Arissa Oh was born in Korea, grew up in Canada, and has lived in the U.S. since college (except for three years she spent in Prague). She completed her Ph.D. in U.S. history at University of Chicago in 2008 and joined the faculty of Boston College in 2010, where she now teaches classes on U.S. immigration history, gender and migration, and the American Pacific. Her book, To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption, provides a fascinating and comprehensive history of Korean adoption, and anyone who wants to better understand international adoption and the reasons behind it should definitely pick it up! Arissa was kind enough to talk with me about the rise of international adoption and what it can teach us about the history of immigration, race, and assimilation in our own country.
Nicole Chung: Why did you decide to become an historian? Why were you drawn to twentieth-century U.S. history in your studies — and, in particular, intercountry adoption?
Arissa Oh: I was actually a political science/international studies major as an undergrad. I thought I was going to be a human rights lawyer. After college, I lived in the Czech Republic for a while and got intensely interested in migration. I worked at a gymnazium and there were these two Vietnamese kids there — Czech born, Czech speaking, but many would never consider them Czech. And as I travelled around Eastern Europe — I lived there almost three years — I experienced tons of racism. It got me thinking a lot about migration, and citizenship, and belonging. I decided to go to grad school, but I switched to history because I realized I was interested in telling the story of how things had come to be the way they were. I went to grad school knowing I wanted to study immigration, probably Asian American immigration and in particular Korean immigration — which mostly meant 20th-century American history. During my first year of grad school I was casting around for a paper topic and my advisor suggested I study Korean War orphans. So I wrote a paper on it, and got really fascinated by the topic. Lucky for me — also unlucky for me — there was not a lot of scholarship out there that had already been done.
I think sometimes people assume that intercountry adoption is this streamlined, well-regulated process, and that the processes/requirements/outcomes/etc. are relatively similar no matter where the adopted child is actually from. But in fact every program is distinct, and people are drawn to different programs for different reasons. Can you talk about the things that set adoption from Korea apart from other programs? Because this program is so huge, and so important in the history of intercountry adoption — it’s one of the reasons we have international adoption from so many other countries today.
For a long time (let’s say the 1970s-90s), adoptive parents went to Korea because it was the “Cadillac” of adoption programs — it seemed to be very professional and transparent. This was partly because Korea was the first country to really systematize intercountry adoption, in the 1950s and 1960s, and therefore had the most experience with it.
Race is also an important factor. At the very start of Korean adoption (the 1950s), most of the children being adopted were Korean-white and Korean-black (the latter usually went to black families). For some white adopters, the fact that the children were half-white helped to ease their racial difference; made them more “relatable” and desirable.
Beginning in the 1960s, “full-blooded” Korean children became the majority of the children being adopted from Korea. They were acceptable because although they weren’t white, they were also not black. At the time there was much more demand for adoptable children than there was a supply of them in the U.S. especially for white infants, which were the most desirable. For white parents at the time, crossing the color line to adopt a black child was rare — Korean children were a good compromise, racially speaking.
Many adoptive parents went abroad to adopt in part because of the belief that the distance would prevent any future problems, like a birth parent appearing and wanting his or her child back. Korean adoption, like most forms of international adoption, offered a “clean break,” so to speak.
As an adoptee who writes a lot about the subject I know more about adoption than the average person, but I was surprised by so many things when I read your book — including the extent to which the Korean government was really invested in promoting the adopting out of its children following the War. Sometimes there’s a tendency, when we talk about international adoption, to frame it as something Americans do because we want to and have the money to do so. And while it’s true that “demand” is a real factor in terms of supply, I think sometimes we ignore the role and motivations of the sending countries entirely, and that keeps us from really understanding international adoption. Can you talk more about the interest Koreans had in promoting the adoption of G.I. babies, and later other children?
Korean adoption began as a race-based evacuation. You have a country in total chaos and dire poverty after an incredibly destructive war, 100,000 (estimated) war orphans on the streets and in horrible orphanages — and then on top of that you have these mixed-race babies, or “G.I. babies,” children of Korean women and foreign military personnel (usually presumed to be American). There were probably only about 1,500 of them, but some of the initial estimates were much larger. There were stories of girls hiding in the woods with their mixed-race babies.
At the same time you have a country that has been divided from its other half (North Korea) trying to establish — or reestablish — a sense of itself as a nation after decades of Japanese occupation (1910-1945) and then a terrible civil war. Part of South Korean nationalism is about bloodline purity. So these mixed-race G.I. babies are not only a threat to Korean racial/ethnic purity and Korea’s sense of itself as a nation; they are also a symbol of Korean women having sex with foreign men (the mothers were assumed to be prostitutes). So these 1,500 babies represent a much bigger problem than their numbers alone, in the midst of other problems the government cannot address because there was no social welfare. Since Koreans see these children as belonging to their fathers, they decide this is America’s problem to deal with. And then you actually have Americans actually writing letters and saying they want to adopt these children, so it seems like a good solution — Korea doesn’t want these children and Americans do. That’s how it all starts.
How were these adoptions presented and politicized in America?
In the U.S., taking care of Korean children is first seen and presented as a way to pull a win out of an unpopular war that was considered to be at best a stalemate, at worst a loss. This is how outlets like Life magazine portrayed it, and how American G.I.s and Americans at home talked about it too. This was during the early years of the Cold War, when the U.S. was really coming to terms with its new status as a superpower. Terrible racism at home — lynchings, Jim Crow — made the U.S. look bad, and Americans knew it. So adopting Korean children was seen as one way to counter the image of the U.S. as racist.
As time passed, this patriotic, often religious reasoning and language (evangelical Christians were deeply involved in the beginnings of Korean adoption) gave way to more general feelings of “we can break down racial barriers through adoption.” Some advocates of international adoption also saw bringing a child of a different race/ethnicity into their families as a way to bring in some culture, learn about the world, expose their biological children to other cultures and countries too, etc.
When you were researching this book, which discoveries did you find most surprising?
The mascot phenomenon was very surprising. American G.I.s would hire local people, usually boys but sometimes men, too, to do work around the base. These people were called houseboys. But there were also boys who became “mascots” — they were Korean boys who would do houseboy work, who also became emotional objects. The G.I.s would dress them in pint-sized versions of their own uniforms and give them new names like “Bonzo” and “Sambo” (no kidding). Some of the first adoptions from Korea were servicemen adopting mascots.
Another thing I found surprising was the number of twins I learned about who were separated by the adoption process. This happens not just in Korea, but in other countries as well. I know sometimes social workers break up sibling groups in the interest of finding placements, but I was surprised that twins would be separated. I know of one case in which someone was sent abroad for adoption while her twin remained with her birth parents.
Why is it important for us to understand the history of intercountry adoption?
We often think of intercountry adoption as this personal, private thing between an adoptee and their adoptive parents and birth parents. But adoption and intercountry adoption are also extremely public acts. They are influenced by large forces like national laws; ideas about race, gender, family; geopolitics, etc. In turn, adoption is used in the public sphere to signify certain things — like America’s goodness or antiracism.
A more complex view of intercountry adoption should lead us to ask questions, like why do mainly white Americans adopt non-white children from other countries? What role does the U.S. play in perpetuating the global conditions that help to move children from poor countries to rich ones? Why do Americans adopt from some countries but not other ones? Looking at intercountry adoption helps us to understand how the micro and macro, private and public shape each other. This is important not just in history, but beyond.
For the new folks, can you explain why Korea, now a wealthy nation, continues to send so many of its children abroad for adoption? I know that despite government incentives for in-country adoption, the adoption rate among Korean families is very, very low.
Since the 1980s or so, the main source of Korean children for adoption has been single mothers. For a woman who is unmarried and pregnant, there are very few options in Korea apart from adoption. A woman and her child weren’t even considered to constitute a family, legally, until the end of the 20th century. And because domestic adoption rates in Korea are very low — there’s an incredible stigma attached to adoption — adoption basically means international adoption.
It’s very difficult for a single woman in Korea to keep and raise her child. Not only is there tremendous social ostracism, it’s hard for her to get a job, or rent a house, and her child will be discriminated against, too. All of the structures are oriented towards funneling the children of single mothers into international adoption — counseling services, maternity homes, and hospitals are all connected to adoption agencies. And couples who adopt domestically get much more monthly support for their adoption from the government (in the form of an allowance) than a single mom who raises her own child. This is very slowly changing now, but only after years and years of activism.
There are groups working for change, for more support for mothers, and Korea’s intercountry adoption numbers continue to fall. Do you think its international adoption program will ever end?
Over the past few years, international adoption from Korea has really fallen. There are about 1,000 children being sent abroad for adoption per year. But domestic adoption rates haven’t risen, as you say.
Historians study change over time, and in the past! — so I can’t really comment on the future…but I do think that if anything is going to change in Korea, it’s going to have to be on a number of fronts. There has to be a change in the culture so that adoption is not stigmatized, but there also have to be legal changes that protect single moms and support family preservation. There has to be way, way more social welfare — Korea has very little despite years of paper reforms. The birth rate is really low, even though the government is trying to get people to have more kids; it’s way too hard and expensive to raise them. Imagine how hard it is for a single mom. So they need more support, not just for single moms and their kids, but for the elderly; there needs to be mental health support. etc.
There is one particular way in which I think there could be a radical shift in the way Koreans think about families: whether or not Korea likes it (and a lot of Koreans do not like it), the country has become more multicultural, and Koreans are going to have to accept that families come in various ethnic configurations (Vietnamese moms, Indian dads) — and in various forms, like a single mom and her child. When will this acceptance happen? I don’t know. But I can’t imagine international adoption from Korea will go on indefinitely.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions you find people have about intercountry adoption generally, and Korean adoption specifically?
One of the biggest misconceptions I think people have about adoption in general is the idea of what an “orphan” is. We think of Annie or Oliver Twist or a baby in a basket on the steps of a church. There is this idea that the baby is completely alone in the world, with no connections to anyone. So you “save” it, give it a name, let it live happily ever after. But in the history of Korean adoption, the majority of children were never orphans in this way. They had moms and dads who took deliberate action or were coerced to send them for adoption because they thought they would have better lives. Or they had moms and dads who put them in an orphanage for a while and then found that their child was adopted out without their consent. Or they had a mom or dad who lost them, or a grandma or uncle who thought the child would be better off abroad, etc.
In intercountry adoption, the idea that Americans are “rescuing” orphans is incredibly powerful. You see it every time there’s a disaster, like the Haiti earthquake. People come in looking for orphans, but they overlook the fact that these children aren’t lone children floating around — they are embedded in extended families and communities.
The other misconception is that people think of adoption in black and white terms. You are pro- or anti-adoption. You’re a happy adoptee or an angry adoptee. It is much more complicated than that, as you know. People reduce adoption to the triad — the child, the birth parents and the adoptive parents — but it’s much bigger: it’s about social workers and agencies and governments and international systems and capitalism and racism and sexism and religion and war… There are all of these powerful forces swirling around, and you can’t disentangle international adoption from them.
You’re not an adoptee or adoptive parent, but I think of you as part of the adoption community because of your work — when adoption news happens, I’ll often think, “I wonder if Arissa has seen this and what she thinks!” How has the adoption community impacted your work and how you think about it — if it has at all?
It’s very strange to do this kind of research as a Korean American who is not an adoptee. I try to be very sensitive and mindful of that. I do think the adoption community has really impacted my work — the Korean adoptees I’ve spoken to (informally and via interview) and the adoptee memoirs I’ve read and the adoptee films I’ve watched and the adoptee activism I’ve observed have reminded me over and over again that this is a big story (involving 200,000+ individual adoptees) as well as also an intensely individual and personal story, too. Every single story is unique, even if there are common threads and themes and backgrounds. I’ve been very aware of my responsibility to Korean adoptees — and their birth parents and adoptive parents — to get things right, and to present the story in a way that is critical and objective. As an academic, I’ve been told repeatedly that my imagined reader should be an “educated non-specialist” — and my reader is that, but it’s also a Korean adoptee.
I really do wish I could have learned more about Korean birth parents, especially the moms, but I hope my book will be a building block for someone who undertakes that study.
What can we learn about our own country by studying adoption?
When it comes to racism, international and transracial adoption certainly show time and again the value of not being black in America. The majority of those adopting are white, and there is a hierarchy of desirability that puts white infants at the top, black children at the bottom. The cost of adopting these children differs accordingly. Where children are located on this hierarchy is very much connected to their race, and all the meaning attached to it.
In terms of immigration, adopted Korean children were allowed into the U.S. at a time when immigration was quite restricted — and immigration from Asia was very difficult; Korea had a quota of only 100 per year — because of their status as children of U.S. citizens. This was despite their race. So in adoption there’s an interesting tension between the U.S. recognizing family ties as a basis for immigration, even when the family ties are to people of a race that is not otherwise admissible or desirable according to the law.
With regard to assimilation, in the early years of Korean adoption, social workers told adopters to just Americanize their children as quickly as possible. Parents would give their kids American names, completely wiping out their Korean identity, and the kids would speak English, eat American food, become completely culturally all-American. Later on, as Americans became more sensitive to cultural differences, there was more emphasis on Korean culture and identity — adoptees went to culture camps like Camp Kimchee, and their adoptive parents might put Korean decorations on the walls or take them to Korean language or dance class. Looking at how adoptive parents dealt with this issue of erasing or preserving their kids’ Koreanness from the 1950s to the 1990s provides an interesting perspective on how Americans thought about race, ethnicity, and assimilation during those periods. And looking at how adoptees figure out their own racial and ethnic identities is hugely important to our understanding of race and identity and assimilation.
Nicole Chung is the Managing Editor of The Toast.