Milton Washington: Hardwired, Black, Korean, Adopted, Storyteller

I’ve known Milton several years now. We visit with him when we are in New York City, most recently last summer. I don’t remember now how we met: a white, transracial adoptive mom from the east coast who loves to read and to write, and a black/Korean former football player who hates to read and is writing a book about his early childhood in Korea and his adoption by a black military family in the U.S. I am among his biggest fans, learning anew every time I hear about his life as a little black boy ostracized and beaten up in Korea, the son of a still unknown American soldier and a prostitute who nurtured and loved and disciplined him fiercely. When he was eight years old, he and his mom took a taxi ride to St. Vincent’s orphanage about an hour outside of Seoul; that was the last time he saw her. I learn when he talks about not fitting in, about being taunted for who he is, and about how he is “in between worlds” constantly as a Korean, a black man, and an adopted person, as well as within each of those categories.

So when I listened to this recent Adapted podcast, I again learned a lot about Milton. When I’ve been around him, he doesn’t curse very much, but he does in this interview—just letting you know. He’s 48, though maybe he’s 50. As an adoptee, he’s done many DNA tests. He’s searched for his Korean mother, and feels she may now be in California. He is writing his memoir, SlickyBoy, in no small part with the hope that he will find his mother and his bio siblings, once the book is published.

http://adaptedpodcast.com

I’ve read a draft chapter from Slickyboy: A Memoir, and it has stayed with me in a powerful way. You can read an excerpt here. This excerpt is from 2010, so has no doubt changed. “Slicky boy,” by the way, is a phase used by American GI’s for the Koreans who would steal from the soldiers. The time needed to birth this book also perhaps reveals the challenge of writing memoirs that are painful, revealing, inspiring, and hopeful, and that cut searingly close to the heart and to the bone. I am reminded also, though only as an adoptive parent, that some adoptees search over a lifetime for their true stories, identities, and place in this world.

You can listen to Milton’s podcast interview here. Adapted is “a podcast that explores the experiences of Korean adoptees, from post-reunion stories to living in Korea as adults.” There are some amazing interviews there, and I highly recommend listening.

I also recommend keeping an eye out for Milton’s book, following him on Instagram (@slickyboymemoir) and Facebook , and taking a look at his stunning photographic skills. Milton is a strong, raw storyteller. He loves his families deeply, even as complicated and painful as his life has sometimes been. He is vulnerable; he is resilient. I can’t wait to read his book, and I hope it brings a sense of peace and accomplishment for him when it is published. He hopes that the book will “blow up,” that it will bring his Korean sisters around to him. He hopes especially that it will reach his mother, so that “she can see her son proud.” I hope so too.

Interview With Korean Adoptee Soojung Jo, Author of “Ghost of Sangju”

“When I reunited with my Korean family, and finally learned the whole truth from Omma’s letter, it was like an implosion for me. There wasn’t so much a motivation as a need greater than breathing. It was like bleeding. Writing wasn’t something I wanted to do, it was something I could not stop myself from doing. Finishing wasn’t a goal, it was a necessity.”

Soojung Jo was three years old when she was adopted from Korea by a Kentucky family, and 37 years old when she learned the truth of her history and identity. Along the way she graduated from West Point and served in Korea. She became a mother to four children. And she has now written this powerful, evocative book. “Ghost of Sangju: A Memoir of Reconciliation” is important for the adoption community. It’s bigger than that, though, because it’s a fascinating story, with powerful emotions, hard decisions, warmth, confusion, candor, love, discernment, and hope.

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More information is available at Gazillion Strong, including purchase information and Book Club questions. A new review by Mila Konomos at Lost Daughters is available here.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Soojung about “Ghost of Sangju,” about writing, and about adoption.

Soojung, what writers inspire you? What books are you reading now? 

I’m borderline obnoxious about my passion for reading! As a writer, I’ve been powerfully influenced by some particular books that I think everyone must read: John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” Karl Marlantes’s “Matterhorn,” Adam Johnson’s “The Orphan Master’s Son,” Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible,” and Alexandre Dumas’s “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Also I love Hemingway’s voice, and I’m a shameless Stephen King junkie!

As for what I’m reading now, I always have a book on Audible, one or two on Kindle, and a hard copy in work. I’m listening to “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (Betty Smith), just finished “Americanah” (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), and just started “The Secret Wisdom of the Earth” (Christopher Scotton).

What was the writing process like for you? What motivated you to write, and to finish, your book?

There was this accumulation of all the experiences and my primal but unexpressed emotional responses to them: being taken from my Korean family and country at age 3, my Kentucky childhood, the West Point experience, returning to Korea in the Army, becoming a mother biologically and then through adoption. When I reunited with my Korean family, and finally learned the whole truth from Omma’s letter, it was like an implosion for me. There wasn’t so much a motivation as a need greater than breathing. It was like bleeding. Writing wasn’t something I wanted to do, it was something I could not stop myself from doing. Finishing wasn’t a goal, it was a necessity.

The writing process was evolutionary. Although I had this story fighting its way out of me, I forced myself to be patient and learn a little about writing a full-length book. I read “Bird By Bird” (Lamott), “On Writing Well” (Zinsser), “On Writing” (King). I read interviews with memoirists I admired: Jeannette Walls, Frank McCourt, Cheryl Strayed. I reflected on what elements made the most powerful memoirs work. All these pointed to the same themes: Write without inhibitions, and then edit ruthlessly. Truth is the goal; nothing less will do. These rules sound basic, but they are far from easy. Do you know how hard it is to make one sentence flow into the next? To remove half the flowery words you’ve crafted into something that felt like a masterpiece but reads like a legal document? Even this interview should probably be edited at least five times just to make it readable.

But the most difficult aspect of good writing is achieving truth. Being honest. Sifting through the difficult layers and offering the ugliest parts of yourself to the story. Everything has already been thought and said in this world, so why should anyone care what I have to say? The answer is this: the truth is always compelling. A true, open story from a real and vulnerable storyteller always resonates.

Absolutely. What’s your next/current writing project?

Actually, I’m not writing at the moment. This book seared its way out of me, and I think I’m recovering a bit from it. I would hope everyone could experience something so consuming yet cathartic in their lives as this book was for me.

I said in my review of your book that I took breaks while reading it, given the poignancy of your search for your Korean family. International adoption is at a volatile, critical juncture right now, in South Korea and around the world. How does “Ghost of Sangju” fit into the complexity?

You are right—international adoption is having a pivotal moment, and this is largely due to the fact that a critical mass of international adoptees have grown up and spoken our truths. We have voices and we won’t be ignored. We are varied, complex, and our experiences and opinions range across a full spectrum. Mine is only one story, but it’s a challenging one that needs to be told because it shatters many traditionally held views. I hope that, without having to over-explain these complexities, readers will experience them as I did through my writing.

If readers come away from this book with an expanded view of what is really happening in international adoption, and an appreciation for the complexity of having lived through international adoption, then I’ve done my job as a writer.

How have your family members reacted to the book, as well as to your search and reunion?

Maureen, I don’t really know. I know what they tell me, but I don’t believe their words really touch on their true reactions. In words, they show support and love. But I’m not the only one in this crazy life going through complex, dissonant emotions about this. I can only imagine how my parents have worried, have regretted, have feared, and have wished that my story had been as straightforward as the agency had promised them almost 40 years ago. I’ve done my best to be sensitive to what they’re going through, but it’s not easy.

No, it’s not. Adoption can be complicated  If you could change policies and practices in international adoption, what would you do?

This is such a difficult question. I have many adoptee friends who are activists, but honestly I am not cut out to talk policies and practices. I know many others who are. I know things need to change, because so many elements of my own story still happen today and that’s unacceptable. I can’t say with authority what should be changed in policy. That’s not what my voice contributes. Instead, my voice speaks of little known truths and buried secrets, and I hope to use this voice to change hearts. Maybe those changed hearts can contribute to changed policies and practices.

I hope that too. What have you learned about yourself, about life, in the process of writing the book? Not so much the factual information as the perspectives, awareness, priorities.

Maureen, I learned so much in writing this book. This was no intellectual exercise! The first few revisions, I stuck to a story that I thought was acceptable. It was a bland, diluted version of my truth and it was terrible. My early pre-readers, my counselors and cheerleaders, asked, “Soojung, this is beautiful, but it isn’t you. Where are YOU in this story?” They asked me this question gently and often enough that I began to wonder myself, where am I in this story? That’s when the real work began, the work of digging into the most real parts of myself, my life, and my emotions. I had to let go of so much fear of showing this awful, beautiful story in all its grittiness. I learned that I, too, am gritty. I’m raw. I have so much strength and weakness and they terrify me, but they are real and therefore they are worthy.

The bland version of my memoir was okay, people liked it well enough, but the real version was amazing and people have responded so deeply to it. Likewise, the bland, pleasing version of myself is okay, but the real version is so much better. Does this mean I’m capable of being this true in real life? No, but at least I know it’s possible. It’s aspirational.

What would you like readers to take away from reading “Ghost of Sangju”?

Although the story is rooted in international adoption, there are universal themes of family, identity, and parenthood that I think all readers can connect to. I want readers to gain an understanding of a life that most probably haven’t lived. I also want readers to appreciate and respect the complexities of being an adoptee, especially international and transracial. I want readers to learn, and to feel less alone.

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Many thanks to Soojung Jo for this conversation. Congratulations on the publication of “Ghost of Sangju.”

International Adoption in 2030: Predicting the Future

Although my workshop proposal for the Joint Council on International Children’s Services and the National Council For Adoption conference was rejected (read about it here), I was invited to participate on a conference panel called “Predicting the Future in Intercountry Adoption.” This post is a starting point for my remarks. I would welcome the thoughts of others, especially adult adoptees, on their predictions.

Here’s a glimpse into the future of international adoption, even as soon as 15 years from now: Adult adoptees hold the microphone in terms of adoption policies and practices. Part of their involvement will be insistence on improved post-adoption services. Transracial adoptees continue to deal with racism in a world where too often racism is dismissed. Thousands of adult adoptees, many raised by white parents, return to visit and to live in the countries where they were born. Many find out that the information their adoptive parents were given is wrong. Many who were told they would never find their first/birth family do, in fact, find them. The unadopted siblings (those who stayed with the birth/first family) of international adoptees search and find their adopted sibs via Facebook or vk.com or other Internet connections. Birth/first/natural mothers and fathers will begin speaking out and sharing their truths, and their stories will be translated, preserved, and honored.

How prepared is the adoption community for these changes? How well are agencies and others addressing the realities of racism, identity, and grief after adoption?

A glimpse at the past, from which we are supposed to learn: “Adversity, Adoption,and Afterwards,” a longitudinal report by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, looked at the lives of about 70 women adopted from Hong Kong to Britain in the 1960’s. The average age of the women in the study was 48. Most did well. Still, “The majority of the women encountered racism not just in childhood and adolescence, but also as adults in current day Britain. Some said that they were able to seek support from their adoptive families, or others close to them, in coping and managing racist incidents, while others described feeling isolated and not able to share this with anyone. For some it was not easy living with the fact of being from a different ethnic background and visibly different from their adoptive families. This could result for some having a sense of not belonging or not feeling able to identify with either white British or Chinese communities. By mid-life most of the women who experienced this had found ways to adequately deal with such feelings, which is not to minimise how difficult this had been for some.”

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While it’s good that by mid-life (!) most of the adoptees had found ways to adequately deal with feelings of not belonging and not identifying with their communities, that’s a long time to endure those feelings.

Recently, the global adoption community has been rattled by two mainstream media articles about adult adoptees. One was Shaaren Pine’s article in the Washington Post, “Please Don’t Tell Me I was Lucky To Be Adopted.” Another was the New York Times magazine cover story, “Why a Generation of Adoptees Is Returning to South Korea.”

There are some 250,000 Korean adoptees all around the globe. They are the oldest ones, in their 50’s and 40’s, many in their 20’s and 30’s. They are the bellwether activist adoptees in many ways. Fifteen years ago, in 2000, the Donaldson Adoption Institute published an insightful report based on the first Gathering of Korean adoptees in 1999. In the section on Experiences with Discrimination,”The majority of respondents reported that they had experienced some form of discrimination while they were growing up.” Race (70%) was cited more often as problematic than was adoption (28%). As we continue to struggle with race in the US and around the world, helping transracial adoptees negotiate the world as people of color is vital. When will we learn?

International adoption numbers have declined in recent years. While that may likely continue, there were about 250,000 international adoptions between 1999 and 2013; many were under a year old. We would do well to look at adoptees who will be young adults in the next decade or so. One example: Between 1999 and 2013, about 14,000 Ethiopian children were adopted to the US. Between 2007 and 2012, some 11,000 Ethiopian children arrived here from the US, about 80% of the total number between 1999-2013. (Statistics from the US Department of State) They will be entering adolescence and early adulthood around 2030. Those high volume years (2007 to 2012) have been cited as having a high degree of fraud and corruption.

Many Ethiopian adoptees here in the US and around the globe are still young children, and many of the families have already found inaccuracies in their child’s stories: Ethiopian mothers are still alive, children were not orphans, documents were falsified. Blame can go all around, but the point is: How will the adoption community best help these thousands of now-children who will be adults in the next 15-20 years?

My hopes for the future include these:

  • Adoption agencies will actively reach out to and welcome adult adoptees from around the globe to share their experiences, so as to better prepare for the upcoming wave of young adult adoptees in the next decades.
  • Adult adoptees who choose to do so will continue to speak out about their good and bad experiences. Adoptive parents and all others in the community will listen, without dismissing or marginalizing them as “angry,” “ungrateful,” or any other pejorative terms.
  • Appropriate, equitable services will be provided to birth/first parents around the globe, including provision of short-term and long-term resources and communication.
  • The adoption community will acknowledge and proactively address the realities of racism. This is complex and vitally important work, and we haven’t done a good job so far.
  • Here is a vision of past and future: the Adoption Museum Project, a physical space that explores the story of adoption, and a website and off-site programs that expand the work. How exciting is this. The Grand Opening event on April 16 in San Francisco will be “Operation Babylift: Adoptee Voices,” about the 1975 airlift (40 years ago!) of 2,000 Vietnamese children. The panel discussion will be moderated by the poet Lee Herrick, an adoptee from Korea.

IMG_8517Please join me in predicting the future. More importantly, please join me in creating a future  of international adoption that honors the realities of all those involved, and insists that no voices are marginalized. I welcome your thoughts and ideas.

 

So Much More Than A Halloween Costume

Halloween costumes have taken on a whole new level of complexity. Some call it political correctness, or over-sensitivity: just lighten up. I admit to being puzzled about where to draw the line. Blackface and sexualization of children via costumes are clearly wrong, but sometimes the mingling of what is racist, what the intent was, and who is wearing the costume creates confusion and misunderstanding. I learn from the insight of others’ hard-earned experience.

My own take is to listen and learn, to do my best to let go of my own stereotypes and biases. I’m a middle-aged white woman who has benefited from white privilege, and who has raised children of color and seen (but not lived) their struggles in a racist world. I’ve had various experiences of being “other:” as the only girl in a classroom of all boys during my high school years, as the only white person in the stands at a middle school basketball game, as a white woman being photographed unasked in Korea because of my blue eyes, as a white American in Ethiopia being asked multiple times in front of my granddaughter if I was adopting her. But those experiences were interesting or annoying, not painful and scarring. I could (and did) walk back into my safe and privileged world, a nice enough place to be.

When our eyes and hearts have been opened by those we love, when we make an intentional effort to let go of stereotypes and biases, when we look through the lenses of those who we admire and respect–well, we see things differently, and that truly is a gift. Unsettling sometimes, not necessarily the gift we wanted, and exactly right.

Imagine an essay by a West Point graduate who served as an engineer in the US army, writing to a friend about a white woman dressed as a geisha for Halloween.

Imagine an essay by a Korean adoptee, who is also an adoptive mom, writing to her friend about the same issue.

Turns out the West Point grad, the US Army veteran, the Korean adoptee, the mom: they are all the same person, Soojung Jo.

Here’s are excerpts from Soojung’s essay, “What the Fog Took: A Halloween Story,” at Lost Daughters:

“I was nervous as I rehearsed the conversation in my mind.  There were so many ways to say it, and most of them felt wrong – overly sensitive, accusing, weak. I knew I had to approach one of my dearest friends with caution, because matters of race always seem to get volatile.

I checked the photo again, just to be sure of my position. One of my closest friends (we’ll call her April) had posted pictures from a Halloween party. In them, April’s husband (we’ll call him Mark) wore my husband’s old Army uniform, with my married name embroidered above the left breast pocket. April wore a silky kimono, a black wig, and her face painted chalky white (she is not Asian). The photo was captioned ‘Geisha?  Or mail order bride?'”

Soojung wrote a letter to her friend April that included this:

“…That kind of stereotype supports racism – maybe not racial discrimination, but rather the kind that gets my kids made fun of in school. It would be an insult and hurtful if a kid called one of my kids a ‘geisha girl’ which is the same as calling them sluts or hookers, but with a worse, racial connotation. I’m not angry or complaining, just being honest with you and because we’re friends we owe each other that kind of honesty.”

And…

“The backlash was terrible but predictable.  It started with simple disagreement. It escalated to accusations that I was the jerk,that I was accusing April and Mark of racism. I was told it’s ‘people like you’ who take the fun out of Halloween.  I questioned myself, was I really being too sensitive?  Was I overreacting?  Was I throwing the race card, which sensible, mainstream minorities should never, ever throw?  Or was I simply asking for acknowledgement from a close friend that something she had done made me feel extremely uncomfortable with the stereotypes it reinforced for both myself and my daughters?”

Read Soojung’s whole powerful and important essay here.

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Photo by Maureen Evans; San Juan Island, WA.

 

 

 

Adoption and Tragedy: Requiem for Hyunsu

A child died recently, a 3-year-old boy, adopted last October from Korea. His adoptive father has been arrested for the murder. (Read more here: Washington Post) It is a tragedy, and it is an adoption issue. His name (because names matter): Madoc Hyunsu (also spelled Hyeonsu) O’Callaghan.

As an adoptive mother, my heart aches for Hyunsu. I think about his first mother, his Korean family. There have been powerful vigils held in Seoul, led by adult adoptees and others, bringing all kinds of people together for reflection and prayer about the loss of this little boy.

Via Jane Jeong Trenka www.adoptionjustice.com

Via Jane Jeong Trenka
www.adoptionjustice.com

There is much powerful information here at Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea.

There is a Facebook page In Remembrance of Hyeonsu. There is a virtual vigil taking place today, hosted by Adoption Links of DC. So many people, around the globe, are embracing this child.

An adult adoptee from China wrote an insightful, eloquent post on the great blog Red Thread Broken: “Honoring the Life and Death of Hyunsu O’Callaghan.” It’s so important to hear the perspectives of adult adoptees, especially perhaps around the death of an adopted child; their insight cuts close to the bone.

Here’s an excerpt from Red Thread Broken:

“Whenever there is an outpouring of outspoken voices in the adoptee community, dismissive comments from observers are sure to follow. These are some of the common thoughts that seem to be in question:

  • “Doesn’t it make you glad you didn’t get up in a home like that one?” – No, it doesn’t make me glad or extra grateful. Because my family came together in an alternative way, I shouldn’t have to feel appreciative my parents didn’t murder me. It should be my right, not a privilege to be in a safe home.
  • “Biological parents abuse/neglect/murder their kids, too.” – That’s a correct statement, but that fact shouldn’t allow us to ignore the severity of the same problems in adoptive homes.
  • “Adoptive homes actually have a staggeringly low rate of abuse … I mean crazy low…when compared to biological families.” – There is actually a long history of abuse and filicide in adoptee’s homes. However low you claim statistics to be, no child should be subject to abuse in their home. The fact that it’s happening at all means that it’s an issue.
  • “This is NOT an adoption issue.” – Hyunsu had no agency in what happened to him. He was placed for adoption in Korea. The agency matched Hyunsu with the O’Callaghan’s. Adoptive parent screening and home studies are not extensive enough. Adoption is what placed him in the hands of a murderer. This is most definitely an adoption issue.

It’s sickening to me that when a tragedy like this ensues and explicitly shows the brokenness of the international adoption system, people continue arguing the ways in which adoption is a miracle, a blessing, a glorious, romantic practice when it obviously had deadly consequences for this boy. It seems that many would rather spend their time justifying the adoption system and their way of parenthood than acknowledging the atrocities that could allow us to move forward with real reform to the system. A child who “loved his dogs, his big brother Aidan, and anything his parents made for him to eat” is dead because of the defective international adoption system. “He wasn’t dealt the simplest hand in life, but he found something to love in it every day,” the obituary said. Hyunsu’s short life should be honored, and sticking to the status quo by promoting an idealized culture around adoption certainly won’t do that.”

I added the bold to the words above.

My friend and fellow adoptive parent Margie Perscheid wrote this important and provocative post about why Hyunsu’s death is an adoption issue. There’s often a tendency in the adoption community to see these adoptee deaths as tragic and isolated, not linked with adoption. Margie explains, with compassion and fire, why Hyunsu’s death, and those of other adoptees, is indeed “an adoption issue.”

Hyunsu joins Ethiopian adoptee Hana Alemu, and too many others. May they rest in peace. May we not rest in the light of these tragedies. They are painful to think about, and it’s so tempting to pause, shake our heads, and then sweep the tragic event away. May justice be served. May we face terrible truths without fear, and work for genuine change, especially for vulnerable children.

Here are two of my posts about the changes needed: Reflections on Hana: Acknowledging the Failure of the Adoption Community, and It’s Time to Oppose CHIFF.

Build Families, Not Boxes: Family Preservation in Korea

Baby boxes have found a resurgence in Korea, and adult adoptees are speaking out against them, saying that abandonment is not a solution when family preservation could and should be the priority.

Statistics indicate that, since the end of the Korean War, between 150,000 to 200,000 Korean infants and children have been adopted from Korea, primarily to the US but also to France, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway.

They are now the largest group of international adoptees, and the oldest as well, many now in their 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, and older.

These adoptees have thus had a few decades to reflect on their experiences, and are now speaking out in powerful ways. Many have returned to Korea, to search for relatives, to re-connect with their lost culture, and to find out the truth behind their adoptions. Some have moved to Korea, as visitors and as long-term residents.

Many have become active in adoption policies, in a country whose market economy now ranks 15th in the world. International adoptions have declined from Korea in recent years, as adoption laws have changed and adult adoptees’ voices have been better heard. The stigma of “unwed mothers” still exists as one reason for adoption, and that is slowly changing, finally.

That’s not to say that change has been easy, or uncomplicated. There have been many emotions, perspectives, and politics.

The goal of family preservation has to be the priority. Children should stay with their mothers and fathers, if it is safe for them. Also, children grow up. They should have the right to know who they are, the truth of their stories, even if they are adopted–maybe especially if they are adopted.

Around the world, children enter into care leading to adoption in many ways. One is “baby boxes.” These are actual boxes into which babies can be placed, the door then closing and a bell ringing to let the people on the other side know that a baby is there. Baby boxes have been around since medieval times, it turns out, when (it’s safe to say) few social services existed for babies whose parents could not care for them, whether due to social stigma, poverty, or significant medical or other reasons.

The increased use of baby boxes in Korea has become a source of concern, even outrage, for many Korean adult adoptees and their allies.

KoRoot is an organization run by Korean adoptees in Korea that helps adoptees who are returning to Korea. They have a guesthouse, and their staff helps with translation, tours, and more.  They also advocate on adoptee related issues in Korea. Recently, KoRoot has been working together with adult adoptees, unwed mothers, and allies who are committed to the human rights of infants and single mothers. 

Support KoRoot’s efforts to build awareness and families: not baby boxes. From their Facebook page:

We believe that every person has the right to family, and that we have a responsibility to help preserve families that are targeted by economic and social injustices. Moreover, we are distraught by the media’s celebration of the Baby Box as a humanitarian effort, while the fight for family preservation led by unwed mothers and adult adoptees has been overlooked.

How can you help?

KoRoot invites you to participate in our #BuildFamiliesNotBoxes social media takeover on Wednesday, January 22, Seoul, South Korea.

We’re raising the question: How do you define family? Share your story at #BuildFamiliesNotBoxes.”

Please also support the important work of the Korean Unwed Mothers’ Families Association, which advocates for the rights of unwed pregnant women, unwed mothers and their children in Korea. KUMFA’s goal is to enable Korean women to have sufficient resources and support to keep their babies if they choose, and thrive in Korean society. KUMFA was founded by and for unwed mothers themselves.

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The Power of Plays, and Adoptees: “How To Be A Korean Woman”

I am a big believer in the arts, and the power and value of the arts. I’ve written on my “Upcoming” page about the performance of the play “How To Be A Korean Woman,” written and performed by (actor, dancer, playwright, Korean adoptee) Sun-Mee Chomet.

I first saw “How To Be a Korean Woman” last spring, when Sun-Mee performed it in St. Paul at Dreamland Arts Theater. It was brilliant and powerful. This time, she’s performing it September 19-22 and 24 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and tickets are nearly sold out. This in itself is glorious: about 1000 seats have sold in 3 weeks.

What makes this more significant is a controversy going on in the Minnesota theater community now. In October, the Ordway Theater in St. Paul is planning to revive the musical “Miss Saigon,” and there have been many conversations and concerns about the play’s stereotypes, over-sexualization of Asian women, romanticization of human trafficking, and overall disrespect to Asian-Americans, according to Sheila Regan, in an article titled “We should all boycott the Ordway’s revival of racist musical, Miss Saigon.”  Mu Performing Arts artistic director Randy Reyes provides more elaboration in this article, titled “Miss Saigon returning, stereotypes and all.

Why does all this matter? Well, at least in part because the Guthrie was skeptical about interest in a play like Sun-Mee’s, in her type of Asian-American theater and in adoption issues.

The Guthrie is now overwhelmed with the number of folks buying tickets.

If you want to buy tickets, do so now, because the performances are all sure to sell out. Information on the show and the Guthrie theater is available here.
You will have the pleasure of seeing a thoughtful, captivating, powerful play. You will also send a message to the Guthrie, the Twin Cities, and elsewhere that “How To Be A Korean Woman” is “the sort of theater people are hungry for: complexity, three-dimensionality, free of insulting stereotypes, and a truly compelling story that speaks to the dynamism of what is the 21st century Asian American experience.”
I will be attending the play on Sunday, September 22, and participating in the Talk-Back afterwards. Sun-Mee will be at the Talk-Back as well.  I can’t wait.

Sun-Mee Chomet, in "How To Be A Korean Woman"

Sun-Mee Chomet, in “How To Be A Korean Woman”

Asian Adoptees: Poetry from Diaspora Dreams

I believe so much in the power of art and in its ability to liberate emotions and create new perspectives.  I’m also interested in the art of adoption, as I define it: the creative work and energy that evolves from adoptees. I wrote about it in Art of Adoption: Playwrights and Poets.

From the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, here is “Tending the Speculative,”  a thoughtful, provocative, evocative group of poems by adult adoptees from Asia (including Vietnam, Korea, the Philippines) who grew up in the United States. They reflect yet another dimension of Diaspora, those individuals united in separation from their roots.

A quote from the introduction:

“…unlike the witness who remembers history or who can turn to birth family or ethnic community to ask, the poet writing from an adopted diasporic condition oftentimes cannot testify to the events that orphaned her or him. These conditions retain an uncanny presence in her/his dream life.”

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Burning and Building Bridges: A Korean Adoptee Returns to Korea

A powerful story from the New York Times about a writer, activist, adoptee: read it here.

South Korea is widely regarded as the country that began international adoptions, in the late 1950’s. There are now hundreds of thousands of adult Korean adoptees, all around the globe.  The voices, writing, and activism of Korean adult adoptees are particularly significant, given their numbers and ages, and are the face of the future for other countries involved in international adoption. 

Jane Jeong Trenka a adopted from South Korea as a baby in 1972, and raised in Minnesota. She struggled with racism growing up, as well as a hefty amount of mis-information about the realities of her origins and reasons for adoption. In the mid-90’s, she traveled to Korea, reunited with her birth mother, and learned many truths. Over the next several years, she wrote two memoirs, connected with other Korean adoptees, and moved permanently to Korea.

Jane Jeong Trenka http://www.minnpost.com/sites/default/files/asset/9/92c7ij/92c7ij.jpg

She is widely credited with being a pivotal force behind recent legislation to reduce the number of adoptions from Korea by providing increased protections for single mothers to keep and raise their children, and by promoting more adoptions within Korea. Jane is currently the president of TRACK, Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea. Here’s a part of TRACK’s Mission Statement:

TRACK is an organization advocating full knowledge of past and present Korean adoption practices to protect the human rights of adult adoptees, children, and families. We belief that birth families and adoptees need rights, recognition, and reconciliation with society in order to fully contribute to a strong Korean society.

Now 41, Jane has learned to speak Korean. Her birth mother passed away in 2000. The New York Times article quotes her as saying South Korea is her “unrequited love,” and Jane is living out that complexity now in her country of origin, speaking out, insisting on transparency and accountability. She’s controversial, insightful, effective. And along with other adoptees, she’s making huge changes, not just in South Korea, but in the world of adoption.

Adoptees Talk: A Podcast

Anyone who’s followed me for a while knows that I always try to acknowledge and include the voices of adult adoptees. We adoptive parents have so much to learn from them.

Many of you have probably seen or heard of the documentary Somewhere Between, about Chinese adoptees and their search journeys and decisions. One of the young women, Jenni Fang Lee, recently spoke with Kevin Haebeom Vollmers, a Korean adoptee, via podcast on Land of Gazillion Adoptees.

Enjoy the podcast here.

As Kevin says: the conversation topics include racism, the film Stuck, traveling to China, and building relationships between adoptees of different backgrounds.  Important stuff.