Being True to Ourselves as Adoptees

The journey for adult adoptees seems to be one of learning to be true to ourselves. We begin our lives vulnerable, relying on our caregivers, our adoptive parents – listening to their version of our life beginnings, growing up under their roof with their ideas of adoption, what it means and how we should be. But inevitably, as we grow older, we take steps to break away from our adoptive parent’s influence. Sometimes these steps are painful, sometimes they’re a breath of much needed fresh air. For others, if they are lucky enough to have adoptive parents who have wisdom and insight to fully support their adoptive child, then maybe they never need to fight the hard battle to uncover and find themselves because they never had to be a chameleon to begin with. But it never ceases to surprise me how little adoptive parents know about what’s really going on for their young adopted adults. It’s adoptees who tell me about their thoughts of suicide or deep anger that they’ve never expressed to their adoptive parents that remind me how difficult it is for the adoptee and the adoptive parent to navigate this journey. Perhaps it’s the expectations and feelings adoptees have to be this perfect child their adoptive parents wanted, which can mean being unable to truly be themselves.

Over the years, I’ve informally been like a kind of mentor to many young adult adoptees. Sadly, on the surface, like myself at the same age, many adoptees can appear to have it all together yet beneath the bubble, there lurks the feelings of inadequacy, self hatred, confusion about their identity, anger at the racisms experienced, sadness from the loss of connections. And if the relationship with adoptive parents isn’t one that allows the adoptee to share their feelings without judgement, then this period of life can be a very isolating and lonely experience.

I had hoped over the years of sharing openly here at ICAV that many adoptive parents might be enabled to know and understand more and come to embrace the confronting issues that we intercountry adoptees inevitably have to sift through and work out. Our identity is so inextricably linked with our beginnings but yet I still hear from young 20ish year old intercountry adoptees about how little they are truly supported by their adoptive parents. Being a parent myself to almost teenage aged children, I do wonder how much of this parent-child relationship angst is inevitable regardless of being adopted – but I had hoped that adoptive parents today would be at a far more advanced stage in understanding the complexities of our journey, compared to the generation of my parents. There are so many adoptee voices via websites, blogs, podcasts compared to the 70s when I was adopted. I just wish more adoptive parents could embrace the knowledge we share via the internet.

For each adoptee who finds themselves travelling through this challenging period of life, I encourage them to be true to themselves. We are so often pulled between being loyal and showing gratitude to our adoptive parents but at the expense of ourselves, our true feelings. So many continue to share with me their disappointment at how their adoptive parents just can’t seem to comprehend why it’s so important to ask questions, find answers about their beginnings, or be angry at the microagressions they face on a daily basis. Personally, I have lived the experience where I never fully accepted myself until I navigated these issues myself. But I had to learn not to wait for my adoptive family’s approval or agreement to do any of this, I just had to do it for myself because it was important to me.

I’m now in my mid-40s and I’ve only just realised that the battle I was fighting for legal justice for intercountry adoptees around the world, was really me role playing the battle to fight for my own personal justice – within my own microcosm. Each day, my own journey is a testament to the saying “be true to yourself”. For only when I do this, do I find true peace and live in balance despite the in-betweens of being Australian yet Vietnamese. If that means my adoptive parents hear things that are hard and tough to hear, if they truly want an honest relationship with me, then they can choose or not to hear and respond. But I no longer protect them or side step what I need to do in order to please them or gain their acceptance. Yes I respect and love them, but I have learnt over the years that I must love my own inner child who was abandoned, give to her, protect her and nurture her and not wait for my adoptive parents to do it in the way I needed.

I think so many of us adoptees can get stuck in this limbo, waiting for our adoptive parents to show us the unconditional love we always sought for our inner hurt abandoned child – but .. actually, the answer lies within. It is we who have to be true to ourselves and give the things our inner child needs even if that means putting our adoptive parents needs second. This is probably a really hard statement for most adoptees to hear because we are so conditioned by society to be grateful, to assume our lives are saved by our adoptive parents and country – how dare we not put their expectations or needs first.

In sharing and being honest, I hope to encourage more intercountry adoptees to be true to themselves. I also hope adoptive parents might come to better understand the journey we adoptees have to travel in order to find ourselves, connect our pieces, and find inner peace. Being adopted is truly is a lifelong journey. I am definitely past the crucial and most difficult, tumultous lifestage of separating from my adoptive parent nest and exploring who I am outside their influence. But I’m now in my mid 40s and I find myself constantly saying, there is no arrival or end point in the journey … I am always learning new aspects of who I am at each life stage, as an adopted person.

Moving to Hawaii

Leave the past behind, and walk away. When it’s over, and the heart breaks, and the cracks begin to show,” the lyrics of an electronic song plays in my headphones as I write this in Hawaii. It’s Sunday when I finally start this blog about what’s been going on in my adoptee life, during a spell-bound phase of cloudy weather on O’ahu.

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I’m sitting on my bed in my bedroom, in the lower half of a five-bedroom house, shared by three male roommates and one other female.

My favorite roommates are Juan, a Mexican man in his later 30’s, and Delano, who is half black and Mexican, and my age, 33. Juan is a serious but insightful human being, I’ve discovered. And Delano, is by far the most humorous and entertaining of my roommates.

My new workplace is a public library that is about a mile away. Here, everything is new and foreign to me.

Nature is Everywhere

The ocean coast can be seen from my bedroom window. A better view of the water can be seen from the balcony and the backyard. Roosters roam and crow at every other odd hour of the day. There are horses in the private property just behind the backyard, in the valley below.

Green lushness is everywhere–a sight that I am still getting used to, especially when driving on a highway through the middle part of this island.greeneverywhere.jpg

The nature in Hawaii is unreal. It is vast and jungle-like, growing wild and extreme in the distance. It’s been a dream come true being able to live so close to this nature that might be kindred to the Filipino in me.

I moved here two months ago, not knowing if this would work out. But I needed a change, or risk living hampered in a complacent, stagnant life I’d been living in the rugged territories of Northern Arizona.

Healing as an Adult Adoptee

As an adult adoptee, I am healing from my difficult and complicated past.

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Day by day, I’ve been unearthing within the importance of self-love, forgiveness, accepting myself as I am and accepting my past as what it was to me. Day by day, I am rising and falling as the human being I am, equipped with the quirks and the delicacies of my own strengths and weaknesses. Day by day, I change.

Every time I see the beauty of Hawaii, I am inching away from yesterday’s pain and struggles. And each time pain and emotions arise, I console myself gently through yoga, meditation and mindfulness.

Gradually, I melt the cold walls that have blocked my heart from loving the way I eagerly loved as a child. Slowly, I get to know others.

My Own Therapies

I boogie board as much as I can. When I’m out there, I empty myself of all of yesterday’s thoughts and emotions. I ride the waves. When I’m done, I lay on the beach with the sun flattening against my body, warming up my organs. I breathe. I focus on peace.

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I love to watch the sun set in Hawaii. This gives me a sense of closure and enchantment each day. The sunsets and sunrises reveal a living, natural world that is strong and vital. The sun have nothing to do with having been born an orphan in this world. The sun has everything to do with the waking present and the choices that affect our lives today.

Fear and Insecurities to Overcome

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Sometimes, I’m scared but I choose to try to rise above this fear even when I’m feeling inadequate. As an adult adoptee, I’ve been so accustomed to biting down a matrix of hidden anxiety, heartache and stress. But it’s time to release my fears. It’s time to move on.

Fear had haunted my everyday life because I didn’t have the normal support of friends and family most people have to lean on in life. I grew up afraid to make any wrong steps and of not being good enough, often isolated in my adoptee complications. This fear pushed others away. It had also pushed me onward in life to adulthood.

Now, I am realizing that this fear doesn’t serve me anymore.

This fear keeps me from enjoying the present moment. This fear holds me back from being the person I want to become. And so, I work on meditation and mindfulness to transcend my insecurities.

Having all of my possessions in Hawaii, I have also felt insecure of my life’s security too. It was all or nothing, coming here.

Neverless, my life is with me now and all I can do is move on.

Changing Habits

At night when I stare up at the stars, I whisper prayers. I ask God to guide me and for love to find me, and love me as I am.

Where my habits of yesterday are changing. I’m eating better. Being more active when I’m in or out of the water. Taking in more sun. I’m exploring nature, cliff sides and exploring places more. I’m slowly coming out of my shell with my roommates and new people I meet.

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I can’t fall into past habits of negative thinking. Instead, I live my life without plans, each day ridding myself of worry and doubt.

Working full-time at a public library has also kept me busy here.

Practicing Positivity in a New Job

About 40 hours of my week is consumed with working hard at a public library out here. At work, I’m checking in books, checking out books to the public at the circulation desk, organizing the videos and audio books, and mending damaged library books in the backroom of the library.

mending.jpgPresently, I’m waiting out a 6-month probationary period where after that, I can apply for a higher paid position since I just received my Master’s of Library and Information Science degree last month.

Until then, I have to continue on with this entry-level job at this library, which keeps me occupied all week, 8 am til 5 pm.

What’s been getting me through the rough times is thinking positive, even in challenges, which arise almost everyday at work too.

Staying positive has been getting me through everything.

Gratitude

At the end of the day, I am grateful for the small things.

I don’t have much to my name, but I have cultivated compassion and forgiveness that I feel is worth more than gold. I am proud of these personal accomplishments and all that I’ve done to help others along the way despite my hardships.

I look forward to this new adventure that I’m on and to where I’ll be guided to, one step at a time. As day by day, I live on.

As wave by wave, I move on.water.jpg

What I Love about Adoptees

At ICAV we often post and publish about the not so talked about aspects of intercountry adoption from the adoptee perspective. Some could label us as “anti” adoption because it’s all too easy to put us into a box and ignore our voices because the things we talk about can be hard to hear. During the summer vacation, I was asked by a fellow adoptee why I do what I do at ICAV and how have I remained involved for so long without burning out. Today I want to share what it is that keeps me inspired and why I love being connected to my fellow adoptees. It is afterall, almost Valentines Day!

Whilst growing up in regional Australia, I was always the only non-white person, except for some Aboriginals, in my communities at school, church and interest groups. I experienced a very isolating childhood. I had no peers, mentors or roles models who could help me understand my journey. I had no concept of what my issues were but remember feeling out of place and alone.

Fast forward to today and I no longer feel this way. I have met thousands of fellow adoptees like myself around the world and it is these friendships and connection with other intercountry adoptees that I love in ICAV. We have become and created our own place / space, our own sense of “family” where we understand and talk freely about the complexities that impact us. We not only share our journeys but now enmasse, we are turning our lived experiences into positive action on a global scale.

On the weekend, I caught up with some of my close adoptee friends in Sydney and this small group reflects what I love in ICAV. We all come from completely different birth countries and have massively different experiences of adoption – but the bond we share is just awesome!

(Left to Right) JD, Gabby, Rafael, Lynelle from ICAV

Rafael is departing in two weeks to return and live in his birth country Colombia for the next 6 months after reuniting with his Colombian mother last year. It will be his first experience of living in his own country with his Colombian family for an extended period of time. It was because of Rafael leaving that we got together to wish him well. I am looking forward to hearing how this part of his journey goes and via the adoptee network, he will have plenty of support from fellow adoptees! Whilst in Colombia, he will also work with Plan Angel to help provide DNA kits to families of loss.

JD also found his Filippino mother last year despite great odds because he had been a “lost child” with no documentation and information about his identity. This year he is working on a documentary, utilising his multimedia skills and passion to create a greater awareness of intercountry adoptees and their desire to search for biological family.

Gabby is a Chinese adoptee and she is travelling to Hong Kong shortly to showcase her watercolour artwork in which she unveils the complexities of transracial adoption in a subtle and more mainstream way. I love how she has the courage to share how her journey as an intercountry adoptee influences her work. Adoption artwork can sometimes be confronting but Gabby has found a powerful way to reach the mass audiences in a subtle, non-threatening manner. This year she will also continue to provide art classes as a peer mentor to younger Chinese adoptees in Sydney.

As a Vietnamese adoptee who has very little paperwork, I returned to Vietnam last year for the second time and am still trying to find my family of origin. Maybe one day I’ll find them but until then, alot of questions about my original identity and family remain unanswered. I live with this and it is the only way I know. I listen to my adoptee friends who have found their families and the issues they face and I always ponder what it might be like, when and if it happens to me. So many complexities, so many challenges, so many times we as adoptees have to juggle difficult circumstances and issues.

Each of us is driven by our own journey in adoption to help make this world a better place for our fellow adoptees. When we get together, there is a bond between us. Our journeys are so uniquely individual but yet we share so much in common. Only amongst fellow intercountry adoptees do I find true understanding and empathy, true connection and a shared resilience. And what I love even more is that we all have a passion to give back to our intercountry adoptee community to try and make the path easier, better, and somewhat smoother. THIS is what I’ve always meant ICAV to be .. a place where we can turn our journeys (whether they were harsh or amazingly positive and anything in between), into something more than our individual experience and it creates momentum to build something amazing, as a collective.

Like my small group catchup in Sydney on the weekend, the connection and support between fellow intercountry adoptees is replicated around the world in each of our adoptive countries and across our many birth countries. I love that since founding ICAV, when almost nothing existed worldwide except for a few KAD groups, there are now literally so many adoptee led groups around the world. They all do something in their unique way to support fellow adoptees. This is truly inspirational when we see that out of each journey, so much can flourish and thrive. Being witness to this growth and seeing what we can achieve as a community worldwide, is what motivates me to continue ICAV. What we achieve together as a collective remains open and time will show the fruits of our labours.

The Lived Experience of Illicit Intercountry Adoption


This year, one of ICAVs goals is to bring to the forefront, the voices of those who have lived the experience of being illictly adopted via intercountry adoption practices. The experience of an illegal intercountry adoption is now recognised as “existing” by many of our governments and central authorities who facilitate the adoptions. ISS-SSI even provided a Handbook on Responding to Illegal Adoptions about this in 2016, including input from some with lived experience. However, it remains a fact today, that there are barely a handful of adult intercountry adoptees who have received appropriate support and assistance, whether that be emotional, financial, legal, or governmental liaison in response to their illicit adoptions.

What about illicit intercountry adoptions that are technically “legal” but are fundamentally unethical under international or other standards like the Palermo Protocol? The powers who control and regulate intercountry adoption do little to provide useful support to those who experience it.

In 2011, my adoptive country Australia, led the way in a working group at The Hague to developing cooperative measures for the prevention of illicit practices in adoption and they remain one of the few adoptive countries to develop a “protocol” for responding to allegations of child trafficking in adoption. However, this protocol response is severly limited in that it only acts to “review the adoption documentation” and yet it is often the documentation itself, that has been falsified and difficult to ascertain without other sources of information. Even IF documentation is proven to be false, what then? In cases like the Julie Chu Taiwanese trafficking ring where legal prosecution followed, there has been little to nothing done for the Taiwanese adoptees and their first families both in the adoptive and birth country’s. Shouldn’t those impacted be provided fully funded services to help them reunite, reintegrate and reconnect if they want this at any stage of their life? Or do they each have to pursue legal action in order to ever be compensated for their losses and legal implications? And what if they don’t want legal action but still want help?

In my time at ICAV, I have witnessed the lifelong growth that occurs developmentally for adult intercountry adoptees – first we start to explore our indivual journey but as we connect to fellow adoptees and peer support networks, we become exposed to the larger picture of intercountry adoption and the world-wide practice as it occurs today. The Hague Convention for Intercountry Adoption was designed to combat illegal adoptions but despite it’s ideals, it hasn’t been able to stop them altogether nor does it ensure adequate post adoption supports – especially for this specific segment of the intercountry adoptee population. Many critics say The Hague Convention has made the problem worse by masking the illicit practices under the guise of a “legal” adoption. As the adult adoptee population ages and matures, what I observe is a huge number, enmasse, of adoptees who are becoming actively involved in exposing the many illicit adoptions that have chequered its history.

South Korean adoptees like Jane Jeong Trenka have led the way in the fight for adoptee rights due to their historical place as the first babies enmasse in modern time to be exported in the largest numbers — but more recently there are those who pave the way for adoptees of other birth countries who have been illicitly adopted. Impacted adoptees such as:

  • Patrick Noordoven from Brazil Baby Affair who recently won his historical outcome of legal recognition that those adopted illegally had a right to their information; in general paving a way for other Brazilian adoptees from the Brazil Baby Affair period; and also a success with the Dutch court appointing an external commission to investigate intercountry adoptions in the past from Brazil but also including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Colombia and Indonesia;
  • Sanne van Rossen who released her ground breaking expose The Sadness from Sri Lanka (english translation avail this year) and the accompanying media coverage by Zembla which has effectively encouraged Sri Lankan adoptees all over the world to work together; Sanne’s work also led to official recognition of the Baby Farming era by the Sri Lankan government;
  • Alejandro Quezada who founded Chilean Adoptees Worldwide along with other Chilean adoptees are working with the Mothers of Chile who’s children were stolen or lost to adoption. Together they have pushed for a formal investigation into the illegal adoptions from Chile;
  • Marcia Engel at Plan Angel and other Colombian adoptees in the group are advocating to have illegal adoptions investigated officially;
  • Osmin Ramirez and his father’s historical Inter-American Commission on Human Rights outcome; plus other Guatemalan adoptees encouraged to work together in their group to provide support for all who are illegally adopted;
  • and Arun Dohle from Against Child Trafficking who has for decades exposed illegal adoptions out of India and many other countries.

What is to be the government and central authority responses to these enmasse occurrences of illicit adoption practices? For how long will they continue to ignore the voices of those impacted the most from a practical sense – helping them find their families and re-integrate back into their countries if this is their desire? How about funding the “lived experience organisation” who helps the most because they best understand the complexities? Or a “lived experience advisory group”?

I hope that by encouraging advocacy and helping to expose the voices of those who live it, we will see change – not only formally acknowledging the wrongs done, but to attempt to make ammends and provide much needed support for those forced to live it. It is one thing to acknowledge the terrible practices of the past and attempt to avoid repeating them into the future, but it is another to address the current issues and provide support for those who have lived a lifetime resulting from past practices.

Today, I present to you the story of Mariela who has lived the experience of being illegally adopted from Guatemala to Belgium. This is an example of one person’s lived experience of illicit intercountry adoption. We look forward to sharing soon our new project to bring together many more voices like Mariela’s!

We can only ever fully understand the full complexities of illicit intercountry adoptions by listening to those who live it!

Lynelle Long

South Korean Adoptions: An Economic Analysis

The Mother of Lies

Several comparisons have looked at social climate and economic factors to understand the motivations for why the South Korean government continues to export its children via intercountry adoption. Some individuals claim it’s due to impoverished conditions after the Korean War but I find this to be misleading. America has a long tradition of sounding a rallying cry after a great disaster such as the collapse of an economy, famine or war. Modern intercountry adoption began from South Korea and has remained popular over time. Other nations have become popular sending countries in recent years, for example China. However, South Korea still reigns as having the highest number of children sent away to a foreign country via intercountry adoption.

Korean War the Rallying Cry but Not a Major Contributor

American adoption trends dos data

The graph above shows the number of adoptions that occurred by year. The rally cry for South Korean adoptions may have started with the aftermath of the Korean War and for 17 years, the children did trickle into the America. The gap between the Korean War and the start of the first wave of Korean Adoptions that occurred in the 1970s was nearly a full generation after the Korean War. Therefore, there must be another driver that motivated South Korea to export its children.

If the safeguarding of the children after the War was an important driver to aid South Korean children, then one would expect to see the number of adoptions rising after the War. However, the increase in adoptions did not occur until sixteen to eighteen years after the War had ended. One argument often used has to do with the poor economy. However, the two peak periods with the largest number of children sold off via intercountry adoption occurred during the largest economic boom for Korea. Therefore, other reasons must exist that motivated South Korea to sell of its most precious asset, its children.  

This essay will investigate the underlying motivation in depth for why South Korea has sent out so many children via intercountry adoption. I will draw from both my professional financial background and as a person who has lived this exporting experience.

American Adoption Trend or Preference?

Sth Korean adoptions by Year

The bulk of children adopted to America came from Asia and Russia and former Soviet-controlled countries. Preferential selection based on race has been cited numerous times to be the main reason for this disparity amongst the Caucasian community who adopts the majority of children into America. The article Discouraging Racial Preferences in Adoption by Solangel Maldonado summarized this context well:

“Tracing the history of transracial adoption in the United States, this article argues that one reason why Americans go abroad to adopt is race. The racial hierarchy in the adoption market places white children at the top, African American children at the bottom, and children of other races in between, thereby rendering Asian or Latin American children more desirable to adoptive parents than African American children.”

If Americans were really concerned for children involved in conflicts, then there are huge gaps in adoption trends. One would assume children from the massacres of Rwanda, Darfur and other Wars and disasters would be reflected in adoption statistics but America has a preference to adopt children that are from light-skinned countries. Ethiopia is located in northern Africa and Ethiopia has some of the lighter shades of skin color in Africa. The culture was influenced by Judaic influences as well as the middle east. The reality is Americans do have a preference, they want as many light skinned babies as possible. 

Reference for Skin Colour Map

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Supply and Demand of Intercountry Adoption

In the past, I have been asked to talk about the business side of adoption. The following information is initially from an interview I did with Kevin Vollmers for an interview on Land of Gazillion Adoptees. I found a great explanation about supply and demand and how it correlates to business, to include the adoption industry.

“Supply and demand are perhaps one of the most fundamental concepts of economics and it is the backbone of a market economy. Demand refers to how much (quantity) of a product or service is desired by buyers. The quantity demanded is the amount of a product people are willing to buy at a certain price; the relationship between price and quantity demanded is known as the demand relationship. Supply represents how much the market can offer. The quantity supplied refers to the amount of a certain good a producer is willing to supply when receiving a certain price. The correlation between price and how much of a good or service is supplied to the market is known as the supply relationship. Price, therefore, is a reflection of supply and demand.”

A focus on factors that influence the supply side of the equation of adoptions from South Korea was highlighted and shows how changes in prices and the use of subsidies have made adoption a very lucrative business.

Demand Side within America for Intercountry Adoption

Some individuals are very ignorant about the large demand for children in America. For the most part, prospective parents are looking to adopt infants to allow them to experience parenting. I was surprised by the number of couples incapable of conceiving and although technology is advancing to assist conception, the barriers to use these technologies are at high costs and the toll it places on the woman’s body as compared to the trade-offs of not conceiving.

The latest information from the Centers of Disease Control (CDC) estimates the following:

“About 6% of married women aged 15 to 44 years in America are unable to get pregnant after one year of trying (infertility). Also, about 12% of women aged 15 to 44 years in America have difficulty getting pregnant or carrying a pregnancy to term, regardless of marital status (impaired fecundity)”.

National Survey of Family Growth stated that 7.5% of all sexually experienced men reported receiving help with having a child at some time during their lifetime. This equates to 3.3 – 4.7 million men in America. Of the men who sought help, 18.1% were diagnosed with a male-related infertility problem. This data points out that there could be as high as 6.7 – 10.8 couples that will have problems in conceiving children and are likely candidates for adoption. This isn’t to say that infertile couples are the only ones wanting to adopt. There is evidence that families without fertility issues and families with biological children have the desire to adopt too.

In a recent survey conducted by the National Council For Adoption and their testimony before Congress on foster and adoptive parent recruitment reform; their polling concluded the following:

  • 25% seriously consider becoming a foster parent/ or adopt;
  • 63% believe religious leaders should do more to encourage people to become foster parents or to adopt;
  • 76% support hiring more case workers, even if cost millions of dollars.

Besides the desire to raise a family by infertile couples, the adoption industry has been heavily influenced by the evangelical movement in America that spans nearly a decade. During this time, large established families without infertility issues have adopted in high numbers. The evangelical adoption movement also fought to lobby in Congress to keep the adoption tax credit and won in 2017 to extend the bill to support growing evangelical families.

It’s extremely hard to determine how large the demand side of adoption is, it’s true that not all infertile couples will look to adoption as part of their basket of choices and furthermore, there are large segmented groups like the evangelicals that are very pro-adoption and that too is also hard to determine but the demand side potential could be easily be in the double digit millions. 

Demand Side within South Korea

South Korea has little-to-no demand for adoption within its own borders. It’s estimated that South Korea takes in around 4% of their unwanted children. Despite selling off 200,000 children, it has nearly a ten-fold increase that remains within their state-run orphanages in the past six decades. It’s estimated that more than 2 million children have been brought up by the state in South Korea. For the most part, Koreans adhere to Confucian principals and conform to staying within their own bloodlines. Therefore, the demand side in Korea is near non-existant. To understand the cultural differences, The Economist ran an article entitled “Why adoptions are so rare in South Korea and stated:

“Traditional Confucian notions of the bloodline family still hold sway, as do aspects of primogeniture. Women who cannot bear children face strong social stigma, as do orphans and adoptees, whose chances of getting a job and marrying are limited. Many adoptions in South Korea are concealed from family and friends—and, in many cases, the adopted child. Parents ensure that the baby’s blood type matches their own; some mothers even fake pregnancy. All this sends the message that adoption is shameful, in turn discouraging more of it. The secrecy also explains why 95% of infants adopted within South Korea are less than one-month-old: young enough to be passed off as biological children. A majority of adopted babies are girls so as to avoid difficulties over inheritance and at ancestral family rites, which are normally carried out by bloodline sons”.

Supply Side in America for Domestic Adoption

The Department of Health and Human Services produces a report every year about the number of children who are in foster care or in need of a home. Adoptionnetwork.com provides a plethora of adoption statistics to give an idea of how large the supply is within America. The site gave the following examples:

  • 428,000 children are in foster care in the United States;
  • 135,000 children are adopted in the United States each year;
  • In 2015, over 670,000 children spent time in the foster care system;
  • 2% of Americans have actually adopted, more than 1/3 have considered it;
  • Around 7 million Americans are adopted;
  • State and federal expenditures for foster care administrative costs (placing and monitoring children in foster care) totaled $4.3 billion 

In America the figures show the vast majority of children are not adopted and the system is heavily subsidized by Federal and States funds that has turned into a multi-billion dollar business. 

Supply Side in South Korean for any Adoptions

The exact number of children that are available for adoption each year in South Korea is unknown and has been artificially inflated due to laws and incentives that encourage abandonment. The math doesn’t lie, its estimated that 4.2% of the 51.5 Million Koreans were either raised in state ran institutions or sent off for adoption. The real issues are glossed over when emotions are used over facts. The main reason why South Korean mother’s give away their children is because there are no social welfare programs nor civil rights that support single parenting in South Korea. A single parent receives on average 70,000 won (US$84) per child a month compared to the 1.1 million won that is spent for each child in an orphanage and this disparity helps push desperate mothers to relinquish their children. 

If the support went to the mother instead of the institutions, the supply side in Korea would dry up overnight.

Despite these perverse laws, the number of children in welfare centers that house orphans has dropped considerably.  In 2015, the number of children taken care of by the State declined to 12,821 from 17,517 in 2006,  i.e., a 26.8% drop. Many organizations try to point to the fact that South Korea has shipped 200,000 children to other countries as an indicator of a large supply of children available for adoption but does anyone show the research for this? No because in doing so, we would understand there is not a large supply side in South Korea.

Joel L. A. Peterson is the national award-winning author of the novel, Dreams of My Mothers and he stated in a Huffington Post article in 2015:

“Instead, my research suggests that many — maybe most or all — “abandoned” Korean children were wanted and their mothers went through a horrendous, agonizing process to reach a decision that showed that their mothers cared for their welfare and did the only thing they could to give some advantage to their child by at least conferring Korean citizenship.”

He further explains why there isn’t a supply curve in South Korea by stating:

“Recent surveys conducted in Korea indicate that greater than 90 percent of single mothers desire to keep their child if their circumstances and society had allowed. It would seem that, indeed, Korean mothers are no different from mothers everywhere. Just Korean laws and the weight of Korean social norms.”

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Unscrupulous Practices Decrease Input Costs

Adoption agency costs are much lower to operate in poorer developing nations. Operating costs could be much lower – a few thousand dollars to cover a year supply of expenses for lodging, food and incidentals. During the height of the baby sales in South Korea there was a large disparity in GDP per capita between America and South Korea.  WIth the lower operating costs in Korea during this time period, this allowed the South Korean government to make more profit. The cost could be dramatically less if unscrupulous practices that were market driven to bring in children for foreign adoption. Other benefits to the adoption agency and the adopters include the lack of resources for poor families to look for their child or petition the legal system if the parents change their mind. 

Adoption Incentives Drive Profits Upwards

The American tax incentive plays a negative roll in driving up costs in adoption. Several economists correlate the rise of College tuition with the increase of Federal grants and subsidies. This means for every dollar a student received in grants and free money – the university had increased the tuition costs and the amount of debt the same for the student. The government provided funds did not offset costs for the student. Instead, what the system did was increase the total cost of tuition. No matter how much this can be pointed out by economists and smart legislators – people will demand to get more of their schooling funded through grants and government subsidies instead of asking for ways to lower tuition costs.

The same problem holds true for those who want to adopt. Funding is available via tax write-offs, loans, and grants to prospective parents, incentivizing them to adopt.

There is no clear evidence that the input costs are being driven up or that parents are being matched with better children due to more extensive search or process. Specific adoption expenses such as adoption fees, court costs, attorney fees and travel expenses are used as a tax credit. Remember a tax credit is a dollar for dollar reduction in federal tax and not a reduction of taxable income. Furthermore, the adoption tax credit allows US$13,460 worth of tax credit for the adopted child. So, one must ask, where does this money go? Adoption agencies respond saying the increases in costs are caused by tougher regulations, longer holding times and increases in input costs (food, shelter, clothing, etc.).

An assessment was made at the financials of Holt International to determine where the funds were being distributed throughout the system.

Holt International, as well as numerous adoption advocacy sites, have used the figure of US$40,000 to be the average cost a prospective family spends on each adoption. Using this for 2010 on the number of children processed for adoption into America, the total amount of revenue earned was US$29,560,000. Subtracting the adoption fees Holt International charges to each family, the total liabilities unrecorded is US$18,756,000 i.e., 63% of the funding is unaccounted for.  

A Washington Post article states that the biggest cost outside agency costs (which are separate) is legal fees that range from US$6,000 to $8,000. Much of what Holt and other adoption agencies publish is vague and the financial records change from year to year, making it hard to determine where the funds are spent and preventing transparency. In 2010, how did Holt earn an additional US$14 million worth of revenue when half the revenues came from adoption fees?

Adopt for All Children is another American adoption agency and they list a greater breakdown of their costs. They co-operate with the Eastern Social Welfare Society to place children from South Korea to America.

Smoking Gun
Another adoption agency called New Beginnings that deals with South Korean Adoptions gives some insight of the greater detail of their South Korean Program Fees:

Korean Program Fee Program Coordination $6,500 for program sponsorship and development; working with ESWS to identify a child and arranging for an adoption; receiving a referral of a child that includes the Child’s Background Study; securing the child’s legal information to present to USCIS for immigration approval; filing the documents in Korea for court approval and emigration permission, establishing the itineraries while the family is abroad for the adoption hearing, the placement of the child and the child’s travel visa. ($2,500 due at home study approval; $1,500 due at acceptance; and $2,500 due at submission of Emigration Permission).”
Foreign Agency Fee and “Donation” $19,500 For child care expenses prior to the adoption, identifying a child available for adoption, securing the necessary terminate parental rights, providing the background study on the child, arranging for the finalization of the adoption and the immigration of the child (due at acceptance). 
Total Korean Program Fees $26,000

The document provided by New Beginnings show that a large portion of the adoption costs gets returned back to the South Korea Government. I dislike the term that these agency use. They call it donations and that means the funds are unaccounted for. South Korean agencies need to be transparent on the funds they received and how the funding is spent. Regardless, this is the amount of funding that could have contributed to Korea’s economy: to pay for salaries to process documents, cost of care for the children and other expenses. I will refer to these numbers throught the study as the Foreign Agency Fee and Donation.

Holt Case Example
It is almost impossible to obtain any real assessments from Holt’s online financial statements. Most years, Holt will publish a total number of children adopted into America vs. splitting the numbers between adoptions made from the parent country and domestic adoptions. Due to limited data I have to make some assumptions. I will assume the majority of the costs will be transferred to the American families and that the majority of costs would be for foreign born children i.e., the domestic adoptions should be cheaper to process.  

In 2007, Holt listed the domestic and international adoptions to America separately and if we peel back the onion, the overall costs for the international adoptions would increase if we sliced the domestic adoptions out of the equation. I used the 2007 figures to come up with the new cost: 59 domestic and 561 foreign adoptions and this implies approximately 10% of all Holt adoptions, for an average year, are domestic.  

The Federal Adoption Tax Credit was enacted in 1997. I do not have enough data to determine if the law increased these costs. I would need to look at financial statements going back to the early ’90s to make an accurate assessment but it doesn’t mean this data is totally useless either. First, the adoption fee per international child is close to what other sources are reporting. The increase in Total operating Revenue suggests the costs are passed down to the potential parents, the number of adoptions is not increasing dramatically and the annual operating funds have increased from year to year, on a whole. This may be due to inflation of 2-3%. 

The annual reports also list the areas the adoption agencies are actively working. We can see numerous trends. First, they are constantly going to economically depressed areas to obtain these children. We see where they are focusing their attention and possible patterns of abuse. For instance, in recent years adoption agencies have been prohibited from doing business in Russia and Guatemala due to perceived or real abuses within the adoption process. Overall, one can assume that the policy is working well in encouraging individuals to adopt. However, other sources point out that the program is supporting foreign adoptions and not helping the domestic foster care system.   

A recent Child Trends research brief uses 1999–2005 data from the US Treasury Department to determine who most benefits from the credit. In his report summary, author Rob Geen reveals that:

  • The vast majority of adoption tax credit recipients completed private or foreign adoptions rather than adoptions from foster care.
  • The tax credit disproportionately supports higher-income families.
  • The tax credit primarily supports the adoption of younger children.
  •  Nearly all foreign adoptions were supported by the … tax credit but only one in four foster care adoptions were.

Estimated Size of the Adoption Industry

The adoption process is no different to other programs where federal assistance increases the wealth of those who run them. Together with increasing demand for international adoptions, the federal assistance acts to inflate costs and enables those who run the programs to become wealthier. 

I went to the US Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs to get the average number of intercountry adoptions per year. The site has a database that lists the total number adoptions as 271,833 from 1999-2017. I took the average year to be around 15,101 adoptions a year and multiplied it by Adoption.com’s average intercountry adoption cost of US$35,000 to determine the size of the American market. It is US$529 million dollars a year. This does not factor in legal fees, medical fees, counseling costs and immigration costs. It also doesn’t factor in all the other developed countries that adopt abroad. Several sites estimate that Europe and all other developed countries adoptions numbers, equal that of America. Therefore, the entire intercountry adoption industry is worth at least a billion US dollars a year.

Further Reading
Harvard Law article: International Adoption, thoughts on the Human Rights Issue
CDCs Infertility Site
The New Republic: The Trouble with the Christian Adoption Movement
Christian News Now: Evangelicals Push back on Adoption Tax Credit Cuts and Win
Adoptionnetwork.com Adoption Statistics
Washington Post: Why is it so Expensive to Adopt a Child
Huffington Post: The Surprising Facts behind Korea Child Abandonment
Today Online: South Korea set reverse decades old policy international adoptions
AAC (Adoption Agency) Korean adoption costs
New Beginnings (Adoption Agency) Korea Fee Summary
US Department of State: Intercountry Adoption Statistics
Wikipedia: Adoption Costs

Current Rationales for Adoptions Don’t Make Sense

There were actually two peak periods where children were adopted out of South Korea enmasse and these occurred during the 1970s and 1980s. There was no correlation between the adoption rates against GDP per capita. If this was true, then one would expect more children being exported during the IMF crisis in the later part of the 1990s, however, this never occurred. One could argue that size of the family may have been the key driver. This could be said for the children born in the 1970s. The average household size contained 4.53 children per household.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Birth-rates-in-Korea.png

South Korea’s birthrate stabilizes near the current rate which is below 2 children per family around 1982. However, a large number of children were still being adopted for nearly 8 years after the birthrate dropped below 2 per family household.  

A better explanation for the adoptions has to do with South Korea being a patriarchal society. If a South Korean woman losses support from her partner, she is shunned and ridiculed by society. She has no support system to turn to and is given only one option to give her child a fighting chance: adoption.

Wikipedia states:
“Statistics demonstrate the success of South Korea’s national education programs. In 1945 the adult literacy rate was estimated at 22 percent; by 1970 adult literacy was 87.6 percent[41]and, by the late 1980s, sources estimated it at around 93 percent”.  

In relatively a short period, South Korea greatly improved its education system which meant a larger number of women entered university. The age when women gave birth in the 1970-80s was 20-24 year old mothers and this is where a large number of children for adoption came from. The number of children born to this segment shrank dramatically after the 1980s. This was largely due to 2 factors: firstly, the use of ultrasound technology to determine the sex of the child and perform targeted abortions on female fetuses; and secondly the increased use of contraceptives and abortion by women in South Korea.

This also explains the high percentage of South Korean girls given up for adoption throughout this period. More than likely, the poorer women who could not afford to have an abortion or use contraceptives were forced to give up their child due to social pressures. 

“Imbalances in the sex ratio at birth in Southeast and East Asia increased especially after the mid-1980s. We study how ultrasonic technology affected sex ratios at birth in South Korea, a country with a strong son preference. Between 1985 and 1995 fetal screenings and abortion services were widely available, though not available in the years before, and prohibited in the years after”. (Source: NIH article)

As a direct means of avoiding unwanted births, particularly after contraceptive failure, induced abortion gradually increased in South Korea especially among urban women (Choe and Park, 2005Stephen, 2012). By 1970, abortion had become a common practice with more than 40% of women reporting having had an induced abortion to terminate unwanted pregnancies and this rate rose to over 50% by the 1980s (Chun and Das Gupta, 2009). Abortions were easy to obtain in clinics throughout the country and the operations were safe, cheap and completed without social resistance despite the illegality of the procedure (Tedesco, 1999).

Adoption used for Cost Avoidance

What could be another driver for South Korea to sell off their children? I believe we really need to look at the economic incentives. The first economic incentive is the cost avoidance. South Korea forfeited the costs to raise children in institutions from the age they enter the system until adulthood. One needs to remember economic growth in South Korea was extremely high and the average growth between 1970 to 1990 was 18.7% each year. Imagine the amount the government would have to carry as the costs of wages, food and shelter continue to rise by that amount each year? 

I measured the growth by looking at the GDP per capita as an indicator. I calculated the cost to house, feed and educate a child under an institution would cost more than a family given the children need 24 hour care. I used the cost of 40% of the given years GDP per capita as the cost to raise the child for that given year. The costs could actually climb higher when factoring in the higher cost of labor to take care of infants and special needs children. I also estimated that the average child spent 16 years inside the institution. An assumption was made that the average age of the child sent to Korean institutions was 2 years old.

The total cost to the South Korean Government in terms of cost avoidance for only 20 of the 62 years that Korea was exporting children (1970-1990) is estimated to be around US$6.4 billion!

This is evidence that South Korea had an economic motive to sell off its children and supports this theory of cost avoidance. South Korea spend way less money on social welfare programs than other OECD countries which means they have more funding for other programs such as its R&D and military. 

In her 2010 book, Kim Rasmussen said: the root cause of the number of adoptions out of South Korea in 2010 was South Korea’s lack of spending on its social welfare system. Rasmussen also shared that the other OECD-30 countries spent an average of 20.6% of their GDP on social welfare benefits while South Korea only spent 6.9% of its GDP on social welfare benefits. Rasmussen believes that South Korea’s promotion of domestic adoption does not address the heart of the problem and that South Korea should raise its spending for social welfare benefits.[50]

Adoption as a Revenue Maker

In the graphs below, I estimate the average cost for the Foreign Agency Fee and Donation as a steady state (US$19,500 per child) times the number of adoptions per year in South Korea. I compare the revenue in terms of the GDP per capita and determined that in 2015, when the article was written, the cost is around 35% of the GDP per capita in America. I then took that percentage and calculate it by the American GDP per capita stated for each corresponding year. I took the information and compared it against the cost and number of barrels of oil used in Korea to determine how much adoption could have impacted the South Korean economy (if any). The Tax and South Korea’s GDP was compared to determine the strength of the economy and whether it had any effect on the number of adoptions. There doesn’t seem to be any correlation.

The price adjusted to today’s dollars of the total adoption program from 1970-1990 earned South Korea a revenue of US$3.1 billion, averaging US$157 million a year.

To understand the magnitude and impact, the equivalent to a program in America which is more than 6 times the size of South Korea, the revenue gained by selling off its children would be the equivalent to the cost of the fight on AIDS in Africa. In that program America spent roughly US$1 billion a year. Or you could equate the amount to the American national After-School Lunch Program for the entire country that fed hungry impoverished children.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Sth-Korean-Revenue-from-Adoption.png

The yellow line in the graph (above) takes the adjusted Foreign Agency Fee and Donation times the number of children that were adopted each year. Most of the funds went to the South Korean government as above the line profit. Articles have been published stating that the South Korean government has made money from adoption, such as this article on International Adoption of South Korean Children in Wikipedia.

A 1988 article originally from The Progressive and reprinted in Pound Pup Legacy says the South Korean government made fifteen to twenty million dollars per year from the adoption of Korean orphans into families in other countries. The 1988 news article also says the adoption of orphans out of South Korea had three effects: it saved the South Korean government the costs of caring for the Korean orphans; it relieved the South Korean government of the need to figure out what to do with the orphans and it lowered the population.[5]

I think the amount of revenue gained from exporting South Korean children has been understated!

Further Reading
Consideringadoption.com: South Korea Adoption Process, Costs, Adoption Agencies

Lack of Transparency by Adoption Agencies

Comparison of US Wages to average adoption cost, using regression based on known costs

Due to a lack of transparency, there is no exact method of calculating how much revenue the South Korean government made during the adoption process. Holt and other adoption agencies that operate out of South Korea declare their financial statements on an annual basis and if the amounts are lower than the average adoption transaction, one could assume the difference is given to the South Korean government. Issues that make transparency difficult are that adoption agencies such as Holt change their financial statements on a frequent basis and only a fraction of the adoption companies share their financial statements with the public.

The graph below shows a comparison of Korea’s GDP Growth (grey line) in comparison to profit made from adoption (blue line), changes in oil useage (orange) and increase in tax revenue (yellow) over time.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Sth-Korea-GDP-Tax-Adoption-Oil.png

A comparison was made of the cost of barrels of oil used during the twenty years. The amount of money made in adoption sales stays above, or at the level of oil used, when using the steady state number ($6000/adoptee) and it jumps dramatically higher when applying the Foreign Agency Fee and Donation ($19,500). The blue line would grow three fold. 

Further Reading
South Korea’s Historical Oil Use
Historical Oil Prices

South Korea had No Reason to Sell its Children

Economically selling off the children via intercountry adoption has been a suicidal move because the population ultimately fell below 2.1 children per household. In developed countries, sub-replacement fertility is any rate below approximately 2.1 children born per woman, but the threshold can be as high as 3.4 in some developing countries because of higher mortality rates. Going below this number will result in the current situation that South Korea faces and that is a sub-replacement fertility rate.  This occurred around the early or later part of 1982.

I theorize that the rapid drop in fertility rates in South Korea occurred for two reasons:

  1. Cultural: it was unacceptable for women to have children if they weren’t married. That segment quickly disappeared (20-24 year olds) because of contraception and abortion use took place. I need to overlay this to see if more kids are being raised in orphanages. South Korea makes it too easy for parents to dump their kids off and run.
  2. Someone (or the government) was economically gaining from the wholesale of children: if we average the profit throughout the years of $5000 x 200,000 children the profit would be equivalent to US$1 billion dollars .

In 1980 South Korea’s GDP was $68 billion, showing the wholesale of its children would have significantly contributed to the economic growth of the country. There must be a South Korean document somewhere that is equivalent to Germany’s Final Solution. Instead of eradication, South Korea had a plan for the mass exportation of its children.

Following 1988, there was a large drop in intercountry adoptions after the Seoul Olympics. This is an important date, as many nations were chastising South Korea for the exportation of its children. Feeling this pressure, South Korea immediately reduced the number of adoptions per year by 75%.  

Further Reading
Research on the Sub-Replacement Fertility Rate in South Korea

The Number of Institutionalized Children and Adoptions are Dropping 

 With the recent passage of laws and strict requirements for adoption the number of children exported by South Korea for adoption has declined sharply over the past decade. In numerous studies, I note the statistic that America has been taking in nearly half of the adoptions worldwide.

An online journal The Conversation article says international adoptions have dropped 72 percent since 2005 and quotes:

“In recent decades South Korea, Romania, Guatemala, China, Kazakhstan and Russia– all former leaders in foreign adoption – have also banned or cut back on international custody transfers. In 2005, almost 46,000 children were adopted across borders, roughly half of them headed to a new life in the United States. By 2015 international adoptions had dropped 72 percent, to 12,000 in total. Just 5,500 of these children ended up in the U.S., with the remainder landing in Italy and Spain”.

Furthermore, the number of children sent to orphanages in Korea has also fallen.  See this article which quotes:

“In 2015, the number of children staying in welfare centres caring mainly for orphans dropped by 26.8 per cent to 12,821, from 17,517 in 2006”. 

Adoptee Parents are Rapidly Dying Off

During the early 1970’s, fertility rates within South Korea and the ratio for women giving birth was one third in the early to mid 20s age range, one third in the mid to late 20s, and one third in their 30s or older. As South Korea progressed, the number of women in the younger segment shrank greatly. My initial graph above showed potential age lines and made the assumption that the father was on average a couple of years older than the mother.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Life-Expectancy.png

I also found an article on life expectancy which increased by nearly 20 years from the 1970s to today. The dotted horizontal red line in the graph above is the changes in life expectancy and will merge with the mean age of the parents. The life expectancy shot up and stayed around 84 years from the mid 80s to the present. Where the dotted vertical red line meets the dotted horizontal line shows a high likelihood that the fathers have passed away and where the dotted yellow and first dotted red line meets, also holds true for the mothers. I also calculated the ages by the number of adoptees adopted by year group and estimated, using current actuary tables, that more than 2,000 parents are dying each yearRoughly one third of all adoptee’s biological parents have already died and it’s crucial for adoptees to do their searches as soon as possible if they want to find parents alive.

In Conclusion

The money spent on the intercountry adoption of South Korean children would have done more to support single mothers, prevented the separation of children from their surroundings and prevented unnecessary negative externalities experienced via adoption. South Korea could have used the funding to begin its social welfare programs such as Canada’s training programs which train mothers how to raise their children, cope with stresses and empower them to become productive single parents.  

The issues facing many 3rdworld countries are not about bad parenting but rather a situation of a lack of resources. If a mother cannot afford to provide for her child, she will do anything to ensure that her child will have a better life. Few individuals see the altruistic actions of desperate mothers. These mothers are willing to give away their children to afford them a better life. Furthermore, nobody has dethroned the archaic ways of doing business and management of governance in South Korea. Rights and laws go to protect the same patriarchal men who hold the keys to the power in South Korea. Nothing is being done to provide for the millions of women and children left vulnerable when the man decides to abandon the family. Nothing is done to ensure child support is provided and a safety net developed by a government who chooses to bury its head in the sand, instead of dealing with issues that have plagued them for over 5 decades.

“Although Korean women are participating more in the labour market than in previous years, the gap in the level of employment between men and women, regardless of their education level, is enormous. In fact, the gender gap is wider among those with a tertiary education than among those with only preprimary and primary-level education; and South Korea is the only OECD country that shows such an effect”.  (Source: OECD)

About Jayme

Understanding My Adoption in (K)new Ways*

This past November was the first time I’ve celebrated [Inter]National Adoption Month. In honor of centering the adoptee narrative, in honor of me, my family, and my bio family, I’m excited to share some thoughts. Here’s a bit about my perspective and experience of being an intercountry and transracial adoptee from China, having grown up in the US.

I want to stress that these are entirely my own perspectives and observations, drawn from my own life and relating to other [Chinese] adoptees I’ve spoken with; I do not intend to speak opinion for the entire adoptee community.

I used to tell people that I had no problem talking about being adopted because everything was fine for me. At a surface [and immensely privileged] level, it was. I was always very social and extroverted. I was oriented towards making as many friendships as I could. I was *that kid from camp who tried to stay in touch just a bit too long*. I told people I was fine talking about being adopted – even that there was nothing to talk about- because it had happened in the past.

But I am older now, and it’s taken me a while to dig into exactly how and why being adopted has had such an impact on me.

Being adopted is weird, and honestly I’m constantly in awe these days, learning new ways that its weird, and how it situates me in relation to most others, in and outside my communities.

I think we all face abandonment and loss, and the fear of these things, in different ways. I personally do not feel upset with my birth family at this point, but even so, I’ve realize that being abandoned (even if I don’t remember it) really feels present, and has been present throughout my life. I feel it’s important to name this phenomena of the fear of being abandoned, as its really not something I think any adoptee can ever really shake, no matter how conscious or unconscious those fears are. I’ve been doing a lot of work to understand how this fear affects me, and how I may be subconsciously reacting to it even if I don’t realize — whether it’s losing a camp friend at age 12, or the way I communicate in my relationships.

___

I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out what it meant to be read as an Asian woman. I felt completely foreign to this identity that I assumed publicly. I grew up in, and around white people, and white culture – as many adoptees from China do. I used to feel like I was a white kid in an Asian body. You’ll find this (or versions of it) aren’t uncommon for young Chinese intercountry and transracial adoptees.

Two examples of comments I received as a child are below for example:

“I don’t see you as Asian, you’re just normal!”

“Can you see ok?”

These comments were obviously steeped in racism, xenophobia and the essence of the marginalized identity, versus the construction of “normalcy”.  They made me wonder what it was that people saw me as, and why it was so different compared to who I felt I was. I felt “normal,” which in itself was a horribly racist and xenophobic sentiment that I had been socialized to carry.

The sociologist Robin DiAngelo describes White Privilege as “To be perceived as individual, to not be associated with anything negative because of your skin color.”

There were two things that I continue to unpack there. While I was socialized in white culture within the US, I too learned how to read “Asians” as “abnormal.”  Just as well, I discovered that I was read as abnormal — as out of place, too. 

My White-Jewish and queer family culture has played a large role in my socialization and makes up huge parts of my identity and personality. But there’s this other piece that stands as a nebulous question mark, always looming over me:

Where do I come from? Whom do I come from? What are the struggles, joys, and histories of my people – biologically and culturally?

As I continue to understand the situation, more and more it feels like my birthright was taken from me — the right to know my culture, language, and ancestry: the stories and realities that I may never get to hear and that will never fully be a part of me. I also feel I was stolen from my family; there were very real and systemic pressures that inclined them to give me away.

The situation of adoption is inherently both deeply personal and individual, as well as global and systemic. It involves Chinese gender roles, family, culture, income inequality/classism, combined with the Western/American White Christian legacy of imperialism, savior-ism, and more.

A lot of my experience has been hallmarked by both the feeling of being different and that nothing fully belongs to me/that I do not fully belong to anyone (not even my family). This caused a deep dissonance for me. This underlying socialization has pushed me to constantly search to find belonging in groups, and via individual people as a mechanism of survival. This is also inherently motivated by the fear of further loss and abandonment.

While some of these questions around my origins may never be answered, I believe the hardships given to me by being adopted have pushed me to be resilient, self aware, grounded, and perseverant in connecting with others. I am so proud of being an adoptee for these reasons. I wouldn’t trade it for anything because I think one of the most precious things in life is being able to love and connect with others, in as many ways as possible.

___

I have mostly hated being asked where I’m from because it tells me that the person asking recognizes I must be from somewhere else. This question implies I don’t really belong and must have an explanation for being on this land (interesting, do you feel you belong on this land, white Americans?)

However, I’m beginning to find it to also be an empowering question!

I’ve begun to find beauty in this assumption that I’m not from here and in the recognition that I do in fact come from somewhere. I am the product of generations and generations of people who have lived their lives since the beginning of time. These people, while I don’t know them, are in my blood and in my DNA, showing me how to survive every day!

How sad that somehow, the acknowledgement that I am from somewhere else has largely been, for me and other transracial adoptees, a source of feeling out of place, and is a tool of implicit and sometimes explicit social exclusion.

And what a blessing that I’ve been asked this question and that I have, and plan to continue, to explore and uncover where I come from.

Being transracially and intercountry adopted has made me inherently feel that I don’t belong anywhere – in any group or community. It’s made me feel a little more like an outsider in virtually every community I’ve been a part of. While all these things – the sentiment of this question “where are you from,” the look of surprise when people hear I’m Jewish, the feeling of being “othered” by people I consider my own, have caused conflict in my identity in numerous ways, they’ve also asked me to dig deeply into what it means to build bridges and to continue to share, connect, and depend on community.

My adoption has caused me to ask myself, “Well, what and who are my roots? What and who matter to me?”

Even if it’s taken this long to get here, even if I may never know my biological ancestry and have lost the opportunity and privilege to connect to my original people, I do know the beauty, importance, and imperative of figuring out how to connect deeply to my given histories, ancestries, and communities. I know that I can even choose my communities, and that I have that agency – something all adoptees deserve to know and practice.

This white supremacist culture largely holds power through convincing its inhabitants relentlessly to be numb and to grow cold to their own struggles and inherently, the struggles of others. We are taught that to be strong is to remain stoic. This encourages isolation, which is the antithesis of community. By opening up to my own pain and understanding the situation of my adoption, I turn painful realities into curiosity and eventually compassion. By sharing this pain with others, I build relationships where I can give and receive support, and feel understood and known, despite always feeling unseen in certain ways. For me, this is what resilience and healing looks like.

And that’s been a deeply powerful experience but not without pain. It’s taught me to root myself in me, and to trust my ability to build relationships/community with love, curiosity and determination through listening, trust, and vulnerability.

____

While growing up with two White-Jewish and gay moms wasn’t ever helpful in making me feel “normal,” it’s also been a remarkable privilege that I would not trade for anything else. The cultures of Judaism and queerness that my moms embodied and raised me with, have saved me in so many ways. I’m speaking specifically of white Judaism and queerness because my moms experiences have been white. Being Jewish and queer growing up, my parents both learned mechanisms of survival and resilience from their struggles, families and communities. These communities, in different ways, each have their own societal traumas to deal with, past and present. Therefore, built into the fabric and practice of their Jewish and queer identities, they raised me with these inherent strategies of coping and healing. Their strategies are all based on unconditional love and support through gathering and processing — of holding a place for pain, and not running from it. They taught me the importance of chosen family because they, themselves know it.

I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to learn from communities and individuals of color who have shared and articulated their strategies of resilience and healing – of returning to real strength and love. Many intercountry adoptees grow up inside homogenous communities – largely white Christian spaces and don’t really have the access, in multiple ways, to address their identities and their pain. That is why I feel it is so important to share my own experience.

People of Color know this deeply through the multitudes of marginalization, dehumanization and struggle that we have experienced globally. We are, and have to be, inherently more connected to our people. We know this to our core even if it’s unarticulated; we have to know this, living through white supremacy. We know how to love and how to connect, how to to depend, and how to empathize. We have histories of resilience and practices of healing, both collectively and in our blood.

For me, my people are Chinese adoptees.

We as adoptees have mountains to climb. But we are able to connect to each other through our shared experience of feeling unmoored and untethered; not quite “enough” to fully belong to any group, we are our own.

We have so much work to do. We must learn again and again that we are worthy, after a multitude of things has made us feel that we are not. We must learn of our peculiar and particular systemic disadvantage, of parsing through our (largely white) parents’ (and our own) implicit racism and participation in western imperialism. We must learn how to get situated as Asians in our adoptive countries, and sift through the social locations of privilege and marginalization/oppression we experience. As Asians, we are used as a tool to uphold white supremacy and perpetuate anti-blackness. All of that is mapped onto us everywhere we go, and we must learn to navigate it appropriately.

I hope this post gives perspective to some aspects of my community through my story. Give us some space and time to figure ourselves out. Try to put yourself in the perspective of literally feeling like you are never part of the majority, never feeling fully understood, and feeling an odd and ever present dissonance between the way you present and who you actually are.

Ask those of us who are willing, to share about our experiences. (Also be prepared if the answer is no. No-one owes you an explanation of their life!) A lot of the time, the adoptee narrative is overshadowed by adoptive parent voices so let us speak and try to take in what we say, please!

Oh also ! Don’t eeeeeeeevvvvvver tell us that we “should be thankful” or “are lucky” that our parents adopted us! While saying this has absolutely no bearing on my own deep feelings of gratitude and love for my parents (having more to do with who they are as parents and not the mere fact that they adopted me), every one of our stories, hardships and inheritances is different. After losing original/biological family, no-one should have to count on “luck” or “goodwill” to receive love and care. This type of comment puts us in a situation of perpetually making up for a favor, as if we are unworthy of that type of love – something that too many adoptees experience coming from their own adoptive parents.

I may not know how to parent but I do know that the goal of having a child, adopted or by blood, cannot be to fulfill your own dreams. When you have issues with your child becoming an autonomous human who is Different Than You, that is a beautiful (and hard!) opportunity to connect through difference! And begin to let go of that urge to control who and how your child is. Don’t ever make your child feel like they are still making up for being adopted or your need to be seen as Good and Charitable! This is quite applicable to all parenting though, I think.

Also, attention astrology folks (yes, that means you, queer millennials!):

I’m glad you love astrology and it’s your religion but before you go on a rant/yell about people’s moon and star signs, maybe try and recognize that some people do not KNOW those details! It’s not real anyway! Yes, I’m salty! I much prefer the enneagram!

In reality, my bitterness towards astrology worshipers is just a cry for folks to pay attention to the people around you, in multiple ways. Do you know for sure that people around you would know exactly where and when they were born? Read this whole post again if you are confused or upset for being called out, or are wondering why bringing something up like not knowing your actual birthday, time, location, or family etc., might be hard for some people.

This concept of sensitivity though, can be generalized. We all do mess up and miscommunicate and the best we can do is to check in with each other about our particular sensitivities.

I’m really thankful to be able to share some of the insights that my identity and situation have afforded me. I hope you may find them useful as well.  Thank you for engaging.

Hiking in Patagonia’s “W” trail, Las Torres Del Paine in Chile

*I used concept “(k)new,” combining the idea of the “known” and the “new” in the title. I came across this quasi-antonym through the paper “The context within: My journey into research” By Manulani Aluli Meyer: it uses “indigenous ways of knowing” to understand the concept of knowledge through experience, connoting knowledge that is simultaneously “known” and “new.”

About Sophie

Crane Mimicry

whooping crane

Can a famous example of conservation teach us anything about adoption? Most people can’t see a correlation but I do! Less than a hundred years ago, there were just 16 whooping cranes left in North America. These beautiful majestic birds were near the brink of extinction. Men who over hunted and destroyed the bird’s habitat also became its savior. People dressed in bird costumes attended to the young chicks.

In nature, it is not uncommon for cranes to lay two eggs. When this happens, the parents would ignore the weakest of the chicks and let it perish. However, at the conservatory, the scientists would raise the chicks in groups. The whooping cranes are carefully incubated and then hatched inside a plexiglass to observe a real whooping crane. This is done to imprint the chicks with what a real mother would look like.

Individuals meticulously ensure that the whooping crane chicks are attended to, using puppets that teach the young chicks how to find food and drink water. The puppet would mimic drinking water and then raise its head back as the crane does in nature. The attendants would teach the young cranes how to fly. They used an ultra-light plane to lead the cranes on a short flying lesson and eventually lead the cranes from Canada and fly them down to southern Florida. The scientists spared no expense and the average cost to raise a chick to adulthood cost around US$100,000.

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The program was hailed as a huge success because the sixteen original whooping cranes that had four breeding females grew to a flock of more than 500 whooping cranes in the wild. Numerous documentaries were made about the success of this 11-year-long endeavor. The picture of the ultra-light plane leading a group of whooping cranes was popularized and shown in newspapers across the globe. The birds were then flown into their mating territory and the birds paired together and laid eggs. However, the overwhelming majority of birds would abandon their eggs after laying them. Of the 500 birds, only two or three mating pairs successfully hatched their chicks. This puzzled the scientists and after much consideration, they deduced the likely causation for this problem stemmed from the bird’s unorthodox upbringing. The scientists said it best by stating:

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“They have so much baggage from a screwed-up and not normal childhood”!

Does this story sound familiar to you? Because it looks eerily familiar to some of the adoptees I’ve met and their lives. No matter how well the adoptive parents treated their adoptive child – they may have grown up as a disappointment to the adoptive parents or had a hard time adjusting to their new surroundings. Other times, the adoptees look to be successful: they have degrees from reputable schools, they drive high-end cars and attain high levels of success. But after closer examination, you might find their personal life to be a total disaster.

Like these cranes, some adoptees look like they achieve success but a small flaw prevents them from achieving full potential. I have met numerous adoptees incapable of keeping a relationship or keeping a partner. They might behave over clingy and suffocate anyone they come across, they might privately deal with overwhelming guilt or anxiety, or perhaps prone to performing some other social faux pas.

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Like the whooping chicks, the interactions before or during our upbringing may have made an indelible mark on our lives. It may stem from the lack of empathy or touch when we were young. The traumatic experience of being separated from our mother at a certain age, or being left alone in dark bedrooms, or forced to lie still for hours in our cribs, changed the course of our personalities and lives. No matter how wonderful our lives are afterward, we are faced to confront issues that we cannot fathom or explain.

I think these birds explain in some part why adoptees are four times more likely to commit suicide, or why they are disproportionately represented with learning disabilities and have higher than average rates of drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders and incarceration. The reason for both the birds and adoptees is that we all had to deal with living without our natural mothers.

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You can hear the story about the cranes in detail on a podcast called Radiolab:
https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/254840-operation-migration

For more on issues that plague many adoptees see:
https://www.adoptionhealing.com/ginni.html

Stranger Than Fiction

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In third grade, I was in Mrs. Peterson’s class and given the assignment to do a family history project. I asked my adoptive parents about the project and they stated my Aunt Eirene had worked on the family tree and traced back across several hundred years. My family automatically skipped the fact that my own biological family existed and was not included. I was adopted at the age of four and a half years old. I had a lot of residual memories from my childhood but did not understand the things that I could recall. I was told I had an overactive imagination and that I daydreamed a lot. Later as an adult, I met numerous other adoptees and many of them had fantasies about their biological families. Some adoptees had dreamt that their biological families were royalty, others that their biological families were wealthy and looking for them.

I recently met a bunch of adoptees. One shared about identifying with a podcast in which a male adoptee fantasized that his parents were royalty and were looking for him.  During the conversation it was stated,”Who knows – one of us might be royalty!”

On the day of the family tree assignment I stood up in front of the class and talked about my biological father being very old and that he fought in the Korean War. I also talked about army men marching past our village and seeing their tanks and machine guns. I was recalling events as best I could from memory. It is true that it is highly improbable that my father was in his late forties or early fifties when he had children. A simple calculation of the age of most fighting soldiers during the Korean War would fall within a narrow range of ages.  It was highly improbable that my father was that old. The town where I had lived was located several hours south of Seoul and was not as heavily guarded as the Korean border or coastal cities. An initial impression might consider I was on the cusp of telling great tales. In fact, the teachers concernedly told my adoptive parents what I recalled in class and said I had a heightened sense of imagination. I was chastised by my adoptive parents for lying.

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In my early twenties, I joined the military and selected to serve in Korea. While I was there, I learned that the construction of Korea’s expressway number 1 began in 1968 and was completed in the summer 1970. The 660 mile stretch of highway became the main artery that moved commerce from the ports of Pusan through the capital city of Seoul and up to the North Korean border. This main expressway is the second oldest and most heavily traveled expressway in Korea. It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that this corridor was also the main route for the movement of troops and military equipment. It so happens that the highway passes along the outskirts of Cheong-Ju, the town that I grew up in. The memories of seeing soldiers walking alongside the road past my village is highly probable. As for my father for being old, I was confused about that. In my formative years, I was living with my grandfather because my father was away from home. I mistook my grandfather for being my father. I have memories of being ridiculed and told I was being untruthful. These memories flood my mind as I write this. I never meant to lie, all I did as a young child was to do my best to explain what I recalled.

Korean Princess

DNA testing with 325Kamra has taken me all over the globe and as a result, I’ve been able to meet thousands of intercountry adoptees. During these travels, I’ve heard numerous stories that were often stranger than fiction. The first story is about one of the few Caucasian children adopted by a Korean family. Both families worked together in diplomatic channels and the boy’s parents were both killed in a motor vehicle accident. The Korean family took the orphaned boy in immediately and raised him as their own. I met this individual during my first tour to Korea when we were both stationed in Tong-du-chon in the mid-nineties.

In Europe, I met a Korean man adopted by a Korean family and a Korean girl raised by a Jamaican family. From all the stories that have been shared with me, about 99.9% of all Korean adoptees were adopted to Caucasian families. The unique adoption stories also occurred in the United States. In the early nineties, my next-door neighbor was a Korean adoptee and she was actually found by her biological father. Her father worked hard in the construction business and became a millionaire. He hired a private detective to find his daughter in America and he showered her with gifts. He paid off her mortgage and the costs to refurbish her home. He even threw in tickets to fly the whole family to visit him in Korea.

In college, I started the first multi-cultural diversity club on my university campus. As the president, I was invited to visit other campuses around the state and I met up with Korean student groups in Cornell, NYU and various universities on the East Coast. At one student conference, I met a Korean adoptee who was raised in a Jewish family. She was able to recite part of the Torah and read Hebrew. What I learned from these interactions is that adoptee lives are as varied by the families who adopt them. Things that adoptees might dream about, can actually occur.

rich parents

I think it is a common practice for adoptees to fantasize or dream about who their parents are. What I found interesting is that the fantasies are rarely about common everyday individuals. I’ve never heard an adoptee tell me that they believe their parents were librarians or bakers. I mostly heard things like, “I think my family was royalty” or the extreme opposite of the spectrum and believe their mother was a prostitute. I think many adoptees make sense or cope with their adoption by making up stories. I think this is a normal occurrence and families and friends should not dismiss everything that adoptees might share as memories. As in my story, I was able to verify everything with my biological family after I found them. As for finding a princess … I found a Korean adoptee who was able to trace her family back to the last princess of Korea. I met her in Germany – very fitting, since it’s the land of a thousand castles!

My recommendation for adoptees who believe in the stories you are told or you have created to cope with life is: you never know – maybe you will be the next adoptee whose life is stranger than fiction!

Adoptee Citizenship

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The Anti-Immigrant Climate in the United States of America

An Intercountry & Transracial Adoptee’s Perspective

by Rachel Kim Tschida

Special Guest Blogger on ICAV

I am currently pursuing a master’s degree in public affairs, and I’m taking a course on immigration policy. A recent question that was presented to our class was, “How has the anti-immigrant climate in America affected people you know?” I immediately thought of the impact it has had on intercountry (and often transracial) adoptees.

Speaking from my own lived experience, it was actually startling for me when I first realized that I was an immigrant. This might sound crazy but growing up in an American family with American parents, it just never crossed my mind. Yes, logically I knew that I was born in Korea and came to America when I was 6 months old, and my first passport was issued by the Korean government for my first plane ride aboard Northwest Airlines from Incheon to Seattle, and then Seattle to Minneapolis-St. Paul. I have photos and newspaper clippings from my naturalization ceremony when I was 1 year old (my mom dressed me in a red white & blue dress for the occasion). I even received a hand signed letter from U.S. Senator Rudy Boschwitz, congratulating me on becoming a citizen (and how he also immigrated to the U.S. as a child). However, “immigrant” was never part of my self- identity.

This all started to shift a few years ago, when I heard about a Korean adoptee who was in deportation proceedings. At first, it didn’t even make any sense to me – how could an adoptee, someone who was adopted by Americans like me, be deported? At the time, I didn’t realize that not all adoptees were naturalized – either their parents didn’t know or for some reason or another, just didn’t complete the process. After reading the case of this adoptee, and going down a Google rabbit hole, all of the pieces started to come together. The next time I stopped by my parents’ house I thanked them for following through on all of the steps of my adoption and naturalization. I also asked to get all of my documents, including my certificate of naturalization and adoption file, just in case.

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Through conversations that I have had within the intercountry adoptee community, I have realized that I am not alone on the complex path of self-discovery around adoptee/immigrant identity. There are some intercountry adoptees who do not identify as immigrants, while there are others who proudly and adamantly claim their immigrant status. I have also realized that I had one of the better possible adoption outcomes, with regards to how seriously and diligently my parents went through the adoption and naturalization processes. In the massive folder of adoption paperwork from my parents, I found notes in my mom’s handwriting with reminders like “call attorney” or “don’t forget to file naturalization paperwork”.

Throughout the past 2 years, I have seen an increased level of fear and anxiety within the community. As anti- immigrant policy proposals have increased in number and frequency, related discussions within intercountry adoptee community groups and online chats have proliferated. Everything from whether or not we need a certificate of citizenship AND a certificate of naturalization, to stories of naturalized Asian American citizens who have been de- naturalized for spelling mis-matches in their application (which can be prevalent when translating Asian names from their native characters into Romanized letters), to the impact the proposed removal of birthright citizenship would have on the American-born children of non-naturalized adoptees. This particular issue adds even greater distress around family stability to adoptees whose very lives were impacted by the separation from their birth families. Adoptees have given each other advice such as carrying proof of citizenship at all times, having copies of adoption certificates and naturalization certificates when traveling abroad and re-entering America, immigration and border control, and hiring immigration attorneys.

americaThis has also led to many philosophical debates around the positioning of intercountry adoptees on the immigration hierarchy – especially Asian adoptees. In stark contrast to the exclusion of Asian immigrants through the 1875 Page Act, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the 1907 Gentleman’s Agreement with Japan, the Asiatic Barred Zone Act of 1917, and the quotas of the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, the adoption of Korean children by (usually) white American families began in 1953 – more than a decade before the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This exceptionalism narrative – that adopted children of American parents are “good immigrants” yet at the same time almost never viewed as immigrants by their families, the immigration process, or society at large, is probably why I also did not identify as an immigrant myself. There was the assumption (and expectation) that we would be easy to assimilate into American society via our American families. It poses an interesting question; how can America view an Asian, African, or Latino child who has crossed the border with his or her Asian, African, or Latino parents so differently than an Asian, African, or Latino child who was adopted by (white) American parents?

Adoptive parents and adoption agencies successfully lobbied for the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, which granted automatic and retroactive citizenship to some (but not all) intercountry adoptees. Now, adoptive parents would only need to ensure the adoption was legally finalized based on the type of visa issued, and they would no longer need to go through the naturalization process. This seems in theory like a clear victory for the adoptee community that would close a gap in our immigration system. However, it continues to reinforce the exceptional immigrant narrative.

That said, even in 2000 concessions were made to the Child Citizenship Act in order to get it through Congress. The most notable and damaging was that it excluded adoptees who were already 18 on the day the law was enacted- February 27, 2001. There was an assumption that adoptees over 18 could easily navigate the immigration system and apply for citizenship themselves. Despite the “forever children” narrative that is also often placed on adoptees, this was an abrupt shift in suddenly viewing us as adults and transferring the responsibilities (and failures) of adoptive parents onto adoptees. This also seemed to define the shift toward placing adoptees in the same category as all other immigrants, at least in the eyes of immigration enforcement.

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Unfortunately, there are many intercountry adoptees who have no viable path to citizenship, for various reasons. They may have entered on a non-immigrant visa, or their parents did not keep their adoption files which are the only proof that an adoptee entered the country legally via adoption. Despite the air of “exceptionalism” in the passage of the Child Citizenship Act, one could also argue that adoptees had no agency or self-determination in their adoption whatsoever – they didn’t choose to be separated from their birth family and be sent from their birth country, nor choose to be adopted by Americans. Therefore, those who hold the most power within this adoption system should also bear the responsibility – American parents, adoption agencies, and the American government. For better or worse, the premise of adoption is built upon the promise of offering a “better life” and “creating a family” – and the denial of American citizenship is a complete contradiction to this promise. For many adoptees, their American families, homes, and lives are all they know.

Since 2000, there have been numerous attempts to amend the Child Citizenship Act, in order to grant retroactive citizenship to those who were excluded. The most recent attempt, the Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2018, has not yet passed despite being bipartisan and bicameral. The Adoptee Rights Campaign (ARC), a national organization led by adoptees without citizenship, will continue to advocate for a legislative solution. Other adoptee organizations and community organizations such as Korean American or other Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) social justice organizations have also mobilized around the country, in an effort to raise awareness and engage with their local, state, and federal elected officials. It is worth noting that the Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2018 has been specifically positioned as a family and human/civil rights issue, and not an immigration issue – and that previous attempts to add adoptee citizenship to other immigration reform bills failed.

A small group of us in Seattle have come together and formed a joint committee between a Korean American nonprofit and an Asian Adoptee nonprofit organization. We continue to discuss how, when, and where we can contribute to these efforts and what our sources of funding will be. We have had many late-night debates about the framing of adoptees as immigrants, not as immigrants, as adults, as children of American parents. We have struggled with the implications of positioning adoptee citizenship as an immigration issue, family issue, and/or human rights issue. We have debated if we should try to build alliances with other impacted immigrant groups, such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, or if we should proceed separately.

We are at the end of November – National Adoption Awareness Month and the anti-immigrant and xenophobic climate has forced many of us to have uncomfortable conversations with our families and even ourselves, as we process what it all means for us as the adopted, immigrant, (people of color) children of our (white) American parents.

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To keep up to date and support the work of American adult intercountry adoptees fighting for their right to automatic US Citizenship, see Adoptee Rights Campaign.

Turning Negativity into Positivity with Buddhism

The meditation hall at Garchen Institute in Chino Valley was brightly colored with royal reds, canary yellows, lush greens and deep blues. Buddhist thankas adorned the walls. A gorgeous mandala was in the center of the floor that held sacred items and offerings. Brilliant candles and Buddha statues lined the front. Reverent lamas sat in the front right, reciting traditional Tibetan mantras. I sat on the opposite corner, behind the mandala, near the isle, hidden from sight from the lamas. In this meditation space, I received my Vajrakalaya empowerment. In this space, I gave my Bodhisattva vows.

Why was I doing this, you ask?

In light of the storm of adoption awareness month and the struggles within me as an adoptee, I was here to purify my heart and mind.

The Vajrakilaya and Vajrayana Buddhism

In this Vajrakilaya Drupchen retreat, I generally understood that the empowerment was designed in a way to vanquish the obscurations in my heart and mind, to clear the “poisons” that tend to aggregate within me in the material world, which cloud the original pure nature of every one of us–that is love and compassion. According to Garchen’s website, Vajrakilaya is a wrathful manifestation of Vajrasattva, the Buddha of Purification. Thus, the practice in this Vajrakilaya retreat focuses on removing intense inner and outer obstacles to peace, happiness and enlightenment.

The Vajrakilaya is a part of Vajrayana Buddhism, and these teachings express that the source of suffering is the self-grasping of the “I” that doesn’t exist. The altruistic goal in these practices is to cultivate Bodhicitta or enlightened compassion within ourselves, which is also the nature of the Buddha. This compassion cultivation is the antidote that can dispel all suffering from ourselves and others. Thus, the Vajrakilaya is like a vehicle that cultivates compassion inside us, and in an accelerated pace.

My Empowerment

Here is a video of me receiving the empowerment. I enter the video stage left at about 7:12:16. And to be honest, I had no idea what I was doing.

Garchen Rinpoche first applied a scepter to the crown of my head and chanted. I walked to the next lama. In a second, I was instructed to put my left hand out. This lama suddenly poured wine into my palm. At that moment, I felt really surprised, because I simply wasn’t expecting that.

I walked to the next lama, my hand still out. Next, this lama plopped a mid-sized, round seed into the liquid in my palm, and now, total puzzlement descended upon me. I halted, wondering hard at what I was supposed to do. I took a few more steps. “Drink,” this lama instructed, so without hesitation, I basically slammed the contents into my mouth. With the wine and the seed in my mouth, my tongue whirled around the objects, and I swallowed the liquid. I halted in front of the lama with the grape basket.

Oh no. What am I supposed to do now? I thought.

This lama ushered me to take a grape, so I took a grape. Not knowing what I was supposed to do with this grape either, I threw it in my mouth instantly, which I believe was the seed of longevity. The last lama had a bit of a half-grin watching me. It seemed he then remembered to give me a bracelet, and then I walked back to my seat as gracefully as I could.

I gulped the empowerment seed as I found my seat, trying not to choke or make a face. After that, I started reciting prayers.

Taking Breaks

The drubchen is one of the most powerful yidam or diety practices that include continuous recitation of mantras to aid in watering the empowered seed planted within. It is usually for about 7 to 10 days of uninterrupted practice, and for this retreat it was 8 days. Several days of drubchen is equivalent to years of solitary retreat. It is practiced to create a transcendent environment for the deity to arise, and to destroy the forces within us that are counteracting our compassion. At the meditation hall, there was a blend of sacred rituals including trumpets, dances, as well as incense burned to stimulate the senses.

For this retreat, I wasn’t there continuously. The center’s guest quarters were all booked for this drubchen, so staying off site made way for commuting and having breaks. This turned out very good for me.

Knowing myself, I tend to push myself too hard at times. Most new practices for me need to be at my own pace, so I can gently submerse myself.

In my breaks, I stayed in a hotel nearby. I listened to the live Youtube feed that the institute showed during the drubchen sessions, meditating at the hotel. There, I practiced Vipassana meditation too.

I was at the center practicing most days. I hopped in my car early in the morning and drove back at sunset. Still, I felt the need to be gradual for this. I knew that next time, I will be better prepared and more disciplined.

Working With Negative Energies Effectively

I look back at myself in this video and admit, I chuckle to myself. As an adult adoptee with internal struggles, I’ve taken so much of my life and thoughts seriously. But lately, I’ve been practicing Buddhism to shake off my deathly seriousness, and expel my negative energies and obscurations, which have kept me locked into habits and afflictions for so long.

I hope to be lighter and more controlled with what I have inside me–which includes adoptee anger, that Lynelle writes about in a blog post.

By doing these practices, I make a personal effort to control and next, turn my most negative emotions into positive thoughts, feelings and actions.

The goal in these practices is to practically manage my life and energies more effectively, so that I may be useful in today’s society.

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Stephanie taking Bodhisattva Vows at Garchen Institute in Chino Valley, Arizona

What’s Coming Up Next

I’ll be heading to see Amma, a well-known hugging saint, next week in Northern California! I will be attending this Bay Area Retreat with my friend, with more photos and experiences to share soon.

Thanks for reading everyone!