It’s early morning, I’ve only the birds for company for a few more hours. Until my favourite person wakes up. Across the world in the place I was born it’s already early afternoon on my birthday.
Birthdays are a strange, strange day for adoptees. The days preceding it are pensive and sad for completely different reasons to those who perhaps see only more candles on cake. It’s an odd day to celebrate given the anniversary of loss eclipsing that day.
My birthday is one of normalised secrets and mysteries, unspoken questions unanswered. Who was the woman to whom I was born on this day? How was my birth? Did she hold me at all, for how long, minutes, days, weeks, months? How was she feeling? Sad, relieved, resentful, frightened. Decisive?
Who were the other women who cared for me and brokered my adoption? Nuns convinced they were doing a God’s work. While from my perspective it seems more like a Handmaids Tale.
I know my mothers name, her age and that she was Indian and I have her ID number, assuming my birth certificate wasn’t falsified as many were in other parts of Asia. That’s all, except perhaps that she was likely Catholic. You would think a name and an ID card number might be enough to find her. But it’s another continent, another culture. One in which I have no sources, no allies or relationships and no sense of the unwritten rules and expectations.
Her name now brings up an obituary listed in late 2016. A woman with this name died leaving behind a husband and a daughter. More mysteries, could it be my mother, and if so, is the daughter me, or a sister? Is her name common in Malaysia? Are those whom Google uncovers with this name, no more likely to be relatives than a Brown or a Smith? Or is it more rare? The first search reveals a young man, a journalist in Malaysia, a crime reporter. He’s on Twitter but he has only a handful of followers and very few tweets showing me who he is. Should I follow him, and see if he follows the clues back to me? Am I a random stranger whose profile of a Chindian Malaysian adoptee is only of passing interest or could it resonate with the possibilities of a shameful family secret? How does an adoptee reach out to people in these circumstances knowing the possible weight of consequences?
I could hire a detective – perhaps with this information it wouldn’t take a well connected expert long to find people and information. But I’m told it’s common practice to expect to bribe people for information. For my information. I’m resentful about how much it might cost me to find out what everyone else takes for granted. A history they’ve never even had to consider a human right. It just exists. Perhaps it’s even a little boring, the story of the day you were born, told again and again.
If I take my search to another level, there’ll be no going back once a certain line has been crossed. So much can unravel once it does in a family across the world, and in one here.
Only adoptees will really understand this, perhaps they will always mean more to me than family. They are mostly strangers across the world, they know intimate details about my adoption story and almost none about my day-to-day life. A kind of Adoptees Anonymous.
Today a call with my British adoptive parents will be unavoidable. There will be pseudo jollity. They’ll wish me a happy birthday, ask me about my day and presents, and no one will mention the secrets and mysteries of this day in 1972 in Malaysia.
As an intercountry adoptee from the early 70s era, I became so assimilated into my adoptive country’s white culture and value system that it wasn’t until I reached adulthood, that I became keenly aware of being disconnected from my intrinsic and inherent origins and wanted to do something about reclaiming them back.
At various stages throughout my adult journey of adoption, I began to unravel and explore my origins which included exploring the language, the religions, the foods, the customs and value systems of my birth land. This can also include exploring and embracing the ways one’s birth culture celebrates certain milestones.
A huge change over time for me has been that when I married, I felt so totally Australian that I didn’t even consider embracing my Asian origins by wearing a traditional Vietnamese dress, the ao dai or by having my wedding embrace any of the traditional Vietnamese customs. Now, over a decade later and after returning to my birth country twice, I wish I had included elements of my Vietnamese origins into my wedding.
An Indian intercountry adoptee friend of mine, adopted to Sweden, is willing to share with you her thoughts about what it means to embrace her origins on her special wedding day. You can read Jessica’s thoughts here.
Hopefully, by sharing our thoughts we will help other intercountry adoptees feel positive about embracing and exploring their origins. It is totally normal for intercountry adoptees to want to do this even when we are happy in our adoptive lives. It is a healthy thing to want to explore who we are racially, where we come from, exploring the customs and traditions of our origins, embracing the cultural elements we connect to and displaying it in whatever ways we feel comfortable.
Returning to Vietnam in April this year was partly to do some searching but what I’ve realised since being back, is that it actually had more to do with my inner healing. What I didn’t realise until now, was the after-effect and impact that would continue strongly, three months since returning to Australia.
I was blessed to be able to make my fourth trip back to Vietnam with my adoptive parents and my youngest biological daughter. The trip was a three-generation shared story.
It’s been 25 years since my Aussie mum, dad and I made our first trip back. I recall on that first trip, declaring that I’d changed my mind about returning and mum had to physically support me off the plane as I wept at the enormity of the situation. This time, I looked lovingly out the plane window at the lights of Ho Chi Minh city and felt genuine happiness to be back.
We had a plan to meet with a priest who was in the same order as the priest, Father Oliver, was who ran my orphanage when I had been here as an infant before my adoption. This priest still works at the same church where Father Olivier had been head priest. The most amazing thing was, we got to see where I was born!
Throughout this trip, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude for the people I met who have invested in helping me search for my family. I also got to meet the investigator who was working with ISS Australia before they lost their funding. This investigator has been the only person able to locate a document that had my Vietnamese mother’s name on it. The investigator is herself a fellow Vietnamese Australian adoptee, so she completely understands my story and the feelings associated with my search.
Whilst in Vietnam, I enjoyed eating as much like a local as possible and I made sure I had a Vietnamese coffee every day. But the real surprise has been what’s happened for me since returning from Vietnam this time. I am filled with a genuine sense of peace about my search. I’m truly okay with not being any further along with finding blood relatives. The connections I have made with people who are still searching for me has been amazing. Just knowing there are people who care enough to help is very humbling.
Since being home in Australia, I have a real sense of being more present in my life and I have more space within, to just be me. I can’t explain the feeling but I’ll try. I feel content and no longer have the need to operate from a place where I’m trying to impress people or get them to like me. I don’t care if they do now or not. I’m filling myself with more self worth and know that I can trust myself to be my own keeper i.e., take care of myself. This return trip has been a real growth journey for me.
I’m also excited knowing that I will return again next year. I left not needing to be sad or wondering when I’ll be back. I’ve decided I need to make a trip back at least once every two years to stay connected to my homeland, where my soul feels at peace.
Guest post shared anonymously by one of ICAVs members.
Growing up in near-total whiteness in the Midwest of America in the 1960s and 1970s, as a member of the first large wave of transracial intercountry adoptees, I experienced consistent marginalization and ostracism because of my race, and, to put it more bluntly, because of the race I was not—white. Constantly asked where I was from—no, REALLY, where was I REEEEAAAAALLLY from?????—I can say that the society around me made it very clear that I was an outsider, a foreigner, a stranger, an alien. I was often asked where I was from, and sometimes asked when I was going back to where I was from. And very occasionally, yes, I was told to go back to where I was from. All of this was deeply hurtful and wounding, of course, but I largely internalized a huge amount of racism and xenophobia to myself, and ended up with one gigantic complex about my physical appearance, which it’s taken me more than four decades to self-heal from—and I’m still working on that.
Indeed, one huge element in my participation in groups on Facebook around transracial adoption, as well as in-person participation in conferences around transracial adoption, has been a profound sense of mission around not only supporting my fellow adult transracial and intercountry adoptees to navigate society, including racism and xenophobia, but also around trying to help white transracial adoptive parents prepare their adopted children of color to navigate the world around us. I feel an intense identification with the littlest adoptees, who in some cases, even now in 2019, are experiencing what I experienced as a small child back in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the 1960s; and honestly, with all the resources available to white transracial adoptive parents now, in the second decade of the 21stcentury, is there any reason at all that the littlest transracial adoptee should have to experience what I and other transracial adoptees in the first waves experienced several decades ago???
Meanwhile, a great deal has happened in America, and elsewhere, in the past couple of decades. For one thing, enough white Americans were willing to give a Black/biracial man a chance, that we elected our first president of color, in November 2008. I still remember the thrill of election night on November 4, 2008, when then-Senator Barack Obama appeared on the stage in Grant Park in Chicago (the city that I am proud to say is my home) with his beautiful, accomplished wife Michelle Obama, and their adorable then-children, Malia and Sasha Obama, and were greeted by the most thunderous applause I think I had ever heard, on the part of hundreds of thousands of people gathered there, cheering, screaming for joy, weeping, many in stunned disbelief that our country could have the mind and the heart to break that barrier. And I, like millions of Americans, hoped in that moment that at least some people who had not voted for Barack Obama actually wished him well, and would be willing to give him a chance to lead all of us, all Americans, and to use his position as president of our country to also help lead in the world.
At the same time, I and so many Americans of color knew that there were many who hated President-elect Obama simply for his race (even though he had two, another complexity of his identity), and that some of those people would do everything they could to undermine him simply for his race, even apart from any ideological issues involved. We people of color knew that there would be a backlash; but the size and endurance of that backlash has shocked even many of us. And, shockingly, 62.9 million American voters, or 46 percent of the electorate, voted for Donald Trump, a man with absolutely zero political or public policy experience, and whose entire campaign had been based on racism and xenophobia; and because of our bizarre (and, to non-Americans, essentially inexplicable) Electoral College system, Trump won the presidency, even though 65.8 million voters, of 48 percent, had voted for former Secretary of State, former Senator, and former First Lady Hillary Clinton. In any case, based on how our strange Electoral College system works, Trump assumed the presidency on January 2017, and from literally the first moments of his presidency, he framed everything in apocalyptic terms, speaking of “American carnage” that only he could stop, and intensifying his racist rhetoric month after month.
And then, this month, Trump stepped up his hate-filled rhetoric against four first-term U.S. representatives—Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, hurling insults and accusations against them, branding them as “anti-American,” and piling lie on top of lie, in an effort to solidify his popularity among his core supporters, as the American presidential campaign (which, surreally, lasts two full years here) got underway. And then, on July 14, Trump tweeted that those four congresswomen should “go back to… the places to which they came,” even though three of the four were born in America.
Then, after massive condemnation of his remarks, Trump said on July 17 at a campaign rally in North Carolina, of the four congresswomen, “They never have anything good to say. That’s why I say, ‘Hey if you don’t like it, let ’em leave, let ’em leave.’ … I think in some cases they hate our country.” He then called out Rep. Omar specifically, once again falsely claiming that she had praised the terrorist group al-Qaeda (a charge thoroughly debunked numerous times in the past), and stating that Congresswoman Omar “looks down with contempt” on Americans; and the crowd reacted by chanting, “Send her back, Send her back.” Trump did nothing to stop the chants, and, after feebly distancing himself from them in the days that followed, now appears to be endorsing them.
For those of us who are immigrants of color—and even for many people of color who are not immigrants—we grew up hearing the “go back to where you’re from” taunts. They are hurtful and devastating. Padma Lakshmi, an ACLU Artist Ambassador for Immigrants’ and Women’s Rights, writing in The Washington Poston July 19, spoke for many of us when she wrote that, “Those words, those hurtful, xenophobic, entitled words that I’ve heard all throughout my childhood, stabbed me right in the heart. They echoed the unshakable feeling that most brown immigrants feel. Regardless of what we do, regardless of how much we assimilate and contribute, we are never truly American enough because our names sound funny, our skin isn’t white, or our grandmothers live in a different country.”
And for those of us who are transracial, intercountry adoptees, growing up in whiteness, and often surrounded by racists and racism, the pain can run very deep indeed. Kurt Bardella, who like me is an adult Korean adoptee, on July 17, wrote, in nbcnews.com, the online news website of the U.S. broadcast network NBC News, about his reaction to the “go back” taunts by Trump, in an op-ed entitled “’Go back’ is how racists try to deny my American-ness. But I’m never leaving.” Among other things, Bardella wrote eloquently that, “Like so many marginalized people in America, when we speak our mind in the political sphere, when we challenge the normalcy of the white status quo, we are attacked as less-than-fully American. I guarantee you, every single person of color who writes a column or appears on cable news to debate the national issues of the day (particularly from a perspective critical of the current president) receives a barrage of tweets, direct Facebook messages and emails from white Americans telling them to effectively ‘go back home.’ These reminders in which others perceive the color of our skin as a reason to reject our Americanness, is a constant reality that has been a part of our lives for as long as we can remember.”
What’s more, Bardella wrote, “Of course, Donald Trump’s weaponization of existing racism is not new; it has been his tool of choice ever since he expanded his presence on the political scene by questioning the legitimacy of the first black president. As president, he has praised white nationalists in Charlottesville, pardoned a racist sheriff in Arizona, labeled Haiti and African nations “shithole countries,” attacked NFL players for protesting the National Anthem and presided over an administration that locked up and tortured Central American children and their families at the southern border while deriding them as potential gang members.” Essentially, Trump has filled his entire time in the Oval Office so far—two-and-a-half years—with racist, xenophobic attacks and disparagement, literally nearly every single week.
What Bardella and Lakshmi have written says more articulately than I could, how I also see things. Frighteningly, it appears certain that Trump is going to base his entire 2020 reelection campaign pitch on open racism, white supremacy, and xenophobia, hoping to capture more of the white vote than in 2016, even amid demographic shifts that will make the United States a “majority-minority” country by 2045, according to the United States Census. And actually, that’s what all of this is about. The fear and apprehension of some white people in the United States is now palpable: in big cities and small towns across the country, the presence of people of color, including of very identifiable immigrants of color, is unmistakable. And Trump’s core base supporters are terrified and enraged.
Sadly, a large number of white transracial adoptive parents in America refuse to accept that the explosion in the open racial aggression of people of color has anything to do with their adopted children of color. Ensconced in bubbles of (often-right-wing) whiteness, and with no or few adult friends of color, many white transracial adoptive parents in the U.S. are convinced that their children will be treated as “special,” and further, that Trump and his core followers wish only the best for their children.
I had a very recent involvement in that issue this very week, when a thread in a transracial adoption-focused group that I do not moderate but was a member of, blew up because a friend of mine, a transracial adoptive mom whom I like very much, posted Kurt Bardella’s op-ed in the group. Facebook notified me of it, and I thanked my friend for posting it, stating that I so appreciated her lifting up the voices of transracial, intercountry adoptees in this difficult moment. But a racist white mother who fully supports Trump assured us that Trump could never possibly be racist, and that nothing he says or does could possibly be racist, and things exploded from there. Along with a large number of like-minded members, I (one of only two adult transracial adoptees participating in that discussion thread) and the others protesting racism and white supremacy, were promptly removed by the moderator from the group, while the racist adoptive mother was retained. I was also told that I was removed not only for discussing politics, but also for, one time only, using the f-word in one phrase in one of my comments in the discussion thread.
In other words, using foul language, even once, and in the context of protest, is far more offensive than racism and white supremacy. Not only that, by retaining the racist/white supremacist member of the group and ejecting all of us who were protesting racism and white supremacy, the moderator of that group—which is what many of us in the transracial adoption world refer to as a “rainbows-and-unicorns” group—a group focused only on the sweet, pleasant aspects of transracial adoption, and disallowing any discussion of race or anything else complex or challenging—proved our point. If enforced politeness around middle-class-white-American-woman sociocultural norms, is far more important than challenging racism, then clearly, no authentic, meaningful discussion of racism is possible in such a group.
What Donald Trump is doing right now—absolutely weaponizing the tenets of white supremacy, and banking on the deep racial and sociocultural resentments of white racists—is not only profoundly morally abhorrent, it is frightening to Americans of color, both immigrants and non-immigrants of color. We are now being pointed out as obvious targets for racial aggression, and possibly even violence.
The bottom line is this: America has come to a moment of profound crisis and of moral emergency. It is impossible any longer to stand by in silence. That’s what happened in Nazi Germany in 1934-1937, when the “good Germans” either expressed open support of Adolf Hitler and his storm troopers, or docilely remained silent. We all know what happened afterwards.
So this is where I stand: this is no longer about politics; it is about the safety and well-being of all of us Americans of color. And I will not be silent. But I will engage with those who want to understand, and who are willing to be authentic allies. And I will work. And I will hope.
As a result of my attendance at The Hague Working Group for Illicit Practices in Adoption meeting in May, I met with over 20 Central Authority representatives. One of them was the Executive Director of the Inter-Country Adoption Board (ICAB) in the Philippines. She has invited ICAV as a guest speaker to the 15th Philippine Global Consultation of Child Welfare Services in September this year. Who best to speak than Anna who is a Filipino intercountry adoptee and long serving ICAV Representative!
The work we do at ICAV is done via volunteer time and effort. Travelling around the world to share our lived experience is costly so it is hugely appreciated when others recognise the personal cost and offer to assist.
The amazing and talented Gabby Malpas (ICAV NSW Representative) has been generous by donating 3 pieces of her artwork to help Anna attend. Gabby is running an online Art Auction and the proceeds are being donated to contribute to Anna’s travel expenses. If you would like to support this, go to Gabby’s professional facebook page Gabby’s Art Auction, find the image you want to bid on, and add your bid in the comment by Wed 31 July 11:59pm AEST. The highest bidder wins and the proceeds will be donated, with Australian tax deductibility, towards Anna’s travel expenses.
I would like to personally thank Gabby for her amazing generosity in this specific instance, but also for her long serving role within ICAV as one of our NSW Representatives! Gabby gives her time to many areas in post adoption support. She continues to run her watercolour art classes for teenage Chinese adoptees in Sydney as part of her mentoring role for young adoptees and donates artwork to various adoptive parent and post adoption support organisations around the world because she is passionate about helping her fellow adoptees.
Here are the 3 pieces of artwork that Gabby is donating towards Anna’s travel costs:
If my mum read my posts about adoption, she’d think, “Not Juliette, not my daughter!”
I’ve done the emotional work because I know my parents haven’t and never will. Brexit tore my family apart when my parents voted and arguments revealed just how little they understood they had an Asian immigrant daughter. I struggled and battled them over Brexit, Trump and racism for two years. I raged, I withdrew, I reflected, I dug around for answers but I knew I could only ever work on myself. I knew the whole argument about Brexit had always been about adoption, but they didn’t. Likewise, I knew the first rift that happened in my teens, on the surface was about moving (countries) for about the 6th time in my short life, was also about adoption. But I never said it, so we never talked about it. And as far as I know, they never knew it.
So when at age 46 a friend gently suggested I meet up with her 70 year old adoptee friend who’d done plenty of therapy around her own adoption, I shrugged and agreed. I did not realise how much it would clarify and soothe me to talk to another adoptee, something I had never done before. That’s still incredible to me! Imagine being blind and never connecting to another blind person for most of your life – never knowing how universal your feelings are or realising only those who’ve experienced it, truly understand. As someone who’s been adopted, compared with those who haven’t and think it’s a beautiful happy ending with little to do with anything else, there are things I could never tell anyone while growing up. My loneliness, my longings ended up revealing and highlighting that biology matters and that my family was not enough and that their difference (not mine) was a source of deep isolation and pain. I understood from an early age just how forbidden that topic was and just how little self awareness my parents had about their own grief and it’s impact on me.
I could not find my place in this large white working class family whose only experience of Asian culture was take-out food. I’m not sure they ever rejected me exactly, perhaps I rejected them? But I certainly wasn’t embraced by them. I wasn’t in the minds of extended family, except to be asked about politely as an after thought, after speaking with my parents. If it ever occurred to my immediate or extended family to wonder how I felt being adopted and different, transracially and intercountry adopted, I never had any evidence of it.
For those aware of Tuckman’s model of group development (Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing) I never got past the first stage of Forming with my extended family. They never stopped being polite. That reminds me of the first reality show on MTV, “.. the true story…of seven strangers…picked to live in a house…(work together) and have their lives taped…to find out what happens…when people stop being polite…and start getting real…The Real World.” Perhaps it sounds blissfully charming to live in a world where people never stop being polite, but the real connection doesn’t actually happen until you do. That doesn’t mean when you stop being polite you start being rude, it just means you start exploring each other in a more open and honest way and that can get muddy – but done with curiosity and empathy, it can also lead to stronger and more meaningful relationships.
Now that I think about it, I’ve never left the storming phase with my adoptive parents. The classic movie 12 Angry Men is a great example in a nutshell of a group of strangers, moving from being cautiously polite through to an angry battle of wills, until they begin to learn more about each other’s stories and perspectives and in doing so, are able to reach understanding and consensus. A group can be colleagues, or it could be a jury, or new or old friendships. If you cast your eye on your relationships with friends or family, you’ll see the ones that got past the forming/polite stages, or through the storming phase, and those which never have. Side note, one of my friendships actually got a real life dose of this after we worked briefly together on a project and never saw each other again until we found ourselves on a jury together. We’ve been great friends ever since!
Some teams or relationships will never leave the storming phase and will then never reach their potential together. They will at best remain independent of each other and work alongside each other without too much jostling, at worst actively sabotage and disrupt progress and harmony. When they reach the storming, they will never test their own beliefs against differing perspectives, instead they will retreat into the safety of a story told from a single lens, their own. This is what my parents have done, you may be wondering right now if I have done that too. Certainly there is plenty I can’t know. But I can tell you I have thought it out from their perspectives initially more than I did my own, it’s the nature of life as an adoptee. For emotional safety, the pervading priority is the comfort of adoptive parents and the story they tell themselves. Society easily empathises with their longings — not ours as adoptees. It’s my deep understanding and prioritising of their perspective which also keeps me from unravelling theirs with my own. This also hinders the possibility of healing the widening rift in our relationship with truth.
Rightly or wrongly. Most of my therapy has been an attempt to work out the question of whether I should or not. Whether they are capable of growing at this point in their lives, or whether I would only cause pain and confuse them without any useful end game. In doing so, I create more emotional labour for myself in trying to explain the unexplainable.
When my mum went to see the movie Lion with her sister, I wondered whether it was an opening for us to talk. When I asked her how it was, all she said was, “It was good”. Neither of us pushed it further than that, though I remain astonished that she could have nothing more to say than that. I imagine that she looked at that story and specifically saw all the ways in which the protagonists story was not like mine, not like hers. What I think she would cling to was that I was a baby, not a few years old with memories of my family. In her mind, I had not experienced what he did as a lost child in India, searching for my missing relatives and not knowing how to get back to them. But of course I did, except as a baby, I experienced it all without language and by the time I had words for it, I also had awareness of the pain it could bring. And awareness of how little anyone would understand it.
I now have language for my experience and I understand the value of sharing it with other adoptees. Sharing with adoptive parents and with a society which harbours a one dimensional view of adoption through the lens of adopters, I want us to move past the forming phase of using babies to heal the wounds of infertility and opaque illusions of saviourism. I want us to move past the storming phase of denying the reality of adoptee losses and denial of our human rights, into an age of genuine problem solving, equipped with self awareness and the courage to learn from others. Still, it’s common to find people responding to this thought with, “Not every adoptee …”, not their friend, not their cousin, not their daughter.
To you, I remind you that my mum would read this and think that too.
At ICAV the most important work we do is elevate the voice of those impacted the most in intercountry adoption – the adoptee. Our website has been capturing intercountry adoptee experiences since 1998. You can find them on our website under Individual Stories or Adoptee Voices tabs.
I want to remind you of this amazing resource as an opportunity to learn from the myriad of experiences we live. Today, I share our newest addition to Individual Stories. This is an empowering life experience from one of ICAVs newest members, adopted from Romania to America.
…Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being…we can change social conditions to create environments in which children and adults can feel safe and where they can thrive. Van Der Kolk, B. (2014) The Body Keeps The Score. Viking, New York
“Though you may not have direct reports working under you, you are ALL leaders in your project teams,” we were told recently at a work-related strengths finding and building seminar. This got me thinking about what leadership looks like in our community of intercountry and transracial adoptees (ICA/TRAs). Every day I see fellow ICA/TRAs working to bring about change in areas such as the intersectionality of adoption, trauma, race, and loss; family preservation; family reunification; and garnering awareness and even funds for lifelong post-adoption services for adopted people (as well as others in the adoption constellation). If the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts, then our community will best be served if we can collaborate with each other, as united leaders. Therefore, I invite all ICA/TRAs to ask themselves a few fundamental questions about leadership: What are leaders? Who are they leading? Are they leading or are they serving? If they are serving, whom are they serving? How can leaders influence in the absence of direct authority?
As an adopted person, the leaders in my life who have resonated most with me are the ones who have listened, validated, felt all “the feels,” and who worked diligently and gently at helping others grow and learn, setting them on the path to becoming leaders themselves one day. I believe that we all are – or have the potential to be – caring, impactful, servant leaders in our family, professional, and community settings.
The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The best test is: do those served grow as persons: do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived? Greenleaf, R.K. (1977) Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. Paulist Press, New York
The concept of servant leadership, in which the main goal of the leader is to serve, was first outlined by Robert K. Greenleaf. Though an in-depth look at servant leadership is outside the scope of this blog, I hope that the short quote above will speak to many in the ICA/TRA community. It certainly speaks to me as someone who empathizes with those who are harmed by the power differential inherent to modern day adoption: vulnerable women and children.
Following in the footsteps of earlier generations of vocal adoptees, such as Betty Jean Lifton and Sherrie Eldridge, who advocated for adoption reform, some members of the ICA/TRA community who were born and adopted between the late 1960s and the early 1990s have published books, become adoptee-centric grief and trauma therapists, set up local support groups, and initiated DNA programs for adoptees and first families, amongst other noteworthy projects. However, unlike our pioneering predecessors, who were almost exclusively white, same-race domestic adoptees, we are the ones paving the way for critical thinking about intercountry and transracial adoption practices.
Furthermore, our community is in the very unique position of being the first generation of adult intercountry, transracially adopted people who have had time to think and heal AND who are connected globally, thanks to the internet, AND who have access to affordable DNA testing AND whose voices are starting to be heard by local and international governing bodies. Over the past few years we have begun to leverage all of these resources and opportunities, and in doing so, many members of the ICA/TRA community are now devoting their time and energy to serving adoptees and first family members. Whether we realize it or not, we are already practitioners of servant leadership.
The traditional business model of leadership has been about increasing power and profit margins by getting people to do what you want by wielding your authority. This model is not only waning in the business world, but it is wholly inappropriate in the ICA/TRA community: we have neither profit margins to increase nor authority to wield. Therefore, effective leadership in our community, namely leadership that educates, empowers, supports, and influences even without direct power or authority, I believe, will find its strengths in empathy, values of truth and justice, and the desire and ability to knowledge-share that many ICA/TRAs have developed as a result of their unique lived experiences.
There are so many aspects and nuances that are particular to the experience of being adopted from a different country and growing up in a family of a different race. There is often no mistaking or hiding from the fact that the one Black/Brown/Asian/Indigenous/non-white Latinx child in a white family is adopted (the overwhelming majority of intercountry adoptions follow this pattern). The reality of this situation may force the adopted person to “come out of the fog” earlier rather than later in life. Coming out of the fog and learning to take a critical look at both one’s own adoption story and the institution of adoption, and specifically intercountry adoption, are difficult yet incredibly important steps to take in terms of personal growth and working to heal the community. By finding ways to support our fellow ICA/TRAs during these painful and sometimes volatile stages, we can also help lift and heal ourselves, because we will be acting as leaders and creating the next group of leaders at the same time.
We were powerless as babies and children when we were removed from our families and sent around the world to grow up in adoptive families, often with no connection to our original selves or families. As a result, many of us have struggled with our identity and sense of self worth. We paid a very high price for something we never gave our consent to in the first place. Yet, the flip side to all the pain many ICA/TRAs endured while growing up, and often continue to endure well into adulthood, is that we often have specialized knowledge acquired only through lived experience. Many of us also feel an intense desire to give back to our community by sharing that knowledge (with each other, with adoptive parents, and with policy makers) to help ensure that things are done better for current and future generations of vulnerable families and adopted people. To me, that is certainly a big part of leadership.
Finally, it is no stretch to see reflected in the ICA/TRA community most, if not all, of Larry C. Spears’s ten characteristics of effective, caring leaders (Character and Servant Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders. Journal of Virtues & Leadership, Vol. 1, Iss. 1, 2010, p. 25-30):
Listening Empathy Healing Awareness Persuasion Conceptualization Foresight Stewardship Commitment to the Growth of People Building Community
Being a member of a group of individuals who exhibit such characteristics is very powerful, and very empowering indeed. If our ICA/TRA global community can harness the benefits of servant leadership by fully owning and exercising all of our inborn strengths as well as those characteristics we have acquired through our lived experiences, I believe we not only help each other heal but can also shape governmental policies in favor of family preservation and post-adoption support. As we move forward as a community and as leaders in the field of intercountry and transracial adoption, I hope we will continue to grow, to learn, and to hold each other accountable as leaders who serve with kindness, and no expectations of glory in return.
I wrote this a couple of weeks after I returned from The Hague. I’d had some time to recover from jetlag and collect my thoughts and impressions after being involved at the HCCH Working Group for Preventing and Addressing Illicit Practices in Intercountry Adoption.
I feel privileged to have been invited to represent adoptees and I acknowledge I am but one adoptee, and it’s impossible to capture everyone’s varying views on such an emotional topic. I do not represent all adoptees but I did my best to ensure that the views I shared were not just my own individually, but represented the years of conversations and discussions I have had with many intercountry adoptees and adoptee leaders who have connected into the ICAV network since it’s beginnings in 1998.
One of the biggest insights I had in participating, was of the mammoth task it is to try and bring together various countries and get them to “agree and co-operate” on such a complex topic, including all the nuances within. Before attending, I had a utopian idea of what happens at The Hague level. Sitting in the reality and hearing the various views of country representatives, sometimes vastly different, I realised the important role the Permanent Bureau team plays in being the “facilitator”! Their role is to remind countries of the underpinning frameworks (the UNCRC and the Hague Convention for Intercountry Adoption), make proposals aligned with these frameworks, and ensure government representatives can speak and be heard, equally and fairly.
There can be no denying that the UNCRC and the Hague Convention for ICA are far from perfect tools, but at least they create a forum like this – where the cooperating countries get together to discuss major issues. It also became clear there are differences, country to country, on interpretation about how to implement the framework, the resources available to do so, and the limitations of existing legislation. The thought that really hit home for me was: how do we adoptees address illicit adoptions from countries that haven’t signed up to the Hague Convention? Where is the forum for that? Who do we go to in order to be heard? The answer is, there is none. We have to approach each non Hague country separately through their government. They might not have a government department that has authority in this area or there could be multiple departments.
I now understand the Hague Convention for ICA evolved with the UNCRC. They were both negotiated around the same time by almost the same countries. Together they historically reflect the journey of understanding in intercountry adoption at government levels. Back then, in it’s infancy, The Hague Convention for ICA was the minimum that could be agreed upon. Since then and through forums like the Working Group, the States are encouraged to increase their safeguards where they can. We are left with the reality that this Working Group on Illicit Practices is bound by the limitations included in The Hague Convention for ICA.
I believe it’s positive to understand the differences between the UNCRC and The Hague Convention for ICA but not to waste our energies fighting over which is better or worse. I’m pragmatic and the way I view it is, they are not going away any day soon. We have to live with what we have. There is no other international government agreed upon forum that allows these specific issues in intercountry adoption to be discussed. Wouldn’t we rather be involved discussing these things then not be there at all? In attending this meeting, it does not say I condone the pitfalls of either frameworks but says I commit to gaining a better understanding, build relationships where I can, and try to influence in whatever way I can, to improve things for my fellow adoptees.
Governments vary in their experience of implementing intercountry adoption policy and practice. Some countries signed up very early to the Hague Convention, others have just joined, and others still are still in the process. I wonder what it would take for the Hague Convention in ICA to be able to “mature” i.e., change or be superceded to ensure better monitoring and implementation? Is it possible? Does it happen in other Conventions? From what I understand, it has never happened before. All countries would have to agree and it would take a special process called a Diplomatic Session created to negotiate a new convention to supersede the existing one. Expecting most of the 101 convention countries in today’s political climate to agree to further refine the existing Convention is utopia! Historically, conventions and treaties of this nature only change when the world goes through a major war. State parties to the Convention meet every 5 years (it is called a Special Commission) to discuss the practical operation of the Convention. However, although States are encouraged to apply the decisions made during these meetings, they are not binding because only the text of the Convention is binding. So I’m not saying it’s impossible but pointing out how much more work we have to do if this is what we want to achieve.
The reality of how difficult it really is to expect governments to tackle the topic of illicit practices in adoption became crystal clear during this trip. Firstly, at this level, to get every signatory country to acknowledge that illicit practices exists is a huge task and with this working group, we are already part way there. Then to get them to agree on how to respond, even if it’s only in theory and for Hague adoptions only, is a massive undertaking. The politics involved, the legislations that bind, the limitations .. I can see why it will take some time for change to happen and it is never “fast enough” for adoptees and families who live it! But at the same time, I was encouraged to see that there were 20+ countries committed to attend the meeting and give the topic well considered time, money, thought and effort. In adopteeland, it’s easy for us to portray governments in a stereotypical way — “uninterested”, “not wanting to help”, or jump to conclusions because it’s not the answer we want/need to hear!
I believe we need to do more relationship building with our governments where it matches i.e., if legal action is not being made against them and where they show a willingness to truly understand our perspective. We can try to understand the barriers they face, be open to understanding that they may want to do something about the past historic illicit practices in adoption, but understand it’s not a simple task – legislation and politics can often be their barriers. They are but one arm in the massive government machine of each country. I hope adoptee leaders around the world will, if you haven’t already, give your Central Authorities a call – try and build a relationship with them and help them learn from your lived experience about the challenges and issues you face.
I came away from the meeting with a harsh stack of reality for how big the task is to have illicit practices in adoption addressed and acknowledged, especially historical adoptions prior to the UNCRC and The Hague Convention on ICA. But I remain positive. Many of the attendees spoke to me about how much they gained from hearing an adoptee perspective. I communicated that some of us are willing to be involved to help them understand the nuances from our perspective and talking with the participants reminded me of how important it is, to not only build commonalities amongst adoptees, but amongst all the players who have a key role in effecting change.
One of the highlights in travelling to the Netherlands last month was to finally meet in person Hilbrand Westra, a fellow intercountry adoptee born in South Korea and adopted to the Netherlands, whom I have liaised and worked with since the beginning of ICAV. Not only did I get to meet him in person, share a few meals, laugh and pose for photos like above .. but I also got to hear him speak. He was previously one of the key adoptee leaders in the Netherlands, advocating for intercountry adoptees at government level and was awarded the Order of Orange-Nassau for his amazing contributions to the adoptee community.
In the past few years, he has taken a back seat in advocacy but has turned his efforts to his other passion with adoptees – of providing professional emotional support. Like myself, he has also observed that advocacy is best done when an adoptee has healed their inner self and often the biggest barrier to this healing, is the lack of professionals who have methods and experience to truly help us move past the traumas of the past. I love that Hilbrand is now focusing on providing for this gap in what we need most!
Here is the video recording I made of his presentation which gives you a little insight as to how he operates. It is 23.4mins long so make sure you have time to listen in full. Apologies for the slight fuzziness in the recording, I must have knocked the lens when I zoomed in.
He works utilising the well known European models of adoption constellation and systemic work to help adoptees (and fostered people) shift through the layers of trauma we inevitably acquire, due to being relinquished or removed from our families of origin.
For those who want to know more about Hilbrand and the coaching team he is building in Europe to provide vital, professional emotional support to fellow adoptees, please see his website (dutch) or here (english).
Huge thanks to Chilean Adoptees Worldwide who hosted the event and invited Hilbrand, myself, and other key adoptee leaders as guest speakers. It was an AMAZING and memorable day!