Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Two South Korea links

I've come across two New York Times articles which explores interesting elements of Korean identity as it relates to migration.

First, Ron Nixon examines the identity issues surrounding adopted South Koreans in the United States as part of a wider phenomenon of transracial adoption and its issues: a half-million children have been adopted in the United States from outside that country. South Korea was one of the more important senders of these migrants.

[O]of the largest studies of transracial adoptions, which is to be released on Monday, [. . .] which focuses on the first generation of children adopted from South Korea, found that 78 percent of those who responded had considered themselves to be white or had wanted to be white when they were children. Sixty percent indicated their racial identity had become important by the time they were in middle school, and, as adults, nearly 61 percent said they had traveled to Korea both to learn more about the culture and to find their birth parents.

Like Ms. Young, most Korean adoptees were raised in predominantly white neighborhoods and saw few, if any, people who looked like them. The report also found that the children were teased and experienced racial discrimination, often from teachers. And only a minority of the respondents said they felt welcomed by members of their own ethnic group.

As a result, many of them have had trouble coming to terms with their racial and ethnic identities.

The report was issued by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a nonprofit adoption research and policy group based in New York. Since 1953, parents in the United States have adopted more than a half-million children from other countries, the vast majority of them from orphanages in Asia, South America and, most recently, Africa. Yet the impact of such adoptions on identity has been only sporadically studied. The authors of the Donaldson Adoption Institute study said they hoped their work would guide policymakers, parents and adoption agencies in helping the current generation of children adopted from Asian countries to form healthy identities.

“So much of the research on transracial adoption has been done from the perspective of adoptive parents or adolescent children,” said Adam Pertman, executive director of the institute. “We wanted to be able to draw on the knowledge and life experience of a group of individuals who can provide insight into what we need to do better.”

The study recommends several changes in adoption practices that the institute said are important, including better support for adoptive parents and recognition that adoption grows in significance for their children from young adulthood on, and throughout adulthood.

South Korea was the first country from which Americans adopted in significant numbers. From 1953 to 2007, an estimated 160,000 South Korean children were adopted by people from other countries, most of them in the United States. They make up the largest group of transracial adoptees in the United States and, by some estimates, are 10 percent of the nation’s Korean population.

The report says that significant changes have occurred since the first generation of adopted children were brought to the United States, a time when parents were told to assimilate the children into their families without regard for their native culture.

Yet even adoptees who are exposed to their culture and have parents who discuss issues of race and discrimination say they found it difficult growing up.

Heidi Weitzman, who was adopted from Korea when she was 7 months old and who grew up in ethnically mixed neighborhoods in St. Paul, said her parents were in touch with other parents with Korean children and even offered to send her to a “culture camp” where she could learn about her heritage.

But I hated it,” said Ms. Weitzman, a mental health therapist in St. Paul. “I didn’t want to do anything that made me stand out as being Korean. Being surrounded by people who were blonds and brunets, I just thought that I was white.” It was not until she moved to New York after college that she began to become comfortable with being Korean.

“I was 21 before I could look in the mirror and not be surprised by what I saw staring back at me,” she said. “The process of discovering who I am has been a long process, and I’m still on it.”

In South Korea proper, in the meantime, Choe Sang-Hun reports on the difficulties surrounding South Korea's transition to a multicultural and multiracial environment.

On the evening of July 10, Bonogit Hussain, a 29-year-old Indian man, and Hahn Ji-seon, a female Korean friend, were riding a bus near Seoul when a man in the back began hurling racial and sexist slurs at them.

What was different this time, however, was that, once it was reported in the South Korean media, prosecutors sprang into action, charging the man they have identified only as a 31-year-old Mr. Park with contempt, the first time such charges had been applied to an alleged racist offense. Spurred by the case, which is pending in court, rival political parties in Parliament have begun drafting legislation that for the first time would provide a detailed definition of discrimination by race and ethnicity and impose criminal penalties.

For Mr. Hussain, subtle discrimination has been part of daily life for the two and half years he has lived here as a student and then research professor at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul. He says that, even in crowded subways, people tend not sit next to him. In June, he said, he fell asleep on a bus and when it reached the terminal, the driver woke him up by poking him in the thigh with his foot, an extremely offensive gesture in South Korea.

“Things got worse for me this time, because I was with a Korean woman,” Mr. Hussain said in an interview. “Whenever I’ve walked with Ms. Hahn or other Korean women, most of the time I felt hostilities, especially from middle-aged men.”

South Korea, a country where until recently people were taught to take pride in their nation’s “ethnic homogeneity” and where the words “skin color” and “peach” are synonymous, is struggling to embrace a new reality. In just the past seven years, the number of foreign residents has doubled, to 1.2 million, even as the country’s population of 48.7 million is expected to drop sharply in coming decades because of its low birth rate.

Many of the foreigners come here to toil at sea or on farms or in factories, providing cheap labor in jobs shunned by South Koreans. Southeast Asian women marry rural farmers who cannot find South Korean brides. People from English-speaking countries find jobs teaching English in a society obsessed with learning the language from native speakers.

For most South Koreans, globalization has largely meant increasing exports or going abroad to study. But now that it is also bringing an influx of foreigners into a society where 42 percent of respondents in a 2008 survey said they had never once spoken with a foreigner, South Koreans are learning to adjust — often uncomfortably.

Go, read.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I lived there for 4 years, and racism is a huge issue there. Korea claims to multicultural now, but that is a joke. It has huge problems ahead.