Kate Hers, Korean Visual Artist

Kate Hers, Korean Adoptee
Interview by Miae Kim
Date: 7/25/04
1 Disc, 1 Track – 20:58

TRACK 1 – 20:58

MIAE: Testing. About 30.

KATE: That’s great. So you got a chance to talk to a wide spectrum of people. Did you talk to adoptive parents as well?

MIAE: No, just to adoptees. Okay. Introduce yourself.

KATE: My name’s Kate Hers. Would you like me to get detailed?

MIAE: Your name and where you’re from and how old are you?

KATE: Kate Hers. Originally I was born in Seoul, Korea and I was raised in Detroit, Michigan and I’m 28 years old.

MIAE: Tell me about how you were adopted.

KATE: The circumstances regarding my adoption are a little unclear. But from what I can get on my adoption papers my parents were married when they had me. They were quite poor. I had three older sisters and they wanted a boy, so they decided that adoption would be the best thing for me. I’m not really sure, I can just guess at what happened.

MIAE: So you never met your birth family?

KATE: I never met my birth family.

MIAE: Did you try?

KATE: I did a bit of searching when I lived in Korea. I was in Achimarang, which is a program that tries to reconnect people who have perhaps lost each other, lost contact through the Korean War or other adopted Koreans who have tried to search for their birth families as well.

MIAE: You weren’t successful?

KATE: I wasn’t successful. I was in a few newspapers as well, but who knows. Maybe either my parents or my sisters weren’t in the audience watching that particular show or maybe they’re not ready to be found. I’m not sure.

MIAE: You said you are a performing artist?

KATE: I do visual and performing arts. Most of my work is difficult to explain because I think it transgresses a lot of different boundaries about what fine arts is and what performing arts are. But most of my work is really used for social change. I see myself as an agent for social change in my work.


KATE: Raising critical awareness specifically about being a marginalized person. About identity: whether that be political identity, ethnic identity, gender identity, all of these things I’m interested in.

MIAE: Why do you think you’re a marginalized person?

KATE: I think I speak from a pretty unique position. Of course there are tons of adopted people and adopted Koreans, not only in the US but in other countries as well. But I think I have an unusual experience in that I was able to go back to Korea and work through a lot of my identity issues and be able to really reclaim my Korean identity or Korean heritage.

MIAE: Tell me your experience while growing up?

KATE: I grew up in a primarily Caucasian neighborhood, about 35 to 40 minutes away from the city of Detroit in a place called Mt. Clemens, Michigan. And my parents are Caucasian. I do have an older adopted sister from Korea as well, but my experiences were largely shaped by having Caucasian friends, feeling as though I knew I wasn’t white, but feeling as though I wanted to be white my entire life. And I think it really influenced feelings of self-hate. Really hating the fact that I was Asian or Korean.

MIAE: Why did you want to be white?

KATE: It’s really about assimilation. My parents were told it was best for us to really forget about the past and really go forward into the future and that meant trying to assimilate as quickly as possible into white American culture.

MIAE: What issues did you have to deal with because you were adopted?

KATE: It changes. That’s one thing that I think is so interesting about these conferences, is every year I come I feel different. And sure there are a lot of issues and problems and thoughts that come up every year, but every, as time goes on and I get older I think I’ve been able to deal with them better and come to terms with them as a person. Not only a person who’s an adoptee but a person who’s a woman, a person of color. All these things have really shaped the way I think about myself.

MIAE: How old are you?

KATE: I’m 28.

MIAE: How does it get easier as you get older?

KATE: Well I definitely have to say that age brings, not that I’ve gotten more conservative, but I think I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t put myself into situations that I know will be harmful to my mental health. Or I don’t take a lot of garbage or trash talk from other people. I will enter into the conversations that I want to and I know when to disassociate myself from other people. And it took a really long time to get to the point that you just don’t deal with the things you know you can’t. And you don’t deal with certain people if it will be harmful to you as a person. And I like things a certain way. and I’m not saying that I’m not open-minded, it’s just that I know myself and I know how I have to live my life.

MIAE: Is racism an issue for you?

KATE: Race matters, and racism is definitely something that we all deal with. It’s again what I was saying before, that identity is fluid and my view or my perception of racism ahs also changed. It’s especially interesting because before I was focused on racism as it appears perhaps through Asian-white relationships. It’s always about white and the other, white and black or white and Latino or white and Asian or white and Korean specifically. But I think it’s becoming more interesting to me because I’m looking at it from a perspective of not really white to Asian but more Asian to other people of color. and the things that happen when we’re pitted against each other, especially for example blacks and Asians, or specifically Koreans and blacks, especially during the LA Riots, and how that colors us in terms of how we see other ethnic groups.

MIAE: How do you identify yourself?

KATE: Who am I? It depends I think on the situation. Sometimes I see myself as being art educator. Sometimes I see myself as being an artist, as an activist, as a woman of color. It’s, I see myself in so many different roles or wearing so many different hats.

MIAE: Korean-American adoptees are creating a community. Talk about that?

KATE: That’s definitely true, especially with the fact that Korean adoption practices began in the mid-50s. So now there’s a huge community of us and we’re not babies anymore. We’re adults and we have our own minds and we have our own ideas and we’re not just going to be the daughters and sons of our adopted parents. And we’re going to have our own children possibly and create our own families. So there’s I think initially perhaps it developed out of the need for a support group. But coming to this conference and meeting people who are doing so many interesting work academically, research that’s done by adopted Koreans for adopted Koreans or by adopted Asians for adopted Asians I think is really impressive and I was really struck by that at this particular conference.

MIAE: It seems like an international community.

KATE: Oh sure. When I first returned to Korea, I think at that point in ’98, because I returned in ’97, in ’98 they said there were around 200 coming back and forth, and I’m sure the community is so much larger these days, so many people coming back and forth. It’s much more accessible, information is more accessible, resources are more accessible to people. And also with just the internet we’re able to connect. It’s just so amazing how you can talk to somebody in France, for example, or an adoptee who lives across the country, and you can get some information.

MIAE: What is the most important issue to you as an adoptee?

KATE: There are so many important issues, but the most important one…I’m not sure. These days I’m doing a lot more work talking with adoptive parents, which I think the last couple of years I never would have been able to do that because I wasn’t in the right place for it. I’m still, of course I’m still angry about a lot of things, but I’ve been influenced very much by different people and different readings and experiences I’ve had within the last couple of years and I realize that we criticize and we complain and we have to purge a lot of our negative sorts of experiences that we’ve had. But what I would like to see is an alternative. A positive future. Something that if something’s wrong we need to change it, but what do we change it to? And that’s what I’m really working on is how do we create this future, or create this space that we want to see.

MIAE: What are you angry about and what have Korean adoptees achieved?

KATE: I guess I’ll talk about the being angry part first. It’s really a complicated issue. There are feelings of being angry. There are feelings of being displaced, lonely, you know, frustrated, feeling at a loss, and there’s no quick explanation of why adopted Koreans are angry because I think it’s different for every single person. But the recurring thing I’ve been hearing at the conference is one of loss and that no matter for example, how much love we might get or how many times we go back to Korea or how well we can speak Korean, there’s still this void that I think a lot of adoptees have, because I think we don’t know exactly how to deal with it, many of us feel very angry about our situation and that may take the form of being angry at adoptive parents, or Koreans or at ourselves. But the situation as it stands now, I guess the thing I’m most concerned about and why it still frustrates me is that South Korea is no longer a third-world country, yet it continues to send its children out to other western countries. There’s still about 2000 babies that leave South Korea every year. And I just want to ask why. Why? And it shames me because I do consider myself to be Korean and I do understand the reasons that it had to take place after the war, but it’s changed. I think Korea is the only country with its economic and political power that still continues to do this. And I just wonder why hasn’t there been more support with developing a social welfare program for families that do want to keep their children.

MIAE: And what about the achievement of adoptees?

KATE: I’m sure there are so many in so many different fields that I don’t know about. But at the particular research session that I went to there were so many people I’d never met before doing so much interesting work about adoptees that had been raised primarily about Caucasian parents and what the Caucasian parents’ views were or what their experiences were. There was the another adoptee talking about how to include the Korean adoption experience into Korean American immigrant experience as the Diaspora. There was another adoptee doing work on adoptee artists and how they identify themselves and how they see themselves, not only in the adoptee community but also in the art world. It’s just really interesting and coming to a conference like this, that’s the best thing I got out of it, just to meet people and get empowered by that.

MIAE: Anything you’d like to say?

KATE: Not specifically. I am pleased by how non-adopted Korean Americans are taking more of an interest in the experiences of adopted Koreans and I actually hope to see more of Korean Americans embracing the adopted Koreans into their community but for reasons of seeing us as being equals and something to contribute as opposed to having feelings of guilt and feelings that they want to help us.

MIAE: Adoptees say the media brings negative images of adoptees.

KATE: Which media are you talking about?

MIAE: In general. TV…

KATE: It’s difficult because I know mainstream media or different people have their own agendas with wanting to describe or show different aspects of experience. Media has a lot of power. The thing that I think is most important is perhaps having the experience be by adoptees for adoptees as opposed to having an outside person coming in and trying to do work for us. It’s a really big question, I’m not really sure. Because I’m still working through that too, how I feel about American mainstream media. Did anyone talk to you about different sorts of commercials they’ve seen on mainstream television where they show a Caucasian family with an adopted Asian child. That’s becoming more prevalent and as far as I’m concerned it’s nice to see that. Multiculturalism in the media. But at the same time I think it’s problematic and I’m still trying to work out how I feel about that.

MIAE: What kind of stories do you want to hear about adoptees in the media?

KATE: I would be most of the different types of shows that I see, they give a lot of attention to adoption, especially Korean adoption. I’m going to talk really specifically because I don’t know the whole issue of overseas adoption that’s going on. I know pretty much in Korea. But I would like to see, I would like to get rid of some of the sob stories, because we’ve seen them time and time again, the tear-jerker stories. And I know that probably sells quite a bit and people want to watch that type of program. But that’s not what reality is all the time. I’d like to see maybe a show that is dedicated to the lives of adoptees that are living and working in their home countries at this point. Not as helpless babies but as very strong-minded adults.

MIAE: Sounds great, thank you.