Being Truly Seen as a Filipino Adoptee

by Arlynn Hope Dunn, adopted from the Philippines to the USA; presented at the 16th Philippine Global Consultation on Child Welfare Services on 24 September, 2021.

Mabuhay and good morning! My name is Hope and I’m joining you from Knoxville, Tennessee, in the southeastern United States. Thank you to ICAB for inviting me to be a part of the Global Consultation on international adoption. I am grateful to access the post-adoption resources of ICAB, which have been significant in my process to reconnect to my birth family. I emphasize that my story and reflection today are my own and am not speaking for the lived experiences of other adoptees. I hope everyone who listens to our testimonies today will be open to various perspectives on adoption as it influences us across our lifespan.

My Beginnings

I was born in Manila in December 1983 and in July 1984, I was flown from the Philippines with my social worker, to meet my adoptive parents and six year old sister who was adopted from Korea. We had an idyllic, quiet suburban life, my mom was a housewife and my dad was a geologist, who often traveled around the country. Our family most likely would have relocated west to accommodate my dad’s work but we never left Tennessee. My dad had juvenile diabetes and developed pneumonia and passed away three days before my 1st birthday. My mother, a polio survivor, which left her with nonuse of her right arm, was suddenly a single mother of two small children without nearby relatives. The unresolved grief of losing my father reverberated through our family for years through the emotional withdrawal of my sister, who was very close to our dad .. to my mother who cycled into prescription drug abuse so deeply at times she was unable to look after me and my sister. As for me, I oscillated from the role of  comic relief to absorb tensions between my sister and mother to self-regulating my own emotions by hoarding food as a child and bottling up my emotions, to make myself scarce and small. While I grew up in a home that verbalized love, I now recognize patterns of neglect and codependency that  impacted my development. I was also raised in the era of the early 90’s where social norms and media reinforced color blindness rather than offer race as an opportunity to discuss and celebrate unique cultural diversity. 

Unlike the large Filipino communities in California, there was little diversity where I was raised, as the majority of my school and community was white with a few Black students. I was one of three Asian students and we were all adopted. Rather than gravitate towards each other, we leaned into different friend groups as a natural part of assimilation. Of the three of us, I was more quiet and painfully shy, which made me an easy target of bullying. At the age of seven, I was called the “N” word on the school bus. I was told my mother gave birth to me in a rice paddy. Ironically, at the return of the school year in Fall, girls would flock to touch my skin and ask how I got so dark. Those times, I was so proud of my dark skin and I never learned about colorism until I was an adult. Eventually the bullying declined until after the attack of the twin towers on 11 September 2001, where racism resurfaced and another student told me to get blown up with the rest of my people. In response, my teacher made me hug the other student because at 17, “he was just a boy”. My family’s response was to remind me that I am American as though that alone is enough armour to withstand and deflect the verbal violence. I internalized so much shame of being different, which I equated to less than, that I became complicit in my own cultural erasure and plummeting self esteem.

Young Adulthood

As a young adult, I struggled with milestones that came naturally to my peers. I failed most classes in high school but my principal liked me and let me graduate on time. I dropped out of college without a vision of who I wanted to be by 21. I ended a six year relationship and engagement and  couldn’t hold down a job by 23. I was active in the evangelical church but was told by elders that my depression  and suicidal ideation resulted from my lack of faith. Eventually, I gained experience by working with children. I went back to college at age 27 while working multiple jobs and  was accepted into the occupational therapy assistant program, where I  gained mental health tools and later graduated with honors and delivered the graduation speech.

As an outlet from my busy college and work schedule I enjoyed going to the movies alone and in 2016, I saw a movie that was the catalyst for my journey to find my heritage.  Lion is a movie about the real life Saroo Brierly, who was raised by his adoptive Australian parents and eventually reunited with his first mother in India. As Saroo is gathered in his first mother’s arms, a dam of emotions broke within me, primarily guilt that somehow I had misplaced the memory of my first mother. Something deep within me, awakened as I witnessed this tug of war on his emotions, played out on a cinema screen. I saw a mirror that illuminated myself  as he ran interference between two worlds that rarely saw him and the complexities of adoption and how he was left to reconcile this unbearable weight alone.

Reclaiming my Philippine Heritage

I began my journey to reclaim my Philippine heritage through my name. For the last four years, I’ve transitioned from my adoptive name Hope back to my birth name Arlynn which is Gaelic for “oath, pledge”. It feels empowering to return to something that I now know for certain was given to me by my first mother. Before I formally began my search into my history, I told my sister, who supported my decision. It was several months before I asked my mom if she knew any other details about my birth family other than from the correspondence that she had given to me in a binder. I felt I had to protect her feelings as if me wanting to suddenly know about my first family would hurt her. She told me there was no other information.  Later, I would find out that was a lie.

Throughout my life, my mother continued to struggle with her misuse of prescription pain medication. As a child, I recall my mother pointing out which medication bottles she used in case she didn’t wake up for me to call the police. At times, I slept  on the floor by her room to ensure she was still breathing. I was 32 when she required hospital intervention for withdrawal symptoms, she told me in her anger that she wished she had left me in my birth country. It hurt more than if she had slapped me because she never lashed out about my adoption when I was younger. I walked out of her room feeling like I lost another parent.

Eventually, my childhood home was sold and my mom went to a nursing home for care following a brain hemorrhage. My sister and I recovered our mom’s safe deposit box at her local bank, which unbeknownst to me held my full case study. My sister told me I was never supposed to know and our mom made her promise not to tell me, when she was younger.  I sat alone in my car sobbing as I read the name of my first father for the first time as he was not listed on my birth certificate, which I always had access to growing up. It detailed how my parents had seven children and five of them died during childhood from sickness. My parents separated while my father stayed with their surviving children and my mother stayed with her nephew refusing to reconcile with my father not knowing she was pregnant with me. Over time, my mother began to wander away from home and was institutionalised. After I was born she wondered away from home again and found singing to herself.  After my birth, I was recommended to be placed at a temporary child shelter as my mother was unable to care for me. A purple thumb print in lieu of a signature directed her deed of surrender for me to the social welfare authorities.

Long lost family

Searching for Biological Family

Thanks to  the resources of ICAB and Facebook, I was able to locate my surviving brother and sister and learned that my birth parents  have passed on. In early 2021, I was able to find my first mother’s relatives including her only surviving sister. I’m still astonished and grateful that my siblings and extended family have embraced me and I ache with the longing to meet them, to be touched by my people. Before the pandemic I had goals to travel to the Philippines, but during the closing economy, I lost two of my jobs, my mental health suffered from the isolation of living alone during the lockdown, and I eventually lost my housing, and the money that was raised by friends and family to go to the Philippines had to keep me from living in my car, until I could stay with friends. Since last November, I’ve been able to gain a full time job and this summer, I found a therapist, also a transracial adoptee and she has been working with me to process my grief and the survivor’s guilt I’ve felt knowing I somehow outlived many of my siblings. As I slowly rebuild my life, a renewed energy to return one day to my motherland to meet my siblings motivates me further.

While my quest to reclaim my motherland, my lost language, and my siblings has carried profound heartache, there has been tremendous joy in connecting with my nieces who are teaching me Waray Waray and Tagalog phrases. I have curated my social media so the algorithms draw me toward other Filipino adoptees, artists, writers, and healers. This past December, I turned 37, which was the same age as when my first mother had me. On my birthday, I was able to meet with a Baybaylan priest who prayed over me and my ancestors. During all this time since I rediscovered by case study, I was trying to grapple with the grief and at the very end, he began crying. We cried together and that small, kind gesture touched me so deeply because for the first time I felt like someone was sitting with me in my grief, and it was so intimate because I felt truly seen in that moment and worthy of love. 

Thoughts for Adoption Professionals

The practices of the adoption industry have changed drastically over the years since I was adopted. I hope that the conversations around adoption continue to shift toward adoptees to include our stories that illuminate this wide continuum of lived experiences that point not only to the good or bad experiences but hold them all to a critical lens by adoption professionals. I hope practitioners of this industry recognize and acknowledge the degree to which trauma from early child separation from our first mothers and the role of assimilation and the loss of cultural association impacts adoptees. Are prospective parents trained in this and also in grief counselling? Consider looking toward practices which ensure family preservation, if possible. If adoption is granted, how will you ensure that a child has resources to find community if they live in places not culturally diverse? How will they find community? A final question for reflection: when a child is relinquished from your country, what practices will be ensured to support that adoptee who wants to return to their country of origin, without that person to feel like an outsider, a tourist, or intruder?

I have a short video of a photo collage I created that spans across my life from the time I was a baby ’til now.

Thank you so much for listening to my testimony.

Maraming Salamat po.

Adoption and the Impact on our Partners

by Brian who is married to an intercountry adoptee, who has lived an illegal intercountry adoption. We have changed the names and places in this story to protect identities.

My name is Brian and I’m married to an intercountry adoptee. I am sharing my story to help people understand how sensitive and hurtful adoption is, to everyone involved, particularly the adoptee.

Merely telling the adoptee story does not tell the whole story. Adoption is like the detonation of an atomic bomb. The fallout from adoption adversely affects others who surround the adoptee.

How We Met

I met Melissa in the latter half of 1998, in the capital of her birth country. When we met, I was a First Officer (Co-pilot) flying Boeing 747-200 jumbo jets. I did my lay-overs in the same hotel where Melissa was. At that time, she was in the hotel being interviewed by a media scrum in the hotel lobby. I was merely curious on what all the fuss was about. Two weeks earlier, I had seen her being interviewed on television. I thought to myself, “What a sweet, well-spoken, pretty girl. Why can’t I meet someone like her.” Little did I know then.

So I knew that she was there, in the capital of her birth country, to meet her biological parents. But I didn’t really know all the background to Melissa’s adoption or the complications and her turmoil.

I have spent a lot of years flying throughout Asia and staying for varying lengths of time.  Asia has so many unique cultures and each one mysterious. I have always liked visiting smoky Buddhist, Confucian, or Taoist Temples. My first visit to Asia was in 1985 to Hong Kong, twelve years before it came under the hammer and sickle and the five star trademark of Communist China. I taught Melissa how to use chopsticks.

That said, I was aware of the dirty deals, the corruption at the highest levels, payoffs and other forms of guanxi (关系), smiles, relationships, respect for and some knowledge of their languages and cultures by foreigners and knowing that money gets things done. For example, a Tourist Visa converted to a Work Visa by an employer’s handler/translator.

Melissa and I saw each other over the next six months during my lay-overs in the capital of her birth country. Sometimes we could only see each other for 5 minutes but it was rejuvenating and it sustained me whilst I flew off to some other part of the world.  Melissa was always in my thoughts. I remember I would buy her some unique gift from some country and mail it to her. On our last meeting, we walked to the park where I proposed marriage to a shocked Melissa.

After that, I began my Captain upgrade and transition training at Boeing to fly new Boeing 747-400 aircraft. I could not see Melissa and I did not fly to the capital of her birth country again until after I became a Captain. She was not there anyway. She had returned to Australia with her adoptive Australian parents, John and Jane. 

I eventually got to be with Melissa again to continue our relationship. I attempted to get to Australia but our plans we made were frustrated. When I did arrive, I was shocked to learn Melissa had moved out of her parents home. She was living on her own for some time. She was renting was some cold, damp, back room with no real privacy, and all sorts of unsavoury characters visiting, smoking and looked like druggies to me. Melissa’s landlord was renting the place, so I am not sure if sub-renting to Melissa was even legal. But that is the position Melissa was in. When I was in Melbourne, I had a nice suite downtown. I stayed there every month, thereafter. Eventually however, I rented an apartment – and truthfully, it was only a little better than where she had been staying, but it was our nest and it was convenient to downtown. I had also been renting a car so we could go for drives, visit her parents and do whatever.

It was a bit puzzling and concerning why Melissa left home but I never got the full story.  

Immigrating to her Adoptive Country

Sometime after I arrived in Australia, I learned the letters and packages I had mailed to Melissa were simply discarded or hidden by Jane, Melissa’s adoptive mother. Her younger sister recovered some. Perhaps Melissa thought I lost interest, while I was away in other parts of the world or when I was in training at Boeing. I can absolutely assure you, she was always on my mind and I was eager to see her as soon as my training was completed. Jane’s actions were unfair for both of us because it left Melissa more vulnerable.  

An Immigration Officer commented that I was visiting Australia so often that I should consider applying for Permanent Residency, so I did. In July 2001, filling out the paperwork myself and paying the fee I merely trusted the process because I was a Boeing 747-400 captain, a professional with a decent income, self-funded, a former Army officer and a Native English speaker. I assumed that immigrating to Australia would be a walk in the park. Make no mistake about it, the Department of Immigration are true bastards. They made our life hell unnecessarily. I was issued an 820N Spouse Visa with No-Right-To-Work.

Melissa and I married on 5 March 1997 in Los Angeles. I started a contract with another airline, flying the older versions of the Boeing 747 as a Captain. Sadly I lost my job as a Captain because of the dirty games the Department of Immigration play. I will NEVER forgive them for that. They played every dirty trick in their playbook to win. They claimed they lost my entire case file (including electronic copies?) just before going to the Migration Review Tribunal. Fortunately my Migration Agent and I had all the documents and submissions, either in original or Certified True Copy. I finally earned Permanent Residency in 2003 and I became an Australian citizen in 2005.

This was an extremely stressful period of time for both Melissa and I. It was deliberately made that way, by Department of Immigration. I lost my career. Lost my dignity. Lost my income. And, I believe like other Spouse Visa couples we had come to know and who could not stand up to Immigration’s bullshit, they expected us to fail. When we saw those couples separate, it made us worry about our future, but it seemed to make us more resilient and determined. We lived in a small, one bedroom room apartment and drove an old Volvo 244DL. We lived very frugally. I had to appeal to the Migration Review Tribunal because my application was rejected, even though we were legally married, because I lacked 11 days out of 12 months in the country and there was just no way I could make them understand that travel is a big part of an international airline captain’s life. They were just bloody-minded obstructionist.

Dealing with Adoptive Family Dynamics

Add to all that, Melissa and I were under duress from her adoptive mother, Jane. I remember phone calls that started out calmly and would become argumentative.  Melissa would be in tears when she got off the phone. I would discourage her from calling in the future, but Melissa seemed compelled. It was usually the same scene when she would go to visit. It was hard for me to just sit there without defending her but I had to. At one point, I threatened to file a law suit if Jane did not desist with her bullying and abuse. There was a point in time when I was unwelcome in the house. I would sit outside, waiting for Melissa in the Volvo. Jane always had some form of psychological control of Melissa and Melissa always seemed to go back for more abuse. Almost like self-flagellation. It feels so good when it stops.

I got my Aviation career partially back on track 2006 when I was offered a contract as a Captain flying Boeing 737-800 aircraft in Hong Kong then in China. We were away five years, but Jane would call. She even came to visit! Even China was not far enough away. When I decided to buy a house, I decided to buy a house in Western Australia.  Yes, it is scenic and I love my photography but it was a necessary move to remove Melissa from the grasp of her adoptive mother. But Jane has visited a few times already.  The years from when Melissa was a tender young girl to present day have flown by.  She is now in her 40s, is stronger and stands up to her adoptive mother, but it has been a hard, rough, uphill road.  

Being supportive and sympathetic is not enough. Finding ways to make Melissa a stronger person and have the courage to stand up for what she believes in has given her a sharp edge that sometimes cuts me. I feel Melissa is unable to move on, towards normality. There’s something missing. It is some internal conflict. It’s almost like an illness, not the same as schizophrenia, but a bit of detachment from reality, sometimes she can lie in bed most of the day, not wanting to face the day or wake up to her life. 

Racism and It’s Impacts

Also, I think the innate racism in Australia has had a hand in Melissa knowing she is different, even though she speaks with a natural Aussie-girl accent and has spoken English at home since she came to Australia as an infant. Most white folks cannot tell a Korean from a Thai. And her Asian face has inspired some racists to come forward with “Go home Chink bitch!” Melbourne is home. Western Australia is home. That is all she has known. Even when Australians hear her speak, they cannot get beyond the Asian face. The best the ignoramuses can come up with is, “You speak good English” instead of correctly stating, “You speak English well” or saying nothing at all. When she tells them she is Australian or from Melbourne or Western Australia, the idiots retort with, “Where are you really from?”  They just cannot simply accept.

But it gets worse. During the five years we lived in China, twice she was physically assaulted by Chinese men because she only spoke English. Even there in China, they did not recognize her birth country origins and would ask her if she is Japanese or Korean. Worse, they just could not get their heads around her being adopted. In China, they would often remark that Chinese do not have freckles. But, they do in fact. The Chinese are about as racist as Australians.

I feel Melissa is in a no win situation. She is not accepted as an Australian and she is not accepted by her birth country. This contributes to her internal conflict. I have a foreign accent and I receive discriminatory remarks as well, but I deal with it differently.

Melissa is conflicted because she has two sets of parents and two versions of herself, neither reconciling with the other. In fact, she has had a DNA test that only adds to the confusion. 

I have spent a lot of time flying throughout Asia, staying for varying lengths of time in all the major capital cities. I know the reality of Asia i.e., that underhanded business occurs, like her forged documents. I remember one day examining her various identity documents and birth certificate. To me, the information looked suspect. I would doubt her name, birthdate, where she was born, etc. But suspecting this information to be false and being able to help Melissa do anything about it in reality is very hard, because who will tell the truth? Will her biological parents for whom saving face is so important? Or her adoptive parents who probably knew that what they were doing was questionable? Child-trafficking is a way of life and it is common knowledge that daughters are not valued as highly as a son in Asian cultures, even Western cultures.  I feel Melissa is lucky that she was not simply discarded, left in the rubbish, drowned, or trafficked for use and abuse by perverts. Often the child-trafficker will assure or falsely promise a birth-mother the child will go to a good home, a childless couple in another town or village. We all read the stories or watch the evening news.

Truthfully, had I known all of these complications and the loss of my career that I worked so hard to build, prior to meeting, I probably would not have pursued a relationship with Melissa regardless of how sweet and cute. But I did not have a crystal ball, did I? I just soldiered on.

Australia’s Lack of Response to an Illegal Adoption

I believe that the Australian government, the adoption agency, and Melissa’s adoptive parents were all complicit in her illegal adoption. There were no thorough investigations to check everything was genuine. Compare this to the rigorous investigations which occurred in order for me to become an Australian Permanent resident and then a Citizen, yet I have all manner of first class evidence to prove who I am. It seems as if the Australian government deliberately had one eye closed with Melissa’s adoption.

Regarding Melissa’s adoptive mother, Jane, I believe she is manipulative, conniving, and has her own mental issues, some of it wrapped around not being able to have her own biological children. I also felt all along that Melissa may have been sexually abused. Her adoptive father is somewhat spineless. He never seems to defend Melissa against Jane’s attacks and nasty words. Though I cannot prove it and have nothing to base it on, I have my suspicions and observations of Melissa’s behaviours and reactions. Melissa told me a story once, that she used to wrap her breasts to disguise them when she was young. I believe Jane precipitated this.

It has been 20 years of battle, protecting Melissa from her adoptive mother. This is why we live in Western Australia and not in Melbourne where Melissa grew up and where her adopted parents remain, although they’ve separated.

After I became aware of Melissa’s illegal adoption and before I really understood the clash between her and her adoptive mother, I decided that I would not bring Melissa to my homeland. I did not want to separate her from the only family she has known and also because I did not want her to change. Maybe that was a mistake. I also feel it is wrong for Caucasian adoptive parents to adopt non-Caucasian children. In my opinion this plays a large part in impacting an adoptee’s mental self-image.

Melissa remains the sweetest girl I have ever known and I love her but I wish she was not so complicated and conflicted.