Essay: Ryan Gustafssonon adoption

Curious Entanglements

Consider two figures who occupy – and sometimes share, insofar as they are often conflated – a peculiar position in western cultural texts: the adoptee and the orphan. The former is often portrayed as taking an interest in searching for birth or original family, or reconnects with long-lost family members under serendipitous circumstances, whereas the latter is generally understood to have no living parents (to search for). Interest in stories of adoption and orphanhood is, of course, not new. Adoption is ‘a secret hidden in plain view’, as literary scholar Margaret Homans writes, in the very ‘paradigm of storytelling itself’, namely the story of Oedipus. Orphanhood in the classic English novel is commonly used to construct a hero and plot; in US literary history orphanhood and adoption often feature in stories of nation-building and self-invention, the orphan as the exemplar liberal subject unhindered by the ‘bonds of family, tradition, and authority’, in Mark Jerng’s words.

Indeed, both the orphan and adoptee are constructed as ‘journeying’ figures, but with different trajectories and temporalities: one independently traverses the world, forward-facing and upwardly mobile, the other anachronistic, looking ‘back’, engaged in the search for some ‘truth’ regarding their origin. Orphanhood is futural – the orphaned child is typically a figure of human possibility, with the tenacity to overcome adversity and destitution, sometimes even endowed with discovered superpowers that they learn to wield in the service of some public good. While adoptees are also framed as embarking on a quest – often solitary – they are figured as geared or oriented toward the past, a past often cast as irretrievable. Adoption has been, as Jerng writes, ‘recognised for its prominence in myth and the quest for origins plot typical of the structure of romance’. Marianne Novy points out how idealised adoption narratives of successful reunions and the discovery of ‘true’ identities, are structurally analogous to romance plots that culminate in marriage – and the same can be said of family narratives that posit adoption placements as preordained and ‘meant to be.’

And yet, how to account for the proliferation of search and reunion stories, if the adoptee was once an orphan? To where does the orphan recede, when the adoptee emerges and eclipses the former? How does one navigate the torsion that arises from these seemingly opposed orientations: forward and backward, past and future, discovery and self-invention?

Transnational adoption may seem an obvious choice of topic for a series on kinship. The phenomenon of adoption offers, after all, a way of thinking kinship formation in a given society, as Christine Gailey points out. As a form of modern family creation, adoption illuminates the possibilities of forging kinship with those with whom one is not biologically related, ‘across’ race, culture, and nation. It also facilitates the rupture of kinship – what Signe Howell calls ‘de-kinning’ – insofar as adoption involves the legal transfer of parental rights and the termination of social and legal ties with birth parents. Indeed, as Janet Carsten suggests, exclusionary processes too form an ‘integral part’ of kinship despite a strong tendency in western societies to view it as a ‘positive force’. Possibilities for making and maintaining kin are stratified, as Clarke and Haraway point out; possibilities for kinship and multiplicity are constrained in western patriarchal systems, as Rebecca Hill argues. Important too are the differential ways in which racialised groups are imagined as kin or even granted ‘childhood’ – that is, allowed to be a child. Much has been written on adoptive kinship – that is, adoption as a particular kind of kin relationship forged with ‘strangers’ or ‘foreigners’, as Judith Modell and Signe Howell put it, respectively. It is kinship, Elizabeth Raleigh argues, that adoption agencies sell.

What comes ‘after’ kinship? In what follows, I wish to shift the focus from adoptive familial contexts to explore adoptees’ curiosity as they trace, reflect on, or speculate about their pasts as adults. I consider how curiosity teaches us, not just the ‘things’ we discover through following our ‘own’ curiosity, but also that being curious can be a way of forging and deepening kinship.

Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom’s graphic novel Palimpsest: Documents from a Korean Adoption opens with a letter addressed to her father from Sweden’s largest adoption agency Adoptioncentrum. An extended epigraph of sorts, the letter explains the process of searching for information on Lisa’s Korean parents: if the telegram sent to the address listed in the adoption file goes unanswered, the ‘dong’ (neighborhood) office is contacted. If they have no information, the ‘ku’ (local government) office is approached. Should they too have no information, the police will be contacted for the social security number and dates of birth of the persons searched for. Sometimes the social security number and date of birth turn out to be false. The address might also be false, perhaps it is just the name of a mountain with a number added. Perhaps. Perhaps: a curious little word.

Adoption is a ‘fiction-generating machine.’ Characterising it as such is not to ‘contrast it categorically with non-adoptive family formation’, Homans argues, but to foreground how it ‘presents in a particularly acute form the problem of the unknowability of origins and the common tendency to address that problem with fiction making’. While this may certainly be the case, Korean adoption also generates fiction in and through its very facilitation. This is not to question the ‘truthfulness’ of kinship ties – adoptive or non-adoptive – but rather to probe the ways in which fiction, fact, fantasy, truth, and reality become entangled through the adoption process, and the impacts of this entanglement when adoptees subsequently attempt to map their histories.

The Korean adoptee has been called by Jodi Kim ‘an orphan with two mothers’. As researchers have demonstrated, in Korean overseas adoption the orphan was not necessarily a child without living parents. In the aftermath of the Korean War (1950-53) when the Korean adoption program began, all displaced children were classified as ‘orphaned’, marking a shift away from earlier modes of categorisation that differentiated between children that were abandoned, lost, or orphaned. Most orphans in the postwar period, Soojin Pate explains, had at least one living parent. This is most certainly the case too for those adopted in the intervening years since the end of the war, given the majority were born to single mothers. In the 1970s, staff from Holt Adoption Program, the largest adoption agency operating in Korea at the time, explained that they use the term ‘orphan’ in a legal, not literal sense, in accordance with U.S. immigration law. Hence the adoptee was what researchers have variously described as a ‘social orphan’, ‘paper orphan’, or ‘legal orphan’ – that is, in Pate’s words, ‘an orphan in legal terms rather than in fact’.

The paper orphan is an anticipatory construct, created in order to fulfill the requirements of the adoption process. The agency organises what is known as an ‘orphan hojuk’ for the prospective adoptee, a Korean family registry that lists the child as the ‘head’ of their own family, with no kinship ties. A ‘family’ established weeks – sometimes months – after birth. Many, myself included, were given the family origin ‘Hanyang’, the previous name for Seoul; this is now shared by numerous adoptees regardless of their ‘actual’ origins. The orphan hojuk in effect renders the prospective adoptee, to use Jodi Kim’s terms, ‘an exceptional state subject’ with ‘the barest of social identities’. Having been ‘denuded of all kinship’, the adoptee is described by Signe Howell as ‘socially naked’. Here, Howell argues, the child is paradoxically the ‘autonomous individual’ so privileged in western liberal thought while also a ‘non-person’, even ‘non-human’. Through this process, she continues, a state ‘relinquishes’ an individual and another state ‘accepts’ them – the child now ‘re-kinned’ by their new parents, able to (re)enter ‘kinned sociality’.

The orphan hojuk is one of the few documents many Korean adoptees have, if they were given access to their files and if their adoptions were facilitated by an adoption agency. Yet the orphan registry often appears alongside a document outlining the child’s background which includes the names of their Korean parents (if provided), foster mother (if applicable), and a paragraph or two detailing the circumstances of their relinquishment. The information provided in this ‘social study’ or ‘social history’ file, however, may be inaccurate – for example, names of parents, and/or date and place of birth – and may even contradict information listed in other documents (such as immigration papers). Some details may be withheld, sometimes later redacted. In a passing comment, an adoption worker once told me: when you read these stories of relinquishment for as long as she had, they start to all sound the same.

What does a family registry register, if it is only your name that appears on it? A name, moreover, given by – who knows? – and one may never be sure. And what then, of the names of your birth parents, which appear in the next document in your file? Specific and general, personal and anonymous, documents have a particular hold on reality. They serve a purpose, a function. They are objects that do – they ‘document’ things worth documenting and in so doing reinforce their decree, their necessity and the thing’s tenuousness. Documents have an issuer, follow a custom, a template. They can become bearers of hoped-for truths, half-truths. Adoptees’ files are, to a degree, about them but they are not for them; adoptees are not the intended recipient. This complicated relationship to institutional embeddedness means that one must rely on the materials agencies produce for guidance, for traces of something ‘real’ – while also casting doubt on the veracity of the information these documents provide. Perhaps: this little word is enough to find yourself on unsteady ground, unsure of what can be known with certainty. To be compelled and unsettled: to become curious. One learns to read between the lines, out of the corner of the eye.

The search for origins and ‘roots’ popularised in adoption narratives has been deemed by some as reflective of a worrying and naïve biological essentialism. As Jenny Heijun Wills argues, however, anti-essentialism often ‘assumes a neutral or default subject for whom ancestry and origins are both coherent and reliable’. In other words, it assumes a subject for whom origins are not already in question, and who may even be, as Barbara Yngvesson and Maureen Mahoney point out, ‘reassured’ in their ‘own rootedness’ through observing the ‘uprootedness’ of others. Moreover, it is unsurprising that such terms – origins and roots, but also blood and genealogy – which revolve around belonging, are deployed in some transnational adoption narratives, given how saturated adoptees’ social contexts are with questions of ‘fitting in’, racial belonging, and authenticity. (Where are you ‘really’ from? Who are your ‘real’ parents? What is your ‘real’ name?) Many Korean adoptees grow up bearing what Sara Docan-Morgan calls a ‘discursive burden’, namely, the strain of having to communicate their identities and family relationships to others, who feel it appropriate to ask personal questions about adoptees’ circumstances – questions adoptees may not be able to answer, even if they desired to. As an adult adoptee explains in Eleana Kim’s ethnographic study, ‘always being asked a lot of questions’ and ‘always being on display, everywhere, and I mean everywhere we went’ is an experience shared by many Korean transracial adoptees, especially those adopted during the early decades of the practice.

The dislocative impacts of transnational adoption are expressed in various ways in adult adoptees’ narratives. Realness is a recurring theme: not the reality or consistency of the external world, or the authenticity of kinship ties, but the very ‘realness’ of the adoptee themselves. In her memoir Ghost of Sangju, for example, Soojung Jo details her investigation, remarkable in its empiricism:

Things that make me real: I have thoughts in my brain. I can move my eyeballs and see the world around me. When I eat food, it disappears into my belly. I am solid enough for my parents to hold. I can make water swirl by flushing the toilet. Sometimes other people can see me and hear me, and they believe I’m real too. Things that make me unreal: Real people are born, but I came off an airplane. My mirror face is opposite from my family faces. I have feelings inside my body but they can’t come out. Sometimes people can’t see me, but sometimes people constantly stare at me.

Airport terminals are described as non-places of transition – or more acutely, sites of rebirth. Or more acutely still, where, as wheels grazed the tarmac, life itself began. The ‘most persistent refrain’ in adult adoptee stories, according to Yngvesson and Mahoney, is a particular ‘narrative of liminality’: ‘not belonging anywhere, and thus of not being real, together with other adoptees’. The stakes of not being real, and the ‘sense of not fully existing’, can be profound; as Sjöblom explains, ‘if you’ve never been born, you can never be fully alive’. How might one incorporate the series of dizzying disjunctures that comprises one’s history, inclusive of what is unknowable and cannot be verified, in the present? What might it take to historicise the adoptee subject?

I’ve become quite taken by the word trace. It suggests: going back over, outlining, following; positioning yourself, in the present, as an agent capable of journeying toward a future while oriented toward the past, toward a future wherein the past might take on a different significance. It can also be what remains – that very thing we are searching for – a remainder so small as to be difficult to measure. And yet, closer still, its elusiveness perseveres: a trace is a sign of erasure, an indexical sign, signifying a destruction or disappearance that has already occurred. But one might try, nevertheless. Proceed anyway, despite the inaccessibility of origins. Mustn’t we always begin, after all, somewhere in the middle?

Curiosity around what is considered ‘one’s own’ – life, self, circumstances, and experiences – need not be a solipsistic endeavour. As Perry Zurn argues, feminist curiosity ‘begins with the self’ or a ‘turn inward.’ Yet it does so while remaining committed to asking with others – what matters is not just ‘what gets asked’ but also with whom one asks, in whose company one practices curiosity. This is also key for adoptees, who often find themselves confronting impersonal institutional impasses and the blunt arbitrariness of their placements when seeking to understand their own histories, or who discover that many of the experiences of non-belonging they’ve grappled with in isolation are in fact, reasonably common among other adoptees. It is through a sense of having ‘alien’ origins and consequently a non-normative form of personhood, that what Eleana Kim calls ‘adoptee kinship’ is forged. This kinship is based not on ‘naturalized solidarities of blood, ethnicity, or territorial belonging’, but rather on ‘shared histories of displacement’, including ‘the involuntary forfeiture of historical and cultural connections’. It is kinship, we might say, among those who are no-longer-kin; in this sense, adoptee kinship is indicative of an expansive sense of relatedness ‘beyond’ biological and adoptive kinship. Exchanging stories, posing questions and seeking advice, and sharing experiences of searching for Korean family are common activities in adoptee groups and networks, which have grown rapidly in size and quantity since the 1990s. Curiosity is always ‘curiosity-with’, to use Zurn’s term, and what adoptees ‘discover,, even while engaged in a personal search, provides information that may be of value to others.

Adoptees’ curiosity around origins and the past is significant, then, not only because it may lead to unearthing information regarding their personal histories, but also because of the knowledge it generates about a larger, collective experience. What risks being overlooked in a too narrow focus on individual adoptee stories of searching and personal loss, is how curiosity is instructive, how it teaches adoptees (and those supporting them) about how adoption systems function, and how institutions and bureaucratic procedures too form part of many Korean adoptees’ ‘origins.’ Importantly, this is to denaturalise the figure of the orphan and adoptee, to reframe the adoptee as not irremediably ‘lost’ or ‘incomplete’, but as a particular social and historical subject. There is a difference between situating loss historically, and parsing its disruptive impacts on adoptees’ understandings of themselves, and positioning the adoptee as a solitary, anachronistic figure defined solely by loss. Is it not possible that adoptees search, not necessarily for who they are, but rather, that they are curious because of who they are? Curious, too, because of the questions they have raised, what they have learned, what they know?

This is not to discount the losses and frustrations adoptees face (which often go unacknowledged), nor does it absolve adoption agencies from – at the very least – making adoptees’ records accessible. Indeed, foregrounding the adoptee as producer of knowledge is precisely to grant interiority and historicity, to treat the adoptee as a subject in the present that attends to their histories and the questions they pose – and the ends that keep throwing themselves into question. The adoptee lives in a post-adopted world. It is in this world and the conditions it offers, that they situate themselves in relation to an opaque past and attempt to compose an intelligible narrative. It is in this world that I am compelled to trace and (re)write kinship. There is no seamless ‘return’ or recuperation except as fantasy, and sometimes no addition without cost; as Soojung Jo writes, ‘[I] wish I could have both lives with both families, my American life and my Korean life, but time has gone by, and we can only have the future’.

Curiosity points to what exceeds us. In a general sense, it indicates our being exposed, unsettled, beckoned, solicited by a world replete with meaning. As a capacity, it is not exhausted by the ‘objects’ or the things it aims at. Involving both passivity and activity, curiosity instigates and deepens our relations with others, and with the world more broadly, while it also expresses this intertwining, responds to it. Curiosity pursues entanglement, sometimes too an entanglement that has been ruptured – a ‘clean break’, non-relation in a legal, not literal sense, in a sense other than in fact – for if the past did not exert a force in the present, would one be compelled to trace it? But we must also ask: where has curiosity already taken us? And with whom?

Published September 19, 2022
Part of Rewriting Kinship: The SRB and non/FictionLab have joined forces to commission new essays that reimagine kinship beyond its traditional framing. All Rewriting Kinship essays →
Ryan Gustafsson

Ryan Gustafsson is a writer and researcher living on Wurundjeri country. Their essays have...

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