In mid-January, the New York Times Magazine ran a feature about a movement within the Korean adoptee community to move back to South Korea as adults. Read the illuminating piece here: Why a Generation of Adoptees Is Returning to South Korea
The article generated an extraordinary flood of emotional responses, from both those with connections to adoption and those without, and sparked a heated debate that continues even now. We had the chance to speak with the author, Maggie Jones, about writing the piece and the response she received. Please share your comments about the Q&A, and her original article, below.
AF: What kind of feedback have you received about the piece?
MJ: The feedback has mostly been positive, with definite exceptions. Many adoptees wrote to me and commented on the NYT website to say that their experiences growing up were much like those of the article’s subjects. And many adoptive parents thanked me for bringing greater awareness to issues some adoptees face.
But others complained that I didn’t focus on more “positive” adoption stories and that I only told the stories of a small group of adoptees.
This article was never supposed to be a comprehensive look at adoption. Other reporters and myself have done “positive” adoption stories—often from the perspective of adoptive parents. This was about a group of adoptees, with a very interesting perspective on their lives and the adoption system. It is a voice that has largely been ignored by the mainstream media.
AF: Did you expect the intensity of the response you would receive?
MJ: As an adoptive mom and as a journalist who has written about adoption, I know how highly engaged people are in this subject. Adoption gets at key public policy issues and also goes to the heart of what it means to be a family. It’s a delicate topic that can, at times, be polarizing among adoptive parents, adoptees, and birth families.
AF: How did you first hear about this group of Korean adoptees and why did you decide to write about them?
MJ: I’d read a bit about Korean adoptees returning to live in Seoul from various sources. And as a parent, I’ve been reading international adoption and transracial adoption listservs and Facebook groups for years. Two of my favorites are International-Adoption-Talk and Transracial Adoption—both closed Facebook groups—which include the voices of adult adoptees. I was eager to do this story exactly because it was largely untold in the mainstream media and it reflected one key view of international adoption. Also, I wanted to know what pushed this group of adoptees to Seoul; what were their views of their own adoption; what were their challenges in making a life in Seoul.
AF: Do most of the adoptees who have moved back to South Korea believe that international adoption should be ended?
MJ: I can’t speak about most adoptees in Seoul, since there are roughly 300-500 adoptees in South Korea, and I interviewed about two dozen of those.
Most of the adoptees I spoke to were not trying to end international adoption. And even those who do oppose it—and they are talking about adoption from South Korea, not all international adoption—are focused more on the underlying causes: supporting single mothers and advocating for adoptees’ rights.
AF: Some people responded to this piece saying, “this is a group of unhappy people who would be unhappy under any circumstances.” What do you think about that?
MJ: They are not an unhappy group. To a person, everyone I met in the community was warm and welcoming. Labeling them as “unhappy” does a disservice to the very thoughtful adoptees in the story. More importantly, it misses the larger message. They are using their circumstances—such as fraudulent adoption paperwork; lack of access to their birth records; parents who never acknowledged race and loss in their children’s lives—to bring attention to larger political issues.
AF: Many of these adoptees said that they had happy childhoods, that they felt loved. What must parents provide beyond love and good intentions?
MJ: Studies and adult adoptees suggest again and again that love is, indeed, not enough to create a healthy identity in transracially adopted children. And it isn’t enough to send your kids to culture camp or Mandarin language classes. In my article, I think adoptee Laura Klunder says it best: “You need parents who can talk about white privilege, who can say: ‘You might experience some of this. I’m sorry. We are in this together.’ ”
AF: Some adoptive parents found this story painful to read. Why do they need to read it? What can they learn?
MJ: It bears saying that adoptees are not a monolithic group. Yet it’s very common to hear some of the refrains in this story from other adoptees—about their feelings of isolation and “otherness” growing up. As adoptive parents, we have so much we can learn from these adoptees: how to talk with our children about their losses; the importance of addressing and preparing children for racism; supporting our children’s potential longing to search for their roots. Also, these adoptees want parents and prospective adoptive parents to think more carefully and wisely about the ethical problems—the lack of transparency, the coercion of birth mothers—in the adoption system.
Ultimately, I hope the article creates a conversation. It wasn’t that long ago that adoption wasn’t talked about openly in the United States. That’s changed and hopefully the conversation can move forward from blame to a more constructive dialogue.
AF: Did these adoptees tend to feel that no white parent can ever be equipped to raise a child of another race, or that theirs simply weren’t? Did you feel adequately prepared to parent transracially?
MJ: Only one adoptee really told me she believed that white parents couldn’t adequately parent children across racial lines. It does, though, take an enormous amount of work, education, and empathy. I think very few of us are adequately prepared. I used two different agencies for two adoptions, and neither educated myself and my husband enough. Instead, it was up to me to read, to listen to adult adoptees and other people of color. It’s a learning curve and it hurts our children if we don’t make the effort.
I know adoptive parents complain about all the work they had to go through to adopt, but I don’t think we go through enough training on racism and what it really means to raise children of color.
AF: How do you feel, as an adoptive parent, when you’re told your children are “lucky” or should be grateful to you?
MJ: That’s rarely happened in my family. And when it did, I said that I was the lucky one to be their mother. No child deserves to lose his or her first family and home.
AF: As you were interviewing the adoptees for this piece, did you disclose that you’re an adoptive parent? If so, did you get any strong reactions?
MJ: Yes, I disclosed it from the outset, by e-mail, before I interviewed any adoptees. No one declined talking to me. These adoptees don’t hate adoptive parents. They are irked when adoptive parents (and adoption agencies) refuse to try to understand their point of view. But I think the people in this story understood and appreciated that I was there to listen to their stories.