Lost Siblings

Korean House
Hanok a traditionally built Korean home

Remembering My Youth

As a child, I remember playing near the burn pits that laid by the small village of unpainted traditional Korean style homes (Hanoks). They nestled below a small outcrop of mountains, located in central Korea. My brother grabbed my hand to take me to see the prize he had found lying in the small garbage heap near our modest home. Among the charred remains of the trash there laid a couple of discarded light bulbs glistening in the harsh summer sun. We laughed as we smashed the bulbs into small shards of glass.

The small journey to the garbage pile and playing had worked up an appetite and I told my brother I was hungry. “Come follow me!” he called. I ran behind him as we raced down the trail towards the community garden. We stopped for a minute to catch our breath and we scanned the garden to find something to eat. There amongst the tall weeds, we found the brightly yellow-colored melons called chamoe. It begged us to bite into its juicy flesh. I grabbed one of the fruits hungrily and sunk my teeth into the hard flesh. The fruit wasn’t ripe and it had a bitter taste. I threw the fruit on the ground in disgust and we ran home to see if grandma could make us something delicious to eat.

By the time we arrived home, it was nearing dusk and my stomach hurt with the pains of hunger. My brother ratted me out, telling my grandfather I had tried to eat the unripened fruit. My grandfather gingerly placed me on his lap and started patting my stomach in a circular motion to reduce the pain. I immediately fell asleep and was woken up by the sounds of feet pitter-patting around the rice mat floors. It was the sound of my brothers and sisters getting ready for school. I too got up, to walk my siblings down the country dirt road to school. As we walked, I was chastised by my siblings and told to go back home. I stood at the end of the dirt road waving goodbye as I watched my family vanish down the road that wound amongst rice paddies and train tracks, covered by the cool mist of the morning fog.

When I was married and in my mid-thirties, I asked my aunt to give me the contact information to meet up with my half siblings who I remembered from my youth. We made a phone call and I waited anxiously to see if we could connect. The person on the other end of the line was the wife of one of my older brothers and she was scathing mad that I was trying to connect with my siblings. She told me, “This is in the past and that is where it needs to stay!”

rejectedSeveral months later, I called the family again hoping to get my brother on the phone. I was chastised again for calling and disrupting the family. I was rejected, never to be allowed to reunite with the family from my childhood memories.

Short-Lived Reunion

I sat uncomfortably on the hard lino covered floor of a traditional Korean Restaurant. The smells, sights and sounds so foreign to me. Just moments earlier, I had felt like I was on an epic journey “around the world in 80 days” with my aunt. That same morning my aunt was waiting for me at the entrance of the military camp where I was stationed. We rode the 5-hour long journey using a variety of transport: the jerky movements and clackity sounds of a train, the bumpy, vinyl covered back seat on a community bus that bellowed black smoke, and then a short ride on the Hyundai cab to the restaurant. None of the transport had air-conditioning and the hot sun beat down on my black hair. My brain felt as though it was boiling from the inside out. Large beads of sweat flowed from my brow when I arrived to meet my biological family.

When I entered the small restaurant, I scanned my eyes around to look for my new family. I caught a glimpse of my beautiful sister and then my father. It was odd for me to see someone who looked like me but a much older age. I felt as though I were in a time machine to meet a much older version of myself. My father’s head was covered with thinning grey hair and a receding hairline. The sunken cheeks and the deep wrinkles above the brow were telltale signs of a defeated person. My father was looked down at the table in shame.

I was asked questions about my life in America and how I liked Korea. Once all the niceties were exchanged my father asked, “Why did you look for me?” I was dumbfounded by the question and as I was about to answer, a blur entered through the front entrance and walked up to our table. A short stout young man entered the room with a wide grin on his face. His light brown eyes scanned the room looking at his dad and then at me … his face was distorted with confusion and then he rushed up to me and gave me a bear hug and began sobbing in my arms. I look like a younger replica of my father and my brother recognized that I was his brother immediately.

Misan
Mi-san, my beautiful half-sister in South Korea

As a child, I remembered the siblings I had grown up with. I never assumed my father would marry again but via his third marriage, he brought two more siblings into this world for me to unite with.

The pecking order went like this: the four half brothers and sisters I grew up with in Chong-Ju, my sister and I who were sent to America, and the two half-siblings from my father’s third marriage. My father was a success in being a prolific procreator. My father’s personal decisions led to his first two separations and sadly his third wife  succumbed to illness when her children were beginning elementary school. I think I bonded with my half siblings because they knew how it felt to grow up without a mother.

Within a year of uniting with my sibling, my father had a stroke that made him fully dependent for care. My younger sister Mi-san faithfully went to my father’s home each day to feed and bathe him. I wanted to be part of my siblings’ lives but the language barrier prevented me from picking up the phone or arriving at their doorstep to visit.

A year after I kindled the beginnings of a new relationship with my new family, I received orders from the military to move back to the United States. There was a five-year separation where life was a blur and my day to day actives was filled with school and work. In 1998, I received another chance to reunite with my family in 2001 when I was given assignment orders to South Korea as a second lieutenant. I was so happy to again partake in their lives. I attended my sister’s wedding, the birth of her daughter and visited their small home that was established near the place of my birth.

Life happens in a blur and six years later, I was once again moved away in 2007 due to my reassignment by the Army. As I left Sth Korea, I assumed I would get the chance to hang out with my new found brother and sister when I retired from military service. I hoped I would again have a chance to play with their kids, go on trips and share in the bounties of life.

In 2011 when I was serving in Afghanistan, I received an email from my aunt stating my brother had died unexpectantly in his sleep. My heart was crushed and I immediately flew back to Korea to bury my younger brother. I learned one of life’s hardest lessons: that we cannot always look to the future to share and bond with those most important to us.

Jin Soo
Min-Soo, my brother who passed away in 2011

Taken for Granted

I was one of the lucky few adoptees to be adopted with a biological sibling. Initially, my sister was the annoying younger sibling that followed me everywhere. She was 2½  and I was 4 ½ years old when we were sent to the United States. I began kindergarten the same year that I arrived and learnt about American culture the hard way.

I was in trouble for going with the girls to the girl’s bathroom. I was chastised for not returning the books to the school library. I received detention for copying graffiti that was already written on the gym wall. I had no idea that the words, “the principal is a fucking retard” was derogatory! Life was a learning experience and nobody understood me at all.

My sister, on the other hand, was gifted. Life was unfair and it gave all the talent to one sibling but it was not me! She was a straight-A student. She made it to the State Finals as a gifted athlete. Even though I was 2 years older, she beat me when we raced towards the school bus. I later realised I was a pretty fast runner but my sister had that rare gift as an athlete. Lastly, my sister was way better looking. She won the local beauty pageant and after I joined the Army at 17 years old, I quit showing pictures of my little sister to my Army buddies because they would always ask me to set them up on dates with her. My sister had it all: she was stunningly beautiful, extremely smart and a gifted athlete who had the potential to compete at College or even at Olympic level.

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Jessica, my biological sister whom I grew up with

Once my sister reached adulthood she chartered a different course and over time the energetic, bright young woman who I was familiar with, morphed into someone I could not recognise. The resilient person I knew became a shell of her former self. She sought out love and married at a young age. The love she was seeking was fleeting. At the end of 3 divorces, she lost everything that mattered to her, including her own children. She squandered her opportunities. She received the GI bill to pay for College but she never enrolled.

Time took its toll, her beauty faded and the life of constant defeat opened up a crevasse that allowed her to be defeated in everything she did. The desire to be successful was now a distant memory and today she stares in the mirror wondering who the defeated person is on the other side: the older woman with a scalp of thinning grey hair, wrinkled face from living a tough life, thin frail yellow nicotine-stained fingers that work minimum wage jobs to barely make ends meet. Every time I reach out she tells me everything is fine. Yet I hear from her children about the suffering she endures. Being evicted from her home, having to sell her car way below market price to make ends meet. I can read between the lines when she speaks to me. I no longer understand her and my privileged life cannot understand the difficulties that she faces.

Conclusion

My family search was bifurcated. On one side, the door was slammed shut and I was met with rejection. On the other, across the hall, the door was opened for me to meet my half-siblings. The hallway that leads to my sister has been eroded by the termites of life, treading down a once familiar path now filled with navigating around an unstable sister who has squandered her life away.

This is what life has taught me:

Don’t have unrealistic expectations when it comes to searching for family.

The range of emotions and outcomes will vary with each person’s journey.

If you are searching, be prepared you may be greeted with open arms to meet a family who may not want anything to do with you. What you think will happen may be something completely different. Treasure the journey.

I’m grateful for all the people who helped me along the way to find my family. Many people went out of their way to help and guide me through the process. Sometimes it takes patience and time for relationships to blossom. Of course, the opposite can also occur. Like in the case of my biological sister, our relationship has deteriorated over time and I can no longer recognize the person she has become.

 

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.