What Adoptees Lose in Intercountry Adoption

ICAV Nov

I normally tiptoe around adoption and never say the A word because people just don’t respond well to “adoptee anger“. But during the month of November, I feel it is appropriate to air my feelings on what I have anger about, in intercountry adoption.

I hate that our original identities are ignored and get obliterated as if they don’t matter! I’ve never seen my identity papers because they got “lost” in transit and no-one in government at my adoptive country end, nor my adoptive family, thought to go to the ends of the earth to locate them. Perhaps they thought it wouldn’t matter because I was given a “new” life and family – and that’s all I should ever need?!

I hate that we lose our birth culture, language, religion, heritage, customs, kin, community and country. I hate that these important facets of our identity are ignored and denied. As if they don’t matter because what I gained materially from my adoptive country is assumed to make up for all the losses?!

I hate that I had to endure racism and isolation in my community whilst growing up as a child. The shame of looking non-white, the inner hatred I developed as a result because I didn’t see myself mirrored anywhere. The phrase from my adoptive family, “We love you as one of us” showed how little they understood the impacts of intercountry adoption. They couldn’t recognise my journey was any different to theirs nor did they understand the profound impact this would have on me.

I hate that people assume all adoptive homes are awesome and when we get placed in not-so-positive adoptive homes, no-one checks on us, no-one stands up for us, often our story is not believed and/or invalidated, and no-one gives us a safe place to be nurtured, respected, or cared for. As a child I felt so vulnerable and alone. It was a terrible overwhelming feeling that left me in fight or flight responses for years, with scars to wear for the rest of my life.

I hate that we live in an age where a Government apology seems to be the latest fashion accessory but yet for those adopted via illegal or questionable means, we intercountry adoptees will never get closure. A true apology would mean firstly acknowledging the wrong, then a lifelong commitment to making amends including providing financial renumeration to reflect the pain we carry forever, along with the supports required to help us restore our mental well being; and lastly to make the necessary changes to never repeat the same mistakes again.

I hate that some of my adoptee friends adopted to the USA are living a gutted life because they have been deported back to their country of birth like common commodities, shipped in and out with ease, being treated as though they are of no real value and certainly with no choice. In the majority of cases, they were placed in adoptive homes that were very damaging and their lives spiralled out of control. Isn’t adoption meant to be about “permanency“?! This week in the news headlines, an intercountry adoptee in Australia is to be deported back to the Cook Islands. It is immoral and unethical to adopt a child from one country to another when it suits, through no choice of their own, and then be sent back to birth country because they fail to live up to being an adoption success story!

I hate that thousands of my intercountry adoptee friends in the USA are living in fear everyday because they are still not given automatic citizenship. They often have no social security and cannot leave the country for fear of being picked up by immigration officials. Isn’t adoption meant to provide a forever family … and permanency in a home and country?!

I feel this anger today because it is November and around the world, many use this month to celebrate adoption and promote awareness. For me, I don’t celebrate these aspects of adoption, they make me rightfully angry and more so, when I see my experience replicated in the lives of many around the world.

At ICAV, we believe in promoting awareness of the impacts of intercountry adoption ALL year round, not just in November.

I hope after reading this, you will all also be rightfully angry at the things intercountry adoptees LOSE because of our adoption.

My goal is to encourage adoptees to turn that rightful anger into an appropriate energy:

  • to educate the wider community and enhance a deeper understanding of the complexities involved in intercountry adoption;
  • to push for the much needed social, political, legal, and economic changes that cause inequality and leave many of our families with little choice;
  • to help prevent adoption where necessary by supporting family reunification initiatives and advocating for this in our birth countries;
  • and if adoption has to be the last resort, to help improve the way we conduct intercountry adoption such as changing it from our plenary system to simple adoptions; and supporting all triad members throughout the lifelong journey.

I also acknowledge there are many other less scarey emotions and thoughts we can talk about in intercountry adoption, but at ICAV, I like to raise awareness about the issues that don’t normally get aired.

There are plenty who speak of the positives in adoption … but not many who openly share the not-so-positive aspects. In speaking out, I aim to help balance out the discussions in intercountry and transracial adoption.

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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.