Thursday, March 31, 2011

Travel Notes: The Kimbap Gift

This kimbap has a story. 

In October 2010, on our first return visit to Korea as a family, we met our first person who was hostile to the idea of International Adoption. Our adoption agency had warned us that this might happen. But in five trips it never had. We got on an elevator in the subway station, pushing Joy in her chair. An older Korean man who was dressed as a war veteran, sized us up, then grumbled in English, "Why did you bring them back? You should not have come," before turning his back to us, his face to the wall.

I share that because by far, the overwhelming response from Koreans toward our family has been kindness. One of them was a kindergarten teacher who shared her  kimbap.

It was lunch time. We were at the Korean Folk Village  and as we wandered toward the Market for lunch, we passed dozens of groups of school children gathered with their teachers on picnic blankets. The elementary groups were especially charming with matching everything: even their lunch boxes and coats and umbrellas matched their school uniforms. It would have been almost impossible to lose a child because anyone could match him up with the right class. The uniforms made it very clear that every child belonged.

We stood out like the proverbial sore thumbs: two American parents and an American grandmother; one tall Americal child, one Korean child in a stroller, and two Korean children who would have fit perfectly into one of these classes. Except their apparel said Mercy and Hope belonged to none of them.

We paused near a school group while we waited for my husband. I noticed the children looking at Mercy and Hope and me with great curiosity. They very politely said nothing but continued to eat their lunch. Thier teacher struck up a conversation with me in English. After asking about our trip, with great compassion in her eyes she asked me if Mercy and Hope were my adopted daughters. I said that they were, how blessed we felt to be able to be their parents, how well they were doing in school.

She sighed and I was surprised to see tears in her eyes. She said, "If they were still here, they would be in my class," meaning my girls were the same age as her students. She reached down into her bag and presented me with two objects wrapped in aluminum foil. "I made this last night myself. It is kimbap. I was a special treat for my students. But I would like you to share it with your family instead."

We did. It was wonderful.

Since that day, I have wished so many things. That I asked to take a picture of her with her students. That I understood what brought tears to her eyes. (I am not egostistical enough to think it was gratitude. It was something more personal for her.) I wish I had sought her out later and thanked her again once the enormity of her simple act sunk in.

Edited to add: Look what I just found among the pictures Grandma took that day :).

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Does the Amount of Exposure Matter?

If you've been following this series, you know that back in 2003, when my husband and I stepped out on our adoption journey, we were under the (mis)impression that behavioral outcomes in children exposed to alcohol during pregnancy were linked to the amount of alcohol their birth mother consumed.

Although that was only 8 years ago, that was the era when our pre-adoption classes covered the attachment disorder known as RAD (Radical Attachment Disorder). A few therapists (who were viewed as radicals at that time) had begun insisting that attachment disorders actually fell on a continuum, with RAD being one extreme. But that information had not yet trickled down into every-day adoption parenting theory like it has today.

The same this is true of the disorder that was known eight years ago as FAS (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome). 2003 was the year the diagnostic umbrella was broadened to "FASD," recognizing that a range of prenatal exposure could cause a range of problems.

Unfortunately, significant information can be known in the professional community for a long time before it trickles out into the adoption world.

A full decade before we embarked on our adoption journey, in 1993, this study was published: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in Twins of Alcoholic Mothers. In it, two doctors evaluated children in their Fetal Alcohol practices identified as twins. Each pair of twins had the same level of alcohol exposure in utero because they shared the same mother at the same time.

In the identical twins in the study, both twins presented with similar levels of FAS. However, in the larger sample of fraternal twins, the incidence of exposure-related effects varied in some of the twin pairs. Because fraternal twins are genetically different, the authors concluded that genetics plays a significant role in mitigating or facilitating the toxic effects of alcohol consumed during pregnancy.

All the twins in the study are identified as having an “alcoholic” birth mother. That probably qualifies as "significant" exposure in terms of maternal alcohol use as reported in Korean referrals. Yet a few of the fraternal twins in the study had no measurable effects despite the fact that their twin did. Of the 32 children of heavy-drinking mothers, 4 who were fraternal twins had no detectable FASD.

I guess it depends how you look at it. 13% of the kids in this study escaped daunting amounts of alcohol clinically unscathed. 87% did not.

This study supports the U.S. Surgeon General's warning that NO amount of alcohol consumption is safe during pregnancy. This was not issued until 2005, when Hope had already been home for a year. Because of this genetic component, the reported level of exposure in a referral is not predictive of the child’s future.

So what are parents to do? Please keep adopting children who have known alcohol exposure. However, if/when things get challenging, keep in mind the fact that your child was exposed --even if, like us, the reported amount of exposure was not of concern to you at the time you accepted the referral.

Super Girl!

This morning while K. and I were washing Joy's hair, inspiration struck.

We flipped her over on her tummy to her great delight.

Joy adores playing in the water.

For the past 24 days (since she went into a body cast), washing hair has been as good as it gets.

But now that she has regained some strength in her upper body, she can do this:

And this!


"Super Girl!"

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Travel Notes: Taking the Train in Korea

I don't know about you, but I need a mental break from the research on prenatal exposure to alcohol in Korean adoption. How about some escapism? Maybe we should hop a train and go somewhere?

The notes I'll share here are rooted in my first adventure on the above ground train, on my my fourth trip, a mommy-daughter trip I made with Faith in 2006 when she was six years old. I updated the notes and took these photos in October 2010.

There are obvious reasons to take the train in Korea: like you want to cross the country and the subway doesn't go there. Your first stop will be the KORAIL website to figure out if a train will take you where you want to go. Chances are, one will.

After I got over my first-time  "How do I do this?!" jitters, I concluded the train is a better way to get to some places like Suwon from Seoul, even though the subway also goes there.  The train will take you there faster, with fewer stops, less crowding, and in more comfort.

Although writing that makes me realize that taking the train means you'll miss out on subway sub-culture like the vegetable-peeler seller who plastered his face with paper-thin cucumber slices while making a carnival-barker sales pitch in Korean in our car on the way to Suwon. Dorothy will remember :). But I digress...

If you decide to take the KTX ("the Fast Train") to a distant part of Korea, especially if you plan to travel on a weekend day or near a holiday, you'll want to purchase your tickets ahead of time. This is easy to do since Seoul Station is a central subway transfer hub. For short trips, like going to Suwon to visit the Fortress or to visit the Folk Village, you can usually get tickets the same day for the next train.

If you go to Seoul Station by subway, take the escalators up two floors and cross the glass-domed courtyard, following the signs to Seoul Station.  Go  inside and peruse the sign boards hanging above the ticket counter, which will be on your left. Sometimes the boards direct you to certain lines for "Today Travel Tickets" (in English). Choose one of those lines if you want to get on the next available train. If the boards don't direct so direct, choose either a KTX line if you are buying KTX tickets, or a KoRail line for a shorter trip.

Every ticket agent I have met in Seoul spoke sufficient English to easily sell me tickets even though I speak little Korean. The same was true for my return trips from Suwon Station to Seoul. But for my first trip to Busan on the KTX, I was very glad that before I left Seoul I had a friend write out in Hangul, "Two tickets on the next KTX to Seoul Station, please" because the clerk in Busan didn't understand my English/broken Korean. You can use a credit card to buy tickets at all train stations so don't need to budget cash for tickets.

The ticket agent will tell you the time of the train on which you are ticketed. You may be given a choice of trains. Unless you know the layout of the train station because you've been there before, I would not accept tickets leaving any sooner than 15 minutes from the time you are standing at the counter. Once you have done it, you'll realize that navigating the station is pretty easy. But you may have to walk a few blocks to your train platform so give yourself a little extra time to read signs your first time out.

This is the gateway to the tracks at Seoul Station. When you are standing in line for tickets, you may see it off on your far right; it is on the same side of the station as the ticket counter. There may be an attendant here who may ask to see your tickets and instruct you to wait in the lobby until 15 minutes before your train is scheduled to depart. If not, you are free to go down and find your departure platform and wait there.

Look at your tickets to find the track number for your train. Ask an attendent for help if you are not sure. Then use the stairway or elevator corresponding to your track number. The signs look like this:

The stairways/escalators are intuitively labeled. The correct elevator, however, often isn't where you expect it to be. (You'll need the elevator if you are using a wheelchair or a stroller. If you are, you may want to read my post on Accessibility in Seoul before you go.) Descend to the platform where you'll see signs like this:

This means  "Car Number One on this train boards here." Unlike the subway, you are sold a specific seat on a specific car on the train.

Here, car number one (labeled on the door and also, behind the door on the side of the train) has stopped  for boarding.

Inside the train, you'll find the seats numbered on the overhead luggage racks very much like they are on an airplane. There will be room on the overhead rack or on the floor in front of you for carry-ons the size of a backpack or smaller. If you need to stow something larger, like a box or a stroller, there will be luggage space either at the front or the back of your car.

Announcements on the train are made in Korean first, then in English. Unlike the subway, however, you can't count on glancing out the window to verify your stop on a sign unless you can read Hangul. So I've found it helpful to ask an attendant how many stops there are before my destination as a double-check. (I learned that the hard way my first trip with Faith. Going to Suwon the train had made only one stop between Suwon and Seoul. Coming back, it made two stops so we got off one station too early at a station that had "Seoul" in the name but was south of the river, not Seoul Station, and had to come the rest of the way home by subway.)

If you've taken the train to Suwon to visit the Fortress or to catch the shuttle to the Folk Village, your next job is to find the Tourist Information Center where you'll buy tickets. Follow signs from the track level up and out of the building. At the exit, go back down to street level and turn left. About a block down the street on your left you'll see this white building with a black tile roof.

Go  inside and buy admission tickets for your destination. The tickets will come with free shuttle bus passes for the next available shuttle. It is another 20 minute ride on the shuttle to the Folk Village parking lot. Make sure to keep your shuttle tickets for the free ride back to the train station coming home.

Now that you've successfully made it all the way to Suwon on this virtual escape, in the next post in this travel notes series I'll take you inside the Folk Village.

A P.S. for those who have been there. Can you believe I've never taken a picture of the inside of the shuttle bus? You know: the valances with fringe and tassels by decorator who was inspired by Liberace and Elvis?!

On the Accuracy of Self-Reports about Alcohol Consumption

If you are an adoptive parent or the prospective adoptive parent of Korean children and take time to read the full text of only one of the reports highlighted in this series, read Alcohol Use During Pregnancy and Related Risk Factors in Korea, introduced in this post. I have also added the study to my list of resources linked in my sidebar.

The authors' conclusions about the limitations of their study raises some interesting food for thought about the potential limitations of the self-reports contained in a referral. (For those reading from outside of Korean adoption circles, in Korea children who are abandoned --in the 'foundling' sense of that word --are not legally available for adoption. Korean law requires a birth mother to formally surrender parental rights. At that time, an intake social worker interviews her and collects information reported in the child's referral.)

The common wisdom up until now, which I heard directly from a Korean intake social worker myself eighteen months ago, has been that birth mothers feel fairly free to tell the truth about alcohol consumption because there is little stigma associated with social drinking in Korea. True.

However, shame (and preventing shame) are key motivators in Korean culture. If the majority of the women surveyed stopped drinking socially in anticipation of planned pregnancy, doesn't that suggest that for those who have been educated about the risks of drinking while pregnant, there may be growing stigma in Korea associated with consuming alcohol while pregnant? (Some birth mothers do report a change in behavior after they realized they were pregnant. Why?)

Here are the last two limitations identified in this study. How might similar dynamics affect the self-reports that we read in recent referrals? (Emphasis below is mine.)

“Second, data were obtained by self-report, and some women may have under-reported their alcohol use. To prevent this, it would be helpful to combine the self-report information with other more objective measures. However, as with any other test, ethical considerations need to be taken into account. Because more than half of the participants were in their 3rd trimester, even though they were asked about their drinking during the entire pregnancy, their answers might have referred to the period after their recognition of their pregnancy. Therefore, alcohol use prior to their awareness of pregnancy recognition might have been missed.

Third, the rate of refusal to complete the questionnaire was 26.1%. Most women who refused said they were busy and did not clearly explain the reason for the refusal. In the process of obtaining written consent from these subjects, pregnant women who consumed relatively large amounts of alcohol did not want to reveal their names. Furthermore, pregnant women with any suspicion of fetal deformity in the basic prenatal tests tended to refuse the survey questionnaire." (S H Lee et al., 91-92; PDF pages 6-7)

By the time a birth mother makes a self-report to an intake worker, she has already given birth. Therefore any visible special needs the child has may be a source of shame that influences what she reports.

I will repeat: professionals who work with with children who have FASD have told us that it is a blessing to have known alcohol use reported in a referral of a child who later presents with symptoms of FASD. Known exposure is part of the diagnosis. So the potential for under-reported prenatal exposure doesn't matter much by the time the child is old enough that the family is seeking a diagnosis.

However the potential for under-reported exposure would be of concern if as a prospective adoptive parent I believed the amount reported was somewhat predictive of the child's outcome. I'll be tackling that myth in the next post.

Alcohol Use During Pregnancy in Korea

Karen commented on something important: She wrote,"I'd be very interested to find out the rate of prenatal exposure for the general population of Korea. The general belief in the adoption community seems to be that there is little/no stigma to drinking while pregnant in Korea and I'm not sure I believe that to be true."

Just this morning I found a 2010 research study Alcohol Use During Pregnancy and Related Risk Factors in Korea that answers the first question. In 2009, Doctors at an obstetrics clinic in Seoul surveyed one thousand pregnant Korean woman who came to the clinic during their pregnancy. The study concluded:

Results     Of these participants, 16.4% reported using alcohol during their pregnancy, 12.2% had used alcohol in the previous 30 days, and 1.7% reported binge drinking during their pregnancy. In the year before pregnancy, 77.1% had used alcohol, and 22.3% had binge drunk. The group using any amount of any alcohol during pregnancy showed a lower educational level, a lower rate of planned pregnancy, a lower level of knowledge relating to the risks of drinking alcohol during pregnancy, and a higher frequency of alcohol drinking in the year before pregnancy when compared with the abstinent group. Low educational level and unplanned pregnancy were revealed to be significant risk factors for alcohol consumption in pregnant women. (Lee, Shin, Won, Kim  and Oh, 1)

The overall rate of prenatal exposure in the survey group was 16.4%. This drastically lower rate of alcohol consumption during pregnancy than before it (77%) suggests that it is generally understood that alcohol consumption is harmful during pregnancy among the women surveyed.

However, note the important qualifier: those surveyed voluntarily sought prenatal care at an obstetrics clinic. Many mothers who make an adoption plan report no prenatal care. So if this survey was repeated in a different setting, say upon intake at a home for unwed mothers, or upon intake at a social service agency that offers adoption as an option, the survey would capture a different segment of women.

I am  not surprised that no matter which Korean demographic the research slices, there is a rough correlation between the prevalence of social drinking among Korean women (the research surveyed in this series ranges from 67-87 %), and the prevalence of prenatal alcohol exposure reported by U.S. placing agencies (75-90%). To repeat the doctors' conclusion: "The group using any amount of any alcohol during pregnancy showed a lower educational level, a lower rate of planned pregnancy, a lower level of knowledge relating to the risks of drinking alcohol during pregnancy, and a higher frequency of alcohol drinking in the year before pregnancy when compared with the abstinent group. Low educational level and unplanned pregnancy were revealed to be significant risk factors for alcohol consumption in pregnant women."

Those finding describe the majority of Korean birth mothers who make an adoption plan for their baby. Our kids' birth mothers are by and large not alcoholics. They generally don't have a problem misusing alcohol. They are the average Korean woman who, in the case of the Workplace study, go out for a drink with her boss and coworkers once or twice a week. Or in the WHO study, are underemployed and detached from family and/or strict school routine. Or in this report, they are 77% of the population of women during the year before their pregnancy. Social alcohol use is that normal in Korea.

Then, surprise! Three or four or five months later, one of these typically social women realizes she is pregnant with a child she was not expecting. She cannot go back and undo those social shots of soju.

Korean mothers love children. I cannot imagine them willfully doing something they knew would harm their babies. But it is not a given that our kids' birth mothers know how damaging alcohol is to a developing baby. Most of them did not even know there was a baby at the time they consumed the alcohol they later report to an intake social worker.

Note: I edited the original title of this post to remove the word "prevalence" because the authors specifically caution in their conclusion that the demographic of women they sampled was limited; therefore it is not a "prevalence" study across all socio-economic strata in Korea, which they agree is needed.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Social Drinking in the Workplace

This post highlights a paper by Sulki Chung, Hyun Jin Jun and Seung Soo Kim Workplace Drinking Environment and Women's Drinking in Korea delivered at the Fourth Conference of the East Asian Social Policy Conference in 2007. It addresses the social drinking habits of Korean women in the white-collar workforce and is part of a series of posts surveying prenatal alcohol exposure in some children born in Korea.

The authors of this paper surveyed 209 female "office workers" in Seoul, Korea's largest city, who filled out a survey in early 2007. Besides standard statistical data analysis, the authors conducted focus groups with the women surveyed. Chung, Jin and Kim reported:

“[The] Korean workplace is characterized by frequent after work gatherings. In many
occasions, participation in these gatherings is not a voluntary option. Although held
after work hours, after work gatherings are considered an extension of work, and those
who don’t participate are frowned upon. This is a problem because at the drinking
gatherings, there is usually the pressure to drink, and especially when this is coming
from the superiors or close co-workers, the potential to drink increases regardless of
one’s personal intention (Kim and Kim, 2004).” (Workplace, 4)

“Korean culture values the group solidarity and group identity, which makes easier for colleagues’ drinking culture to influence other members within the work community.” (Workplace, 5)

“The total sample included 209 females currently participating in the workforce. The
mean age was 29.6 years… and the majority were college graduates or over
(87.6%)…. Forty-two percent of the sample had no religion, and 31.6% were
Protestants. More than 75% of the participants were single, and about half (55.1%) of
the respondents’ monthly income was between $1,000 and $2,000.” (Workplace, 10)

“Considering that this sample includes only women, it is interesting to see that the percent of current drinkers is 86.6% of the total sample. This is higher than the current statistics indicating that 67.4% of females were current drinkers in the general population (KIHASA, 2006). This speaks to the fact that working females are more exposed to drinking than their non-working counterparts.” (Workplace, 11-12)

“Less than 1 out of 10 respondents (9.4%) participated in an alcohol-related education at the work site, indicating that majority of workplaces do not provide alcohol problem prevention education.” (Workplace, 12)

“Three variables were found to be significant predictors of risky drinking among female
employees; positive drinking expectancy [expecting consumption to be pleasurable], workplace drinking culture, and frequency of after work gatherings….. That is, regardless of one’s intension, alcohol accepting culture is likely to increase their employee’s hazardous drinking.” (Workplace, 14)

“Through many changes and economic growth women have become an important work force in the society. Being in the workforce means increased exposure to alcohol, and the high percentage of current drinkers among female workers compared to general public speaks to this effect. Due to different responses to alcohol, females are at more risk for adverse consequences related to alcohol. Prevention efforts should direct toward targeting men and women separately in order to better meet specific needs. Current study findings on workplace factors and their effects on women’s risky drinking is expected to contribute to more expanded research in the future on female alcohol use at workplace.
Although not directly inquired, current finding that less than 10% of employees have experienced alcohol-related education of any kind may entail that most of these workplaces do not have an alcohol policy. This may involve a more macro-level intervention such as enacting a nationwide regulation that encourage workplaces to adopt a specific alcohol policy as well as campaigns that promote individual company’s efforts to develop a policy and to increase awareness among all employees.” (Chung, 19)

Unfortunately the work of the Korean Alcohol Research Foundation, cited repeatedly in Chung, Jun and Kim's paper, is only available in Hangul. I'd love to dig in to their research database and find out what is currently known about Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders and their causes in Korea. With exposure statistics like these, children being placed for adoption overseas cannot be the only ones affected.

This is the Way We Play Pharmacist

First, I'm not complaining about three doses per day! When Joy came home from the hospital we went through thirty-two syringes a day for two weeks. Now were down to three doses of Baclofen.

In the hospital, they dispensed Baclofen as a suspended liquid so I was surprised at discharge to be handed a bottle of tablets and a pill cutter with instructions to dissolve each quarter tablet in hot water three times per day. Not a bad plan if Baclofen tastes good dissolved in hot water.... The good news is: it doesn't taste bad. Joy just didn't think much of drinking chalk-flavored tea. And Baclofen doesn't dissolve in any of the fruit juices I tried cold or hot (chemical thing, I'm sure).

So we resorted to raspberry-flavored, artificially sweetened water, in which Baclofen dissolves at room temperature. Joy accepted it that way while the Baclofen was one among many syringes that had jazzy flavors like licorice, bubble-gum and grape. But now that we're down to just Baclofen, the Raspberry water just doesn't cut it.

But Joy really likes Island Blend and Margarita mixes--which were the only things in the frozen juice section of the store (I was thinking 'sugar syrup' thoughts --what it tasted like in the hospital suspension) than came with reclosable caps. The caps being necessary because at 1.5 mls a day, these will last a long time.

So this is what works for us --just in case you some day need to suspend water soluble chalk in something that tastes better.
  • split the little itty bitty pills into ittier bittier pieces, twice (we need quarter tabs) trying to keep the itty bitty pieces uniform size to keep the doses even
  • drop a quarter tab into each of three dry syringes
  • draw up about 1 ml of room temp water into each syringe and cap it
  • go away and start breakfast
  • come back five minutes later and the chalk will be dissolved with no shaking required (yet)
  • draw up .5 mls of mix into the syringe
  • cap the syringes and refrigerate
  • when it is time for a dose, shake and serve
A pharmacist somewhere is gasping because there may be a rare volatile oil in the coconut extract in the Island Blend that neutralizes the therapeutic byproduct of Baclofen at half-life --or something like that.

If so, I suppose I'll discover this because Joy's spasticity will begin creeping back or her skin will begin growing coconut hairs. If not, at least she's taking her medicine. And insurance tells me I have no choice: this can't be refilled as a suspension until this bottle runs out.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Seek First to Understand

I have already shared two research studies illuminating the subject of alcohol consumption in Korea and am working on two more. The point is not to blame Koreans or Korean culture. In fact, the research strongly shows that alcohol consumption, particularly among women, has grown as Korea has become westernized. Ironic, isn't it? The substance use and abuse issues Korea is experiencing are the same ones we wrestle with here in the U.S.

My main point is to help us understand that. It is easy to have rosy ideas about a culture and a people half a globe away. In fact, many of us who chose International adoption did so in part because we considered the reasons kids are placed for domestic adoption in the U.S. and didn't feel sure we were up to the challenges. But the truth is, world over, children are orphaned for the same handful of basic reasons: poverty, social stigma, relational dysfunction. Korean kids are no different.

As I have begun to blog and to speak privately of the challenges arising from Hope's prenatal alcohol exposure, other moms of Korean kids have begun coming forward to say, "You're describing my family. Hope is very much like my child." I knew we were not alone; if the exposure statistics are accurate there are many more families than ours struggling with this.

Other families anecdotally confirm some of the research I will excerpt here in coming days: that there is not necessarily a strong relationship between the amount of alcohol the birth mother reported and the severity of the child's behavior. Hope's exposure, for example, was characterized as "mild" which we wrongly understood fell below an imaginary threshold for causing permanent brain damage.  Parents of Korean kids report similar behavioral challenges with children who have varying levels of exposure.

That means that there is a strata of adoptive parents like my husband and me who are rather late to understand that our child's challenges are related to their prenatal exposure. Unlike families who enter an adoption knowing their child is at significant risk for a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, many of us are scrambling to catch up with our reality.

Fourth, I am keenly aware of the hurdles that prevented me from facing that reality. So, rightly or wrongly, I'm proceeding under the assumption that the education that helped me might help you. Some of those hurdles were:
  • not understanding the normalcy of social drinking in Korea
  • not understanding where Hope's birth mother fit into that picture
  • not understanding that Hope's birth mother was not at fault
  • not understanding that Hope is not at fault for acting the way she does
Because our kids come from so many different backgrounds in Korea, I'll be building a case for normative drinking patterns across socio-economic lines. You won't be able to guess where Hope's first mother falls and I am completely intentional in that effect. Her story doesn't matter. That Hope was exposed matters. That's why many of you are reading: you know your child is at risk.

Seeking to understand now may help you avoid a major stumbling block later: anger. Anger at the person/people/society who harmed your child. Anger that you were not fully informed of the risk. Anger at your own inadequacies to cope. Anger at those who blame your parenting. Anger at your child's obstinate, impulsive, provocative behavior.

Understanding is a powerful antidote.

Korean Orphans: a World Vision report

by Jason Strother March 2, 2008

This is a human-interest story (MP3 format) about a  South Korean family who has been domestically adopting children since 1999. At that time, domestic adoption in Korea was very unusual. The reporter also interviews a representative of MPAK (Mission: Promote Adoption in Korea) about the social stigma Korean families are overcoming in order to adopt. In October 2010, we were privileged to be invited to an MPAK picnic for Korean adoptive families in Pusan where we met some wonderful families like the one profiled in this report who are choosing to adopt Korean children.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

WHO Report on Alcohol Use in Korea

Thanks to the World Health Organization, this six page 2004 Report on Alcohol in Korea may be the mother lode (no pun intended) of data on alcohol consumption in Korea.

It happens to date to the year Hope was born.

The statistic I reported here that 96% of college-aged men and women surveyed in Korea reported drinking 1-3 times per week didn't quite satisfy me. It may be fair to to say that in Korea the average first mother who makes an adoption plan is in the ballpark of "college-aged." But it is probably a stretch to say the majority fit the survey group reported: college students. College entry in Korea is so highly competitive that many are not socially advantaged enough to qualify.

The WHO report offers some insights. First, drinking patterns in Korea vary predictably with socio-economic status: “Drinkers who live in the countryside are more prone to be heavy drinkers than city drinkers. According to professional difference analysis, workers in agriculture or the fishery consume more alcohol than any other profession, next to the self-employed business owner, service member person, salesperson, and the unemployed. These results indicate that free-living people without a regular strict schedule have more chances for drinking.” (WHO, 2)

Note that that finding refers to "heavy drinkers," which WHO defines as those who drink almost daily. However, I think it is fair to guess that similar socio-economic patterns might be observed in populations who drink less heavily.

Another WHO finding is relevant because many Korean first mothers report being middle school (junior high) graduates or high school drop outs. "In a study of 2124 students (1092 boys and 1032 girls) who attended junior and senior high school in Seoul (age range 14 to 18 years old), the rate of lifetime prevalence of alcohol use was found to be 62%. An estimated 68% of students aged 12 to 16 years reported that they were monthly drinkers and 28% of them used alcohol weekly." (WHO, 2)

So many Korean teenagers are already accustomed to drinking occasionally by the time they are junior-senior high age. If they drop out of school into that class WHO describes as "free-living people without a regular strict schedule" we can understand why they "have more chances for drinking." Many young adults in Korea are not picking up a new social drinking habit, but rather, are entering more fully into the mainstream social drinking culture.

The WHO report also seems to confirm the U.S. placing agencies' reports of the prevalence of alcohol exposure in adoption referrals: "Data from the 2001 National Health and Nutrition Survey (age group 20 to 29 years old) found that 86% of the populations sampled were regular drinkers." (WHO, 2)

If you scroll to page 4 of the WHO report, you'll find a fascinating mini-history of soju, that ubiquitous, potent (25-45% alcohol by volume) cousin of vodka to which so many of our Korean children are exposed.

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when I read the English translation of the Korean word soju. It means,"made of something burning."

Travel Notes: Exchanging Money and Renting a Phone

Second post in a series of travel notes for adoption trips to Korea

Exchanging Money at the Incheon Airport
The exchange bank at the airport is in the baggage claim area on the far right, just before you exit to the lobby where you’ll meet the driver. Make sure you have some won before you exit the airport. Chain restaurants and department stores accept credit cards, but some of the best places to shop are the markets where each stall is owned by the seller. These only take cash. There are many banks where you can exchange for more won later if you need it. We did, but found we got the best rate at the airport. Exchanging at the airport was also much faster —maybe five minutes compared to the half hour it took us at a bank, even though we chose a bank we have accounts with in the U.S.

Although on my first trip I carried and exchanged travelers' checks as my agency advised, to me it seemed like an unnecessary extra step. Since then, I have exchanged cash.

If you have a debit card for one of your bank accounts, check to see if and what fees may apply to your making cash withdrawals in Korea. For several families it was less expensive to use their debit card at ATMs in Korea than to purchase and redeem travelers checks. They were also able to withdraw smaller amounts as they needed cash, so didn’t end up losing more money changing left over won back into dollars coming home.

When trying to gauge how much money to exchange, before you leave, check on any foreign transaction fees attached to the credit cards you plan to use. To avoid the fees you can plan to spend cash instead. Or you can look into a foreign-transaction-free card like Capital One.

After you exchange for won, if you’re planning to give your driver a cash gift (if you are being met by an agency driver), get out the envelope you brought for this purpose and put the won inside before you exit into the lobby. Then tuck the envelope away in a place you’ll have easy access to when you get to Seoul. You won’t give him this gift until he drops you off at the guest house or at your hotel.

Renting a cell phone
If you have reserved a cell phone to use in Korea and you'll be picking it up at the airport, the phone company kiosks are outside the baggage claim area in the lobby to exit the terminal (the same room where the driver will be waiting if you have a driver). Tell him you’re going to go pick up a phone and will be back. Picking up the phone takes less than five minutes if you have reserved it ahead of time.

As of March, 2011, there are three phone-rental vendors operating at the Incheon airport. Their rates and services vary so you'll want to compare the features of each service to the ways you anticipate using your rented phone:
Why would you want a cell phone in Korea? You may not. You might want to check with your U.S. cell phone carrier and see how much it costs to add global roaming for the length of your trip. Phone cards are also widely available to buy in Korea if you anticipate only calling home to the U.S.

But there are several reasons you may consider renting a cell phone. On one trip, my husband’s employer needed to be able to contact him while we were out of the country and renting a phone cost about $10 for the entire week, while activating global roaming on our phone was $60. On another trip, I travelled alone with my daughter. Even though I felt comfortable getting around Korea on my own, I felt safer knowing that in an emergency I (or she) could call one of the two numbers I carried: one for our agency, the other for a friend in Seoul. That trip I also used the phone to coordinate meetings with other families (who also had rented cell phones) to meet up with for sight-seeing and dinner. For a seven day trip, my bill for the phone including the calls I made (in country only) was $12.00.

While waiting to travel, I selected a phone vendor, then set up an account ahead of time so I could easily reserve a phone after our travel call came. Reserving a phone ahead of time will save you some paperwork at the rental counter in Incheon. And if you reserve a phone more than three days in advance of picking it up, your vendor will email you your phone's number so you can easily leave it with people at home.

After you've selected a vendor, click on the locator map for finding their store front at Incheon, and print it along with your reservation. By the time you arrive, you may have been awake for seventeen hours in transit and you may be very glad you don't have to rely your memory to find your phone!

By the way, VisitKorea (formerly Tour2Korea; linked in the phone services above) offers some good discounts if you register with them. In addition to the discounted phone rental, our last trip I printed 2-for-1 admission coupon for the Korean Folk Village. You’ll print discount coupons (available for many attractions including Lotte World) at home and carry them with you to use in Korea.

Friday, March 25, 2011

This is the Way We Play

Joy is getting so much stronger that two and a half weeks after surgery, every hour or two she gets out of her chair to read books and play.

I'm not sure it is clear in the photo, but Joy is standing independently here, flat on the bottoms of her casted feet. She has learned to use the cast to stabilize her core. See how still and upright her head and neck are? Her head is more typically in motion, swaying to counterbalance shifts in weight as her trunk and legs fight to remain upright. It is amazing to see her be able to stand still like child with typical muscle tone, even if it is only for a few more weeks.

Yesterday at FAC, Leah, Joy's OT, helped us figure out how to support her playing in prone. The result is this:

Joy is draped over her underinflated peanut ball. The cast is a nice counterbalance, keeping her from tipping too far forward. Here she is bearing weight through her left arm and reaching with her right. But she was a little too far above the floor. So I added a bench.

See how far up she can lift up her head, bearing weight through her forearms on the ball and the bench?

And look how she chose to bear weight through her right arm and is reaching with the left! She is now accustomed to the effect of the Baclofen and doesn't hesitate to use her left arm when it is more convenient.

This last photo is a gratuitous cute sister photo by Faith :).

Prevalence of Alcohol Exposure in Korean Adoption

While the incidence of prenatal alcohol exposure in children adopted from Korea has varied over time, with the increase of domestic adoption in Korea, the prevalence of prenatal alcohol exposure in Korean children referred for International adoption continues to rise. Recent estimates by U.S. placement agencies range from 75-90% of all referrals have alcohol exposure as a background factor. That means that the majority of adopted Korean children could be considered at risk for developing clinical FASD.

Here, in FAQ format, are some answers to questions commonly asked by parents who are concerned that their child may be as risk for developing FASD. The answers are excerpted from a 2005 article, Prenatal Alcohol and Drug Exposures in Adoption by Julian K. Davies and Julia M. Bledsoe.

What is the prevalence of drinking in the age group of women most likely to place a child for adoption in Korea?

“Alcohol consumption among young women in South Korea is also on the rise. It is estimated that the number of female drinkers there has increased by 3% a year since 1995, mostly because of the increased presence of women in the work force. The percentage of Korean college students who have one to three drinks per week is 96.4%, with little difference between the sexes; drinking is viewed as a good way to build social ties.” Davies and Bledsoe (2005), 1371.

Can anyone tell from the referral photos if the child will have an FASD?

“It is far more difficult to assess a child’s potential risk of FASDs when the facial features are not extreme. For example, it is possible for an individual who is prenatally exposed to alcohol to have a completely normal facial phenotype. These individuals should still be considered at risk for learning and behavioral problems, which may be as severe as the problems faced by individuals with a FAS facial phenotype. When the FAS facial features are fully present, it is reasonable to conclude that prenatal alcohol exposure had an adverse impact on fetal development.” Davies and Bledsoe (2005), 1375.

The child’s development is reported to be fairly normal so far. Is that hopeful for the future?

“…Like Baby A, Baby B’s development is also reasonable for her age when adjusted for prematurity. This early development is not a good predictor of long term cognitive development for either child, however. Difficulties in behavioral regulation, language, memory, problem solving, and higher order thought processes (including ‘‘executive functioning’’) may not appear until later in life. Both children should be followed closely for learning and behavior issues related to prenatal substance exposure, prematurity, postnatal events, and family history. Given the family histories disclosed, both children have their own risk of substance abuse later in life.” Davies and Bledsoe (2005), 1387.


“For children of adoption, it is sobering to consider how these substance exposures, in combination with other social and biologic risks, may make affected children more vulnerable to the adverse effects of malnutrition, neglect, abuse, multiple placements, or institutionalization. At a minimum, it seems less likely that early neurobehavioral problems can be repaired in such environments. Conversely, adopted children are typically received into loving and nurturing homes with motivated and resourceful parents. This is a remarkable intervention in and of itself, affording children with multiple vulnerabilities the opportunity for catch-up growth and development, formation of stable and secure attachments, early diagnosis of primary disabilities, appropriate services, and prevention of secondary disabilities. The lifelong impact of this care-giving trajectory on the long-term effects of prenatal alcohol and drug exposures remains to be seen.” Davies and Bledsoe (2005), 1388.

Travel Notes: Arriving in Incheon, Korea

I've made several promises to update and post my Korean adoption travel notes. This post is the first in that series.

After my first trip to Korea in February 2004, I began making notes. I had never traveled Internationally before and decided to write down the things I wish someone had told me. I had such basic questions: What do I do when I get off the plane? How will I know where to go? What will it be like going through Immigration? I've now been to Korea six times, most recently in October of 2010. As a first-timer, I would have found this information reassuring:

The Entry Card
A few hours before your plane lands in Korea, the flight crew will give you an Entry Card to fill out stating your purpose for visiting & plans for your stay in Korea. If this is an adoption trip, whenever you are dealing with the Korean government, state the purpose for your visit as “adoption” including on this card. To answer the questions on the Entry Card, you will need the following in an accessible place in your carry on luggage:
  • your passport
  • your itinerary for travel dates & flight numbers
  • the address and phone number where you will be staying.
If you are staying at your agency’s guest house use the agency’s street address and phone number on the Entry Card. If you are staying in a hotel, you can use either the hotel's information, or the Agency’s. If you don't know where you are staying, use the Agency's address. This is on the advice of the immigration/visa office at Eastern. They said the point of this card is to give the government a way to contact you in an emergency and that the agency is going to know more than the hotel will if that need arises.

When You get off the Plane in Incheon
Follow the crowd and the signs to Immigration/Baggage claim. All signs are posted in English and if you keep looking for signs, you won’t get lost. Every person on your plane will have to go through Immigration, so you can follow the crowd. When you reach Immigration, there will be several lines, with designations posted on signs over each one. Stand in the line for foreign nationals and wait your turn behind the line on the floor. Hand the Immigration agent your passport and your Arrival card.Your progress through Immigration in Korea will probably be perfunctory if you have filled out your Entry Card completely.

From Immigration, follow the signs down the escalators/elevators to Baggage Claim. Luggage carts are free; take one on your way to the baggage carousel. Retrieve your bags and head toward the exit doors. But before you exit the luggage area, exchange your money for won.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

This is the Way We Ride in the Car

First, I have to admit my surprise that we're getting out of the house with Joy. My inexperience with a body cast and with extensive orthodpedic surgery made me imagine we'd basically be house-bound for a month because she wouldn't be feeling well enough to go out.

That simply hasn't proven true for us. Gillette loaned us this E-Z-On M203 vest to use to transport Joy while she is wearing a spica cast. Some kids who have a different hip proceedure are casted semi-seated and they can ride seated in a regular car seat it it is large enough. Joy needs to ride lying down.

Now that I look at this photo I  can see there are two things I forgot this morning: the small strap that buckles around the leg closest the the seat back, and through which the second seat belt is supposed to be fastened; and the towel roll under her knees  that helps support the weigh of the cast. Joy obviously survived :). In fact she really likes riding this way because she feels more bumps lying down --perhaps like the back of the school bus phenomena?

The intructions they gave us have proven right. It is much easier to get the vest on and off when we're taking her coat on and off than it is to put it on and off in the van.

Notice the nifty footware in the middle picture? Those are cast socks lovingly knit by a Gillette volunteer. Last week we didn't even need a coat to go out for OT and Joy went barefoot. But yesterday, winter returned!

By the way, if your kids are the sort who might benefit from a similar seat-belt-vest device while seated in a moving vehicle, check out the passenger vehicle options on the E-Z-On site.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


As you can see, Daisy is thrilled that Joy is now sitting upright enough to feed herself again :). This is a jury-rigged seating arrangement for Joy, not ideal in most respects because of the limitations imposed by the body cast. But Joy is happy to be spending  more time upright and Daisy is happy for the return to food dropped on the floor. For Daisy, it has been a long two and a half weeks of eating dog food.

We are exactly half way to cast removal day April 7th! Joy has recovered so much neck and upper body strength that with me seated in a chair, she can stand on the floor between my legs and balance her own head for several books in a row, no more needing to lean back on my shoulder. She's thrilled that I brought downstairs a bunch of new (to her) books. The two she currently requests most are "Sheep in a jeep beep! beep!" and "Monkeys!" which means any of the Eileen Christelow Five Little Monkeys books.

Good news today on the oral Baclofen. Joy's current dose is so low that it is "benign" in terms of the potential side effects. So we're tentatively going to leave her on it as long as we're happy with the results. Several years ago, we had passed on Baclofen in favor of Phenol and Botox for her legs because the spasticity in her legs is so much more significant than in her arms. Given at a high enough dosage to relax Joy's legs, we would have been in the scary range for potential side effects for oral Baclofen. But not at this dosage. So now I'm curious to see what, if any additional effects the Baclofen is having on the residual spasticity in her legs. Once she recovers her strength, it may be hard to tell the difference between any improvement in her legs from the low-dose Baclofen, and the effects of the surgery. But it would be great if we can sustain the positive effects it has had, especially on her left arm.

A note to myself on pain meds for next time. By one week home we had weaned down to no narcotics and were surprised very shortly thereafter to discover she does not even rountinely need Tylenol. Her levels of pain were so high post-op that I'm amazed that two weeks later, she needed no pain medication. Today, 2.5 weeks post-op I'd say she's back to her normal self with the exception of the limitations imposed by the body cast. I never guessed recovery might go this fast.

Or that it would be relatively easy to deal with a child in a body cast. Granted, she only weighs 29-30 pounds cast and all. But I can swing her in my extended arms, twirl her like a helicopter, and even carry her one-handed with no ill effects on my back.

In fact we haven't even needed any of the extra PCA hours available to us for 45 days after the surgery. Caring for Joy in a body cast is no more work than caring for Joy out of the cast. It is just different.

Now that we don't have to wake up every four hours to give meds, my husband and I are doing better, too. That is the blessing of Hope's being a challenged sleeper and Daisy's being terrified of thunder-snow-storms: we are up often enough with one of the other 'children' at night, that before we go back to bed, we just rotate Joy in her cast like a giant rotisserie chicken on a spit.

Dakota Language Camp

While I'm on the subject of culture camps, let me tell you about a day-camp highlight of our summer here in the Twin Cities: Dakota Language Camp.

Before you tune out this post with, "But that doesn't sound relevant to me," let me ask a question.

Does the following describe where you live?

Start with the lower two-thirds of Minnesota, roughly from Lake Mille Lacs south. Add eastern Wisconsin, northern Iowa, eastern South Dakota and south eastern North Dakota. If your street address falls within that territory, you are living on land that was, within the era of written history, the homelands of Dakota Indian people.

Do your children know this place we call "home" has a long, rich history that significantly predates Little House on the Prairie? Do they know that Dakota people are still here and didn't vanish back with the dinosaurs? Do they have any idea that many of the place names they use every day are actually the Anglicized Dakota words? Does their play show that "Indians" means any more to them than "cowboys and Indians"?

If you're not sure what your kids know, or if you want to take their book-learning to a whole new level, Dakota Language Camp at the historic Gideon Pond House in Bloomington is the place to invest three days of summer vacation. Don't be misled by the camp's title. Language is the door to any culture. This is really Dakota language and culture camp. Almost every teacher is of Dakota descent and every one of them has a passion to see Dakota language and culture revitalized. Dakota is an oral culture transmitted by living people. It simply can't be appreciated as a chapter in Northern Lights (the Minnesota history textbook generally used in 6th grade in MN schools) or in a unit on Plains Indians (an inaccurate designation) in a home school study.

I don't know where we parents were when they took photo at the head of this post?! I love that parents have the option to stay at camp and learn along side their children and urge you to consider signing up yourself, too, as I have. This photo also doesn't indicate that campers are rarely sitting still! Dakota Camp is very hands-on and one of the few environments where I've felt that kids with Hope's energy level are engaged and accepted.

We'll be there! I hope you'll consider it, too!

2011 Dakota Language Camp

A unique approach to language learning for both Dakota and non-Dakota children, the Dakota Language Camp provides an introduction to one of Minnesota’s native languages. No classrooms here – all learning is through hands-on experiences of traditional Dakota games, crafts, songs, dancing and foods.  Students will participate in setting up a tipi, then go inside to learn how it was used and furnished.  As Dakota culture is rooted in the land, many words are learned during nature walks on the beautiful trails of Pond Dakota Mission Park, situated on the Minnesota River.  Teachers with Dakota ancestry will also explain Dakota values and history.

This camp is held in the 40-acre Pond Dakota Mission Park, where the historic Pond House is located.  The house was built by Rev. Gideon Pond who, with his brother Samuel, were the first to write down the Dakota language in 1834.   

The Dakota Language camp is a joint venture of Bloomington Parks and Recreation and the Dakota Language Department of the University of Minnesota, which creates the program content and provides experienced teaching staff.

When:  June 21, 22, 23, 2011

Time:  10 a.m.-3 p.m.

Where:  Pond Dakota Mission Park
401 East 104th Street, Bloomington, MN 55420

Ages:  K-6, Parents encouraged to attend

Fee: $40 (includes supplies and lunch)

A limited number of scholarships may be available.

Reservation forms and information about scholarships are available on line here.

With thanks to Jay Ludwig and the City of Bloomington for the photo and text from the summer camp brochure.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Happy Birthday Joy!

Two are Four

Four years ago
and half a world away
two tiny baby girls were born.
They had twenty seven weeks
to know each other
before their birth

almost forever.

Five months ago
and half a world away
they found each other again.

they turn four
counting the American way.
two families
on two continents
half a world away
are blessed
to call them daughters.

A wise man
put wise words
into the mouth of the wisest Man
who ever lived:
"Ask not, 'Why?'....
God's way are high
And you shall know in time."*

Happy Birthday Amy and Joy!  We love you and pray that you will come to know God, who gave you life, who gave you to us, and who gave his son Jesus so that you may come to know, love and enjoy him forever!

*John Piper, "The Inkeeper"

Monday, March 21, 2011

Why Culture Camp?

Genetically, one third of the people who live in our house are German-Irish-Swedish. We speak none of those languages and celebrate no cultural traditions unique to those heritages. None of us has been curious enough to travel to any of those countries or to attend a German, Irish or Swedish culture camp. We're rather boring in that regard: culturally homogenized Americans.

A few of you know me well enough to protest: But what about all that research you've done on Swedish Baptists in America? Truth is: I'm not even Swedish. My husband is. But eighteen years ago some wonderful elderly women looked around the table at a meeting of our church's Historical Committee. All eyes came to rest on me as the only one in the room likely to be around for the church's 150th anniversary (in 2021). And they passed me the "First Swedish Baptist Church of Minneapolis Historian" hat. Literally: a lovely dark blue crushed velvet affair with an attached veil originally worn in the 19th century by Mrs. Dr. Frank Peterson.

I am not Swedish. Would it have been easier? Without question, yes. I have no internalized identity as being in a long line believers so faithful they were exiled from Sweden for reading the Bible. (They were common people; the State Church had decreed that the Bible was the sole province of clergy.) My grandmother could not tell me stories of how her parents wrestled with the question of whether their children could genuinely worship God in English. (As far as they knew, the angels in heaven spoke Swedish because that was God's language.) Nor could my grandmother tell me what it was like to be in so small a minority of the population in Minneapolis that in the early days they had to invite the Norwegian and Danish Baptists to have sufficient numbers to form a congregation. ("They understood each other. Mostly. Good enough.")

But as a non-Swede writing Swedish Baptist history, I was fortunate to be surrounded by Swedish Baptists who remembered. It was their story.

Being associated with Swedes did not reinvent my own cultural identity;  "generic American" was already formed by the time I met them, when I was in my twenties. But knowing them and spending time with them helped me do a much better job accomplishing my assigned task: creating a documentary. I could not have done that job with integrity by simply visiting the American Swedish Institute, reading a few books, and learning to make Swedish Meatballs.

I find myself in a similar position as the non-Korean adoptive mom of Korean children. If it was solely up to my husband and me, all my children, adopted and not, would grow up with the same generic American cultural identity. That's the one I grew up with and it is what comes naturally to me. Sure: I love to cook and I'm sure I'd experiment with a few Korean recipes. I love to read and I'm sure we'd read books about Korea. We'd go to the Festival of Nations and linger a little longer at the Korean booths than the others. When our girls were in their teens, we'd probably take a group homeland tour to Korea. But led by my own strengths and my husband's, our kids would grow up as Americans with a special interest in Korea. Period.

I'm not saying there is anything wrong with being American. I don't have an inferiority complex about being American nor do I believe it to be a superior culture. It is just what it is: good and bad mixed together. Although it is not my central identity, as far as ethnic heritage goes, American is who I am.

But it is not who my girls are. Mercy, Hope and Joy may talk like Americans and dress like Americans and be educated as Americans. But they have to go no farther than our curb for a dog-walking stranger to remind them that they do not appear American. Even if such comments, socially speaking, are rude and unwelcome, it is true: my girls are Korean, too.

Not Korean-American. That is a subculture unique to families where at least one parent, often both, self-identify as ethnically Korean, but live in America. Korean children adopted into Korean-American homes are often raised in that subculture.

My girls are un-hyphenated. They were born in Korea, which means being descended from people who are fiercely proud of their unique culture going back thousands of years on the same patch of the globe. Through no fault of their own, my girls were sent away. And through no choice of their own they were adopted into an American, not a Korean-American, family.

That makes me, their American mom of Korean kids, a lot like me, the German-Irish American designated to create a documentary about Swedish Baptists: in need of the real thing, Korean and Korean-American friends. Not to mention the other significant dynamic I cannot approach from personal experience: being adopted.

So I welcome the opportunity for my girls to attend Korean culture camp. And I appreciate it in a way I did not when they were little. Culture Camp isn't about learning how to tie a hanbok bow or dance the fan dance. It isn't about learning to read and print in Hangul or any of the other tangible markers of Korean culture. (As a non-Korean, for years, these superficial, visible aspects of culture were "culture" to me.)

Rather, Korean culture camp is about people. People who share my girls' heritage and impart it first hand. Korean people with whom we're now on first-name terms when we run into each other at the grocery store. People who have opened doors to the Korean and Korean-American cultural resources in our community that were otherwise invisible to us.

People like us: other American parents of adopted Korean kids who commiserate in our shared obtuseness and do our best to overcome it together.

People like my girls: adopted Koreans growing up in America who "get it" without even trying. Who often live within driving distance. Who year after year, get to be better and better friends before the 'tween and teen years hit and it really matters to have a friend who understands.

Where for one week of the year, American people are in the minority and Korean people are the majority.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Korean Culture Camp: Camp Choson

We are so futunate. Here in the Twin Cities we have two local Korean Culture Camps to choose from and several more within a half-day's drive. This is the KAAN Directory of Korean Culture Camps in the U.S. so you can find one near you.

For three years, Faith attended KCC or Korean Culture Camp Minnesota, a wonderful urban camp held on the campus of Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis. It was the first (and for a while, the only) Korean Culture Camp I had heard of near us. Faith really enjoyed KCC so we did, too.

The spring Mercy was old enough to attend Culture Camp (not the nursery) for the first time --the year she entered Kindergarten --a friend mentioned that she had heard of another camp, Camp Choson, in Hudson, Wisconsin. Both of our families live east of St. Paul and we had carpooled to KCC. The draw-back of KCC for us was the commute. Camp start and end times meant we had to commute in rush hour traffic both ways. So the prospect of a camp in Hudson had appeal; for us it was a reverse commute.

That summer, we tried Camp Choson instead of KCC and loved it. The programming was very similar to KCC. But instead of renting a school building, Choson rented a girl scout camp so Choson had a completely different, out-doorsy camp feel. There was a nice big air conditioned main building for opening and closing excercises and for meals. But campers got to go swimming in a pool, learn archery on a range, do Tae Kwon Do on the grass in the sunshine instead of a gym, and walk through the woods to gazbeboes designated for art, dance culture, language, identity etc.

Choson has a a few other unique features that appeal to us. The closing ceremonies where campers get to show guests their TKD, drumming, dance (pop culture & classical) and language skills are scheduled on Friday afternoon, the last day of camp, not Saturday, making the camp week a bit shorter. The week at both camps is so jam-packed with fun, learning, and friends that the slightly shorter week was better for my early-elementary aged kids. And at Choson, the daily opening activities are a family affair. While some parents drop their kids off and leave, most stay and participate with their children in the first 30-45 minutes of camp. Many stay the whole week and participate as volunteers.

Camp Choson has become a destination vacation for many families who drive in from several states away to spend the week in a hotel or a state park campsite with other families who do the same thing every year. The Camp is always held the week of the 4th of July, specifically because the extra day off work helps many families make camp a family vacation.

Speaking of staying overnight, another Choson distinctive is that starting in 7th grade, campers have the option to stay overnight for a week-long residence camp. 6th graders have the option of staying over one night to try it out. Faith will be in 6th grade this year and can hardly wait to spend her first night at camp!

Speaking of Faith (our daughter by birth) every culture camp I've investigated welcomes the non-Korean siblings of campers. It is interesting to see how the non-Korean kids work out their place in Korean cultural immersion and adoption-themed programming. Like it is fairly common that American girls like Faith don hanbok for the cultural performances. But a wonderful little tradition at Choson started a few years ago when a China-born sister of a Korean camper decided to wear her native dress instead of a hanbok for the final performance. Taking that cue, last year siblings from Ethiopia wore their native dress, too.

Which reminds me of a warning about Culture Camp: no matter where you choose to go, your kids will make friends they love to see every summer and if you spend any time volunteering at camp, you'll make fast friends with other moms and dads. So try to investigate your options carefully before your kids are old enough to attend or you may find your decision is made by the friendships formed at the first camp you attend!

Witness to that fact: this year we are following Camp Choson to its new venue at Girl Scout Camp Lakamaga on Big Marine Lake just east of Forest Lake, Minnesota. (The Girl Scouts sold the camp in Hudson Choson had been renting.) Purely considering proximity, KCC in Minneapolis is now the closer camp for us. But in the past two years at Choson, Faith, Mercy and Hope have made so many good friends that we will follow them anywhere!

Priority registration (no late fee) for Camp Choson runs through March 31, 2011. If your kids are still too young for camp this year, stay tuned. I hope to be able to announce a special open-house morning during Camp Choson week (July 4-8, 2011) when prospective families are welcome to stop in and check us out :).