Autism and Adoption

by Jodi Gibson Moore born in the UK and adopted to Northern America.
This is part 2 of a 3 part series written for Autism Awareness Month.

April is Autism Awareness Month

I always knew I was “different”. It took 40 years of almost continuous searching to find the right words for my kind of “different”, although being internationally adopted had a lot to do with it. My father’s sister took me from my home country when I was 21 months old, with the help of her mother, my paternal grandmother who was my guardian at the time. My aunt and uncle finalised their adoption of me when I was almost four. They would have told anybody that I seemed to have “adjusted” to the multiple disruptions in those early years but my behaviour screamed otherwise and I never bonded with either of them.

Growing up, I always knew I was adopted; I don’t remember being told or having to be told. My adopters told me about my flight from England with the woman who adopted me and her mother, my grandma. They talked about me being sick on the plane and how surprised the man who would later adopt me was when he picked up his wife and mother-in-law at the airport, and there I was with them. They laughed at my childish attempts to say their first names. Later, they would punish me for calling them by their names. I always knew they weren’t my parents but they wouldn’t answer any of my questions about my parents or my origins. I was told I came from the puppy farm, like Snoopy in the comics and I learned they expected me to pretend I was their daughter or else I would be lectured and punished. That didn’t sit right with me. I knew babies came from their parents and since I hadn’t come from them, they weren’t my parents. They made me go along with their pretend game but I got in trouble for pretending and making up stories. I was 12 years old when the woman who adopted me finally told me she was actually my aunt. I was angry at her for lying to me all this time and betraying me but I was glad I finally had a category to put her in: auntie. When I told her I wanted to call her that and her husband “uncle”, she yelled at me and told me not to. I had broken the rule of not upsetting her, so of course it was my fault, not hers for keeping a secret from me for ten years. She apparently had a medical condition and I wasn’t allowed to say or do anything to upset her and my uncle, who hadn’t wanted children in the first place, had a bad temper and yelled a lot. Instead of blaming him, she used to tell me she’d never heard him shout before I came along – so that was my fault too. They had me walking on eggshells the whole time I lived with them and I was too clumsy not to shatter them.   

At the age of 41, I finally received an official medical diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, Asperger’s subtype (this was around the time the DSM-5 did away with the separate diagnosis of Asperger’s and merged it with autism spectrum, so the updated diagnosis is level 1 ASD) along with ADHD, sensory processing disorder (SPD), and developmental coordination disorder/dyspraxia. Had I been diagnosed in early childhood, doctors, educators and my aunt and uncle adopter would have understood why I had trouble focusing at school or transitioning between activities, didn’t always understand verbal instructions, wanted to wear dark glasses even on cloudy days, didn’t like making eye contact with others, talked more comfortably with adults than children, “switched off” at times, and couldn’t stand on one foot for more than about three seconds. All of the symptoms were documented in my medical files when I was 5 but that had been the late 1970s and there wasn’t much awareness of “high functioning” autism back then, especially in girls.

As I was trying to decide how to approach this topic, the intersection of adoption trauma, international adoptee status, and disability/neurodiversity, it occurred to me that there is much symptom overlap and several parallels between developmental trauma and autism spectrum, along with other conditions comorbid with ASD. These conditions include, as I mentioned above, ADHD, SPD and other possible processing differences that impact how we take in information. We may have trouble understanding instructions for a variety of reasons. I remember being a little kid in daycare trying to open a bag and getting yelled at repeatedly to “untwist the wire.” I didn’t know the strip of green paper concealed a wire. All I saw was paper. The daycare woman didn’t have a lot of patience with me or think very highly of my intellectual abilities. Between her and my aunt and uncle adopter, I grew up feeling like I was stupid. My aunt constantly spoke in euphemisms or British colloquialisms that nobody else around me used and I couldn’t understand what she meant and she wouldn’t explain them for me. It was like a secret code I couldn’t crack, or a foreign language. She just didn’t like to call things what they were, the same as when she refused to tell me what she knew about my background, which deprived me of a lot of the grounding and structure I needed. I learned not to trust her. I learned to be ashamed of the ways in which I was different; I learned to hate myself for the things that set me apart from everybody else. Very few people focused on my strengths, but everyone commented on and most made fun of, my shortcomings.

Is it adoption or autism?

I probably ask myself this question several times a day and more often than not, it leads to overthinking and no definite answers. Social anxiety, difficulty identifying or verbalising emotions, keeping lots of space between myself and others – “social distancing” is a way of life for me – and not knowing how to participate in group activities may be signs of hypervigilance and consequences of preverbal trauma rather than autistic behaviors. Not picking up on social cues? My aunt adopter thought I just didn’t want to pay attention and I don’t know how she perceived my inability to interpret her veiled speech. The fact I viewed the adopters as guardians instead of parents, literally as my aunt and uncle when I found out the truth, could be simply realism and logic. In my mind, my aunt and uncle couldn’t be my parents. I didn’t even meet them until I was almost two and I never felt close to them or safe with them. That could be autistic black-and-white thinking but there are other things I remember or have been told from my early childhood. I learned to read early when I was three, but even before then I could identify almost any car on the road. My uncle adopter used to laugh about the time he caught me lining up my grandma’s cigarettes in front of the fireplace, making sure they were exactly straight and doing the same thing with my toy cars. I’d prefer to use dolls to act out the stories in my head than play with other girls. Due to the neighbourhood and the fact my aunt and uncle adopters were old enough to be my grandparents, I didn’t have a lot of kids to play with other than their friends’ children. I always thought their age and the huge generation gap was the reason I didn’t really know how to socialise and “hang out” with girls my own age and found it easier to talk with adults if they didn’t intimidate me, but that seems to be another autistic trait.

Even hypersensitivity to rejection, which seems to be an almost universal part of the adoptee experience (after all, we perceive early maternal separation as a rejection or abandonment) can be attributed to rejection sensitivity dysphoria (RSD), a recently identified condition often comorbid with ADHD and autism spectrum. Autistic individuals tend to like routine and order, need to be prepared well in advance for changes or disruptions, and I can’t think of a worse disruption to a small child than being separated from their whole family in one day, uprooted from their home and placed with strangers in a different sensory environment. Strangers who look, sound, and smell different; strangers who aren’t tuned in to the child’s needs and could overwhelm them; strangers who want to touch and hold the child when the child needs to keep a safe distance and may have an aversion to being touched.

I often ran away from the adopters as a child and adolescent. Sometimes I’d walk far enough ahead of them so that nobody would associate me with them; sometimes I’d lose them in stores; sometimes I’d wander away from them on outings. I’ve heard that a lot of autistic children do this, perhaps because of impulsivity, distraction, or just a lack of concern for safety. For me it was an escape behaviour, the “flight” aspect of the stress/trauma response. I just didn’t want to be around them – had to get away from them. I might have been distracted by somebody who reminded me of a parent or someone else from home (this may often be the case with older adoptees) or I may have been hoping that someone would find me and return me to my parents – help me get back home. It never happened.   

In what some might call “typical ADHD,” my thoughts often go in several different directions, probably giving me enough material to write a whole series on neurodiversity and how it intersects with adoption, and maybe I will. But it needs to be said that adoption, and more specifically the act of early maternal separation sets us up for “trauma brain” regardless of genetic predisposition to certain neurotypes. I first read about Nemeroff’s (1998) research involving rat pups separated from their mothers for a few hours a day during infancy and the impact this had on their neurological development, the effects of which persisted into adulthood, in a psychopharmacology textbook (Meyer & Quenzer, 2018). Other researchers are still performing these studies and documenting the same outcomes: anxiety, increased sensitivity to stress, depression-like behaviours, emotional dysregulation, eating disorders, and metabolic disorders throughout the rats’ lifespan. And unlike the rats, we adoptees aren’t returned to our mothers or siblings when that phase of the experiment ends. It’s not a perfect comparison, but research ethics officially prohibit doing similar maternal separation experiments on human infants. At least, now they do. Watch the documentary Three Identical Strangers and see for yourself.

My doctor who diagnosed me several years ago with ASD and Asperger’s syndrome told me at the start of my assessment that childhood trauma doesn’t cause autism (for that matter, neither do vaccines); it’s a genetic condition. However, I believe that developmental trauma such as early maternal separation may have a deeper impact on certain neurotypes; we may be more sensitive to early stressors or less resilient. Trauma responses may increase – or be mistaken for – neurodivergent traits. For example, adoptees, especially those of us adopted internationally and/or after our first birthdays like myself, can display self-calming/self-soothing behaviours (Tirella & Miller, 2011) that resemble what would be called “stimming” in autistic children and which I would call an attempt at emotional regulation following a profound loss. We adoptees don’t always have, or eventually get, access to our family medical history so we don’t know what we’re at risk for but as the rat studies found, the non-separated rats developed typically while their separated littermates, who shared the same DNA, did not. We don’t have to have a documented family history of autism, ADHD, anxiety, or depression to develop these traits after a severe developmental trauma.

While there is more understanding over the last few decades of the neurological impact of early maternal separation or parental loss that precedes adoption, there needs to be more research into how this overlaps with autism spectrum, ADHD, sensory processing differences and other neurodivergent conditions. My hope would be that adoptees’ needs and vulnerabilities can be addressed in early childhood when we would most benefit from interventions – and perhaps more can be done to prevent these traumatic separations in the first place.

Resources:

Meyer, J. S. & Quenzer, L. F. (2018). Psychopharmacology: Drugs, the Brain, and Behavior, 2nd ed. Sinauer Associates, Sunderland, MA.

Tirella, L. G., & Miller, L. C. (2011). Self-Regulation in Newly Arrived International Adoptees. Physical & Occupational Therapy in Pediatrics, 31 ), 301–314.

See Jodi’s part 1 of a 3 part series for Autism Awareness Month: Puzzle Pieces.

Balancing Love and Loss

by Bina Mirjam de Boer adopted from India to the Netherlands.
Originally shared at Bina Coaching.

Photo from the book : Children of Bombay

The love we feel for ourselves and for others is often determined by how we experienced our mother’s love as a child. Maternal love combined with the degree of “presence” of mother and child.

Have you received, lost, or is this an unfulfilled desire? Have you experienced safety or are you constantly alert and feel unsafe? Have you felt connected and live with the knowledge that you belong to something or is the feeling of being out of connection and not belonging always present?

If you balance with or without a safety net, do you have the courage to accept love and make the connection or move out of fear of loss and this creates isolation.

These processes are constantly taking place on a subconscious level. By creating awareness about this and allowing what wants to be seen, heard and or felt, you create a space in which you reduce the fear and allow love.

#AdoptieCoach
www.adoptiecoach.frl

Original in Dutch

Balanceren tussen liefde en verlies

De liefde die we voor onszelf en voor anderen voelen, wordt vaak bepaald door hoe jij als kind de liefde van je moeder hebt ervaren. Moederliefde in combinatie met de mate van “aanwezigheid” van moeder en kind.

Heb jij de moederliefde ontvangen, verloren of is dit een onvervuld verlangen. Heb jij veiligheid ervaren of ben je constant alert en voel jij je onveilig. Heb jij je verbonden gevoeld en leef je met de wetenschap dat je ergens toe behoort of is het gevoel van uitverbinding zijn en het niet toebehoren altijd aanwezig geweest.

Balanceer je met of zonder vangnet, durf jij de liefde te nemen en de verbinding aan te gaan of beweeg je vanuit de angst voor verlies en zorgt dit voor isolatie.

Deze processen spelen zich voortdurend op onbewust niveau af, door hierover bewustzijn te creëren en toe te laten wat gezien, gehoord enof gevoeld wil worden, creëren je een ruimte waarin je de angst verkleind en de liefde kan toelaten.

#AdoptieCoach
www.adoptiecoach.frl

The Duality of being Disabled and Adopted

by Erin E. Andy (지현정), adopted from South Korea to the USA.

March is Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month.

As someone who has lived with this condition all my life, I can say it’s a struggle. As someone who is a transracial intercountry adoptee on top of it, I have felt conflicted about my identity.

There are times my limbs do the opposite of what I want them to do. There have been times I’ve had difficulty getting out of bed when my body is too fatigued by the spasms. There have been times I’ve had to take extra doses of medication to calm myself so I can function in my daily life. There are more times than I would like to admit being stared at for the way my body acts. I’m fully aware of the judgemental looks I receive, which makes my body involuntarily tense up even further. I can never hide my excitement or nervousness as my Cerebral Palsy gives my emotions away.

When people joke about “maybe I should use a wheelchair instead of walking”, it comes across as insensitive. Yet those jokes persist. It can be tough at times to see people mock those of us who can’t control our bodies.

Growing up with Cerebral Palsy, it was difficult enough to fit in, constantly being reminded by my wheelchair and its restraints that I was different. However, on top of coming to terms with my disability, I had to face another aspect of my identity: being a transracial intercountry adoptee.

Within my adoptive family, I felt somewhat comforted knowing I was being raised with other Korean adoptee siblings as well as having a dad who is of Japanese descent. However, going out with my mom was a stark reminder that I was adopted. I don’t look anything like her, and seeing strangers looking at us curiously made it clear that this was different; that I was different. Only when our family attended campouts with other families with adopted kids did I feel comfortable. I wasn’t the only one who was disabled and adopted. I felt accepted. They normalised my existence.

With that said, it was difficult as I grew up to come to terms that my biological family relinquished me. I often wondered why. I was told they were trying to give me a better life, but the pain and rejection of being given up is difficult to reconcile with their good intent.

I never asked to be disabled. I was angry they gave me up so easily. I never understood the reason, at least not for quite some time. I was given up at the age of five, so I knew my biological family, but even so, they made the choice to relinquish me to Holt Adoption Services. I stayed in a foster home for a little while until the adoption agency found a family to adopt me.

Upon going back to Korea in 2014 for a reunion with my biological mother and seeing my homeland again, I came to an uncomfortable realisation: I hardly saw anyone in a wheelchair on the streets in Seoul. I didn’t see anyone else like me outside of my tour group who had a physical disability like Cerebral Palsy. It wasn’t until we went to an orphanage in Ilsan that I saw a few people with physical disabilities. I was confounded and ultimately disappointed. After coming back from Korea, I saw videos and articles over the years of how they viewed the disabled.

Would I have been here in the USA if I had been born head first and given the oxygen I needed to avoid having this disability? What would my life have been like if I stayed in Korea? Would I have been placed in an orphanage as I grew older, or would I have been sent to an institution to live the rest of my days hidden away from the outside world? To this day, I ponder what my fate would have been, had I not been adopted.

My adoption came about because of my Cerebral Palsy, but the struggle of each doesn’t deter from the other. While I still mourn the life which could have been had I never been disabled, I know this life is worth living, here in the USA.

I have a loving husband, many friends from various places, families who care about my well being, and perhaps the biggest thing, the ability to thrive.

I never asked to have Cerebral Palsy or be given up for adoption…

But, even so, I’m here. I exist. My condition is not who I am nor should it define me.

Little Question

by Pradeep adopted from Sri Lanka to Belgium, Founder of Empreintes Vivantes.

Have you already made an appointment with yourself?

I remember having to forge myself, like many adoptees! Forge my own personality without any stable benchmarks and this mainly due to the absence of biological parents. Indeed, children who live with their biological parents do not realise that their choices, their tastes, their decisions etc., are often (not always) unconsciously oriented, guided, inspired by the bases provided by their biological parents. Example: I won’t be a mechanic like daddy, but I know what I could have possibly done so because daddy did it. Mom is in the social business so I may have a predisposition for this area. Then there are the children who go directly to the same jobs as their biological parents because it seems to them to be a form of safe bet.

In short, what I mean is that I was dumped for a long time, like many of my fellow adoptees, I think. Not all but a lot. And I asked myself a lot of questions. So it is true that this also happens to children / teenagers who live with their organic parents, but in a different way. The basis of the questioning is in my opinion divergent. This is why I also remember having made an appointment with myself. I really took several evenings. Several moments to find myself within me. And ask me simple, banal questions which were of monumental importance to me.

Who are you Prad? What do you like? What is your favourite color? Not the one that will make your answer interesting or make you better. The colour you like. Black. No, come to think of it, I like blue. The same goes for music. What’s your dress style? What is best for you? What are you good at? You seem cold, sometimes distant. Are you really or is it a shell? Is there one area that attracts you more than another? All these questions that we have already been asked in other circumstances, I have asked myself. You love sport? Yes, but I’m not a football fan unlike all my friends. Don’t be afraid to say it, to assume it. For that and for everything else. Be yourself. Think of you. Only to you. Don’t live for others. Not for your friends, not for your great love, not even for your adoptive parents. Don’t lie to yourself, build yourself.

We can build our own benchmarks. Our own bases. It is such a difficult and wonderful exercise for us adoptees. But I think it is necessary because the main thing that remains is to listen to yourself.

If you haven’t already, take the time to meet. Make an appointment with yourself.

With love,
Prad

Read Pradeep’s One More Day Without You

Letter to President Moon

by Michelle Y. K. Piper adopted from Sth Korea to Australia.

President Moon,

To you, I may be merely a statistic.

A Number.

Name: 86c-1335.

Born: “bastard”

Abandoned by: Bio Mother

These are the words inked into the brittle pages “cataloguing” my birth, 4 ½ months before I was separated from my mother, exiled from my motherland, sold, and sent overseas via the process of “adoption”.

For 34 years, I have carried the burden of shame and humiliation for decisions of which I had no control over, or voice.

For 34yrs, it has been expected of me by society and the world at large to be “grateful” for being adopted; for not being “aborted” or left to languish in poverty raised by a single mother and ostracised by a society that is unaccepting of such a dishonourable and disgraceful existence.

Expected to be “grateful” to have been “chosen” to go to a “better life”.

Tell me President Moon, how many Korean adoptees actually went to a “better life”, do you know?

How many of us were checked upon or followed up on in the years after our adoption?

Any..?

Have you ANY knowledge or understanding of the suffering and trauma so many of your nation’s children were exposed to after going to “better” lives?

Are you cognisant of the fact we are 4 times more at risk of suicide than the average person, due solely to the trauma of relinquishment? Are you aware of how many adoptees have since lost their lives to suicide?

If our own people, the people who govern our nation continue to portray us as disposable, products for export, how do you hypothesise the rest of the world to perceive us? To value us?

To know who we are and where we came from, to be treated with the SAME decency and respect as any other being, for OUR lives to count, to matter, to be valued for more than just the going price of the highest bidder; can you honestly argue this to be such an immense or unreasonable request?

Why do we as adoptee’s continue pay to the price for the mistakes and failures of the elites who governed generations before us?

Why do our nations children continue to pay the price for a deeply flawed and failed system? A system put in place to “protect” and “care”, to safeguard society’s most vulnerable and helpless, to protect those unable to defend themselves or make their suffering known.

A system which has catastrophically failed to fulfill its duty of care time and time again, a system that cataclysmically FAILED in its duty to protect 16 month old Jeong-In.

My status in Korea as a child born out of wedlock to a single mother without consent or approval from the elders of our family, without the approval of society, meant from the day I was born, my life was of no more value to our nation but for the monetary profit that could be gained from the sales transaction of my adoption.

To you, I am a faceless statistic.

Just another number on a piece of paper; a data entry in the government system, an easy money maker used by Korea in its resolve to rise to the advanced economic powerhouse it is today.

To you, I my be a nothing, a nobody, an abhorrent by-product of the highest betrayal to a nation who’s social, political, and legal structures continue to be governed by the principles of Confucianism.

To you, I may be but one number, but I am one that represents over 200,000 of your displaced children throughout the world.

You seal our records, deny us the very basics of human rights.

You have attempted to keep us faceless, to keep our voices from being heard.

You have watched in reticence as we have been sold, trafficked, abused, and murdered.

You have buried our truths and silenced our voices.

Attempted to censor the knowledge and proof of our existence as effortlessly as you have managed to erase our pasts.

You try to placate us with empty words and blanket apologies, yet time and time again Korea has CLEARLY established how little value it truly places upon the wellbeing and lives of its children.

Not only via the tens of thousands of adoptees scattered worldwide, but through the 250 students it left to die onboard the sinking Sewol Ferry.

250 children who could have been saved, weren’t.

Through the way in which obedience and perfection are EXPECTED and DEMANDED of every child; academically, socially, even physically, pushing Korean suicide rates into some of the highest in the world and the leading cause of death nationwide for ages 9 -24 yrs.

These are YOUR children!!!

Our nation’s future!

If it is to have a future.

You seem to show little to no regard for lives of the young, yet death rates now surpass birth rates, leaving the question how much longer will our people endure?

How much time until our race is no more?

The image of Korea that is so carefully projected onto the world stage, is nothing but a farce.

A nation consumed with pride, greed, and ambition revelling in its technological and economic advancements, whilst continuing its long and profound history of human rights abuse. Revelling in the global phenomenon of K-pop, K-dramas, and flawless plastic surgery turning citizens into life-like anime dolls all of which amounts to nothing but superficial, pretty, shiny, plastic distractions; band aids made for minor cuts, but with which Korea uses in attempt to conceal the extensive, critical, and ineffable wounds scarcely “hidden” beneath the surface.

Deliberately refashioning Korea’s image for the fulfilment and pacification for the global arena while remaining steadfast and loyal to a fundamentally flawed, corrupt, and broken system which continues to extort and profit from the separation, suffering and abuse of its people makes those ruling over the South no better than the tyrannical dictatorship oppressing our people in the North.

To you, we may merely be statistics.

But we are no longer voiceless, and we will no longer be silenced!

We are over 200,000 strong, each with a face, a name, and a story.

We had Mothers and Fathers, Brothers and Sisters, Grandparents, Aunties, Uncles, and Cousins.

No matter how hard you may try to dehumanise us, I can promise you, in this you shall not succeed.

I will no longer be silenced. I will remain faceless no more, for I am NOT a thing.

I was born in Haeundae, Busan.

Daughter of- Kim, Yeo Kyeong (Mother) and Jang, Hyeon Soo (Father).

I have endured racism, child sexual abuse and rape on two separate occasions in my “better” life so far.

I have fought with an Eating Disorder for 21 years, made countless attempts to end my life, all of which I have been brought back from.

My arms will forever bear the permanent, grotesque, disfiguring scars from which my life’s blood has so often freely flown, only to be replaced, time and time again in the desperate attempts to save a life that in your eyes, seems of little to no value, and not worth saving at all.

Tell me President Moon, what will you do when there is no longer a population to sustain our race?

When will you and the people who continue to govern our nation admit culpability, take responsibility for their duty to safeguard our people, to protect the vulnerable and the voiceless?

To guard, secure and preserve our nation’s future and the future of its children.

We are NOT objects!

We are NOT inconsequential!

WE are YOUR children!!!

We are NOT COMMODITIES!!!

We are NOT a product to be labelled and packaged for sale!

We are NOT replaceable, exchangeable, refundable goods for export no matter how hard you have tried to dehumanise us.

President Moon, We are NOT THINGS!!!

Fifty Shades …

I bet that got your interest!

… of Yellow.

And now, it looks like a rating scale for cowardice …

by Claire Martin, adopted from Hong Kong to England.

I was found on the staircase of 61 Berwick Street in Hong Kong on about 23 December 1960. They reckoned I was approximately 2 days old. My birth was registered by the matron of Po Leung Kuk, an orphanage and refuge for mothers. My parents always believed that I was eventually in Fanling Babies’ Home. Sally Rigby’s (name changed for privacy) parents believed, to the contrary, that I was in St Christopher’s. It irritates me profoundly that I don’t know as none of the paperwork I’ve uncovered so far confirms where I was. I arrived at London Airport (now Heathrow) with 8 other adoptees on 20th December 1962. My parents had been put in touch with the Rigbys, also from the Wirral (between Chester and Liverpool), and they travelled in my father’s car to collect Sally and me from the airport. The name on my birth certificate is Lam Ling Chi. I also had a bracelet with this name on. I don’t know where the name came from. I had thought it was my original name but many adoptees were given their names by the director of the children’s home they were in.

My dad was 2nd generation Chinese, born in Cardiff in 1922. His parents were so poor, he was adopted by a man called Chin (surname), in exchange for a laundry. During WW2, he met up again with his birth family in Liverpool. He married my mum in 1951 in an era when mixed marriages were extremely rare and very much frowned upon. They met as lab assistants at Shell’s Stanlow Oil Refinery in Ellesmere Port on the Wirral. They couldn’t have any children so they adopted me. They thought “Ling Chi” would be unpronounceable (in Mandarin, it’s Ling Zhi) so I became Claire Ling Chi Chin.

Dad’s blood relatives took an enormous interest in this adoption and were extremely supportive. Like dad, they were born here and couldn’t speak Chinese at all. His sisters, however, had both married Cantonese speaking Chinese men, and they tried to communicate with me. There were 2 small problems. One was that I was extremely traumatised and would scream my head off in the presence of men. Poor dad couldn’t go anywhere near me for the first couple of days back in Little Sutton village where I grew up.  The second was that I either couldn’t or wouldn’t speak. A somewhat alarming report on my adoption file assesses me as “extremely under developed”.

My mother died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage when I was 12. I was never close to the few relatives she had, so imagine my surprise, when playing in the village, some English kids approached me claiming to be my cousins. The family was rather tight lipped about the whole affair and I’m not really sure how much her side of the family viewed our rather unusual situation. Mum’s father refused to attend the wedding when she married dad, so who knows…

Of the 100 or so of us who were adopted by British families as part of the Hong Kong Project, I was pretty unique in having exposure to Chinese relatives and Chinese culture.  But just how Chinese were we really? Dad and his family were BBCs, British Born Chinese.  The food we ate was what we could cobble together from the village shops and the odd trip to Chinatown in Liverpool for soya sauce. Supermarkets didn’t exist in the 60s as they do now – at least not on the Wirral. An English school friend invited me to tea and was delighted to serve me Vesta Chicken Chow Mein. I’d never heard of it. It didn’t resemble anything my family had ever encountered.

Even more excruciating was the occasional visit to Chinese restaurants. My poor father once had to withstand a tirade from a waiter who claimed dad wasn’t Chinese at all. “You don’t talk Chinese, you don’t walk Chinese, you don’t even look Chinese.” Imagine what they made of me, with my English mother. What’s worse, I actually look Japanese. When I visited dad’s younger brother, who’d escaped all this abuse and emigrated to Singapore, I met enormous hostility in Malaysia because I was mistaken for being Japanese. The conversation went something like:

“She’s Chinese, she’s our cousin.”

“She doesn’t look like you.”

“She’s adopted.”

“How do you know she’s Chinese, then?”

So clearly there are shades of yellow and, in the eyes of “proper Chinese,” I’m patently at the pale end of the scale. In fact, they call us bananas in the light of the controversy over Ashley Cole (famous black British footballer) being accused of being a choc ice, I’ll leave you to ponder that one.

I was determined to counter this by dressing Chinese (jackets only: you have to be thin as a toothpick to wear a cheong sam) and learning Chinese. I went to Durham University and studied Mandarin. I was supposed to study in China for a year but extensive medical tests led to discovering I was a carrier of Hepatitis B. It took 18 years before something vile came out of the woodwork relating to my dodgy origins, and this was it. It meant I had to go to Taiwan instead (China wouldn’t let me in).

There were no direct flights in 1980, so I went via Hong Kong, on my own with food poisoning (don’t ask) and only half my luggage (Cathay Pacific sent the other half to Los Angeles). Oh, and I’d learned Mandarin, not Cantonese (which is what they speak in Hong Kong). So I ended up in even more complicated explanations for my inability to communicate in my own tongue. Which brings me to how I’m perceived by Brits. One of my bolt holes in Hong Kong was an English school friend’s mother. I arranged to meet her on Victoria Peak where she lived. She was shocked when she saw me. Hence another somewhat surreal but oft encountered conversation:

“You’re Chinese!”

“Yes.  Didn’t Anne tell you?”

“But you sounded just like a girl from Liverpool over the phone.”

“I am a girl from Liverpool.”

And that’s what I am. A Scouser. What I discovered in Taiwan was that I wasn’t nearly as Chinese as I thought I was. I’d learned to talk Chinese, even dress Chinese, but, in the end, I couldn’t act Chinese. It was a huge disappointment to the family of course. Being the first of my generation to learn Chinese and go back out to the Far East, they expected me to meet and marry someone Chinese.

I came back to Durham speaking far better Chinese and promptly had a nervous breakdown. I didn’t actually know that I was having one. Everyone put it down to the Hep B at first but after being tested for everything under the sun including glandular fever, we were all very non-plussed. Eventually the university psychologist got wind of this from my prof who was worried I was falling asleep in his lectures. Hence another one of these weird conversations:

“Is she Chinese?”

“Yes”

“Chinese don’t recognise Depression.  They just get ill instead.”

This was all a mystery to dad and me given neither of us had indulged in anything so exotic as Depression with a capital “D.” We both resolutely smiled through our trauma – poor dad lost his eldest brother, his mother and his wife within a short space of time and claimed he couldn’t remember the 70s at all. So when I asked him if this assertion still applied to Chinese brought up here, he said the most extraordinary thing:

“You were always more Chinese than I was.”

My 50 shades just got yellower…until I started dating. I’d had mild interest from a Chinese lad in Taiwan, who being very Chinese or very shy, took so long to declare his intentions that I was due to go home before he’d said anything. I went out with a batty American from LA who kept telling me to “mellow out” whenever I got ratty and complained that I was too English and two timed me with a local Chinese girl (Miss Saigon re-enacted). Back in Durham, there was a chap from Malaysia who was interested but went about it as slowly as the Chinese lad in Taiwan. And then I met David Martin. He didn’t give a sausage about how Chinese I was, the Hep B or the nervous breakdown. Not being Chinese, he didn’t hang around either. I remembered how my landlady in Taiwan had been treated by her husband and mother-in-law. I realised that I couldn’t bow and scrape to a Chinese man – which is why I’m not married to one. I finally recognised how British I was.

In the year 2000, I discovered that I wasn’t alone. Despite their best efforts, my parents and the Rigby’s didn’t get Sally and me together that often. Jasmine (we Hong Kong adoptees have agreed only to use first names publicly) and her journalist mum organised the first re-union but I had to miss it due to a family wedding. But Sally and I got together that year for the first time since we were 7 and Jasmine and I met in London. I also Googled the Fanling website and found a whole bunch of American adoptees from Hong Kong. Kim, who runs the site, put me in touch with Debbie who has been very active in organising UK reunions. I met Sue at the Birmingham one, ironically, since we both live near each other, then we met up again in London. Julia Feast, a British social worker, launched the British Chinese adoption study which brought even more of us together. Imagine the joy of meeting some of the other babies in the Heathrow picture.

It’s extraordinary to meet others who have been through the same experience. We have an uncanny bond. It’s a novelty to share anecdotes and we can giggle at those weird conversations I’ve quoted because we’ve all had them. I’ve met about 50 of us now – and we’re like a family. Some of us have tried to be Chinese and some of us haven’t. Some of us flew into a tailspin trying to complete the recent census forms – anything that puts us into boxes is a nightmare because we just don’t fit anywhere. Then Lucy, another adoptee, came to the rescue. Her advice:  Tick “Other”, insert “British Chinese”.

So here I am, Claire Ling Chi Martin, British Chinese and 50 shades of yellow.

We are more than Numbers!

by Brenna Kyeong McHugh adopted from Sth Korea to the USA

Below is the documented data and information from The Ministry of Health and Welfare in Korea.

It is inaccurate and incomplete as it states that only 156,242 infants, children and adolescents were adopted from 1953 to 2004. The actual total number of adoptees from Korea since the 1950s is estimated to be 220,000 or more.

There are an estimated 15,000 Korean adoptees in Minnesota alone, including myself. The numbers are appalling. 8,680 children were adopted in 1986, myself included. Read that number again: EIGHT THOUSAND SIX HUNDRED EIGHTY. This is just the number that is documented; it is most likely much higher. 8,680 children lost their families, names, identities, language, and culture. 8,680 families were forever altered and destroyed. 8,680 of us endured irreversible trauma that we continue to work and process through as adults, granted, those of us who did not lose our lives to suicide, abuse, addiction, and other circumstances.

According to the data in the second chart, the leading reason that was documented for adoptions was listed as Abandonment. The second documented reason was Unwed Mothers. They only listed the number of male children who were adopted but not the number of female children, which we can all assume is much, much greater.

These numbers for every year since the beginning of international adoption from Korea are astronomical. The data itself indicates the systemic issues that feed the adoption industry, making it the beast it is today, including racism, White supremacy, saviorism, capitalism, ableism, poverty, socioeconomic issues, politics, etc.

Throughout my journey as an adopted person, I have been told different accounts about the first part of my life. I was first told that my name Lee Okkyeong (pronounced Yi Oak Young), was given to me by my family. Later, I was told that it was given to me when I was being processed at Eastern Social Welfare Society, the adoption agency. I was also told my date of birth was an estimate. I was initially told my mother was single and unwed and that my father was basically a dead beat who left my mother before knowing she was pregnant with me and that he couldn’t hold down a job. When I was 24 years old, I was told by the adoption agency that my mother and father had actually been married.

The beginning of my life is full of contradictions. I still don’t know my truths and I’m going to continue to assume that I never will. Being adopted and trying to piece my past together has proven to me time and time again that people in power and the system are not to be at all trusted, and are not designed or created for the us – the marginalized, the poor, and those who seek change and truth.

The adoption industry will lie, fabricate, use, exploit and destroy families in order to make profit. The adoption industry does not care about children; it only cares about money and having control and power. I realise just how unaware I was of the inequities and inequalities in adoption when I was little and how they affected me even though I couldn’t fully understand or name them.

Korean adoptees are more than these numbers. We are more than this data, and these documented statistics. We are human beings. We have histories and families. We are more than our losses, pain, and trauma. We deserve our truths. The more we adoptees share our narratives and return to Korea to search and fight for our truths and families, the more government and adoption agencies will not have any choice but to acknowledge us and what they did to us – their children.

One More Day Without You

by Pradeep (Philippe Mignon)
Founder Empreintes Vivantes for Sri Lankan adoptees, Belgium

One more day without you.

But this day is special because if I believe my adoption papers, it’s your birthday today.

And today I don’t care if they’re wrong.

Today you would be 69 years old.

Not a day goes by that I don’t think of you.

Not a day goes by that I don’t miss you.

Not a day goes by never to return.

Not a day goes by without giving me hope.

But not a day goes by without taking it from me too.

Maybe one day we will meet again.

Maybe one day you will turn around.

And that day, I’ll be there too, and I won’t blame you.

May you take care of yourself while I find you.

Wherever you are, whatever you do I love you mom. 🙏🏽

Family and Xmas Times

This is the one time of year where I’m reminded I don’t have that childhood family with amazing memories and closeness. I’ve always yearned, as only some other adoptees can know, for that sense of family where I feel wanted, cherished, loved deeply. I know my family, like many others, are never perfect, but the older I get, the more I see my childhood in my adoptive family and can only remember the pain it created for me. Adoption is supposed to be happy isn’t it? It’s what gets portrayed. But I know I had spurts of moments of happiness in mine — it’s so hard to recall because as I grow older and relive it all again via children of my own, I realise the level of neglect and trauma my adoptive family caused, that could have been avoided.

How do I get past it? Should I? Or do I accept it will just always be … yes it hurts beneath the surface, oozing with pain every time I have to think about “adoptive family”. I’m old enough now to understand this pain is part of who I am. It’s not going away but I can hold and honour what I’ve had to do, to come past it —to be functional, stable, loving.

Healing doesn’t mean the pain stops and goes away. Healing means I’ve come to accept the truth. I no longer sit in it drowning or reacting. I’ve learned better ways to manage my emotions. I’ve learned how to have boundaries and not give past what I’m willing to. I’ve learned it’s ok to remain true to my own needs. I’ve learned to accept what can’t be changed but to change what I can. I can accept them as they are and know they’re not capable, even if they wanted. I have to give it to me, myself. Love, connection, acceptance, nurturing. 

Xmas, like Thanksgiving for Americans, is a time where as an adoptee, I feel those sad feelings for what I might have had but didn’t. I know the reality of reunions is that even bio family, if I ever find them, will most likely never be able to meet my emotional need for “family” either. So, this Xmas, I will bring my children and husband close and treasure every moment I have with them for they are the only true family I will ever have! I am thankful I was able to heal enough to have a loving relationship and become a mother myself and give to my children what I never got. This has been my life’s blessing and will be my focus this Xmas!

Battle Scars in Adoption

by Mike, adopted from Hong Kong to New Zealand.

These are my battle scars from when I was around 12-13 years of age, done around these holiday times. I would get really depressed looking at all those loving families with parents who look like them, spoke like them, etc. It didn’t help I was a Chinese male with white parents.

Whenever I look at my wrists I am thankful I made it through those times. It took me till the age of 30 before I really dealt with my PTSD and depression due to my inter-racial and intercountry adoption. Now and then I have moments where I go back into my past and think about “was it all worth it”, living my life and getting to where I am today – am I better off or should I just have ended my life back then?

I guess a lesson to be learnt from this, is no matter what you do as an adoptive parent – there are some things that a child needs to learn the answers to questions themselves. It’s not up to you as parents to give them the answer that you want them to believe in and hear.

Mike’s other guest post at ICAV.