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Adopted Territory: Transnational Korean Adoptees and the Politics of Belonging (review)

From: Journal of Asian American Studies
Volume 15, Number 1, February 2012
pp. 131-134 | 10.1353/jaas.2012.0004

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Adopted Territory is a multisited ethnography of how a growing number of adult Korean adoptees have come to adopt each other as family and to project their perspectives into public debates about adoption across three continents. The author, Eleana Kim, tells a living history of breathtaking scope from the origins of "intercountry" adoption in World War II to the aftermath of the third "transnational" gathering of adult adoptees in Seoul, South Korea, in 2004. The incredible comprehensiveness of her research is matched by a restrained reflexivity that validates her ethnographic insights while successfully avoiding the pitfalls of advocacy, voyeurism, or narcissism. However, its comprehensiveness also raises more questions than can be answered without violating the author's choices to "resist the taxonomic desire to catalogue adoptees" (19), "avoid sociological or psychological profiles" (86), and accommodate her activist subjects' media strategy of refusing to attribute their political goals to personal histories.

The greatest strength of Adopted Territory is its scope of evidence. Kim spent six years, from 1999 through 2004, "trailing and tracking the adoptee community" (15), including eleven months of fieldwork in Seoul and seven months interviewing members of adult adoptee organizations in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and New York. Even as she recognizes how her exclusion from adoptee-only spaces limited her observations, she negotiated enviable access as a trusted volunteer for both adoptee- and government-run programs. Indeed, she recognizes that her immersion in the field was so deep that her activities helped to constitute the very network she was studying.

Kim presents her study in three sections: an introductory chapter followed by two multichapter parts. The introduction begins with a revealing account of how legislative proposals in South Korea for reforming adoption have transnational repercussions, describes her methodology, and unpacks the book's deep theoretical toolkit to frame the topic of transnational adoption within the literatures on stratified reproduction, Korean adoption history, the biopolitics of state power, and the influence of neoliberal modernization on family values.

In Part I, chapter 1 provides a thorough, binational history of Korean adoptions to the United States through an analysis of U.S. print media and South Korean state archives. This chapter contextualizes the popular attribution of these adoptions to the figure of Harry Holt by raising other essential elements: the dual role of U.S. servicemen as both the original abandoning fathers and the main supporters for early international charity, the entitlement expressed by certain American adoptive parents to remove children promised to them, the willingness of the South Korean government to fulfill those desires, and the resulting demand for Korean children that exhausted the supply of mixed-race war orphans by 1962, shifting overseas adoption to the full-Korean children of poor families and single mothers. The chapter effectively illustrates the de-politicizing sentiments that attach to orphaned children, the tragic irony of international adoption, and the incompleteness of spectacles that commemorate the humanitarianism motivating early adopters.

In chapters 2 and 3, Kim turns to her adoptee interviews to examine, respectively, the experiential basis for their sense of adoptee kinship and the historical formation of their organizational field. Critical to her analysis is her participant observation at adoptee-related events, where she could directly observe the formation of the adoptee "counterpublic." Kim argues that adoptee kinship is based not only on shared childhood experiences with racial marginalization and ethnic essentialism but also on the lived understanding that it takes work for kinship, whether biological or adoptive, to feel natural. She also argues that the "mid-1990s revolution in home computing and the Internet was the key factor" (105) in scaling up adoptee kinship from local organizations assisted by Korean immigrants in Europe to a global network with a predictable seasonal calendar, annual leadership meetings, and a council of organizations that programs semiannual international "Gatherings."

Chapter 4 provides an in-depth examination of the practice of adoptee kinship through an ethnography of the Gatherings, which have "emerged as the main forum for the collective production of Korean adoptee history and shared memory" (139). Kim observes that a core feature of these conferences has been the adoptee-only workshop, which sorts adoptee attenders into discussion groups by birth year. Kim...



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