by Yung Fierens adopted from South Korea to Belgium.
This is Lee Keun Soon, my mother.
In 1976 and at the age of 26, Lee Keun Soon was trapped in an unhappy marriage with a violent husband and she was a mother of two little girls. She was bullied on a daily basis by a dominating and spiteful mother-in-law and according to local tradition, had to live with her to serve and obey as the dutiful daughter-in-law.
Right after the birth of her youngest child, she couldn’t cope any longer with the abuse, beatings and cheating of her husband, so she ran away.
It wasn’t only an act of desperation, influenced by probably postpartum depression and exhaustion right after giving birth, but foremost it was seen as an act of open rebellion. Such disobedience wasn’t only slightly frowned upon in a paternalistic and hierarchical society, it needed to be punished in the most severe way possible.
After a family council, led by the child’s grandmother, it was decided that the baby girl should be taken to an orphanage and be put up for adoption. When Lee Keun Soon returned home, they told her little Yoo Hee had died due to her mother leaving her behind. Broken by guilt and shame she resigned into being the dutiful and submissive wife and mother society expected her to be and had two more children.
Thirty years later, her dying mother-in-law admitted the sick baby she left behind was living somewhere in a country far away, probably given a different identity.
Lee Keun Soon left her husband, this time for good and started searching for her lost daughter.
At the same time, a girl somewhere in Belgium, was testing out this new thing called “the internet” and sent an email to the orphanage she came from. The email was just to say, “Hi.” She hadn’t any other expectation as she was led to believe she was an orphan.
Fast forward a year later, mother and daughter finally met at Seoul airport.
This isn’t just a rare story that happened decades ago in some poor backward country with little means or infrastructure. It’s not a slight blip in the history of a country that prides itself on respectful, spotless and impeccable behaviour towards others.
Jung Yoo Hee, who by then went through life known as Tamara Fierens (that’s me!), visited the same orphanage her grandmother relinquished her at. In this orphanage she counted 25 little babies, amongst them one tiny premature girl still in an incubator. These babies were all waiting to be shipped abroad to live a new life with adoptive parents.
Their nurse told me that 20 of them were delivered to the orphanage by family members of the birthmother; mainly fathers, brothers, uncles or grandfathers.
When I asked her if the birthmothers had given their consent for the child’s adoption, she remained silent and changed the subject. The date was 20 December 2007.
These are my thoughts about ICAV’s online event for adoptees with filmmaker and guest speaker, Sun Hee Engelstoft (adopted from Korea to Denmark). I’ve been thinking about it ever since and putting it off because it’s heavy. I don’t really have the emotional capacity to write everything I want to say smoothly so I’m just going to put some of the highlights out there in no particular order.
Sun Hee’s groundbreaking film Forget Me Not, tells the story of 3 birthmothers in Korea who were coerced into giving up their babies. During Sun Hee’s talk I learned that Sun Hee lived in the shelter with the mothers for two years. She was sort of like a confidante for them, unable to be placed within the usual hierarchy in Korea because she’s an adoptee. In spite of their closeness, most of the mothers have chosen not to keep in touch with Sun Hee because she represents the most painful part of their lives. One of the mothers ended up in a mental institution and was forbidden to keep in touch with Sun Hee and also her child, despite the promises that she would be able to. The other mothers married and eventually had more kids.
Sun Hee had planned to complete the film in 2 years but it ended up taking 8-9 years. She might have given up but she felt an obligation to tell the mothers’ stories. Sun Hee said that if she had her own children, she doesn’t think she could have made the film; the implication was that it would have been too painful.
I hung onto every word of Sun Hee’s talk filled with so much valuable knowledge and poignant perspective. Here are a few sentences from Sun Hee that really struck me and will stay with me forever.
“Mothers want to keep their children. Period.” Only when mothers were threatened with the loss of family and any future were they unsure about this. Sun Hee said, “I believe I saw how the mothers would close down and how babies would close down, and that was really, really painful to watch.” I could see the pain on Sun Hee’s face as she recalled these memories. I think about myself as a child and how incredibly difficult it was to open up again.
“Relinquishment is an every-day decision.” This blew me away. Sun Hee talked about how she had always thought of relinquishment as something that happens once, on a specific day, and then it’s over. But she found that this was not the case. Every day the mothers were faced with the question of whether to relinquish: when they were pregnant they questioned; after giving birth they questioned more intensely; and even after actually giving the children up they wondered if they’d made the right decision. Most of the mothers could have visited or made contact with their children and they chose not to. When I heard this, I thought about what this means for us adoptees being on the other side. To me it means that abandonment is an every-day experience. We are given up and then every day our mothers do not come to find us, we are abandoned again. It’s not something that happens once.
I don’t know how to end this other than to say thank you from the bottom of my heart, Sun Hee. You have become a bridge between our mothers’ world and our adoptee world. Thank you for honouring their trauma, our trauma, your trauma. Thank you for helping to tell us the truth. We were wanted!
Documentary Film by Sun Hee Engelstoft (Korean adoptee to Denmark).
What an emotional and powerful documentary! Very much aligned with the research I read and wrote a review for about the birth mothers of South Korea in 2016. I shed tears through many parts of this film because Sun Hee manages to ask and answer the two most prevalent questions we adoptees have of our mothers: “How could you have given me up?” and “Why?” This is Sun Hee’s journey to understand her mothers decision and situation.
For those not adopted, if you want to get a glimpse into the grief we adoptees carry, this film will do that. It accurately portrays what sits in the deepest parts of our soul (often buried and unknown for many years) and shared in the film. As Sun Hee learned and portrays, this grief and sadness is what binds us to our mothers.
It was heartbreaking to watch. I felt this could so easily be mine and my mother’s journey. I know now why my grief is so deep — because I carry her grief too. No doubt she held it within herself while I was in utero. It wired me. And I remembered it when watching this. I’m sure my mother would have been as powerless as these women — living in situations where there is no support, no empowerment, no voice, no real choice. Not for her, and often not for him either – our fathers, often unspoken about, invisible. He, she, us adoptees — we are all just pawns of circumstance and choices made by others.
This is what adoption is all about but rarely gets talked about. I doubt there would be any adoptee who could watch this film and not be emotionally affected.
What struck me is the entrenched thinking of the grandparents. It was so eye opening to see the various scenarios. Only one out of all those covered, would keep the baby BUT only on their terms and at a price I believe is just as emotionally high as demanding she send her baby away via an agency like Holt. I personally find Asian culture such a contradiction – supposedly they value family first and foremost, but I just can’t fathom how they can send away their grandchild? The individuals at the centre of these situations – mother and baby – are treated like they don’t matter. But watching this film, I realise it’s not family that’s valued at all – it’s all about how everything appears on the surface, saving face, reputation. South Korean culture, like others around the world and how they deal with single motherhood, puts reputation ahead of our souls. Its painful and confronting to watch it unfold so clearly.
I love how Sun Hee weaves her own search and struggles into this honest look at the adoption industry as a whole. This film highlights the overwhelming lack of support, understanding and infrastructure. If only these young mothers could rebel and survive on their own without their families! I can’t wait for South Korea to evolve out from under the patriarchal structures that allow intercountry adoption to continue.
I have no doubt these mothers go on to suffer endlessly with their mental health and depression! The impact on their life is forever. It’s a fantasy of their parents to think the daughter will go on with her life as if nothing happened. The lives of adoptees demonstrate that we often live a lifetime of inner pain, some of us manage to mask it, others not so well. Our mothers are no different.
What would be interesting is to continue following these mothers and babies. How do their lives turn out? Allow the rest of the life journey, the impacts of relinquishment, to become as visible as this beginning, so beautifully captured by Sun Hee. When I speak with mothers who relinquished, as with many adoptees, the grief never ends. Even if we reunite it can’t make up for the life we never had together.
Gut wrenching to learn of our biological mothers’ life experiences!
This book is a must read for those who think critically about intercountry adoption. It is written by an academic, Hosu Kim, who is herself Korean born and moved to the USA in the 1990s. She is a sociologist and regards herself as a transnational feminist scholar. She provides amazing insight into the history of South Korean intercountry adoption and most importantly, focuses on experiences of South Korean mothers who lost their children to intercountry adoption.
As an intercountry adoptee myself, raised in Australia and adopted out of the Vietnam War, I have always advocated for empowering and including the voices of our original families to ensure a more balanced perspective of intercountry adoption. ICAV has been instrumental in helping to bring to the forefront the voices and experiences of intercountry adoptees. Intercountry adoptees have continued to evolve, connect, and collaborate, speaking loudly throughout the world about our experiences. In comparison, our mothers and fathers are still invisible and mostly not considered when it comes to intercountry adoption policy and decision making at all levels.
I hope this book, being the first of its kind to academically research the experiences of a number of South Korean mothers, will help the world take steps for inclusion of their voices and experiences!
About the Book
Kim coins the term “virtual mothering” to describe the process by which South Korean mothers get separated from their children for intercountry adoption via maternity homes and then reconnected again with their child via imaginary or real processes such as TV shows, internet blogs, and oral history collections. Her book demonstrates how these South Korean women begin as mothers in the traditional sense but it is not a fixed identity based purely on birthing. Instead, mothering as a South Korean woman who has given up her child via intercountry adoption is a transient and transformative process.
To help us better understand the concept of virtual mothering she cites phrases from mothers such as:
“I am a mother but not a mother”,
“I abandoned my baby but I really didn’t, I didn’t abandon my baby but I might as well have”,
“I was alive but it cannot really be called living”.
Early chapters explore the historical emergence of intercountry adoption within the context of post war South Korea. Often we assume mothers relinquish in intercountry adoption contexts because of poverty but Kim gives you the in depth view of what happened in South Korea. She demonstrates the direct links between war, war orphan crisis, the need for emergency relief programs provided by foreign aid organisations (usually religious NGOs) that turned into permanent child welfare institutions. The emergence of these NGOs as maternity homes and then adoption agencies subsequently allow the South Korean government to avoid the responsibility of developing social welfare infrastructure. In turning a blind eye to taking responsibility, coupled with long held patriarchal beliefs and traditions, the South Korean government chooses to sacrifice mothers and children at the expense of the country’s first priorities – national security and economic development.
Upon reading this book, I gained insight and answers to my long pondered question of why South Korea remains the largest exporter of children yet have a strong economic situation. A strong economy was achieved at the expense of the children exported enmasse and the mothers who were never given any other choice! As an intercountry adoptee, this injustice makes me angry! I often hear other intercountry adoptees wrestling with the same sense of abandonment, not from our mothers, but from our countries who choose to give away their responsibility of us.
The chapter on the role of televised searching/reunion narratives was insightful and fitted with what I’ve also learned from adoptees’ perspectives. The overt orchestrated reunions to “portray the cultural belief that transnational adoption offers a better life” via the American Dream. The “idealisation that adoptive parents and life in the west” is better. The lack of empowerment for the parties involved. The sensationalised first meeting that does little to be real about the complexities. The sadness that encompass adoptees and mothers post reunion. All of these realities struck me head on and highlighted the glibness of such televised search shows!
Kim correctly states television shows “linearise the loss of time .. flatten the complexities of loss”. The harshness of the biological mothers realities post reunion is something I see mirrored in the lives of intercountry adoptees .. the almost impossibility of being able to build any meaningful relationships due to “language, culture, finances, bureaucratic barriers and differences” .
Kim’s following statements powerfully bring home the reality of our mother’s truths:
“it is therefore thru reuniting with her child that the birth mother finally sees and feels the metaphorical death of her child”..
“it is the acknowledgement of the magnitude and irretrievability of these losses”
” .. reunion was both a final realisation, an acknowledgement of loss of time, loss of child, and loss of their own mothering”.
I felt crushed by the weight of South Korean mother’s experiences! It was as heavy as I had sensed in my years of being connected with intercountry adoptees and from the realities I gained from our latest paper on Search & Reunion: Impacts & Outcomes. Adoptees find out the truth of their relinquishment and adoption when they reunite. As Kim highlights from these mother’s experiences, it’s often not as the adoption and television industry try to make us believe.
Kim adequately used the phrase:
“the social death of birth mothers is not merely a state of invisibility, but rather the result of violent processes involving .. domination and humiliation that devalues the lives of these women”.
Once we open ourselves to our mother’s realities, one can’t help but judge the adoption industry harshly for its dehumanising consequences to mother and child. Our mothers really had no choices and their value was crushed from the beginning. So too, it is reflected for adoptees whereby we continue to have little legal, financial, ethical rights or assistance when we experience an intercountry adoption that has not been in our interests e.g. outright or suspected trafficking, deportation, rehoming, and abuse/death at the hands of unsuitable adoptive parents.
Kim wrote about mother’s who inevitably end up “estranged from their own lives”. This same “severance from self” is one of the fundamental issues many adoptees also struggle with. Our mother’s accounts cannot be ignored or denied!
“Her loss severs her from her past and seeps into her present wherein her feelings, needs, and desires become estranged from her; through this estrangement, she becomes cut-off from her own future”.
Intercountry adoption cannot be undertaken without acknowledging the lifelong impacts on our mothers who have been separated from us, their child. Kim challenges everyone to recognise the losses our mothers suffered and the processes and means by which their lives are rendered invisible and devalued. This book asks us to be engaged and affected by what has happened in the name of economic development.
My special thanks to Hanna Johannson who connected me to Hosu Kim and her research!