U.S., David Rutledge, Ryan Gustafson discussed on The Philosopher's Zone


Is the philosopher's zone with me David Rutledge, welcome to the program. And welcome to an extremely interesting discussion this week that has a story behind it. It's the story of an adoption program that got started in South Korea at the end of the Korean War in 1953. And which since then has seen some 200,000 South Korean born children adopted to Western countries. The majority of them going to white families in the USA in Western Europe. So why are we talking about this on a philosophy program? Well, the answer will unfold over the next half hour, but in a nutshell. The story of many of these transnational adoptees is also the story of a weird kind of tension between standing out and blending in between belonging and being different, and this tension can tell us a lot about racialized experience more broadly. My guest is Ryan Gustafson, and he's a post doctoral fellow with the Asia institute at the university of Melbourne. The South Korean program started in the aftermath of the Korean War, otherwise known as the forgotten war, which ended, so to speak in 1953, and the adoption program was initially set up to facilitate the adoptions of mixed race children. So these were children born to Korean women and U.S. European and possibly even Australian military personnel. But in 1953, while there were these special provisions for servicemen to adopt Korean orphans, the kind of legislative infrastructure really wasn't yet in place to organize sort of large scale adoptions. So in 19 55, I believe, an evangelical couple from Oregon by the names of Harry and Bertha holt adopted 8 mixed race children and this was a really kind of highly publicized event in the U.S.. They soon established the whole adoption program in Korea, which still exists today, and very soon we're kind of inundated by requests from U.S. families to help them adopt what we're kind of referred to as GI babies as well. So by the late 1950s, hundreds of South Korean children were being adopted to the U.S. to Norway, Sweden, to England, but by the late 1950s, more children of so called full Korean parentage were being adopted. And so all these sort of adoptions at the end of the Korean War kind of started as a putatively temporary humanitarian solution. By the 1970s, thousands of South Korean children were being sent overseas, and it actually wasn't until the mid 1980s, so a good 30 years or so after the war that Korean adoption actually peaks. So in 1985, just under 9000 children were sent abroad. And to get a sense of scale, Korean researchers have recently calculated that this means that in the year 1985 children sent for adoption accounted for roughly 30% of Korea's total out migration that year. And we kind of end up with the Korean adoption program as the longest running modern adoption program. And it's involved an estimated 200,000 children sent to over 20 countries. And you've written about how Asian orphans at the time were depicted by American policymakers as what you've described as living emblems that appeared to solve America's race problem. That's very interesting. How was that supposed to be the case? This is work that the historian Rachel reigns Winslow has outlined really meticulously. So basically during World War II and in the lead up to and during the Korean War, the U.S. had started to implement some changes to their racially restrictive immigration system. And they were also seeking to portray themselves as a nation that champions and is committed to humanitarianism, often religious humanitarianism, as well as racial diversity. But when Korean adoptions started the race based quota system was still in place in the U.S. and there was no comprehensive legal framework to facilitate these adoptions on a larger scale. But in 19 53, the U.S. granted orphan visas for adoptees, and these visas were actually exempt from race based restrictions. So they were kind of exceptions, I suppose, to the immigration policies at the time. And so with regard to them being kind of living emblems that appeared at least to solve America's race problem, the adoption of Korean orphans was portrayed as a way for U.S. citizens, private citizens to demonstrate their humanitarianism and their altruism as a kind of private so to speak contribution to U.S. foreign policy. I should also note that for a lot of U.S. adopted families, especially in the first wave of adoptions, they also actually kind of viewed these adoptions as a national duty because these children were fathered by U.S. servicemen or assumed to be fathered by U.S. servicemen. There was also this idea that babies are really young children don't have ties to culture, that they would assimilate easily, have brought up in the U.S.. They were considered kind of exemplar potential immigrants and in fact, Rachel Winslow's book is actually called the best possible immigrants, which was the way that transnational adoptees were referred to by U.S. policymakers in the 1950s. And this had the effect of kind of a raising adoptees migration histories in the sense that they often were not even considered immigrants and even today this, I think, persists. And it also says I think a lot about U.S. immigration policy whereby the best possible immigrants are those who can disappear. Who's society no longer views as immigrants at all. So it's a really assimilationist logic that I think is quite glaringly the case when it comes to looking at the history of transnational.

Coming up next