Mommie Dearest

Adoption stories usually begin with the conceit of orphans, when oftentimes the mothers are still alive.

South Korea is the most significant provider of children placed into transnational adoption, with the U.S. being the largest receiving nation of Korean adoptees. (As of 2014, 165,966 Korean-born adoptees have been adopted transnationally, with most of the displaced children in North America and western Europe). This phenomenon, which began after the Korean War 65 years ago, has bound the two nations in a relationship that is caring and hierarchical, loving and violent. I sat down with Hosu Kim, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York, to discuss how her research into transnational adoption, affect, and reproductive politics relates to the history of oriental objectification, beyond the usual lenses of sexual fetishism and commodity.

Most adoption narratives follow colonial salvation myths, framing the U.S. as a generous and benevolent patriarchal figure and Korea as a country ravaged by poverty, in need of rescuing. But Kim’s book, Birth Mothers and Transnational Adoption Practices in South Korea: Virtual Mothering (Palgrave MacMillan, 2016, released in paperback in December, 2018), traces how South Korea’s modern nation-state has deployed the biopolitics of transnational adoption to effect normalized, everyday, gendered violence against working-class, poor, single mothers in South Korea. It is also a story of how their reproductive labor has been appropriated to serve the agenda of national security and economic development, under the aegis of both the cold war and today’s globalized, neoliberal capitalist state.

Hiji Nam.— I’ve often wondered about the origins of “cute” Asian aesthetics—Hello Kitty or K-pop camp, for instance, and Asian babies as a trope of viral cuteness—and their relation to Sianne Ngai’s aesthetic categories (“cuteness is an aestheticization of powerlessness; we love because it submits to us”). Learning about the transnational exchange and circulation of Korean bodies in your book added an interesting node to that line of thinking. Transnational Korean adoption, which you researched for over 15 years for your book, feels analogous to the way that images of cute or abused animals can circulate so virally on the internet. Oftentimes (usually?) it’s privileged white Americans on the “receiving” or saving end, who can feel good about donating to saving a dog in need or, in the case of the history you excavate in your book, a baby in need. Pop-culture examples of this optical dynamic abound—there’s Mia Farrow and Soon-Yi Previn, Lily on Modern Family, Charlotte’s baby on Sex and the City.

HOSU KIM.— Portraying or thinking of others in terms of babies or juniors is one of the most ubiquitous colonial tropes. With transnational adoption it’s literally the exchange of babies. Forty percent of all Korean transnational adoption came to the United States. One out of four adoptees in the U.S. are Koreans; if we actually expand into the broader category of “Asian,” I wouldn’t be surprised if it were one out of two, or maybe even three out of five. I wasn’t necessarily commenting or thinking about the aesthetic of Asian-ness when I was writing my book, but we can definitely see this symbiotic relationship and symbolic imagery, as well as the imagery of Asian-ness, and how it’s not only tenable, but actually optimized, in babies.

I can imagine that transnational adoption from Asia likely played a role or served as definite affirmation of the optics of this dynamic. But maybe some people might actually see that as a positive sign. Asian babies are “cute,” right? It’s a kind of reverberation of this model minority stereotype. But, of course, when we actually think about racial capitalism and being included as a part of white supremacy, there’s no such thing as positive.

From the view of the adopting nation-states, they are made to feel very comfortable in their role of adopting. The adoptees are already made little, smaller, uncivilized—they’re literally infantile, a child. They need salvation from communism, from poverty. So it goes together perfectly, this white man’s salvation and colonialist mindset of the messianic savior complex.

In your book, you also talk about how for Americans, even if they weren’t themselves adopting, they could feel good about this phenomenon because it was a way for the nation to save children from war-torn, poverty-stricken Asian countries that were billed as dangerous environments where communists could be born and flourish; adoption was a patriotic way of containing communism and strengthening the American liberal capital state and the “free world.”

You also point out that the Korean government was relying very heavily on foreign-aid organizations and transnational adoption services: From 1960 to 1974, for instance, the total annual worth of donations from foreign organizations constituted between 43.9 and 216 percent of Korea’s yearly social-welfare budget.

Around the 1950s, and at the height of cold-war ideology, very few Asians were living in the U.S., because of restrictive immigration laws. The entire Asian Pacific became a very important site during the cold-war rivalry. Numerous foreign-aid organizations came to Korea after the Korean War. After observing the devastation of the war and general misery, they identified children as the highest-priority relief subjects. Christina Klein, a historian and Americanist, coined the term “Cold War Orientalism,” this new idea of taking responsibility for the misery of the others, and how that became ingrained as part of the American affective tissue.

One of the things that these foreign-aid organizations, including World Vision (still a very powerful institution), did was put advertisements in very middlebrow magazines, Saturday-morning reviews, etc., saying that you could adopt a child from afar. This became a supremely popular and successful fundraising mechanism—sponsoring poor foreign children without worrying about actually dealing with a child—that these organizations encouraged their citizens to participate in.

Adoption scholar and adoptee SooJin Pate, whom you quote in your book, addresses the ways in which these humanitarian perspectives make both adoptees and birth mothers legible only as victims: “These charitable acts of humanitarianism worked to rehabilitate the image of an imposing U.S. imperial power by not only erasing state violence but also by propping up American soldiers as rescuer rather than colonizer, relief worker rather than occupier.”

Right—not many but dozens of Japanese women who were victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom-bomb drops were also coming to the U.S. to have facial-reconstruction surgery, also playing into the trope of saving others and sponsorship. And it all sort of comes under this term of containing Asia and the Pacific to contain the encroachment of communists, keeping them at bay through a language of American human rights, compassion, and love.

There are records that show that at the very beginning of the development of adoption services, during and after the Korean War, many soldiers stationed in Korea informally adopted babies and toddlers through local adoption agencies or off the street and maintained the relationship as a sort of friendship for comfort and companionship. So there are these mascot boys, or mascot children, as an informal form of adoption—not necessarily transnational, not necessarily long-term commitment, but like wartime foster care. As the soldiers left Korea, sometimes they’d feel so terrible leaving them behind that they’d petition their state and local representatives to find ways to maintain the sponsorship. Maybe a few dozen to a hundred of these early cases took place before the industry became hyperprofessionalized and industrialized.

The development of this informal adoption trend into a mass program was due to the very concerted efforts of largely Christian-based, private humanitarian organizations that had a sustained, nearly 20-year presence in Korea. Of all the needy children, these organizations very specifically targeted GI babies as the first, highest priority to go; all of this left a profound imprint on the development of South Korea’s child-welfare policy.

In your book, you mention that mixed-race babies were the first priority to be exported out for adoption, but you don’t specifically talk about the differences in adoption placement or prioritization along racial lines. There’s a 2013 NPR article [casually, violently] titled “Six Words: ‘Black Babies Cost Less to Adopt,’” for example, which goes on to report that a white child costs approximately $35,000 to adopt, while a black child costs $18,000, and a biracial child costs between $24,000 and $26,000. Did you conduct any research or find any data on antiblack racism in transnational adoption from Korea?

No, actually. It was after the book was published that I started noticing the statistics about biracial children. At the very beginning of the 1950s, the biracial children were prioritized as those who should be adopted, or exported. This is before the Civil Rights Act—it’s still in the era of American segregation. One of the protocols for transnational adoption was racial matching—so they tried to send the white Korean babies to the white families and black Korean babies to the black families. I’d assumed adopters were able to adopt because of material conditions, but actually in the majority of cases the adoptions also took place along racial lines.

Now there are all these narratives of adoptees returning to Korea on popular daytime television shows and breaking their stories of struggle, identity, and everyday bullying or physical violence stemming from racism. So people in Korea talk and read about it; they understand there’s racism “out there,” and they hear how Korean adoptees and Korean Americans may be subject to it, but there’s very limited awareness of how racialization and racial injury messes up one’s psyche and organizes the limitations of one’s life.

Going back to antiblackness, in Korea there’s very little social or critical commentary about race; the discourse is so limited. Racism is very visceral, like the temperature, and it calibrates on different scales. Even if you understand the temperature in degrees outside, you can’t really prepare for it until you’re there. Oftentimes when I travel across the Pacific, I understand exactly what the temperature at my destination will be, but it’s so difficult to imagine it until I’m there. Like humidity, or wind, there are also all the combinations and various factors that make the chill different from place to place.

You build off of Brian Massumi’s conceptualization of the body as virtual, in which the body is seen not as a discrete, self-contained being but rather as an accumulation of affects, including bodily encounters, unconscious desires, traumas, and pre-discursive events. Could you elaborate on your concept of “virtual mothering”?

In my research, I’ve sought to understand the amorphous and heterogeneous population of birth mothers that has largely remained silent. For many, adoption wasn’t a planned or conscious reproductive choice but rather a part or consequence of their efforts to flee from unlivable living conditions, fettered by domestic violence and other types of abuse and mistreatment. These women fled in order to survive. Many only learned of the adoption after the fact, sometimes months and other times years afterward.

In order to grasp the amorphous population of Korean women who became birth mothers generation after generation, I came up with the concept of virtual mothering to contrast with an assumption of natural motherhood. Stepping aside from “real” or “original” mothering, this concept of the virtual opens up more innovative and critical feminist approaches and interpretations of the 65-year-long, multigenerational reproductive dispossession of Korean women. Unfolding the concept briefly here, we can think about the denotation of the adjective “virtuous” as that which can be beneficial to a public good. Another context would be in the state of immanence, the threshold of possibility or potentiality in common parlance, conjugated with the technologically enabled world.

These two meanings of the virtual are well suited to describe the two opposing figures of the Korean birth mother that have emerged since the 1990s. One is the figure who surrenders the child; the other is the figure who reclaims the child. My work on virtual mothering traces the sites these figures once inhabited as they enacted “mothering,” spaces often outside the home or the family, and including maternity homes, televised reunion shows, and internet forums where birth mothers connected with each other. The oral histories I’ve conducted with birth mothers show how their lives are riddled with institutional abuses of power and interpersonal violence, grievances that are too often buried and hidden beneath the normative affect of their failed mothering.

The silence and shame, the social death of Korean birth mothers proffers this idealized model of biogenetic or biological motherhood, so there is a catch-22. You are a single, or poor, or prostitute mother, so you have to give up the baby, and then you’re no longer a mother. They live in a paradox of this fortress of motherhood, and yet they’re never really seen as mothers.

In addition to women fleeing abuse, of course there are also many single mothers who frame their adoption as a conscious choice. Often, though, these choices were made in an environment where there was no other choice possible—no adequate public funding for single mothers, few jobs with childcare support, no measures to protect against discrimination against single mothers.

You quote Giorgio Agamben and write about how the Korean War is a perfect example of a state of exception—a condition of rule in modern democratic states that provides a necessary alibi to justify executive rule in a moment of crisis. The Korean War can be seen as an over 60-year-long state of exception, establishing the conditions for a government whose primary imperative is national security.

The export of “excess” populations falling outside the purview of the national patriarchal family from camptowns in Korea marks an intersection of race, gender, and class violence and feels like an opportunity to reconsider assumptions about identity and belonging, to develop a new theoretical terrain beyond one of traditional, blood-related kinship.

As you mentioned at the very beginning of this conversation, transnational adoption is a feminist issue, a feminist concern. And yet feminist scholars and practitioners at both ends, the U.S. and South Korea, haven’t attentively interrogated or treated it as a feminist issue until recently. That was one of the most interesting empirical observations that I found from my research. The strength of orphan-saving narratives drowns out the stories of birth mothers; adoption stories also usually begin with the conceit of orphans, when oftentimes the mothers are still are alive and living out their lives elsewhere. Many people never really questioned how their reproductive labor was a part of feminist struggles, and part of the ongoing dilemma is how to think about reproductive injustice for generations, multi-generations, of Korean women, and also transnationally, for many Asian women, without reinforcing the ideology of motherhood.

Transnational adoption in practice in South Korea has contributed to propping up the self-reliant patriarchal model of the modern nation-state. It’s served to reify the normative family and what that looks like. Getting rid of these surplus children and legitimizing such a separation served as a way to discipline and regulate the reproduction of single mothers, reinforcing the norms of citizenship, motherhood, and womanhood. It also strengthened the traditional model of the nuclear, middle-class, self-sufficient family, and respectable marriage, and created the model of who is accepted as Korean by getting rid of illegitimate and mixed-race progeny.

A next step would be considering what reparations and redress for these historical injustices would look like, which would require a paradigmatic shift in how we analyze the grievances and traumatic accounts of birth mothers, adoption processes, and outcomes. Granting the limitations of state apologies and monetary compensations for trauma and loss, it’s worth keeping in mind that I approach reparations as a more mundane, embodied practice that travels across boundaries, claiming adoption experiences as part of a collective history that can facilitate a sense of transnational and transgenerational adoptive kinship.