Of Isolation and Hope: An Adopted Korean-American Hermeneutical Lens

Introduction

Before I begin to explore the notion of an adopted Korean-American hermeneutical lens, I think it would be appropriate to take a moment to briefly share a passage that has influenced how I read and interpret Scripture, and my own experience as an adopted Korean-American.

He destined us for adoption as children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to the pleasure he set forth in Christ…
(Ephesians 1:5-9, NRSV)

            Yes… That’s me.

Yes… That’s me.

“Adoption,” is a word that is not used frequently in the Bible, but this passage from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians stands out as one of the most recognized uses of the word. What does adoption mean? Does it mean that I am no longer Korean? Where do my roots lie?  I have never experienced the horrors of being bullied for being Asian in a predominantly white school. Yet that doesn’t mean there weren’t acts of micro-aggression that weren’t strong enough to stick with me. Being adopted doesn’t mean that I became “white” either. Because from my recent experience in the church, there are some who would still categorize me as “oriental” or greet me at the door by bowing and saying, “Ni hao.”

I am Korean, but not Korean in the traditional sense of the word. On July 4, 1991, I was born in Seoul, South Korea and raised by a single mother who was not able to care for a child of her own. She had a baby out of wedlock with a man who was already married, and there was no support system, from neither the government nor family, that would allow her to care for an infant as a single parent, a single mother. Korean culture was not prepared to care for single parents, especially single mothers. There was too much of a stigma around sex—around having a baby out of wedlock—that made it almost impossible for anyone to care for a child as a single parent. And so not long after being born and put in foster care, I found myself heading towards the United States a few months later in November 12, 1991, having been adopted and finding myself navigating the waters between two worlds that seem far apart.

A History of Oppression and Shame

Korea as a nation and as a people was not any stranger to the concept of oppression. Since the beginning, Korea had served as a vassal state to ancient China as to providing them with labor and luxury goods. In addition, the Korean people were not strangers to bloodshed, having been caught in between China and Japan during the Sino-Japanese wars. And there seemed to be no end to the hardship as Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910, resulting in an occupation that would last until Japan surrendered to Allied forces in August 15, 1945. Having been pushed to the edge of cultural annihilation by Japan, Korea was left to pick the pieces and prepare itself for another rising conflict that would take place between two superpowers during the Korean War. (Kim and Ma, 186-189)

The brief history given above cannot begin to do justice to the true pain and suffering that was experienced by people who lived on the Korean peninsula. However, this history is meant to demonstrate that Korea has known what it means to be oppressed. At the same time however, Korea has also known what it means to feel shame and project that shame onto other people. This shame of its history of being oppressed is especially seen in Korea’s attitude towards women. Women who had children out of wedlock, women who rejected by their families, and women who had been forced into prostitution were in the minds of the Korean people as they came out of their oppression. And the children of these women, many who would be adopted, were seen as the “physical manifestation of shame and embarrassment in South Korea.” (Yoo and Chun, 83)

Where does this shame come from? Why would people feel shame and embarrassment towards women who experienced the tragedies of war and the children whom they gave birth to? A part of this feeling of shame may stem from the traumatic scarring that was left on first and second generation Koreans. First generation Koreans who had experienced war were likely to bury their experiences and not tell the stories of the past to their children. As a result, a gap was formed and, as Grace Cho poetically writes, it formed, “an unhappy wind, a hole, or some other intangible or invisible force—[which] reflects the notion that an unresolved trauma is unconsciously passed from one generation to the next.” (Cho, 10-11) This unresolved tension inhibited the stories of the first generation from being passed on. And when thinking about adopted Koreans through the mindset of the diaspora and oppression, it is possible to begin to understand where the tension between a Korean reading of Scripture and an adopted Korean reading of Scripture arises.

 A Korean/Korean-American Lens 

In an essay titled “The Korean Self-Understanding of God from the Perspective of Donghak and Its Thought of the God Experience,” Kyoung-Jae Kim summarizes the Korean religious-culture perspective as one that “can be likened to a great lake, the final destination towards which the world religions stream.” (Kyoung-Jae Kim, 329) Since the beginning, Korea has maintained a plurality of religious traditions ranging from local Shamanism, Confucianism, and to Christianity. In constant dialogue with one another, these religious traditions began to unpack and develop their own rich history. However, this doesn’t mean that Korean was a religiously syncretic culture, but it does mean that there is an underlying hermeneutical lens that Kyoung-Jae Kim identifies as being related to Hans-Georg Gadamer’s “fusion of horizons.”

Gadamer’s hermeneutical lens of the “fusion horizons” is based on the idea that “every finite present has its limitations.” (Gadamer, 302) Therefore, from Gadamer’s perspective, it is necessary to be aware of one’s own context. It is necessary to understand yourself in order to hear the perspective of another person. And it is in this dialogue that the fusion of “horizons” takes place. Relating back to a Korean hermeneutical lens, it is therefore necessary that an understanding of God through Scripture does not stop with just the story of the Korean people. Rather, it is imperative to realize that, “it means an investigation of the religious mindset and patterns of the God-experience toward which Korean people as a nation orient themselves.” (Kyoung-Jae Kim, 330)

While a Korean hermeneutical lens might view diverse stories as being a way of orienting oneself to God, the same might not be said for Korean-Americans who are undergoing crisis, and who are not part of a homogenous community. In a study on Korean-Americans, Jacob Yongseok Young noted that, “Korean-Americans in the EM [English ministries] experience identity crisis due to three major factors: minority, marginalization, and cultural tension and ambiguity.” (Young, 45). Facing such challenges as marginalization has the potential to lead to cultural preservation and security. Certainly, for first generation Koreans, this would have been the case in making sure that their children could still identify with their Korean heritage. And for the early Koreans who immigrated to the United States and those who were spread because of the diaspora, their case might be related to the Psalmist who lamented in saying, “Why by the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion… How can we sing songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1, 4, NRSV)

This sense of ethnic identity crisis may be true for first generation Koreans, but what about second maybe even third generation Koreans? The phrase “model minority” has been used to describe Asian Americans on a countless number of occasions, but while it has a negative connotation, it can also have the potential to resonate with the crisis of identity that is embodied in the vast number of second generation Koreans who wanted to be “white.” In a research study that looked at Korean-American identity, one person gave a testimony stating, “[My Asianness/ Koreanness] was always prominent and growing up during that time you just want to fit in and the fact was that I couldn’t because I looked different.” (Kang, 76-77) The study found that second generation Korean-Americans who found a way to be highly “assimilated” and highly aware of their own ethnicity were more likely to be well adjusted and had a healthy sense of who they were as an individual.

The notion of crisis of identity is one that appears to play out in the Korean-American experience, whether it be among first generation Koreans who seek to maintain and preserve Korean culture or the second generation Koreans who struggle with having a sense of who they are as Koreans and as Americans. In a chapter discussing a second-generation Korean-American hermeneutical lens, John Ahn concludes that there is a strong parallel between how Korean-Americans read the exile stories found in the Old Testament, and how they view themselves living in a place that does not always feel like their own. (Ahn, 113) A Korean-American reading of Scripture includes the stories of exile and diaspora that provide a platform for people to share stories of life and faith that resonate with the crises and struggles that come with living in a land that is far away.

An Adopted Korean-American Lens

The revelation that Moses was not an Egyptian, but in fact an Israelite, is described in vivid detail in Exodus 1 and 2. For adoptees who yearn to claim hold of their American and Korean heritages, the issues that surround the process of discovering self-identity have the potential to be quite painful. And for many adoptees, this process of understanding their identity is done in isolation and away from people who are like them. But is there any hope in this isolated study of self-understanding? For Korean-American adoptees of faith, how is their reading of Scripture shaped by their experiences as being a part of an ethnic majority and minority? Maybe it is through the use of Romans 8 and 9 that Korean adoptees are able to begin the painful process of reclaiming their “lost origins.” (Ahn, 115)

I propose therefore that an adopted Korean-American hermeneutical lens is a way of reading Scripture through the focal points of isolation and hope. In terms of isolation, Korean adoptees of faith find themselves running across a number of different challenges. For one, many Korean adoptees find themselves in families that are not often near a Korean church. And if there is a Korean church nearby, the likelihood of their family bringing them to the church is almost null. That is because many families are not making an intentional choice to avoid Korean churches but that, “families choose places of worship that reflect their own social identities, without thinking about how their adopted Korean children experience being racial minorities on a daily level.” (Yoo and Chun, 94) This feeling of comfort can convey unconscious messages to Korean adoptees. The message that is conveyed to the adoptee is that, “We prefer to worship with people who are like us, regardless of whether or not a Korean church has the same common elements of worship.” But as I said before, there are other factors that can often weigh in, such as not having access to a Korean church with an English ministry.

Another element of isolation that Korean adoptees face in their faith journey is how people in their “native” ethnic culture view them. There is something bittersweet to finding out that you were adopted from a culture that is engulfed in a sense of shame that seems to even manifest itself into real shame for those children who were born and adopted. There is also something bittersweet for those lucky few individuals who discover the story behind their birth and the reason that they made their way through foster care and the adoption process. For individuals like myself who discovered that their being put up for adoption was a result of marital infidelity, it can feel quite disjointing. It can feel as though you were a mistake, not meant to happen, and now you found yourself making your way through the world knowing that there are people you are related to, but will most likely never meet.

There is a moment like that in the Exodus narrative when you discover that you are not really who you thought you were. I cannot speak for those who were adopted as young children, having been adopted myself as an infant, but I remember when it first sank in that I was different. I remember that there was a time when I was little and there was another child who told me that I “looked different” from the rest of my family. I was devastated, I was crushed, and I remember sitting next to my mother crying because I didn’t really understand what had happened. But it is experiences like these that challenge us to think of a hermeneutical lens in which adopted Koreans may read the Bible. It is because of experiences like these that adopted Korean-Americans are able to begin their journey of understanding themselves in the complexities of race and ethnicity and self-identity. It is because of experiences like these that those who seek ordained ministry are able to preach a message of liberation and salvation.

In a sermon titled “Jesus the Adoptee,” the Rev. Jin S. Kim says, “I am convinced that adoptees have a unique and natural insight into the heart of Jesus Christ who is the adoptee par excellence, and the archetype of all adoptees in the world ever born.” Throughout this sermon, Kim advises people in the adoptee community to view God as their heavenly Father. The arguments that Kim presents advocate for the formation of a spiritual identity that supersedes even our biological and family identities. The Rev. Kim is one of the few Korean pastors who have preached about the struggle facing adopted Korean-Americans. Yet the model that Kim presents comes with the tension of believing that one has to be adopted again in order to receive the healing that they are looking for in their lives. Another way of putting it would be that it is God alone who will be able to provide the comfort and grace that one is looking for by being adopted into the body of Christ. (Yoo and Chun, 95)

While adoption into the body of Christ is something that we are called to accept as Christians, it is not the only method by which Korean adoptees seek healing and restoration. I believe that the vision cast by the Rev. Kim, who is not an adopted Korean, is a step in the right direction towards developing a healthy adopted Korean-American hermeneutical lens. The experience that Korean adoptees have while living in their families are not the same, they are as diverse and numerous as the stories that each and every one of us possesses. However, for adoptees of faith, there is one overarching narrative that allows us to come together. There is a way for adopted Koreans to come together and in a way that honors the stories that we each hold onto and the faith that is in each of us.

Maybe the hope that can be found within an adopted Korean-American hermeneutical lens is actually derived from a Korean hermeneutical perspective. The idea of Korea as being a great lake that has many streams flowing towards it and the idea of “fusion horizons” is the hope that an adopted Korean-American lens can be founded on. It is through this fusion of multiple horizons that the narrative of adopted Koreans can be constructed and viewed within the context of their identity as people of faith. Because it is in their collective experiences that adopted Koreans are able to educate themselves by being in dialogue with one another. The irony however, is that this hope would stem from the culture that viewed them as being manifestations of shame. Is it possible to have such a hope that originates in a place that hurt or cast you out?

There is the potential that it is necessary for an adopted Korean-American hermeneutical lens to ground itself in a theology, in a culture, that still views them as being a reminder of a broken past. There is the great potential for adopted Korean-Americans to use their developed voice and identity as adoptees to raise the lowered head of a Korean culture that looks on them with shame, pity, sadness, and grief and show them where we have come from and where we are going and that we are a collective of stories that are to be added to the many expressions of what it means to be Korean. As Korean adoptees continue to wrestle with their identities, we do so in a manner that is connected in ways that were not possible before. As Korean adoptees, we continue our journey of life and faith in isolation of what was and in hope for what will be.

Conclusion

This paper didn’t seek to explore the complex elements that often go into the adoption of Korean children or the sometimes questionable practices of adoption agencies that prioritize faith of the adopted parents over the wellbeing of the child. These are important and necessary concerns, but they are topics that can be explored in further readings. Instead, this paper sought to provide a brief context from which the idea of an adopted Korean-American hermeneutical lens was being presented. The oppression of the Korean people under China, Japan, and even the United States in the modern era has shaped the way in which Koreans feel towards those children who were the product of war and women who were shamed into giving their children away out of fear of a culture that would judge them harshly.

While I do not think it is possible to flush out a complete hermeneutical lens from the perspective of an adopted Korean-American, I do believe that there are common themes that would run throughout the wide array of stories and experiences. There are certainly elements of isolation—isolation from people who look like they do, isolation that comes in the form of language barriers, and isolation that comes from being adopted into a community where you look different from everyone else. However, there are also elements of hope that I believe would be a part of any adopted Korean-American lens—hope that comes in the form of hearing the stories of other adoptees, hope that comes in the form of being a part of the body of Christ, and hope that there will be a future where the walls of discomfort and shame break down between adopted Korean-Americans and Koreans.

Resources

  • Ahn, John. “A Light to the Nations: A Sociological Approach in Korean American Interpretation.” Ways of Being, Ways of Reading: Asian American Biblical Interpretation. Ed. Mary F. Foskett and Jeffery K. Kuan. St. Louis, MO: Chalice, 2006. 112-22. Print

  • Cho, Grace M. Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2008. Print.

  • Chung, Paul S. Veli-Matti KaÌrkkaÌinen, and Kyoung-Jae Kim. Asian Contextual Theology for the Third Millennium: A Theology of Minjung in Fourth-eye Formation. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2007. Print.

  • Gadamer, Hans-Georg, and Joel Weinsheimer. Truth and Method. London: Continuum, 206Print.

  • Harkness, Nicholas. Songs of Seoul: An Ethnography of Voice and Voicing in Christian South Korea. Berkeley: University of California, 2014. Print.

  • Kang, S. Steve. Unveiling the Socioculturally Constructed Multivoiced Self: Themes of Self Construction and Self Integration in the Narratives of Second-generation Korean American Young Adults. Lanham, MD: University of America, 2002. Print.

  • Kim, Ilpyong J. Korean-Americans: Past, Present, and Future. Elizabeth, NJ: Hollym International, 2004. Print.

  • Kim, Jin S. “Jesus the Adoptee: A Contextual Theology of Liberation for the Adoptive Community,” Church of All Nations Discipling for Outreach, January 16, 2003, http://www.cando.org/resources.sermon.asp?contentid=61.

  • Kim, Suing-Hun, and Wonsuk Ma. Korean Diaspora and Christian Mission. Eugene, OR: Wipt & Stock, 2011. Print

  • Yoo, David, and Ruth H. Chun. Religion and Spirituality in Korean America. University of Illinois, 2008. Print.

  • Young, Jacob Yongseok. Korean, Asian, or American?: The Identity, Ethnicity, and Autobiography of Second-generation Korean American Christians. Lanham, MD: University of America, 2012. Print.