Is positivity overwhelming the South Korean adoptee experience in the media?

Reunion is a powerful word in adoptee media and literature. It’s something only Korean adoptees or adoptees in general can dream of, or force the possibility into the back of their mind. It can be empowering, a fundamental part of an adoptee narrative, joyful, confusing and also bitterly painful and traumatic. With two hundred thousand Korean babies and children adopted out of South Korea since the Korean War, the Korean adoptee community stretches far and wide. In Australia alone there are almost three thousand, and in America there are one hundred thousand. Although two hundred thousand is relatively minute in comparison to South Korea’s population of forty million, it is estimated that over two thousand Korean adoptees from around the world return to Korea annually. Returning to the country of birth has become almost a rite of passage, a pilgrimage for South Korean adoptees both young and old. Returning can be for a number of different reasons: to connect with Korean culture and heritage, to learn the language or just find where their roots lie. But importantly it is sometimes a decision to actively find their biological family.

In recent media there has been a spotlight on the reunion of two sets of Korean adoptee twins with each other, and for one set, their biological family. The story of American Samantha Futerman and French Anais Bordier who were identical twins separately adopted and reunited through youtube, brought joy and happiness to the entire Korean adoptee community. They successfully got Kickstarter funding for a documentary called ‘Twinsters’ that documented their reunion and return to South Korea. Samsung even created a film about their reunion called ‘Another Me’ to advertise their Samsung Gear products. Although the twins haven’t found their biological parents, their own intimate reunion was a powerful message about the lack of transparency within Korean adoption. They were never told of each others’ existence and it took social media to reunite them.

The other individual who has recently come to prominence through his youtube documentary is Dan Matthews of Wong Fu Productions and the Far East Movement. His documentary was also founded by Kickstarter and chronicled his return to South Korea after finding his biological family. In his eight-part documentary called ‘AkaDan’, we follow him moment by moment as he meets his biological family and discovers crucial information, like finding out he has a twin brother who wasn’t adopted and remained with his biological family, as well as finding out he has a sister. Anais and Sam also feature in this documentary when they meet Dan at an annual adoptee gathering in Seoul.

Both of these social media projects are emotionally powerful for all who see them, whether adoptees or not. For adoptees, it’s a chance to see the possibility, the potential ending for their own stories. They also bring a tear-jerking positivity to lives of painful separation and the feeling of not knowing. In his documentary just before he meets his family, Dan says something poignant that sums up everything that an adoptee feels: ‘I hope you find what you are looking for’. For these individuals they have essentially found what they were looking for – on the surface. In Korea they even have a TV show called, ‘Find My Family’ where Korean adoptees go on television to find their parents or they film their first reunion. But for everyone else the reality is that reunions for Korean adoptees are numbered at two percent success rate.

So the question is, do these stories of success represent the entire Korean adoptee experience? The answer is difficult. For the majority, being a Korean adoptee may be a nonchalant or detached, or emotional, or painful or happy or sad experience. No experience is ever the same, as can be said for most things. Some adoptees can happily go on with their lives never knowing about their biological family or searching. For some, these stories represent the ideal ending to a life long experience. Although true, these stories also add to the imagery within the Korean adoptee experience of a romanticised, completely positive reunion. Within the adoptee community, every reunion is a success without a doubt. But these successes are not the majority and media lacks stories of what does not happen.

Reunion is generally considered something positive and exciting. But for the stories that are not told, Korean adoptees have nothing to prepare them for the possibility of a negative reunion. Finding biological family can take up to decades in some instances, and for others weeks or months. The biological family could have passed away. But once the family is found, it doesn’t necessarily mean they want to meet the adoptee or have anything to do with them. It is a common case to find that an adoptee reunion may interfere with their biological parent’s new family and also their reputation within society. Growing up, Korean adoptees will have a file with no information, a little bit of information or a lot of information surrounding the details of their birth and parents. Adoptees grow up clutching these files as the only thing that connects them to where they’re from. However, unfortunately as is being discovered more and more, adoptees are finding out that this information is incorrect and in a lot of cases, fabricated. Their birth date and birth-place could be wrong, their mother’s age or name is fabricated, and the family situation and why they were given up also wrong. Current Korean privacy laws protect the biological mother but not the adoptee’s rights. Korean adoptees have their nationality taken from them and are made orphans to legally be adopted.

Korean overseas adoption has been South Korea’s deep and shameful secret for the past fifty years. It is only recently that South Korean Presidents have publicly acknowledged the Korean adoptee Diaspora. Korean media are now publicising Korean adoption as the positive reunion experience. But to properly heal the wounds of many adoptees and biological parents, the media needs to reconcile the negative aspect of reunion, for it is by far the most overwhelming majority experience. It might not be joyful and uplifting like reunion stories, but it is the truth and a truth that needs to be told.

Elise is a Korean adoptee who recently found her birth mother after two years of searching. The birth mother declined reunion because her husband and children did not know.