Finding the Right Therapy as an Adoptee

Over the past 20 years, I’ve probably seen at least 10 different therapists in my life. I’m an intercountry adoptee from Vietnam to Australia, prior to the end of the Vietnam war. If you met me now, you might question my claim to seeing so many therapists. I am not the same person as I was 20 years ago. Back then, I was in the fog – I had no real idea of how being adopted impacted my life. I was raw, reactive, highly volatile, emotionally dead, a real go-getter with drive that most of my peers couldn’t fathom. Now, 20 years on, I’m more mellow and I’ve found my peace! Not that one ever arrives at some destination but I am certainly no longer living the inner turmoil I use to try and ignore. The journey to finding my real self, my identity in-between Australia and Vietnam, hasn’t been smooth or easy but it was certainly enabled by having the courage to see some amazing professionals and ask for their help and support.

I’ve seen these counsellors on and off over the years, depending on what the issues were. I’ve covered major life issues of relinquishment/abandonment, abuse and negative family dynamics that impacted my ability in intimate relationships. I’ve also had therapy to help me be a better parent and become aware of how my history impacts my style of parenting .

I certainly wasn’t raised in an adoptive family who saw “therapy” as a means of seeking help. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen my parents reach out for professional help – they will only go to a medical doctor if they are seriously seriously ill but often deal with health issues on their own, seeking natural remedies where possible. So in my adoptive family, seeking help was not the done thing. Perhaps that is a reflection of the era in which they were born? And perhaps my psychology training at university influenced my perspective – but I will say I learnt nothing about trauma in my psychology training! Not one subject on the impacts of childhood trauma in the 4 years of my undergraduate degree! I didn’t realise I had any “issues” until I noticed relationship difficulties and patterns, depression and self harm. I only saw the surface symptoms I exhibited with no clue as to what was underlying.

The therapists I have seen, range in qualifications from counsellor, psychologist, psychotherapist to psychiatrist and what I’ve learnt, I’d like to share because I know in speaking to other intercountry adoptees, it’s not easy to find one that works for you! Some adoptees might wonder what therapy is all about and have no faith it will actually help them. Some might have been once and found it so uncomfortable they don’t want to go again. So here are the things I’ve learnt along the way that might help in case you’re considering therapy for the first time or again.

The first thing I had to learn was to ask myself: Do I need help? Am I going around in circles repeating the same cycles? Do I feel like my reactions are outside my control? Am I overreacting to things (being triggered) and not understanding why? If so, a professional trained in the area of my difficulty might be a great idea.

After some years of undergoing therapy, I realised I should approach therapists a bit like a job interview. I found there is value in “first assessing the therapist” (preferably over the phone or face to face) to see whether they have the right skill set and personality to fit with me and the issues I want to deal with. Don’t just see the first therapist you stumble upon. There is no point seeing a therapist for relationship issues if they have no speciality training in relationships — and there is much to be said for seeing a female “mother-figure” therapist for abandonment mother issues. I learnt to ask whether my therapist had speciality training in “trauma”, have a chat to them over the phone for free first to get a feel for whether I’d be comfortable sharing with them. If so, I would then usually try for one or two sessions first and see whether there is a good “fit”.

After going to a few therapists, I learnt not to blindly continue seeing them just because they are considered an “expert”. I learnt over time to check my gut feeling on whether there was a good “connection” with my therapist. The therapeutic relationship works because we learn to develop a trusting relationship with them – they become the other significant person whom we work out our complex issues on. We transfer our issues onto them instead of playing out these issues in real life with unsuspecting and untrained people. The therapy won’t be effective if we have no trust or connection with the therapist. So like with any other “professional” whom you seek expert help from, check their credentials, check that they act professionally towards you at all times, check that they have safe and appropriate boundaries, and ask around from people you trust (your adoptee peer group) as to whom they found as good and effective therapists.

Unfortunately, if you are like me, my most turbulent years were also at the time when I was not financially stable. That meant, I usually couldn’t afford the high fees. Therapy is not cheap (rarely free) and excellent therapists usually have long wait lists and higher fees. I did learn to ask for a fee based on a sliding scale of income. This meant I could afford the same therapist as someone earning a full professional income.

I also learnt there are different methods of therapy. In the beginning I knew only of the traditional “talking” or “cognitive” therapy: commonly we think of Freudian days, sitting on a couch speaking about what we have going on in our heads. But over time, I came to realise talking therapy was limited and didn’t really help me to change the patterns I was living. Yes, I could now identify the issues and patterns, but changing them was something else. I eventually stumbled upon “body” therapy modalities and found this to be much more effective in changing persisent patterns and helping me to reconnect within myself. Once I did this type of therapy, I was no longer split between my mind/head and my body/feelings. I was able to re-integrate my sense of self and I felt a sense of harmony within.

The final point I will make, is I learnt that the type of “qualification” of the therapist was almost irrelevant as long as they had qualifications, training and experience. What I mean is, don’t assume a psychiatrist is going to be better than a psychologist or counsellor. They each have their own area of speciality training – a psychiatrist is medically focused so very essential if you also suffer from a mental illness and need prescription drugs. A psychologist also has years of academic training and a psychotherapist and counsellor has various routes to become trained so often I found this attracts more “mature aged” people with lived experience compared to those who enter university and come straight out with little life experience but loads of academic knowledge. My point is, don’t get hung up on what “qualifications” they have but more importantly, ask at the beginning what their approach, style and experience is and give it a try for a couple of sessions. You’ll quickly know whether this is the right fit for you or not.

I’ve recently shared at ICAVs private facebook group (for intercountry & transracial adoptees only) and our ICAV Newsboard (open for the public), a great link that lists adoptee therapists in the USA from one of our intercountry adoptee therapists. Wouldn’t it be awesome to see that replicated around the world! Nobody knows best what our journey is like and how to support it, than those who walk it!

In ICAV and amongst adoptee led groups, part of the benefit of connecting together is that we can share via word of mouth about who the awesome therapists are and the many other amazing modes of healing. I’d love to hear from you as to what works. Please feel free to comment!

Excerpt: First Letter to my Iranian Father

Return visit to my homeland – Iran, Mashhad

In Sweden where I grew up, people like me are called adopted. It’s easy to spot an adopted. We look like we are from somewhere far away but we don’t know our native language or culture. This creates confusion wherever we go. It also creates confusion within ourselves.

Who are we? Who am I?

We grieve our traumas in silence because as soon as we share our sadness, we are told that we should be grateful: to our new amazing country and our kind adoptive parents.

This is something a Swedish biological child never has to hear: that they should be grateful to live in Sweden! This creates a sense of being worth less compared to everyone else; that we exist in Sweden on other terms compared to our peers; that it’s conditional. In many cases, our adoptive parents didn’t take good care of us. They disregarded our traumas. And they didn’t understand the racism all of us had to endure, both as children and adults. We were unprotected. We were fair game.

When you are adopted you sometimes grieve and think about your mother. For some reason you don’t think very much about your dad. I think this is because we are under the impression that our mothers were clueless and young, perhaps drug addicts, perhaps prostitutes. And that our dad was just some dude. The part with the prostitution, by the way, is part of the narrative that adopted girls are handed when they are young. “If you stayed in your country you would have been a prostitute, so why aren’t you grateful?!” Can you imagine what this message does to us?!

Daddy, like most of the other adoptees, I have spent time wondering about my mother, but I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about you in the past. Now, I think about you all the time.

About Sarah

First gift from my Iranian father

The Lived Experience of Illicit Intercountry Adoption


This year, one of ICAVs goals is to bring to the forefront, the voices of those who have lived the experience of being illictly adopted via intercountry adoption practices. The experience of an illegal intercountry adoption is now recognised as “existing” by many of our governments and central authorities who facilitate the adoptions. ISS-SSI even provided a Handbook on Responding to Illegal Adoptions about this in 2016, including input from some with lived experience. However, it remains a fact today, that there are barely a handful of adult intercountry adoptees who have received appropriate support and assistance, whether that be emotional, financial, legal, or governmental liaison in response to their illicit adoptions.

What about illicit intercountry adoptions that are technically “legal” but are fundamentally unethical under international or other standards like the Palermo Protocol? The powers who control and regulate intercountry adoption do little to provide useful support to those who experience it.

In 2011, my adoptive country Australia, led the way in a working group at The Hague to developing cooperative measures for the prevention of illicit practices in adoption and they remain one of the few adoptive countries to develop a “protocol” for responding to allegations of child trafficking in adoption. However, this protocol response is severly limited in that it only acts to “review the adoption documentation” and yet it is often the documentation itself, that has been falsified and difficult to ascertain without other sources of information. Even IF documentation is proven to be false, what then? In cases like the Julie Chu Taiwanese trafficking ring where legal prosecution followed, there has been little to nothing done for the Taiwanese adoptees and their first families both in the adoptive and birth country’s. Shouldn’t those impacted be provided fully funded services to help them reunite, reintegrate and reconnect if they want this at any stage of their life? Or do they each have to pursue legal action in order to ever be compensated for their losses and legal implications? And what if they don’t want legal action but still want help?

In my time at ICAV, I have witnessed the lifelong growth that occurs developmentally for adult intercountry adoptees – first we start to explore our indivual journey but as we connect to fellow adoptees and peer support networks, we become exposed to the larger picture of intercountry adoption and the world-wide practice as it occurs today. The Hague Convention for Intercountry Adoption was designed to combat illegal adoptions but despite it’s ideals, it hasn’t been able to stop them altogether nor does it ensure adequate post adoption supports – especially for this specific segment of the intercountry adoptee population. Many critics say The Hague Convention has made the problem worse by masking the illicit practices under the guise of a “legal” adoption. As the adult adoptee population ages and matures, what I observe is a huge number, enmasse, of adoptees who are becoming actively involved in exposing the many illicit adoptions that have chequered its history.

South Korean adoptees like Jane Jeong Trenka have led the way in the fight for adoptee rights due to their historical place as the first babies enmasse in modern time to be exported in the largest numbers — but more recently there are those who pave the way for adoptees of other birth countries who have been illicitly adopted. Impacted adoptees such as:

  • Patrick Noordoven from Brazil Baby Affair who recently won his historical outcome of legal recognition that those adopted illegally had a right to their information; in general paving a way for other Brazilian adoptees from the Brazil Baby Affair period; and also a success with the Dutch court appointing an external commission to investigate intercountry adoptions in the past from Brazil but also including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Colombia and Indonesia;
  • Sanne van Rossen who released her ground breaking expose The Sadness from Sri Lanka (english translation avail this year) and the accompanying media coverage by Zembla which has effectively encouraged Sri Lankan adoptees all over the world to work together; Sanne’s work also led to official recognition of the Baby Farming era by the Sri Lankan government;
  • Alejandro Quezada who founded Chilean Adoptees Worldwide along with other Chilean adoptees are working with the Mothers of Chile who’s children were stolen or lost to adoption. Together they have pushed for a formal investigation into the illegal adoptions from Chile;
  • Marcia Engel at Plan Angel and other Colombian adoptees in the group are advocating to have illegal adoptions investigated officially;
  • Osmin Ramirez and his father’s historical Inter-American Commission on Human Rights outcome; plus other Guatemalan adoptees encouraged to work together in their group to provide support for all who are illegally adopted;
  • and Arun Dohle from Against Child Trafficking who has for decades exposed illegal adoptions out of India and many other countries.

What is to be the government and central authority responses to these enmasse occurrences of illicit adoption practices? For how long will they continue to ignore the voices of those impacted the most from a practical sense – helping them find their families and re-integrate back into their countries if this is their desire? How about funding the “lived experience organisation” who helps the most because they best understand the complexities? Or a “lived experience advisory group”?

I hope that by encouraging advocacy and helping to expose the voices of those who live it, we will see change – not only formally acknowledging the wrongs done, but to attempt to make ammends and provide much needed support for those forced to live it. It is one thing to acknowledge the terrible practices of the past and attempt to avoid repeating them into the future, but it is another to address the current issues and provide support for those who have lived a lifetime resulting from past practices.

Today, I present to you the story of Mariela who has lived the experience of being illegally adopted from Guatemala to Belgium. This is an example of one person’s lived experience of illicit intercountry adoption. We look forward to sharing soon our new project to bring together many more voices like Mariela’s!

We can only ever fully understand the full complexities of illicit intercountry adoptions by listening to those who live it!

Lynelle Long

Understanding My Adoption in (K)new Ways*

This past November was the first time I’ve celebrated [Inter]National Adoption Month. In honor of centering the adoptee narrative, in honor of me, my family, and my bio family, I’m excited to share some thoughts. Here’s a bit about my perspective and experience of being an intercountry and transracial adoptee from China, having grown up in the US.

I want to stress that these are entirely my own perspectives and observations, drawn from my own life and relating to other [Chinese] adoptees I’ve spoken with; I do not intend to speak opinion for the entire adoptee community.

I used to tell people that I had no problem talking about being adopted because everything was fine for me. At a surface [and immensely privileged] level, it was. I was always very social and extroverted. I was oriented towards making as many friendships as I could. I was *that kid from camp who tried to stay in touch just a bit too long*. I told people I was fine talking about being adopted – even that there was nothing to talk about- because it had happened in the past.

But I am older now, and it’s taken me a while to dig into exactly how and why being adopted has had such an impact on me.

Being adopted is weird, and honestly I’m constantly in awe these days, learning new ways that its weird, and how it situates me in relation to most others, in and outside my communities.

I think we all face abandonment and loss, and the fear of these things, in different ways. I personally do not feel upset with my birth family at this point, but even so, I’ve realize that being abandoned (even if I don’t remember it) really feels present, and has been present throughout my life. I feel it’s important to name this phenomena of the fear of being abandoned, as its really not something I think any adoptee can ever really shake, no matter how conscious or unconscious those fears are. I’ve been doing a lot of work to understand how this fear affects me, and how I may be subconsciously reacting to it even if I don’t realize — whether it’s losing a camp friend at age 12, or the way I communicate in my relationships.

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I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out what it meant to be read as an Asian woman. I felt completely foreign to this identity that I assumed publicly. I grew up in, and around white people, and white culture – as many adoptees from China do. I used to feel like I was a white kid in an Asian body. You’ll find this (or versions of it) aren’t uncommon for young Chinese intercountry and transracial adoptees.

Two examples of comments I received as a child are below for example:

“I don’t see you as Asian, you’re just normal!”

“Can you see ok?”

These comments were obviously steeped in racism, xenophobia and the essence of the marginalized identity, versus the construction of “normalcy”.  They made me wonder what it was that people saw me as, and why it was so different compared to who I felt I was. I felt “normal,” which in itself was a horribly racist and xenophobic sentiment that I had been socialized to carry.

The sociologist Robin DiAngelo describes White Privilege as “To be perceived as individual, to not be associated with anything negative because of your skin color.”

There were two things that I continue to unpack there. While I was socialized in white culture within the US, I too learned how to read “Asians” as “abnormal.”  Just as well, I discovered that I was read as abnormal — as out of place, too. 

My White-Jewish and queer family culture has played a large role in my socialization and makes up huge parts of my identity and personality. But there’s this other piece that stands as a nebulous question mark, always looming over me:

Where do I come from? Whom do I come from? What are the struggles, joys, and histories of my people – biologically and culturally?

As I continue to understand the situation, more and more it feels like my birthright was taken from me — the right to know my culture, language, and ancestry: the stories and realities that I may never get to hear and that will never fully be a part of me. I also feel I was stolen from my family; there were very real and systemic pressures that inclined them to give me away.

The situation of adoption is inherently both deeply personal and individual, as well as global and systemic. It involves Chinese gender roles, family, culture, income inequality/classism, combined with the Western/American White Christian legacy of imperialism, savior-ism, and more.

A lot of my experience has been hallmarked by both the feeling of being different and that nothing fully belongs to me/that I do not fully belong to anyone (not even my family). This caused a deep dissonance for me. This underlying socialization has pushed me to constantly search to find belonging in groups, and via individual people as a mechanism of survival. This is also inherently motivated by the fear of further loss and abandonment.

While some of these questions around my origins may never be answered, I believe the hardships given to me by being adopted have pushed me to be resilient, self aware, grounded, and perseverant in connecting with others. I am so proud of being an adoptee for these reasons. I wouldn’t trade it for anything because I think one of the most precious things in life is being able to love and connect with others, in as many ways as possible.

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I have mostly hated being asked where I’m from because it tells me that the person asking recognizes I must be from somewhere else. This question implies I don’t really belong and must have an explanation for being on this land (interesting, do you feel you belong on this land, white Americans?)

However, I’m beginning to find it to also be an empowering question!

I’ve begun to find beauty in this assumption that I’m not from here and in the recognition that I do in fact come from somewhere. I am the product of generations and generations of people who have lived their lives since the beginning of time. These people, while I don’t know them, are in my blood and in my DNA, showing me how to survive every day!

How sad that somehow, the acknowledgement that I am from somewhere else has largely been, for me and other transracial adoptees, a source of feeling out of place, and is a tool of implicit and sometimes explicit social exclusion.

And what a blessing that I’ve been asked this question and that I have, and plan to continue, to explore and uncover where I come from.

Being transracially and intercountry adopted has made me inherently feel that I don’t belong anywhere – in any group or community. It’s made me feel a little more like an outsider in virtually every community I’ve been a part of. While all these things – the sentiment of this question “where are you from,” the look of surprise when people hear I’m Jewish, the feeling of being “othered” by people I consider my own, have caused conflict in my identity in numerous ways, they’ve also asked me to dig deeply into what it means to build bridges and to continue to share, connect, and depend on community.

My adoption has caused me to ask myself, “Well, what and who are my roots? What and who matter to me?”

Even if it’s taken this long to get here, even if I may never know my biological ancestry and have lost the opportunity and privilege to connect to my original people, I do know the beauty, importance, and imperative of figuring out how to connect deeply to my given histories, ancestries, and communities. I know that I can even choose my communities, and that I have that agency – something all adoptees deserve to know and practice.

This white supremacist culture largely holds power through convincing its inhabitants relentlessly to be numb and to grow cold to their own struggles and inherently, the struggles of others. We are taught that to be strong is to remain stoic. This encourages isolation, which is the antithesis of community. By opening up to my own pain and understanding the situation of my adoption, I turn painful realities into curiosity and eventually compassion. By sharing this pain with others, I build relationships where I can give and receive support, and feel understood and known, despite always feeling unseen in certain ways. For me, this is what resilience and healing looks like.

And that’s been a deeply powerful experience but not without pain. It’s taught me to root myself in me, and to trust my ability to build relationships/community with love, curiosity and determination through listening, trust, and vulnerability.

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While growing up with two White-Jewish and gay moms wasn’t ever helpful in making me feel “normal,” it’s also been a remarkable privilege that I would not trade for anything else. The cultures of Judaism and queerness that my moms embodied and raised me with, have saved me in so many ways. I’m speaking specifically of white Judaism and queerness because my moms experiences have been white. Being Jewish and queer growing up, my parents both learned mechanisms of survival and resilience from their struggles, families and communities. These communities, in different ways, each have their own societal traumas to deal with, past and present. Therefore, built into the fabric and practice of their Jewish and queer identities, they raised me with these inherent strategies of coping and healing. Their strategies are all based on unconditional love and support through gathering and processing — of holding a place for pain, and not running from it. They taught me the importance of chosen family because they, themselves know it.

I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to learn from communities and individuals of color who have shared and articulated their strategies of resilience and healing – of returning to real strength and love. Many intercountry adoptees grow up inside homogenous communities – largely white Christian spaces and don’t really have the access, in multiple ways, to address their identities and their pain. That is why I feel it is so important to share my own experience.

People of Color know this deeply through the multitudes of marginalization, dehumanization and struggle that we have experienced globally. We are, and have to be, inherently more connected to our people. We know this to our core even if it’s unarticulated; we have to know this, living through white supremacy. We know how to love and how to connect, how to to depend, and how to empathize. We have histories of resilience and practices of healing, both collectively and in our blood.

For me, my people are Chinese adoptees.

We as adoptees have mountains to climb. But we are able to connect to each other through our shared experience of feeling unmoored and untethered; not quite “enough” to fully belong to any group, we are our own.

We have so much work to do. We must learn again and again that we are worthy, after a multitude of things has made us feel that we are not. We must learn of our peculiar and particular systemic disadvantage, of parsing through our (largely white) parents’ (and our own) implicit racism and participation in western imperialism. We must learn how to get situated as Asians in our adoptive countries, and sift through the social locations of privilege and marginalization/oppression we experience. As Asians, we are used as a tool to uphold white supremacy and perpetuate anti-blackness. All of that is mapped onto us everywhere we go, and we must learn to navigate it appropriately.

I hope this post gives perspective to some aspects of my community through my story. Give us some space and time to figure ourselves out. Try to put yourself in the perspective of literally feeling like you are never part of the majority, never feeling fully understood, and feeling an odd and ever present dissonance between the way you present and who you actually are.

Ask those of us who are willing, to share about our experiences. (Also be prepared if the answer is no. No-one owes you an explanation of their life!) A lot of the time, the adoptee narrative is overshadowed by adoptive parent voices so let us speak and try to take in what we say, please!

Oh also ! Don’t eeeeeeeevvvvvver tell us that we “should be thankful” or “are lucky” that our parents adopted us! While saying this has absolutely no bearing on my own deep feelings of gratitude and love for my parents (having more to do with who they are as parents and not the mere fact that they adopted me), every one of our stories, hardships and inheritances is different. After losing original/biological family, no-one should have to count on “luck” or “goodwill” to receive love and care. This type of comment puts us in a situation of perpetually making up for a favor, as if we are unworthy of that type of love – something that too many adoptees experience coming from their own adoptive parents.

I may not know how to parent but I do know that the goal of having a child, adopted or by blood, cannot be to fulfill your own dreams. When you have issues with your child becoming an autonomous human who is Different Than You, that is a beautiful (and hard!) opportunity to connect through difference! And begin to let go of that urge to control who and how your child is. Don’t ever make your child feel like they are still making up for being adopted or your need to be seen as Good and Charitable! This is quite applicable to all parenting though, I think.

Also, attention astrology folks (yes, that means you, queer millennials!):

I’m glad you love astrology and it’s your religion but before you go on a rant/yell about people’s moon and star signs, maybe try and recognize that some people do not KNOW those details! It’s not real anyway! Yes, I’m salty! I much prefer the enneagram!

In reality, my bitterness towards astrology worshipers is just a cry for folks to pay attention to the people around you, in multiple ways. Do you know for sure that people around you would know exactly where and when they were born? Read this whole post again if you are confused or upset for being called out, or are wondering why bringing something up like not knowing your actual birthday, time, location, or family etc., might be hard for some people.

This concept of sensitivity though, can be generalized. We all do mess up and miscommunicate and the best we can do is to check in with each other about our particular sensitivities.

I’m really thankful to be able to share some of the insights that my identity and situation have afforded me. I hope you may find them useful as well.  Thank you for engaging.

Hiking in Patagonia’s “W” trail, Las Torres Del Paine in Chile

*I used concept “(k)new,” combining the idea of the “known” and the “new” in the title. I came across this quasi-antonym through the paper “The context within: My journey into research” By Manulani Aluli Meyer: it uses “indigenous ways of knowing” to understand the concept of knowledge through experience, connoting knowledge that is simultaneously “known” and “new.”

About Sophie

Adoptee Citizenship

citizenship for immigrants.jpg

The Anti-Immigrant Climate in the United States of America

An Intercountry & Transracial Adoptee’s Perspective

by Rachel Kim Tschida

Special Guest Blogger on ICAV

I am currently pursuing a master’s degree in public affairs, and I’m taking a course on immigration policy. A recent question that was presented to our class was, “How has the anti-immigrant climate in America affected people you know?” I immediately thought of the impact it has had on intercountry (and often transracial) adoptees.

Speaking from my own lived experience, it was actually startling for me when I first realized that I was an immigrant. This might sound crazy but growing up in an American family with American parents, it just never crossed my mind. Yes, logically I knew that I was born in Korea and came to America when I was 6 months old, and my first passport was issued by the Korean government for my first plane ride aboard Northwest Airlines from Incheon to Seattle, and then Seattle to Minneapolis-St. Paul. I have photos and newspaper clippings from my naturalization ceremony when I was 1 year old (my mom dressed me in a red white & blue dress for the occasion). I even received a hand signed letter from U.S. Senator Rudy Boschwitz, congratulating me on becoming a citizen (and how he also immigrated to the U.S. as a child). However, “immigrant” was never part of my self- identity.

This all started to shift a few years ago, when I heard about a Korean adoptee who was in deportation proceedings. At first, it didn’t even make any sense to me – how could an adoptee, someone who was adopted by Americans like me, be deported? At the time, I didn’t realize that not all adoptees were naturalized – either their parents didn’t know or for some reason or another, just didn’t complete the process. After reading the case of this adoptee, and going down a Google rabbit hole, all of the pieces started to come together. The next time I stopped by my parents’ house I thanked them for following through on all of the steps of my adoption and naturalization. I also asked to get all of my documents, including my certificate of naturalization and adoption file, just in case.

ARC photo.png

Through conversations that I have had within the intercountry adoptee community, I have realized that I am not alone on the complex path of self-discovery around adoptee/immigrant identity. There are some intercountry adoptees who do not identify as immigrants, while there are others who proudly and adamantly claim their immigrant status. I have also realized that I had one of the better possible adoption outcomes, with regards to how seriously and diligently my parents went through the adoption and naturalization processes. In the massive folder of adoption paperwork from my parents, I found notes in my mom’s handwriting with reminders like “call attorney” or “don’t forget to file naturalization paperwork”.

Throughout the past 2 years, I have seen an increased level of fear and anxiety within the community. As anti- immigrant policy proposals have increased in number and frequency, related discussions within intercountry adoptee community groups and online chats have proliferated. Everything from whether or not we need a certificate of citizenship AND a certificate of naturalization, to stories of naturalized Asian American citizens who have been de- naturalized for spelling mis-matches in their application (which can be prevalent when translating Asian names from their native characters into Romanized letters), to the impact the proposed removal of birthright citizenship would have on the American-born children of non-naturalized adoptees. This particular issue adds even greater distress around family stability to adoptees whose very lives were impacted by the separation from their birth families. Adoptees have given each other advice such as carrying proof of citizenship at all times, having copies of adoption certificates and naturalization certificates when traveling abroad and re-entering America, immigration and border control, and hiring immigration attorneys.

americaThis has also led to many philosophical debates around the positioning of intercountry adoptees on the immigration hierarchy – especially Asian adoptees. In stark contrast to the exclusion of Asian immigrants through the 1875 Page Act, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the 1907 Gentleman’s Agreement with Japan, the Asiatic Barred Zone Act of 1917, and the quotas of the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, the adoption of Korean children by (usually) white American families began in 1953 – more than a decade before the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This exceptionalism narrative – that adopted children of American parents are “good immigrants” yet at the same time almost never viewed as immigrants by their families, the immigration process, or society at large, is probably why I also did not identify as an immigrant myself. There was the assumption (and expectation) that we would be easy to assimilate into American society via our American families. It poses an interesting question; how can America view an Asian, African, or Latino child who has crossed the border with his or her Asian, African, or Latino parents so differently than an Asian, African, or Latino child who was adopted by (white) American parents?

Adoptive parents and adoption agencies successfully lobbied for the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, which granted automatic and retroactive citizenship to some (but not all) intercountry adoptees. Now, adoptive parents would only need to ensure the adoption was legally finalized based on the type of visa issued, and they would no longer need to go through the naturalization process. This seems in theory like a clear victory for the adoptee community that would close a gap in our immigration system. However, it continues to reinforce the exceptional immigrant narrative.

That said, even in 2000 concessions were made to the Child Citizenship Act in order to get it through Congress. The most notable and damaging was that it excluded adoptees who were already 18 on the day the law was enacted- February 27, 2001. There was an assumption that adoptees over 18 could easily navigate the immigration system and apply for citizenship themselves. Despite the “forever children” narrative that is also often placed on adoptees, this was an abrupt shift in suddenly viewing us as adults and transferring the responsibilities (and failures) of adoptive parents onto adoptees. This also seemed to define the shift toward placing adoptees in the same category as all other immigrants, at least in the eyes of immigration enforcement.

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Unfortunately, there are many intercountry adoptees who have no viable path to citizenship, for various reasons. They may have entered on a non-immigrant visa, or their parents did not keep their adoption files which are the only proof that an adoptee entered the country legally via adoption. Despite the air of “exceptionalism” in the passage of the Child Citizenship Act, one could also argue that adoptees had no agency or self-determination in their adoption whatsoever – they didn’t choose to be separated from their birth family and be sent from their birth country, nor choose to be adopted by Americans. Therefore, those who hold the most power within this adoption system should also bear the responsibility – American parents, adoption agencies, and the American government. For better or worse, the premise of adoption is built upon the promise of offering a “better life” and “creating a family” – and the denial of American citizenship is a complete contradiction to this promise. For many adoptees, their American families, homes, and lives are all they know.

Since 2000, there have been numerous attempts to amend the Child Citizenship Act, in order to grant retroactive citizenship to those who were excluded. The most recent attempt, the Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2018, has not yet passed despite being bipartisan and bicameral. The Adoptee Rights Campaign (ARC), a national organization led by adoptees without citizenship, will continue to advocate for a legislative solution. Other adoptee organizations and community organizations such as Korean American or other Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) social justice organizations have also mobilized around the country, in an effort to raise awareness and engage with their local, state, and federal elected officials. It is worth noting that the Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2018 has been specifically positioned as a family and human/civil rights issue, and not an immigration issue – and that previous attempts to add adoptee citizenship to other immigration reform bills failed.

A small group of us in Seattle have come together and formed a joint committee between a Korean American nonprofit and an Asian Adoptee nonprofit organization. We continue to discuss how, when, and where we can contribute to these efforts and what our sources of funding will be. We have had many late-night debates about the framing of adoptees as immigrants, not as immigrants, as adults, as children of American parents. We have struggled with the implications of positioning adoptee citizenship as an immigration issue, family issue, and/or human rights issue. We have debated if we should try to build alliances with other impacted immigrant groups, such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, or if we should proceed separately.

We are at the end of November – National Adoption Awareness Month and the anti-immigrant and xenophobic climate has forced many of us to have uncomfortable conversations with our families and even ourselves, as we process what it all means for us as the adopted, immigrant, (people of color) children of our (white) American parents.

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To keep up to date and support the work of American adult intercountry adoptees fighting for their right to automatic US Citizenship, see Adoptee Rights Campaign.

Asian female adoptee review of Crazy Rich Asians

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In August, Joey posted his review here about Crazy Rich Asians. I re-read his thoughts and felt compelled to add to them from an Asian female adoptee perspective.

Like Joey, I also watched the film twice and loved it each time! I saw it the first time by myself to absorb what I could as an Asian intercountry adoptee. I went again with my hubby and 8yr old daughter who is half Chinese half Vietnamese. I loved the awesome casting and role modeling in the film and wanted my daughter to see it! I wish mainstream media had shown that kind of glitz and positive take on Asian people and culture when I was growing up. It might have helped me feel more positive about being Asian during those critical self esteem development years.

I was born in Vietnam and adopted into a white Caucasian family during the early 70s. I have married a 3rd generation Australian Chinese man. I watched the film from a different angle to Joey – mine is that of “marrying into” a Chinese family. I could totally relate to the lead female role because I have been raised in white mentality because of my adoptive family and I had to learn the cultural and social ways in which authentic Asian families operate.

I related to feeling like the “invader” aka the “banana” (white on the inside, yellow on the out) entering into an authentic and traditional Chinese family, “taking away” the first born son from what he “should do” according to Asian family and cultural expectations. I struggled for the first few years of marriage to understand my mother-in-law and I certainly wasn’t familiar with the level of closeness and assumed “control” an Asian mother wants to have over her first born son. This was clearly demonstrated in Crazy Rich Asians.

I also understood the portrayal of the Asian family system where there are high levels of “respect” for the mother figures and the older generations. Compared to white caucasian family systems where we lock away our older generations into retirement homes, Asian families assume greater degrees of respect the older they age. The mothers in Asian families are also the matriarchs. Children fear losing their approval and there is definitely more expectations of the first son to anchor the family, take the lead, be financially committed/savvy and work hard. It was interesting how the Chinese father was portrayed as being a totally absent workaholic. This matches my perception of marrying into an Asian family where there are very clear traditional roles – the man is the provider and the wife’s role is to be the heart and soul of the family. She is to nurture and raise the children and keep the home. It took me some years to understand and embrace these cultural differences because I grew up with an adoptive mother who was the “career woman” and my adoptive father, the “work at home” parent.

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In marrying into an Asian family, the struggle between each Asian generation to maintain traditions vs become modern and keep in touch with the rest of the world, is definitely a real dilemma. I see the benefits and viewpoints of each generation. Like one of the lines quoted during the film, “China builds things that last” (eg Great Wall of China) whereas white western mindset, as epitomised in America, thinks only of the here and now and is very much about prioritising what the individual wants. Chinese culture has a longitudinal group mentality that is very different from white society. I was raised in white mentality where we are taught to live for the moment and be independent. Upon marriage, one leaves the family unit and starts their own. In comparison, in Chinese families, ha hah .. I have learnt that when one marries in, we marry the WHOLE family – extended included! For me, marrying into an Asian family I constantly see the difference between the two cultures: white vs Asian; independence vs group. In Chinese families, it’s definitely the group that is prioritised over individual needs, whereas in white families, it’s about the individual leaving home as soon as possible and making your own path in life, fending for oneself.

There was one critical moment in the film that pulled on my adoptee heartstrings. The part where the female lead isolates herself in her friend’s room for days after devastating news – until her mother walks in to comfort her. My adoptee soul cried out at that scene for how much I would have loved my Asian mother be there for me, to comfort me during my hardest moments in life. That part of the film connected with my sadness that I didn’t have my Asian mother to mirror me or understand me inituitively, and provide me with wisdom. I have always missed having my Asian mother even though I have never met her! The film brought home the loss and sadness for my Asian mother buried deep within myself. As I age and watch my own children grow, I realise even more what I missed out on by not being raised within my Asian family.

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I also loved how the film portrayed all the mother figures as “strong” Asian women. It was contrasted against the stereotype I received during my life, growing up in white Australia, receiving the message that Asian women are submissive, weak and in need of help/rescuing. Seeing Crazy Rich Asians during my young adulthood would have helped me overcome my “shame” of being an Asian female to understand that Asian mothers are actually like tigers – fierce, protective, assertive, not to be fooled around with and very loving of their children. It is such a contrast to what I got told about my mother that portrayed her as not being able to help herself or being in a shameful position.

Crazy Rich Asians enabled me to embrace my Asian mother in a more positive way. Through this film, I could visually imagine to some degree how my relationship with my Vietnamese mother might have been if we’d not been separated. I’m not referring to the material/economic wealth perspective but about the emotional connection and relationships that are obvious throughout the film.

The film ended beautifully and demonstrated on yet another layer just how much Asian mothers love their children. Too often as an adoptee I hear the typical response to those who have been adopted as, “She loved you so much she gave you up!” But it was nice to see on-screen the Asian mother who loved her child so much that she was able to find a way to overcome what looked like insurmountable difficulties.

Can’t wait to see the sequel! I wonder if we’ll see something about Asian fathers, who were notably absent in this film .. another parallel in intercountry adoption!

Not Existing

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Life as an intercountry adoptee has those moments that feel extremely vulnerable and painful. I described it years ago as “peeling away layers of an onion“. I’ve had that this week. Firstly, I found out after 8 months the media company who were investigating and searching for my mother in Vietnam have failed to turn up anything substantial and no longer have funding to continue. I have spent many times over two decades trying to find a lead that will help me find my mother. In desperation I finally agreed to media taking on my case although I’m loath to having no control over how they portray one’s story. Each time after searching, I experience disappointment, grief and sadness. I give up for a while until I find the strength to be able to go through it all again. Secondly, I have spent over 10 months seeking the right experts to help me fight for my rights arising from my adoption. I’ve had to relive my years of life growing up in my adoptive home and the memories and feelings are still there. They never go away but fade into the distance because usually I get on with life and move forward. Thankfully, I don’t get stuck or spiral down anymore.

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I just watched the SBS documentary Searching for Mum which follows two Sri Lankan intercountry adoptees adopted in the 1980s to the UK and their return to Sri Lanka to try and find their identity and families. There was one heartbreaking moment that resonated within me, where Rebecca went to the Registry to see if a record of her birth existed. It was her last chance to know if she had an official identity. She ended up finding out her birth was not registered at all and she is left with the confirmation that she “does not exist” on paper as a Sri Lankan identity. It struck a chord with me as I’ve lived my entire life too with little documentation except for my Vietnamese passport. The Australian government made up adoption papers and a birth certificate 17 years after my adoptive father flew to Vietnam and brought me to Australia as a 6 month old baby.

My adoptive parents and siblings teased me many times when I was growing up that I would make the “perfect spy”. They all knew and rubbed it in that I did not exist on paper anywhere. It was meant to be a “joke” but on so many levels then, and more so now, as a mature age adult I cannot fathom how or why my adoptive family were so insensitive and cruel. Only those who have an identity that they take for granted could be so thoughtless as to tease another for not knowing who they are, where they come from or having anything to show. Together with an adoption based on literally nothing – thin air – because no documents on the Vietnamese end have ever been found, I have no way to know how I came to be adopted nor to whom I originally belonged.

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Last year, a private detective sent me a blury photo of what might be a Vietnamese birth certificate for me but he’s now gone underground. The media company who tried to get the Vietnamese police station to release the hoped for copy of the “real” document that the photo captures, refuse to do so. It is so excruciatingly frustrating to be held back from what is a basic human right. Like Rebecca, I just want to know who I am and the circumstances for why I was given to strangers from another country – and whether my adoption is legitimate without coercion. My journey to find the right experts so far this year, brought all this home again with a punch!

Like Rebecca, I live my life without the certainty of knowing who I am, how I came into this world, whether I was wanted or not, or who my clan is. I live with a shell for an identity – formed by my adoptive experience. Up until my adoptive family left to go overseas as missionaries at the beginning of my year 12, I had experienced quite a damaging journey that left little room to exist in a positive way. Thankfully, I found healing in my early 30s and now I mostly have a sense of peace in my “non existence”.

It blew me away to listen to the documentary Searching for Mum where one of the search detectives said, “At least 50 percent of his Sri Lankan cases in finding mothers the documentation was fabricated” and he had done over 400 cases. In my years of connecting with adult intercountry adoptees worldwide, I know of many individuals who suspect and/or confirm their documentation is false. To listen to someone who sees the outcomes of each search conducted in only one country and can quote that kind of statistic, it is a damning reality for intercountry adoptions in Sri Lanka. It matches my current project of translating into english the book Het verdriet Sri Lanka whose title translates into The Sadness of Sri Lanka. It is an eye opening book about the mothers in Sri Lanka who lost their child to intercountry adoption, written by a Sri Lankan intercountry adoptee who discovers the terrible truth about her own and so many Sri Lankan intercountry adoptions.

Screen Shot 2018-09-08 at 15.17.52I know this reality is not just Sri Lanka because a good majority of our birth countries have shown the same pattern of unethical adoptions over many decades. It also matches the doubts I’ve always held about my own adoption. Until I find my Vietnamese family and hear from them myself, I don’t think I’ll ever stop wondering whether my “relinquishment” was legitimate and uncoerced. How could it be? A war torn country just like Sri Lanka. So much bribery and corruption coupled with outright child trafficking enmasse by world superpowers who believe to this day that flying out hundreds of vulnerable babies and children via Operation Babylift was a mercy mission.

How many other intercountry adoptees live their lives like myself and Rebecca with no known documents and identity, who have been removed from our country, our origins with little thought for our rights to identity? And what about those who do have documents but find they are falsified. This is where I say intercountry adoption is simply, downright wrong. A child always grows up and we have a right to know who we are, where we came from, to whom we were born and where we belonged until our adoptions. Our paperwork needs to be true and accurate because like the BBC documentary highlights, it is our ONLY source to know who we are and our origins.

To rob us of our truth by falsifying paperwork or creating an adoption based on thin air, goes against all human rights and ethics. If you cannot guarantee our original identity intact with no lies, then we shouldn’t be flying a child out of its country. Experience of adult intercountry adoptees like myself show that in being adopted to a foreign country we usually lose the ability to communicate and understand the culture and ways of our homeland. This then makes the pathway of trying to regain what is rightfully ours, even more complicated.

And what do governments or those who facilitate our adoptions say or do when we confront them with the truth of how intercountry adoption has operated and continues to operate? Or that we want help in finding our original identity and the truth? They largely turn a blind eye and do very little!

My journey to the right experts this week has made me aware that I could technically be considered “stateless”. They are now investigating this for me but it really brought home  that the paperwork for my intercountry adoption is so dodgy and based on thin air. Even the Australian made up identity papers mis-spell my original name in 3 different ways on the same document. So am I even adopted?

To have confirmation that we don’t exist as an identity in our birth or adoptive country is another layer of the onion that some intercountry adoptees have to grapple with in situations like mine or Rebecca’s. It’s painful. There is a powerlessness we experience and very little can change it. We simply have to live with it and find a way to move through life and retain our hope. Like Rebecca, I live my life hoping one day I might find my mother and know the truth of who I am.

A journey through space, a journey divided

Intercountry adoptees speak often about the return to their birth country, a time defined by searching and finding. Lynelle’s recent post made me consider my relationship with Korea, the land that, over three decades ago, released me to a country made of dreams. We speak of “the return” as a journey of healing, confrontation, and conflict. Today I’m sharing my perspective on what “the return” means for me and how that phrase is set against my experience with adoption and my parents.

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An ocean and several continents occupy the distance between myself and an invisible past. A past that suffers me its opacity every time I hear the word Korea.

For many years, Korea was a Bad Word, something spat out, a noun formed in the back of your throat where phlegm collected. It was shameful. It was ugly. It was full of people with flat faces and squinty eyes and coarse dark hair like me. But Korea was the country, my home in only the metaphorical sense, that I was instructed to embrace.

Many families encourage intercountry adoptees to go back, to find the place that let them go, suggesting a return trip will erase an adoptee’s discontent and otherness and experience with racism. A trip to the homeland might replace those evils with the satisfaction of a curiosity fulfilled. Perhaps this helps some adoptees. I certainly support them and I hope a trip serves those purposes and more. It has, for many, and I’m proud of them. But I have never returned, for either lack of money or desire. Here’s why.

On her deathbed, my mother urged me to Go to Korea. She had pushed for this trip my entire life, pressing me to return while things like I’m going to kick your eyes straight and Chinese people can’t be punks competed for space in my developing self-image. My mother shoved Korea at me as my Asianness became a liability, weaving her misguided request into our relationship’s growing divide.

One late afternoon, my mother sat across from me in our breezy kitchen, perched on her backless padded barstool while I did homework and complained about teenage life. Somehow, either adoption or race came up, topics we fit the criteria for but on which we ourselves boasted ignorance. She fixed her bright blue eyes on me and in that wide open kitchen asked Why don’t you like Korea? Is it because it gave you up?

I gathered my things and raged into my bedroom. Her carefully hung family portraits shook when I slammed my door. My teenage self couldn’t articulate anything but anger in response to her accusatory question. Today I understand my reaction.

From my mother’s perspective, my lack of curiosity was a flaw. She died never realizing that I couldn’t accept a country not because it “gave me up” but because years of external conditioning taught me to hate it.

But we can undo this damage. Adoptive parents eager to change the public’s one-sided adoption narrative can support adoptees struggling to find their place, to accept what fragments of a heritage they assemble as their own. We must allow adoptees the room to grow into whatever culture they choose—or not—to inhabit. Or maybe an adoptee will embrace their freedom to float freely between worlds, content in independence, drawing strength from ambiguity.

In the end, it doesn’t matter. As long as the adoptee makes the choice to visit their homeland, we must consider them independent human beings. We can operate separately from our adoptions, finding ourselves on paths we finally forged ourselves. If this happens with or without a homeland visit, it’s because the adoptee chose that way.


Sunny J. Reed is a New Jersey-based writer. Her main body of work focuses on transracial adoption, race relations, and the American family. In addition to contributing to Intercountry Adoptee Voices and Dear Adoption, Sunny uses creative nonfiction as a way to reach a wider audience. Her first flash memoir (‘the lucky ones’) was published in Tilde: A Literary Journal . Her second piece (‘playground ghost’) is due out by Parhelion Literary Magazine in April 2018. She is currently at work on a literary memoir.

Not My White Savior: Review

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Author, Julayne Lee, is an intercountry adoptee born in South Korea and raised in the USA. Being an avid reader but not specifically into poetry, I totally enjoyed Julayne’s book because I could relate to what she shares about her own journey and the wider sociopolitical experience as an intercountry adoptee. Her voice is one of the hundreds of thousands of Korean adoptees (KADs) to be exported from their country of birth via intercountry adoption.

Not My White Savior is a deeply engaging, emotional, haunting, and honest read. Julayne depicts so many angles of the intercountry adoptee experience, reflecting our life long journey of striving to make sense of our beginnings and who we are as a product of our relinquishment and adoption. I love the images created by her words. I admire that she left no stone unturned with her courage to speak out about the many not-so-wonderful aspects of the adoptee experience.

Some of my favorite pieces which I especially resonated with, was her letter to her mothers, racist hair, map of the body, and homeland securities.

For those intercountry adoptees who have died from the complex traumas experienced in their adopted lives, I salute Julayne for memorializing their names forever in such a potent way. Through her book, their lives will not be forgotten nor for nought.

She also packs heavy punches at her birth country and spares no empathy or excuse for giving up on so many of its children. Her words in pieces, such as Powerful Korea ICA – Internment Camps of Abduction are a powerful way of explaining the trauma KADs experience in processing the multiple layers of loss and relinquishment, not only from their birth families, but also their birth country. I loved the irreverence and truth captured in the Psalm for White Saviors.

Not being a KAD, as I am adopted from Vietnam, I found this book to be educational about some of the history of South Korea’s export of children which I was previously unaware of.

Overall, I totally recommend reading this collection of poetry for anyone who is open to thinking critically about intercountry adoption from the lived experience.

Bravo Julayne!

Not My White Savior is on sale March 13 and can be pre-ordered here.

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Expectations of Gratitude in Adoption

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I was recently contacted by a fellow adoptee who is seeking views and experiences of adoptees where gratitude is expected and how we feel about this. I immediately responded because gratitude in adoption is such an unspoken about subject, particularly from the adoptee perspective. For me, it was definitely a burden I felt whilst growing up and carry still to this day. Interesting that little has been written on this topic specific to intercountry adoption because our adoptions are so rife with connotations of being saved from poverty, war, slums and the streets. These connotations also come with equal expectation that we flourish in our Western white adoptive countries and families for which we should be grateful for.

It is assumed, somehow, magically, our losses in relinquishment should be negated by the gains in adoption.

I can understand how the majority of people who think of the word adoption would not necessarily equate that with living an experience of being expected to be grateful. But, from my own life experience, the word “grateful”, “thankful”, “be happy”, or “lucky” pops up in adoption conversation regularly. People who are not impacted by adoption expect us to be grateful for the material wealth and education we gain in life having been adopted. As an adoptee, not only have I experienced people’s assumptions about how lucky I am in their eyes to be adopted, I also experienced the expectation of gratitude said out loud by my adoptive parent during my childhood. It was said to me once or twice, but the way in which I was treated most of my childhood until I became independent and moved interstate, told me without words that it was the foundation of my adoption.

In hindsight, knowing now that my adoptive father was not comfortable to adopt a child not his own, from a foreign country, he went against his instincts and clearly gave way to his wife’s desire to save a child from the Vietnam war. What they saved me from, I’ll never know unless I find my first family. Whether I was indeed saved, who knows. Am I grateful? If I answered no, people naturally would recoil and look at me horrified, stunned. How dare I be ungrateful for my life in a wealthy country with material comforts, an education, and the life everyone in poverty aspires to.

But, of course I am grateful in many ways! Without choosing to be grateful, my emotional well being would be one of dissatisfaction, depression, unease and wishing to be dead.

I have been there! For plenty of years! And I had to battle to find a way through.

I choose actively to be consciously grateful, to focus and spend my life turning it into something positive. And it’s much nicer to be in a stage of life where I can choose to be grateful in general, as opposed to being forced to feel indebted for being saved via adoption.

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I’m a female adoptee born in Vietnam, flown out as an infant to Australia in the early 1970s. I’ve told my personal story what feels like a thousand times, but yet no one has asked before what it was like to carry that expectation to be grateful for my existence in my adoptive family.

My adoption was not legally facilitated until I was 17 years old and it is still a mystery as to whether my legal adoption paperwork exists somewhere in Vietnam. I hadn’t really come to acknowledge or understand the true meaning of this until the past 6 months. It is enlightening to observe how my story of adoption and relinquishment has changed over time as I’ve become more fully aware of the truths, perceived and real. I am constantly having to rethink what was told to me growing up and comparing that to the truths I find today, and who I have become.

Not having an identity on paper for 17 years, of course I feel the expectation to be grateful to my adoptive country Australia in giving me a birth certificate and hence allowed an identity. But at what cost? The expectation to be grateful these days is overshadowed by questions I have on why it doesn’t seem to have been questioned whether I had an identity in Vietnam or how to preserve or respect it legally.

The words “gratitude” or “grateful” are like an alarm bell ringing inside me. It grates on my nerves and I feel myself inwardly flinching. For me it comes with so many negative memories. Even googling to find an image for this blog and seeing the visuals, created feelings of unease and discomfort in my body. If you can relate to me as an adoptee, saying, seeing or reading the word “gratitude” in relation to adoption is a trigger that I have to deal with all the time.

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My adoptive childhood was spent working like a boy slave on the family’s dairy farm. Being thrown the “you owe this family because we adopted you” line because I was standing up for myself, was one of the toughest moments I remember. It was one of those rare times where I was trying to be stand up for myself about not wanting to be forced to help with milking the cows. The other children were allowed to peacefully sleep in every morning. My childhood sense of justice was strong. Why was I constantly singled out to be made to work around the farm with my adoptive father who inappropriately touched me whilst in the dairy or in my bedroom? He had no sense of respect for my privacy as my body developed in early teenage years. I recall a few times he woke me with his cold hands running over my bare chest and stomach, then dragging me out of my bed by my legs, nightie flinging up over my head exposing my naked body, laughing at how “funny” it was to be dragged along the frost covered grass on a cold Victorian morning. This would happen just on daylight before the sun even rose. Nobody else was awake. My hatred rose further when I once removed the outside key from the lock of my door but was authoritatively told how dare I try and lock him out. Everything about my life was dependent on him and I was given no sense of privacy, respect or control.

I grew to resent my adoptive father during my childhood but yet I pined for a tiny bit of love to be shown. I wasn’t grateful for this existence and I certainly hated that my lack of blood relative status meant it seemed to give him licence to work me like a slave and touch me in the way no father should. His other bio children were left to do what they wanted. They were not forced to work like me on hard physical tasks; chopping barrow loads of hardwood, milking cows day and night, cooking and cleaning in the kitchen, being forced to run out in the dark and shut the chooks in every night (I was terrified of the dark), etc. It felt like slave labour with no empathy for my feelings at all. It certainly wasn’t a childhood filled with love, safety or understanding. Nor was there any room for any compassion or support about what I might be feeling from being separated from my biological family and wondering why.

The expectation, verbalised out loud, to be grateful for being adopted was a heavy heavy burden to carry .. and still is. I was forced to justify why I needed hair conditioner and shampoo (I had waist long hair) and he would only provide soap as that was good enough for everyone else who had short or little hair. I was made to feel that buying a toothbrush was too much and how dare I need or ask for anything. I was made to feel and was told many times that I was a “fussy”, “difficult” child, always “telling lies” and “stealing“.

To this day, the “you should be grateful because we adopted you” mantra is what has stopped me from speaking openly about the emotional and sexual abuse I endured from early childhood to teen years. No adoptee should ever have to be thrown that line of feeling we owe a debt of gratitude to our adoptive families. Even when abuse does not occur. Whether spoken or not, we adoptees do NOT owe our families. They adopt for their own self fulfilling reasons. I had NO choice but to survive the adoptive family I was placed in.

You can probably feel the anger I still carry at the injustice of being made to feel that I owed my adoptive family for being rescued/saved. It brings lifelong consequences of being fiercely independent and not easily allowing anyone to help me. I suspect other adoptees can relate. For me, being helped, being given something I don’t ask for, usually comes with a fear of the unspoken price at which that help is provided. Hence, I would rather do it myself. The expectation of gratitude for being saved by adoptive family and society at large, is a heavy burden.

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This burden of expected gratitude in being adopted is enhanced by the religious elements intertwined in much of modern adoption advocacy.

Fervent religious organisations and individuals who willingly promote and facilitate the adoption and rescuing of children add another layer of expected gratitude onto us. People who believe adoption is an ordained action by God, that they are following his command to help an orphan, makes it difficult for adoptees to share about the struggles of being adopted and relinquished.

I rarely hear of any adoptee who will willingly stand up in a church or religious institute and share their adoption experience with all its complexities. For me, this would be the worst audience ever! I can’t imagine receiving validation or empathy. Instead, I suspect I would receive unsolicited advice to be grateful and thankful to God that I am in a better place and that all is going well now. The all familiar saying of, “Count your Blessings!” by religious people in response to adversity is one I find hard to stomach.

Google for yourself the word gratitude and you will see the many religious and spiritual images linked to this concept. Our struggles as adoptees go unvalidated and unsupported because of blind prejudice that somehow adoption is meant to be, ordained by God. How can anyone question the unspoken assumption that we should be grateful for our adoption, when this is the long held religious and spiritual belief?

Thankfully, my adoptive family and others have apologised in recent years for the wrong doings in my childhood and I have chosen to be grateful for this and to move on. It’s interesting how with apologies I now feel more at liberty to be open about my life. It’s as if a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I no longer carry the burden of responsibility for family secrets and shame, trying to protect them from the consequences. For many years now, I have been true to myself and will not allow the expectation of gratitude to overwhelm my truths.

I have focused my energies on rebuilding the relationships with adoptive family as they are my one and only family I know, to raise me and give me an identity. For this I am truly grateful – but that’s not to say the journey hasn’t been a struggle and at many costs.

Gratitude in adoption should never be an expectation. It should be a choice we are free to make about life in general – after we come to terms with, and are supported in, understanding our losses and gains from relinquishment and adoption.