In Sweden where I grew up, people like me are called adopted. It’s easy to spot an adopted. We look like we are from somewhere far away but we don’t know our native language or culture. This creates confusion wherever we go. It also creates confusion within ourselves.
Who are we? Who am I?
We grieve our traumas in silence because as soon as we share our sadness, we are told that we should be grateful: to our new amazing country and our kind adoptive parents.
This is something a Swedish biological child never has to hear: that they should be grateful to live in Sweden! This creates a sense of being worth less compared to everyone else; that we exist in Sweden on other terms compared to our peers; that it’s conditional. In many cases, our adoptive parents didn’t take good care of us. They disregarded our traumas. And they didn’t understand the racism all of us had to endure, both as children and adults. We were unprotected. We were fair game.
When you are adopted you sometimes grieve and think about your mother. For some reason you don’t think very much about your dad. I think this is because we are under the impression that our mothers were clueless and young, perhaps drug addicts, perhaps prostitutes. And that our dad was just some dude. The part with the prostitution, by the way, is part of the narrative that adopted girls are handed when they are young. “If you stayed in your country you would have been a prostitute, so why aren’t you grateful?!” Can you imagine what this message does to us?!
Daddy, like most of the other adoptees, I have spent time wondering about my mother, but I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about you in the past. Now, I think about you all the time.
Perhaps to some, You are a dear friend and a faithful companion. To others, You are found in spurts and moments, and still to others, You are an elusive dream in their nightmares. To me, You are a far off figure standing still in the distance. Throughout the years, I have caught the sparkle in your eye on more than one occasion. And yet, I long for the day when I shall stand before You, face to face for more than a moment.
You are a whisper in the wind. You are the tiny speck of ash fleeing into the night sky. You are the warm blanket on a cold winter’s day.
Was it fate that tore us apart? Was it destiny that would strip me of my identity, family, ancestry and heritage? Was it life that would transport me to a new world, family and culture?
You are the sound of silence on a still lake. You are the leaf that tumbles during fall. You are the majestic mountain in the distance.
Are You merely a feeling inside of me or are You the people and circumstances around me? Are You the actions that I take?
Different than my family, different than my friends, different than my church, different than my culture, different than my place of birth: You are a foreigner to me. Are You and I even compatible?
You are the receding wave on the shore. You are the rare diamond in the sand. You are the seashell hidden in the caves.
Is the distance between us my own doing or has fate seen fit to keep us apart? Are You simply a word or are You always the emotion I feel towards You?
You are the dream that I chase. You are the comfort that I long for. You are the melody that I live for.
Are You the confidence I should have in myself despite my surroundings or are You the feeling of talking to a kindred soul on a midsummer afternoon? Are You simply the summation of both?
You are the mountain I gaze upon. You are the island I venture to see. You are the distant horizon I peer at.
Would I cry in your presence? Would I scream for joy at beholding your face? Would I fall to my knees before You?
You are the candle that flickers in the darkness. You are the lone star in the galaxy. You are the silver lining in the tunnel.
Every day the sun sets and I get one last chance to catch a glimpse of your face before the darkness invades and I lose sight of You once more.
And yet, each day the sun rises anew, shining on your beautiful features once more. Would that every day bring me one step closer to You.
Part of my personal goal in the past couple of years within ICAV, has been to find ways to help empower the voices of our first families in the intercountry adoption arena. For some years I have been pointing out they largely have no voice and remain invisible. Having not found my own Vietnamese mother yet, I often wonder about the circumstances that led to my relinquishment. Now, as an educated professional raised within western thinking, I view the larger picture of intercountry adoption and wonder how much our journey’s as intercountry adoptees and those of our families, could be prevented. In speaking with other adult intercountry adoptees from all over the world, I know I’m not alone in this pondering.
Last year in October, I had the privilege to meet online an inspiring young woman, a Colombian intercountry adoptee raised in Germany. She spoke with enthusiam about a project she was about to embark upon which connected with my personal goal. I shared with you here about Yennifer’s goal to raise awareness of the experiences Colombian mothers live, who have lost their children via intercountry adoption. Like me, she was driven to do this because she too had always wondered about her mother and what caused her own relinquishment.
Now, just over half a year on, I interview Yennifer to hear how her first journey to homeland has been, together with an update on her project.
Read here for Yennifer’s update on her project entitled No Mother, No Child.
Rarely do we hear or see intercountry adoption from our biological family point of view but without our mothers, there would be no us! Adult intercountry adoptees are gradually becoming aware of how we can collaborate with our biological families and encourage them to become more visible.
I would like to introduce you to one such adoptee, Yennifer Villa who was adopted to Germany and born in Colombia. She is about to fly to her birth country where she will undertake a 6-9 month project entitled No Mother, No Child to capture mothers and their stories of relinquishment via the art of photography. She plans to showcase the end result of her work as a pop up photo exhibition to be held in Cologne (and possibly throughout Europe) towards the end of next year.
Yennifer is currently 29 years old and was adopted at approximately 2 years of age. Her age is estimated because she does not have official birth information about herself. From some paperwork provided through the German consulate and orphanage in Colombia, it appears she may have been with her mother for the first 3 months of life until she was placed in her orphanage. At some point, her mother’s visits stopped and Yennifer has never known why her mother never returned.
Intercountry adopted and raised in a small German town with an adoptive family who never talked about adoption to “try and make things easier”, Yennifer grew up hearing a comment said about her biological mother – “she was probably a drug addict and now dead”.
What a harsh reality for a young adopted person to have to grapple with! I can relate to the damage this has on our psyche growing up for I was told a similar thing about my biological mother – “she was probably a prostitute”.
As adults now, Yennifer and I know our adoptive parents didn’t tell us things like this about our mothers to be mean – it was the propaganda adoption agencies/lawyers/governments told to justify not knowing the nuances of why we were needing to be adopted.
Understanding the good intentions of her adoptive family and not wanting to be rude or disrespectful, Yennifer feels compelled to see for herself the truths of mothers in Colombia. She suspects mother’s stories are more complex and nuanced and via her project, aims to open the door to a greater understanding of why mothers in Colombia give up their children.
Yennifer is currently studying Sustainability & Design at Akademie für Gestaltung (Academy for Design) and it is through this, that the funding she collects will enable her to complete her project. She has not travelled to Colombia since being adopted to Germany as an infant so this trip will be momentous and memorable. Yennifer has peer adoptee contacts who will support her during her year in Colombia taking time to locate the mothers, spend time with them, and photograph them after learning about their experiences. Yennifer has been planning this project No Mother, No Child for the past 2 years and is feeling very positive and excited. The importance of her project is to change the narrative of “she was just a drug addict” to bring the realities and nuances of each mother who has had to relinquish to light via her photography.
This is not the first adoption project Yennifer has been involved with. Decoding Origins, the first Colombian anthology of adult adoptees was completed last year and Yennifer utilised her art skills as the lead graphic designer for the book’s website. Proceeds from the sale of the book have been collected to fund DNA test kits for Colombian biological families, some of which Yennifer is taking with her for distribution to mothers who contribute to her photography project.
Yennifer flies to Colombia on 10 November this year. Her goal is to raise $5.500EUR to provide funding for her equipment, travel and living expenses. She is ready to go and has a vision of what the photos might be but wants to meet the mothers, talk with them, engage them, and allow them to contribute to define the project so that it is truly about them.
We look forward to seeing some of Yennifer’s work on this project in the next year and hope it inspires other intercountry adoptees to consider how we might collaborate with our biological families and encourage them to become more visible in the intercountry adoption arena.
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.