First, I would like to apologize for not posting on a regular basis, especially because many of you are probably curious or concerned about how things have been going. The reason II haven’t posted in awhile is not because I’ve been too busy or because I don’t have anything interesting to share (it is very much the opposite actually). The problem that I am having is that whenever I am writing about my thoughts and views about my field experience with KUMSN, I struggle with trying to be objective and sensitive to the impact it may have on the various people who I know are reading.
As the blog title suggests, I have been having to set aside time for a lot of processing and self-care because my field interest and current placement with KUMSN and the issues faced by Korean women are interconnected with my personal history and experiences as a Korean adoptee. I even completed my undergraduate studies and entered this social work program with the interest area of transracial, intercountry adoption and the long-term goal of working in the field of adoption and child welfare.
When I approached the field department about completing my advanced field placement in South Korea, I had already given a lot of thought and consideration to the possible meaning and impact of being in my birth country and working with issues and people who are related to the practice of Korean intercountry adoption. I felt that I was making a very conscious and informed decision.
But since my arrival and after only a month of living and “working” in Korea, I have developed feelings of anger and resentment towards Korea and Korean society in general. From learning and practicing self-awareness in this program and its importance in the social work field, I was able to notice and identify these feelings and have been trying to recognize why I am having these feelings and their meaning as well as what I need to be mindful of when I am working with others.
After seeking the support and guidance from members of the department as well as family, friends, and other Korean adoptees, I realized that these feelings aren’t a result of culture shock, language barriers, or the loss of independence I am struggling with – but from the knowledge, values, and beliefs that I have developed through both my personal experiences and my journey to become a social worker.
Based only on my own experiences, perspectives, and opinions, it is both frustrating and annoying when Korean nationals expect and then tell me that I should learn the language and culture because I am Korean. Some have tried to explain that it is similar to the expectation that many Americans often have for immigrants in learning American English, which I both agree and disagree with because most developed nations in the world require students to learn English however their practical conversation skills are limited or they lack confidence. Some are refugees or displaced persons from impoverished, oppressed, and violent countries and who, often, are not even accustomed to having their basic needs met such as having clean water or food. However, I realize that in certain circumstances it is not unreasonable to expect foreigners to have a basic knowledge or a willingness to learn the first language of the country they are going to be living in and it is something that I would imagine most people would want to learn just because it is helpful if you plan on living, working, or receiving an education in a different culture with a different language.
Now this is where it has become difficult for me because of my personal connection:
But what I am encountering in Korea is much more complicated and carries a completely different meaning because I am a Korean adopted. White Americans and other non-Koreans living and working in Korea are generally not expected to know or become proficient in the language. While there are some Korean nationals with a strong negative view of foreigners or expats living and working in Korea, they can accept that they are unable to or lack the interest in learning Korean. I think it’s only because I look Korean and am Korean that Korean nationals are much more “unforgiving” about my hesitancy and poor proficiency in my Korean language ability. Even after I explain that I am adopted and grew up in the U.S., they still expect and almost demand that I learn Korean.
While I have experienced this in the U.S. with members of the Korean American community to some extent, I still think that this learning Korean “requirement” is not for me at all. I did take Korean language courses at UB when I was an undergrad and even learned the traditional percussion folk art called “sa-mul-no-ri”, but I think that is as far as I am willing to go. It’s difficult for me to explain but my opinion is that Korean nationals can not and should not expect adoptees to learn the language or embrace Korean cultural norms, values, traditions, and history. At the very least, adoptees should not be made to feel guilty or bad about not knowing these things by Korean nationals when they scold us or make a big deal out of it. This has also been experienced by some of the later generations of Korean Americans.
Why should I have to feel bad because I am not proficient in the language? I was sent away from Korea when I was less than a year old because society degraded women with premarital births and their “illegitimate children”. So instead, I grew up learning American English and American norms and values – not that I agree with or believe these to be any superior which is beside the point.
After I am done being sad, upset, angry, and then oppositional, I try to look at it through the lens of a social worker and what I have come up with is that many Korean nationals are not sure what to do or how to interact with Korean adoptees who return to Korea. I think that they are taken by surprise when an adoptee begins to speak another language and cannot understand or converse in Korean. I think that the historical context in which international Korean adoptions occurred and the international recognition by many scholars, public officials, and adoption professionals of South Korea as being the “birth place” of modern international adoption practice and the #1 baby exporter that contribute to most of the confrontations between returning Korean adoptees and Korean nationals. It has been publicly stated that many Korean nationals regard this is label as a national shame.
The largest waves of of Korean adoptions occurred during the mid 1980’s with almost 9,000 children adopted internationally each year. Now as adults, Korean adoptees are returning to South Korea (for various reasons) in greater numbers so subsequently Korean nationals are more likely to encounter this forgotten population. I believe that these encounters are difficult and uncomfortable for many Koreans because of the national shame that surrounds adoption which they may have forgotten or ignored despite the fact that the societal conditions for international adoption (attitudes, values, and beliefs) are still prevalent. In an effort to compensate or make themselves feel better, they scold the adoptee for not having knowledge of Korean language, culture, or history which places the guilt and shame onto the adoptee. Keep in mind that this is just my personal belief.
Looking at Korea from the position of a social work student, I have observed and learned about many of the social dynamics and other marginalized populations which has contributed to my feelings of anger and frustration.
People often ask me what I think of Korea as it is my first visit and experience and I struggle to answer them in a way that respects the strong pride and nationalism that many Koreans possess. To be honest though, my first impression of Korea is that it is very deceptive. For those who vacation or visit Korea briefly or those who are informed by mass communication such as the news – you may not see or understand what is really happening. The capital and largest city of Seoul is highly urban and developed. There are sophisticated road systems, a very accessible and extensive public transportation system, and almost any kind of business or service that you can imagine. They even have a Cat Café where you can order coffee and play with different breeds of cats (which I visited the first week I was here because I was so homesick and missed my cats).
To be totally honest, because Korea is not well known for its social issues, I often felt embarrassed when people asked me why I was going to South Korea for my advanced field experience. South Korea has an international reputation of being economically and technologically modern and could be considered a global power. The standard of living is much higher than the countries where social work students frequently study abroad or volunteer. I also had concerns about how others in the program including social work professors and my peers would react to my choice in going to South Korea for an advanced field placement, especially because a fellow student and colleague is doing some very important and meaningful work with a very vulnerable population and an area where there is a much greater need.
But I really wanted to come to Korea to see for myself and experience first-hand what I had heard from others and read about the huge gap between the fast economic growth and standard of living and the severe lag in social progress. Even in the short amount of time that I’ve been living here, I’ve discovered that everything I had previously learned and heard about the general attitude and treatment of unwed mothers by Korean society, is not only true – it is much worse and extensive than I had imagined.
Because I didn’t really have any idea of the situation or the welfare state in South Korea except for what I had researched with regard to international adoption, I did not realize how the social dynamics marginalize many other sub-groups and populations. Inequality and oppression is not specific to unwed mothers alone. For Korean women in general, the gender gap is still very wide. Social trends that I am commonly exposed to in the U.S. such as increased divorce rates and the increase in educational attainment and independence for women are still relatively new concepts in Korea. I will write much more about this later. The nuclear family, with the male “breadwinner” and female “homemaker/child-rearer” as the “traditional” family is still emphasized in part because of the strong emphasis on Confucian values and beliefs. There is little acceptance or support for people with physical and intellectual disabilities and they are kept hidden from society most of the time. Mental health is still taboo and considered an individual’s problem and personal deficit which has contributed to the drastic increase in suicide rates in Korea. As for child welfare, domestic adoptions are still not accepted because of the Confucian value on blood-ties and patriarchy. While the occurrence and efforts to increase domestic adoptions are being made, it is all kept closed and secret from others with a lot of shame and guilt surrounding it. For 2012, South Korea was the 4th largest source of international adoptions despite the claims of the Korean government and adoption agencies to reduce and eventually end Korean adoption back in 1976 and most recently in 2007.
While this experience has been very difficult both personally and as a developing social work professional, I think it is a valuable learning experience and has really forced me to take the time and consciously exercise everything that I’ve learned about self-awareness and self-care in the program. Concepts such as the integration of the personal and professional self, transference and counter-transference, and being mindful have really “hit home” as a result of this field experience and time spent abroad. And although my initial feelings and thoughts were not the most positive (anxiety, fear, sadness, anger, and frustration), I am optimistic that I will be able to leave Korea and walk away with many positive feelings, thoughts, and experiences that I have gained a better understanding and learned a lot more about myself, social work, and my direction after graduation.