Return to Birthland

Lynelle

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!

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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.

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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!

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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 recent return trip and here for the photos from my first visit, 18 years ago.

DNA Testing: The Risks vs Rewards

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Between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, 1.5 Million DNA kits were sold online by AncestryDNA, a US-based DNA testing company. The sudden increase for DNA testing may be due to YouTube and Facebook’s large cache of emotional stories about the outcomes of DNA testing. Two YouTube video’s that stick out for me are: “DNA Journey” series by Momondo where individuals are shocked to learn they have DNA from groups they did not know about; and History Channel’s video where a man repeatedly checks his mailbox for test results – he learns of a small amount of Viking genes and celebrates this heritage with his daughters, by dressing up in traditional Viking garb on his front lawn.

The videos were emotional and popular with each getting around 4 million reviews. I didn’t need these stories to motivate me to get a DNA test. I already had a degree in biology and was scouring the internet for reasonably priced DNA tests and was one of the first individuals to test with 23&Me. The motivator for me was curiosity. I was hoping to gain some detailed information about myself that I didn’t know already. Along with most adoptees, I took a DNA test for numerous reasons:

  • Health: Some adoptees are worried about their health and have nothing to determine their risk. DNA tests can provide extensive health related information.
  • Curious: Many adoptees have a curiosity of who they are and would like to know more about their genetic make-up.
  • Search: Numerous adoptees want to search for their families. Several databanks exist that allow individuals to share their DNA data to be cross-matched for relatives
  • Validate: Some individuals may have found people potentially related to them. The surest way to determine if individuals are related is by taking a DNA test to confirm.

My Background

For me it’s frustrating to listen to people who have little to no understanding of basic science, or the courtesy to contact experts within the field, before they make judgment about DNA testing. Many people can be skeptical and ignorant about the science behind the new research and technologies. I dealt with this while woPicture1rking at United States Army Medical Research Unit Kenya (USAMRU-K) while assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, Africa. Our labs employed more than 600 doctors, research scientists, and nurses to work on cutting-edge research to combat Malaria, HIV and Leishmaniosis.

I began DNA testing in Europe with a non-profit organisation (NPO) 325kamra. Their mission was to give away free DNA test kits (minus a small shipping and administrative fee) to Korean adoptees who lived outside the United States and to relinquishing parents. The aim was to facilitate finding biological relatedness. A false rumor being spread was 325kamra was profiting by exchanging genetic information to laboratories.

DNA Testing Fears

Something can always go wrong in life and people have fears about DNA that are no different to anything else in life. In my experience, this sector is highly regulated and followed by numerous watchdogs across the globe. In the United States the U.S. House of Representatives foresaw issues and passed the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) in 2008. The law prohibits the use of genetic information for use by health insurance companies and for employment. However, I still read newspaper articles that use scare tactics and sensationalism to induce fear. A recent article that circulates on Facebook states that the police can use your DNA test against you in court. I find this highly unlikely, I make this decision with more than 20 years of experience working in hospitals as a CFO, nurse and as a paramedic. The reasons why I think this is impossible hinges on confirming the test on its accuracy. The sample could have been contaminated, individuals may have switched the vials, aliases could be used and most importantly, there is no chaDNA Testing Europein of custody that shows that the DNA was accounted for during collection, through shipment and as it arrived to get tested inside the labs. Furthermore, there is also an issue of variance within the industry.

Companies run different algorithms to determine their results. Each laboratory has their own standards and policies – all of this produces variance. Like any standard warranty, evidence can be obtained to be used against someone suspected of committing a crime. However, it’s highly unlikely that the police will ever request or use DNA samples from a DNA testing company. Furthermore, it is far easier to obtain a search warrant to obtain DNA specimens from the individual or from their home. We all leave traces of our DNA everywhere as we touch the surfaces of things. The traces of saliva left on the toothbrush, traces of spit on the forks left in our dirty dish piles and the hair follicles that land on the bathroom floor from brushing our hair.

Test Result Differences

There has been some criticism by people because they found differences in their DNA results when taking multiple tests from competing companies, or when variances are found testing against a close relative. People need to remember that DNA testing is relatively new and companies incorporate findings at different rates. I saw this in my own DNA test. When I first read my DNA composition in 2007, 23&Me stated I was 100% Korean. Today, when I read through the report, the company updated its haplogroup information and now it has identified 4 distinctive ethnicities within my DNA. These are not necessarily mistakes on the part of a DNA testing company.

Research Lab in Kenya AfricaSome of the reasons we get different test results from different labs include:

  • Differences Between Siblings: It is true that children receive 50% of their genetic inheritance from their mother and the other 50% from their father. However, the segments shared by the parents are random. This is why one child is taller, had darker hair or is smarter than other siblings from the same parents. When siblings take a DNA test, the results will be different because of the random distribution of genes. DNA companies predict a relationship between two people in part by looking at the amount of DNA they share and it’s measured in a unit called centimorgans (cM). Closer relationships will have share more centimorgans of DNA with you.
  • Mistaken Identity: I have been asked by people on numerous occasions to do a DNA test on someone because they found someone who looks eerily similar to them or they found someone who had similar traits. I recommend viewing the YouTube video on DNA testing on a set of doppelgangers where it was found the individuals had no genetic relationships at all, despite the fact they looked identical!
  •  But My Family Said: You may be one of the lucky few who have already found your biological parents and were told you were half Italian or 100% Korean but your DNA test shows  you are way less than expected. Families often hide embarrassing facts, trace only one side of the family tree, or simply do not know the truth – they only know of the more recent events. Genetic tests can trace over 1,000 years and can show you within a range of certainty of when the genes were passed.
  • Just for Men: The three big DNA testing companies in the United States (FTDNA, AncestryDNA, and 23&Me) use autosomal testing and both men and women are tested the same way. There is another test called a Y-chromosome, also known as a mitochondrial DNA test that reflects the direct father-to-son relationship. The mitochondrial testing can look deeper into your family tree and get results dating 10,000-50,000 years, compared to traditional testing that focuses on a few hundred to a thousand years.

Norway testing

In closing, individuals need to realize that the processes used to do DNA testing is different amongst companies. One company looks specifically at programmed locations for specific values, other companies offer a full scan of all 16,569 locations during a full mitochondrial testing. Each year, new haplogroups are found each year and the results change over time as more people participate in DNA testing.

The science behind DNA testing technology is advancing rapidly and surpassing Moore’s Law in driving down the costs and increasing the speed of testing. It will only get better over time. I recommend people keep an open mind about DNA testing. Hopefully the results will provide some answers to previously unanswered questions .. and who knows, you may find a cousin or two, maybe even 1,000 of them!

Question: Have you taken a DNA test and were you surprised by the results? Would you recommend taking a DNA test and why?

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For additional Reading:

DNA testing between the big 3: http://thednageek.com/the-pros-and-cons-of-the-main-autosomal-dna-testing-companies/
DNA Sales record: https://www.wired.com/story/ancestrys-genetic-testing-kits-are-heading-for-your-stocking-this-year/
325KAMRA: http://www.325kamra.org
USAMRU-K: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5U7n8KDz7HA
DNA testing facts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UhQoYYHcHRE
Ancestry DNA ethnicity estimate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MjZiT6YDbgI
Doppelganger DNA Test: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_370DhsvQGI
History Channel: https://www.facebook.com/HISTORY/videos/1398297886941748/
DNA Journey: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fw7FhU-G1_Q


Would Adoptees Adopt an Orphan?

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Here is out latest ICAV Perspective Paper, a compilation of responses from ICAV’s members around the world, who wanted to contribute and provide answers to the question:

Would we Adopt or Not, via Intercountry or Transracial Adoption?

This collation is provided just over a decade on since ICAV compiled our first lot of answers to this question. I was intruiged to see if our views have changed over time as we journey on and mature in our understandings of adoption.

Reading our views gives you some thoughts to consider on this question from those who have lived the experience. We welcome your views and you can do so by commenting on this page.

Parenthood Made Me Better

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One of the most memorable moments, forever ingrained in my memory, is the birth of my son. I remember the anxious months waiting for my beautiful son, developing inside his mother’s womb – feeling his small frame kicking about and waiting to be born.  I remember staring at the ultrasound pictures and wondering who he would look like. Would he look like me? His mother?

I remember rushing my wife to the hospital and the miracle of birth as he brought into the world. I felt scared and excited at the same time as I stood in the delivery room, watching the nurse wipe him clean and cut his umbilical cord. I was in awe, wonder and amazement as he suckled at his mother’s breast. I witnessed a miracle of life and entered the realm of fatherhood. I wanted to give my son a life that I never had: to give him happy memories, a sound education and the best things I could afford. But little did I realize my son would give me something in return, far more than anything I could ever do for him.

It wasn’t until years later when I sat with other adoptees and shared the memories of my son’s birth and they too shared how they were overcome with a flood of deep love and extreme emotions at the birth of their children. For many of us adoptees, with our constant issues of abandonment and loss, I wonder whether the birth of our child is far more meaningful and overpowering than to the non adopted person? I believe there are several reasons why I think the birth of our child is more overwhelming to us:

First Family

For many intercountry adoptees, the chances of finding biological family is literally one in a million. Our birth papers are often forged, misplaced or incomplete. The birth of our child could be the first person we meet who is biologically related to us.

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Shared Genetics

We grow up hearing strangers and family members talk about having a relative’s eyes, nose or other body features. I have been curious about my physical features and who I inherited mine from. I am no longer jealous of other people because now I see my traits passed onto another human being and I can experience what it is to share genetic features, gestures, and traits.

A new Respect for my Birth Mother

I watched my wife suffer from morning sickness, frequent trips to the bathroom, and fatigue. Motherhood changes the body and hormones – the kicks of the fetus, the need to eat unusual foods, the thousand other quirky things that happen to a woman during pregnancy. I could not help but imagine what my mother experienced with me during her pregnancy and realize it’s a life-changing event that one cannot forget or dismiss.

As a Parent, understanding what it means to Sacrifice

For an overwhelming number of adoptions, a large number of mothers were either single or the family was placed in a financially precarious position and forced to relinquish their child. Despite the hardships, the mother’s still carried their child to full term. As a father, this was the first time I had to routinely place the needs of someone else above my own. I now understand what it means to sacrifice as a parent – even if it means the smallest person in the household gets the last cookie.

My Life became Fuller

Having a child changed my social life dramatically. I ended up shuttling little people to lessons, classes, and clubs. I gained an appreciation for silence. I tried new things I never dreamt I would do. Children tested my patience and expanded my ability to accept things I could not tolerate before. It’s because of these experiences that my life became richer and fuller.

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First time I understood “Longstanding Love

The Greeks believe there are six types of love. Many of them I felt within my first relationships. I had experienced Eros, the sexual passion. Also, Philia, the deep friendship with those we are really close to. But the first time I felt Pragma, the longstanding love, was when I had children. Pragma is where I am willing to give love rather than just receiving it.  If you had asked my younger self whether I would love sitting on the couch watching Dora with my daughter, enjoy playing tea or spend hundreds of dollars finding an Asian version of “American Girl” doll with matching outfits for her – that younger me would be in disbelief!

Closure and Peace

I once felt as though I were an empty vessel. Relationships, commendations and achievements could not fill this void. I’ve worked hard. I’ve traveled to dozens of foreign countries to fill my mind with the sights and sounds. I’ve spent thousands of hours searching for my biological family and looked for things that could give me closure with my adoption experience. Nothing seemed to help until I had children of my own. They gave me the love and satisfaction to be myself and gain the closure I needed, to move on with my life.

I have met individuals who have rushed into having a child, mistakenly thinking it would resolve relationship issues. I am not recommending that at all. I think that is a wrong motive to have a child and could actually lead to a repeat of what happened to our birth mothers who lost their child to adoption. This happened to my biological sibling who was raised with me in our adoptive family. Sadly she lost the custody of her children. I saw her fall into despair and into the deep abyss of depression and denial.

For me having a child changed me forever and helped me to re-connect with the world and bring meaning to my life. I could say my child was the catalyst that helped me to start living a better life. Becoming a parent forced me to change for the better. It was the catalyst for me to accept my adoption journey and helped me to find closure with the issues that once bothered me.

Sharing: Have you experienced similar things as an adoptee when you became a parent? Would you recommend single adoptees get pregnant if they decide to stay single forever and want a child? How did having a child change your life?

What Intercountry Adoptees Need

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Within ICAV’s private group for adult intercountry adoptees I recently asked the question: “If we lived in an ideal world, given your adoption experience is as it is, what would you need to be at peace with it all?” I made it clear we could discuss and provide answers that were both realistic possibilities and idealistic fantasies.

The discussion that followed was powerful and I’d love to share some of the themed responses which highlight what’s still missing in intercountry adoption to make it really about “the needs of the child”. You’ll see from some of the replies to my question, we do grow up and continue to have ongoing needs that continue to be umet via intercountry adoption. Often times, it seems that intercountry adoption creates more needs than we began with as vulnerable children which makes me wonder what purpose did our intercountry adoption achieve for us, the adoptees?

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Truth and Answers

Many of us have adoption documents which have details that are either totally incorrect or somewhat questionable and shades in between. The worst I can cite as an example of totally incorrect, is a Haitian intercountry adoptee who was given an already dead person’s identity, a false birth mother listed on adoption paperwork and subsequently found out the truth years later, that her biological mother never gave consent. An example of the questionable and changeable information provided is the experiences of countless South Korean adoptees who get given differing information each time they approach their Korean adoption agency asking for details, locked away in their agency files.

This lack of knowing the truth or having transparent access to our relinquishment and subsequent adoption information, can further traumatise us in recreating yet another event in which we are completely powerless to know our basic identity information and compounds our already fragile ability to trust others. As Christine shared,

“Having to doubt that what I thought all along was my story now may not be true, is difficult.”

Like others who shared on this theme, Chaitra listed finding the Truth as her first response, along with others:

  1. Knowing the truth about the circumstances that led to my adoption.
  2. Meeting and having a relationship with my birth family.
  3. Being fully immersed in Indian culture as a child so that I would have had knowledge of food, language, holidays, traditions, etc. as well as racial mirrors.
  4. Having adoptive parents who openly communicated with me about adoption and race.

Chaitra had none of these things in her life.

The important part

The Desire to Find Biological Family

For some who reunite, finally meeting biological family gave them a sense of understanding who they were at the level of physical attributes and personality which were always unlike those of their adoptive family. For example, Thomas shared it this way:

Meeting my birth family has helped me a lot. I met my grandmother’s side of the family and they’re all like the same as me with huge eyes, light skin and curly hair. They’re also all really shy and tend not to say much unless spoken to, like me. It has really helped me to answer some questions about where I come from“.

For others, like Chaitra above who have not been successful yet in reuniting with biological family, there is still the desire and thinking that IF they could meet, it would help to put together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle which makes up who we fundamentally are. Dominic expressed it well, “Just to know I have relatives would give me a sense of peace. Surely they couldn’t have all perished in the Vietnam wars!

When adoptees are impeded from knowing the answers and finding biological family, we are left with a lifetime of uncertainty. Our fundamental identity questions remain unanswered.

No Adoption

This was a recurring theme for some adoptees who expressed the wish that adoption not be a necessary and created social response to children who are vulnerable. As Parvathi wisely questions,

Only if the child has got no parents and feel uncomfortable in his country, he should have the opportunity to move. Why a child who has lost his parents should also loose his country too?

Sunitha also said, “I think the whole society system and humanity should have been different from the beginning of time! What is international adoption if not a new colonialist way? It just reflects the inequalities of the world through the cover of good will and humanitarian feelings. Another way to see it, is just rich people in need of kids, buying kids from poor countries and raising them in their culture which is supposed to be superior to their original one.”

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Through our experience of being intercountry adopted, we inevitably end up questioning the system that created our reality. We are not naiive in believing that intercountry adoption is only about poverty because it’s clearly not, as sending countries like South Korea and the USA demonstrate. Kim explains it well:

When intercountry is done both ways, it doesn’t seem in the best interest of children either. It only looks like a fair trade of children, a business of import-export, done both ways. The USA already export their children (mostly black children) to Europe, why aren’t those kids adopted in their country first before adopted to other countries?

As Tamieka shared, the world needs to create more services that focus on first families and “helping them be able to maintain and keep their families and children.” If this happened with as large a revenue as what intercountry adoption generates worldwide, I question whether there would be a need for intercountry adoption.

Justice when Adoption is Done Wrong

For those who wonder whether their adoption was legitimate or not, we are all too aware of the harsh reality that there is little to mostly nothing that is done, or can be done, to prevent further injustices or to punish those who create these situations. Tamieka eloquently expressed this as, “The world needs to provide organisations that hold those who are responsible for the corruption in adoptions, responsible for tearing families and people’s lives apart, to be held accountable for their actions and to be brought to justice.”

Restorative Justice

Whether intercountry adoption continues to be practiced or not, there is the question of where is justice for those who are already impacted? Sadly, our desire for restorative justice for adoptees who are wronged via intercountry adoption is currently a utopia. This is the harsh reality but it won’t stop us from speaking out against this and highlighting how unethical the practice is without any mechanism for seeking justice.

An End to the Ongoing Pain

Sadly, for many the unspoken consequence of relinquishment on the vulnerable child, is a lifelong path of psychological pain in having been abandoned by our biological parents. Followed by intercountry adoption, our experience can become a secondary abandonment, this time by our birth country. Via intercountry adoption we lose our right to our birth family and country forever and are not given the choice to retain our identity, culture, heritage or citizenship. The pain of abandonment by biological parents and birth country have an ongoing effect which can last a lifetime. If this goes unsupported by the majority of adoptive countries who offer little to no post adoption support services, we can be left with an endless amount of internal psychological pain.

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For adoptees who feel this pain intensely, they desire an end to their struggles and can at times, see death as the only way out. Little wonder that adoptees are reported in research as suffering higher rates of suicide, attempts at suicide, mental health issues and reflected in greater proportion compared to the non-adopted population, in prisons or drug and alcohol rehabilitation services. The pain of relinquishment is real and has to be acknowledged. Adoption is often portrayed as a win-win solution but it glosses over the real pain that adoptees can experience, whether openly shared or not.

Kim shared it very clearly:

“Death would give me peace. I think only death can make me stop remembering her, the Me before adoption. Only death can remove from me that kind of pain, loneliness and homesickness that adoption injected into my soul.”

Thankfully, within support groups like ICAV, we don’t minimise or diminish our sometimes painful realities. We openly speak and share, which is so important for healing.

Paul eloquently summed it up: “This is such a hard question. Honestly, I think about this with so much hyper-realism that it’s difficult to get to any perfect world state of mind for me, any wishes for what could be different. My birth father is dead. My adoptive mother is dead. My birth mother, who knows? And what does that mean? And yet I am here. And there are friends, family and strangers and _____. That beauty. But still there’s the Unknown, the tension, the contradiction; the complexity of history; our absurd global socio-political circumstances; etc.. What helps me through all of this? This. Our sharing. Our stories. The potential for moments of connection and understanding, even in all their imperfection. Our various bitter realities. Your question. Our voices. The realization of shared experience and circumstances, not sameness, but sharedness. This helps. Thank you.

It’s amazing to see the power of peer group sharing and connecting and how it facilitates our journey of growth as adult intercountry adoptees. Read Stephanie’s expression of what she gained from the same group discussion.

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Personal Message from Lynelle

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To clarify, for those who are reading the misinformation spread about me personally and ICAV’s position since June this year, with regards to a stance on UNCRC and Hague Convention on ICA:-

As stated to the entity spreading the misinformation, as the Founder of ICAV, I have always supported the UNCRC and it’s position with regards to intercountry adoption. I have tried to openly educate adoptees and the adopted community about it. I have continually encouraged people to understand the Hague Convention and it’s pitfalls in intercountry adoption. I have pointed out for US based intercountry adoptees, it’s harder to fight for what the UNCRC represents because their adopted country hasn’t even been a signatory and therefore not legally bound – so their first and foremost guidance on intercountry adoption is the Hague Convention on ICA. Of course, it would be awesome if the US were ever to become a signatory to UNCRC and why this isn’t the case? I’m sure is another essay in itself and I am no expert on that!

Personally, I believe the Hague & UNCRC fails to protect us intercountry adoptees for fundamental key reasons:

1. We are never checked up on (protected) for more than the minimum timeframe (sometimes specified by our birth country) once the adoption transaction occurs. The post placement report is provided by the adoptive parents but no followup is ever done by the adoptee themselves at an age where they can give a true account at a mature age. Intercountry adoption cannot be argued to be a child protection measure as compared to foster care, permanent care or any other alternative form of care where the child is still within the State’s control and care. No receiving country even gathers statistics on how our adoptions turn out.

2. We have NO rights – legally or economically – for any representation or help if our adoption turns out to be a failure (either from abusive families, deportation, lack of citizenship, falsification of papers, and being rehomed), or if we are lost or stolen for intercountry adoption. We are left to the whims of whichever country has taken us in, whether they be merciful or not. What message is given by the world’s largest receiving country who actively allows the deportation of adoptees back and treats them as “less than” citizens. Not to mention birth countries who receive the deported adoptee back AND continues to send more of it’s children after this occurs.The Hague and UNCRC both remain toothless tigers for there exists no entity or process to investigate any questionable actions by signatories.

3. Money is still unregulated and involved in our adoptions. Personally, I believe most intercountry adoptions as they are conducted today, cannot be said to be ethical while money is still involved and uncapped. While money is the driving force behind most baby scammers, agencies or lawyers involved in both countries, one cannot guarantee a market will not follow. Too much evidence exists showing that families in our birth countries are tricked or coerced to relinquish, or that the birth country fails to provide social welfare to support single mothers/families who are struggling or have conceived a child with a disability.

I also don’t believe “special needs” intercountry adoption is any more ethical than non-special needs children – because we should be encouraging our sending countries to develop the supports necessary to help the less abled child grow up in their own country. Just because one is born with “additional needs” doesn’t mean it is a ticket to being “shipped out” and stripped of one’s rights to origin and family. Material well being is only one factor in life and definitely 1st worlds can offer more to a special needs child than less developed countries. Not sure why the 1st world economies are still adopting their children out via intercountry adoption then?! But why couldn’t this help be in the form of flying the child out and providing the medical services necessary but without having to “adopt” the child. Keep the child with their family of origin, assist them with medical and special needs; help their societies understand that additional needs people can have just as much to offer society as any abled bodied person. I personally have a special needs son myself and I would hate to consider him being intercountry adopted out just because he was born with this extra need because I didn’t have the means or services to support him or us as a family!

I don’t believe immediately obliterating all types and forms of adoption (domestic and intercountry) is the answer either. Simple adoption as practiced in France remains a form of adoption that allows a child to retain their identity. Clearly every country in the world struggles with what to do with their most vulnerable children and families! If there was one simple answer other than adoption, foster care, and alternative care models, countries would all be doing it by now. One cannot deny that some children now adults, wished for and are glad to be given a safer more permanent family to support them. We cannot deny that some biological families of intercountry adoptees might still choose intercountry adoption even if presented with other choices. We cannot fix the underlying belief systems in other cultures overnight that creates the shame for why some biological parents choose to give up their children. Perhaps we’ve gotten to this state of being because of the breakdown in families, villages and communities. Our society remains so fragmented and isolated as individuals. There is little place to turn for people who are struggling to exist.

I aim for respectful discussion from stakeholders in all arenas on the topic. I especially aim to help us hear of the real impacts of adoption from  adoptive families, adoptees and biological families, hoping that current adoption as practised today may one day be removed and replaced with something better. Perhaps we also need to change the word so the old associations with the pitfalls of adoption as it has been practiced domestically and internationally are removed? Whatever the answer may be, it needs to be one where children first and foremost have a right to be with their original family; secondly, where if for complex reasons a child has to be removed from their family, then we are empowering birth countries to develop as many welfare and social support systems as possible to keep children in their home countries with kin; and as worse case scenario, if we have to be adopted to another country or within our country, that any form of giving us to another family that’s not kin, allows us to retain our birth identity if we wish, and doesn’t annul our identities without our consent.

With future generations of adoptees growing up and speaking out and as we start to hear the experiences of our biological families, these inputs might change again how we think of intercountry adoption. As it is, one cannot ignore the huge pitfalls of intercountry adoption. Turning a blind eye is not going to fix the problems. Loudly proclaiming all adoption should be eliminated won’t fix the fundamental underlying complex issues either. Somewhere in the middle is where I search for the answers because I don’t proclaim to have THE answer to such complex problems.

I believe we need to critically look at what we’ve done in the past 60+ years of modern intercountry adoption and at least learn the lessons offered. This is why I choose to build relationships and work with various organisations (government and non government) around the world.

So, in case you have questions as to what my personal position is, or what ICAV is about, please feel free to message me. I like to be open and transparent and I know that some want to do damage to the work and reputation of ICAV, which has been around now for almost 20 years. I stand true to who I am and what I do. I  try and make it better somehow for other intercountry adoptees who are already adopted and I speak out against how adoption is currently practiced, to prevent the same historical problems being perpetuated for future vulnerable children who need care.

Note: I also believe adoptees and adoptee groups are entitled to their own opinions. If they differ to mine, I have no issue with this. Adoption is such a personal experience and everyone has their own unique journey.

When will Intercountry Adoptee Services be provided by Federal Government?

The latest LifeWorks press release from newly established intercountry adoption vendor LifeWorks  (with no prior experience in intercountry adoption support) is frustrating and disappointing to say the least! Another AU$3.5m on top of the $20+ million spent on establishing the 1800 Hotline for prospective parents! Not to mention this appears to be a duplication of State provided services already for prospective parents who have been approved and waiting! Overall by 2019, the Australian government will have spent $33.6m yet to date, not one cent has been spent on providing services for existing adult intercountry adoptees who’s numbers are far greater than the number of children who will possibly enter the country in the next 3 years – taking into consideration the declines in intercountry adoption in Australia and reflected around the world!  Last year only 77 children arrived to Australia via intercountry adoption.

I’ve been involved now in advocating for the rights of adult intercountry adoptees in Australia and worldwide since 1998. I was granted the only officially allocated “adoptee representative” role out of 15 in the Rudd government’s establishment of the National InterCountry Advisory Group (NICAAG) which began in May 2008 as a result of recommendations from the 2005 Senate Enquiry into Overseas Adoption in Australia under the Howard government. NICAAG’s role was to consult and advise the Attorney General’s Department on InterCountry Adoption matters. The other 13 roles were adoptive parents, a couple of them in dual roles of professionals or researchers, and one other adoptee whom WA had wisely included in their two state roles. At that time, I felt like the token adoptee. A couple of years later, the group included a another official adoptee role and a 1st/natural/biological mother and other professionals who were not also adoptive parents.

NICAAG Group
Original NICAAG Group Established in 2008

At the time of closure of NICAAG by Tony Abbott in Dec 2013, we had already identified many gaps in service provision and the Australian Government was already working on harmonising services for prospective parents across States/Territories, restricted within the reality of our various State & Territory family laws that underpin adoption. This $33.6m could have been better spent in providing for the “gaps” that NICAAG had identified. One of the largest areas was and still is, post adoption support services for existing adult adoptees and adoptive families – especially during teenage and early adult years. For example, psychological counselling services to train professionals (doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, teachers) in understanding the trauma that adoption is based upon and the added complexities intercountry adoption brings; education material for teachers to be provided in schools, and churches, community centres, to help young adopted children grow up in environment’s where their adoption experience is more deeply understood outside their immediate adoptive family; funding for adoptee led groups to better provide what is already given but on a voluntary basis; hugely needed reunification and tracing services; healing retreats for adult intercountry adoptees; DNA testing and a central DNA database that includes the DNA of relinquishing adults; research into the long term outcomes of intercountry adoption, the stages of development where post adoption support is most necessary, and intercountry adoption disruption rates.

Receiving governments continue to promote and push intercountry adoption as “the solution” for many child welfare issues and yet they do so with little research to support their claim that it is a solution focused “on the best interests of the child”.  Perhaps in the short term as a solution to poverty or lack of options of stability for many birth families, intercountry adoption might be seen as the best outcome, but what hasn’t been measured is whether there is a positive emotional, cultural, social, and financial outcome for the adoptee or the biological family in the long term!

Research conducted in other receiving countries like Sweden have shown that intercountry adoptees suffer at a much greater rate from mental health issues and are far more likely to become recipients of social welfare. Yet Australia has done little to no research on how we Australian intercountry adoptees fare in the long term and what is not looked at is the long term cost to the country. By providing children to families via intercountry adoption, the Australian government is not only spending millions to help them achieve their dream, but also it could be costing millions in the long run due to the unresearched outcomes happening in reality. My point is, if Australia wants to provide children for families then you also have an ethical responsibilty to ensure these children’s outcomes in the long run are as positive as possible.

Last year I spent time gathering together the interested adult intercountry adoptees and lobbying the Australian government under Tony Abbott leadership, who dismantled NICAAG and left the intercountry adoption community with little avenue for community consultation. Now in the Malcolm Turnbull leadership nothing has changed except to continue on with the push to spend money on the appearance of increasing the number of children bought here .. but despite the amount of money spent so far and the promises of Tony Abbott’s era, not one extra child has yet arrived nor one day taken off any “red tape” process. So what is all this money being spent for?  Just how logical is this push given the worldwide trend for sending countries to look at better providing for their own and therefore the reduction in available children for intercountry adoption? Not to mention our own domestic child protection issues need a lot more focus and consultation within the local adoption/permanent care community. And just who is measuring the outcomes of all these millions spent?

As an adult intercountry adoptee, I have to question the sense in spending all this money when it might otherwise have helped us deal with the issues already here, faced by adoptive families and adult intercountry adoptees on a daily basis. Or to be more pragmatic and focused on the “interests of the child”, we could have assisted sending countries, like Vietnam, establish the much needed infrastructure to support their own families especially in the special needs/disability area, eliminating the need for intercountry adoption.

The Australian government has been too affected by lobbying efforts of those whose interests are not first and foremost about the children who grow up but about their desire to form a family because of their wealth, power, and privilege in a world full of inequalities.

I ask, when are our Australian politicians and government going to treat us as more than just token adoptees in their consultations and spending?

Abandoned Adopted Here: Review

Screen Shot 2016-02-17 at 10.13.33 pmAbandoned Adopted Here is an adoptee coming-of-age representation en masse whereby we see for the first time the older aged intercountry adoptees of the 1950s and 60s giving insight as to how they navigated the space between two identities, cultures and countries.

I loved seeing so many creatives/artists in one medium reflecting on their journeys and sharing with such openness on what it means to be transracially adopted.

As an inter-country adoptee from the 1970s era, I loved being able to see a reflection of my own experience! The words many shared, describes mine, yet they are the older generation who I hadn’t publicly heard a lot from. Lucy has enabled them to find their voice which is so important in modelling to the next generations of adoptees growing up! I also learnt about the mass movement of Hong Kong children to Britain interwoven with the history of Britain and how it was so similar to my experience of coming to Australia prior to the multicultural era!

The film is an honest portrayal of the difficulties we navigate to fit in and ultimately how we reconcile and embrace the differences between our identities we were born into but lost versus the identity we inherit from being adopted.

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Abandoned Adopted Here also sharply portrays the lack of preparedness adoptive parents had in those early 50-60s days and how it impacted on the adoptee – of being forced to conform to their white surroundings, stifling their natural curiosity questions which could have allowed openness but instead emphasised Britishness.

The documentary depicts the common struggle most transracial adoptees share of being judged at a physical level by people who don’t know us and then their shock when we open our mouths and speak with such clear adopted-tongue accents!

I love how the film interweaves excerpts from Lucy’s play which gives us an in-depth look at her own personal struggles, layered with the other artists and showing the commonalities inter-country adoptees share.

Abandoned Adopted Here is not just for adoptees, it challenges East Asians in general to “own” their input to the British empire’s history and expect to be included!

Terrific documentary by Lucy Sheen, intercountry adoptee from Hong Kong to Britain.
Her website about her documentary:  Lucy Sheen’s Abandoned Adopted Here.

Review by Lynelle Long
Founder of InterCountry Adoptee Voices
Adopted from Vietnam to Australia

Complexities of Intercountry Adoption

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Recently a research journalist from Sth American contacted me to ask a few questions on intercountry adoption and my views.  I loved her concluding comment: “We want to understand more about it (intercountry adoption) and we believe the vision of those who lived it is essential for this.”

1. Tell us a little about your life.  How old were you when adopted by your Australian family?  What was this process?  Where you old enough to understand what was going on?

2. Did you feel the need to have contact with the culture of your country of origin? When did this happen?

3. Is it common among children adopted from other countries to have this need?

4. Do you think there are cases in which intercountry adoptions are not the best option?

5. What is the origin of Intercountry Adoptee Voices group?

6. Why do people participate in ICAV?

7. How is your work in ICAV?

Here are my answers.

I’m a Vietnamese adoptee living in Australia, adopted at age 6months.  My adoptive parents organised my adoption privately via a Vietnamese lawyer, Le, who also worked for the Sth Vietnamese Govt during the Vietnamese War.  Le informed my adoptive parents he and his wife found a baby girl for them in July 1973 and advised my parents to fly in to bring me back to Australia as this would be the quickest way.  So my adoptive father flew into Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh) and picked me up and flew me back to Australia, December 1973.  To date, we have never seen adoption papers from the Vietnam end and it wasn’t until I was 16 yrs old that the Australian Govt made up my false Australian Birth Certificate and finalised my adoption into the family who were raising me.

For this process to occur, at the age of 16 another social worker came to visit us to get the adoption process repeated given my adoptive parent’s original adoption assessments seemed to be missing.  The Australian agency that had facilitated this in Sept 1973 no longer existed and in 1977 had shown the paperwork had gone missing although the social worker had clearly been in contact with and assessed my adoptive family.  I remember someone coming to speak with me about adoption things but at that age of my life, I was focused on surviving and given my adoptive siblings had been teasing me about “not existing because I had no birth records”, of course when the social worker asked did I want to be adopted and get papers, I said yes.  What I don’t remember is whether they ever talked to me clearly about what adoption meant nor was any offer made to help me find my biological family or my original Vietnamese papers.

So was I old enough to understand the meaning of “adoption”?  Now that I’m in my early 40s, I say absolutely not.  At that age, I remember my focus was on “trying to fit in” with my peers .. trying to feel part of a community, a family.  So of course when someone is telling me this is what adoption will do, then of course I consent.  But now in my early 40s, I suspect no-one really gave me a great choice.  It would have been if I didn’t consent to being adopted, I would be in no man’s land – not being able to be an Australian citizen, not being able to probably go back to Vietnam because I had no proof of being born there either.  If someone had offered on behalf of the Australian Government to search for my biological family – I’m sure I would have said I preferred that because as a child and into my teens I felt a huge sense of loss – but never spoke about it because I had indirectly absorbed expectations from society and adoptive family that I was “lucky” to be adopted – that I should be grateful to live in Australia – that I would alternatively have been dead or on the streets in Vietnam.  To a teenager, those options sound very dramatic and of course, not something I’d chose if I wanted to survive.

I didn’t feel the need to contact my biological culture and country of origins until well into my late 20s.  Short story is I had some negative issues to overcome first from what I’d experienced in my life, so it took some years to get to the bottom of things and realise as an adult that I also had deeper abandonment issues.  Once I explored those issues, I then became more ready and willing to return to my birth country and see what that would stir up.  I was 27 yrs old when I made my first trip back to Vietnam.  It was an emotionally overwhelming trip but the one highlight I remember the most was a broken english conversation with a local Vietnamese lady who said something to me which captured what I’d felt all my life, but no-one had ever said.  This Vietnamese lady asked me questions about where was I from and why was I here in Vietnam and when I very simply explained “born here but taken away as a baby to have white parents in Australia” she said, “oh, you missed out on so much!”  And yes, in essence, my return trip to Vietnam made me realise just how much I had missed out on in being adopted to another country: I had missed out on knowing my own heritage and culture, language, sense of belonging, knowing my family, the sense of community that ties these communities together despite being poorer on the wealth index, of fitting in and looking like everyone else around me, of knowing the history of the war and hearing it / experiencing the ramifications of it and understanding it at the “lived it” level, of seeing the war’s impact on people all around and understanding what drives the country forward, so much I had missed out on.  In hindsight maybe she was commenting not from the angle I interpreted but maybe as a “lucky you missed out on all the terrible ramifications of the war” but it’s not how she came across – she seemed sad for me and it was her empathy of what I was not but could easily have been which I’d never experienced before.  It was healing in itself.

For many years now I have worked voluntarily in setting up a support group for adult intercountry adoptees like myself.  My own struggles growing up in an adopted country made me realise the need for support.  In my own healing I had learned the power of group validation and empathy from others who had journeyed a similar path.  So over the 17 years since I’ve been running a group called InterCountry Adoptee Voices, I’ve met hundreds of other intercountry adoptees raised not just in Australia, but in other wealthy countries like the USA, Netherlands, England, Canada, etc .. and in my experience of listening to many others like myself, I would say yes, it is common for intercountry adoptees to have the need to want to explore their birth country and culture and learn about the other half of their identity.  For some, there is no desire at all but in general, many do end up wanting to explore this at one point in their lives.  I think for the adoptees who have been raised with very positive adoptive families who embrace all the losses and challenges and raise the child to be able to explore and talk about these freely, it definitely assists in travelling this journey of being abandoned and adopted with more ease.  What I’ve seen for the majority is the journey is usually more complicated than for the non-adopted person because we are primed from our early abandonment to struggle with connection, rejection, self worth, and a feeling of not quite belonging.

The question of whether I think there are cases of intercountry adoption that are not the best option is an awesome question!  I applaud anyone who can ask this.  I wish more Governments would ask this question.  If we look at the history of the Korean adoptions enmasse and find out their realities by talking to them today, one could conclude that many of their adoptions were done simply because of a lack of options available to single mothers.  In other Korean cases, the biological families are still together but at the time, they lacked resources to raise their children – so they sought an alternative – which in Korea, adoption is really the only option rather than changing antiquated attitudes and values.  This is reflected around the world from other sending countries, like India, China, Ethiopia, Romania, Guatemala, Cambodia, Vietnam.  Usually inter-country adoption has occurred because of a lack of alternatives for the biological family.

In 2015, we live in a world where there is a massive divide between those who have wealth and those who live in poverty.  If the world divided its wealth and distributed it more equitably, I do not think there would be as huge a need for adoption.  The other issue we adoptees live is the reality that adoption legally severs our right to our own birthright – being our own identity and heritage.  This is fundamentally wrong when it is done without our consent (at a time when we are too young to understand the implications).  As per the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), if we are orphaned we have a fundamental human right to know our identity and be kept with our family, community, and country.  The issue I see today is intercountry adoption has become a huge money driven machine, powered by the wealthy couples looking for a baby, with baby brokers in the middle taking advantage of the inequitable division between wealthy and poor, and uncontrolled and unpenalised by Governments around the world.  There is not enough done to ensure that all other options are investigated and empowered before allowing a child to be given up for intercountry adoption.  There is no double or triple checking done by sending or receiving countries to ensure a child is truly a legitimate orphan as defined by UNICEF, as having lost both parents.  Where there is family or community, there is not enough provided in terms of “wealth” to ensure the local/country of origin people are given options to raise the child.  There is more that could be done to facilitate micro lending for impoverished families.  There is more that could be done to help families who are struggling from lack of education and opportunities.

Intercountry adoption has become an easy solution for wealthy countries to “allow” children to be exported like a commodity because they lack the backbone to do the right thing by the child and help facilitate these poorer countries (with the exception of South Korea and now the USA since becoming a sending country) to setup enough community based options that would prevent the need for intercountry adoption.  The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption has become a legitimate way for child exporting to continue without there being any legal discouragement from open trafficking which is the darkest side of this business.  I believe adoption by kin was probably the original intention that was good but the issue is adoption has become more than it was intended and there is simply a lack of will power from nations in power and those who don’t have it, to ensure the child is given all options BEFORE intercountry adoption.  This is when adoption is not the best option.

Of course there are also the numerous cases of intercountry adoptions where the adopted child gets mistreated, abused, and murdered by the adoptive family – which is an absolute easy case to highlight as to when intercountry adoption is not the best option.  Also, the cases where the adopted child ends up being deported back to it’s country of origin because the adoptive parents failed to finalise the adoption, even though they never had a say in being exported to begin with.  Then there are the cases where our birth certificates are forged and faked and again, intercountry adoption is not the best option because of this reality – that our original identities, our fundamental human right, are “as if they never existed”.  Intercountry adoptions are not the best option when there is no tracking of children and ensuring in later years of followup that it indeed has been in their “best interests” and they have grown up to become fully functioning, emotionally healthy adults.

So what’s left? When are there cases of intercountry adoptions that ARE the best option?  When both sending and receiving countries have done all they could, given their joint resources, to facilitate all other options for the child’s care, including kinship care and community care, and if these still fail to work then I believe it might be a legitimate option to intercountry adopt – BUT with the original birth certificate remaining intact and with the child having full access into the future.  The child should also be allowed to have dual citizenship in both countries to facilitate ease of returning and access to services to help reunite with biological family if they wish.  There should also be a full suite of services available (e.g. psychological, social, translation, medical, financial) to help the adoptee navigate both cultures and languages and to ensure they grow up well adjusted, emotionally healthy functioning adults.

Note: What needs to be discussed is to apply question 4 from the biological family point of view.  Too often the biological families from intercountry adoption are ever sought after by media to comment and provide their longitudinal views.

The origins of InterCountry Adoptee Voices (ICAV) is it was started as a result of me seeing the power of group validation and support and how it can help one to heal our abandonment wounds by having a sense of belonging from those who have journeyed a similar path.  I started ICAV in 1998 in Australia and it has grown today to include intercountry adoptees from many countries around the world.  I think adoptees participate in ICAV because of the need to feel like someone somewhere can understand what the journey is like – the challenges, the questions, the ups and downs of search and reunions, the racism, the need for a sense of belonging, and many more.  I love my work in ICAV.  I love hearing over the years how life is travelling for adoptees and I’m always passionate about educating the wider public on the complexities and issues involved.