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I feel welcome but often rejected as adoptee in Korea. Here’s what needs to change

This article is the 27th in a series about Koreans adopted abroad. Apparently, many Koreans never expected that the children it had sent away via adoption would return as adults with questions demanding to be answered. However, thousands of adoptees visit Korea each year. Once they rediscover this country, it becomes a turning point in their lives. We should embrace the dialogue with adoptees to discover the path to recovering our collective humanity. ― ED.

In this 2019 file photo, members of the International Korean Adoptee Association’s International Committee smile at an event. Courtesy of Tim Hanstein

By Tim Hanstein

Intercultural communication can be challenging. Honestly, no matter how hard adoptees try to re-adapt to Korean culture, we will never be entirely Korean again. Having been socialized in the West, this cultural influence dominates our behaviors. We are westerners trapped in Korean bodies. We may be more open to Korean culture, but still, we are not Koreans with legal (and cultural) Korean identities. Nevertheless, I appreciate the warm welcome Koreans give me and I am happy to be considered as a part of Korean society.

Having visited Korea 10 times, and worked with Korean government agencies for many years, the devil is in the details: despite being welcomed, I experience how the system is careless toward foreigners, including us.

Let me provide some examples of what I consider careless.

In my role as an adoptee representative, I communicate with official bodies responsible for adoptee work. What I experience frequently is a lack of understanding of the applicants’ backgrounds and circumstances. We adoptees have full-time jobs and dedicate our free time to volunteering for the causes of adoptees living abroad. Tight deadlines are very difficult to meet for small volunteer-run organizations.

Additionally, even the software that is being used can sometimes prove to be a bottleneck, since HWP-files are not common at all internationally. Perplexingly, most online registration processes require Korean phone numbers for verification. Furthermore, Korean accounting standards are applied, which are often in conflict with the stricter accounting rules of our home countries. A little more awareness, sympathy and understanding of our perspectives would be very much appreciated when collaborating.

It took me a while, but I managed to obtain all the required documents for a residence permit, as well as other necessary things, including my Korean phone number, to be able to identify myself. Nevertheless, on many occasions, Korea makes me feel like I am a second-class citizen.

The incidents that annoyed me most during the last several months were both linked to rental cars. One rental car company rejected my reservation hours before pickup, with the explanation that the company doesn’t rent this car to foreign nationals. What an insult! How would you feel if you were denied a service when traveling abroad simply based on having a different nationality?

Another rental car company rented a car to me but insisted on me having a Korean guardian. I am an adult. I have a residence permit. I have a driver´s license, and I have a credit card. I fulfill all requirements for renting a car! There is no need for a guardian. I assume that a U.S. soldier or western tourist renting a car would not have had to deal with this “special” treatment and rudeness. As I was with my Korean partner who is fluent in Korean, this situation of course made me look like a dependent minor even at my age.

There are also language issues. A western person mumbling the worst “annyeonghaseyo” is celebrated like a K-pop star by any “halmeoni,” while every adoptee who has started the hard journey of regaining her/his mother tongue, is faced with: “Why do you speak Korean so badly?” Alternatively, Koreans finish our sentences for us. I know that speed matters here, but we are trying hard to learn Korean, too.

Further, there is an injustice when the government determines whether an overseas Korean who is fully vaccinated can receive a quarantine exemption. Currently, with the exception of important business travelers, only overseas Koreans who are visiting their biological families are allowed a quarantine-free visit to Korea. Theoretically, we adoptees in many cases have biological family in Korea. However, since we are not registered in the family registry, this situation means that we have no proof to be eligible for this quarantine-free visit, despite our full vaccination status. So it is good news that the government is finally moving to recognize foreign nationals’ vaccination histories abroad so that they can be verified as “vaccinated” against COVID-19,

I highly appreciate the Korean government’s efforts on behalf of adoptees and the recognition that my small, volunteer-run organization receives. But to empower a win-win relationship for both sides ― the adoptees and Korean society ― I hope it pays more attention to our voices.

For that, creating an official advisory council of adoptees would be great. Adoptees have built up a unique intercontinental network that has existed for decades and we can discuss what needs to be improved for our community.

Another program many want is a resettlement program that provides, for example, an innovation hub, shared offices or operational support for start-up businesses for the first months. Many high-qualified adoptees are currently at the peak of their careers, and some are leading experts in key industries. Many are interested in coming to Korea. Their participation in Korean society presents a great opportunity to solidify the country´s position in global competition. One could even adopt the following mindset in Korea: “We have lost daughters and sons to almost every important market in the West, but we have a chance to have them back with all their knowledge and expertise!”

We adoptees can become part of Korean society again. We adoptees are ready!

Tim Hanstein is the founder and co-president of the Korean adoptee association in Germany (Koreanische Adoptierte Deutschland e.V.). He also serves on the international board of the International Korean Adoptee Association.

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