At ICAV, we invited members to share during National Adoption Awareness Month what they would like the public to know. Here’s another of what some of our members are happy to share.
I am Pradeep Wasantha or Philippe Mignon. I was adopted when I was 4months old by a Belgian family. There are many things the world needs to know about the world of adoption. For example, know that if you have an adopted person in your entourage, she is not an alien. She may not have a name or be given a name that matches her but pointing her out with an ill fitting name, may hurt her deeply. You must also know that finding our bearings is sometimes very difficult. Which leads me to say that there is a lot to know and understand about adoptees.
Finding one’s place in society is all the more difficult for some adoptees because we must build an identity without having any reference – no basis. Sometimes our adoption papers are fake – no biological starting point.
It must be understood that we adoptees are very strong and fragile at the same time. Mainly because in our adopted country we are strangers (usually because of our skin colour) and if we return to our country of origin, we are also strangers because we don’t know the national language nor customs. In short, we are strangers wherever we go. So we cling and hold to what we can. Friends. The adoptive family. You.
Pradeep (Philippe Mignon) Founder of Empreintes Vivantes for Sri Lankan adoptees – Belgium
At ICAV, we invited members to share during National Adoption Awareness Month what they would like the public to know. Here’s the first of what some of our members are happy to share.
Adoption can be a wonderful and necessary way to provide a family for a vulnerable child.
Adoption begins with loss and that loss may be felt throughout a person’s lifetime despite/alongside the gains.
There is a triad in adoption, and all triad members’ voices are valued regardless of country, culture, race, gender, age, income or education level.
There are ways to parent that promote strong identities and resilience in people who have been adopted.
There are ways to facilitate adoption that are ethical and transparent.
Adoption should be seen as just one step toward the eventual goal of a world where mothers and fathers everywhere are supported in raising and loving their children.
To the person who said to me, “You should be grateful!”.
Thank you so much for reminding me how grateful I am for not being you. What do I mean? Well, only a person who suffers from a deluded sense of superiority would imply that not every human being is worthy of the basic human rights: food, education, clothing and shelter. Furthermore, only a fool would assume what my life has been post-adoption and what my life would have been, had I not been adopted.
Can a famous example of conservation teach us anything about adoption? Most people can’t see a correlation but I do! Less than a hundred years ago, there were just 16 whooping cranes left in North America. These beautiful majestic birds were near the brink of extinction. Men who over hunted and destroyed the bird’s habitat also became its savior. People dressed in bird costumes attended to the young chicks.
In nature, it is not uncommon for cranes to lay two eggs. When this happens, the parents would ignore the weakest of the chicks and let it perish. However, at the conservatory, the scientists would raise the chicks in groups. The whooping cranes are carefully incubated and then hatched inside a plexiglass to observe a real whooping crane. This is done to imprint the chicks with what a real mother would look like.
Individuals meticulously ensure that the whooping crane chicks are attended to, using puppets that teach the young chicks how to find food and drink water. The puppet would mimic drinking water and then raise its head back as the crane does in nature. The attendants would teach the young cranes how to fly. They used an ultra-light plane to lead the cranes on a short flying lesson and eventually lead the cranes from Canada and fly them down to southern Florida. The scientists spared no expense and the average cost to raise a chick to adulthood cost around US$100,000.
The program was hailed as a huge success because the sixteen original whooping cranes that had four breeding females grew to a flock of more than 500 whooping cranes in the wild. Numerous documentaries were made about the success of this 11-year-long endeavor. The picture of the ultra-light plane leading a group of whooping cranes was popularized and shown in newspapers across the globe. The birds were then flown into their mating territory and the birds paired together and laid eggs. However, the overwhelming majority of birds would abandon their eggs after laying them. Of the 500 birds, only two or three mating pairs successfully hatched their chicks. This puzzled the scientists and after much consideration, they deduced the likely causation for this problem stemmed from the bird’s unorthodox upbringing. The scientists said it best by stating:
“They have so much baggage from a screwed-up and not normal childhood”!
Does this story sound familiar to you? Because it looks eerily familiar to some of the adoptees I’ve met and their lives. No matter how well the adoptive parents treated their adoptive child – they may have grown up as a disappointment to the adoptive parents or had a hard time adjusting to their new surroundings. Other times, the adoptees look to be successful: they have degrees from reputable schools, they drive high-end cars and attain high levels of success. But after closer examination, you might find their personal life to be a total disaster.
Like these cranes, some adoptees look like they achieve success but a small flaw prevents them from achieving full potential. I have met numerous adoptees incapable of keeping a relationship or keeping a partner. They might behave over clingy and suffocate anyone they come across, they might privately deal with overwhelming guilt or anxiety, or perhaps prone to performing some other social faux pas.
Like the whooping chicks, the interactions before or during our upbringing may have made an indelible mark on our lives. It may stem from the lack of empathy or touch when we were young. The traumatic experience of being separated from our mother at a certain age, or being left alone in dark bedrooms, or forced to lie still for hours in our cribs, changed the course of our personalities and lives. No matter how wonderful our lives are afterward, we are faced to confront issues that we cannot fathom or explain.
I think these birds explain in some part why adoptees are four times more likely to commit suicide, or why they are disproportionately represented with learning disabilities and have higher than average rates of drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders and incarceration. The reason for both the birds and adoptees is that we all had to deal with living without our natural mothers.
It is November, National Adoption Awareness Month (NAAM) 2018. At ICAV, we want to raise awareness of the realities some live who rarely get to express their voice because they are too downtrodden and trying to survive, let alone tell their story!
Today, I share the journey of a very brave young woman adopted from Ethiopia to the USA. Her life experience needs to be told to intercountry adoption agencies, governments, lawyers, social workers and middle-people who continue to facilitate intercountry adoptions without learning from the past. When I interviewed this young woman, my heart was shredded as I listened to the heartache, trauma, re-trauma and sadness that has filled her life. Adoption is meant to be a forever family isn’t it?? Don’t adoption agencies and governments promote adoption as being in the best interests of the child?? Don’t they equate adoption with permanency??
It is fellow adoptees like this who inspire me to continue to raise awareness in intercountry adoption. Too many times, intercountry adoptions are done poorly, with little responsibility or ethics for the long term outcomes. We need to learn from these worst case scenarios and stop telling ourselves the lie that it only happens to a minority.
In my opinion, if it happens to one, it happens to too many! These issues are a reflection of an international system that clearly has little oversight, little controls, too much monetary incentive to “make the transaction” and not enough checks and balances to ensure the child is actually placed in a safe, loving, psychologically healthy and nurturing family. Not to mention the lack of means and routes for justice for the child who grows up! Until these real life experiences for intercountry adoptees stop happening, I cannot support intercountry adoption as it is conducted today.
We must learn from the lessons and do what we can to stop intercountry adoptions like this from happening. That means, we have to stop blindly promoting intercountry adoption as if it’s the answer for all vulnerable children around the world. The fact that intercountry adoptions like this are happening in recent times and still occurring (not just from my 70s era) tells us that very little has changed to ensure adoptions are done in the best interests of the child.
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on intercountry adoption after you read Sha’s life journey, Abandoned by All.
Part of my personal goal in the past couple of years within ICAV, has been to find ways to help empower the voices of our first families in the intercountry adoption arena. For some years I have been pointing out they largely have no voice and remain invisible. Having not found my own Vietnamese mother yet, I often wonder about the circumstances that led to my relinquishment. Now, as an educated professional raised within western thinking, I view the larger picture of intercountry adoption and wonder how much our journey’s as intercountry adoptees and those of our families, could be prevented. In speaking with other adult intercountry adoptees from all over the world, I know I’m not alone in this pondering.
Last year in October, I had the privilege to meet online an inspiring young woman, a Colombian intercountry adoptee raised in Germany. She spoke with enthusiam about a project she was about to embark upon which connected with my personal goal. I shared with you here about Yennifer’s goal to raise awareness of the experiences Colombian mothers live, who have lost their children via intercountry adoption. Like me, she was driven to do this because she too had always wondered about her mother and what caused her own relinquishment.
Now, just over half a year on, I interview Yennifer to hear how her first journey to homeland has been, together with an update on her project.
Read here for Yennifer’s update on her project entitled No Mother, No Child.
These past weeks have been frustrating to say the least! I received an official letter from the Australian Government – Minister Tehan’s office, Minister for Social Services, one of the Federal departments responsible for intercountry adoption. Our stakeholder community has been actively writing and contacting the Minister to request a review of the decision to end the funding of our much needed Search service in intercountry adoption. But we have been denied.
After only 2 years, the ISS Australia Intercountry Adoption Tracing & Reunification Service (ICATRS) which was granted less than AUS$500k each year, with an uptake of over 200 adult adoptees and adoptive families, will be closing and the cases handed back to the States/Territory Central Authorities. Historically, the States/Territory governments have provided minimal resources to post adoption support in intercountry adoption, and even less to searching and reunification. Since becoming a signatory of The Hague Convention, Australia devised the Commonwealth-State Agreement which separates the responsibilities between States and Commonwealth. The Commonwealth owns the relationship with our sending countries. This means, for the States/Territories who largely assess prospective parents, they have little day to day communication with our birth countries, hence are not always well placed to conduct searches for us – years/decades after an adoption has occurred.
Australia moved from making history in providing a much needed national and free search service for all adult intercountry adoptees, to now re-joining the rest of the world governments who participate in intercountry adoption but do little, to ensure positive outcomes by providing comprehensive post adoption supports. It is a requirement as a signatory of The Hague Convention but not one country around the world has stepped up to provide a comprehensive service – and especially not targeted to support adult intercountry adoptee needs.
I would understand if the Federal Government decided to close intercountry adoption altogether AND remove the search service, but to continue conducting intercountry adoption without comprehensive post adoption supports, in my eyes is unethical and just plain wrong!
Since 2014, the Australian federal government allocated a budget of AU$33.6m across 5 years to spend on facilitating intercountry adoption. Out of that budget, little to nothing has been given to those who are already here – the adult adoptees and their adoptive families. For those who are impacted by the lack of intercountry adoption policy from the late 1960s era, post adoption services are so much more important. Adoptees of my generation were, for the good majority of us, adopted with poor documentation and questionable procedures. Funding the loudest and most powerful stakeholder has seen a blatant skewing of tax payer money. I ask where is the conscience and ethics of the Australian Government? How can they justify spending AU$33.6m on services for prospective parents but do little to nothing for those of us who are already here, asking for help and support?!
We live in an era where apologies are given and past policies recognised for the harm done. The Stolen Generation. The Forced Adoption Apology. The Forgotten Australians. Now the Royal Commission into Sexual Abuse. Well, one day, our small minority of intercountry adoptees, who have been left out of all these similar scenarios, will have to be acknowledged and recognised. Our day of reckoning will eventually come. But we may have to force it instead of speaking nicely and being politely grateful for our adopted lives. We are adopted to a country that treats us as a symbolic gesture to “help those less fortunate”. Intercountry adoption policy prances about in disguise as being “in the interests of the child”. Yet overtly – the rhetoric is clearly not true. Actions speak louder than words. The actions are for those wanting a child, not for the child itself.
In the past weeks, I also submitted a letter to the Australian Human Rights Commission for their annual report on how Australia is tracking in Children’s Rights. In my submission, I point out the many breaches that occur under Children’s Rights in intercountry adoption from the lived experience perspective. Past and current intercountry adoption practices and the variety of outcomes dating back to the late 1960s, goes against 13 of the 41 Part I Articles under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Around the globe, I see adult intercountry adoptees speaking out enmasse – BUT, we are continually being ignored. The Dutch adoptees are now suing their Dutch government for their illegal adoptions in which their own birth countries are acknowledging illicit practices. Ultimately, this is what it will come down to. Clearly when we ask politely, nicely, respectfully to listen to our experiences and do the right thing, governments all over the world will only take reponsibility when it comes to the legal crunch. It won’t be until many of us start finding ways to seek justice through litigation around the world that we will no longer be ignored. This is the reality of intercountry adoption.
I observe closely the harsh debate going on in the USA between pro adoption parents and adoption agencies who are criticising the US Department of State for implementing tighter controls in accreditation of adoption agencies and standards. These lobby groups are sending around petitions to ask the US President to support the increase for international adoptions and are attacking the US Department of State for bringing in much needed reforms to prevent illicit practices. It’s interesting how these same lobby groups will push to bring in more children who need saving around the world, but do nothing to ensure those already here, are granted automatic citizenship.
These lobby groups and agencies clearly do not speak to deported adoptees who sink into depression and are hard hit by being uprooted yet again, with no choice of their own. Do these lobby groups take any responsibility for children being placed into families that were not suitable under previous regimes with loose procedures? No. They don’t speak out about the rights of these children, now adults. They don’t care that America ships these people back the same way they were bought into the country. Yes my choice of word is correct. Bought – meaning purchased. It shows the truth of their motivations! Lobby groups and adoption agencies promote and advocate for their own self centred needs but at the same time conveniently turn a blind eye to these same children (now adults) who are being ignored, unsupported, and treated unethically. Where is their lobbying for these children who grew up? For those still fighting for automatic citizenship, adopted to the USA prior to 1983? I dare to judge and say, they are not interested in the “needs of the children” … only to satisfy their own needs and interests.
Adoption break downs, illicit practices, deportations, human rights abuses – these are not words adoption lobbyers and agencies use or want to acknowledge. I suggest before they promote further adoptions with laxer processes, they need to sit and listen to the hundreds of adult intercountry adoptees whom I meet every year around the world, in every adoptive country, from every birth country.
It breaks my heart time and again to hear our experiences. They are not just stories. They are our realities. We are a minority amongst minorities. Our experiences mean little to governments who make decisions as to what they will fund because we are not on their radar to appease or acknowledge.
For those who naiively think ICAV is a melting pot for a minority of angry/embittered adoptees who suffered in their adoptive families, think again. We have just as many members who have been loved and given a great adoptive family as those who have suffered within not so positive environments. We are not against adoptive families. We are against the processes of intercountry adoption, the governments, the stakeholders who make decisions that impact our lives without our say and who are consciously choosing not to learn from the past.
At a certain age and maturity in understanding the phenomenon of intercountry adoption and opening themselves up to learn the politics involved, many adult intercountry and transracial adoptees can’t help but wonder. We question why the system is so skewed towards adopting without taking any truthful responsiblity for ensuring all people impacted by the adoption are better supported.
Our rights and needs remain ignored. The money trail does not extend to us, the children who grow up. It’s only there for those who want to gain a child with little foresight as to whether that child experiences a positive or negative outcome in the long term.
I’ve been around for 20 years now, actively speaking out, supporting intercountry adoptees and creating much needed resources to prevent the reinvention of the wheel for many of us who struggle in the journey. In my early years, we were alone. Now … we have created something different altogether. We are harnessing our energies and working together.
I will use this reality to continue to encourage fellow adoptees to keep pushing, keep demanding change, keep trying, keep speaking out. One day, something will have to give and the changes we ask for will happen.
The truth of intercountry adoption cannot be silenced forever.
I was recently contacted by a fellow adoptee who is seeking views and experiences of adoptees where gratitude is expected and how we feel about this. I immediately responded because gratitude in adoption is such an unspoken about subject, particularly from the adoptee perspective. For me, it was definitely a burden I felt whilst growing up and carry still to this day. Interesting that little has been written on this topic specific to intercountry adoption because our adoptions are so rife with connotations of being saved from poverty, war, slums and the streets. These connotations also come with equal expectation that we flourish in our Western white adoptive countries and families for which we should be grateful for.
It is assumed, somehow, magically, our losses in relinquishment should be negated by the gains in adoption.
I can understand how the majority of people who think of the word adoption would not necessarily equate that with living an experience of being expected to be grateful. But, from my own life experience, the word “grateful”, “thankful”, “be happy”, or “lucky” pops up in adoption conversation regularly. People who are not impacted by adoption expect us to be grateful for the material wealth and education we gain in life having been adopted. As an adoptee, not only have I experienced people’s assumptions about how lucky I am in their eyes to be adopted, I also experienced the expectation of gratitude said out loud by my adoptive parent during my childhood. It was said to me once or twice, but the way in which I was treated most of my childhood until I became independent and moved interstate, told me without words that it was the foundation of my adoption.
In hindsight, knowing now that my adoptive father was not comfortable to adopt a child not his own, from a foreign country, he went against his instincts and clearly gave way to his wife’s desire to save a child from the Vietnam war. What they saved me from, I’ll never know unless I find my first family. Whether I was indeed saved, who knows. Am I grateful? If I answered no, people naturally would recoil and look at me horrified, stunned. How dare I be ungrateful for my life in a wealthy country with material comforts, an education, and the life everyone in poverty aspires to.
But, of course I am grateful in many ways! Without choosing to be grateful, my emotional well being would be one of dissatisfaction, depression, unease and wishing to be dead.
I have been there! For plenty of years! And I had to battle to find a way through.
I choose actively to be consciously grateful, to focus and spend my life turning it into something positive. And it’s much nicer to be in a stage of life where I can choose to be grateful in general, as opposed to being forced to feel indebted for being saved via adoption.
I’m a female adoptee born in Vietnam, flown out as an infant to Australia in the early 1970s. I’ve told my personal story what feels like a thousand times, but yet no one has asked before what it was like to carry that expectation to be grateful for my existence in my adoptive family.
My adoption was not legally facilitated until I was 17 years old and it is still a mystery as to whether my legal adoption paperwork exists somewhere in Vietnam. I hadn’t really come to acknowledge or understand the true meaning of this until the past 6 months. It is enlightening to observe how my story of adoption and relinquishment has changed over time as I’ve become more fully aware of the truths, perceived and real. I am constantly having to rethink what was told to me growing up and comparing that to the truths I find today, and who I have become.
Not having an identity on paper for 17 years, of course I feel the expectation to be grateful to my adoptive country Australia in giving me a birth certificate and hence allowed an identity. But at what cost? The expectation to be grateful these days is overshadowed by questions I have on why it doesn’t seem to have been questioned whether I had an identity in Vietnam or how to preserve or respect it legally.
The words “gratitude” or “grateful” are like an alarm bell ringing inside me. It grates on my nerves and I feel myself inwardly flinching. For me it comes with so many negative memories. Even googling to find an image for this blog and seeing the visuals, created feelings of unease and discomfort in my body. If you can relate to me as an adoptee, saying, seeing or reading the word “gratitude” in relation to adoption is a trigger that I have to deal with all the time.
My adoptive childhood was spent working like a boy slave on the family’s dairy farm. Being thrown the “you owe this family because we adopted you” line because I was standing up for myself, was one of the toughest moments I remember. It was one of those rare times where I was trying to be stand up for myself about not wanting to be forced to help with milking the cows. The other children were allowed to peacefully sleep in every morning. My childhood sense of justice was strong. Why was I constantly singled out to be made to work around the farm with my adoptive father who inappropriately touched me whilst in the dairy or in my bedroom? He had no sense of respect for my privacy as my body developed in early teenage years. I recall a few times he woke me with his cold hands running over my bare chest and stomach, then dragging me out of my bed by my legs, nightie flinging up over my head exposing my naked body, laughing at how “funny” it was to be dragged along the frost covered grass on a cold Victorian morning. This would happen just on daylight before the sun even rose. Nobody else was awake. My hatred rose further when I once removed the outside key from the lock of my door but was authoritatively told how dare I try and lock him out. Everything about my life was dependent on him and I was given no sense of privacy, respect or control.
I grew to resent my adoptive father during my childhood but yet I pined for a tiny bit of love to be shown. I wasn’t grateful for this existence and I certainly hated that my lack of blood relative status meant it seemed to give him licence to work me like a slave and touch me in the way no father should. His other bio children were left to do what they wanted. They were not forced to work like me on hard physical tasks; chopping barrow loads of hardwood, milking cows day and night, cooking and cleaning in the kitchen, being forced to run out in the dark and shut the chooks in every night (I was terrified of the dark), etc. It felt like slave labour with no empathy for my feelings at all. It certainly wasn’t a childhood filled with love, safety or understanding. Nor was there any room for any compassion or support about what I might be feeling from being separated from my biological family and wondering why.
The expectation, verbalised out loud, to be grateful for being adopted was a heavy heavy burden to carry .. and still is. I was forced to justify why I needed hair conditioner and shampoo (I had waist long hair) and he would only provide soap as that was good enough for everyone else who had short or little hair. I was made to feel that buying a toothbrush was too much and how dare I need or ask for anything. I was made to feel and was told many times that I was a “fussy”, “difficult” child, always “telling lies” and “stealing“.
To this day, the “you should be grateful because we adopted you” mantra is what has stopped me from speaking openly about the emotional and sexual abuse I endured from early childhood to teen years. No adoptee should ever have to be thrown that line of feeling we owe a debt of gratitude to our adoptive families. Even when abuse does not occur. Whether spoken or not, we adoptees do NOT owe our families. They adopt for their own self fulfilling reasons. I had NO choice but to survive the adoptive family I was placed in.
You can probably feel the anger I still carry at the injustice of being made to feel that I owed my adoptive family for being rescued/saved. It brings lifelong consequences of being fiercely independent and not easily allowing anyone to help me. I suspect other adoptees can relate. For me, being helped, being given something I don’t ask for, usually comes with a fear of the unspoken price at which that help is provided. Hence, I would rather do it myself. The expectation of gratitude for being saved by adoptive family and society at large, is a heavy burden.
This burden of expected gratitude in being adopted is enhanced by the religious elements intertwined in much of modern adoption advocacy.
Fervent religious organisations and individuals who willingly promote and facilitate the adoption and rescuing of children add another layer of expected gratitude onto us. People who believe adoption is an ordained action by God, that they are following his command to help an orphan, makes it difficult for adoptees to share about the struggles of being adopted and relinquished.
I rarely hear of any adoptee who will willingly stand up in a church or religious institute and share their adoption experience with all its complexities. For me, this would be the worst audience ever! I can’t imagine receiving validation or empathy. Instead, I suspect I would receive unsolicited advice to be grateful and thankful to God that I am in a better place and that all is going well now. The all familiar saying of, “Count your Blessings!” by religious people in response to adversity is one I find hard to stomach.
Google for yourself the word gratitude and you will see the many religious and spiritual images linked to this concept. Our struggles as adoptees go unvalidated and unsupported because of blind prejudice that somehow adoption is meant to be, ordained by God. How can anyone question the unspoken assumption that we should be grateful for our adoption, when this is the long held religious and spiritual belief?
Thankfully, my adoptive family and others have apologised in recent years for the wrong doings in my childhood and I have chosen to be grateful for this and to move on. It’s interesting how with apologies I now feel more at liberty to be open about my life. It’s as if a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I no longer carry the burden of responsibility for family secrets and shame, trying to protect them from the consequences. For many years now, I have been true to myself and will not allow the expectation of gratitude to overwhelm my truths.
I have focused my energies on rebuilding the relationships with adoptive family as they are my one and only family I know, to raise me and give me an identity. For this I am truly grateful – but that’s not to say the journey hasn’t been a struggle and at many costs.
Gratitude in adoption should never be an expectation. It should be a choice we are free to make about life in general – after we come to terms with, and are supported in, understanding our losses and gains from relinquishment and adoption.
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!