Many Korean adoptees realize that a part of us will never be fully known even to ourselves.
I was twenty-five years old, sitting uncomfortably on a metal table in my OBGYN’s office. The doctor was a veteran OBGYN and highly sought after in the county, but that meant he had a lot of moms and moms-to-be on his schedule for the day. Kind, but obviously not interested in small talk, he pulled out a sheet of paper and began asking me detailed questions about my medical history. In the excitement of celebrating my first pregnancy, I had forgotten to brace for the inevitable questions to which the only honest response I had was, “I don't know.”
It wasn’t the first time I was asked unanswerable questions. Similar to many other Korean adoptees, I have little knowledge of where or whom I came from. Johan Huizinga says, “history is the interpretation of the significance that the past has for us.” I didn’t always feel the truth of that statement as significantly as I do now. But thirteen years ago, newly pregnant with the only biological life I could claim as my own flesh and blood, I began to realize how important history is. Not just my medical history.
How We Got Here
Korean international adoption has been fairly prolific since the early 1950s. The end of the Korean war left upwards of 100,000 children homeless and orphaned. Some were adopted domestically, but the trauma and fracture of the country’s geographical, political, and even familial war resulted in economic turmoil for years. Sadly, Korea had a difficult time looking after its own children post-war. By the 1970s international adoption had aided in bringing somewhat significant economic stability to Korea. Likewise, western society, specifically the United States, benefited from charitable and Christian organizations that popularized wholesome, affluent American families adopting poor Korean babies. The positive propaganda for the U.S. assisted in the continuation of this cycle. Thousands of children continued to be adopted out of Korea for years.
Since the early 1980s, Korean international adoption has significantly decreased. However, many adoptees, now well into adulthood, continue to search for members of their biological families, hopeful that there are people who not only share their genes and physical features, but who are willing and eager to inform them of the life and stories they missed out on. To tell us our own history.
Redemption in God’s Goodness
A friend once said, “I don't understand why adoptees can’t just be thankful that they were adopted.” To be sure, it’s a strange tension for each adoptee to hold—gratitude mixed with grief and loss. But the grief and loss live alongside any gratitude, and to ignore them undercuts not just our feelings about being adopted but also our identity. Marcus Garvey says, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.” The requirements for the flourishing of a person transcend home placement, met physical needs, and even a loving adopted family. Everyone longs to be known. Adoptees looking for information on their history are unearthing the roots of their identity.
Sometimes we find the roots. Sometimes we don’t. Many Korean adoptees realize that a part of us will never be fully known even to ourselves. If history is meant to inform our present for the benefit of our future, what does it look like to acknowledge an unknown history and origin? To live with the influence of the “I don’t knows”?
An adoptee’s lost and unknown origin, culture, and history are linked to his or her identity. They’re part of who we are—they’re part of our story. Yet, I have found that my Korean history, while acting as an informant to my identity, doesn’t rule over it.
By the goodness of God, my comfort amongst all the questions is that the most defining aspects of who I am all come from him—his spirit, his person, his identity. It’s the kindness of the Lord that reminds me of who I am in Christ. The truth of the gospel is that God’s redemptive work frees me from being too tightly intertwined with the unknowns of where I came from. Yes, my history matters. My origin matters. And I want to understand more fully the culture I grew up never knowing. But I know the one who holds the past, present, and future. I know the one who holds my history and gives me a better identity.
Cover image by Gold Chain Collective.