Interrogating the Silence

Patti Duncan’s journey has been guided by deep, sometimes disturbing questions. How and why are the voices of birth mothers often erased from these stories? Why have so many women been silenced?


October 7, 2016

In this portrait taken about 1974, western outfits worn by Patti Duncan and her sister contract with their mom's traditional Korean hanbok. (Photo courtesy of Patti Duncan)
In this portrait taken about 1974, western outfits worn by Patti Duncan and her sister contrast with their mom’s traditional Korean hanbok. (Photo courtesy of Patti Duncan)

By Theresa Hogue

When Patti Duncan was growing up, her mother rarely spoke about the past. Born and raised in South Korea, Patti’s mom spent her younger years working in Seoul next to a U.S. military base. It was there she met Duncan’s father, a white American soldier. The two married and later moved to the United States, where they raised their two daughters, Duncan and her older sister.

While towns near military bases are often associated with violence and the sex industry, Duncan’s mother never spoke of her experiences in Korea. Her silence left a large gap in Duncan’s knowledge of her family history.

Duncan is now an associate professor at Oregon State University and coordinator of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies in the School of Language, Culture, and Society. In her research, she explores the ways in which motherhood reflects gender roles, race and culture. Most recently, she has delved into the circumstances surrounding the transnational and transracial adoption of children.

Her journey has been guided by deep, sometimes disturbing questions. How and why are the voices of birth mothers often erased from these stories? Why have so many women been silenced? Do they use silence as a form of resistance? Who else’s stories haven’t been heard? Why are some peoples’ narratives driven into the shadows?

“I think there were always these questions I had about the context of (my parents’) meeting and the history of the circumstances that brought them together, shaped by unequal relationships between their two countries,” Duncan says. “A lot of my work was informed by wanting to go back to that and think through the questions of my own origins. For so many mixed-race Asian Pacific American people, there are questions about the ways in which our belonging or not belonging is structured in the U.S. through histories of colonialism and militarism, violence and war.”

A Literature of Silence

Duncan’s first book, Tell the Silence, focused on Asian American women writers who were asking questions about nation and gender, race and sexuality. Her literary analysis looked at how these questions are asked, which discourses are enabled and which are silenced.

While her motivations were rooted in her mother’s experiences, her mother has not read Duncan’s work or been spurred through the research to open up about the life she led in Korea. But Duncan thinks of herself as writing, in part, to her mother. That approach has helped shape her writing and made it more accessible to a wider audience.

Her second book, Mothering in East Asian Contexts: Politics and Practices, offers narratives about the politics of motherhood and analyzes the ways in which it is shaped by race, sexuality and class, and impacted by globalization, transnationalism and capitalism.

terra_web_interrogating-silence
Illustration by Long Lam

While driven by personal experience, Duncan was also inspiring other scholars. “Patti is a pioneer in the scholarship on mixed-race Koreans,” says Grace Cho, author of Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and The Forgotten War and a contributor to Mothering in East Asian Contexts. “As a biracial Korean American and a product of U.S. military intervention, I found it incredibly meaningful to get to know Patti and her work, and it gave me the encouragement to move forward with my own research.”

Cho’s view is echoed by colleagues at Oregon State. “Duncan’s work is an outstanding example of how feminist analysis by scholars of color can uncover and explain the invisibility and silences of marginalized populations in dominant discourses,” says Susan Shaw, director of the School of Language, Culture, and Society at Oregon State and a scholar of feminist studies in religion.

Feminist Analysis

Duncan’s most recent research project has expanded on that theme by delving into the world of transracial and transnational adoption and its impact on birth mothers of color. The project took root a dozen years ago on her first trip to her mother’s homeland.

In 2004, while Duncan was teaching at Portland State University, she and a graduate student visited South Korea. Duncan was doing preliminary research on why feminist organizations were rallying around “comfort women,” who had been taken from Korea and other countries to be used as sex slaves in Japanese-occupied countries before and during World War II. She was contrasting that attitude with the stigmatization of women who worked in camps near military bases in Korea. Those women, Duncan thought, suffered under similar forms of militarized sexual victimization.

To many South Koreans, women having sexual relations with American military men was a betrayal of their country and of the racial purity emphasized in South Korean culture, regardless of how economic and social forces may have placed them in the role of sex workers.

The Korean War separated families and displaced more than 10 million people from their homes. In its wake, American military bases became places that accentuated the economic disparities between the two countries, says Duncan. While people in camptowns were poor and had spotty access to clean water and electricity, life on the bases was more affluent. This imbalance is one of the many complex factors that led to the thriving if publically discouraged practice of South Korean women and American military men engaging in prostitution.

Give Away Your Child

During the trip, Duncan’s research took an unexpected turn when her graduate student, who was adopted from South Korea as a child by American parents, began searching for information on her birth mother. The more they learned about the history and politics of adoption in South Korea, the more Duncan realized there were ties to her research on camptown women. Many of those adopted children were the product of relationships between American men and South Korean women working near military bases.

Following the Korean War, Korean women who had relations with U.S. military men and had  children were often pressured to give up those children, Duncan says. “Early on they were warned mixed-race children would be rounded up and set on fire. That rumor reached a lot of women who gave up their children, not because they didn’t want them but because they didn’t want them to die.” As a result, a large number of mixed-race children were adopted out to white American parents.

More than 200,000 children from Korea eventually came to the United States. The first wave (1955-1965) were mostly mixed-race children fathered by U.S. soldiers. Since then, adoption has been increasingly linked to women living in poverty, as well as to the stigma associated with single motherhood in Korea.

“If the system had been such that they could have remained with their mothers, they wouldn’t be put up for adoption,” Duncan says. “We’ve seen similar stories in Vietnam and Cuba, and we’ve seen it more recently with Haiti. If all of the money and resources put into transnational adoptions could  have instead been put into supporting mothers and families, that would have been a really different outcome.”

Politics of Motherhood

Duncan began to realize that her experiences of disconnection with her mother’s homeland in some ways connected back to experiences of Korean adoptees.

“There were all these similarities in the politics. I’m not an adoptee, and I don’t want to appropriate that experience, but I feel like my relationship to a white father and a lot of white family members is very similar to some of the experiences my adoptee friends feel about their adopters,” she says. “We have a sense of loss of language, cultural identity and knowledge about our background, and the subtle racism we can face from our own communities and family members.”

Duncan admits her trip to Korea, while providing a rich ground for research material, was also profoundly disconcerting. “For many of us, Asian Americans raised in the U.S., you never quite feel at home here,” she says, “and you think you’re going to go there and it’s going to all make sense, and it doesn’t at all.” Eventually, she started taking those ideas and crafting them into her latest book project, Saving Other Children from Other Women: Narratives of Rescue, Migration, and Illegitimate Motherhood.

Duncan relies on a research method called qualitative content analysis. She reviews texts, films and other media as a set of discourses and cultural narratives. She is interested in how these “rescue narratives” are embedded into and actually describe colonialist frameworks and logics.

“There’s something really problematic about a focus on children that negates the experience of the mothers and fathers and local communities,” she says. “I’m not saying children don’t need resources or help. But there’s often not an understanding that the conditions creating poverty or war or genocide are systemic and are conditions our own government and military are complicit in. And the mothers are then seen as no longer worth saving or even naming, and they drop out of the picture completely.”

Duncan doesn’t ignore the real and necessary need for adoption. Nor does she broadly criticize Americans who adopt children transracially or transnationally. “I don’t think adoption is going to end, and my point is not that children should not be adopted, but to figure out how and why it’s become a global transnational industry that has harmed some communities more than others,” she says.

“When we look at transnational adoption, we should consider questions like ‘Who benefits?’ and ‘Who gets completely rendered invisible and why?’”

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