Shinhee Han spoons pungent heaps of sticky chicken wings covered with sesame seeds onto paper plates. The children attack gluey white clumps of rice, using their chopsticks like fingers. The parents talk about the snow, the traffic, the icy roads. It could be any other Friday-night potluck dinner at the First Korean United Methodist Church. Except the parents aren’t Korean.
Once a month Han, whose first name means “faith and hope,” hosts a support group for Korean children ages 8 to 13 who have been adopted by Caucasian parents. Han’s thick, dark hair, oversize Cats T-shirt that’s rolled up at the sleeves, and baggy khaki pants that fall over black suede slipperlike shoes make her look more like an older sister than the group leader.
“How many of you remember being at the airport?” Han asks gently, looking around the circle of quiet faces. The children sit still. Some are withdrawn, their eyes widening at each question.
“What do you tell your friends when they ask why you look different from your parents? Do they know what it means to be adopted?” Han asks. The older children nod. The eight-year-olds shake their heads.
“I tell them my biological parents are dead,” says Katie, who’s 12.
“Who likes tae kwon do?” Han asks, smiling at Chris, who’s nine.
He jumps up out of his chair, almost knocking it over. “I want to be Bruce Lee!”
When Han asks the children what they like best about the group, most answer “the food.”
Han, 25, started going to Korean orphanages with her mother, Hyunsook, when she was seven years old. “It wasn’t as if I had to make a decision to work in adoption,” she says. “I was always in it.”
In Korea Hyunsook was a social worker with the Christian Social Service Agency, then a vice president for the Holt International Adoption Agency, which was named after the pastor who started the program to find foreign parents to adopt Korean children. In 1971 she was awarded a fellowship to train in the United States at the Children’s Home Society. They asked her to stay, and in 1975 the Han family moved to Minnesota.
Han graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1986 with a degree in child psychology. She then got her clinical social-work degree at the University of Chicago, where she worked part-time as a counselor for undergraduate students and as a caseworker at an international adoption agency in Chicago. She is now a counselor at Northwestern University.
Han asks her questions of the children in a soft, almost singsong voice. “Who has relatives still in Korea?
“Dana, do you?” asks Han, smiling at an eight-year-old, who smiles back. Though the children often don’t answer, Han goes on, knowing that they are still thinking about her questions.
“Do you remember seeing a picture of your new family for the first time?” Han asks. Two of the girls start laughing and can’t stop. “It’s too close of a subject,” Han explains.
Han finds that the children go through a number of stages in adapting to their new homes. Some of those who were outgoing a year ago are now withdrawn. Some of the shy ones who wanted to assimilate now like being Korean. “When they first get to the group they can’t bond, they can’t trust. Often they fantasize their lives in Korea, their biological parents.” Han tries to limit her contact with the families to the group meetings, although many children go through periods when they call her every day.
Alex Weiss and Susan Rowley first thought about adopting a baby from Hong Kong. Then they met Han.
“I brainwashed them,” Han says, giggling. On her office wall hangs a picture of their daughter Hillary, who walked for the first time a couple of weeks ago.
Eileen and Tony Milano already had three children–two American born and one Korean born, who had been adopted as infants–when they went to Han looking for another Korean boy. Han found two brothers in a children’s home in Korea. The boys were then seven and ten years old, which made them difficult to place. Eileen says getting the two at once was like having twins.
Dan and Chris arrived on December 9, 1987. This will be their third Christmas in the United States. The first year the boys called Han so frequently she gave them her parents’ phone number in Minnesota so she could be reached over the holiday. One day Chris pointed at the phone, indicating he needed to speak to Han. When Eileen took the phone back, Han was giggling. “Chris called long- distance to tell Shinhee we had run out of oriental noodles,” Eileen says.
Almost 8,000 Korean children used to be adopted each year: 2,000 by Koreans, 2,000 by Europeans, and 4,000 by Americans. But the number being adopted overseas has dropped by more than half as Koreans have curtailed the exportation of Korean orphans. A Korean recently told Han, “We should be able to take care of our own kids. It is shameful.” Many Koreans agree, which frustrates Han.
Han’s only sibling, a brother named Shinup, is adopted. “Giving birth doesn’t mean a whole lot to me,” Han says. “You are not blood related to the person you marry, and you agree to live with them for the rest of your life. I would love to have an adopted child much more than a birth child.”