As a child, a trip to the grocery store for Paul Garrison could be an awkward experience. Alarmed to see a child wandering around without his parents in sight, employees would ask him where his mother or father were. What they didn’t realize was that the Caucasian couple behind him was, in fact, his parents.
To avoid awkward misunderstandings, Paul made the effort to hug and verbally address his adoptive parents as “Mom” and “Dad.” He recalls, “I didn’t want to go through the embarrassment of them asking me, ‘Can I help you?’”
Perry and Lauren Garrison adopted Paul through Holt International Children’s Services when he was just 4 months-old, happily welcoming him into their family. Holt International’s work was inspired by Harry Holt, a man from Eugene, Oregon, who went to Korea in the mid 1950s and adopted eight war orphans, a tragic and continuing legacy from the Korean War.
“It was a good thing to do,” the couple’s biological son, Ben Garrison, 29, explains. “They knew there were a lot of kids in Korea that needed to be adopted.”
International adoption of South Korean children started after the Korean War, in 1953. A part of the war’s aftermath were the large number of children left orphaned, as well as a significant number of mixed race ‘G.I babies’ (the offspring of U.S. and other western soldiers and Korean women). The need for international adoption of South Korean children also derived from a social stigma within Korean culture of adopting outside of one’s bloodline. According to a 1997 Korea Times article, 95 percent of families who do adopt choose babies less than a month old so that they can pass them off as their natural-born offspring, overlooking older adoptable children. According to the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare, from 1953 – 2001, over 99,000 adoptions have occurred from South Korea to the U.S., the most of any of other country.
In Paul’s adoptive family, a sense of acceptance was important. Growing up, Paul and his adoptive parents shared a very strong bond that revolved around sports and extracurricular activities. Never hiding or concealing the truth, his parents shared a very open relationship with him, where the adoption topic was always open for discussion.
Unfamiliar with Korean heritage, the Garrisons put forth the effort to introduce the culture not only to Paul, but to the entire family as well. They slowly integrated Korean culture into their family. Aside from eating at Korean restaurants, Mrs. Garrison utilized her culinary skills to cook Korean food at home and the Garrisons strived to teach the family about Paul’s ethic background.
At a very young age, Paul was introduced to Korean adoptee camps held in the mid-west and actively attends them on a regular basis. The Garrisons felt it was very important for him to connect and interact with other adoptees from similar backgrounds.
“I try to stay involved as much as I can, particularly with the youth programs that are for the kids that are younger than me so I can mentor them,” said Paul. “It means a lot to me to try and make sure those kids grow up okay.”
As Garrison grew out of his adolescent stage and into adulthood, he began to slowly embrace his Korean heritage.
“Now that I’m older, I’m interested because it’s definitely a part of me,” said Paul. His adoptive brother, Ben, has been supportive in Paul’s life and continues to be so. Ben’s best friend who he has known for more than 28 years, is also a Korean adoptee.
“It’s always been something that’s been around,” Ben explains. “When my parents decided to adopt, it [became] more a part of my life.”
“I think that’s why he’s more understanding of my situation,” said Paul.
Without the open relationship and the mutual respect that Paul and his parents share, he feels his childhood could have taken a turn for the worse.
“I feel guilty sometimes because a high percentage of people like me are not doing well at all,” said Paul. “They are and still going through a lot of bad things. It makes me want to work towards helping the younger kids.”
The international adoption of Korean children has been criticized both in and out of Korea. According to a 2002 study by Anders Hjern, a number of adoptees can grow up feeling alienated from the society they are placed in. Korean and other international adoptees are overrepresented when it comes to suicide, suicide attempts, mental illness, substance abuse, social maladjustment, crime and other social and personal issues.
“I take it as something unique that I can use to empower me towards doing something positive with it,” said Paul.
He has gone back to Korea four times: twice with his family, and the last two times for the adoptee organization international conference.
“I really want to move to Korea,” said Paul. “It’s important to me to learn the language just because it is a part of me. I feel like I owe it to myself even though I know it will be very hard and frustrating.”
Paul hopes to one day travel back to Korea in an attempt to find his birth parents. But concedes, “I want to make sure I’m in a really good place before I do something like that.”