by Roxas-Chua, adopted from the Philippines to the USA; author, artist.
I thought I’d share this image that sits on my desktop table in my studio. I created it one of those nights when I wasn’t able to tap into shift and movement in my adoption struggle. I find that a balance of story-sharing, self-parenting work, contemplative writing and drawing has helped me in navigating and translating the world around me. In this drawing, I was accompanied by the moon, which in way gave me comfort the way nature does. I hope you enjoy it. It’s a snapshot of tenderness that we seek from ourselves and from others. If the moon can be my birthmother now, I’m alright with that. I’ll take any path that lights up the night.
by Michelle Y. K. Piper adopted from Sth Korea to Australia.
Two years today, they told me you were dead.
15 years from the day I turned 18 until the day I officially began that dreaded, infuriating, dehumanising, grievous process of trying to trace you; 15 years of constant internal conflict, a fierce war raging within.
Remain loyal to the family, society, culture, and country I had been relinquished to; remain obedient to the process of forced assimilation, never questioning or asking why? (at least never out loud) and ALWAYS “grateful” for the privilege to be alive and living in one of the greatest countries in the world (Australia); continue to ignore the ever-deepening awareness of agonising turmoil and grief consuming my soul borne from the empty, rootlessness of my erased past.
Or… Face what I have always so desperately avoided.
Questions… All those questions. So many, many questions. Impossible to voice out loud even to myself in secrecy and solitude, yet impossible silence within the confined walls of my Psyche.
15 years to amass enough courage to search for you; I searched, and a year later I received “the call”. A call I’d been on constant edge waiting for, a year of repeatedly checking my emails and phone. It came from a stranger in a government office, who had only just been transferred to my case. A transfer I was neither asked nor informed about.
On the 2nd January 2019, a strange, unfamiliar voice explained who she was and why she was calling. You were dead. You died exactly 2 months after my 23rd Birthday. You died on the 6th July 2009. 2009, I was 10 years too late. My father could not or did not want to be found. That was it.
For over 30 years, being adopted meant nothing, or at least I told myself it meant nothing. Just a word to explain away the inevitable whispers of confusion when people crossed us. “Did they just call her mum?”, “Maybe the dad is Asian…? They don’t look like half/half’s though.” I was used to these comments, my entire life’s been layered with racism, some out of ignorance, some without doubt intentional. But being adopted was not something to be dwelled upon, simply a fact; accepted and acknowledged only when unavoidable. But unavoidable became impossible.
That call, that damn call; no matter how fiercely I fought back would demolish the foundations of every wall I had established; a myriad of walls forming the incomprehensible and impenetrable maze of protection I had completely encompassed and lost myself within.
15 Years to find the courage to look for you, but a lifetime of wondering….
Was I ever in your thoughts? Did you ever think of me? On the day of my birth? When that inevitable date once again came full circle, a date that would forever mark each year we have spent apart. Another year gone; another year of life missed. Another year of what has been a lifetime of separation. Did you think of me at Christmas? At times of family, cultural and traditional celebrations, when milestones should have been reached. When recipes, secrets, and the stories of our ancestors should have passed from Mother to Daughter. Did you ever wonder as I do now if or how much we look and are alike?
Did the same irrevocable, emptiness, loneliness, grief, and self-loathing consume you as it has me? …..Did I mean anything to you?
Did you, on the day you gave birth simply walk away and never look back? Erasing every memory, every moment, every emotion. Erasing me. Did you reject me from the moment we ceased to be one, refusing to acknowledge the life you had so painfully bore into this world? Did you even once, hold me in your arms? Was my existence always a disgrace? A corruption in the flow and purity of bloodlines. The product of the worst kind of offence one can commit against a culture and people whose social, ethical, political and legal systems are fundamentally embedded in the principles of Confucianism. Was I always perceived as an abomination? An ignominy, an abhorrent consequence of defying what is so vehemently indoctrinated in our people from birth, so fiercely prized and expected from each child from every generation. Obedience. Respect. Respect of your elder’s and absolute obedience in following directives. Know your place, in family, home, and society, in culture and country. Fail to comply; step outside the social norms and be condemned to a life forever tainted by shame, rejection, and dishonour.
Or, on the day you gave birth did your gaze fall upon me, desperate to memorise every detail that time would allow? Did your arms find me, enfolding me close, tightening your embrace? Did you memorise my scent, that beautiful, sweet baby scent while your mind commenced an onslaught; vivid recollections of the 9 months passed? The pain, terror, love, bewilderment, and confusion. The internal struggle of a decision impossible to make yet impossible to disregard. Did your mind force upon you the memories of my first movements you felt within? Undeniable proof of the life growing inside? Did you remember all the times you found yourself cursing me for the morning sickness, or when it became impossible to move around freely?
Did you recall all the times you had spoken to me, and soothed me? Patting your stomach and smiling with happiness and contentment when my restlessness ceased at the sound of your voice? Did you recall all the one-sided conversations you had with me, admonishing me for your weight gain, bloated ankles, constant need to pee, and general discomfort? Did you remember thinking none of those things mattered when you finally beheld the face of your newly born daughter in front of you? Did you remember and retain these precious moments with as much desperation as I did the day my daughter was born? Did I remain an only child? Or were there future children that were deemed “worthy” to keep?
You left endless questions with no definitive answers, not even in death. The agency who sold me insist you are dead, while the government itself cannot seem to confirm this.
What am I meant to do with that? Please 어머니, tell me.
Do I hold onto hope that somehow you are still alive..? Cling desperately to the childish, naïve dream that MAYBE, just maybe, you are? That maybe you’re not dead, but looking for me, maybe I was one of those children never willingly relinquished. Or take the word of the agency who trafficked me, sent me overseas and accept you are gone?
Will it ever be possible to heal if I tell myself you’re dead? How am I supposed to mourn you? How does one weep for a face it cannot remember? How do I release myself of someone who, no matter how much time and distance was placed between us, is still everything I am, yet everything I don’t know? How can I be free when your faceless form haunts my dreams? When each day I am struck by a renewed wave of painful understanding of all that has been stolen. All that’s been lost. For all that has been erased. For my parents who will forever remain faceless strangers, parents I will never have the opportunity to know or meet. For the brothers and sisters I will never know. For the Aunty and Uncles, the cousin’s, and grandparents. For the history of my people, I remained so ignorant towards until now; for the heart-breaking and brutal history of our country; still at war after 70 years, divided, literally torn in two, poisoned by political corruption, military coups, and slavery. Of trafficked children, The Forgotten Generation; a generation who fought, died and rebuilt our country, now languishing in poverty pushed to the fringes of society living in isolation and squalor, afraid to ask for help for fear of “burdening” the country they fought and died to protect. For the enslaved comfort women abused, raped, tortured, and murdered by the Japanese. For the Sewol Ferry Tragedy, which began to sink on the morning of the 16th April 2014, where 304 of the 476 passengers on board, 250 of them students perished; trapped on a sinking ferry, while the captain and crew escaped, telling the passengers on board to stay where they were. Obeying their elders (that prized attribute ingrained from birth), the students placed their trust in the orders given, they remained where they were, waiting to be rescued. A rescue that was never attempted, a rescue that never came. Parents, family, teachers, classmates and survivors alike hysterical, stranded on the shoreline, still receiving messages from the remaining students trapped inside that they were still alive in what was an almost completely submerged vessel. Parents helpless to do anything but watch as the last visible section of the ship sank in front of them. And then nothing. Silence, as the shock and magnitude of tragedy that had just unfolded before them set in. A moment of disbelieving silence before the blood curdling, guttural cries only a parent who has just lost their child can make. Footage later released, revealed to the world the last 20 minutes of some of the students trapped inside. The memories of which will haunt me forever, faces I won’t ever forget. Messages of love and apologies to loved ones, that still produce physical pain to hear.
To watch my people suffer, to die in the most horrifying ways, to feel the overwhelming outrage, and unbearable grief that has consumed our nation time and time again but to be unable to be there with them, to grieve with them; did you never consider how painful these moments would be? Did you ever imagine how much agony it would cause just to observe my native language? When everything appears, sounds and feels so natural, until you remember, none of it makes sense to you. You can’t decipher it. You don’t understand it. You can’t speak it. Did you ever consider just how high a price your baby girl would pay, for that “better” life you were so sure she was going to? If you, my own Mother could not find it in yourself to raise me, whether from the shame, dishonour, or just for being a “bastard” (YES, my adoption papers actually use this word!), if you feared for me, for the prejudice, discrimination, and stigma I would have endured had we remained together in Korea, how could you think that throwing me into a world of white where I was one of maybe 5 Asians for over 18yrs of my life would be to my benefit? Did you honestly think that those of the western world wouldn’t reject me? Debase me, use my status as a Korean adoptee against me in the most humiliating and degrading ways conceivable? If you; my own mother, my own family, my people and country viewed me as nothing more than a product for export, why would anyone else?
If you did in fact die in 2009, you died at the age of 46.
I’m aware you never looked for me, never once tried to find out where I was. And now you’re gone, (maybe), I don’t know. The fact that I don’t know enrages me, consumes me with a desperate hopelessness and despair. But, if you are gone… How could you leave and never say goodbye? How could you leave without ever reaching out, never once trying to find me? Didn’t you care how I was or where I ended up? How could you leave me with so many unanswered questions? No photo for me to remember you, to study your face, to memorise. No last parting words of wisdom or advice. No letter of explanation. Nothing. Just an endless, hollow silence.
And so, inside the now grown adult, still remains, the frightened, confused, rejected, abandoned little girl, who will never grow up. Who will never know why you didn’t want her, why you didn’t keep her? What it was it you saw in her that repulsed you so much you cast her aside and across the seas; keeping the existence of the baby girl you once bore so many years ago a shameful secret, you literally took with you to your grave.
Michelle has published other articles about her experience as a Korean intercountry adoptee at Korean Quarterly.
These are my thoughts about ICAV’s online event for adoptees with filmmaker and guest speaker, Sun Hee Engelstoft (adopted from Korea to Denmark). I’ve been thinking about it ever since and putting it off because it’s heavy. I don’t really have the emotional capacity to write everything I want to say smoothly so I’m just going to put some of the highlights out there in no particular order.
Sun Hee’s groundbreaking film Forget Me Not, tells the story of 3 birthmothers in Korea who were coerced into giving up their babies. During Sun Hee’s talk I learned that Sun Hee lived in the shelter with the mothers for two years. She was sort of like a confidante for them, unable to be placed within the usual hierarchy in Korea because she’s an adoptee. In spite of their closeness, most of the mothers have chosen not to keep in touch with Sun Hee because she represents the most painful part of their lives. One of the mothers ended up in a mental institution and was forbidden to keep in touch with Sun Hee and also her child, despite the promises that she would be able to. The other mothers married and eventually had more kids.
Sun Hee had planned to complete the film in 2 years but it ended up taking 8-9 years. She might have given up but she felt an obligation to tell the mothers’ stories. Sun Hee said that if she had her own children, she doesn’t think she could have made the film; the implication was that it would have been too painful.
I hung onto every word of Sun Hee’s talk filled with so much valuable knowledge and poignant perspective. Here are a few sentences from Sun Hee that really struck me and will stay with me forever.
“Mothers want to keep their children. Period.” Only when mothers were threatened with the loss of family and any future were they unsure about this. Sun Hee said, “I believe I saw how the mothers would close down and how babies would close down, and that was really, really painful to watch.” I could see the pain on Sun Hee’s face as she recalled these memories. I think about myself as a child and how incredibly difficult it was to open up again.
“Relinquishment is an every-day decision.” This blew me away. Sun Hee talked about how she had always thought of relinquishment as something that happens once, on a specific day, and then it’s over. But she found that this was not the case. Every day the mothers were faced with the question of whether to relinquish: when they were pregnant they questioned; after giving birth they questioned more intensely; and even after actually giving the children up they wondered if they’d made the right decision. Most of the mothers could have visited or made contact with their children and they chose not to. When I heard this, I thought about what this means for us adoptees being on the other side. To me it means that abandonment is an every-day experience. We are given up and then every day our mothers do not come to find us, we are abandoned again. It’s not something that happens once.
I don’t know how to end this other than to say thank you from the bottom of my heart, Sun Hee. You have become a bridge between our mothers’ world and our adoptee world. Thank you for honouring their trauma, our trauma, your trauma. Thank you for helping to tell us the truth. We were wanted!
by My Huong Lé, Vietnamese adoptee raised in Australia, living in Vietnam. Co-Founder of Vietnam Family Search, an adoptee led organisation dedicated to helping reunite families in Vietnam.
A mother should not just be remembered for being special on Mother’s Day, but each and every day. Just over two years ago I was miraculously reunited with my mother. Every day with her since then has been amazing, but on this Mother’s Day I want to honour her in a special way.
My heart also goes out to mothers all over the world who have been separated from their child/children for whatever reason. Mothers you are never forgotten!
This is my mother’s story:
My eyes gazed upon my baby with love the moment she was born. As I held her the day she took her first breath, a feeling of immense joy leapt into your heart.
She had no father as he left me when I was pregnant and returned abroad having finished his military service. Regardless, I decided from conception that I would cherish this child as a gift.
As I held her close for the first time, I examined her. She had all her fingers and toes and with that relief came the realisation of her larger extended nose.
Within moments everything turned into a blur as I bled profusely. As I lay unconscious the nurse forewarned my mother that I would die. However, hours later as I drifted in and out of unconsciousness, in a faint voice I whispered, “Where is My Huong?”. In response, I was told, “Two friends visited and took your baby to care for her.”
With a sense of relief in my heart, I was grateful that my newborn was safe and as I lay in bed for weeks in a state of weakness, my thoughts drifted — longing to hold my cherished baby in my arms.
After nearly two months of gaining enough strength, I slowly set off on foot to visit my friends to bring my daughter home ….. but they were not to be seen. The questions began to swirl in my head and a feeling of dread began to set like a stone in my chest as the search began.
The days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months and months into years. I ploughed the fields in the scorched golden sun. With a broken heart, I wept silently each night not knowing what had become of My Huong. I prayed for her safety and yearned that someday she would return. My only wish was to be able to see her face one time before dying.
Then in mid Feb 2018, I received a message to say that My Huong was seen on TV. My mind drifted back over all the years of longing and I wept a valley of tears. That night those tears were tears of relief — that the possibility of finding My Huong could now be real.
My prayers were answered and two weeks later, you stood face to face with me – your daughter who had been cruelly stolen from you. After almost 48 long years of being apart, the overwhelming reality of having your daughter beside you made you want to faint. As you stroked her face and kissed her cheeks, she knew in that moment that you were her mother.
Mum, I don’t know how to express all you mean to me. Since our reunion two years ago, you have shown me that your love is never ending and you have brought immense joy into my life and filled my heart. You are the greatest gift and daily I am thankful to God for the miracle of giving you back to me.
On this special Mother’s Day, I want to honour you. I am honoured and blessed to have you as my mother!
I love you with all my heart! My Huong Lé
For so many years, I have hidden my deepest childhood traumas under a mask of smiles and perceived positivity. Now, I am being forced to face these past traumas and weaknesses, as well as the more recent trauma caused by the web of deception, which was unveiled when I was contacted by my true mother two years ago. Wounds from the fake mother and family are still deep, but daily I am healing and I am so thankful to now have my dear mother living with me. She is such a precious gift and I thank God for the miracle of having her in my life.
For those interested in my story you can read the following article which was written by Zoe Osborne.
For me, it’s a day of wondering is she even alive, does she remember me, is she struggling, how old is she, has she lived since then, alone, or did she have other children, before me, or after?
Will I ever find her, is she in Vietnam or somewhere else around the world, does she even want to be found, was I a part of some deep shame, or a result of love, what happened to her that I was relinquished, was it her choice?
Mother – a concept that evokes such a mix of feelings, it’s not logical to some why I want to know who she is, it’s just an innate drive, no other can make up for her, I am forever a part of her, her DNA is imprinted in me, it’s false to think a substitute is all I need, I didn’t even know her name until 3 years ago!
If I could wish upon a magic cloud I’d ask to meet my mother, see her face, hear her voice, be held in her arms, given answers to my questions, learn I was missed and not forgotten. But reality is not quite this, and these are the bittersweet feelings I have on Mother’s Day.
For all my fellow adoptees around the world, here with you in solidarity, sharing the mixed bag of emotions that Mother’s Day can evoke!
Moth….errr. Can I say this word without a pause? Moth..eerrr. Can I say this word without my mind racing to a hundred different thoughts? Moth….errrr. Potentially, maybe, and yet possibly, no. For me it is a word that brings up many connotations, some good, most bad. A word that is hard to utter as my stuttery voice reflects my heart. The purity of the word is lost to me. I am not used to the word on its own, but rather always with another word in front, whether it be birth mother, first mother, adoptive mother, real mother or not real mother. Always another word in front, as if delineating my experience into parts, not a whole. Confusion ensues and my head is spinning as everyone tries to tell me what moth…err is and what a real moth…er is. The expectations and idealisations of moth…er fracture under increasing weight of scrutiny and life experiences. Instead of asking, people are shouting. This is what a real mother does or does not do, or this is what it means to be a mother. Can’t you see that the very fact people are arguing means there’s something not whole about this? No wonder I can’t fully utter this word on my own, bewitched by longing and sorrow, and fully feeling the emotional tension in the word. I can’t escape it. Even when I stare into the eyes of a romantic partner, the alarm bells ring and the sirens wail. What makes this woman different than a moth…errr who left a son? What ensures that the same won’t happen again? The primal fear and the visceral reaction. Moth…eer, what have you done to me? My head is spinning and about to implode.
It feels strange to say it on my own, waiting impatiently for another accompanying word to show up beside it like a dog searching for its master. Can’t a child have two moth…errs? There I go again. Damn. Another qualifying moth…err. As much as I need to grieve for the moth…errr that is lost, I must also grieve the idea of moth…errr and the fact that, upon relinquishment, my idea of moth…errr was forever shattered, leaving me, a baby, to pick up the pieces. Adults tried to reason for the scraps of moth…err floating around in my heart, and yet, now it is the adult me picking up the pieces to reason with the baby me about the idea of moth..err. Can a man nurture himself? Can he become his own idea of moth…err? What choice is left? I am tired of people defining mother for me. I have an idea of it, because I have lost it, and know the effects of it. And yet where can one begin to heal, except for first grieving mother?