BY LYNN EDMONDS
“In 1966, I was one of the first 1,500 human products to be exported overseas to the U.S.”
These were the opening lines of an essay by Mi Ok Song Bruining, a Korean adoptee who came to the United States at five years old. She was one of 12 adoptees, ranging in age from their 20s to their 50s, who shared their story at a conference at Queens College on Nov. 7 entitled “Made in Korea, Assembled in the U.S.: Personal Narratives of Korean Adoptees.”
Bruining landed at Kennedy Airport at 4 a.m. in the dead of winter. “January 19th, 1966, at five years old, was my first day in my new life as Anne. I was in shock, I was mute, I was traumatized,” she said.
She is one of about 200,000 Koreans adopted internationally since 1955, and one of 120,000 in the United States. Adoptees make up over a third of 1.5-generation Korean Americans in the United States, and more international adoptees come from Korea than any other country.
Yet, despite numbering in the hundreds of thousands, many speakers at the conference spoke about feeling isolated.
Pyong Gap Min, the Director of the Research Center for Korean Community, which sponsored the conference, said he hoped sharing their stories at the conference, and later publishing them in a book, was one way for Korean adoptees and other Korean Americans to forge stronger ties.
Yearning for those ties was a theme that ran deep through Bruining’s story as she addressed the audience of about 100. Now a social worker, award-winning poet and artist, Bruining reflected on years of profound alienation following her adoption.
“The pain and loneliness of being Korean, not white, not looking like my family members, was so profound, so intense, I didn’t know how to articulate the agony,” she said. “I looked like no one, I resembled no one. I had no tribe, no belonging, no physical connection to the community.”
In the face of emotional pain, Bruining learned to turn to drawing and horseback riding. “Horse. It was one of the first words I learned,” she said.
“I learned how to ride a horse a few months after I arrived. I was a natural and I was fearless,” she said. “I forgot about the humiliation when I was drawing or riding my pony.”
In 1996, Bruining travelled to Korea to see her homeland and look for her birth parents. She sought a teaching job so that she could stay in the country. Though Americans were in demand to teach English, Bruining said she found herself overlooked on the job market, perhaps because she didn’t appear to be ‘American’ enough. Jobless, with her tourist visa about to expire and no leads on her birth parents, Bruining was ready to admit defeat and return to the U.S.. But at the last minute she was able to convince a Korean journalist to write about her in a national daily.
The next day, she received a phone call from a man claiming to be her maternal cousin. Bruining met up with him and several other family members.
“I instantly recognized my birth mother. Call it instinct or call it instant connection of souls, I felt a spiritual bonding and an instantaneous connection. I just knew,” she said.
Yet despite a connection on one level, Bruining described her as an “intimate stranger.” “The language barrier was profound and the cultural differences were tremendous,” she said. They exchanged letters for five years after Bruining left Korea.
Bruining said meeting her birth mother gave her a different perspective on her adoption.
“Had I stayed in Korea, I suspect that my life would have been bleak and dismal. Poignantly, the tragedy of my adoption was my birth mother’s, not mine. I had not only survived, I had thrived.”
Bruining ended her essay by emphasizing that she has found fulfillment. “I am doing what I love the most, art, writing and poetry. I create something new each week. I am grateful, I now celebrate all my identities,” she said.
However, Bruining said she still had issues with international adoption. She had critical words for both the U.S., which is the only country not to follow the Hague Convention Rights of Children, as it relates to international adoption, and Korea, which she said profited from international adoptions.
An excerpt from her 1992 Poem Made in Korea reads:
She was built in Korea
and manufactured in the u.s.,
like toys and cars
and other third world merchandise.
She does not find this particularly amusing.
Reach Lynn Edmonds at (718) 357-7400 x127, firstname.lastname@example.org or @Ellinoamerikana