(I’m a little late responding to this because of my computing problems, but since I happened upon it just recently, I’d like to respond.)
In an article entitled Adoption Scapegoats, Jenny Na recounts how the speaker at a conference (the First Single Mom’s Day Conference) was quoted as saying, “Adoption from Korea continues today because single mothers are promiscuous” Jenny’s article points out how this is a prevailing attitude in Korean society. Actually, I think it’s a prevailing attitude in any society that collaborates with the adoption industry.
This is being spread around that government people have said that unwed moms are nothing but ignorant whores… so I want to clarify that it’s not a current government person but a past government person. Way way past. And past adoption agency person. Again, way way past. Not having attended the conference, because I had quit TRACK during the planning phase, I can tell you the unnamed speaker was Mr. Youn Taek Tahk, because it was my suggestion he be invited. I believe he is something like 89 years old… Mr. Tahk didn’t want to be bound by reading from a prepared speech, but I bet he wishes he did now.
I heard another account from an eyewitness that, during the near lynching that followed, he kept pleading, “please don’t misunderstand me!” Knowing what I do of Mr. Tahk, and knowing what I do of unwed mom and adoptee activists, I’m not so sure he didn’t have a slip of the tongue or wasn’t misunderstood…even if, being a feminist, I too am offended by the implication that women who are amoral are the ones to blame for causing adoption.
Adoption is a complicated business. Most of the unwed moms I’ve met have been bright and articulate. The majority are good citizens, good people, and either were taken advantage of, abused, betrayed, or abandoned by their partners. But you better believe that there are also some girls who are ignorant selfish bitches. Just like what we learn from reunion stories: most of the immediate families were/are dysfunctional, most of the moms are great people and yet some moms are just not that nice.
I’d like to say I like the old guy a lot. I spent an afternoon with him and BBC correspondent Ellen Otzen and was allowed to interview him about his tenure as the president of Social Welfare Society of Korea (SWS), from 1965-1986 it was the main Korean body that oversaw adoptions out of Korea. It’s a gripping interview and still fascinating to listen to, and it’s too bad I can’t share it ’cause it’s property of BBC radio. Mr. Tahk joined SWS before it was an international adoption agency and still part of Korea’s own social services.
A big part of me sighs in frustration, imaging how different the world would be for me and all my adoptee friends had it stayed part of the government and not been privatized. Imagine families and adoptees in search would not have to negotiate through four adoption agencies, two NGO’s and a weak so-called central authority in order to access their files. And maybe instead of 200,000+ sent away over 56 years, maybe international adoption would not have been regarded as the first and best solution to solving Korea’s problems, because when we get processed out of sight and out of mind, then the source problems are easier to ignore.
Mr. Tahk became a social worker because he was concerned about the plight of rural families who were not benefiting from Korean economic development in the years following the war. It was through him that I found out children were abandoned in direct relationship to increases in the cost of fuel. He never liked the idea of international adoption, yet felt powerless to stop it, because it got political, and has spent many a sleepless night knowing he sent children away who would have been able to stay if only there had been more resources distributed to the poor. My understanding is he is one of the few in the industry who was willing to criticize what was going on, and he retired as an outcast. He still speaks out. He donates money to unwed moms & orphanages. Devoutly religious, he only ever wanted to help the welfare of children. He is, surprisingly, (and unpopularly) adamant that men bear financial responsibility for their offspring, married or not, though being part of the patriarchy he doesn’t go so far as to criticize their morality.
So because of all this, and admittedly not knowing the context, I believe Tahk was probably trying to talk about (because I’d heard him talk about this before) the different reasons for international adoption over time. First it was saving mixed-raced children from a life of abuse and providing homes for real war orphans, then it was because the adoption agencies were here promising a better life for children abroad so poor families started abandoning their children en masse, and then it was because the Korean nuclear family structure got destroyed when the young were called to the cities to produce factory goods to create Korea’s economic miracle. And today, the children up for adoption are mostly those born out of wedlock. And children born out of wedlock are due to ever-relaxing attitudes about sexual relations from those early factory days to now. So what he was really probably saying was that adoption didn’t stop because promiscuity produces babies that society rejects.
As an adoptee, a single mom, and a formerly promiscuous woman, I’d like to say, “Yeah? SO WHAT? Even ignorant whores deserve to raise their own kids if they want. Adoption didn’t stop because the adoption agencies were here long after their disaster rescue services were no longer needed. Yet I also can’t fault the deduction that more promiscuity produces more babies. Which is, curiously enough, something Korea desperately wants more of. But yeah, the way that sentence read as quoted definitely points the finger at only one of the many many parties to blame. There is also the adoption industry for being omnipresent at first whiff of a human being conceived out of wedlock, there are the moralists of which Tahk is one, there are the ever absent fathers, there is the superstition and ignorance of Korean women being afraid of taking the pill, there are the ajummas perpetuating the patriarchy by regulating their daughters, and there is the youth who embrace libertine excesses with no exposure to the consequences or training in its responsible practice.
When we parted ways, he said to me, in perfect English, “I hope you get what you want.” And then his face clouded over with something like love and caring for me and he said, “But don’t get your hopes up, as it won’t be anytime soon.” And you know what? He was telling me the truth. He wants us to be right about improving social services and ending international adoption, even though he’s not fully convinced because he believes in a society that upholds his Puritan view of family values. He knows it takes changing hearts and minds to change society. He knows this doesn’t happen over night.
I just wanted people to know that about him before they go and impale him on a stick. Like all things adoption-related, it is always more complex than what the debate wants to acknowledge. I thought he would be a good person to have at the conference because to me he represents what was, what is, and why. He taught me that I can not hate the people and country that threw me away, and that he and people like him are people we should be having dialogue with instead of beating up whenever they choose the wrong words or make a Freudian slip or have different opinions. He’s not fully right, but he’s not fully wrong, either. He and most other older Koreans regarded adoption as a terrible necessity, they had good (if not misguided) intentions, didn’t know what the consequences would be, and have a hard time comprehending them even now. But they’re not the enemy. I was disappointed when I heard the conference was a near brawl. I am frequently disappointed with the behavior of adoptee activists, which is another reason why I opted out. To me, Mr. Tahk also represents what could be: the older generation trying to understand and at least willing to have a dialogue, but our anger destroys the good work we want to accomplish. We lose the battle of winning their hearts and minds when we behave this way.
If I had more time, I’d run up to Paju and ask if I could spend the day painting water color landscapes of rural Korea with him, which is his retirement past time. This is a much better way to change the world.