Question Of Identity -- American Adoptees Born In Korea Search For Their Cultural Roots In Second Homeland

Paull Shin doesn't remember exactly when he knew he had to learn to be Korean again.

The feeling came gradually, building slowly over a long period of time. Ever since Shin came to the United States as a teenager, adopted by an American soldier during the Korean War, he was determined to become American.

He lived with his new family in Salt Lake City, became a Mormon, and took the mantle of responsibility as the older brother to his three younger brothers. Then he went to Brigham Young University, joined the army and worked for two years as a missionary.

But although he adjusted well, and created a good life in his new homeland, the side of himself that he had ignored refused to go away. It wasn't until he lived in Hawaii, where he was exposed for the first time to a mix of cultures, that he began re-examining his Korean roots.

"We all want a sense of belonging and identity, but if one side is ignored then there's conflict," said Shin, who is an instructor at Shoreline Community College. "You don't live in the past, but you can't forget the past, you can't extinguish your racial heritage. I knew that there was a part of me that was empty and it was haunting me."

Questions of identity are central to most immigration experiences. But for children who are born in foreign countries and adopted into American families, they are difficult issues complicated by isolation.

Since the Korean War, a steady influx of children from South Korea have been adopted by American families. For some parents going through the adoption process, adopting children from abroad is a faster and less complicated option.

Shin, who co-founded Korean Identity Development Society (KIDS), a Seattle-based group that promotes cultural identity in adopted children, estimates that there are about 3,000 Korean children in the state.

Those very questions of identity are also at the heart of "Yeb-Yang-Ah, Whose Kid Is That?" a children's play being produced by the Northwest Asian American Theater. The production is scheduled to open next Wednesday and continue until April 11.

The play examines the issues faced by Brian O'Casey, a Korean child adopted by a white American couple. It follows him from childhood to the time he is in college, tracing the process in which he achieves the balance between the two cultures.

It also touches on his relationship with his white parents and friends, and his encounters with other Korean Americans, who call him a banana - yellow on the outside, white on the inside.

Bea Kiyohara, the theater's artistic director, said the play - the first the theater has done focusing on Korean Americans - examines a unique form of assimilation into American culture.

"What does a person have to deal with when they don't have even have a family structure to reassure them about their identity?" Kiyohara said. "When your family is white, and you don't even have your name, what's the psyche of a person coming to terms with their identity?"

The play was co-written by Lenore Bensinger and Christopher Johnson, a 22-year-old University of Washington theater student who was born in South Korea, then adopted and reared in Kansas City.

Like Shin, Johnson's experience with adoption has been largely positive.

He remembers that when he was young, his father used to bring him to the bathroom mirror and point out the differences in their features, Johnson said. His culture was never ignored, and he welcomed the extra attention he received.

"I felt I was different and special, and I would constantly pursue things that were probably beyond me," Johnson said. "When I was young I got Korean phrase books, travel guides, I went through a chopsticks phase, and I was taught that Korea was OK, and that it was something I wasfree to explore."

Yet Johnson, who would have faced added discrimination in Korea because he is half-white, said that he has chosen not to learn more about the country where he was born.

"Korea is a memory and a history for me, and something that I've had a hard time embracing until working on this show," he said.

The idea that Korean-born children should be exposed to their culture as they grow up is one that many parents have embraced.

Jeanne Stephens - who has three adopted Korean children, ages 2, 4 and 6 - said that she and her husband have tried to weave aspects of Korean culture into their children's upbringing.

Each of the children has a Korean hanbok - a traditional costume - and each has had a big first birthday celebration, a tradition in Korea, where mortality rates among babies made the first birthday a special event.

Stephens and her husband also have kept the children's birth name as their middle name, and have attended Korean lunar celebrations. When the children are older, the couple plans to take them to Korea and may send them to a Korean culture camp.

"It's certainly a part of them - even though they are very much American," Stephens said. "They can choose when they're older how much the Korean culture is going to become a part of them, and how much of it they'll shed."

Last month, the issue of Korean adoption garnered some unwelcome attention when Noreen Erlandson of Bothell was found guilty of fatally beating her 2-year-old daughter, Kayla, in April. Kayla and the Erlandsons' other adopted child were born in South Korea.

The case was closely followed by the media and government in South Korea, where the adoption of Korean children has become a sensitive topic in the past few years. Embarrassed by its image as a baby market, the country has begun promoting adoption within.

When Erlandson was found guilty, South Korean adoption officials ended their affiliation with Travelers Aid Society, which placed the children with the Erlandsons.

"It was an unfortunate case of child abuse and the child happened to be Korean," Shin said. "As the recipient of the blessings of inter-cultural adoption, my hope is that other children will continue to have that opportunity."