Ask the Filmmaker

Sandra asks: Can you offer any advice to international adoptees who are in reunion with their first moms/family? How do we build a relationship when there is so much distance between us, and a different lanuage/culture? Any tips? My first family has been welcoming, but I find myself struggling with the sadness of not being able to get to know them better because I don't live closer or speak the language -- and there are years to bridge, too.

Hi, Sandra -- First, your sadness is completely understandable and normal. I felt the same way for many years and know well that these feelings aren't easily reconciled. For those of us who've had the good fortune of meeting our birth families, there are feelings of great joy and excitement. But there are also feelings of tremendous grief. I hope you're able to reach out to your family and friends to provide you with emotional support. Depending on where you live, there are also adoptee support groups that can connect you to a community of fellow adoptees who have or are going through similar experiences and who can share resources with you.

It's one of my greatest regrets that I was never able to speak to my own birth mother in a language she understood. I tried to learn Korean for many years and just found it impossible. If you have the time and resources to learn your family's language, I would encourage to you give it a try. Even a few words here and there can help. And if you're able to visit and spend time with your family, perhaps that would help as well. I know this is easier said than done, but the more you're able to communicate and the more exposure you have of their culture, the easier it might become.

Likewise, perhaps encourage your family to learn English! One of the best things to happen in our family is that my niece (my biological brother's daughter) came to California to live with me for a few years. She's now fluent in English and has become the family interpreter and cultural bridge.

I was reunited with my family in the early 1980s. That's over 25 years ago! And over all those years, it often felt like whenever I saw them, I was reuniting with them all over again -- a kind of perpetual reunion. But at some point over the last couple of years, I came to be able to just sit with my birth mother (and the rest of my family) in the same room, without being able to communicate in words, and without berating myself for not being able to speak Korean. My mother and I would spend a lot of time holding hands, marveling at how our hands and feet and facial features were similar. And she'd jabber on in Korean and I'd talk to her in English, and then we would laugh at each other because neither knew what the other had just said. And then we watched TV. Holding hands. I came to accept that this was the nature of our relationship. It wasn't perfect but I like to think it signified a kind of acceptance on both our parts.

If I could go backward in time to when I first reunited with my family over 25 years ago and give myself advice, this is what I would say: take your time, there's no rush; be persistent; be gentle with yourself.

Mary Kim asks: I was adopted from Korea and came to the US in 1964. When I came to the US I was known as Lee Jum Soon. My date of birth was unknown and the place where I was born was also unknown. I don't even know the year I was born. How can I begin to find my family without a history?

Hi, Mary - Thank you for your note. It's incredibly difficult to search for birth family if there aren't a lot of clues about your history. And it seems that record-keeping in Korea wasn't very good in the early years. But since you were adopted in 1964, I'm guessing that you might have been adopted through International Social Services? Have you gone to ISS for your file? If not, this might be a first step. There's no guarantee that they will have anything, especially since your date and place of birth are unknown. But it's worth a try. This is the process of requesting a file from ISS as described to me by Julie Rosicky, Executive Director at ISS-USA:

  1. The request is made in writing to Susan Oslund, Director of International Services, at soslund[at] They will then send you a tracing package that must be signed and notarized. Send the completed tracing package back to Susan Oslund.
  2. Upon receipt of the tracing package, Susan or one of her caseworkers will contact their archive to see if they have your file.
  3. If the file can be found ISS requests a $100 fee to cover the costs of shipping and photocopying the contents of the file. All original photos are sent to the person requesting them. Files typically include some or all of the following: the referral from the adoption agency in Korea to ISS; a request to adopt from an adoption agency representing the adoptive family in the US; correspondence between ISS, Korea, and the adoption providers in the State; photos of the adoptive family, the child; the original home study on the adoptive family; the original child study; other information about the child sent from the orphanage/foster home/child placement agency in Korea; basic medical information; post placement reports; adoption decrees; immigration paperwork; and travel plans.
  4. If a tracing is requested, ISS will initiate that process as well. If family members are found, ISS carefully facilitates communication, seeking consent on all sides before putting everyone in touch. They also provide support throughout the process, which can be quite emotional for all involved. There is a tracing fee of $1500 that is waived for those adopted through ISS. ISS is not always successful in finding people, but they put quite a lot of work into the effort, in collaboration with their colleagues in Korea or wherever else they may be searching.
  5. Finally, ISS sends original photos and copies of the case files (with the social worker's name redacted) to the person requesting the information.
    You might also look for your records in the ISS archive held at Social Welfare Society in Seoul. The Post Adoption Services coordinator is Shin-Hye Kang and she can be reached at: swspas[at]

There are other resources available to you if you're interested in pursuing a search in Korea. You can contact Global Overseas Adoptees Link (GOAL) which is an adoptee-led organization in Seoul that helps adoptee conduct birth family searches; and InKAS which has a similar service. The policeman who helped me find Cha Jung Hee is also available to help adoptees. His name is Sgt. Lee Keunsoo and he can be reached via email at: or via phone in Seoul, Korea: 019-391-6657.

I found that finding my file at ISS in Korea brought me a sense of closure I hadn't expected. There was something about reading the original home study and finding the negative to my passport picture -- a sense that I had come to the end of the road. I think this had to do with a sense of finality, that I had searched everywhere and done everything to locate the traces of myself in Korea.

Of course there's no guarantee that you will find your file or information about your history. But I've come to see that the journey itself is important and may bring unexpected opportunities and insights that might help you down the road.

Sadie asks: Hi Deann, I really enjoyed your film! Taking into account all of the cultural, political, and economic realities of both the U.S. and South Korea, do you think that the U.S. government (as well as the South Korean government) should continue to encourage (or allow) adoptions from South Korea?

Hi, Sadie -- Adoptions from Korea began as a means of helping Korean War orphans but continue today in spite of South Korea becoming an affluent industrial nation. I think South Korea has the wherewithal to develop its social infrastructure to support poor families, single parent families, unwed mothers and others in need so that international adoptions can be eventually eliminated.

In recent years, there has been an increase in single unmarried women who are choosing keep their babies rather than place them for adoption. Mrs. Han Sang Sook, director of Aeranwon, told me that there is an increasing trend of unwed mothers who want to keep their babies and raise them themselves. Aeranwon provides housing and job training for women who choose to pursue this path.

There is also an effort in Korea to increase domestic adoptions to keep children in the country. Media campaigns and financial incentives from the Korean government are encouraging Korean couples to adopt. 2007 marked the first time that domestic adoptions outnumbered international ones -- 1,388 to 1,264.

In general, I think people in South Korea consider it desirable to end international adoptions. Kim Dong-Won, who oversees adoptions at the Ministry of Health told The New York Times in 2008: "South Korea is the world's 12th largest economy and is now almost an advanced country, so we would like to rid ourselves of the international stigma or disgrace of being a baby- exporting country."

Michelle asks: What can international adoptees do to promote domestic adoption in Korea and reduce the stigma of adoption in Korean society?

Hi, Michelle -- There are several groups in Korea you can get involved in:

  • Global Overseas Adoptee Link, which provides forums, educational campaigns and an annual conference about international adoptions.
  • Adoptee Solidarity Korea advocates for alternatives to international adoptions and has programs that feature adoptees, birth mothers, and policy makers.
  • KoRoot offers inexpensive accommodations for adoptees visiting Korea, and also presents programs related to adoption.

Also, whenever you have an opportunity to speak in Korea, educate others about your experiences!

Young Sul asks: What is your next project going to be?

Hi, Young -- I'm finishing up a film called Memory of a Forgotten War, a short film about the legacies of the Korean War from the point of view of Korean American civilian survivors.

I'm also working on another film about adoptions from Korea called Precious Objects of Desire which tells the story of Korean adoptees from the US, Sweden, France and other European countries. The film includes the story of Korean orphans who were adopted as "mascots" by the American military during the Korean War, bi-racial children who were among the first to be adopted by Western families in the 1950's, as well as the story of Korean children sent overseas decades after the Korean War, in spite of South Korea becoming an affluent nation.

You can read more about these new projects, and even make a donation at

Randi asks: Do you have any advice for young potential documentary filmmakers?

I think the best way to learn about filmmaking is to make films. If you're tight on budget, make short films. Short films are a great way to learn about shooting, editing, and the development of a narrative arc. Also watch and study your favorite films. Think about how the film is shot, how it's structured, why it moves you. When I was making First Person Plural, I watched every personal film I could find. I not only learned a lot by watching some of my favorites over and over again, but I was incredibly inspired.

Good luck and have fun!