There is a growing phenomenon in South Korea I am just learning about. There are wealthy families who are sending their children, as young as elementary school age, to the US to a family willing to take care of him/her to study in America and, more importantly, speak like an American. The price tag, $60,000+ a year for room and board only…extracurriculars, medical care, vacations are extra. In exchange, they want the family “hosting” their child to treat him/her like their own – take them to school, get them involved in music and sports, do for them the same as their own children. It got me wondering, perhaps this is why such a tiny country with such a powerful economy continues international adoption. Perhaps the cultural conflict is not a clash of East meets West. Perhaps shaming Korea to stop international adoption is sort of missing the mark. While the quotas continue to drop, I am not convinced that the number of children placed for adoption has diminished tremendously. Several years ago, I spoke with women who were contemplating adoption in a maternity shelter in Korea. For those who were thinking about adoption the decision was usually to place their child internationally over domestically. Why? One, they wanted a better life for their child and they believed an overseas education and the ability to speak English well will do just that. Second, they believed American parents will honor their child’s wish to return to Korea. In other words, they believed they had a better chance to see their child overseas than if adopted in Korea. Ironic?
So when we American adoptees return to Korea with our beautiful English, American style and swagger, college degree or higher in tow, it is not surprising to me to still hear Koreans ask why are we so frustrated? I remember a conversation with a social worker at one of the oldest international adoption agencies in Seoul. This worker spoke English really well and had helped many adoptees obtain more information about their past for over 10 years. She worked very hard to honor their curiosities and diligently did what she was told. I thought she was one person who got it, empathized with us and our desire to make sense of our past. Imagine my surprise when we had some alone time and she asked, “Why? Why do so many keep coming back?” As I stumbled through my Korean to explain the simple idea that we can’t know where we are going if we don’t know where we came from, she still didn’t get it. She saw advantage, privilege, power where I saw the complete opposite. After all these years, I am struck that this inability to truly get it continues to cause conflict. I am struck with the notion that if I wanted the best for my child, I am left questionning whether I would ship him overseas to a place to get what I believed to be the best.
Now, I have seen the fallout of this homestay program. I see the families who serve as the homestay be resentful, their own children angry because their lives were shortchanged for the sake of this other child who was bringing a sizeable amount of income to the family. Their bedrooms sacrificed for this other child. The pressure to help serve this child thus not really being a family. The diligence in raising a child goes beyond money, violin or piano lessons and English without an accent. I see too, the children in these situations feeling displaced – not fully American as their families are not here and no longer connected to Korea as Korea moves forward without them. They are betwixt and between without country and a true home. I find myself empathizing a bit…they are kind of like me and me like them. I wonder, do they feel privileged? Are they grateful?