The Push-Pull Dance in Adoptee Relationships

I remember back in my mid 20s when I had been in a serious intimate relationship for 7 years – my first love! Do we ever forget our first? No! For me, it was sooooo intense! The first person who I felt truly loved me as I was – warts and all. The first person who really tried to understand my mind and heart. The first person whom I felt “safe” with. As an intercountry adoptee, I had grown up in an adoptive family that hadn’t been an overwhelmingly positive experience and I yearned to feel love, yearned for a connection that wouldn’t be scary or hurtful. I remember my adoptive dad saying more than once not to be so “clingy” to people when the occassional visitor gave me attention. I craved their warmth and nurturing mannerism! The words of my adoptive father made me feel there was something wrong with my desire. In his words I was, “All over them like a bad smell”. But looking back, I recognise this now as the adoptee within who was hurt, abandoned and seeking the connection with a mother figure who wouldn’t let me go.

I kept looking for that “connection” and into my young adult life, I had several serious intimate love relationships. Each time, when it ended, as it inevitably did – it really hurt! I desperately wanted to be loved but I also needed to keep the person at a distance so they couldn’t hurt me too much. My experience of life was that people who said they loved me, either left me because I was “too much” or they hurt me.

Through alot of therapy in my mid 20s and 30s, I eventually recognised what was going on. I call it the push-pull dance that we adoptees master. The dance says: I want you close but I want you far away. It is the powerful dichotomy that we adoptees live. It reflects the dance we have going on within ourselves of wanting to believe we are loveable but living a reality that says the opposite – if we are loveable, then why are we left alone on our own, without our mother. We then subconsciously search for that connection to repair the hurt damaged child within, to want to see a reality that says “we are loveable”. I internalised my relinquishment as “there is something wrong with me” which was enhanced by an adoptive family environment in which I was neglected and abused. These experiences compounded into a feeling that I was always inferior, of no worth and why would anybody want to stay with me. The damage was so immense that I did actually hate myself and this was reflected in self harming behaviours such as suicide attempts. My self hatred was turned inwards upon myself. Others may show it in different ways.

Every human being has a powerful desire to feel loved and for adoptees – it is enhanced on steroids. Our rejected inner child drives our motivations and instincts to recreate and bring back that connection which was unfairly severed with our mother who carried us in-utero. We never really get over that loss of “mother”. I’ve done alot of therapy in my life but fundamentally, it still hurts to have lost her and never know who she is, to be held within her arms as a babe usually is, and to never hear her soothing voice or be held up to see her smiling, adoring face. We adoptees lose those precious moments forever, even if we manage to reunite and find each other again it doesn’t undo the trauma imprint left upon our heart and psyche. So it is not surprising that we carry on our search for that magical “mother-child” intimate connection through our romantic adult relationships.

The hard part is, when we feel so unloveable there is a mismatch between what our heart and our mind says. Our mind says what we all know logically – that every human being is of worth. But yet in our body, our heart, we don’t feel loveable. So our mind wants us to believe we can be in a relationship and that somehow we will find that one relationship which will wash away our pain – we pull people towards us, desperate to find that connection. But in our body and heart we don’t feel we’ll ever be good enough and therefore we push them away. We then get into a cycle of judging ourselves harshly for being in these patterns, saying, “See, told you so! Nobody will ever love me. I’m not loveable”, and it becomes a self fulfilling and cyclical prophecy.

So the question remains: are we adoptees left to forever be incomplete in someway? Going through the motions of this constant push-pull dance? I believe through my own experience, that we can find healing and it can vary for individuals as to what that healing looks like. For me, it was the deep body reconnection therapy I did which helped the most. It was a powerful moment when my therapist helped me recognise that my mother and I are not separated forever – that I am a part of her, that I haven’t lost her, for she is actually within me. That I carry her within me! That blew me away to actually feel this truth. I finally grieved and consoled my inner hurt child.

I also had spent several years working through the negative impacts of my adoptive family and the damaging messages I had internalised. But eventually, it all came together through perserverance and commitment to being on the path of self recovery. Once these things happened, I learnt to reconnect with myself and stop pushing away my own inner feelings of hurt, loss, rejection and to deeply love my inner child, accept her and not make her feel bad for “being needy” and wanting love. The subconscious instinctive response to push people away no longer controls me and I’ve been capable of being in a healthy positive intimate relationship. I now understand why many of us adoptees can journey along without ever being aware that we have “adoption related issues”. It is not until we see the repetitive cycles of our intimate relationship patterns, the push-pull dance, that we begin to fathom how much our relinquishment impacts our life. For some of us, it can be the first overt signal that something is not quite right.

A really useful book that helped me along while being in therapy, was Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Connection. (The first book of hers that I read, The Dance of Anger, was so important to my healing!)

If you are an adoptee reading this blog post and you can identify with the pattern of wanting people close to you but subconciously pushing them away, you are not alone. This is a completely normal response to a difficult beginning. We act this way for a reason and the good news is, it can be changed. It starts with a conscious decision to learn as much as possible as to why we became this way and how the pattern began. Then its a matter of finding a way for yourself that helps free you of the subconscious drivers. I refer to this as being on the path towards healing and recovery.

In the past month, I’ve become a fan of Anthony Robbins after watching his Netflix I Am Not Your Guru show. So much of his approach matches my healing journey where I learnt to accept and nuture my wounded child. I think that’s why it’s so devastating if we have an experience of an adoptive family who never fully accepts (or even understands) our wounded traumatised child within. When adoptive parents reject and push that hurt child away, it gives us the subconsciuos message that our child is not loveable and therefore, we as adults replicate what they’ve done because we don’t know any better. We push our inner hurt child away too but yet, the real path to finding healing from our relinquishment, is to embrace our inner child, love it, nuture and protect it and then allow it co-exist with our adult self. Only then do our beginnings no longer control our destiny.

Our path towards healing and recovery can start any moment. It is a choice. We don’t have to be controlled by our beginnings forever. A healthy positive intimate relationship is possible! Reaching out to post adoption supports are a great place to start. Finding a therapist who suits your style and personality is another. Doing yoga or meditation is another. But give yourself the chance and be gentle on yourself. This stuff doesn’t change overnight, it can take years of commitment to healing and recovery. It starts with awareness and the desire to figure it out.

Being True to Ourselves as Adoptees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I Love about Adoptees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lived Experience of Illicit Intercountry Adoption


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lynelle Long

Adoptee Citizenship

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The Anti-Immigrant Climate in the United States of America

An Intercountry & Transracial Adoptee’s Perspective

by Rachel Kim Tschida

Special Guest Blogger on ICAV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rehomed & Abandoned Too Many Times

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Failed Adoptions: rarely written about

It is November, National Adoption Awareness Month (NAAM) 2018. At ICAV, we want to raise awareness of the realities some live who rarely get to express their voice because they are too downtrodden and trying to survive, let alone tell their story!

Today, I share the journey of a very brave young woman adopted from Ethiopia to the USA. Her life experience needs to be told to intercountry adoption agencies, governments, lawyers, social workers and middle-people who continue to facilitate intercountry adoptions without learning from the past. When I interviewed this young woman, my heart was shredded as I listened to the heartache, trauma, re-trauma and sadness that has filled her life. Adoption is meant to be a forever family isn’t it?? Don’t adoption agencies and governments promote adoption as being in the best interests of the child?? Don’t they equate adoption with permanency??

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It is fellow adoptees like this who inspire me to continue to raise awareness in intercountry adoption. Too many times, intercountry adoptions are done poorly, with little responsibility or ethics for the long term outcomes. We need to learn from these worst case scenarios and stop telling ourselves the lie that it only happens to a minority.

In my opinion, if it happens to one, it happens to too many! These issues are a reflection of an international system that clearly has little oversight, little controls, too much monetary incentive to “make the transaction” and not enough checks and balances to ensure the child is actually placed in a safe, loving, psychologically healthy and nurturing family. Not to mention the lack of means and routes for justice for the child who grows up! Until these real life experiences for intercountry adoptees stop happening, I cannot support intercountry adoption as it is conducted today.

We must learn from the lessons and do what we can to stop intercountry adoptions like this from happening. That means, we have to stop blindly promoting intercountry adoption as if it’s the answer for all vulnerable children around the world. The fact that intercountry adoptions like this are happening in recent times and still occurring (not just from my 70s era) tells us that very little has changed to ensure adoptions are done in the best interests of the child.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on intercountry adoption after you read Sha’s life journey, Abandoned by All.

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What Adoptees Lose in Intercountry Adoption

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I normally tiptoe around adoption and never say the A word because people just don’t respond well to “adoptee anger“. But during the month of November, I feel it is appropriate to air my feelings on what I have anger about, in intercountry adoption.

I hate that our original identities are ignored and get obliterated as if they don’t matter! I’ve never seen my identity papers because they got “lost” in transit and no-one in government at my adoptive country end, nor my adoptive family, thought to go to the ends of the earth to locate them. Perhaps they thought it wouldn’t matter because I was given a “new” life and family – and that’s all I should ever need?!

I hate that we lose our birth culture, language, religion, heritage, customs, kin, community and country. I hate that these important facets of our identity are ignored and denied. As if they don’t matter because what I gained materially from my adoptive country is assumed to make up for all the losses?!

I hate that I had to endure racism and isolation in my community whilst growing up as a child. The shame of looking non-white, the inner hatred I developed as a result because I didn’t see myself mirrored anywhere. The phrase from my adoptive family, “We love you as one of us” showed how little they understood the impacts of intercountry adoption. They couldn’t recognise my journey was any different to theirs nor did they understand the profound impact this would have on me.

I hate that people assume all adoptive homes are awesome and when we get placed in not-so-positive adoptive homes, no-one checks on us, no-one stands up for us, often our story is not believed and/or invalidated, and no-one gives us a safe place to be nurtured, respected, or cared for. As a child I felt so vulnerable and alone. It was a terrible overwhelming feeling that left me in fight or flight responses for years, with scars to wear for the rest of my life.

I hate that we live in an age where a Government apology seems to be the latest fashion accessory but yet for those adopted via illegal or questionable means, we intercountry adoptees will never get closure. A true apology would mean firstly acknowledging the wrong, then a lifelong commitment to making amends including providing financial renumeration to reflect the pain we carry forever, along with the supports required to help us restore our mental well being; and lastly to make the necessary changes to never repeat the same mistakes again.

I hate that some of my adoptee friends adopted to the USA are living a gutted life because they have been deported back to their country of birth like common commodities, shipped in and out with ease, being treated as though they are of no real value and certainly with no choice. In the majority of cases, they were placed in adoptive homes that were very damaging and their lives spiralled out of control. Isn’t adoption meant to be about “permanency“?! This week in the news headlines, an intercountry adoptee in Australia is to be deported back to the Cook Islands. It is immoral and unethical to adopt a child from one country to another when it suits, through no choice of their own, and then be sent back to birth country because they fail to live up to being an adoption success story!

I hate that thousands of my intercountry adoptee friends in the USA are living in fear everyday because they are still not given automatic citizenship. They often have no social security and cannot leave the country for fear of being picked up by immigration officials. Isn’t adoption meant to provide a forever family … and permanency in a home and country?!

I feel this anger today because it is November and around the world, many use this month to celebrate adoption and promote awareness. For me, I don’t celebrate these aspects of adoption, they make me rightfully angry and more so, when I see my experience replicated in the lives of many around the world.

At ICAV, we believe in promoting awareness of the impacts of intercountry adoption ALL year round, not just in November.

I hope after reading this, you will all also be rightfully angry at the things intercountry adoptees LOSE because of our adoption.

My goal is to encourage adoptees to turn that rightful anger into an appropriate energy:

  • to educate the wider community and enhance a deeper understanding of the complexities involved in intercountry adoption;
  • to push for the much needed social, political, legal, and economic changes that cause inequality and leave many of our families with little choice;
  • to help prevent adoption where necessary by supporting family reunification initiatives and advocating for this in our birth countries;
  • and if adoption has to be the last resort, to help improve the way we conduct intercountry adoption such as changing it from our plenary system to simple adoptions; and supporting all triad members throughout the lifelong journey.

I also acknowledge there are many other less scarey emotions and thoughts we can talk about in intercountry adoption, but at ICAV, I like to raise awareness about the issues that don’t normally get aired.

There are plenty who speak of the positives in adoption … but not many who openly share the not-so-positive aspects. In speaking out, I aim to help balance out the discussions in intercountry and transracial adoption.

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Asian female adoptee review of Crazy Rich Asians

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In August, Joey posted his review here about Crazy Rich Asians. I re-read his thoughts and felt compelled to add to them from an Asian female adoptee perspective.

Like Joey, I also watched the film twice and loved it each time! I saw it the first time by myself to absorb what I could as an Asian intercountry adoptee. I went again with my hubby and 8yr old daughter who is half Chinese half Vietnamese. I loved the awesome casting and role modeling in the film and wanted my daughter to see it! I wish mainstream media had shown that kind of glitz and positive take on Asian people and culture when I was growing up. It might have helped me feel more positive about being Asian during those critical self esteem development years.

I was born in Vietnam and adopted into a white Caucasian family during the early 70s. I have married a 3rd generation Australian Chinese man. I watched the film from a different angle to Joey – mine is that of “marrying into” a Chinese family. I could totally relate to the lead female role because I have been raised in white mentality because of my adoptive family and I had to learn the cultural and social ways in which authentic Asian families operate.

I related to feeling like the “invader” aka the “banana” (white on the inside, yellow on the out) entering into an authentic and traditional Chinese family, “taking away” the first born son from what he “should do” according to Asian family and cultural expectations. I struggled for the first few years of marriage to understand my mother-in-law and I certainly wasn’t familiar with the level of closeness and assumed “control” an Asian mother wants to have over her first born son. This was clearly demonstrated in Crazy Rich Asians.

I also understood the portrayal of the Asian family system where there are high levels of “respect” for the mother figures and the older generations. Compared to white caucasian family systems where we lock away our older generations into retirement homes, Asian families assume greater degrees of respect the older they age. The mothers in Asian families are also the matriarchs. Children fear losing their approval and there is definitely more expectations of the first son to anchor the family, take the lead, be financially committed/savvy and work hard. It was interesting how the Chinese father was portrayed as being a totally absent workaholic. This matches my perception of marrying into an Asian family where there are very clear traditional roles – the man is the provider and the wife’s role is to be the heart and soul of the family. She is to nurture and raise the children and keep the home. It took me some years to understand and embrace these cultural differences because I grew up with an adoptive mother who was the “career woman” and my adoptive father, the “work at home” parent.

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In marrying into an Asian family, the struggle between each Asian generation to maintain traditions vs become modern and keep in touch with the rest of the world, is definitely a real dilemma. I see the benefits and viewpoints of each generation. Like one of the lines quoted during the film, “China builds things that last” (eg Great Wall of China) whereas white western mindset, as epitomised in America, thinks only of the here and now and is very much about prioritising what the individual wants. Chinese culture has a longitudinal group mentality that is very different from white society. I was raised in white mentality where we are taught to live for the moment and be independent. Upon marriage, one leaves the family unit and starts their own. In comparison, in Chinese families, ha hah .. I have learnt that when one marries in, we marry the WHOLE family – extended included! For me, marrying into an Asian family I constantly see the difference between the two cultures: white vs Asian; independence vs group. In Chinese families, it’s definitely the group that is prioritised over individual needs, whereas in white families, it’s about the individual leaving home as soon as possible and making your own path in life, fending for oneself.

There was one critical moment in the film that pulled on my adoptee heartstrings. The part where the female lead isolates herself in her friend’s room for days after devastating news – until her mother walks in to comfort her. My adoptee soul cried out at that scene for how much I would have loved my Asian mother be there for me, to comfort me during my hardest moments in life. That part of the film connected with my sadness that I didn’t have my Asian mother to mirror me or understand me inituitively, and provide me with wisdom. I have always missed having my Asian mother even though I have never met her! The film brought home the loss and sadness for my Asian mother buried deep within myself. As I age and watch my own children grow, I realise even more what I missed out on by not being raised within my Asian family.

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I also loved how the film portrayed all the mother figures as “strong” Asian women. It was contrasted against the stereotype I received during my life, growing up in white Australia, receiving the message that Asian women are submissive, weak and in need of help/rescuing. Seeing Crazy Rich Asians during my young adulthood would have helped me overcome my “shame” of being an Asian female to understand that Asian mothers are actually like tigers – fierce, protective, assertive, not to be fooled around with and very loving of their children. It is such a contrast to what I got told about my mother that portrayed her as not being able to help herself or being in a shameful position.

Crazy Rich Asians enabled me to embrace my Asian mother in a more positive way. Through this film, I could visually imagine to some degree how my relationship with my Vietnamese mother might have been if we’d not been separated. I’m not referring to the material/economic wealth perspective but about the emotional connection and relationships that are obvious throughout the film.

The film ended beautifully and demonstrated on yet another layer just how much Asian mothers love their children. Too often as an adoptee I hear the typical response to those who have been adopted as, “She loved you so much she gave you up!” But it was nice to see on-screen the Asian mother who loved her child so much that she was able to find a way to overcome what looked like insurmountable difficulties.

Can’t wait to see the sequel! I wonder if we’ll see something about Asian fathers, who were notably absent in this film .. another parallel in intercountry adoption!

Mental Health and Adoption

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Mental illness, mental health – words which most people don’t like to read in connection with the word adoption. We usually like to think of happy forever after families but the reality is, adoption is based on the trauma of relinquishment and loss so it’s no surprise that adoptees suffer rates of mental illness far higher than the non-adopted population.

So instead of burying our heads in the sand and ignoring the reality, lets talk openly about what we might do better to assist individuals and families with a lived experience of mental illness.

In Australia, October is Mental Health Month and I’d like to explore how we might reduce the feelings of isolation and the daily struggle for adoptees with a lived experience of mental illness. How do we be more sensitive and not inadvertently trigger underlying pain? Not only do adoptees with a lived experience suffer the same loss from relinquishment as all adoptees, but they suffer a double whammy from the stigma of mental illness that further compounds their early life traumas.

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Over the years of connecting and peer supporting my fellow adoptees, the toughest experience is feeling like I let down my fellow peers with a lived experience of mental illness. I do not come equipped knowing intuitively how to support them and what makes it hard in my role as a peer, is the boundaries of peer support via social media and face to face are loose and undefined. What I’ve learnt is, adoptees with lived experiences of mental illness need stronger boundaries because it’s helps them feel safe when reaching out.

I know there’s nothing more powerful than hearing it from those who live it. So, I’ve asked one of my peers who has some ideas from a lived experience perspective. She has kindly shared her thoughts on how we can provide better support to adoptees and she is currently working as a volunteer peer educator in mental health. I personally thank her for providing this wealth of information which she has gathered over the course of her life journey! She does so in the hopes it helps her fellow adoptees with a lived experience of mental illness.

Here is what she provides, including the list of resources at the bottom.

Throughout this article, the term lived experience refers to someone who identifies as having a mental illness, or comes from a complex trauma background, or could be a carer for someone with lived experience. Most importantly we need to recognise that someone suffering from those symptoms has lived experience which is not a label nor does this define them as a person. Just as people aren’t their “broken arm” or their “headache”, physical and emotional / medical illness needs to be treated with the same respect.

Here are some of my ideas of what could be done to better support adoptees with lived experience in mental illness:

Purposeful Storytelling

Encourage others to hold adoptee-with-lived-experience events like a meal or a forum / workshop where they can talk about their recovery journey. This breaks stigma and is not a rant but a shared story with a purpose to help others in sharing what helped.

You could frame the purposeful storytelling like a set of questions for the adoptee to share on such as: What has helped vs what didn’t help? How have you changed from then to now? What would you like to see done or said differently? What do you need more or less of, to continue your recovery going forward?

Social or Workshop Events

Hold weekly or fortnightly coffee catchups or have a walk or art group, but the emphasis is not counselling. Ask the adoptees with lived experience in mental health to write a list of resources that helped them and make it accessible to others online.

Invent an Adoptee wtih Lived Experience Day to honour those adoptees and have a fun, self care activity day. Do this also for their Carers. You could include info booths, pamper booths, plant a tree activity, food and art activities, talks by people with Lived Experience and people of social standing to attend and open the event.

Training / Supervision

Adoptee peers should go through Trauma Informed Care (TIC) training and Developmental Trauma Disorder training (same as Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder training). TIC training is all about asking what has happened to a person and considers the context. This is in contrast to asking an invalidating question such as, “What is wrong with you?” or ” Why are you not fitting in?”.

Training and supervision is about the peer support person learning to respond not just react. General awareness about how we speak and act around people with lived experience is necessary and learning about Boundaries, Duty of Care, Accidental Counsellor, Suicide, Mental Health First Aid are all good tool kits to add to your belt.

Training is also about being, doing and using appropriate language at all times and noticing our own triggers and judgments arising and tending to those.

The Recovery Model or Strengths Approach

Both these models are currently the best for providing a framework for engaging people with lived experience of mental illness. You can access these through Recovery College or a similar type organisation. The focus of these models is to bring awareness to what the person can already do for themselves and what has helped so far. There is also training available for carers of people with mental illness.

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People with trauma experiences may not always show or say anything if they are triggered. So it is important to check in and ask if they are okay. Do things like setup safe places / chill zones during events, just in case.

Self education, training and being on boards / committees of organisations like SANE Australia or Beyond Blue was a way I helped myself. They provided opportunities to share my story or join their speakers bureau. Access to education and event opportunities is important for those with lived experience.

If a peer adoptee with lived experience wants to go on to become a peer educator, I found Recovery College and One Door Mental Health teach all the modules needed, including Purposeful Story Telling. After one completes the modules you become a certified “peer educator” and can then teach at the colleges. One Door Mental Health reimburses those who tell their Lived Experience Story at workshops. You can also be reimbursed when One Door Mental Health are asked by a service organisation to speak on a specific subject like BPD, depression, anxiety or schizophrenia.

Anybody’s recovery is as good as the social connection, support networks, finances for support, understanding and opportunities to contribute. Being treated as normal as possible but with the context of trauma, considered as far as our behaviour / limits / expectations can go. This includes what others are capable and willing to be open minded about and setting a context to the bigger picture.

Everyone needs to know that they are seen and heard and that people care. We who live with mental illness matter and have a purpose. We are often shut out and marginalised and our behaviour makes us vulnerable and an easy target for being overlooked as a valued contribution and educational resource to the community.

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List of some Mental Health Resources in Australia

Research into China’s Intercountry Adoption

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It’s wonderful to see more adult intercountry adoptees exploring their origins and adding to the wealth of research in intercountry adoption.

I’d like to introduce you to André-Anne Côté who is a Chinese intercountry adoptee who grew up in Quebec, Canada. She has been studying International Relations at Peking University. Lately, she has produced 3 very interesting research papers which she is willing to share at ICAV.

The first is a A Comparison of Adoption Policies between China and South Korea. Worldwide, these make up the two largest sending (birth) countries for children via intercountry adoption.

The second looks at Chinese Identity and Nationalism through Chinese Adoption and Immigration into Canada.

The third investigates Causes of International Adoption from China.

It is timely that we read research papers like this from adult Chinese intercountry adoptees because around the world enmasse, Chinese adoptees are growing up and starting to form their own ideas and thoughts about their adoptions from China.

Like all intercountry adoptee communities by birth country, we all grow up to eventually question why and how our adoptions occured as a natural phase in the journey of exploration about our mixed identities and beginnings.

We look forward to sharing more of André-Anne Côté’s papers in the future. Stay tuned!

At ICAV we have compiled a list of research conducted by adult intercountry adoptee academics and posted at our Research page.