The Problem With the New York Times Magazine Piece on Korean Adoptees

The first time I read Maggie Jones’ long New York Times Magazine feature on Korean adoptees, it was the end of a long day. I was tired, and found myself skimming through parts where I felt like I already knew the story well enough. (I wrote about adoptees, adoptee activism and changes in South Korea’s Special Adoption Law — in other words, much of what the Times story covers — for NPR last year, and am an adoptee myself.)

Overall, I found Jones’ piece to be exceedingly well-written, sensitive and nuanced. I thought it did a great job explaining some complicated history and — most importantly — foregrounding the voices of adoptees who’ve returned to Korea, some of whom I’ve also spoken with. Moreover, I felt it got so much right about adoptee attitudes, about the complexities of identity, about the sense of being from two places and belonging in neither, of anger and sadness.

The next day, I got a notification on Twitter: mid-conversation, someone had tagged me, so I waded into the thread to see what was going on. The basic complaint at the top was more or less this: With so many adoptees quoted in that story, couldn’t an adoptee have written it?

My first reaction, as a writer and an editor who has worked some in The Media, was to think that, well, a story gets written by the person who pitches it. If they’ve got the chops, they’ve got the job. That is generally How It Works. The author in this case has written about adoption, including some about Korean adoptees in particular, before. She can obviously write at a high level. She obviously knows how to source a story. She obviously approached her subject matter with empathy. She obviously listened.

So I went back and read the piece again. Slowly this time. And then it really started to bother me. Not that a non-adoptee had written it, because a good journalist should be able, and permitted, to tell stories that are not her own. But because Jones had inserted herself into the story in such a way that, on a second reading, and subsequent readings since, feels unforgivable.

Let me explain.

The title of the article — and I realize this was probably written by an editor, not Jones — is “Why a Generation of Adoptees Is Returning to Korea.” Headlines have to sell, and sometimes oversell, to rise above the din. But this is clearly labeled as a story about Korean adoptees returning to Korea, and their reasons for doing so. By and large, the story addresses those aspects, and many others, admirably.

But it also does something else.

The first time Jones goes first-person, she writes, “I was among that wave of adoptive parents,” and in so doing places herself within the statistics she cites. She talks about her husband and her daughters, the older of whom (“part Japanese and part African”) was adopted domestically, the younger from Guatemala. This tangent provides context and detail about international adoption more generally — territory that also concerns adoptee activists in Korea. It also serves as a kind of personal disclosure that it might seem odd (perhaps even unethical) to leave out. Fair enough. And before long, we’re back on topic. Again, the writing is attentive and detailed.

But endings are important. In a slow-burn piece like this, it’s what you’re building toward the whole time. Here’s how Jones closes the piece:

… Both of my daughters’ birth families and their roots tug on their hearts. If they eventually decide to live in the countries of their birth mothers for a year or five years or more, I hope to support — even encourage — them. If living there fills some void, creates some peace, fosters a sense of belonging, how could I not want that for them?

In the years ahead, I also expect my kids will have tough questions for me. Perhaps they will ask why my husband and I thought we were equipped to raise a child of a different race. My youngest may ask why we chose international adoption. Did we understand its failures? Did we do anything to fix them?

I hope to answer without defensiveness — and with candor and empathy. I hope, too, that I remember two things may be true simultaneously: Our daughters’ love for us and their need to question why and how we became a family.

Again, this is ostensibly a story about Korean adoptees. And yet it concludes with this show of worry-doll-making, with the author talking about her own daughters, who are not Korean, and who have not returned to Korea, from where they are not.

It’s especially odd given that Jones has already written about her own story before. Here’s how she ends a 2007 Times piece about birth-mother searches:

As adoptive parents, my husband and I do believe that love matters most. But we know that blood matters, too. And if one day Lucia searches for her blood connection, we will encourage her. But before she heads out the door, I’ll probably have words of advice: Think hard about whom and what you may — or may not — find.

So why shoehorn her family narrative again here, in a story where the stated focus is so specific to a time and a place that has nothing to do with her own experience? It’s weird. Not to mention that the line from adoptee Amanda Eunha Lovell’s email would have made a perfect ending: “I am, maybe, in a way, proud of my in-betweenness.”

But my biggest question isn’t so much why a Korean adoptee was not chosen to write this story — though I think that’s a fair question to ask — but why it was allowed to finish on this note.

Why, in the end, it centers a white adoptive parent’s concerns.

This post was first published on Tumblr on Jan. 6, 2015.

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