Forum – October 21, 2016

Sara Docan-Morgan

This research project explores the experiences of transnational Korean adoptees who have reunited with their birth families. Through qualitative, in-depth interviews with 19 adult Korean adoptees from Denmark and the U.S., this study examines Korean adoptees’ initial encounters with their birth (a.k.a., first or Korean) families, the impact of cultural differences on relationships with birth families, and the motives underlying the terms of address that Korean adoptees use when interacting with or referring to their birth families.

In the decades following the Korean War (1950-1953), Korea experienced massive economic expansion, transforming from a developing country to a developed country. Some refer to this development as the “Miracle on the Han River” (Harris, 2013). However, some adoption scholars attribute this “miracle,” in part, to the adoption enterprise that profited from sending over 200,000 infants and children overseas for adoption and keeping South Korea’s birth rate low (Park Nelson, 2016). The largest swell of Korean infants and children were sent for adoption between the mid 1970s and mid 1980s, peaking in 1985 when over 8,800 infants and children were sent for adoption. Consequently, tens of thousands of Korean adoptees have reached adulthood and many have initiated searches and reunions with their families in Korea.

Although Korean adoptees have been typically framed and labeled as orphans, most of them had at least one parent who was still living at the time of their adoption. As Kim (2010) wrote, “these legally designated ‘orphans’ were actually victims of poverty, social dislocation, and gender inequality” (p. 24). Since the late 1990s, an increasing number of Korean adoptees have become active in various Korean adoptee organizations, some of which orchestrate conferences in Korea, the U.S., or Europe, that are either national or international in scope; these “Gatherings” typically bring together hundreds of overseas Korean adoptees for social activities, informative workshops, research presentations, and solidarity. Undoubtedly, these organizations, conferences, and narratives of search and reunion found in Korean adoptee documentaries and memoirs (see Borshay Liem, 2000; Robinson, 2002; Trenka, 2005), have been instrumental in suggesting to adoptees the possibility that they might find their Korean families. As Kim (2010) wrote, “As dramatic stories of search and reunion circulated at conferences and through the media, what was once considered to be impossible or unimaginable [had] become increasingly feasible and desirable” (p. 218).
As research on transnational adoption—and adoption more generally—has traditionally privileged and given voice to adoptive parents’ perspectives to the neglect of adoptee voices (Chung, 2016; Park Nelson, 2016), it is important to hear transnational adoptee perspectives, as they stand at the center of multiple families and cultures, yet had no choice in their adoption. In addition, because transnational adoptees tend to be infanticized, thought of primarily as children, not adults, this study attempts to shed light on the active ways in which adult adoptees who have reunited construct their family relationships using discourse.

Sara Docan-Morgan (PhD, University of Washington) is an associate professor of Communication Studies at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. During her Fulbright Year, she is a visiting professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in the Division of International Studies. Dr. Docan-Morgan’s work has been published in Adoption Quarterly, the Journal of Family Communication, the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, and the Journal of Korean Adoption Studies, as well as in edited volumes. She also serves on the editorial board for the Journal of Family Communication. Her research focuses on how personal identity and family identity are formed, maintained, and negotiated through discourse in both adoptive and birth families. Dr. Docan-Morgan is a 2014 recipient of the UW-L Provost’s Teaching Award, the UW-L College of Liberal Studies Excellence in Teaching Award, and has been honored by the University of Wisconsin System as an Outstanding Woman of Color in Education. This past August, she was a program planner for the International Symposium on Korean Adoption Studies in Seoul.