by Mark Hagland adopted from South Korea to the USA.
I early-voted in the U.S. presidential election today, and I was struck by my own feeling of emotion over once again having the privilege to vote. And, once again, I was reminded of my identity as an immigrant to my country, the U.S. I arrived here through international adoption when I was 8 months old, and have been voting now for several decades, but am always acutely conscious that I was not born in this country–and that for many white, native-born (non-immigrant) Americans, I will always be perceived as a foreigner, as a new arrival (even though I arrived more than 59 years ago now).
Indeed, growing up, I had the perpetual feeling that my very existence was somehow conditional, and predicated on achieving some norm of behavior, since I perceived my very existence as somehow transgressing the norms of the society I grew up in (since, growing up, I was constantly othered and made to feel a foreigner). And therein lies some complexity, because while on the one hand, many white Americans will never see me as truly, fully, American, on the other hand, I certainly am no longer a citizen of my birth country, South Korea; and, in the extremely unlikely event that I were given the right to vote in South Korea, I would have absolutely zero capability to make informed voting choices in any case, lacking not only the language, but even more importantly, any social, cultural, historical, or political context for understanding how to make choices with regard to voting in that country (and, to be clear, I don’t think that someone with zero familiarity with the current events of a nation should really be participating in such an important process as voting, in any case).
I should also add that, returning to my birth country three times as an adult, I was made to feel like an absolute foreigner and alien, which only intensified my feelings of complexity around identity and belonging. So my experience today reminded me once again, as an adult transracial and international adoptee, of the complexity of my identity, and of the unusual mindspace in which I will always live.
My identity will never be simple, nor will others’ perceptions of my identity always be hyphenated, and the perception of others in my society will always be complex, layered, and in some cases, conflicted. And the same has been true, as I alluded to above, regarding my interactions with my birth country, and residents of my birth country and immigrants from my birth country. In other words, my very identity continues to be hyphenated for so very many–and always will be so. I’m not sure, but I would imagine that other American intercountry adoptees might be able to relate to this. In any case, thank you for reading and considering it.
For previous blogs from Mark, click here and here.
#1 ICAV Blogger Collaborative Series from Adoption Awareness Month 2019
One of the first things people will ask me is how old I was when I was adopted. When I reply that I was 2 months old, I can see them discount my loss. They may even say, “So you don’t remember” but it’s a misconception, not only because things don’t have to be recalled to be subconsciously remembered, but also because I don’t have to remember having something to know what I’m missing.
Imagine if you were bitten by a dog as a baby. You might have no conscious recollection of it, but your subconscious will have it stored somehow and you will likely be terrified of dogs for the rest of your life, without understanding it. Adoptees experience a loss which is pre-verbal but there is no such thing as pre-feeling; implicit memory is body held. Childhood relinquishment creates life-long fear of rejection and loss and either a distrust of others or of self. Our resulting attachment styles can make it difficult to connect with others and maintain healthy relationships.
The smell of our biological families is not remembered, but is palpably different to our adoptive family, even in adulthood I notice this every time and it jars me.
The absence of someone or something can be important not just in the moment of losing it, but in everyday life. For example, the loss of sight or hearing, or use of a limb, or the ability to empathise or navigate. Having no memory of those things doesn’t mean we wouldn’t have a longing for them — their importance and meaning isn’t lost on us because we don’t have it. Those who’ve grown up poor have no memory or experience of being rich — but likely they still would like to have money, just as those of us without our bio families, genetic mirrors, belonging or culture, to name just a few, know there is something missing — but not just missing, taken.
When I was a young-under-20 year old adoptee, I would have agreed with the statement, “You were just a baby, you don’t remember”. As an over 40 year old now, having fully shed my adoptee oblivion and so fully aware that adoption and relinquishment actually have many impacts on me, I can attest that the body does remember the separation from mother, even if we are infants at the time of separation and adoption.
I remember going through years of therapy, mostly cognitive, until I found an amazing therapist who helped me reconnect with my body. The work I did, helped me to heal the dissonance between my mind (influenced largely by my white adoptive life) and body (influenced largely by my genetics and biological).
My mind always tricked me, telling me everything my adoptive life imbued, for example, that I was lucky to be saved by adoption and living in this amazing country, Australia. But my body told me differently. It was where my deep sadness sat, feeling that I didn’t know who I really belonged with (who was my tribe?), where I came from and feelings of isolation. I spent most of my life in my adoptive family pushing away those body feelings and living the persona of my adoptive life … looking very together, high achieving, and seemingly happy. But it all became too much in my mid 20s and I experienced deep depression and attempted suicide multiple times trying to escape and push away those deep body feelings. The therapy literally saved my life. It was the only space I had been given that allowed me permission and validation to grieve and allow my body to express what I’d spent most of my life until then, trying to suppress. Finally, I was able to grieve for my mother who I actually had no cognitive memory of, but in allowing myself to grieve, I learned that my body did in fact remember.
So, I know today why that therapy was so powerful because despite the myths of adoption like this statement, we DO remember everything about our mother who we are symbiotically connected to for 9 months. That separation from her was imprinted in the cells of my body. I might not have had the words to describe the sadness, grief, pain and confusion of why I never heard, felt, or smelt heard her again, but it took an amazing therapist and certain type of therapy to help me unlock the body memory so that I could do what I needed — to reconnect with that memory of her and honour it. To give it a place in my life and no longer deny she didn’t matter, because she totally did.
In every cell of my body, there was the undeniable truth. So for me, that statement that we do not remember as infants, is so not true. I was just a 5 month old baby when I arrived in my adoptive family but I did remember. She was deeply imprinted in me and I spent years trying to ignore that truth which only made the trauma of separation worse.
I only began to heal once I recognised and embraced the truth of that body memory, which doesn’t lie.
This statement itself is true for me. I don’t remember. I’ve always thought that I’d be more damaged if I came here at an older age. More damaged in the sense that I would be harder to love and easier to disregard if I got into major trouble with either mental health or society at large. It’s as if this is an entry ticket for people to want to get near me, an assurance that I will be just like them.
Even after telling people that I was three months old when I came here, they still continue to ask me if I know the Persian language. That always puzzled me. What baby speaks a language at three months? Is this evidence of how little these people have spent energy putting themselves in my situation? Probably.
When it comes to someone who loses a parent when they are too young to remember, people show a lot of compassion. Nobody would say to them, “You were just a baby, you don’t remember”. Instead they are showered with helpful words about the tragedy. Their trauma is affirmed. The only time our trauma is affirmed is when an adoptee gets into trouble or has depression. Then these same people say that there is nothing to be done about it, that we were already damaged.
I was adopted at 10 months old. Prior to this I lived for six months with a French Vietnamese family with the lawyer who facilitated my adoption. I lived in their house with them. Before this, I was in an orphanage being cared for but not loved nor given all the attention a mother normally gives a new-born. Even in-utero my mother probably knew that she could not keep me.
“As a fetus grows, it’s constantly getting messages from its mother. It’s not just hearing her heartbeat and whatever music she might play to her belly; it also gets chemical signals through the placenta. A new study finds that this includes signals about the mother’s mental state” (Science Daily, 2011)
The first year of a baby’s life and during pregnancy is so important. A mother’s physical and emotional availability is vital for the babies emotional and psychological development. It can also impact on our future ability to learn and retain knowledge, amongst other things.
My body remembers. I had my first major panic attack when my now ex-partner found out she was pregnant. I was happy and excited but my body responded differently. It went into complete panic around the threat of being rejected and abandoned all over again. The physical attack on my body as a result of the trauma experienced in my first year of life was so great that I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I lost 7 kilos in two weeks through stress and physical fear that I would be left and replaced by our new baby.
Any loss of significant intimate relationship I have formed in my adult life has triggered varying degrees of anxiety. I’ve done copious amounts of counselling, Craniosacral therapy, acupuncture, dance therapy, art therapy, massage, regular exercise to manage my body’s response to old stress and trauma stored in every single cell. I’ve done a lot of work to change the narrative that I am enough and I am able to care and look after myself in times of adversity such as a relationship break up.
I know that I will not die now and that I have enough resilience and self-love to care for myself and truly believe I’m worth it.
My son had a recent health scare. Thankfully he’s fine, but at an appointment with his new paediatrician, the subject of family history came up, especially as I’d been diagnosed with a hereditary syndrome only a few months earlier. I said I could only provide limited family history, having been adopted and thus far only able to find my mother and some half-siblings. The doctor asked how my syndrome manifested itself because my son’s symptoms were possibly related. We discussed my physical symptoms and then she asked if I also experienced “brain fog” (moments of forgetfulness and/or being unable to process information). I replied that I do sometimes experience it but I’d always considered it to be “trauma brain.” This, of course, prompted her to ask what trauma I had suffered.
I answered, “I’m an intercountry adoptee. I lost my mother, my everything — and was adopted by a family of a different race on a different continent.” “How old were you when you were adopted?” she asked, a look of sympathy in her eyes. “Around 2 months,” I answered. All sympathy vanished, replaced by a slightly exasperated look, “Oh, but you were just a little baby at the time. You couldn’t possibly remember.”
Her comment implied: (a) babies cannot form emotional/cognitive/somatic memories; (b) babies cannot experience trauma; (c) losing your mother immediately or shortly after birth has no effect on a baby; (c) any combination of the above.
Though I have heard this comment countless times before, I was shocked to hear it coming from a paediatrician. Had she not learned about the numerous studies that have been done on various animal species, as well as humans, showing the detrimental effects of early baby/mother separation?
What if I had told her that the trauma I’d experienced at the age of 2 months hadn’t been the loss of my mother but physical abuse instead? Or sexual abuse? Or severe neglect? Do you think she would have immediately poo-pooed THOSE causes as legitimate causes of pain and trauma – even to a baby – as she did for adoption? No way! She probably would have been outraged and rightfully so!
Programs like Kangaroo intensive care therapy for premature babies are in place in hospitals across the globe because it is widely recognised that babies need skin-to-skin contact with their mothers. Books about early infancy remind us that a baby and its mother are one organism until the umbilical cord is cut, and that newborns do not realise they are separate individuals from their mother. Science seems to grasp the fact that the mother-child bond is critical to preserve, especially very early on in life and throughout much of childhood. Yet society has been conditioned to think that babies who are separated from their mother due to adoption don’t/can’t remember (either cognitively or somatically) and/or aren’t traumatised by this early loss. You can’t have it both ways. Pain is pain. Trauma is trauma. All babies need their mothers – not just the ones that aren’t adopted. Every cell of an adopted person’s body knows empirically that she/he has lost her/his biological mother.
We remember. One woman is not just any woman. One baby is not just any baby. People are not interchangeable. Except when it comes to adoption.
My origins have not left me, my history still lingers in archives and attics, my blood relatives may still be circulating somewhere in the region from where I was scooped up and transported out of South Vietnam and into the United States in 1974.
Sure, as an eight-month-old infant, I had no idea what was going on around me and there was no way I was given any choice in whether I stayed or not.
Being uprooted and re-settled, and re-named and re-homed, all within my first year of life, made not a dent on my infant memory.
The failure of recall of all the micro and macro events and faces behind them who coordinated and shaped my early beginnings was expected and encouraged.
I was trained to not look back at the person I was prior to my transformation into a naturalised U.S. citizen.
My infanthood as an orphaned foreigner was seen as illegitimate; my “real life” was only recognised when I became an American citizen.
But what I cannot remember is still what I cannot forget.
What I do remember are the many times when I withdrew from my community because it became readily apparent to me that I was never going to truly settle quietly and comfortably into the life crafted for me.
What I cannot forget is my adoption was meant to ostensibly wipe the slate clean for me while at the same time wipe my mother and my father and their child off the face of the earth.