To acquire wisdom, one must observe

‘Geographies of Kinship’ continues discussion on transnational adoption

Following the “Mixed Korean” book reading on Saturday, Nov. 2, on Sunday the Film, Television and Interactive Media Program and the history department hosted a screening and Q&A of the documentary film “Geographies of Kinship,” produced by Deann Borshay Liem. Borshay Liem was born in Korea and was adopted by a white family in the United States in 1966. Her documentary follows four adult adoptees—Dr. Estelle Cooke-Sampson, LenaKim Arctaedius, Daewon Kim and Jane Jeong Trenka—whose lives intersected with Korean adoption. While each of the stories in the documentary makes up the collective history surrounding Korean adoption, it is not comprehensive, said Borshay Liem in the introduction. 

Each of the adoptees had different experiences growing up: Cooke-Sampson, a Korean adoptee who is half-black, was raised in Washington D.C. and grew up in an African American family with no acknowledgment of her Korean ancestry. Arctaedius was raised in Sweden and socialized in a predominantly white environment. Kim and Trenka were adopted along with their biological siblings in Switzerland and California respectively. As adults, the adoptees returned to Korea to reconnect with their roots.

The history of Korean transnational adoption is complicated. The number of Korean children orphaned after the Korean War rose for decades, with 100,000 children orphaned within a year of the end of the war, according to the documentary. Various adoption agencies and foreign aid relief agencies began the notion of transnational adoption to make up for the few adoptees in the U.S.; organizations would go to camptowns looking for abandoned children or asking single parents if they wanted to relinquish their children. While factors such as being mixed-race, poverty, broken families, remarriage and single parenthood increased the number of relinquished children and contributed to the number of orphans, it is important to note that some of these children were not “true orphans;” some parents put their children in local Korean orphanages so that they would be fed and educated. The orphanages welcomed the increase in children, as the number of children living in the orphanage increased the amount of sponsorship they would receive from abroad.

Besides being a legacy of the Korean War, transnational adoption also reflected the patriarchal society that once dominated South Korea. Since men—fathers, husbands and sons—were heads of the household, there was no future for children born to single mothers; without a father, these children were considered illegitimate and were unable to receive an education. 

I am currently taking my second Asian American and Pacific Islander studies course at Brandeis, and as I watched this film, I saw American dominance in this part of history. The historical context, denoted by black and white grainy film snippets, strung together a story that starkly contrasted the modernity of South Korea that I grew up knowing. What stood out to me as most emotional were the different points of the documentary where adoptees shared confusion surrounding their cultural identity, which put the less frequently discussed aspects of adoption on display. Many of these adoptees lived two separate lives, before and after adoption, and there was typically no bridge between them until they reached adulthood. One adoptee shared that he secretly started going to Korean school, and another shared that she found letters and photographs of her biological family hidden from her. While this must be a difficult conversation for adoptive families to have, it also serves as a disadvantage to both the adoptee and the family to not discuss the complexities of race and cultural identity, as the adoptees would be unable to access an essential part of their identity.

Following the film screening, Professor Yuri Doolan (AAPI/HIST/WGS) moderated a Q&A session with Borshay Liem, Cooke-Sampson and Professor Arissa Oh, an associate professor of history at Boston College who was featured in the documentary. Each of the speakers was asked about their personal opinions on overseas adoption. Borshay Liem’s response eloquently sums up the complexity of transnational adoption. 

Adoption, conceptually, is “inherently good” and a “beautiful aspect of humanity,” said Borshay Liem. However, for herself and other adoptees, the industrialization of the adoption system became a “system of finding children for families who wanted them” rather than prioritizing the child. She also brought up the idea of an “unspoken agreement” of not talking about adoptees’ pasts with their adoptive parents and how they are labeled as “happy” or “angry” adoptees depending on whether or not they try to start this kind of conversation. Borshay Liem believes that adoptees not being able to be their full selves does not benefit any party and encourages more questions and dialogue surrounding identity. 

Borshay Liem’s “Geographies of Kinship” shed light on the intricacies of transnational adoption. This event was meaningful as it allowed me to visualize class material—my AAPI class recently read Trenka’s memoir—and consider the history of international adoption more holistically. Borshay Liem is currently producing and editing “Crossings,” a documentary about 30 women peacemakers walking across the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) from North Korea to South Korea, and “Relative Strangers,” a documentary that follows mixed-race adult children of U.S. servicemen and Korean women as they search for their birth families in both countries.

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