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International Adoptees Create A New Sense Of Community Together


Americans started adopting children from South Korea more than 50 years ago. Today, there are an estimated 200,000 Korean adoptees in the U.S. For years, the stories about Korean adoptees came from parents and adoption agencies. Now, they're telling their own stories and it's challenging the way people think about adoption. Reporter Kaomi Goetz has more.

KAOMI GOETZ, BYLINE: Julianna Gonska is at a recent meet up for other Korean adoptees in New York City. It’s called Also Known As or AKA. Gonska is 22, petite with red glasses and a short bob haircut. She grew up in New Jersey and until recently, didn’t know any other adoptees except for a sibling. She says connecting now has been positive.

JULIANNA GONSKA: These people went through the same exact things that I did - that I’m going through. And I never thought I’d find that. And it’s extremely validating.

GOETZ: Gonska felt alone struggling with why she was given up and with racial identity. That’s common for Korean adoptees. Holly McGinnis started Also Known As 20 years ago so they could support each other. She was also trying to come to terms with feeling biracial with an Irish last name and a blond-haired mother.

HOLLY MCGINNIS: Because even though physically I wasn’t mixed race, being adopted trans-racially made me mixed culturally. And I realized that the tension that I felt with my racial identity was really because of what others imposed upon me.

GOETZ: Like other Americans assuming she was a foreigner or that she could speak an Asian language - that can be troubling for many Korean adoptees who don’t grow up feeling particularly Asian-American. For years, adoptive parents were told to ignore racial differences.

Amanda Baden is a clinical psychologist and studies trans-racial adoptions. She’s also a 46-year old trans-racial adoptee from Hong Kong. She says the love-conquers-all theme has been prevalent.

AMANDA BADEN: There’s this traditional adoption narrative, you know? There was a baby that needed a home, so they found a family who wanted a baby and needed one. And so they put them together and everyone was happy. And a lot of folks think that's pretty much how adoption works.

GOETZ: Baden says historically adoption was viewed as an event, an intervention. And everything after adoption was good. But that narrative can prevent adoptees from feeling good about themselves or where they came from. Some Korean adoptees have discovered they weren’t actually orphaned or abandoned as previously believed. And there’s another problem.

JOY LIEBERTHAL: No one ever remembers that we actually grow up.

GOETZ: Joy Lieberthal was adopted in the 1970s from South Korea. She’s one of a growing number of clinical social workers who are also adoptees.

LIEBERTHAL: There is an understanding that that place that that adoptee is in is a place that is familiar to me. It’s not something that needs to be explained or educated. It’s not something that I pathologize.

GOETZ: Adoption isn't widely taught in graduate psychology programs. And there's little research. Until recently, most of the studies have been by adoptive parents and focused young children. JaeRan Kim is a 46-year old Korean adoptee with a PhD in social work. She says studies like that fail to understand how an adoptee’s identity changes over time.

JAERAN KIM: When I got married and when I became a parent and when I earned my PhD, those are all different times when your identity changes. So of course you would think that your identity's not going to be formed when you’re eight years old.

GOETZ: In fact, Kim switched to her Korean birth name at age 35. She’s had to think about transmitting her own racial identity to her biracial kids. Many adoptees say that’s a challenge because they were never encouraged to explore their own racial identities as children. Some adoption agencies have started to listen. They’re playing catch up to offer support services for older adoptees. But for thousands of adoptees, this acknowledgement is bittersweet. For NPR News, I'm Kaomi Goetz in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kaomi is a former reporter at WSHU.