Thursday, January 22, 2015

My Response to the Recent NY Times Article

This is in response to such a biased article "Why a Generation of Adoptees Is Returning to South Korea?" written by Maggie Jones.  The article was recently published in the NY Times (

The article was very critical against the intercountry adoption (ICA), with arguments mostly supported by the anti-adoption activists living in Korea. The article mentioned the problems the ICA brings, mainly in racial discrimination, being uprooted without choice from the place of their birth and planted in foreign lands, the pain of separation from their birth families, the loss of a heritage, culture and language. 

Their arguments may be valid, and I certainly don't want to look down on their views.  I accept that many adoptees have suffered some pain, perhaps immense pain that won't go away.  But at the other side of the spectrum, there are much greater number of adoptees that have fared well and are happy with their adoption experiences and their lives, and their positive sides of ICA is totally drowned out by the article.

In the article, one adoptee asked, “How can a person exiled as a child, without a choice, possibly fathom how he would have ‘turned out’ had he stayed in Korea?"  This question is probably hard to comprehend or understand for many adoptees that were sent as babies.  It is very hard to comprehend what their lives in Korea might have been like as most adoptees were sent abroad before they even tasted the misery of orphan lives.

The biggest flaw with the article was that it only listened to the adoptees that looks at the ICA issues with one angle - that they were separated from their birth parents, that they were admitted to adoption agencies, and that without their choosing were sent overseas, thus losing their culture, language,...and they are miserable and angry, and want to make themselves extinct by putting an end to the ICA.

What Ms. Jones and the adoptees in the article don't understand is that when a child becomes an orphan for whatever the reason, without adoption there is usually one place to go in Korea - an orphanage. A child may be put into a foster care, or even in a group home, but these types of arrangements no better alternatives for the orphan.

While it is true that some could have been reunited with their birth parents had they stayed in Korea, but reunification was very rare as many birth parents deliberately chose to give up their children. Look at the 17,000 children that are housed in 280 orphanages in Korea. Hardly any birth parents go back to reclaim those children.  Most children wait and hope that their birth parents will someday take them home and be happy, but that dream never get realized.  For adoptees, it would be a fantasy to assume that had the adoptees stayed in Korea the reunification would have happened for them.

What they don't seem to understand is that their lives in Korea would have resulted in much greater losses than what they claim to have lost through ICA. Most notably the loss of opportunity that will forever damage or marginalize them for the rest of their lives.  This is so much more than the loss of a culture, racial discrimination, or any other losses mentioned. The loss of birth parents is a common denominator whether you are adopted or orphaned.

While there may be a few exceptions, had an adoptee stayed in Korea there would be the loss of opportunity to have a family of his own. There would be a loss of opportunity to a higher level education.  There is a loss of guidance and mentorship due to the absence of parents. There is a loss of respect and status as a person just by being an orphan in Korea. There may be a loss due to social discrimination that comes through a marriage refusal or the loss of employment or business opportunities lost for having an orphan background. Read further down for additional details.

Like many adoptees that have expressed the pain of loss through separation from birth parents, so do orphans, except to a much greater degree. Unlike many adoptees, they don't even have the adoptive families to lean on.

So what would have been the alternatives for (now adult) adoptees if they were not adopted through ICA? Orphans growing up in Korea have historically faced incredible challenges as they are subject to strong social stigma.  I know this all too well as I experienced living in an orphanage for eight years before being adopted at the age 14.

Compared to ordinary children with families, orphans in Korea experience what I call “status discrimination.” I have heard and read about the experiences of racial discrimination as described by adoptees living in Europe or in the U.S.  But this type of discrimination is nothing compared to the status discrimination that orphans have to endure. By status discrimination, I am referring to the discrimination for being an orphan, the lowest in the social status in Korea, perhaps a little better than a beggar status.  Having an orphan background in Korea risks the denial of opportunity for good education that will help him to be competitive (orphanage does not provide a stimulating environment for learning), or get a good job.

In the old days, only three to five percent of orphans were able to go to college. Although educational opportunities for orphans have increased in recent years, they still fall significantly below educational opportunities of ordinary Korean children with families. By contrast, approximately 70 percent of Korean adoptees in the U.S. and Europe receive a four-year college education or above. Just from an educational point of view, there is no denying that ICA provides more educational opportunities.

The status discrimination of orphans does not end with limited educational opportunities. If a young man with an orphan background wishes to date and marry a woman with a family, often the woman’s parents reject the man even though the woman loves him. If two men (or women) of equal ability apply for the same job, and one grew up in an orphanage and the other in a normal family, the applicant who grew up in the orphanage usually loses out.

Although the social stigma against orphans has lessened over the years, it still presents a big challenge for children growing up in orphanages. Not many orphans are adopted domestically in Korea, as the orphans are mostly older, and Korean nationals tend to prefer adopting infants and girls.

What’s so devastating is that the orphans in Korea must leave the orphanages when they turn 18 years old. Often these orphans are emerging from the orphanage just out of high school, with very little marketable skills. Leaving the orphanages, these young adult orphans are usually given a onetime severance allowance of anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000. But this meager allowance runs out very quickly.

With no financial support or family support available, going to college would be impossible. These young adults go through extreme hardship once they leave the orphanages. A few find ways to stay with friends and/or extended families, but not all of them are that fortunate. Most wind up working in low-paying jobs at which they work long hours, and some get involved in criminal activities. Some may become successful teachers, pastors, nurses, etc., but these types of successes are very few compared to others who haven’t fared so well. In many areas of their lives, adults with orphan backgrounds must be vigilant to keep their background a secret, for fear of status discrimination.

When I look at the educational accomplishments of some of the adoptees that are strongly against adoption, I have a hard time understanding how they could speak against the very system they have tremendously benefited from. Most of them have college degrees, some of them have Ph.D. degrees and some are college professors. Without being adopted overseas into an environment which supported them to that level of achievement, they most likely would not have received the education or the distinctions they now enjoy. By contrast, the orphans in Korea would die to have the same opportunities the adoptees have. I remember visiting an orphanage and meeting several high school orphans that were about to age out.  I asked what they most wished for, and they all expressed their desire to be adopted and be educated.

Granted that one’s happiness is not determined by educational achievements; however, there can be no question that ICA has provided opportunities for many orphans that would not have been available had they remained in Korea.

No one would argue that it would better for children to grow up in the family environment than in institutions.  Furthermore, in all of childcare methods available, only one, adoption, can provide the children with their most basic rights ---- their rights to their own families. When a homeless child is barred from an opportunity to have his own home, this is a greater child abuse than any alleged “losses” experienced by the adult adoptees through ICA.

The anti-adoption factions in Korea have used the cause of birthmothers’ rights to speak against ICA, as well as against domestic adoption. Because they claim that adoption causes the separation of a child from the birthmother, they use the phrases such as “Family Preservation over Adoption Promotion” to make their points known. However, in their zeal to put an end to adoption by advocating birthmothers’ rights, they have focused more on birthmothers, not on the rights of children, the more vulnerable ones.

I believe that, while birthmothers’ rights should be advocated, it is wrong to do so by trampling on children’s rights to their own homes and families. Birthmothers are adults who have voices, and they can make certain choices for themselves, whether good or bad. But the children have no voice. Many adoptees have spoken out to advocate for their own rights and the rights of birthmothers’, but very few have chosen to speak for the rights of children to have their own homes.

Before an adoptee speaks of her losses due to ICA, I hope she understands how much more a loss a child who remains as an orphan in Korea has to suffer. And I hope she understands that in speaking about her losses, and by advocating closure of ICA, how her demands may put in jeopardy the rights of the children to homes of their own. Unfortunately, their activism has resulted in so many children being admitted to institutions while the number adoption in Korea dropped by a whopping 50% due to the special adoption law.

I ask adoptees with such inclination to take some time to visit the orphanages in Korea, and see how the children live. Touch them. Speak with them. Hear their hearts and understand who they are, and understand how much greater their loss is compared to adoptees.


  1. I so agree. Great response. I understand adult adoptees views, but I think it is easier to feel this way because of the opportunity they had through ICA. Not quite sure how they would view this had they grown up in an orphanage with no family of their own. I do think they are hurting the children without voices of their own. Thanks again for all you do.

  2. Wow, Steve - this is so well written. Especially coming from your personal experience as a teenaged adoptee and your first-hand experience visiting with orphanages in Korea. I don't know what else to say, but thank you for all you do.

  3. Steve, thank you for the great post and all the great work that you do. We all appreciate the time and dedication.

  4. While I appreciate your understanding as an adoptee and your acknowledgment that adoptees have pain, I think that there are two flaws in what you are saying.

    First, it's wrong to assume that birthmothers' rights are trumping adoptees' or orphans' rights, or that birthmothers have a voice. Birthmothers in Korea are marginalized to the point that they think they don't have a choice and are often too scared to speak of their situations to advocate for anything. You speak of birthmother rights, but what are these rights? Absent abuse or neglect, a mother should have a right to raise her child. In Korean society, that often doesn't exist. What about family preservation? I realize that is a long way off, but it's sad to assume the only options are adoption or growing up in an orphanage.

    I can't speak to your experiences of living in an orphanage, but I do know that even the best foster home does not equate to having a family of one's own. However, your article spends a lot of time discussing the educational opportunities that adoptees have that wouldn't necessarily exist if a child grew up in an orphanage. I don't dispute this at all. But I do take issue with using education as a justification for adoption (albeit one of many; I'm not saying you believe education in and of itself is a justification). I've hashed this premise out in my head umpteen times, and it never has good results. Education = wealth. Wealth = better life. Says who? At the expense of growing up without one's family or culture? I'm not sure that is a good trade-off. Consider the number of educated people who drop off the grid to try farming or something simpler. I find it quite ironic and unsettling that I was born on a lovely beach in Korea, was adopted to the US where I got an education, so that I can commute 3 hours a day and work seven days a week. Now I have enough money to spend thousands of dollars to travel to a beach to try to unwind from my hectic life. I do believe that education should be a right, but I'm not convinced that it's the end-all-be-all that we've created it to be.

    1. Some time ago a Korean news media JTBC ( reported that only 20% of the babies are claimed back by unwed mothers, and that leave 80% that are still left abandoned and put into institutions.
      The question is not about whether a mother has the right to raise her child. She has the absolute right, but significantly greater number of unwed mothers still give up their children even after two years have passed with multiple contacts and inquiries to take their children back. So the appropriate question is 'Why do unwed mothers still continue to give up when they have the rights to keep their babies?" My response to the NYT article in no way promotes taking away the rights of unwed mother to raise their own children.
      Out of hundreds of adoptions that are finalized after nearly two years of process, fewer than five have reclaimed their children. Can you still blame adoption for causing the separation of a child with his birthmother?
      The notion that the number of adoptions in Korea is reduced because more unwed mothers are keeping their babies is not true. For example, before the law the domestic adoption averaged over 1400 per year. In 2013, the year when the SAL was fully implemented for a whole year, the domestic adoption fell to 686 for the entire year, and for the year 2014 it will be fewer than 600. So does this mean that over 700 unwed mothers have all the sudden decided to keep their babies?
      Not true at all. I know there are some unwed mothers that decided to keep their babies, but they are nowhere near 700 needed to justify the reason for the reduction in adoption.
      My biggest complaint to all anti-adoption adoptees is that their activism is all about closing ICA in the name of what they call family preservation. Closing ICA only hurts the children that are being abandoned despite many chances given to unwed mothers to keep their children.
      What I am advocating is not about killing one to make the other survive, but that both the family preservation efforts and adoption promotion must go hand-in-hand.
      While the country gradually transitions towards more acceptance of unwed mothers keeping their children, we need to address the needs of the children that are still being orphaned.

  5. Thank you so much for your response to this article! You always show compassion and understanding in what you write. I cannot speak as an adoptee but only as an adoptive parent. The article mentions the numbers assigned to children, the price for adopting them, and the way this seems to devalue them as individuals. However as a parent, I never saw the number as similar to a prisoner or one assigned to a "product" but just a way to protect the identity of child and birthmother. We do not see the colossal cost of adoption as a way to "purchase" a child but just to pay for the paperwork and beuracracy involved. I don't even associate the real, living child I have with all the "process" that took place to bring him home. Unfortunately these sorts of number assigning, cost paying, paperwork filling out things seem only to have increased with the new law. The fact remains that children are left without families and those who are sure to be coming overseas are harmed more by the lengthy process and age that they have to transition to their permanent home. I am sure it is hard to find the "happy medium" in protecting the child and birthmother and making sure that the adoption process works out in a way that is best for all involved, but ICA is certainly not the problem. It is simply the result of a bigger issue. Thank you for sharing your positive story and serving as an encouragement for parents raising and waiting for their children no matter where they are from!

  6. Hi Steve, As the NY Times article circulated among my NY/NJ relatives, I sent them your blog in response. I rarely respond online, but as the first adoptive parents in our extended families, I wanted to let you know how much your bravery in advocacy is helping us in ours.
    One glaring issue I see with this article is that it confuses Asian American experience with adoptive experience. As an Asian biological child, I also grew up in an almost all-White community. When my brother was 5-years-old, I remember he said, “Mommy, I’m White, right?” The whole family laughed at him, but still I thought that when I died and went to heaven I would be White. For all the lack of support adoptees felt around racial identity, it cannot be assumed that having Asian biological parents automatically provides otherwise. I could see my parents discriminated against, but there was little discussion about it. When I was teased and called racial slurs throughout childhood, my parents told me to ignore it and work hard (the functional response of people who had experienced far worse in the pre-1960s MLK era). According to this article, my Asian American parents’ response didn’t greatly differ from the White adoptive parents’.
    Another common Asian American experience is that we are all in the dynamic process of losing (and for some, recovering) our heritage culture. In 2002 studies of Korean families conducted by Sarah Shin (as cited in The Biligingual Edge by King & Mackey), 79% of first-born children, 66% of second children, and only 43% of third children knew Korean. From experience, language knowledge is often reflective of culture and identity, as I myself went back to my ancestral roots as a young adult to learn Chinese. Now, my Korean American husband and I work very hard to speak Korean with our Korean adopted child. While we know several families with children her age with both Korean American parents, they are speaking English in the home. Steve, if you know of any Korean resources in the city of Seattle, please let us know! There isn’t a single Korean book on the shelf of our neighborhood library (the librarian said they can be requested online) and the closest Korean storytime we know of is 1hr away round trip. Adopted or not, it’s hard work to develop ethnic identity in America!

    1. L Lim, I know you were writing to Steve, but if you don't mind, I'd like to comment.

      I too am an Asian-American (specifically Korean) who is an adoptive mom. When I first began the process, I researched a lot about adoption and discussed with various people about adoption, including adoptees who had issues with adoption. I also brought up the point to them that a lot of their frustrations were more Asian-American issues rather than adoption issues. Their response was that it is still different. Even if the teasing and taunting is the same, they do not have the validation / affirmation / consolation of returning home to Asian faces. I know you mention that your parents told you to just ignore it and work hard, as my parents did too. But, you also mention how your parents faced discrimination too (as did my parents). The fact that they also are facing the same discrimination but are practicing what they preach is very significant, and it is a benefit transracial adoptees may not have. Instead they have parents who look nothing like them (if anything look more like the people taunting them), possibly never experienced discrimination in the same way, and is still telling them to brush it off. It's more alienating in that circumstance.

      Also, Asian-Americans living with Asian families still have an easier time recovering and maintaining their heritage. We have relatives who speak the language, the food is somewhat part of our regular cycle in meals, some Asian traditions that are maintained, etc. Our children are also welcome at any time to embrace their heritage. We could easily fit into a Korean church or community if we chose to do so. Not always the case for transracial families. I see lots of transracial families who have to make a real effort to incorporate Korean heritage as part of their lives. If some of them don't go out of their way and try hard, there would be nothing.

      I'm just saying that your and my family's dynamic is still at an advantage, being fully Asian. Perhaps that's why the Korean government says they prefer to see more heritage families adopt.

    2. Dear L Lim and A Hong, thanks for the great discussions regarding race and identity.

      I think both of you are very right that racial discrimination is more Asian-American issue rather than blaming on adoption. And certainly there is some difference whether a child is adopted to an Asian family or to a Caucasian family.

      Speaking from my experience, there were times in my life, especially in the teen years that I wish I was adopted into a Korean family and assume the name of Kim, Lee, Park, Choi or others. I still remember being bothered when my mother would visit my Jr. high or high school, and I would avoid her. But now I see these difficulties as something that I had to grow out of, or mature as a young man's perspective in life changes, and the things that bothered me appeared silly and immature, and regret having acted the way I had.

      After my college years, I felt the strong sense of being a Morrison, and felt very proud of who I was and very grateful for what adoption had brought me.

      My father once saw my identity struggle in my college days, and said to me, "Steve, it doesn't matter whether you are a Korean or an American. What's more important is that you become a person." That moment, that day, my identity crisis was over. What good is being a Korean if you are living a shameful life? What good is being an American if you are likewise?

      Becoming a person...a person of faith, a person with a vision and a dream, a person who would become a husband and a father...that was my identity, and I never looked back.