During my first trip to South Korea, I was introduced to repatriated adopted Koreans through a friend who was also returning to the motherland for university but herself was not an adoptee. Through more visits to South Korea, one of my friend’s adopted Korean friends became a friend of mine as well. It was through that friend that I eventually confronted my understanding of transnational adoption. I grew up with the belief that a Westerner adopting an orphan from another country, particularly an impoverished country such as South Korea in the 50s and 60s, was one of the most selfless acts imaginable. But listening to my friend prompted me to read scholarship on Korean adoption. (See the bibliography at the end here. Fanboy moment – my friend is cited in three of the books listed.) I soon realized my sentimental narrative of a complicated set of competing power structures was glossing over the reality of the lives impacted within that structure. It was this friendship that led me to understand how the history of transnational adoption I was being told was from that of the adopting parents and organizations that facilitated adoption, stories that strip agency away from the adoptee and the birth parents. (Like the Asian American struggle of being seen as ‘forever foreigners’, adoptees experience being seen as ‘forever children’, primarily having parents and institutions speak as their proxies.) As Arissa H. Oh notes in her book, “Adoptees searching for their own histories have been critical to uncovering the history of Korean adoption, especially some of its less savory aspects” (p 199). And furthermore from Oh, “A small but significant number of adult adoptees have repatriated and formed important connections with unwed mothers and birth mothers to advocate for adoption reform and family preservation” (p 199). Scholars like Oh and SooJin Pate have detailed how the transnational adoption practices sending orphans to Western countries delayed the efforts to develop social services for children and unwed mothers in South Korea. What I previously held as a sentimental definitive narrative beyond critique has become one in considerable need of revision.
In addition to the scholarship listed here, adopted Koreans are speaking for themselves, engaging in what Jennifer Ann Ho calls “organic intellectualism”. Flipping the script on the tropes held by many about adoption and adoptees. AKA Seoul is an addition to the growing media formats where adopted Koreans take over the microphone. AKA Seoul is showing as part of the San Francisco Bay Area’s CAAMFest 35, in San Francisco at the Alamo Drafthouse on March 10th at 6:30pm and in Oakland at the New Parkway Theater on March 18th at 8:30pm.
“The story of international adoption is a multitude of stories” (Oh, p 207), and AKA Seoul tells us five such stories as part of a TV series produced by the American broadcast network NBC. We first meet Dan Matthews, a YouTube musician and filmmaker who already did his own documentary on meeting his birth family where he discovered he has a twin brother who stayed with his birth family. Siri Szemenkar is an adoptee from Sweden. Now residing in Glasgow, Scotland, her English is a delightful mash-up of Glaswegian with the lovely layer of a Swedish lilt. Although this makes her monologues throughout the series a joy to listen to, many folks, including myself, will be thankful for the subtitles. Peter Boskey is a gay textile artist adoptee from Boston who finds various visual artifacts to better express the feelings and ideas he gathers from this sojourn to where he was born. Chelsea Katsaros is from Minnesota and is the one adoptee estranged from her adoptive family because they were unable to jettison their homophobia when she came out to them. Finally, there is the adoptee Min Matson who now resides in San Francisco. A transgendered man who first visited South Korea before transitioning, he didn’t feel as if he belonged in South Korea then. Post-transition, he now finds the sense of home he hoped he’d find in the streets of Seoul.
Even in this age of binge-watching TV, watching a TV documentary series like this one as a full film-length feature has its problems. Many visuals repeat themselves. We get to see characters ponderously walk through the same streets in the same way too often and too close in succession. Even if this series is intended to be watched in one sitting, there are what appear to be clear breaks for commercials. As much as we like to complain about commercial breaks, these segments would feel less visually redundant if interspersed between the ‘palette cleansers’ of the advertising or with day long breaks between segments.
Another disruption in the wider narrative is how the closing segment where the adoptees attempt to interpret their more present selves pale in comparison to the segments where they relay their pasts. Yet this lack of later confident storytelling makes sense because they’ve spent many years refining the stories of their past, establishing a narrative of with their adoptive families. The same confidence can be seen in the coming out stories in the case of the three adoptees who are gay, lesbian, and transgender. In the process of meeting their birth parents or failing to or choosing not to, those powerful moments are monologued soon after they were filmed. (Matthews story is the exception and his birth family discussion shows greater cohesion because he has spent more time sorting through it.) There hasn’t been enough time to truly process those experiences into the larger narratives of their ongoing lives. Still, even with this understanding, the final segment is the choppier of the bunch, feeling more piecemeal than coherent whole. But again, Korean adoptees have more pieces to puzzle together than the non-adoptee. This is where Ho’s book’s exploration of ambiguity as a productive epistemological tactic in Asian American studies is valuable because the real problem is likely that I as a viewer demand a coherent, more seemingly solid narrative. Adopted Koreans disrupt many dominant narratives on what it means to be Asian American and their life narratives have multiple trajectories. Mainstream media tropes might demand meeting members of ones birth family as closure, but as Matthews monologue tells us, there is still much to figure out about how much interaction with ones birth family may happen in the future.
Focusing on five adopted Koreans, it is appropriate that at least one is from Minnesota and another is from Sweden. If you get enough adopted Koreans together, at least one will be from Minnesota. As Kim Park Nelson notes in her book, Minnesota has the largest concentration of adopted Koreans of any state in the US, making “. . . Minnesota an American homeland of sorts for Korean adoptees” (Nelson p 101). Nelson utilizes the fact that Minnesota has over 15,000 lakes to argue there is pretty much one adopted Korean in Minnesota for every lake. Whereas, the country of Sweden has the highest concentration of adopted Koreans per population.
Although these five are a self-selected group of English-speaking adopted Koreans who have chosen to visit South Korea and connect with fellow adoptees, this group still provides a nice range of adoptee experiences. Most adopted Koreans choose not to search for their birth parents, so Boskey’s disinterest in that pursuit has as much a place as Matthews’ and Szemenkar’s active searches. Some of the adoptees are still close to their adoptive families, while one is estranged. Having three subjects who also relay coming out stories provides interesting parallels of the process of coming out as Queer to that of an adopted Korean finding ones Korean identity. Pate terms the latter “coming to”, a term she argues “eschews binary production”, a term “which signifies that identity formation is multiply inflected, multidirectional, multifaceted, and continuous” (p 147). Similar to how the Queer Rights movement has pushed mainstream society to reconsider what constitutes a ‘family’, Krisit Brian’s research found some subjects broadening their concept of family “. . . through adoptees’ recognition that notions of family must be flexible enough to incorporate their families in Korea (whether found or not), the familylike support of fellow adopted Koreans they may turn to for support, and the families they create as parents” (p 167). When we learn of how Katsaros’ own desire to adopt is obstructed because she will never be in a heterosexual union, the bitter irony of such heteronormative demands of policy is poignantly felt. And, intentional or not, Katsaros extends this Queer critique to how single mothers are also prohibited, another example of the solidarity some adoptees have established with unwed mothers in South Korea as noted by Oh.
Another interesting aspect of the documentary is how important tattoos are to this particular subgroup of a subgroup. As someone raised at a time when tattoos were only of skulls, naked ladies, crosses, and other biker/prison culture symbols, I grew up being quite averse to tattoos. It was actually an adopted Korean American friend at university who confronted me to re-think my understanding of tattoos when she went into the specific details about the symbol she chose and where she chose to place in on her body. The majority of adopted Koreans in AKA Seoul each have a story to tell about their tattoos and how getting them in South Korea was particularly important to them. Yet this also poses a paradox. By getting inked to permanently signify Korean aspects of their identities, these adopted Koreans are at the same time marking themselves as ‘outsiders’ due to the tattoo taboo in South Korea.
The title of the series, AKA Seoul, was initially awkward for me. Matthews’ MC handle is DANAKADAN and he is executive producer of the series. (He will be performing in the Directions in Sound with Kollaboration SF event on March 10th at Gray Area in the Mission District of San Francisco at 9:30pm.) I was guessing that was the impetus. But Nelson’s book provided me greater context. The term ‘AK’ is an abbreviation used in the adopted Korean community, for example, the support organization AK Connection. In addition, the acronym ‘aka’ stands for ‘also known as’, and adopted Koreans have two sets of names, those their birth families gave them and those their adopted families gave them. (My friend mentioned in the first paragraph co-hosted a now defunct podcast called “We Have White Names”.) So the use of AKA in Matthews’ MC handle and the series title here can be argued to demonstrate what Nelson sees as the “potent identity” of heterogeneity amongst adopted Koreans. Nelson approaches adopted Koreans, (she herself is an adopted Korean), “. . . As people who navigate multiple identities and engage in complicated conversations with the dominant discourses that would seek to categorize them neatly within their so-called real identities” (p 126). As a result of reading Nelson’s, Pate’s and Ho’s separate books who each assert the value for adopted Koreans to assert simultaneous multiple identities, the title AKA Seoul is no longer awkward for me. It emerges as a delightful choice. Along with AKA Seoul representing adopted Korean heterogeneity, it represents modern Seoul’s heterogeneity and the Seoul that feels like home for many adopted Koreans who return for visits or for the few who re-settle more permanently. As Eleana J. Kim suggests, “. . . Adoptees are catalysts for social transformation and the expansion of civil society in Korea” (p 244). AKA Seoul marks what Seoul must now also be known as. Adopted Koreans raised outside of South Korea have as much a right to claim a space in Seoul as the rest of the metropolis.
Kristi Brian, Reframing Transracial Adoption: Adopted Koreans, White Parents, and the Politics of Kinship (Temple University Press, 2012)
Jennifer Ann Ho, Racial Ambiguity in Asian American Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2015)
Eleana J. Kim, Adopted Territory: Transnational Korean Adoptees and the Politics of Belonging (Duke University Press, 2010)
Kim Park Nelson, Invisible Asians: Korean American Adoptees, Asian American Experiences, and Racial Exceptionalism (Rutgers University Press, 2016)
Arissa H. Oh, To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption (Stanford University Press, 2015)
SooJin Pate, From Orphan To Adoptee: U.S. Empire and Genealogies of Korean Adoption (University of Minnesota Press, 2014)
AKA Seoul will be shown on March 10 and 18 at CAAMFest 2017.