Griffith – ACT
23 May 2003
“Okay, can I have a show of hands of who here, knows the place in which they were born? Great. Now keep your hand up if you think that place of birth, or knowing that you came from that place, has shaped who you are today. For example, you might barrack for the local football team or might be involved with one of the local community groups there; just leave your hand up, if you believe that somehow your personality has been shaped, even by some small degree, by you having been born in that place. Keep your hand up if you’re proud of that place you’ve come from. Now, can you imagine you didn’t know where you came from. Do you feel different? Perhaps, less certain of who you are? Like something’s missing? Welcome to my world and that of an intercountry adoptee.”
Adoptive parents need to be aware of the issues that come with adopting a child from another country. The situation is unique and as a consequence it produces some exclusive issues. Parenting on its own is a HUGE challenge. So people who want to adopt a child from another country need to first of all realise and really understand that it is going to be even more of a challenge.
Unconditional love for a child adopted from another country is essential. But on it’s own it is not enough.
The impact of adoption on me is documented in The Colour of Difference. But the tale I tell there, takes us only up to the year 2000. And for me, that story was only the very beginning of my own personal investigation into the effects of my adoption on the development of my inner self.
So rather than rehash what you can or have already read in the book, I’d like to share with you the continuation of my story, picking up from where the book ends.
I stand before you, an almost 30-year old woman, adopted from Vietnam at the age of 10 months into an unconditionally loving Australian family. I received private schooling, I have genuine and long-term friendships with both males and females, I am successful in my professional life and I have never suffered abuse. So considering this bliss that people call my life, would you ever expect me to stand here and tell you honestly, that I feel unworthy of being loved? Probably not.
The only major incident I have ever experienced in my life is adoption and yet as a fully-grown woman, I feel unworthy of receiving love. I’d suggest the two are interrelated.
I recommend you read a thought-provoking book called The Primal Wound by Nancy Verrier. It explores the affects of separation on children from their biological mother. Interestingly, many of the behaviour patterns that are documented in that book are ones that I exhibit in my own life. Now whether I attribute the manifestation of these behaviours to being a result of separation from my biological mother is another forum, but, at minimum, it’s very coincidental! This book addresses adoption in general, and not specifically intercountry or transracial adoption, but the behaviours mentioned in there are real and common to many intercountry adoptees. You don’t have to take it all on board, but it’s definitely a worthwhile read, if only as food for thought.
I am almost 30 years of age – so they say – and I still feel and live the reality of having an ingrained fear of abandonment. I am insecure in my relationships and I have to admit that I have little or no faith in the longevity of intimate love for myself. It’s odd because my parents have been blissfully married for 43 years, so I know it can happen; I just don’t have faith that it would for me.
If I do not feel needed in a relationship or friendship, then I feel insecure. In the past, my subconscious strategy was usually to try and make myself necessary / loved / needed / liked / indisposable. Suffice to say, I’m a great employee!
The insecurity that I feel in my relationships stems from being abandoned at birth. There’s something in my psyche, and in the subconscious of many other adoptees, that says ‘I must have been a bad person for my mum to not want me / discard me / abandon me / leave me’. Now obviously there are no such things as “bad” babies. But many adoptees feel that because they were abandoned at birth, they must be unworthy of truly being cared for.
In order to try and ensure that people would not leave me, I grew up demonstrating behaviours that I thought people wanted me to elicit. I grew up as a people pleaser; frequently going out of my way to accommodate someone else, even if it was completely inconvenient. I always feared showing my imperfections or encouraging conflict for fear that it would also turn people away. And this sort of behaviour still rears it’s head in my current life. But I am getting better at saying ‘no’!
I have grown up with the absolute belief that anyone and everyone I love will eventually choose to leave me. This is the belief that has compelled me to prematurely sabotage more than one relationship in my time; the ‘I should get in before they do’ theory was a large part of my intimate relationships up until only two years ago. All I can say is I’m glad I figured THAT one out, even if it did take me a while!!
These days, my ingrained fear of being abandoned still affects my relationship with my parents. My adoptive parents love me more than anyone could ever hope for their parents to love them. But to be honest, they do not know WHO I am. They don’t know the real me, my thoughts, my dreams, my wishes, my fears because I can’t bring myself to show them all those things. And the reasons for this are twofold:
1) I have never showed them who I am in case they didn’t like what they saw and wanted to discard me. So what I tried to be the ‘ideal’ daughter; never troublesome, challenging or difficult. It was my way to ensure they would be proud and therefore have no reason to abandon me. And our relationship is still predominantly like this. Slowly, I am trusting them more with the “real” me, but I still do feel more comfortable keeping them at arms length.
2) I think deep, deep down, I can’t bring myself to get close to them because one day they will leave; my subconscious tries to protect me by preventing me from getting too close because eventually, one day, they will die and I will lose my parents. Again. For the second time in this life.
I do believe these are the reasons why I shy away from being emotionally open and close with my parents. I am most comfortable confiding in them via e-mail or telephone. In person, I clam up. For me, there is a definite sense of security in non-face-to-face communication with them. Why? I’m not sure.
Interestingly, my friendships are also very similar. I am a very hard person to get to know because I don’t reveal much. I tend to encourage people to talk about themselves, so I don’t have to expose much about me; the rationale is, that if they don’t know me, then they can’t make a judgement of whether they do or don’t like me and therefore, they have they can’t have a reason to leave me. And I have to admit, that I am also extremely uncomfortable sharing my friends. One of my biggest fears, even as an almost 30 year old, is introducing my friends to each other because when they meet and find out how great they all are, then I get insecure that they will have no reason to be friends with me. It’s really bizarre behaviour, I know, but it’s my life!
As you can see, it can be really tiring being an intercountry adoptee. You can spend so much time being the person you think you should be and adapting your personas to reflect the group of people or the environment that you’re in, that you run the risk of never actually finding out who you really are.
Another issue that’s common among intercountry adoptees is the ongoing struggle to match our exterior to our interior. By this I mean we look one way, but feel a completely different way. Let me see if I can explain what I mean:
“Alright, with a show of hands, who here drives a car with ACT registration plates? Okay, for those who don’t, I need you to, just for a moment, pretend that you do. So imagine, if you need to, that the situation is this – you reside here in Griffith and you drive a car – be it whatever car your heart desires (mine’s an Audi TT convertible!) – that car has ACT number plates on it. So you drive around with these number plates and you feel great because you’re a local and you live here in the ACT and your registration plates confirm that.
But then one day, your car needs to go into the mechanic and the mechanic gives you a courtesy car that has Queensland plates. And you have to drive this car around for, let’s say a week. So for one week everyone in the ACT who sees you on the road and who doesn’t know you personally, assumes you are from QLD. How do you think you might feel with people making that assumption about you? Special? Proud? Mysterious? Ashamed? Embarrassed? Compelled to explain the real story to people?
What if the mechanic then phoned you and told you that your car was unfixable and you’d have to drive around with the courtesy car forever? What do you think you might want to do? Registration laws aside, would you accept it and learn to live with people assuming and judging you based on the registration plates? Or would you change them over?”
It’s an interesting thought, isn’t it? For many, being adopted from one culture into another is like living with someone else’s number plates. We look like we belong to one culture, so people who don’t know us assume we do, when in fact, we actually belong to another. I look Asian. But I’m an Aussie (mate!). On the outside I look Asian, but on the inside I feel like I’m a white, blond haired, blue-eyed surfie chick. So you can imagine the turmoil some adoptees have trying to establish a smooth and comfortable link between how they look and how they feel. Especially when the adoptee has grown up with no pride attached to their birth culture or country.
I have only recently begun to own my birth culture and feel pride in attaching myself to the birth country that I know nothing about. Until very recently, say the last year, I have had no interest in owning Vietnam as being part of me. But now I can and I do. And it feels great.
The impact of intercountry adoption on siblings is another issue that parents should consider. I have three older brothers, all naturally born from my parents, each with flaming red hair and all considerably older than me. I only ever remember living with the youngest brother though – who is five years older than I – and looking back now, I think he had a hard time having me as his sister. He caused my parents some pain while he was growing up; got into drugs, got into trouble with the law and I suspect that some of this attention-seeking behaviour was due to me being the family’s centre of attention for so long. I developed such an overwhelming sense of gratitude towards my parents, for giving me the life they did, that my response to my brother’s hurtful actions was a lot of animosity and anger towards him. I didn’t understand how he could knowingly hurt my parents, and consequently it took me a really long time to forgive him for doing it; it was maybe only about five years ago that I could appreciate what he might have been going through and really forgive him for his actions.
It’s been that overwhelming sense of gratitude that I’ve carried with me all this time, which has prevented me from being curious about my birth history. I have such a great family that the last thing I would ever want to do would be to hurt them or offend them. And so I never entertained the thought of looking into my history or culture because I assumed that it would be the wrong thing to do, by them. And maybe in some regards, that’s actually why I was so repelled by any hint of my origins. I think in a way, I used my behaviour as a symbol of my loyalty to my family. Deep down I suspect my subconscious was thinking ‘if I openly accepted that I was Vietnamese and show interest in my birth history, then surely my family would consider me ungrateful? And who would want to keep someone who is ungrateful? Especially after all they’ve done?’ I know now, that of course they wouldn’t have left me, but the fears were very apparent and real at the time.
My family are so supportive of whatever I want to do with regards to my adoption. And I am delighted to tell you that I am returning for the very first time in October, to celebrate my 30thbirthday. I plan to experience the place that I came from and I might even see if there are any historical traces of my time there.
I am so proud to be who I am today, even though I still have a lot of issues to work through and a lot of development to accomplish, I am really proud to stand before you, an almost 30-year old woman, adopted at the age of 10 months into an unconditionally loving Australian family, helping you better understand the unique issues that are associated with intercountry and transracial adoption.
Just by being aware that these things exist makes you far ahead of the parents who adopted my generation.
In summary, I think the take home messages for adoptive parents are:
· Ensure your child has contact with other people in the same or similar situation. You can do this through the ICASN and PARC networks.
· Make the birth culture accessible to the child right from the start. Don’t force it on them, but make sure they know as much as you do, about where they came from and cultivate some pride in their birth culture.
· Acknowledge the fact your child looks different to the rest of the family by talking about it with all family members. Have an open forum where everyone can say anything they feel without repercussion or judgement. And realise that both your natural born siblings and your adopted child(ren) could be receiving poor treatment from students during school hours; talk about racism and address these issues as they come up, as well as in advance. Open and honest communication is crucial in any family, but it is absolutely essential for a positive adoption experience.
· Be aware of your motives for adopting and how that translates during communication with your child. For example, infertile couples may unwittingly promote adoption as a second preference (e.g., ‘well we couldn’t conceive naturally so we thought we’d adopt’); think about how your adopted child might feel hearing this? Similarly, if you announce that you’re adopting because you want to ‘save’ someone or make a philanthropic contribution, then will your adopted child be inadvertently made to feel overwhelmingly grateful?
· Remember that your child may not even know that these issues reside in them. I never realised why I behaved like I did; never did I wonder why I wanted to please everyone or why I’d go to extraordinary lengths to make people laugh or like me; I just felt compelled to do so. I never thought about why I didn’t gravitate towards Asian people, I just knew I wasn’t comfortable around them. Like any child, your adopted son or daughter will not know what motivates their behaviour. But you, as adopted parents, need to be aware of all the issues associated with the situation and acknowledge that some or all or, if you’re lucky, not many of them will rear their heads during your child’s life. Awareness and educating yourself is the best thing you can do for your child.
Thank you for listening.