Rok 'n Roll Radio

A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?

National Adoption Awareness Month: A Thought Experiment in Korea

Korean adoptee collage made by Layne Fostervold

Korean adoptee collage made by Layne Fostervold

This month is National Adoption Awareness Month.

I’m quite active in online Korean adoptee groups on Facebook. A thought experiment many adoptees indulge in is asking “what would my life have been like if I wasn’t adopted and had stayed in Korea?”

We’re fascinated by figuring out how genetics, culture and environment have shaped us as people. Nature vs Nurture.

I’ve been living in Korea for about 4 months now. The more I get to know my birth family, experience Korean life and be around Korean children, the more complex that question becomes. It’s like asking “what would your life be like if you lived in a parallel universe?”

There are some obvious differences. Like that I would speak fluent Korean, instead of struggling with basic grammar at age 26. I would not be teaching English the way I am right now, because I would not have been a native English speaker. I would have grown up in a small town in Geojedo instead of outer suburban Brisbane. I would have grown up in a big Korean family instead of a small adoptive Australian family. I would have grown up eating Umma’s kimchi instead of Mum’s cheesy potato bake. I would know all about Korean history and understand why Korean culture is the way it is today. I would have not experienced racism. I would not know how it feels to be somewhere in between two cultures. I would not know any of my Australian friends and never would have met the Korean adoptee community.

But I’ve watched enough TV shows and movies about time travel to know that even the smallest action can change the future. It just so happens that the factor that steered me onto a completely different life path was a rather major action.

The thought experiment gets trickier when I wonder: Would life have been better if I had stayed in Korea?

I look back on the dark times and stupid decisions I made in my life with anger and embarrassment. It’s easy to think “if I hadn’t have been adopted, then I wouldn’t be such a head case and it wouldn’t have led to [x] and [y]!” But who’s to say that my life would have been all sunshine and rainbows in Korea too?

After I was adopted to Australia, the financial situation for my family improved eventually after a few years of toughing it out – one of my sisters says she remembers being sad as a child. My sisters were educated well, went to university and now have steady jobs. But if I had stayed, I would’ve been an extra mouth to feed, an extra person to clothe. Would my sisters still have had those opportunities? Would we all have been happier? Or would we feel the strain of a 5-child family?

As I underwent teacher training, I learned that Korean children study for long hours all day at school then study more at a hagwon until late at night. I teach the after-school English class, which is sort of in between. Korean “after school” is like an extracurricular activity but like a class too. Korean children are under enormous pressure to get the best grades, ace all their exams and get into the best university. Korean kids are very smart. I’m amazed that some of the 7 years olds I teach sound almost like fluent English speakers. But later on, Korean high schoolers and university students often burn out or even commit suicide.

The Australian schooling system is much easier in comparison. So I wonder if I would be much smarter and more successful if I had gone through the Korean education system – or if I too would have suffered emotional exhaustion in place of the psychological battles I fought while dealing with my adoption.

from KoreAM: South Korean Children Rank Last in Happiness Survey

Things get blurrier when I think about personality. I see some of my personality reflected in my family. Temperamental, pragmatic Umma. Appa as the quiet observer (or occasional escapee) of the surrounding madness. Sister 1’s self-deprecating humour. Sister 3’s silliness. My young auntie’s determination to succeed in a male-dominated industry in a patriarchal society while raising two strong, confident daughters. Most of my relatives love animals – working with them or stopping dead in their tracks to play with strays. Conversations about worries that cause me to wonder if my anxious tendencies are genetic, not simply just a result of adoption. The fact that my sisters sought independence, career and travel and are not yet married – which is quite unusual in Korean society.

But our cultural barriers are immense. I think all of my interests and things I like and things I’ve learned. I trace back through all the intricate pathways right back to life in Australia, and my position in society as a minority within an ethnic minority.

I can’t begin to imagine what a Korean version of me would be like. It doesn’t seem to exist – not here, not in a parallel universe, not anywhere.

I don’t resent my Korean family for trying to do the right thing for the sake of my mother’s health and sanity. I don’t resent my adoptive parents who simply wanted to have a baby. I’m extremely fortunate to have two loving families. Many adoptees are not so lucky. For them, this thought experiment is plagued with emotion and trauma.

The only things I’m upset about when it comes to adoption are the politics surrounding it: the lack of welfare for my Korean family that led them to give up a baby, the lies my adoption agency told me, and racism I’ve faced in both Australia and Korea.

I wish mothers in countries like Korea didn’t have to be separated from their own babies to survive.

It’s far too late to speculate what a Korean life would have been like. My life and identity might be a bit strange as an adoptee, but the strangeness is my normalcy.

Nowadays, when I feel an overwhelming victory as I hold a small conversation with my school principal in Korean; when I am awed by the fascinating things I’m learning about Korean culture and history; when I meet fellow adoptees all over the world who are working hard to make the lives of adoptees and parents better; and when I laugh and eat and explore the country with my Korean family, all I see is a future that outshines the past.

Umma and I

Umma and I

Futher reading:

Huffington Post’s National Adoption Month

Land of Gazillion Voices


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