Why did you write Not My White Savior?
Somedays I’m not sure. I’m a very private person so being public about anything has been, well, interesting. Sometimes I want to close my eyes and pretend I don’t see anything public about myself. When I started to read my poetry at open-mics, other adopted Koreans wanted a copy or wanted to talk with me about my poems and I wasn’t ready for that. I just wanted to read because it was therapeutic. Now I’m ready to share and talk and if it’s helpful to someone, then it’s worth it.
What is something you wish people knew about adopted Koreans?
We’re an incredibly diverse community. Some of us are intentional about reconnecting with our heritage and spending time in Korea while others have no plans to go back to Korea. Some of us don’t want to search for our Korean families and for those who do search, the chance of reunion is rather low. A recent statistic estimates only 20% of overseas adopted Koreans ever reunite with their original families. DNA testing should be required because there have been too many mismatch reunions. One mismatch is too many. As someone who was mismatched pointed out, if gone undiscovered, a mismatch reunion could be holding up someone else’s reunion. That said, it would be most appropriate if the Korean government would pay for all DNA testing and birth family search efforts.
Would you rather not have been adopted?
What does that mean? I’m not sure what value there is in hypothesizing my life.
In January 2018, there was a hearing with the Korean National Assembly regarding revisions to the Special Adoption Law (SAL). Can you share the statement you provided?
“2018 marks the 30th anniversary of the 1988 Seoul Olympics. It also marks the 30th anniversary of Matthew Rothschild’s article in the Progressive, Babies for Sale. South Koreans Make Them. Americans Buy Them. In three decades, what have we learned since Korea was exposed to the world as a baby exporting nation? With upwards of 20,000 overseas adopted Koreans living without U.S. citizenship and in deportation limbo, this is not the ‘better’ life we were promised. It is beyond time that Korea prioritize family preservation and recognize the rights of all families including unwed mothers. On the eve of the 2018 Olympics, Korea should live up to the ideals of the Olympics, revise the Special Adoption Law and align with the UNCRC and the Hague Convention on the Rights of the Child.”
Your poem Return to Sender is a persona poem about adopted people who were never naturalized as U.S. citizens. What influenced you to write this poem?
There are an estimated 35,000 inter-country adoptees who are living without U.S. citizenship, some of whom have been deported. I wrote Return to Sender partly as my way of processing what it must be like to find out accidentally that you are not a U.S. citizen and then to live in deportation limbo and also as a way to bring attention to this human rights catastrophe.
KADalicious is an interesting poem. What inspired you to write it?
I know it’s very popular with many an adopted Korean. However, I’ve never liked the term KAD. When I learned it meant Korean adoptee I was confused. Wouldn’t that be KA? I was told that was already taken by Korean Americans. Well, I’m Korean and I’m an American so doesn’t that make me a Korean American? Just because I don’t have a generation to affix to my identity (1st generation, 2nd generation, etc.) shouldn’t prohibit me from identifying as Korean American. I love Bao Phi’s poem FOBulous where he takes the derogatory term FOB (fresh off the boat) and gives it new meaning. I wanted to do the same with KAD.
Are you a feminist?
What does that mean? I didn’t go to the Women’s March this year or last. Does that mean I’m not a feminist? The Women’s March is a journey, not an event. I had other things planned that I believe embody the intent of the Women’s March. Does that mean I don’t meet the requirements to be a feminist? I think feminism needs to be discussed from the lens of all women and women of color and non-binary folks in particular. Do feminists advocate for the rights of unwed mothers? If they do, then they will not support inter-country adoption (ICA) from Korea because the majority of children being sent out from Korea are coming from unwed mothers not orphanages.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing or at an open-mic?
I love seeing a good movie, hiking, stand up paddle boarding (SUP) and traveling. I’m also a fan of Korean dramas and movies and Kpop so I’ve consumed many Kdramas, films and Kpop Youtube videos. I love Big Bang, CNBlue, Bobby Kim and of Yoonmirae. I’ve seen them all live!
What is your favorite Korean drama or movie?
There’s so many it’s hard to choose one. I loved 1st Shop of Coffee Prince. Who doesn’t love Gong Yu? And anything with Gang Dong Won. I loved him in the movie 1987: When the Day Comes, a great film for better understanding oppression and the struggle for democracy in South Korea. I could live the rest of my life at a film festival so living in LA is true paradise!
South Korea is hosting the Olympics. What did you think about the teams from North and South Korea walking together in the opening ceremony?
To see the joint Korean team walk in under the flag of a unified Korea was emotional and I know it was for several of my friends as well. Seeing the South Korean president Moon Jae-in sitting right in front of Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un gives me hope that in my lifetime I could witness an end to the Korean War and a signing of a peace treaty. Peace and unification should be our diplomatic and humanitarian goals. Who benefits from the continued division on the Korean peninsula? #OneKorea
One more thing on the Olympics: it’s pure laziness and ignorance that NBC reporters can’t pronounce Pyeongchang correctly. It hurts my ears and is offensive and embarrassing since they’re actually intentionally mispronouncing it.
Why did you move to LA?
When I moved back to Minnesota from Korea I knew it was temporary. I thought I’d be moving back to Korea or another mega-city overseas or in the U.S. I was in the bay area for a conference and figured I’d spend a few days in LA and that was all it took. I had been to LA several times but this time I stayed in Koreatown and hung out with a friend I played soccer with in Korea. She pointed out that being Korean American, LA was about the best of both worlds and I think she was right. Since my Korean language skills are about toddler level (I didn’t know what the Korean alphabet looked like until I was in graduate school, so much for assimilation!), it’s great to be able to speak Korean if I want but not feel it’s required. People assume I moved here because of work or a relationship. I moved here for myself, not a job or relationship. It was the right decision and LA felt like home the first week I moved here.
Your book is about inter-country adoption and you seem very passionate about it. What else are you passionate about?
I’m passionate about the environment. I saw the documentary Plastic Paradise and met director Angela Sun. I was pretty shocked at the impact single-use plastics and other items have on the environment so I’ve made an effort to reduce my trash. It’s little things like saying no to plastic straws and bringing my own take-out containers when I go out to eat (my friends have begun doing the same!). Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Refuse!
If you could have one super power, what would it be and why?
Teleporting. Check out my poem Teleporting Babies. Also, if I could teleport, I’d save so much time. I wonder if it would eliminate jetlag . . .
Who are some of your greatest influences in writing?
There are so many. 1st generation Asian American writers like Lawson Inada and David Mura paved the way for my generation so if you’re not familiar with their work, I encourage you to study them. From my generation but definitely writers who came before me because some of them started writing in high school or before would have to be poets like Bao Phi, Ishle Park, Beau Sia, I Was Born With Two Tongues, Yellow Rage and many more. I was still pretending to be a white girl but they awakened something in me so I could see myself as Asian American. The importance of representation is real. Check out Asian American History 101. I never took an Asian American studies course in school so these writers really were some of my first teachers and from there I discovered other writers and scholars and taught myself my history I didn’t know.
In Community Literature Initiative (CLI), the writing and publishing program where I worked on my manuscript, I studied a lot of black writers. I knew of Langston Hughes but not much more than his birthday was February 1 so to actually learn about his writing career was inspiring. I have the utmost respect for writers like Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, Wanda Coleman, Nikki Giovanni and the list goes on. And yes, I wrote a poem called Is It the White Librarian’s Fault? which may be in my next book!
What are you most looking forward to with your book? Connecting with other adopted people. We’re the only ones who can truly understand each other’s experiences of displacement and forced migration. It’s really interesting and refreshing to see how many individuals and groups are acknowledging the loss and psychological impact of adoption. We need to heal and now is the time!
JULAYNE LEE was given up for adoption in South Korea as a result of the Korean War. She was adopted by an all-white Christian family in Mennesota, where she grew up. She has spent over fifteen years working with Overseas Adopted Koreans (OAKs). She lived in Seoul and now resides in Los Angeles, where she is a member of the LA Futbolistas and Adoptee Solidarity Korea-Los Angeles (ASK-LA). She is also part of the Adoptee Rights Campaign working to pass the Adoptee Citizenship Act to ensure all inter-country adoptees have US citizenship. Not My White Savior is her first book.