A Korean American Reflects on Life as an Adoptee When Susan Cox was adopted from South Korea, she was quickly Americanized by the Oregon couple who became her parents. Now, more than 50 years later, Cox says, there is more awareness about maintaining a connection to adopted children's native cultures.
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A Korean American Reflects on Life as an Adoptee

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A Korean American Reflects on Life as an Adoptee

A Korean American Reflects on Life as an Adoptee

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Unidentified Woman #1: Yeah, because we knew within three weeks that there was something wrong; within six weeks we had the essential story.

MONTAGNE: Their adopted children told that story. They'd been snatched from their mother.


This morning we'll hear the story of a very different international adoption. After the Korean War, in 1956, a young Korean girl was sent to the United States.

SUSAN SOON: I always knew that my mother was Korean and that my father was not, that he was a soldier. I always assumed that he was an American soldier. And frankly, I would get tired of people saying so who are your real mom and dad? And so I would say to people, Douglas MacArthur.

INSKEEP: Susan Soon-keum Cox used that joke to deflect attention from her story, a story that she herself barely knew as her adoptive parents raised her in Oregon. In later years she worked for the same international adoption agency that brought her to this country. Still, it took several visits to her native country to pull together evidence and memories of her past.

COX: I was four and a half when I was adopted, yes. And...

INSKEEP: From South Korea?

COX: Yes. And when I came here I spoke only Korean. You know, it was in 1956, so it was a very different time in terms of the way adoptions were done. My parents were told that their priority was to Americanize me as quickly as possible because the concern at that time was would these children fit in. So there was no Korean translator to be able to say to my parents, well, this is what your daughter is saying. And you become acclimated, you know, quite quickly. But as I became Americanized, I really forgot not only my language but also what had happened in my life in Korea.

INSKEEP: So if I ask you for memories of before you were four and a half, it would be hard to remember anything?

COX: Oh, I had little glimpses, almost as if you were looking in a scrapbook and flipping the pages and every once and a while you'd stop at a page and there would be a memory. And that was very similar to what my experience was.

INSKEEP: Can you give us a glimpse?

COX: One of the things I used to think about when I was a little girl was I had this memory of walking down this long row of white, and trying carefully not to step on it, like it was a line in the dirt or something. And so when I went to Korea and found the director of my orphanage - I was from Inchon and they would dry salt, sea salt, in long lines across the beach, and children would sort of walk back and forth on them, sort of like a game. So it was nice to know that those were memories that I really had.

INSKEEP: You were from Inchon.

COX: Correct.

INSKEEP: Which is the name of a famous Korean War battle. The Americans...

COX: Yes. Oh, yes.

INSKEEP: ...invaded there.

COX: My father had indeed been a soldier, but he was British soldier.

INSKEEP: And if you were the daughter of a Korean woman and a British soldier, how was it then that you came to the United States in 1956?

COX: Well, I was placed in an orphanage and my family happened to be in the U.S. In the very beginning the families adopting were only from the U.S. Later European families began to adopt as well.

INSKEEP: Was this the earliest age of international adoption, in the 1950s?

COX: Oh yes. Yes.

INSKEEP: And today it's grown to the point where - this year, what? Twenty thousand or more will be adopted?

COX: Mm-hmm. There have been over 200,000 children placed for adoption internationally.

INSKEEP: What is driving that growth?

COX: I think that one of the things that's happened is that it's much more ordinary than it used to be. Certainly when I grew up it was very unusual. There are now three generations of children who have been placed for adoption. The reason that inter-country adoption continues is because it works - in spite of the challenges.

INSKEEP: You mentioned that when you were adopted in 1956, you only spoke Korean. Nobody got you a translator.

COX: Right.

INSKEEP: Today if a Korean four-and-a-half-year-old came to the United States, what kind of advice would you give in that situation?

COX: Well, what they would be much more aware of today than they were 50 years ago is that this child is Korean-American. They need to make sure that this child is exposed to her culture and identity. We spend a lot more time preparing families than we did before.

INSKEEP: How did it affect you that you did not have that encouragement and preparation from your adoptive parents?

COX: And that provided me with a great deal of confidence about that part of who I was. And I would have grown up in Korea as the illegitimate, mixed-race Korean War orphan. My life would have been very different. And my Korean half-brothers think that I am wonderful. Had I stayed there, they would not have had those feelings about me - and that's just reality.

INSKEEP: You changed your name over the years.

COX: I did.

INSKEEP: What was the name you were born with?

COX: Soon-keum.

INSKEEP: Soon-keum?

COX: Mm-hmm.

INSKEEP: What happened to that name when you came to the United States?

COX: It was on my passport, but it really disappeared from my life. It was part of my parents making me American.

INSKEEP: What did they call you?

COX: Susan. And so when I turned 40, having gone back to Korea a number of times and having learned some about my Korean mother and that she had given me my Korean name, and then she said, oh, that means pure gold. Well, I liked it better after I learned that. But also when I learned that my mother had actually - that was the name she had given me, it became more precious.

INSKEEP: You got a chance to meet your birth mother?

COX: Actually, I did not. She died before I ever found her.

INSKEEP: Oh, I'm sorry to hear that.

COX: Mm-hmm. But when she died the last things that she ever spoke, her last words, to my youngest brother was you have a sister and she went to America. And so to know that - as she was dying I was my mother's last thought - is just a gift beyond measure.

INSKEEP: Well, Ms. Cox, thanks very much for coming by.

COX: My pleasure. Thank you.


INSKEEP: You can look here at npr.org and see a photograph of a young Susan Soon-keum Cox and her adoptive mother in front of the Christmas tree. Susan, as she was known then, is holding a doll. Our conversations continue tomorrow as a woman who was adopted considers what to tell her own daughter.

INSKEEP: I described myself as amalgam of four parents - the two adoptive parents and two biological. But what's amazing is that in my biological child I also see my adoptive family. And there was a moment about a year ago when I took a photograph of my daughter and she somehow had the same expression on her face as my grandmother, who she never met.

INSKEEP: That story coming up tomorrow on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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