Korean Adoptee Identity Research: Past, Present, and Future

Research on Korean adoptees’ racial and/or ethnic identity mirrors the shifts in adoption approaches. In the earliest years of Korean adoption, adoption agencies and social workers promoted the belief that transnational adoption offered a clean break from the child’s native country, culture, and birth parents and that transnationally adopted children would wholly assimilate to (white) American culture. Correspondingly, outcome studies were prevalent assessing the psychological, social, and developmental adjustment of transracial adoptees. Feigelman and Silverman (1984) conducted a study of 372 adoptive families and compared the long-term adjustment of Colombian, Korean, and African-American transracial adoptees to in-racially adopted whites. The sample was comprised of 5 percent (n=19) Colombian children, 43 percent (n=161) Korean children, 13 percent (n=47) African-American children, and 17 percent (n=65) white children. Two-thirds of the adoptees were between 7 and 12 years of age, 31 percent were between 13 and 20 years old, and the remainder were between 21 and 25. Adjustment was measured by three questions assessing the parents’ perceptions of overall evaluation of the adoption, the frequency of the child’s emotional problems, and the frequency of the child’s growth problems.

Results showed that adjustment problems for Colombian children were no more severe than those experienced by white adoptees and in fact were reported to have fewer emotional adjustment problems. Their adjustment was more likely to be described as satisfactory in comparison to all other adoptees in the study. Korean children’s emotional adjustment was similar to those experienced by white adoptees, and their adjustment was rated as satisfactory at higher rates than white adoptees though lower than Colombian adoptees. However, Korean adoptees had a greater frequency of reported growth problems. African-American adoptees had poorer adjustment as reported by their adoptive parents, and they were more frequently reported to have emotional adjustment problems compared to the other adoptees in the study and less likely to be reported as having satisfactory adjustment. However, the pattern of poorer adjustment was not statistically significant. Further analysis showed that the age of the child at placement and the intensity of family and friend’s opposition to the adoption were significant determinants of adjustment outcomes with children adopted at later ages (over the age of two) and those whose family and/or friends expressed disapproval related to maladjustment.

As the U.S. moved away from straight-line assimilationist theories and in the aftermath of race-conscious movements in the 1960s, social workers’ and various racial and ethnic groups’ objections to transracial adoption practices, particularly transracial adoption of Black and Native American children, gained traction. The controversy surrounding domestic transracial adoption influenced transnational transracial adoption, and the questions raised by the National Association of Black Social Workers and American Indians during the 1970s about loss of culture, racial identity, and socialization would find their way into Korean adoption research.

Research findings were mixed with some studies finding that transracial adoptees rejected their racial background by showing no interest or exhibiting shame and others finding that transracial adoptees identified racially/ethnicially. Benson, Sharma, and Roehlkepartain (1994) conducted a study to examine the mental health of adolescents who were adopted as infants. Their sample included 881 adolescents who had been adopted in infancy; 33 percent were transracial adoptees and Korean adoptees (n=199) were the largest segment of these adoptees. Transracial adoptees found their race more salient than their adoptee status compared to white adoptees. Of the Asian adoptees, 22 percent wished to be “a different race,” and only 51 percent reported feeling accepted by other Asians. Further, Asian adoptees reported lower levels of self-esteem compared to white adoptees.

Studies also found that some adoptive parents viewed their children as void of color, race, or nationality and therefore deemphasized racial differences. In one of the first nationwide studies of transnationally adopted children in the U.S., Kim (1978) conducted a study of 406 Korean and mixed-Korean adoptees. Many of the adoptive parents reported that they saw no color, race, or nationality in their adopted children. In a study of 30 Black and 30 white adoptive parents of either Black or Black biracial children, McRoy and colleagues (1982) found that the transracial adoptees (Black children adopted by White parents) whose parents deemphasized the importance of racial identity tended to devalue or not acknowledge a Black identity. Further, the transracially adopted Black children who had no contact with co-ethnics expressed racially stereotypical views, such as “Blacks are poor” and “they use bad English.”

Later research focused on the importance of parents’ support of adoptee’s ethnic identity development. Using a modified version of Portes and Rumbaut’s (2001) second generation ethnic labels (i.e., foreign national identity, hyphenated American identity, American national identity, pan-ethnic minority identity), Tuan and Shiao (2011) found that adoptees whose parents emphasized their shared fate were more likely to describe themselves using a compound ethnic label or hyphenated identity (i.e., Korean-American) than those whose parents did not. The concept of shared fate stems from Kirk’s ([1964]1984) framework for understanding adoptive parents unique family circumstance and refers to parents who acknowledge their family’s difference and share with their adopted children about the uncertainties that lay ahead and cope along with them. Tuan and Shiao (2011) identified additional factors influencing these identifications, such as personal experiences of prejudice and opportunities for contact with other Asians and Koreans. Also, key was the shared outsider or forever foreigner experiences of Korean adoptees and non-adoptees. This study added nuance to previous research that found KADs use a range of activities to develop a healthy sense of identity (Evan B. Donaldson 2009).

Whereas early adoption research focused on parents’, and in some cases teachers’, evaluations of adoptees or was conducted from social work/practitioner point of view, the early 2000s saw adoptees authoring their own stories. Although there were adult adoptees prior to this decade, during this time a critical mass of adoptees was entering adulthood and technology allowed for a wider dissemination and reach of adoptee-authored works. Since then adult adoptees have claimed their own voice, whether through their own academic research, adult adoptee anthologies, blogs, or hashtag movements. These outlets focus on adoptees claiming adulthood, dismantling the eternal orphan construct, and telling the adoptee story from the experience and perspectives of the adoptee. Accordingly, they provide insight into how adoptees conceptualize an adoptee identity and create a specific, shared social identity, leading to the question: What is an adoptee identity and culture? Is there a specific adoptee identity separate from other identities and if so, what are the components? Additionally, what does an adoptee identity do? Is it a political identity?


For more information about Korean adoptee identity, see:

  • Palmer, John D. The Dance of Identities: Korean Adoptees and Their Journey toward Empowerment. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press.
  • Park Nelson, Kim. 2016. Invisible Asians: Korean American Adoptees, Asian American Experiences, and Racial Exceptionalism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  • Tuan, Mia and Jiannbin Lee Shiao. 2012. Choosing Ethnicity, Negotiating Race: Korean Adoptees in America. NY, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.


  • Benson, P.L., A.R. Sharma, and E.C. Roehlkepartain. 1994. Growing Up Adopted: A Portrait of Adolescents and Their Families. Minneapolis, MN: Search Institute.
  • Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. 2009. “Beyond Culture Camp: Promoting Health Identity Formation in Adoption.” New York, NY: Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.
  • Feigelman, William and Arnold R. Silverman. 1984. “The Long-Term Effects of Transracial Adoption.” Social Service Review 58(4):588-602.
  • Kim, D. S. 1978. “Issues in Transracial and Transcultural Adoption.” Social Casework, 59, 477-486.
  • Kirk, H. David. [1984]1964. Shared Fate: A Theory of Adoption and Mental Health. London: Free Press of Glencoe.
  • McRoy, R., L. Zurcher, M. Lauderdale and R. Anderson. 1982. “Self-esteem and Racial Identity in Transracial and Inracial Adoptees.” Social Work 27:522–526.
  • Portes, Alejandro and Ruben G. Rumbaut. 2001. Legacies: The Story of the Immigrant Second Generation. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Tuan, Mia and Jiannbin Lee Shiao. 2012. Choosing Ethnicity, Negotiating Race: Korean Adoptees in America. NY, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.


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