Ellie, a Korean Asian Adoptee
and this is her story
The first time I met Ellie Freeman was on Twitter and she was the one who first approached me. Ellie was interested in my project, The Two Chairs. She interviewed me for her own radio show, Where are you from? I have been closely following her and her adventure of her recent Korean trip. It’s pretty full on. Long story short, we continued to maintain contact to the point we met IRL (online acronymn for ‘In Real Life’).
Ellie shares with us her cultural identity as a Korean and Australia, wacky and wonderful journey back to Korea to reconnect with her birth family. Her thoughts on Korean Pop culture and to somewhat alienating question: “Where are you from?”
ABOUT ELLIE FREEMAN
1. Hi Elle, tell us about yourself.
I’m a 25-year-old lady living in inner city Brisbane and I work in community radio. I’m also occasionally a soundie at gigs. In my spare time I enjoy riding my bike, yoga, eating amazing food, dancing at gigs and procrastinating on the internet.
2. I understand that you have an interesting fact about you. You are an Korean-Australian adoptee, do you mind us telling us: what’s your story?
I was born in South Korea and adopted to Caucasian Australian parents at four months old. I didn’t know much about my birth parents while I was growing up. I only had a file with their names, birth places and ages. There was also a little story about why I was given up for adoption. It said my father left my mother before I was born and my mother couldn’t afford to take care of me as a single mother. The file doesn’t say which town I was born in – only Gyeongsamnam-do, the province where Busan is located.
I think I grew up like a somewhat normal introverted, nerdy Australian kid, although punctuated with people constantly asking “where are you from?” and having to explain the adoption thing all the time. My parents and I had our ups and downs, but I think that’s normal for everyone even if they’re not adoptees. We’re close and they’re super supportive. I wasn’t very interested in Korea or my birth family up until recently – which I’ll answer in the question later!
3. Culturally I am intrigued, which group/race do you most identify with? And why?
The answer to this question has changed a lot over the years. This sounds weird, but it didn’t occur to me that I was Asian until I was in my teens. So up until then, I said I was Australian. I felt Australian. There was absolutely nothing about me that I thought was Asian – I sucked at using chopsticks, I didn’t speak any Asian languages. and my family was white! Some of my friends are Asian but they grew up in their culture wtih migrant or refugee families so our experiences are vastly different.
As a teenager, I started becoming more interested in Asian culture. I took up taekwondo, tried kimchi for the first time and taught myself Hangeul (the Korean alphabet). Plus, the world was changing around me. The “Asian invasion” hysteria had died down by the time I was a teenager, and suddenly Asian food and pop culture became hip among people my age. I wanted so badly to say I was Korean, but the truth was that I didn’t grow up in Korean culture and it just didn’t seem right.
Nowadays as I’ve come to terms with my adoption, I’m totally blunt and I say straight out that I’m a Korean-Australian adoptee. I am not fully Australian nor fully Korean. I define myself as being somewhere in between those two cultures. There’s no rule that you have to be one or the other.
4. You just recently came back from Korea, what was your experience like?
At the risk of sounding cliché: it changed my life.
I went to Korea with an adoptee support organisation based in Seoul called the Global Overseas Adoptees Link. They run a program for adoptees to visit Korea and search for family. I didn’t actually think I’d meet my family, so I went with the intention of having fun and learning more about the country where I was born.
G.O.A.L website: http://goal.or.kr/
I grinned like an idiot nonstop the moment I landed in Incheon Airport. To be in the country where I was born and where my family lives was an incredible feeling.
The adoptee group became fast friends. We had loads of fun shopping, eating delicious Korean food, drinking soju and singing silly songs at the noraebang (karaoke room). We saw temples, palaces, museums, performances and fish markets with real live fish that jumped out at you!
Along the way, the G.O.A.L staff told us many things about Korean culture, history and lifestyle. Many of them are adoptees who are living in Korea. It was fascinating to find out the similarities and differences between Korea and Australia.
But the major part of the trip was the family search.
We visited our adoption agencies in Korea to review our original files and talk to social workers about searching.
I found some files in Korean that I had never seen before and discovered some startling news. My father hadn’t left my mother – they were married. They also had four other daughters. I am an only child in my adoptive family and have always wanted sisters. I responded to this news by bursting into tears and laughing at the same time.
I also found out my family were living on Geoje Island when I was born, so it seemed likely that I was born there. So a few days later, I went with a translator to the island to do some detective work. We left my parents names and information with the local police. I still didn’t think anything would come of it.
When I got back to the group at Busan, I received even more startling news. The police had found my parents and they wanted to meet me the next day.
Over the next few days, I met my birth mother, father and four sisters. It was an intensely weird, emotional and joyous experience. I found out the real story behind why I was put up for adoption. I found out I was born on Geoje Island. I found out I look a bit like my mother. My sisters and I share a few physical and personality traits. Even though we have cultural and language barriers between us, it was incredible to be with people related to me and have the same nose as me. I don’t think people who are not adopted realise how mindblowing that actually is.
It was heartbreaking to leave them and go back to Australia, but we keep in contact over a Korean social media app. So I’ve started learning Korean and I’m saving up money to see them again!
5. Have you jumped on the Hallyu wave? What’s interesting?
I personally find a lot of K-Pop nauseating and the aesthetics are too weird for my liking. It’s too cutesy! But I love the “baddest female” CL from 2NE1 and G-Dragon’s new album – that collaboration with Missy Eliott is totally badass! As a bit of an audio nerd, I think K-pop production is impeccable – if those songs were in English then I’m convinced that heaps of K-pop stars would be world-famous zillionaires.
CL – The Baddest Female: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7LP4foN3Xs4
G-Dragon ft Missy Eliott – Niliria : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8VjE4RHZAaI
I prefer Korean hip hop though. It’s darker, rougher and not cutesy at all. I also like listening to rap in other languages than English. It always sounds way cooler.
Rimi – Rap Messiah – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vhtlC1Uhem0
Supreme Team – Supermagic http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GUwjI_5b-Nc (ooh it was hard to pick one – Supreme Team are awesome!)
I also recently discovered Korean electro, thanks to Eat your Kimchi’s Indie Playlist.
Roll Spike – White Rabbit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UG27qx08Y8g&feature=share&list=FLByTjtIUNIJSDL7pmkCKBBQ
Hause Rules – Whale Hunter: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7x7lWtEf1c&feature=share&list=FLByTjtIUNIJSDL7pmkCKBBQ
Korean movies are really interesting and entertaining. I watched a bunch of movies at the Korean Film Festival that recently went through Australia. I noticed they seem more random than Western movies – one minute you’re cracking up at a ridiculous characters and slapstick comedy, then filled with adrenaline during an intense action scene and then next minute you’re sobbing over some kind of romantic tragedy IN THE SAME MOVIE!
My Korean Film Fest review: http://roknrollradio.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/the-4th-annual-korean-film-festival/
I haven’t really gotten into Korean dramas but I ADORE a sketch comedy show called Gag Concert. KBS (Korean Broadcast Service) kindly uploads episodes to YouTube with English subtitles. There are some universal themes we can all laugh at like dodgy boyfriends, dates gone wrong, pissing off your parents, awkward moments and giant alien monsters using hairspray. But it’s put into a very Korean context.
The show parodies strict Korean etiquette, intense work culture, cutesy aegyo girls, plastic surgery, ajummas (old Korean ladies), military service, dating, ridiculously pretty Korean men and the Hallyu industry itself. My favourite skit is called The King of Ratings, which is a TV producer trying to spice up boring K-dramas with insane plot twists and a pretty K-pop star who can’t act.
On an aside – one of my favourite comedians on the show is Shin Bora. She’s super pretty, plus all the characters she plays are crude girls who have bad breath, tell their dates things like “Excuse me, I’m going to poop” and snort while laughing.
So I was stoked when I found out that she’s from Geoje Island, like me! Hooray!
Gag Concert with English subtitles on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLMf7VY8La5RF5qeBFxvYHiud7YfvwH7AB
the King of Ratings: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ctpolOPFuDM
6. What are your thoughts on the question “Where are you from?”
I think it depends on who’s asking and the context.
I get annoyed when it’s the first thing people ask me when I’m getting to know them. Firstly, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t ask me that if I didn’t look Asian. Secondly, there’s way more interesting things about me we can talk about! I do have a personality under this Asian-lookin’ face, you know. I like talking about music and the news and funny things I’ve seen on the internet. There’s more about me than where I’m from.
I also get annoyed when someone blurts it out in a non-social context. Let’s put it this way – when you go to the shops, how would you feel if the checkout chick suddenly asked “where do you live?” while scanning your tuna? It’s rude and inappropriate.
Then it leads to having to tell this COMPLETE AND UTTER STRANGER why you’re in Australia. For me, it’s very personal and I’m not comfortable with telling any old idiot that I encounter about my adoption. I can’t imagine what it must be like if you’re, say, a refugee and you find yourself reliving your trauma to someone whose name you don’t even know.
I think some people feel entitled to know and that seems wrong to me – sometimes I sense an underlying motive of “you’re not meant to be here and I want to know why you’re here”. Or that people need to know why I look Asian and have an Aussie accent because they actually find it confusing. Those people need to get out more.
I also hate when people immediately follow up with “North or South Korea?” What would they do if I said “north”? Call ASIO?
I have friends who I’ve known for years who have never once asked me where I was from. It’s a good judge of character, come to think of it. I love talking about Korea and sharing information about adoption, but only to people I’m comfortable with.
But I don’t mind when another migrant asks me where I’m from. I think it must feel scary and lonely to come from growing up in your homeland to a country where the majority of people don’t look or speak like you Perhaps it makes them feel better to talk to someone else who is in the same situation. They’re also not usually coming from the angle of insinuating that I don’t belong here.
And sometimes people are genuinely curious. I find those people actually treat me like a human being and ask me in a respectful way. Let me put it in another context – it’s the difference between some yobbo shouting “nice arse!!” at you and a gentleman discretely expressing that they think you look nice. It’s the same information, but communicated in a way that isn’t invasive or humiliating.
— And the interview doesn’t end there. See Part Two: More Ellie and her radio project “Where are you From”
Interviewed by Suzanne Nguyen