The brave new world of family making always brings to my mind that line of poetry: "The problem with a kitten is that, it grows up to be a cat." Children, like kittens, sometimes metamorphose into virtually unrecognizable creatures, only to turn on their caretakers and stray from home. Of course, when this happens in households with biological offspring, the chasm between child and parent can be blamed on cultural factors -- like the media or even a biologically inherited propensity to make one's own mistakes. But when a child is adopted or the result of donated sperm (or any of the other myriad new methods for building a family), it's easier for kids to turn around and point to the difference in their gene pool or skin color and say, Ah-ha -- there's the reason! And in the case of a transracial or transnational adoption, that potential divide between child and parent is all the more glaring.
Since the end of the Korean War, over 200,000 children have been adopted from Korea, making it one of the biggest adoption experiments in the history of humankind. (Currently the nation is ranked fourth after China, Russia, and Guatemala in number of intercountry adoptions.) And with 700 South Korean adoptees convening in Seoul this week, the proverbial kittens are coming home to roost. Korean adoptees have been returning in various numbers since the 1960s, but this year's event, simply called "The Gathering," will be the largest yet. Envisioned as a sort of massive multifaceted meet-and-greet for the global community of South Korean adoptees, the event will include lectures, workshops, a research conference, a fashion show, art exhibitions and a soccer tournament.
Lest it be written off as just one hell of a multi-culti kimchi-fest, this column by Jenny Na -- a young woman who was adopted by an American family in 1973 but now lives in Seoul -- underscores the complexities of intercountry adoption and the discrimination against women that allows such intercountry adoption to flourish. For Na, the system that gave her American parents and an American upbringing was part and parcel of a lucrative industry that discriminates against young, single mothers (compelling them to give up their children) for the financial benefit of adoption agencies, social welfare organizations and the Korean government. She contends that the government profits from the baby trade not only by collecting fees on intercountry adoption but by saving billions of dollars in social welfare benefits it would have had to pay for poor children.
Watching several friends embark on international adoption with their hearts open and intentions as good as the day is long, I cringe to think that this might be the reaction they'll face from their children after 20-some years of boogers, birthday parties and homework battles. Na characterizes the intercountry adoption experience for the adoptee and for the biological mother as primarily one of loss. "The loss of culture, language and family is something adoptees will never be able to fully reclaim. For birth mothers and families, there can be no replacement for the loss of a child."
"When will the government begin to protect Korean children and their families from being torn apart through adoption?" asks Na, citing Korea's global standing as the 13th largest economy in the world as evidence that Korea -- unlike, say, Malawi with its 1 million orphans -- has some choice in the matter.
Of course, there are many perspectives on transcultural adoption -- including this Korean adoptee profiled last week on NPR who runs her own international adoption agency. But I think it's worth knowing which countries with excess babies to give away (or sell) also have a bundle of policies that treat poor women like second-class citizens -- and considering, when we adopt their children, whether we are unintentionally offering support for those policies.