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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Carleton’s Korean Adoptee Program engages Northfield community in discussion of growing up multiculturally

<st September, while flying from Seoul to Minneapolis on my annual journey to start another year as a Carleton student, I saw a familiar sight on the airplane: a young American couple holding a beautiful Korean infant on their laps. As I usually do, I prayed silently that the adopted baby be brought up by loving parents and have a wonderful life in the U.S., far from his native Korea.

But this year, upon returning to Carleton, where I am a sophomore, I took a first practical step to ensure that my prayer for this baby and thousands of others like him comes true. I became the director of the Korean Adoptee Program (KAP), a group of Carleton students, most of them Korean-born or Korean adoptees, who meet regularly with Korean adoptees in the Northfield area to help them navigate growing up multiculturally in the American Midwest.

Meeting twice a month each term, the KAP sessions bring the Northfield adoptees and the Carleton Korean students together in informal sessions, where the Carleton students usually present some aspect of Korean culture ranging from Korean music, games, religion, folk art, traditional costume, language or current events. Parents are always welcome and sometimes the KAP sessions are as useful for them as for their children.

“We believe it is important to learn about their Korean culture and be proud of it,” said Keith Kochevar, from Faribault, who with his wife Jackie are the adoptive parents of two Korean-born boys, 10-year-old Owen and nine-year-old Kory. “The boys are very proud of their heritage. We always want them to be proud of their background and celebrate it.”

Owen and Kory Kochevar, their parents and their American-born sister Anna have attended KAP sessions since the program’s founding. The program has been a big part of Owen’s and Kory’s growing up, Mrs. Kochevar says.

“Our biggest concern with our boys is raising them in a small rural town with few minorities,” she said. “We feel it’s best to be open about their adoption and their Korean heritage. Their school is so small, we want to educate their classmates and hopefully that will help with their acceptance of diversity.”

“We met Kory at the adoption agency in Korea,” Jackie remembers. “He was with his foster mom at the time. He was so cute, happy and energetic. He wasn’t shy at all and had no problem with us holding him or interacting with him. He bonded with us quite easily. Sleeping was the hardest adjustment once we got home, since they sleep as a family unit in Korea and he had to get used to sleeping alone in a crib here in Minnesota.”

“Owen was much shyer than Kory but was very accepting of us when we first met him,” Jackie adds. “Kory definitely helped the adjustment process with Owen. He bonded with Kory right away. He used to follow Kory around like a little puppy dog when he was younger. It’s funny now to think of how shy and quiet Owen was at first, knowing him now.”

Although Korea is the world’s fifth largest country in the number of its native-born children who are adopted from overseas, I was not aware of this fact until I moved to Northfield in 2007. It’s not just because I was absent-minded. Adoption in Korea is almost a taboo subject. As a Confucian society that values bloodlines, many Koreans still keep detailed records of their ancestors and arrange marriages and births to ensure the preservation of those ancestral lines. Adoption is not only rare, raising the subject itself is often associated with prejudice, guilt, and shame.

Between 2000 and 2007, some 17,000 Korean children were adopted by overseas parents, two-thirds of them to America. More than 106,000 Korean children were adopted by American parents since the late 1950s, according to the Korean Ministry for Health and Welfare in Korea.

Exactly when the KAP program started is somewhat vague, but Joo Ree Kang (Class of 2008), the program director of KAP from 2006 to 2008, who is herself a Korean-American adoptee, says it started around five years ago.

“Whoever started it had a simple intention in mind, to provide an opportunity for Korean adoptees in the Northfield and surrounding area to learn about their birth culture,” Kang says. “ In the summer there are many culture camps for kids in Minnesota, but there are no such resources in small towns like Northfield. The Korean Adoptee Program was a great way for Carleton students to serve adoptive families in the community.”

“KAP provides a special kind of support resource that adoptive parents cannot,” she added. “Even if the kids do not remember all the words or customs we teach them, they still make fun memories at every program session with their mentors. KAP is the only place where the kids see so many other Asian faces and do not have to feel like they are ‘different.’”

Since I’ve taken over as KAP’s director, I’ve faced some questions about the program’s future, given what Korean adoptees and their parents say are their needs in a rapidly changing and increasingly diverse society.

For example, the U.S. has just elected as its next president a black man who was born to a Kenyan father and an American mother.

Have we arrived now at a point where foreign-born children, and children of mixed parentage, can grow up in America without feeling the need for intensive exposure to their native-born culture to build identity?

This question hit home for me at a recent KAP meeting of Korean-born Carleton students and Korean adoptee children, who, though born in Korea, have been raised 100 percent in America. After the college students had introduced themselves, it was the children’s turn. One boy, full of fun and mischief, told us: “Where am I from? I’m from Korea. But I’m not, because I grew up here.”

I didn’t have an easy answer for that boy.

I began to wonder “In reality, is this young boy actually American or Korean? He may look Korean but he speaks fluent English, has grown up with American parents and American friends, and seems to feel very comfortable living in America. So how does he perceive what is going on here? Does he, and other children like him, really need this program if they plan to live as Americans their whole lives?”

At a later KAP session, I caught a glimpse of the way that the KAP program can meet the changing needs of Korean adoptees and their parents.

Last June, Joo Ree and I visited the Faribault elementary school, which Kory, Owen and Anna Kochevar attend. We brought some traditional Korean clothes and musical instruments to show the children. We visited their classrooms, teaching them and their American-born classmates how to find Korea on a world map, and how it is similar to but also different from the U.S.

Some of the students wondered if the Korean War was still going on. One student asked how different Korean is from Chinese or Japanese, and another student asked me if I could speak Korean, since I was speaking in English all the time. It was interesting for me to see how students in this small town perceived other cultures. For the first time, I saw the great need to educate not only Korean adoptees living in America, but also every young American student and child, about the culture and country that is Korea.

In the future, the Korean Adoptee Program might evolve into the Korean Culture Program, open to anyone, regardless of their ethnicity or race.

As Korean-born adoptees come to feel more comfortable in America, society’s larger need — for all Americans to know at least a little bit about Korea and the Asian continent – will surely only increase.

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