Modern Families

08.16.13

Adult, Adopted, Seeking a Voice

The Gazillion Voices project, the brainchild of a South Korean man adopted into an American family, tackles the thorny issues of fitting in, family roots, and the lifelong challenges of adoptees.

At first glance, this June’s Supreme Court case Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl reads as a straightforward custodial battle between an adoptive and birth family. Three-year-old “Baby Veronica” was put under the custody of Matt and Melanie Capobianco, a healthy and supportive family, until Veronica's biological father, Dusten Brown, overturned his previous renunciations of paternal rights and took her back. Brown, who is of Cherokee descent, argued that the law allowed him to claim custody over Veronica after two years of living with her adoptive family. The Supreme Court disagreed, saying that the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, a law designed to help keep Native American communities whole, did not apply in this instance. Although the Capobiancos’ adoption of Veronica has been finalized by a family court, Baby Veronica remains with her biological father. Brown turned himself in Monday after failing to hand over Veronica to Capobiancos, only to post bail that afternoon and flee with the child, whose location remains unknown.

Baby Veronica's story opens up a Pandora’s box of questions about the adoptive process in the United States. The Supreme Court's decision forces us to ask, who has a right to raise a child? How do we define a family? Where do questions of identity and race, inclusion and exceptionalism, and adoption and disruption factor into these stories?

Enter Gazillion Voices, an online magazine that launched this month and aims to be a platform for the overlooked voices who might finally be able to contribute to these ongoing questions. It’s the brainchild of Kevin Haebeom Vollmers. As Vollmers jokingly points out in the Kickstater video for the magazine, his name suggests he is a middle-aged white guy. In fact, Vollmers is a Korean-American and adoptee. He was taken to Minneapolis from Korea when he was 7 years old. He founded Land of Gazillion Adoptees (LGA), a media company that takes from Minnesota’s claim as the land of 10,000 lakes and gives voices to the hundreds of thousands of international adoptees living in the state. This month he expanded LGA to include Gazillion Voices as a subscription-based monthly online magazine that shares the work of LGA with a larger community of adoptees.

Mainstream narratives of adoptive practices often feature one story—that of the white family taking in a child, often from a Third World country. Living conditions in orphanages and the possibility for a brighter futures and loving homes form the archetypal tropes that frame an adoptee's story. Gazillion Voices starts with those adoptees—as adults—and looks at the complex senses of identity and belonging that they’ve been navigating their whole lives. It also features the relevant perspectives of parents of adoptive children, partners and children of adoptees, and even adoption professionals.

LGA and Gazillion Voices stem from the prominent community of South Korean adoptees living in Minnesota. Of the nearly half million international adoptees, one third are South Korean. Not surprisingly, the growth of the South Korean diaspora through adoption practices began after the Korean War. The adoptions were initially cited as a way to give homes to war orphans in need. Yet as Katie Hae Leo—a South Korean adoptee living in Minnesota and a contributor to Gazillion Voices—attests, over time adoption became a business enterprise, leaning on economical as well as charitable impulses. “The central question should always be, what’s in the best interest of the child?” Leo says. “When placing a child outside of her home culture, you have to wonder what were the factors that made keeping this child so difficult. And, did we do everything we could to change that before submitting to this business model?”

Gazillion Voices builds off a long history of adoptive stories. Until the 1990s, Korea was the primary country of birth for American international adoptees worldwide. Many, like Vollmers, grew up in Minnesota (Leo moved there in 1993), which holds the largest number of adult South Korean adoptees—over 10,000. Now, as they come of age, they are beginning to grapple with the implications of the racial and cultural ambiguities of their upbringings. Some, like Jane Jeong Trenka, have chosen to return to South Korea and lobby for legislation that supports single mothers and reduces overseas adoption. Others, like Leo, have used poetry and writing to speak about experiences of displacement and privilege through adoption, framing the issue of adoption as an extension of the feminist demand for reproductive rights. And still others, like Vollmers, have worked to strengthen the community of South Korean adoptees in the United States.

The tone and content of the publication does not shy away from questions of race in adoptees' stories. Especially in Minnesota, many adoptees are often the only people of color in their childhood neighborhoods. These adoptees were often torn between the need to assimilate and the glaring racial differences they constantly face. Adoptees are at times forced to represent to their peers a culture they have no real knowledge of or connection to. Although well-intentioned adoptive families care for their children, they rarely acknowledge that an adoptive family of an international child is in essence a multiracial family. These pressures can in turn lead to exceptionally higher levels of suicidal tendencies, mental illness, and overall social maladjustment among adoptees.

Leo hopes Gazillion Voices will help to serve young children in the wake of adoption and their newly formed families. Leo herself felt that her biggest difficulty as an adopted child was denying or overlooking her racial differences. She was taught to accept and love her new family and ignore her past. Leo says, “I think it’s important to acknowledge that adopted children came from somewhere else, with a family and history of our own, and that history adds to the adoptive family and expands it.” Even for families who choose domestic adoption, the need to acknowledge that these children have legitimate and separate histories is key. “Instead of closing off and insisting that the adoptive family is all you need, you can support and encourage adopted children to think about where they came from, so it becomes a family discussion and issue and not just something the adoptee has to deal with on her own.”

Although the magazine is more or less centered within the specific community of South Korean adoptees, the appeal and importance of its content can speak to adoptees of all races and backgrounds. Leo said that in her experience, the most often overlooked aspects of adoption are the lifelong and recurring effects. “The classic image of an adoptee is a child, but so many of us are now adults, and we’re realizing that adoption continues to affect every aspect of our lives. As I age and confront my own health issues, at every doctor visit, I have to return to the black hole that is my family history,” Leo says.