Thursday, 3 January 2013

Guest Blog Post - An interview with JaeRan Kim - an internationally adopted adult

We are very excited to start sharing with you some interviews with adults who were internationally adopted. 

The first interview is with JaeRan Kim who was adopted from Korea.  JaeRan is a PhD Candidate at the University of Minnesota and she also works at the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare

How old were you when you were adopted?

I was born in 1968 in South Korea and adopted to Minnesota in the U.S. in 1971, when I was just shy of 3 years old.

Did you come from a foster placement/orphanage/directly from family?

I was first found on the steps of Daegu City Hall in Daegu, the third largest city in S. Korea. When I was found, a note with my name and birth date was pinned on my jacket. According to that note, I was 14 months at the time of my abandonment at that city hall. There are no records of my birth or any original birth certificate with my name and date from that time. In South Korea (even today), many children are not registered at birth so it is very difficult to account for the total number of children born. 
The officials at City Hall immediately placed me in the nearest orphanage in Daegu, White Lily, which was a Catholic orphanage. I remained at White Lily for approximately six months, then I was transferred to Ilsan orphanage outside of Seoul. I was at Ilsan for a little more than a year before being escorted to the U.S. for adoption. 

When you were adopted, what was the adoptive family set up like?  How many other children were in the family and were you the only non white child in that family?

I have two siblings who are both biological to my adoptive parents and they were born soon after I arrived. My adoptive mother was pregnant with my sister when I arrived and my brother was born a year later. I was the only adopted child, and the only non-white person in my family. My parents never adopted again. 

Did you experience a lot of racism/misunderstandings/struggles with identity growing up?

In some ways it’s difficult to say if I experienced a lot of racism or difficulty with identity growing up since I have nothing else to compare it to. I experienced the usual racial name-calling by school mates, community, and church including the eye-pulls (sometimes with the “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these”), yelling ching-chong or pretending to talk to me by saying gibberish, questions about what I “was,” lots of generic Asian racist stuff. The older I became, the more sexualized racism was. This is something that particularly with Asian adopted women, most adoptive parents are really clueless about. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had “You love me long time” thrown out at me by men. Lots of men – of all races and cultures – have a real fetish for Asian women.  
The identity issue was a mixed bag; in some ways I was a little bit oblivious to it while I was growing up because it was almost like my family, my community and I had made an unspoken pact that we would never refer to me as Asian or Korean. It was not until I went to college that I struggled more with identity because I was confronted for the first time with the reality that I wasn’t white. I often describe the identity dissonance as “rejected by my culture because of my race, and rejected by my race because of my culture.” That’s what happens when transracial and transnational adoptees attempt to integrate into their racial and ethnic communities. I was raised “white” – as a kid in a town and community where everyone knows you as the “adopted Asian kid” – it’s a real shock to go out into the world where all the Asians wonder why you act so “white” and all the white people think you’re a FOB (Fresh off the boat) and congratulate you on speaking English so well. 

Did you live in a diverse community/go to a diverse school?

Growing up in an all-white town that was close to the city but on the edge of rural farmland posed a number of challenges. The diversity was very limited; a few African American and Hispanic/Latino families, only one non-adopted Asian American family I can remember. 

To tell you how isolating it was, it wasn’t until I was in high school that I realized there were a couple of us Korean adoptees, and about ten years ago I learned that one of my classmates and childhood friends was a Native American transracial adoptee. As kids we either didn’t recognize or understand or even see each other even though we grew up in the same community.

I did know that there were two other Asian adoptees in my church – one a few years older from S. Korea and one a few years younger from the Philippines. We did not socialize with each other. There were no families of color that attended my church. In general it was a very white community. There was very little diversity of any kind – socioeconomic, racial, religious, you name it. It was a very homogenous community. 

Are you in reunion with your birth/first family?  If so are you happy to share anything about how this is?  Do you have any other birth siblings?  If so can you share about that, did they remain with your family or were they adopted out too?

I have no knowledge about my birth family at all. I started a birth family search in 2000 and have not been successful in finding any information about my birth family, much less reunite. I did do a DNA test with one family but it was negative. 

Do you feel you “gained” anything by being adopted?

In general I try to not think in terms of personal gains and losses, other than acknowledging that I have experienced both. To do so begins the “what if” game and I don’t feel that is a fruitful way to live. I could never begin to know what would have happened to me “if” I had not been adopted, “if” I had not been abandoned, etc. None of us can. So my focus is much more on what we know, not what we wonder about. 

Do you think international adoption should ever happen, rarely happen or never happen and why?

I see international adoption as being particularly complex because the majority of the time the child has to make all the sacrifices and gives up the most in the relationship, not the adoptive parents. I hate that with some countries adoptive parents don’t have to pick up the child in the country of origin. That this is even an option to me screams loud and clear that this exchange is all about the adoptive parent’s needs and adoptive parent entitlement. I also find that many adoptive parents choose international adoption in order to be distant from the biological family.  Again the idea that adoption equals the severing of the biological family is problematic to me. 
The amount of money that exchanges hands in international adoption is outrageous. International adoption has become a market, where children are bought, and when children are bought that means issues of supply and demand turn what was once a humanitarian service into a business.  

With international adoption, everything that is problematic about adoption in general is just magnified. It is harder to be transparent and accountable. The removal of a child from their family and culture of birth is greater. The adjustments that must be made for the child is increased. The difficulty of the adoptee to feel connected to their culture of birth is significantly more difficult. 

However that being said, I do not think that international adoption should never be an option – but it should child specific and the last option. And it should never, ever be solely because an adoptive parent desires to adopt. Adoption should be about finding families for children, not children for families, and families who want to adopt a child from another race, culture and country should be prepared to show they are the best option for that child. Having a two story house, private school options, music or soccer activities – those only show that someone has money, not the qualifications that are best suited to parent a child that has experienced separation, abandonment, and trauma in a culturally sensitive way.

What advice would you give to people considering international adoption?  Do you think there should be certain stipulations on what kind of family should be allowed?  Currently it appears any American family can adopt from abroad, it appears that they can even buy their approved home study? They love to talk about corruption in the “sending” country, but I think they need to look a bit closer to home!

First and foremost, adopting is a privilege not an entitlement. I think it would be great in an ideal world if adoptive parents were required to live in the child’s country while the adjustments to the new family structure is being worked out; there is no reason the child should have to bear the burden of all the changes. 

I think the requirements that sending country have are often the wrong requirements. Things such as age and body mass, and even the stipulation in some countries regarding previous or current therapy or certain medications such as anti-depressants do not really determine a prospective parent’s ability to be a good parent. In fact, it may show the parent’s strengths and ability to get help when needed. 

The greatest quality I believe is important in adoptive parents is the ability to be flexible, to be responsive to a child’s needs, and to be able to look messy and imperfect. When I was reviewing home studies, I always looked for examples of parents being able to change the way they do things based on what was needed. The more inflexible and rigid a person is to their beliefs about how things are “supposed to be” the more I predict trouble in the adoption relationship. 

What would you like to see happen more in the communities/politically so that children don’t have to be internationally adopted from overseas?

This is such an important question! Terry Cross, from the National Indian Child Welfare System says that the steps to colonization is that first you take their land, then you control their natural resources and food sources, then get involved in their leadership and governance, then de-legitimize their worldview, spiritual beliefs and traditions by “civilizing” to Western ways, and then finally you take their children.

I think that communities in sending countries are vulnerable to the NGO and western charity/philanthropic/religious organizations. I am not sure that I believe I have any right to tell another country how they should handle their child welfare system. I think it’s particularly hypocritical for the U.S. to go into the country and tell them how to handle their child welfare/orphan situation when we have over 100,000 children in our own domestic foster care system that are “waiting for adoption.”  

I think the same things that we need in the U.S. to prevent adoption applies everywhere – work towards economic and social justice. When families and communities can provide materially, spiritually and socially for their members, then children whose parents have died, or are ill, or unable to parent can be maintained in the larger family and community system. People gripe a lot about those “anti-adoption” folks. I think that when adoption is seen as a commodity and a right that adults have then sure that might look hostile. But being “anti-adoption” to me says something different – the goal is not to increase adoptions but to decrease them because children are being cared for in their families and communities. I say all the time that as someone who works in adoptions, I’m working to make my job obsolete because children are safe in their families and communities. 

How do you feel about adoption (even domestic adoption)?

My problem with “adoption” in general is more conceptual than practical. By that, I mean I don’t think that children who find themselves without parents or adults to care for them should be left to fend for themselves; however I don’t like the Western conception of “adoption.” 

I see adoption as one very specific way of caring for children, one that attempts to replicate the Western, European/Euro-American style of family building. I think that there are many ways in which children are cared for by parents and/or by communities that don’t include hard borders around who is considered “family.” As a result of our narrow and strict definition of family, adoption has become about a legal designation that takes away one set of parent’s rights and gives them to another set of parents. Adoption by this definition is based on erasing the one family to create another because in the western legal framework, two families can’t have joint legal rights. Except they can – for example in situations of divorce, two parents can share physical, legal rights. I can’t imagine many would embrace this type of model for “adoption.” 
In my social work class I show the movie “Babies.” In this film, which follows four babies through their first year, we see a variety of ways in which children are cared for. One family is from San Francisco, and of course this is the family that most of the white social work students identify with; however there is a baby in the film that is Namibian and in the film we see this child being cared for by her mom, other children, other women. The community is more collectivist, and we see this child develop brilliantly in this community setting. 

I have no problem with children being cared for by adult caregivers who are unrelated to them biologically, I just don’t agree that we have to erase the existence of the first biological family to do this. 

Have you given birth yourself?  If it is not too personal what impact has this had on you and how has it affected how you view your story?

I have two children and it has significantly impacted how I feel about adoption. Prior to having children I had considered adoption as an option. However, once I had my children, and when they turned 14 months – the age I was found, and 3 years old, the age I was when I was adopted, I could not imagine these little ones going through what I went through. 

My children are 14 and 19, and parenting them has made me realize how much parenting is not about me; parenting is so much NOT about creating or re-creating myself in another form – it’s about having the privilege of providing the soft landing for a child to grow into who they are meant to become. 

For more information please see JaeRans two blogs -

Harlow’s Monkey at

You can support our work here: JustGiving Support Reunite-Uganda


Blessed Mommy said...

really enjoyed this post! thank you for sharing -- super important perspective (and one I don't think we focus on enough)!

Mila said...

Wise, honest, and thoughtful. Thanks so much for posting this. I hope lots of folks read it.

mtsteed said...

Wonderful piece and so glad to see the 'elder' voices of intercountry adopted adults who have lived the experience (I was trafficked from Ireland to the US in 1960). Too often we have been ignored, brushed aside, or deliberately excluded from adoption-related boards. We are the only ones who can speak to our own experience and why this arena is in so much need of reform.

Lizard said...

Brilliant. Thank you so much for this post - it is a treasure!

Margie said...

Thank you JaeRan, and thank you for hosting this post. So well said.