The Unaware Adoptee

by Krishna Rao adopted from India to the USA.

The day I learned I was adopted, both my families died. The ones that raised me, turned out to be a sham. The ones that did not, turned out to be an enigma.

In June of 2019 at 34 years of age, I learned I was adopted after taking a DNA test for fun. There were definitely a lot of emotions I went through when I made this discovery. From having my identity shattered, to questioning everything about my past.

For 34 years, I believed I was the biological kin of the parents who raised me, because that’s what they told me. And yes, I always felt something was odd, I just didn’t have the conscious knowledge to know what it was.

In the early days of discovering my adoption, I came across April Dinwoodie’s Podcast. In one of her podcasts she interviews Darryl McDaniels of Run DMC, who as it turns out, is also a late discovery adoptee and learned of his adoption at 35. Darryl said something that really stuck with me. “I can use my story not only to make my life better, but I can help so many other people who are in the same situation as me to understand their lives better.”

What he said inspired me to start sharing my story. I then started to blog about my experience. I created an Instagram page and I share my thoughts on Twitter. It has allowed me to process what it means to be adopted. For my entire life up until that point, I was raised as an adoptee, without ever consciously knowing I was adopted.

Documenting my thoughts, emotions and experience is a way for me to work through them and heal.

Since that time, I have learned a lot. But in no way, shape or form does that make me an expert in adoption. I still have a lot to learn, and more importantly a lot of healing.

We live in a world where sharing is so easy to do now. My thoughts have reached out to people from all over the globe. And so have many others. In that regard, it’s interesting to read all the different views adoptees have on adoption. Some are for it, some against it. Some in between, and there are those that just don’t have an opinion at all.

When I think about where I stand, I feel like there’s no definite answer. I am not for adoption. I am not against adoption. As of today, it feels more like I am anti-bullshit about the whole thing.

I do not believe that adoption is going away in my lifetime. I don’t see how. It’s more than just giving a child a home. In many cases it’s about giving a person the opportunity to have a life. It doesn’t guarantee a better life, just a different one.

I’d love to see more movement in family preservation but as an intercountry adoptee, I understand that the idea of family preservation is going to take a lot more work. How do we change entire societies mindsets? In many places adoption is still deeply stigmatised. I was adopted from India to the USA and even though people do adopt in India domestically, I get the sense that it is still a taboo topic. My paperwork from India states that I was abandoned because my mother was unmarried. It’s as if the only option for a pregnant unmarried woman is to abandon her child.

Everyone affected by adoption has their own opinions and as a person that has entered this space less than two years ago, I’m tired of seeing division. We’re all entitled to an opinion. We are all allowed to speak our minds. By the same token, others are allowed to disagree.

I know not everything I say or share is agreeable to some people and that’s fine with me. But how do we take this issue and change it to an agreeable approach?

I personally think the definition of adoption needs to change. It’s not just about taking a child and placing them in a new family where they lose everything they once had. I see it all the time where people talk about what is best for the children, all the while forgetting that these children are going to grow up, form opinions of their own along the way, and become adults. I certainly did.

These adults are not adopted children anymore. They are not children period. And these adults already have families. They already have roots.

I was somebody before adoption changed me. It is not all sunshine and rainbows, but it is still there. As someone who doesn’t know his origin story, I want mine. Even if it’s doom and gloom.

When we talk about adoption, I believe words matter. The English language is not complex enough to help us define the relationships in adoption.

The way I see it, my parents are the people that raised me. They are not my mother and father. My adopters are mother and father figures, not replacements. My mother and father, the ones I already have, are not my parents because they did not raise me. However it is viewed, or defined, I can still accept both sets of people as my family.

I get to make that decision even though it feels like society wants me to separate the two and say I belong to the ones that spent time and resources on me. Spending time and resources doesn’t matter if the relationship is conditional, and in my case, when it’s full of deception. Anybody could have fed and sheltered me but it takes more than that to give somebody a life.

That being said, I choose who I belong to. And right now, it’s none of them. Why? Because I can’t appreciate the fact that other people made choices for me. Choices that led to my relinquishment and then my adoption.

Both sets have been brainwashed in some shape or form. The adopters were probably told and felt that the adopted children would be theirs. They took that a step too far, and as such they never told me I was adopted. And I can only speculate what my birth mother went through. Being told that children of unwed mothers are not worthy to be kept. Reading up on India’s history of adoption and how unwed women are treated when it comes to being pregnant has not been very positive.

My past is beyond my control and I have to accept it. Now I am the one who has to spend time and resources to process all this for myself.

I do know there are decent adoptive parents out there, raising other people’s kids and actually supporting them as adoptees. I know some of them. I know and have read about couples that take their adoptees back to their birth countries. They actually want to help them find their families. It is shockingly eye-opening and heart-breaking to me because I know that was an option I never have gotten to experience. Instead, this has now become a process and a journey I do alone.

I don’t know where I was going with this. It just is. I’ve known about my adoption for 20 months now. I’ve been full steam ahead trying to learn and absorb all that I can and everyday my perspective changes. I try to learn from all sides before I form an opinion. And there are many sides to this.

Adoption is a complicated and traumatic experience.

This is why I say I’m anti-bullshit. I’m tired of the crap that doesn’t matter. There has got to be some way to make this better.

Better for adoptees because it’s our lives and well-being that is at stake here!

Adoptee Activism in America

Adoptee advocacy and activism for me, is about adoptee healing and claiming back our power.

This week has been so powerful but raw on so many levels. I have travelled to America to attend the Dept of State’s Intercountry Adoption Symposium (Sept 17 & 18) which brought together all the government bodies and NGOs related to, and fulfilling, intercountry adoption processes, the accredited entities which include IAAME and the adoption agencies, and for the first time, representation from the adoption triad. After this ended, some of our American intercountry adoptee leaders and individuals who wished to be involved at government policy and practice level, met with the Dept of State (Sept 19) and had a chat about how we might interact/liaise together in the future and what our goals are and issues of concern.

The following are my thoughts after attending these past three days.

Hearing the same chants for “more adoption” that I’ve read about across the waters but got to experience for real, has been nothing short of gut wrenching.

Getting to personally understand the life experiences of some of my fellow activists has been an honor.

The question was asked to our adoptee group why few American intercountry adoptees in recent years, had until now, not risen to involve themselves at policy level.

After being in America for a week, seeing the level of anger for those who dare to voice any truth that doesn’t match the “we want more children” chant has been a massive reality check. America the land of the free! Well, I see it’s more the land of the free for those who share the dominant discourse — but it can also be unkind and lacking compassion to those who express a different story.

The scale and depth at which intercountry adoption has been conducted in America, that adds avoidable emotional damage to some adoptees, has finally helped me understand why their voices have not been at the table. The ability to rise above one’s terrible reality of adoption is a massive ask. What struck me in coming to personally understand these journeys en-masse over the years I’ve been connecting to fellow adoptees, is how much worse it is here in terms of size and scale. It is not just the historic adoptions from the 50s to 80s. I’m meeting adoptees from the 90s to 2010s and hear the same terrible experiences! I’m also not denying there are probably a ton of intercountry adoptees who have little motivation to make things better because they already had it wonderful. Their reality is not dismissed and neither should the other range of experiences across the spectrum.

Some of the audience responses were so dismissive of our struggles citing that we were just a “moment in time”, or unlucky enough to be a consequence of “a few bad apples”. As I said on day 1 in response to Laura Ingraham’s speech, one terrible adoptee experience is one too many! So please, if you really want to hear what we have to say as adoptees, believe me when I say – “these bad apple adoptions are still happening since the past 20 years”.

Hearing calls and support for “less regulation” and “streamlining” is not the answer in the face of the huge reality. What do we need governments and stakeholders to do differently that hasn’t been done, either at all, or enough? We need them to acknowledge the wrongs of the past to the present. We need full acknowledgement that the decisions made FOR us as vulnerable children, have been terribly painful, terribly damaging for too many .. we need to hear it not just once, but over and over many times so that we know you do not forget the mistakes of the past and those who have been a victim, can feel safe knowing we have learnt the lessons, or at least are trying to.

From my own personal journey of healing, I know how incredibly important it is to hear, “I’m sorry it has been a terribly hurtful experience” from a heartfelt place. Not only do we need to hear that you’ve heard and acknowledged our pain, we need you to give us time to then process that acknowledgement, allow us to move further in our journey — and then ask us to focus and work together on how we prevent it from ever happening again.

For adoptees it is terribly triggering to be dismissed, our reality denied, and our concerns brushed over with “it’s not like that now”. Yes things have changed … drastically, but they need to change more! Support services for the duration of our lifetime, need to be implemented that help us move past the damage. We need reparation that allows out of the box solutions for individual journeys of healing. We need to see that sending children back AS SOON AS WE KNOW something isn’t looking right, is totally a first option that will be supported by all the players who facilitated the adoption. Keeping the child as the only option adds further complications that we adoptees are eventually left to sift through.

People and countries make mistakes .. we are only human. What’s currently missing is the acknowledgement and the sensitivity across the SPECTRUM of players to recognise the trauma from decades (yes, 70 years!) of intercountry adoptions done poorly. The reality that the current and previous American administrations have failed to address intercountry adoptee citizenship, the basic cornerstone of permanence, continuity, and family— clearly demonstrates how little understanding and support exists for the displaced adoptee. This is brushing the wrongs of the past under the carpet on a massive scale!

I realise why adoptees have not been at the table pushing their way in. The depths of pain can be too raw and the risk of receiving further trauma by those who invalidate our experiences, is incredibly high. For a country as religious as America, it sure has little understanding of the need for the power of healing and the acknowledgement of wrong doing. All Americans should be praying not for adoptions to be increased but for the ones who are here already, to be given the right support in order for them to find healing. For the ones deported to be given the supports they need along with their broken up families.

Only once we are fully supported to heal as those who have already suffered, can we truly contemplate ethically adopting more — at least then, we can be confident that despite mistakes being made, the great America has the maturity to help the victims overcome.

My heart breaks for my American brothers and sisters who struggle to rise from out of their ashes. I found it fascinating to see the 9/11 section of the Newseum and the way in which so much compassion is portrayed for those victims, yet in intercountry adoption – I ask where is that same compassion? Is there any recognition of the collective suffering that too many generations of intercountry adoptees have been experiencing in America?!

No! They remain a blip on the radar screen, barely seen, largely misunderstood because they are cloaked with, “You should be grateful to be in this amazing country” banner which denies the tragic realities of so many!

I am compelled to lead by example and demonstrate that adoptees can find their power. My path is but one way to rise above the ashes. I have learned for myself how incredibly healing it is to turn my pains into triumphs and to attempt to make this world a better place and I always wonder what I would have achieved had I been left in Vietnam (my adoptee sliding door/ parallel universe musing). This path of adoptee advocacy is my way to make sense of my adoption and life . Perhaps I was saved to give this message — to be this voice, to truly represent the “child’s best interest” and make sure it is not shoved away?

I hope that this week has been the beginning of the start, that momentum will flow because …

it only takes one to take a stand for truth, for another to find their courage.

What a week of learning, what a week of connecting! I hope America will come to embrace the mistakes of its past in intercountry adoption and provide a safe space for the many intercountry adoptees who need healing and be given many places at the table, not just one place filled by an Australian/Vietnamese.

I also want to acknowledge the many true supporters of adoptees who came from so many stakeholders groups. It is incorrect to assume all government workers, all agencies, all adoptive parents are against us speaking our truths. Despite the intense and sometimes times painful challenging moments, I was uplifted by the volume of supporters who told us they were so happy to see us and hear our voices. I hope I live to see the day when they will become the majority AND the loudest voice we hear from.

I was told that supportive adoptive parents have sat back from the table, out of respect to allow us adoptees to take the platform, to make space for us — but I want to tell those parents and advocates, please don’t be silent in your support. We are at a critical point where intercountry adoptee leadership is emerging and we need ALL the support we can muster.

What I deeply respected was my fellow panelist, the natural mother representative, Claudia D’Arcy,  who demonstrated no fear in telling her truth, nor the consequences for doing so. Whether we agreed with her views or not, I imagine her journey of overcoming the stigma, fear and trauma throughout her life has helped her realise there is little to lose, in having the courage to speak her truth. As two representatives of the adoption triad, we both know “the cost of remaining silent”.

Her ending sentence was so respectful and she said, “It should be the adoptees who you listen to the most”. I can only say how much that meant to us. This is the message we need our supporters to uphold – it will encourage us to rise above our pain and fears. Please don’t be silent — it is too open to interpretation!

Huge thanks and respect to the adoptee leaders who gave of their time, money, and energy to be at these forums.

Joy Alessi – adopted from South Korea, co-director of Adoptee Rights Campaign.

Cherish Bolton – adopted from India, co-director of PEAR, academic.

Trista Goldberg – adopted from Vietnam, founder of Operation Reunite, educator.

Marijane Huang – adopted from Taiwan, social worker in adoption and foster care, educator.

JaeRan Kim – adopted from South Korea, social worker and PhD research academic.

Kristopher Larsen – adopted from Vietnam, co-director of Adoptees4Justice.

Monica Lindgren – adopted from Colombia, barrister in family law.

Reshma McClintock – adopted from India, founder of Dear Adoption, co-founder Family Preservation365.

Patricia Motley – adopted from Peru, member of Peruvian Adoptees Worldwide.

Diego Vitelli – adopted from Colombia, founder of Adopted from Colombia, studying masters in counselling.

Resource

Lived Experience Responses for Illicit & Illegal Adoptions, presented at The Hague Working Group July 2020.

Excerpt: First Letter to my Iranian Father

Return visit to my homeland – Iran, Mashhad

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.

About Sarah

First gift from my Iranian father