Grief is a weird concept. I expect myself to grieve people that I know, family and friends that have passed. Those times it makes sense to grieve the loss of a loved one. I know them and I’ve loved them. I am able to grieve a person that I’ve met, a person who impacted my life for one reason or another. People also grieve when there are tragic events, a lot of times this come with knowing their names and faces.
Grieving my biological parents and the life I might have had in China is a weird type of grief. Grieving people that I’ve never met and a life I never had is a confusing type of grief. There is no person to look at, there is no name that goes with the grief. Then there is the grief and numbness when it comes to grieving the information I don’t know. Grief overall as an intercountry adoptee is a weird concept, it’s a weird word.
There has always been a void in my heart for my biological family. A dream of mine was to have my biological family at my wedding and as the day gets closer, it’s become more real understanding I probably won’t have that dream come true. The grief has been so real, it’s been overtaking. Sometimes the grief I have comes and I don’t even realise it’s grief until I’m struggling at the time. It’s the same concept of grieving someone that I know personally yet, there is no name, no face for this person(s). I never knew their voice or their lifestyle. It is grieving someone I’ve never met.
I’ve learned it’s okay to grieve, I am a human. Every single person has lost someone they know and they’ve gone through the grief process. People grieve in different ways. I don’t compare the way I grieve with the way someone else grieves. There is no timeline on when I should stop grieving. I might think I’m done, and then it starts up again.
I was really excited when I heard there was a book created by a global network of Bolivian adoptees! I LOVE that we are hearing from them because although they are not as numerous as the Colombian or Chilean cohorts of intercountry adoptees, they are part of the large numbers who have been sent out of South America as children. Their voice, like all groups of intercountry adoptees, is really important!
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Communal Histories of Displacement and Adoption. It covers a wide range of 20 Bolivian adoptee experiences sent to countries in Europe (Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, France, Netherlands, Norway), the USA and Canada. What I immediately responded to was the beautiful artwork that draws you in visually, providing a sense of the colourful, vibrant Bolivian heart and soul within these lives, despite the effects of displacement and adoption.
I feel the choice of the word “displacement” in the title is very progressive, a reflection of the wider adoptee journey of awakening. It has taken the global community of adoptees many decades to come to terms with and find our own voice about being the products of forced adoption, i.e., being removed from our countries without a choice. Adoption is something that happens to us, we had no say in the matter and not always in our best interests as some of us attest to decades on, and some of these voices include this sentiment in this book.
What I also love is that this book is funded by the Belgium Adoption Support Centre – Steunpunt Adoptie, a non-profit organisation subsidised by the Belgium government. They are mainly responsible for post adoption services and in the past few years, they support adoptees via their annual call for adoptee led projects. The Network of Bolivian adoptees twice received funding: for the first Bolivian adoptee meeting in Brussels in 2019; and then for the book in 2020. Let’s hope this encourages other countries around the world to provide funding for adoptee led projects like this anthology!
The book is a nice short read (98 pages) with a wide range of writing styles. If you have a spare hour or two and want to better understand the lived experience of Bolivian adoptee voices, I highly recommend you grab a copy!
by Stephanie Dong Hee Kim, adopted from South Korea to the Netherlands.
Is a name just “but” a name?
The meaning of words and language is so much more than a collection of letters, signs or sounds.
Words and sounds have meaning, these are symbols, they reflect feelings and thoughts. A name expresses your identity: who are you, where are you from and who and where do you belong (to)?
Questions which don’t have an obvious answer for many adoptees and every person who is searching for both or one of their birth parents.
I was conceived and grew to be a human being in my Korean mother’s womb, as the fourth daughter of the Kim (김) family, and my parents named me Dong-Hee (동희) after I was born.
I was adopted by a Dutch family and got a new first name and also a new family name . Lately, to me this started feeling like ‘overwriting’ my identity and I don’t feel senang about that anymore.
I see myself more and more like a Korean woman who grew up in the Netherlands and has a Dutch nationality. My Korean identity is my background and forms a big part of who I am, even though I didn’t grow up in that culture.
There is a slight difference between how I feel about my first name and how I feel about my family name.
I am grateful that my adoptive parents never took away 동희 from me and just added Stephanie so that my life here would be easier. It’s still easier to have a western name nowadays, since discrimination hasn’t disappeared through the years.
I feel more and more that my blood relation and my Korean background is where I want my family name to refer to, I feel proud to be a 김 family member.
I feel less connection with the Dutch family name, because I do not share any cultural and biological family history with this name and the people wearing this name. Also, there has never been much contact nor connection with any of those family members, besides my adoptive father and -brothers.
That’s why I’ve decided to get used to what it’s like to let myself be known by my Korean names, starting with social media . Just to experience what it does to me, if it makes me feel more me and in place.
I would like people to start feeling comfortable to call me by either of my names. I think it will help me sort out which name(s) reminds me most of who I really am, makes me feel home. Maybe it’s one of them, maybe it’s both. I’m okay with all outcomes.
It’s in some way uncomfortable to me because it feels like I’m taking off a jacket and with that I’m a little exposed and vulnerable.
But that’s okay, since I have been identifying myself with my Dutch names for more than 42 years.
This was originally posted on Instagram and redacted for publishing on ICAV.
This is a series on Adoptee Anger from lived experience, to help people understand what is beneath the surface and why adoptees can sometimes seem angry.
by Andrea Johnstone, adopted from Canada to England.
I used to be angry as a teenager! I so desperately wanted my adopted mum and dad to see me for who I was and for them to meet my emotional needs. It never happened. I was the school bully as I had to learn to protect myself from all the racial comments.
My school teachers used to say to me, “You are nothing but a nigger!” Yes, that’s right f**ing school teachers. I was pulled up by my jumper and hit against the wall from a PE teacher who said to me, “I hate you Andrea Johnstone!” Wtf!! So yes, I was f**ing angry. The kids never got punished for their racial behaviour. The teachers had no idea that I was living in a very dysfunctional household – mother narcissistic with a depressive, passive father. So hell yes, I was angry!
However, the tides turned and I went into deep therapy after a suicide attempt. It was a long journey back to self. And I’m here now supporting many adoptees in the UK. So it was all meant to be, as I know that pain, I know that anger within. I know the primal wounding because I have been there.
That anger still continues at times to bubble within. But I know now how to soothe her xx and no regrets. All my life experiences are who I am today. I’m a bloody amazing, wise woman who has learnt to truly love herself and to remember I was the one I have been waiting for. To give to myself what I was needing.
All the looking outside myself, the love I looked for with men, nagh … I can only have a healthy relationship with someone when I get one with myself first. And let me tell you it’s taken decades to work that one out.
You have to dig deep ladies and gents because this journey as an adoptee is no walk in the park. xx
For fellow adoptees needing professional support, Andrea is a psychotherapist in the Bournemouth UK area, you can connect with her at Psychology Today UK.
Christmas and New Year is a time when we usually get together as families, celebrating and reconnecting. For some adoptees, this is a particularly tough time of the year because not all of us are closely connected with our families (birth or adoptive). Often it is this time of year that can be the hardest for it brings up painful feelings of not being closely connected .. to anyone. It can remind of us how we don’t “fit in”, how we are forever in-between spaces, or of how little we are understood by the very people who raise or birthed us.
Adoption is based heavily on loss – loss of our origins, loss in knowing who we came from and why, loss of our culture and traditions we are born to, loss of our extended families. And adoption does not always replace everything we’ve lost. Adoption is also heavily based in trauma – it is the trauma our generations went through that often result in us being relinquished for whatever reason. Or it can be the trauma our country went through, a result of war, famine, natural disasters, etc. We adoptees carry these losses and traumas within us, often we are unaware we carry it, until we do some deep diving into our origins and reconnect to some of our most primal feelings of abandonment and grief.
This Christmas and New Year period, I hope that we can be mindful of our fellow adoptees for whom this can be an especially triggering time of year. Last year in Europe the team of adoptees who are therapists at AFC knew at least 6 adoptees from their immediate circles who suicided between Christmas and New Year. This year, globally who knows what our numbers will be – for we’ve also lived through another tough year with COVID-19 and that has further heightened the sense of isolation for many, adopted or not.
I’ve just finished participating in two major events this year to raise awareness of the connection between between being adopted and experiencing suicidal feelings or actions. The first was a webinar with lived experience where we shared openly. You can view it here:
The second, which followed on from our first, was a Twitter event in which more of us shared our lived experience and thoughts which you can read here as a summary wakelet.
Huge thanks to the sponsoring organisation United Survivors and intercountry adoptive mother Maureen McCauley at Light of Day Stories, who organised these 2 incredibly powerful and much needed events.
I wanted to share my answers for Question 4 which asked us, for fellow adoptees who are struggling, what would I say? My response is:
You are not alone! Many of us have been in that space, I know how tough it is to find a way through, but it is possible. Please reach out to your peer support spaces – there are so many of them. If you need help finding them, ICAV has a list of intercountry adoptee led orgs around the world.
Please also don’t be afraid to try and find a mental health professional. It can make a world of difference to be supported by someone trained to understand our lived experience. If you need help finding them, ICAV has a global list of post adoption supports as a great starting place.
Adoption begins with traumas and most of our life, we spend unpacking that and making sense of our life, who we are, how we came to be here. But once we surround ourselves with support and commit ourselves to working through those painful parts, our life can change and we CAN find healing and connection.
It begins with ourselves, finding connection back to ourselves – who we were born to be, not necessarily who we are adopted to be.
Our life as an adoptee does not have to be controlled forever by our beginnings but it is so important to not deny and ignore the pain, but to offer your inner hurt child a space where her pain can be heard, and where healing can begin.
My message for adoptive families and professionals who struggle to understand how/why adoptees can feel suicidal, I highly recommend you watch our video series which covers the universal themes I’ve observed, reflected through the stories many adoptee have shared with me over the past 20+ years. It is SO important adoptees feel heard, validated, and given the space to share from our hearts, without judgement or expectation.
Part of the vision I created and still hold for ICAV remains very true at this time of year:
A world where existing intercountry adoptees are not isolated or ignored, but supported by community, government, organisations and family throughout their entire adoption journey.
By Melissa Ramos / Brita Melissa Botnen Sørengadopted from Guatemala to Norway.
The American student protester, poet, and advocate, Eva Maria Lewis, defines the two interchangeable terms of societal and political influence such as advocacy and activism like this, “To be an activist is to speak. To be an advocate is to listen.”
Referring to the more active-based form versus the institutional form of influence—activism is protesting and opposing a social cause or political reform, whereas an advocate is supportive or suggestive. Both with the intent to educate and bring awareness to one particular topic but at different volumes and reach. Where the advocate operates more institutionally within a system, gathering relevant actors around the decision-making table, the other uses public spaces to be seen and heard with a more person-based focus. The individual activist approach is more aligned with community building as action-based efforts surrounding injustice and inequality matters are perceived as more aggressive to create change.
This article is solely part of my perspective on adoptee and adoption communities from a local perspective of Norway, but also my thoughts on it globally. Having contributed to different projects, small and big, in adoption and adoptee-led communities in Norway and abroad—I have gradually become aware of the need for greater collectivity when it comes to advocacy and activism concerning the topic of intercountry adoption. In my view, equally important as pushing legal cases, publicly sharing a personal backstory, and educating the ignorant—focusing on the community itself as one in a long-term perspective can strengthen each specific task and role, separately and collectively. This is my take on community building from the perspective of the work of intercountry adoptees based on experience(s).
What is community building?
Aside from building a community presence on social media and in closed groups, which make up the majority of adoptee communities and organizations online, community building in practice (and offline) refers to activities, practices, and policies that support and foster positive connections among individuals, groups, organizations, and geographic and functional communities per definition (Weil, 1996). A community is founded on a shared identity and is the space where practices and policies are met on behalf of a population group such as marginalized groups as intercountry adoptees.
To illustrate, Intercountry Adoptee Voices (ICAV) appears to be an online community-based entity catering to smaller umbrella organizations despite not having a set physical operative function in practice. Like other organizations, institutions, and actors in a society, each adoptee-led organization also belongs to a certain societal level based on size, reach, and the organization’s objectives. By placing an organization and group and better understanding how it relates to others, will create an awareness of the lay of the land and the scope of the actual work.
Community action organizes those affected by public or private decisions or non-decisions where the goal is to challenge existing political, social, and economic structures and processes. To do that, it is necessary to first explore and explain how power realities impact the adoptee life and to develop a critical perspective of the status quo and alternative bases of power and action (Bryant, 1972).
Based on the definitions above on community building and community action, perhaps we should refer to active and present adoptees as community activists to create togetherness and take individual activism and advocacy further. Not to at least move the focus from individualism and competition to political engagement, systemic familiarization, and legal understanding. Maybe then we will see real impact and tangible results faster under one —by not only building and growing a community but a community of activism and advocacy, namely collective action.
Community building and legal advocacy
The building of the global adoption community to bring about structural changes is in many ways still much developing. With few legal cases of (first-generation) adoptees, much work is still to be done community-wise and across countries. There is a clear relationship between community practice and policy directions as mentioned, meaning the key to advancing petitioning, filing legal cases, political campaigning, or changing the existing narrative or storytelling lies with strengthening, exploring, and expanding community practices also, not just the specific tactic.
Collectively, a community activist strives to gather forces at the local level for communities to alter the status quo. He/she/them takes strategic action, individually or with others, as a member and on behalf of a community. Community learning and development is about empowering a group of people for them to participate and be involved in a case or event that is of common concern. Fighting for a peculiar case as the topic of intercountry adoption regardless of approach, you quickly realize that it comes with many strong voices and strong presence by choosing to engage. It can be easy to lose track of principal movements and come to terms with what you stand for yourself in a (still unfamiliar) field and environment with so many different opinions, knowledge, and approaches.
From the standpoint of observance and the choice to not take a more prominent role than I have in the communities I have been a part of—the will to match and gather the right people, thus bringing the necessary tools to the right stakeholder(s) grew naturally. Subconsciously, growing the community and environment I was part of myself. You most likely have HR representatives, a coach, or a mentor figure responsible for tracking your overall personal and professional development in your daily job. What I found missing when entering the adoption and adoptee space was someone doing this advising beyond advising on the topic of adoption itself. In other words, contextualizing lived experiences, our experiences.
Remember that general views and perceptions of the communities and the topic itself (from a legal, social, or political standpoint) from the outside world have much value. The voices of the public should be taken advantage of to map the lay of the land instead of being seen as a hindrance to understanding. It’s when we map the public narrative of adoption; we uncover what the actual challenges are and what those challenges entail when it comes to knowledge dissemination specifically. And it is much needed, especially in a space where prominent stories and bold voices are easily misguided, wrongly framed, or even exploited.
In Norway, prominent adoptees have begun to leverage public spaces and cultural scenes to get our message heard, as well as navigating the political system and affecting policies. This has all been based on dialogue and involvement with relevant actors such as ministries, directorates, the state child welfare and family welfare services, adoption organizations, country groups, public representatives, and others with an interest in the topic of international adoption, etc. Now, the climate is moving towards ombudsman’s offices and organizations of equality, immigration, and racism topics equally relevant for adoptees and adoption communities in Western countries. This is how we make intercountry adoption relevant and how we best tackle complex topics.
One global community long-term
I often think to myself how many more adoptees or adoptive/biological parents would come forward if they had the right tools to do so. Maybe a push in the right direction or a meeting/dialogue with a person having done the same is all it takes. For first-generation adoptees that never had role models or someone to mirror; this can not be underestimated being intercountry adoptions are still facilitated to and from many countries such as China, Colombia, and India (41% of all sending countries being Asian), as well as European countries such as Ukraine and Bulgaria being amongst the top ten sending countries. The point being, there is much to gain from each other and across borders as it is through online forums. If you don’t find your place in the community where you live, look elsewhere. Look for adoptees from the same country of origin as yourself but in different parts of the world and engage across countries of origins with like-minded adoptees. Most importantly, think about what you know about the topic and what you can bring to others, whether it’s your own experience, about the topic itself, or knowledge about your country of origin. Think about the network you have built, and who could benefit from it? What the message is and who the correct recipient is. This is how we grow and create progress, folks, also across borders!
In a space, we are much in control of ourselves without frames or guidelines; this approach is of the utmost importance to bring relevant actors together and get results. What is asked of you is to put your pride away. In unfamiliar terrain, which much of the communities are to the majority of (younger) adoptees, comparisons, jealousy, and insecurities can bring out the worst in a person as this is the only space where one meets and gets in touch with those personal elements that are usually untouched in daily interactions. Tangible results serving a whole group are only achieved when differences are put aside, and each individual competence is recognized as opposed to the majority voice paving the way.
What is worse than exclusion, exploitation, or unethical working methods directly in and from adoptee-led communities? When the outside world is what it is in terms of familiarizing with intercountry adoptees as a group, keeping the communities as safe and pure as possible should be a given. Not everyone can be fully updated about their country of origin, the adoption topic, and legal movements in the communities, which are not expected. However, engaged and active adoptees usually focus and are concerned with adoption topics to some degree throughout their lives in addition to the daily concerns of the average person. And with different expertise and competencies of the adoptee experience, the utopia in a community sense would be a broader organization where experienced activists and advocates from groupings across countries focus on what they do best, whether it be on legal or political matters. The point is that each adoptee’s engagement level and involvement needs to be respected, especially amongst peers, and can be utilized better in some shape or form to grow a community presence long-term.
The collective approach
It is a known fact that everywhere in any society—the wrong, unpassionate, and unfit people inhabit the wrong positions, yet have the power to decide matters concerning yours and mine’s lives and livelihood. Those with the power to control policies and implement measures that beneficiaries, victims, or affected individuals are often more knowledgeable about, such as adoptees. There is a reason why there are ambassadorships and mentor programs in specific sectors and industries or as part of an organization’s outreach and profiling. With this approach, I am trying to demonstrate the need for greater collectivity in adoption and adoptee communities, amongst and across all stakeholders such as lawmakers, bureaucrats, adoptive organizations, adoptive and biological families, social and health care workers, etc. And with having this mindset, you, as an adoptee advocate or activist, can still influence decision-making processes. To put it simply—you influence by influencing others!
With this, I hope to inspire others to use their network to the benefit of others and to connect with their peers, whether it is a resourceful adoptee parent, an adoptee activist, or a professional working for an adoption-related entity. Many heads surround the intercountry adoption case in one way or another—and we need them all; we just need to systematize it. To increase critical knowledge and attitudes on the one case we all care about.
To hear more about how I think you can grow your community or individual advocacy, please reach out via email@example.com
Today was a difficult day. It was hard picking myself up after falling down. It was harder still, to do the task I had set for myself which was to finish this junk journal spread on this Sunday in Hawaii. Gravity felt like weights pulling down on me. Gradually I felt lighter with each layer of mixed media I applied onto the page. Paintings, a doily, an envelope reconstructed, a little space for handwritten poetic thought written in cursive, cut out images of yellow flowers, Victorian art and pieces of vintage book pages. I finally published it and although my work is never perfect to me, I feel a sense of exultation when my secretive mixed media gets posted, shown for the world to see. I don’t feel as lonely when that happens. I show myself in the most beautiful of ways, showing all the best parts of me. So I try to junk journal on a regular basis, at least one post a week if I can. Today was difficult but I published one spread and that helped me keep going.
What was one thing that helped you keep going today?
Please comment here or write me at firstname.lastname@example.org
by Mimi Larose, adoptee of Haitian origins raised in Canada.
Have you adopted Haitian kids ? My adoptive parents haven’t talked to me yet about the earthquake that just happened. In 2010, when that earthquake happened, they accused me of being too emotional about the devastation and incredible loss of life that resulted.
Every time they don’t say anything or don’t seem concerned, it deepens the divide between us.
Adoptive parents, you should check on your kids and allow them the space to grieve. They might be thinking about their parents, thinking they might have lost an opportunity to ever meet them. They might be hurting in silence because they feel you don’t care when you stay silent.
It’s become increasingly clear to me that not only is diversity alone not working but in fact it’s a tactic being used to immunise organisations against the charge of racism or marginalisation. Here in the UK, the Conservative politicians who lead the most anti-immigration policies are people of colour. They don’t represent the groups from which they came from instead they snuggle up to power by reciting the tired old Tory tropes, perhaps pining to belong to the in-group they’ve always been outside of, and always will be because they chose an intolerant in-group.
We see this time and time again, a single minority group is represented and held up to be an example of why there isn’t racism/ablism/sexism etc. Conveniently they proselytise the voice of the status quo with passion and heady conviction. When the dominant group is accused of inequity they wheel out one or two of the said minority group as a way of denying the charge and go back to making decisions to the disadvantage of minorities. Over the decades an increasing awareness and demand for representation has led organisations, Hollywood and governments to create an illusion of diversity without inclusion, without meaningfully addressing power dynamics of majority groups and social hierarchies so power remains firmly in the same hands. We’re often represented as a homogenous group if there’s one person of colour, or a gay white man, a box may have been ticked but meaningful representation hasn’t been achieved.
I see this in how we as adoptees are working as advocates. There’s an awareness in society but a lack of comfort with the idea that adoptees are the experts. As such there’s a performance of inclusion, adoptees are often at the forefront of adoption promo campaigns if they espouse how beautiful it is. Even if they talk to the complexity of our experiences they remain comforting voices to those who see adoption as doing good and the only way to resolve family crisis in which a child needs support.
I’ve noticed that I’m rarely invited to give my opinion in policy or best practice within organisations who could reform it. And when I am, the comfort of the majority group has been significantly favoured. Representation doesn’t give us power if we’re outnumbered, on someone else’s territory and way down the hierarchy. I believe this to be largely unconscious, but always leveraged. Those in the majority rarely have to consider the factors that create equity of power or more regularly inequity.
Adoptees have very little representation across the world. In the UK alone, there’s not a single adoptee led group, which covers the wide range of experiences of adoptees here. Instead we’re disparate unfunded mutual aid groups trying to help each other and ourselves however we can. I’ve observed the frequent ways in which many adoptees burn out from advocating. Having been invited to conferences and policy events many have disappeared from view because of the traumatic nature of those events. They’re traumatic because as a minority our voices are discounted, denied, argued with and often aggressively silenced. This group is largely there at those tables because we’re so vulnerable, and so in need of change, our community has high levels of suicide, depression, addiction and more.
If I’m going to continue my work as an advocate I need to set myself and fellow adoptees up for success in these spaces where we can find ourselves enduring dangerous levels of stress. So I think it’s important to name the power dynamics in play so that we can ensure we can address those problems in how we set up our boundaries, and have the language to name issues when they occur. So I’ve created a simple infographic which names the power dynamics and offers solutions for those genuinely interested in social justice.
by Mila Konomos, adopted from South Korea to the USA. Poet, artist, activist.
I have been processing the Aloneness of #MotherLoss a lot lately.
Intellectually, I know what self-talk to cultivate. I know I am not alone. I know that I have people in my life who care for me and value me.
But this aloneness is deeper than that.
This aloneness is the the aloneness of Mother Loss.
I feel so alone so often because I do not have a Mother.
I lost my First Mother at 5 days old.
I lost my Foster Mother at 6 months old.
I grew up with a Mother who could not see my trauma. Hence, she did not know how to love or comfort me through the loss, pain, and grief of my Adoptedness.
I feel alone because I was always alone in my pain and grief.
I feel alone because I have spent most of my life crying alone.
I feel alone because I have rarely known what it is to not be alone, not only physically but emotionally.
I feel so alone so often, because Mother Loss is a loss that remains for a lifetime.
There is no way to replace a Lost Mother.
No one else on earth can compensate for a Lost Mother.
Only One Mother bore me in her own body. Only One Mother’s heartbeat, breathing, and voice were what I heard for 9 months. Her scent, her face were as though my own.
I watched a documentary recently during which the narrator said, “Babies think they are a part of whomever they are within.”
This is profound in the context of Adoptees severed from our mothers as infants. We must have experienced separation from our mothers almost as though being ripped in two, torn away from ourselves. Split violently apart.
I have to allow myself to grieve this Mother Loss. It is eternal. Even 12 years post-reunion, Mother Loss remains. I can never get back the Mother I lost. I cannot retrieve the over three decades of my life that I was lost, compounded by the loss of language, culture, and geography.
There is a pain and loneliness that is hard to describe when you find what you had been looking for all of your life and yet it still slips through your fingers.
This pain of being so close yet still so far.
As though looking through a window but never actually getting to go in.
For more from Mila, follow her at her website, The Empress Han. Her newest poetry album Shrine is being released in May 2021.