To know your parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, and grandparents …
To know your medical history; whether your mother died of cancer, your father suffered heart problems, whether your grandmother had diabetes …
To know who you look like, where your traits come from, whether your face in the mirror is a reflection of someone else ..
To know your birth story, date, time, season of the year, what hospital you were born in …
To know your country of birth, culture, heritage, language, customs, religion …
To be surrounded by people who look like you racially …
To know your origins is a privilege!
These are the things I don’t take for granted because I didn’t have any of these whilst growing up. I was born in one country, adopted to another, by a family of different race. I’m a transracial intercountry adoptee. I’ve spent a huge portion of my life wondering, searching, trying to learn about my origins.
In my community of intercountry adoptees – to know your origins is definitely a privilege!
by Jayme Hansen, Executive Director of ICAV, ICAV USA Representative, adopted from Korea to the USA.
Mid-June this year, the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare (MOHW) announced they have revised their adoption process, perhaps accelerated by the public outcry at the abuse and death of baby Jeong-In at the hands of her adoptive parent but I believe more of an attempt to comply with Hague Convention guidelines.
I applaud South Korea’s efforts to revise their adoptions processes
I believe this is a small step in the right direction. Adoption agencies should not be solely responsible for the process of relinquishment of the child or the counselling of birth mothers. Historically numerous adoption agencies around the globe have used unethical practices and have pressured vulnerable single mothers into relinquishing their children. An Huffington Post article entitled “Adoption Criminality and Corruption” exposed some of the abusive practices by adoption agencies, stating:
“Another major problem that the Hague Convention on International adoptions does not address is “finders’ fees” paid by foreign orphanages. These fees are enough to incentivize criminals to kidnap children and claim that they were found abandoned. Often, the children who wind up adopted through U.S. agencies are passed through multiple hands in a process known as “child laundering“ making it impossible for even the most reputable American adoption agency to ensure the origins of the child involved in any international adoption. The line between legal, ethical adoptions and criminal activity is blurry at best.”
This latest action from the Korean government did not stem from Jeon-In’s case alone but her life and death did play an important public role in highlighting the illegal and abusive practices by the adoption agencies who facilitate the adoption and continue to face no consequences. Risk is always reduced if we get rid of the middle men (adoption agencies) who have a vested interest in profits or their agenda to promote adoption ahead of any other alternatives and have no-one overseeing their practices and procedures. It’s time Korea took more responsibility for their children and attempt to implement a revised model of adoption which appears to be an alignment with the Hague Convention guidelines. There are other countries like Australia who have successfully implemented a completely centralised model of adoption for many years and despite the early discussions around the risks of Central Authorities ( governments) discharging their responsibilities to accredited bodies (see paragraphs 242-243), there remains no research since then, that discusses the pros and cons of a centralised vs outsourced model of adoption by governments.
Of course, as with all change, there are always those who oppose it – especially when the pockets of big organisations (adoption agencies) risk loss of their income stream! I challenge the opposition and point out that it is economically unwise for Korea to continue in the wholesale trade of its children when they have the lowest fertility rate in the worldwith 0.84 births for every woman in South Korea. Furthermore, this is a Korean issue and individuals need to keep in mind that Korea wasn’t established as a democracy until 1948. The country was literally torn apart and destroyed during the 35 years of Japanese Occupation and the destruction during the Korean War in the early 1950’s. Compared to America’s longer established democracy – Koreans are quickly establishing their own method of self-governance, social programs and economic growth at a record pace.
Some have express concern that vulnerable mothers will not want to seek out government help in their times of crisis. I think if government staff focus on the best interest of their people, it is a good thing and assumes a country, ranked as the 10th biggest economy in the world (in 2020) has the capabilities to resolve their own issues. Furthermore, South Korea has an ever-growing number of certified professional social workers who have helped their nation through numerous crisis over the years helping it’s citizens through increased teen suicide, affects from COVID-19, and numerous other social impacts and issues.
I also don’t believe these changes will result in more babies being abandoned at baby boxes as some critics state. First, there is no proof that children were dying in large numbers before the baby box was established. There is also no indication that this change in policy would result in greater numbers of these issues. I have visited and logged thousands of hours volunteering in nearly half a dozen orphanages across South Korea and the government has made it relatively easy for parents to relinquish their children if they are unable to care for them. I met numerous mothers who came to visit their children at the orphanages and placed them there so that the state could feed and take care of the child when the parent was unable. I question anyone who can support a program like the baby box that allows women to abandon their children. Such actions in most developed countries would lead to arrests. The problem with so called solutions like baby boxes, where children are literally dropped off like mail, is that it allows individuals to bypass responsibility and to shirk the government established programs. Baby boxes also encourage a breach of fundamental human rights for the child to have its identity documented and protected.
Let’s also not downplay the issue of abuse of children by adoptive parents. Little Jeon-Ing was not the first or last child to die at the hands of her adoptive parents. The seriousness of the risk to adopted children should never be understated. An article written by Richard Wexler highlights the under reporting of child abuse cases in his article “Abuse in Foster Care: Research vs. the Child Welfare System’s Alternative Facts“. Wexler’s research found under reporting of abuse and neglect in numerous states across the USA. A study from Oregon and Washington state found one third of all children in foster care were abused. A study in Atlanta found 34% of the children experienced abuse where the goal was to assist them in being adopted. Mr. Wexler summarised his findings by stating “in survey’s going back for decades, from 25 percent to as high as 40 percent of foster children report having been abused or neglected in care”. The bottom line is that relatively few children are adopted in South Korea by its own citizens. In fact, only 260, children were adopted within the country in 2020. If you compare the number of abuse cases by the number of children that are actually adopted within Korea, the percentages of abuses dramatically climb up. An article written in 2021 by Grace Moon states that “13.35% of adopted children were victims of abuse, double that of children raised by their biological families.”
For the critics who use inflammatory language labelling the changes as the markings of a “Socialistic System” – this is is an attempt to fuel conservative follower-ship without recognising the hypocrisy of such a call. Even the most developed countries, including the USA have state funded programs that oversee the protection children. Here in the USA we have a government agency in each state listed under numerous names such as Child Protected Services (CPS), Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) or Department of Social Services (DSS). I wonder should we also label our American programs in child welfare and protection as “socialist” too?
Korea isn’t alone in attempting reform in adoption. Numerous other countries are reforming adoption laws because of their recognition that children are not being kept safe and that the current system of plenary adoption has many flaws. This is also thanks to the role played by adult adoptees who have worked tirelessly to advocate for our rights and needs. A growing number of countries such as Romania, Russia, Guatemala, Ethiopia and South Korea have either banned or placed laws that make it nearly impossible to adopt internationally. These changes came largely due to the unscrupulous practices of profit driven adoption agencies. One of numerous examples was highlighted by pro-adoption agency Adoptive Families Association of BC. The article summarized the issue by stating: “terrible conditions in Romanian orphanages after the overthrow of the Ceaucescu government in 1989, prompted parents from many countries to adopt thousands of abandoned children; it also spawned a lucrative adoption industry within the country. With little infrastructure, the system was vulnerable to unethical practices”.
My Recommendations to the Korean Government to Revise Adoption
My first recommendation would be for the Korean government to change its citizenship law. Unlike the USA and most countries, a Korean citizenship is not determined by being born within Korean territory. Citizenship instead, is conferred by jus sanguinis or through the “right of bloodlines” of an individual. This law means that “Children of Korean citizen women, who had either a non-Korean father or no known Korean father (no Korean man claimed paternity), were not Korean citizens — even if born in Korea.” The outcome of this law has had perverse affects: “therefore, many single mothers chose to “abandon” their “fatherless” child so that the child would have the rights and access to services, education, and employment as a Korean citizen, rather than have their child officially recorded as not having a Korean father and therefore being a non-citizen with no such rights.”
Another issue is the Korean government provides nearly 10 times the funding for orphanages compared to what’s provided for single mothers with children. The government should establish child welfare reforms so that single mothers have the resources to raise their children and be given the opportunity to thrive and become positive and contributing member of Korea’s society. Currently the only option is for the child to be plenary adopted or institutionalised for life. Not really a choice! We all know the researched outcomes of institutionalisation i.e, of retardation in child cognitive and emotional development, higher exposure to violence, and greater susceptibility to mental health issues.
Lastly, I recommend that South Korea establish stronger policies and laws for child support for single mothers. This includes enforcement to hold the fathers accountable and ensure they be responsible for the children they’ve sired. The Korean Herald highlighted this issue by stating, “83 percent of all single parents in South Korea never received any child support payments from non-custodial parents in 2012. Only 4.6 percent of them filed lawsuits. Even among those who won their cases, 77.34 percent said they never received any money, in spite of court orders.”
I am optimistic for a better era where South Korea holds itself more accountable for the long term well being of its children rather than exporting them en masse to other countries. Taking back responsibility via the revision to adoption processes is a great place to start!
Click here if you’d like to read Jayme’s other blogs at ICAV.
The desire to know my origins is an innate and fundamental human need (and right).
My need to know my origins is akin to your need to breath air that keeps you alive.
We only know our origins are important when we don’t have it, or access to it. For people like me, this is our daily lived experience!
As an intercountry adoptee, I live my whole life trying to find who I come from and why I was given up / stolen.
It’s really hard to know how to go forward in life if I don’t know how and why I came to be in this unnatural situation.
My life did not start at adoption! I have a genetic history, generations of people before me who contributed to who I am.
We cannot pretend in this world of adoption and family formation that genetics does not matter, it does – significantly; I am not a blank slate to be imprinted upon; there are consequences to this pretence and it shows in the statistics of our higher rates of adoptee youth suicide!
One of most shared experiences amongst adoptees whom I connect with, is the topic of “feeling all alone”, “like an alien” and yet human beings are not meant to be isolated. We are social beings desiring connection.
Separation from my natural origins and the knowledge of these, left me disconnected and lost in a fundamental way.
My life has been spent trying to reconnect – firstly with my inner self, then with the outer self, and with those around me, searching for a sense of belonging.
As an adoptee, I can be given all the material things in the world but it did not fix the hole that my soul feels, when it has nowhere and no-one to belong to, naturally.
My substitute family did not equate to a natural sense of belonging.
I searched for my origins because my innate feelings and experience of isolation and loss drove me to find where I came from and to make sense of how I got to be here.
by Mary Cardaras, adopted from Greece to the USA; Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at California State University East Bay.
This has been an incredible couple of years but, especially, in the very year of a global pandemic. It was in this year that I found my voice as an adoptee. Seemed like the stars aligned. Meant to be at this time, in this space. I have found people, or maybe it is they who found me, who have brought me out to my community of fellow adoptees, birth mothers, activists and supporters.
It all began after the death of my adoptive mother in 2018. (My father had died 18 years prior.) Her death was one of the saddest times of my life. Left again, I felt. She and I had grown so close over the years and spent much time together, but her leaving also provided the space I needed to consider life before her. And there was a life before her, however brief it may have been. Even my tiny self had a past. It was buried, though. Obscured. In many ways, erased.
What did it matter? How could it matter?
My adoption, which I had put to the side, had been front and center my entire growing up as a child and as a teenager. I didn’t put it there. Everyone else put it there. A label. A tag. My identity was imposed. Sometimes it stigmatized me. And it definitely made me an outsider looking in to a life that I lived, but one that I couldn’t really lay claim to. As mine. From where I actually came.
What brought me to this day and what is the reason that I can now write about it?
In 2018, I wanted to come closer to my roots as a Greek-born adoptee. I signed up for Greek language lessons at a church in Oakland, California. I went to class on my way home to Sonoma every Monday evening coming from the university where I taught. Those lessons re-connected me with my culture. It was an absolute joy to hear the language, learn to speak it, and revel in its complexity with my fellow students all, at least, partially Greek, but fully Greek in their love for it.
It was during this class that I was asked, από που είσαι? From where are you? Είμαι Ελληνίδα, I could proudly say with certainty. I am a Greek. Γεννήθηκα στην Αθήνα. I was born in Athens. Υιοθετήθηκα. I was adopted. I am adopted. Like the recitation of a mantra. Those two things identify me and they are the only two things I know for certain, as I have noted in my writing before.
My classmate, Kathy, mentioned, “I have a cousin who was adopted, Mary, who was also from Greece, too.” I was immediately intrigued. There was someone else who was from where I was and who was branded the same as me?!
“She has an incredible story, Mary,” Kathy said. “You need to meet her and, in fact, you will. She is coming to visit and I will bring her to class.” Kathy told me the story that day and with every sentence she uttered my eyes got wider and I kept repeating the words: No. Are you kidding? Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God. What? That is incredible!
Within a week or two of Kathy telling me her implausible story, Dena Poulias came to class. A pretty, blond-haired, blue-eyed woman, shy and quiet, she came with her cousin to hear our lesson. Did she want to participate, the teacher asked her? No, she demurred. She was only there to listen and to meet us.
After class I introduced myself more fully and told her I had heard her story. I am a writer, I told Dena. I would be honored to write your story. She told me she had been wanting to write her own story for years, but she hadn’t gotten around to it. She wasn’t a writer, she said. I gave her my number and my email address. I think I reached out once, but she wasn’t ready. Hers was a heavy, painful story. It just couldn’t have happened I tried to convince myself.
Weeks later, Dena wrote and said she was ready to talk. She decided she wanted me to tell her story and so over the course of about a year, in intervals of two days here, one week there, the next month we would talk. Well, she would talk and there was so much she couldn’t remember exactly. But her husband was her memory. So was her cousin, Kathy. And her sister. And her mother and father. The story, unlike anything else I had ever written, flowed out of me. I am a journalist and so wrote news and documentaries. This was different. Literary nonfiction. I was recreating scenes and dialogues told to me by first person sources. It was visual in scope. Many who read previews said it was cinematic. Whatever it was, it was all true. Dena, finally, was telling her own story to someone and I was inspired by her finally getting it out there.
In the course of writing, I needed some important information. I was about to implicate a respected Greek organization in some scandalous adoption practices during the 1950’s. Even poking around on my own on social media and asking questions brought some pretty hateful online comments. When I contacted the organization itself, it predictably denied any wrong doing. The president literally said, “I have no idea what you are talking about.” Come look through our files in Washington, D.C., he said. “We have nothing of the kind and no such history.”
Enter one Gonda Van Steen, one of the world’s preeminent scholars in modern Greek studies. In my research, I had come across her new book entitled Adoption, Memory and Cold War Greece: Kid Pro Quo?I wrote to her out of the blue, introduced myself, told her I was a reporter, and asked about this particular organization. Did she know it? Was it involved in the trade and, in some cases, in the “selling” of babies?
The organization was indeed involved in these unethical adoption practices. It was certainly part of Dena’s story. Gonda had said, in the course of our conversations, that the story I was writing sounded awfully familiar. In fact, Dena Poulias appears on pages 202 and 203 of her book and was one of the cases she had followed and chronicled. She said it had been one of the more “moving” stories that she had encountered. Gonda began to fill my head with history and put my own adoption in context.
I kept writing.
In early 2021, about the time I finished Dena’s story, I read another incredible book about adoption called American Baby, written by the brilliant, best-selling author, Gabrielle Glaser. I could not put it down and was transfixed by yet another incredible, unbelievable adoption story that was similar to Dena’s. This book is focused on domestic adoptions, which were just as horrific as what was happening on the international scene. Glaser’s writing both broke my heart and shook it awake somehow.
I decided, after consultation with Gonda, to collect stories from Greek born adoptees and put them into an anthology. This group of adoptees, “the lost children of Greece,” had never been heard from before! During conversations about approaching authors, Gonda suggested, you know, Mary, you should reach out to Gabrielle Glaser and ask her if she would write the Forward. On one hand, I thought that was a crazy idea. I mean, right. Gabrielle Glaser?! Really? Then I thought, well, why not? I wrote to her as I had written to Gonda. Cold. But she was there. She answered. She was lovely. And today we are friends. Her book also made me re-evaluate adoption itself. Including my own.
As I explained in a recent online forum about adoption, I felt like the Lion who found his courage, the Scarecrow, who found his brain, and the Tin Man who found his heart all at once. Dena gave me courage. Gonda made me think about what happened to me and thousands like me. And Gabrielle helped me to feel the beating of my own heart.
Through them I found my way to Greg Luce and Lynelle Long and Shawna Hodgson and so, so many others far too many to name. I stand now with them and our allies, talking and writing and advocating for adoptee rights.
That is how I came to this point. But why do I write here and now?
The sharing of my own adoption story has roused feelings and thoughts in others about me. They wonder. Why and how do I feel the way I do? Why didn’t I share before? My feelings make them sad. They thought I was happy. They simply don’t understand. And you know what? They may never. Understand. And that’s ok. I can’t and I won’t defend my feelings, which are real, however foreign and unreasonable they may seem to others.
I don’t have thoughts about whether or not I should have been adopted. I don’t have thoughts about whether my life in Greece would have been better. I don’t blame anyone for what happened to me and how it happened. I can’t go back and have a do-over with the people who were doing whatever they were doing. I do know they were making decisions that they thought, at the time, were in my best interests.
They didn’t realize that my birth mother was suffering. That she had a family, who had abandoned HER because she was a teenage, unwed mother. She was cast aside and she was relegated unimportant in the story of my life. How can that be? She and I were once one. She was promised by a proxy, that no one would “bother” her ever again. Has she ever recovered from the shame imposed on her? And from our separation? She needed support and love in order to make a sober decision about her baby, her own flesh and blood. I don’t care if she was 14 or 24. She needed help.
I have recently learned the number I was assigned when I was placed in the Athens Foundling Home on January 11, 1955. It is 44488. This means thousands of children came before me, all relegated to numbers. The number, cold as it is, can unlock some information I want and need. I checked some old letters back and forth from the social service agency that handled my case. One letter says there are two people listed on the papers when I entered that orphanage. A mother and a father. I have her name. I want his. Who am I? From where did I come? And what happened? Fundamental to every person’s wholeness is knowledge about their past.
Think of this. If you were not adopted, as you grew up you heard your own story, perhaps over and over again. It was sweet and sentimental as you listened to the story of your own birth and early days. You were conceived under a certain set of circumstances. You were born under a certain set of circumstances. Your parents remember that day. They tell you about that day, what you did, what they did, how you looked, what you weighed, what it was like when they brought you home, what kind of a baby you were. In sum, you had a story that people shared with you. My story started the minute I came into the arms of another family that was not my own. There was something, however brief, before, and I do not know it. That is the point.
I was placed with wonderful adoptive parents and into a large, loving Greek-American family. I did not lose my language or my culture. My parents were incredibly loving and I cannot describe the depth of my love for them and for my grandparents. I appreciate the life they gave me. I appreciate my family and my friends. I was a happy kid and an even happier adult. Those who know me would likely describe my love of life and laughter and my level of commitment to the things and people I care about.
BUT this has nothing, nothing whatsoever to do with what came before. These are two separate things. The adoptees I know strive to become complete human beings. That means they had a past and need to know fully about it. They deserve open adoption records, original birth certificates and citizenship of origin, if they want it. Adoptees are entitled to these and we are also entitled to our feelings and thoughts about our own lives. As one adoptee recently explained, meeting a birth parent enables you to cut the emotional umbilical cord. We invite others to ask questions because they care about understanding us, but please don’t put us on the defensive. We don’t have to explain. We are tired of explaining. We are just thinking through our own, personal experiences, which are all different.
I crave connection. Deep, unmistakable connection to others. You know it when you feel it with another human being. Maybe you feel it so completely that you feel like you have known them all your life or in another life. You know what I am talking about. For me, that connection is almost something divine. I run toward the light and hold that little flame like a precious, fragile flower. I take care of it. Nurture it. I love to feel like I belong and sometimes that feeling, so beautiful, is elusive in the mind and heart of an adoptee.
This adoptee is also gay. So, there are two points of difference that I have had to navigate.
I have been with the same woman for nearly 30 years. Fifteen years or so ago I adopted her sons from a previous marriage. There is no easy way to say this, but their father abandoned them when they were small. I was every bit a parent with her from the time the boys were 2 and 3 years old. They could not have been more “my children.” Our friends recognized my place in their lives, of course, but there were others who never could and never did.
My partner was the “real” parent. Those were “her” boys, not mine, never mine in the eyes of some. I was not a part of their family, but merely an outsider. This was incredibly painful. In fact, just recently the boys (now men) were introduced as her sons while I was standing right there.
What meaning does adoption hold? No, I am serious. Hell, I don’t even know and I was adopted and have adopted!
I was able to re-establish my Greek citizenship years ago and I am happy for it, grateful for it.
Being able to attain it has been the exception to the rule, I have learned. It was, in many ways, a humiliating experience trying to prove over and over again who I was, where I was born and to whom. There was the problem of an altered birth certificate, which never should have happened and it certainly didn’t help, but that’s another story.
My partner is fully Greek (American). The children are fully Greek (American). My partner got her Greek citizenship through her parents (who were born in Greece) and we wanted the boys, too, to also have their Greek citizenship in case, in the future, they someday wanted to work in Greece or within the EU. It was going to be an uphill battle to prove the Greek connection through their maternal grandparents and then also through their own Greek father and his parents, with whom they are no longer in contact. But wait! I was their legal parent and also born Greek. A citizen! They could get citizenship through me, a legal parent. Couldn’t they? Easy, no? But just hold on!
This was not to be. Because I was not a birth parent, lacking that biological connection, it was not allowed. People are getting Greek citizenship through parents and grandparents. Others are being granted Greek citizenship because they are famous scholars or actors or authors, having no biological connection to the people of the country. But me, a Greek-born adoptee, who happened to adopt two Greek-American boys, could not establish citizenship for my sons. Are they less my sons because we are not biologically related? Are they not my sons at all?
You see why we feel the way we do. It is complicated and it often means little in the eyes of some. There remains a stigma. There is discrimination. Still.
Blood is thicker than water. You enjoy the company of some families almost as an honored guest, but often not as a bona fide member. You’re out there of someone else, but not fully theirs.
I don’t blame anyone. I’m not angry. But this is my reality. I own it all and I’m ok with it. I have to be. But to all friends and family of adoptees, please understand that not only are we entitled to all our records. We are also entitled to our experiences and our feelings. They do not reflect on you. They’re not about you. Let us have them. Let us own our cause. And please try to listen first.
Mary holds a Ph.D. in Public and International Affairs and is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication where she teaches Political Communication, Journalism and Documentary Film at California State University, East Bay. Mary is currently compiling an anthology of Greek adoptee stories and has 13 contributors for the collection with the working title “Voices of the Lost Children of Greece”, to be published by Anthem Press in 2022. If you would like to participate, please contact Mary.
I was asked to speak about the lifelong impacts of identity loss. So I shared my story and some statements from fellow adoptees to highlight our experience.
I am one of these children who has not had my identity protected. Children like me, grow up. We don’t stay children forever – and we can have opinions and thoughts about the structures, processes, policy and legislations that impact us and create our lives. I am honoured to be asked to represent just one small group of us with lived experience, that the forum represents as “children from alternative care options”.
I was adopted from Vietnam during the war in 1973. The war ended in April 1975. My adoptive father flew into the country while it was still at war and flew me out as a 5 month old baby. My papers were supposed to follow but they never arrived and my adoption was not finalised.
I lived for almost 17 years in Australia without an identity. It was the family joke that I made the perfect spy because I didn’t exist. I was keenly aware of not existing and having no paperwork – it made me feel insecure, insignificant, unseen.
The practical impacts of not having any identity papers for 17 years were that I could not apply for a passport and travel outside Australia, I could not get my drivers licence, I could not apply for anything like a bank account and, more importantly, I was not followed up on since arriving in the country by any child welfare authority nor the adoption agency.
Finally when I was 16 years old, I wanted to get my drivers licence so my adoptive parents were finally propelled to take action. They went though the adoption process again, this time through the State not a private agency, and my adoption was formalised just before I turned 17 years old.
I was given a brand new Australian identity. It does not state my Vietnamese identity only recognises the country that I was born in, Vietnam.
Via this 17-year-late process of intercountry adoption, was there an official check for any of my identity documents in Vietnam? Or a check to confirm my adoptability or relinquishment? These questions remain unanswered for me. I was certainly never offered other options like having help to look for my origins in Vietnam .. I was only ever told that being adopted was THE solution so I’d be able to exist and have some sort of identity.
In my mid 20s – 30s, I spent over a decade trying to obtain my identity and adoption papers from Vietnam. Via my ICAV network, I came across an ex-policeman who had helped a few other Vietnamese adoptees. He somehow found what appears to be a Vietnamese birth certificate, and he took a blurry photo and sent it to me.
When I traveled to Vietnam in 2019, I went to the place where that document was said to be kept, only to be told the usual story – a flood or natural disaster destroyed ALL paperwork from that whole year. They have nothing for me. I visited the hospital where I was apparently born, only to be told I could not access my mother’s file without her permission – what a vicious cycle! I visited the police station precinct where the stamp on the birth certificate identifies it is held, only to be also told they wouldn’t help me. I asked for help during my visit to the central authority of Vietnam and was told to fill out a form via the website — which is in Vietnamese, which I can’t read or write in. There are so many barriers to being able to access my identity. Language is a HUGE one!
I have since done a few DNA tests and had genealogists help me, but that hasn’t been too successful either.
This struggle to find our identity, is very common for an intercountry adoptee like myself and is definitely worse for those of us who have been adopted out of a war torn or crisis filled country. In the rush to help “rescue” children like myself, processes are bypassed or sped up and vital information gets lost.
Our ICAV Community
Feeling isolated for most of my childhood, in my mid 20s I founded our international network ICAV that provides peer support to intercountry adoptees like myself who struggle just like I did. But I am only one voice amongst hundreds of thousands globally, so it’s important you hear more than just my voice!
I asked the ICAV community to share with you what their lifelong impacts of identity loss are. I’m going to share with you just 8 out of the 50 responses to highlight some of their experiences:
Many thanks to those adoptees who were willing to share!
Within our ICAV community, we could write a few books about the lifelong impacts of identity loss, many have already. There are so many more complexities that I haven’t talked about such as twins being purposively separated for adoption (not being told they’re a twin and the extra layers of impact for them of identity loss); 2nd generation adoptees (children of adoptees) and their lack of access in legislation to their inherited identity; etc. I hope my short talk helped expand your mind from the theoretical to the lived experience which speaks so loudly about the importance of identity rights for communities such as mine.
By Lina Vanegas, MSW and adopted from Colombia to the USA.
It is shameful that suicide is so highly stigmatized by society. Religion and the law have contributed to the stigmazitization of suicide. The law has perpetuated their stances by creating laws that make suicide illegal. There are 26 countries where suicide is currently illegal including Kenya, Bahamas and Jordan. It is completely wrong to criminalize, shame and stigmatize people who are struggling and suffering. Religion and the law are not the only institutions or systems to do this but I use them as an example to demonstrate how much impact they have on society. All of these thoughts are absorbed by society which doesn’t inspire or create empathy, compassion or understanding for people who are suffering.
The shame and stigmatization around suicide is evident in the language that we use to discuss suicide. When we say “committed suicide” we are likening it to a crime. It’s truly not a crime. We do not say a person “committed” cancer, a heart attack, a stroke, or Covid, We do say someone “committed” murder, a robbery, an assault, or rape. Those are crimes.. The crime around suicide is that someone died because they were struggling so much internally, mentally, and emotionally. Let’s also stop saying they “killed themself.” What killed that person was a mental health struggles and they died by suicide. It is essential that we create a paradigm shift where we lead with empathy, compassion and understanding.
When people use this terminology, they are stigmatizing suicide. A person who died by suicide has friends, family, neighbors, acquaintances and loved ones. When they hear this choice of words it hurts them—and they are already grappling with the stigmatization of a suicide death. You may know them, but they will probably not talk to you about their loss after they hear you use such hurtful and insensitive language.
Western society stigmatizes and shames those who struggle with mental health issues and mental illness. There are a myriad of expressions and things that use suicide in the name/title that are offensive and cruel to those who have (or are) struggling with suicidal thought/ideations, have attempted suicide, and for those of us who have lost a loved one to suicide. People will use the expression quite freely “I am going to kill myself” and “I will just kill myself” and “Go kill yourself.” These are daggers for those who have been impacted by suicide. These comments are completely tone deaf, insensitive and cruel, and reflect the general lack of understanding and empathy around suicide.
We need to make the discussion around adoptee suicide an ongoing and regular conversation. It is not enough for us to talk about it sporadically. This conversation needs to be had three hundred and sixty five days a year. Adoptees are struggling and suffering twenty four hours, seven days a week and three hundred and sixty five days a year. The statistic that adoptees are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide is from research published in 2013 by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
We need current research done on adoptees all over the world. I am writing from the United States so the ideal organizations to fund and conduct this are the American foundation for Suicide Prevention and the American Association of Suicidology. These studies would help inform prevention, awareness and education. Until society realizes the mental health crisis that adoptees are facing, we will continue to be struggling in silence. We are an invisible and oppressed community literally fighting for our lives. We desperately need support and suicide prevention.
I wanted to pay tribute and honor the two adoptees that have died this month. They were both transracial intercountry adoptees. It’s is key to highlight that there is a link between this and mental health struggles, racism and suicide. Many of us experience microaggressions and racism due to us not being white. These experiences impact our mental health . Adoptive parents have no idea what this is like as they do not experience this incidents and many prefer not to see our race so that does nothing to help us. Some adoptive parents perpetuate racism and microagressions which take a toll on our mental health.
Alejandro Gobright died June 2. He was adopted from Guatemala to the United States. He is described from a tribute I read as “a great singer, poet and incredible friend.”
Seid Visin died June 4. He was adopted from Ethiopia to Italy. He played at the youth academies of AC Milan and Benevento. He explained in a letter before his suicide death how he was suffering from constant racial abuse and treatment. It is essential to point out that his adopted father went out of his way to point out after Seid’s death that racism did not play a role in his death. This is a clear example of an adoptive parent ignoring, not listening and not wanting to deal with the struggles Seid was dealing with.
I am extremely sad and angry every time I write about adoptee suicides. These deaths impact the entire adoptee community. Alejandro and Seid are a part of all of us. There are roughly five to seven million adoptees in the world and it’s time that we begin to talk about adoptee suicide.
Read Lina’s other articles on Adoptee Suicide, Part 1 & Part 2.
A little while ago I had a conversation with my adopted coach about my pregnancy. After the conversation I realised that during my first pregnancy and maternity period I actually printed away all my feelings and sadness.
During my first pregnancy and maternity period I felt a void, loss and a huge desire for my own mother in Korea. What I didn’t and couldn’t feel and receive during the first weeks of my existence, I now had to live up to and take on with my own daughter.
I am aware of the feelings and consequences of my own trauma in the meantime. And motherhood. But what about my mom? Is it something that was taken from her? Or what she chose then? It keeps gnawing at me, now stronger than ever. With the delivery at the door, I am increasingly wondering: “Will the loss be present again at that moment?”
It hits me that a new life is emerging within me and that I pass on my own DNA which literally becomes visible. My own family line starts here for me. I suddenly realise that it is the pain, lack and desire that is so palpable. It’s taking shape and literally a face, because I see it in my kids again. But what exactly am I longing for? Towards equality and a mirror image? Does my role as a mother get a desire for a parent that looks like me? Can anyone tell me that I inherited it from him or her? That it’s “normal” in our culture and someone taking me to show me how she would have done it? Is this the desire that sometimes makes pregnancy and maternity for an adopted person so difficult and a lonely one?
The fear of childbirth itself falls into thin air with the fear I feel for after childbirth. How will the outside world react if I’m not just me? How will I personally respond to this? Because the baby is here now, so I am now “healthy”.
From whom do I even need approval to be allowed to show these feelings? I know I can keep my own time and pace for my process. So also for all my feelings and emotions during this period. As a friend said:
“Don’t forget 9 months on and 9 months off. And what if you are of yourself purely you. Can that be yours?”
The feelings and emotions I am experiencing for the second time now are similar to ‘grief’. For my feeling it’s deeper than grief. Deeper than I can explain and maybe handle. It’s mourning and lack of my parents whom I don’t know. Desire for a love that I never received myself in those moments of a newborn. So how can I give my own children that?
The desire that I was as desired as my own children, that my parents saw a future with me and would have me forever in their lives. That desire hurts because I don’t know the answer.
Now the load of guilt and shame is heavier for my feeling. Again grief and lacking a place that didn’t actually have to be there. That place should be filled with love. And I am also fulfilled with that. Lots of love all my life. Love for connection.
This piece is so elusive to the outside world. Because how do you explain this and why do we want to get the other person back into the “okay” zone? Is it too painful to see the other person suffer like this and can’t you deal with the powerlessness you feel? May my pain and sorrow be there? For a while or for longer?
I need it to be able to grow further and to process it. Eventually it will be part of me that I can live with and be with.
That same girlfriend I was just talking about called it “living loss”. It’s there and it will never go away completely. Is that bad? And will you allow that?
No it’s ok and I allow it. If it is there later, I hug the fear so firmly that it is smothered in love. Then I know, this is possible and we can handle this.
IS IT A DEPRESSION THEN?
This too feels deeper. Deeper than depression. It is an overworked desire and loss that accompanies grief. Mourning the (un)known. Because in my body my parents feel familiar. I just can’t always reach that feeling. It’s not depression, it’s mourning my beginning and at the same time losing my original existence.
My wish is that everything can be there. That the feeling of love and pride in my body will prevail. That our family is strong enough to handle anything. That I am the mother I have longed for myself. No! No! No!
I’m not her, but carry a piece of her and also my dad. I honour them by passing on their genes and their existence. In love, in feeling and with my own and our shared experiences.
Verlies, Verlangen & Rouw
Afgelopen week had ik een gesprek met mijn adoptiecoach over mijn zwangerschap. Na het gesprek realiseerde ik mij dat ik tijdens mijn eerste zwangerschap en kraamperiode al mijn gevoelens en verdriet eigenlijk heb weggedrukt.
Tijdens mijn eerste zwangerschap en kraamperiode voelde ik een leegte, gemis en een enorm verlangen naar mijn eigen moeder in Korea. Wat ik zelf niet heb kunnen en mogen voelen en ontvangen tijdens de eerste weken van mijn bestaan, moest ik nu waarmaken en aangaan bij mijn en eigen dochter.
Ik ben mij ondertussen bewust van de gevoelens en gevolgen van mijn eigen trauma. En van het moederschap. Maar hoe zit het bij mijn moeder? Is het iets wat haar is ontnomen? Of waar ze toen voor heeft gekozen? Het blijft aan me knagen, nu sterker dan ooit. Met de bevalling voor de deur vraag ik me steeds meer af: “Zal het verlies op dat moment weer aanwezig zijn?”
Het raakt mij dat er een nieuw leven in mij ontstaat en dat ik mijn eigen DNA doorgeef wat letterlijk zichtbaar wordt. Mijn eigen familielijn start hier voor mij. Ik besef me ineens dat het de pijn, het gemis en verlangen is wat zo voelbaar is. Het krijgt vorm en letterlijk een gezicht, want ik zie het in mijn kinderen terug. Maar waar verlang ik precies naar? Naar een gelijkheid en een spiegelbeeld? Krijgt mijn rol als moeder een verlangen naar een ouder die op mij lijkt? Die kan vertellen dat ik het heb geërfd van hem of van haar? Dat het “normaal” is in onze cultuur en dat iemand mij aan de hand neemt en laat zien hoe zij het zou hebben gedaan? Is dit het verlangen wat de zwangerschap en kraamperiode voor een geadopteerde soms zo moeilijk een eenzaam maakt?
De angst voor de bevalling zelf valt in het niets met de angst die ik voel voor ná de bevalling. Hoe zal de buitenwereld reageren als ik toch niet gelijk mijzelf ben? Hoe zal ik zelf reageren hierop? Want de baby is er nu, dus ben ik nu weer “gezond”.
Van wie heb ik überhaupt goedkeuring nodig om deze gevoelens te mogen tonen? Ik weet dat ik mijn eigen tijd en tempo mag aanhouden voor mijn proces. Dus ook voor al mijn gevoelens en emoties tijdens deze periode. Zoals een vriendin zei:
“Vergeet niet 9 maanden op en 9 maanden af. En wat als je van jezelf puur jij bent. Mag dat van jou?”
De gevoelens en emoties die ik nu voor de tweede keer ervaar zijn vergelijkbaar met ‘rouw’. Voor mijn gevoel is het dieper dan rouw. Dieper dan ik kan uitleggen en misschien aankan. Het is rouw en gemis van mijn ouders die ik niet ken. Verlangen naar een liefde die ik zelf nooit heb gekregen in die momenten van een pasgeborene. Dus hoe kan ik mijn eigen kinderen dat dan wel geven?
Het verlangen dat ik net zo gewenst was als mijn eigen kinderen, dat mijn ouders een toekomst mét mij zagen en voor altijd mij in hun leven wouden hebben. Dat verlangen doet pijn, want ik weet het antwoord niet.
Nu is de lading van schuld en schaamte zwaarder voor mijn gevoel. Krijgen verdriet en gemis een plek die er eigenlijk niet hoefden te zijn. Die plek zou gevuld moeten zijn met liefde. En ook daar ben ik vervuld mee. Heel veel liefde, mijn hele leven lang. Liefde voor verbinding.
Dit stuk is zo ongrijpbaar voor de buitenwereld. Want hoe leg je dit uit en waarom willen wij de ander zo graag weer in de “oké zone” krijgen? Is het te pijnlijk om de ander zo te zien lijden en kun je niet omgaan met de machteloosheid die je dan voelt? Mag mijn pijn en verdriet er zijn? Voor even of voor langer?
Ik heb het nodig om verder te kunnen groeien en om het te verwerken. Uiteindelijk zal is het een onderdeel van mij waar ik zelf mee kan leven en mee kan zijn.
Diezelfde vriendin waar ik het net over had noemde het “levend verlies”. Het is er en het zal nooit volledig weggaan. Is dat erg? En sta je dat toe?
Nee het is niet erg en ik sta het toe. Als het straks er wel is, dan omhels ik de angst zo stevig dat het smoort in liefde. Dan weet ik, dit kan en dit kunnen wij aan.
IS HET DAN EEN DEPRESSIE?
Ook dit voelt dieper. Dieper dan een depressie. Het is een overwerkt verlangen en verlies wat gepaard gaat met rouw. Rouwen om het (on)bekende. Want in mijn lichaam voelen mijn ouders als bekend. Ik kan er alleen niet altijd bij, bij dat gevoel. Het is geen depressie, het is rouwen om mijn begin en tegelijk om mijn verlies van mijn originele bestaan.
Mijn wens is dat alles er mag en kan zijn. Dat het gevoel van liefde en trots in mijn lichaam zal overheersen. Dat ons gezin sterk genoeg is om alles aan te kunnen. Dat ik de moeder ben waar ik zelf naar heb verlangd. Nee…
Ik ben haar niet, maar draag een stuk van haar en ook mijn vader mee. Ik eer ze door hun genen en hun bestaan door te geven. In liefde, op gevoel en met eigen en gezamenlijke ervaringen.
I was born in China. That’s it, end of origin story. That’s all I know. I was probably born in Jiangsu Province, but even that’s not certain. The earliest known record of my existence is a medical examination when I was estimated to be 20 days old. Many of my friends know where they were born, what hospital, what day, some even know the time down to the second as well as how long it took. I know none of that. They know who was present at the time they were born, what family members they met first. I know none of that. My legal birth date is estimated from when I was found, I have no original birth registration. My name was given to me by orphanage officials. I don’t know what my name was or if my biological parents had even bothered to give me a name. The record of where I was found and when have been lost or forgotten. My (adoptive) mother wrote in a scrapbook which county they were told I was found in. There are no records of it, I have no abandonment certificate like some Chinese adoptees do and I have no recorded finding ad. For many intents and purposes, my life began when I was adopted by a white Canadian couple when I was under a year old. I am one of thousands of Chinese children adopted by foreigners after China opened its doors to intercountry adoption in 1991.
Like most Chinese adoptees, I was adopted under the shadow of the One Child Policy, first introduced in 1979. The One Child Policy (the unofficial name for the birth restriction policy) dictated that couples were only allowed to have one child. There were exceptions for rural families and ethnic minorities, but the policy was implemented and unequally enforced across the country, with varying levels of violence. The cultural preference for sons is well-publicized and is believed to be the reason behind why the majority of Chinese adoptions under the One Child Policy were girls. It is widely known and accepted among the Chinese adoptee community, the majority of us who were born female, that we were relinquished (or stolen) because of our sex at birth.
China’s changing birth restrictions
On May 31, 2021, I checked the news and saw a CBC article that said China had eased its birth restrictions and would now allow couples to have up to three children, instead of the previous two, which was implemented in 2016. I remember reading a similar news article in 2015 when it was announced that China was relaxing the One Child Policy for the first time in decades to allow for two children per couple. At the time, I didn’t think much of it, I was happy that the restrictions were loosened and sad that they were still policing reproductive rights. And yet, this morning when seeing the news, I felt much more strongly. Perhaps it is because during the pandemic, I made an effort to connect to the adoptee community, through joining online Facebook groups, run by adoptees for adoptees. I started trying to (re)learn Mandarin, which I had long since forgotten, despite being put in Mandarin lessons when I was little. Maybe it’s because of the spotlight put on anti-Black and anti-Asian racism due to the multiple high-profile police killings of Black people, the surge in Asian hate crimes due to the racist rhetoric about the origin of the pandemic, that’s forced me to more closely examine my own racial and cultural identity as a Canadian, transracial, Chinese, intercountry adoptee. But perhaps most of all, it’s because I have two sisters, also adopted from China, something that wasn’t allowed in China for most families until now.
For many reasons, reading the news article on China’s new relaxed policy, gave me many more mixed feelings. Again, the happiness at a relaxed policy and the sadness and disappointment at the continued policing of women’s bodies and reproductive rights. But this time, it came with another feeling: anger. I am angry. It feels like a slap to the face for all Chinese adoptees and their biological families who were (forcefully) separated under the One Child Policy. It feels like it was for nothing, even more than before. What was the point of my biological parents relinquishing me (if that’s what happened) if they were just going to change the policy later? What was the point in creating the policy when the birth rate was already falling, as it does when women are given greater access to education, careers and contraceptives, and now they want to increase the birth rate again? What was the point of stripping me of my name, my birthday, my culture, when the driving force behind my abandonment has been (semi-)reversed? If Chinese couples are now allowed to have three children (the same number as my sisters and I), then what was the point of the policy which drove thousands of children, mostly girls, to be abandoned, aborted and trafficked?
Now the policy has been changed and so what? I’m still a Chinese adoptee, living thousands of kilometres from my birth country, with no easy way to connect to any living blood relatives, unless I want to attempt a search. I’m still a Chinese adoptee who doesn’t know my birth name, birthday or birthplace. South Korean adoptees fought for and successfully lobbied the South Korean government for recognition and (limited) reparations. They have been given a way to recover their South Korean citizenship and are now eligible to apply for the F-4 (Korean Heritage) Visa. During the pandemic, the South Korean government sent free face masks for Korean adoptees. China does not acknowledge dual citizenship, nor does it provide adoptees with a special visa that would allow them an easier way return to their birth country. China does not acknowledge intercountry adoptees or how the thousands of children who were adopted internationally were direct consequences of the One Child Policy. The policy has been loosened and now Chinese couples can have up to three children, like my family in Canada. The policy that likely drove my adoption has been loosened and yet nothing has changed for me, and the Chinese government moves on.
I don’t like thinking of the what-ifs and what-could-be’s. I don’t like imagining what my life could have been if I was never relinquished (or stolen), if I was never adopted, if I was adopted by a Chinese couple instead etc. But this recent announcement has forced me to think about the what-ifs. Specifically, “What if my birth family had been able to keep me because they weren’t restricted by the One Child Policy?” I’m happy and satisfied with my current life. Despite the occasional hiccups, racist micro-aggressions and identity struggles, I wouldn’t change anything. That doesn’t mean I can’t and won’t mourn the life that was taken from me due to the One Child Policy. I mourn that I don’t know what my biological parents named me (if they did). I mourn that I don’t know the date, time and location where I was born. I mourn that I don’t know, and may never know, if I look like any of my biological relatives. I mourn that I will likely never know the full story behind my adoption. I mourn that as a Canadian, I will never feel fully comfortable in China and that as a Chinese adoptee, I will never be seen as fully Canadian. And I’m angry that for the Chinese government, they can change the One Child Policy and move on, while I and thousands of others will bear the consequences for the rest of our lives.
I miss you every day but most of all today. The pain never fades. You were taken from me twice, I have grieved you twice. You lived the hardest life and still managed to be the most incredible human. You were kind, loving, fun, confident, and an incredible cook! From the moment I came back, you were instantly a loving mother towards me, picking up where we left off. I felt like I was home, I felt fully relaxed for the first time. Amma, I could see the pain and trauma in your eyes. I know it was hard to see me and remember all of the trauma you felt many years ago. I had always felt it too. I miss you!
by Dilsah de Rham adopted from Sri Lanka to Switzerland.
Ink, Watercolours, Pastel
This is also about the dilemma of the dualities in life faced by adoptees in general. The feeling of the blind unconsciousness – the sad, overwhelmed feelings when we are not aware, the awareness about our identity, feeling in-between the white and biological cultures we belong to as intercountry adoptees.