Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Now and Then

I wanted to share some photos from my visit to the site of the Seoul Sanitarium and Hospital Orphanage, run (in the 1950s) by Seventh Day Adventist Missionaries George and Grace Rue. Jimmy spent a few months staying with the Rues in the summer and fall of 1953, while Paul was in the United States trying to arrange for him to get a visa to immigrate. Mrs. Rue was a friend, with whom Paul had worked on charitable efforts to help street kids and other war refugees. Back then, the orphanage was located on the outskirts of the city, surrounded by rice fields that Jimmy remembers playing in. Unfortunately, the dormitories where Jimmy would have slept were torn down a few years ago, but a number of the original buildings remain. Today, it's smack in the middle of eastern Seoul, a modern hospital surrounded by high-rises. The contrast is amazing! 

(1) An aerial view of the compound in 1960, before the city grew up around it. The original hospital is the large white building at the center, while the Rue's red-brick house is located at the hospital's southwest corner.
(2) The hospital compound in the 1960s. The large white building is the original hospital. These would have been the sort of rice fields that Jimmy remembers wading through.
(3) George and Grace Rue on the front steps of the hospital in 1951.
(4) The old hospital today, which is still in use as a maternity ward now named for Dr. Rue.
(5) Mr. and Mrs. Rue's house today. You can see the modern city in the background.

Note: All historic photographs are courtesy of Sahmyook Medical Center, whose staff has been tremendously gracious.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Adoption Day

The photos in this slideshow are all from an event held last weekend in Seoul to draw attention to the plight of unwed mothers in Korea. Sponsored by a group called Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoptee Community of Korea, the intent was to promote alternatives to international adoption. The large puppets represent unwed mothers crying for their lost children.

Korea observed Adoption Day last week. That, in itself, was a bit shocking --- that there is demand for such a day on the calendar seems slightly odd to an American. But in the years since my father-in-law (Jimmy) was adopted, tens of thousands of Korean children have boarded planes for new lives and new families all around the world. Last year alone, 1,264 children were adopted internationally, according to government statistics. At the very beginning, quite a few of the children were like Jimmy - the mixed-race children of wartime unions who had no place in Korean society of that time. But since the 1960s, the vast majority of children who are adopted internationally are 100% Korean. For decades, the country has been providing children to be be raised by American and European families, but as Korea's economy surged; the country began to feel uncomfortable with its international reputation as a "baby exporter." And to complicate matters further, Korea's birthrate is strikingly low. Without shifts in family planning or immigration policy, the nation's population (like that of Japan and many Northern European countries) will begin to fall in coming decades. Hence; Adoption Day. National leaders created the holiday four years ago in hopes of promoting domestic adoption of Korean children by Koreans.

Today's Korean adoptees are almost all the unplanned children of unmarried women --- women who Korean social service agencies say have few choices. Culturally, single mothers just haven't been accepted. One adoptee-activist I spoke with compared the situation to that of the United States in the 1950s and 60s - women are shamed into giving up their children. Some talk of foster care as a solution for struggling families (a Korean system wasn't introduced until 1995), others want to promote acceptance of single moms and build up programs to offer them financial and emotional support. Government leaders often point to recent statistics suggesting that more Koreans are choosing to adopt. And a significant number of adult Korean adoptees have entered the debate, some arguing for the right of a child to be raised within the culture of its birth and calling for an end to international adoptions. Supporters of adoption counter that the timing just isn't right - so long as there are still Korean children in need of homes and parents overseas who want them, adoption agencies should facilitate. The "best interest of the child" can be a very complicated proposition.

For me --- immersed in the very beginning of this international adoption era --- it's fascinating to see how many of the same societal and cultural issues that led to adoptions like Jimmy's may also lead to the era's natural end.  Historically, Koreans adopted children from outside the father's bloodline only rarely; and even today, some couples who adopt go so far as to fake a pregnancy to create the illusion of a biological child to continue the family line. But they also feel a fierce pride in their cultural and ethnic identity --- something borne of centuries spent fighting off invading armies that goes far beyond any sort of patriotism the United States has developed in its (comparatively) short history. That identity suffers when the country is perceived as not being able to care for its own children. National leaders have set deadlines for the end of adoption from Korea, but the dates keep shifting, as cultural change is coming more slowly than some had hoped. It's been fascinating to observe all that's happening now - all the good and bad that ultimately grew out of these early adoptions. I'm writing primarily about the 1950s, but history doesn't exist in a vacuum (OK, sometimes it does, but then it's really, really boring!), and I find the connections between the past and the present fascinating. Korea has been a model for international adoptions worldwide over the past 60 years, and Korean policy could have a tremendous impact on the thousands of children being adopted by Americans each year, from China and Africa and Central America and Eastern Europe. I can't predict what's going to happen, but I have no doubt ... it all starts here.

For more information about the wide range of adoptee perspectives, check out the groups that sponsored some of the events I attended this week:

TRACK (Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoptee Community of Korea):

ASK (Adoptee Solidarity Korea):

GOA'L (Global Overseas Adoptees' Link):

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Children's Day

I had the opportunity to visit an orphanage here in Seoul on Children's Day (May 5th), and wanted to share some of my photos with all of you. As I spend hours at my desk, writing about this little four-year-old boy, it's sometimes easy to forget just how little that is. Having the chance to just spend time with these kids has really helped bring him to life for me. I'd be feeding the toddlers and thinking, "This is how old Jimmy was when his mom died," or playing with the older boys and girls and thinking, "This is how old Jimmy was when he was going down to the market by himself." As many of you probably know, most children who are in Korean orphanages today come from single moms who feel that they don't have any other option (more about that in tomorrow's post ... ), but seeing a mixed-race little girl in the orphanage - perhaps the child of a GI just like Jimmy - really got me thinking about how so much about Korea has transformed since the 1950s, but how below the surface, much remains the same.