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Adoptees as parents: How Korean American adoptees talk about ethnicity, race, and adoption

Korean adoptee parenting study - JaeRan Kim

Each year University of Washington Tacoma invites faculty to present on their research and I was fortunate to be asked to participate in this year’s Lightening Talk. These are very short presentations (5 minutes!) with timed slides. It was challenging to condense a research study into 20 slides in five minutes, but here is a video of my presentation, highlighting the findings of our study on Korean adoptee parenting.

For more information about this study, please click here.

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Article about race in Evangelical transracial adoptive families

Hi everyone, and happy holidays!

I just popped in to let you know that I was quoted in an article by Religious News Service about evangelical Christians adopting transracially and the work that needs to be done in terms of honest conversations in the church about race.

You can read it here: “How adoption has forced evangelicals to grapple with race relations” by Sarah Pulliam Bailey.

Middle Brother post-show discussion

 

Join me September 21, 2014 for a post-show discussion after Eric Sharp’s Middle Brother performance.

From Mu Performing Arts

The plan was so simple.

1.) Eat Korean food.

2.) Drink Korean beer.

3.) Live and work in the homeland for the first time in 22 years.

But only days away from moving back to the Midwest, Billy is unexpectedly reunited with his Korean birth brother and must somehow reconcile his modern American life with his newfound Korean past.

Written by and starring longtime Mu performer Eric Sharp (Yellow Fever, Into the Woods, Ching Chong Chinaman), Middle Brotherexpands Mu’s body of work exploring the Korean adoptee experience. Director Robert Rosen (Theatre de la Jeune Lune) helms this imaginative world premiere with his signature physical theatre style.

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For ticket information, click here.

Interview with author Deborah Jiang Stein about adoption themes in literature

Happy New Years to everyone!

Here in the upper Midwest we are experiencing the Coldpocalypse. -21 degrees as I type, with -40 windchills throughout much of my state. I am feeling incredibly fortunate to have a warm house with heat, food in my fridge and an employer who told me to work from home today.

I am also fortunate to have friends and fellow adoptee professionals such as Deborah Jiang Stein, author of two incredible books (Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus and the upcoming Prison Baby) with whom I can have invigorating conversations.

Deborah invited me to have one such conversation about adoption themes in literature. Please read it at her blog here.

While I don’t believe in making “resolutions” I DO hope that 2014 sees more blogging here. I really miss it. And despite what is likely my most busy semester in the last decade coming up here, there are a lot of exciting things happening in my world that I hope to have time to share.

So Happy New Years to all!

Presenting at 2013 Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network Conference

August 3, 2013 – Transracial Adoptees: Commonalities Across Countries

10:30 – 11:45 am, 2013 KAAN Conference, Grand Rapids, MI

As the authors of the book  “Parenting as Adoptees” have shown, adult transracial international adoptees from different countries  have a huge amount in common. Adoptees from South Korea, Vietnam, India, and Colombia, all of whom were part of “Parenting as Adoptees,” will lead a wide-ranging, adult adoptees-only, discussion.

Mark HaglandKevin Haebeom VollmersJaeRan KimSusan Branco AlvaradoStephanie Kripa Cooper-Lewter

August 4, 2013 –  Seeking Asian America: Finding Culture in Contemporary Literature

8:30-9:45 am – 2013 KAAN Conference, Grand Rapids, MI

Asian American authors provide windows to the social history that has shaped the perceptions of a “model minority” and the pervasive stereotypes and racist attitudes that are part of today’s American experience. This discussion group will use themes presented in books by popular authors as pathways to understanding Asian American culture today.

Terri SheridanJaeRan Kim

 

Interview on MPR now available

The interview with MPR about the contested adoption case and the MN Supreme Court’s ruling is now available on the MPR site. It was a real honor to be asked to provide some context to the case and although I was very nervous, I hope that I was able to add some additional context and understanding to this very sad case. In the end, two sets of parents had oodles of love and ability to raise these girls;and both of them would be able to meet these girls’ needs.  My biggest concern is that family connections will no longer be considered as important as material goods, even though the research has shown that children adopted by relatives fare the best. I am unaware if any research has been done on contested adoptions by foster parents and relatives – what I would want to know is how often race factors in to where children end up. If the grandparents were white and of the same socioeconomic status would the same decision have been made?

For a very thorough and in-depth examination of the case and the response by the grandmother, I recommend reading the articles by City Pages journalist Olivia LaVecchia.

Discussing a contested adoption ruling on MPR

SplitTheBaby

Tomorrow morning I am scheduled to be a guest on Minnesota Public Radio to discuss the Supreme Court’s ruling in a contested adoption case. The conflict, which was profiled by reporter Olivia LaVecchia for the City Pages in January, centers around the adoption of two little girls. The lower court had ruled in favor of the foster parents that had cared for both of the girls since their births and the grandmother in Missouri who had been trying to adopt them for nearly the same amount of time.

The show is scheduled to air at about 11 am. I’ll post a de-brief after the show.

Pain and empathy

This past week in the New York Times Magazine I came across this article, The Hazzards of Growing Up Painlessly, about a teenager who has a genetic condition that makes her unable to feel pain. Coincidentally on the same day I read this blog post by a Korean Adoptee, Joy Lieberthal. Joy writes, “It is so bittersweet to realize that without the pain, there can be little in the way of true joy and I struggle to make sense of the idea that oftentimes in adoption, this paradox exists time and time again.”

I’ve been thinking about this concept a lot in the past few years. I’ve talked about it in terms of something I’ve noticed frequently with adoptive parents who tend to over-compensate for the pain and trauma their child has experienced by attempting to eliminate pain in their children’s lives. One of the things I found most interesting about the story of people who do not feel pain is that some question whether or not these folks that can’t feel pain can also feel empathy or emotional pain.

The idea that empathy is driven from being able to relate to someone else’s pain based on one’s own knowledge of pain is fascinating. Roland Staud, the doctor who treated the teenager profiled in the NYT article, wondered if the connection between feeling physical pain and emotional pain would affect the teen. Author Justin Heckert writes, “[w]e sometimes experience emotional pain physically — Staud used the tried-and-true example of heartbreak, how the end of a romance can cause a physical pain — and he wondered if the relationship between the body and emotions also goes the other way; if a person lacks the ability to feel physical pain, is her emotional development somehow stunted?”

As it turns out, Ashlyn Blocker, the teenager at the center of this article, does cry and does react to others’ pain, even if she can’t describe hurt or pain. Is it true that to experience joy once must feel pain? Is it imperative to have a physical understanding how pain and suffering feels in order to be able to develop empathy? This study on folks with Congenital Insensitivity to Pain (CIP) and empathy found that those with CIP relied on their (what I imagine must have been learned) empathetic skills to imagine others’ pain.

In the past I have used the analogy that when we experience “growing pains” both physically and emotionally that it is a time of development and growth; like Joy, I have always subscribed to the idea that to know happiness and to be empathetic, one must have known pain personally. I have told adoptive parents who describe the ways they try to take the pain involved in adoption away that they can only provide a “soft landing” for their child because you can’t take away or prevent pain, and that it’s a normal part of growing as a human being – and further that those who don’t experience “growing pains” don’t “grow.” But this article gave me pause; clearly there are those growing and developing without first-hand experiencing the “pain” associated with growth; however I am still left curious about how pain is defined; and if the brain still reacts to painful stimuli even if it doesn’t tell your nerves to react.

How much is empathy a learned concept that can be taught or modeled by parents and how much is it a factor of our own experiences? And in what ways does this impact social work?  How schools of social work teach empathy for students who haven’t experienced much personal experience with pain or suffering?  On the other hand, how do we help students that have experienced trauma, pain or suffering to be reflective of how their own experiences impact the way their empathy is triggered and/or applied?

Transracial adoption theme on CSI

One of the things I take note of is how adoption and foster care is portrayed in popular culture. I happen to like to watch crime/investigation/law shows but don’t have the chance to watch them as they air – so as usual I was up late one night recently when I caught CSI-New York. A character in the episode, portrayed by Sela Ward, was shown with her daughter Ellie, who is played by a multi-racial black teen (Sydney Park). I poked my husband and said, “Really? They are actually going to have a white female lead on a network news show that has a biracial child? I’ll bet she [the daughter] is adopted.”

The joke – or rather, the intuition – was on me, because of course I was right. Unfortunately there are some things you still can’t do on network television, such as having a white female lead with a mixed-race black child unless said child is adopted.

As typical, this information is exchanged through an irritating conversation between Ward’s character Jo and Mac Taylor, played by Gary Sinise, in which the character of Mac waxes on about how Jo “saved” this girl, blah blah blah.  There was a lot of cringe-inducing language regarding Jo’s adoption of Ellie.

Here is a clip of Sela Ward talking about the adoption theme. I didn’t realize that Sela Ward started an “orphanage” in her home state of Mississippi, the Hope Village for Children. They show a clip of an upcoming episode on this video that reveals that “Jo” basically put her daughter’s mother in jail and “rescued” her from becoming a foster child through the CPS system (episode 18). Another clip here.

Teaching my children how to talk about race and racism

I’m very excited to announce that I have a chapter in this new anthology, “Parenting as Adoptees”  edited by Adam Chau and Kevin Ost-Vollmers. This book is now available through Amazon as an electronic book and will be printed in book form in the next few months.

The fifteen authors include fourteen parents who were adopted as children, and one chapter was co-written by an adoptee and her daughter. The editors are also both adoptees who are parents, and the illustrator, Kelly J. Brownlee, is an adoptee.

My chapter is titled : Breaking the Silence: Teaching My Children to Talk About Race and Racism.

From the Amazon.com website:

Through fourteen chapters, the authors of Parenting As Adoptees give readers a glimpse into a pivotal phase in life that touches the experiences of many domestic and international adoptees – that of parenting. The authors, who are all adoptees from various walks of life, intertwine their personal narratives and professional experiences, and the results of their efforts are insightful, emotive, and powerful. As Melanie Chung-Sherman, LCSW, LCPAA, PLLC, notes:

“Rarely has the experience of parenting as an adopted person been laid to bear so candidly and vividly. The authors provide a provocative, touching and, at times visceral and unyielding, invitation into their lives as they unearth and piece together the magnitude of parenting when it is interwoven with their adoption narrative. It is a prolific piece that encapsulates the rawness that adoption can bring from unknown histories, abandonment, grief, and identity reconciliation which ultimately reveals the power of resiliency and self-determination as a universal hallmark in parenting.”

Moreover, despite its topical focus, the book will interest individuals within and outside of the adoption community who are not parents. “Parenting As Adoptees,” writes Dr. Indigo Willing, “contributes and sits strongly alongside books by non-adoptees that look at issues to do with ‘the family’, race, ethnicity and migration. As such, this book should appeal to a broad audience interested in these various fields of inquiry.”

More reviews are available here.

You can read an excerpt of my chapter (and two others) on the Parenting as Adoptees website.

Guest panelist on MPR’s Daily Circuit

 On Friday, July 13, 2012, I was invited to be a guest on MPR’s Daily Circuit Roundtable show. The show was a response to a broadcast earlier that week that focused on the trend toward fewer international adoptions that have been occurring since 2004, when international adoptions to the U.S. peaked at over 22,000.

Here is the broadcast of the roundtable discussion: click here

The original show focused tightly on the business side of international adoptions spurred by the recent news that Children’s Home Society and Family Services, Minnesota’s longest-running adoption agency, had merged with Lutheran Social Services in large part due to the loss of millions of dollars in revenue over the past few years because of declining numbers of international adoptions. Both the StarTribune and Daily Planet as well as MPR covered the merger and in doing so framed the issue as a matter of supply and demand. Had CHSFS and LSS merely been two businesses and  “adoptable children” been replaced by “widgets” I am sure no one would have given this story much notice.

Here is a link to the original discussion: click here

However, two things happened that led to this story getting a LOT of notice.

First of all, for many reasons, the decline in international adoptions actually is about supply/demand and the commodity that led to the loss of revenue unfortunately is “adoptable children” and that in itself gets attention since no one likes to think of children as merchandise. The focus on the merger and the loss of millions of dollars due to the decrease in the number of international adoptions makes children seem like widgets, even when that is not the intent by the majority of the professionals and other players involved in adoptions. Unfortunately, the host of the Daily Circuit, Tom Weber, kept going back to the decline in numbers, using discourse and rhetoric such as “precipitous drop,” “precipitous decline” and “plummeting.”

Even when the guests, representatives from LSS and CHSFS, Dr. Dana Johnson from the International Adoption Clinic at the U of MN, and an adoptive parent, stated there were good reasons behind some of this decline in number of international adoptions, the continued use of “chicken little” rhetoric (i.e. the sky is falling!) sets the paradigm so strongly in one way that to see it any other way is framed as bad. Deeper discussions into the reasons why declining numbers of international adoptions may be a good thing were not really given space, even as the guest speakers attempted to do so. I see this as an issue with the way the media understands and reports on adoption. Clearly there needs to be more nuanced discussions about adoption in the media. There is a precedent for thoughtful reporting on adoption by public radio outlets – a few years ago Sasha Aslanian produced a wonderful, deeply thought provoking and nuanced series about adoption in her piece, “Finding Home: 50 years of international adoption.” Ms. Aslanian sits only a few feet away from the producers and reporter at the local MPR station and could have been one resource on accurate reporting on adoption.

Why is this distinction important to me? The hyperbole about “falling numbers” within the context only of how this affects adoptive parents does several things:

  • it sets up adoptive parents as victims and is thus adult-centric without looking at the best interests of children
  • it automatically frames high numbers of international adoptions as the goal
  • in a global context it speaks to American entitlement at the expense of developing nations and their concerns about managing the welfare of their children
  • it does not address how sending nations are attempting to provide better care and better options for their children

Continue Reading →

Article about racial identity in transracial adoption

Happy new years to everyone. It’s a good thing I didn’t “resolve” to blog more frequently as that would have been one resolution (like many others) that would have been broken right from the start!

To gently ease back into blogging, I’ll begin by sharing an article about transracial adoption and racial identity by journalist Hope Rurik, who interviewed me in December for this article, Research, experts say racial identity important after adoption.

JaeRan Kim, who was adopted from South Korea at age 3, said culture camps, cultural festivals and even restaurant outings all became popular after her generation of adoptees, which includes Trenka, had grown. She said giving children the tools they need to grow into an adult of color in the U.S. requires more than a restaurant visit.

She said the wide disconnect from language and culture often makes it more difficult for intercountry transracial adoptees to connect with ethnic communities in the U.S. than it is for American transracial adoptees.

“Anyone can go out and buy food or costumes from another country,” she said, “but it’s the feeling like you’re part of an ethnic community as a person of an ethnic background that you don’t necessarily get.”

Read the article in full here.

Inside the mind and heart of an internationally adopted child



This afternoon, a children’s novel I ordered online arrived in my mailbox and a few short hours later I had devoured the book. Betti on the High Wire is the story of a young girl, Babo, living in an unnamed country devastated by war. Babo finds herself unexpectedly adopted by Americans (or “melons” as Babo refers to them because of their round, pink faces) and soon she is living in an unnamed town in the U.S. with a new name, new sister, new parents – and she vows to never “adapt” or forget where she came from.

Author Lisa Railsback was inspired to write the story from her work volunteering in a refugee camp. As a Korean adoptee, I am often skeptical about how international adoption is portrayed in novels, particularly the feelings and thoughts of the internationally adopted child themselves. Often I find children’s books about international adoption to be largely about making adoptive parents feel better as much as they may be outwardly intended to reassure the internationally adopted child. Babo/Betti is a complex child and I found Railsback’s conception of what Babo/Betti thinks and feels about her experience being adopted by Americans, and having to leave everything she has known and loved in her country – especially her chosen family there – to be the most realistic and complex portrayal that I have read.

Adoption books for children being what they are – that is typically all nicely resolved in the end, this book doesn’t exactly challenge the dominant narrative about adoption. The unnamed country is, after all, portrayed in pretty stark terms, providing exactly the American-style justification for taking Babo away. Babo and the other children of course must be dirty, mostly illiterate, scavenging for food, etc., yet remain likable (i.e. not prone towards Reactive Attachment Disorder). And while Railsback does critique the consumerist, materialist and consumptive patterns of Americans to some extent, as well as portray how mean white American children can be towards children who are different, it is unlikely that a real internationally adopted child of this age would adapt as quickly as Betti does in the book. While the choice to make Babo able to speak some English helps the reader, it is pretty unrealistic in my opinion and serves more as a device to move the character through the story plot more quickly than it is realistic for most older, internationally adopted children (such as the little girl adopted in the movie Wo Ai  Ni Mommy, who would have been close to Babo’s age in the story).

Even so, I recommend this book for its most nuanced portrayal of an internationally adopted child’s inner thoughts and feelings that I’ve read so far. If I were an adoption agency, I would require all prospective adoptive parents to read this book before any child adopted internationally was placed in their home.