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Adoptee Life Portrayed as Tragic by Pop Culture

2005/08/21 Source

"Korean pop culture clearly reflects an obsession with blood ties and biological roots".

By Park Chung-a
Staff Reporter

Recently there has been an increasing number of adoptee characters in Korean dramas. This year's biggest hit MBC drama "My Lovely Samsoon" - "My Name is Kim Sam-soon" featured a biracial Korean-American doctor whose mother is an adopted Korean.

Also, last year's popular dramas such as KBS' "Sorry, I Love You", MBC's "Ireland" and SBS' "Stained Glass" all featured overseas adoptees as principal characters.

Other than TV dramas, the adoption issue has been consistently featured in Korean pop culture from film, musicals to music because of its emotional nature. However despite such increased appearance of adoptees in popular culture in Korea, they are mostly stereotypically portrayed as unhappy people with little hope, according to Tobias Hubinette, a Korean-Swedish adoptee and ph.D. candidate in Korean studies at Stockholm University of Sweden.

Hubinette spoke at a conference held by the Global Overseas Adoptee's Link (GOAL) on the subject of "Representations of International Adoption and Overseas Adoptees in Korean Media and Popular Culture", in Konkook University in Seoul on Saturday. It was the second day of the non-governmental organization's two-day-long 6th annual conference under the title "Forging a New Community", dealing with various issues facing overseas Koreans.

"According to Korea's popular cultural representations, international adoption is an expression of Western exploitation and oppression and the adopted Koreans are all living miserable and tragic lives, while the adoptive parents are abusing their children from Korea in all possible ways and the white populations in the recipient countries are torturing them with racism and discrimination, even including their significant others", said Hubinette, whose Korean name is Lee Sam-dol.

He said that Korean media and popular culture homogenize the fate of all adopted Koreans into one stereotypical narrative, instead of acknowledging the group's multiple and diverse experiences and subjectivities and the fact that there are numerous kinds of overseas Korean adoptees.

"In many cases, adoptions are portrayed as dangerous and the only solution for adoptees to become happy is to come back to Korea and reunite with their biological mothers. Korean pop culture clearly reflects a Korean obsession with blood ties and biological roots", he said.

In 2004, MBC produced the drama "Ireland" featuring an adopted Korean woman Jung-ah, played by Lee Na-young, who grows up in an Irish-American family. However, when the family moves back to Ireland, her adoptive brother becomes involved in the Irish Republican Army and her adoptive parents get killed. Deeply traumatized, Jung-ah then returns to Korea where she falls in love with someone who turns out to be her biological brother.

"Sorry, I Love You", last year's most popular Korean drama series at the end of 2004, featured Mu-hyok, a young man adopted into an abusive family in Australia. A self-destructive Mu-hyok returns to Korea to exact revenge on his Korean mother for abandoning him, and he becomes involved in the Korean underworld working as a pimp. In the end, it turns out that he has a biological twin brother and that his mother is a famous actress.

Director Chang Kil-soo's "Susanne Brink's Arirang", released in 1991, arguably the most famous of all Korean feature films representing an overseas adoptee in a wholly Western setting, depicts the life of an adopted Korean woman of Sweden. Based on a true story, the film follows her hardships with an abusive adoptive family, two suicide attempts and endless misery. In the film, 18-year-old Susanne ends up as a single mother to a mixed daughter. One day, a Korean television team led by a male journalist and making a documentary on adopted Koreans in Europe visits Susanne in Sweden. Through the documentary her Korean mother is found, Susanne travels to Korea for the first time in 20 years, and the film ends with mother and daughter embracing each other in front of the journalist.

In October 2001, Moon Hee-jeon, former singer of the extremely popular group H.O.T. released his first solo album with a title song called "Alone", depicting an adopted Korean in a Western country who feels miserable and helpless.

"Moon openly stated in an interview that `Alone' focuses on an overseas adoptee's `sorrow and misfortune'. The singer continued by saying that `overseas adoptees live miserable lives', that he wanted to express the growing wish to search for roots among adoptees", said Hubinette. Moon was reportedly inspired to write the lyrics while studying the contents of adopted Korean homepages on the Internet.

Moreover, the album cover features a photo of the singer hugging a sleeping blond-haired white boy.

According to Hubinette, the photo is a provocative statement on the adoption issue as Moon switched the power structures, placing himself in the role of a Korean adoptive father to a white child.

"Moon's absolutely inappropriate act of mimicking by pretending to be an Asian adoptive parent to a Western adopted child therefore serves to highlight and criticize the hegemonic narrative of international adoption and its taken-for-grantedness as a white privilege", Hubinette said.

Hubinette's speech at the conference was part of his ph.D. project "Comforting an Orphaned Nation" which will be defended in December of 2005. It examines international adoption from Korea, the Korean adoption issue and representations of adopted Koreans in Korean popular culture.

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