Thursday 30th of March 2017

The Korean Adoption Experience: A Look into Our Future?

The following article is reprinted from the December 1995 issue of China Connection, the newsletter for FCC New England. Please notify editor Julie Michaels (617) 929-2809) for permission to reprint.


As I settled in with my second adopted daughter from China, many unanswered questions repeated themselves in my mind: How can I help my daughters become happy here? How can I help them to appreciate being both American and Chinese? How will our family change through the experience of adoption? In the absence of research on the experience of China adoptions, I became interested in studies of the Korean adoption cohort. This group of adoptees number in the tens of thousands and has been arriving in the United States for over 30 years. As I reviewed studies of this cohort, I searched for what the Korean adoptees could tell me about the experience of being a Caucasian parent of an Asian girl, and being an Asian girl growing up in a dominantly Caucasian world.

To my disappointment, the empirical research around this group is scattered, fragmentary and narrowly defined. There is only one major longitudinal study that followed these families across the years. However, reading many of these separate studies suggested some partial answers, and even more questions, for the intercountry adoptive parent.

The studies, some dating back 20 years, show how the social context of adoption has changed. Society now attributes a different meaning to adoption, particularly to families created through intercountry adoption. Consider the difference between the description of a family with an adopted Korean child versus a more contemporary description of the same family as one that has become multi-cultural and multi-racial through adoption. Older studies of the Korean cohort focus on the adaptation of the child to the American family. Smoothness of adaptation equals success. A positive outcome was the child's identification as an American, not as a Korean. No one ever asked how well the family adapted to its new identity as one with a diverse membership and diverse cultural connections.

There are also some important differences between the Korean group and our recently arrived Chinese children. For example, many adoptions of Korean children were for ``humanitarian reasons'' into families who already had biological children; many Korean children were escorted to the United States, allowing adoption to occur without any contact with the child's homeland or culture; and many Korean children were abandoned and adopted at older ages than our Chinese cohort.

Adoption literature reflects the culture in which the study takes place. Since our culture elevates biological connections and casts shadows on adoptive parenting, I expected to find that reflected in the studies I read. For example, the psychological literature about adoption persistently shows the assumption of the overriding importance of infancy bonding. This idea immediately puts many intercountry adoptive families at a disadvantage. In addition, most psychologically-oriented studies focus on the problems of adoptive families. Many studies are based on clinical populations of families who have approached mental health professionals for help with their adoptive children. Those studies always find that the adoptive children are having troubles primarily because they are adopted children. This idea is quite controversial, since most of these studies do not differentiate between children adopted early in life and those adopted later in life after multiple placements.

For most adoptive parents, the important information is that these studies on intercountry adoptees paint an optimistic picture. The general impression from reading the studies of specifically Korean adoptions is that of good outcome based on positive indicators such as educational achievement, good relationships with families and peers, and a general feeling of positive self-worth and confidence enjoyed by the adoptees. Most adoptees adapted well to American society, both kids adopted in infancy and over six years of age, with about 10 percent showing serious adaptation problems.

The vast majority of Korean adoptees showed positive self esteem, and a good sense of integration into their nuclear and extended family. Most intercountry adoptive parents said they would definitely ``do it again'' if given the choice.

Identity formation has always been a major concern in intercountry adoption. Intercountry-adopted children have a more complicated identity formation task due to the stigma of belonging to a different ethnicity than their parents. Some studies suggest that children who are ethnically different from their parents end up identifying with both the ethnicity of their parents and that of the people like them. The intercountry adoptee's identity formation task is similar to the nonadopted mixed-race child who has parents from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

The question of connection with cultural heritage and racial identity was considered in all the studies. The commonly held position is that ``pride in cultural identity is essential to reducing the crisis of adolescent identity and resolving role conflict.'' Longitudinal studies also described parents eagerly providing cross cultural experiences for children until adolescence. At that point, the children's interests seem to naturally wane as they become involved in teenage pursuits that require ``fitting in'' to their mostly Caucasian peer group. A group of Korean adult adoptees cautioned parents to be sensitive during this period. They advised parents to be responsive to their children's reactions to cultural activities native to the child. Interactions with Asian Americans may be awkward for children of this age, as the thoroughly American behavior of the adoptee may perplex and disappoint the Asian American. Other studies emphasized that such factors as self esteem are more important than cultural identity for successful adoption results.

One frequent question from parents of transracial adoptees is how their children's different physical appearance from their parents will affect them. They worry that their children will endure comments or slurs directed at them based on their physical appearance. A study of Korean, Hispanic and other Asian intercountry adopted preadolescents found two-thirds of this group were not bothered by looking different from their parents. The children mentioned that they felt most aware of their differences when attending large gatherings of extended family members. About a third of the children recalled problems during the preceding three years of other children calling them names and making fun of them because of their racial backgrounds.

The consistently positive outcome from intercountry adoptions surprises some researchers, though probably none of the adoptive parents. Why does intercountry adoption work as well as it does? Some researchers' explanations build on David Kirk's belief that adoption works best when there is openness about the adoption and acceptance of the difference between parenting biological and adopted children. The researchers suggest that parents of ethnically different children approach the inherent difficulties of adoption in a more open and accepting fashion. Some even suggest that intercountry adoptive parents have a qualitatively different approach to parenting which supports the identity development of their adopted children.

Most studies of adoptive families focus on the effects of what is missing. The studies highlight the lack of the ``biological connection,'' the single cultural identity, and the knowable past and predictable future. I want to read not just how intercountry adoptees adjusted, but also how the families became different as they developed a multi-cultural, multi-racial identity. Researchers have the opportunity to investigate in depth why intercountry adoption works as well as it does. They could then consider what positive outcomes imply about the resilience of children, the definition of family and the role of parents. Intercountry adoption research would benefit by considering the adopted child's heritage a gift that expands the family's sense of what is valuable and possible in their own lives and culture.

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