• News/Talk
  • Music
  • Entertainment

Korean Adoptees Remember

Part: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

The Adoptee Paradox

Psychologist Rich Lee, at the University of Minnesota, studies the Korean adoptee experience
photo by Sasha Aslanian

Researcher Rich Lee at the University of Minnesota studies the Korean adoptee experience. He calls it a paradox. "On the one hand you have all the privileges associated with being raised in a white family in a small community and you don't really see yourself and your family doesn't necessarily see you as a minority or of a different culture." But on the other hand, Lee says, "When you enter society, you're perceived as being a racial minority, so these are contradictory but true experiences that need to be resolved."

Lee's research and other studies show it's important for adoptees' well-being for them to feel connected to their birth culture. And times have changed since the early wave of adoptees was encouraged to become all-Americans. Lee says adoptive parents today are more aware that their children will struggle with racial identity so they want to give them the tools to help them. Culture camps and homeland tours are popular. Some parents seek out multicultural neighborhoods, schools, churches and daycare centers so the children know other people who look like them.

Research shows most international adoptees are doing well in the United States.

But for some adoptees, all these good intentions aren't enough. Jane Jeong Trenka is a 33-year-old Korean adoptee who's deeply critical of international adoption. She calls it "the only sort of practice in the world where you get separated from your parents, there's a permanent rupture with your culture, and you're supposed to be grateful."

In the early 1970s when Trenka was adopted, the children coming from Korea were no longer war orphans. They were children born to single mothers or poor families. Trenka says if her family had gotten some help, they could have kept her, but poverty forced them to choose adoption.

What's unusual about Trenka's story is that her mother managed to write her in the United States and the two maintained a tenuous correspondence. In 2003 Trenka published a memoir, The Language of Blood, about returning to Korea and reuniting with her mother and older siblings.

In the spring of 2005, Trenka packs up her apartment to leave for Korea for her sixth trip. She's selling off the piano she used to play professionally. Trenka sees it as casting off a symbol of her life as a good girl, the successful Asian adoptee. As the piano movers work at dismantling it, Trenka jokes, "This is the adoptive parent's worst nightmare. The adoptee who like, goes native. All those piano lessons gone to waste!"

Trenka's adoptive parents are no longer in contact with her. She expects this move will be permanent. She'll join 100 or so other Korean adoptees from the United States and Europe who have repatriated.

Next: Moving Home

 ©2018 American Public Media