by Mark Hagland adopted from South Korea to the USA.
I early-voted in the U.S. presidential election today, and I was struck by my own feeling of emotion over once again having the privilege to vote. And, once again, I was reminded of my identity as an immigrant to my country, the U.S. I arrived here through international adoption when I was 8 months old, and have been voting now for several decades, but am always acutely conscious that I was not born in this country–and that for many white, native-born (non-immigrant) Americans, I will always be perceived as a foreigner, as a new arrival (even though I arrived more than 59 years ago now).
Indeed, growing up, I had the perpetual feeling that my very existence was somehow conditional, and predicated on achieving some norm of behavior, since I perceived my very existence as somehow transgressing the norms of the society I grew up in (since, growing up, I was constantly othered and made to feel a foreigner). And therein lies some complexity, because while on the one hand, many white Americans will never see me as truly, fully, American, on the other hand, I certainly am no longer a citizen of my birth country, South Korea; and, in the extremely unlikely event that I were given the right to vote in South Korea, I would have absolutely zero capability to make informed voting choices in any case, lacking not only the language, but even more importantly, any social, cultural, historical, or political context for understanding how to make choices with regard to voting in that country (and, to be clear, I don’t think that someone with zero familiarity with the current events of a nation should really be participating in such an important process as voting, in any case).
I should also add that, returning to my birth country three times as an adult, I was made to feel like an absolute foreigner and alien, which only intensified my feelings of complexity around identity and belonging. So my experience today reminded me once again, as an adult transracial and international adoptee, of the complexity of my identity, and of the unusual mindspace in which I will always live.
My identity will never be simple, nor will others’ perceptions of my identity always be hyphenated, and the perception of others in my society will always be complex, layered, and in some cases, conflicted. And the same has been true, as I alluded to above, regarding my interactions with my birth country, and residents of my birth country and immigrants from my birth country. In other words, my very identity continues to be hyphenated for so very many–and always will be so. I’m not sure, but I would imagine that other American intercountry adoptees might be able to relate to this. In any case, thank you for reading and considering it.
For previous blogs from Mark, click here and here.
To the world, I’ve looked like the happiest person alive and yes, I was happy. I was also, very lost and confused. Apparently because I talk about the “dark-side” of adoption, some people find it a bit too negative, and conclude therefore I must be unhappy and need to change, right? Wrong! It’s actually the complete opposite. I’ve never been happier and I’m finally becoming my true self!
Talking about these important issues, makes me feel more alive, more myself and more positive. That is true healing. ADOPTION CHANGED ME, that’s a fact, it rewired my brain, adoption taught my brain trauma based thinking. But I didn’t know this until I was much older. I never understood the cause of my self sabotaging behaviour, after all, why would I think “beautiful, life saving adoption” could possibly be the cause.
One of the hardest silent battles I’ve been through, is with weight and eating. I’ve been on diets and have been restrictive with how I’ve eaten for most of my life. I’m starting to now understand that just like the Adoption Industry, the Weight Loss Industry also preys heavily on the vulnerable. I’m learning to eat intuitively. My body, my mind, knows exactly what it needs. I’m not depriving myself of whole food groups. When I deprive, this leads to binging and spiralling downhill .. And inevitably starting a new diet. A cycle that constantly has my body and mind living in fear of eating and not eating.
I was recently on the Keto diet. It made me feel incredible, but I was cutting out all carbs, aside from what was in vegetables. I’ve slowly started introducing small amounts of the dreaded carbohydrates back into my diet, it’s been tough, I’ve felt the most intense guilt at even thinking about eating carbs, that’s not normal. But you know what? I feel AMAZING!! I’m now taking back the power. My body is my home, I will take care of it. That also means, spoiling myself sometimes and being happy about doing that for myself!! Having healthy eating habits will not only help me, it will help my children and teach them good habits too. Time to break the cycle!
Nous ne choisissons pas de naître Nous ne choisissons pas d’être adopté.e
par Thomas Zemikaele SJ né eb Ethiopie et élevé en France. English translation here.
Comme à des milliers de personnes adoptées, une des nombreuses questions qui m’a été posée fut “Tu viens d’où ?” Ma réponse commençait invariablement de la même manière : “Je viens de loin. Et même de très loin.” Car psychologiquement, géographiquement, et comme beaucoup de personnes, je (re)viens de loin.
Longtemps et plutôt inconsciemment, j’ai considéré que j’avais eu de la chance. La chance d’avoir été choisi, malgré tout, la chance d’avoir pu être sauvé. C’était une loyauté implicite. Mais tout aussi inconsciemment et en parallèle, une part de moi ressentait fermement que c’était et que c’est en réalité un faux sujet que cette loyauté. Une approche et une lecture pernicieuses même.
Aujourd’hui, je le dis sans hésitation et sans trembler : en tant que personne adoptée, nous ne devons absolument rien. Je dis bien : absolument rien. Pourtant, mon propre parcours me ferait dire, et ferait dire volontiers, que je suis supposé devoir quelque chose, la survie. Sauf que je ne suis pas responsable de ce qui s’est produit. Avoir été adopté n’est pas, de mon point de vue, et ne peut pas être fondamentalement avoir été sauvé. Alors que c’est exactement ce que les autres entendaient lorsque je leur disais d’où je venais ; ils entendaient que j’avais été sauvé (grâce à l’adoption). Mais s’ils m’avaient bien écouté, ils auraient surtout entendu autre chose, ce que j’avais pourtant clairement dit : j’ai survécu. La nuance est de taille.
Car oui, il serait plus exact de dire que j’ai survécu. J’ai survécu car même en ayant souffert moralement et physiquement, en touchant du doigt la solitude glaçante, en ayant ressenti la peur, l’inconfort, en ayant été immergé dans une obscurité où la mort n’était pas bien loin, j’ai tenu. J’ai tenu car mon père biologique avait été là, juste un peu avant que je ne fasse l’expérience de la laideur du monde. Il avait fait en sorte que je survive. De lui, oui, je pourrais dire qu’il m’a sauvé. Oui. Et s’il y a bien un autre être à qui je dois quelque chose, un sentiment, une chaleur, c’est à ma mère, celle qui a dû supporter l’impensable pour une mère : accepter et continuer de vivre sans son premier enfant. Elle non plus n’a pas choisi.
Systématiquement, chaque fois que je songe à ces décennies perdues, gâchées par le hasard et les circonstances, gâchées par l’incompétence de certains incapables, ma gorge se noue et je dois m’efforcer de retenir et mes larmes et mes cris. Si je m’autorisais à flancher, une seconde, juste une seconde, on me prendrait pour un fou. Je dois à mon père les risques qu’il a pris et fait prendre aux autres, sur plus de 1000 kilomètres pour ne pas que je succombe. Non, ni mes parents, ni ma terre, ni moi, n’avons véritablement choisi tout ce qui a suivi.
Bien sûr, je peux être respectueux de ce que j’ai eu par la suite, des soins, de l’éducation, du toit qui n’a pas toujours été protecteur et apaisant, je peux être respectueux pour l’assiette pleine. J’ai été et je suis respectueux mais pas redevable. Je ne dois rien. Car je n’ai rien demandé, j’ai accepté. Accepté de vivre. Mais ce qui m’avait été promis, ce qui avait été promis au travers du deal de l’adoption, je ne l’ai pas vraiment eu, loin de là. J’ai subi d’autres pertes, mon sourire s’est fait plus rare, mes rires ont disparu, beaucoup trop tôt, mes douleurs ne se sont pas toutes envolées. Ma flamme intérieure a continué de vaciller sous les vents de l’existence et des névroses d’adultes. La sécurité, la paix, ne parlons même pas du bonheur, je ne les ai pas vraiment eus. J’ai fait avec. Ou plutôt sans.
Mais “ça va” ! Combien de fois a-t-on éludé des questions derrière ce “ça va” alors que rien n’allait. Bref beaucoup de choses sont désormais claires dans mon esprit, je ne négocie plus ni implicitement ni ouvertement. Tous comme certains de mes souvenirs enfouis jusqu’ici, ma colère se libère. Une colère froide, une colère qui n’emprisonne plus, une colère qui n’aveugle plus. Une colère que je pense être légitime. Je n’avais pas compris. Je ne comprenais pas. Je n’avais pas digéré.
De nombreux témoignages loin d’être anecdotiques, et pourtant on continue de présenter l’adoption comme une chance, un cadeau. Mais à bien y réfléchir, NOUS SOMMES le cadeau. Nous n’avons reçu aucun cadeau et n’en recevons toujours aucun. Sauf à considérer que le fardeau de la survie soit un vrai cadeau. Nous avons perdu et continuons parfois à perdre au fil du temps. Clairement, nous sommes offerts à des destinées hasardeuses, et rien ne nous est offert. Pas même parfois l’amour désintéressé, non égocentré, le véritable amour, et pas même l’écoute. Nous comblons des manques, des carences, mais nos propres manques et nos doutes sont parfois démultipliés, confirmés, nourris. Nous sommes supposés dire “merci” alors que ce sont des “pardon” que l’on devrait nous dire, sans manipulation. Nous sommes parfois considérés comme illégitimes alors que ce sont les conditions de l’adoption, ses modalités, qui sont parfois manifestement illégales, illégitimes. Et il arrive même que ce soit notre “nouvelle famille” qui soit en réalité complètement illégitime. Illégitime quant au droit qu’elle est persuadée d’avoir sur notre mental et sur notre corps, et quelquefois sur les deux en même temps. La légitimité est de notre côté. Nous ne sommes plus des enfants, et nous avons aussi, d’une certaine manière, je le crois, une responsabilité vis-à-vis des petits, des jeunes, des adolescents dont on croit qu’ils sont juste en crise d’adolescence ; une responsabilité aussi pour ces adultes dont la parole continue d’être niée, caricaturée, décrédibilisée, minorée. Nous ne choisissons pas de naître. N’oubliez jamais, qui que vous soyez, que nous ne choisissons pas non plus d’être adopté.e.
J’ai vécu mon arrivée et mon “adoption” avec la sensation profonde d’émerger d’un long cauchemar, d’un monde sans sons, sans saveurs, fait simplement de peurs et de douleurs. Comme un véritable moment de renaissance inversé. Ce n’était pas une “adoption” à mon sens, ce n’était pas ma “nouvelle” famille, c’était ma famille. Sans forcément être heureux, j’étais à la fois fasciné mais surtout apaisé. Comme si enfin je déposais les armes après une éternité faite d’instants d’hypervigilance. J’étais apaisé lorsque je me suis retrouvé devant mon père “adoptif”. Oui, bien qu’épuisé par le voyage et l’intensité des instants, j’étais happé par ce nouvel environnement, ce nouveau monde, lors de ce soir d’arrivée. Ca pourrait sembler beau présenté ainsi. Et pourtant… C’est tellement plus complexe et tellement différent en profondeur. Car n’oubliez pas non plus : un bébé, lorsqu’il naît, il crie et pleure. C’est plutôt bon signe et rassurant pour sa courageuse mère et pour ceux qui le font venir et l’entourent. Mais des cris et des pleurs, ce n’est pas un hasard, pour le coup. Je n’ai pas crié, je n’ai pas pleuré ce soir-là. Je regardais juste, je levais et relevais la tête, silencieux. C’était il y a près de 32 ans.
Pendant ces 3 décennies, je n’avais pas saisi certaines choses, je ne réalisais pas quelques-unes des facettes de sujets qui pourtant me concernaient aussi. Comme celui de l’adoption. Je n’avais pas été un enfant adopté, je n’étais pas une personne adoptée. C’était autre chose. Les circonstances avaient juste permis que je vive plus longtemps que ce qu’un hasard avait tenté d’imposer. Cette même loterie qui m’avait enfin permis de sortir de cette obscurité.
Pour toutes ces raisons, et longtemps, je n’ai pas été très critique concernant l’adoption. Mais c’était tout “simplement” parce que je tenais à la vie que j’avais accepté le moindre mal. Parce que j’étais déjà épuisé, éprouvé, dans tout mon être. Alors je crois que je voulais simplement souffler un peu. Mais même si elle a été plutôt supportable au début, l’adoption n’a pas manqué directement ou indirectement, de m’apporter son lot de difficultés, d’autres traumatismes, d’autres souffrances.
Pendant plus de 30 ans, j’ai vécu, ou cru vivre, au grès des flashs, sans savoir d’où je venais exactement, sans avoir d’informations sur mes origines précises, sur mon passé. Seuls quelques instants étaient préservés, gravés. Imprimés dans un cerveau en mode sécurité car en alerte permanente. Bien sûr je savais que je venais d’Ethiopie. Mais l’Ethiopie c’est 2 fois la France et avec une diversité que l’on imagine pas. Nous, adoptés éthiopiens, sommes tous nés à Addis-Abeba à en croire la version officielle. C’est écrit noir sur blanc sur le certificat de naissance. Dans notre cas, c’est surtout écrit blanc sur noir le plus souvent. Pourquoi faire compliqué lorsqu’on peut faire simple et modeler une réalité, lorsqu’on peut falsifier et s’arranger avec les “faits” ?
Survivre à certaines affections physiques et chocs psychologiques, c’est parfois possible. Parfois. Mais clairement, les quelques difficultés majeures restaient de ne pas savoir, de se sentir multiple, d’avoir parfois le sentiment étrange d’être un autre, au fond, tout au fond, et donc de ne pas se sentir vraiment soi. Comme s’il y avait un autre “je” préservé quelque part, comme si parfois on était juste spectateur de cet autre soi déraciné et contraint de vivre une vie dans un environnement différent, un environnement dans lequel il avait fallu s’adapter, se nier aussi parfois. Un tiraillement constant, plus ou moins tenace. Qui vous freine, vous désoriente, vous fragilise, vous affaiblit, vous oblige, donc malgré vous, à creuser en vous, pour voir s’il reste quelque chose. Oui, le plus dur ça a été de ne pas savoir, et de faire l’expérience de parties de soi qui s’éteignent. Il en va du muscle comme de parties de votre âme. S’éteindre en partie, littéralement.
Pourtant, j’avais accepté le principe de mon adoption, en témoignait le fait que je ne le vivais pas en tant qu’adoption. Et puis objectivement, il n’y avait pas d’autre solution dans mon cas, dans le contexte, dans cette époque. Tout ça, je l’intégrais et le cautionnais même. Mais je n’ai jamais compris pourquoi ça devait aller de pair avec l’injonction d’être heureux, voire même avec celui de faire le deuil de son passé. Je n’étais pas heureux et je n’avais fait le deuil de rien. On ne m’avait pas prévenu qu’il y aurait autant de deuils à faire. Même après. Surtout après.
Hélas, le bonheur ne se décrète pas. Ca se saurait si tel était le cas et le monde ne serait pas à ce point barré, éclaté, instable. Je n’acceptais pas et je n’accepte toujours pas que l’on prétende, même subtilement, que je suis supposé être heureux, content, satisfait, sous prétexte que j’ai échappé à la mort, à la famine, à la guerre, à un non avenir. Je ne l’entends pas et je l’entends plus autrement : le plus triste et douloureux reste malgré tout que je n’ai pu échapper à l’adoption. Car dans l’adoption, tout y est pour partie : la mort, la famine, la soif, la guerre, le non avenir, un avenir perdu car non vécu. Des pertes. Des pertes inestimables. Mêmes si l’on a l’immense joie, la délivrance, de retrouver les siens ou d’avoir été retrouvé.e. Des instants, des années, une part d’une vie est perdue.
Non décidément, nous ne choisissons pas d’être adopté.e et au fond, je pense que nous subissons au moins une double violence. La première, la naissance, est acceptable et même belle, magique, sauf éventuellement pour l’être qui naît. C’est la vie, le mystère et le sublime de la vie. La seconde violence, l’adoption, est beaucoup moins belle : car c’est le monde. Le monde que l’on fait, le monde que nous subissons, le monde et ses injustices. Nous les avons subi, nous les subissons longtemps parfois ces injustices, sous des formes diverses. Mais subir ne signifie certainement pas accepter, ni tolérer.
The IRS is asking for information on my birth parents in order for the transfer of heirs to be successful. Your death left a lot of holes in an already very complex situation. See, remember when I called you 3 years ago and explained to you how horrible, dangerous and painful your actions were some 40 years ago?
Yes. That conversation. You are right. The one where I explained to you how getting my green card was almost impossible because you chose to traffic me. In the moment, you thought you were doing the “right” thing…because..Saviorism….white fragility, and the need to rescue a poor black girl from a fate that is unspeakable. I mean, I am almost certain there was love somewhere in the midst of it all. But love is a long-term thing. Love means you think about the future.
You didn’t do that dad. In fact, you continued to lie about my existence, keeping me from truly knowing my origins.
In your defense, you did tell me as I got older that my papers were fake. Fake…I was 13. What does a 13 year old understand about having fake papers? All I could do was live in the moment, go to school and do what a regular 13 year old does. Then I turned 17, traveling outside the country became harder because I was…well, trafficked.
“Remember your birthday,” you would whisper to me as we approached a person in uniform. I always thought it was strange that I had to memorize a date that was not actually my birthday at all. I also thought it was unordinary that my passport age was 3 years younger than my biological age.
In the name of saviorism and urgency, you were…making a deal with the devil. Find a woman who wants to sell her signature, find a dead child who has not received a death certificate yet, find a lawyer who would be shady to the utmost and BAM…you got yourself a cute little black girl in need of saving.
But here is the thing. I was not in need of saving. I was not an orphan despite being in an orphanage. So why didn’t you just wait for my real mother’s approval? Why go through illegal channels?
I had a mother, I had a father, I had 5 other siblings. I had an aunt, an uncle, a grandfather. I had a Family.
But you took all that away from me. Nothing matches and nothing will ever match because of the decision you made when I was knee-high. My paper mother is not my bio mother. Everything is a lie. That is not my Birth Certificate, that is not my name, that is not my age. And at the same time, you were the family I was raised with-a very toxic one at that, but you were all I knew.
So I grew up to hate my skin color, my hair, my face, my race, my culture. I grew up to seek what you had and what you were even though you kept me from being an equal. You made me feel responsible for what had been done to me. You made me feel guilty if I didn’t show love to you the way the bios did. You drove me to contemplate and also attempt suicide. According to Child Welfare Information Gateway “Ongoing contact with birth family members may minimize or resolve the child’s feelings of grief and loss, reduce the trauma of separation, and help the child develop and maintain a stronger sense of identity.” You attempted none of this because you knew that what you had done was against the law.
According to UNICEF, it supports intercountry adoption, when pursued in conformity with the standards and principles of the 1993 Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of intercountry Adoptions. These include ensuring that adoptions are authorised only by competent authorities, guided by informed consent of all concerned, that intercountry adoption enjoys the same safeguards and standards which apply in national adoptions, and that intercountry adoption does not result in improper financial gain for those involved in it. These provisions are meant first and foremost to protect children, but also have the positive effect of safeguarding the rights of their birth parents and providing assurance to prospective adoptive parents that their child has not been the subject of illegal practices.
In your home, I was a fraud and I was never good enough. But lucky you dad, you are not the only one. There are so many white adoptive parents who will go to any length to have a black baby. Of course in the moment they may really be taking that path to heaven with good intentions. But the intentions die fast and the path becomes uneven, rocky, scary, hurtful, abusive. That path continues for us. The impact is forever.
When white adoptive parents adopt, they are not cognizant of the long term impact it leaves on the adoptee….especially if the adoptee is of color.
A typical adoptee is ripped from their environment and forced to survive with new expectations, new rules, new laws that govern their immediacy. They are forced to adapt….not the other way around.
A typical adoptee of color is coming from a country that is deemed “poorer” and in need of saving. Poverty should NEVER be a good enough reason to take someone else’s child….and it should never be a reason to go the extra mile to falsify documents.
When it comes to illegal and illicit adoptions, Haiti should get a gold star. Though Haiti has never been a country that “sells” their kids, poverty and the promise of a “better” life is very tempting. So it happens more frequently than expected. Kathrine Joyce describes it perfectly in her book called The Child Catchers. She says “Adoption has long been enmeshed in the politics of reproductive rights, pitched as a “win-win” compromise in the never-ending abortion debate. Adoption has lately become even more entangled in the conservative Christian agenda.” In her book she describes how Child Catchers find a way to convince poor families to put their kids in an orphanage. Once the children are in an orphanage, they become the ward of the state and are now products to be sold.
We become props.
In their 40 page Write Up called Orphanage Entrepreneurs: The Trafficking of Haiti’s Invisible Children, Georgette Mulheir with Mara Cavanagh and colleagues say: The Government of Haiti should strengthen the child protection system and judicial approaches to trafficking in children, including: develop an independent inspection system; develop a system for tracking children in care; increase the number of social workers and improve their training; prioritise children trafficked in orphanages within the Anti-Trafficking Strategy.
I was your prop dad. I was the person you showed to others to prove that you were not racist, or prejudiced. I was that little girl who suffered on the inside but wore the big smile on the outside; because that is how daddy liked it. That is how most adopted parents like it. They expect us to be silent, happy, grateful, appreciative, and thankful. They expect us to remember the date they were “got”.
But you see clearly now dad, don’t you? You realize now that mom will never be able to explain what you both did. Out of greed, you took a life, and in the meantime, destroyed a family forever.
I will never be able to properly be a part of my birth family. “Tell them it was a closed adoption” I tell my sister to tell my mother while she is on the phone to IRs. I continue to protect those who trafficked me. I proceed to make sure my mother is not bombarded by inquiries and possible jail time.
When they ask her “what are you in for?, I could only hope she tells the truth.
“Trafficking. We thought we were doing good but we drank the Koolaid”. But she is not capable of admitting her wrong doing. This response is a dream only to be dreamt at night, not during the day.
There will be those dad who will say “this is a sad story but it is not OUR story.” And truly stories are unique. Unfortunately, when it comes to giving money for children, or receiving a tax deduction for adoption, you have decided to participate in a system that too often creates long-term trauma. You drank the Koolaid.
Dad, did you know that over 80% of children who are considered “orphans” are not really orphans? According to Unicef, children are put into orphanages on a temporary basis because the orphanages provide food, shelter, schooling and activities. So to assume that we are free to be taken is a huge miscarriage of justice.
According to the US Department of State, The Government of Haiti does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. They remain in Tier 2 because the government did not convict traffickers during the reporting year. The government did not allocate sufficient funding for its anti-trafficking efforts or victim services and did not implement its standard operating procedures for victim identification.
What say you? Now that you are observing us from heaven? (I believe you are there because I can’t believe in a God who would create a place for people to suffer more than they have already suffered on earth). You can see the pain and suffering can’t you dad? You can see the confusion. Do you see it?
I’m hoping you can see it now. But I know there are so many adoptive parents who can’t see it. They think their steps were led by God….God would never ask someone to remove a child who has an entire family who loves and cares for them. We are asked to take care of the Widow and the Orphan….but you just took the so-called orphan.
Imagine what kind of world we would live in today if people with more gave to those who had less. What would this world look like if to whom much is given, much is truly required? What form would this and could this take? What form should this take?
What if, instead of taking someone else’s child, we asked “How can I keep you together?” This monumental question, with heaps of adaptable solutions, would change the course of children growing up in poverty.
As an adoptee, I know I am not alone in believing that a lot of our pain and suffering could have been prevented had someone reached out to support our family who was poor in physical things but rich in spirit.
As an adoptee, having my name changed, given false papers, treated like a 2nd and 3rd class citizen should never have been allowed and especially not in the name of “being called.” God does not call people to do eternal damage to others. Adoption is trauma and almost 100% of the time, causes long term damage that even therapy fails to heal.
Adoptees are not props to prove a statement like “I am not racist.” We are humans who were, for the most part, purchased to fulfill a longing, an inability, a desire, a calling, an emptiness, and the list goes on and on.
But I’m here to say dad, adopting me and the others didn’t make you less racist. You remained racist in your own way. When we cried and told you about racism happening to us and you did nothing about it….you showed your racism. When I watched you treat other people who were of my same race and nationality….you showed your prejudice and your classism.
Your heart was pure though in many ways but unfortunately, adoption didn’t make it more or less pure. The calling didn’t bring you closer or further away from God. In fact, separating me created a cavernous hole in our relationship and destroyed what could have been a bridge to my birth family, culture, race and life.
Adoption is dangerous. Oftentimes we do it and we don’t even really know or understand why we are doing it. We do it because in the moment, it feels like the right thing. We do it because we think it is going to fix something in us. Maybe it does fix something in us…but it leaves the adoptee with scars, bruises and longing for what could have been.
Dear dad, now you are dead and can probably see and understand the pain you caused. If there is any way you can infiltrate the lives of others who have adopted or are hoping to adopt and warn them of the dangers; we adoptees will forever be grateful.
May you not rest in peace until you have saved other adoptees from the same pain.
Do I look like my father or mother? What is my real name? When was I born? Who am I really? I have been going through these questions my whole life and not quite sure if I will ever find the answer.
I was born in Vietnam, adopted by a white family in Canada in the early 70’s. I am part African-American and Vietnamese but I look more African-American, and I’m also physically disabled which I contracted from polio and a gun shot wound (something I have been told as a child, but not sure if it’s true). I have always known I was different growing up, not because the colour of my skin but because I was disabled. When I arrived to Canada I had to go to the hospital for many surgeries to straighten my legs and back due to scoliosis. When I arrived home from the hospital, this is when I felt I didn’t belong in the family. As a young child I was stubborn and barely spoke because the effects of leaving Vietnam and being in a different environment, I was overwhelmed.
Being an African-American Asian disabled child, living in a white world, I knew I was different and I wanted so much to fit in. At an early age, I knew that my adoptive mother treated me different than my other siblings. They had two other biological children along with another adopted child from Children’s Aid Society, so I was the black sheep in the family and that was my nickname to other family members and neighbours. My adoptive mother wasn’t the perfect mother everyone thought she was behind closed doors. Using my wheelchair was forbidden in the house so I had to always crawl around on the floor and carpet, but leaving marks on the carpet didn’t look good and caused my adoptive mother to always vacuum, so I had to have my bedroom moved down in the basement – being isolated away from my siblings. Whenever my siblings would come down to play with me, they were sent back upstairs and told not to play with your “black sheep” sister. Being alone in the basement, I stopped talking and had to entertain myself as a child. From not talking, my vocal cords didn’t develop well so whenever I went to school, I had trouble interacting with other students and was bullied and labelled as being dumb.
My adoptive mother always told me I should be grateful to them for adopting me. I always kept my feelings inside because if I told them how I really felt, I would be beaten. I always had to thank her for saving my life every time I did anything wrong. The first time I said “I wish you’d never adopted me” my adoptive mother emotionally and physically abused me. Sometimes I wouldn’t care what she did to me, I was happier just to be in my own shell in the closet.
I was never involved in any of the family gatherings or family vacations. I would always eat alone after everyone else ate. The one memory I will never forget was when my adoptive family went away to Florida and I wasn’t allowed to go because my adoptive mother said “black and crippled children were not allowed”. I went to the mirror and looked at myself. I wanted so much to be white that I scrubbed my skin so hard but it just turned red. I pushed my wheelchair down the stairs and tried to push myself up to walk, instead I fell down and was left lying on the floor for days until a neighbour found me bleeding. Instead of being a good neighbour and help a young girl, he took advantage of me for days while my family was away having fun. When my family returned, I tried to tell my adoptive mother what happened. All she said was, “You were looking for attention and that’s what you deserved”.
I wanted so much to be a part of the family to the point that I would agree to clean the house. My adoptive mother would always introduce me to her friends as the “black maid of the third country”. My adoptive mother emotionally abused me by continuing saying she never wanted me because of my disability and skin colour. She didn’t think I would turn out to “be soo dark” and a troubled child needing therapy appointments. All I wanted was to make my adoptive mother proud of me, but nothing I did ever satisfied her. Whenever my siblings got into trouble, I would stand up for them and would lie and steal for them so they would play with me. There were times I would sneak food at night because I was so hungry but whenever I got caught, I was sent to the closet for days. Nothing I did was good enough for my adoptive mother.
When I was 11 years old, I was told that I was leaving the family and spending a few days somewhere else. I didn’t know what I did wrong. That night I stayed up all night rethinking the day – what did I do to displease my adoptive mother. All she told me was I would be going to a better place that can care for my “crippled-black” behaviour. I cried the whole way begging my adoptive mother that I would be a “good girl”. Four hours later I was dropped off to a big stone house with lots of stairs and other children running around the living room. My adoptive mother told me it was only for a few weeks and that the family will help me with my behaviour. For the next few days, all I did was sit by the window waiting for my adoptive mother to return. Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months. I had to eventually realise that I was staying in this house and no-one was coming back for me.
I was living in a house with 25 other children. I tried to fit in and be a part of the family but still felt like an outcast. Even though I was not the only disabled child, I felt that I didn’t belong. I found out that the foster mother of this home, was the woman who helped my adoptive parents adopt me from Vietnam. The foster mother had an organisation that helped Canadian and American families to adopt children from third world countries out of orphanages that she opened. I wasn’t the only child adopted and sent to the foster family. During the years, living at the foster family I became a reserved and quiet child and during my teen years I still wanted to know “who am I”? I asked the foster mother if she knew anything of my birth mother and every time I asked her, the answer was always, “Wait until you are eighteen”. From then I just left the question alone and tried to live my teen years in the home.
When I first went to the foster family, I was placed in a school with other disabled children but I felt it wasn’t for me. I wanted to be independent and be left alone so I became very stubborn especially during therapy sessions. Having therapists lift my legs and try to stretch them wasn’t working for me, they tried to get me to use braces and crutches, I definitely didn’t want that. So they finally agreed for me to use a sports wheelchair and what freedom I felt!! Using the wheelchair built up my teen arms and I became very strong, during recess time. While other children were at therapy, I could be found in the gym bouncing basketballs. This is when a sports coach saw me throw my first basket and she asked me, “Do you want to be an athlete and travel?” I quickly answered her, “Yes!” Little did she know that I didn’t just want to be an athlete but I wanted to travel so I could be out of my foster house as much as possible. My foster father was abusing me whenever we went to the family home in Montreal every summer, so whenever I found out that I would be travelling in the summer – I looked forward to the summer knowing I would be out of the country!
If it wasn’t for that sports coach, I wouldn’t have been able to be the Paralympian athlete I am today. I have travelled to many countries and won numerous medals, but a part of me felt that I didn’t deserve it. Whenever I was away, I still felt like an outsider to my team mates and other athletes. Deep down I believed they all knew who they were and they always talked about their family. With my timidness, I still had trouble interacting with my team mates. By the end of every trip, I dreaded going home because I knew what I was going home to.
My foster family didn’t really recognise my athletic achievements. There were times they didn’t even know I went away for a week because there were so many children in the house and the foster mother was busy with her work. I remember one time I arrived home from my first competition where I’d won my first 5 gold medals (being the youngest on the team) and when I arrived home, I just sat at the front door with my bags waiting for someone to greet me. When my sister came down the stairs to see me she just said, “Are you running away?” From that moment, my enthusiasm just dropped from my heart and I wished I could just run away. So from then on, I just continued on with my competitions with no feeling of accomplishment, feeling like a nobody.
I competed in two Paralympics, two PanAm games and many small competitions. When I won my first Paralympic 5 gold medals, I was interviewed by the paper but a lot of the words written were just not true. The story portrayed a young girl winning medals from a foster home that cared for her, but they really didn’t know the truth.
I am grateful for the foster family to let me stay with them, but behind closed doors they portrayed themselves as looking like the perfect couple helping many children. The house was not accessible, I continued to crawl up and down stairs to get to my bedroom, and I had to crawl up and down and bring my chair down stone stairs outside to get to my school bus.
My whole life living in the foster family, I wanted so much to be out and living on my own. When I turned 16 years old, I finished high school and left the foster home. I went to college and received a degree in Business Administration.
Throughout my life, I always felt unloved and not wanted by anyone. I thought of my biological mother not wanting me, my adoptive mother not wanting me and within the foster family, I was just “another child”. I have tried my best to do right things, never gotten involved on the wrong side of the law, etc. I always felt I didn’t fit in anywhere, had trouble with social gatherings and interacting with adults my age. To this day, a large part of me continues to feel isolated, not wanted and most of all not knowing who I really am.
Recently, I decided to register with 23&Me to know my background and I discovered I have many 2nd and 3rd cousins out there. I was surprised to know that I have some sort of distant family out there but disappointed to not have any information about my parents. I just want to have the feeling of belonging. Growing up, I never had that feeling.
by Aurélie Lever, transracial adoptee from French/Vietnamese origins raised in the Netherlands – expert in adoption by experience and education.
I often try to keep my mouth shut or sit on the constructive side of what seems to be a never ending dialogue. But this story. makes. me. furious. Please, watch this video of Dilani Butink speak about her legal outcome in the Netherlands this past week.
It concerns Dilani’s case that is barred, as it has been past 20 years since the adoption process took place. Is this a so-called bitter pill that needs to be swallowed once? No folks, it’s a narrative that keeps returning: a government that creates laws to allow adoption, but doesn’t want to take responsibility for the actual consequences of adoption. A supposedly moral knighthood, to give the child a better life, but when it comes to it, the adopted self is moved forward to catch the sword of Damocles.
There is no concern for the human side of this adoption case in the legal field. It’s about the hard facts. It’s been over 20 years, so case closed. But when will the human facts be taken into account? To help, here are some of these human facts:
It often takes an adopted (or fostered) at least 20 to 25 years to realise what the process of distance and adoption or foster care has done to him or her. Mainly because there is a lack of correct aftercare for adopted and foster adults.
After this realisation, an adopted often ends up in a rollercoaster of loss and grief traumas around different themes. Feelings that have often been there since baby time, but that cannot be expressed. A baby cannot categorise trauma feelings, cannot place the emotions associated with them. This doesn’t mean a baby doesn’t feel everything though. The feelings are stored in the body and continue to exist. Until that moment when this is triggered and often then a storm comes around the corner. With all the consequences; burn-out, depression, psychosis, suicide-it’s things in the daily vocabulary of adopted.
It doesn’t help that society puts pressure on an adopted, telling them to be grateful or happy, because it was so beautifully collected here in the West and this life would give them such a (often materialistic) prosperous life. Or having to be thankful that the child was taken away from the mother for his own good because the mother couldn’t take good care of the child. Like this, happiness is determined for us. But who can decide for us what happiness is? And how do you define that at all?
It also doesn’t help that there is often no room for these processes of grief and loss in this society. This causes misunderstanding for the fact that the child inside is often dead-unhappy. What would help? Empathy and support. Ask yourself as an unadopted how you would feel if your child was taken away from one day to another and put up with someone else, and then you are told to be thankful because your child will have a better life have. I literally heard an unadopted once say, then you die inside. Exactly, many adopted people die symbolically inside and must struggle their way through these feelings to feel vitally alive again.
There are still too few therapists who can really help adopted people. Ultimately, adoptees have to do specialised studies for years themselves (after years of self-research) for years to be able to provide the right aftercare for other adoptees. Thank God they are slowly emerging, although I think there are only a handful of specialists who really understand. So just like art, something beautiful eventually grows out of all that destructivity. Only this isn’t about art, it’s about human lives.
These are far from all facts, several books were written for that. And yes, there are certainly positive stories too. Just like there are people of colour that suffer from racism, and people who don’t suffer from it. It’s never black and white. You will never hear me say there are no happy adopted, or adopted who claim to be happy because they were adopted. But that doesn’t mean we have to keep quiet for the rest.
There is currently social support for LGBQT, for BlackLivesMatter, for victims in the gymnastics world, but what is the social support for adoptees? There is not enough. Let’s create a movement. Adoptees deserve justice. Who’s in?
by Maria Diemar, born in Chile raised in Sweden. You can access her blog at I Own My Story Maria Diemar where she published this on Aug 23.
The right to one’s identity, is it a human right? Is it a human right for everyone?
Where you belong, the circumstances you come from, is this important to know?
Is it possible to delete a person’s background? Would you consider deleting another person’s background?
What is illegal? What is unethical? What are irregularities?
In last few years, I have discovered more and more of my history. From discovering that I am Ingegerd Maria Olsson in the registers in Chile, to realise that I can vote, and renew my passport from 1975, to understanding that it seems like I never left Chile the country where I was born.
According to my Chilean passport, I live on a street in a business district in Rancagua. According to other documents, I live with a social assistant in Santiago. We are probably more than 400 children living at that address: Monseñor Müller 38.
I “live” in Chile, and I live in the United States. I am in the electoral register in Chile, and in Sweden I have a Swedish passport and can pick up a Chilean passport when I like.
My birth was never registered at the hospital where I was born. I’m a child of no-one. Instead of a birth certificate, a protocol was written in which strangers testified that I was born on my birthday.
In Chile, I am registered as an orphan because a Swedish woman, Anna Maria Elmgren, arranged and enrolled me in the register in Chile. I have a Swedish name in the Chilean register. I’m Ingegerd Maria Olsson in Chile.
I am a orphan but I have a mother in the documents from the court in Temuco. In the documents from the court, I have a mother. A mother who gives me away.
I was 44 years old when I did a DNA test, then I realised that I’m Mapuche. I’m from an indigenous people.
To be a child of Indigenous people, this detail is something that someone forgot to mention. A detail that isn’t too important. Or is it?
Is the right to one’s identity a right for everyone? Who decides this?
by Kara Bos, born in South Korea and adopted to the USA. (French Translation kindly provided by Nicolas Beaufour)
It’s been two months since the fateful day of the verdict of my court case where I was recognised as being my biological Korean father’s daughter, 99.981% by the Seoul Family Court. I’ve held countless interviews and there are currently 10 pages of Google that host the numerous articles written about my paternal lawsuit and search journey. I would and could not have imagined that this would happen, and I’m still in awe of it all. However, 2 months after the spotlight and shock of what happened is finally settling in. I’m realising that in my everyday life and in my search journey for my mother, nothing has really changed. I still do not know who she is, and have not been able to meet her. I’m back home with my beautiful family and traversing life as I did before, and continue to be ignored by my father and his family. The hurt and questions that burdened by heart before are still present, and even though victories were won and I’m being cheered on by many different adoptee/non-adoptee communities my search journey is ongoing without any real hope of it coming full circle. I’m in survival mode again as each day passes by and I try to focus on the here and now; enjoying the amazing life I have, the amazing family I have, but in the back of my mind I’m still agonising over those unanswered questions that I had worked so hard to get answered.
It’s amazing how we as adoptees manage it all if I do say so myself. We are expected to forget the trauma surrounding our circumstances of arriving into our new families. We are expected to move on, and not dawdle on mere things of the past, as what good will come of it? We are expected to be thankful and happy for the new life we’ve been given and if we dare to search for our roots, then what went wrong in our childhood that we would ever have this longing? Are we not happy or thankful for our current families? I’ve been criticized quite a bit since my trial broke headlines around the globe from strangers and even loved ones with these types of questions. As often as I say I can brush it off, it of course does hurt. How is it that people are so ignorant about adoption and the complexities involved?
This has become my mantra alongside restorative justice for adoptees right to origin; to educate the everyday person on the street to gain even if it’s a sliver of understanding that adoption is so much more complex then how it was and still is currently packaged and sold: adoptive parents are saviours and adopted children have been rescued from poverty and should be thankful for the new life they’ve been given. I want to tell you that most adoptees are thankful for their new lives, as we’ve been told since we were young to be so. Most adoptees are also afraid to search for their origins or birth families as they feel it will be a betrayal to their adoptive families. Most adoptees also will fall into an identity crisis at some point in their lives, since most are raised in a homogeneous Caucasian society and it’s natural that they will at some point recognise that they themselves are not Caucasian. When most adoptees search it is completely not associated with whether or not they are thankful for their families or lives, and whether or not they love their families or have a good relationship with them. It has everything to do with the fundamental need of knowing as a human being where one comes from, and seeking answers to those life questions.
My lawsuit was representative of a girl searching for her mother and all the culminating events that led to that fateful day of June 12th, 2020. I never imagined even finding a family member, let alone my father; and I never imagined I would file a lawsuit against him. I’ve rehashed countless times in my interviews and all social media platforms that it was never my goal. If my father or his family would have given answers to who my mother was discreetly, does one really think I would go to these excruciatingly painful lengths? Do I not as an adoptee, have a right to know these answers? Does a birth family right to privacy outweigh my right to know my origins? These are questions that are now circulating because of my lawsuit and interviews I have done. Thousands of Koreans in Korea for maybe the first time discussed my actions and in the overwhelming majority of those comments were in favour of my father taking responsibility and telling me whom my mother is. The court also agreed with the legal recognition of myself as my father’s daughter, forcing him to add me to his family register even though my closed adoption case from 1984 through Holt completely stripped me of any family in Korea.
The question remains, will it continue? Will my lawsuit actually set precedent and bring out systemic change? Or will it bring harm to the birth search quest as some critics claim? Only time will tell, but my hope is that the Korean government will give restorative justice to an adoptee’s right to origin when they revise the Adoption Act of 2012. Therefore taking responsibility in their role in sending the more than 200,000 adoptees away and allowing us our rightful place to find our way back “home.”
by Atamhi Cawayu, doctoral researcher at Ghent University (Belgium) and the Bolivian Catholic University ‘San Pablo’ (Bolivia). Together with Vicente Mollestad and Teresa Norman, they run Network of Bolivian Adoptees.
This blogpost was initially posted on Atamhi’s Facebook profile and Instagram-account @displaced.alteño
Searching for first family and adoptee activism: Some reflections
In 1993 I got displaced/adopted to Belgium when I was six-month-old. According to my papers, I was found as a new-born in the city of El Alto in Bolivia. Since my twenties, I started to return and reconnect with Bolivia. In the past two years I live more in Bolivia than in Belgium and I consider myself ‘based in Bolivia’. In all these years, I have attempted to search for information about my pre-adoptive past. Since June, together with a fellow Bolivian adoptee friend, we started our search here in Bolivia by starting a big campaign to make ourselves visible.
Reflection 1: Putting up posters in the city
In June 2020, my friend and I started to prepare our searches for our Bolivian relatives by designing posters and putting them in various streets and neighbourhoods in the cities of La Paz and El Alto. It’s not the first time I engage in searching for first families, in the past years I have completed searches for other Bolivian adoptees, which sometimes led to reunions. However, searching is challenging, especially when you don’t have names, places or anything that might lead to our families.
In Bolivia there is a central authority responsible for international adoption, yet there is no support from organisations or institutions who can really help us. In our cases, we have limited information, but other adoptees have the full name of their mother, or names of family members. Even in their cases it’s often a bureaucratic journey to obtain more information. In addition, most of us don’t know the language, are not familiar with the system, and do not always have the time to search.
When I started to do my PhD on this topic, my goal has always been to have not only a better insight into the adoption system in Bolivia but also to ‘crack’ the system and understand which clues are necessary in finding one’s family. Besides I think it’s important to document the stories of the first parents and take their experiences into account if we really want to make an honest evaluation of the system of adoption.
When preparing the posters, making the design, paying the prints, I could only think of one thing: we as adult adoptees have the resources to start this search and do it in an almost professional way. Our parents probably didn’t have the same amount of resources, and even if they did, their stories were regarded as less interesting than ours right now.
Reflection 2: Engaging with TV media
After our first round of posters, we received a message from a journalist from a Bolivian TV channel who was interested in our stories. A few days later they interviewed us, and it was broadcasted one day later. Since then our story was covered by national TV media in Bolivia and it received lots of attention. The media is a necessary evil. It helped a lot in having our cases visible, yet it’s hard to control the questions. They also have their own narrative they want to show.
These experiences made me reflect about several things. Our stories were largely framed as ‘abandoned babies’ returning to Bolivia, after being adopted internationally, however this narrative already makes a lot of assumptions of our mothers abandoning us. When reading the comment section (I know I should not do this) a big part of the viewers didn’t understand why we would search for someone ‘that doesn’t look for us’. However, it’s so much more complex…
In my case I was found, but I don’t know what really happened. It’s easy to assume I was ‘abandoned’ by one of my parents, but I don’t know. In my research on first parents, I have encountered several parents who never gave up their child to adoption, did it in vulnerable circumstances, or were even pressured by intermediaries (and I’m not even talking about kidnap and illegal adoption). Yet, in many cases they were interested to know what happened to their children, if they were still alive, if they ended up well, etc. Part of our activism is also to speak about this other side of adoption. It’s not always a fairy-tale as many people think. We are part of system that exploits global inequalities, displaces poor brown/indigenous bodies from South to North, and prefers parenthood from the Global North over parenthood of the Global South.
It is irritating people don’t understand the complexity and violence relinquishment and adoption can entail. Even if our parents wanted to look for us, they wouldn’t be able to find us as we have been relocated and displaced to other continents. When I search for my ‘family’, it is to make myself findable, so they know I am here in Bolivia and willing to be in touch with them.
Reflection 3: The violence of international adoption
In the days after our first interview, various Bolivian TV channels called us for an interview. Our story was spread nationwide by radio, TV, newspaper. We tried to take advantage of this moment to open the discussion on transnational adoption.
During the interviews we tried to mention that for us adoptees there is no assistance for adoptees to search. Not in our adoptive countries, nor in Bolivia. We have to do almost everything by ourselves, and then I am not even talking about learning the language, understanding the documents, being familiar with the city. As my friend mentioned in several interviews, “searching is something political”. For me searching is doing something you were not supposed to do. It’s opening up histories that were meant to be hidden, it’s doing something within a system that tried to erase everything of your being.
Moreover, another dominant idea is to be lucky and fortunate when being adopted transnationally. One of the journalists said to me “you must be very fortunate”, “many people here would love to be in your shoes”. Throughout the years I have met many people, especially here in Bolivia, who told me I must have been lucky to be have been saved from my ‘miserable future’ in Bolivia and to have a ‘wealthy’ life in Europe. It’s like people think we only ‘won’ by being adopted internationally, but they often forget we have lost many things. I consider all the opportunities I have because of growing up in Europe as compensation for everything I have lost, and I have lost everything.
From my personal perspective, the violence implicit in transnational adoption is to be involuntary transcontinentally displaced, completely severed from our genetic ancestors, disconnected from our community, culture, language, nation, continent, and without any possibility to find our families ever again. For most of us Bolivia will become a country we once lived in. In addition, all our former identities are erased so we can be reborn, renamed, Christianised and assimilated with our adoptive countries. We grow up with complete strangers we are expected to love and call family. We are being brought into a society that doesn’t want us, that racialises us and discriminates us, without any community that provides shelter or understanding. This so-called child protection system – mostly in the benefit of well-off Western adoptive parents who wants to fulfil their heteronormative parental dream – erases everything from us. It is not the first time in colonial history child welfare systems are used to shape, control and erase indigenous children’s identities, and most children adopted from Bolivia have an indigenous background, be it Aymara or Quechua. Transnational adoption is for me an ongoing colonial project of civilising, controlling and managing children from the Global South, transforming them from ‘savages’ to ’civilised’ citizens in the benefit of the capitalist machine of the North. Transnational adoption would not have been possible without a history of colonialism and its ongoing colonial gaze towards countries in the South such as Bolivia.
The adoptee experience is something very diverse. I know some adoptees might disagree on this and that’s fine. I also know other adoptees might recognise themselves in what I write. Every experience is valid. However, my fight and activism are structural against a system that has caused a lot of injustices and is not in the benefit of first parents and adult adoptees. As another adoptee once told me: our parents maybe didn’t have the resources to fight for their rights, but we have, and we will fight for them.