“My name is Jung. I was born somewhere in South Korea,
but raised very far from where I am supposed to be.
I left this country at the age of five, and came back for the first time at age 44.
This is a story about a single child, who was sent overseas because of a note
that someone had written in his adoption papers: Approved for adoption, Skin color=honey”
Thirty years ago in 1988, South Korea hosted the Summer Olympics. Global attention was not only placed on the fierce competition for the 1988 Olympics, but also on humiliating international adoption practices in South Korea. 1984-1988 were the years that marked the peak of intercountry adoption from South Korea, with 6,500-9,000 cases per year. Thirty years later, the Winter Olympics were once again hosted in South Korea, and there are over 2 million Korean adoptees from other countries. Now they are returning to Korea in order to trace their Korean heritage.
Marking the National Adoption Day on May 11, The Argus introduces a French-Belgian animated film “Approved for Adoption (2012, French: Couleur de Peau: Miel)” and a story of one of those 2 million adopted Koreans, spread around the world, who are honey-colored.
“After the Korean War, two hundred thousand Korean orphans were sent abroad. I was adopted in Belgium on May 11, 1971.”
The film starts with whispering in French by a grown-up man who recalled his childhood wandering alone on the streets of Seoul. His name is Jung, a Korean-Belgian adoptee, and it was at the age of five when a policeman found him orphaned in the crowd. It is no wonder what happened to him next. Immediately adopted by a Belgian family in 1971, he was given the name Jung Henin instead of his Korean name, Jun Jung-sik. The new chapter of his life in Belgium not only showed him a life of abundance, but also a deeper meaning of self-discovery and ambivalence over his entire life.
The first wave of international adoption of South Korean children was triggered by the aftermath of the Korean War (1950-1953). Numerous casualties left Korean society with hundreds and thousands of orphans and mixed-race children. Initially, it was the outcome of the Korean War that lead these children to be put up for adoption, but there are many other reasons why Korean babies had to leave their birth country: some children were handicapped; some Koreans traditionally prefer boys to girls, though not as much these days; biological mothers are often unmarried in South Korea where abortion is restricted, but cannot afford to raise a child; but most often it is due to the Korean patrilineal culture that stigmatizes and discriminates against unwed Korean mothers and their kids. This last reason made it extremely difficult to reduce the number of international adoptions. According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the number of overseas-bound Korean adoptees from 1958 to 2016 is 166,512, which makes up 67.8 percent of the total number of adopted children overall.
“My non-biological brothers and sisters did not really mention my home country. I have got family that treat me like a real family member. But it was not as simple as they thought for me to process everything.”
Raised in Belgium with his five non-biological siblings, little Jung’s life was rendered mostly in browns and grays. He often confronted racism in his life, which his siblings have not ever experienced. Even if he got along well with his siblings, there were more times that he felt insecurity about being uprooted, psychological distance caused by his abandonment, and uncertainty about his identity.
As is common with other adoptees, he misbehaved frequently. Jung could not hide his uneasiness when another girl named Valerie was adopted from South Korea and she got the attention of the whole family. He was not ready enough to accept her presence because seeing her just reminded him of one (himself) who could not do anything without others’ help.
Disobeying his parents was not the only thing he had done. He hurt his little sister Valerie, broke the cutting board in two, and modified his poor report card. His adopted mother often scolded him harshly for being a “Rotten apple.”
“You are a thief, liar, and rotten apple. One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel. Don’t you dare think to be close with my children!” was what Jung heard from his angry mother on the way home after he had been caught by a teacher for stealing a bunch of meal vouchers. This was one point that caused Jung to have a nightmare, and eventually, made him think that his adopted mother does not love him in the same way as she might love her own birth children.
“I am a stranger everywhere. In Belgium where I grew up, people treated me as an Asian because I am not white. That got me asking ‘How do I look in the eyes of Koreans?’ So I observed people closely since I came back to Korea, and whenever I got to make an eye contact with Korean grannies, I could not help but to think of my biological mom who would be old enough to reach that age,” said Jung.
But in a scene where he got a stomach ache after hurriedly swallowing spicy food as a part of his search for his roots, he realized how much his adopted mother loves him. He also came to acknowledge his own dual identity. His adopted parents did not love him less, but just differently. This was a turning point at which Jung began to accept the way he is and unpacked the disparity in his feelings for his mother.
“Is Jung-sik my real name?” “I cannot help you with it.” “What about the day I was born?” “That can be inaccurate.” “Can I know the reason why I was adopted?” “The record here says the child had no relatives to take care of him after his parents died, so the police referred him to the Halt Institution.”
It depends on the person, but many adoptees feel the great urge to find out who they are and where they come from. Articles about more and more Korean adoptees struggling to find their birth family prove that there are a lot of pieces missing from their lives. However, they have to contend with the practical problems such as trying to find their biological parents with incomplete or faulty birth-related documents.
It was Jung’s friend Kim, also a Korean-Belgian adoptee, who helped him to face a process of grappling with his identity by introducing him to some Koreans. With Kim’s support, Jung decided to return, for the first time in about 40 years to South Korea: to breathe the air of his home country, tread the land of his ancestors, and maybe find traces of his biological mother. This trip of reconciliation with his roots and with himself, however, was not particularly easy when it came to accessing to the truth.
There is a poet called Bo who is currently living in the United States. She was adopted when she was a baby. A couple summers ago, she returned to South Korea to volunteer at an orphanage, as well as visit her birth place. She also went to Holt Children’s Services Inc., a local adoption agency, to learn more about her birth mother, but the process ended up being unfruitful. What troubled her the most was the social worker who would not release her information to her. Even if she asked for her records when she returned to America, what awaited her was the negative answer from the agency.
“I wish I could know more about my heritage. There is a big emptiness and sadness within me because I do not know where I come from. I feel I will always be searching for home and to balance my inner diversities. It is very hard to separate from my birth family and to grow up far away from South Korea. I would love to know where I come from, and I cannot do that alone. I need others to help me to connect to my birth family,” said Bo.
“Mom, if someone asks me where I come from, tell that person that my home country could be wherever he names it. I am both a Westerner and an Asian, and a European with an Asian that dwells in my heart. I am not White or Black. My skin color is honey.”
Adoptees are a part of South Korea. In Jung’s interview with Hankyoreh, a daily newspaper in South Korea, he said, “The only reason that I did not use drugs, feel the urge to commit suicide, or get depressed like other adopted children was because of comics. For me, drawing was part of the healing process.” While Jung ultimately sought refuge from his identity crisis in drawing, Bo is someone who transcends suffering through writing poems about her adoption. Every adoptee may trace their past differently, but it is undeniable that knowing who they are, and where they come from, is a crucial element in their life.
By Moon Chae-un
Associate Editor of Campus Section