Stranger Than Fiction

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In third grade, I was in Mrs. Peterson’s class and given the assignment to do a family history project. I asked my adoptive parents about the project and they stated my Aunt Eirene had worked on the family tree and traced back across several hundred years. My family automatically skipped the fact that my own biological family existed and was not included. I was adopted at the age of four and a half years old. I had a lot of residual memories from my childhood but did not understand the things that I could recall. I was told I had an overactive imagination and that I daydreamed a lot. Later as an adult, I met numerous other adoptees and many of them had fantasies about their biological families. Some adoptees had dreamt that their biological families were royalty, others that their biological families were wealthy and looking for them.

I recently met a bunch of adoptees. One shared about identifying with a podcast in which a male adoptee fantasized that his parents were royalty and were looking for him.  During the conversation it was stated,”Who knows – one of us might be royalty!”

On the day of the family tree assignment I stood up in front of the class and talked about my biological father being very old and that he fought in the Korean War. I also talked about army men marching past our village and seeing their tanks and machine guns. I was recalling events as best I could from memory. It is true that it is highly improbable that my father was in his late forties or early fifties when he had children. A simple calculation of the age of most fighting soldiers during the Korean War would fall within a narrow range of ages.  It was highly improbable that my father was that old. The town where I had lived was located several hours south of Seoul and was not as heavily guarded as the Korean border or coastal cities. An initial impression might consider I was on the cusp of telling great tales. In fact, the teachers concernedly told my adoptive parents what I recalled in class and said I had a heightened sense of imagination. I was chastised by my adoptive parents for lying.

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In my early twenties, I joined the military and selected to serve in Korea. While I was there, I learned that the construction of Korea’s expressway number 1 began in 1968 and was completed in the summer 1970. The 660 mile stretch of highway became the main artery that moved commerce from the ports of Pusan through the capital city of Seoul and up to the North Korean border. This main expressway is the second oldest and most heavily traveled expressway in Korea. It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that this corridor was also the main route for the movement of troops and military equipment. It so happens that the highway passes along the outskirts of Cheong-Ju, the town that I grew up in. The memories of seeing soldiers walking alongside the road past my village is highly probable. As for my father for being old, I was confused about that. In my formative years, I was living with my grandfather because my father was away from home. I mistook my grandfather for being my father. I have memories of being ridiculed and told I was being untruthful. These memories flood my mind as I write this. I never meant to lie, all I did as a young child was to do my best to explain what I recalled.

Korean Princess

DNA testing with 325Kamra has taken me all over the globe and as a result, I’ve been able to meet thousands of intercountry adoptees. During these travels, I’ve heard numerous stories that were often stranger than fiction. The first story is about one of the few Caucasian children adopted by a Korean family. Both families worked together in diplomatic channels and the boy’s parents were both killed in a motor vehicle accident. The Korean family took the orphaned boy in immediately and raised him as their own. I met this individual during my first tour to Korea when we were both stationed in Tong-du-chon in the mid-nineties.

In Europe, I met a Korean man adopted by a Korean family and a Korean girl raised by a Jamaican family. From all the stories that have been shared with me, about 99.9% of all Korean adoptees were adopted to Caucasian families. The unique adoption stories also occurred in the United States. In the early nineties, my next-door neighbor was a Korean adoptee and she was actually found by her biological father. Her father worked hard in the construction business and became a millionaire. He hired a private detective to find his daughter in America and he showered her with gifts. He paid off her mortgage and the costs to refurbish her home. He even threw in tickets to fly the whole family to visit him in Korea.

In college, I started the first multi-cultural diversity club on my university campus. As the president, I was invited to visit other campuses around the state and I met up with Korean student groups in Cornell, NYU and various universities on the East Coast. At one student conference, I met a Korean adoptee who was raised in a Jewish family. She was able to recite part of the Torah and read Hebrew. What I learned from these interactions is that adoptee lives are as varied by the families who adopt them. Things that adoptees might dream about, can actually occur.

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I think it is a common practice for adoptees to fantasize or dream about who their parents are. What I found interesting is that the fantasies are rarely about common everyday individuals. I’ve never heard an adoptee tell me that they believe their parents were librarians or bakers. I mostly heard things like, “I think my family was royalty” or the extreme opposite of the spectrum and believe their mother was a prostitute. I think many adoptees make sense or cope with their adoption by making up stories. I think this is a normal occurrence and families and friends should not dismiss everything that adoptees might share as memories. As in my story, I was able to verify everything with my biological family after I found them. As for finding a princess … I found a Korean adoptee who was able to trace her family back to the last princess of Korea. I met her in Germany – very fitting, since it’s the land of a thousand castles!

My recommendation for adoptees who believe in the stories you are told or you have created to cope with life is: you never know – maybe you will be the next adoptee whose life is stranger than fiction!

LION Review by ICAV

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As a fellow Australian intercountry adoptee, I watched LION and found it to be better than what I’d expected after having read so many different reviews.

It captured so many emotional aspects of an intercountry adoptee’s journey. I felt the most powerful aspect was that of Saroo’s adopted brother (also from India) who clearly struggled with his adoptive life from day 1 of arrival into his new family. Being a mother myself of a special needs son who experienced meltdowns, the behaviour I saw reflected a boy who not only had endured the harsh beginnings like Saroo that led to trauma related behaviours, but most likely also suffered from other special needs – apparent by the multiple scars on his head when he first arrived and the meltdown on night 1. I must say, his adoptive parents are portrayed as handling that night quite lovingly and calmly even though I’m sure in reality it must have been a shock after having such a “perfect” adoptive son the first time round. It also serves as a healthy reminder of the need for adequate pre-adoptive education and the realistic expectation setting that adoptees do not come as blank slates, not even new born babies.

Saroo’s adoptive brother’s struggles spoke volumes to me for the adoptees I know who don’t fare well, despite being placed with the best of adoptive families. These adoptees suffer daily and have little respite from their deep emotional and mental suffering and I see this especially from those who arrive as older age adoptees into families who don’t understand there might be any pre adoption trauma. In one section of the film it was raw and painful to hear Saroo accuse his adoptive brother of causing his adoptive mother so much pain. The anguish this caused in Saroo’s adoptive brother’s face – his expression was as if to say, “If I could do better I would … and how dare you judge me!”  This raised in my mind the unrealistic assumption we adoptees hold that it is our role to give our adoptive parents only happiness and joy.

I also empathised with Saroo’s adoptive brother because Saroo’s harsh judgement comes from another unquestioned assumption that we adoptees should have nothing to suffer as our adoption already saved us from all the doom and gloom of our past and created in us a “new life”. As Saroo’s adoptive brother portrays, sometimes that new life eludes adoptees and it is the sad reality that many suffer for the rest of their life and never quite manage to capture that elusive dream of being “happy for ever after” in our adopted life, like Saroo wanted to be capable of.

For those adoptees like Saroo’s adoptive brother who can’t escape our fates, the movie did well to capture this reality. I often hear from adoptees within an adoptive family that one adopted child became the people pleaser and upon appearance, does well versus the other who struggles and pulls the rest of the adoptive family with them. Not from any fault of their own, but just because things are tougher with more to face and having a different personality and personal fortuitude to be able to cope any better. Like Saroo’s adoptive brother, this is their best but it often gets judged as not being good enough in return for showing gratitude in being adopted.

For Saroo who appeared to be the “perfect” adoptee, the film did well to show that even the perfect adoptee is silently struggling inside. His relationship with his girlfriend suffered and she was the one closest to Saroo, his relationship suffered with his adoptive parents, his ability to hold down a job, etc. Everything it seemed was affected by his past! It is so true to portray that even for the “perfect” adoptee we still have raging within us just as intense battles as the “difficult” adoptees do. I believe the seemingly “perfect” adoptee hides it better and is as powerfully driven by the nature of our relentless questions and fragments of life and identity before being adopted as our “acting out” or struggling adoptee.

The dynamics between the two adoptive siblings was powerful and I could feel the sense of wishful thinking to move back to the time which Saroo had prior to his adoptive brother’s arrival. The unforgettable scene at the dinner table where Saroo as an adult finally says “he’s not my brother” is the one moment of truth in their family where the unspoken finally becomes spoken. I think for many adoptive families it is not considered enough how much a new arrival of adoptive sibling can impact the first adoptee / child and how they can come to resent the change in the dynamics and balance to the family.

The other powerful theme which I could relate to, was of how Saroo was so sensitive to his adoptive mother and feeling that he needed to protect her from his truths. This is a reality that becomes visible time and again when intercountry adoptees share with me about their desire to search or understand their roots. They don’t want to upset vulnerable mum who clearly loves and wanted them so much. Our adoptee desire to show our gratefulness and love in return costs us our own truths and creates the necessity to hide it. So too, Saroo ends up isolated and going through his journey very alone and unsupported. He’s so afraid that her knowing about his searching will deeply wound and if not literally “kill” his adoptive mother – which he regards his adoptive brother as doing already.

This is an issue many of us intercountry adoptees have, whether warranted or not, in feeling that we need to protect our adoptive parents. There was also a poignant line in the film after Saroo’s adoptive mother shared about her vision that led to adopting him, saying that it made her “feel good for the first time in her life”. That statement said what many of us adoptees feel but never verbalise – that we are there to make our adoptive parents feel good about themselves and we are afraid to give them any information and truth about ourselves or our life before them, that will jeapordise our relationship with them. We live in fear of them regretting us because we haven’t fulfilled their dream or vision.

How sad that Saroo spent so long having to protect his adoptive mother (and adoptive father) from his real feelings of sadness that his memories caused for him – the depth of his desire to reassure his own biological family that he was alive to therefore stop worrying and searching. What is even sadder is that there wasn’t the truth and openness between Saroo and his adoptive parents to allow both to connect and be supportive to one another because in fact, their realities were not in opposition but could have been symbiotic.

This dynamic is again something I hear from adoptees who share with me and what I also experience myself. We are afraid to really let our adoptive families know the true depths of our sadness and loss about our original families because we feel they will be disappointed or feel “less than” parents to us. Saroo’s adoptive family dynamic is not uncommon in adoptive families but rather, I would dare say it is uncommon to see any other dynamic within most adoptive families. Time and again adoptees share they won’t search until their adoptive parent dies, or they don’t want to share about their desire to search because it will “hurt” the adoptive parent, or they don’t need to search because their adoptive parents are “family” and they don’t need any other.

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I noticed the many times Saroo tried to reassure his adoptive mother – especially when he was heading off to India and again when he had found his biological mother, that she would always be his family and that he loved her. This is such a burden for adoptees to carry – constantly feeling we have to reassure our adoptive parents of our love and gratefulness. You rarely hear of biological children suffering this same burden!  Wouldn’t it be nice to not have to worry about our adoptive families with such an oversensitive barometer!

I was glad to see Saroo made the trip to India by himself. We adoptees sometimes need do this so as not to complicate our trip with worrying about the feelings and complex emotions of our adoptive family. Our search and reunion for some needs to be a moment in time where it’s just about us, the adoptee and our birth family – as it was prior to being adopted – so we can experience our grief, elation to be reunited, sadness and everything inbetween, without the additional burden of feeling responsible for our adoptive family’s emotions.

I loved the ending which explained why the film was named LION and reflected so well, what we adoptees experience – that of not knowing the correct pronunciation of our original name because our adoptive experience is so immersive and complete that we fully lose any ability to speak or understand our birth language, especially when adopted at an older age.

The film did well to portray the state of affairs in India where children who are vulnerable like Saroo was, have very little help offered. There seemed to be few safe shelters, social workers or services to feed the poor and hungry. I’m personally glad to see the film is being used as an avenue to create assistance to Indian street children in future and provide better options than what Saroo experienced.

I look forward to hearing more about Saroo’s journey for I suspect this might just be the beginning of him sharing his voice. He has shared his journey with the WHOLE world and that is no small feat to be so open after keeping his search and feelings so secretive for so long! I hope he will overcome his over-developed sense of responsibility for his adoptive mother and come to take a useful place in the worldwide intercountry adoption dialogue about what really happens for vulnerable children and their families and what needs to be done to protect them better.

In contrast to his adoptive mother who uses the film to promote further intercountry adoptions, I hope Saroo will help create a forum in which the world can delve into ethical questions involved in the rights of vulnerable children and their families and a rightful place for intercountry adoption after ALL attempts to reunify the family has occurred. In the film there was one line Saroo said about his struggle with being adopted into a “place of so much privilege” and trying to make sense of this in contrast to his internal drive to “find home” and family and no-one helping him when he was a lost child. It made me hopeful that Saroo will use his opportunity of worldwide fame as an intercountry adoptee to drive critical thinking about what we in western countries have and our sense of responsibility to use our resources for enabling a better world, instead of gaining from other country’s vulnerabilities.