For Nari Baker, the process of putting together her exhibit “Talking to Ghosts: Waiting in River Between Worlds” was as much a journey of discovery as it was for the participants she interviewed.
Featured at Jack Straws New Media Gallery, the exhibit presents eleven adopted Korean Americans, including Baker herself, addressing their birth parents in soliloquies that reveal the intimate, oftentimes conflicted emotions underlying their personal stories.
Rather than conveying these emotions in an elaborative manner, using pictures and personal biographies to introduce the adoptees, Baker instead chose to focus exclusively on the voices of the participants: the minimalist layout of the exhibit includes only a set of rotary phones in a darkened room, each communicating the recorded messages of the participants in their adopted languages.
The project was originally conceived after Baker was awarded a Fulbright Research Grant in 2007. Upon receiving the grant, Baker decided to focus her research on the oral histories of Korean adoptees.
“I had done oral histories before in Korea and the United States for my senior thesis, but I hadn’t really delved into the alternative and experimental histories until I received the grant,” said Baker. “In 2007, I went to Seoul under the proposal to create an archive for Korean adoptees.”
While in Korea, Baker volunteered at GOAL (Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link), an agency that serves adoptees and their birth parents in various capacities, from helping adoptees find birth parents to providing translation services to adoptees and their parents. It was here that Baker found inspiration to record the oral testimonies of Korean adoptees, each with their own story to tell.
The exhibit itself captures the broad scope of adoptees’ emotions, ranging from longing and forgiveness, to frustration and even anger.
“The experience of being an adoptee comes with a lot of emotions, and some of those are very intense and even opposing,” said Baker. “There is a mixture of relief, frustration, loneliness, intense loss, despair, love, longing, and deep joy – as well as a real sense of unexplainable connection. So those feelings informed me in putting this project together.”
A common element in many of the testimonies, at least of those who had met their birth parents, is the frustration that results from the language and cultural gaps that inhibit genuine empathy and communication. It is hard enough being an adoptee, but for adoptees who were raised in a different cultural environment than that of their birth parents, the situation presents a particularly difficult obstacle in coming to terms with their adoption.
As a result of these cultural and language barriers, many adoptees are pressured by their birth families to learn Korean and to conform to Korean cultural norms. This was why it was important for Baker to record the adoptees’ testimonies using the language they grew up with. Speaking in the language they felt most comfortable with allowed the participants to express the full gamut of emotions in their experience as adoptees.
“That was one thing I was adamant about, because first of all it is very challenging to learn Korean, and second I felt the adoptees should be able to express their emotions,” said Baker. “I wanted to make it as easy as possible, and it became more challenging for me, because it opened up new possibilities. A lot of adoptees improvised; it was amazing.”
To more fully communicate the poignancy of their testimonies, Baker had some of the adoptees deliver their messages at certain emotionally charged locations, such as their gohyang, or place of birth. Baker recalls witnessing one participant’s testimony at Chuncheon, a city in the northeast of South Korea. He recorded his message just minutes after discovering his birth mother’s name.
For Baker, the experience of creating the exhibit was in some ways cathartic, much as it was for the participants involved.
“There were certain parts that were personally cathartic for me. Going to places in the adoption files and envisioning the project in a new way was cathartic. Really trying to put something out in the world about Korean adoptees was important to me, and I hope educational for some people.”
For many of the adoptees featured in the exhibit, the insights gained from expressing their experiences may in some way help other Korean adoptees to come to terms with their own adoption, as well as those of other ethnicities.
“I don’t think the process is ever over,” Baker notes, “the process of integrating is lifelong.”
Hopefully, the exhibit will enable others to reach out and learn more about the experience of Korean adoptees, regardless of whether they were adopted or not.
The installation by Nari Baker is on view at Jack Straw New Media Gallery, 4261 Roosevelt Way N.E. in Seattle. 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. M – F through September 16. Free. For information, call (206) 634-0919 or visit www.jackstraw.org.