The Immigrants’ Rights that Returned Korean Adoptees Are Speaking Out About

Listening to the experiences of overseas adoptee women: My life, immigration, and human rights(1)

Kristin Pak | 기사입력 2021/07/01 [18:56]

The Immigrants’ Rights that Returned Korean Adoptees Are Speaking Out About

Listening to the experiences of overseas adoptee women: My life, immigration, and human rights(1)

Kristin Pak | 입력 : 2021/07/01 [18:56]

Editor’s note: South Korea has a long history of sending its children abroad for adoption.  The issue of overseas adoption is connected to issues of women’s and children rights, poverty and discrimination, and race and migration. By listening to the voices of women who grew up in other societies and then returned to the country of their birth, Ilda hopes to hear their experiences and the messages they hold for Korean society. This series is supported by the Korea Press Foundation’s Press Promotion Fund.


Introduction: As someone who became a migrant through intercountry adoption, Kristin Pak has a unique perspective into the dominant American culture and its prejudices against migrants. As someone who has re-migrated back to Korea sans the privileges of citizenship or language fluency, she is also a part of the migrant community in Korea. Continuing work that started in New York, she is attuned to the struggles of migrants and advocates and organizes for more human rights in Korea as she did in the US.


▲ Being arrested by New York police in June 2010 for civil disobedience in support of immigrants’ rights.   ©Kristin Pak

With New York’s immigrant communities in the 2000s


In 2005 a Republican in the US House of Representatives from Wisconsin introduced a bill that would make assisting “illegal” (sic) immigrants a crime. The introduction of the bill triggered massive demonstrations and determination in the immigrant communities in the US to declare our right to dignity and basic human rights. We(immigrants) also came together to fight against the blatant xenophobia and racism that the bill enshrined.


That year I was working at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in Manhattan, telling visitors about the Jewish, Italian, Irish, and German families who had immigrated to what was a vibrant Chinatown in the mid 2000s. The museum also offered tours of the neighborhood where we pointed out the Fujianese streets in contrast with the Cantonese and Vietnamese businesses that were more common. Another stop on the walking tour was the Chino-Latino bodega because right around the museum was where the Puerto Rican Loisaida and Chinatown met the dwindling Little Italy. As museum educators we talked about the New York City being the most densely populated square miles in the world during the beginning of the 20th century. Many of the guides were also immigrants from Colombia, China, Cuba, Jamaica, and me, the Korean.


I was active in an organization called young Korean American Network then. Simultaneously I volunteered for Also-Known-As which is a post-adoption services organization founded by a woman who had been adopted from Korea as a toddler. Also-Known-As’ constituency included families who had adopted children from China, Korea, Guatemala, Sri Lanka, and other countries, but our adult members were nearly all Korean. The two organizations often collaborated and yKAN usually had a representative proportion of people involved who were adopted from Korea, in addition to the more typical members who had immigrated with their families or were born to immigrants.


yKAN is also how I joined a poongmulpae at New York University. In 2003 we celebrated seolnal by hiring a drummer who played sulchanggo and spun a sangmo. 2003 was also the year of the US invasion of Iraq. The winter before the invasion there were massive demonstrations against the war in Washington, DC. I went down to the National Mall and watched a poongmulpae marching in the freezing cold, and I loved the loud metallic music. When I saw the drummer playing later that winter, I asked him where I could learn to play. He directed me to NYU and I joined them in February. The drummer showed up again at the annual concert that the group, NYURI, plays outdoors in Washington Square Park. He played the modeum buk, and later during dwitpuri I found out he was an international student from Korea who had been involved in the student movement. By January of the following year we were married.


▲ Me (the author) on May 1, 2018.   ©Kristin Pak.

Growing up in a blue-collar, multicultural area


I also started to disengage from yKAN and Also-Known-As. The organizations had started to feel to out of line with my politics. The Korean American community is overwhelmingly Christian and very conservative. I found that I prefered to surround myself instead with more “radical” peace activists, community organizations, and left-leaning Koreans who critiqued the capitalist American Dream. Some brought their activist culture with them from Korea, and critiqued the capitalism that the white-collar professionals of yKAN and Also-Known-As adored and embodied.


That also set me apart from most of the active AKA members who were overwhelmingly adopted into upper- and middle-class families. I had been adopted by a factory worker and a retail store clerk, neither of whom went to college. We lived in a poor city where about seventy-five percent of the kids in my schools were on federal school meal programs.


Unlike most of the people I met who were adopted from Korea in subsequent years (and excluding the New Yorkers, of course) my city was not majority white. I just did not relate to their experiences of growing up in white suburbia. My neighborhood was white, but English was only dominant as the lingua franca. Walking from my house to my best friends’ houses, I heard Polish, Canadian French, Albanian, Italian, and Portuguese.


The walk took about ten minutes, tops. In other parts of the city there were parishes that said mass in Puerto Rican Spanish and Lebanese and there was a sizeable Jamaican community as well. All the immigrants were attracted to the city in Connecticut by the brass factories that gave it its nickname, the Brass City. In September the first day of school brought back students who had been sent back to their parents’ countries to stay with their grandparents over the summer vacation. Their identities were firmly rooted in the Caribbean and Europe. A few students who didn’t go back were from Vietnam.


I talked with them in the cafeteria as we waited on line for French bread pizza (Friday in such a Catholic city meant a meatless option was still served long after Vatican II). There weren’t many students from Asia in my school, just these few Vietnamese kids, some Filipinos, and as far as I knew, four Koreans. I sometimes hung out with the guy whose Korean mom got really excited when she met me, but generally only had short lunchroom talks with the Vietnamese girls. One of them told me about her job at a factory.


My acquaintance got me a job working at the factory alongside several non-English speaking workers and suddenly my Spanish and Portuguese (I took Portuguese all four years in high school) got a lot better. Where in high school a lot of racial tension meant that the white, Black, and Latin@ students self-segregated, in the factory we had no choice but to work side by side on the line. Unfortunately, I never did pick up any Vietnamese, and the Viet workers were not integrated into the tenuous work culture.


I went to school for a few years in Washington, DC until my adoptive father died, and my adoptive mother refused to fill out the paperwork for financial aid that would have allowed me to finish college. During those years I found out about a BA/MA program in TESOL, teaching English to speakers of other languages. If I took five classes while I was an undergraduate, I would need just a few more after graduation to get a masters degree. In the meantime, I would earn a TESOL certificate.


The Tenement Museum piloted a program for English language learners to discuss their lives as immigrants in the historically immigrant neighborhood. Although I had been trained in English teaching methods, identified strongly as an immigrant, As I discussed this with a co-worker, she told me about an opening at the Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens teaching an accent reduction class to priests at the Office of Migration. Still nominally Catholic then, I became a favorite teacher for the priests from Africa, Latin America, and Asia. I used this experience on my resume to apply for another job that a different co-worker told me about at Forest Hills Community House in Queens.


Fighting for immigrants’ rights against anti-immigration policies


I began teaching in Jackson Heights in 2006. During the interview with the director, I told them that I knew that my native English language skills were a privilege that I wanted to use to fight against the anti-immigrant sentiment which was sweeping the country. They liked this rhetoric, I think, because I got the job. I started teaching as an hourly employee and met a strange student from Mexico. He came into class one day very happy because after years of trying, he finally got a green card. Then he went back to Mexico.


I would learn that about half of the students in the program were unauthorized immigrants. Most were visa overstays, like most unauthorized immigrants in the US, but a large number had crossed by land from various countries to get into the US. (One memorable exception was the marine merchant from Burma who jumped ship.)


▲ With students in New York.   ©Kristin Pak

As Jackson Heights is the most linguistically and generally diverse district in the world, where about 180 different languages are spoken, a large gay Latino community shares the area with Nepalese, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, and Sikhs, I was just one among tens of thousands of immigrants in Jackson Heights.


I learned about the rules and practices of the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement as we frequently had “Know Your Rights” workshops for the students. Our in-house paralegal would answer our questions about applying for various visas and waivers, and even helped my friend who was also adopted from Korea bring her fiancé from the Philippines to the US after they met while she worked in the Peace Corp.


We also had an Action Group that the teachers and students could join political efforts like marching against the SECURE Communities program from DHS/ICE which would report the immigration status of anyone arrested by NYPD. Many of my students would join the Action Group, and I became the teacher liaison. We fought for fair housing, language access at the public hospitals, and funding for English language programs in the state and city budgets.


By this time the DREAM Act and DACA was political news. I learned that Koreans were in the top ten of the applicants seeking to become DACAmented. Also making news was the story of some people who had been deported or otherwise compelled to live in Korea after being sent to the US to be adopted.


Then I heard about a Korean citizen who was sent to to the US to be adopted who had been arrested several times. His English was still punctuated with Korean turns of phrases because he left Korea as a pre-teen and never totally nativised his English. He was facing removal from the US because although he was a legal permanent resident, a status which normally doesn’t expire, he was deportable due to the draconian 1996 Clinton-era IIRIRA Act.


I offered background to others who were testifying at hearing as experts about the immigration system history and current practices which I had heard about from the thousands of students I had had at Queens Community House and the Catholic Migration Office. Russell's verdict also ended well, with deferred action. Basically that means that he has an order of removal, but it is suspended due to his lawyer’s arguments that it would be inhumane to send him back to Korea based on the UN Convention Against Torture.


As I was finishing up my MPA program, my boss started me on working with an initiative that provided funding to CBOs who could get people to naturalize. I walked clients through the process if they had no legal histories that would put them in danger. I was promoted to Assistant Director of the Adult Education English Language program and was going to be sent to train to be a Bureau of Immigrant Affairs certified legal representative, but I decided to move to Korea instead.


The war against immigrants had taken its toll. The program lost two-thirds of its funding. I eventually was hired at a university in Daejeon. I decided to move to Daejeon months after getting my masters, and convincing the hiring manager that I had enough teaching experience to qualify for the job. I would soon find myself in my students’ position—a functionally illiterate adult living without the dominant language skills, unaware of my rights or the laws of the country where I would live.


By Kristin Pak

Published Sept. 3, 2018

Korean article:


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