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(Yonhap Feature) Korean adoptee connects with his roots through teaching

All News 09:00 February 29, 2016

By Woo Jae-yeon

SEOUL, Feb. 29 (Yonhap) -- Erik Choi Jonas used to celebrate two 'birthdays' with his parents: one when he was born in South Korea, the other when he arrived in the U.S. as an infant.

Now, for the 22-year-old Korean adoptee, the list of days to mark keeps getting longer.

"When she walked into the room and made eye contact with me, I felt an instant connection with her," said Jonas, recalling the moment when he met his birth mother for the first time in November 2014. "It felt like healing."

Shortly after what he described as a life-changing reunion, he had to return to the U.S. where his family waited for him. Three months later, however, he packed his bags and flew back to Korea to visit again.

"I had only a week with her. I thought neither of us deserved that."

But life in his unfamiliar mother country, while seeming safe most of the time, was challenging for Jonas, who grew up in a small town in Minnesota, away from any Korean influence.

"Being able to adjust to a different culture, like figuring out how to buy food, order things, talk and interact with people are simply not easy," he said, adding that the language barrier, in particular, is a big hurdle for adoptees to adjust to living in the country.

So it was very "comforting" for him to have a sense of belonging to a local community through a teaching program.

In March last year he joined a program run by the International Korean Adoptee Service (INKAS), a non-profit organization based in Seoul that assists South Korean adoptees. In the program, a handful of Korean adoptees teach English to children who otherwise couldn't afford expensive private English lessons.

Now the organization, in cooperation with SH Corporation, Seoul's housing development company, is set to expand the program in March to 11 areas from the original six. If the plan goes smoothly, as many as 180 students will benefit from the program this year, according to Jung Dong-ho, an official from SH.

Jeong Ae-ri, president of INKAS which was established in 1999, initially started the "Language Bound" program in 2013 after she felt the need to help returning adoptees better adapt to their new lives in Korea. Since the 1950-1953 Korean War, around 220,000 children are estimated to have been sent abroad for adoption.

The language program, she said, was designed to create an environment where adoptees could interact with native Koreans and contribute to their native country while earning some pocket money.

Last year, the organization joined hands with SH Corporation, which offers financial and logistical support.

Calling the language program a "win-win," Jeong said underprivileged children can learn English from a native speaker for free, and adoptees get a chance to meet local Korean kids from less-privileged families where they might have been raised had they not been sent abroad for adoption.

For Jonas, spending time with the kids feels like a "blessing."

Every Tuesday and Thursday he meets a bunch of 10-year-olds and runs around the playground with them, correcting their English speech and pronunciation. It took a little while for him to adjust and figure out what was best for the kids, he said.

Through them, he can imagine what his life would have been like if he had grown up in Korea.

"Being able to be with these kids, sitting down two times a week, going nuts... sure I am sometimes stressed out... is nice. It is really nice."

jaeyeon.woo@yna.co.kr

(END)

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