Can a famous example of conservation teach us anything about adoption? Most people can’t see a correlation but I do! Less than a hundred years ago, there were just 16 whooping cranes left in North America. These beautiful majestic birds were near the brink of extinction. Men who over hunted and destroyed the bird’s habitat also became its savior. People dressed in bird costumes attended to the young chicks.
In nature, it is not uncommon for cranes to lay two eggs. When this happens, the parents would ignore the weakest of the chicks and let it perish. However, at the conservatory, the scientists would raise the chicks in groups. The whooping cranes are carefully incubated and then hatched inside a plexiglass to observe a real whooping crane. This is done to imprint the chicks with what a real mother would look like.
Individuals meticulously ensure that the whooping crane chicks are attended to, using puppets that teach the young chicks how to find food and drink water. The puppet would mimic drinking water and then raise its head back as the crane does in nature. The attendants would teach the young cranes how to fly. They used an ultra-light plane to lead the cranes on a short flying lesson and eventually lead the cranes from Canada and fly them down to southern Florida. The scientists spared no expense and the average cost to raise a chick to adulthood cost around US$100,000.
The program was hailed as a huge success because the sixteen original whooping cranes that had four breeding females grew to a flock of more than 500 whooping cranes in the wild. Numerous documentaries were made about the success of this 11-year-long endeavor. The picture of the ultra-light plane leading a group of whooping cranes was popularized and shown in newspapers across the globe. The birds were then flown into their mating territory and the birds paired together and laid eggs. However, the overwhelming majority of birds would abandon their eggs after laying them. Of the 500 birds, only two or three mating pairs successfully hatched their chicks. This puzzled the scientists and after much consideration, they deduced the likely causation for this problem stemmed from the bird’s unorthodox upbringing. The scientists said it best by stating:
“They have so much baggage from a screwed-up and not normal childhood”!
Does this story sound familiar to you? Because it looks eerily familiar to some of the adoptees I’ve met and their lives. No matter how well the adoptive parents treated their adoptive child – they may have grown up as a disappointment to the adoptive parents or had a hard time adjusting to their new surroundings. Other times, the adoptees look to be successful: they have degrees from reputable schools, they drive high-end cars and attain high levels of success. But after closer examination, you might find their personal life to be a total disaster.
Like these cranes, some adoptees look like they achieve success but a small flaw prevents them from achieving full potential. I have met numerous adoptees incapable of keeping a relationship or keeping a partner. They might behave over clingy and suffocate anyone they come across, they might privately deal with overwhelming guilt or anxiety, or perhaps prone to performing some other social faux pas.
Like the whooping chicks, the interactions before or during our upbringing may have made an indelible mark on our lives. It may stem from the lack of empathy or touch when we were young. The traumatic experience of being separated from our mother at a certain age, or being left alone in dark bedrooms, or forced to lie still for hours in our cribs, changed the course of our personalities and lives. No matter how wonderful our lives are afterward, we are faced to confront issues that we cannot fathom or explain.
I think these birds explain in some part why adoptees are four times more likely to commit suicide, or why they are disproportionately represented with learning disabilities and have higher than average rates of drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders and incarceration. The reason for both the birds and adoptees is that we all had to deal with living without our natural mothers.
You can hear the story about the cranes in detail on a podcast called Radiolab:
For more on issues that plague many adoptees see:
In third grade, I was in Mrs. Peterson’s class and given the assignment to do a family history project. I asked my adoptive parents about the project and they stated my Aunt Eirene had worked on the family tree and traced back across several hundred years. My family automatically skipped the fact that my own biological family existed and was not included. I was adopted at the age of four and a half years old. I had a lot of residual memories from my childhood but did not understand the things that I could recall. I was told I had an overactive imagination and that I daydreamed a lot. Later as an adult, I met numerous other adoptees and many of them had fantasies about their biological families. Some adoptees had dreamt that their biological families were royalty, others that their biological families were wealthy and looking for them.
I recently met a bunch of adoptees. One shared about identifying with a podcast in which a male adoptee fantasized that his parents were royalty and were looking for him. During the conversation it was stated,”Who knows – one of us might be royalty!”
On the day of the family tree assignment I stood up in front of the class and talked about my biological father being very old and that he fought in the Korean War. I also talked about army men marching past our village and seeing their tanks and machine guns. I was recalling events as best I could from memory. It is true that it is highly improbable that my father was in his late forties or early fifties when he had children. A simple calculation of the age of most fighting soldiers during the Korean War would fall within a narrow range of ages. It was highly improbable that my father was that old. The town where I had lived was located several hours south of Seoul and was not as heavily guarded as the Korean border or coastal cities. An initial impression might consider I was on the cusp of telling great tales. In fact, the teachers concernedly told my adoptive parents what I recalled in class and said I had a heightened sense of imagination. I was chastised by my adoptive parents for lying.
In my early twenties, I joined the military and selected to serve in Korea. While I was there, I learned that the construction of Korea’s expressway number 1 began in 1968 and was completed in the summer 1970. The 660 mile stretch of highway became the main artery that moved commerce from the ports of Pusan through the capital city of Seoul and up to the North Korean border. This main expressway is the second oldest and most heavily traveled expressway in Korea. It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that this corridor was also the main route for the movement of troops and military equipment. It so happens that the highway passes along the outskirts of Cheong-Ju, the town that I grew up in. The memories of seeing soldiers walking alongside the road past my village is highly probable. As for my father for being old, I was confused about that. In my formative years, I was living with my grandfather because my father was away from home. I mistook my grandfather for being my father. I have memories of being ridiculed and told I was being untruthful. These memories flood my mind as I write this. I never meant to lie, all I did as a young child was to do my best to explain what I recalled.
DNA testing with 325Kamra has taken me all over the globe and as a result, I’ve been able to meet thousands of intercountry adoptees. During these travels, I’ve heard numerous stories that were often stranger than fiction. The first story is about one of the few Caucasian children adopted by a Korean family. Both families worked together in diplomatic channels and the boy’s parents were both killed in a motor vehicle accident. The Korean family took the orphaned boy in immediately and raised him as their own. I met this individual during my first tour to Korea when we were both stationed in Tong-du-chon in the mid-nineties.
In Europe, I met a Korean man adopted by a Korean family and a Korean girl raised by a Jamaican family. From all the stories that have been shared with me, about 99.9% of all Korean adoptees were adopted to Caucasian families. The unique adoption stories also occurred in the United States. In the early nineties, my next-door neighbor was a Korean adoptee and she was actually found by her biological father. Her father worked hard in the construction business and became a millionaire. He hired a private detective to find his daughter in America and he showered her with gifts. He paid off her mortgage and the costs to refurbish her home. He even threw in tickets to fly the whole family to visit him in Korea.
In college, I started the first multi-cultural diversity club on my university campus. As the president, I was invited to visit other campuses around the state and I met up with Korean student groups in Cornell, NYU and various universities on the East Coast. At one student conference, I met a Korean adoptee who was raised in a Jewish family. She was able to recite part of the Torah and read Hebrew. What I learned from these interactions is that adoptee lives are as varied by the families who adopt them. Things that adoptees might dream about, can actually occur.
I think it is a common practice for adoptees to fantasize or dream about who their parents are. What I found interesting is that the fantasies are rarely about common everyday individuals. I’ve never heard an adoptee tell me that they believe their parents were librarians or bakers. I mostly heard things like, “I think my family was royalty” or the extreme opposite of the spectrum and believe their mother was a prostitute. I think many adoptees make sense or cope with their adoption by making up stories. I think this is a normal occurrence and families and friends should not dismiss everything that adoptees might share as memories. As in my story, I was able to verify everything with my biological family after I found them. As for finding a princess … I found a Korean adoptee who was able to trace her family back to the last princess of Korea. I met her in Germany – very fitting, since it’s the land of a thousand castles!
My recommendation for adoptees who believe in the stories you are told or you have created to cope with life is: you never know – maybe you will be the next adoptee whose life is stranger than fiction!
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.
On 15 October 2018, four Chinese intercountry adoptees were brutally murdered in their home by their white adoptive mother in Columbia, Tennessee. We honor the deaths of 14 year old Bo Li, 14 year old Meigin Lin, 15 year old Lian Lin and 17 year old Kaleigh Lin.
In light of National Adoptee Awareness Month, I assert the mantra:
“Adoption creates a different life, not necessarily a better one” for adoptees.
This is a re-imagining (fiction) of the final hours from the perspective of Bo Li, one of the Chinese adoptees murdered not so long ago.
A sound like a firecracker went off. I instantly looked up from the game I was playing on my phone and turned my head around looking for the sound. A couple more bangs followed as if a fireworks show was beginning. But that seemed highly improbable and I wondered where the sound was coming from. I thought maybe they were coming from outside, but they sounded closer. Maybe one of my siblings was just slamming the door really loudly. Our house was rather large and we could each hang out in a room without anyone else and the sound could have come from anywhere. I wasn’t too concerned though and returned to my phone.
BANG! BANG! The same sound echoed through my ears and I began to feel a sense of fear as the same sounds rang out again. A sense of dread came over me. For some reason this feeling of fear felt familiar, as if I’d been really afraid before in my life but I couldn’t remember. My body was in its own fight or flight mode. What was happening in our home? Would the sound happen again? I paused my game and it grew surprisingly quiet. I listened carefully for any sound in the house. There was some rustling and what appeared to be footsteps, but I wasn’t too sure. I texted Meigin and Kaleigh to see if they heard something and then went back to crushing my game.
BANG! BANG! Yet again the sounds pierced the air and I knew for sure they were coming from our house. My siblings didn’t return my texts and fear was beginning to beat in my heart more rapidly. I knew my mother had two guns in our home but couldn’t for the life of me imagine what was going on. I was confused and didn’t want to get up and check. It felt like there was something wrong, like an alarm was going off that just continued to ring louder inside my head. As quietly as I could, I closed my bedroom door and hid under the bed because I didn’t want to leave my room. My limbs felt like giant pieces of stone. A cold sweat broke out over my body as I shivered in fear. An eerie silence filled the house as I couldn’t hear anything. Minutes passed and then, I heard a sound. Footsteps were approaching and growing louder as they came nearer to my room. The pit in my stomach immediately dropped and became empty as anxiety and fear filled it from top to bottom. Were my siblings dead? Was my mom dead? Was this the end for me? I wasn’t even old enough to drive, or to go to my first homecoming dance. I don’t know my birth parents and I also feel like I have lost my adopted father. Will I lose even more? Why was this happening? Was this our mom or one of my siblings? Was it a complete stranger?
The footsteps were now walking outside my room as shadows began to show from beneath the door. I heard the doorknob turn and the door swung open. The shoes of the mother I loved were entering. What happened to my siblings, I thought? Why would she do something like this? She loves me, right? The footsteps came to a stop a few feet inside the room and I heard a voice say, “Bo, it’s me, it’s okay. Bo, come on out. I won’t hurt you, I promise.” The same voice I had heard for years that had provided me so much comfort, now gave me so much fear. I wanted so badly for her to be telling the truth but my gut told me otherwise. I was so confused. Did she love me? What was this sinking feeling in my stomach? However, my body betrayed me. My muscles began to move of their own accord in response to the mother I loved, who I knew, deep down, loved me. But was this love? Before I knew it, I got up from under the bed and stood shakily.
There was a look I had never seen before in my mother’s eyes, as if something had gotten loose and made her crazy. I glanced at her hands and saw a gun in them. My gut told me this was the end but I wanted to believe with all my heart that this wasn’t going to happen. Was my life going to end so quickly? Was this why I was adopted? To be killed by the people who claim to love me, to protect me, to be there forever? My heart was bursting with sadness, confusion, and anger. My brief life was flashing rapidly before me.
With tears in my eyes, I looked back up into hers and whispered so softly, “Mom, why?” Without missing a beat and probably before she changed her mind, she quickly raised her gun towards me and said with a pained look and tears in her eyes, “I’m so sorry.”
BANG! BANG! My eyes glazed over as my focus could only see the barrel of the gun pointed at me. I was falling, losing sight of the lights in my head. My head grew heavier and heavier and the ringing in my ears grew louder. As I drew my last breaths I hit the floor and thought, “Goodbye dear world, to all the memories I shall never know nor have. Alas, my time has come. Farewell”.
I get up in the morning and I try. That’s basically what it’s like every morning as an adult adoptee. Whenever I look back in my mind, my past stretches past a million acres of difficult terrain that’s emotionally challenging and left psychological imprints on me. An adoptive family I never got that close with. A birth family in the Philippines that I met but also couldn’t get close with. Memories that are warm and fuzzy, hard and cold; and the cherished ones I made for myself growing up in the Midwest of the United States that are whimsical–full of bright stars, meditation, books and humorous moments.
As an adult adoptee, I am 33, and I recognize that it’s taken me longer to do many things. It took me longer to find myself, love myself, search for answers, travel, learn about my “sanskaras” or psychological/emotional/spiritual imprints made within me from how I was born, raised and developed as a child through adulthood. It’s taken me longer to understand the world and myself, push past my own fears and barriers, and finally, have healthy relationships which is one of my ultimate goals. It’s taken me longer to find my callings in life and professions that suit my personality and talents too.
What I want to stress in this blog is being alone. It’s hard to address because I wish I were more popular and successful as a person but I’m going to write where I am in life now. I’ve been more isolated as a human being in this world and I believe it’s due to my own hardships. Due to its own uniqueness, I’ve had to work on my problems alone, solve them on my own and seek therapies and healing modalities that best suit me as I’ve gotten older. I don’t know if anyone else relates to this, but it is hard doing all of this and feeling so alone.
A difficult hurtle has been to forgive and accept myself for where I am today. I have flaws, quirks and imperfections. I’m often hard on myself for being sort of odd. I know I don’t fit the image of being normal. I get tired of my ups and downs and everyday is a hurtle onwards. I know I’m at-risk due to my complex background and undiagnosed PTSD, which calls for tight management on myself. I have to constantly be vigilant on my therapies, keeping mentally positive, keeping connected with life and God as best as I can, and keep open and social with others even though it’s hard. Every day.
In the end, I can’t give up. Some answers for my own life is to substitute teach for the day, work in a library or go home and shut out the world, turn on music, make art and journal write. Living in Northern Arizona, I like to hike, drive out to Sedona and visit my favorite stupa or drive to my favorite Buddhist institute, the Garchen Buddhist Institute in Chino Valley, Arizona where I learn, meet others and practice in what I’m passionate about. I feel alone, but every day, I work on my goals, as well as forgiving, letting go, accepting myself and embracing the world as it is. Being in nature helps. And, always learning.
It is a fight at times but it’s worth it.
I began alone in this world but we all do. This life itself has been my most challenging story to tell, a story beyond words. A human story that has so many threads, and naturally, some threads will break in places when worn too thin. But this is where I pick up and weave my own story. This is where I can live all over again in a new way. And, this is where I can connect with others and move forward from the past, by living in the present.
So in this month of November during National Adoption Awareness Month, I encourage everyone reading this, and any who can relate, to keep trying. Every day is a hurtle, a journey, a timeless opportunity of creation. Every day, we can live and weave this life with what we’re given. Even if we feel alone.
As a child, I remember playing near the burn pits that laid by the small village of unpainted traditional Korean style homes (Hanoks). They nestled below a small outcrop of mountains, located in central Korea. My brother grabbed my hand to take me to see the prize he had found lying in the small garbage heap near our modest home. Among the charred remains of the trash there laid a couple of discarded light bulbs glistening in the harsh summer sun. We laughed as we smashed the bulbs into small shards of glass.
The small journey to the garbage pile and playing had worked up an appetite and I told my brother I was hungry. “Come follow me!” he called. I ran behind him as we raced down the trail towards the community garden. We stopped for a minute to catch our breath and we scanned the garden to find something to eat. There amongst the tall weeds, we found the brightly yellow-colored melons called chamoe. It begged us to bite into its juicy flesh. I grabbed one of the fruits hungrily and sunk my teeth into the hard flesh. The fruit wasn’t ripe and it had a bitter taste. I threw the fruit on the ground in disgust and we ran home to see if grandma could make us something delicious to eat.
By the time we arrived home, it was nearing dusk and my stomach hurt with the pains of hunger. My brother ratted me out, telling my grandfather I had tried to eat the unripened fruit. My grandfather gingerly placed me on his lap and started patting my stomach in a circular motion to reduce the pain. I immediately fell asleep and was woken up by the sounds of feet pitter-patting around the rice mat floors. It was the sound of my brothers and sisters getting ready for school. I too got up, to walk my siblings down the country dirt road to school. As we walked, I was chastised by my siblings and told to go back home. I stood at the end of the dirt road waving goodbye as I watched my family vanish down the road that wound amongst rice paddies and train tracks, covered by the cool mist of the morning fog.
When I was married and in my mid-thirties, I asked my aunt to give me the contact information to meet up with my half siblings who I remembered from my youth. We made a phone call and I waited anxiously to see if we could connect. The person on the other end of the line was the wife of one of my older brothers and she was scathing mad that I was trying to connect with my siblings. She told me, “This is in the past and that is where it needs to stay!”
Several months later, I called the family again hoping to get my brother on the phone. I was chastised again for calling and disrupting the family. I was rejected, never to be allowed to reunite with the family from my childhood memories.
I sat uncomfortably on the hard lino covered floor of a traditional Korean Restaurant. The smells, sights and sounds so foreign to me. Just moments earlier, I had felt like I was on an epic journey “around the world in 80 days” with my aunt. That same morning my aunt was waiting for me at the entrance of the military camp where I was stationed. We rode the 5-hour long journey using a variety of transport: the jerky movements and clackity sounds of a train, the bumpy, vinyl covered back seat on a community bus that bellowed black smoke, and then a short ride on the Hyundai cab to the restaurant. None of the transport had air-conditioning and the hot sun beat down on my black hair. My brain felt as though it was boiling from the inside out. Large beads of sweat flowed from my brow when I arrived to meet my biological family.
When I entered the small restaurant, I scanned my eyes around to look for my new family. I caught a glimpse of my beautiful sister and then my father. It was odd for me to see someone who looked like me but a much older age. I felt as though I were in a time machine to meet a much older version of myself. My father’s head was covered with thinning grey hair and a receding hairline. The sunken cheeks and the deep wrinkles above the brow were telltale signs of a defeated person. My father was looked down at the table in shame.
I was asked questions about my life in America and how I liked Korea. Once all the niceties were exchanged my father asked, “Why did you look for me?” I was dumbfounded by the question and as I was about to answer, a blur entered through the front entrance and walked up to our table. A short stout young man entered the room with a wide grin on his face. His light brown eyes scanned the room looking at his dad and then at me … his face was distorted with confusion and then he rushed up to me and gave me a bear hug and began sobbing in my arms. I look like a younger replica of my father and my brother recognized that I was his brother immediately.
As a child, I remembered the siblings I had grown up with. I never assumed my father would marry again but via his third marriage, he brought two more siblings into this world for me to unite with.
The pecking order went like this: the four half brothers and sisters I grew up with in Chong-Ju, my sister and I who were sent to America, and the two half-siblings from my father’s third marriage. My father was a success in being a prolific procreator. My father’s personal decisions led to his first two separations and sadly his third wife succumbed to illness when her children were beginning elementary school. I think I bonded with my half siblings because they knew how it felt to grow up without a mother.
Within a year of uniting with my sibling, my father had a stroke that made him fully dependent for care. My younger sister Mi-san faithfully went to my father’s home each day to feed and bathe him. I wanted to be part of my siblings’ lives but the language barrier prevented me from picking up the phone or arriving at their doorstep to visit.
A year after I kindled the beginnings of a new relationship with my new family, I received orders from the military to move back to the United States. There was a five-year separation where life was a blur and my day to day actives was filled with school and work. In 1998, I received another chance to reunite with my family in 2001 when I was given assignment orders to South Korea as a second lieutenant. I was so happy to again partake in their lives. I attended my sister’s wedding, the birth of her daughter and visited their small home that was established near the place of my birth.
Life happens in a blur and six years later, I was once again moved away in 2007 due to my reassignment by the Army. As I left Sth Korea, I assumed I would get the chance to hang out with my new found brother and sister when I retired from military service. I hoped I would again have a chance to play with their kids, go on trips and share in the bounties of life.
In 2011 when I was serving in Afghanistan, I received an email from my aunt stating my brother had died unexpectantly in his sleep. My heart was crushed and I immediately flew back to Korea to bury my younger brother. I learned one of life’s hardest lessons: that we cannot always look to the future to share and bond with those most important to us.
Taken for Granted
I was one of the lucky few adoptees to be adopted with a biological sibling. Initially, my sister was the annoying younger sibling that followed me everywhere. She was 2½ and I was 4 ½ years old when we were sent to the United States. I began kindergarten the same year that I arrived and learnt about American culture the hard way.
I was in trouble for going with the girls to the girl’s bathroom. I was chastised for not returning the books to the school library. I received detention for copying graffiti that was already written on the gym wall. I had no idea that the words, “the principal is a fucking retard” was derogatory! Life was a learning experience and nobody understood me at all.
My sister, on the other hand, was gifted. Life was unfair and it gave all the talent to one sibling but it was not me! She was a straight-A student. She made it to the State Finals as a gifted athlete. Even though I was 2 years older, she beat me when we raced towards the school bus. I later realised I was a pretty fast runner but my sister had that rare gift as an athlete. Lastly, my sister was way better looking. She won the local beauty pageant and after I joined the Army at 17 years old, I quit showing pictures of my little sister to my Army buddies because they would always ask me to set them up on dates with her. My sister had it all: she was stunningly beautiful, extremely smart and a gifted athlete who had the potential to compete at College or even at Olympic level.
Once my sister reached adulthood she chartered a different course and over time the energetic, bright young woman who I was familiar with, morphed into someone I could not recognise. The resilient person I knew became a shell of her former self. She sought out love and married at a young age. The love she was seeking was fleeting. At the end of 3 divorces, she lost everything that mattered to her, including her own children. She squandered her opportunities. She received the GI bill to pay for College but she never enrolled.
Time took its toll, her beauty faded and the life of constant defeat opened up a crevasse that allowed her to be defeated in everything she did. The desire to be successful was now a distant memory and today she stares in the mirror wondering who the defeated person is on the other side: the older woman with a scalp of thinning grey hair, wrinkled face from living a tough life, thin frail yellow nicotine-stained fingers that work minimum wage jobs to barely make ends meet. Every time I reach out she tells me everything is fine. Yet I hear from her children about the suffering she endures. Being evicted from her home, having to sell her car way below market price to make ends meet. I can read between the lines when she speaks to me. I no longer understand her and my privileged life cannot understand the difficulties that she faces.
My family search was bifurcated. On one side, the door was slammed shut and I was met with rejection. On the other, across the hall, the door was opened for me to meet my half-siblings. The hallway that leads to my sister has been eroded by the termites of life, treading down a once familiar path now filled with navigating around an unstable sister who has squandered her life away.
This is what life has taught me:
Don’t have unrealistic expectations when it comes to searching for family.
The range of emotions and outcomes will vary with each person’s journey.
If you are searching, be prepared you may be greeted with open arms to meet a family who may not want anything to do with you. What you think will happen may be something completely different. Treasure the journey.
I’m grateful for all the people who helped me along the way to find my family. Many people went out of their way to help and guide me through the process. Sometimes it takes patience and time for relationships to blossom. Of course, the opposite can also occur. Like in the case of my biological sister, our relationship has deteriorated over time and I can no longer recognize the person she has become.
Life as an intercountry adoptee has those moments that feel extremely vulnerable and painful. I described it years ago as “peeling away layers of an onion“. I’ve had that this week. Firstly, I found out after 8 months the media company who were investigating and searching for my mother in Vietnam have failed to turn up anything substantial and no longer have funding to continue. I have spent many times over two decades trying to find a lead that will help me find my mother. In desperation I finally agreed to media taking on my case although I’m loath to having no control over how they portray one’s story. Each time after searching, I experience disappointment, grief and sadness. I give up for a while until I find the strength to be able to go through it all again. Secondly, I have spent over 10 months seeking the right experts to help me fight for my rights arising from my adoption. I’ve had to relive my years of life growing up in my adoptive home and the memories and feelings are still there. They never go away but fade into the distance because usually I get on with life and move forward. Thankfully, I don’t get stuck or spiral down anymore.
I just watched the SBS documentary Searching for Mum which follows two Sri Lankan intercountry adoptees adopted in the 1980s to the UK and their return to Sri Lanka to try and find their identity and families. There was one heartbreaking moment that resonated within me, where Rebecca went to the Registry to see if a record of her birth existed. It was her last chance to know if she had an official identity. She ended up finding out her birth was not registered at all and she is left with the confirmation that she “does not exist” on paper as a Sri Lankan identity. It struck a chord with me as I’ve lived my entire life too with little documentation except for my Vietnamese passport. The Australian government made up adoption papers and a birth certificate 17 years after my adoptive father flew to Vietnam and brought me to Australia as a 6 month old baby.
My adoptive parents and siblings teased me many times when I was growing up that I would make the “perfect spy”. They all knew and rubbed it in that I did not exist on paper anywhere. It was meant to be a “joke” but on so many levels then, and more so now, as a mature age adult I cannot fathom how or why my adoptive family were so insensitive and cruel. Only those who have an identity that they take for granted could be so thoughtless as to tease another for not knowing who they are, where they come from or having anything to show. Together with an adoption based on literally nothing – thin air – because no documents on the Vietnamese end have ever been found, I have no way to know how I came to be adopted nor to whom I originally belonged.
Last year, a private detective sent me a blury photo of what might be a Vietnamese birth certificate for me but he’s now gone underground. The media company who tried to get the Vietnamese police station to release the hoped for copy of the “real” document that the photo captures, refuse to do so. It is so excruciatingly frustrating to be held back from what is a basic human right. Like Rebecca, I just want to know who I am and the circumstances for why I was given to strangers from another country – and whether my adoption is legitimate without coercion. My journey to find the right experts so far this year, brought all this home again with a punch!
Like Rebecca, I live my life without the certainty of knowing who I am, how I came into this world, whether I was wanted or not, or who my clan is. I live with a shell for an identity – formed by my adoptive experience. Up until my adoptive family left to go overseas as missionaries at the beginning of my year 12, I had experienced quite a damaging journey that left little room to exist in a positive way. Thankfully, I found healing in my early 30s and now I mostly have a sense of peace in my “non existence”.
It blew me away to listen to the documentary Searching for Mum where one of the search detectives said, “At least 50 percent of his Sri Lankan cases in finding mothers the documentation was fabricated” and he had done over 400 cases. In my years of connecting with adult intercountry adoptees worldwide, I know of many individuals who suspect and/or confirm their documentation is false. To listen to someone who sees the outcomes of each search conducted in only one country and can quote that kind of statistic, it is a damning reality for intercountry adoptions in Sri Lanka. It matches my current project of translating into english the book Het verdriet Sri Lanka whose title translates into The Sadness of Sri Lanka. It is an eye opening book about the mothers in Sri Lanka who lost their child to intercountry adoption, written by a Sri Lankan intercountry adoptee who discovers the terrible truth about her own and so many Sri Lankan intercountry adoptions.
I know this reality is not just Sri Lanka because a good majority of our birth countries have shown the same pattern of unethical adoptions over many decades. It also matches the doubts I’ve always held about my own adoption. Until I find my Vietnamese family and hear from them myself, I don’t think I’ll ever stop wondering whether my “relinquishment” was legitimate and uncoerced. How could it be? A war torn country just like Sri Lanka. So much bribery and corruption coupled with outright child trafficking enmasse by world superpowers who believe to this day that flying out hundreds of vulnerable babies and children via Operation Babylift was a mercy mission.
How many other intercountry adoptees live their lives like myself and Rebecca with no known documents and identity, who have been removed from our country, our origins with little thought for our rights to identity? And what about those who do have documents but find they are falsified. This is where I say intercountry adoption is simply, downright wrong. A child always grows up and we have a right to know who we are, where we came from, to whom we were born and where we belonged until our adoptions. Our paperwork needs to be true and accurate because like the BBC documentary highlights, it is our ONLY source to know who we are and our origins.
To rob us of our truth by falsifying paperwork or creating an adoption based on thin air, goes against all human rights and ethics. If you cannot guarantee our original identity intact with no lies, then we shouldn’t be flying a child out of its country. Experience of adult intercountry adoptees like myself show that in being adopted to a foreign country we usually lose the ability to communicate and understand the culture and ways of our homeland. This then makes the pathway of trying to regain what is rightfully ours, even more complicated.
And what do governments or those who facilitate our adoptions say or do when we confront them with the truth of how intercountry adoption has operated and continues to operate? Or that we want help in finding our original identity and the truth? They largely turn a blind eye and do very little!
My journey to the right experts this week has made me aware that I could technically be considered “stateless”. They are now investigating this for me but it really brought home that the paperwork for my intercountry adoption is so dodgy and based on thin air. Even the Australian made up identity papers mis-spell my original name in 3 different ways on the same document. So am I even adopted?
To have confirmation that we don’t exist as an identity in our birth or adoptive country is another layer of the onion that some intercountry adoptees have to grapple with in situations like mine or Rebecca’s. It’s painful. There is a powerlessness we experience and very little can change it. We simply have to live with it and find a way to move through life and retain our hope. Like Rebecca, I live my life hoping one day I might find my mother and know the truth of who I am.
A few days ago, I was invited to attend the filming of Sarah Henke to cook with a famous TV Chef from Korea 전현숙. He came to Germany to interview Sarah, a KAD chef who works at a restaurant and recently earned the coveted Michelin Star. During the filming of the program all guests were interviewed and asked a panel of questions. One of the questions was, “When was the first time you ate Korean food and do you remember eating Korean food as a child?”
Remembering distinct tastes: In 1990, I was mistakenly sent to the wrong training program by the US Army. Months before my training took place, I had signed up to be an engineer but cooking became my new profession. I was surprised to learn I was attending the Army’s culinary school at Fort Lee, VA. One of my instructors was from Korea and his name was SFC Park. He immigrated to the US in his teens and had a thick Korea accent. My friends and I would laugh every time he would tell us to place food on the cookie “shit” (sheet). A few weeks into the culinary program I became one of the top students and was recommended by SFC Park to be one of the students allowed to take an advance cooking course and train under a Master Chef in the evenings.
Several weeks into my training, SFC Park pulled me aside and asked me if I liked Korean food. I answered truthfully and stated I never grew up eating Korean food and did not remember ever eating it. That weekend I crawled into SFC Park’s car and we headed to Richmond for the area’s annual Korean festival and I feasted on numerous Korean dishes. All the flavors were new but wonderful! I gorged myself with Bulgogi (BBQ meat), Kimchee (fermented cabbage) and Japchae (sweet potato noodle dish). One dish caught my eye as I passed dozens of dishes and it contained a tupperware of what looked like tree leaves. I was informed they were not tree leaves and were “delicious” sesame leaves called Kkaennip. I grabbed a leaf and popped it into my mouth and began to chew. As soon as I tasted the distinct flavored leaves, I knew instantly that I had eaten this before. My face was filled with excitement and I rushed to my cooking mentor and told him that I remembered eating the dish when I was young.
Remembering clothing: When I was 5 years old I visited my grandmother’s farm. It was a last minute decision and my grandmother had to rummage through the closet to look for clothing I could wear outside whilst following her doing her chores. I remember seeing her toss out oversized scarves, gloves and hats as they were pulled out of the closet and compared to my small frame. A cap immediately caught my attention as she pulled it out of the closet. It was an olive drab green army cap with ear flaps. I became really excited and I told my grandmother that I remembered seeing a picture of my father wearing a similar cap when I lived in Korea. My grandmother looked at me and smiled. She said matter of factly, “I think you have a great memory or a great imagination”.
In 1996, I enlisted into the Active Component Army and signed up to go to the location of my choice. I turned down a chance of attending West Point and a full ride scholarship to St. John’s University for a chance to enlist in Korea and find my biological family. Newly assigned medics to Camp Casey, located in Dong-du-chon, were sent to the clinic to have their skills assessed and given on-the-job training for 30 days before being allowed to work in their assigned unit. During my training, I worked with the pharmacist Mrs. Kim. She took a look at me and asked if I was Korean. I explained to her that I was adopted from Korea. I also shared that I was looking for my biological family and she told me she would try to help.
Fate had it that Mrs. Kim so happened to attend College with the director of Eastern Social Welfare Society and she forwarded her friend a copy of my adoption papers. Within the first week, I was notified they were able to locate my aunt and she immediately traveled to see me at my base to introduce me to my father. During my initial meeting with my aunt, I inquired about a picture of my father that hung in the entrance of our home when I was a small boy. She immediately withdrew a black and white photo of my father wearing the hat from her purse and gave it to me to keep.
Remembering activities: I was overjoyed to learn that I would be heading to Korea at my first duty station as a newly minted second lieutenant. During my second tour to Korea I had my third physical trigger that reminded me of my childhood in Korea before moving to the United States. One weekend I was walking through the streets with my fellow lieutenant buddies from the s1/506th Infantry (Band of Brother’s Unit) near our base at Munsan to find a place to eat grilled meat. We walked several blocks looking for picture of cows or anything that gave an indication the restaurant served grilled meat. We found a sign with a picture of a cartoon pig and cow so we went inside to order food. George, the tall thin West Point graduate, made cow noises to indicate that he wanted to order bulgogi. I laughed at him and told him that Korean cows did not make the same sounds as American cows. We had a good laugh over his antics and I noticed the restaurant was using round cylinder-shaped charcoal to cook our meat. I pulled my buddies in and told themof how I remembered my grandmother cooking on these things when I was a boy in Korea.
That same year I met with my aunt again and asked her about my grandparent’s kitchen. I told her I remembered my grandmother cooking on top of the charcoal and she told me it was true. It wasn’t uncommon for country people to cook on charcoals that were used to warm the flooring of the houses. The charcoal cylinders served a dual purpose. She was surprised by the detail of things that I could remember from my childhood.
What the experts say: A week ago, on my drive to work I listened to a recent episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast. It is about how memory actually works and how understanding this relates to our relationship with the truth (podcast link is below). His multi-podcast lecture states that long term memories cannot be trusted. Individuals have a tendency to mask over memories with other stories that were told. The podcast indicates people are easily influenced by others and the environment around us and its not uncommon for our memories to change over time.
Jeffrey A. Vernon a physician summarized the podcast well by saying, “Literature shows our memories are more fluid and changeable with time than we’d like to believe; our memories are colored by our emotions both at the time of the event and the time of recall; and often contain details that never happened but, rather are “filled in” at a later point to “complete” the memory. The memory of our overworked brains often doesn’t have the attention span or processing power to constantly take in and record the entirety of life going on around.
I do agree with Mr. Gladwell and numerous studies that our memories become fragmented and do change over time. For instance, the fish I caught at the lake becomes bigger and the money I won at the poker game becomes greater. I do believe there are memories that we hold onto and can retain for the long term. Sure, some of the details can be fuzzy but the overall information is correct. We can often verify these important events with others that viewed the moment with us. I remember looking into my son’s big bright eyes when he was born. I remember being promoted to top position at the Korean Hospital in Afghanistan. I know these events to be real and validate them.
In Closing: I’ve spoken to several thousands of adoptees through face-to-face interactions and through social media. When I share my memories, many adoptees have expressed regret for not remembering their past. Many were several years older than I at adoption (I was 4.5 years when I was adopted to the United States). Some adoptees will question the authenticity when speaking about their adoption story because they have a hard time remembering details or events before a certain age. I don’t think individuals need to beat themselves up for not remembering anything. Sometimes the brain forgets in order to protect itself. I have witnessed this in the military. We often call the event battle fatigue, shell shock or combat stress reactions. It’s not uncommon for the brain to shutdown and forget things during stressful situations.
Lastly, children can age at different times. I’ve experienced this with my own children, where one child had high cognitive abilities at an earlier age than my other child. This could be another explanation about why people can’t remember – they simply were not at an age where their brain was developed enough to remember. I think it is good for individuals to dismiss their thoughts altogether because of this uncertainty. Memory dissipates and becomes foggy even for the smartest of individuals. If you feel that you recall something that nobody else does – keep it in the back of your mind and try to validate those thoughts as you learn more about the situation. I did and I was able to validate them to be true.
There are a lot of opinions and pieces surrounding Crazy Rich Asians right now. I am simply adding to the chorus, but from a slightly different perspective as a Chinese American intercountry adopted person. As an adoptee who watched Crazy Rich Asians, it is hard to describe all of the feelings I felt while sitting in the movie theatre, well twice. It was beautiful, funny, smart, and fun. Of course, the movie is receiving extra praise because of a cast that is all-Asian and not just the cast, but the music and the cultural representation as well. Representation matters and it was with a smile that I approached the end credits of the movie.
As an adoptee, I felt proud to see people who looked like me on the big screen. People who had similar features, presented in different shades where not every Asian was the kung fu master or nerdy IT tech support. The movie was refreshing and quite frankly a new experience, at least in major Hollywood films.
But…and this is a big but. I felt represented by the way I look, but not necessarily by how I grew up. As an adoptee I straddle in between the Asian and white cultures where I look Asian but was raised in a white household. To be honest, I am not sure I understood every joke in Crazy Rich Asians, and definitely didn’t understand every song. My parents didn’t necessarily practice the honor/shame ritual of guilting their children. I recognized it and laughed, but on an experiential level I couldn’t relate.
My immigrant story is a solo journey of going from a poor orphanage in China to a middle class white family in America. My immigrant story came without a choice and the expectation of gratefulness attached, because to some, I didn’t suffer as much as other Asian immigrant families did. That’s a topic for a different discussion. To the point however, Asian adoptees and others have struggled with identifying as Asian American or Asian because we aren’t seen as Asian enough. We are called “whitewashed” by other Asian Americans and we are clearly not white, but we are familiar with white culture because we had no choice but to be raised in it. We are left out because we don’t fit any conventional norms. We are the true bananas.
There was an article the other day of the mixed Asian actresses and whether they were “Asian enough” for the film. This type of debate only leaves my head scratching. To be clear, this is not a knock on the film. The film was great step in the right direction. I’m not asking for an all adopted Chinese American film. But if Asians complain about white people leaving them out of Hollywood and that there needs to be more representation, then surely Asians should also be open to a more diverse Asian representation and what it means to be Asian. Just like there are all different shades of what it means to be American, to some degree there can be different shades to what it means to be Asian or Asian American. I understand Asians are mostly homogenous within their own cultures and countries, but the world we are increasingly living in is multiracial and multi-ethnic. If Asians want more representation in a space they occupy like society, then maybe they should be open to others who occupy a similar space to them.
Change is slow. I get it. Crazy Rich Asians was a monumental step in opening the door for an all-Asian cast and potentially for more representation of minorities of all shapes and sizes. Personally though, I can’t wait until we can stop categorizing people and putting them in boxes just because it’s convenient or because it’s the way it’s always been. Rather, I’d like to let people blaze and add new categories and labels so they can be themselves. There is more to be done for sure but that doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t celebrate when it’s appropriate to do so. I left Crazy Rich Asians with a smile on my face and hope in my heart.