An “Unknown” Culture Club

During the 2004 Korean Adoptee Conference, intercountry adoptees could finally speak freely. Other situations occurred, but I didn’t grasp their significance until much later (due to my own self-doubt about my right to question the established industry). Fellow adult Korean adoptees, from their early twenties into their late fifties, confided in private sessions that they never stopped mourning the loss of their Korean families and were still trying to deal with the abuse and/or lack of care within their adoptive homes and communities. They weren’t joyfully relating happily-ever-after fairytale endings or the type of stories regularly flaunted by the agencies. Many felt something seriously missing inside their loving, and not-so-loving, foreign (now adoptive) homes. Some relayed feeling rejected, lost between two worlds.


I listened to their stories and gave my own adoption some serious thought. The heartbreaking testimonials caught me by surprise. One thing that we all had in common, it seemed, was that even though we had been sent to foreign families, we still also loved and appreciated them as our own. I had an added benefit. The close relationship that I shared with my twin sister prevented me from feeling deprived of my Korean family. Many agency employees had no qualms about separating siblings, even twins. It appeared as if expediting the shipment of children overseas had become the priority. I was lucky compared to siblings who were torn apart.

Korean adoptees were also upset by the lack of post-adoption services. I had even heard rumors that, in years past, agencies acted as a go-between to newly reunited families. Employees would translate letters between mothers and adoptees (blacking out certain parts) to “protect” the adoptees or the “birth” mothers from each other.

I found out that it was common for agencies to claim that we were “unwanted” babies while they convinced the mothers that we (their children) did not want our “cosmopolitan” Western lives to be disturbed. This was untrue. After listening to numerous personal accounts, I learned that suicide was one way that some adoptees escaped their unacknowledged trauma. In fact, Joseph Holt (an adopted “son” of the missionary farmers who set up the intercountry adoption system in South Korea), committed suicide in 1984 at the age of 32. Being severed from one’s original family, culture, community, and country of birth was somehow “normalized” by way of adoption. Suspicions of abuse were to remain secret (even from the adoption community). One of the Holt’s other Korean-born adopted sons drowned in 1972. What gave Harry and Bertha Holt the right to promise a “better” life to anyone sent to the United States when they so obviously turned a blind eye on the realities of adoption?

As a child, my adoptive mother adored the Holts, which, by extension, meant that I also felt required to adore them. Questioning their work was the most difficult thing I have ever done.

At the adoptee conference, I cared about the other Korean adoptees, even seeing them as a community of soul sisters and brothers, of sorts. When I heard that one adoptee threw an egg at one of the Holt’s biological daughters (in frustration over his lack of access to his own birth records), I didn’t blame him one bit! I could totally see where he was coming from. Why should strangers be entitled to falsify our birth records? And why should they have more rights to our personal information than we do?

Another shock to my system was the fact that Korean parents were looking for their missing children. A Korean father even approached me in a back alley hoping to get help with finding his missing son. One of the biggest problems with intercountry adoption is the language barrier. This begins when prospective couples fill out the application to adopt and then, because of the immense geographic distances, the imbalance continues throughout the course of the transaction. Transcultural adoptees are typically unable to communicate with their first families and often lack any contact with citizens from their countries of birth. This isolation can last a lifetime. These unfair economic advantages, working in tandem with the innumerable communicate barriers, virtually ensures that there will be no “birth” family to contend with down the road for affluent couples wanting to adopt foreign children.

On Behalf of Truth and Transparency,

The Vance Twins

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*Front featured image by Layne Fostervold

*Book cover photo by Michael Hougham

Read: Reuniting Families Through DNA