Never-ending quest: defining ethnic identity as son of adoptee

27 August 2023

This article is the fourth in a series about intercountry adoptions. While over 160,000 Korean children have been adopted abroad since the 1950-53 Korean War, it is believed that many cases have infringed on relevant laws or violated children's right to know the truth about their filiation. The series will review such violations in transnational adoptions of Korean children and elsewhere, and discuss receiving countries' moves for their own investigations. This series is co-organized with Human Rights Beyond Borders. ― ED.

Adoptees' identity confusion passed down to their children

By Jiri Moonen

"Just tell them you are South Korean." That was the advice my mother gave me when, as a five-year-old child, I came home after being bullied at school by two Belgian boys.

Born to a white Belgian father and a mother who was born in Korea and adopted at the age of three in 1975 to a Belgian family, I vividly remember how the schoolmates repeatedly called me "Chinese" and made harassing faces. In addition to such events, slit-eye pulling, the words "ni hao" and "konichiwa" and making mocking kung fu noises would also occur throughout my life.

Yet what stays with me most of all is how this could affect me from a young age, although at the time I had no idea what racism was. After all, it seemed obvious that I shouldn't care too much about it all, as my mother pointed out, and besides, I had a Belgian father and she herself was adopted, so technically I was also "Belgian."

Ironically, I never felt fully Belgian, or Korean. Although it seemed natural from home to adopt Belgian norms, values, and cultural customs, I saw someone else every time I looked at my mother, my younger sister, or myself in the mirror. Nor did it help that I never came into contact with "Korean" things. It never went beyond the awareness that my mother was once adopted from the country and her roots were there. Therefore, it was very confusing when she advised me, "Just tell them you are South Korean." Because, what did this mean? Ever since that moment, my life seemed to become a journey to define this part of myself.

Growing up in the multicultural city of Antwerp, I met many peers who were immigrants. What always struck me was their connection to their roots. Not only the language they spoke or the food they ate, but the fact they could contact family members in their parents' homeland and went there on vacation really made me envious ― again, because I had a connection with my Belgian family, but not with my Korean family, as I didn't even know who these people were.

I tried to fill this void by doing things I deemed Asian and bringing out this image of myself as much as possible to my schoolmates. In fact, I was merely embracing existing Western stereotypes. Thus, I practiced jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai, referred to myself by the nicknames "Wong" and "Buddha" and worse, made the same jokes that the bullies had directed toward me. Of course, the connection to Korea remained largely missing and I hoped one day to find my mother's family again.

Only after high school did my view of my identity and international adoption change completely. After my parent's divorce, I started studying history. Throughout my college years, I began to learn more about Korea, which led to a trip to the country in September 2019 with a friend who was also interested. Besides getting in touch with the local culture, nature and people, which was an incredible experience for me, I also had a mission. I visited the orphanage in Busan where my mother had been according to her adoption documents.

There, the staff gave us new documents with a previously unseen photo of my mother as a child. Although this was not much, at the time it gave me hope of finding my family again, and slowly this also awakened my mother's interest. In the wake of the trip, we contacted various post-adoption services, my mother took a DNA test at the Korean Embassy in Belgium and made a profile on which her parents could search for her.

However, all these attempts turned out to be in vain.

Although my hope of finding my mother's parents remained alive somewhere (and still remains somewhere), my master's year provided a permanent shift in my perspective on all of it. After a successful undergraduate thesis, I decided to pursue a self-selected topic for my master's thesis: namely, the history of international adoption from South Korea to Flanders, Belgium.

Using interviews, I explored how adoptees experienced adoption and forming an ethnic identity throughout their life course. The combination of reading books and academic articles, the interviews, and my own personal reflections, made me realize the complex and problematic nature of international adoption. Thus, the romanticized image I had of family reunions blurred.

This involved political, as well as socioeconomic, and cultural elements. As Korea during the 1960s and 1970s, in the wake of the Korean War, sought to grow economically through industrialization, this led to urbanization and demographic growth in the cities. As a result, more out-of-wedlock childbirths occurred, which due to Confucian sociocultural principles would have no place in Korean society. One of the most obvious solutions appeared to be the pre-existing practice of adoption, in which ethnically mixed children moved to the U.S. in the first years after the war, and this afterward involved this group of unwanted children.

Under pressure from their parents, several mothers gave up children, often reluctantly, for adoption to several Western countries. Without making a value judgment about Korean culture, this shows the complex context in which adoption occurred. The idea that the majority of adopted children from Korea were orphans or foundlings is based on a myth to legitimize adoption. This makes family reunions a lot less obvious and brings me to doubt whether searching for my mother's family is a good idea. Indeed, any contact could bring back to light an unacknowledged or covered-up truth and disrupt family ties.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that this historical event has lasting consequences for the children who were adopted and ended up in unfamiliar countries, families, and cultures, where, like myself, they were confronted with racism and a sense of being "different" from the rest due to looking outwardly different. A feeling where belonging to no group is a common thread throughout their lives and the search for identity remains a constant challenge.

Therefore, it remains important to engage in dialogue with adoptees and their children about their own experiences and to create awareness of international adoption as a practice. Indeed, there are deeper roots beneath the superficial letting children fly over to Western countries, where adoptive parents feel they are "rescuing" these children from their misery.

Jiri Moonen is a file manager at the Belgian Federal Public Service Finance, and by training, is a historian with a special interest in (neo)-colonialism, the notion of ethnic identity and race. His master's thesis on the broader framework of Korean international adoption to Belgium will soon appear in the Belgian anthology "Beyond Transnational Adoption: A Critical and Multi-Voiced Dialogue."