Reflections on World Adoption Day

Yesterday, on World Adoption Day, I had the opportunity to present preliminary findings from my dissertation research, which focuses on Korean adoptees’ identities, advocacy, and relationship to racial ideology. As I worked on and practiced my presentation over the past week, I couldn’t help but think about the conflicting messages about adoption, such as those promoted through National Adoption Month, Orphan Sunday, World Adoption Day, or National Adoption Day, and the very real experiences of adoptees. World Adoption Day, like the other nationally and internationally identified adoption events, celebrates families and raises awareness about adoption. But adoption campaigns do not translate into transformation in understanding about who constitutes family, what transracial adoption entails, or the citizenship rights of transnational adoptees.

In the midst of National Adoption Month, a Korean adoptee awaits deportation. We talk about forever families and yet here is an adoptee being separated from family forever. The country that welcomed him here has decided that it no longer wants him. The cute Korean baby has served its purpose.

On World Adoption Day, I continued to see the limits of family-making through adoption. Ideas of being just like one of the family should mean to be loved like one of the family, to be embraced like one of the family, to be defended like one of the family. But, too often, I see this to mean, in regards to transnational transracial adoptees, to be white like one of the family, and when you don’t uphold white attitudes and white views you are transgressing the conditions on which you were incorporated into the family.

As Korean adoptees share the hurt and pain they feel of being racial outsiders resurfacing with the election of a man who repeatedly demonizes people who look like them, we are continually told to ‘get over it’ or to simply cultivate our own inner peace, to mentally pull ourselves up by our bootstraps while ignoring the very real material and physical consequences unfolding around us. Apparently, ‘like it or not’ we will be treated differently because we aren’t white and we are supposed to sit here and take it, quietly, obediently.

But we can’t.

We won’t.

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Adoptions on Screen

What role does adoption play in television shows and movies? Is adoption simply another element of the character’s background, is it a way to demonstrate the character’s flaws or to garner sympathy, or is it meaningfully integrated into the storyline? Thinking about how adoption is portrayed in popular culture can tell us about our common understandings about adoption – who are adoptees, who adopts, and reasons for adoption.

A good resource for identifying adoption-related movies is the blog Adoption at the Movies.

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Trending: Celebrity Adoptions

Bringing home a baby is often a highly public and celebratory occasion. Bringing home a baby from another country and of another race raises the level of public interest and attention. This especially true among celebrity transnational transracial adoptions. In the 1930s writer Pearl S. Buck adopted several mixed-race children from abroad, eventually establishing her own adoption agency – Welcome House in 1949, the first interracial and international adoption agency.

In 1955, Harry and Bertha Holt, a farming couple from Oregon, were thrust into the national spotlight with their adoption of eight children from Korea. Though not celebrities themselves, their very public adoptions gave them celebrity status and raised the national awareness of adoption from Korea. A year later the Holt Adoption Program was formally incorporated, laying the foundation for the Holt Adoption Agency and serving as a gateway for thousands of Korean children to be adopted to the U.S.

More contemporarily, celebrity adoptions such as those by Mia Farrow or Julie Andrews, Madonna, Angelina Jolie, Meg Ryan, Nicole Kidman, Sandra Bullock, or Jillian Michaels, to name a few, continue to garner public interest in and awareness about transnational transracial adoptions. Celebrity adoptions raise questions about the legality and ethics of transnational adoption, the best interest of children in orphanages, and the best method to help orphaned children and their birth countries. Additionally, these highly publicized adoptions raise the question of if celebrity adoptions turn transnational adoptions into simply fashionable trends to follow.

As a scholar who is interested in the role of popular culture on attitudes and identity, I wonder how such highly publicized adoptions impact people’s decisions to adopt, how we as a society think about adoption, and how adoptees themselves think about themselves.

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Post-Election Adoptee Racial Awareness

In a post-presidential election world, many people are trying to figure out where they fit, how they will be affected, and what they should do next. Within my Korean adoptee networks, I see people coming to a realization that they, in fact, aren’t white despite being raised by white families, growing up in predominately white communities, and being relatively accepted in their white social networks. As race-based hate crimes rise across the country, cries of “they’re attacking ASIANS now, too!” demonstrate how distant many adoptees are from our co-ethnics. Our friend circles along with our knowledge of American history are just as devoid of people who look like us.

Instead of understanding how adoption from Korea is situated within this paradox of anti-Asian sentiment on one hand and racial exceptionalism on the other, Korean adoptees largely are raised within ideas of colorblindness and multiculturalism that overlook their racial group membership and ethnic background while at the same time making these differences exotic enough to be fashionable yet manageable enough to be unthreatening. For the transnational transracial adoptees who, because of this election, are just now coming to understand themselves as racialized beings, I hope that they persist in this realization. But beyond that, I hope they understand how they have been complicit in the subjugation of other communities of color, those that they are not members of and those that they are, and then how they can proactively fight against injustice.

And I wonder, how do white adoptive parents make sense of themselves and their non-white (adopted) children? For adoptive parents who are just now coming to understand their children as non-white, does the care for their children extend to the racial and ethnic communities that they now understand they are connected to?

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Korean Adoptee Cultural Production

During the 1990s, Korean adoptees began forming online and in-person networking groups, enabled by the mass availability of the Internet. Today, many of those adoptee groups are still in existence. In addition to Korean adoptee groups, which facilitate adoptees’ understanding about their racial, ethnic, and adoptee identities and create a global network of Korean adoptees, Korean adoptees create various forms of media reflecting their adoptee experiences. These artistic forms include books, blogs, vlogs, podcasts, and documentaries to name a few.

Together these various forms of Korean adoptee cultural production both reflect and shape the boundaries of a Korean adoptee community and culture. They also highlight how Korean adoptees have come to understand who they are in relation to their family, community, and nation(s). Unlike early predictions that Korean adoptees would quietly assimilate into their (white) American families and communities, Korean cultural production challenges these assimilation expectations.

Below I highlight some examples of Korean adoptee cultural production. While the list is not exhaustive it does provide a starting point for people who want to understand more about Korean adoptee experiences and issues shaping the Korean adoptee community.


Blogs, Vlogs, and Podcasts


  • Borshay Liem, Deann. 2000. First Person Plural
  • Borshay Liem, Deann. 2010. In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee
  • Borshay Liem, Deann. 2016. Geographies of Kinship 
  • Twinsters available on Netflix
  • akaDAN
  • akaSeoul
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