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Reviewed by:
  • Comforting an Orphaned Nation: Representations of International Adoption and Adopted Koreans in Korean Popular Culture
  • Barbara Katz Rothman (bio)
Comforting an Orphaned Nation: Representations of International Adoption and Adopted Koreans in Korean Popular Culture, by Tobias Hübinette. Stockholm: Department of Oriental Languages, Stockholm University, 2005. 269 pp.

I am flattered and pleased to have been asked to review this fascinating and important book but find myself intimidated by the venue. I know something of the adoption literature, and the literature specifically about trans-racial and trans-national adoption, but have the kind of ignorance of Korea—its history, culture, and politics—that only an American, even an educated one, can have. My review will have to be limited to placing this book in the context of adoption studies.

And this book makes a very significant contribution to our understanding of adoption. In the adoption literature, there is much talk of the "triad" made up of the birth mother or family; the adoptive family; and the adoptee. It is well known in the world of adoption that the voice of birth mothers is the most silenced of these. Adoptive parents, usually of higher socioeconomic status than birth mothers, have had their say. Adoptees, once grown, have come to have theirs. But birth mothers, silenced by the fact of their "inappropriate" motherhood in the first place, become silenced further by the stigma of having given a child for adoption. Only a comparatively few are able to break that silence and make their voices heard.

Tobias Hübinette's methodology, drawing upon a "postcolonial perspective and a cultural studies reading with the purpose of identifying how Korean nationalism is articulated . . . in light of the country's ethnonationalist identity and self-understanding, and colonial experiences and postcolonial developments" (p. 217) involves a thoughtful analysis of artifacts of Korean popular [End Page 112] culture. He offers wonderfully succinct and well-written summaries of these theoretical and methodological positions in the first chapter and then goes on to analyze "the cinematic and lyrical representations of adopted Koreans in feature films and popular songs." The representations could be thought of as scarce—only four of each—or surprisingly plentiful—four such films! Four such songs! That number itself seems to be indicative of a cultural concern with the issue. On the other hand, those who "read adoption" (see Maryanne Novy's book, Reading Adoption), who do cultural and literary studies, point out that in Western cultures too adoption figures surprisingly often in plot. While Hübinette convincingly argues for the place of adoption in the unique Korean context as a "supplying nation," and a nation experiencing diaspora, with its history of division, reunification, and family separation, others have argued that adoption often serves as a metaphor for the (post)modern condition of root-lessness and individuation. While no one book can do everything, perhaps more awareness of other cultural studies approaches to adoption would have provided some balance.

To return to the wonderful contributions this particular book does make: if a nation thinks of itself as a kind of family, a "motherland," then this book provides perhaps the first articulation of the voice of the nation-as-birthmother, the nation as shamed by its infertility, and shamed further by the adoption "solution" urged upon it. The nation, Hübinette convincingly argues, is a woman—the title of chapter 4. In this chapter, the rock song "Motherland," released in 1997 by Sinawe, identified as Korea's most famous rock band of their time (p. 124) provides the data. The song offers a "blurred merging of the birth mother with Korea as roots are maternalized and the nation becomes depicted as a mother. . . . a bifurcated mother (who) eagerly calls for and reclaims her lost and unhappy child living in exile in a far off and hostile Western country" (p. 125). A similar theme emerges in Chang Kil-su's 1991 feature film Susanne Brink's Arirang, "arguably the most famous Korean feature film that depicts an adopted Korean in a Western host country." Suffering and shaming—of the child, the birthmother, and the nation—are repeated themes.

What Hübinette offers is more than just a...


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