SSitting down in a chair the other day, a funny thing happened: I turned a year older. It got me thinking about my name. Six months earlier I’d handed over some papers and a check for two-hundred dollars; just like that I became Chun-Soon Li. So, like a blanket of snow that falls on our city, or a cool spoon pressed on the eyes, I applied a new name, though a very old name, to myself.
If I was given a name at birth, it is gone with the woman who could say it. There was a day. It was raining, that’s how I’ll tell it. On this day I wandered off from my mother, or was placed in a basket like a little yellow Moses, or left behind in one of the ways it happens, just like that. I was about a year old and didn’t know anything. She was a young woman, as I’ve always seen her, beautiful despite the day. Did she hold me one last time? Did she pray for us?
Adoption is many things. It’s commonplace, it’s a dream-come-true (for some), and it’s an efficient way to deal with a surplus of orphans. During the Korean war, transnational adoption solved the embarrassing problem of biracial offspring sired by Western soldiers. These children, thousands of them, were the scar tissue of the wounds of war, representing the double blight of mixed-race and illegitimacy (their unmarried mothers bearing the brunt of this stigma). In 1956, a zealous American named Harry Holt formed the Holt International Adoption Agency in an effort to harvest the “seed from the East” as prophesied in Isaiah 45:3. By the 1960’s, war babies were replaced by a new supply of orphans, by-products of South Korea’s brutal push to industrialise.
I want to speak to the heart of the matter: The status of women is the status of children in society — don’t let the guys in charge tell you otherwise. In Korea, divorced women, raped women, and unwed mothers all face the same stigma of being…deeply…sullied. There is no social support system which helps them survive in Korean society, much less provide for their children. To date, there have been over 150,000 Korean children sent out-of-country as adoptees, two-thirds of them to the US. This industry nets Korea between fifteen to twenty million dollars per anum, which is to say that selling off your unwanted children is more lucrative than caring for them, or implementing the systemic changes that would keep families together in the first place.
In the past fifteen years we’ve seen seventeen nations call an end to transnational adoption due to charges of exploitation, coercion of birth mothers, abduction and child trafficking. This contrasts sharply against the shining picture of an integrated American family with asian kids, which is the image in the Holt catalogs. When children are sent out-of-country, they are sent West. They are sent to white families who Mean Well. And they are given new names.
People have always had their own names for me: Mary, Mao, Pumpkin, Slowpoke. Identity, for an adoptee, is the feeling that nothing is yours by birthright. At times there is a freedom to this, an untethered-ness that is nice; mostly, though, it just feels weird. My adoptive parents saved my life, and they did it with Christian love in their hearts. They even retained my “temporary Korean name”, Chun-Soon, as my middle name. Six months ago, I reclaimed it. This one piece of my mother’s land that I do have. I chose the family name Li (Yi, Rhee, Lee)…an ordinary, commonplace name. A typical Korean name. Confucius be darned, I am now the beginning of my bloodline in this country.
So say my name, family and friends.
Say my name, chagiya, as no one else can.
Because nothing ever just happens, just like that, please say my name.