Bittersweet reunion: Korean overseas adoptees rendezvous at Olympiad
Korea has exported over 200,000 children overseas. Returnees’ experiences range from the thrilling to the devastating
“Netherlands, oh Netherlands, you are the chaaaampion!” Dutch-Korean adoptee Loanne Kliphuis, 30, and her friends sing at Holland Heineken House, a meeting place for Dutch fans attending the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea.
Kliphuis and friend Marjolein Lucassen, 47, also an adoptee, are visiting Korea on a tour organized for two dozen Korean adoptees by Inkas (International Korean Adoptee Service), an organization that provides motherland visits.
The 2018 Winter Olympics are not only uniting North and South Korea: for ethnic-Korean adoptees, the event is an occasion to return to a land from which they were separated after international adoptions. Most adoptees in the Inkas group originate from the United States, which is unsurprising: almost half of the 200,000 or more Korean children adopted since the Korean War (1950-1953) went to the US.
Originally, child exports were an inheritance of war: mixed race children produced by American soldiers and Korean women had no place in Korea’s mono-cultural and conservative society. In succeeding decades, they have been replaced by children relinquished by unmarried couples in order to give the parent/parents better chances of finding another partner. Beyond the US, most of the tiny emigres ended up Scandinavia, France or the Netherlands, where about 4,000 were sent.
Some Dutch visitors at Holland Heineken House look confused as they watch Kliphuis and about 15 other Korean adoptees dancing and singing. When Kliphuis orders a plate of bitterballen, a typical Dutch fried snack, a Dutch visitor points out: “Those are bitterballen.” “I know”, Kliphuis replies, “I’m Dutch.”
For Kliphuis, adopted as a baby, being treated as an outsider by fellow Dutch citizens is a common experience: physically, she is Asian, not European. In Korea, she blends in with the majority, but Koreans, too, act surprised when they find out that she doesn’t speak much of their language.
Still, she feels at home. “As soon as I land and I hear people talking Korean, I feel happy immediately, it’s hard to explain,” she says. “Maybe it’s silly, but even the melody that announces the subway stops makes me smile.” For this reason, Kliphuis “seizes every opportunity to go to Korea,” she says. “The country keeps pulling at me.”
The international adoption boom peaked in the 1970s and 80s. Over the last decade, a wave of adult adoptees have visited Korea. They grew up in mostly white societies where adoption was seen as a form of development aid, but, over the years, has transitioned into a means of granting infertile couples children.
Most adoptees in the group in Pyeongchang County, near the Olympic Stadium, say they share Kliphuis’ emotions. They watched the opening ceremony together. “It was beautiful and exhilarating,” says Megan Olson, 33, from Minnesota, with a big smile. This is her fifth time in Korea, but for her sister Kirsten, 31, and sister-in-law Jenny, 41, who accompany her, it’s their first visit.
The trip has drawn them closer. “It helps me understand Megan better,” Kirsten explains. “What being adopted means for her – the feelings of loss it can bring. I remember when we were young, and there would be an argument with our parents, she could get so mad sometimes, stamping her foot and yelling, ‘My family didn’t want me and now you don’t want me too!’”
The three burst into laughter at the recall.
Olson was adopted in 1985 as a baby. “As a kid I was very aware that I looked different from other kids,” she says. Some years ago, she found her birth family, and discovered that she had four older sisters and one younger brother and reconnected with them. She wonders why they gave her up for adoption, “But every time I try to raise that question they get mad,” she says.
Such experiences make trips to Korea double-edged – and not only because she wonders which country to cheer for. “At first there is the excitement of being here and all the fun things you can do make me feel blessed,” she said. “Then there is the frustration and the question of what kind of relations I want to have with my family in Korea. Then I go home, and the emotions hit me fully. By the time I say goodbye to them I feel left behind again.”
Adoption is no easy subject for Koreans. Confucian values dominate; the happy family is marketed everywhere. Amid low birth rates, relinquishing a child is nothing to be proud of. But single mothers are looked down upon and receive little government support.
Children from earlier relationships can be rejected, as Jenna Hurley, 28, found when she met her birth mother in 2014 for the first time. Since her mother remarried, the occasional return of the Minnesotian has to stay a secret. “I know I have brothers and sisters in Korea that I’ve never seen,” she says. “I keep hoping and waiting that they might reach out to me one day.”
The importance of bloodlines makes domestic adoption shameful. Some 60,000 children have been adopted by South Koreans over the last six decades, but couples who adopt usually keep it secret. In 1998, former President Kim Dae-jung apologized to the children Korea sent overseas, but Seoul does little. Adoptee civic groups have lobbied hard for special visas, and are fighting on behalf of American adoptees who are deported because their adoptive parents never filed for their US citizenship.
With the Winter Olympiad underway in Pyeongchang, simultaneously, some 200 miles south, a memorial ceremony was being held for “Jan” (his full name is withheld for reasons of privacy), a Norwegian adoptee who came back to Korea seeking his birth family. As a toddler, Jan lost his way home and became “a missing child.” He was adopted, aged six, by a Norwegian family, but dreamed of reuniting with his birth parents. His dream ended in tragedy.
According to Koroot, the civic group that organized the memorial, Jan needed medical treatment last year for a condition Koroot won’t elaborate on. He fell between bureaucratic cracks. Neither the Norwegian embassy nor his adoption agency would assist when approached last May. The Korean government’s help was insufficient. Jan’s health deteriorated. He died in December, aged 44.
A key frustration is that adoptees lack access to their own adoption files. Since the process of international adoption is, in most countries, executed by private agencies, files are held by adoption agencies or children’s homes. As a consequence, adoptees are dependent on social workers, and many records turn out to be falsified. All this makes finding a birth family a painful – even hopeless – process. Kliphuis’ search has hit a wall. “The information from the children’s home and my file doesn’t match and the hospital where I was born doesn’t exist anymore,” she said. “I guess this is it.”
Her friend Lucassen is considering a TV appeal to find her mother. Her parents split, and custody went to her father. When he went abroad to work, her grandmother gave the four-year-old up for adoption without telling her father. “I met him in 2002, and afterwards I wrote him letters, but he never answered them,” Lucassen said. “Later, I got notice that he had passed away, so when I met him – that was the first and the last time.”
Dutch citizen Anouk Eigenraam was born in Incheon, South Korea. She shuttles back and forth between Amsterdam and Seoul as a freelance journalist and works, among others, for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. Her book on international adoption, Welcome to Adoption Land, was published in 2017.