Name: kimura byol-nathalie lemoine
Adopted to: Belgium
Current residence: Montreal, Canada
As an atypik asian adopted abroad a-gendered artist, activist and archivist.
Born from a Corean mother and a Japanese father in the land of the morning calm, I was adopted to Belgium at a young age as part of the first wave of Korean babies coming in the late 60s to Central-west Europe.
Because of Corean social stigma against women and religious beliefs, 220,000 Korean adoptees were sent for more than six decades since the Korean War, intentionally to Caucasian families in specific countries that had helped Korea during its war.
Fortunately, I made a short film at the age of 20 that won a prize and helped me to be noticed by the Corean government. It led me to be invited to Corea.
After meeting with my birth-mother back in 1991, my activism started with meeting many adoptees, organizing ourselves to have a sense of community, making a place where people like us could exchange and not feel like the only one. I made the big move to live in Corea for 13 years (1993-2006) where I first learned a lot about that new society, and with friends and allies, brought awareness about overseas adult adoptees returning to their birth-land. For a long decade I dedicated myself to adoptee’s rights (F4 visa, birth family search, etc.) and also developed my art practices.
Meeting more and more of the younger generation of adoptees who also wanted to change society for the better, I ‘accidentally’ had my first homosexual experience and it took me a bit of time for me to admit my difference. Corea was not the best country to welcome that change and so slowly, since coming out of the closet, I had a harder time navigating Corea. That’s why I moved out and established myself in Montreal.
A new place as a queer person of color. My intersectionality (overseas korean adoptee, intersex, queer) is keeping me busy to keep the fight against unfairness!
A trend in one town of Belgium ‘Adopt an Asian child!’
I like to be described and remembered as an atypik asian adopted abroad a-gendered artist, activist and archivist.
My name, now, is kimura byol-nathalie lemoine. When people ask me about my names, I have ready-made answers with 100 words. Here it is:
“Actually, I was born under that name but it was not officially recognized.
I was 'found' and declared by the name that had nothing to do with my first identity.
Then, I was adopted in Europe, where my Western official name came from.
The name my South Korean birth mother gave me is the English acronym for 'Bring Your Own Lesbian'. It means ‘star’ in Korean language. I prefer to be called by the name of my Japanese biological father which is pronounced in French ‘qui mourra‘ which means: ‘will die’. It's easier for French speakers to remember it.”
I am a Korean-Japanese adopted to Belgium to a childless Caucasian couple in 1969. That first year, Boitsford, a Brussels ‘nouveau riche’ district in Belgium, welcomed Korean orphans on their soil. This specific area, also known for their Japanese cherry blossoms (Sakura) trees, was blooming of Asian kids coming from Korea through networks of adoptive parents. Advertising was placed in family magazines to promote this new trend. Adopt an Asian as you would adopt a Chow-Chow. The White savior effect was working on the Christian guilt for their wealth. We were seen as a curiosity. More and more of us were stopped in the street while with our White parents, who talked and compared us.
My experience with racism in my adoptive family, at school and in society, made me blind because I was cautious, suspicious towards people and became introverted to escape from interactions with people as much as possible.
I ate my angst, kept it for myself until I left home at 13 years old, officially on my adoption papers: 16 years old. I was officially adopted at age 4 and a half but I was really 1 and a half years old. Although it was difficult to live during my teenage years, I managed to keep up my spirit to survive in the best way I could: be safer than safe. I was working 2-3 jobs at the same time to pay for my school and my living expenses. At 15 years old (18 officially) I signed my first apartment lease. A very small space with no hot water. But I was free mentally and financially. I looked happy on the surface.
Attending art school, and learning about different art forms and styles, I was always brought back to my Asianness - I was doing this way because I am Asian, I was saying this because I am Asian. I started to hate being Asian and developed an aesthetic of ugliness. Expressionism was the best way to express my anger and my dark thoughts on the meaning of life. I also was writing poems.
I was invited by Korean government, I felt so manipulated.
In the summer of 1988, I made my first short film, Adoption, at 20 years old. It won a prize at a film festival and all of a sudden because of my given name, the Brussel Korean embassy asked me if they could watch the film. They didn’t like the film because they thought I criticized Korea, although I hadn’t. I was just reporting what Westerners in Europe were thinking of themselves.
A year later, they invited me to the first ‘Homecoming’ program designed for specifically ‘successful’ overseas adoptees. I was the only one in the program who was not an academic and also who didn’t want to be reunited with my birth family. My experience with the concept of family was not very bright. But I had the chance in this program to meet a Swedish adoptee who was the president of the first Korean adoptee association. It kind of intrigued me.
I came back to Belgium with even more anger towards Korea. I felt that hypocrisy to buy us back after sending us away for money was not very respectable and I felt so manipulated once more.
A year later, in 1991, I was invited again to Korea. This time it was with the Ethnic Olympic Games called ‘Segye Hanminjok Chejeon’ that the Korean Ministry of Culture and Sport and Tourism was organizing for its diaspora. Through the Embassy again, they invited me to participate with the Korean Belgian team. This time they promised us to find our birth family. Until the end of the program they didn’t find my birth family and in the week left of my stay in the peninsula, I unexpectedly found my birth family. It was good and gave me strength and a better sense of self.
From adoptee ‘activist’ to ‘artist’
In the same year, after coming back to Belgium, I co-founded a Korean adoptee association named Euro-Korean League (EKL) with another adoptee, David Park Nelissen and a Belgian-Korean couple, Jung Miaie Coulon and Philippe Coulon. As E.K.L needed more ‘direct’ information with Korea, I decided in 1993 to be a correspondent for one year to send news back to the adoptive country to serve our community.
This one planned year turned into 13 years. Korea called me by my Korean adoptive name: Cho Mihee. It was easier for them. Nathalie Lemoine sounded too foreign and maybe reminded them of their shameful choice to get rid of us far away…so far away where they never thought we would want or like to come back.
As I studied the Korean language and English at the same time, learned Korean culture and tried to understand their way of doing and of thinking, one year passed so quickly. I stayed one more year to establish not only the Korean Branch of E.K.L but also the first association of Korean adoptees returning to their birth-land. With the help of Elizabeth Eriksson, a Swedish Korean adoptee who was studying the Korean language with me, and her good organizing skills, we allied with Korean students in Foreign Language and members of an English club. I learned so much with them and it was a great time experiencing Korea with its emotional ups and downs and frustrating moments. It was a cultural shock for me because I didn't know about Korean culture, and the Korean students treated me like the exchange students from America and Australia that they knew. However, I am European, so things they were telling me or expecting from me didn't really match with the culture of my upbringing.
As the association E.K.L. in Belgium changed its name to Ko-Bel, I changed E.K.L-Korea Branch into K.O.A. (Korean Overseas Adoptees) – K.O.A. in Korean language means ‘orphan’. The focus was on searching for adoptees’ birth families and adoptees rights such as getting the right to stay in Korea, not as a simple foreigner but as a part of the Korean diaspora. So we made sure we could access the F-4 visa that was, at the time, given only to 'gyopos' who were born or left Korea after 1953. As Korean adoptees, we all were born on Korean land and were adopted after 1953, so we were eligible to be included in that special visa even though the word 'adoptee' was not mentioned.
During the Seoul Olympic games in 1988, South Korea was criticized by North Korea for sending its orphans to the West. So, South Korea, at that time, promised to end overseas adoption until 1996. 1996 was the year to question international adoption and Korea made a point in the media. Many articles and TV programs focused on adoption, especially adoptees returning to Korea. As the association K.O.A. was known as a reference for adoption issues, I was invited to express my opinion on it. I believed the media trusted me because I had stayed longer in Korea than most adoptees would usually stay.
I was stable in Korea even though I couldn’t count on the same economic level as Korean-American adoptees who were easily able to find English teaching jobs, which made a big difference in the economic reality between European-Korean adoptees and their Korean-American counterparts. It was definitely a different experience as Korea was colonized by America, and not Europe. It was a fact I was witnessing sadly, and my own finances were getting lower and lower.
Luckily, I was making art on the side. I met people who believed in me and gave me the chance to curate my first show with two other Korean-European artists. Our ‘West to East’ exhibition was well-covered by the media and was a success. I started to be recognized not only as an activist but as an artist-activist at first, then as an activist-artist, then as an artist. Because of the Korean age hierarchy they considered artists less than 40 years- old not as professional but still as emerging. I was making art for 20 years even though I was not commercialized or bankable. I didn’t have a family to back me up for a $10,000 art show. But it didn’t stop me from pursuing my work and I found my own way to show works not only in café galleries but also in professional galleries. I guess my in-betweenness status as Korean and Foreigner at the same time opened doors for me but also closed doors for the same reasons.
Korea didn’t consider ‘the cultural difference’ sending babies abroad
As I started to feel more myself, I had my first love experiences with a woman during that period. I found myself losing my hetero-normative privileges and I faced prejudices, unfairness and violence. I faced prejudices not only because of my 'ugliness' but also because I looked like a boy and had more Japanese features (I have no moon face). My unlucky features made me experience violence from ‘ajeoshis’ (Korean middle-aged men) and ‘ajumas’ (Korean middle-aged women) on the streets or at stores and restaurants. I was slapped in the face for no reason, put down by a taxi driver and beaten up, and 'fired' by Munhwa newspaper because I was talking about being gay in my column.
As I felt freer, I stopped dressing as Korean society expected from cis-women. Because of my height, over-average for Asian women and more like Asian men of my age, I started to buy clothing at American stores and men’s clothing shops, simple unisex T-shirts and sweaters. Since I didn’t really like girlie clothing from the beginning and was ashamed of my Asian body, I liked to cover my skin as much as possible. I was even more often mistaken for a boy, a ‘haksaeng’(student) even though I was in my late 20s.
Layers of identity were adding over the years in a way I didn’t expect. Embracing them was not a painful process but was like peeling an artichoke leaf by leaf, discovering answers to my uneasiness.
Not having strong ties with either my birth or adoptive families, I was not in debate as to whether or not I was hurting them or their ‘image’. They did not lose face because of my chosen family made of adoptees, Koreans and others that were accepting of a diversity of identities. My chosen family themselves were often dealing with one or another of their identities. It enriched me to have them around, meeting them through networking or random parties, as I was slowly recognizable from time to time appearing on TV and newspapers. I was not shy to speak my mind openly so it got me attention from some Korean filmmakers and writers.
When Korean adoptees claim that it’s great to have two cultures, I am often surprised by how much they don’t know about Korean culture. They often have never even been back to Korea, or if they did it's often just for a short trip. Adoptees who were living in Korea for more than a year or two, often realize how much they don't know about Korea. Those who are coming for a short period of time may create their own Korean culture. But could it be a culture in itself? A kind of ghost culture that feels like a shadow following us and moves away as soon as we notice it is something unreachable?
The whole issue of cultural genocide is even though the Korean government didn’t think twice about the dimension of ‘acculturating’ their orphans while sending them FAR away, this was nothing compared to the ‘well-being’ of those kids who would ‘of course’ remain and BE Korean.
The quest of what is in the genes and what is learnt was answered when I came back to Korea to live and experience its culture and social behaviors. I surprisingly found myself Korean on many more points than I expected. It was nice to discover that kind of inner energy that I had in me and felt that was slowed down in my upbringing in Belgium. I also was able to recognize the high temper that was a social misconduct in Belgium was accepted by Korean society as ‘normal’. After that long decade living in Korea, I could tell myself that NOW I have two cultures.
We should be included into the global history of Korea
I believe that from Berlin Report (fiction, 1991), Susan Brinks’ Arirang (fiction, 1991), 1.5 (MBC, drama, 1996), Lady Vengeance (fiction), to Ode to my Father (fiction, 2007) there are very little changes in the way Korean media likes to portray us.
Since I was living in Korea and had opportunities to have interviews in newspapers, TV and radio, I fought for changing the word from Adopted-child (‘Ibyang-a’) to Adopted person (‘Ibyang-in’), because we grew up even though we were adopted as a child. I argued that we didn't call Korean adults Korean-child (‘Hanguk-a’) but we say Korean-person (‘Hanguk-in’) even though they were born as a child. Slowly this awareness got a bit in the brain of some reporters who paid attention to this slight difference that actually could make a big difference in how Koreans talked to us, as adoptee adults. As I’m a foreign, non-native speaker, they often were surprised that I was teaching them their own language. So, from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s (the time I left Korea) we could read more and more the word ‘Ibyang-in’ in newspapers. I was very picky with journalists about writing ‘ibyaing-in’ and not ‘ibyang-a’. But as soon as I left, no one was really reminding them. When adoptees were giving interviews they didn't care much about this linguistic detail that was an important thing to my eyes.
Through Korea media coverage and Korean ‘pop’ culture, I would stress Korean society to write ‘us’ into global Korean history along with the German nurses and miners, the Korean women sex slaves during the Japanese occupation, the Koreans in Kazakhstan, the Zainichi in Japan, the Koreans in China, etc.
“Why did Korea send babies to faraway countries?”
On May 28th in 2018, the artist-writer-filmmaker, South-Korea-based activist Tammy Ko Robinson invited me to be part of a celebration titled: ‘1988-2018: 30 Years of Korean Adoptees return’. Korean adoptees and allies gathered at the ‘petit chateau’ Koroot Guesthouse, located close to Gyeongbokgung Palace. Among the invited Korean adoptee guest speakers were Simone Eunmi (Koroot Guesthouse), Boonyoung Han (T.R.A.C.K.), Jenny Na (co-founder of A.S.K.), Kris Pak (co-founder of SPEAK). At that great gathering, Korean allies Do-Hyun Kim (Koroot Guesthouse), Meggie Kim (K.U.M.F.A.), and Pilkyu Hwang, a lawyer from Gonggam Public Interest Lawyers Group joined the conversation. Everything was smoothly moderated by the former president of A.S.K., Kim L. Stoker.
It was great to meet people I had known from my time in Korea (1993-2006), and new (younger) activists to catch up with continuous Korean adoptee issues in Korea and overseas. The speech from each of the participants and questions and comments from the public was moving, and also made me frustrated. I want to be involved in the fight for more rights for birth mothers and social issues in Korea to prevent overseas adoption.
I believe that we, or any society, won’t be able to stop people from abandoning their babies or children. But I believe we can bring an awareness to people who ‘send away’ their kids without giving them a bit of information such as a first-name and a date of birth. For most people, it’s a privilege they don’t even think is important, but for an adoptee it becomes something that can help them through their life and ease the process of searching for their identity. It doesn’t cost anything. It doesn’t put them in danger. If the adoption agency would respect that wish of giving bits of identity to the person being adopted abroad, it would already be a big step. As an adoptee abroad, I suffered the most from not knowing my birthday and name…if it was real or fake, if I was so worthless that people didn’t even take the time to give me a name or a real date of birth. That was what came out of our gathering of all those great community activists and builders.
We Korean adoptees belong to Korean history, the dark part of it. Overseas Korean adoptees who have children will pass on the after effects of this history and those children will have the right to know that the Korean government and society chose to send their parents away for adoption. ‘Why did Korea send them away?’ Legitimate questions…