Will Dantzler, 45, has two memories of Seoul. Here is one:
At about 4 years old, he's running wild with a band of fellow street kids in the impoverished aftermath of the Korean War. They are always hungry, surviving on food stolen from shops.
"One would distract, and the rest of us would try to scoop whatever we could off the lowest-lying shelves," Dantzler says. "And I remember getting caught and being hastened out the door with a broom."
In 1960, a 5-year-old Dantzler--the child of a Korean mother and a black serviceman--wound up outside Dayton, Ohio, adopted by a black American family. There were white kids and black kids in his new neighborhood, but there weren't any kids like him.
He had to learn the language. He had to stop "running and scrapping." He had to stop eating all the time, now that food was an easily obtained commodity. (Once, his parents cooked him a two-quart pot of black-eyed peas, to see when he would stop eating. He didn't.)
Dantzler lived his childhood as an anomaly.
Yet there were thousands like him across the United States.
Starting in the late 1950s, slews of children who had lost or been abandoned by their parents because of the Korean War were adopted out of South Korea--out of culture, language, commonality--into families in Europe and the United States. They went to places like Bethesda, Tucson and Brownsville, Ore. This was a cost of war, measured not in death or disease but in transplanted children.
The Korean War opened the floodgates to a mass migration. The exodus continued for a variety of social and economic reasons, peaking in the mid-'80s and amounting to one of the largest waves of international adoptions this century. More than 141,000 Korean children have been adopted internationally between 1955 and the present day, and 98,000 of them came to the United States.
About 400 of them are gathering this weekend in Washington, all grown up now. Culturally, they are white, black, Jewish, Protestant and, to greater and lesser extents, Korean. Brought together by several large adoption and cultural agencies, they have come to talk of a time when their arrivals made them the first Asians in small rural towns, when adoptions like theirs seemed like isolated experiments. The convention, the first to bring together such a large group of Korean adoptees, aims to get them talking and learning about their histories as individuals and as a generation.
"Adoption has been with us since the beginning of time," says Maureen Evans, the executive director of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, an umbrella group of international adoption agencies. But "Korea really brought us the first transracial inter-country adoptions. Those were really the most public ones."
Public in the sense that for the first time, adoptions were made despite obvious physical differences. In this century, European kids were adopted in small numbers after World War II, but physically they didn't stand out, adoption specialists say. Adopting a Korean child meant looking past what was, in many parts of the United States in the wake of World War II, a climate of anti-Asian sentiment.
Susan Soon-Keum Cox, 47, vice president of one of the agencies sponsoring the weekend, was adopted by a family in Brownsville.
"My arrival into my little town was the front page story in the paper because it was so unusual. And people were saying all these things to my parents, like how lucky I was and 'Aw, this 'poor little orphan,' " Cox says.
Dantzler faced hallways of hostile and curious children, who riddled him with incessant questions and called him "Tokyo Joe." Used to clawing for food, Dantzler fought with his classmates and felt the sting of innumerable spankings at home.
"I was such a novelty," he says.
And through it all, he tried his darndest to be a chameleon, to pick up the colors of his new American suburb. Other Korean adoptees, often isolated in small towns and rural locations, did precisely the same. In these early inter-country adoptions, adoption experts say, the common wisdom was to Americanize the children as soon as possible.
"There just wasn't any attention given to the fact that we started somewhere else," says Cox, of Holt International Children's Services, which pioneered the international adoption of South Koreans. "In the 1950s and '60s, parents were really anxious to Americanize these children as quickly as possible because at the time the concern was that kids would not fit into the American culture."
For Dantzler, the element of physical appearances was all the more jarring because he did not even look like the typical Korean. Many of the first to leave South Korea were, like him, the children of Korean mothers and foreign servicemen, born in a racially homogenous country where adoption outside the extended family was unusual. Kids like him wore their foreignness on their faces.
Today people tell him he looks Hawaiian, or like an older version of Tiger Woods, or like Bruce Lee. Dantzler, who runs a software company, is married to a white woman. Asked how he identifies himself, he says he is black. And then he adds that occasionally he has ferocious cravings for kimchi, a Korean dish of spicy pickled cabbage.
There are hundreds of stories like this, tales of multilayered identity. Rebecca Waxler, a 27-year-old Korean adoptee who had an identity crisis as a teenager, tells of being asked by her therapist to draw a self-portrait. The picture she drew at 15, Waxler remembers now, was not of an Asian girl.
The transfer of kids continued, in large part, experts say, because economic development disrupted traditional families. Single motherhood in South Korea became more prevalent, but not enough to make that status very acceptable, says Rosemary C. Sarri, a professor at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, who has studied inter-country adoption of Korean kids in the United States. More than 8,000 children were leaving South Korea for the States each year at the peak of this phenomenon in the mid-'80s.
"The stories are very sad because a mother had no way to support herself because her family rejected her when she had a baby out of wedlock," Sarri says. "So she could just take a baby to an agency and leave it. And that was it."
After the first few years, smooth processing procedures made Korean children relatively easy to adopt by would-be parents in the United States. Having a child of a different race became increasingly acceptable here. And some experts suggest that many Americans are more interested in foreign infants than in American adoptable children, who are often older or have mental or physical disabilities.
In recent years the number of children adopted from South Korea has dropped as that country's government has provided economic incentives to would-be adoptive parents within the country.
In "early times, many cases of adoption were done by secrecy," says Hong Kwon Shin, the director general for South Korea's Health and Welfare Bureau for Families. "But now that kind of situation has changed very speedily. There are many [domestic] adoption cases. It's increasing."
Nowadays, experts say, international adoption is different. Russian and Chinese children top the list of kids being adopted into different countries, and there are camps and Internet sites and cultural clubs for them. Adoptive parents are encouraged to let these children keep their native first names. But for the older Korean adoptees, those now in their late thirties and forties who were taken in during the height of the Cold War, exploration of their roots has come late.
Adopted in 1965 by a family in Lockport, N.Y., Hwa-Sook Lim became Lisa Mary Wardour, who became Lisa DuFore when she married. In Lockport, her adoptive sister--also from her homeland--was one of the few Asians she knew, and DuFore had little curiousity about being Korean. She tried to keep her physiology separate from her identity.
In adulthood the artist discovered that she wasn't even sure what her physiology was.
"All my life I was kind of trying to downplay my Korean heritage and thinking I looked so Korean, and then I spoke with native Koreans and they said that I didn't look so Korean," she says. "They guessed I was probably of mixed racial background."
DuFore, 38, had no trouble grasping the irony. She was neither here nor there. But that didn't stop a process that began in her early thirties, when her son's teacher asked her to come in and speak about her heritage and she realized she knew nothing to tell the class. She began digging for knowledge.
DuFore went to South Korea. Then she went again. She began adding Korean motifs and writing to her silk-screen prints, which in the past had consisted simply of nature scenes. Her art became more personal. The process of discovery fed itself, she says.
"I felt like a child actually, just my eyes being opened for the first time," she explains. "It's given me this real desire to just keep digging further and just keep making that connection, and there's this sense of wholeness that kind of happens. . . . Am I making any sense?"
Yes, it does seem to make sense. What, after all, is identity? In DuFore's childhood, being an American must have seemed as tissue-thin, as flimsy as chance--the odds that she wound up in Lockport rather than in France or Denmark, where large numbers of Koreans were also adopted.
Sometimes she e-mails other Korean adoptees, and sometimes she signs the e-mails not "Lisa DuFore" but "Hwa-Sook Lim." And at those times she wonders, "Who am I? Where did that girl go?"
Will Dantzler is not a man who likes to look back. He says it over and over. He says he never lost the aggressiveness that five years of survivalist living taught him. He was enrolled at the U.S. Air Force Academy as a young adult; started his software business, which he says looks to the future. He likes to think he's a man in motion.
"I'm the type of person that has always looked forward," he says.
But on the plane to South Korea in 1990, he felt "a welling inside." The city looked so different to Dantzler, a culturally black man with a white wife and cravings for kimchi. He had only two memories of Seoul, which had been a place of "chaos and confusion." But now, the city looked like Los Angeles, as if the setting for those memories had been erased.
Except . . .
There was the Han River, which runs through the city. It was the only thing that looked familiar to him. And that rekindled his second memory of his childhood in Seoul.
He recalled getting a ride from an old man on a bicycle once, across a bridge that ran over the Han.
On the bridge, Dantzler got his foot caught in the spokes of the bike. Caught in motion. Forced, for a moment, still.