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How South Korean adoptees in Australia experience place

How South Korean adoptees in Australia experience place

Dr Jessica Walton, DECRA Senior Research Fellow, explains the central role that time and place can play in the identity of South Korean adoptees in Australia for ADI Insights.

Dr Walton grew up in Virginia in the United States and has lived in Australia for the last 14 years. She’s also a Korean adoptee.

“My initial motivation for doing the research I do was based on my own personal experiences,” she said. “Growing up in the United States, I did experience racism from an early age and I think from those experiences and also wanting to do something about social inequalities, especially around race, that has motivated me to do the research I do.”

“As a Korean adoptee, I’m also interested in looking at the shared experiences of other Korean and transnational transracial adoptees around questions of identity and belonging, and what transnational adoption is like from the adoptees’ perspectives.”

“If I look back at why I get up in the morning and do this research, it’s for other people. I’m not motivated by impact factors or academic kudos. It’s about what matters for people and their everyday life.”

Dr Walton is currently working on a collaborative international project which analyses the lives of Korean migrants who were born or grew up in Australia and New Zealand, the role that they play in their host societies, their connections with the Korean community and with the Korean homeland, and the formation of their identities. Her role in the project is to understand the experiences of Korean adoptees in Australia.

Close to 180,000 children have been adopted from South Korea since the transnational adoption program began in the 1950s after the Korean War. At its peak in 1985, 8,837 children were sent overseas from South Korea for adoption, about 24 children per day, many of whom came to Australia.

“The impetus for the program was the high number of bi-racial children born in Korea during and after the War. Due to the racism and ethnic homogeneity that continues to define South Korean nationalism as well as ongoing gender inequalities, these children and their families would have been subject to harmful discrimination in South Korea.”

“However, bi-racial children only form a small number of the overall children sent for adoption and the program soon became much more extensive as a kind of social welfare ‘solution’ which allowed the government to not invest in local welfare particularly for single mothers.”

She’s working alongside researchers from Changwon National University, Chonnam National University, the University of Auckland and the Migration Research Training Centre of the International Organisation for Migration, as well as A/Prof David Hundt, another member of the Alfred Deakin Institute.

“I was really excited when I was asked to be on this project,” Dr Walton said. “On one level, Korean adoptees are migrants in the sense that they’ve literally migrated from Korea to another country like Australia. They would technically be classified as a first-generation migrant despite having vastly different migration and life experiences as other non-adopted first generation migrants.”

“Place’ is something that is often taken for granted as assumed for adoptees. The Korean government will assume, ‘You’re Korean, your blood is Korean, you’re one of us.’ But then for adoptees, this connection can be a contested one.”

“For Korean adoptees, often this certainty around place and that connection to their identity isn’t so straightforward, which is why for this research I wanted to examine this notion of place and how this sense of connection to place changes over time.”

An experience shared among many adoptees is the return to their birth country to connect or reconnect to their past, and Dr Walton points out the significance that this moment in time can play in an adoptee’s sense of identity.

“When adoptees go back to Korea, there’s this sense that – particularly if they go to their adoption agency – that they were once there. They may not have cognitive memory of it but there can be a bodily knowing that they feel when they go back. There’s this significant weight that’s attached to that particular place now that they’re back in Korea as an adult. This can bring up questions about what that means for them and their sense of identity now, knowing that they were once there, and how their life completely changed from being just this Korean child to a Korean adoptee, and now they’re back.”

“It’s moments like these that demonstrate that there’s a shifting connection to place that shouldn’t be taken for granted, and it needs to be understood as a non-linear work in progress that does not have a set trajectory.”

Dr Jessica Walton has a book due for publication in June 2019 based on her PhD research which also examined intercountry adoption as a transnational process by focusing on Korean adoptees’ embodied experiences of identity and belonging.

The book is titled ‘Korean adoptees and transnational adoption: embodiment and emotion’ and is available for pre-order on the Routledge website.

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