by Kayla Zheng, adopted from China to the USA.
During 2020 COVID lockdown, I had a chance to play around with creating a resource via video conferencing. Click on the image below for my interview with Milagros Forrester, a Peruvian adoptee raised in the UK. She kindly shared her adoption journey detailing how her adoptive family supported her to reconnect with her origins and return to her birth country.
Many thanks to Milagros as she has waited patiently for me to complete the hours of video editing, to get this into a finished state.
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:
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.
By Sunny Reed, Korean intercountry adoptee.
When I was adopted over thirty years ago, there were significantly fewer outlets for a transracial adoptive parent (TRAp) to expose their child to his or her birth culture. Books, culture camps (of which I never attended), agency-sponsored gatherings, and other passive events formed the bulk of options available.
Today, in our information-rich climate, simply reading articles, watching videos, and listening to music counts only as superficial immersion for a transracial adoptee (TRAd). Online forums and other media provide a sense of community, but even still, socialization relies solely on the parent’s concentrated efforts.
In this post, I’ll be discussing a 2010 article by M. Elizabeth Vonk, Jaegoo Lee, and Josie Crolley-Simic about TRAps’ current cultural socialization efforts and my perspective on their research.
Cultural Socialization Practices in Domestic and International Transracial Adoption
Vonk, Lee, and Crolley-Simic
The authors sought to uncover the impact (if any) cultural socialization had on a transracial adoptive parent’s (TRAp) relationship with their child. Additional research is needed to concretely answer that question, but data uncovered during their investigation contributed fascinating insights into how race influenced a parent’s decision to incorporate their child’s ethnicity into their lives.
- Appearance may dictate how much emphasis parents put on cultural socialization
- TRAps rarely associated with adults of their child’s ethnicity and frequently lived in undiversified areas
- Cultural socialization efforts diminished as the child aged
What’s interesting about these findings is how parents – all of whom identified as white – gravitated toward superficial cultural activities. Cooking ethnic food, reading books, and celebrating unique holidays were most common and I surmise it has to do with novelty and ease. These activities are the least threatening for white parents and can be undertaken in the privacy of their own homes, without criticism from authentic sources. Combined with the findings that white parents rarely socialized with adults of their child’s race, this makes sense.
Particularly damning is the parents’ failure to relocate their families to culturally diverse neighborhoods. My own family settled in a homogenous white farming community in New Jersey and refused to acknowledge that the demographics had profoundly negative repercussions on my development. Even after repeated incidents of school-based racism (at all levels), they couldn’t or wouldn’t consider changing to a diverse school.
The authors also found – sadly – that parents of European children engaged in cultural activities less frequently than those of Asian and black children. I find this ironic, since the shared background should make it less foreign to the parents. But if socialization is largely based on appearance, then race is no doubt a catalyst for how involved a parent feels they should be.
The authors muse that cultural socialization highlights the obvious differences between parent and child, making caregivers feel “inadequate.” They also wonder if cultural activities make them “realize their responsibility to their children and are unsure how to proceed.” I would argue that yes, this is likely what is happening, since confronting the reality of their complex situation may destroy their original expectations for the adoption.
My parents’ own ideas of “getting [me] cultured” included, early on, hosting Korean egg hunts and going to Korean Christmas parties. Nothing was uniquely Korean about these events. They were just a bunch of white families getting their adopted Korean kids together and celebrating Christian holidays. Ironically, we never acknowledged Korean events and – like the research suggested – these activities dwindled down to nothing after we all began elementary school.
Although my experiences occurred over the past several decades, this relatively recent article shows that – despite additional resources available – little real progress has been made in the practical application of cultural socialization. We’ll keep talking about this in future posts, since the goal is to help TRAps assist their child in developing a secure racial identity.
Do your experiences align with this article’s findings? If not, what do you think you or your parents did differently?
Please feel free to discuss in the comments!
I am a Chinese adoptee, adopted into a white New Zealand family in 1966, who had 8 other children. I have struggled my entire life to make sense of my place in the world. It wasn’t until I was approximately 48 years old that I connected to other intercountry and transracial adoptees online. Since then, I’ve no longer felt isolated or misunderstood. It has been incredibly healing to know that my thoughts and emotions are shared by many in these groups.
As an artist, I communicate some of my life experiences through art. I have had many adopted people approach me sharing a common narrative and I’ve been surprised, humbled and encouraged by this.
I volunteer my time by running art workshops for adolescents from Families with Children from China (FCCA) in Sydney at the Cosydney workspace in Chippendale. I do this because I recognise myself in each of them and am glad they have a support network and peer group who provide support and understands their issues. I learn a lot from them and we always have a laugh!
To coincide with my latest show opening is an exhibition of artworks created by our young Chinese intercountry adoptees from the workshops I’ve been running.
Please join us if you would like to see their beautiful artwork, at 2pm on Saturday 9 December at the Artshine Gallery (Address: 3 Blackfriars Street Chippendale).
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.
Read my review of Decoding Origins.
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.
I was recently reminded when providing the history of how ICAV came into being that we originally started as a support network for intercountry adoptees by intercountry adoptees. We began because I experienced nowhere to turn when wanting to connect in with others like me. Since then, I’ve learnt many times over about the power of peer support and that it cannot be underestimated!
I constantly hear from adoptees about the lack of post adoption supports that could improve the complex journey of being an intercountry adoptee. Wherever we are adopted to and from, the lack of accessible and known post adoption support is the common theme across our sending and receiving countries.
Today, I share Stephanie’s experience, a Filippino adoptee from the mid 1980s. Her story highlights the extent in which some intercountry adoptees can feel alone. I use the word “some” because I don’t want to over generalise but instead point out that no-one in our governments actually faciliate surveys to assess how we as adult adoptees fare once our adoption is transacted.
It is peer support groups like ICAV that become the melting pots for en masse experiences of intercountry adoptees around the world.
Our governments should not underestimate the power of our peer support and the positive impacts this can have in helping reduce the sense of isolation many can feel. I hope one day we will see our governments who facilitated our adoptions, provide the much needed funding to financially support peer group support organisations (formal or informal) like ICAV and those associated with ICAV.
We provide an immense amount of support around the world that is currently either not provided at all by our governments, and/or some supports that cannot be provided by professionals who do not understand the lived experience.
The power of peer support comes from providing true empathy, removing the sense of isolation derived from a/some situation(s) and giving someone (figuratively speaking) a hand to hold onto; from those who have travelled before and intuitively understand the challenges.
Some examples of current peer group support within ICAV’s wider informal network:
- Search & Reunification, including DNA Testing
(Australia currently provides a free service via ISS Australia funded by our Federal Government but in most other sending & receiving countries, no such government funded service exists).
Some adoptee led groups providing this: Brazil Baby Affair (BBA), Born in Lebanon, Plan Angel Colombia, 325Kamra.
- Return to Homeland
Some adoptees setup home stay places for other adoptees
Knowledge is shared in FaceBook groups from adoptees who have returned before
For those returning to live for an extended period, knowing how to navigate visas, finding work, or where to go for translation services
Some adoptee led groups providing this: International Korean Adoptee Association (IKAA) and their large network for Korean adoptees, Adopted Vietnamese International (AVI), The Voice of Adoptees (La Voix Des Adoptes – French), some individuals for Sri Lanka & Vietnam.
- Informal Mentoring for the every day experience of being an intercountry adoptee
Being available via social media 24×7 (which can be exhausting and difficult with little stated boundaries and all support provided by volunteers).
All Adoptee Led groups listed by ICAV.
- Books, Artwork, Films, Multi Media of the lived experience
Some adoptee led groups providing this: Decoding Origins (Colombia), Adoptionland, ICAV, Lost Sarees, Out of the Fog, The Rambler, L’Hybride.
- Face to Face Contact
Informal social events that facilitate friendships and networking
Formal events like conferences, gatherings, meetings,
Some adoptee led groups providing this: AdoptionPolitiksForum, ICAV, Adoptee Rights Campaign (ARC), The Voice of Adoptees, Asian Adult Adoptees of British Columbia (AAABC), I’m Adopted, Chinese Children International (CCI), Also Known As (AKA).
- Advocacy to improve our situations and educate the wider public of the complexities we face.
Some adoptee led groups providing this: AdoptionsPolitiksForum, Adoptionland, ICAV, ARC, The Voice of Adoptees, Adoption Museum Project, CCI.
- Research completed by fellow intercountry adoptee academics specific to intercountry adoption from around the world.
Hopefully this gives you some insight into the immense amount of work being provided by adoptee led organisations and individuals who provide for free, peer support to our fellow intercountry adoptees. We want to reduce the number of experiences like Stephanie’s and ensure that for those already adopted, they are provided the support they deserve.
Note: all groups listed above are provided on ICAVs page Adoptee Led Groups
I was recently contacted by a researcher who wanted to know if we could share our experiences of how searching and reunification impacts us. I decided it was a good reason to put together a long overdue Perspective Paper.
I didn’t realise this paper would end up being a book as it includes over 40 intercountry adoptees, contributing 100 pages!
Questions asked to stimulate the kind of responses I was seeking were:
- What country of origin are you from? What country of origin were you adopted to and at what age?
- What do you think it was that made you search? Was it something you always wanted to do or did you reach a point in your life that instigated the desire? What were your expectations?
- How did you go about conducting your search? What resources did you utilise? What obstacles did you encounter?
- What outcome did you have? What impact has that had upon you? How has that impacted your relationship with your adoptive family?
- What has the experience been like of maintaining a relationship with your biological family? What obstacles have you encountered? What has been useful in navigating this part of your life?
- How have you integrated your search and/or reunion in your sense of who you are? Has it changed anything? In what ways?
- What could be done by professionals, governments and agencies to help assist in Search & Reunions for intercountry adoptees like yourself?
These questions were guidelines only and adoptees were encouraged to provide any further insight to the topic.
All types of outcomes were included, whether searches were successful or not.
This resource will provide adoptees with a wide range of perspectives to consider when contemplating the issues involved in searching for original family. The paper will also provide the wider public and those involved in intercountry adoption a deeper understanding of how an adoptee experiences the search. Governments, agencies, and professional search organisations have direct feedback on what they can do to improve the process for intercountry adoptees.
During my years connecting with intercountry adoptees, I’ve been honoured to share their journeys and be a part of it by listening and relating. I less frequently have male adoptee colleagues share on our website in the emotional sense about the adoption journey, especially over long term.
Richard is one of my adoptee friends willing to share his journey of growing up adopted into Australia and recently moving back to the Philippines – to reconnect with his heritage and culture after being reunited with his biological family a few years earlier.
He asked me did I know of how others experienced the relocation back to mother country and I replied that I know many Korean and Vietnamese adoptees who have done this for a short term (1 year or so) but have not read or heard of many other Filipino adoptees doing so …
So he has willingly shared his latest experiences Richard’s Relocation to Philippines. Thank you Richard!
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.