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Our Adoptee, Our Alien: Transnational Adoptees as Specters of Foreignness and Family in South Korea

From: Anthropological Quarterly
Volume 80, Number 2, Spring 2007
pp. 497-531 | 10.1353/anq.2007.0027


Since the late 1990s, adult adopted Koreans have been officially welcomed back to their country of birth as "overseas Koreans," a legal designation instituted by Korea's state-sponsored "globalization" (segyehwa) project. Designed to build economic and social networks between Korea and its seven million compatriots abroad, this policy projects an ethnonationalist and deterritorialized vision of Korea that depends upon a conflation of "blood" with "kinship" and "nation." Adoptees present a particularly problematic subset of overseas Koreans: they have biological links to Korea, but their adoptions have complicated the sentimental and symbolic ties of "blood" upon which this familialist and nationalist state policy depend. Because international adoption replaces biological with social parenthood and involves the transfer of citizenship, to incorporate adoptees as "overseas Koreans," the state must honor the authority and role of adoptive parents who raised them, even as they invite adoptees to (re)claim their Koreanness. Government representations optimistically construe adoptees as cultural "ambassadors" and economic "bridges," yet for adoptees themselves––whose lives have been split across two nations, two families and two histories––the cultural capital necessary to realize their transnational potential seems to have already been forfeited. Based on

fieldwork with an expatriate community of adoptees living and working in Seoul, this article examines how adoptees are specters of both family and foreignness in Korea. I argue that, rather than demonstrating the possibilities of a borderless world, Korean adoptees illuminate how state practices and political economy structure "kinship" and "nation" for transnational subjects caught up in contemporary dialectics of nationalism and globalization