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From Korea to the U.S., and back

MLIS professor Sarah Park is learning how Korean adoptees uncover their past.
MLIS professor Sarah Park is learning how Korean adoptees uncover their past.
Photo by Pauline Oo

Since the Korean War (1950–53), more than 200,000 Korean children have been sent away to western countries for adoption. Thousands have returned to Korea to visit, work or study. Many are also searching for answers about their past. That’s where Sarah Park, assistant professor of library and information science at St. Catherine University, comes in.

Park is studying the information-seeking behaviors of adopted Koreans—what they’re looking for, what’s available to them, and how they search. Navigating through the search process can be very difficult, especially given language and cross-cultural barriers, as well as lack of uniformity across adoption agencies, so she hopes this research project might provide adoptees with tools and strategies to help with their searches.

“Information-seeking behavior is a library science concept regarding the strategies that people employ in searching for information,” says Park. “Some people look for recipes; others look for geneology records. But I haven’t come across anyone studying information-seeking with regards to Korean adoptees.”

Earlier this year, Park received the Carol Easley Denny Award, a St. Kate’s grant that supports faculty research. Her $7,500 grant will support research this summer at the International Korean Adoptee Associations Gathering conference in Seoul and in January 2011, when she returns to the country to interview adoption agencies regarding their information gathering and maintenance practices and access policies. She will also interview adopted Koreans about their search experiences.

Park, who speaks fluent Korean and is not adopted, has been to Korea more than 10 times. She was born in Seoul, and moved to Los Angeles with her Korean parents when she was four months old. Her grandparents live in Cheong-Ju, two hours south of Seoul, and most of her relatives reside in the suburbs of the capital city.

“I was raised speaking Korean and went to Korean school in L.A. through early junior high,” Park says. She also admits to honing her language skills watching Korean movies and dramas.

“If I didn’t know a word, I would pause the show and look it up in the dictionary,” she adds with a smile.

More than meets the eye

Park’s interest in Korean adoptees and their experiences started in 2002, when she had a classmate who was an adopted Korean. Through their friendship, Park learned that a birth search wasn't the easiest thing to do.

Adoption is largely unregulated in Korea. Between 1995 and 2005, the South Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare reports only 2.7 percent of approximately 75,000 Korean adoptees were successful in searching for their families.

Did you know?

In 1985 alone, Korea sent away nearly 9,000 children, or more than one percent of the live births that year. (In other words, if 100 children were born, then more than one child was adopted.)

Today, according to the International Korean Adoptee Associations, about 1,500 children leave the country every year for adoption to nine different Western countries: US, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, France, Luxembourg, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands.Sidebar content goes here.
“What began as a war relief effort for orphaned or abandoned biracial children has turned into a convenient ‘solution’ for unplanned pregnancies,” she says. “More than 95 percent of children who are sent away for adoption were born of single, unwed mothers who have very little social support. People would tell them it was impossible to remarry and their child would be made fun of at school. There is a lot of activism happening in Korea now to raise awareness around this issue, so things are slowly beginning to change.”

According to the International Korean Adoptee Associations, adopted Koreans are “the most numerous, diverse and widespread of the world’s child migrants” and “constitute the first generation and population of transnational and transracial adoptees.”

In the United States, the numbers of adopted Koreans in each state is difficult to verify as orphan visas are issued at the federal, not state, level. But according to agencies’ self-reporting, Minnesota has the highest number of Korean adoptees—13,000 to 15,000—per capita.

Park is also analyzing memoirs, documentaries and other materials to examine how Korean adoptees are seeking information. She’s taking a closer look as well at the adoption policies and culture of adoption and information access in Korea and the United States.

Both countries, she says, have different ideas of an individual’s right to personal information. For example, no one bats an eye in Korea if you ask what her or his father does for a living or where he attended college.

“Adopted Koreans are already sharing strategies and employing innovative search tactics, and I hope to paint a picture of the information-seeking behaviors of this unique group,” Park says, “I also want to develop a model to aid in their search—something that might also be applied to other adopted communities.”

July 19, 2010 by Pauline Oo

See also: Faculty