The Other Half Left Behind

n-ORPHAN-628x314

Many adoptees were sent to orphanages before they were adopted and many do not remember the experiences they had before being sent to their forever homes. At one time, we adoptees may have begun the same journey in life as one of the millions of orphans placed in orphanages. However, a choice made by someone across the globe or down the street changed the course of our lives forever. What started as the same path in life bifurcated into contrasting lives.

Every year, millions of children worldwide remain in orphanages while 40,000 children are moved between more than 100 countries via intercountry adoption. As children, our lives are intertwined and as adults, our lives unravel into separate groups and we do not include the orphans who remain in orphanages when we talk about our journey. When we do talk about orphans who remain behind, we imagine the worst and assume we would have been far worse off than we are now, as adopted people. I hope to discuss the possibilities of being left behind versus the path our lives took as adoptees.

Bad Orphanages Exist

During the past 25 years, I have logged thousands of hours as a volunteer inside over a dozen orphanages located on 5 continents. Many of the places I saw were deplorable and evidence shows that many orphans will suffer from poor health, have underdeveloped brains and experience developmental delays and psychological disorders. The outcomes are bad for many of these children because they will have lower intellectual, behavioral and social abilities than children growing up within a family. These issues seem to be permanent after the age of three and almost every orphanage where I interviewed staff, the orphanage was overwhelmed and poorly equipped to give the one on one individual attention required to promote social and intellectual development for positive outcomes.

Bad Adoptions Exist

If you want to read cases of adoptee abuse, neglect, and murders all you have to do is take a look at the Pound Pup Legacy repository that contains nearly 1,000 horror stories on neglect and abuse. The US Government provides an estimate that 75% of children in foster care have been sexually abused, whereas only 8.4% of investigations of the general public conducted by US Child Protective Services were determined to have been a result of sexual abuse. Adoptee Facebook groups or attendance at adoptee events provides you a learning experience about multiple stories such as mine, of neglect and abuse in adoptive families.

Great Adoptions Can Result in Negative Outcomes

Even when adoptees have loving and nourishing families, they can still end up with negative outcomes. In a recent ten year study published in the online journal Pediatrics, their report stated that adoptees were 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than non-adopted children. Other studies state that adoptees have a higher incarceration rate and suffer from greater mental health issues than the general public. There are preliminary studies from Canada and Sweden showing the damage is done in-utero and pose lifelong consequences with poor health outcomes and even permanent changes to genes.

Despite the popularity of adoption, there is a persistent concern that adopted children may be at heightened risk for mental health or adjustment problems.
Margaret A. Keyes, Ph.D., of the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis

Great Orphanages Exist

I have learned that one should never generalize any group and this holds true, even to orphanages. In my 2.5 year tour as a diplomat to Kenya and as the CFO for medical research labs, I ran across a modern saint by the name of Sister Placida. Sister Placida is a Scottish nun who has been working in the remote town called Kericho, in Western Kenya. She has lived in the area for over 40 years and was taking care of individuals dying from AIDS and giving them proper burials before the disease became identified.

The outcome of the disease left thousands of children as orphans and Sister Placida found a program that helped surviving family members take care of the orphans. Later after the United States had promised to provide billions of dollars worth of free retroviral medications, she started an orphanage to provide food, medicine, and a nurturing environment so those street children had the best chance of survival.

Sister Placida expanded the program and offered training programs to spur entrepreneurship in the local economy as well as educational opportunities through the Live with Hope Centre in Kericho.

Orphans Can have Positive Outcomes

Being adopted doesn’t necessarily mean our life was spared. I see many adoptees cling to this narrative even when they do not know if this is true or not. I think many Sth Korean adoptees would have had productive and meaningful lives if they had stayed in Sth Korea instead of being adopted. My point of view comes from my eight years of experience living on the peninsula as an adult and the lengthy conversations I had with one of Sth Korea’s premier economists while I was working with him in Afghanistan.

South Korea’s economy is ranked as the fourth largest in Asia and ranked as the 11th largest in the world. South Korea broke out into high-tech industries and has become a leading producer of ships, automobiles, cell phones and other consumer electronics. Currently, South Korea had the fastest average internet connection in the world and enjoys having one of the lowest levels of unemployment. This doesn’t apply only to South Korea. I learned about an orphan from Rwanda when I was working in Kenya by the name of Immanuel Simugomwa who became a millionaire in an impoverished country with the aid of an NGO. I have heard numerous stories all over the world where orphans were thriving within their own country, despite the bad hand life had dealt them.

Adoptees can have Positive Outcomes

One of the perks I have in working for the DNA testing NGO to match adoptees with their biological families is meeting thousands of adoptees all over the world. The adoptee community is as varied as the general public. Someone who works in my line of work is LTG Naja West. She is the current Army Surgeon General, a three-star general and the highest ranking officer in the US Army Medical Department. LTG Naja West is also an adoptee.

LTG West is one of the numerous successful adoptees whom I have met. Others are a professional musician, a prominent actor, globally renowned artisan and author, film producer and successful businessman that runs a multi-million dollar firm. Successful adoptees represent a varied cross-section of life and many are successful in their own rights by achieving their goals.

We shouldn’t drive ourselves crazy about what could have happened instead of being adopted. The simple answer is we don’t know and what we think of as truth may be far from reality. The possibilities could have been endless and I wanted to remind my fellow adoptees that we often overlook and exclude orphans out of the equation when we speak. We often gravitate towards relinquishment, adoption and major highlights of adoption.

Sharing: My question is, where were you placed before you were adopted? Do you remember the other children or have any memories of them? Do we forget the other half?

Love to all my fellow adoptees and orphans.

Jayme Hansen

For additional Reading:

https://www.livescience.com/21778-early-neglect-alters-kids-brains.html

http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1649441/orphanages-damage-children-life-says-group-founder

https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/810625

http://edition.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/04/13/children.adoption.mental.health/index.html

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/05/080505162858.htm

https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/canstats.pdf#page=2&view=How many allegations of maltreatment were reported and investigated?

https://adoption.com/sexual-abuse

http://www.wvi.org/rwanda/article/vulnerable-orphan-millionaire

Yellow Snow

I grew up on a dairy farm in rural Minnesota. Minnesota is a state, located in the north central region of the United States and borders Canada. Most people do not know the most northern point of the lower 48 states is located in Minnesota. It should be no surprise to learn Minnesota ranks in the top ten states for being the coldest and having the most snowfall. The Minnesota winters are known for dumping heavy wet blankets of lake-effect snow and its frigid temperatures.

If you live in a Northern climate, you gain experiences that only those who live in that region can understand. One learns to watch the weather the night before to know if one should plug in their car so the radiator will not freeze overnight. You learn to bundle up in loose layers to keep out the cold. As kids you learn not to lick metal surfaces when its below freezing otherwise you freeze your tongue on the object licked. Lastly, one learns to never eat yellow snow.

The straw stain that pops out against the white background is the recording of a human or animal’s presence as they relieve themselves in the great outdoors. This mustard stain that violates the white backdrop symbolizes discarded waste and something that is disgusting. Waste of course, is thrown away because it has no value. Garbage is ugly to look at and is an eyesore to the beauty that surrounds us. We put a lot of effort to hide, throw away and rid ourselves of trash. This is the way I felt during my childhood. I lived a childhood where I was taught I had no importance or value. I was the real living breathing ugly duckling. Worse yet, I was Asian. I symbolized that urine yellow stain in the snow.

The counselor at school insisted I take an IQ test and even though I tested a couple of deviations above the norm, I was placed in a “special” class. In the 5 years I was forced to attend this class, I befriended a boy named Raymond. The general public knew Raymond was intellectually disabled. My friend’s face seemed distorted, his pants seemed bulky due to the diaper he wore and his gait could be described as a stumbling walk. Many children mad fun of Raymond’s speech, his simple, s-l-o-w, slurred replies were the brunt of many jokes. I refused to partake in the taunts because I learned Raymond was a human being and like myself, he had feelings and ideas of his own.

After spending “special” classes with him for nearly 5 years, we grew to become great friends. I learned that Raymond loved collecting baseball cards and he would bring extra candy to class to share with me. Some people have asked me whether attending this special program hamper my intellectual growth. It may have but it also allowed me to learn a valuable life lesson. I learned to have compassion for all people. Black, white, yellow, tan, brown … the color of people did not matter. I believe that individuals who have a strong support network can do anything. Nothing can limit an individual in obtaining their dreams and goals. Little did I realize that Raymond and I had much more in common. Like Raymond, I also had to cope with being different, stared at and labeled as an outsider by society.

There was a kid that tormented me on the school bus. He was in high school and I was in first grade. It started out with threats and then it turned into gut punches. He hated me for being Asian. I hid this shame to myself and it was exposed when he took a permanent marker and used it to spell “gook” and “chink” on my face. The physical torment continued on when I entered high school. I endured an occasional punch, oratory lashings, and the constant fear that I would get beaten up. A kid several grades below me would twist my tiny frame into a pretzel on the long journey on the yellow school bus. My thin, waifish 16 year old Asian 100lb frame was no match for his 6ft 2in frame. He was the corn-fed farmer’s son who took pleasure in bending my small frame into a pretzel in the back of the bus. I was forced to feel the shame alone. I felt helpless, emasculated, and humiliated.

I felt further castrated by being taught that I was undatable. I was no match for the jocks. They were strong and good looking. I didn’t belong to the geeks because they were at least smart. I was the outsider to the outsiders. Being raised on a dairy farm meant I had to pull my weight with the chores. I had to carry heavy bushel baskets full of feed through manure covered feed lots and clean the calf pens each morning. I was the target of hate as I arrived to school with a distinct smell of cow faeces. I was the smelly kid in class because my adoptive parents did not allow me to shower before arriving to school. Then to add insult to injury, I was also the brunt of all fashion jokes. I often wore old “hand-me-downs”, garage sale and KMART specials. Needless to say, I was not popular at school.

Not only did I feel belittled but I also felt stupid. I had poor grades. I often fell asleep in class and also at night when I did my homework. My parents never helped me with my homework and without a tutor or a peer to  study with, I had nobody to learn from. Many nights I stared into the blank pages of my text books and wondered about the meanings of the literary works or the simple algebraic equations. Nothing made sense to me.

Fear gripped the depths of my soul. Fear of the unknown. Fear for my own future. Later on, when I became an adult I learnt the proper name of the fear that prevented me from doing just about anything. This thing that had a chokehold on my life was called anxiety. My adopted parents described this behavior as being wimpy.

When I did overcome my fears, my behavior could be described as socially awkward. I didn’t know how to act around people because I had little interactions. Other times I would ramble and stay glued to a person because I was so starved for attention. No matter what the scenario, I would act inappropriately and my parents would later reprimand me verbally for my short comings. I never had a chance to be a kid or do simple things such as go to movies, watch popular TV shows, or hang out with friends. It was never an option. I was lacking in personal skills because I was isolated. I had no identity. I was simply a small kid alone in this big world.

My adoptive parents never thought to teach me about my Korean heritage. It never occurred to them to buy me a book about my ethnic origins. When I inquired, they refused to allow me to look at my own adoption paperwork. I was reminded I was American and told to be grateful. I was only taught about their Scandinavian roots. Racial issues that I brought up were immediately dismissed. It was met with the question of what I might have done to provoke someone or it was replied that this was a part of life and I had to toughen up. They called it “tough love”.

When they sicked the dog on me and howled with laughter when the dog tore into my flesh, it was supposedly done out of love too. I never felt like their child. Then again, most parents don’t do these things to their kids. Furthermore, society did not view us as a family either. The mismatch of large, looming Caucasian parents and tiny Asian children looked like the giant bearded lady and dwarf in a circus freak show. I felt awkward showing my face in public. People gawked at us when we entered the room. Our strangeness gave total strangers the courage to walk up and pry into my personal life asking questions like, “Hey are you getting married to your own kind? Are you Chinese? Japanese? Vietnamese?” I have even been mistaken to be Native American, Mexican, and Eskimo. Nobody in Minnesota seemed to know of the existance of a group of people called Koreans. With all this questioning and odd looks I wondered as a child if I was the only Korean left alive on God’s green earth?

A guidance counselor in my high school year was blunt with me when I walked into his office for the mandatory visit. I answered truthfully when he asked me what I wanted to do after high school. I told him I wanted to attend college and work in healthcare. The man told me in a stern voice that I was not college material and that I would steal an opportunity away from someone more deserving. I wondered if he would have said the same things to a Caucasian boy with poor grades? Did he take into consideration the hand I was dealt as child of being bullied, thrusted into child labor and a person who had all self esteem pummeled out of him? I have always wondered why he never offered any encouragement. Isn’t this what guidance counselors are supposed to do? To give individuals the best route towards the goals they were aiming for? Like the rest of the community I grew up in, he saw no value in me. But I ignored all the negativity I faced through out my childhood and focused on achieving everything said to be impossible.

The best way that I could explain my childhood was to compare it to a prison. A small, cold dirty Mexican prison. I was isolated from people. I was not allowed to pursue things I was curious about. My life was filled with hard manual labor, misery, abuse and filth. Despite these beginnings and the statistical chance of being successful, I persevered. I took remedial college course and taught myself how to write simple sentences. I studied evenings and learned the math I was unfamiliar with. I observed people and learned to shed my social awkwardness. I opened myself up to possibilities and fell in love. After several attempts, I married and was blessed with two wonderful children. I earned five degrees and two were graduate degrees from a reputable university. I traveled to more than 40 countries across the globe. One of the countries I visited was my birth country and I found my biological family. I have dined with presidents and met with dignitaries. I can say that I have had a fruitful life and entered into a profession as the CFO of hospitals.

I hope in telling my story, I can encourage others to take steps to push away their fears. I experienced numerous years of conditioning from others saying I was not good enough, strong enough or capable. I encourage everyone to break free from the chains of violence, hate, and anger. I tried as hard as they did in breaking me and I reached for the impossible. I made it despite the odds!

I encourage you to take a chance on yourself. You are worth the wait!

Korean Killdeers

I was reared on a small dairy farm that rested on the edge of the Red River Valley on the Minnesota side. I grew up in a rural farming community that was filled with a lush green forest of corn, amber waves of grain and intermittent dots of farm homesteads covered with thick deciduous trees. On these vast plains lived a curious little bird, in scientific terms, called a Charadrius vociferous. These small insignificant brown birds with long thin spindly legs made their nests on the ground in the fields and shoreline all over North America. The locals, where I grew up, name this bird by the falsetto cry it makes … kill deer, kill deer. I am certain, if birds could speak, they would poke fun at the killdeer’s pencil-thin legs and scrawny body.

What makes this benign lusterless outward appearance memorable are the bird’s acting abilities. This bird pretends to have a broken wing to draw predators and trespassers such as a curious dog or small children away from their precious eggs. It’s amazing to observe these birds screaming around and flapping their wings and then dart away when you get near them. The birds deserve an Emmy Award for their dramatic performances. I have fond childhood memories of chasing these small feathered friends and was tricked into believing they needed medical attention. I never located the bird’s eggs but remember seeing fluffy plumed chicks darting about like a group of frolicking school children on the playgrounds.

In my studies I learned that the killdeer birds were aboriginal to North America, so I was dumbfounded to see similar antics during my travels to Korea. At first, I thought the kids waving at the soldiers were the average child as we passed in our armored track vehicles. Moments later, I realized these masqueraders were actually professionals pulling a scam. These acting children reminded me of the pretentious wounded Killdeers back home on the Minnesota prairies. Like the birds, they played wounded. Instead of broken wings, they acted out with alligator tears and pouting faces. The familiar killdeer, killdeer cries of distress were replaced with childish voices begging for items, “M.R.E., M.R.E.,” “GI gimme M.R.E.!” The children were asking for prepackaged Army food called Meals Ready to Eat or MRE’s for short. I eyed the children with caution and was disrupted from my stare by my friend.

“Hey, Hansen! I ate part of my lunch during our drive and I’m gonna give the rest of my meal. Watcha think?” “I don’t care,” I answered. I deliberated for a second and focused the children back into view. “Hmmm, to be honest, I really don’t think they want your leftovers.” Barrick jumped off the vehicle before I could finish my reply. Barrick seemed like a towering giant compared to the two little girls and it was comical to see him trying to speak Korean with them. I watched with amusement as the little girls refused his opened MRE package. They gestured that they wanted whole MRE packages that lay on top of my armored personnel carrier. Barrick insisted that the items inside the familiar brown plastic bag were indeed still good. “See,” he contended as he held the sealed crackers in the air and made facial gestures that the items were delicious.

I could tell that the eldest girl who was around 8 years old, was getting annoyed. She huffed several times and then blatantly refused the offer by waving her hands for him to get lost. As he made his final offer, the older girl stuck her fist in the air and gave Barrick the bird!

Barrick turned to me in shock and asked in disbelief, “Did you see that? She stuck up her middle finger!” Barrick took a few steps back toward the track vehicle and looked back once more to watch the little girl stick out her tongue at him. He shook his head in disbelief and said, “Just to think, I felt sorry for her!”

Another soldier walked up to the small children and handed the youngest some candy, she appeared to be about 5 years old. The tiny fingers clutched the pieces of hard candy and she began to place a piece inside her mouth. Then fast as lightning, the eldest child struck the littlest one with candy in the face. She landed a couple of hard blows to the small cheeks with her open palms. The eldest child’s face filled with rage. Then as punishment, the larger of the girls pulled the thinning mittens off the smaller one and stuffed them inside her coat pockets.

We all stared at the scene with horror and disbelief. I asked my KATUSA (Korean Augmentee to the US Army), a Korean National soldier who was attached to our unit, to come with me and translate for me. I kneeled in the snow and gingerly grasped the eldest girl by the shoulders and asked her why she was hitting her sister. The girl pulled away from me and put her back towards my face. I got up and walked in front of her and kneeled. This time I asked her if she loved her younger sister and if so why she had hit her in the face. The KATUSA again translated my message, and after a few minutes of questioning the eldest girl’s strong cold glare dissipated and she began to sob in my arms.

The crying girl blurted out a stream of words and left my hug to embrace her little sister. After a short conversation, I learned that the children were forced to stand outside in the twenty degrees below temperature to beg for MRE’s from the passing US Soldiers that trained near her home. Her parents were poor farmers and they supplemented their meager income by selling the Army rations on the black market. As I was listening to her story I started to see the telltale signs of neglect. I noticed that the exposed fingers were red and swollen from mild frostbite and the cheeks chapped from exposure. The hair was matted and dull flakes of dandruff were present in their hair and the horribly tight clothes barely kept them warm from the chilling mountainous winds of Korea.

So many questions fill my mind as I recount this story that happened so many years ago. I wonder what asshole would teach a little girl the meaning of the middle finger. I hope I made a better impact on her and that she has learned to cherish and love her sisters, despite the burden her parents placed on her shoulders as an 8 year old. I revisit this story from time to time and ponder on how this girl is doing. Would she have been better off adopted like me and suffer like I, or was she better off to have been kept with her poor family in Korea? The “once in a lifetime” trip to see my “homeland” taught me more about myself than I imagined possible. I hope this girl has grown up to be a strong, independent woman who has nothing but happiness.