Even though it’s really short, episode 4 of aka Dan is definitely a rebound after a quasi-apathetic episode 3. A lot happens and Dan, although reserved, is emotive throughout.
Episode 4 opens with Dan visiting Eastern Social Welfare Society (ESWS), his Korean adoption agency. (As a side note, I personally have huge issues with ESWS, but my thoughts about ESWS can come on another day.) Ye-Hwan Jeon, the director of ESWS, initially takes Dan to see “the photo room,” where Korean babies who are available for adoption are photographed. There Dan sees the chair his foster mother sat in with him back in July 12, 1985 (see above).Dan talks to the camera:
I remember seeing that chair when I was little. And one of the things I told myself was that I was a son of, like, a king or a prince or something. Because … it’s like a very elaborate chair. And when I came back to Korea I would find that my dad’s like the king of Korea … or Kim Jung Il.
Ye-Hwan chuckles, and Dan sits down in the chair with a bemused look on his face.
The scene in the photo room is amusing. It’s a touching moment as well. There’s something moving about seeing a person physically reconnect with an image, an archeological item from his unknown past—an unknown past with which many Korean adoptees grapple. As Shannon Heit notes:
In her book, Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War, Grace M. Cho expands on Gordon’s framework, describing the haunting of the Korean diaspora as a transgenerational haunting, “[a] haunting effect [that] is produced not so much by the original trauma as by the fact of its being kept hidden. It is precisely within the gap in conscious knowledge about one’s family history that secrets turn into phantoms.” Adoptees, perhaps more so than any other group, are haunted by the absence of knowledge regarding our family histories and the secrets of our pasts that can’t be known.
Continuing the tour of ESWS, Ye-Hwan walks Dan to the infant-care area. It is here that you get to see an interesting dialogue.
Upon seeing the babies, Dan asks, “Are these all orphaned babies?”
Ye-Hwan says yes. Dan follows, “I don’t know what the Korean law is, but is international adoptions still legal?”
“Still legal, yes.” Ye-Hwan responds, “But very few cases compared with the past.”
Dan inquires further, “Because they’re trying to get more Korean families to adopt?”
Ye-Hwan answers with a half-truth: “We hope so, but not much increasing compared to how many babies we have. That’s why we should care for all of the babies like this [points to special-needs toddlers], not just infant babies. They should go to foster homes or to domestic [Korean] families.”
I say “half-truth” here because evidence shows that ESWS doesn’t champion domestic adoptions, which doesn’t bring in the revenue that international adoptions do. Plus, the Korean adoption law, which was written by adoptees, unwed mothers, and their allies, does more than encourage domestic adoption. Per the New York Times profile of Korean adoptee author and activist Jane Jeong Trenka:
It was that emotional conflict over identity that eventually led Ms. Trenka to upend her life, move back to South Korea and help lead a successful campaign with fellow adoptees to fundamentally change the way Koreans think about adoption. The landmark legislation they championed for the first time takes concrete steps to deal with the root causes of South Korea’s longstanding reputation as one of the world’s leading “baby exporters”—society’s deep prejudice against single mothers and against domestic adoptions thought to sully all-important family bloodlines.
The law stipulates for the first time that the government should reduce overseas adoptions of Korean children. It not only provides child-care stipends to encourage more Koreans to adopt and to support single women who want to keep their children, but it also requires mothers to live with their babies for a week and receive counseling about the option of keeping them, before they relinquish custody.
“I spent the first 40 years of my life as an adoptee, and Korea really hasn’t changed much about its adoption system,” Ms. Trenka, 41, said recently. “Do I want to spend the second half of my life letting these people get away with the damaging practices that created the first part of my life?”
The half-truth, and being surrounded by babies and toddlers with whom he identifies, strikes a chord with Dan:
Oh my gosh. This is really overwhelming. I think I like seeing the babies in person … It makes things a lot more real, a lot more … It’s very, very overwhelming. I think it’s incredible to see … where I literally came from. It’s really painful to see all of these babies put up for adoption.
Unbeknownst to Dan, chances are, most of the babies and toddlers were “put up for adoption” by unwed mothers who were forced to relinquish their parent rights. Shannon Heit writes:
Unwed mothers face extreme social prejudice and significant structural discrimination. In addition, they often face rejection from their families and social networks. Historically, when women become pregnant before marriage in Korea, abortion, although technically illegal, has been the most common solution. In the case that women choose to give birth, families heavily pressure the mothers to give the child up for adoption. According to KUMFA Director Mok Kyoung-hwa, raising a child as an unwed mother in Korea is essentially not seen as an option:
“When a woman who is unmarried gets pregnant, everyone around you—family, friends, the father of the baby—tries first to convince you to abort. After that, everyone around you plus obstetricians, social workers, and unwed mothers’ facilities try to convince you to choose adoption. No one encourages you to raise your child. No one. No one says, ‘It will be hard, but I’m here to support you.’”
Seok Myeon, who fostered 20 kids, is charming and dotes on Dan. During the short meeting, she holds his hands, hugs him, repeatedly talks about how handsome he is, thanks him for coming to see her, and talks openly about how she has missed him. At one point she says: “I would have loved to have you as my son.”
The overt display of emotions affects Dan. Even though you can’t see his face, as he watches his foster mother walk away from ESWS, you know that the meeting made an impact on him.
Watch episode 4 of aka Dan below.