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.

Sunday Junk Journaling

Today was a difficult day. It was hard picking myself up after falling down. It was harder still, to do the task I had set for myself which was to finish this junk journal spread on this Sunday in Hawaii. Gravity felt like weights pulling down on me. Gradually I felt lighter with each layer of mixed media I applied onto the page. Paintings, a doily, an envelope reconstructed, a little space for handwritten poetic thought written in cursive, cut out images of yellow flowers, Victorian art and pieces of vintage book pages. I finally published it and although my work is never perfect to me, I feel a sense of exultation when my secretive mixed media gets posted, shown for the world to see. I don’t feel as lonely when that happens. I show myself in the most beautiful of ways, showing all the best parts of me. So I try to junk journal on a regular basis, at least one post a week if I can. Today was difficult but I published one spread and that helped me keep going.

What was one thing that helped you keep going today?

Please comment here or write me at starwoodletters@gmail.com

The Here and Now

One of my local beaches in Hawaii

It’s been a while since I’ve last posted at ICAV and a lot has happened. But I’m okay. I’m living in a small studio apartment across from the beach now. In a coastal town next to Honolulu. After a pandemic school year of substitute teaching at Kamehameha Schools, teaching Digital Photography and creating a Yearbook for the 8th grade, I’m now a full-time adjudicator at the State of Hawaii, helping out the claims backlog that happened due to Covid. It’s a conditional job, supposed to end in December, but there’s a chance it’ll be extended for another 6 months. I had to take what I could since the field of substitute teaching everywhere is simply not stable anymore.

I’m newly single although I don’t know for how long as I’ve already met someone who makes me laugh which is great. I recently broke up with my ex-fiancee in whom I’d been with for about two years in Hawaii. It was good for me to separate from him although hard, it’s always hard letting go of someones I once loved even though he didn’t treat me well. I think it was the pandemic and all the unexpected variables that brought up behavioral patterns he didn’t know he had. I guess I can’t give excuses for him not treating me well. I just had to leave and I’m not on speaking terms with him anymore.

Life is full of the sounds of the highway, the sight of a glittering ocean, beaches, Aloha Aina. My kitty, Pualani, has been my rock and cord connecting me to this earth as a 35-year-old Filipino-American adoptee. My studio is full of plants, junk journaling materials, penpal letters, flip flops, basic necessities. I have certain stones and crystals that keep my energy grounded, balancing the chaotic cosmos within.

Life these days has been a whole new chapter, working full-time, making ends meet in Hawaii on my own. I started playing Dungeons and Dragons on Monday nights, and Fallout 76 with my new next door neighbor in whom I’ve been hanging out with almost everyday. He’s been inviting me out and keeping me productive, meeting people, exploring Hawaii, beach-going and supporting my secret nerd hobbies simultaneously. I can’t thank him enough for being able to get me out of my shell even just a little bit, which is miraculous.

I sometimes wonder where my life went. I sometimes feel like a failed attempt at a normal adult because I should be married with kids by now. I should own a home, going to parent teacher meetings, I should have found a place to belong in by now, but haven’t. I’m surviving in Hawaii with all these unwritten books inside me, waiting to be let out. I still haven’t found that job I can grow in for the rest of my years to come, but I want to. It’s a constant conflict here in Hawaii because it’s too expensive to own a home. But, it’s a beautiful place that is constantly in flux with all the right kinds of elements that keeps me on my toes everyday. Keeps me trying, everyday.

The city is awe-inspiring. The ocean, a constant mystery and companion to my soul’s never-ending quests. The Hawaiian culture is one that I respect and connect with on an unspoken, intrinsic level. I love living next to a highway where the library is in walking distance and so is a beach. I see the beach everyday now, waking up. It is magnificent. Giving me a profound sense of relief everyday.

In Hawaii, my adoptee past looms ever-present as a silent, disenchanted world of loss that lives in the heart of me, no matter how beautiful the day is. But, more and more, I feel like I can come to grips with my past out here. Somehow, I’m just doing it, moving through it maybe, without knowing why or how. Somehow, I found myself here, living on my own and doing okay, despite the heartache.

Why do Intercountry Adoptees want to know their Origins?

The desire to know my origins is an innate and fundamental human need (and right).

My need to know my origins is akin to your need to breath air that keeps you alive.

Breath of Air by Tim Kakandar

We only know our origins are important when we don’t have it, or access to it. For people like me, this is our daily lived experience!

As an intercountry adoptee, I live my whole life trying to find who I come from and why I was given up / stolen.

It’s really hard to know how to go forward in life if I don’t know how and why I came to be in this unnatural situation. 

My life did not start at adoption! I have a genetic history, generations of people before me who contributed to who I am.

We cannot pretend in this world of adoption and family formation that genetics does not matter, it does – significantly; I am not a blank slate to be imprinted upon; there are consequences to this pretence and it shows in the statistics of our higher rates of adoptee youth suicide!

One of most shared experiences amongst adoptees whom I connect with, is the topic of “feeling all alone”, “like an alien” and yet human beings are not meant to be isolated. We are social beings desiring connection.

Separation from my natural origins and the knowledge of these, left me disconnected and lost in a fundamental way.

My life has been spent trying to reconnect – firstly with my inner self, then with the outer self, and with those around me, searching for a sense of belonging.

As an adoptee, I can be given all the material things in the world but it did not fix the hole that my soul feels, when it has nowhere and no-one to belong to, naturally.

My substitute family did not equate to a natural sense of belonging.

I searched for my origins because my innate feelings and experience of isolation and loss drove me to find where I came from and to make sense of how I got to be here.

This was shared by Lynelle Long at the 1 July Webinar: Child’s Right to Identity in Alternative Care.

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