SARAH PARK DAHLEN, Ph.D.
Sarah Park Dahlen is an assistant professor in the Master of Library and Information Science Program at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. She teaches courses on youth materials and library services, storytelling, and library science. Her research addresses transracially adopted Koreans in children’s literature, the information behaviors of adopted Koreans, and diversity in children’s literature and library education. Sarah serves on the University of Minnesota’s Kerlan Friends Board (Children’s Literature Research Collection) and the Children & Libraries advisory committee. She co-edited Diversity in Youth Literature: Opening Doors Through Reading with Jamie Naidoo and the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly’s Special Issue on Orphanhood and Adoption in Children’s Literature with Lies Wesseling. Her next book project is on Asian American youth literature with Paul Lai. sarahpark.com @readingspark
The purpose of my research is to critically analyze stories portraying Korean diasporic experiences so that parents, educators, librarians, and readers can understand the content and contexts of our stories. I hope my research will encourage authors, illustrators, and publishers to produce socially and culturally conscious children’s stories.
One of the first questions people ask me after learning about my research (representations of transracial Korean adoption in children’s literature) is, “Are you adopted?” Some don’t even ask if I’m adopted; they ask, “So how old were you when you were adopted?” or “Have you searched for your birth family?”
No, I’m not an adopted Korean. Some of my adopted Korean friends (facetiously) joke that I was “reverse-abandoned.” I was born in Korea but came immediately to Los Angeles, California, where my family had already settled a few years earlier. Within a few months, my mother sent me to live with her parents in Korea. She was busy; they were lonely. In terms of separation, my mother “sent” me away; in terms of geography, she “sent” me from the US to Korea, from the West to the East.
Since the Korean War (1950-1953), more than 200,000 Korean children have been sent away from Korea to the West. More than 110,000 were adopted into the United States. What began as a war relief effort for orphaned or abandoned biracial children turned into a convenient “solution” to unplanned pregnancies, most notably evident by the fact that since the 1960s the majority of these children are not biracial. Each year the numbers increased until 1985, when Korea sent an alarming 8,837 children to western countries. Thousands return to Korea for various reasons: visit, eat, play, work, live, study, research and search. Approximately 200 (and possibly up to 500) have chosen to permanently live in Korea.
Some adopted Koreans are very adamantly and publicly against continuing the practice of transnational adoption. After all, how is a country that is now a member of the OECD with the 11th biggest economy in the world not able to care for its own children? Unfortunately, despite Korea’s rapid modernization and incredible economic rise in the past fifty years, great gender disparity and cultural attitudes continue to oppress women and leave single mothers with few options. It is easy for fathers to shirk responsibility, and the government has not done enough to keep them accountable.
People often ask me, “Isn’t it better for children to be adopted into families in the United States than to remain in an impoverished orphanage in Korea?” While I believe every child deserves to grow up in a loving family, the question is not whether children should remain in orphanages or be transnationally adopted; rather, how can we prevent children from being abandoned, from entering into orphanages at all? More than 95% of the children being adopted to other countries have been given up by (and sometimes forcibly taken from) a single mother; that is, their status as “orphan” is not the result of deceased parentage. Thus, if children are abandoned and adopted because the society and government give mothers no support or options, rather than because their parents have passed away, something is terribly wrong. We as a global society need to do more to help families stay together and prevent children from abandonment.
The links on this website are meant to assist those who want to learn more about the politics of adoption, Korea and children’s literature. If you’re interested in learning more about the experiences of adopted Koreans, I highly recommend you read the writings and websites created by adopted Koreans, especially Harlow’s Monkey and the Language of Blood.
About the Header: The image header at the top of my website is of Cheong Gye Cheon, one of my favorite places in the world. Cheong Gye Cheon was originally a natural stream that passed through downtown Seoul; after the Korean War it was paved over and an elevated road was added to accommodate expanding transportation needs. Imagine the pollution and social deterioration that resulted from taking away this beautiful natural resource, a place where women used to gather to do laundry and share stories. In 2005, then-Seoul mayor and current President Lee Myong-Bak completed a restoration project that recreated Cheong Gye Cheon as a beautiful stream that once again flows through Seoul.
In many ways, to me this new Cheong Gye Cheon represents the potential for change in Korea’s adoption practices. Although the history of Korean adoption has been fraught with post-war violence, corruption, and the privileging of economic over human interests, there is potential for improvement. Just as rebuilding Cheong Gye Cheon was part of Korea’s desire to align its practices with its mission to be a more human-centered place, I hope Korea will change its adoption practices so they will be more human-centered. Posting an image of Cheong Gye Cheon on my website reminds me and my readers, daily, of our collective responsibility in making this a reality.
I would love to hear how you use my website in your work with children and/or your own research. Please email me: spark @ skate . edu.