It was September in Boston, and Sarah Gunn was sweating. How much of it was because of the heat and how much from the anticipation, she couldn’t be certain. Standing at the entrance to Castle Island, where she was meant to be waiting at 11:00 a.m., she wiped her brow and scanned the parking lot, looking for a woman she’d seen only in pictures.
Sarah knew Diana Clark’s life story. She knew Diana (whose name has been changed) had struggled since childhood with identity, belonging, and mental health; that sometimes the pain had come in waves so staggering that she hadn’t thought she could survive them. And Diana knew this about Sarah too. What made their connection so intimate was that, in many ways, each saw their own life reflected in the other’s. Transracially and transnationally adopted, Sarah and Diana, both 36, were born in South Korea to Korean parents and raised in the United States by white ones. Growing up in racial isolation, wedged into white spaces that never quite fit, they each worried that there was something fundamentally wrong with them, but neither knew what, if anything, could be done about it.
Having spent their childhoods on opposite sides of the country, Sarah in rural Wyoming and Diana in a Boston suburb, the two went to different universities, belonged to different social circles, and settled in different cities. They were never supposed to cross paths. Except that, one day on Facebook, they did, and it was through that platform that they found not only each other, but also an entire community of other adopted people. Suddenly, they had access to a global network of people like them — to kinship, to understanding, and to life-saving resources. This is what enabled them, as it did many others, to at last begin to make sense of themselves and the mental health problems that had always cast a shadow over them.
Over the years, Sarah had insisted she didn’t have “adoption issues,” and from the outside, she didn’t seem to. But internally, she knew something was wrong. As a high school senior, Sarah’s mother encouraged her to apply for a scholarship from the Daughters of the American Revolution, a membership organization for people descended from the U.S. founders. Sarah won. So, they traveled to Jackson Hole for the awards ceremony, where none of the white women in pastel dresses and pearl necklaces expected, with the name “Sarah Gunn” printed in the program, for a Korean girl to walk through the door. The room went silent — except for her mom, who greeted them all with joy. It’s a story that Sarah tells today with humor, but it was also the moment she realized she had, in fact, no connection to her adoptive family’s history. Unsure of what to make of her identity, she didn’t know what to do. Sarah had gone to every type of counselor — guidance, religious, psychological — and none of them ever really seemed to understand her. When she was 16, she’d been misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder; in her twenties, she started thinking about suicide.
Sarah’s phone vibrated — “I’m here!” the text read — and her stomach began to flutter. When she saw Diana walking toward her, she waved. From beneath their masks, their smiles stretched wide. They didn’t hug. They didn’t touch. “Oh my god,” Sarah squealed, her laughter laced with nerves, “I can’t believe this is happening!” After a decade of long-distance friendship, they were finally meeting in person.
Since 1953, hundreds of thousands of Korean children have been adopted abroad. The South Korean government puts the number at a little more than 170,000, but most experts agree it’s well over 200,000. Unwittingly, they entered the folds of the Korean diaspora, displaced from their national history, culture, language, and land. Yet no thought was given to helping them belong to the diaspora, because, according to the Korean government, they didn’t. They were no longer considered Korean.
Scattered like seeds, they were sent to France, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Australia, Germany, Canada, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Italy, and England. But most — about two-thirds of all overseas Korean adoptees, like Sarah and Diana (and also myself) — were sent to the U.S., which pioneered international adoption from Korea. In these predominantly white places, transracial transplants were expected to bloom into well-adjusted adults who moved confidently forward, never looking back or questioning why their futures had been decided for them. Before the internet age, many adoptees were unaware that there were others like them wondering how their lives might have been different, or indeed, that there were others like them at all.
In the eyes of many white people, according to cultural anthropologist Eleana Kim, Asians have long been considered a “flexible” minority, viewed as being more easily assimilated than other races. So, even though transracial adoption has long been a highly contentious issue — in 1972, for instance, the National Association of Black Social Workers condemned the transracial adoption of Black children as a form of cultural genocide — lots of white families never considered the implications of adopting Asian children.
In the U.S., the desire to parent Korean babies was so strong that the law was changed to exempt orphans from the racist quotas that limited immigration from Asian countries. This happened in the wake of the Korean War, when the evangelical couple Harry and Bertha Holt were prevented from bringing eight Korean children back to Oregon. After just two months of lobbying Congress, the Holt Bill was passed. (And, today, Holt International remains one of the largest adoption agencies in the U.S.) At the time, the prevailing narrative framed would-be parents like the Holts as saviors, and the children they adopted as lucky, rescued from a lifetime of poverty and misery. The truth, however, is less idyllic: The vast majority of adoptees were not orphans in Korea.
While the first wave of adoptees, sent in the immediate aftermath of the Korean War, did include a large number of orphans, even then, many were not parentless, but were deemed unfit for life in Korea because of their mixed-race parentage (usually Black or white American military fathers and Korean mothers). Subsequent waves were increasingly made up of children who had been lost or relinquished, and not always because of poverty. State failures, including deficient reproductive health and family planning services, and a lack of support for stigmatized, unwed mothers, converged with patriarchal, misogynistic attitudes to “solve” South Korea’s overpopulation problem by simply supplying an international demand for Korean kids. These children were labeled orphans only because it made them “adoptable.”
Only in recent years has it come to light that trauma attaches itself to the body, like a living, breathing parasite. Even if the experiences that caused it occurred in early childhood or infancy, before the development of language or the ability to store images, that trauma lingers somatically. These are what are known as body memories. They extend from the most fundamental of human relationships, those with mothers or caregivers, and they affect the sense of self moving forward. According to experts, when this trauma remains unresolved, it can lead to complex post-traumatic stress disorder, or C-PTSD, which can manifest as a large range of symptoms, including depression, anxiety, mood swings, irritability, and loneliness.
“What we know about trauma is that it’s a full-body experience. So, we are just constantly being triggered as we grow up,” said Moses Farrow, a Korean adoptee and therapist specializing in transracial adoption. In 1980, he was adopted by the actress Mia Farrow at the age of two, and later co-adopted by the director Woody Allen. “We also have the struggle of internalized racism, and sometimes overt racism within our own families. … With all this, we know that there are predispositions to mental health issues.”
In the index of trauma research, not much has been done specifically on international adoptees and the long-term psychological impact of their adoptions, and not all psychiatric organizations even recognize adoption-related trauma as a legitimate diagnosis. However, a 2013 study out of the University of Minnesota, which looked at 692 American adoptees — most of them adopted transracially from Korea — and 540 non-adoptees, pointed to an array of indicators that allude to the damage transracial adoption can do. Adolescent adoptees are more likely to exhibit disruptive behavioral disorders than their non-adopted counterparts. These disorders include problems with aggression, impulse control, conduct, oppositional defiance, attention deficit, and hyperactivity. Adolescent adoptees are also at increased risk of being diagnosed with other psychiatric problems and substance abuse issues.
The most startling finding, though, had to do with suicide. The study found that adoptees are four times more likely to attempt suicide than non-adoptees. This affirmed a Swedish report from 2005, which stated that Swedish transnational adoptees were three to five times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population.
Although Farrow said adopted people are in fact “overpathologized” and “overrepresented in therapy,” conventional counseling often fails them. “Because there’s nothing that connects adoption with trauma … we’re mistreated, we’re misdiagnosed, we’re misunderstood.” He has been a vocal advocate for an adoption-informed understanding of trauma, adoption-competent and specialized therapists, and free lifetime mental healthcare services for adoptees. “Trauma is something you live with,” he explained. “It is something that you manage over the course of your life.”
In the absence of accessible effective clinical care and intervention, one key protective factor for adopted people at risk of suicide, research shows, is community connectedness. But for Korean adoptees living in majority-white areas, finding such a community had — up until the social media era — required a lot of labor or luck. They could meet at in-person events organized by associations such as Also-Known-As in New York, Korea Klubben in Denmark, or Arierang in the Netherlands. Alternatively, they could attend annual culture camps, homeland tours, and specialized conferences. But such options, despite some funding opportunities from adoption agencies and the South Korean government, were often prohibitively expensive, and many adoptees had no idea they even existed in the first place. Likewise, adoptee message boards and group email lists operated in largely siloed spaces.
Then Facebook came along, and its radical reach changed everything.
Fourteen years before Sarah and Diana met at Castle Island, Doug Erling, a now 33-year-old adoptee, was sitting down at his computer in New Jersey to create the Korean American Adoptees (KAA) group that would later spawn the subgroup that brought the two women together. KAA’s first members were people that Doug knew personally, who in turn invited their friends. It grew by word-of-mouth. Because Facebook required a .edu email address at the time, everyone was in college. But when the platform opened to the general public, what had started with a few dozen students morphed into a universe unto itself, spanning generations, geographies, politics, and even conflicting opinions on adoption. Today, more than 6,700 people belong to KAA.
Over the years, KAA and Korean Adoptees, another group Doug moderated for overseas Korean adoptees outside of the U.S., have splintered into dozens of increasingly specific subgroups. Some are based on adoptive nationality or geographic location. Others form around hobbies, or romance and dating, or sharing the same adoption agency, same birth city, or even the same airplane flight out of Korea. They include Korean Adoptees Searching for their Birth Families, Korean Adoptees in Australia, DNA-Tested Korean Adoptees, Korean Adoptee Korean Language Learners, Anti-Racist Korean American Adoptees, Adoptees Living in Korea, Korean Food Dining-Out & Home-Cooking by and for Korean Adoptees — the list goes on. The one where Sarah and Diana met targeted Korean adoptee women interested in beauty. These groups have overlapping memberships, but if every group’s users were added together, they would exceed 30,000.
For many, these by-adoptee, for-adoptee spaces were a total revelation, providing something Korean adoptees — or “KADs,” as they’re called in the adoptee vernacular — had never before known: instant acceptance, without having to explain or justify oneself; the freedom to voice complicated, sometimes contradictory feelings about being adopted; a validation of their lived experiences; and a connection that felt primal.
For Sarah, who’d long been curious about how many others like her were out there, her life changed the day she typed “Korean adoptees” into the Facebook search box and saw the results. “It seemed natural to be able to search for such things, but it was still surprising and so exciting to find they existed,” she remembers. “Kind of mind-blowing when you didn’t realize there were so many of us.” Suddenly, she was no longer alone. A new world had been cracked open.
“You’d get on in the middle of the night and there’d be people up and you’d all chat together,” she said, recalling her early days in these groups. “There’d be a thread that went on 500 comments long.” Adoptees would spend hours corresponding, sharing memories and questions about their experiences, and collecting and comparing answers.
Members discussed whether they’d been stared at in public when they were with their white parents, or given lectures about gratitude by complete strangers, or expected to endure the probing curiosities of anyone who felt entitled to know more about their adoptions. They discussed whether they fought back tears when their white peers made fun of them for looking “too Asian,” while their Asian peers accused them of being a “banana” or “twinkie” who acted “too white.” They talked about not knowing enough about their biological parents’ medical histories to fill out a doctor’s form and whether they felt scared navigating health complications without this data. “Most definitely,” “Me too,” “Same here,” came the chorus of replies.
It was cathartic and liberating — almost euphoric. Many found themselves disclosing the most private details of their lives to total strangers. Yet these strangers felt like family. For some, these people on the internet were the first adopted Koreans they’d ever encountered. And it was the first time they’d found company in isolation and ostracism.
But most importantly for Sarah, the Facebook groups were where, by watching and talking to other adoptees, she finally felt comfortable enough to talk about her own adoption and mental wellbeing, and to consider the possibility that perhaps the two were linked. “In a way, we’re deconstructing our own trauma,” she said. “You’re looking at a mirror of yourself.” That’s when she realized her history of loss and abandonment might help explain her struggles with depression and suicidal ideation.
Other KADs describe similar awakenings. In middle school, Emilee van Norden, now 35, was routinely hyperventilating. She didn’t know how to articulate why — explaining that she was ashamed of being different, she thought, would only deepen her humiliation — and a doctor misdiagnosed her with asthma. She was given inhalers and a nebulizer, none of which helped, until her asthma was eventually accurately diagnosed as panic attacks and she was put on anti-anxiety medication. But she believed the only thing that made her feel better was self-medicating. She got addicted to oxycodone, coke, and heroin; fell into abusive relationships; overdosed; and was arrested. “The emptiness just never goes away. It’s inescapable,” she said. “I really wonder if it will ever stop, if it’s possible to ever fill that hole.”
In 2020, Emilee was at an all-time low. “What’s the point?” she remembers thinking. “I just don’t want to do this anymore.” That’s when she found the KAD groups on Facebook and started reading post after post after post. In her browsing, she was surprised to stumble upon a tab labeled “mentorship,” where hundreds of members were offering to talk one-on-one. Among them, Emilee came across an adoptee named Pamela, whose profile resonated with her, so she clicked on “start a conversation” and started typing. Pamela answered within minutes. “I don’t know how I could have done it without her. … I was hanging on by a thread,” Emilee said. “Talking to Pamela was more therapeutic than talking to my therapist.”
Diana, too, struggled with counseling. As a child, she suffered from night terrors, separation anxiety, and mood swings, but the therapists she saw said they couldn’t find anything wrong with her. After years of repressing her feelings, Diana’s unresolved issues came to a head around the emotionally fraught period of her university years, as she was figuring out what it meant to be Asian American. In her early twenties, she attempted suicide.
Years later, she credits the relationships she forged with other adoptees through Facebook as having saved her life. “Social media has opened large doors for us as a diaspora,” she said. “I really, really believe that I would be dead without it.”
One of the biggest factors for transnational Korean adoptees at risk of suicide is whether they have been back to Korea — whether they’ve witnessed up close the hard edges of the country that once existed only in their imaginations. The South Korea of today, an advanced OECD nation, is drastically different from the country it was at the height of the adoption era, and yet, many of the old practices are still in place.
For adoptees who grew up never quite fitting into their adoptive nations, a return to Korea represents a chance, finally, at belonging. Pandemic times notwithstanding, between 3,000 and 5,000 are estimated to travel back each year. They come to track their bloodlines and trace their steps, hoping to go from airport to agency to orphanage and, at last, to home. They come to be nourished by Korean food and soothed by the Korean language, and to find out if these tastes and sounds are distantly familiar to them. They come to embrace their Korean families — or, if that’s not possible, to at least be in a place where they can blend into the background. That’s the fantasy, anyway.
But once adoptees touch down in Korea, they are often shocked to discover that they stick out in ways that they never anticipated. “Many adoptees have a Hollywood picture. … But it’s not a fairytale,” said Hilbrand Westra, a somatic psychotherapy practitioner who leads training and workshops for adoptees. He was adopted from Korea to the Netherlands in 1973. “They thought it was a closure. It’s not a closure, it’s an opening of something new.” For these returnees, the disillusionment only exacerbates their feelings of rejection and isolation.
According to one survey conducted by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs (KIHASA), more than half of international Korean adoptees perceive Koreans’ attitude toward them as negative, with about 15% classifying it as “hostile” or “discriminatory.” Some say they’ve been denied jobs teaching English because employers don’t think they look the part of a native English speaker. Others say they’ve been the target of offensive remarks and insensitive, sometimes rude, questions. They report having trouble making Korean friends and being accepted into Korean circles. Often, they look on as white foreigners are given preferential treatment, while they are judged and held to different standards.
In South Korea, public awareness around transnational Korean adoptees is growing, but it is still limited. Many Koreans don’t know about the identity issues — and the corresponding mental health struggles — that adoptees might carry with them back to Korea.
A few years ago, a handful of Korean women in an English-language study group started hearing about adoptees who were returning to their homeland only to feel rejected by it. They decided they could do something to make them feel welcome. They weren’t trained social workers or private investigators, but one of their members, Kim Yu-kyeong, had previously helped an adoptee search for her birth mother, and had seen first-hand the challenges returnees encounter. Before the search, Yu-kyeong said that she, like most Koreans, didn’t know the first thing about overseas adoption, but that going to Holt opened her eyes. “I saw how much our government and society are indifferent to adoptees,” she said, and took this as her “chance to face the dark side of Korean history.” With this in mind, Yu-kyeong and the other women decided to create an online community to connect to international adoptees, both abroad and in South Korea.
Although the country’s two most popular web portals are Naver and Daum, which host “cafés” that are essentially online forums, the women knew that in order to reach international adoptees they needed to use Facebook. So, in 2019, they created a private group called “Banet,” derived from both the Korean word for newborn baby clothing and the word “bassinet.” With just over 350 members, it describes itself as “a group of Korean women supporting and helping Korean adoptees.”
On the private group page, Yu-kyeong and the other Banet women communicate with adoptees from around the world, aiding them in searches for birth families, connecting them to Korean government offices and police agencies, translating documents, and making phone calls on their behalf. Through their work, the women have been able to unearth adoptees’ real names — which are sometimes switched or falsified during the adoption process — and have translated adoptees’ letters to their biological mothers into Korean.
The Banet women also help international adoptees learn about contemporary South Korea, answering questions about culture and customs, and offering advice on the day-to-day logistics of life. Sometimes, queries are of the guidebook variety: How does one get a cheap SIM card or find a friendly hotel? Other times, they’re more striking: “Is there a popular newspaper in Daegu where you can take out a small advertisement?” asked one Belgian adoptee, who wanted to publish his baby photo with the statement “looking for birth family.” For the adoptees who do make it to Korea, the women guide them throughout their stay, sometimes accompanying them from the airport to their hometown, cooking them traditional Korean meals, and even hosting them in their own homes.
In the Banet group, adoptees discuss their wishes and fears, and managing expectations so they don’t leave Korea even more dispirited than when they arrived. The women lend an empathetic ear when adoptees share stories — like that of one man who spent years tracking down his biological relatives only to be greeted with, “What took you so long to find us?” Others write about reuniting with their birth mothers, but being told they don’t want to stay in touch. While adoptees often approach the process of finding their lost families with the hope that love can conquer all, it’s frequently the case that too much time and distance have come between them, and that ultimately, they are just strangers meeting strangers.
Confronting this reality can put adoptees in an especially vulnerable position. Some motherland tours, adoption agencies, adoptee organizations, and welfare institutions have mental health professionals on hand for adoptees in Korea, yet many — especially those on short-term stays — don’t know how to access them. Mental health services are already limited in the country, and English-language counseling is particularly difficult to find, and to afford.
The same KIHASA survey that looked at social discrimination also identified a significant need for therapy among adoptees who return to Korea. The report directed national policymakers to reinforce counseling services, and “to provide more consistent and continuous programs that enhance adoptees’ psychological wellbeing in the long run.” Adoptees in Korea have also requested such support, yet so far the subsidized services implemented have been piecemeal and hamstrung by budget constraints.
One of the primary barriers for returnees is that adoptees are legally regarded as foreigners, despite being in the country of their birth. Only a small fraction of transnational adoptees take action to reclaim their Korean citizenship. With such low numbers on their side, when it comes to petitioning the government for reintegration support and the right to know their origins, international adoptees in Korea are vastly overshadowed by adoption industry proponents.
“The Korean government hasn’t worked hard to help adoptees,” said Yu-kyeong. “The adoption agencies, which have more money and power to control politicians, are more powerful than the activist groups for adoptees. … If [the system] was working well, adoptees would have no reason to ask us for help.” In the absence of a comprehensive social support system, Banet does what it can. But it’s a bare-bones operation, and all of its volunteers also work full-time as parents or professionals. Although adoptees say that no one has done more for them than Banet, Yu-kyeong claims her work isn’t anything special. “What we do are things any ordinary people can do.”
Alongside its closed group, Banet also manages a public page with just over 300 followers, and publishes a newsletter with tips for adoptees, as well as posts — translated into English — that are written by Korean birth parents searching for the children they lost or relinquished long ago. “First of all, I am very sorry. I know it is not enough,” one mother wrote to her two daughters who years earlier had been adopted to France. “I was divorced at the time of your adoption. Your father was taking care of you. As soon as I knew about your adoption, I ran to the adoption agency (Holt), but they said you were sent for adoption the day before. Since then, I have been searching for you for nearly 40 years. I really miss you. I want to know if you are alive and well. I look forward to hearing from you. From your mom.”
Despite having gotten roughly 30,000 impressions, her post hasn’t yet generated any leads. But others have. In one case, an American adoptee came across a post featuring a picture of a baby whose family was looking for her. “Those photos are me!” she messaged. “I can’t believe this!” Sometimes, when she considers the system she’s up against, Yu-kyeong can’t believe it either.
In 2012, Sarah was preparing to travel to Korea for the first time. She was going to see her birth mother, whom she’d met once before in Oregon after they’d found each other through the adoption agency. But she was sure that this reunion, set in her ancestral homeland, would feel different. The prospect of it was overwhelming; its size and weight too much for Sarah to fathom. So, she connected with the only people she knew would understand: other adoptees who’d gone through the same experience.
Their advice was to make absolutely certain she was emotionally ready for the trip, because once she went to Korea, there was, in a sense, no going back. So, Sarah had a session with her therapist, packed her luggage, and said goodbye to her family. Then, she boarded the plane and braced herself for what was to come.
Sarah and her birth mother spent around 10 surreal days traveling all over Korea, seeing the old burial tombs, the hanok homes, the palaces and temples; breathing in the scent of lotus blossoms; feeling the sunshine against their faces on the seashore. In some ways, it was palliative. “Everything you feel while you’re there is valid. Every high, every low. All the anger and grief and joy. Your muscle memory and the déjà vu. The way your bones feel when you’re somewhere that holds great significance to your story, even if you don’t know exactly what,” she said. “All of this is valid and real.”
As the trip with her birth mother neared its end, Sarah knew there was still one thing she had to do: go to the adoption agency. That was where she had been relinquished decades earlier, and where, after changing her mind and returning days later, Sarah’s mother had been told that it was too late, that her baby was gone. Sarah wanted to see her old case file. She wasn’t sure whether leafing through the faded folder would bring her any peace of mind, but she had to do it anyway.
They went on a humid Friday in July. A staffer directed the women to sit and wait. Amid the sounds of papers shuffling, pens scrawling, and employees murmuring, they could have been in any corporate office — until a door opened and three people walked in. A woman who appeared young enough to be a teenager was with her own mother and her son, a toddler. The older woman was handed some paperwork, which she signed as her daughter stood despondent beside her, body limp and eyes vacant. When an employee came in to take the boy, the woman didn’t watch. But Sarah did, and she panicked. As Sarah’s throat closed, the little boy began to wail an unmistakable cry of anguish. Then, he was gone.
Sarah spent the rest of the day locked inside her rented efficiency apartment crying. She didn’t talk to her adoptive parents. She didn’t talk to her birth mom. In that moment, she wished she had access to a therapist, but she didn’t know how or where to begin to find one. So, she simply sat there, frozen in space, sobbing.
What Sarah recognized in the little boy was, of course, her own experience. And this powerlessness that adoptees feel when they are separated from their biological families as children is not dissimilar to the powerlessness they feel when they return to Korea as adults. It’s the sense of shame that comes with not being able to pronounce their own Korean name, or to read and write their own history. It’s the sadness that, no matter how much they reclaim, they’ll never be considered “real” Koreans. Adoptees are, in a way, infantilized, trapped in time and always seen as the children they were when they were adopted.
Just as Sarah was about to leave Korea, an adoptee she knew from the Facebook groups was set to arrive. They met up and walked around Seoul together, then joined another adoptee they’d also connected with on Facebook for dinner at his favorite kalguksu restaurant. Sitting around the table, eating knife-cut noodle soup and banchan side dishes, they talked about being adoptees in Korea. That was the beginning of trying to process a complex set of emotions that Sarah is still grappling with.
Today, Sarah is in Seattle launching an Asian-fit eyewear venture and Diana, the woman she met that bright day in Boston, is studying Korean in Seoul. Sixteen hours apart and busy, the two aren’t in a place to talk as often as they used to. Yet, simply knowing the other is out there, just a text message or Facebook comment away, is enough for them. “Knowing that you’re not alone,” Sarah said, “you can feel a lot more like, ‘I’m not crazy. This is normal. I’m okay.’”
Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.