Asian American Adoption- Part 1: Cold War Babies to a Multi-Million Dollar Industry

Many thanks to Clarissa Trent, 2023 Smithsonian Leadership for Change intern, for this guest post. Trent was one of several interns working with Smithsonian Affiliations to identify untold stories and develop ways to tell those stories. This 3-part series is based on personal experiences, research conducted while at the Smithsonian Institution, and conversations with staff at The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. For more resources on Asian Pacific American bias and stereotypes, and further resources from the Smithsonian, visit the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

An Asian woman with long dark hair and glasses wearing a black button down shirt stands on a white stairwell.
Clarissa Trent, 2023 Smithsonian Leadership for Change intern

When I was six months old, I was adopted from South Korea. I am a transracial adoptee. I am the daughter of white, evangelical parents in rural East Tennessee, and the life my parents imagined for me is very different than my other Korean friends. I grew up in the evergreen mountains of Appalachia, listening to Country and Bluegrass, eating cornbread, saying holler instead of hollow, with a sister who looked nothing like me. The microaggressions I experienced at the time—“friends” asking me to speak Korean (when I didn’t) or mocking a stereotypical Asian accent—contributed to my sense of identity. I could forgive my friends, but it was harder when the microaggressions came from adults—I was once asked by a teacher if it was okay to call me a racial slur. These microaggressions and overt racism meant that even though I was raised culturally white, I felt like an outsider. I was a Korean daughter who knew nothing of her home country or birth language. It was not until I entered college that I fully embraced my dual identity and started to consider what it means to have an identity as an adoptee.

The history of adoption is a long and complicated one, and there are a number of books and resources that trace its history from the start of World War II to today. In this series I will provide a brief overview of international adoption and share three first-person interviews I conducted during my internship with the Smithsonian Institution. For these three interviews, I asked fellow sisters from Delta Phi Lambda Sorority, Inc., an Asian interest organization that prides itself on creating a home away from home for Asian/Asian American women across the country. These women, all Chinese American, joined Delta Phi Lambda for reasons all their own, and found in the sorority a family that teaches them and creates a safe space for them. Each interviewee has had different experiences with transracial adoption which shaped their identities. I am so grateful to them for generously allowing me to share their experiences. To contextualize their stories, let’s first delve into a brief history of international adoption.

From Cold War Babies to a Multi-Million Dollar Industry

Map of Korea
Map of North and South Korea, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

When the United States and the former Soviet Union engaged in war by proxy on the Korean Peninsula, no one could have predicted that it would create a new form of child rearing around the world. The devastation of the Korean War left thousands of children without parents, and thousands of parents without the jobs and resources they needed to care for their children. The war caused irreparable harm to the peninsula and ended with a shaky ceasefire, creation of the 38th parallel, and a nation of people fully divided. The aftermath had lasting effects on Koreans at home and in the diaspora (those who have left the Asian continent and are living somewhere else). A provisional government was not prepared to take on the responsibility of orphanages overrun with children whose parents were gone or could no longer provide for them. The best solution, at that time, was to adopt children out to other countries.

Today, the international adoption system is a multi-million-dollar industry; families pay tens of thousands of dollars for lawyers, psychological evaluations, at-home visits, and plane tickets. The history of international Asian adoption is steeped in colonialism and racism, and many adoptees feel the weight of these topics today.

Before adoption started in South Korea, there was a group of children that had easy access to the care of the United States. Called “mascots,” these were young boys (and occasionally young girls) taken under the wing of U.S. military units moving through the Korean Peninsula. They were clothed, fed, and trained to spy for the military. When the war ended, mascots were the first children to be adopted.

In comparison, GI children—children born to local women and American soldiers away at war–had a much different experience than mascots. Stereotypes and prejudices prevented many of these children from being adopted. The patriarchal Korean society placed heavy emphasis on the continuation of the fathers’ blood through recorded lineages. Children from American fathers were ostracized because their Korean DNA came exclusively from their mothers.

The South Korean and United States governments established new orphanages to manage those who did not have direct access to US military resources as mascots and GI children did. Many of these orphanages were heavily associated with the United States military—some were even named after military units. Other orphanages developed at the time were overseen by Christian groups operating out of the US. These orphanages added a new layer to this complicated history. Children were marketed to white, Christian families as needing to be saved. While white, middle-class families were not the only group to adopt from Asia, they were the most prevalent. Many were introduced to this world of Asian adoption through Harry and Bertha Holt.

Oregon Journal newspaper clipping of the article "Father Holt, 12 Children Reach Home."
Oregon Journal, newspaper, 1955, Gift of Holt International Children’s Services. In the Home and Community Life: Domestic Life collections at the National Museum of American History.

The Holts became significant to the history of international adoption when their desire to adopt more than two Korean children was restricted by the Refugee Act of 1953. To circumvent this, they successfully petitioned Congress to pass a special law, The Holt Bill, allowing them to adopt 6-8 children (historical records disagree on the exact number of adoptees). Photos and news coverage of the plane ride that brought the Holt’s adoptees to America introduced Asian adoption to white, evangelical families*. The Holts went on to establish one of the largest international private adoption agencies in the world. With the Korean government fully backing this endeavor, the newly formed country of South Korea became the largest country sending their children abroad.

A child's hanbok with a red skirt and a multi-colored jacket.
Traditional Korean Child’s Dress (Hanbok). Credit Betty Holt Blakenship

Sources and Author notes:

*The increase in white families adopting Korean orphans was attributed to coverage of the plane ride. In her book To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption, Arissa Oh writes extensively about white parents adopting Korean children and how that type of transracial adoption differed from white families adoping Black children. She also suggests that adoption of Korean children was more enticing since their parents were thousands of miles away and could not come and claim their child.

For a full list of sources, view here.

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