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Human capital: Transnational korean adoptees and the neoliberal logic of return


Since the late 1990s, adult adoptees who were sent for adoption from South Korea to Western nations as infants and young children have been returning by the thousands to visit South Korea, search for relatives, and explore Korean culture. A smaller number choose to live and work for extended periods of time in their country of birth. This article contextualizes this phenomenon in relation to the South Korean government's proactive globalization policies and the rise of 'English fever,' and analyzes the shifting receptions of adoptees by the state and everyday South Koreans as a window onto post-IMF neoliberal transformations in South Korea. I show how a shift in the signifi cation of adoptees between the 1990s and the 2000s is suggestive of the increasing association of adoption with human capital, whether in the state's attempts to enroll adoptees as successful global citizens and cultural ambassadors or vernacular views of adoptees as lucky cosmopolitans. Drawing on ethnographic research with resident adoptee returnees who lived and worked in South Korea for extended periods of time at the turn of the millennium, I show how their social marginalization and discrepant cosmopolitanism reveal the ascendance of neoliberal values in contemporary South Korea. In conclusion, I assert that resident adoptee returnees offer important critiques of dominant discourses that celebrate transnational adoption as the fast track to cosmopolitan privilege or as a postnational model for transcending racial and national hierarchies.

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