For twenty year-old Plymouth resident Emily Mader, being Korean and adopted in Minnesota hasn’t always been easy. Although she now feels at peace with her identity, she says that her adoption process has been an ‘up and down rollercoaster.’ Growing up with Caucasian parents and brother often left her feeling alienated, different and searching for excuses about herself. “I would get picked up from school and had to explain myself as to why my parents didn’t look like me,” says Mader, “I felt ashamed of being Korean.”
Like Mader, many Korean adoptees have struggled with identity issues. Kim Dalros, the art director of the Korean Quarterly, decided a few years ago to tackle the large project of giving a voice to the some 13,000 Korean adoptees in Minnesota. Dalros, a Korean adoptee, will be showcasing her book and photography exhibit entitled Here at the Korean Quarterly’s tenth anniversary celebration at Augsburg College on October 27. In Here, Dalros worked with Holly H. Coughlin to document the Korean adoptee existence in Minnesota from the time that the first wave of adoptees hit Minnesota, shortly after the Korean War.
After the initial phases of Korean adoption, the first big surge of Korean adoptees was in the 1970s with the largest group coming in the mid-1980s. In 1988, South Korea put a brief halt on U.S.-Korea adoption after a report by Bryant Gumble called Korean adopted children “exports.” Now that the country is improving economically, adoption has slowly tapered off, but South Korea is not necessarily opposed to international adoption.
While Mader’s story of identity is not unique in the Korean adoptee community, other adoptees have found that being “American” is enough for them. “Currently, my main identity issue is that I don’t feel Korean,” says Brian Balcom, 27, “I don’t even know what ‘being Korean’ is supposed to feel like, but I don’t feel like something is missing. I’m comfortable being American.”
Balcom, who grew up in Southwest Minneapolis, identifies with Mader’s experience of living in a primarily Caucasian community in Hopkins. Apart from going to Korean culture camp each year, he remembers being one of only two Asians his age at Barton Open School, and says he didn’t find diversity until he was in high school and college. However, the cultural divide became clear when he tried to interact with Asian American groups such as the Korean Student Organization at his college.
“I felt that I had as much chance of getting in with them as my Jewish friend Eric or my Irish friend Laura,” says Balcom, “everyone in those groups was first or second generation. They spoke the language, they cooked the food. Every night, they bonded together because they were different…so, having Asian groups around that I couldn’t connect with probably helped fuel my indifference.”
Balcom’s sister, Katie, is currently in South Korea teaching English and has been in touch with her birth family. Balcom says he has no desire yet to go back to Korea or to find his birth parents. For Mader, the desire is there, but she says she is still not mentally prepared. “I wanted to go to Korea,” says Mader, “I even had a trip planned with my family and I cancelled it because I wasn’t ready.”
Kim Dalros first visited Korea after high school, but it was her second visit in 1998 that fueled the idea for Here, which features photos of multi-generational Korean adoptees with a brief biography if each individual, as well as several oral histories. “I just started to photograph Korea,” says Dalros.
Upon returning, Dalros got the idea to document Koreans living in Minnesota. “After a couple meetings with another photographer, she said, ‘you know, you could do this,’” Dalros explains. “It scared me half to death and I tabled it.” A few years later, she met Coughlin, whom she describes as her “graphic designer soulmate.” Over dinner, the two women chatted about Dalros’s years-old book idea. The more they talked, the more excited they became about putting the project together. “Noodles were flying,” says Dalros.
In 2004, a friend told Dalros about the Cultural Community Partnership Grant through the Minnesota State Arts Board, which sponsors organizations or individuals to work on projects that promote personal or professional development. The duo applied and received the $5,000 grant, which they used to create a body of work.
“It’s still really evolving as just a book,” says Dalros, “first, as a history book, and now as more resourceful, with oral histories…I hope it can one day be used as a resource book.”
Dalros presented the Here project to the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, hoping that they would agree to be the publisher. According to Dalros, the History Center has an interest in helping in some way, perhaps with the marketing and distribution of the book. However, the book, which Dalros sees as one of several, is still in the process of finding a publisher.
The exhibit at the Korean Quarterly celebration will use framed photos and a DVD presentation of some of the individuals featured in the book. It has already been shown at Travelers in St. Paul, at the Weisman Museum in Minneapolis and in Washington, D.C.
“It goes back to creating awareness that we exist,” says Dalros, “I’m hoping that people will have a better understanding of the [Korean] community and that other adoptee communities will document their experience as well.”
In presenting Here, Dalros will provide not only a cultural history for non-Koreans, but also a place for Korean adoptees living in Minnesota to find a sense of identity, wherever they are on their journey of self-discovery. “Now that I’m grown up, I feel proud of being Korean American,” says Emily Mader, “I’ve come to terms with being adopted and being Korean…it’s been a journey but I’m in a really good place right now.”
CORRECTION: This article originally contained the sentence: “While Sweden has the largest population of Korean adoptees, Minnesota has one of the biggest groups per capita in the U.S. and in the world.” The TCDP received an e-mail questioning this sentence. Further research turned up a variety of statistics. The bottom line: the United States has the most Korean adoptees of any country — nearly 100,000. But because the U.S. population is so large, this does not translate into the largest per capita figure.
Colette Davidson is a freelance writer in Minneapolis and the Associate Editor of the Uptown Neighborhood News.