Painting My Infant Self

by JS Lee, adopted from South Korea to the USA, author and artist.

When I was in Korea in 2006, I traveled to Daegu to see the hospital grounds where I was supposedly found abandoned. Wandering aimlessly, I hoped for something to feel familiar, despite how decades had passed. This painting was inspired by the photo I took on my trip.

While painting my infant self there sounds pretty sad, it felt amazing—almost as if I’d traveled back in time to tell her she was now in my safe hands.

You can follow more of JS Lee’s works at her website.

Grieving for the Child of the Past

In November 2021, I was asked by the Australian Department of Social Services, to source artwork by intercountry adoptees that would fit with their artwork brief for a literature review they funded reviewing the research available on Adoption and Suicide.

ICAV approached various adoptee artists known for their work by ICAV and requested if they wished to submit any pieces. Dan, a Filipino adoptee in the USA, had only weeks before just joined the ICAV network and I had seen his artwork as part of getting to know him. His artwork blew me away with its depth and intensity. So I’ve asked him to share it with you all here. Artwork is such a powerful medium to portray the adoptee lived experience! I hope you enjoy the next 3 blogs whereby we share you Dan’s incredible talent, his artwork and the meaning behind each piece. He presents to you his 3 part series, all related to being a Filipino intercountry adoptee.

by Dan R Moen, adopted from the Philippines to the USA.

Grieving for the Child of the Past

This represents both my present and my past simultaneously going through emotional turmoil. The child is suggested to be naked in representation of being completely vulnerable. With both arms surrounding the adult form of themselves, the child desires nothing more than to be loved, protected, and to not feel orphaned—a real sense of belonging.

The adult, however, represents my current adult self. The old world/Victorian/Edwardian clothing represents a connection to history; the love for studying and learning from our ancestors and a passion for those who came before, and yet, completely ignoring the child in the present. The red vest represents love but is covered and not revealed by the partially closed frock coat. He is looking away from the child suggesting that there’s a disconnect. He is looking in towards the darkness knowing that the world isn’t all shiny and glorious. He too is also grieving but not fully connecting to the child. One arm is wrapped around the child suggesting there is some small connection to his past self, but the other hand is completely in the pocket suggesting that there’s a sense of standoffishness, including cognitive dissonance—needing to grow up and to move on. He is displaying the inner turmoil of accepting the idea of “that’s just life” – while simultaneously, not granting himself permission to fully mourn with the past child.

Surrounding them, there are different colors suggesting fire of meanings. The dark greens represent the forests that I visited throughout 2020 and all the secret spots that I like to go to for healing. Many of these locations were off the nature trails, and for one to visit them, they would have to trek deep into the woods to find these locations.

The red represents the blood of those who have died at the hands of bad policies, politics, racism, ignorance, and to Covid-19. As does the white, which represents the countless spirits and souls who have passed onto the next world.

The yellow represents the fire with chaos and change. There are hints of gold metallic paint suggesting the idea that there is healing within the chaos, but it depends on individuals’ perspectives. This is represented physically by the viewer as the angle that you’re looking at the painting determines the visibility of the metallic paint. So, when multiple people look at the painting at the same time, some will see the metallic paint while some will not see it, that’s the point.

Many of us, as adults, sometimes forget that the raw emotions we feel, are human, just human. No logic is needed in the moment of grief. Many of our fears, woes, and deep inner turmoil come from our past, and sometimes, we mourn our childhood – as we haven’t given ourselves permission to fully grieve and feel these raw emotions. We must give ourselves that permission; any advice from others or opinions from others will not be fulfilled if we don’t allow ourselves to feel first and validate how feel internally.

You matter too. You are #1 in life; from birth to the next world – learn to live with yourself, not by yourself.

Coming next, Dan’s 2nd art work piece Does My Perspective Matter? in his 3 part series.

To find out more about Dan and and his work, check out his website.

On the Road to Recovery

I am a 36-year-old Filipino American adoptee and my road to recovering from being orphaned as a baby has never come easy. I didn’t have the resources to return to the Philippines to restore my heritage. I never had the resources to mend the problems I had with my intercountry adoption placement. So, I had to find creative solutions to recover from all of this.

I can’t promise any tips to save anyone from the complications of being adopted or adopting. What I can do is give a few personal solutions that I found in my own adoptee life that helped on my road to recovering from my intercountry adoption journey.

5 Things I Did to Reclaim My Adoptee Life

  1. Creating. I first studied writing and then library and information science. My interests led to making mixed media art and information products that helped me voice my transracial life’s losses and restructure a new sense of identity in innovative ways. I could transform my grief with art and education. For instance, I made a digital archive showing my adoption process and the biological identity that I lost when I was born as an orphan in the Philippines in 1985. You can view my archive here and my Instagram here.
  2. Retreating peacefully. In-between a rock and a hard place, I had to choose what was best for me psychologically and emotionally. I started retreating from the norm in my early twenties. I separated from my adoptive family through geographic and social distancing. I retreated from all of the past relations that failed me in the past and the bad relationships I had. I moved to Hawaii in my thirties, a place I had been mysteriously called to for years. There, I let go. But despite letting go, I never gave up on myself, or the love I have for life, my ideals or the world around me. And to keep myself well in Hawaii, I continued my meditation practices and holistic therapies.
  3. Focusing on Work. There are pathways in Buddhism where one can practice meditation optimally and achieve liberation through intensive work and labor. Work has been the best practice for me. Work caters to my studious personality. It is the best physical, emotional and psychological outlet. I can rebuild a sense of identity in work as well.
  4. Being Involved in Communities. I got involved with supportive communities and support groups. I gravitate towards people that practice meditation, people that are devoted to art or learning, or nonprofit endeavours. I enjoy being a part of supportive networks with people. I ask questions. I volunteer. I like to believe that I restructure the broken bonds of my history by being involved today. Being a part of communities helps me cultivate a sense of belonging. I build a positive foundation around me and support structures.
  5. Taking Care of My Relations Today. Relationships keep me regulated in my daily life. My relations include unconventional ones like taking care of my plants, my cat, work relations and with myself. I’ve started adoptee counselling on a regular basis to cultivate a better relationship that I have with myself and my adoptee world. I am also returning to my adoptive family this Christmas to visit and help heal my relations with them. My relations help me keep well in life today.

Yes, I still feel echoes of my broken bonds affect my life today. I still ache from having been born into destitute poverty in the Philippines so long ago. I still dream of the older Filipino American brother whom I lost in this intercountry adoptee experience. I still carry the void where my biological family’s voices are forever gone. There is no easy answer to recover from these paradoxes.

Despite it all, I do know that I am finding my way day by day. I have been coming out of the fog, and it has been a good thing.

Read more from Stephanie:
Reconstructing Identity & Heritage
A Filipino Adoptee’s Plea not to be Erased

Music Inspired by my Bolivian Origins as an Adoptee

by Jo R. Helsper adopted from Bolivia to Germany.

Inspiration for my Music

I’m interested in music since the day I was adopted to Germany. I like to say I was born with music in my blood . I started playing classical music instruments and tried many other instruments, like piano, clarinet, guitar and so on.

During my childhood, we had a twice yearly meeting organized from our German adoptive parents, where us Bolivian adoptees could meet each other, getting to know our same roots and also so the parents could talk about the themes of adoption. When I was about 6 or 7 yrs old, our parents invited a Bolivian music group for our meeting. That was the first time I heard Bolivian folk music in concert. Before this, I had only ever heard it via MC’s or CD’s so I was absolutely fascinated from the singing and playing the cultural instruments and that was the time when I decided to play the instruments as well.

I’m absolutely happy being adopted to Germany but learning my native instruments made me feel like I have a connection to my land, where I come from even though I’ve never seen it before. So I went on with playing, writing and singing the songs from Bolivia.

When I grew up I also learned Spanish. To understand the meaning of the songs was also important for me because singing alone was not enough. I wanted to also know what the songs meant.

My inspiration into my music is the connection to my land where I was born and the fascinating culture of Bolivian Indians and the mountains.

I still haven’t visited Bolivia. I hope that any day I will go and visit my old orphanage and the city where I was born. When I play music, it’s like I’m closer to Bolivia and I can imagine how the sunset over the mountains starts and how the wind blows over the fields. It’s also a good method to relax and forget about the stress sometimes.

Listen to Jo’s music of Bolivia:

We can be our own Heroes

by Bina Mirjam de Boer, adopted from India to the Netherlands, adoption coach and trainer at Adoptee & Foster Coaching (AFC). This is a followup from the Black Week in Europe.

English translation

The past 2 weeks it is as if we were on a roller coaster within the adoption community in which all the themes that have passed by in recent years were under a magnifying glass.

The loss of our fellow adoptees hit like a bomb, mainly because it touched parts of ourselves – because in the end, we have all lost a part of ourselves through relinquishment and adoption.

By accepting and acknowledging that we know death is something we usually stay away from, we need a hero and we have to become our own. Normally loss has no place, we only have an eye for surviving but when we recognise our loss, we also recognise the lost parts within us.

In the past week, we have experienced that we can no longer ignore death and we motivate each other to share and acknowledge our pain, fear and sorrow. By jointly expressing the wish that we want to remove the taboo about death and loss, a space has been created in which both sides of the adoption are starting to have a place.

We no longer just survive but also openly mourn and honour the lost parts within us. Let the tears we had as a child flow, and our child part is finally liberated.

And with this, the realisation is also born that we can embrace death and life because then fear disappears and we can live from love …

Original Dutch

De afgelopen 2 week is het of we binnen het adoptieveld in een achtbaan zaten waarin alle thema’s die in de afgelopen jaren voorbij zijn gekomen onder een vergrootglas lagen.

Het verlies van onze mede geadopteerden sloeg in als een bom. Voornamelijk omdat deze delen van onszelf raakte. Want uiteindelijk hebben wij allen een stukje van onszelf verloren door afstand en adoptie.

Maar het accepteren en erkennen dat ook wij de dood kennen, is iets waarvan we wegblijven. We hadden een held nodig en we zijn onze eigen held geworden. Verlies had geen plaats we hadden alleen oog voor het winnen, overleven. Want als we ons verlies erkenden, erkende we ook de gestorven delen in ons.

De afgelopen week hebben we ervaren dat we er nu niet meer om heen kunnen en motiveren elkaar om onze pijn, angst en verdriet te delen, te erkennen. Door gezamenlijk de wens uit te spreken dat we het taboe er af willen halen, is er een ruimte ontstaan waarin beide zijdes van de adoptie medaille een plaats beginnen te krijgen.

Waar we niet meer alleen overleven maar ook openlijk rouwen en de gestorven delen in ons eren. De tranen die we als kind hadden, laten we stromen en ons kindsdeel wordt eindelijk bevrijd.

En hiermee is ook het besef geboren dat we de dood en het leven mogen omarmen. Want dan verdwijnt angst en kunnen we vanuit liefde verder leven…

Family and Xmas Times

This is the one time of year where I’m reminded I don’t have that childhood family with amazing memories and closeness. I’ve always yearned, as only some other adoptees can know, for that sense of family where I feel wanted, cherished, loved deeply. I know my family, like many others, are never perfect, but the older I get, the more I see my childhood in my adoptive family and can only remember the pain it created for me. Adoption is supposed to be happy isn’t it? It’s what gets portrayed. But I know I had spurts of moments of happiness in mine — it’s so hard to recall because as I grow older and relive it all again via children of my own, I realise the level of neglect and trauma my adoptive family caused, that could have been avoided.

How do I get past it? Should I? Or do I accept it will just always be … yes it hurts beneath the surface, oozing with pain every time I have to think about “adoptive family”. I’m old enough now to understand this pain is part of who I am. It’s not going away but I can hold and honour what I’ve had to do, to come past it —to be functional, stable, loving.

Healing doesn’t mean the pain stops and goes away. Healing means I’ve come to accept the truth. I no longer sit in it drowning or reacting. I’ve learned better ways to manage my emotions. I’ve learned how to have boundaries and not give past what I’m willing to. I’ve learned it’s ok to remain true to my own needs. I’ve learned to accept what can’t be changed but to change what I can. I can accept them as they are and know they’re not capable, even if they wanted. I have to give it to me, myself. Love, connection, acceptance, nurturing. 

Xmas, like Thanksgiving for Americans, is a time where as an adoptee, I feel those sad feelings for what I might have had but didn’t. I know the reality of reunions is that even bio family, if I ever find them, will most likely never be able to meet my emotional need for “family” either. So, this Xmas, I will bring my children and husband close and treasure every moment I have with them for they are the only true family I will ever have! I am thankful I was able to heal enough to have a loving relationship and become a mother myself and give to my children what I never got. This has been my life’s blessing and will be my focus this Xmas!

Battle Scars in Adoption

by Mike, adopted from Hong Kong to New Zealand.

These are my battle scars from when I was around 12-13 years of age, done around these holiday times. I would get really depressed looking at all those loving families with parents who look like them, spoke like them, etc. It didn’t help I was a Chinese male with white parents.

Whenever I look at my wrists I am thankful I made it through those times. It took me till the age of 30 before I really dealt with my PTSD and depression due to my inter-racial and intercountry adoption. Now and then I have moments where I go back into my past and think about “was it all worth it”, living my life and getting to where I am today – am I better off or should I just have ended my life back then?

I guess a lesson to be learnt from this, is no matter what you do as an adoptive parent – there are some things that a child needs to learn the answers to questions themselves. It’s not up to you as parents to give them the answer that you want them to believe in and hear.

Mike’s other guest post at ICAV.

Working through the difficult process as an Adoptee

by JoYi Rhyss adopted from Korea to the USA who works as a therapist funded by the State of Hawaii to facilitate Mindful Forgiveness and Attitudinal Healing workshops & training.

This is the last picture of my intact family – soon my brother was sent away and eventually I ended up in an orphanage. I was adopted from Korea at age 9 to a white Lutheran family in Spring Grove, Minnesota – the biggest Norwegian community in the USA at that time. My adoptive family moved quite a bit making it even more difficult for me to find connections. I was a sad, angry, lonely, scared, fear-filled child and then woman and mother. I found my biological mother and brother in 2008 thinking that would heal me – it was a terrible reunion and my pain deepened. As I entered my 40s, I was exhausted, overwhelmed and my desire to live was close to 0 – like so many stories from adoptees, I thought about suicide all. the. time.

Simultaneously and definitely hypocritically, I was working in social services specifically with high risk youth talking them through the same difficult feelings I could not manage within me. I had several moments of reckoning which led me to seek out true healing and inner peace. It is no coincidence that I moved to Hawaii where the “Aloha Spirit” Law went into effect in 1986. Through that law and my focused seeking, I am now funded by the State to provide training to discuss trauma and reduce suffering through mindfulness, forgiveness and attitudinal healing. I have worked with folks in all sectors of life and these trainings have been helpful for many people including me.

Nothing really changed in my life except now I am able to feel more connected with myself and my community, I feel more ease and love in a way I never understood before – it’s definitely not a cure all but having concrete skills to manage my pain changed everything for me.

One of the biggest issue for me growing up was feeling like I didn’t have a voice, I didn’t have a right to feel anger or sadness about my situation – always having to be thankful with a plastered smile no matter how awful my adoptive family was. Sharing my story, working through the difficult process and fully feeling is what works for me and many people and this is what I provide for others.

If you would like to have a space to talk about your story, learn new skills to manage yourself better, grow in connection with yourself and others in order to heal, then reach out to me if you have questions please.

Free zoom workshop openings for January 2021, contact me if you are interested: https://forms.gle/stFXmtosY6ihFUMA6

Many adoptees like me are out here fighting with our last drops of energy for change – we need to remember to take a moment to recharge, rest, re-energize so we don’t implode. I hope to serve you in this way.

Who Am I?

by TLB, adopted from Vietnam to Canada.

Do I look like my father or mother? What is my real name? When was I born? Who am I really? I have been going through these questions my whole life and not quite sure if I will ever find the answer.

I was born in Vietnam, adopted by a white family in Canada in the early 70’s. I am part African-American and Vietnamese but I look more African-American, and I’m also physically disabled which I contracted from polio and a gun shot wound (something I have been told as a child, but not sure if it’s true). I have always known I was different growing up, not because the colour of my skin but because I was disabled. When I arrived to Canada I had to go to the hospital for many surgeries to straighten my legs and back due to scoliosis. When I arrived home from the hospital, this is when I felt I didn’t belong in the family. As a young child I was stubborn and barely spoke because the effects of leaving Vietnam and being in a different environment, I was overwhelmed.

Being an African-American Asian disabled child, living in a white world, I knew I was different and I wanted so much to fit in. At an early age, I knew that my adoptive mother treated me different than my other siblings. They had two other biological children along with another adopted child from Children’s Aid Society, so I was the black sheep in the family and that was my nickname to other family members and neighbours. My adoptive mother wasn’t the perfect mother everyone thought she was behind closed doors. Using my wheelchair was forbidden in the house so I had to always crawl around on the floor and carpet, but leaving marks on the carpet didn’t look good and caused my adoptive mother to always vacuum, so I had to have my bedroom moved down in the basement – being isolated away from my siblings. Whenever my siblings would come down to play with me, they were sent back upstairs and told not to play with your “black sheep” sister. Being alone in the basement, I stopped talking and had to entertain myself as a child. From not talking, my vocal cords didn’t develop well so whenever I went to school, I had trouble interacting with other students and was bullied and labelled as being dumb.

My adoptive mother always told me I should be grateful to them for adopting me. I always kept my feelings inside because if I told them how I really felt, I would be beaten. I always had to thank her for saving my life every time I did anything wrong. The first time I said “I wish you’d never adopted me” my adoptive mother emotionally and physically abused me. Sometimes I wouldn’t care what she did to me, I was happier just to be in my own shell in the closet.

I was never involved in any of the family gatherings or family vacations. I would always eat alone after everyone else ate. The one memory I will never forget was when my adoptive family went away to Florida and I wasn’t allowed to go because my adoptive mother said “black and crippled children were not allowed”. I went to the mirror and looked at myself. I wanted so much to be white that I scrubbed my skin so hard but it just turned red. I pushed my wheelchair down the stairs and tried to push myself up to walk, instead I fell down and was left lying on the floor for days until a neighbour found me bleeding. Instead of being a good neighbour and help a young girl, he took advantage of me for days while my family was away having fun. When my family returned, I tried to tell my adoptive mother what happened. All she said was, “You were looking for attention and that’s what you deserved”.

I wanted so much to be a part of the family to the point that I would agree to clean the house. My adoptive mother would always introduce me to her friends as the “black maid of the third country”. My adoptive mother emotionally abused me by continuing saying she never wanted me because of my disability and skin colour. She didn’t think I would turn out to “be soo dark” and a troubled child needing therapy appointments. All I wanted was to make my adoptive mother proud of me, but nothing I did ever satisfied her. Whenever my siblings got into trouble, I would stand up for them and would lie and steal for them so they would play with me. There were times I would sneak food at night because I was so hungry but whenever I got caught, I was sent to the closet for days. Nothing I did was good enough for my adoptive mother.

When I was 11 years old, I was told that I was leaving the family and spending a few days somewhere else. I didn’t know what I did wrong. That night I stayed up all night rethinking the day – what did I do to displease my adoptive mother. All she told me was I would be going to a better place that can care for my “crippled-black” behaviour. I cried the whole way begging my adoptive mother that I would be a “good girl”. Four hours later I was dropped off to a big stone house with lots of stairs and other children running around the living room. My adoptive mother told me it was only for a few weeks and that the family will help me with my behaviour. For the next few days, all I did was sit by the window waiting for my adoptive mother to return. Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months. I had to eventually realise that I was staying in this house and no-one was coming back for me.

I was living in a house with 25 other children. I tried to fit in and be a part of the family but still felt like an outcast. Even though I was not the only disabled child, I felt that I didn’t belong. I found out that the foster mother of this home, was the woman who helped my adoptive parents adopt me from Vietnam. The foster mother had an organisation that helped Canadian and American families to adopt children from third world countries out of orphanages that she opened. I wasn’t the only child adopted and sent to the foster family. During the years, living at the foster family I became a reserved and quiet child and during my teen years I still wanted to know “who am I”? I asked the foster mother if she knew anything of my birth mother and every time I asked her, the answer was always, “Wait until you are eighteen”. From then I just left the question alone and tried to live my teen years in the home.

When I first went to the foster family, I was placed in a school with other disabled children but I felt it wasn’t for me. I wanted to be independent and be left alone so I became very stubborn especially during therapy sessions. Having therapists lift my legs and try to stretch them wasn’t working for me, they tried to get me to use braces and crutches, I definitely didn’t want that. So they finally agreed for me to use a sports wheelchair and what freedom I felt!! Using the wheelchair built up my teen arms and I became very strong, during recess time. While other children were at therapy, I could be found in the gym bouncing basketballs. This is when a sports coach saw me throw my first basket and she asked me, “Do you want to be an athlete and travel?” I quickly answered her, “Yes!” Little did she know that I didn’t just want to be an athlete but I wanted to travel so I could be out of my foster house as much as possible. My foster father was abusing me whenever we went to the family home in Montreal every summer, so whenever I found out that I would be travelling in the summer – I looked forward to the summer knowing I would be out of the country!

If it wasn’t for that sports coach, I wouldn’t have been able to be the Paralympian athlete I am today. I have travelled to many countries and won numerous medals, but a part of me felt that I didn’t deserve it. Whenever I was away, I still felt like an outsider to my team mates and other athletes. Deep down I believed they all knew who they were and they always talked about their family. With my timidness, I still had trouble interacting with my team mates. By the end of every trip, I dreaded going home because I knew what I was going home to.

My foster family didn’t really recognise my athletic achievements. There were times they didn’t even know I went away for a week because there were so many children in the house and the foster mother was busy with her work. I remember one time I arrived home from my first competition where I’d won my first 5 gold medals (being the youngest on the team) and when I arrived home, I just sat at the front door with my bags waiting for someone to greet me. When my sister came down the stairs to see me she just said, “Are you running away?” From that moment, my enthusiasm just dropped from my heart and I wished I could just run away. So from then on, I just continued on with my competitions with no feeling of accomplishment, feeling like a nobody.

I competed in two Paralympics, two PanAm games and many small competitions. When I won my first Paralympic 5 gold medals, I was interviewed by the paper but a lot of the words written were just not true. The story portrayed a young girl winning medals from a foster home that cared for her, but they really didn’t know the truth.

I am grateful for the foster family to let me stay with them, but behind closed doors they portrayed themselves as looking like the perfect couple helping many children. The house was not accessible, I continued to crawl up and down stairs to get to my bedroom, and I had to crawl up and down and bring my chair down stone stairs outside to get to my school bus.

My whole life living in the foster family, I wanted so much to be out and living on my own. When I turned 16 years old, I finished high school and left the foster home. I went to college and received a degree in Business Administration.

Throughout my life, I always felt unloved and not wanted by anyone. I thought of my biological mother not wanting me, my adoptive mother not wanting me and within the foster family, I was just “another child”. I have tried my best to do right things, never gotten involved on the wrong side of the law, etc. I always felt I didn’t fit in anywhere, had trouble with social gatherings and interacting with adults my age. To this day, a large part of me continues to feel isolated, not wanted and most of all not knowing who I really am.

Recently, I decided to register with 23&Me to know my background and I discovered I have many 2nd and 3rd cousins out there. I was surprised to know that I have some sort of distant family out there but disappointed to not have any information about my parents. I just want to have the feeling of belonging. Growing up, I never had that feeling.

Life Lessons from an Adoptee – Part 5

This is a series written by Tamieka Small, adopted from Ethiopia to Australia.

‘Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but rising every time we fall’.

One of the quotes that has sat for me since my high school years is this one; one I feel embodies the symbolism of the phoenix rising from the ashes, much like the previous quote before this is rebuilding ourselves anew. This one is more about never giving up no matter what. That a quitter will never be a winner, but a failure, or someone who fails but continues to try will one day in fact be a winner and be successful in whatever endeavours they find themselves on. Inner strength can be evident in the moments we pick ourselves back up and keep moving forward. Not giving into our most basic instincts and our egos (shadow self) or a negative-self-talk is so fundamental to our survival and wellbeing.

And every time we fall and pick ourselves back up we learn something new and shed outdated beliefs or perspectives that no longer serve us, whether those beliefs be about ourselves, the world at large or how we perceive love or success. In each mistake there is a new lesson to be embraced and a new aspect pf ourselves to be explored, and we can expand and become more than we ever imagine ourselves to be; and no longer limit our potential by limiting beliefs or perspectives which is essential to personal growth and life.

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