The pros and cons of International adoption: Roots of discontent
by Wency Leung
Review Asia Magazine, December 2007 (p.57-)
As a child, Mihee-Nathalie Lemoine was skeptical when her adoptive Belgian parents explained that she and her siblings were from South Korea. “We thought they were lying… because we didn’t know it was a real country until they showed it to us on a map,” Lemoine said, adding that even then, the idea of originating from Korea was too abstract for them to comprehend. “It was only when we were adults that we really believed we were from there.”
Lemoine, 39, was about 18 months old when she was put on a plane from Korea to Belgium in 1969. There, she was raised by Caucasian parents who also adopted three other, unrelated Korean children.
Lemoine, who is now an artist living in Montreal, Canada, said it took her a long time to become comfortable with her ethnicity.
“For me, I was not very proud of being an Asian,” she says.
But having spent 13 years in South Korea and having met her birth family, she has since come to terms with her heritage.
A generation of children who were adopted from Asia into Western families following the Korean and Vietnam wars has enterred adulthood. And many are returning to their birth countries to discover their roots and to establish cultural connexions.
Some adoptees have set up organizations to share their experiences and help each other find their birth families. Meanwhile, some groups are challenging the practiice of international, transracial adoptions.
In Lemoine’s case, she struggled not only with schoolyard taunts about being a “gook”, she was also confused by her own adoptive parent’s attitudes towards other racial minorities.
Although their comments were not aimed at their Korean children, “they would say, ‘ Oh, the Chinese, they so… ,’ and stuff like that, Lemoine says. “”It’s like a lot of adoptive parents, even though they adopt [children of a different race], it doesn’t mean they’re not racist.”
Lemoine says that while her Asian background troubled her, one source of comfort was that she and her siblings were not as poorly regarded in Belgium. “So in that matter, we thought we were not worst race in the world,” she says, noting that children adopted these days face much less blatant racism as adoptees of her generation.
Lemoine was the only one out of the four adopted children in her family to feel compelled to do so. In 1991, she traveled to South Korea for the first time. With French as first language, Lemoine spoke no Korean and little English at the time. Yet, with the help of Korean-speaking friends, she set on by examining adoption records, visiting orphanages and police stations. soon, she discovered a couple of startling facts.
First, she was actually three years younger tha her officially record age. She also found that she was of mixed-race-her mother was Korean and her faher was Japanese.
‘What they say in the [adoption] file its’ a lot of lies,” she says.
Once she retraced ther origins, Lemoine appeared on Korean television to reach on to her biological parents. A friend of her birth mother saw her on the program, and made the connection. Lemoine says her first meeting with her birth mother were both awkward and emotional.
“When I saw her, I kind f knew it was her, even [though] nobody told me,” she says. “When they introduced me, it was like there was nothing really to say because I couldn’t speak [the same language], but looked at her a lot and she looked at me.
As her friends helped translate, Lemoine’s mother revealed she was 16 and unwed when she became pregnant. She opted to carry out her pregnancy in secrecy, hoping to give birth to a son.
“If I were a boy, they would have kept me because there’s no male in the family,” Lemoine says.
She says she was glad to finally receive some answers, and appreciated that her birth mother agreed to see her. But their relationship never developed far beyond that initial meeting.
Lemoine says she later relocated to Korea and lived there for 13 years. During that time, she saw her birth mother only two more times. As a gay woman, Lemoine says she felt her birth mother would not understand her sexual orientation.
“She has her life and I have mine,” she says. “I didn’t want to change my life for her and I don’t think she has to change her life for me. I felt we met, we understand what happened. She knows I’m alive, I’m happy.”
Lemoine says she never felt her biological mother would replace her adoptive one. But even so, she and her adoptive mother were estranged for many years. She is only now in the process of reconnecting with her adoptive family.
“My [adoptive] mother, when I was a child, always told me she would help me [find my biological parents] but in fact when it happened, she never helped me,” she says.
Her own experience have left her with a conflicted view about overseas adoption. She is an adoptee activist and co-founder of Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link (G.O.A’L), an organization that hels adoptees locate their birth families.
Lemoine says she understands how overseas adoption secured homes for the thousands of babies left orphaned or abandoned in the 50s and 60s, following the Korean War. But international adoption has become an industry, she says.
By the 80s, South Korea was still sending thousands of babies abroad each year. Of the hundreds of adoptees she has helped, Lemoine says only about 30% found they had came from poor families.
Contrary to common assumption in the West, many women do not give up their children out of poverty, but because of social stigma, or superstitions, she says. Her own birth mother was not poor, she was young and unwed.
“I think if the Western world doesn’t ask for many Oriental babies, it wouldn’t be as possible to have [them],” Lemoine says. “It’s like trading.”
Since adoption agencies and adoptive parents are now more aware they need to help children bridge the cultural divide, some of the challenges Lemoine faced no longer apply today, she says.
But, she adds, source countries need to put more effort into lifting the social stigma and providing support for unwed mothers to keep their children within their culture.