Shape Shifting

by Marie, a daughter lost via adoption from her Chinese father who shared his story last week: The Sin of Love

I put the truth on a pedestal, but I also see how she’s a shape shifter, whose form changes depending on who holds her and their state of mind. In the few months since I found my father, I believe he’s understood my need for the truth and tried to offer it to me. But that truth keeps changing as my arrival in his life has been equal parts joyful and traumatic.

Confronted with me, the lost daughter he’s longed for, he’s also reliving the past. A past he’s suppressed because it was too painful, alone with memories in a society which erases birth parents and their grief, as if it is something they had agency to prevent. He had no wise mentor and no safety through which to process his pain and loss, not only of me but of his first love. I believe the woman he loved died to him when she signed the adoption papers. While acknowledging she probably had no choice, he couldn’t reconcile that woman with the one he loved eternally. So although he had clues as to where she was, he never looked for her because his love must surely be gone — the Agnes he loved couldn’t have given away their child; in doing so she compelled him into signing the adoption papers too. He tucked away that grief and entered a life in which loss unconsciously drove his decisions.

Years later he sleepwalked into a marriage. Another pregnancy would garner his commitment to his wife and to another child he couldn’t lose this time. But Agnes was a silent guest in his marriage and family – she would never leave, and neither would I.

Since I’ve returned, the truth evolves and shifts. Agnes has been unconsciously a perpetrator, a woman who gave up her flesh and blood and simultaneously a victim of a bigoted and controlling mother who altered the destiny of all three of us. As the months since our reunion have gone by, my father has been tormented by the past: guilt, anger, confusion and loss have plagued him with what he calls “sudden floating rubbish”. Neither of us can ask Agnes what happened from her perspective because she died in October 2016. 4 years before I found her obituary and 5 before I found my father and confirmed it was her. In her absence we both thrash about with what we know, attempting to piece together the puzzle which for me has even more missing pieces which are gradually leaking out of the memories my father accesses in flashbacks and increasing empathy for my mother. He stares, as I do at the one photo we have of her, posted on her obituary. She is young and smiling and though her features individually aren’t mine, somehow her face echoes mine. I saw myself in her, knowing who she was as soon as I saw the picture.

As he moves through the memories now with an altered lens of compassion, and perhaps conscious of how I would view my mother and how he wants me to feel about her, my father has revealed memories which again shift reality and truth. As my birthday approaches the revelations seem to be increasing. In his recollections, now she’s happy and smiling on the day I was born. They named me together and all seems fine when he leaves her that day. But a week later he’s called to sign adoption papers and compelled by a judge to do so when he refuses. He would never make sense of the decision and never talk to Agnes again to unpack what happened. His anger and confusion would hold her at a distance more successfully than her absence, until I arrived sending photos of myself in which she is ever present. In the last week he has seemed to need to share new puzzle pieces, as he puts it back together himself. He now believes he has wronged her.

In his own grief he couldn’t comprehend what a traumatic loss she endured. Yesterday he revealed another piece of the puzzle. When he finally searched for Agnes, he too found her obituary so he sought out her brother, his friend, to find out how she died. What he was told led him to believe she took her own life. This news has shifted reality again for me. While not knowing anything of her life, I can only assume losing me was a devastating event which forever impacted her state of mind and her family life.

I can’t help correlating the month of her death with its anniversary of my adoption. I suspect each year my August birthday would summon a silent grief and perhaps linger through to autumn when two months later, I went home with another family and within a few months unknown to my parents, to another country. I don’t know if she knew when I left the mother and baby home. It’s not clear to me if I was with her for those first two months of life or living in its adjacent orphanage under the care of nuns. Unrelenting in their views of what was best, the nuns lied to my father when he travelled the seven hours from Taiping to take me home, where his mother awaited, wanting to welcome me to their family.

What the Church told anyone is under question and with Agnes gone, perhaps only her siblings might know. It’s possible she shared something with her second daughter or husband. As I think of my maternal sister, I now wonder if my existence would unlock a mystery for her too. If she never knew about me, perhaps her loss also involved a traumatic secret lost in death and added to her grief. I remain stuck with what next in my search – for now just happy to be part of my paternal family and all the absorbing realities of getting to know the family and culture I lived without for almost 49 years.

The Sin of Love

by a Chinese father who lost his daughter Marie via intercountry adoption.

Lone Sitting
Tossing High and Low
Longing for Understanding
Living with a Dim Hope

There was a notification on my Facebook that Marie is following me. Normally I don’t accept follower or friend requests, but the name was Marie, so I accepted and left it, not paying much attention. The next day as I was walking with my daughter to go Tesco to get some groceries for cooking that day, I received a message from Marie. “Hello, I am trying trace a Clement who knew Agnes in 1972, please let know if that is you?” I was totally shocked. I immediately answered back, “Yes” and asked who she is. She answered, “I am her daughter.” In my heart I knew it was her, the one I missed all these years. I have been living with a very dim hope of finding her all these years. I replied, “I hope I am not dreaming!” She replied, “I think you are my father”.

The next thing I asked her was about the day that I can never forget. “Is your date of birth 9 August?” She answered with a YES. Never had I imagined this day would come. My daughter Denise saw my expression and she asked me what was wrong. I told her my daughter that was given away through adoption has found me. “Ayoi, you give me goosebumps,” Denise said. I don’t hide my past from my children, only my private life. Time didn’t permit us to talk more over Facebook as I had to finish our shopping then rush back to cook and deliver the food, but I promised to stay in contact.

The whole episode of finding my daughter Marie was supposed to be a happy moment and it still is.  But it was more than happiness. After sharing my part of signing her adoption papers and finding out about her life with some photos, she shared two photos which brought back all the memories of my time with Agnes, her mother. When I saw the photo of Marie and her husband, it was like looking at Agnes. She’s so much like her. Another photo of Agnes standing alone reminded me of the only photo both of us had taken as a couple, in a photo studio. She also wore a saree at that photo session.

My daughter Denise wants me to video call Marie. I told her with my bad hearing problem and Marie’s English slang it might be hard to communicate. But the truth is looking at Marie is like looking at Agnes. I am not yet ready. With all these memories coming back, I realise I have not forgotten or ever stopped loving her. I still miss her for all these years.  Unknowingly, my love for Agnes has caused my marriage to fail. There was always a third person in our bed. My injustice to my children. I was once involved in Marriage Ministry and I realise I have created so much rubbish in my life.

I have lived a life of denial.

I knew Agnes in 1970 through her brother Bernard. We were close friends as we worked in the same school. He was a temporary teacher and I was the office boy in the school office. I spent most night at his house as my house was nearby. Bernard had three other brothers and three sisters. Agnes was the elder of the three sisters. Agnes always had a smile on her face and was a very gentle and genuine person. She had long ponytail hair. I got along well with the family and had Christmas with them. I started to have feelings for her and asked to go for a dance date on New years eve. She said yes but I had to ask Bernard for permission as he was more or less the head of the family. I asked him and he had no objection, so we went for our first date.

We enjoyed ourselves that night and I knew I was in love with her. Even though I had been with a few other girls previously, I had never experienced this feeling before. I realised that she was my first love. By the time we reached her house it was already 1am and New Years Day. After spending some time with the family and wishing everyone Happy New Year it was time for me to go home. Agnes walked me out of the house. I was alone with her and I expressed my feelings to her and asked her to be my girlfriend. She said yes but we would have a problem telling Bernard. I told her I would talk to him and we ended with our first kiss.

A few days later, I did speak to Bernard about my relationship with his sister but to my surprise, he did not object so I started to spend more time at her house. Bernard was good with his guitar and Agnes liked to sing. I can’t sing but I often jammed with them. I have many happy memories of that time. Agnes and Bernard were often invited to be guest singers at the Singing Talent time contest show.  At one of the shows where they had invited Agnes to sing, just as she was about to go on stage she said to me, “This song is for you “. Looking at me she started to sing. She sang “Let it be me”. Can I ever forget that night with that song? NO, never in my life will I ever forget that night.

We were together for two years. As time went by, we became more intimate and one day she found out she was pregnant. We wanted to get married but we had a problem of getting her mothers’ approval.  So we decided to go and see the Priest for advice and ask her parents approval.  What we didn’t expect was that her mother not only didn’t approve of our marriage but also arranged with the priest for Agnes to go to the Centre for Unwed Mothers.  I went to her house to plead with her mother but they chased me out of the house. The family knew all along about our relationship but they went against me.  I went to see the Priest but he told me that Agnes would be leaving Taiping in two days time. My mother even went to her house to plead with their family but they said no. They didn’t even allow me to see Agnes before she left.

After two months I couldn’t stand it anymore, I missed Agnes and I worried about her.  I went to see the Priest to find out her whereabouts, but he didn’t want to give me information about her. I pleaded with him crying in his office for a long time. In the end, he told me and even arranged for me to meet Agnes with the nun. She was taken to the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Batu Arang, near Kuala Lumpur. That very night I took a train to Kuala Lumpur and went by bus to Batu Arang, quite a distance from Kuala Lumpur. I managed to see Agnes after two months. The nun was good enough to give us time together alone. Before I left that place the nun told me that I could only visit her once a month. During her stay there, I visited her four times. The last time I visited her was a few weeks before her delivery. During the last visit we talked about naming the baby. During her stay there, she was close to a nun by the name of Sister Marie. So, we decided to name her Marie if we had a daughter, or if we had a son, Mario. We even talked about working in Kuala Lumpur after her delivery. She was not keen to go back to Taiping. As for the baby, we would let my mother take care of her.

A few weeks later, I was at the church for early morning service and the Priest informed me that Agnes had been admitted for delivery the night before. I rushed to Kuala Lumpur by taxi. By the time I reached her, she had already delivered. When I saw her, she just out of the delivery room but I didn’t see the baby. She told me the nurse was washing her. When the nurse came out with the baby, she asked me if I was the father, I nodded, and she handed me the baby. I carried her for some time until Agnes asked what to give her as a second name. I suggested Geraldine and she agreed.  She gave me her identity card to register the birth certificate. I handed over the baby to her and she smiled, saying to the baby “You are Marie Geraldine L__.” I was with her until after visiting hours. Before I left, I told Agnes that I would see her in three weeks time because I could only take the birth certificate in three weeks time. I did not know that this would be the last time I would ever see them both.

Two weeks later the priest informed me that I was summoned to court to sign Marie up for adoption. I panicked and told my mother about it and she asked me to bring Marie back. I went with a heavy heart. When I reached there, they gave me some documents to sign. I refused to sign and told them that I wanted to keep the baby. The person in charge told me that whether I signed or not, the adoption would be processed because the mother had full rights. I said I wanted to adopt Marie under my mother’s name. What he answered surprised me. A father cannot adopt a female child but if it had been a boy, there would have been a possibility. In one day, I lost everything. I had no choice but to sign the document and rush to Batu Arang. But the nun refused to see me and would not allow me past the gate. Two months later I went again. This time one of the nuns came out to meet me but would not allow me to go in. She told me that Agnes had left the place and the baby had been sent to the government welfare home. There was nothing I could do anymore but to leave with a heavy and angry heart.

For forty-eight years, every year I wished Happy Birthday to the daughter I have never seen but was just a shadow in my heart. I only knew she was somewhere on the planet. I wished her Happy Birthday and said a prayer for her. This is where I have done injustice to my other children. I have not wished a Happy Birthday to any of my own children who are with me.  My children have not celebrated birthdays growing up. As time went by, to the time when I realised Marie should be reaching young adult age, I took opportunities to come to Kuala Lumpur shopping mall. I would sit in a corner watching as the girls went by, wondering if any of them could be Marie. It was just a dim glimmer of hope. I might have seen her without even knowing. It gave me some small comfort.

Thankfully this year on her 49th birthday, I can personally wish her happy birthday! All these years, it’s a moment I have waited for with a dim glimmer of hope. Thank you Marie for finding me!

Agnes there is always a place for you in my heart. May you rest in peace as our daughter has found us.

Next Week: Marie’s thoughts from reunion with her Chinese father.

Korea’s Revised Adoption Process

by Jayme Hansen, Executive Director of ICAV, ICAV USA Representative, adopted from Korea to the USA.

Mid-June this year, the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare (MOHW) announced they have revised their adoption process, perhaps accelerated by the public outcry at the abuse and death of baby Jeong-In at the hands of her adoptive parent but I believe more of an attempt to comply with Hague Convention guidelines.

I applaud South Korea’s efforts to revise their adoptions processes

I believe this is a small step in the right direction. Adoption agencies should not be solely responsible for the process of relinquishment of the child or the counselling of birth mothers. Historically numerous adoption agencies around the globe have used unethical practices and have pressured vulnerable single mothers into relinquishing their children.  An Huffington Post article entitled “Adoption Criminality and Corruption” exposed some of the abusive practices by adoption agencies, stating:

Another major problem that the Hague Convention on International adoptions does not address is “finders’ fees” paid by foreign orphanages. These fees are enough to incentivize criminals to kidnap children and claim that they were found abandoned. Often, the children who wind up adopted through U.S. agencies are passed through multiple hands in a process known as “child laundering“ making it impossible for even the most reputable American adoption agency to ensure the origins of the child involved in any international adoption. The line between legal, ethical adoptions and criminal activity is blurry at best.” 

This latest action from the Korean government did not stem from Jeon-In’s case alone but her life and death did play an important public role in highlighting the illegal and abusive practices by the adoption agencies who facilitate the adoption and continue to face no consequences. Risk is always reduced if we get rid of the middle men (adoption agencies) who have a vested interest in profits or their agenda to promote adoption ahead of any other alternatives and have no-one overseeing their practices and procedures. It’s time Korea took more responsibility for their children and attempt to implement a revised model of adoption which appears to be an alignment with the Hague Convention guidelines. There are other countries like Australia who have successfully implemented a completely centralised model of adoption for many years and despite the early discussions around the risks of Central Authorities ( governments) discharging their responsibilities to accredited bodies (see paragraphs 242-243), there remains no research since then, that discusses the pros and cons of a centralised vs outsourced model of adoption by governments.

Of course, as with all change, there are always those who oppose it – especially when the pockets of big organisations (adoption agencies) risk loss of their income stream! I challenge the opposition and point out that it is economically unwise for Korea to continue in the wholesale trade of its children when they have the lowest fertility rate in the world with 0.84 births for every woman in South Korea. Furthermore, this is a Korean issue and individuals need to keep in mind that Korea wasn’t established as a democracy until 1948.  The country was literally torn apart and destroyed during the 35 years of Japanese Occupation and the destruction during the Korean War in the early 1950’s. Compared to America’s longer established democracy – Koreans are quickly establishing their own method of self-governance, social programs and economic growth at a record pace.

Some have express concern that vulnerable mothers will not want to seek out government help in their times of crisis. I think if government staff focus on the best interest of their people, it is a good thing and assumes a country, ranked as the 10th biggest economy in the world (in 2020) has the capabilities to resolve their own issues. Furthermore, South Korea has an ever-growing number of certified professional social workers who have helped their nation through numerous crisis over the years helping it’s citizens through increased teen suicide, affects from COVID-19, and numerous other social impacts and issues.

I also don’t believe these changes will result in more babies being abandoned at baby boxes as some critics state. First, there is no proof that children were dying in large numbers before the baby box was established. There is also no indication that this change in policy would result in greater numbers of these issues. I have visited and logged thousands of hours volunteering in nearly half a dozen orphanages across South Korea and the government has made it relatively easy for parents to relinquish their children if they are unable to care for them. I met numerous mothers who came to visit their children at the orphanages and placed them there so that the state could feed and take care of the child when the parent was unable. I question anyone who can support a program like the baby box that allows women to abandon their children. Such actions in most developed countries would lead to arrests. The problem with so called solutions like baby boxes, where children are literally dropped off like mail, is that it allows individuals to bypass responsibility and to shirk the government established programs. Baby boxes also encourage a breach of fundamental human rights for the child to have its identity documented and protected. 

Let’s also not downplay the issue of abuse of children by adoptive parents. Little Jeon-Ing was not the first or last child to die at the hands of her adoptive parents. The seriousness of the risk to adopted children should never be understated. An article written by Richard Wexler highlights the under reporting of child abuse cases in his article “Abuse in Foster Care: Research vs. the Child Welfare System’s Alternative Facts“. Wexler’s research found under reporting of abuse and neglect in numerous states across the USA. A study from Oregon and Washington state found one third of all children in foster care were abused. A study in Atlanta found 34% of the children experienced abuse where the goal was to assist them in being adopted. Mr. Wexler summarised his findings by stating “in survey’s going back for decades, from 25 percent to as high as 40 percent of foster children report having been abused or neglected in care”. The bottom line is that relatively few children are adopted in South Korea by its own citizens. In fact, only 260, children were adopted within the country in 2020. If you compare the number of abuse cases by the number of children that are actually adopted within Korea, the percentages of abuses dramatically climb up. An article written in 2021 by Grace Moon states that “13.35% of adopted children were victims of abuse, double that of children raised by their biological families.” 

For the critics who use inflammatory language labelling the changes as the markings of a “Socialistic System” – this is is an attempt to fuel conservative follower-ship without recognising the hypocrisy of such a call. Even the most developed countries, including the USA have state funded programs that oversee the protection children. Here in the USA we have a government agency in each state listed under numerous names such as Child Protected Services (CPS), Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) or Department of Social Services (DSS). I wonder should we also label our American programs in child welfare and protection as “socialist” too?

Korea isn’t alone in attempting reform in adoption. Numerous other countries are reforming adoption laws because of their recognition that children are not being kept safe and that the current system of plenary adoption has many flaws. This is also thanks to the role played by adult adoptees who have worked tirelessly to advocate for our rights and needs. A growing number of countries such as Romania, Russia, Guatemala, Ethiopia and South Korea have either banned or placed laws that make it nearly impossible to adopt internationally. These changes came largely due to the unscrupulous practices of profit driven adoption agencies. One of numerous examples was highlighted by pro-adoption agency Adoptive Families Association of BC. The article summarized the issue by stating: “terrible conditions in Romanian orphanages after the overthrow of the Ceaucescu government in 1989, prompted parents from many countries to adopt thousands of abandoned children; it also spawned a lucrative adoption industry within the country. With little infrastructure, the system was vulnerable to unethical practices”.

My Recommendations to the Korean Government to Revise Adoption

My first recommendation would be for the Korean government to change its citizenship law. Unlike the USA and most countries, a Korean citizenship is not determined by being born within Korean territory. Citizenship instead, is conferred by jus sanguinis or through the “right of bloodlines” of an individual. This law means that “Children of Korean citizen women, who had either a non-Korean father or no known Korean father (no Korean man claimed paternity), were not Korean citizens — even if born in Korea.” The outcome of this law has had perverse affects: “therefore, many single mothers chose to “abandon” their “fatherless” child so that the child would have the rights and access to services, education, and employment as a Korean citizen, rather than have their child officially recorded as not having a Korean father and therefore being a non-citizen with no such rights.” 

Another issue is the Korean government provides nearly 10 times the funding for orphanages compared to what’s provided for single mothers with children. The government should establish child welfare reforms so that single mothers have the resources to raise their children and be given the opportunity to thrive and become positive and contributing member of Korea’s society. Currently the only option is for the child to be plenary adopted or institutionalised for life. Not really a choice! We all know the researched outcomes of institutionalisation i.e, of retardation in child cognitive and emotional development, higher exposure to violence, and greater susceptibility to mental health issues.

Lastly, I recommend that South Korea establish stronger policies and laws for child support for single mothers. This includes enforcement to hold the fathers accountable and ensure they be responsible for the children they’ve sired. The Korean Herald highlighted this issue by stating, “83 percent of all single parents in South Korea never received any child support payments from non-custodial parents in 2012. Only 4.6 percent of them filed lawsuits. Even among those who won their cases, 77.34 percent said they never received any money, in spite of court orders.” 

I am optimistic for a better era where South Korea holds itself more accountable for the long term well being of its children rather than exporting them en masse to other countries. Taking back responsibility via the revision to adoption processes is a great place to start!

Click here if you’d like to read Jayme’s other blogs at ICAV.