K-drama adoption storylines make positive progress, but more work to do

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“There’s this double standard where English is forced on all children at a young age, but when someone who looks like me speaks English, some locals are enraged,” says Fritz, who writes about adopted life on wethelees.com. “During this time, I was literally chased down an alley by a Korean lady who was screaming, ‘You are Korean! You should only speak Korean! “

Fritz said it was hurtful that the very people she hoped to welcome her were so much harder on her than they were on white English teachers, who were not required to speak any foreign languages. Koreans didn’t see her as Korean or American, she said, but rather as a foreigner who didn’t fit their idea of ​​who she should be.

“I love Korea and can’t wait to go back, but there are problems there,” said Fritz. ” This is paradoxical [about how many adoptee stories there are in K-dramas], because for so long adoptees were like South Korea’s dirty little secret. No one in Korea wanted to recognize adoptees, although everyone knew Korea was a bit like an exporter of babies. But we still have to admit it [in K-dramas], it is also a small step forward. We are kind of represented. There is so much more that could go into character development and what that looks like realistically. Not all adoptees speak their native language. It’s not something you just know.

At least some K-dramas are trying to fix this language problem. In So Ji-sub’s I am sorry I love you, the actor plays a character who was adopted by an abusive Australian family, before being scrapped and forced to live on the streets. As a young man, he returns to Korea in order to get revenge on his biological mother who “dumped” him. Initially, he hardly knew Korean and did not understand that honorary titles were an integral part of Korean culture. A friend advises him to add ìš” / yo at the end of each sentence, indicating that the speaker is showing respect.

But more often than not, an adoptee’s ability to speak Korean is seen as something quite normal, rather than an impressive exception. In Vincenzo, Song Joong-ki portrays the main character, who was adopted by an Italian couple at the age of eight. After the assassination of his adoptive parents, he was raised by a powerful Mafia family and ended up becoming the Don’s trusted consigliere. A poignant scene shows how he became such a great fighter – he had to learn to protect himself from bullies, who beat him because he was Asian. But there is no mention of how this Italian lawyer became mainstream not only in conversational Korean, but also in legal Korean.

Vincenzo also reunites with his birth mother quickly – another trope featured in K-Dramas. Of course, he has a powerful Mafia family that can open doors for him. But in reality, less than 15 percent of adoptees are reunited with their first family, according to 2012-2015 figures released by the Korean government.

Transracial adoptees and their identities

“It is true that understanding of the identity and real life of overseas adoptees is remarkably low in Korea,” says Lee Jeeheng, cultural studies researcher at Seoul Chung-ang University. “It’s like turning a blind eye to the fact that adoptees are abandoned by their country of origin. As a result, many K-dramas and cinematic representations of adoptees have remained on a superficial and incomprehensible level. The adopted’s frame was used as a tool to paint the character a tragic color. It bothers me, because [scriptwriters] never hesitate to use it as a device. The adoptees are often described as fluent in Korean. This unrealistic description – where it cannot properly reveal their linguistic and cultural heterogeneity – is in part due to state nationalism, which so easily defines overseas adoptees as Koreans.


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