ST. PAUL, MN —When Rebecca Eun Hee Viot speaks of her daughter Ruby, her tone expresses a love that clearly transcends words.
“She has basically done what no husband or therapist or boyfriend or girlfriend has ever been able to do,” Viot said. “She’s basically quieted my heart.”
Viot, a Korean adoptee, grew up in the Midwest feeling a disconnect between her US life and her culture of origin. But, through Ruby (in photo above), her adopted Korean daughter, Viot has filled a void within herself.
Over a half-million children in the United States are adopted, and 60 percent of Americans have either been through the adoption process or know someone who has, according to the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a New York-based nonprofit devoted to improving adoption policy and practice.
Once a hushed issue, adoption has become more commonly accepted and practiced over time. Between 1971 and 2001, US citizens adopted 265,677 children from other countries. In the last decade of that period, international adoptions more than doubled from 9,050 to 19,237; girls dominated those adoptions over boys, 64 percent to 36 percent.
The first documented transracial Asian adoptions in the United States date back to the 1900s, but only after World War II did they become more pervasive. Between 1971 and 2001, 156,591 children were adopted from Asia, making it the most popular global region to adopt from (Europe came in a distant second, with less than a third of that figure). In 1990, South Korea dominated US international adoptions; and in 2001, China took the lead.
Today, a growing number of adoptees are adopting children from their birth countries, according to a 2009 study released by the Donaldson Adoption Institute titled "Beyond Culture Camp." Of adoptees polled in the study, 30 percent reported that they had adopted at least one child. In comparison, 3.7 percent of households in 2003 included at least one adopted child, as reported by the US Census Bureau.
These figures may indicate a potential trend: “No one’s done that kind of work so we don’t know for sure, but if you look at the study, there was a stunning percentage of adoptees who adopted,” said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Donaldson Adoption Institute.
Asian adoptees can benefit from an expedited adoption process depending on the adoption agency and country they choose. A Korean adoptee, for instance, is still considered a national and, therefore, granted preference in adopting a child from Korea.
When Viot was 6, she left South Korea, her birth country, to live with her adoptive white family in St. Paul, MN. Growing up in the Midwest in the ’70s was difficult. Viot and her biological brother, part of an early wave of Korean adoptees in the United States, were the only people of color in her neighborhood. Their family lacked access to resources to learn more about the children's birth country and any relevant cultural differences. Viot's adoptive parents raised her as though she shared their history and experiences.
When Viot was ready to start her own family, adoption wasn’t her first choice. But when complications moved Viot and her husband to adopt, Viot naturally looked to Korea: She felt she could better understand an adopted child from her country of origin.
Ruby arrived at Viot's St. Louis Park, MN, home in 2008 as a 9-month-old baby. Since then, Ruby has brought peace to Viot's life and tightened Viot's bonds to her birth country. “I never took a pride in being Korean," Viot said, though she wasn't necessarily ashamed. “I was often confused and sad because I knew I didn't fit in. I just didn't know who I was.”
Motivated by her daughter, Viot has begun to explore Korean food (she can now cook kaktugi, bulgogi, japchae and kimchi jigae) and the Korean language (she has learned to read Hangul and aspires to speak it with her biological family). She is also interested in learning Korean drumming and dance through the Korean Heritage House, which recently opened in the Twin Cities; Ruby will be enrolled when she turns 4.
“We're learning together,” said Viot, who has founded an Internet forum for parents undergoing the adoption process. I have to stop myself from thinking that just because [Ruby and I] look alike that is enough. I'm still learning about the traditions. I have to do my homework, just like my [friends who are] Caucasian adoptive parents.
Looking alike eliminates one complication that often accompanies international adoption: Most people assume Ruby is Viot's biological child. But Viot anticipates that Ruby may still grapple with cultural and identity issues. She hopes to expose Ruby to her Korean heritage from the outset — something Viot's parents were unable to do for their adopted children.
“I want my daughter to know from the beginning who she is and why she does some of the things she does and thinks the way she does," Viot said. "There are a lot of things my parents didn’t do that I am going to do. I am going to make every effort to learn the language. As her mother, I want her to have less holes to fill in when she's older than all the holes I had."
But Viot knows she cannot shield Ruby from everything: Ruby will grow up with the label of "adoptee." "The day she totally intellectually understands that she is adopted is the day that her self-view will change."
In 1961, at 15 months old, Melinda Matthews met her adoptive family in New Jersey. Despite some challenges, Matthews views her experience as a Korean adoptee in a white family as positive. Unlike Viot, Matthews always had a desire to adopt from her birth country.
“Adopting my daughter didn’t feel like baby-buying to me,” Matthews said. “It was, ironically, the sole thread from my own adoption that I felt compelled to continue. I absolutely needed to pass on my adoptive heritage; it meant far more to me than continuing my genetic heritage."
An adopted child was someone Matthews could relate to completely, someone she could guide and understand. "Most importantly, I could love full-heartedly and unreservedly, without passing along the twin specters of guilt and gratitude that have haunted me,” she said.
Matthews now lives in Plantation, FL, with her three children: two biological children and her youngest daughter, Kimmy, who was adopted from Korea as a 5-month-old.
Like Viot, Matthews believes that her physical similarity to her adopted daughter, now 11, goes a long way. “I don't think she is impacted much by her adoption,” Matthews said. “She doesn't stand out as physically different so she doesn't draw the questions and stares that I did. She’s never singled out as an adoptee.”
In fact, strangers often remark on Kimmy's resemblance to her, especially compared with her biological children who are half-Korean and half-white.
Matthews has fostered the same relationship with Kimmy as with her biological children. "I have not emphasized our adoption connection," she said, though she is always alert and open to that topic being raised. "I want her to be aware of her adoption and mine, but I don't want her pegged as the ‘adopted one.’ "
Kimmy, whom Matthews calls a very social "all-American girl," occasionally asks about her biological parents, but for now she doesn't dwell on the topic. Kimmy has not yet shown much interest in Korean culture or in seeking out her roots. But Matthews is preparing for the time when that changes. "That is when I hope I can step up and support her the way she needs to be supported. I just hope if anything comes up that I can give her perspective or that I can at least understand.
"Her experience is really different than mine," Matthews said. "She does not seem to be the oddity that I was growing up.”
Kelley Christine Blomberg is a Korean adoptee who grew up in the Midwest and now lives in San Francisco.