Experiences in Transnational Adoption:
An Interview with Kim Park Nelson
by Amy Anderson
When I was twelve, my parents adopted my sister Karin from Korea. She was five months old when we met her plane in Oakland and were handed a chubby, nearly bald baby girl who became the center of all our lives immediately. My two biological brothers and I would try to wake her up from her naps just because we wanted to play with her (sorry, Mom!), and this first adoption led my parents to adopt six more children over the years: two more from Korea, three from Brazil (a sibling group, in adoption parlance), and one sister originally from Guatemala. With five girls, five boys, three white kids, three Asian kids, one Guatemalan "baby" of the family, and three Brazilians who identify as black, we joked that we were sort of an international version of the Brady Bunch, one formed through adoption instead of remarriage.
I love my siblings, all nine of them, and the experience of growing up in a large family formed through transnational adoption is one I'm grateful to have had. Growing up blond, blue-eyed and white, with Asian, Black, and Guatemalan siblings, in a mostly white suburban neighborhood was in some ways like being undercover. Around people who didn't know about my siblings' ethnicities, I'd hear ethnic slurs and racist remarks bandied about and wonder what I should do. What I usually did was speak up, but more than once, especially as I became a teenager and wanted to blend in, I stayed silent, and hated myself.
As my siblings grew up, I watched as my two Black brothers were pulled over by cops over and over, remembering my own ability to talk my way out of tickets the few times I'd been pulled over. My sisters were teased for having "Chinese eyes." Despite having thick dark hair or curly, gorgeous black hair, each one more than once expressed a wish to have the long blond hair I had back then. While I was possibly dooming myself to skin cancer later in life by trying to attain the perfect tan, my four beautiful sisters thought their skin was too dark. I never knew what to do or say with the guilt and anger I felt on their behalf. I still don't, really. So when I heard a public radio story about transracial adoption in which an articulate younger academic and Korean adoptee spoke about documenting the experiences of adult transracial adoptees, I was intrigued.
Kim Park Nelson was born in Seoul, Korea in 1971 and adopted by white parents in St.Paul, Minnesota. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the department ofAmerican Studies at the University of Minnesota. In her dissertation, Park Nelson "positions Korean adoptees at intersections within American race relations, as emblems of U.S.-Korean geopolitical relationships during and after the Cold War, and as empowered actors organizing to control racial and cultural discourses about adoption." Her work is based on Korean adoptee oral histories that she has collected for the past three years. She is currently teaching one of the first college courses on Korean adoption. I talked with Kim in January 2006.
mamazine.com: Can you tell us a little about what you're working on and how you got into it?
Kim Park Nelson: I guess at the very core is this oral history project—I collect life stories from Korean adopted adults. A lot of adoptees have really sad stories to tell. I didn't expect that, because in my personal experience I would meet adoptees and some would be really positive and some not, but there was a real mix. But the oral histories were incredibly sad, even from people with positive adoption experiences.
Sadness comes from the rupture that caused the adoption to take place in the first place. Even with good relationships with adoptive parents, adoptees are still aware of that other family that couldn't keep them. Some people are more haunted than others; some don't really think about it. But most have some pretty powerful firsthand experience of being singled out racially. It didn't define their lives, but most are aware that [race] affects their lives. It's hard to realize that that's what's going on. Hard for all, but for adoptees, there's an extra little bit of pain because we live in houses with people who don't look like us, who don't have these experiences.
mamazine.com: The adoptive families I've known, including my own, have really emphasized a color-blind approach to parenting. My parents, for instance, had three white biological kids and seven non-white adopted kids, but I remember feeling like it would be uncouth or something to even use the term "white" in describing myself. The problem I faced, and obviously to a much greater extent, the problem I saw my siblings facing, was that outside the family, much of the world still saw us as the white "real" kids and the non-white adopted kids. How have the adult adoptees you've talked to in your research been affected by that paradox?
Kim Park Nelson: Parents are really put in a position where you can't really win. If children bring these experiences of racism to parents, parents tend to downplay them. That doesn't really give you a strategy to deal with it. I think a lot of what America is doing right now is saying that all those issues got taken care of. I think it's a dangerous message for parents to send…innocuous, but problematic in this day and age. Parents are in a bind.
The problem that ends up presenting itself is (and by the way, I don't believe adoptees' problems are all their parents' faults) it's becoming more and more clear that parents are sucked in to the cultural and social conflicts of adoption just like adoptees are. Their function is often different from adoptees—white, middle-class, empowered—compared to adoptees, non-white, poor, less empowered in society. Because they come from a position of power—adults, white, from relatively privileged backgrounds—it's easy to look at it like it's the parents who are screwing it up. But for me, I feel like, sure there's bad parenting everywhere, and the parents end up being instruments, not necessarily the cause. They have the best intentions and don't know what they shouldn't do. But parents often aren't open to critiques of their parenting, which then makes it hard to improve as parents.
What's going on in transracial adoption is a microcosm of society. Groups in power are often not open to critiques. It can be hard to talk about racism with white people, since they can be angry or guilty or not open. Often they're unwilling to be accountable, because they feel they didn't and don't personally commit racist acts. It's less empowered groups that see how change will improve their lives.
Most adoptive parents are not open to having contact with their children's birth parents. The social (and generally, legal) rule is a child can only have two parents: one mother and one father. People are resistant to any attempt to modify that rule. In social history, there's this idea of people owning their children. The idea of ownership in the U.S. is powerful—because owning something makes you accountable for taking care of it. If a child has more than one mother, the question becomes who is responsible for taking care of it?
Are international adoptive parents more afraid of contact? I think that notion comes from only one mom per kid + race + class + nationality. I think there is a hierarchy of adoptive parents thinking they have the right to raise other people's kids because of their class, race, and/or international position that automatically affords them a better way to raise kids. I honestly think they don't really think about the birth mother, even though her role, giving birth to and then giving up a child, is essential to the existence of adoptive families.
mamazine.com: How do you think attitudes about international adoption have changed over the past few decades?
Kim Park Nelson: An attempt to keep kids in contact with their birth cultures is the current trend, and I have really mixed feelings about it. Right now the "cultural education"is so tokenized. It's really difficult for me to think that would have made the difference –I think the trend now is more multicultural, less assimilative. It's so much more than parents of my generation generally even tried, so I guess it's a move in the right direction, but I'm not sure what adoptees end up getting out of it. By the way, my mother did send me to Korean culture camp when I was about ten, and I hated it.
Kim Park Nelson: First of all, even though I'm a little embarrassed now about this because I see the value of having a more complex experience, as a kid, I wanted to fit in. I didn't see what being at this place could get me. Maybe it would have been different if I'd stuck it out. I know people who loved it.
I also objected to it because the instruction was super gendered. Girls learned the fan dance and boys learned drumming and tae kwon do. I didn't want to put on a pink and green hanbok. I wasn't a very girly girl as a child, and I think the expectation that I would be hyper-feminine in camp didn't really fit for me.Here's the other thing about culture camp—it's not like contemporary Korean at all. It's Orientalized, the tea ceremony, fan dancing, nothing about contemporary Korean life. Unfortunately, a lot of predominant stereotypes end up being passed on to adoptees.
Multicultural understanding of adoptees is far from done. For instance, I've noticed that adoptive families of young Chinese daughters can be very self-righteous, with an attitude that they've learned from what adoptive families of Korean children did "wrong."
Also, the hierarchy of adoption is the same as in 1955—the same groups are adopting and being adopted. Race and class problems are not anywhere near being solved. We're probably further away from solving them because now people think they don't even exist. I have a lot of empathy for parents because I see that they're afraid and fear motivates us to have all kinds of crazy behavior. Parents are so blinded by that fear that they're completely unwilling to see beyond the borders of their fear and that, combined with their tremendous sense of having good intentions, really prevents them from seeing that there is a more complicated way of looking at the adoptive experience. They don't want a lot more work.
It's getting to be a little weird that now people are expecting adoptees to go back now. There's this surge of reunion stories. Almost all the published adoptee memoirs have reunion stories. But most people don't go back. I don't know if that will change as globalization marches on. I'm really curious if these Chinese adoptees will go back to China to search for birth parents when they're adults.
In the first wave of Korean adoptees—people who are now in their fifties—most don't go back. In my generation—I'm in my mid-thirties—people definitely discuss it more, and more people do it. And the younger adoptees, the college age group, it seems like they all want to go. People are interested in going back, and maybe more than half are interested in birth search. Some smaller number of those who search, I'd guess 25-40% of those who try, actually find something. So a small minority ever have any type of reunion with birth families.
When reunions happen, whatever caused the rupture is often still there. Overseas adoptees also have the terrible burden that most adoptees don't speak their birth parents' language. With a domestic adoption, the chance that you speak the same language as the birth parents is much greater.
mamazine.com: What advice would you give prospective adoptive parents?
Kim Park Nelson: A lot of adoptive parents want something from me, and usually it is some sort of validation. You know—"I'm adopted, and I think you're doing a good job." I'm not a parent, and I don't think I'm in a position to give parenting advice. I only know my situation, not theirs, and in reality, it's really different. I don't want to get into a power struggle with them, the exchange of giving parents permission to do this thing or that thing. My whole goal is to give people a more complicated understanding of how transnational adoption works and what it means.
My project has almost nothing to do with social work or policy, nor is it about giving parents advice. Parents get frustrated because I don't offer much specifically for them, but it's not my intention to antagonize them. I feel like they don't want to hear what I'm saying, just what they want to hear. They want validation from me, and I can't get anything out of them. Social work and policy research is interested in when kids are kids. My research is focused on adult adoptees.
Sometimes parents feel guilty or hurt by something I or someone else has said. Often adoptive parents will say, "I've tried really hard." It's really common from adoptive moms, who will ask questions like, "Well, do you think adoption is right or wrong?" I never answer that because I don't think in absolutes about Korean adoption; it's too complex, and I think making it a black and white issue fails to respect that complexity. Some parents are hurt because we've dared to say there are problems for adoptees, but that's just the truth, not a personal attack on parents.
There's a lot of pressure put on adoptive families to be the "better choice." They might feel they have to prove they're better, since there's this really sacred norm that "normal" families are blood related and look alike, and if that's not there then parents have to do a lot of work. They have to do all kinds of stuff to make up for that, to say "see, we're still normal."
This idea is so pervasive, this idea of having a normal whole family, that legal decisions, public policy, everything goes back to this idea of having a "normal" family, despite the fact that the "normal" family is a vanishing breed: "normal" only, if it's a first marriage, a heterosexual union, and the children are biological. I don't think adoptive parents should have to pretend families are normal for children to feel like the parents are their heart of heart "real" parents. I think a more complex approach that recognizes the non-normative (that is non-biological) creation of adoptive families is much healthier for adoptees and probably for the whole family.
I also don't see our society as a whole being anywhere near changing on most of these issues.
I think society was more open in the 1970s to things changing. Now the attitude is that things have already changed during the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, so things are okay now and we don't have to talk about it. If we lived in a society that was actually equal with respect to race, nationality, and culture, color-blindness would be fine, but we don't, so it's not.
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