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.
Moth….errr. Can I say this word without a pause? Moth..eerrr. Can I say this word without my mind racing to a hundred different thoughts? Moth….errrr. Potentially, maybe, and yet possibly, no. For me it is a word that brings up many connotations, some good, most bad. A word that is hard to utter as my stuttery voice reflects my heart. The purity of the word is lost to me. I am not used to the word on its own, but rather always with another word in front, whether it be birth mother, first mother, adoptive mother, real mother or not real mother. Always another word in front, as if delineating my experience into parts, not a whole. Confusion ensues and my head is spinning as everyone tries to tell me what moth…err is and what a real moth…er is. The expectations and idealisations of moth…er fracture under increasing weight of scrutiny and life experiences. Instead of asking, people are shouting. This is what a real mother does or does not do, or this is what it means to be a mother. Can’t you see that the very fact people are arguing means there’s something not whole about this? No wonder I can’t fully utter this word on my own, bewitched by longing and sorrow, and fully feeling the emotional tension in the word. I can’t escape it. Even when I stare into the eyes of a romantic partner, the alarm bells ring and the sirens wail. What makes this woman different than a moth…errr who left a son? What ensures that the same won’t happen again? The primal fear and the visceral reaction. Moth…eer, what have you done to me? My head is spinning and about to implode.
It feels strange to say it on my own, waiting impatiently for another accompanying word to show up beside it like a dog searching for its master. Can’t a child have two moth…errs? There I go again. Damn. Another qualifying moth…err. As much as I need to grieve for the moth…errr that is lost, I must also grieve the idea of moth…errr and the fact that, upon relinquishment, my idea of moth…errr was forever shattered, leaving me, a baby, to pick up the pieces. Adults tried to reason for the scraps of moth…err floating around in my heart, and yet, now it is the adult me picking up the pieces to reason with the baby me about the idea of moth..err. Can a man nurture himself? Can he become his own idea of moth…err? What choice is left? I am tired of people defining mother for me. I have an idea of it, because I have lost it, and know the effects of it. And yet where can one begin to heal, except for first grieving mother?
Imaginary Mothers is a feature-length documentary about four mothers from Costa Rica: Crescencia Maria Castro Chaves, Helen Xiomara Barrantes Mora, Xinia Sancho Viquez and Doris Benavides Morales. These women’s lives have been forever changed by adoption. They bravely reveal the heart-breaking impact that losing their children has had on their lives and as they fight to be reconnected with their children, they also struggle against the myths about young single mothers in Latin America.
The director of Imaginary Mothers, Jacqueline, is an intercountry adoptee from Costa Rica and she tells the story of her mother, Angela Arias, who never gave up hope to see her again. In making this film, Jacqueline learns about her Costa Rican family’s grief over her disappearance and their longing to understand the true circumstances around the adoption.
This film brings to light the circumstances surrounding intercountry adoption in Latin America during the 80’s and 90’s, and the many warning signs that were ignored about corruption in intercountry adoption.
This film is not just about women in Costa Rica, but also about women all over the world who have lost their children through adoption. The mothers in this film speak out for recognition for the wrongs committed against them and their children. This is the first time these women tell their story and, in doing so, they reveal a universal truth about the need for redemption and validation for mothers in this situation. Together, these women find a voice in the film to tell their stories and encourage social and political change.
Lynelle’s Thoughts after Viewing:
What an amazingly emotional journey Jacqueline has been on! I can only imagine how hard it has been to experience the heartbreak of the mothers of Costa Rica. My soul hurt for their situations; so alone with no-one to empower them or even let them know of their rights, let alone options or support. What saddened me was to see how they are still treated. They are downtrodden enough from the past, and it is awful when they turn up wanting to know information about their child and are denied. This made me, as a child separated at birth, wonder how my dear mother is coping. Was she also in situations like these mothers? It was a real eye opener to understand she probably doesn’t have the resources to find me and that the structures in her society probably block the way, even if she wanted to find me.
I especially loved the artistry in how this documentary is presented. Unique and an artful representation of the mothers.
I recommend watching this documentary to anyone who is interested in hearing the experiences of mothers in intercountry adoption situations, like Costa Rica, and the realities they face, past and present.
Well done Jacqueline! You have made an outstanding contribution to helping people better understand intercountry adoption – the inequities, the injustices, the structures that reinforce to mothers that they often have little choice. You captured well their grief, anger, despair, hopelessness for they have had no-one to speak up for them until now. This documentary is their light, their hope!
I really hope this documentary about the Costa Rican mothers opens up the hearts of people around the world, to become motivated to help put an end to the injustices that mothers like this face. Jacqueline is an amazing trailblazer for this is the first I’ve seen that gives voice to the mothers of Costa Rica. Jacqueline has done a wonderful job to expose and give voice to what is really going on for these mothers.
Rarely do we hear or see intercountry adoption from our biological family point of view but without our mothers, there would be no us! Adult intercountry adoptees are gradually becoming aware of how we can collaborate with our biological families and encourage them to become more visible.
I would like to introduce you to one such adoptee, Yennifer Villa who was adopted to Germany and born in Colombia. She is about to fly to her birth country where she will undertake a 6-9 month project entitled No Mother, No Child to capture mothers and their stories of relinquishment via the art of photography. She plans to showcase the end result of her work as a pop up photo exhibition to be held in Cologne (and possibly throughout Europe) towards the end of next year.
Yennifer is currently 29 years old and was adopted at approximately 2 years of age. Her age is estimated because she does not have official birth information about herself. From some paperwork provided through the German consulate and orphanage in Colombia, it appears she may have been with her mother for the first 3 months of life until she was placed in her orphanage. At some point, her mother’s visits stopped and Yennifer has never known why her mother never returned.
Intercountry adopted and raised in a small German town with an adoptive family who never talked about adoption to “try and make things easier”, Yennifer grew up hearing a comment said about her biological mother – “she was probably a drug addict and now dead”.
What a harsh reality for a young adopted person to have to grapple with! I can relate to the damage this has on our psyche growing up for I was told a similar thing about my biological mother – “she was probably a prostitute”.
As adults now, Yennifer and I know our adoptive parents didn’t tell us things like this about our mothers to be mean – it was the propaganda adoption agencies/lawyers/governments told to justify not knowing the nuances of why we were needing to be adopted.
Understanding the good intentions of her adoptive family and not wanting to be rude or disrespectful, Yennifer feels compelled to see for herself the truths of mothers in Colombia. She suspects mother’s stories are more complex and nuanced and via her project, aims to open the door to a greater understanding of why mothers in Colombia give up their children.
Yennifer is currently studying Sustainability & Design at Akademie für Gestaltung (Academy for Design) and it is through this, that the funding she collects will enable her to complete her project. She has not travelled to Colombia since being adopted to Germany as an infant so this trip will be momentous and memorable. Yennifer has peer adoptee contacts who will support her during her year in Colombia taking time to locate the mothers, spend time with them, and photograph them after learning about their experiences. Yennifer has been planning this project No Mother, No Child for the past 2 years and is feeling very positive and excited. The importance of her project is to change the narrative of “she was just a drug addict” to bring the realities and nuances of each mother who has had to relinquish to light via her photography.
This is not the first adoption project Yennifer has been involved with. Decoding Origins, the first Colombian anthology of adult adoptees was completed last year and Yennifer utilised her art skills as the lead graphic designer for the book’s website. Proceeds from the sale of the book have been collected to fund DNA test kits for Colombian biological families, some of which Yennifer is taking with her for distribution to mothers who contribute to her photography project.
Yennifer flies to Colombia on 10 November this year. Her goal is to raise $5.500EUR to provide funding for her equipment, travel and living expenses. She is ready to go and has a vision of what the photos might be but wants to meet the mothers, talk with them, engage them, and allow them to contribute to define the project so that it is truly about them.
We look forward to seeing some of Yennifer’s work on this project in the next year and hope it inspires other intercountry adoptees to consider how we might collaborate with our biological families and encourage them to become more visible in the intercountry adoption arena.
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!