Since the 1950s, approximately 200,000 Korean children have been adopted overseas, with an estimated two-thirds of those children sent to the U.S. As they reach adulthood, increasing numbers of adoptees return to Korea every year. Whether they return to work, study, sightsee, or move permanently (back) to Korea, many adoptees search for their birth families—a complex task that crosses national, cultural, generational, and linguistic boundaries—but unfortunately, very few of them succeed. From 2012 to 2015, out of 4,790 adoptees who requested their birth records, only 14.7% were able to reunite with their birth families. This is still an increase from a statistic released in 2006 by the Overseas Koreans Foundation, which estimated that only 2.7% of adoptees are successful in their birth family searches.
Through the lens of adoptees’ experiences as told through oral history, this project combines personal narrative with critical investigation of the birth family search process: What are the flaws causing the adoption system to fail so many adoptees as they return to Korea and attempt to find their birth families? What steps can be taken to mend not only the system, but the broken connections between adoptees, their birth families, and their birth country? Facing such profound gaps, how do adoptees attempt to fill the empty spaces of their birth families, Korean culture, and their own identities? And for those who are able to reunite, what are the challenges of building and maintaining a relationship with their birth families? The answers to these questions have high stakes in the personal lives of adoptees and their families, in both historical and current understandings of Korean society, and in the realm of social justice.
Every adoptee faces different challenges in their birth family search. The process may entail anything from visiting an agency or orphanage to hiring a private investigator, or even appearing on national television. Some adoptees even spend years searching for their birth families, but falsified or ill-kept records, agencies’ refusal to release copies of their files, or a total lack of any information at all leave most of those adoptees empty-handed, with no way of learning about their family or medical histories and no means of even confirming their true birth names and birth dates. Birth families who wish to find adoptees—children were often taken or sent for adoption without consent, particularly from single mothers—face not only the same lack of accurate information, but also social stigma from a society that frowns upon children born out of wedlock and pressures families to keep both international and domestic adoptions secret.
This project collects and examines adoptee oral histories, consciously privileging the voices of adoptees in an adoption discourse that tends to silence them. Oral history provides adoptees with a medium to reject narrow, stereotypical renditions of adoption stories and construct their own complex narratives of real, lived experiences. In these oral histories, adoptees relate their personal experiences with the twists and turns of the birth family search process, their motivations for searching, and (for those who have reunited) the many ups and downs of birth family reunion.