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A Tale of Two Mothers: Joel Peterson's Autobiographical Novel Takes on Love, War, and Adoption

Peterson's <i>Dreams of My Mothers</i> is an autobiographical novel, following his life from his childhood in South Korea to his adolescence as an adopted son in Minnesota.

"Children are born neither good nor bad," writes Joel Peterson in his haunting new book, Dreams of My Mother, "but simply are born." The biographical novel chronicles Peterson's life as a biracial adoptee. The author was seen as an outcast from birth thanks to his green eyes (inherited from his American GI biological father, who conveniently disappeared during the eighth month of pregnancy). He suffered numerous tragedies as a frail child in postwar Korea in the 1960s, including abject poverty, an accident that nearly killed him as a baby when he fell into a pot of boiling water unattended, and witnessing the sex acts of his prostitute mother. Traumatized and confused by his birth mother's decision to place him for adoption at age six, he attempted suicide before being adopted by a Lutheran couple from rural Minnesota. Peterson grew to love his new family, including his four blonde, blue-eyed siblings, and later flourished as a Naval officer, high-level telecommunications executive, CEO, and entrepreneur. He's currently a PhD pre-doc in Education Policy and Reform at Claremont Graduate School.

Over the past six decades, families in more than 15 countries have adopted some 200,000 Korean children, with the majority of adoptees living in the US. Since a child born to a Korean mother and American father was not recognized as a Korean or American citizen at the time, Peterson had no government benefits, right to attend school, or future, really. The first-time author deftly writes about Korea's patriarchal culture, its obsession with purity of bloodlines, and how unmarried women (then and now) are shunned by Korean society. He also shines an unflinching lens on the well-meaning white people who may believe "love is enough," but can't really fathom the experiences of the kids they are adopting. At its heart, Dreams of My Mothers is a story about identity, sacrifice, perseverance, and what it really means to be American.

VICE spoke to Peterson about Korea, Minnesota, culture shock, and the value of fiction.

VICE: What led you to write biographical fiction instead of a straight memoir?
Joel Peterson: I felt that a memoir required a level of accuracy and corroboration akin to journalistic standards that I may not have been able to achieve, as I lacked many documents. I wrote the book after the death of both of my mothers. I was also concerned about overly focusing on myself, when I thought the true protagonists were my mothers. A fictionalized approach allowed me to enhance conversations, thoughts, and feelings that may better portray the truth. Finally, a fictional biography, where all names are changed, offers more legal protection against anyone taking exception.

Joel with his family in Minnesota. Photo courtesy of Joel Peterson

Most adoptees do not remember their actual adoption, but you have vivid recollections. What was the culture shock like arriving in Minnesota?
I was shocked by the abundance of everything, from the grocery store to JCPenney. I also was struck by the technology since I'd essentially been living in the 19th century with no plumbing, no running water, sanitation, bathrooms, electricity, air-conditioning, refrigeration, or electric lights. To suddenly have hot and cold running water coming out of faucets, electricity, radios, television, telephones, cars, toothpaste—it was culture shock and future shock. I could not believe how huge everyone's noses were or the amount of facial and body hair people had. I thought blue eyes just looked alien. And the body odors were pretty amazing.

You write about not fitting in in Korea or Minnesota. What did it feel like to always be the "other"?
It was extremely lonely and isolating. People who are only children talk of being lonely sometimes, but they still had parents who they resembled. I differed from even my closest family, both biological and adoptive. I was an individual of one. There was no place, even in my childhood home, where I felt that I belonged.

As a baby, you suffered an accident that left you disfigured and scarred. How did this incident further affect you?
It added to and reinforced my differentness and otherness. There is not usually a physical revulsion or repulsion based on racial features, but deformity and disfigurement can cause these involuntary reactions in people. Plus, people always asked what happened and that would serve as a constant reminder of not only the incident, but also everything surrounding my circumstances and life that I had as a child in Korea.

My mixed racial makeup and my experience living in different cultures allowed me to better fit in across the world.

After moving to America, how did traveling overseas change or expand your own personal identity?
When I started traveling, living, and working internationally, I found that I didn't feel as isolated, because there was no expectation of fitting in. I was by definition a foreigner, and so people accepted and expected that I was different, but that wasn't pejorative. It also underscored how I was viewed in the world as an American first and last. My mixed racial makeup and my experience living in different cultures allowed me to better fit in across the world.

How did the presence of American troops throughout your childhood in Korea influence your own decision to become a Naval officer?
I saw US troops as a protection against the violence that surrounded me. All my interactions with soldiers were always positive. I remember getting handouts such as my first taste of white bread, my first banana, and my first chewing gum, from US troops through the barbed wire surrounding their camps. But also the fact that my adoptive father enlisted in WWII, as did my mother's brother, who served in the Navy and made it a career. In my family, the obligation to serve your community was simply a given, so I always thought of military service as a possible option.

Joel today

Korean adoptees are now using DNA databases and online groups to reunite with family members. Is this something you have ever considered?
No. I don't see family as being driven exclusively or even primarily by biology. I can't see the benefit for me to attempt to connect with someone who is a total stranger, simply because I share genetics. The potential for disrupting his life and mine, and the unknown outcomes, seems filled with possible negative scenarios for very little positive gain. I have a wonderful father who served as about as perfect a male role model as I could have hoped for. Based on my biological father's name and rank, which my birth mother remembered, I was able to track down the likely individual and his Army career and post-Army residence. This person died in 2003.

South Korea now has the lowest birth rate of any developed country, and some adoptee groups are advocating ending all adoption from the country. What are your feelings about transracial adoption in general?
Adoptees have all suffered a negative life circumstance. But adoption is not itself the malady, it's relinquishment. Adoption is the single most successful social intervention, much more successful than interventions for alcoholism, depression, violent behavior, criminality, or learning disabilities. The "success rate" for adopted people, meaning they become functioning, independent, contributing, healthy members of society is 87 percent. This compares with 90 percent for biologically-raised children.

But just because it is so successful doesn't mean that adoption doesn't cause issues, pain, suffering, and long-term consequences. But to eliminate it as an option, when we know that institutionalization or foster care are proven to be so much less successful, would seem morally reprehensible. We should absolutely do more to prevent relinquishment, to support single parents, to let parents be able to choose to keep their children. In a perfect world, no child would ever be relinquished, abandoned, or orphaned, but parents are simply frail and faulty human beings, and sometimes even die. Because of this, we will always have children of all races who will suffer the malady of relinquishment—voluntary or otherwise.

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