By Elizabeth Woyke
Summer 2005, U.S.
“…Mihee-Nathalie Lemoine is a prolific writer and artist who has lived in Seoul for the past 12 years, and she’s been profiled so often by the Korean media that many Koreans consider her the face of overseas adoption. With her short hair and clunky shoes, she looks boyish, mischievous and much younger than her 36 years.
Living in Korea inspires her, she says, and in addition to exhibiting controversial adoption-themed artwork around the world, Lemoine and fellow adoptee Kate Hers coordinate the O.K.A.Y. book series, a funky compendium of artwork by overseas Koreans.
Last fall, the Belgian adoptee formed a new group called Adoptees Vivant En Corée (AVEC) to address the language divide that exists between American and European adoptees. The group plans to translate articles and essays on adoption for the approximately 14,000 Francophone adoptees currently living in France, Belgium, Switzerland and Quebec.
“More and more French speakers are coming to Korea, but all the translation here is done in English,” says Lemoine. “So we come here and have to learn two languages, Korean and English. It gets very tiring and people give up.”
The creation of AVEC belies the subtle class difference that exists between American and European adoptees. With their ease with English, Americans hold lucrative teaching jobs while European adoptees work in restaurants, bars or small stores and struggle to be understood.
At a recent AVEC meeting, which are held every week at a café in the international neighborhood of Itaewon, Lemoine moved easily between multiple languages, answering her cell phone with the traditional Korean greeting, yoboseyo, followed by an enthusiastic oui! Still, she waves away questions posed in Korean, insisting “I don’t speak it.”
The reason, it turns out, is less tied to ability than preference. “We are a minority within a minority. Always people expect adoptees to speak Korean or English like it’s natural for them. But language is identity.”
Faced with these daily challenges and annoyances, Lemoine often says she would prefer to live in a more cosmopolitan city such as New York or Montreal. But, like many of the adoptees currently in Seoul, she cannot seem to break her ties with Korea. For Lemoine, it’s more than the comforts of the warm, pulsing crowd at Hippo bar. The country is her muse and, for the moment, she says, she is staying put.”