no organization that represents both happy and angry adoptees and the vast majority in between that is not funded by the conflicted interests of the adoption industry. And then there are those like ASK and TRACK who are are neither officially recognized non-profits and who reject the influence donations from the industry can produce and who are the ones to turn to when you want to help but don’t trust the existing funding mechanisms. But these organizations’ work often undermines the adoptee’s reputation as rational and legitimate voices representing the experiences of the whole. There is a need for a new, inclusive and independent model that looks forward.
The major argument for supporting the current vision of activism is that ratifying the law proposed by TRACK and the coalition will end international adoption. However, TRACK did not include an end to international adoption in the bill because THAT is political suicide. There is however, a Korean politician who doesn’t care about adoption politics and will go out on a limb to end international adoption. But that’s also coming from a Korean politician and it’s a gamble and who knows what’s going on in that person’s head or behind the scenes among the lawmakers. And the politician is not doing anything radical, but merely re-introducing a proposal from previous administrations that were already past due being implemented. But even if an end to international adoption as proposed by the politician gets ratified, the option to get rid of your child through relinquishment will remain. Korean people will still not want a child that’s not their blood and they will still want to hide that fact if it isn’t. We need to be grounded in reality so we can make informed decisions.
Personally, a better law (to my mind and a lot of other adoptees) would be to outlaw abandoning & relinquishing children, and not just international adoption: international adoption is just extra traumatic, so it should be the first to go. Family planning is where it’s at. Children should only become orphans through death or parental failure. But I digress, as this isn’t even relevant to Korea – baby steps…
Then there is the argument that laws regulate society and that once a law is in place, society’s attitudes will/must change. The proposed law helps protect the identities of children and helps increase support to unwed mothers, which will significantly improve options for those who want to keep their babies, and I wholeheartedly throw my support behind improvement of options for women and identity protection. However, the law won’t significantly reduce the number of children being relinquished for a long long time, though, even if there is support for unwed mothers, though it is definitely a step in the right direction, but it’s no magic bullet by itself.
These social programs, if they are created, absolutely must become institutions for these options to have any meaning. Of concern to me is the level of increase of support to unwed mothers and the support systems available to accommodate single head-of-household families in need: whatever it is, I’m sure it will not be adequate. In my mind, the socialization of Korea is a tenuous proposition, which will vary with each political term and the country’s current economic conditions, just like anywhere in the world. America with its tax base of 15-25% can barely provide decent welfare services to women and children. Korea’s tax base is 5-10%. Even if the law is passed, who is going to fund those services, and how long will that funding last? The real reason Korea is reluctant to pass the law proposal and why they have not ended international adoption in the past is because it’s worried about its coffers. This is most likely where the real debate among legislators lies about ratification of the law proposal, as the embarrassment about being a “baby exporting nation” is real. The lawmakers are dealing with the economic realities, even if their hearts lay elsewhere. And they are politicians and must worry about the older voting and power-wielding upper class who have much more at stake in the family shame game.
I hope the law passes, but it is not the end-all/be-all which will close the book on the phenomenon of Koreans ditching their babies. And the million dollar questions are – can Korean baby-abandoning culture change deeply and strongly enough to survive political and economic turbulence? And who is going to pay for social services? Shame, The other major factor, is a huge, huge thing to try and eradicate. And that’s going to take unrelenting work and lots of time. It’s just not as simple as people want to reduce it to.
Reading my words you might think I would agree with the rationalizations the adoption industry has for continuing to provide a baby sucking vacuum for Korea because Koreans will always throw away their children, and that they’re merely here to save the cast-offs. I think that’s a self-serving argument. As long as you do that, then there’s little financial incentive to improve social services, in an already precariously funded and poorly managed government. Even with domestic adoptions, they still are monkeying with this country’s society by condoning the throwing away of children when inconvenient. No. This outside influence unfairly tips the scales here in Korea, and they need to get the hell out of Korea’s internal affairs so Korea can sort things out with clarity.
But the reason I have hope that Korea can change is because I see that the youth are rejecting modes of traditional thought which are no longer relevant to the world they want to live in. Women are becoming empowered, and they are only going to become more so. They are increasingly less and less ashamed and less and less apologetic about their actions. The oldest generation will call the young more selfish. I would say they are selfish in that they are less willing to make sacrifices for the good of all. But I would also say that they are more aware of ethics and more critical thinkers, who will make decisions based upon reason instead of obligation or fear, and who understand that there are long-term psychological ramifications for poor decisions. In addition, there is a growing body of women who lost their children in secret who have a point of view that is starting to manifest itself. And these empowered younger generation are less apt to throw stones of stigma at their peers for being libertine.
The people driving will try to hold onto these age-old mechanisms of social control however they can, but once a mind has opened and seen other options, it’s impossible to go back to a life of resignation – imagining alternatives has got its own momentum. And because it is tied up so intrinsically with envy of the west and Korea tying her fortunes with the west, a more western culture will evolve. Korea has gone through remarkable changes in the shortest imaginable time-frames, but the actual society has not caught up yet, which is why I believe that for us adoptees to expect our demands of our desired changes to happen NOW, when we want it, to be both unreasonable and ridiculous.
Unfortunately, our dream of a Korea that embraces western social attitudes is also tied to Korean fortunes. For if Korea’s economy tanks, then the already manic preoccupation with self-preservation at any cost will reassert itself stronger than ever and spell curtains for any social and cultural progress, despite any law that gets passed. Take for instance, abortion. Abortion is illegal in Korea, yet Korea has one of the world’s highest abortion rates. This is why a new vision must be offered that Koreans will embrace, and it has to be more robust than the law and the economy – because laws can change with every administration and laws will be broken and the economy will always change.
It’s going to take not only persistent lobbying (to the older generation) for improvements to society in regards to the rights of women, but also a long campaign to improve the public image of women who keep their children: as strong, empowered, caring heroines. (and this is where MY interest and focus lies) It’s going to take a long, long time in our adoptee view, though maybe it will prove a short time in history. And I also don’t feel it is our job as adoptees to kill ourselves doing this for Korea. It is better for us to help Koreans do for Koreans. Because it is unsustainable for us to live here as long as it will take, with the kind of commitment it will take. That’s why it has to be Koreans: after all, it’s their society and world in which they must live.
The other day I was having drinks with a white girl from France who had also lived in the United States, and she couldn’t get over how despite the fact that Korea is one of the most high-tech places in the world, their society is still stuck in the 1950’s. (thus the ironic title of this post) And it’s really true. They’ve still got 5 decades of social catch-up to do, and they’ve already caught up 5 decades of social catch-up in just the past 2 decades: the fashion and technology, burgeoning film industry and pop culture, etc. – it’s all just rouge and lipstick.
Instead of giving Korea a black eye, and making immediate demands and villainizing everyone in the past, it would be better to help them as they try to catch up, as they’re scrambling madly to do. So maybe instead of an angry adoptee t-shirt, I will make one up that says “proud single mom” and be the change I want to see.