SueYen’s Speech

First Gathering of Adult Intercountry Adoptees in Perth, Western Australia

December 2001

I remember that as a young child I would attend ANZAC and Remembrance Day ceremonies. I believed I had a firm understanding of those who I knew in my adoptive family who had fought in the great wars like all of my class mates, and was comfortable in paying my respects to them. As an adolescent I began to become aware of my closer personal ties to war. My thoughts and emotions would start to collide as I tried to reconcile the issues of now living in the country that had fought against and/or side-by-side the people of my birth country. The country that I now lived in and acknowledged as the only country that I truly identified with. This of course was Australia. I had always felt that my physical appearance gave a deceptive view of what I felt in my heart. I couldn’t help but ask myself if was I participating in these ceremonies in remembrance of those victims who had given me life or those soldiers who had fought to save my life. For me as an adult these questions seem somewhat less perplexing as I feel I am more self assured as an individual and accept that some issues will never be fully resolved. As an adoptee an early reality was that we must learn that no matter how many doors we choose open in life there are some that may remain closed no matter how hard we try or wish that things were different.

I am 27 years old, the war that I came from officially ceased over a quarter of a century ago and this year marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. For some people there was reason to celebrate, for others it serves as a tragic reminder, for me as an war orphan from 1974 it stirred the many uneasy and unresolved issues that I harboured about my identity and my relationship to my birth country. Although I was born in Viet Nam I knew only very little about the Vietnamese people and the culture. Through the war I became an orphan and through the war I was given a privileged chance at life that many often just dream of. The irony that this relationship of pain and loss against joy and hope has played in my life, has opened the doors to patience, persistence and compassion. I quickly learnt that sometimes it was not merely enough to find the courage to open doors in life, often we also feel compelled to walk through them even though we have no guarantees as to whether the road before us is to be clear, muddy, rugged or non-existent.

There are always new fears that I face even now as a result from my broken history.  For instance I can never forward a family medical history to the doctors. As a adolescent it was kind of amusing to see the astonished look on doctors faces, but as I adult, especially during my pregnancy I felt the urgency of these unanswered questions. To me they were like the sounds of knocking fists upon the inside of one of those locked doors. Like the unexplained skin rash I have had throughout my life, we can only wonder as to the origins of these ailments along with the questions of the local Vietnamese, the war veterans and their affected family members. Fortunately our daughter is beautiful and healthy.

There were 16 Vietnamese children that were approved for placement with Western Australian families. These adoptees became known as a part of a global group called the First Generation of Vietnamese Adoptees. This now adult group has become an important feedback point for a wide range of people. As intercountry adoptions remains an option for children who face a bleak future in their country of birth, communication with adult intercountry adoptees and the prospective adoptive families is becoming an important part of the adoption process. The doors are slowly being opened in the area of social and psychological studies into the long term effects of inter country adoptions, finally moving on from the theoretical models. I hope that I can safely say on behalf of some of the adult adoptees that even though we understand the pivotal role we may play in the being able to assist in the understanding of the effects of intercountry adoption. It does not necessarily make the task in reconciling issues of adoption and separation from their birth heritage any easier. We must try and remember that being an adoptee does not automatically make us experts in adoption issues.

It is extremely difficult to come to terms with the feeling that your life as an adoptees is constantly under scrutiny. Not just by those who you directly associate with but also by those from other areas like government organisations, private agencies, social workers, psychologists all the way through to the stranger passing in the street. I now understand that as with any child-parent relationship there are expectations that are borne from parents and placed onto the child, this is only natural. Whether natural, adopted or step-parented. My concern lies where the constant critical analysis that an adoptee receives, and I fully understand this may come from the natural intention to love and nurture a child, takes a negative turn. I found that my experience as a ‘adopted’ rebellious adolescent differed from that of ‘standard’ rebellious adolescent. Not only was I searching for self expression and individual freedoms from my adoptive parents I was also searching for a place to try and resolve the basics of who I was. In my search I discovered that I had constructed in my life, an alarmingly solid and surprisingly high negative barrier against the world at very early stage in life. I am guessing that the foundations of these were laid way before I was aware of the issues that formed it. 

I have had a great adoptive family and so it came as a surprise that I had formed such negative and destructive barriers. I believe that it started for me as soon as I realised I was different. The barrier gave me solitude from the uneasy feeling that there was nowhere to shelter from the scrutinising eyes of others. It also sheltered me from the pressure where there was the expectation from others that my personal achievements or aspirations was to be a direct reflection upon my ability to be grateful or thankful for having been adopted. What I believe has enabled me to break through these personal barriers has been the consistent reassurance from my adoptive family that ‘different’ was good and for my ‘individuality’ they loved me more. It will still always be difficult to express myself on the issue of adoption to others. There is a fine line between telling people what they want to hear and telling what the reality is. We as adoptees will be forever thankful that we had a chance at a different life. I also believe that most people are inherently compassionate by nature and have a basic understanding how precious life is. We as adoptees are no different. Yet there are issues and concerns that need to addressed and openly discussed at various stages of the adoptees life that may lead to times of exclusion or inclusion. This should never be confused with the measure or sincerity of love the adoptee has with the adoptive family for this relationship lies within the merits of its own parameters. 

As people, we are all so different in nature, all possessing strengths in different areas, we must be realistic in our expectations as adoptees and adoptive parents and accept that we cannot be everything to each other. Reaching out to others whether they be links to birth family, birth culture or other adoptees can only broaden the basis of true happiness. Most importantly though there needs to be a basis of security and understanding from which the adoptee, as an adult, can then explore their origins to whatever capacity they choose to. I don’t think that as adoptees we expect to have the answers just given to us, but we merely seek the opportunity to ask them, or in some cases not to, and to be given the chance to freely explore the repercussions in our lives of the possible the outcomes. As I have mentioned earlier it becomes important for an adoptee to learn to accept that some questions will remain a mystery and that this by no means is a reflection of the person they are today.

When talking with Graeme Edwards it became apparent to me that some of the issues that plagued adoptees were very similar to those that the war veterans often dealt with to lesser or a greater degree. Common ground was established on issues of social isolation and acceptance, understanding of personal issues, and psychological effects. I think at some point you have to stop looking for someone to blame and instead find those willing to understand. It has been invaluable to broaden my understanding of others involved in the war whether they were soldiers, aid workers or individuals who provided supplies and support from overseas. I would just like to get to know the real stories from those who were involved at the time. When you have no personal history of your birth family these stories become very important in helping to establish an understanding of your identity. There are no family trees, no cousins or relatives to ask about your life before adoption. A locked door.

I have come to the revelation that my story is about the success of the human spirit. That of my birth mother; to have carried me to full term, then for her to have nurtured me in hope by placing me into the care of the orphanage; that of the orphanage carers who fed, cleaned and continued to nurture the hope for our future while tirelessly battling with finances, politics and public debate to ensure a future for as many children as possible; and those who supported the work of the carers in Viet Nam with food, clothes and medication. There were thousands of parents in Australia who applied for the adoption or fostering of Vietnamese orphans during the war. Many were denied approval or simply but tragically, time ran out as Saigon fell to the North. These people also need to be remembered along with those parents who were successful in adopting a child. All these people have been in some way responsible for our existence and survival today.

Returning to Viet Nam for me was a step in the process of self reconciliation. For others this may not be the case. We must be very careful to avoid generalisations as we have in the past with adoption issues as they inevitably cause more damage than good. What I believe individuals in my situation need to hear is that they have the right to find the time, space, love and support for themselves to listen to their own hearts as to how they might reconcile what is essentially an identity dilemma.

This is not just be about me as I am just one voice in amongst many. My hope is that my story will merely encourage others to follow whatever path they feel is necessary to ensure their own happiness. Equally I hope to encourage those who love and care for these people to continue in their support, understanding and patience as they learn to find their own way.

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