Edited by Elaine Ramirez (elaine@groovekorea.com) COvER STORy www.groovekorea.com / September 2014 36 Adoptee Laura Wachs grew up in Seattle in a white, middle-class family. Korean culture played no role in her life, which is why she came to Seoul in June. “That’s why this trip is such a big deal,” she says. “I know nothing about Korean culture and I’m afraid of the ig- norance that exists in my life due to that. “To be honest, I was embarrassed about my Korean heritage for a long time. I think grow- ing up in a predominantly white and privileged society made me think I was better than my culture,” she adds. “I’m realizing how proud I am of being Korean, and what an honor it is to learn and be a part of these two different worlds.” Leanne (Suki) Leith, raised in the U.S., re- turned to Korea in 2009 and stayed for four years. “I came to get a glimpse of the country I came from but knew nothing about,” she says. Having grown up in the Midwest, Leith, like Ishida and Wachs, knew little about Ko- rea while growing up. Parents of that gener- ation were advised to assimilate their children into Western culture, a marked change from the parents of today, who are increasingly teaching them to embrace their ethnic and racial heritage. One of the greatest obstacles adoptees face is their inability to speak Korean. “We are try- ing to explain something extremely complicat- ed to people, yet (we’re) handicapped without the tools for communication — all while trying to grapple with f eelings of rejection and trying to identify with the people who were agents (or victims) of a difficult history, so we can make peace,” says Leith. Leith thinks Koreans are sometimes hesi- tant to accept adoptees because they don’t know how to categorize them. “Our presence can bring to the surface conflicted feelings about public pasts and private events which were traumatic for them — feelings most have worked hard at repressing,” she says. “Koreans sometimes feel a lot of guilt over our involuntary exile, as they continue to send babies away for adoption as a method of sav- ing social status after moral transgressions.” Leith says this can be very alienating. “Many visiting adoptees are in the midst of a really harrowing existential identity exploration.” Like many adoptees, Ishida is not comfort- able with her identity. “I didn’t have an identity, but they gave it to me at an orphanage,” she says, referring to her first arrival as a name- less infant. Ishida’s adoptive mother gave her a biblical first name and she inherited her Jap- anese father’s family name. Her name is both Western and Eastern, which continually rais- es questions about her ethnicity and nationali- ty. “I have nothing else to call myself since my Korean name was given to me by a nameless, faceless social worker,” she says. searches around The globe Before regulations were strengthened, agencies’ speedy adoptions assumed that the children would never return to search as adults, and that the relinquished children would be forgotten. In consequence, contact between child and parent years later is often impossible. If the child was abandoned, as is presumed in Ishida and Leith’s cases, search- es are even more difficult. Adoptees outside of Korea usually begin their search by contacting the local branch of their adoption agency. These private compa- nies often charge high fees for the release of any documents. When Wachs reached out to Catholic Community Services, “they wanted to charge me over $300 to try and get ‘po- tential’ information,” she says. Leith has seen many adoptees get charged hundreds of dollars to access photocopies of their files which, for the most part, contain only the documents needed to make them le- gally adoptable in the country they were sent to. “So even if you pay money to your local adoption agency, you might not get all of your records,” she says, noting that international agencies don’t always hold all the documents because they are merely distributors for the state-supported agencies that are licensed to facilitate international adoptions. Holt has admitted that its birth searches, es- ‘our presence can bring to the surface conflicted feelings about public pasts and private events Which Were traumatic for (Koreans) — feelings most have WorKed hard at repressing.’ Leanne Leith