by Cam Lee Small, adopted from South Korea to the USA, therapist at TherapyRedeemed.
Not all children get to ask this question before they become adoptees. And not all expectant mothers get a chance to answer.
I know there are so many kinds of circumstances represented in our community, even as you’re reading this and as you contribute to this very special adoption community to which we belong.
This question came up for me as I wondered about my own mother recently, and was brought further to the surface as I watched some clips from The Karate Kid.
Adoptees experience a loss of choice and voice when it comes to such a decision, to parent the child or relinquish for adoption… and WAY TOO MANY adopters dismiss their child’s feelings about it. Too many.
Let. Children. Grieve.
Don’t tell adoptees they’re making a big deal out of such a small thing. Ask why adoption agencies and power brokers within those institutions have made such a fortune by disrupting these sacred relationships.
Please let us grieve that. And allow us to wonder, “What if?” Even if the answer is unresolvable, that someone is here to hear it with us, to acknowledge its weight.
Because we certainly weren’t meant to carry that alone. May our message to one another be, “You don’t have to.”
Hello, you may call me FaerieWarrior and I’m a Chinese artist who was adopted to America in 1997 at around thirteen months old. I was raised by a single mother and have always had a passion for drawing. I currently hold a degree in education (k-12) and art. I would love to go back to college and potentially get a master’s in art.
Above is one of my drawings which I call “Locked”. It expresses how after I was bullied in 7th/8th grade and how I always kept my feelings and emotions to myself. I tended to keep people at a distance and never really open myself up.
The bullying started halfway through 6th grade and got more intense at 7th/8th grade. The most popular guy in our class came up to me during recess and told me he had a crush on me. Me, being an intellectual and not liking this guy at all, said: “Ew, no!” So for the next two years, I was bullied about various things from my appearance, my hobbies, and my so-called ‘boyfriend’ (my childhood friend who went to a different school and no, we weren’t dating).
I should probably mention that around 85-90% of my class were white Americans. The other ethnicities in our class were: one Hispanic girl, one Filipino girl and one Chinese girl (me). Given we all went to a Catholic K-8 school, we were all raised Catholic as well.
I was mostly bullied about how “long and disgusting” my hair was (I still proudly keep my hair long) together with my love of reading. While I read, some people would throw random objects at me to see if I would notice. Markers, paper clips, eraser heads, etc were the main projectiles. One time in music class, the guy who professed his crush on me threw a broken pen that hit me in the check.
The ‘friend’ group I was a part of, mostly ignored me unless they needed help with school work (I was usually given the task of doing the experiments and explanations for science labs). Other times they would exclude me from their conversations or small group projects with the snide, “You should work with other people and try to make friends,” while they continued to work with the same exact people. Such hypocrites.
Not only that, there were two (or three, I don’t really remember) guys who would be super creepy and oddly sexual towards me. When the jerk who initiated it walked around the classroom, he would intentionally walk behind me and stroke my back as he went by. Every single time. That led me to hate being touched, especially when it’s from a stranger or unexpected. That guy even had the gall to tell me that he’d, “Make me the next teen mom” (back when that television show was a “thing”). I replied with, “You’d never get close enough to try,” while kicking him in the shin under the table.
There was only ever one incident where my ethnicity was under fire. Some random weird kid who had a love/hate relationship with me called me a racial slur (some days he’d claim he was in love with me and the next day he’d hate my guts). I was a bit confused since I had never heard that word before in my life. I went home and looked it up in the dictionary. I didn’t really particularly care because I had a sense of purpose about who I was and what I’m here to do.
Well, I’ve been rambling on for a while so if you want to know more about this time of my life, I have a story speedpaint where I draw and tell you a more in-depth about my younger years (it’s around 20 minutes long so hope you got some popcorn). You can find it here.
When I reached high school, I started clashing with my adoptive mom. I wasn’t performing at the level she wanted and each year from sophomore to senior year I struggled in one class. We also had many differing ideas on what my career path should be (she did not support me being a professional artist). I constantly felt like I was a disappointment and had no worth. From my resulting ruined self-esteem, destroyed confidence and years of being bullied and abused, those feelings grew into a general feeling of disappointment in my talents.
Anyway, for a more light-hearted conversation, above is a drawing I made for the Chinese New Year 2020. It was a fun drawing to make. I was born in the year of the rat and I always enjoy ‘celebrating’ Chinese New Year. Every year I would get my mom to buy me Chinese food and we’d change the stuffed animal that hangs out in the kitchen (we have all the Chinese zodiac beanie babies). The girl has the Chinese symbol for “metal” on her chest because this year the element is metal. The lucky colours for rats are gold, blue, and green. So I incorporated gold in the dress and blue in the eyes of the mouse. The lucky flower for rats is the lily so I added them in as hair accessories since I always wear a flower in my hair.
I was raised with lots of books about my home country and its culture/traditions so I grew up always proud of my heritage. I really love the idea/concepts of the zodiac and I would totally nerd out with it (ie I compiled notes about personality traits, relationship dos and don’ts, etc). When I was a toddler, my mom took me to Chinese lessons in which I was too shy and antisocial to really participate in, which is something I regret now.
So with my head in the clouds and with all my past experiences, I enjoy making art and stories that hopefully will make an impact on others in the future. If you would like to see more of my work, you can follow me on DeviantArt.
It’s a continuum of fluctuating circumstances. Forgiveness is. It should not be a foregone conclusion. Forgiveness. It might heal some superficial wounds but leave open other, more lethal, ones to fester. Forgiveness can trick a community into feeling closure, but the reality of a complicated, unresolved present will always be there to remind us not to go so compliantly into the promise of peaceful coexistence.
Like any addictive substance, forgiveness prescribed by someone who stands to benefit from your dejection is not your friend. To forgive in order to accept someone else’s excuses for treating you a certain way and causing enduring grief that frustrates your efforts to be taken seriously is an act of self-sabotage. Offering forgiveness under the thumb of contrition is to cede a hard-fought dignity to exist on your own terms.
When forgiveness is a sincere act and feeling, inseparable, then it won’t appear to be anything other than what it is: a tiny blossom imperceptibly growing on a warm spring day, completing an inevitable cycle. Forgiveness will be there when you awaken and when you close your eyes to finally sleep. You won’t have to will it to be; it will present itself when the time comes.
Intercountry adoptees speak often about the return to their birth country, a time defined by searching and finding. Lynelle’s recent post made me consider my relationship with Korea, the land that, over three decades ago, released me to a country made of dreams. We speak of “the return” as a journey of healing, confrontation, and conflict. Today I’m sharing my perspective on what “the return” means for me and how that phrase is set against my experience with adoption and my parents.
An ocean and several continents occupy the distance between myself and an invisible past. A past that suffers me its opacity every time I hear the word Korea.
For many years, Korea was a Bad Word, something spat out, a noun formed in the back of your throat where phlegm collected. It was shameful. It was ugly. It was full of people with flat faces and squinty eyes and coarse dark hair like me. But Korea was the country, my home in only the metaphorical sense, that I was instructed to embrace.
Many families encourage intercountry adoptees to go back, to find the place that let them go, suggesting a return trip will erase an adoptee’s discontent and otherness and experience with racism. A trip to the homeland might replace those evils with the satisfaction of a curiosity fulfilled. Perhaps this helps some adoptees. I certainly support them and I hope a trip serves those purposes and more. It has, for many, and I’m proud of them. But I have never returned, for either lack of money or desire. Here’s why.
On her deathbed, my mother urged me to Go to Korea. She had pushed for this trip my entire life, pressing me to return while things like I’m going to kick your eyes straight and Chinese people can’t be punks competed for space in my developing self-image. My mother shoved Korea at me as my Asianness became a liability, weaving her misguided request into our relationship’s growing divide.
One late afternoon, my mother sat across from me in our breezy kitchen, perched on her backless padded barstool while I did homework and complained about teenage life. Somehow, either adoption or race came up, topics we fit the criteria for but on which we ourselves boasted ignorance. She fixed her bright blue eyes on me and in that wide open kitchen asked Why don’t you like Korea? Is it because it gave you up?
I gathered my things and raged into my bedroom. Her carefully hung family portraits shook when I slammed my door. My teenage self couldn’t articulate anything but anger in response to her accusatory question. Today I understand my reaction.
From my mother’s perspective, my lack of curiosity was a flaw. She died never realizing that I couldn’t accept a country not because it “gave me up” but because years of external conditioning taught me to hate it.
But we can undo this damage. Adoptive parents eager to change the public’s one-sided adoption narrative can support adoptees struggling to find their place, to accept what fragments of a heritage they assemble as their own. We must allow adoptees the room to grow into whatever culture they choose—or not—to inhabit. Or maybe an adoptee will embrace their freedom to float freely between worlds, content in independence, drawing strength from ambiguity.
In the end, it doesn’t matter. As long as the adoptee makes the choice to visit their homeland, we must consider them independent human beings. We can operate separately from our adoptions, finding ourselves on paths we finally forged ourselves. If this happens with or without a homeland visit, it’s because the adoptee chose that way.
I’ve just returned from a 3+ week return trip to my country of birth, Vietnam. This trip attests to the mantra “adoption is a lifelong journey“! My return to homeland has been another unwrapping of the many layers in exploring who I am and where I belong.
This trip was such a contrast to the first which I made 18 years ago. In year 2000, I returned to Vietnam for the first time. I was in my late-20s. I had only just begun awakening to understand I had “adoption” and “relinquishment” issues. I certainly had no idea I had a mass of grief and loss sitting beneath the surface of my daily life.
When I arrived in Vietnam for the first time in year 2000, I was affected by overwhelming feelings I had not known existed. I remember the deep intense grieving that arose within me as we were landing at the airport. Overwhelming emotions flooded me and I spent the first week crying and trying to work out why I was crying and what it all meant.
That trip ended up being quite liberating, a wonderful and very healing visit. The most memorable moment was the local woman in the Mekong Delta who asked me in faltering english where I was from. In my broken english I explained very simply that I’d left the country as a baby and was raised by white Australians because I didn’t know my mother or father. Having lived almost 3 decades of hearing people’s response, “Oh, how lucky you are” to learning of my adoption status, this woman in the Mekong Delta had been the first to immediately comprehend my losses. She spoke my truth which resonated within when she replied, “Oh, you have missed out on so much!”
18 years later, I am a different Lynelle, no longer fragmented and confused. I am now very aware of the impacts of relinquishment and adoption. It is now 20 years later of speaking out and encouraging fellow adoptees to become proactive and share about the issues we face. This time, I returned and I felt so grounded being back in my homeland and knowing my place, time and date of birth. I revelled in being back in my district and hospital of birth. I enjoyed blending in amongst people who look like me. I felt a natural affinity to the place and people. I love the vibrancy of Ho Chi Minh City! I can now call it home because my birth certificate has been found and I know some basic truths about myself!
Clearly it wasn’t just me who could sense that I felt at home. My husband is a 3rd generation Aussie Chinese and he said to me, “Wow, I’ve just realised I’m married to a Vietnamese woman!” It was one of those humorous moments but beneath the surface, the truth in what he said was profound. I am actually Vietnamese and I feel I have finally reclaimed that part of me that was missing. I no longer feel I am just an Aussie girl, I am Vietnamese – Australian. This second visit highlighted to me the many aspects of who I am, are fundamentally, very Vietnamese!
The mother earth connection, respect for nature and nurturing things has always been within me but it became obvious during my travels in Vietnam that this is a very Vietnamese way of being. I travelled from South to North and everywhere I went, whether it was in the city or the country areas, there were so many plots of land with fields growing vegetables, flowers, rice or something. The city ways in Vietnam have not as yet forgotten the link between mother nature and our human needs.
The innate desire in me to build and be part of a community, I also saw reflected in the Vietnamese way of life. In Vietnam just the example of how they navigate around one another on the roads is amazing. People and the traffic just flow around one another, allowing each other to go their ways without aggression, pushiness or competition. There is a natural way to “work together” in harmony that resonates within me.
I am by nature a very friendly person, always interested in finding out about others at a deeper level. I found this reflected in many of the Vietnamese locals I met and spent a great deal of time with. My taxi driver Hr Hien took me for a 12 hour trip to the Floating Markets. He embraced me, a stranger really, as his little “sister“. Turns out we were actually born at the same hospital with him being only 7 years older. He sheltered and protected me all day long. He could easily have abused his position of power, given I speak no Vietnamese and he could have robbed and dumped me in the middle of the Mekong Delta. Instead, he took me for the whole day and treated me with respect, welcoming me into his life sharing his thoughts and views about Vietnamese life, culture, family, laws, and ways. When we purchased things, he would say, “Don’t say a word, I’ll tell them you’re my sister returned from Australia who left as a baby to explain why you can’t speak Vietnamese“. Then he’d negotiate for us and get the “local rate“. It was experiences like this that showed me the soul of the Vietnamese people with which I relate – the sense of looking out for others, being kind and generous in spirit.
Returning to visit the War Remnants Museum, I was once again reminded of the Vietnamese spirit of resilience, forgiveness, and ability to move on despite a terribly, ugly history of wars and atrocities. Attributes I’ve seen within my being and now I comprehend where these flow from. It’s my Vietnamese spirit, my Vietnamese DNA! I am hardwired to have survived and flourish, despite the adversities.
For me, returning to birth land has been so important to embracing all the aspects of who I am. I am a product of relinquishment and adoption, in-between two cultures, lands and people. In growing up in my adoptive country, I had been fully Australian without understanding or embracing my Vietnameseness. Now, in my mid 40s, I feel I have returned to myself. I am proudly both of my two cultures and lands. I love the Vietnamese aspects I see in myself and I also love my Australian culture and identity. I no longer feel divided but am comfortable being both at the same time.
It’s taken years of active awareness to embrace my lost identity, culture, and origins but it is a journey I wanted to do. I had realised in my late 20s that being adopted had resulted in a denial of a large part of who I am, at my very core.
I look forward to future returns to Vietnam. I hope one day it will be to reunite with my Vietnamese birth family. That will be an amazing path of discovery which will open up even further facets in discovering who I am!
I can so relate to the Lotus, the national flower of Vietnam!
To the Vietnamese, lotus is known as an exquisite flower, symbolizing the purity, serenity, commitment and optimism of the future as it is the flower which grows in muddy water and rises above the surface to bloom with remarkable beauty.
Click here for my collection of photos from this trip and here for photos from year 2000 return visit.