Bolivian Family Searching

by Atamhi Cawayu, doctoral researcher at Ghent University (Belgium) and the Bolivian Catholic University ‘San Pablo’ (Bolivia). Together with Vicente Mollestad and Teresa Norman, they run Network of Bolivian Adoptees.

This blogpost was initially posted on Atamhi’s Facebook profile and Instagram-account @displaced.alteño

Searching for first family and adoptee activism: Some reflections

In 1993 I got displaced/adopted to Belgium when I was six-month-old. According to my papers, I was found as a new-born in the city of El Alto in Bolivia. Since my twenties, I started to return and reconnect with Bolivia. In the past two years I live more in Bolivia than in Belgium and I consider myself ‘based in Bolivia’. In all these years, I have attempted to search for information about my pre-adoptive past. Since June, together with a fellow Bolivian adoptee friend, we started our search here in Bolivia by starting a big campaign to make ourselves visible.

Reflection 1: Putting up posters in the city

In June 2020, my friend and I started to prepare our searches for our Bolivian relatives by designing posters and putting them in various streets and neighbourhoods in the cities of La Paz and El Alto. It’s not the first time I engage in searching for first families, in the past years I have completed searches for other Bolivian adoptees, which sometimes led to reunions. However, searching is challenging, especially when you don’t have names, places or anything that might lead to our families. 

In Bolivia there is a central authority responsible for international adoption, yet there is no support from organisations or institutions who can really help us. In our cases, we have limited information, but other adoptees have the full name of their mother, or names of family members. Even in their cases it’s often a bureaucratic journey to obtain more information. In addition, most of us don’t know the language, are not familiar with the system, and do not always have the time to search. 

When I started to do my PhD on this topic, my goal has always been to have not only a better insight into the adoption system in Bolivia but also to ‘crack’ the system and understand which clues are necessary in finding one’s family. Besides I think it’s important to document the stories of the first parents and take their experiences into account if we really want to make an honest evaluation of the system of adoption. 

When preparing the posters, making the design, paying the prints, I could only think of one thing: we as adult adoptees have the resources to start this search and do it in an almost professional way. Our parents probably didn’t have the same amount of resources, and even if they did, their stories were regarded as less interesting than ours right now.

Reflection 2: Engaging with TV media

After our first round of posters, we received a message from a journalist from a Bolivian TV channel who was interested in our stories. A few days later they interviewed us, and it was broadcasted one day later. Since then our story was covered by national TV media in Bolivia and it received lots of attention. The media is a necessary evil. It helped a lot in having our cases visible, yet it’s hard to control the questions. They also have their own narrative they want to show.

These experiences made me reflect about several things. Our stories were largely framed as ‘abandoned babies’ returning to Bolivia, after being adopted internationally, however this narrative already makes a lot of assumptions of our mothers abandoning us. When reading the comment section (I know I should not do this) a big part of the viewers didn’t understand why we would search for someone ‘that doesn’t look for us’. However, it’s so much more complex… 

In my case I was found, but I don’t know what really happened. It’s easy to assume I was ‘abandoned’ by one of my parents, but I don’t know. In my research on first parents, I have encountered several parents who never gave up their child to adoption, did it in vulnerable circumstances, or were even pressured by intermediaries (and I’m not even talking about kidnap and illegal adoption). Yet, in many cases they were interested to know what happened to their children, if they were still alive, if they ended up well, etc. Part of our activism is also to speak about this other side of adoption. It’s not always a fairy-tale as many people think. We are part of system that exploits global inequalities, displaces poor brown/indigenous bodies from South to North, and prefers parenthood from the Global North over parenthood of the Global South. 

It is irritating people don’t understand the complexity and violence relinquishment and adoption can entail. Even if our parents wanted to look for us, they wouldn’t be able to find us as we have been relocated and displaced to other continents. When I search for my ‘family’, it is to make myself findable, so they know I am here in Bolivia and willing to be in touch with them. 

Reflection 3: The violence of international adoption

In the days after our first interview, various Bolivian TV channels called us for an interview. Our story was spread nationwide by radio, TV, newspaper. We tried to take advantage of this moment to open the discussion on transnational adoption.

During the interviews we tried to mention that for us adoptees there is no assistance for adoptees to search. Not in our adoptive countries, nor in Bolivia. We have to do almost everything by ourselves, and then I am not even talking about learning the language, understanding the documents, being familiar with the city. As my friend mentioned in several interviews, “searching is something political”. For me searching is doing something you were not supposed to do. It’s opening up histories that were meant to be hidden, it’s doing something within a system that tried to erase everything of your being.

Moreover, another dominant idea is to be lucky and fortunate when being adopted transnationally. One of the journalists said to me “you must be very fortunate”, “many people here would love to be in your shoes”. Throughout the years I have met many people, especially here in Bolivia, who told me I must have been lucky to be have been saved from my ‘miserable future’ in Bolivia and to have a ‘wealthy’ life in Europe. It’s like people think we only ‘won’ by being adopted internationally, but they often forget we have lost many things. I consider all the opportunities I have because of growing up in Europe as compensation for everything I have lost, and I have lost everything.

From my personal perspective, the violence implicit in transnational adoption is to be involuntary transcontinentally displaced, completely severed from our genetic ancestors, disconnected from our community, culture, language, nation, continent, and without any possibility to find our families ever again. For most of us Bolivia will become a country we once lived in. In addition, all our former identities are erased so we can be reborn, renamed, Christianised and assimilated with our adoptive countries. We grow up with complete strangers we are expected to love and call family. We are being brought into a society that doesn’t want us, that racialises us and discriminates us, without any community that provides shelter or understanding. This so-called child protection system – mostly in the benefit of well-off Western adoptive parents who wants to fulfil their heteronormative parental dream – erases everything from us. It is not the first time in colonial history child welfare systems are used to shape, control and erase indigenous children’s identities, and most children adopted from Bolivia have an indigenous background, be it Aymara or Quechua. Transnational adoption is for me an ongoing colonial project of civilising, controlling and managing children from the Global South, transforming them from ‘savages’ to ’civilised’ citizens in the benefit of the capitalist machine of the North. Transnational adoption would not have been possible without a history of colonialism and its ongoing colonial gaze towards countries in the South such as Bolivia.

The adoptee experience is something very diverse. I know some adoptees might disagree on this and that’s fine. I also know other adoptees might recognise themselves in what I write. Every experience is valid. However, my fight and activism are structural against a system that has caused a lot of injustices and is not in the benefit of first parents and adult adoptees. As another adoptee once told me: our parents maybe didn’t have the resources to fight for their rights, but we have, and we will fight for them.

Further Reading

Atamhi’s latest research paper: From Primal to Colonial Wound – Bolivian adoptees reclaiming the narrative of healing

Life Lessons from an Adoptee – Part 6

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

‘Be your own hero, be your own saviour, send all your suffering into the fire. Let no foot, mark your ground, let no hand, hold you down.’

Patrick Wolf

I don’t know about you but as a woman we are force fed the idea since we were little girls that a big strong man will come along and ‘save us’ from our troubles and fix all of our problems. And maybe not everyone believed that literally but I think you will find that especially for women the fantasy may linger in our subconscious more than we think. It can sometimes be a narrative we subconsciously place ourselves into, especially in relationships where all our inner fears and unhealthy beliefs are mirrored to us.  I also know especially for the younger generations that love is painted as this happily ever after where the partner will come along and solve all our problems if we just find the right one, when really it is no one else’s responsibility but our own to fix our problems.

Maybe that’s just the nativity that comes with youth and young love. And for me personally I believed that as a little girl and when I got older I thought that to an extent that my partner should be there to go through every battle with me, to hold me up, be a shoulder to cry on, to cheer me on, to be everything to me, and I went through an abusive 3 year co-dependent relationship to realise that is not love. Its co-dependency. And co-dependency tends to happen with people who haven’t worked on themselves and their unhealthy coping mechanisms to defence mechanisms to having an unhealthy definition of what love is.

With being adopted as a little girl in some way or another I would dream of getting a letter from my birth family to come in the mail and to come tell me everything as to why they abandoned me. To come and save me from my loneliness, from feeling like I don’t belong in this country or community. It felt like I was an alien that fell out of the sky with no history, no past, just a blank canvas. I remember watching films like ‘Lilo and Stitch’ and feeling like Stitch exactly; who was exactly an alien with no real parents and trying so hard to understand why he didn’t. I felt like every hero and heroine who had no back story, and would often fantasize about being suddenly whisked away on an adventure, where I would find out an epic story about my roots and my birth family and realise my place in the world.

Basically, I was waiting for someone to come save me, to help me understand my pain but no one ever came. And that was devastating.

What I realised growing up, and from having experiences in different relationships that I was the one who had to save myself. I was the woman who had to pick up the sword and fight my own battles, to find out my own truth, to wipe my own tears from my face. I had to be the hero in my own story. I had to be the one to unpack my trauma and unhealthy coping mechanisms, unhealthy definition of love, and heal myself because no one else was going to do that for me. And frankly it’s no one else’s responsibility but mine. I think as adoptees we need to realise that, take accountability in our pain and trauma and take the steps in unravelling that and healing ourselves.

Because honestly if we’re told since children or traumatized into a narrative where we have to rely on others for our happiness and our rescue from our pain or suffering; we rid ourselves of our own personal power to do so. We put ourselves into a narrative where we become even more powerless than we already imagined ourselves to be as orphans or children or adoptees. But we have a choice when we get to adulthood; we can choose what our narrative is, we have the power, the proverbial pen to our story in our hands.

Life Lessons from an Adoptee – Part 1

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

‘Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life, don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking, don’t let the noise of other people’s opinions drown out your inner voice, and most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.’

Steve Jobs

There are studies that show it is common for adoptees to create a false sense of self – usually between two identities – the perfect golden child who does everything for the approval of their adoptive families so they will never face rejection, or the rebel who may reject their families before they can reject them (again). The golden child can look a lot like the astute student who pours hours and hours into their classes, gets straight A’s, is terrified to get anything less than this, someone who never disagrees with their parents opinions or ideologies, and may claim there is nothing to complain about in terms of being adopted. They may end up being the type in fact (and of course you don’t have to be adopted to do this) but to live out the life their adoptive families want for them. They may want them to study to be a doctor, a surgeon, a scientist, an engineer instead of doing what their heart truly desires.

For me personally, I was definitely one of those types of false selves that adoptees may tend to fall into, the over achiever, the perfectionist, the one terrified of their parents’ disapproval, or letting my teachers and mentors down. For me ever since I was a child, I always wanted to be an artist. I knew deep down that’s what I wanted to be my whole life; and my parents were very aware of this. However, they tried to bring me back down to reality; saying that I had to be the best of the best in the industry like Picasso or Van Gogh to get anywhere in that field. They especially emphasised this when I got to late high school and had to think about seriously what I wanted to do in my life as a career.

I ended up choosing psychology as that was a science, something tangible and structured that I could follow according to society’s expectations. Don’t get me wrong-psychology; human and social psychology and behaviour does interest me but it didn’t ignite a fire or a spark inside me the way that art does. In the end I chose to study Animal Behaviour when I graduated and got accepted into university. When I was exposed to the outside world, the real world I realised how much of my life I was allowing to be dictated by my parents. I realised that I had to live my own life and my own dreams. And yes, it was scary to face my parents and tell them I was transferring to the Bachelor of Arts and I wanted to be an artist. But I paved a path in my life of so much self-discovery and knowledge; where I met so many wonderful people, I aligned with in so many ways. I don’t regret it to this day.

Let me just say this from personal experience to fellow adoptees; live the life you want to live, not what society dictates you should do; not what your family or friends think you should do – do what you want, what brings you joy, excitement, what makes your heart sing and your spirit soar.

Because when your family and those friends or whoever aren’t in your life anymore you are going to be stuck with the life and dreams that you made. No one else has to live it but you, and you will experience your happiness or lack of happiness, not them nor anyone else. You will be the one who will go to bed every night feeling either fulfilled or unsatisfied with the decisions you make every-day, so make sure you forge your own path, your own dream so you can find true happiness. It isn’t easy sometimes, but nothing in life that is worthwhile is.

Adoption is Complex

by Rowan van Veelen adopted from Sri Lanka to the Netherlands.

My two mothers

ADOPTION

Am I unhappy in the Netherlands?

I’m against adoption and still happy with my beautiful life in the Netherlands. It’s not as black and white as everyone thinks.

I can be happy in the Netherlands and at the same time unhappy about the lack of not knowing my biological family.

ANGRY AT ADOPTION IS NOT THE SAME AS ANGRY AT ADOPTIVE PARENTS

My adoptive parents did everything out of love. What they couldn’t give me as adoptive parents is the mirroring and the comprehension of my losses.

It is very simple to see that they are my parents but there is also the character part, which is organic and where we differ.
Why would I be mad at them about this? This is something unfair to expect from adoptive parents because they can’t give that either.

Just like every parent, they make mistakes in education and that’s okay! So I’m not mad about that either. So I can say personally, I am against adoption but at the same time grateful for who my adoptive parents are. At the same time, I missed my biological parents.
Being adopted is not black or white but grey.

AGAINST ADOPTION BECAUSE .. ?

I found my biological family and my papers were correct. So why would I oppose adoption? As mentioned above, I have good parents, so what’s the problem then?

The problem is that money is made from me at my most vulnerable moment in life when I was a baby.

The moment I depended most on others, my vulnerability was taken advantage of.

For others to make money, I feel like something that was traded. It’s a scarey feeling that people arranged everything in the procedure to get me to the Netherlands. It’s not a safe feeling. This makes sense because it was never about my safety but what I was worth as a baby for sale.

So yes, I’m super happy that my papers were correct and that after 27 years I met my family! But that doesn’t change the way this went and the negative consequences on my development because of these events.

NOT ONLY IN SRI LANKA

Then why am I against adoption from all over the world?
Because as long as money is made from adoption procedure, children’s rights will be violated.

As long as demand from the West exists for babies, the supply will be created in poor countries.
This doesn’t stop until the demand stops.

If you have to adopt if necessary, do so from within the Netherlands. Believe me, I understand how difficult the choices are for being childless, but you must never forget the importance of the child.

Can we ignore or deny that racism exists for adoptees of colour?

How Much Racism Do You Face Every Day? - The New York Times

We are in the midst of unprecedented times with COVID-19 taking over the world but as an Asian intercountry adoptee raised in a white adoptive country, I find myself once again, in that uncomfortable “in-between” space. I have lived the experience of sitting between two very different cultures and races – east and west. I am a product of both but yet at this point in time, I feel ashamed at how human beings can behave and treat each other when ultimately, we are of the same human race.

This is but a small collection of articles that have been published about the increases in racism against Asian people since COVID-19. It is observed in all countries around the world.
Montreal’s Korean Consulate Issues Safety Warning after Man Stabbed
New York Attorney General Setup up Hotline to Report Hate Crimes against Asian Americans
Racist Attacks Against Asians Continue to Rise as the Coronavirus Threat Grows
FBI Warns of Potential Surge in Hate Crimes against Asian Americans amid Coronavirus
Disgusting Moment Racist Mother Hurls Abuse at Masked Commuters
Wikipedia’s List of Incidents of Xenophobia and Racism related to COVID-19

I have been raised with the white mindset of my adoptive country but I have also spent over a decade embracing my once removed cut-off Asian heritage. My current pride in being Asian didn’t happen easily because I was adopted in an era without education to advise parents that our cultural and racial heritage is of immense importance. I had to put years of concerted effort into reclaiming back my birth heritage, race and culture. So I find this period of overt racism against Chinese/Asians as very confronting. It reminds me of how I once use to hate my own Asian-ness. I was teased as a child for how different I looked — picked on for my slanting eyes, flat nose, and non European profile. I grew up isolated being the only non-white person in my community as a child. I know that for many Asian adoptees (and many adoptees of colour) right now, we are having to relive those racist moments all over again.

What has been particularly triggering recently, is to see the American President choosing to consciously speak about the COVID-19 disaster with pointed fingers at a whole race, calling it the “Chinese Virus”. I felt personally offended. Did you?

When a leader of the world’s superpower labels a whole race in such a negative manner it overtly tells us that racism is very real, acted out by those highest in power. They make it appear as if it’s “normal”, “okay”, “justified” to do so —- but racism should never be okay! So adoptive families, if you haven’t recognised that we intercountry and transracial adoptees experience racial micro aggressions every day, I hope that this period in time, is your wake up call!

Racism is one of the most common issues we intercountry adoptees end up having to navigate. Facing racism and having to constantly explain why we look Asian (or any colour different to the majority) but speak, think and act like a white person in our adoptive country is a constant challenge. This has been documented in many of the resources we adoptees contribute to and create, eg. The Colour of Difference and The Colour of Time. Sadly, not all adoptive parents recognise the racism we experience and many are definitely not equiped to know how to prepare us for it.

Some more-awoke-adoptive-parents have recently asked what they can do to support their adoptive children who are of Asian descent. I’m sharing this advice from Mark Hagland, a Korean adoptee who has been co-educating adoptive parents at this facebook group for many years:

I think that parents absolutely need to find ways to explain the situation and the environment to their Asian children. Of course, whatever they say must be age-appropriate and sensitive to the individual temperament and stage of development of their individual child/ren. And every child is different. But all children deserve the truth–sensitively and lovingly shared, of course.

Some parents will inevitably say things like, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly harm my child! I want her/him to remain innocent for as long as possible!” Any such sentiment reveals white privilege. All children of colour end up experiencing racism. The least loving thing possible is to avoid preparing one’s child to experience the inevitable. Far better to lovingly explain to one’s child that there are going to be difficult experiences out there, but that they will be okay because they will be supported by you, their parents.

I often tell parents of young children that even the youngest children can understand the concept of fairness. Start with that, if you have a young child. Start with the idea that some people are mean/unfair just because of how someone looks or where they’re from. It IS mean/unfair. With a young child, we need to prepare that child without imparting fear or trauma.

I made sure as a young adult to move to a very large, diverse, welcoming, progressive city in order to live in psychological comfort. And this is literally the first time as an adult that I’m even the least bit worried about experiencing aggressions or micro aggressions against me personally, in the city where I live. I believe it will mostly be okay, but who can say for certain?

I have also been like Mark and as an adult, I ended up relocating myself to a city area that is much more diverse than where I grew up. In my city of Sydney, Australia, I have found a place to belong where I’m not the only Asian or non white person in my community. I have also married into an Asian family which has helped me immensely to embrace my race.

For young adult adoptees, if you are struggling at the moment due to the increase in racism you see directed towards Asians from COVID-19, I highly recommend joining adoptee led groups and communities where you can connect with others and be supported by your peers. There’s nothing like being able to freely speak amongst a group of people who understand what it’s like! The validation and peer support is invaluable. If you have found yourself hugely triggered and struggling emotionally, please seek out further professional support and surround yourself with a strong support network of people who understand what it’s like to be a racial minority. Here is also a link with some great tips.

Right now it’s not an easy time for anyone, but for adoptees and any people of colour, it is a heightened time for being a target of racist acts/comments and/or for being triggered. Please take time to nurture yourself and join into communities who do their best to support and understand you. Let’s all:

Racism is Alive and Well in Novato | Novato, CA Patch

A closely related post we have shared previously, I don’t see Colour.

Biology doesn’t matter?

#4 ICAV Blogger Collaborative Series from Adoption Awareness Month 2019

An adoption myth

Do you have any family members who you would never have anything to do with if they weren’t family?

If you discovered your baby had been switched at birth and you had been raising another person’s baby, would you look for your child?

If you discovered you’d been switched at birth and had been raised by another family, would you want to meet your biological family?

Do you love to hear stories of family members who share interests or talents with you?
If there is a hereditary medical health problem in your family, do you feel you have a right know about it?

If a mother loses her baby before she gives birth and never meets the baby, will she grieve it?

Is a relationship with step family different to a relationship with biological family?

If you want to have a family, is your first choice to have a biological child?

If your answer is YES to one or more of these questions, then never tell an adoptee that biology doesn’t matter.

by Juliette Lam

My father was admitted to hospital yesterday as he had tightness in his chest and pain across his shoulder radiating down to his shoulder blade. The first question he was asked was, “Is there any family history of heart disease?” He was able to say, “My father had a heart attack, my brother had a stent put in and my sister also has heart disease, so yes there is.” This was then able to inform the medial team assessing him that there was a high possibility that this was heart related and so they could act accordingly.

When I was diagnosed with hip dysplasia back in 2010 the first thing I got asked was, “Is there any family history?” This of course was not the first time I’ve been asked that question. I’ve been asked that question my whole my life when I’ve presented for menial whatever’s. I’m adopted … oh right … sometimes awkward silence …. and therefore I don’t know.

The first thing we did of course when we found out that I had hip dysplasia, was get my daughter tested and bingo – guess what ?! It’s genetic!! She had it too. I was pleased but also sad that I had passed this on to her. I was pleased that for the first time in my life my newly discovered diagnosis meant I could help her catch hers early enough for her to still need surgery but not as invasive as what I needed to have. And there is the case in point, from a medical perspective on why biology matters.

by Kate Coghlan

Biology doesn’t matter. But they say blood is thicker than water.
Biology doesn’t matter. But more than 26 million people have taken a genetic ancestry test.
Biology doesn’t matter. But you have your grandma’s eyes.
Biology doesn’t matter. But I’m so happy you got your dad’s musical talent.
Biology doesn’t matter. But most states in the USA seal original birth certificates. Permanently.
Biology doesn’t matter. But DNA carries the genetic instructions for development, functioning, growth, and reproduction of all known organisms.
Biology doesn’t matter. But 406 episodes of Forensic Files kept TV audiences enthralled using biological evidence to catch violent criminals.
Biology doesn’t matter. But ‘Finding Your Roots’ is a primetime hit for public television in the USA.
Biology doesn’t matter. But an estimated 8 million children have been born worldwide using IVF and other reproductive technologies.
Biology doesn’t matter. But all I ever wanted was to know who my mother is.
Biology doesn’t matter. But mothers and the children they lost to adoption are desperately searching for each other, all over the world.
Biology doesn’t matter. But it does. It really, really does.

by Abby Hilty

Một giọt máu đào hơn ao nước lã / A drop of blood is worth more than all the water in a pond.

In the house I grew up in, on the second floor, there was a formal dining room and then a hallway leading to a large bathroom, a sewing room, the master bedroom and lastly my bedroom. On the wall opposite the dining room there was plenty of space for my adoptive parents to hang framed black-and-white photos of distant relatives who stemmed from both their family trees. In order to go down the hallway to my bedroom, each day and night, I had to pass by this orderly array of photos. Sometimes I passed right by them, sometimes, usually when I knew I was alone, I would look deep into the subjects’ eyes, so much so, that I’d start to believe they were staring back at me.

It was at these times, and in so many other ways, that I wanted someone with facial features, hair colour and physical stature similar to mine to peer back at me and explain the strange dissonance in which I increasingly felt trapped. But no help was coming because I was beyond help in some odd excommunicative aspect. No matter how much I tried dampening my distinguishable appearance, it carried me right back to my peers who generally judged me to not be wholly compatible with their cliques. As far as my adoptive parents and immediate family were concerned, I was theirs, for all intents and purposes, but when it came to innocuous remarks about familial traits or good-natured physical comparisons between cousins I was set aside and ignored. It was as if they were letting me know that this was “family business that doesn’t concern you.”

When you don’t resemble the people you’re forced to swim with in the big pond of The World, then you lower your body temp and try to cope and always look for an escape.

by Kev Minh

This is the last in the ICAV Blogger Collaborative Series that was created for Adoption Awareness Month 2019. Huge thanks to our ICAV Blogging team for their commitment and generosity in sharing their voices.

I Don’t See Colour!

#2 ICAV Blogger Collaborative Series from Adoption Awareness Month 2019

A common comment made to intercountry adoptees. Our responses?

When someone says “I don’t see colour,” to me this means they don’t see me. They will argue that they see me as a “person,” just like we are all people. But I counter that view because my personhood, my identity, my humanity, cannot be uncoupled from my brown-ness.

Pretending not to see colour has the effect of negating everyone’s ancestry, personal and familial history, and their lived experiences in the racialised society we all live in – no matter where we live. In intercountry adoption (ICA), this “colourblind” view can be absolutely devastating because ICA is dominated by white people adopting brown and black babies from all over the world. If white adoptive parents refuse to see their child’s skin colour or their own skin colour, how can they fully parent and love their child unconditionally?

For, it would seem, being colourblind is only possible under certain conditions: (a) I don’t have to see your colour; (b) I don’t have to acknowledge my colour; (c) we never have to talk about what your colour or my colour means; (d) we never, ever have to talk about how those colours exist in relation to each other within the larger context of culture and society.

From the perspective of a brown intercountry adoptee like me, I feel a mixture of sadness and anger towards anyone who espouses a colourblind mentality because they essentially negate the history of my brown ancestors.

If you refuse to allow that humanity has attached certain assumed behaviours and levels of privilege and importance to different skin colours, how can we possibly have a conversation on why these structures are in place, who’s benefitting and who’s being harmed by them, and why it’s important to create a truly level playing field?

When white adoptive parents pretend to be colourblind, how can they help their child be proud of the skin they’re in? How can they recognise their child’s need for racial mirrors? How can they help their child understand the beautiful and rich aspects of the child’s ancestry and culture as well as the pain and oppression their race has experienced and continues to experience, and how those dynamics relate to each other? How can they help nurture a racially competent child who grows up into a racially competent adult – even if that means their son or daughter is racially competent in a race that doesn’t match their own? How can they see the role that their white privilege has played throughout their own lives and via the intercountry adoption of their child? How can they decide how to use their white privilege going forward?

None of this is possible if we are teaching and encouraging people, including white adoptive parents, to pretend not to see colour.

by Abby Hilty

Congratulations you’ve just completely erased my first culture, my birth family, my genetic history, my country of origin! Look I know you meant well, but underneath this, there’s an insensitivity or lack of awareness about everything that I was and still am before I was adopted. It’s kind of like you’re saying, “Good job – you have assimilated so well that you’re just like me/us now!” But I’m not.

One of my fellow intercountry adoptee friends joked about how we are coconuts – brown on the outside and white on the inside. It’s funny, but it’s also not funny.

My adoptive parents tried to show me books and documentaries about Vietnam when I was growing up, but I wanted nothing to do with anything that highlighted my difference. When I got sunburnt on my nose, I asked mum if I’d be white underneath. So I got caught up in the “not wanting to see my colour thing” either.

I was very good at being a chameleon, it’s like I had to become one to survive. I was so desperate to fit in and to belong that I learnt fast about how to adapt my personality to be loved and liked. I still do this to this day, but I’m learning that I’m enough as I am and I don’t need to perform to be worthy of being loved.

by Kate Coghlan

The popular TV show This Is Us wowed audiences again with its coverage of transracial adoption. I don’t watch the show, and a lot of adoptees can’t bring themselves to watch it either. And yet it’s immensely popular with adoptive parents. The supposedly “mic drop” scene is as follows:

Jack: When I look at you, I don’t see colour. I just see my son.

Randall: Then you don’t see me, Dad.

During NAAM, it’s particularly biting to see this interaction getting mainstream attention. You see, many of us adoptees of colour have had this exact dialogue with our colourblind families and friends (myself included). 

This isn’t an original line, and dare I say, I wouldn’t be surprised if the writers lurk in adoption spaces and stole this from the stories of adoptees, co-opting our stories for better ratings. 

This isn’t some TV script for your entertainment; this is a painful part of our real lives. It hurts us in deep, existential ways to be denied access to our birth culture and traditions and then to be unseen by our adoptive families. It is actively rejecting us a second time. 

If you refuse to “see” the parts of me that are a brown Indian, then you are actively refusing to support me on my journey to discover who I was born to be. Your choice to take the easy road to claim, “I’m not racist” actively isolates me and in turn plays into its own racial problems. Take the harder road with me, with any of the people of colour in your lives, and learn how to unlearn racial biases. This work requires you to see, so take off your (colour)blinders. 

The fact that it takes a network TV show to get this concept to take hold rather than the direct words of real adoptees should disgust anyone and everyone who loves an adoptee. 

I challenge adoptive parents and allies who support the adoptee attempt to “flip the script” during NAAM to think about how prioritising entertainment over the real words of adoptees is its own form of silencing; to be more intentional about whose voices you choose to uplift; and be more critical of the media you choose to consume.

#NotMyNAAM
#NAAM
#FlipTheScript
#adoption

by Cherish Bolton

Somewhere along the way in my life, I got the message that I’m not a real Asian. As a mixed race adoptee I don’t even dare try to join Chinese adoptee communities or Indian ones for fear of not being enough in some way. I can’t make sense of what it is to be a Malaysian Chindian — I don’t know any others, I’ve never met one. There are no books I know of, no museums or movies. Even if there were, I would be reading them the way an outsider learns about history.

Something I resent is the suggestion I should do something in order to belong. Belonging isn’t a citizenship test!

As an intercountry adoptee brought to England by a white couple with no friends of colour, all the markers of my culture have been erased. Except my skin colour, my hair, it’s texture, my eyes. Each time someone says, “I don’t see colour”, or simply behave as though they don’t, this implicit message that I don’t belong in my biological culture is reinforced and I’m erased a little more.

I don’t forget that my gay friends are gay, I don’t forget their struggle to belong or to feel safe holding hands or kissing in public. To erase that would be a failure of empathy and allegiance. Of course it isn’t the only part of their identity and I’m interested in all the other parts too. The ones that are like me (or not), the parts that amaze, amuse or confuse me — I love them all.

Everyone just wants to be seen. I wonder what makes you feel unseen?

When we experience ourselves differently to how we are seen, there’s a disconnect, a disruption to our identity which isn’t resolvable with free will alone.

Belonging is relational – by its very nature it demands the acceptance of others.

by Juliette Lam

Since the later years of coming to terms with my identity, fitting in between my two worlds (adoptive and birth), understanding the impacts of being relinquished and adopted, I have shared many of my experiences to wide audiences but one situation close to me, never ceases to frustrate me the most. This is when my own adoptive family make this comment, “But we see you as one of us” or “We don’t see you as being different” after trying to explain how I’ve always felt so different and out of place.

I acknowledge, in their eyes, they are trying to say to me that I am accepted and embraced by them as being one of their “clan” despite my skin colour and outward obvious differences. But without any in-depth discussions about the complexities of being intercountry adopted, these types of comments just made me feel even more disconnected and isolated from them. What it showed me was they had very little understanding of my intercountry adopted journey. When they don’t have these important conversations with me, they are oblivious to how their comments make me feel even though I know it is not what they intend.

What would I prefer my family to say? I would prefer them to acknowledge my differences and really try to understand where I’m coming from. For me it’s about the discrepancy I experience on a daily basis because strangers throughout my life meet me once and make basic assumptions that I am NOT one of them (white Australian) based on my appearance – my skin colour, my eyes, my hair. The internal battle I face as an intercountry adoptee, is that whilst in my private family circles I might be fully accepted, it is NOT the experience I have in public outer life.

The constant jarring reminders of “not belonging” in my wider adoptive society leaves me with a lot of unresolved questions of who I am, where do I belong, who are my clan, and how did this reality eventuate. Are my adoptive family even aware of these impacts? No because they are so blind to what everyone else can see and received very little education on race, culture, and the importance of open discussions. Ignorance is not bliss in this case.

So when my adoptive family says, “I don’t see your difference, you’re one of us” when clearly I’m not as clarified by many strangers, this comment only acts to shut down the conversation instead of opening it up and allowing me the space and love to process competing realities.

Being intercountry adopted is not a reality we adoptees can ignore for too long!

by Lynelle Long

I don’t know if it’s the fact that I didn’t grow up in an English-speaking country, but we don’t use the word “colour” to describe a person. In Sweden, we use “foreigner” as opposed to being Swedish. So instead of saying “I don’t see colour”, people would say “I never think of you as anything but Swedish” or “I see you as the same as us”. They say that to be nice.

When I grew up there were very few people in Sweden with a darker complexion. Most didn’t speak the language well and some of them (of course, a small minority) appeared shady. Swedish mindset is to question if they (dark complexion people) could be trusted.

To tell me that I don’t appear foreign means I am a person they trust. But … when I go on dating sites strangers viewing my profile, only see colour. I get less guys who write than my white peers, less matches with white skin but more super likes from “foreign” men.

One time I wrote in my profile text that I was adopted so as not to appear scary. Then I thought adopted might also sound scary, because in Sweden that implies psychological problems. So I deleted it again and had to come to terms with being less popular online.

My close friends have never said these words to me about not appearing foreign but I do things said like this occasionally and every time, I am offended. As if that random person has a right to put an approval stamp on me. As if I were to do anything untrustworthy, he or she would judge me much harder and say, “Hmm, I guess she wasn’t like us, after all”.

by Sarah Mårtensson

What defines me is not what you see, it’s what I see. Colours don’t colour my life, but my experiences in a prejudiced and bigoted society have.

A transracial adoptee’s worth as a human being is both legally and socially determined by his adoptive parents, his adoptive family, their friends and neighbours, and the entire local community that is encouraged to invite him in as one of their own. But as I eventually learned the security blanket of immediate family didn’t always save me from explaining what I was doing there or defending how I belonged. In my youth, it seemed like I was constantly feeling a barrage of disconcerting interactions with other kids who called me out, in so many words, as being a foreigner, even though I knew nothing else than what my Irish Catholic family had taught me: That I was an “Allen”, that I had to go to Mass every Sunday, that I spoke English and that I belonged to them.

The erasure and then replacement of my identity reverberated in how I developed a sense of self: I didn’t really have a Self. I had a mock-up of one, a misfitting template that I was encouraged to carry around and display each and every day. I didn’t know what it meant to be Vietnamese because that was not the point of this whole adoption experiment. I was trained to look in the mirror and pretend that I was just another Irish Catholic kid with a bad temper. I was trained to not read about the war I had been exfiltrated from. I was trained to see myself like everyone else.

I even trained myself not to see colour. Even though my graduating class in high school comprised many kids from refugee families from Southeast Asia as well as several Asian adoptees, including me, I couldn’t pick them out because I refused to see them other than strangers. I didn’t hang out with any of them or even talk to them because why would I? I was “Kevin Allen”. Son of Evalyn and Bob, and oldest brother to two sisters. I couldn’t even find myself for so long because I was lost. Lost in the fantasy that I was just like my parents, just like my aunts and uncles and cousins, and just like the community that held me under its tutelage.

In art studio class in high school we had to do a self-portrait. I took my time drawing mine. I used coloured pencils and got the shading and features of my young face all correct and flattering. I thought it was a great representation of me. It was one of my proudest works. But I never kept it for myself. I gave it to my parents. I felt I had no use for it.

by Kev Minh

Grieving Mother

Moth….errr. Can I say this word without a pause? Moth..eerrr. Can I say this word without my mind racing to a hundred different thoughts? Moth….errrr. Potentially, maybe, and yet possibly, no. For me it is a word that brings up many connotations, some good, most bad. A word that is hard to utter as my stuttery voice reflects my heart. The purity of the word is lost to me. I am not used to the word on its own, but rather always with another word in front, whether it be birth mother, first mother, adoptive mother, real mother or not real mother. Always another word in front, as if delineating my experience into parts, not a whole. Confusion ensues and my head is spinning as everyone tries to tell me what moth…err is and what a real moth…er is. The expectations and idealisations of moth…er fracture under increasing weight of scrutiny and life experiences. Instead of asking, people are shouting. This is what a real mother does or does not do, or this is what it means to be a mother. Can’t you see that the very fact people are arguing means there’s something not whole about this? No wonder I can’t fully utter this word on my own, bewitched by longing and sorrow, and fully feeling the emotional tension in the word. I can’t escape it. Even when I stare into the eyes of a romantic partner, the alarm bells ring and the sirens wail. What makes this woman different than a moth…errr who left a son? What ensures that the same won’t happen again? The primal fear and the visceral reaction. Moth…eer, what have you done to me? My head is spinning and about to implode. 

It feels strange to say it on my own, waiting impatiently for another accompanying word to show up beside it like a dog searching for its master. Can’t a child have two moth…errs? There I go again. Damn. Another qualifying moth…err. As much as I need to grieve for the moth…errr that is lost, I must also grieve the idea of moth…errr and the fact that, upon relinquishment, my idea of moth…errr was forever shattered, leaving me, a baby, to pick up the pieces. Adults tried to reason for the scraps of moth…err floating around in my heart, and yet, now it is the adult me picking up the pieces to reason with the baby me about the idea of moth..err. Can a man nurture himself? Can he become his own idea of moth…err? What choice is left? I am tired of people defining mother for me. I have an idea of it, because I have lost it, and know the effects of it. And yet where can one begin to heal, except for first grieving mother?

by Joey Beyer

Show Love

It’s been a long-running inner debate since the time I was born. Abandonment will do that to a child. It’s been my sickening suspicion that my life has been a waste. This suspicion was probably implanted in me as soon as my birth parents scattered from my presence. The fact that I was left in the care of strangers who couldn’t quite get past the impression that I was a stranger in their midst was never lost on me. With my identity as an adoptee not yet fully realised or solidified so early in life, there were days when I felt unmoored. Not knowing what it truly felt to be loved by my own blood, I would wish only to be expelled from the love and care that had been handed down to me by those who tried to convince me they only had my best interests at heart. The residual resentment of not knowing whether my father and mother loved me and wanted me with them has coloured the way in which I distrust myself with the feeling and act of loving someone. I remain convinced that there is something wrong with the way I love and how I have sought love from others. Even allowing love for myself was never an expectation. Love is a thing that people always said they had for me but could neither show nor explain to me because how can you describe something that seems to be only pulled out of thin air at one’s own convenience. As a youngster I grew up with the nagging feeling that I was thrown in with a lot of people to live in a random place that I didn’t share a history with, but was coaxed each and every day to respect and appreciate by saying “I love you” whenever it was my turn to speak. Affection and companionship were thrown at my feet with the admonition to take them or leave them. I mirrored customs, expectations, and incentives to love, but what was missing was a genuine and clear-headed comprehension of what it means to love and what happens to your mind when you decide to show love and receive love. Absent any key discussions and explanations, my young mind could only play along and follow the unwritten rules when it came to familial bonding, early crushes, and soul-mating. Because of my pretend existence and ignorance of my innate truths, I conducted myself like a laboratory technician whenever the atmosphere softened around me and I started to tingle all over when my eyes settled on a girl at school or in casual passing. In my head, I had all the flasks, tubes and chemicals available to concoct a love potion that I could sprinkle over the brow of the one who had caught my eye at the time. The sad, self-defeating thing was, though, my feelings, thoughts, words, and so much of my personality resided solely in my head. This self-imposed silence, masquerading as humility and reservedness, had the effect of extracting sympathy from a potential lover. I then used this sympathy to position myself as the man who could rescue them from pain that others had inflicted, from histories of spouse/partner abuse and from their own self-destructive habits. My ego always got a kick out of playing savior, exalted as it always was by any reciprocal affection. Selfish were these gambits, nay, habits of involving myself in a person’s life so as to ostensibly use them to help me remind myself that I am a good person, even though I feel myself drifting out of humanity’s fold as each year passes.

About Kev Minh