Juliana Souther has photos of herself as a baby in Korea, celebrating her baek-li, a ceremony marking the 100th day of life, with a stranger she can barely remember. When Souther was born, her mother put her up for adoption, placing her in the care of this woman. At 8 months, she was adopted by an American couple and flown to Corvallis. With her came a bag containing a manila folder with her Korean adoption number, medical record, and a handwritten letter in Korean. The stranger who took her in writes how proud she is of young Choi Yun-Ah and wishes her happiness in her new life overseas. At the bottom of the page is the only English word in the entire letter: “Good-bye.”
As she grew up in Corvallis, Souther knew she was different. She was raised in a house with seven siblings, three of them also adopted from different countries. Their father worked as a busy finance manager, while their mother served as a health assistant at a local elementary school. She compared the environment to “being in a crowded cafeteria,” adding, “since we did so many activities together, I initially didn’t feel a sense of displacement with my multi-cultural family.”
It wasn’t until she was 18 and volunteered at a Holt Adoptee Camp that she fully realized the internal diaspora she was battling. Suddenly, all the weird feelings that arose from family-tree projects in elementary school and casual conversations that featured questions such as, “but where is your family from?” bubbled to the surface.
Souther, 23, said it is a common phenomenon for adoptees, referred to as “coming out of the fog.” There was never a definitive moment where she felt alienated, she said, but rather a slow swelling of “day-to-day conversations and experiences” ultimately drove her to explore her past.
Souther’s exploration of that past, Mementos of my Korean Self, is showcased through April 30 at The Arts Center in Corvallis. Using multimedia to convey a sense of deep longing for connection, Souther’s art reflects her relationship with her identity and is a form of self-therapy, she said, to explore what it means to be a Korean with no connection to her ancestral culture. Some adoptees, she said, “go to therapists to pursue these questions. I do it through my art.”
In addition to photography and woodcarving, Souther’s show includes a 30-minute documentary she made to spread awareness to not only the public at large, but also other adoptees beginning to question their place in the world.
Cynthia Spencer, executive director of the Arts Center, said she was ecstatic to feature Souther, as she also was adopted. Spencer said her feelings toward her identity aren’t as complicated as Souther’s and suspects that’s because she is from an older generation. “Growing up, I didn’t really want to be white,” Spencer said, “but I wanted to fit in. I think Juliana does a great job of voicing that feeling for younger generations.”
After the reception for her show, Souther and I met at a nearby restaurant, where she told me stories of her interactions with other adoptees and how, without a helping hand, some stories end in tragedy.
“It’s common to see other adoptees become so focused on that ‘reconnection moment’ that it negatively impacts themselves,” she said. To illustrate her point, she told me a story about a Korean adoptee she knew who spent months grappling with the bureaucratic hydra that is the Korean adoption system only to receive a harsh letter from their birth mother telling them that she wanted nothing to do with them and to never try to contact her again. Another adoptee received information on her birth mother, only to find out she had been murdered the week before.
Those stories, among others, are featured in her documentary, Voicing Adoption Diaspora, which she plans to enter into local film festivals around Oregon this spring.
Souther, who graduated earlier this year from Oregon State University with a bachelor’s degree in photography, said she wants to continue campaigning for adoptees in the future. Through her art, she wants to help people like herself “understand that there is a community for them… that there is a place where you belong. You are not alone, there is someone out there who knows your pain.”