Interview by Livia Montana
read part two
Livia Montana: You’re working on an oral history project with Korean adopted adults. How did you get interested in the project?
Kim Park Nelson: I’d been thinking about it for quite a long time, but I actually started it in 2002 as my Ph.D. dissertation project. I’d seen research that was supposed to be about adoptees but that didn’t really take adoptees’ voices into account. For instance, there’s a lot of adoption-related social work research where researchers would ask parents about their kids. Those answers were then used to represent the point of view of adoptees. Of course that’s not actually the point of view of adoptees, that’s the point of view of adoptive parents. So my initial intent was to work on a project that focused on the experiences of Korean adoptees.
LM: Why did you choose oral history in particular? Why not just conduct regular interviews?
KPN: My goal is to have adoptee voices heard. But when you interview people you’re asking them to talk about the subjects that you’re interested in, so you don’t actually get to hear what they’re interested in speaking about. That’s why I sit down and ask people to tell their life story, and to tell it in whatever way they feel comfortable with.
LM: What are some of the research questions that you see transracial adoptees regularly asked?
KPN: There are a couple of themes that a lot of researchers seem to be really concerned about. One main question is, “How well-adjusted are you?” Another is, “What was it like for you to grow up as a person of color in a white environment?” Of course these things are important, but I think you get a different set of responses if you only ask what everybody else has asked as opposed to asking someone to speak about what’s important to them. My expectation was that not everyone had the same story and that turned out to be completely true. Though there’s no real uniformity in the oral histories I collected, I feel that I didn’t miss a lot because of the method I chose.
LM: How do you think this research you’re doing is going to affect the lives of Korean adoptees?
KPN: That’s always the soul-searching question for anyone who’s an academic. Academics are such a tiny part of society and life, so I certainly can’t expect that my work is going to touch all adoptees. But I do hope that adoptees who do find my work are helped by it; that it helps them see that our story is important and that we do have something interesting to say. I want to believe that the work I’m doing is going to make life better for adoptees in the future and for adoptees right now, too. One place I can really see that happening is in the class I taught about Korean adoption history at the University of Minnesota. It’s the first class of its kind. Many of the students in that class were adoptees. My hope is that it was empowering for them to hear their history for the first time. So many adoptees don’t know anything about adoption, and so many Korean adoptees don’t know anything about Korea. One of the things that was really nice for me about teaching the class was that I could package the information for students to easily access. I’m very proud that each one of those students now has the tools to be as much of an expert on history, content, and social issues around adoption as anyone who’s doing graduate level research. That’s information I was able to offer to them that very few people have right now. I think it’s important for any group that’s out of the mainstream or marginalized to know the history and policy that’s being written about them. If you never hear about yourself it’s difficult to develop a comprehensive idea about your identity.
LM: In the fifties adoptive parents were told to concentrate on Americanizing Korean adoptees. In the seventies they were told that the “love is color blind” approach was the best. How would you categorize today’s approach to Korean adoption and transracial adoption in general?
KPN: While there’s certainly an interest with acquainting adoptees with their birth cultures, in a lot of ways I think that the “love is color blind” approach is stronger than ever because we’re firmly embedded in a society that’s actually less willing to talk about race than it was in the sixties. The popular notion is that race doesn’t matter. In fact, there’s been such a backlash against the idea of race-based identity that if you talk about it you risk being categorized as a racist yourself. I think it’s good that parents are being coached to get their kids involved in education or arts to try to connect them back to their birth cultures, but it can be misleading because I don’t believe there’s a magic bullet to figuring out racial, cultural, or national differences in adoptive families.