A Thesis

Submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School

of the University Of Minnesota



MARCH 1998






This dissertation is an exploration of the interrelationship between cultural identity and place in the lives of adult Korean adoptees living primarily in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. Using life histories derived through multiple semi-structured interviews, a web of related themes emerged which reveal the interplay between ethnicity, identity, gender, and place. From childhood to adulthood, most Korean adoptees followed a similar developmental trajectory of denial, self-awareness, and emerging cultural consciousness about their Korean heritage. These journeys were mediated and nuanced by individual adoptees' particular configurations of internal strengths and environmental factors such as their pre-adoption and adoptive family experiences, cultural norms, and places adoptees lived or visited in Korea, the U.S. or elsewhere abroad. Dominant American ideologies and stereotypes about Asians were imposed on and challenged by Korean adoptees in varied ways at different stages of their evolving cultural identities. Given the relative dearth of geographic literature on intercountry adoption, this work applies a geographic lens while drawing on insights from the literatures of social work and developmental psychology. This study highlights, moreover, the limitations of previous studies that focused only on adoptive parents or adoptees as children, an approach which loses the life course perspective of intercountry adoptees' search for identity, belonging, and a sense of home.




  • Abstract
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Dedication

Chapter 1: Introduction

  • The Gap in the Literature
  • The Structure of this Dissertation
  • On Considering a Hypothesis

Chapter 2: The Empirical Backdrop

  • Orphan Trains: the intra-American Precursor to Intercountry Adoption
  • Formal Adoption, the Doctrine of Secrecy, & New Demand for Babies
  • Postwar Pronatalism: the Context for the onset of Intercountry Adoption
  • African-American & American Indian Adoptees:
  • The Intra-American Option
  • Intercountry Adoption: the Overseas Alternative
  • Differing Contexts into which Transracial & Intercountry Adoptees Settle
  • Minnesota as a Place: Why Minnesota?

Chapter 3: Placing Intercountry Adoption Within the Literature

  • Grounding Intercountry Adoption Within the Existing Literature
  • Cultural Geography & the Place for Intercountry Adoption
  • Micro & Macro-level Models of Migration
  • & the Place for Intercountry Adoption
  • The Literature on Intercountry Adoption From Other Disciplines
  • Studies on Outcomes of Intercountry and Transracial Adoption

Chapter 4: Methodology

  • Situating the Interviewer Within the Narrative
  • My Cultural Identity and Linkages to Place
  • My Disciplinary Orientation: Geographic Ethnographer versus Clinician
  • Life History as a Methodological Tool
  • Choice of a Research Study Group
  • Recruitment, Acquisition of Formal Consent, & Setting Up Interviews
  • The Interview Process with Korean Adoptees
  • Interpretation of the Data

Chapter 5: Results and Discussion

  • Overview
  • Childhood and Place
  • Leaving home, place, and cultural awakenings
  • Korea as a Place
  • Sense of home, place, community, and the town-city dichotomy
  • Gender
  • Making Sense of the Exceptions

Chapter Six: Synthesis and Conclusion

  • Summary of Findings
  • Current Findings' Relevance to Previous Research
  • Implications of this Study for Adoption Policy
  • Implications of this Study for Future Research on Intercountry Adoption
  • Conclusion



This research could not have been completed without the help and patience of several important people who made it possible for me to produce this dissertation even while working two jobs and raising a blended family separated by four states. I must first thank my advisor, Judy Martin. Judy was the first person to whom I spoke about geography at the the University of Minnesota, and she has been a friend and a supporter throughout my nearly 10 years in graduate school at Minnesota. I must also thank the rest of my dissertation committee, John Rice and Hal Grotevant, as well as Jeff Edelson and Fred Lukermann for being there in a pinch. Each of them has contributed in different ways over the years towards my graduate education, be it as teacher, editor, supporter, or friend. I'm grateful to all of them for the stimulating and good-humored dialogue in my oral defense and for the generosity of spirit each of them extended to me.

I'm grateful also to Bob Dinardo, Director of the Adoption and Guardian Section at the Minnesota Department of Human Services, and to Children's Home Society's Roger Toogood, Marietta Spencer, Hyun Sook Han, and David Pilgrim. Their input helped greatly in grounding this dissertation in its geographical context of a Minnesotan landscape where approximately 10,000 Korean adoptees have been raised.

Several friends in the geography department and in my broader community of friends were also there for me in a big way--Wiley, Tom, James, Kyle, Dave Aagesen, Koz and Lyonel, Mark and Linda, Mike Benedict, and Jim and Joanne were there to offer encouragement and support, a bed, a beer, a ride to the airport, a deer, or whatever else the exigencies of my life demanded. Thanks too to Stan Mendenhall and Robin for their assistance with graphs, maps, and scanning equipment; and an extra thank you to Mike Benedict for helping convert this dissertation to htm format for placement on the Web. I am truly lucky to have such a community of special people. A special thanks also to Bonnie Williams, our stellar graduate secretary, for without her, I doubt I'd have been able to navigate the bureaucratic hurdles around every corner in graduate school. I greatly appreciate the input from the University of Michigan's Adoption Study Group, and thanks to Elie Rosenberg and Kris Freeark in particular, for their encouragement of my participation.

Several members of my family deserve special mention for their encouragement and patience with me. I must give thanks first to my lovely wife, Debbie Thompson, whose strength and passion captured my own, to my daughter Nora, the sparkle in my life, and to my stepsons Ryan and Taylor who can make me laugh till I'm in tears. All of them--in their own ways--have offered encouragement, humor, and love that sustained me during moments when I felt overwhelmed. I owe thanks also to my mother, Shirley, in whose apartment I began the serious push of completing this dissertation in August 1997. Her persistent emphasis on the value of education since my earliest days has stayed with me always. I am also grateful to my stepmother, Emy, for her meticulous proofreading, editorial assistance, and the cyber-support with which she's been very generous. Thanks too to my sister Eva for leading the way into "Ph.D.-land," and to my father, Gustav, from whom I inherited a capacity for unrelenting work and travel.

Finally, I must thank the Korean adoptees who were the focus of this study, not only those whom I formally interviewed, but also those who corresponded (and continue to correspond) with me via e-mail, who sent me materials and personal reflections, who met me in Korean restaurants, and who showed a continued interest in and appreciation for the work I was doing. Receiving the feedback below from one my interviewees constituted one of the single-most rewarding moments in my graduate education:


"I read your drafts once and plan to read them again ... I think what you have thus far is excellent and groundbreaking in many respects. It is the first thing I've read that explores the adopted Korean experience in such depth. I also think it is written with sensitivity and respect toward adoptees and our very complex experiences ... I hope work like yours will open doors and encourage others to do more research in the future."


It's my most sincere hope that this work will indeed contribute to the ongoing dialogue about intercountry adoption, cultural identity, and place, a dialogue which I hope informs both policy at the macro-level and intrapsychic processes for adoptees on the most personal level of their lived experiences.


In memory of Gene Chao,

June 14, 1954 - December 7, 1992


Gene's passion about Asia brought us together on that great continent

where we endured the August heat of Beijing,

where we slept in Kazak yurts in the mountains above Heaven Lake

and swam in its frigid waters,

where we ascended the Tibetan plateau from the northern desert

and the dunes of Dunhuang,

and where we parted ways in Lhasa.


I recall with bittersweet fondness our swimming laps every evening at Hunter College,

our biking from our apartment to an Eastside diner for midnight study breaks,

and, years later, when Gene struggled with his demons at UCLA Law School,

our spending hours on the phone ... too few hours.


Gene's commitment to social justice ignited and inspired my own.

His heart, humor, and intellect touched me.


I miss him still.



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