Korean adoptions spark heritage tour interest

It was easy to tell that the Asian women, although seated apart, were traveling together. They wore child carriers that matched, and filling each fabric pouch was an adorable and incredibly calm infant.

The babies were going home for the first time.

The women were escorts for Holt International, one of the world’s largest adoption agencies, and the lengthy trip from Seoul to San Francisco would forever change lives in two countries. One baby was headed for Des Moines, another to Boston. I didn’t inquire about the two or three others.

“My record is 22,” a doting flight attendant said, while rocking a child. She was referring to the number of Korean adoptees whom she’s seen on a single flight. U.S. families adopted 1,630 Korean children in 2005. Only China, Russia and Guatemala have higher numbers.

Holt began 50 years ago, after Harry and Bertha Holt adopted eight Amerasian children, living in Korean orphanages. Soldiers in the Korean War accounted for the spike in these “mixed blood” babies.

Korea has long made pure bloodlines a priority. A child who is a mix of race or ethnicity may well be placed up for adoption, taken to an orphanage or monastery.

About 100,000 Korean adoptees have been brought to Wisconsin or Minnesota. Their new lives have potential for both opportunity and confusion, and a Wauwatosa-based company tries to lessen the latter.

The 13-year-old Ties Program next month will take about 100 parents and Korean-born children back to their native land. The travelers will come from throughout the nation.

“To see the place where we were born is a basic curiosity that we all have,” says Bea Evans, director. “Families work hard to maintain cultural connections to their children’s heritage, but there is something special about smelling and tasting it for yourself, having your feet step onto the soil.”

These annual heritage tours (arranged to other nations, too) help the children “connect instead of fantasize” about their birth country, help them adjust to “having a foot in both worlds.”

Seventeen people took the first Ties Program trip, to Korea in 1994. Since then, foreign-born participants have been 4 to 35 years old, but ages 8-12 are most typical. Evans calls this range “prime years in an adoption” because “although these children may be very happy, they begin to realize that this event also came with some losses.”

The trip can be like a vacation, or a family may try to tour their child’s orphanage, find their child’s social service records, meet their child’s foster parents. The Ties Program assists where it can, but does not push families into a specific direction.

To Evans, it is most important for the children to “see the differences and similarities between cultures, see that people are welcoming, articulate, fun to be with – that they have good reason to be proud of their heritage.”

They will likely see dances with masks and fans, brilliantly colored performances that honor the life, work and religion of average people. They will see how the tiled and gently curved roofs of ancient buildings mesh with contemporary, westernized architecture.

Some of the attractions will be the same that I visited this spring, like:

— Busan’s sprawling Jagalchi Seafood Market, with its slithering sea worms and octopus, mounds of fish and urchins. Men in suits come for a raw lunch. Housewives shop for dinner. Tourists stroll and gawk.

— Seoul’s Namdaemun Market, 10 acres of food/clothing/furnishings in 1,000 stalls. Bartering is expected. Take cash instead of a credit card. It is easy to lose your sense of direction while weaving from one alley of stalls to the next.

— Burial mounds of average people, sprinkled along hillsides and mountaintops, surrounded by stone fences. Or Tumuli Park, at Gyeongju, where the ancient tombs of Silla royalty have been meticulously preserved.

The families will undoubtedly taste kimchi, a spicy and fermented vegetable – usually cabbage – served with every meal. That includes breakfast. They likely will eat bulgogi, marinated beef or pork slices that are simmered with vegetables on a tabletop grill. The Korean diet is healthful, and doughy rice cakes are one of the rare sweet treats that is traditional.

Most important, these visitors will be introduced to the deep pride that Koreans have for their country and its history. Intricate embroidery, mother-of-pearl lacquerware or celadon pottery all would be good reminders of where they’ve been – but there will be no substitute for the respectfulness and genuine kindness that are extended to visitors.

“These are loving people who made their adoption decisions in a heartfelt way,” explains Pat Hallada, Korean Ties project manager, and the mother of three Korean-born children.

For more about the Ties Program: www.adoptivefamilytravel.net, 866-359-0995.

For more about Oregon-based Holt International: www.holtinternational.org, 541-687-2202.

For more about Korea tourism: www.tour2korea.com, 800-868-7567 (Chicago office).