Disrupting Kinship: Transnational Politics of Korean Adoption in the United States ~ By Kimberly D. McKee
(University of Illinois Press, Champaign (IL), 2019, ISBN #978-0-252-8405-8)
Review by Bill Drucker (Fall 2020 issue)
Author Kimberly D. McKee offers a detailed and critical examination of the complex history and issues of Korean overseas adoption, particularly the adoption relations between Korea and the U.S. Adoption programs have sent nearly two-thirds of the estimated 200,000 Korean infants and children placed for adoption globally to America. McKee views of the transnational adoption as one that has become “normalized as a child welfare policy.” She examines the social, gender, and familial repercussions of adoption.
This critique stands in excellent company with other critical Korean adoptee studies, many by adult Korean adoptees. Eleana Kim, Kim Park Nelson, Tobias Hubinette, Hollee McGinnis, and others have produced in-depth analyses of transnational Korean adoption. Adoption has been established, monolithic and institutionalized in both the U.S. and South Korea. On the other side is the adult Korean adoptee community which has responded with its own criticism, challenging and writing its own accounts of the adoption experience.
McKee writes that transnational adoption has been transformed into a “transnational adoption industrial complex (TAIC) — a neo-colonial, multi-million-dollar global industry that commodifies children’s bodies.” These are strong words, and they are well argued in six compelling chapters.
McKee examines the disruption of identity, citizenship, and kinship of transnational adoption by adoption of Korean children into mostly white, Christian, American families. The mindset of advocating a humanitarian rescue of children who were orphaned and abandoned during Korean War does not have the same validity today as back in the 50s. During the years that covered the growth of transnational adoptions, the dynamics around culture, race and identity in the U.S. has changed.
The lack of South Korean government oversight and a limited social welfare infrastructure incentivized and forced single mothers and irresponsible parents to give away their children, ostensibly for a better life.
A recent polarizing issue is the controversial “baby box” established by Pastor Jong Rak Lee outside his home in South Korea (and explained in a 2015 documentary film The Drop Box about Lee, his wife, their 19 adopted disabled children , and their Seoul church that supports abandoned and disabled children). It is a box into which anyone may anonymously drop an unwanted infant.
Because babies are dropped with no identifying information and no documentation declaring the baby is legally released for adoption, baby box children cannot be adopted, and potentially face childhood in an institution (pending a law change). The issue is contentious. In the end, the box is not a solution, the author points out. Rather, it perpetuates the practice of the abandonment of infants and children.
The author also examines the controversies in the U.S. around adoptees who, due to ignorance, negligence, and/or disrupted adoptions, were not made citizens by their adoptive parents or legal guardians. Until recent years, Korean adoptees were not automatically citizens upon their adoption; citizenship was a separate legal process. Notably, there are an estimated five Korean adoptees have been deported and now live in South Korea.
Deportation is triggered after a non-citizen adoptee (or any non-citizen) is convicted of a minor felony (such as drug possession). A case-in-point is the adoptee Adam Crapser. Deported in November 2016 Crapser is still living in South Korea as of December 2020.
Crapser is filing suit against his adoption agency Holt International and the South Korean government for negligence in not ensuring that he and other Korean adoptees were made citizens. The case has shed light on the whole problem of non-citizen adoptees in the U.S Advocacy organizations such as Adoptees for Justice are lobbying for solutions, such a law to confer retroactive citizenship for all adoptees, no matter what year they were adopted, and the opportunity for deportees to return to the U.S. So far, the current administration is not supportive.
Within the household of the adoptee, there is a racialized tension. The Korean child does not look like the mother and father, the brothers and sisters, or the extended white family. Transnational adoption disrupts the normal monoracial understanding. It also questions reproduction, the impact of future family makeup. The racialized household does not go away because the white parents deny it.
Korean adoptees look Asian, but are brought up thinking, acting, and seeing themselves as white Americans. There is also the underlying belief that white hegemony is superior. All adoptees face a reckoning of race and identity at some point. The real pain is not having a true kinship to either culture. The conflicts of familial dysfunction surfaces again in the adoptee’s marriage and child rearing.
One chapter looks at memoirs and compilations of stories by adoptees. The first was Seeds from a Silent Tree (1997) and the was second Voices from Another Place (1999) articulating the adoptee’s life experiences. Korean adoptees, after the milestone 1999 Gathering of Korean adoptees (organized through Holt International Children’s Services, a major international adoption agency), had a communal awakening. They questioned the adoption process at the birth and host country levels. Not satisfied just to articulate their adoption experiences, adoptees challenged the adoption norms, adoption institutions, and both American and Korean policies on adoption issues.
Memoirs, films and other new and more critical adoption anthologies address the racial, gender, and kinship issues endemic to international adoption. Among them are The Language of Blood, Dust of the Streets, the film Twinsters, the anthology Flip the Script: Adult Adoptee Anthology, and others. The narratives are personal: Some painful, others critical, some accepting, others still conflicted and unresolved. These new adoptee narratives question the validity of American mainstream views on adoption and the Korean adoption agenda.
In one section the author details, in an oral history format, the stories of 13 adoptees (nine women and four men). The adoptee descriptions of core issues of identity and kinship go against the mainstream stories of the adoption experience. There is a paradigm shift of who are the authorities on transracial adoption.
The well-educated, adult adoptee community is organized, globally connected, and challenges the institutional policies and practices. In a section entitled Who are You Calling Angry? the author looks at the mentality of blame and misunderstanding of adoptees. Are the adoptees ungrateful? Are they angry? Are they unhappy? These are platforms the mainstream, adoption agencies Korean and American question when confronted by the adult adoptees. Neither the birth nor host country expected such numbers to question the rationale of international adoption. Not satisfied with the institutional rhetoric, adoptees want more answers and are pursuing them right up to adoption reform.
In conclusion, McKee makes the point that the standards on adoption established by what she calls the “transnational adoption industrial complex” used as a model for other adoption countries, must answer to the scrutiny of legality, responsibilities of birth and host countries, reports of child abuse, adoptee and birth parent rights. The argument or excuse of “rescuing a child without question” is invalid. The author writes, “As adoptees engage publicly in recuperating stories of adoption, society must disabuse itself of the notions that all adoptees are open books ready to share their personal journeys.”
Transnational Korean adoption has had an enormous impact on American and Korean social and family structures. For the current generation of Korean adoptee readers, inundated with too many adoption references, author Kimberly McKee provides an insightful and very contemporary critical analysis. Her book invites the reader to reframe and rethink the whole adoption experience. Her emphasis is on the adoptees themselves to define or redefine their own ideas of identity and kinship. The book also provides an extensive list of adoptee authors.
Author, adoption scholar, and Korean adoptee Kimberly D. McKee is associate professor in the Integrative, Religious, and Intercultural Studies Department at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, MI.