Unwed mothers in Korea: An adoptee’s impression

KUMSN Newsletter feature: Unwed mothers in Korea: An adoptee’s impression

KUMSN included a short column that I wrote in their February-March 2013 newsletter. It is mostly bits and pieces of things I’ve already written in my previous blogs, but I thought I would share because of the wonderful picture! 🙂 Anyway, I do have many thing that I would like to post about but please bear with me!  KUMSN has been very busy and I have been involved in some of the research and projects. I am also without a personal computer and have been depending on my smart phone when I am not at the KUMSN office.  In the meantime, here are some more delicious pictures of the food I have been enjoying and some information about the recent holiday in Korea!

The Lunar New Year passed this month on February 10th but the whole weekend was like a holiday.  I was even off from field the following Monday and Tuesday!  Department stores and shops were packed with people buying gifts, groceries, and other things to prepare for the celebration. Usually, the new year is spent with families and most businesses close although buses, subways, and some convenience stores stay open.  From what I could tell, this holiday is a major holiday, similar to our Christmas season.

Seollal, Lunar New Year food

Dduk guk is the traditional dish made to celebrate Seollal or the Lunar New Year. It is a soup with rice cakes (dduk), beef, and many other things in it.


The InKAS president cooked a traditional Seollal meal for guesthouse residents!


A delicious ending to our new year feast from the bakery called Peter Pan!

The InKAS president cooked all the food for the Lunar New Year, (“Seollal” or 설날 in Korean) since many of the guesthouse residents were not spending it with family.  She wore a traditional hanbok and everyone there learned what is called “sae bae” (새해), in which children traditionally bow to their parents or grandparents and receive money in an envelope.  Also, according to Korean culture or traditions, Korean people turn one year older after they finish eating their “dduk guk” soup.  My Korean age is 29 (which is way closer to 30 than I would like to think about).


Hand-drip coffee is popular in Korea and luckily there is a cafe down the street from the guesthouse!


Categories: Field Experience, Korean Culture | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Lessons in self-awareness and self-care

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.

visit to the cat cafe in sinchon, seoul

Practicing self-care: Visit to the Cat Cafe in Sinchon, Seoul

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.


Related links:

Gender equality slightly improved last year: gov’t report

Korea ranked last in OECD in employment of female college graduates

Korea 4th-largest source for adoptees in U.S.

Mental health problems major cause of suicide

Human Rights Korea

Categories: Child welfare, Family issues, Field Experience, Korean Culture, Other Social Welfare Issues, Social Work, Women's Issues | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Summary of the 1st Week

It has been about a week since I started field and things have been pretty difficult with the language barrier and cultural differences. I feel as though I may have had a rocky start with KUMSN because I was unaware of some of the cultural norms regarding greetings, giving gifts, and even meal times.

Greetings and farewells are much more formal compared to my experience in the U.S. and is essential in the Korean work culture. In jobs that I’ve worked in the past, saying “hello” and “goodbye” to my co-workers and supervisors were not something that I normally would of as important or that I would spend time doing. At my current job as a case manager, employees arrive and leave the office on different schedules depending on their own agendas, so It has never been a priority for me to greet or say goodbye to everyone.

Despite these struggles, I have been learning so much more about the social environment that has led to the unwed mother’s perception of not having any other choice than to give their child up for adoption. I also am beginning to identify and better explain how the discrimination and struggles that unwed mothers experience are related to several other dynamics in Korean society which I hope to go more into later.

Family Ties by Lee Jun-il

Family Ties by Lee Jun-Il

On my second day of field, I stayed afterwards to attend a study group that KUMSN holds at their office once every other week. The participants are all KUMSN members and are in various professional and academic fields. There is a lawyer, an accountant, two in PhD programs for women’s/feminine studies (including one male), an international tourism professor, an unwed mother, as well as other KUMSN employees including my field educator, Seunghee.

The group’s focus is to study and learn more about unwed mothers and their experiences to gain a better understanding since most study group members are not unwed mothers. Currently, the study group is reading Family Ties: According to the change in the concept of family: the rights of unwed mothers and adoptees by Lee, Jun-il.  Click on the book for more info.

Although my understanding of Korean language is very limited, I can understand the conversation topic and can somewhat gather the position and some thoughts of the speaker during discussion. They also distribute handouts or an outline of the discussion as a guide, however it is also in Korean.  In the past the study group has also reviewed research and academic journal articles about other relevant issues such as the status of women in Korea and international adoption.

Shinhan Bank book

so cute!

With the help of KUMSN, I also established a Korean bank account with Shinhan Bank so that I could transfer money more easily between my bank in the U.S. and Korea since the foreign exchange and ATM fees are very high. It is also more convenient to add money to my mobile SIM card and my T-money card. Even before coming to Korea, I have always liked their cute stationary and office products. I was even more excited to find that even their bank books are cute!

Categories: Field Experience, Korean Culture, Other Social Welfare Issues, Social Work | Tags: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Meeting KUMSN

It has been only three days since I started my field placement with KUMSN and so far I’ve found it to be energizing and exciting, but also difficult and at times frustrating.

The KUMSN office is actually located in an apartment building rather than a formal office building, so it is a very home-like environment. Based on the stigma on unwed mothers and those that openly support them, finding affordable office space may have been difficult for KUMSN. Their sole office is located in a district called Mapo-gu (which is not too far from where I am staying in Seodaemun-gu). There are three full-time office staff including the Executive Director, the Project Public Relations Chief Manager, and my field educator, Han Seo, Seung-hee (family name, given name), who is the Research & Education Chief Manager. The board chairperson, Angela Kang, also has her office here but only comes once or twice a week.

KUMSN cute sticky notes that say  "All the mothers of the world have the right to raise their own children,"

Translation: “All the mothers of the world have the right to raise their own children,”

After getting lost on the bus system and walking in the freezing cold, I finally arrived (an hour late) on my first day. I met with Seung-hee and learned about KUMSN’s current activities. She provided me with brochures in Korean and English, as well as some cute post-it notes with their information on them.

Although KUMSN was founded in 2007, they were registered as an organization in the U.S. Very recently in 2011, KUMSN became a registered organization with the Korean government although they do not receive any government funding or support. Through the foundation that Dr. Boas established in the U.S., KUMSN will have a funding source for its first two years in Korea with the goal of becoming self-supporting by June 2014. Additional funding is obtained through donations (both monetary and in-kind), sponsoring members, and memberships for their budget. However, because of the stigma on unwed mothers, it is difficult to gain the support of businesses and organizations who do not want to be affiliated with KUMSN.

This month, they have been very busy preparing for their U.S. tax audit that they must complete since they receive funding through Dr. Boas’ foundation. At this time, I have been helping by doing miscellaneous office tasks such as copying, filing, organizing, etc. Although these tasks are not directly related to our roles as social workers, I have come to accept that paperwork and organization are important and will always be part of the job, especially in an administrative or management position.

My other responsibilities will include reviewing and proofreading the English website as well as the news and academic articles after they have been translated by KUMSN volunteers from Korean to English. I also search for academic research and news articles (in English) related to unwed mothers, intercountry adoption, birthmothers, and families in Korea and other areas of the world.

It is also a reflection of cultural differences in that Korea has a very different work environment than what I am used to working in the U.S. It is common for the newest person to the company or organization to do these kinds of activities such as copying, getting coffee, and filing. Working beyond the designated work hours is also common and a regular occurrence, but is not reflected in their salary or wages. For example, a friend of mine who is a Korean National, started working for KT Telecom and has been working from 9 am until 11 pm most days although he’s only paid until 6 pm.

I am very excited to work with KUMSN because of my own thoughts and feelings about the issues unwed mothers face in Korea and I do believe that woman have the right to become mothers and to keep and raise their children. It is also important to me because it is this stigma that has really fueled the Korean international adoption industry.

KUMSN's banner on adopted children

As a woman, it is also important to me because of the traditional Korean beliefs and norms that historically and continues to place greater value on men: not only in families which are the private and domestic sector, but also in employment, owning property, politically, economically, educationally, and even in everyday public and social interactions. I hope to go into greater detail with my thoughts and understanding of these aspects throughout the time that I am here, but I think that I have written enough for tonight.


Categories: Child welfare, Field Experience, Korean Culture, Social Work, Women's Issues | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Culture shock

I have been in Korea for a few days now and there are a million things that I have been trying to accomplish in preparation for the few months that I am here. All of my life, I’ve lived in the suburbs; where everyone has to drive and own a car because everywhere is so far away from each other and there is limited public transportation. Having to learn, navigate, and use the transportation system in Seoul, which serves the world’s 2nd largest metropolitan area, is extremely intimidating for me. I am not even good at using the public transportation in New York City when visiting!

Similar to the reloadable cards used in New York City, public transportation is accessed with a “T-Money” card. This can be used for buses, subways, even taxis in Seoul and the surrounding areas.  Money is credited to the card which can be reloaded at most subway stations, convenience and corner stores, as well as online. I also have to purchase a Korean SIM card or rent a cell phone for the duration that I in Korea so that I can be contacted domestically, but I use Skype for all international communication.


Reloadable card used for almost all public transportation in Korea

Over the weekend, some KADS living here at the guesthouse showed me where the local grocery store is and so that I could buy a few things that I didn’t pack. I noticed that items imported from other countries, especially American products and name brands are very expensive. For example, a regular size container of Skippy peanut butter costs an average 16,000 Korean Won (KW) which is almost 15 in U.S. Dollars! Other things like honey, soda, cheese, and American brand personal care products are hard to find and very expensive here (I heard because of foreign taxes).  But I find it really hard to complain about America importing cheap goods from places like China as I pay $15 for peanut butter here.

Not really related to social work, but I learned that it is actually cheaper to go out to eat at Korean restaurants than it is to buy ingredients to cook at the guesthouse. On that note, I have been enjoying ethnic Korean food almost every day.

Korean beef BBQ

Marinated beef grilled on table top Korean BBQ style!

Pork bone soup

First time trying! – a spicy Korean soup made with pork on bone, green onions, hot peppers, other vegetables and ground wild sesame seeds.

Other than going to the market and out for food, I haven’t had much courage to go out and explore the city by myself yet and I feel bad asking others to escort me everywhere since they are busy and studying. I feel pretty small and helpless which is very different than what I am used to feeling at home and in my comfort zone. I am literally afraid to leave the guesthouse because I have a limited ability to speak Korean. I don’t really know how to get around or where anything is and I do not have a working cell phone in Korea yet so it would be really easy to get lost and stranded without a way of contacting someone.

When I initially made the commitment to an international field placement in Korea, I was eager for this new experience in a foreign country! It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and completely out of my comfort zone, but it is much harder and scarier than I thought it would be.

Tomorrow will be my first day of field with KUMSN! I haven’t actually tried to get to their office yet, but I searched and wrote down directions using Google Maps. It is very confusing and making me anxious, meaning my first day in field will be another adventure, I promise!

Categories: Korean Culture, Travel tips | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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