I am an Iranian intercountry adoptee born in 1969 and adopted by my American adoptive family in 1976. They lived and worked at a small shipping port town called Bandar-e-abbas, not far from Tehran for a number of years. My adoptive father worked in a British ship building company, contracted to the Iranian Navy. My adoptive family had 5 older siblings, all biologically born to them. I joined my family as the youngest and I also suffer from limb deformities caused by parts of the amniotic sac wrapping itself around my fingers and foot in utero, this syndrome is called Amniotic band constriction.
My birth date is unknown and I came to be placed for adoption because I was dropped off at the police station north east of Iran at approximately 3 days old. I was placed on a blanket with a note saying “take good care of him” and nothing else to identify who had left me there. In Iran in those days, there was no support for a child born with deformities and it was considered a stigma. I was then taken to an orphanage in Tehran for 6 and 1/2 years and raised there until my adoption. My orphanage for children with deformities had been established by the Iranian queen but once the revolution took place, children like me were used for lowly roles like walking through landscapes searching for unexploded landmines ie., we were just throwaway kids, not valued or considered as worthy of any type of life.
I do not have any true memories of my time in the orphanage. I know I had some friends but any knowledge or visuals I have is created from some pictures which I draw from. I recall some words here or there and a numbers song, but I was in survival mode and I wanted to move forward and forget it all once I became adopted. I know I still feel scared to consider studying the Iranian language for fear it might draw out some memories that I don’t want to explore. I do feel bad about this as I am bilingual – speaking Spanish and French, but not Iranian.
Just prior to being adopted, I didn’t really know what it meant to be adopted. I remember kids leaving and not coming back – and not knowing what happened to them. Staff told us the importance of family and that it was desirable to be adopted. All I understood was kids go away somewhere nicer. Now looking back, obviously us adoptees don’t have a choice. We carry a chosen stigma because once you become adopted, the family puts us on a pedestal with the, “we chose you” rhetoric. But really, what choice was there? We all hear the facts: if I had’ve stayed I probably would have died – but I don’t see it as a value judgement, being good or bad. I think we are chosen against our will and we somehow have to comes to term with this. If we are lucky enough to find that path through therapy where we are comfortable and understand our adoption and identity, we can have some kind of peace about it all.
My parents, who are very active Mormons, came to know about my orphanage through family friends. They visited a few times while the adoption paperwork was being processed, always bringing me presents. They told me I was chosen by them to be adopted because they couldn’t have any more children after their existing 5, due to a hysterectomy. My parents say it was spiritual guidance that led them to the orphanage to find me. I was always given the impression of the divine playing a large role in the motivation for my adoption.
My adoptive family and I got out of Tehran just in time in Dec 1976, just before the revolution. I vaguely remember flying out of Tehran to New York but I have strong memories of driving in a car across the USA. This was because my mum was showing me off to the extended family all the way until we reached California. We ended up in New Mexico with my father’s family and my father flew back after a few months from Tehran. It was all new to me. I met a lot of relatives in a short space of time and I recall feeling overwhelmed. I remember all the gifts I was given because this happened to coincide with Christmas time. When the wave of gifts suddenly stopped, I wondered what had happened as I thought receiving gifts was the norm.
I grew up with my five older siblings and my mum always said how much I looked a lot alike to my 3rd eldest when he’d been the same age. I grew up wanting to emulate him. In my teenage years I looked up to him, I enjoyed his taste of music and I took on his persona. My 3rd eldest sibling was also the one who could speak Iranian so that really helped me to connect into the family as he helped translate until I learnt english enough myself. My mum was also an ESL teacher so by the time I arrived in the USA, I had slowly learnt basic english and I learnt even more rapidly via immersion.
During my school years I experienced people focusing more on my deformities than my other outward physical differences like race. I always prefer people ask me about my deformities rather than stare, as I find this to be much more respectful. Just ask and be up front rather than be rude. I recall many a time when I’d go to the grocery store and use my arm and people would stare. I’d watch their eyes as they were looking at my hands. Nowadays, I talk about my deformities and am upfront because my syndrome is not well known and I like to use the opportunity to raise awareness. With regards to my other physical differences to my adoptive family, some people assumed I was Mexican but I didn’t really experience much racism. I focused on trying to assimilate into white America and didn’t really come to recognise my Iranian-ness until years later.
I do recall in 1979 when the US hostages in Iran were all over the news. I was watching on a black and white television in Wisconsin and it was the first time I thought, “those are my people – why are they doing this to these nice US people?” In my 9yr old mind, I saw the Iranian’s doing something bad to the good Americans. Ever since then, I’ve had a conscious feeling of watching Iranian news and tracking whether they are behaving themselves – conscious of the stigma attached to my people as a “them vs us” media portrayal. I have often wondered at what point do I say I’m not Iranian? After September 9/11, my friends wanted to make sure I was okay because of the anti muslim sentiment in the USA.
It’s hard navigating being between the two worlds and working out which one I am supposed to have allegiance towards – and why should I even have to feel torn?
As a teenager, I never found a click to belong to until the punk culture where mohawks and skating boards were the norm. I could express myself in anyway without being shunned. I remember one experience at 16 years old with a girl named Denise and she told me she was domestically adopted. I remember thinking in my head “another one of us” but we never spoke about it further. I just wasn’t ready for that acknowledgement that there were others also adopted. I continued through the punk stage and then went back to the church life to fulfil my family expectations.
During those early adult years, I followed my Morman adoptive family’s lead and did all I was supposed to. I went on a mission, I got married at 23, I did all the things I was supposed to do. But I also felt very angry and frustrated. I was living a life that wasn’t my choice! It wasn’t until my marriage fell apart and we got divorced that I had my cathartic moment – when I realised I could think for myself and that I didn’t have to play the roles of expectation from my adoptive family and church. I suddenly wanted to become independent and I studied Shakespeare at College and had more cathartic moments.
I began reading the Korean and the Bible and I saw similarities – that they are in fact a value system. I then read the Talmud and found again the same type of moral values. I figured I didn’t need a church to define who I am, so ever since then, I’ve not had a religious belief system. Now my own beliefs involved finding a centredness and peace that took away the weight of expectation.
Another key moment occurred during Grad school where I did my masters on Iranian/American Identity. I met a woman who’s father is Iranian. We met and got talking and after some time, he said something so profound. He said “I notice you don’t seem to have a centre, you seem scattered”. He could tell in such a short time of being with me and that illumination helped motivate me to evolve my sense of self to where it is today. The shedding of religious expectations and values together with coming to understand my adopted identity has helped me find a sense of who I was and who I wanted to be, as an Iranian and American.
The three things that substantially helped me to understand myself throughout my journey has been:
- to explore my adoption and how it has impacted who I am;
- to talk to my adoptive family openly and honestly about who I am, rather than just being who I thought they wanted me to be; and
- to write about my journey, including the writing I do as a researcher.
Right now I am comfortable with who I am but it has taken time to process and understand what being adopted means for me. I am single since my divorce and intimate relationships have been challenging. I understand now that it has to do with the 6 years of lacking development as a child growing up within an institution and having difficulties with emotional attachment. I also find it difficult in western society that we have such strong masculine and patriarchal ideals so the idea of a man coming to terms with emotions is not openly embrace. As a male adoptee, our primal wound remains hidden and unexplored yet we yearn for that “mother” figure to heal our wounds.
As an adult Iranian adoptee, coming to terms with identity and embracing my culture and people is difficult because of the complexities of the Iran-USA relationship and media. I fear going back because I have no family I know of there and I fear being arrested as a traitor because in Iranian eyes, “I left and went to the USA”. I hold dual citizenship in Iran but in the eyes of the USA, I am not allowed dual citizenship. I find I can safely explore my home country and culture from the internet but this doesn’t give me the same type of exploration many other intercountry adoptees have on their real physical return trips to homeland.
I have attempted to search for my origins in a basic way. I sent a blurb about myself as an infant to Iran with the hopes it might spread around and someone come across it. But the reality is, going back would be very risky and I find I really can’t explore my origins properly or in depth. Luckily I have found groups like ICAV where I can see how other adoptees have conquered what looks like insurmountable odds and have found their birth families. I definitely face the odds because I am told there are no records as the police station where I was found, has burnt down.
In light of my own personal experience of being an Iranian intercountry adoptee, I am now working on researching to understand the “development of the adopted self”. My research is with the Kent State University, Ohio. We have a strong identity theory study currently happening and we are looking to create a survey to see if we can create an “adoption identity scale”.
For information about my previously published research on this topic see Adoption and Identity Experiences Among Adult Transnational Adoptees: a Qualitative Study.
I hope in sharing my story I can raise awareness through ICAV that we Iranian intercountry adoptees exist, that I’d love to connect with as many of them as possible, and that hopefully one day, we might have the resources available to help us more easily explore our country of origin and understand it’s importance to us as adoptees in embracing our adopted identity, together with our birth identity.
Link for Iranian Adoptees Worldwide