Excerpts from “Diasporic Articulations and the Transformative Power of Haunting”

Note: This is a collection of excerpts from “Diasporic Articulations and the Transformative Power of Haunting: Returning Adoptees’ Solidarity Movement with Unwed Mothers in Korea,” a thesis researched and written from 2011-2013 to fulfill graduation requirements for an M.A. in Anthropology at Hanyang University, Seoul, South Korea.
~ Shannon Heit

When I was young, I was often aware of a feeling that I could sense but could not articulate. I envisioned this feeling as a black hole, a void, an abyss – that which exists in its very absence, that which becomes significant because it was missing, or, as Avery Gordon describes it in her book, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, “that which makes its mark by being there and not there at the same time” (6). Growing up, this absence was sometimes overwhelming, the way silence can be more deafening than noise. However, although the absence was acute, as I grew older, its constant presence eventually made it nearly unnoticeable, ever-present white noise relegated to the background of my consciousness.

My life in Korea has largely been an attempt to examine those gaps and hollows, the negative spaces of my life and the shapes and forms that are a result of them. Gordon describes these negative spaces as “hauntings” and the subsequent shapes and forms as “ghosts,” arguing that that which cannot be seen can indeed produce observable effects: “If haunting describes how that which appears to be not there is often a seething presence, acting on and often meddling with taken-for-granted realities” (8).

In her book, Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War, Grace M. Cho expands on Gordon’s framework, describing the haunting of the Korean diaspora as a transgenerational haunting, “[a] haunting effect [that] is produced not so much by the original trauma as by the fact of its being kept hidden. It is precisely within the gap in conscious knowledge about one’s family history that secrets turn into phantoms” (11). Adoptees, perhaps more so than any other group, are haunted by the absence of knowledge regarding our family histories and the secrets of our pasts that can’t be known.

While most scholars would likely dismiss the value of studying something that doesn’t exist, Grace M. Cho argues, “something that is seemingly absent or nonexistent can be a powerful force in shaping empirical reality” (31). I believe that the phenomenon of returning adoptee activities with the Korean Unwed Mothers Families’ Association (KUMFA) is the empirical reality that has resulted from such “seemingly absent or nonexistent” forces. Concretely speaking, adoptees first began consciously interacting with unwed mothers in 2008 when members of Adoptee Solidarity Korea (ASK) started visiting Aeranwon, an unwed mothers’ facility. The program began in order for mothers who were considering adoption to hear candid, firsthand accounts from adoptees about our experiences in our respective countries. Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoptee Community of Korea (TRACK), headed by adoptee author and activist, Jane Jeong Trenka, first began working with adoptees in May of 2009, when on Adoption Day, TRACK held a puppet performance in front of Jonggak Station depicting the connection between adoptees and unwed mothers.

I began casually participating in KUMFA activities beginning in July of 2009, when another adoptee friend of mine, Joo-Ae, whom I met through our involvement in adoptee group ASK, invited me to help her babysit children while the KUMFA moms participated in organizational meetings or educational programs. However, I went to these activities rather inconsistently from July 2009 until June of 2011, when I began taking on a more active role of coordinating volunteers for the group. The change was instigated after Joo-Ae returned to the United States for grad school. Since Joo-Ae had spoken both Korean and English, I felt a responsibility, as another bilingual adoptee, to step in to her role and help facilitate interaction between the KUMFA moms and adoptees, as the momentum from adoptees wanting to support the group was starting to grow. Since June 2011, I have attended KUMFA membership meetings, steering committee meetings, educational programs, conferences regarding both the unwed mothers’ issue and adoption, and KUMFA camps. I have met with individual moms and children, and also facilitate communication between the moms and other involved adoptees.

The Connection Between Adoption and Unwed Motherhood

Today, although South Korea is the 13th largest economy in the world, it continues to send children for adoption overseas. Since the 1980’s, the overwhelming majority of children sent for international adoption have been the children of unwed mothers. In the 1980’s, eighty percent of all children sent for international adoption were the children of unwed mothers, and since the 1990’s, ninety percent or more of children sent abroad have been the children of unwed mothers. [1]

Although recently, diverse and “non-normative” family forms have been slowly gaining more attention in the arenas of academic research and public policy, unwed motherhood in Korea is still considered a nearly impossible choice. According to Statistics Korea, in the 2010 census, there were 1.59 million single parent households in Korea, a 470,000 increase from the census ten years prior.[2] Still, although the number of single parent families is on the rise, there is little to no financial support available to them. According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, 1,013 and 916 children were adopted overseas in 2010 and 2011 respectively[3] and the most recent statistics show that in 2012, 92% of the children sent for overseas adoption were the children of unwed mothers.[4] Unwed mothers face extreme social prejudice and significant structural discrimination. In addition, they often face rejection from their families and social networks. Historically, when women become pregnant before marriage in Korea, abortion, although technically illegal, has been the most common solution.[5] In the case that women choose to give birth, families heavily pressure the mothers to give the child up for adoption. According to KUMFA Director, Mok Kyoung-hwa, raising a child as an unwed mother in Korea is essentially not seen as an option:

According to former KUMFA Head of Publicity and Planning, Choi Hyoung-sook, of the mothers who stayed at an unwed mothers home at the same time she was pregnant, 70% of the mothers ended up choosing adoption.[6] Adoption agencies run approximately half of the unwed mothers’ homes in the country, and the rate of sending for adoption at those homes is consistently about 60-70%. However, for unwed mothers who stay at homes not run by adoption agencies, up to 80% choose to raise their children, and since the implementation of the Special Adoption Law in 2012, that percentage has continued to rise.

Korean Unwed Mothers Families’ Association (KUMFA)

KUMFA is the first and only official organization started by and run by unwed mothers. It began when a group of unwed mothers who were staying at the same unwed mothers facility decided in March 2009 that it was time for unwed mothers to raise their own voices and advocate for the rights of unwed pregnant women, unwed mothers and their children in Korea. KUMFA’s goal is to enable Korean women to have sufficient resources and support to keep their babies if they choose, and thrive in Korean society.

The organization was first realized as an online Naver café community (Miss Mama Mia) in order for mothers to have a place to share information and resources. It then expanded to an offline monthly meeting where moms participate in educational lectures, exchange information, etc. In addition, KUMFA holds camps for each major holiday in Korea in order to provide family environments for moms and children during holiday seasons. KUMFA also provides educational, advocacy, and counseling support programs for unwed mothers.[7] Additionally, KUMFA worked with adoptee advocacy groups TRACK, ASK, and KoRoot to help pass the revisions to the Special Adoption Law in 2011,[8] officially put into effect August 2012, which brought Korea up to international adoption standards and led to the country’s signing of the Hague Convention on the Rights of the Child in May 2013.[9] Finally, in the beginning of 2011, KUMFA opened HEATER, a facility that provides care for unwed mothers who choose to raise their children. It is unique in that, unlike other facilities in Korea, HEATER accepts mothers who are older and/or already have children, or whose children need medical attention.[10] When HEATER was facing shutdown due to a lack of funds, it was a fundraising effort led by adoptee Kevin Haebeom Vollmers that saved the shelter, providing the budget it needed to run another year.

The Validation of Solidarity

Returning Korean adoptees and Korean unwed mothers have formed an unlikely alliance, and the two communities share a mutually supportive relationship – a solidarity that validates the rights of the other in Korean society. The decision to raise their children in Korea puts unwed mothers in socially vulnerable positions, but the solidarity of adoptees validates their right to raise their children. Conversely, adoptees, being mostly unable to speak Korean and having little networks within Korean society, are aided in their fight for adoptee rights by the solidarity and support of unwed mothers.

When I first began working with KUMFA, it was clear to me that many adoptees viewed their solidarity with the KUMFA moms as a type of symbolic solidarity with their own mothers. My own twin sister, Sharon, explained what working with KUMFA meant to her as an adoptee:

However, it didn’t occur to me that the KUMFA moms also view adoptees in a similar way. It particularly struck me when one mother first sent me kimchi in 2011, an act that is typically reserved for mothers to their children or even an older sister to her younger siblings. The following year, two other KUMFA mothers sent me kimchi. Such symbolic behaviors towards me, as well as comments heard from moms throughout my three years working with KUMFA, made me realize that it is not only adoptees who feel a special bond with the KUMFA moms. KUMFA moms who considered or have experience with adoption in particular exhibit a special connection with adoptees, and this relationship also influences the way they feel about their own decision to raise their children. According to KUMFA mom Shin Soonhee:

Furthermore, as KUMFA mom Choi Hyoung-sook explains, in many cases where mothers have considered adoption, they see the solidarity of adoptees with KUMFA as a revalidation of their decision to raise their children:

However, even for mothers who did not consider adoption, seeing adoptees who support KUMFA can serve as a reaffirmation of their right to raise their children. Director of KUMFA, Mok Kyung-hwa, did not consider adoption, but she still expressed feeling a special relationship with adoptees:

From working with adoptees and unwed moms, it is clear to me that adoptees and unwed mothers have a special relationship. Not quite family, far from stranger, this bond of solidarity exceeds traditional boundaries of time and space. Adoptees, imaging their own mothers from the past, feel a desire to prevent such injustices from occurring again to women in the present. For unwed mothers, adoptees symbolize their children from a hypothetical future, allowing unwed mothers the opportunity to confirm that they have made the right choice in raising their child. Getting this validation from adoptees has significant meaning, as the general Korean public still holds very harsh stereotypes about unwed mothers.

Transformative Power of Haunting

Through our work with KUMFA, adoptees are able to turn our legacy of loss into a force for positive social change in both the realms of the personal and the social. In his article, “Representations, identities, resistance,” Gerard Duveen argues that, “identity is as much concerned with the process of being identified as with making identifications.” Duveen adds that identity formation also “results in the emergence of social actors or agents” and that such “identities provide ways of organizing meanings so as to sustain a sense of stability” (182). For adoptees who have complicated and sometimes even conflicting identities to navigate and integrate, our processes of “making identifications” is an assertion of our agency over our identities, which were in large part affected by decisions in the past beyond our control. Through the exertion of our agency in the present, though, we are able to come to a deeper understanding of the sociopolitical factors that have contributed to our existence in both our Western adoptive countries and in Korea, as well as come to a state of stability regarding our place.

Adoptees’ solidarity actions with KUMFA are a personal and public reminder that no matter how “good” our adoptive parents are, or no matter how “successful” our reunions are, adoption is not a ‘natural’ phenomenon – adoption is borne out of trauma. The legacy of loss that adoptees carry is even more haunting because we are often unable to ever learn of the details of that trauma. The adoptee experience is a complicated one – it is a non-linear, lifelong process. It is not over when we are adopted. It is not over when we become adults. It is not over if we have children of our own. It is not over if we find our original families. The ghosts that haunt us are a legacy of the social death of our families, but they can also act as a memorial to our families, as the solidarity with KUMFA does for me. Such haunting, then, can take on a transformative power, serving as an active reminder of the ways that we can strive to prevent other families from falling victim to such social death and as a result, release us from our own ghosts.

~ Shannon Heit

[1] “1958-2008 Statistical Report on Unwed Mothers and Adoption” Ministry of Health and Welfare (1958-2008년 미혼모 아동 입양 현황, 보건복지), http://stat.mw.go.kr/

[2] For more information and statistics on the increase of single parent families, refer to http://www.edaily.co.kr/news/NewsRead.edy?newsid=01131606599460696&SCD&DCD=A01609

[3] “2011 Statistical Report on Domestic and International Adoption” Ministry of Health and Welfare (2011년 국내외입양현황통계, 보건복지부) http://stat.mw.go.kr/

[4] “2012 Statistical Report on Domestic and International Adoption” Ministry of Health and Welfare (2012년 국내외입양현황통계, 보건복지부) http://www.mw.go.kr/front_new/jb/sjb030301vw.jspPAR_MENU_ID=03&MENU_ID=031604&page=1&CONT_SEQ=284892

[5] Because it is illegal, abortion statistics are not exact. However, according to a 2007 report from the Ministry of Health and Welfare, approximately 96% of unwed mothers choose abortion (as quoted by Choe Sang-hun in his New York Times article, printed October 7, 2009, “Group Resists Korean Stigma for Unwed Mothers” http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/08/world/asia/08mothers.html?_r=0).

[6]According to Choi, when an adoption agency sends a child for domestic adoption, they receive approximately 2.7 million won in support from the Korean government and if they send a child for international adoption, they receive more than 10 million won from the adoptive parents in fees. Choi argues that when you consider these numbers, it is impossible to avoid the fact that adoption agencies are selling the children of unwed mothers for profit. For more information, refer to http://www.ohmynews.com/NWS_Web/view/at_pg.aspx?CNTN_CD=A0001813835

[7] KUMFA was covered by the New York Times on October 7, 2009. See http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/08/world/asia/08mothers.html

[8] For more info on this, see http://www.koreaherald.com/lifestyle/Detail.jsp?newsMLId=20091113000068

[9] For more info on this, see http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/opinon/2013/05/197_136433.html

[10] For more info on this, see http://www.koreaherald.com/national/Detail.jsp?newsMLId=20111123000239