“Adoption is just a symptom of a larger social and class injustice”: My interview with Leanne Suki Leith

I interviewed Leanne Suki Leith for an article on returning adoptees in Groove Korea. The article featured the voices of five other adoptees, which meant that much of what Leith said in the interview didn’t make it into print. Since much of what Leith said was a highly articulate, insightful and thorough response to the state of international adoption in Korea, I wanted to share the full interview here.

Can you describe the adoptee community in Korea? What role did it play in your life during your time in Korea?

Well, that’s a complicated question, as adoptees encompass all walks of life. I would say that the thing all adoptees living in Korea have in common is being disturbed. Not in a mentally ill way, but in a way that is strong enough to risk daily discomfort to live in a country that doesn’t necessarily welcome them. And I would say it is reasonable for international adoptees to feel disturbed, given the disruption they have all experienced. Those living in Korea have all recognized identity as an issue and challenged themselves to comprehend it. They are all incredibly brave and/or they are at a point in their life where they have no choice but to confront what disturbs and interferes with their lives. We tend to only hear about the ones who don’t fare well, but actually they are all in various stages of their own personal identity process, at varying levels of maturity, life experience, and all manner of class and cultural backgrounds.

The notion that adoptees have community within Korea is even more difficult and complicated. I’ve found the most functional adoptees living in Korea to be the ones you rarely hear of/from, who have found independence and don’t feel the need to engage with other adoptees often. Most adoptees living in Korea have their hands full just trying to survive or deal with their reunited families, etc. Most are frustrated because they can not find work in their fields of expertise, can not communicate except at the most superficial levels and, due to their unique circumstances, are isolated in their various living situations. The ones most resembling a community, who have the most frequent contact and rely most on one another are also the most dysfunctional and the ones misrepresenting the majority of us. While there may be a small sample that are true expatriates (I’ve met one who’d been in Korea for 18 years!), most are here in a limited capacity via short-term programs or opportunities. Over all, the adoptees living in Korea are a largely transitory population whose stay is intermittent over time or short in duration. For some it is an on-going experiment consisting of multiple trials towards becoming more culturally and language fluent: once navigated, returning for additional stays becomes an option within the realm of possibility which many enjoy, take advantage of, and consider a benefit to being internationally adopted. Thus, some adoptees develop a dual identity moving ever more fluidly between West and East. A lot of these adoptees are ones in reunion who must also navigate between the complication of multiple families, and fellow adoptee relationships can offer comfort in contrast to that stress, joy, and heartache. In addition, most adoptee organizations – adoption agency run, state run, adoptee run, and adoptee interest groups are based in Seoul, so adoptees elsewhere in the country must find more creative means to connect via the internet and/or network at occasional events they travel to Seoul for.

To me, a community of adoptees is anytime there is more than one adoptee gathered. Just being in the presence of another who inherently understands your challenges can be comforting, even if their identity politics does not match your own. For this reason, many adoptees prefer to form friendships primarily with only other adoptees, making their experience in Korea an insular one. The constant influx and departure of adoptees, their politics, and varying levels of maturity or ability to process their experience can make even limited exposure to community taxing as well, so some adoptees limit their interactions with other adoptees. Our experience is intense and our meetings are as well. My remote location made it easier to strike a balance of meeting adoptees yet keeping the intensity minimal.

Because of all these factors, community is on an as-need basis, and the need is greatest for newly arriving adoptees, adoptees in reunion, and dysfunctional adoptees. However, most all of the adoptees are interested in expanding access and tools to assist their searches, fair and accurate media portrayals of their population which promote their humanity, and improving Korean society’s reception and valuation of them. Politically they remain a divided house separated on pro or anti adoption lines, though that line is blurring as the population has matured and discourse has increased. As a body politic, adoptees are challenged because we were scattered to so many countries and active participation is based on self-identification, which tends to take place early in the identity exploration process and then wanes. This lack of coming forward can be generational, as older adoptees are accustomed to living in obscurity and isolation, or because it takes energy, means, crisis, or presence of mind to take on identity exploration, or because the adoptee is too young to form their own educated opinions and fully participate.

Adoptee groups are the nexus for community networking in Korea. Global Overseas Adoptee’s Link (GOA’L) is the only adoptee-run NGO that works on adoptee support services, KOROOT is an NGO that provides temporary lodging and hosts adoption-related events, interest groups such as ASK who work to improve public perception and understanding of adoptees and build relations in support of adoptee policy, and TRACK who works on social justice issues and holding parties accountable in adoption history. There are also government run programs and adoption agency run programs that I can’t speak for and, frankly, question if there is a conflict of interest in them.

Navigating those different organizations was very confusing to me (and most adoptees) as I couldn’t know what each group represented to begin with. Each group attracts a different flavor of adoptee and has its own issues, value, and politics. GOA’L is the only one that holds events specifically for community-building and is mostly a-political. The other groups have events with political agendas where a lot of community-building happens on the side. My unsolicited advice would be to check your perspective and criticism often and ask yourself what is truly in the interest of progress: for yourself and society at large. And whether or not the company’s way of coping is healthy. As in any community, excesses occur and are not sustainable, so the life of the party might actually be wise to avoid. And, as in any community, one can find like-minded and balanced people who come out of the woodwork to volunteer real work for matters of importance.

In what ways has adoption complicated your identity?

As a female Asian, like most adoptees male or female, sexualization and hyper feminization presented seriously adverse pressures upon me, beginning with my own adopted father and that, combined with (and possibly because of) being adopted created a domino effect of self-defeating actions which I am still correcting for over four decades later. Left home, married to escape, poor partner choice, became single mom, could never be satisfied in any job or any place I lived, etc. So yeah, it complicated my life immensely… People may talk about identity issues but I never had a sense of myself and, being void of any identity, that created a kind of nihilistic attitude about life. I am a cynic. But have come to embrace cynicism as a valuable contribution to society and that the cynic’s bothering to critic at all is inherently positive. And, one can’t make change if one doesn’t recognize what needs to be fixed first. So more and more I feel that adverse history and its complications have only enhanced my understanding and enriched my life.

Was your birth family search your primary reason for coming to Korea?

Many reasons for coming, all of which came to a head at once. At the time I would have put Birth Family Search (BFS) as the last reason, because I was in denial of its importance to me. I came to continue to support my son’s college education when my work dried up due to the 2008 housing market crash, to get over my fear of Asians, to actually live in a foreign country vs. just visit, and to get a glimpse of the country I came from but knew nothing about. BFS was something I wasn’t sure I wanted to do and even when I arranged for it I still had many reservations.

What were the biggest obstacles you faced in your search?

HOLT, my adoption agency. They pass off things like they’re helping you, but they aren’t proactive nor do they advocate for you. I was astounded to discover how convoluted the adoption agency landscape was as well.

In my case, records in Korea showed another person on my documents. Holt International refused to acknowledge there was any potential this person could be a relation. Holt Korea presented all kinds of bogus arguments for not providing me further information about the person. The SBS Documentary, “The Mystery of Girl #4709” followed me during that process and was pivotal in me being able to get any information at all. After that information, I had to fight Holt International to contact her. They said she didn’t want to. Later I found her, and they totally lied about that. My case was a PR nightmare for HOLT, because it really showcased how self-serving they can be. Too bad Americans don’t have access to the story and potential adopting parents can’t find it.

What information were you able to obtain, and approximately how long did this take?

Off the top of my head, I’d say it took about a month to get my HOLT International documents in America, and then another thee months to get the documents Holt Korea said they had. But then I had to fight them to get the last two documents they didn’t want to give up, that they said “weren’t important” but revealed the other girl on my records. Then about four months later I was heading to Korea to live and about three months after that there was the documentary where I was able to extract information being kept from me. So about a year, give or take. Herculean effort that required staying alert with a legal eye and dogged persistence to not back down.

Are you still searching for information on your birth family?

Not actively. Kind of given up. I’ve had as much exposure as any adoptee can hope to: been on KBS’s “I Miss that person” the EBS after news announcement (a program no longer running), in the GOA’L subway campaign’s book of searching adoptees, been in three documentaries, interviewed by BBC radio and written several articles etc. My parents are probably dead or too advanced in age to access those hit or miss media exposures. My other relatives might be too ashamed to come forward. Someone came forward on KBS saying they knew who my parents were, which turned out to be wrong and I don’t know if or how KBS corrected that.

I also have interviewed many adoptees in reunion and, frankly, reunion does not seem worth the grief and complications to me. At this point I’d only like to fill in the blanks and know the fate of my family. I’m also quite secure in myself and the life I have built and no longer feel I need that knowledge to feel complete. I acknowledge that I may not be quite as needy as many adoptees because I created my own family and have a rich life and relationship with my own children, which has helped immensely.

What prompted you to begin working as an activist?

Outrage that HOLT’s policy was to shut down vs. fully explore the potential sibling relation I had, their saccharine and patronizing dismissal of my concerns, and disgust with the maze we adoptees must maneuver through to receive the little history about ourselves that exists in their possession, disgust that international adoption continues over a half century beyond its inception, and disgust that women in Korea do not have access to reproductive justice, which includes: non-descriminatory birth control, legal abortions, and the right to raise their own children if they want to without undue pressure exploiting them when they are most vulnerable.

These days I think shaking a fist is not productive for the hurt or those that did the hurting, actively, or inadvertently. Nor is changing policy because policies only have as much traction as society ultimately permits. I also no longer believe in justice, because there’s no award in the world that can ever rectify the deepest wrongs. Social attitudes are what must change. And that is deep work: work that requires real and meaningful interaction. The past, for those that have made peace with it, becomes history and we must have a vision and provide alternatives to make that vision a reality. Otherwise, we aren’t changing anything.

I believe adoption is just a symptom of a larger social and class injustice and to be truly radical, radical as in getting to the root problems of things, one needs to address fear and exploitation; both of which stem from powerlessness and feeling unloved. So The only thing that is progressive, to my mind, is caring for everyone in one’s community. I also now believe that Koreans must fix Korean society and we should only assist vs. push for these changes. I am now more about empowering Koreans and building models of compassion instead of criticism.

But what is an activist, anyway? Is it only a person who fights injustice? Or is it anytime someone is activated to make change? I think we all are activists and agents for change.

You started the Korean Adoptees for Fair Records Access, but have now stepped down from running it. Is the group still operational?

The group operates as it always did, as a platform to share knowledge of how to access records and as a body count of the population concerned with access to records. My role was to keep the group single issue, as the adoption landscape is very contentious and I want it to remain an option for all who search, regardless of their position on international adoption. I also wanted to keep everyone current on events within Korea, but have access issues myself because I don’t speak or comprehend Korean. Ultimately I had hoped our number could become a political force, but knew from the onset that that wasn’t realistic, due to those factors I spoke of previously. Those few overworked adoptees with expertise in policy are too busy to contribute and because the members don’t have a presence in Korea, that makes taking action almost impossible. However, I have taken a stance several times speaking out for our needs and the fair number of our membership helps make that expression be taken seriously.

The group serves as a gathering point for adoptees to help each other navigate records access, and it’s also valuable for the general public to gain some insight into just how difficult and un-helpful the existing process is. Now that I’m no longer in Korea, that’s the best I can hope for. It still has value in that sense.

According to the KAS website, the process of requesting information from adoption agencies regarding birth families should take no more than 15 days. In reality, it can take years. What are some stumbling blocks for Korean Adoptees searching for their birth families?

I for one wasn’t really crazy about that 15 day limit. Already understaffed, that just equates to shoddier service.
The stumbling blocks for Korean Adoptees searching for their birth families are:
• Fires that purportedly wiped out mass quantities of adoptee records and which are too oft used and unbelievable excuse to explain lack of documentation.
• The mass dumping of records by some jurisdictions in Korea prior to the 80’s.
• No central repository of resources for adoptees searching, such as orphanage names, addresses, lists of which are extant or defunct, same for hospitals, unwed mother‘s homes, ways to find streets whose names were changed or locations of neighbors that were redeveloped, lists of foster parents desiring reunion with their charges, etc. etc.
• The records are not held by KAS but held by private institutions which have a vested interest not to disclose embarrassing information. We express our concern over conflicts of interest at every opportunity and encourage the government to maintain those records in the same manner as citizen vital records.
• However, should documents finally become government property, there is great fear among the adoptee population that, unless the records are commandeered without notice, questionable records will be disposed of..
• No oversight of adoption agency Post Adoption Services (PAS), of which Birth Family Search is a part of.
• PAS services are linked to government grants, which are sometimes misappropriated and the institutions can claim the grants are too small to fund BFS staffing.
• KAS is understaffed, their English website is limited and inadequate, adoption registry is behind and translation services seem to be understaffed as well.
• Adoption registries from all the adoption agencies need to be centralized, as some parents don’t know which adoption agency their child went to – especially in cases of intra-family kidnappings, which happened quite often during family restructuring or by grandparents or other relatives who made unilateral decisions without the mother’s consent.
• KAS can only get information via cooperation from the agencies which hold the actual documents, so a relationship between the institutions develops whereas new adoptees continuously arrive with needs, problems, and demands and bias develops.
• Language is always an issue and the French speaking and Scandinavian speaking adoptees especially have suffered from poor service by KAS agents.
• Most adoptees do not realize that the local adoption agency they were adopted through had to funnel through one of the (then four, now three) Korean adoption agencies licensed to broker international adoptions. So they are unaware that more records exist in Korea.
• Adoption agency double-speak. There is always a way to present half truths as whole truths in a way that won’t be questioned.
• Adoption agency triage allows the PAS case worker to dismiss any inquiry pertaining to children born of unwed mothers, ostensibly to protect the mother’s identity. So a lot of deflection is used in those cases which most adoptees don’t question. Protecting living parents from social ruin may be valid, but denying outright information which can, without revealing contact I.D., shed light on a person’s history is cruel and unnecessary.

These are just off the top of my head.

But the biggest stumbling block of all is the structure (or lack thereof) the government set up which protects the conservative moral hegemony. The Ministry of Health and Welfare created KAS and all its predecessors, and Post Adoption Services in general, as a public edifice to say they are accommodating adoption-related concerns. Therefore, their real function is that of controlling public perception of Korea’s privatization of child welfare towards the export problems solution, and the largest faction of critics are those who got exported, so it’s important to appear helpful. KAS is merely a router. Their database merely tracks which adoptee went where and when through whom. KAS doesn’t actually do any searching, they send requests to the police who do the searching. And the police are bound to protect citizen identities. And, because moral conservatism prevails to a still terrifying degree, many families searching for adoptees don’t trust registering their family shame with any government institution. As a result, GOA’L has probably the largest database of mothers who relinquished outside the adoption agencies, but because GOA’L is volunteer run and too heavily dependent on government subsidies, they are limited in what they can do. Narratives from reunited adoptee interviews with their families consistently reveal that adoption agencies have thwarted attempts by family members seeking to find information about the fate of their relinquished children. Their attitude has been, “you signed on the line and are bound by that contract, so we won’t actively help you.” The entire notion of there being a central agency through KAS is a sick joke. So adoptees and their families must maneuver through a splintered system that is hostile towards actions which seek to break down the reasons those institutions were created in the first place. Too often results occur only because some compassionate individuals take it upon themselves to help adoptees and deviate from the system they are supposed to serve, often putting their livelihoods in jeopardy. It is the social order which renders birth family search ineffective and creating a more compassionate society is how we can render institutionalized repression meaningless. Until that day, we just have to persist and publicly celebrate when, against all odds, the human interest stories of reunions are successful.

A major stumbling block for many adoptees in search is a kind of internalized impotence and a protection mechanism to believe whatever myth they were fed as their adoption story. Western society pounds into our heads many myths about our origins and reasons for becomiIng “orphans” and that the majority of us grow up in a position where we are not free to question those stories. It’s really powerful, being so indebted to others, even if they have no intention of holding gratitude over our heads. So it can be existentially dangerous to find out something contrary to the myth and to question the creator of the myth. One wants to believe in good. When one exists supposedly because of the grace of some iconic figures, and one has accepted their word as gospel one’s whole life, there is no reason to question when adoption agencies tell you that you have no history. So many adoptees give up prematurely, when with just a little more persistence and pressure, more information often magically materializes.

You mentioned that a lack of money was a limitation for adoptees wishing to seek their birth families. With the advent of the digital information age, why is this so?

As you know, in Korea, the English pages are limited and/or poorly translated. And there is also the age thing. Older adoptees are less likely to search using digital means. Poor people can’t always afford regular internet service as well. The person who might have been my sibling didn’t use email or FaceBook and was having economic difficulties at the time of our meeting, and I was the first adoptee she had ever met. We have to understand that Koreans are the most diasporic people on the planet and that family search shouldn’t be limited to just Korea. Often times, adoption agencies hold information that could lead to people in other countries, whereas the government only can locate people within Korea. So the tight fist around records at the adoption agencies is truly detrimental to complete investigation of our histories and family relations.

The maze of adoption agencies and lack of regulation mean adoptees can be exploited. The Ministry of Health and Welfare grants money to the major adoption agencies for Post Adoption Services so those agencies are bound to follow the mandate to provide affordable access to adoption records. But those adoption agencies are like brokers in the adoption process. The children they send to foreign countries are often passed on through smaller, local adoption agencies. And those agencies are located in many different countries, provinces, and states – each with their own laws about records access – and none of those lesser adoption agencies have to follow Korean law about Post Adoption Services and won’t, because they aren’t being subsidized. So even though Korean law now says that access to records must be affordable, those remote adoption agencies not benefiting from PAS funds don’t have to follow the law. So some unfortunate adoptees in some areas are still getting charged hundreds of dollars to access photocopies of their files and for the most part, those records contain only those documents needed to make them legally adoptable in the country they were sent to, so even if you pay money to your local adoption agency, you might not get all of your records.

The tragic thing about this is that this law is recent. It doesn’t provide redress for all the adoptees in the past who were turned away because they couldn’t afford to pay for their records. These abuses went on for many decades and large corporations like Holt also charged a lot of money in the past. And it must be understood that it sometimes takes years of anguish over whether to search at all and the mental preparedness and psychic energy it takes to even get to that point is so immense that, at any given moment, only a small tip of the iceberg surfaces. So it’s really easy for adoptees to get discouraged and those who tried in the past, say ten years ago, and were faced with huge fees at a really sensitive moment in their lives MAY NEVER TRY AGAIN.

What costs are involved in birth family searches?

Well, since the records in our adopting countries might be lacking then a thorough search includes traveling to Korea. That can easily run $3-5,000 dollars to accomplish for airfare, lodging, food, and transportation. Some adoptees don’t know about GOAL’s services and so there are translator costs and telecommunication costs as well. There are also passport fees & if one is moving to Korea, there are Visa fees and any job-related application documents as well.

A lot of us adoptee activists take great exception to adoption agency motherland tours as well, which include a lot of tourist activities and superficial cultural introductions. Holt has their own travel agency to facilitate…

Why did you decide to leave Korea?

Because discomfort is over-rated.

You know, for decades I used to throw myself into the fire and fearlessly proclaim that comfort was over-rated. I see shades of this in all the foreigners I’ve met while living abroad: a criticism of where they are and the notion that something better is on the horizon combined with an intrepid sense of adventure and excitement over exploration. Yet after many such experiences one begins to realize there are diminishing returns; that the world you left evolves without you and the roots you had atrophy. So those that have lived abroad can reach a point where where they are begins to usurp that past until it comes to a point where one must decide to move on or place permanent roots in a place one can only superficially traverse and requiring decades of dedicated effort to fully engage and be accepted in. I am a foreigner and feel all those things.

But I’m also an ethnic Korean adoptee, so penetrating Korean society has added challenges and frustrations, and we adoptees tend to bring with us some holes that can not be filled by Korea. Or anywhere else, for that matter. And I learned a great deal and it was transformative. There’s no act that could follow that and therefore little reason to stay. I left because I am responsible for my own happiness, and I don’t need Korea to provide that.

What one adoptee wrote for the collection of reunited adoptee stories I edited said sums up my feelings perfectly:

I kept thinking that happiness was right around the corner, and when I realized that it wasn’t, I continued my search again and again. I recently read an article that said some people chase happiness while others choose happiness. It’s been a long journey, but I’m finally choosing happiness.

— Jeremy Martin

Searching for clues to ourselves and those who made us is part of the adoptee process. Whether actively, passively, or in denial – all adoptees must deal with the issue of their lack of history and identification choices in one form or another. It is an epic journey that some literally do not live through. Many are proud to call themselves survivors. But I, and a growing number of others, decide at some point in our lives to go beyond merely surviving adoption, to stop chasing happiness, and choose to be responsible for our own happiness.

While this may sound like an obvious choice to most people, most people are privileged to not have experienced the degree of angst that comes with having come from nothing / having a story with no beginning and possibly no point for existing. And we do get hung up on it, as anybody would. So whereas I think adoptees should hopefully get to this place Jeremy and I have decided to be, I take great exception to anyone who would chastise adoptees to quit whining and move on, because to move on we must all exhaust this process at one point or another, whenever it presents itself, however awkwardly. I believe all adoptees should have the right to explore their process to its fullest extent; free from hindrance and further harm. So I firmly advocate open access to adoption records and all assistance in their searches as part of that process, so we are allowed to have at least some history. To deny that opportunity is inhumane, because knowing how you came to exist is profound knowledge nobody should be denied.

But mostly I missed my children. Frankly, there are other lands I’ve traveled to which I found more engaging and required less effort to penetrate. I’ve been privy to insights about America that almost five decades have provided and don’t want to squander that knowledge in a place where it is not appreciated. And I wanted to move on to new chapters which I can’t do in Korea

What are you currently working on?

Nothing and everything! Nothing adoption-related, that is. By everything, I mean looking at the the world’s problems holistically and seeking balance. It’s exciting because I’ve always believed in doing what you can where you are at, but here in the country I was raised I have more agency. And that agency may not appear as effective as my foray into adoption activism, yet I hope it will eventually be deeper. It sounds vague because holistic living encompasses everything – personal and ecological sustainability combined with alternative economies and social models. I can wave at a neighbor and say hello and change their day. That’s revolutionary.

Tobias Hubinette describes a festival for returning adoptees as amounting to “a crash course in how to become a ‘real Korean’ the proper way”, and I know that you said “We don’t want to be treated like tourists.”

I don’t necessarily agree with the characterization of festivals for adoptees as crash courses in becoming “proper” Koreans. The Koreans I have met have been more sincere than that. (though few take the time out of their busy lives to truly enlighten us) However, many conservatives have already written us adoptees off as not possibly having been raised right, because that’s the fate of all orphans in the Korean storybook: that lack of upbringing makes us incorrigible, and that we can never fully be “proper” Koreans. Which, because we weren’t subject to the same traditional Korean social roles that oppress them, liberals seem drawn to adoptees for living their fantasy. Thus, we get pity or jealousy. But I think Korean judgment of us is as superficial as it is of Koreans judging other Koreans, and that each of us adoptees are judged individually on our own merits (properness aside) or lack thereof and allowances noted if they know we are adoptees. And if they don’t, we should give them some allowances as well.

I think that the traditional cultural customs, etc. offered us are just by default (and thus my “we don’t want to be treated like tourists” comment), that they understand it’s inadequate, and that there’s nothing they can really do for us except give us tokens and hope we will be content with that. It’s like (and you may have experienced this as a foreigner) they don’t understand that being included when it’s time to hand out rice cake at work underscores just how much we are not being included in everything else. They fall back on polite cultural practices because that’s the easiest thing to do. It’s the only bridge they know, and once on the bridge, they turn back, feeling impotent. A festival for adoptees is just this on a larger scale. Deeper takes time and communication. Both of which aren’t highly valued in modern goal-driven Korean society.

Adoptees sometimes feel a sense of entitlement from their birth country and its citizens due to a lifetime of experiencing all of the drawbacks of their ethnicity (in their adopted countries) and none of the benefits of that heritage. Koreans sometimes feel a lot of guilt over our involuntary exile (as they continue to send babies away for adoption as a method of saving social status after moral transgressions). This combination produces some strange interactions. I always avoided opportunities for awkwardness whenever I could. Like any relationship, I feel building over time in frequent proximity provides more real value.

You also said that there is the potential for adoptees to have a very valuable role in Korea, if their assets were recognised. How would you describe the role of adoptees in Korean society? Can you describe the relationship the public has with adoptees now, and how adoptees could be valuable?

The Korean public doesn’t know where to place the idea of adoptees in their thoughts. Our presence can bring to the surface conflicted feelings about public pasts and private events which were traumatic for them: feelings most have worked hard at repressing. And since so many visiting adoptees are in the midst of a really harrowing existential identity exploration, a few don’t hold up or represent well which, unfortunately, can taint public perception of our entire population. And because few Koreans have actually met an adoptee, each visiting adoptee finds themselves answering for our entire population, on top of correcting the myths that we all were spoiled and lived in luxury or abused and exploited. And, of course, some were spoiled and are immature and some of us were abused and exploited. We are educators trying to explain something extremely complicated to people yet handicapped without the tools for communication, while trying to learn about a society that involuntarily exiled us; all while trying to grapple with feelings of rejection and trying to identify with the people who were agents (or victims) of a difficult history so we can make peace. Most Koreans don’t think of this as a conversation, but view us as a reminder of how wrong things were. Most Koreans have no idea international adoption still occurs. That’s a wide gap in understanding to cross!

For those who attempt an extended stay, I feel adoptees are value-added ethnic Koreans. Like most foreigners who are intrepid enough to travel – and live – in a foreign country, returning adoptees tend to have a little more exposure to the broader world than most Koreans who, if they do travel, limit themselves to strictly tourist activities or, if they live in another country, tend to limit themselves to re-creating Korean society in their diasporic communities. Another value adoptees bring to the table is their deep understanding of how Asians are perceived in that broader world, as they have felt deeply the pain of stereotyping, prejudice, and living the persona of the other, and what is needed to be taken seriously. We weren’t raised in K-towns like gyopo Koreans: we lived, breathed, slept, and loved, as them. Combined, these insights could be utilized in service to improving Korea’s interactions with and understanding of that broader world with which they engage in commerce with, and with whom they can learn about other modes of social interaction that could benefit them.

Concrete examples of utilizing adoptees would be as consultants: interpreters of culture and not only language, negotiators, foreigner liasons, marketing advisors, and educators of systems and ways of being which value and derive benefit from diversity and free-flowing exchange of ideas unhampered by rigid social order. Foreigners are already imported and employed for some of these skill sets, yet adoptees have the unique perspective of being able to identify more of the challenges Asian interactions with the West must face. It’s a huge waste of adoptees as a resource to limit them to language education when most of them are already arriving with expertise in some valuable fields. (and an even larger waste to not hire adoptees for language education simply because they don’t look foreign enough).

But the real value, I believe, is we adoptees can and do teach Koreans a lot about themselves. Our presence is good for Korea, as it forces Koreans to question their values. While I sometimes differ with Tobias Hubinette, I totally agree with the premise of his book, Comforting an Orphan Nation, in which he analyzes how adoptees were not the only orphans, but that Korea became orphaned from us as well. That’s a really deep psychic wound, to lose/give away your children; one that Koreans can’t heal from unless they can begin to talk about it.

Starting a dialogue about Koreans caring for Koreans and setting an example for what compassion looks like would be a great way adoptees interested in social change can make a difference. At present, we don’t talk with Koreans, but at them. I don’t believe anyone is open to change if they are being criticized and and we can’t do that unless we forgive them. And, it is always better to inspire by example.

I entered activism in Korea because activism had begun acting in solidarity with unwed mothers, but that activist group tapped into all the unspent rage I had towards the injustice I had experienced at the hands of my adoption agency. I now feel that unaddressed anger was a distraction and that using negativity toward positive ends just doesn’t work. In the interest of progress, were I to do it again, I would have chosen to put my energies more directly into making a kinder, gentler Korea instead of adoption issues. In Korea, three children are put on planes for export nearly every day because the adoption agencies uphold a status quo that is repressive towards women. Wherever one is in the world, activism needs to move beyond reaction and work towards a vision that appeals to everyone for it to ever move beyond being stuck in a battle with the status quo. More and more adoptees are becoming agents of change in this way, empowering Korean women, and that gives me hope that adoptees really can affect positive change. That’s my dearest hope.

4 responses to ““Adoption is just a symptom of a larger social and class injustice”: My interview with Leanne Suki Leith

  1. A definitely must-read article for anyone who, like myself, is interested in Korean adoption. Thank you so much for it!!!

  2. Pingback: Tracing an Unknown Past | The Culture Muncher·

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