Can you provide a small bio that outlines your hometown, education background, and a fun fact?
I grew up in Hamilton, Michigan, a rural town on the west side of the state. I earned my BA in English, Spanish and French from Hope College and my MA in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Fun fact: I once met G-Dragon’s dad.
Can you describe your research? How are you usingpersonal narratives as a method of empowerment?
My research focuses on Korean transnational adoptees and their experiences with birth family search and reunion. The birth family search process is quite difficult and most people aren’t able to find their birth families; a recent article in the Korea Herald stated that from 2012-2015, only 14.7% of the nearly 5,000 adoptees who searched during those three years were able to reunite with their birth families, and that’s one of the highest statistics I’ve read regarding birth family search success rates. I’m interested in seeing if I can pinpoint anything about the birth family search process that might shed light on ways to improve post-adoption services and increase adoptees’ chances of finding their birth families. As a literature scholar, I’m also interested in discourse analysis and the ways adoptees utilize their personal narratives as acts of personal empowerment and/or political resistance. Adoption discourse has long been constructed and controlled by adoption agencies and adoptive parents, with the voices of adoptees and birth families kept in silence. It’s pretty fascinating to analyze the ways that adoption agencies and adoptive parents use language to perpetuate these kinds of power structures — and the ways that adoptees use language to push back.
What inspired you to choose this research?
I’m a Korean-American adoptee myself, so I obviously feel personally invested in anything having to do with adoption issues. There’s not much research out there regarding birth family search and reunion, particularly the latter. The media tends to display a very one-dimensional image of birth family reunion — a sentimental moment in which the long-lost birth mother and adoptee tearfully embrace, and after that, they live happily ever after. However, it’s much more complicated than that due to the language and cultural barriers that often stand between transnational adoptees and birth families, and the story doesn’t end with that single moment of reunion. The adoptee and family have to continue navigating their relationships — with each other, with the rest of their family members — and all the trauma they’ve suffered from their separation doesn’t magically disappear just because they’ve reunited. No one really talks about how hard and complicated all of that can be, which is why I hope to shed some light in adoptees’ own words through their personal narratives.
How does it feel returning to Korea after being an ETA? Can you describe a little about your experience as an ETA?
I love being back in Korea. This isn’t my first time back since my ETA days — I came back once for my students’ graduation and another time to study Korean through the CLS Program — but it’s wonderful to be back for a longer period of time. It’s fun to revisit some of my favorite places, but it’s also mind-boggling to see how quickly things keep changing here.
I also loved being an ETA and have so many great memories from those two years. It was so fulfilling to work with fellow ETAs on projects like Infusion, YDAC, and FEIP. And teaching my Korean students is one of the most rewarding things I’ll ever do. I still keep in touch with a lot of them, and they continue to inspire me with their utter brilliance, unfailing work ethic, and genuine warmth.
What do you hope to do with this research? What are some of your future goals?
The big dream is to publish a book. I may go on for a Ph.D someday, but for now I think I’d like to work in editing or publishing, as well as continue to write essays and creative nonfiction.
What do you do in your spare time in Korea?
I’m taking intensive Korean language classes at Ewha, so that occupies a lot of my time. I love exploring Korea — there’s so much to do and see just in Seoul, but intercity travel is one of my favorite aspects of living in Korea because it’s so easy and cheap. I also try to stay pretty active among the adoptee organizations by going to their events and volunteering whenever opportunities arise. Most of the time, though, you can find me in a café somewhere reading, writing, or studying.
Do you have any advice for ETAs or those interested in conducting research in Korea?
Keep your ear to the ground for events and lectures happening around the city that are relevant to your research interests. Even events that aren’t directly related to your research interests are still worth attending, because you never know who you might meet there. Happy to talk to anyone interested in contacting me!
What’s your favorite part about living in Seoul?
There’s always something going on — maybe too much! There’s never enough time to attend all of the cool events happening here.
Katelyn Hemmeke is a current Junior Researcher with Fulbright Korea and also earned a grant as a Fulbright Korea ETA between 2012-2014.