A Journey in Re-defining My Identity

by Maya Fleischmann, a transracial adoptee born in Hong Kong, adopted into a Jewish Russian adoptive family. Author of the fictional book Finding Ching Ha, A Novel.

“The more you know yourself, the more clarity there is. Self-knowledge has no end – you don’t come to an achievement, you don’t come to a conclusion. It is an endless river.”

Jiddu Krishnamurti

The journey of self-discovery

This quest to discover who we really are is the stuff that novels and movies are made of. Though our self-perception transforms with time, events, social, and physical settings that alter our connectedness with different people, groups, and places, the foundation upon which we build our identity remains the same (although the perception of historical events can change). As an intercultural adoptee, my unknown beginnings have been an unstable bedrock in the explorations of my identity.

Who am I? In 1972, I was adopted by a Russian Jewish expat couple living in Hong Kong. I was three, or maybe four years old (my adoptive parents had told me both ages, so I am going by my fake birth certificate that was issued four years after my date of birth, also listed on the same certificate). I was raised in a household that observed Jewish traditions as well as Chinese and Russian holidays, such as Chinese New Year, and Russian Easter and Christmas. We also celebrated holidays, such as Boxing Day and the Queen’s birthday, that were observed by my British school and the-then-British Crown Colony of Hong Kong. Memories of my years before four are a blur of nightmares and dreams, memories and fantasies. I am not sure which is which anymore, which is why I wrote Finding Ching Ha, my novel about a Chinese girl who is adopted by a Russian Jewish couple, as fiction. 

Where am I from?

I remember asking my parents this question once, maybe twice, in their lifetime. I remember the way they looked at me, eyes large, teeth digging into lips, fingers fidgeting with imaginary dirt under nails, and them looking away. It conjured an awkwardness and angst, as though I had caught them having sex, that I didn’t broach the topic of my Chinese ancestry with them again. I didn’t ask, and they never did tell me, what, or if, they knew of my past. 

Although my multi-cultural background was a conversation starter for as long as I can remember; my lack of foundation, and my insecurities about my unknown origins, made it difficult for me to respond to the questions and comments that I encountered. I was always flummoxed by perceptions and judgements people made that negated my beginnings, my history, my life. “Oh, you’re not Jewish if you haven’t been bat mitzvahed.” “You’re not really Chinese if you don’t speak Chinese.” “Your adoptive parents’ Russian history isn’t your heritage, because they’re not your real parents.” “Aren’t you a lucky little girl to have been adopted?” “Who knows what your background is?” And each remark about my identity was made as nonchalantly to me as if they were recommending a menu item, “Oh, don’t order the soup. You won’t like it.”

Growing up with all these pronouncements made me wonder about my identity – or lack thereof. If I wasn’t entitled to my Chinese heritage because I had been adopted out of it, and I wasn’t entitled to partake in any ownership of my parents’ history because I wasn’t born into it, then who exactly was I? Where did I belong? Even the British (albeit Hong Kong British) identity I embraced the most as a child, disappeared in 1997 during the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China. 

At an early age, the answer was for me to disown my Chinese background. More and more I noticed my Chinese face in the synagogue, and social circles filled with Westerners, or at the parties where everyone who looked like me was serving food or washing dishes. And, with this awareness, came annoyance and shame about being Chinese, not fitting into the country of my birth, nor into the home of my new family. Even as an adult, I shied away from organizations that were based on my ethnicity, lest I be asked, “how can you be born and raised in Hong Kong, be Chinese, and not speak Cantonese?” Instead, I joined groups and made friends based on common interests like reading, writing, or parenthood. 

As the base of experience in life grew, I became more comfortable in my sense of self, as well as the subject of my missing self. With Finding Ching Ha, I struggled to convey how Ching Ha assimilated into the different cultures of her new life. Writing this made me realize that my own childhood shame and self doubt, the triggers to unidentifiable emotions, and my angst in eking out an identity in the mosaic of cultures, were real and challenging. Writing the novel helped me make sense of my own emotions growing up and come to terms with some of these complexities. 

Who am I today?

I’m in my fifties now. The sense of being ungrounded has faded. I have created a family history with my own husband and children. My feng-shui’d household is infused with traditions and stories from Russian and Chinese cultures, the Jewish traditions, and a sprinkle of Buddhist and Stoic insights for good measure. Still, in a culture filled with contentious conversations about race, where boundaries are so clearly defined, even when there are many people of mixed race, I find myself still wondering about my past — especially when I fill out medical forms inquiring about family history. So, a week ago, I decided to take a DNA test. Perhaps I can learn about my genetic makeup, and glean insight into current and future medical conditions, or get confirmation that I am 100% Chinese. Ultimately, my deep desire is to find someone, or something, that will quell the dream and voice that wonders if there is someone looking for me.

If in two weeks the DNA results reveal nothing new, I won’t be too disappointed because I have found familiarity in the unanswered questions. Though there will be no one to tell me the tale of my origins, my journey of self discovery will continue, for I am the writer for the rest of my story. 

Since the writing of this article, Maya has received her DNA results. Click here to read her blog post and find out what she discovered: https://findingchingha.com/blog/finding-family/

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Maya Fleischmann is a freelance writer and the author of Finding Ching Ha and If You Give a Mum a Minute. Her book reviews are published in book industry trade journals, such as Foreword Magazine, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and Audiofile Magazine. Her stories and articles have appeared in travel and cultural magazines and books, to include Peril and Chicken Soup for the Working Mom’s Soul. You can find out more about Maya at mayafleischmann.com and findingchingha.com. Finding Ching Ha: A Novel, is available in paperback and ebook on Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble and Kobo and other leading bookstores.

Spending Thanksgiving on My Own

Holidays have always been a bit of a bugger, at least for me. And to make things worse, I’m spending Thanksgiving alone this year but I’m happy to at least have a couple days off this week because of the holiday! I have some new goals I will be occupying my time with too. Like for one, I hope to start taking local photographs of Hawaii. I think this goal is great because it can motivate me three-fold:

  1. My goal would encourage me to learn more about beautiful Hawaii.
  2. It will motivate myself to meet new people.
  3. I can also refresh my portfolio.

Life in Hawaii as a new single has been peaceful but I do have to admit, it can be lonely. It was tougher in the beginning but I’ve actually had some small periods of joy in passing moments these days.

My List of Little Things That Bring Me Temporary Joy (as a Newly Made Single Person in Hawaii)

  • Listening to Bhutanese pop music on Spotify
  • Sitting at my Favorite Secret Spot overlooking the ocean
  • Junk journaling at home with a movie on
  • Going for jogs next to the highway
  • Eating pokē at any time of the day
  • Talking to friends
  • Checking in with my support groups or creative workshops

Next month will be Christmas.

I’ve been thinking about what it’ll be like visiting my adoptive family in Arizona during that time. It’s been years of estrangement and I haven’t even met a handful of my cousin’s children yet too, so it’s definitely good that I meet them this year.

It will be also nice not being alone, and I hope to also blog in that time.

I’ve also been thinking about my plans in Hawaii. If I should try to move back to the mainland to live and work in a more affordable place. Right now work here keeps me going on Oahu but it’s still fickle. Another idea struck me too: I think it’d be awesome to plan a trip to the Philippines with a few Filipino-American adoptee friends who might want to explore our home country together!

Anybody interested?

Not much else to write about right now, so I will sign off. Please feel free to find me on Facebook or Instagram if you’d like to get in touch!

Does Justice or Accountability Happen in Illicit Adoptions?

by Jessica Davis, American adoptive mum who returned her Ugandan child to her biological mother in Uganda. Jessica has written this post in response to the recent “guilty” plea of staff working at the adoption agency European Adoption Consultants (Ohio) who facilitated the illicit adoption of Ugandan adoptee to the Davis family. Media article here.

It has been many years since uncovering the horrible truth that the little girl we adopted from Uganda had been unlawfully separated from her family. Since reuniting Namata back with her mother, I have been waiting for some semblance of justice and accountability, especially when it came to this particular individual.

Today, Debra Parris, one of the criminals involved in trafficking Namata changed her plea to guilty on every federal indictment she was charged with. Debra was a willing participant in trafficking children from Uganda through intercountry adoption. She caused irreparable harm to Namata, her Ugandan mother and made our lives miserable for years as we sought to expose her and her co-conspirators. She has inflicted massive amounts of harm on MANY vulnerable Ugandan children and their families (and in many other countries I am sure).

Just hearing her voice today was overwhelming let alone hearing her finally admit guilt. Since coming to realize what happened within our adoption was not unique, I made the commitment to never waste an opportunity to work at changing the narrative when it comes to intercountry adoption. This moment will be no different.

To those who choose to believe that what happened to Namata and her mother is the result of just one “bad apple”, I beg of you to stop. I have been working with Ugandan families for over 5 years now and I can tell you that what happened to Namata and her family is not the exception, rather it is the rule in intercountry adoption. Every Ugandan family I have met, even the families that used other adoption agencies, have had similar experiences to share. None of the families of origin truly understood adoption, all of them were going through a difficult time and only needed support. Almost every one of them thought they were gaining access to an education or medical care for their loved one. I’m not saying that there aren’t exceptions, but I have yet to meet a Ugandan family who truly understood adoption.

As an adoptive parent, choosing to look the other way or to remain silent when it comes to these injustices makes YOU part of the problem. When I realized what was happening with our adoption agency, I immediately started speaking to other adoptive parents that had used them as well. I was told over and over that I was overreacting, that this couldn’t be true, or that at least it couldn’t be as “bad” as I was claiming. I have a feeling that even with this admission of guilt, many adoptive families will still say it’s just not true in their situation (which might very well be true) and go on with their lives, as if nothing happened.

This adoption agency facilitated the adoptions of over 30 Ugandan children. Today Debra Parris admitted to bribing probation officers, court registrars and judges in Uganda. She admitted to knowingly submitting fraudulent information to the US State Department in an effort to facilitate illicit adoptions. To assume this was not happening in other adoptions is not only naive but a grave miscarriage of justice.

How many birth families and adult adoptees have shared similar experiences? When will we start listening? When will enough families have been unnecessarily torn apart until we are willing to do something? When will the lives and welfare of these “orphans” matter to us beyond them being adopted?

While, I rejoiced today in this small step toward accountability for the wrongs perpetuated against many of the most vulnerable children and families in our world, I couldn’t help but think about all the Ugandan families (and families across the world) that this has happened to. Families that will likely never see justice or reparations, let alone the loved one they were separated from. I couldn’t help but think about all the adoptees that were handed off between families like trading cards. Adoptees that are silenced and ignored when they speak out about their experiences with adoption. I can’t help but think about all of the harm that has been unnecessarily inflicted on adoptees and birth families because this system seems far too easy to exploit and corrupt.

When is enough, enough?

For more from Jessica & her husband Adam, watch their interview with 1MillionHome Audacious Love

For more from Jessica, read her blogs:
Adoption: Neat & Tidy? Not so much!
The Lie We Love
Not A Tourist Attraction
There Isn’t an Orphan Crisis, It’s a Family Separation Crisis

Lived Experience of Illegal and Illicit Adoption

Intercountry adoption is regulated by the 1993 Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption. This convention was designed to protect the best interests of the child in intercountry adoption and prevent the abduction, trafficking or sale of children for intercountry adoption purposes.

While it is impossible to calculate exactly how many illegal and illicit adoptions have occurred into Australia, we do know we have specific cohorts of adoptees here from various countries. Ethiopia and India were the most recent countries where our programs closed due to irregularities. Our early history in the 1980s includes trafficked adoptees from Taiwan where Julie Chu was convicted of falsifying paperwork and sentenced to prison for her role as leader of the Taiwan trafficking ring.

Globally, in February this year the Netherlands suspended its intercountry adoption program due to its historic illegal and illicit adoptions. Other European countries such as Switzerland, Sweden, and Belgium have all taken steps to carefully examine their historic adoptions.

What will Australia’s response be to our own history of illicit and illegal intercountry adoptions? Australian policy makers are currently grappling with this question and the implications. For this purpose, ISS Australia and InterCountry Adoptee Voices (ICAV) are pleased to present our free webinar on this sensitive and complex topic with a focus on the voices of those with lived experience. We hope to help educate about the experience from lived perspective, how it impacts, and what impacted people want to see policy makers and professionals take into consideration.

This webinar took place on 10 November 2021 titled Lived Experience of Illegal and Illicit Adoption. We bring you Australian specific lived experience, however, this can be extrapolated to the global arena.

A huge thank you to our panelists: Professor David Smolin, Kimbra Butterworth-Smith, Annita Pring, Clement Lam (as read by his daughter, Marie Gardom).

  • Professor David Smolin is a professor of law at Cumberland School of Lawin Birmingham, Alabama. He is also the Harwell G. Davis Chair in Constitutional Law and director for the Centre for Children, Law, and Ethics. Professor Smolin is a world leading expert on illegal and illicit intercountry adoption and has written and spoken extensively on this topic. He has also been personally impacted by illegal and illicit intercountry adoption.
  • Kimbra Butterworth-Smith has experience working in humanitarian NGOs in Australia and abroad. She is also an intercountry adult adoptee from Taiwan whose adoption was facilitated illegally by Julie Chu.
  • Annita Pring is an Australian adoptive mother to a Thai son.
  • Clement Lam Swee Seng is a retired counsellor in marriage, youth and drug addiction ministry in Malaysia. He also is a Chinese father of loss to a daughter who was sent abroad and adopted into a British adoptive family. Clement has only recently been reunited with his daughter.

Many thanks to my co-presenters at ISS Australia, CEO Peter van Vliet and Deputy CEO Damon Martin.

Reference to the investigation other countries have done already, can be found in the resources list for this past blog: Governments Finally Recognising Illicit and Illegal Adoption Practices.

On the Road to Recovery

I am a 36-year-old Filipino American adoptee and my road to recovering from being orphaned as a baby has never come easy. I didn’t have the resources to return to the Philippines to restore my heritage. I never had the resources to mend the problems I had with my intercountry adoption placement. So, I had to find creative solutions to recover from all of this.

I can’t promise any tips to save anyone from the complications of being adopted or adopting. What I can do is give a few personal solutions that I found in my own adoptee life that helped on my road to recovering from my intercountry adoption journey.

5 Things I Did to Reclaim My Adoptee Life

  1. Creating. I first studied writing and then library and information science. My interests led to making mixed media art and information products that helped me voice my transracial life’s losses and restructure a new sense of identity in innovative ways. I could transform my grief with art and education. For instance, I made a digital archive showing my adoption process and the biological identity that I lost when I was born as an orphan in the Philippines in 1985. You can view my archive here and my Instagram here.
  2. Retreating peacefully. In-between a rock and a hard place, I had to choose what was best for me psychologically and emotionally. I started retreating from the norm in my early twenties. I separated from my adoptive family through geographic and social distancing. I retreated from all of the past relations that failed me in the past and the bad relationships I had. I moved to Hawaii in my thirties, a place I had been mysteriously called to for years. There, I let go. But despite letting go, I never gave up on myself, or the love I have for life, my ideals or the world around me. And to keep myself well in Hawaii, I continued my meditation practices and holistic therapies.
  3. Focusing on Work. There are pathways in Buddhism where one can practice meditation optimally and achieve liberation through intensive work and labor. Work has been the best practice for me. Work caters to my studious personality. It is the best physical, emotional and psychological outlet. I can rebuild a sense of identity in work as well.
  4. Being Involved in Communities. I got involved with supportive communities and support groups. I gravitate towards people that practice meditation, people that are devoted to art or learning, or nonprofit endeavours. I enjoy being a part of supportive networks with people. I ask questions. I volunteer. I like to believe that I restructure the broken bonds of my history by being involved today. Being a part of communities helps me cultivate a sense of belonging. I build a positive foundation around me and support structures.
  5. Taking Care of My Relations Today. Relationships keep me regulated in my daily life. My relations include unconventional ones like taking care of my plants, my cat, work relations and with myself. I’ve started adoptee counselling on a regular basis to cultivate a better relationship that I have with myself and my adoptee world. I am also returning to my adoptive family this Christmas to visit and help heal my relations with them. My relations help me keep well in life today.

Yes, I still feel echoes of my broken bonds affect my life today. I still ache from having been born into destitute poverty in the Philippines so long ago. I still dream of the older Filipino American brother whom I lost in this intercountry adoptee experience. I still carry the void where my biological family’s voices are forever gone. There is no easy answer to recover from these paradoxes.

Despite it all, I do know that I am finding my way day by day. I have been coming out of the fog, and it has been a good thing.

Read more from Stephanie:
Reconstructing Identity & Heritage
A Filipino Adoptee’s Plea not to be Erased

A Picture Conveys a Thousand Emotions

by Sara Jones/Yoon Hyun Kyung, adopted from South Korea to the USA.

I have no photos of myself before I was 3 years old.  I have a few photos after that age taken at the orphanage.  Staff members took photos of children to send to sponsors or potential adoptive parents. In one of the photos, I am wearing a Korean hanbok but I am not smiling in any of the photos at the orphanage.

One of my orphanage photos

A few months ago, I came across a photo (not one of mine) that literally made me feel like I had been thrown back in time. The photo was taken in 1954 at a well. The well has high cement walls and a pulley system.  Rusted metal drums sit nearby.  Two young boys are drawing water while a little girl stands near them. The 1954 photo helped me visualize what life might have been like for me in Jeonju, South Korea. 

Here’s what I see when I looked at that 1954 photo:  I see an older brother, about 8 years old, a younger brother almost 6 years old, and their little sister who is 2 years old. They are poor, but don’t really know anything different. They live with their grandmother and father in a rural village in South Korea. Their father is the oldest of several children and some of their aunts and uncles are still quite young. They are all struggling through the economic disruption that has happened in their country. Their father worked in manual labor and was injured. So the boys help their father and keep watch of their little sister. The little sister is used to staying near her brothers. Sometimes the children go to day care and the boys sneak the little sister extra corn snacks. Her brothers are her protectors.

The children don’t know that their father is making an excruciating decision. Their father can no longer provide for them and thinks his only choice is to send them to the children’s welfare center. The little girl has no idea that she will be separated from her father or even from her brothers. The children also don’t know that their father will soon take them to a well and give them each a tattoo on their arm, using a needle, ink and thread. He is worried he will never see his children again. In the 1954 photo, the children are just siblings, sent to the well for the day’s water.

The children might have wondered why their father was taking them to the well the day he gave them their tattoos. The oldest son cries as his father gives him the tattoo. As the father gives his oldest son his tattoo, he says to him, “I will come back for you.” Before the father gives his little baby daughter her tattoo, he hugged her.

It’s been a long 3 years since I met my Korean birth family. The distance from the U.S. to South Korea feels longer and harder with the pandemic. The language barrier weighs on me constantly. How will I ever communicate with them?  

Some things need no words. Like this moment 3 years ago of my Korean family and I at the well in Jeonju, where my father gave us our tattoos. Watch the video here.

To listen to more of Sara sharing, watch her Ted talk here which has over 2m views
Read Sara’s other ICAV post The Adoption Fairy Tale

Only Child

Katia’s song Only Child is 1 of 6 adoptee created music sound tracks used in ICAVs recently released Video Resource for Professionals.

by Katia Marcello, adopted from Chile to Australia, music songwriter and producer.

I’ve waited so patiently to share my first New Release of an original song I wrote and produced.  

I believe timing plays an important part, and that’s exactly why I felt I was ready to write and release a song about my past .  

Only Child was written for all the Chilean adoptees worldwide and their families who had their basic human rights taken and stolen from them. This occurred under the Dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in the 70s, 80s and 90s. 

I was one of those children adopted out in 1981, knowing only what my parents had been told — that I was abandoned by my mother. It was in 2019 that I learnt the truth.

I was placed in a nursery by my biological mother who signed abandonment papers because the only support system she had, was telling her to give me up, that she had nothing to offer me. My mother fortunately did register my birth but the staff at the nursery got upset asking her why would she do that. My mother responded, saying that she loved me and didn’t want to lose me. The staff answered her, “The children of love do not live, sign this and you will be giving a better life to your daughter because giving up for adoption is also an act of love.”

This piece is for all those who have suffered loss and pain, for those who have been reunited with loved ones and for those who are still searching. 

I hope this song helps create some awareness. Finally, and most importantly, I hope we can put an end to Illegal Adoption and Child Trafficking, not only within Chile but throughout the world.

A BIG thank you to the talented Petra Acker for helping me create Only Child.

My Father’s Death Anniversary

by My Huong Le adopted from Viet Nam to Australia (living in Viet Nam); Co-Founder of Viet Nam Family Search; Director of Nhà Xã Hôi Long Hài.

My Huong’s father, Elbert

I started the quest for the truth of my life when I was a teenager. Despite being told my mother had died, I sent a letter to an address in Vietnam when I was 16 and amazingly, I received a reply. She told me about my childhood and gave me information on who my father was.

In 1989, I searched for this man who had been an Australian soldier in Vietnam, but sadly he had already died. I did a DNA test with potential siblings, but it wasn’t conclusive as DNA testing 30 years ago didn’t have the accuracy that it does today. Nonetheless, I accepted them as being family and over the years I got to know them well and love them dearly.

In 2004, I returned to Vietnam. Having long lost written contact, I searched for my mother and was reunited with her. 14 years later, I received a text message giving details of another woman to be my birth mother. This was to unravel everything I had believed and sent me on an emotional roller coaster.

That following day, was the first time in 47 years that I embraced my true mother. She stroked my hair and through tears in her eyes told me all she ever wanted was to see me before she died.

My Huong’s mother honouring Elbert

That same day, when I showed my mother a photo of who I thought was my father, she said it wasn’t. It turns out that as my mother lay unconscious after having a severe haemorrhage after giving birth to me, two friends from the city came to visit. One of them told my grandmother she would take me to Can Tho and care for me while my mother was sick. My grandmother had my two half siblings at home, two of her own children and with my mother seriously ill, she agreed. Six weeks after my mother recovered, she went to Can Tho to see her friend to bring me home, but this lady had vanished. My mother then spent years in vain searching for me.

The fake woman stole me, telling her boyfriend that he was the father, to convince him to remain with her. She had me taken to her hometown to be cared for by her parents, with everyone believing that she had given birth to me in the city. Nobody was none the wiser. How somebody can be that cruel and deceiving, plotting such an evil scheme is incomprehensible.

My Huong and her mother celebrating her father’s death Anniversary

Having new information from my mother, I set out to search for my birth father. In October 2019 through doing a DNA Ancestry test, I had several close matches with relatives and learnt that my father had already died. Given that he was 20 years older than my mother I wasn’t surprised. What is tragic is that 6 siblings had also died. My eldest sister died four months prior to me finding the family and the remaining died too young. I am fortunate that one sister, Joy, is still alive.

I am very blessed to now be in contact with cousins, nieces, nephews and their children. A week ago, I got to speak to my Aunt Gloria. What she said touched me deeply and afterwards I was filled with a lot of emotion and cried tears of joy and grief.

I could question, why, why, why forever, but what good would that do. The fake women’s web of lies has caused deep wounds. All she ever wanted was financial gain. I always forgave and supported her, believing she was my mother, but she is nothing but a master liar, deceiver and manipulator and has no remorse or regard for anybody. As a result of her actions, I have been robbed of so much time that could have been spent with my true mother and I could have found my father’s side of the family sooner.

I know though I must now focus on the present and am daily thankful to God. He has moved mountains in my life, revealed the truth, and above all my sweet mother is living with me. I am surrounded by a large loving family in Vietnam and I am building relationship with family in the USA who have all been so accepting of me. I hope next year it will be possible to travel there to meet them in person.

Anyway, my Aunt Gloria is 89 and is the only remaining sibling of my father’s. Through all my new found relatives I am learning about those I never got to meet, my father, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles. I have been given many photos and articles which are priceless gifts.

Elbert, bottom right with his twin brother Albert next to him and two brothers behind them.

My father comes from an exceptional family of 11 children. 9 boys and 2 girls. My grandmother in 1947 was voted “Mother of the Year” by the Naval Air Station as all her 9 sons served in the military at some point. My father joined the navy in 1941 and was at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed. He served 5 years in the navy then enlisted in the Army. My father served in WW 11, Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

According to my mother, my father was a very kind and handsome man. More than anything, he gave her the greatest gift, that of a daughter. Today at my mother’s insistence and according to Vietnamese culture we celebrated his death anniversary. In Vietnamese this is known as đám giỗ.

I have always tried to live a life that is pleasing to God and that would honour my parents.

Today I honour my father on his 30th death anniversary. I also said a special prayer for my siblings.

Read My Huong’s other blogs at ICAV:
My Mother
Evacuation out of Vietnam on 20 April

How transnational adoption practices in South Korea can challenge women’s ability to control their reproductive destiny

by Christla PETITBERGHIEN (Haitian adoptee raised in France), Eunseo KIM, Jiyun JEONG, Jung HEO, Sum Yin Shek, submitted as part of their academic course: The Politics of Values.

Introduction

In our current society, the area regarding the issue of adoptees and social policies related to adoption are pretty much hidden and invisible. There are plenty of reasons for such a tendency; isolation and alienation, emphasis on normal society, less prioritized, and so on. Hence, we became aware of the fact that those issues should be enlightened enough worldwide so that their rights are protected and people are engaged. In order to achieve such a purpose, we should have a better understanding of the family-building value, the identity and rights issue of adopted children and women, so that their rights can be discussed and handled thoroughly.

We have chosen to focus on the practice of transnational adoption in South Korea since this topic, which remains largely undiscussed in the academic field, is an eminent political issue that involves many ethical and conflicting value questions regarding the issue of family-making and the right to parenthood but also because one of our teammates is herself an adoptee who was already interested by this topic. International adoption constitutes a form of stratified reproduction, enabling some to engage in child-rearing while making it impossible for others to do so. The process of adoption relies on family construction throughout the de-kinning of other families, so starting from this observation,
we wanted to understand the way in which a family comes to be destroyed and, in this way, to see how adoption testifies the ideals and the social-political values of societies regarding family-building. In order to understand this, we needed to look at the situation of biological parents, especially biological mothers’ situations and the factors that force them to separate themselves from their offspring, as well as the agency’s degree they have in this process and the contribution of the state to the social and economic incapacity of certain individuals to form a family. We wanted to understand how political values influence the use of adoption by states as a biopolitical tool for population management and reproduction control. We focused on the situation of Korean single and biological mothers as a case study highlighting the more global problems of transnational adoption, as
Korea remains one of the major child donor countries despite its current status as a developed country.

While in search of the interviewee, we came across the work of Hosu Kim, Birth mothers and Transnational Adoption Practice in South Korea; virtual mothering (2016). As an expert who has specialized in child adoption, especially transnational adoption, we decided that she would be able to provide us insights into the questions that we had and therefore chose her as our interviewee. Hosu Kim is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. She got her Ph.D. in Sociology at the Graduate Center, CUNY and M.A. in Sociology at Indiana State University. Her research interest is mainly focused on transnational adoption and reproductive politics. Her selected publications are Decolonizing Adoption Narratives for Transnational Reproductive Justice, co-authored with Sunghee Yook and The Biopolitics of Transnational Adoption in South Korea: Preemption and the Governance of Single Birthmothers, in which she explains South Korea’s international adoption functioning as biopolitical technology, how the government controlled and regulated unwed mothers and their children to displace the abnormal citizens.

Methodology

The questions asked during the interview are the following: (1) Is traditional social stigma
regarding “normal family” in Korea getting in the way of not only single mothers raising a child on their own but also keeping a child instead of sending them for adoption? (2) What was the reason that made you focus specifically on South Korea regarding the issue of international adoption? How did transnational adoption function as a biopolitical technology in South Korea? (3) Has capitalism overridden the true value of the child-welfare ethics and the right to rear their own child by commodifying the children especially within the overseas adoption industry? Does the growing demand for adoptable children in Northern Global Countries challenge the respect of birthmothers’ reproductive rights? (4) Does a single pregnant woman really have a “choice” when it comes to deciding adoption? If not, what factors put these women into the state of ‘having no other choice’? (5)
Do you believe the political weakness of biological parents serves the interests of other actors of adoption such as adoptive parents and the state? (6) What kind of changes should/could be made about the adoption policy in the future?

In our group, there are five members including Christla PETITBERGHIEN, Eunseo KIM, Jiyun JEONG, Jung HEO, and Sum Yin Shek. The common work of all five of us includes coming up with the interview questions, doing research on each part, participating in the interview process asking questions, and writing each paragraph for the corresponding part. Christla has come up with the topic and found the interviewee, Eunseo did the research on the interviewee’s work and was in charge of contacting the interviewee, and Jung categorized all the possible questions and regrouped them for the finalized set of interview questions. As for the report, Christla and Jung wrote the introduction, Eunseo and Sum Yin wrote the conclusion, and Jiyun finalized the paper by unifying the overall literary style.

Analysis of the interview

  1. The influence of traditional family norms in Korea to single mothers
    The whole single mother issue should not be simply generalized as East Asian culture. Rather, it is a combined issue including economic, social and legal barriers in Korea, which hinders single mothers from raising children on their own. The traditional cultural prejudice plays a huge role. However, it is the legal framework that primarily blocks single mothers from registering their own children under their name. There is a colonial legal system which is called “Hojuk” in South Korea and which acts as a fundamental framework that constructs the family structure. And so often, the structure is patriarchal, meaning only a man has the privilege or prerogative to recognize one’s paternity. As a result, up until its abolishment in 2005, single mothers in Korea could not legally claim their own children as theirs. And when these single mothers decide to raise their own children rather than sending them away, they have often skirted around the legal barrier by registering their children under the name of their male siblings or their own father. Hence, combing with all the wealth gap, gender gap, job availability, all the other social and economic factors, it is hard life circumstances for the women rather than a simple conservative cultural reason.
  2. About the interviewee’s interest in adoption issue in South Korea
    South Korea is one of the largest countries sending children to international adoption. Beyond such statistics, for Professor Kim, personal experience studying as an international student in the US led to the interest in the intertwined history of South Korea and the United States. Frequently meeting people who have adopted and raised Korean children in mundane conversation ended up asking why there are so many orphans, especially sent away to overseas adoption. South Korea’s international adoption practice lasted 70 years, tracking back from the Korean war to today when squid game and parasites are everywhere. The dissonance between sending Korean children and establishing the proud Korean culture can be understood in the term, the biopolitical technology. The Korean government and its norms define what is a normal family, entitling who is adequate to raise children. It included controlling and stigmatizing unwed mothers, forcing those ‘inadequate’ mothers to send their children. Also, it was a consistent operation of normative citizenship removing underserving citizens from South Korea; people with mixed race or born to presumably sex workers in camptown or children from orphanages or single mother were regarded as a typical abnormal sector of the populations. Hence, South Korea’s nation building process, which was very capitalist and patriarchal, included forced displacement of the inadequate surplus population.
  3. Capitalism and the international adoption industry
    Hosu Kim also pointed out how capitalism has supplanted the true value of the child welfare ethic and the right to raise one’s own child by commodifying children, particularly in the international adoption industry. The genesis of transnational adoption is part of the practice of the humanitarian market. Humanitarianism is associated in the collective mind with the idea of virtue yet humanitarianism functions as a non-profit sector of global capitalism. In the 1950s and 1960s, many adoption agencies became not-for-profit institutions, but also seen as child welfare institutions. These agencies had some type of children’s welfare in their name and, as a result, many citizens confused these adoption agencies with children’s welfare institutions, which had nothing to do with this exchange of money. It was a deliberate disguise that allowed many adoptions to take place. The lack of knowledge of the many biological families involved about the exact procedures of the adoption and the amount of money exchanged in return for their children as well as the confusion they make between the name of the agencies and the child welfare was exploited to make them accept the adoption separation. Therefore, not only that, their parenting right, their custody is uprooted, but through the adoption , they become rightless people to ask for any rights (right to information or even to know whether their children are still alive).

    Furthermore, the questioning of the respect of the reproductive rights of the biological mothers is the result of the increasing demand of adoptable children in the countries of the North, because who says a greater Demand requires the necessity to look for more Supply. In international adoption, there is a logic of supply and demand chain. But today the number of adoptions is decreasing with the development of medical reproductive techniques and many feminist researchers have looked at this global reproductive assembly line and the case of surrogacy and the similarities it has with adoption. One can indeed wonder what kind of work all these long-unrecognized biological mothers have done? Have they been surrogate mothers in spite of themselves?
  4. Adoption not as a choice
    Based on the estimate that about 40% of all adopted children in South Korea in 2005 were relinquished at or transferred from maternity homes, it raises curiosity regarding the regulatory functions that maternity homes have undertaken. The research done by Hosu Kim about maternity homes in South Korea for single pregnant women back from 1980s until mid 2000s reveals the reality of rightless single mothers.

    Most single pregnant women face exclusion and hostility from their communities after disclosing their pregnancy, and often coming to a situation where their male partners derail from the relationship or are not able to support them financially. The maternity home is one of very few options to those who are in desperate need of shelter, food, protection, and medical facilities. As a result, many of these women take refuge in maternity homes. However, from the instant of the arrival, they are inquired into their plans for the baby’s future without being fully informed of options and choices, and the screening questions give the sense to the single mothers as if there are only two answers: either relinquishing the baby or taking full responsibility of keeping the child despite their hostile living conditions.

    During their stay at the maternity home, adoption constantly floats not just as one of the options but as the only viable one. Without a very clear idea of what adoptions might look like, and what it would feel like after the birth, single pregnant women face info sessions with the adoption agencies and even potential adoptive parents. They make consultations in which they solicit babies from pregnant women. During these sessions, a lot of catharsis moments and a sense of consolation and reassurance are exchanged, putting the hope into the birth mothers that once they rebuild their life, they can meet the adoptees. The reality that lies in this process is that maternity homes are operated in a very close network with adoption agencies as 40~50% of maternity homes are founded and operated directly by them. Although maternity homes seem as though they help the single mothers prepare to return to society, away from the “shameful past” and difficult memory and back into the normal site, there is no room for birth mothers to acknowledge and to claim their motherhood.
  5. Interest dynamics within the actors of adoption process
    It is now obvious that the political weakness of birth parents serves the interests of other actors within the process of adoption, such as adoptive parents, the state, and adoption institutions. Under the name of ‘children welfare center’, these agencies disguise the seriousness of commercialization of this transnational child adoption industry, and even furthermore, having birth mothers unwillingly become a surrogate to their children. Parenting is considered a basic moral thing as a human, which is naturally expected for parents to raise their children under whatever circumstances they are situated in. While birthmothers, in general, have more responsibility for their children in this gendered society, birth parents being considered “morally delinquent” definitely results in the silence of the birth family. For instance, 10% of adoptees are presumably missing children who lost their way around in their neighbourhood, and moreover women run away from inhumane unliveable living conditions such as domestic violence, leaving behind their children. Often the birth families unexpectedly find their children in adoption later. What’s worse is that the whole secrecy around adoption conceals the uncomfortable yet important truth of it, such as 11-15% of the adoptees experiencing abandonment from their adoptive family and being re-adopted. They way birth families are easily perceived as a morally deprived, indigent people not being capable nor having rights to reproduce serves to their political weakness, or at least questioning their rights. In this neoliberal capitalistic society, self sufficiency and self responsibility is viewed as the norm, which makes people lacking them be taken away from their reproductive rights. All of such problems linked to the transnational adoption requires the clarification of who is responsible for it, and the repair of the framework of reproduction and justice regarding these family issues.
  6. Possible future of adoption policy
    Professor Kim first pointed out that if there is a clear order, no matter if it is ethical order, social order or moral order, if the beneficiary exists, so does the benefactor. However, if there isn’t, rather than reinforcing the power asymmetry between the countries or between involving parties, it actually can prolong and sometimes creates unnecessary hammocks and injuries. For the transnational option in South Korea right now, there are layers and layers of legislation which sort of block both parties, adoptees and birth family, from finding each other. So, by creating a special law or some type of legal framework whereby adoption and all the other related documents can be and should be made available, this means it would no longer just be the property of the individual agencies. The second point that Professor Kim is concerned about is repair. Repair should be thought of upon the 70 years long history of transnational adoption. There isn’t any fine line cutting out who’s fault it is, we cannot really distinguish if it is only one country’s fault or was there any violence involved. Under such conditions, this whole scene created a new ordinance and new imaginations of what to think about for repair and also for social justice.

Conclusion

We have been able to identify and analyze the dynamics within the issue of adoption,
particularly on the international adoption policies of South Korea, throughout the interview of Professor Hosu Kim. Adoption is a political issue as it functions as normative citizenship in the Korean government’s nation building, and also an ethical issue as it defines abnormal and inadequate mothers and children. By interviewing Professor Kim, we deepened the understanding of the biopolitics of adoption policies and recognized the lack of discourse about reproductive rights and capitalism related to the welfare design of supporting single mothers. Like the capitalist hierarchy between the states and the project of nation building brought about by adoption politics, the controversy between neo-liberal ideas and reproductive rights are opening diverse possibilities of a repaired framework of adoption. We hope the ethical and political dimension of adoption policies would further develop to promote the rights of adopted children and mothers.

Longing (Someday) by Luke McQueen

by Luke McQueen adopted from South Korea to the USA. Luke’s Longing (Someday) is one of 6 musical pieces created by an intercountry adoptee to be featured in ICAVs Video Resource for Professionals.

About Me

Some people wonder why I have such a vague answer to “What’s your sign?” Here’s why. I was born somewhere in South Korea, likely near Jecheon around 1972. I was in an orphanage in Jecheon for about 1 year and adopted in 1977 to a loving family in Longmont, Colorado in the United States. Like many orphans and adoptees, I have no idea when my birthday is, hence any Zodiac sign will do. But regarding the Chinese zodiac year, I’m either a rat, pig or an ox.

My Music Journey

My earliest musical memories, lovingly captured by my family on cassette tape (kids go ahead and DuckDuckGo), include a recording of songs I learned at the orphanage. Around the age of 6 or 7, I was regularly singing in my church where my father was the pastor and I did so up until high school. I learned some classical piano (pretty much the extent of my formal training) around the age of 8 and began to compose some simple original work around the age of 10 or 11. Around 12 or 13 years old, I was given a synthesizer by a family friend and within a couple of years was able to upgrade to a real synth (the Ensoniq SQ80) with my paper route job money. I tried to impress girls but with limited success (actually, not so much though as I couldn’t overcome my insecurities and pretty serious acne). Those days I produced some amateurish creations of 80’s synthpop (better known as “music” during the actual 80’s). Speaking of, I’ve got to bring some of those songs back one of these days!

A pivotal moment in my music life came in the mid 80’s when I entered a talent competition and won based on a fairly simple composition. I beat out an extremely talented musician who played Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” This sparked insight that new and created music is quite different from some of the most complex played/covered music. It was after this that I committed to making my own music — but it would be many years before I would have the maturity to listen to others, judge myself properly and have a learning mentality to be able to fashion an adequate song.

I joined the jazz choir in high school and ended up writing the baccalaureate song. It was called “Changes” and it was about as cheesy as it sounds, but continue reading and you’ll see why! Anyhow, for my prom date in my senior year, out came my trusted SQ80 with candles and fancy pants cake, and I sang my heart out. My date declined when I asked her out again after that, so I’ll let you decide how it went or what it meant :).

When I graduated high school I went to a small Christian College in Lincoln, Illinois, where I joined a music group and also formed a Christian band named “Going 2 Rock U.” And just like that, the cheese increases! There were some proud song creation moments, but no finished or polished production of anything for the public. I do remember I had one song that had Christian lyrics with a Babyface vibe. Honestly, I didn’t know how to craft decent songs, but I thought I was much better than I was, so I did not take any guidance or criticism well, however well-intended.

Nevertheless, in 1996 as a CU-Boulder student, I auditioned for Dave Grusin’s “A Westside Story” with the CU jazz band where I got a taste of world-class performers and saw possibilities in music. [record screech] However, I promptly chose the safety of a Technology Consulting career and put off this music dream for another 17 years. In 2013, I moved to Korea to search for my birth family and also decided to give music a try. As a student, I took a couple of Berklee Online classes in orchestration and jazz improvisation to hone my chops and then began performing in Seoul in various bands, formed my own band, and finally ended up as a solo artist. All along, I was learning how to play live and write a ton of songs, some of which will be on my record this November. To make ends meet, I worked various music company jobs and was given other opportunities to perform my music. A big opportunity came in 2020, when I became an artist in an independent entertainment company in Seoul. It’s true when they say “you can’t make it alone.” So I humbly take steps forward, with a lot of help from friends, musicians, fans and industry professionals, to build a lasting career as a solo artist.

What inspired Longing (Someday)?

Although I’ve been making music since I was in middle school, I haven’t had any songs I was ready to proudly say “this is my song.” But finally in 2013, after visiting Korea for the first time, I decided to write a song about the desire to find my birth family, specifically my birth mother. I have no memories of Korea as a child, so I imagined wandering the streets as a child and feeling the lost feeling of wanting to go home. I tapped into my own mid-life crisis where I felt my life was crippled and falling apart in so many ways–in my relationships and work, and so the feeling of escaping that and longing for the unknown helped to create lyrics. I tried variations of melodic “oohs,” deciding on the current chorus and the song was born.

A Quick Therapy Sesh

As an adoptee, I have been a combination of a chameleon, charmer, escape artist and an under-the-rug-ifier. As a child, I was decent at trying to get people to laugh and often trying to be funny, which I believe was to try and hide or deflect from my insecurity and desperate need for acceptance. Any negative feeling was avoided, unaddressed and lay dormant for many years until suddenly during mid-life, my shielding/protection from my unknown past and unprocessed feelings came back, and there was no way to hide from them anymore. I have also seen how by not addressing these issues, my self-sabotage and critical nature was eating away any opportunity and chance to succeed in music. I was certainly a mess which influenced many decisions, being in wrong relationships, and making many poor decisions for my life. Also, I have had perpetual blindness to my selfish nature, a mark of the immaturity of my character. Luckily, however, with true friends, my loving family, and by the grace of God, I have come out of all of this milieu a stronger and more confident human being. And with the realization of my selfish nature, I am able to better find the path of compassion, kindness and peace from my true loving nature. Although it will continually be a journey of learning, I believe I am more resilient than ever and now I am ready to live again, even during these challenging times of viruses, fear and lockdowns.

Has my perspective of the song changed since writing it?

Since the original writing of the song in 2013, the main thing that’s changed is my perspective on the substance of the longing. Before, I thought it was only my birth family I longed for, but now I realize it was an even deeper longing that I felt. And in 2019, this desire to connect was only truly met when I reconnected with the ultimate birth parent, God, when I became a follower of Jesus again.

Feedback I’ve received for Longing (Someday)

In general, I’ve only had positive feedback, but just like the varied experience of adoptees, it’s likely more complex… for many that have not searched for their birth family, the song may stir up emotions they have locked up for many years. For those who’ve found birth families, the longing can still exist, as unrealistic expectations are not met or worse. In general, I’ve only had positive feedback, however I would completely understand an aversion to Longing (Someday) for some adoptees who are completely avoidant of adoption-related topics. I have heard from those outside the adoption experience that this song reminds them of loved ones that have passed or whom they may be alienated from. I am blessed to have been able to produce the song and have many in your audience hear it. I hope the lyrics and music will touch their hearts as much as it touches mine.

Any new music relating to my adoption experience?

Longing (Someday) is the only truly adoptee-related song I’ve written. I do have a duet I co-wrote with another adoptee who is a wonderful poet and it’s called “The Other Side.” I may release it as a single in the future but it’s not yet production ready. I also had some music featured in an unreleased documentary called “My Umma” but I am not sure I will release the music for that. I do, however, have a song that will be on my debut album in November called “Disappearing” which I wrote from the perspective of a birth family hoping their adoptive child will return home, but with the passing of time, the very real prospect of a reunion diminishes. Now that I write this, this certainly sounds depressing. Hmm, maybe that’s why I have so many happy fun songs to offset and balance these songs!

I currently have a 5-song EP released, and will be releasing my 12-song debut album on 23 November 2021. If you’re interested, please check out my music, which is a mix of poppy fun, groovy and soulful tunes along with ballads like Longing (Someday).

So maybe I don’t have a specific “sign” I can give you, but instead I’ll give you a “song.” I hope you enjoy Longing (Someday).

How to find Luke McQueen

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