Thomas Clement was five years old when his mother took him to a street corner in Seoul, South Korea, and told him not to look back as she walked away. It was 1957, just four years after the war had torn his country in half.
Like thousands of other children born to poor women or stigmatized because they were the product of unions with American or European soldiers, he would survive on the streets for a while and eventually be adopted into a radically different world.
"There's a poem," he says, "that compares us to leaves scattered by the autumn winds." Those winds briefly reversed last weekend, bringing together for the first time a large group of Koreans who were adopted by American or European families.
Some who attended the three-day gathering here had never before met another Korean adoptee. With nearly 400 others to keep them company, they had a welcome break from being asked, "What are you?" even as they grappled with important issues of identity.
The interest level in international adoption has soared in the 1990s: Americans have adopted about 50,000 children from abroad in the past three years. Yet an important resource for families and adoption policymakers - the collective insights of this pioneering generation - has gone untapped, until now.
Korean adoptees were at first considered a "crazy social experiment," says Madelyn Freundlich, executive director of The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, one of several sponsoring organizations. Now there are nearly 100,000 of them in the United States, and lessons can be reaped not only by adoption groups, but by a broader society that is struggling to understand its own multicultural identity.
"All our parents, ... even social workers, thought the best thing for us was to sever our ties with the past, our culture, our language, and integrate us as fast as possible," says Mr. Clement of the earliest adoptees.
But by the 1970s, culture camps had been developed to help the children connect with their Korean past, which for many didn't exist even in memories.
With or without these opportunities, though, the children largely identified with their adoptive culture. A survey completed by 167 participants revealed that only 28 percent thought of themselves as Korean when growing up. Most lived in predominantly white rural areas or small towns. About half had only white friends growing up; some even said they felt like whites trapped in Asian bodies.
Many international adoptees don't think about their heritage until they leave home, says Marilyn Schoettle, a facilitator at the conference who has two adopted children from Thailand. "They are no longer part of a Caucasian cocoon, and nobody thinks of them as adoptees."
Some participants say they would urge adoptive families to provide diverse communities for their children.
Topics of discussion included the emotional issues of abandonment and discrimination - both by whites and Korean immigrants. But joy, humor, and celebration pervaded the atmosphere. "The women want everyone to know they are strong Asian women, not the stereotypical, demure type," reported a man who represented the group adopted between 1971 and '72. The participants, about three-quarters of them women, affirmed that view with laughter and applause.
Another common sentiment was gratitude - for being raised in loving families, for being part of a country that values equality, in concept if not always in practice. "I look back today, and there is nothing I would change," says Clement, who grew up in a Methodist family with his parents' three biological children.
Clement recalls a clear illustration of how much he has been considered a natural part of the family: When Clement's twin children were born, his father said he was surprised, since their side of the family had no twins. "But dad, I'm adopted," Clement had to remind him.
Tonya Keith, adopted as an infant in 1972, says she had such a positive experience growing up in a small town near Memphis, Tenn., that she is planning to pass it on to another generation.
She and her husband, Rick, already have photos of their adopted baby boy and will soon be making their second trip to Korea, to pick him up. Like many other adoptees and spouses, they came partly so they would have more to offer their children.
The Korean adoptees spent much of the weekend discovering their differences: Some have met their birth parents, others don't want to. Some have light-colored hair, and others speak with a Southern drawl. But they moved as one through the Korean War memorial - bearing red carnations and gazing into the eyes of sculpted soldiers, touching the etched depictions of Korean civilians, and perhaps, wondering if any of those faces were related to their own.
For Susan Weiss, it was the culmination of an event that left her feeling "connected." She met someone who remembers her mother's efforts to place her for adoption in 1957, and she found out that, contrary to her belief growing up, there are more than a few others like her in the world.
As they wiped away invisible tears after the memorial ceremony, she and a younger adoptee embraced. Phone numbers and e-mails had been exchanged, and the realization was dawning that they could become mentors to other adoptees. "I feel I'm American, and I'm grateful for that," Ms. Weiss says, "but this has opened an awareness that I am also Korean, and for the first time I guess I'm feeling good about that too."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society