by Yung Fierens adopted from South Korea to Belgium.
This is Lee Keun Soon, my mother.
In 1976 and at the age of 26, Lee Keun Soon was trapped in an unhappy marriage with a violent husband and she was a mother of two little girls. She was bullied on a daily basis by a dominating and spiteful mother-in-law and according to local tradition, had to live with her to serve and obey as the dutiful daughter-in-law.
Right after the birth of her youngest child, she couldn’t cope any longer with the abuse, beatings and cheating of her husband, so she ran away.
It wasn’t only an act of desperation, influenced by probably postpartum depression and exhaustion right after giving birth, but foremost it was seen as an act of open rebellion. Such disobedience wasn’t only slightly frowned upon in a paternalistic and hierarchical society, it needed to be punished in the most severe way possible.
After a family council, led by the child’s grandmother, it was decided that the baby girl should be taken to an orphanage and be put up for adoption. When Lee Keun Soon returned home, they told her little Yoo Hee had died due to her mother leaving her behind. Broken by guilt and shame she resigned into being the dutiful and submissive wife and mother society expected her to be and had two more children.
Thirty years later, her dying mother-in-law admitted the sick baby she left behind was living somewhere in a country far away, probably given a different identity.
Lee Keun Soon left her husband, this time for good and started searching for her lost daughter.
At the same time, a girl somewhere in Belgium, was testing out this new thing called “the internet” and sent an email to the orphanage she came from. The email was just to say, “Hi.” She hadn’t any other expectation as she was led to believe she was an orphan.
Fast forward a year later, mother and daughter finally met at Seoul airport.
This isn’t just a rare story that happened decades ago in some poor backward country with little means or infrastructure. It’s not a slight blip in the history of a country that prides itself on respectful, spotless and impeccable behaviour towards others.
Jung Yoo Hee, who by then went through life known as Tamara Fierens (that’s me!), visited the same orphanage her grandmother relinquished her at. In this orphanage she counted 25 little babies, amongst them one tiny premature girl still in an incubator. These babies were all waiting to be shipped abroad to live a new life with adoptive parents.
Their nurse told me that 20 of them were delivered to the orphanage by family members of the birthmother; mainly fathers, brothers, uncles or grandfathers.
When I asked her if the birthmothers had given their consent for the child’s adoption, she remained silent and changed the subject. The date was 20 December 2007.
by Lynelle Long (Founder of ICAV adopted from Vietnam to Australia) & Angela Bennett adopted from South Korea to the USA, living with different abilities.
Last year due to COVID, I ran a number of online video group events to allow our adoptee community some interaction given the restrictions and isolation around the world. Whilst doing this, I had the honour of Angela attending one of my events and I did not realise she is differently abled and during the group video discussion, I realised I needed to make accomodations to ensure all people could participate equally and with sensitivity. Some time after that event and in January this year, I collaborated with a few Australian intercountry adoptees to put together our first paper on lived experience of disability AND being intercountry adopted – in the context of a response to a Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect & Exploitation of People with Disability. It again reminded me to consider how I could help make our spaces more inclusive. So I wrote to Angela and asked her for feedback on what could be done better. I’m sure there are other leaders like myself who don’t mean to be un-inclusive, it’s more that if we don’t live with those differences we aren’t actually forced to think about HOW we might better accomodate others. Angela was very positive and helpful and I wanted to share her thoughts because I figured if I can learn from this, perhaps others can too.
Here’s what I wrote to Angela:
Angela, I wondered if you could give me some good thoughts/ideas on how to do things better for adoptees who are differently abled. I was so happy to have you participate in my last ICAV online event but I felt so out of my depth to provide it in a better way to allow you fully participate. I’m always happy to hear your views and suggestions on how I can improve!
Here’s what Angela wrote to me in response:
That last ICAV event was awkward for me. Inclusion for people with disability is a lot to undertake. I think it’s pretty awesome you want to try to tackle it. It looks different based on the disability.
I’d say for me with the speech impediment, I talk 3x slower than the average American. There’s nothing wrong with my intellect. There’s certain sounds or combination of sounds that is like mouth gymnastics. So be mindful to avoid cutting me off/interrupting to finish my sentence for me. It’s better to wait about three to five seconds to make sure I’m done speaking. I often have to pause to inhale for another set of words. Cutting me off just resets from the beginning. Because I talk slower, I feel like I’m long winded. I get needing to have time to let others speak. I often wait until others speak. This is because I’m trying to see if I can simply say, “I agree,” or “So-and-so made a good point, and I also think _,” and just go from there to do less talking.
When I’m done speaking and you’re facilitating/hosting, to benefit the others, you did good in repeating or paraphrasing my point. In your position I would just do that, but start with, “What I think you said, __, is that __. Am I understanding correctly? This helps the other adoptees who have a hard time deciphering my speech pattern and acknowledges in a kind polite way what I said. If you, yourself can’t understand using the following statements can be helpful: “I didn’t catch what you said after __” It’s hard to hear you, can you repeat that last sentence? Can you speak louder? I/we want to understand but not sure of what was said. Can you say it in a different way? I think you said, ‘porcupine,’ but I don’t know what you’re trying to say. Is that like the animal with spikes on it? (wait for response) Oh, you said concubine not porcupine! Ha ha, that makes much more sense now. I have no idea what you’re trying to say. What I think/heard/believe you’re saying is __? That doesn’t make sense. Do you mind clarifying?
I get winded so sometimes I pause mid-word, mid-sentence, mid-answer to take a breath and regain control of the different muscles needed to speak. Sometimes this could be the diaphragm, sometimes the vocal cords, sometimes it’s my tongue and saliva control. It doesn’t hurt to speak, but it can sometimes quickly tire me.
If you’re video/audio recording an adoptee with speech that is challenging to understand, I recommend providing closed captions or subtitles or at minimum a timestamped transcript. This brings the inclusiveness not just to someone with a speech delay or impediment, but brings inclusiveness to those who are deaf and hard of hearing.
I’ve only provided an answer in the context of someone with a speech delay, speech impairment. People often assume someone with speech problems have lower intellect. While it is predominantly true, it is not a safe assumption. Most of what I’ve said is a form of what is called “active listening.” One important thing is that there is a distinction between not hearing what someone says and not knowing/comprehending. Simply saying, “what?” suggests the speaker needs to repeat what they said, but louder.
My speech pattern often means I drop sounds and I’m not even aware of it. I know English has a lot of silent sounds to begin with. But I drop out sounds that I have trouble forming or combining. So I might drop the “s” from thanks even unaware that I dropped the ‘s’ sound because most of my effort went to making the “th” sound. I know the words, I just have to get everything to work together to verbalise.
If you want me to type in chat, circle back around. I type fast, but I mouse slow. You can say something like, “I’d love to know what you think Angela. Do you want to answer or should we come back and check the chat in a couple minutes? Then maybe you can use a strategic stall tactic and say, “I want to add my own thoughts here for a minute.”
Avoid cross talk. Cross talk is rude. Short example was the post you responded to which I wrote about on my FB wall. The driver was talking about meto my friend. I was right there. The statement itself is rude, but the more important thing is that not only was he stereotyping someone who uses a wheelchair, but stereotyping that I am not capable of carrying on a conversation. When things like that happen I have no way of knowing if this is someone not comprehending my speech patterns, or he/she has a hearing problem, or if they are discriminating against me, if they have listening problems, if they are stereotyping my speech and assuming I am not intelligent/educated enough, or if it’s a microaggression based on something else like culturally am I not supposed to speak on my own behalf because of racism towards Asian females. I heard a parent explain it to her child once. “There’s nothing wrong with the way she is talking to us. She talks differently and it means we have to listen more closely to what she says.”
During a conversation you can even ask, “Do you want to add anything and/or did you have more to say?” Silently moving your own mouth to mimic someone else talking while they are talking is mildly rude and annoying for long conversations, but it’s not significantly offensive generally speaking.
Even persons with disabilities have ableist ideas against someone else with a disability. Much like the adoptee community has its ideas of “adoption is good” v. “adoption is corruption” even in local disabled groups …. I recently went to a popular sports bar. I asked the waitstaff for closed captions to be turned on the tv. The waitstaff didn’t want to figure it out unless someone in our group was deaf. So the group leader shushed me. I was appalled because it felt like the group leader who is paralysed was not being mindful of someone with a different disability and that was the whole point, to be a social support group.
I’d love to see and am also willing to assist with developing a media/guide for intercountry adoptees with disability or even more of a series of stories from adoptees with disability themselves.
Thank you Angela for sharing from your lived experience to help us do better!
by Christina Soo Ja Massey, aka YooNett adopted from South Korea to the USA.
The Tears of Trauma I cry as a helpless Orphan, I cry as an Adult throughout my Life.
This piece of art deals primarily with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The Trauma of being abandoned, left to fight for my Life, but being unable to do so … The fear, anxieties and hopelessness of the situation. I attempted to convey how this Trauma persists throughout my Life. I have come to my Adopters already deeply scared only to relive old Experience via new Scars.
I was adopted to a white family in the south of Sweden from north India in the late 70’s and as soon as I arrived in Sweden, I was told to stop speaking weird and that I was now Swedish. We never spoke about India growing up. If I did ask, I received short answers then a lecture on how horrible India is with crimes, rape, child marriage and killings of baby girls. Because that’s all India is, right? Thank colonisation! I had a packed bag next to my bed with the clothes and jewellery brought from India, just in case.
The trauma of growing up like this invited self-hate and suicidal thoughts and I can’t tell you what stopped me, but animals were my best friends who I would seek solace from when low. There was never a mention of race, only how lucky I was to be brown and my eyebrows and hair would be ridiculed to the point that I would pluck my eyebrows to near extinction and colour my hair to breaking point. I heard talk about race hate but since I’m white, why would this apply to me? I was a white person on the inside who didn’t like to get her photo taken or look at herself in the mirror, as it was a reminder of my colour. I was a white person living in a white world without benefitting from what this means. People from India are not represented in mainstream fashion, music, films and the media and many think that by using one person of colour, they’ve represented us all.
Growing up without anyone looking like me caused much trauma as I found it very hard to accept myself and to find my identity. I wasn’t accepted as white yet this was what I identified as. I wasn’t accepted as Indian but didn’t identify as such. In my early 20’s, when I started to travel abroad more, I realised how uncomfortable I was in my own skin and if a person of colour walked into the room, or anyone mentioned the word, I found it uncomfortable as I realised they were also talking about me. I would divert the topic to something else whenever possible. I started noticing I was often the only person of colour in most rooms, especially in equestrian training and competition which was my whole life growing up.
I have dreamt and fought to become a filmmaker since I was very young. I pursued this despite my family who didn’t see it as a profession, within a Swedish college who didn’t accept me where university tutors laughed in my face on several occasions, amongst funding bodies who excluded transracial adoptees, with Scottish filmmakers who would not let me in and deleted my credentials on a film crew database. I have read many personal statements by Swedish people of colour who relocated to America for a chance at progression within their field. I too was accepted there when I finally gained the courage to apply to do an MA in filmmaking at their two most prestigious filmmaking universities. Do you still think I should be grateful?
The first time I met Indian people after being adopted was when I moved to Scotland, I was 24 years old and so intrigued and uncomfortable. In my mindset I still saw myself as white and did not relate what was happening to me to be about race. I was cautious of Black people and saw myself above Asians, just in a way I imagine white people do but can’t explain how or why. It kept me safe, mentally. Sometimes I miss this, it was easier to handle than the truth.
In 2020, I became more active in anti-racism activities as I know others who did and I joined many social media groups. There was one particular Scottish group where I live which made me feel very uncomfortable because I was faced by many people of colour with strong confident voices. I found my own without being shut down or drowned out by white people and I came to realise everything which was stolen from me: my culture, my beliefs, my voice as a person of colour, my dignity, my heritage, my language and my roots, my identity. I was sold for profit to privilege others but for which I would never experience the privilege through the Christian faith which I was brought up with. I felt so betrayed. When I continuously keep hearing from my white acquaintances and friends that “You get what you put in”, I started to believe I was just lazy and untalented. I did not take into account their head start and the extra hurdles I have on my journey as a person of colour. It’s a lot to take in and I’m SO ANGRY!! Do you still think I should be grateful?
As I started to strip away the whiteness I inherited via adoption, I came to realise that some things are harder than others to remove. My language still needs altering in some ways and I find myself apologising in horror as I become more aware. A few months ago I was asked why I keep using the word “coloured”. It never occurred to me that I was saying it and I’ve even told others off on many occasions for using it. In Swedish, “coloured” is “färgad” and digging deeper I realise it’s still widely used in media and by people in everyday language. After having spoken to several Swedish people and observing the media, I’ve come to realise that there is no alternative wording, so I have decided to establish it, about time!
In Sweden, the English phrases are used and never translated as it makes it more palatable for white people and puts distance between the person and the issue. I have created a Swedish anti-racism page as I really believe in creating the changes needed with a less interactive approach giving white fragility no space. There’s so much about my upbringing I need to unpack and unlearn. The majority of Swedish social media and anti-racism pages I’ve found so far speak only of the prejudice Jewish people face as it’s what white people feel comfortable with. This is not racism through, it’s antisemitism.
I wear my colour/oppression on my skin for all to see and at no point can I ever hide or change this. Why is all this important when talking about my trauma as an intercountry adoptee? Because it shows the very deeply rooted racist societies in which Black and Brown are sold and the deeply rooted internal racism it creates in us. I hate myself for being like this but I hate the people who did this to me more. Hate is a strong word, I’m making no excuses for using it. It’s mental abuse, violence and rape. Do you still think I should be grateful?
I’m now re-building myself as an Indian woman. A person of colour. A transracial intercountry adoptee and I’ve found yoga is helping me heal although I feel like I’m culturally appropriating it, I know it’s my culture and I have every right to it. Recently I found out I was born a Hindu, so my deep connection to yoga is natural. The more I decolonise yoga, the more I decolonise myself. The most damaging incidences to my healing process have been Indian people speaking down to me for not having grown up there, not speaking any of the languages, nor knowing the culture or religions well, nor dressing in traditional Indian clothing or cooking Indian foods.
For those who are Indian, you are so lucky to have what was denied me. You’re so lucky to know the smells, roots and the love of our beautiful country. I have as much right to any part of it as you and as I’m still learning, I’m grateful to now have understanding people in my life helping me heal. I have privilege in that my accent and whitewashed ideologies fits into Swedish life and people raised in India have privilege in that they didn’t live through the trauma of losing their whole identity via being sold off, and didn’t grow up with the same level of internalised racism, nor seeing parts of the culture on display and being sold back to them. I believe that my inquisitive nature and yearning to learn is the reason why I’ve been open to change and (un)learning. I’ve educated myself on Black history and the trauma of colonialism.
I believe that as an adult it’s my responsibility to educate myself and learn what I can do to make this world safe for everyone. I am currently working on a documentary film and a book about my life and journey. I recognise many of us are doing this. Our experiences are unique and they’re ours. We all have different ways of coping and I have big trust issues with white people, especially Christians. I see a lot of white centring in my daily life and white adoptive parents speaking about how transracial adoption affected them and the trauma they faced. I’m healing every day and writing this was a step forward.
I have one question for you. Do you support human trafficking? There’s no “but”, just as I could also ask, “Do you support racism?” There’s only “Yes” or “No”. If you would like to support and help children, have a look at what you can do.
by Kara Bos, born in South Korea and adopted to the USA.Kara became the first Korean intercountry adoptee to fight legally and win paternity rights to her Korean father.
Almost one year ago it was confirmed that 오익규 was my father. It’s the first time I’ve publicly shared my father’s name.
As I walk under these beautiful Cherry Blossoms and appreciate their beauty my heart continues to attempt to mend after being shattered into a million pieces over the course of one year. The confirmation in DNA in knowing who my father was, brought a sense of victory when I was constantly faced with uncertainty and being told I was wrong. The continued lack of communication, inhumane treatment and not allowing me to meet my father by his family pushed me to fight back, and reclaim my identity.
June 12th, 2020 marked the date that I was recognised by Korean law that 오익교 was my father, and I was added into his family registry as 오카라, which should have been done back in 1981 when I was born. This again was a victory of reclaiming what was lost, justice rectified. I was no longer an orphan, with parents unknown, and no identity. However, my one and only meeting will forever be etched into my memory and heart as a horror movie. One filled with regret and what if’s….as I found out later, from August he was taken to the hospital and stayed there until his death on December 3rd, 2020 (86 yrs).
If I hadn’t filed the lawsuit in November 2019, I wouldn’t have known in April 2020 that he was my father, I would never have met him and I wouldn’t know now that he has passed.
Even if this heart break has been immense, at least I know … that’s what it means to be adopted.
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.
April 20th marks the 46th anniversary since I was evacuated on an RAAF flight out of Vietnam. That day changed the course of my life and the memories of it will forever be etched in my mind.
April in general is a significant month for many Vietnamese Adoptees as it is the month in which over 3000 babies/children were also evacuated. Like myself these children boarded military transport planes bound for adoption by American, Canadian, European and Australian families.
The fors and againsts of having done this have been debated. I would like to say there was no telling what would have become of my life had I stayed, nor was there any telling of what was to become of my life by being removed. The fact remains that I was removed at the age of 5 from a family I knew and placed in a foreign country. This experience was very traumatic and I lost my identity, language, culture and everything familiar to me. In Australia I experienced a different form of hardship and difficulty to what I would have experienced had I remained.
Fortunately, many who left Vietnam were adopted into loving foreign families. I wasn’t granted that right and was adopted into an abusive and dysfunctional family. Regardless that family clothed me, fed me and provided me with a good education and I will always be thankful to them for that. Australia is indeed a privileged country offering endless opportunities and being removed from war torn Vietnam like all adoptees I had a chance to make a better life for myself.
What happened I cannot change, but what I have the power to change is my attitude and the way I react and deal in all circumstances. I know I am the person I am today because of all that I have experienced. It has made me stronger, more forgiving, more understanding and more loving. For this I am grateful.
What I have been through is also in part what propelled me 17 years ago to return to Vietnam to find my birth mother and to work with orphaned and disadvantaged children. Without a doubt God’s hand has been upon my life. He has guided me, protected me, opened doors and put some amazing people in my life. Gratitude fills my heart for all those who have impacted my life over the years.
During this anniversary month for adoptees, my thoughts too are very much for birth mothers. Many birth mothers returned to orphanages to collect their children and they had gone. This time signifies permanent loss for them. I have hugged some of these mothers and seen their tears. As my mother’s tears have been wiped dry, I too hope these mothers can reconnect with their children.
by Jodi Gibson Moore born in the UK and adopted to Northern America. This is part 2 of a 3 part series written for Autism Awareness Month.
April is Autism Awareness Month
I always knew I was “different”. It took 40 years of almost continuous searching to find the right words for my kind of “different”, although being internationally adopted had a lot to do with it. My father’s sister took me from my home country when I was 21 months old, with the help of her mother, my paternal grandmother who was my guardian at the time. My aunt and uncle finalised their adoption of me when I was almost four. They would have told anybody that I seemed to have “adjusted” to the multiple disruptions in those early years but my behaviour screamed otherwise and I never bonded with either of them.
Growing up, I always knew I was adopted; I don’t remember being told or having to be told. My adopters told me about my flight from England with the woman who adopted me and her mother, my grandma. They talked about me being sick on the plane and how surprised the man who would later adopt me was when he picked up his wife and mother-in-law at the airport, and there I was with them. They laughed at my childish attempts to say their first names. Later, they would punish me for calling them by their names. I always knew they weren’t my parents but they wouldn’t answer any of my questions about my parents or my origins. I was told I came from the puppy farm, like Snoopy in the comics and I learned they expected me to pretend I was their daughter or else I would be lectured and punished. That didn’t sit right with me. I knew babies came from their parents and since I hadn’t come from them, they weren’t my parents. They made me go along with their pretend game but I got in trouble for pretending and making up stories. I was 12 years old when the woman who adopted me finally told me she was actually my aunt. I was angry at her for lying to me all this time and betraying me but I was glad I finally had a category to put her in: auntie. When I told her I wanted to call her that and her husband “uncle”, she yelled at me and told me not to. I had broken the rule of not upsetting her, so of course it was my fault, not hers for keeping a secret from me for ten years. She apparently had a medical condition and I wasn’t allowed to say or do anything to upset her and my uncle, who hadn’t wanted children in the first place, had a bad temper and yelled a lot. Instead of blaming him, she used to tell me she’d never heard him shout before I came along – so that was my fault too. They had me walking on eggshells the whole time I lived with them and I was too clumsy not to shatter them.
At the age of 41, I finally received an official medical diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, Asperger’s subtype (this was around the time the DSM-5 did away with the separate diagnosis of Asperger’s and merged it with autism spectrum, so the updated diagnosis is level 1 ASD) along with ADHD, sensory processing disorder (SPD), and developmental coordination disorder/dyspraxia. Had I been diagnosed in early childhood, doctors, educators and my aunt and uncle adopter would have understood why I had trouble focusing at school or transitioning between activities, didn’t always understand verbal instructions, wanted to wear dark glasses even on cloudy days, didn’t like making eye contact with others, talked more comfortably with adults than children, “switched off” at times, and couldn’t stand on one foot for more than about three seconds. All of the symptoms were documented in my medical files when I was 5 but that had been the late 1970s and there wasn’t much awareness of “high functioning” autism back then, especially in girls.
As I was trying to decide how to approach this topic, the intersection of adoption trauma, international adoptee status, and disability/neurodiversity, it occurred to me that there is much symptom overlap and several parallels between developmental trauma and autism spectrum, along with other conditions comorbid with ASD. These conditions include, as I mentioned above, ADHD, SPD and other possible processing differences that impact how we take in information. We may have trouble understanding instructions for a variety of reasons. I remember being a little kid in daycare trying to open a bag and getting yelled at repeatedly to “untwist the wire.” I didn’t know the strip of green paper concealed a wire. All I saw was paper. The daycare woman didn’t have a lot of patience with me or think very highly of my intellectual abilities. Between her and my aunt and uncle adopter, I grew up feeling like I was stupid. My aunt constantly spoke in euphemisms or British colloquialisms that nobody else around me used and I couldn’t understand what she meant and she wouldn’t explain them for me. It was like a secret code I couldn’t crack, or a foreign language. She just didn’t like to call things what they were, the same as when she refused to tell me what she knew about my background, which deprived me of a lot of the grounding and structure I needed. I learned not to trust her. I learned to be ashamed of the ways in which I was different; I learned to hate myself for the things that set me apart from everybody else. Very few people focused on my strengths, but everyone commented on and most made fun of, my shortcomings.
Is it adoption or autism?
I probably ask myself this question several times a day and more often than not, it leads to overthinking and no definite answers. Social anxiety, difficulty identifying or verbalising emotions, keeping lots of space between myself and others – “social distancing” is a way of life for me – and not knowing how to participate in group activities may be signs of hypervigilance and consequences of preverbal trauma rather than autistic behaviors. Not picking up on social cues? My aunt adopter thought I just didn’t want to pay attention and I don’t know how she perceived my inability to interpret her veiled speech. The fact I viewed the adopters as guardians instead of parents, literally as my aunt and uncle when I found out the truth, could be simply realism and logic. In my mind, my aunt and uncle couldn’t be my parents. I didn’t even meet them until I was almost two and I never felt close to them or safe with them. That could be autistic black-and-white thinking but there are other things I remember or have been told from my early childhood. I learned to read early when I was three, but even before then I could identify almost any car on the road. My uncle adopter used to laugh about the time he caught me lining up my grandma’s cigarettes in front of the fireplace, making sure they were exactly straight and doing the same thing with my toy cars. I’d prefer to use dolls to act out the stories in my head than play with other girls. Due to the neighbourhood and the fact my aunt and uncle adopters were old enough to be my grandparents, I didn’t have a lot of kids to play with other than their friends’ children. I always thought their age and the huge generation gap was the reason I didn’t really know how to socialise and “hang out” with girls my own age and found it easier to talk with adults if they didn’t intimidate me, but that seems to be another autistic trait.
Even hypersensitivity to rejection, which seems to be an almost universal part of the adoptee experience (after all, we perceive early maternal separation as a rejection or abandonment) can be attributed to rejection sensitivity dysphoria (RSD), a recently identified condition often comorbid with ADHD and autism spectrum. Autistic individuals tend to like routine and order, need to be prepared well in advance for changes or disruptions, and I can’t think of a worse disruption to a small child than being separated from their whole family in one day, uprooted from their home and placed with strangers in a different sensory environment. Strangers who look, sound, and smell different; strangers who aren’t tuned in to the child’s needs and could overwhelm them; strangers who want to touch and hold the child when the child needs to keep a safe distance and may have an aversion to being touched.
I often ran away from the adopters as a child and adolescent. Sometimes I’d walk far enough ahead of them so that nobody would associate me with them; sometimes I’d lose them in stores; sometimes I’d wander away from them on outings. I’ve heard that a lot of autistic children do this, perhaps because of impulsivity, distraction, or just a lack of concern for safety. For me it was an escape behaviour, the “flight” aspect of the stress/trauma response. I just didn’t want to be around them – had to get away from them. I might have been distracted by somebody who reminded me of a parent or someone else from home (this may often be the case with older adoptees) or I may have been hoping that someone would find me and return me to my parents – help me get back home. It never happened.
In what some might call “typical ADHD,” my thoughts often go in several different directions, probably giving me enough material to write a whole series on neurodiversity and how it intersects with adoption, and maybe I will. But it needs to be said that adoption, and more specifically the act of early maternal separation sets us up for “trauma brain” regardless of genetic predisposition to certain neurotypes. I first read about Nemeroff’s (1998) research involving rat pups separated from their mothers for a few hours a day during infancy and the impact this had on their neurological development, the effects of which persisted into adulthood, in a psychopharmacology textbook (Meyer & Quenzer, 2018). Other researchers are still performing these studies and documenting the same outcomes: anxiety, increased sensitivity to stress, depression-like behaviours, emotional dysregulation, eating disorders, and metabolic disorders throughout the rats’ lifespan. And unlike the rats, we adoptees aren’t returned to our mothers or siblings when that phase of the experiment ends. It’s not a perfect comparison, but research ethics officially prohibit doing similar maternal separation experiments on human infants. At least, now they do. Watch the documentary Three Identical Strangers and see for yourself.
My doctor who diagnosed me several years ago with ASD and Asperger’s syndrome told me at the start of my assessment that childhood trauma doesn’t cause autism (for that matter, neither do vaccines); it’s a genetic condition. However, I believe that developmental trauma such as early maternal separation may have a deeper impact on certain neurotypes; we may be more sensitive to early stressors or less resilient. Trauma responses may increase – or be mistaken for – neurodivergent traits. For example, adoptees, especially those of us adopted internationally and/or after our first birthdays like myself, can display self-calming/self-soothing behaviours (Tirella & Miller, 2011) that resemble what would be called “stimming” in autistic children and which I would call an attempt at emotional regulation following a profound loss. We adoptees don’t always have, or eventually get, access to our family medical history so we don’t know what we’re at risk for but as the rat studies found, the non-separated rats developed typically while their separated littermates, who shared the same DNA, did not. We don’t have to have a documented family history of autism, ADHD, anxiety, or depression to develop these traits after a severe developmental trauma.
While there is more understanding over the last few decades of the neurological impact of early maternal separation or parental loss that precedes adoption, there needs to be more research into how this overlaps with autism spectrum, ADHD, sensory processing differences and other neurodivergent conditions. My hope would be that adoptees’ needs and vulnerabilities can be addressed in early childhood when we would most benefit from interventions – and perhaps more can be done to prevent these traumatic separations in the first place.
Meyer, J. S. & Quenzer, L. F. (2018). Psychopharmacology: Drugs, the Brain, and Behavior, 2nd ed. Sinauer Associates, Sunderland, MA.
Tirella, L. G., & Miller, L. C. (2011). Self-Regulation in Newly Arrived International Adoptees. Physical & Occupational Therapy in Pediatrics, 31 ), 301–314.
See Jodi’s part 1 of a 3 part series for Autism Awareness Month: Puzzle Pieces.
I am still processing the murder of 6 Asian women in the Atlanta spa shootings. I have been posting and sharing throughout my social media accounts about my anger, my distrust, the audacity of law enforcement and society for protecting white terrorist fragility and blatant denial of racism. I can feel tension like a chink in my armour of forced composure. But I am not only processing this all as an Asian woman. I am also forced to process this threat as an Asian woman adoptee, who has been raised in a world and by people who look like that terrorist. Worse yet, I have been raised by people who have ideologies in similar veins of that terrorist. Where do I begin to grieve, where do I begin to process, how do I begin to let you know how I feel when I have spent the majority of my life living under the same roof of whiteness that claims to love me but harms people who look like me?
If I were to ask my white evangelical adoptive parents their feelings of the mass shooting in Atlanta, they will question if it was race based. After all, not all the victims were Asian. If I were to ask them if certain political leaders in powerful positions where responsible for fuelling anti-Asian sentiments, I would be met with “fake news”. But if I were to ask them if they love their Asian daughter, I would be met with “yes, however, I don’t see you as Asian, you are just our daughter”. How do I process a grief and fear so real and palatable, when it is ignored and denied by those who are supposed to be my forever protectors? How do I put it into words and wrap it, so it is presentable and comprehensible for others to see the contradictions? In this lies the problem, the problem with racism, its systemic and institutional power that is subtle but feels like bullets, and shrapnel, and death.
This is all to say that as much as my white adoptive evangelical parents claim to love me, they cannot love me. Because they cannot recognise the terrorism they have inflicted onto me my whole life. They cannot love me fully because their “colour blindness” has prevented them from seeing the whole spectrum of my identity and how I go through life. They cannot truly love all of me because they refuse to acknowledge their own racial bias towards me, and how they raised me in that environment. They cannot love me entirely because they cannot confront their whiteness, their own racism, and how they contribute to a culture of white supremacy.
I have had some extended adoptive family members reach out to me, reassuring that they care, letting me know they are worried for my safety. On the other hand, I have not heard one whisper from my immediate adoptive family. None of them. Their silence speaks volumes. I am still processing what it means to be Asian in America. I still think about the time I was told me to go back to where I came from, as if it was not whiteness that forcibly re-homed me to a country that despises me. To a country that sees me as a virus, a fetish, a communist spy, a threat and fantasy to be colonised from the East. I am still absorbing and trying to understand what the violence towards people that look like me means to me. I struggle with this all, but I struggle with this in addition to being an Asian female adoptee. I struggle to process what this means when the people I was raised by refuse to see me as an Asian woman. And that refusal could cost me my life.
by Lisa Kininger, adopted from Thailand to the USA.
My name is Lisa and I am an intercountry adoptee. Thanks to my wonderful parents, they have given me a beautiful life that I’m forever grateful for. There is only minimum information about my true identity. What I do know isn’t enough to find out who I was and where I came from. Although I’m forever happy with who I’ve become and my beautiful family, I have always been curious about my true identity, as anyone else would be. I have tried absolutely everything from phone calls and emails to traveling to Thailand more than once, searching helplessly. So, when I turned 18, I decided to start my journey of searching.
I had reached out to the Thai doctor and his wife, from whom I was adopted. They were not interested in helping me but did explain that they put up 40 non-biological children for adoption. They would have their cooks and maids sign as fake biological parents. In effect, they also told me that they came up with my birth name “Malai” and the birth date 20 December 1972. They told me not to contact the people on my birth certificate as they would lie to me and take my money. With only the people on my birth certificate to reach out to, I desperately did so in hopes of finding more information. I eventually stumbled across DNA testing and used it to my advantage.
My story starts with my father being an aircraft electrician as a Sr. Master Sergeant in the USA Air Force. My parents were married and stationed in Utapao, Thailand in 1974-1975. They were unable to have children of their own and were in the process of adopting in the USA but had to put it on hold due to being stationed in Thailand.
One day my mother went to Bangkok to go grocery shopping at the base commissary. She ended up talking to a woman about the prices of meat and the woman had mentioned how she just had adopted a Thai baby girl. The woman said she knew of another Thai baby girl who was up for adoption. My mother said she would love to but unfortunately, they were leaving soon to go back to the USA, so there would be no time. While checking out at the shop, the same lady approached my mother with a phone number. The phone number was for the Thai baby girl who was up for adoption. My mother decided to call. She spoke with a woman who said unfortunately, she was adopted already. So sadly, my mother hung up the phone. Then suddenly, over the loudspeaker at the store, they announced my mother’s name. They said there was a phone call for her. On the other end of that line was a lady asking my mother to share about herself and my father. The lady said she didn’t know what came over her, but she felt the need to call. The lady said she had a Thai baby girl at her house who was very sickly. She wanted my mother to see the baby girl right away. So, the lady sent a car to pick up my mother from the store in Bangkok.
My mother arrived at the house. The people at the home were a Thai doctor and his American wife (this was the lady on the phone I talked to when I started my search, which is years after). They explained to my mother that the baby girl was very ill, only weighed 13 pounds and was rescued from the jungle. They also told her that the baby girl’s 5-year-old sibling died of malnutrition and the baby girl was going next. That baby girl was me.
Soon my mother was able to meet me for the first time. She put me in her lap and I started to play with her watch. That’s when the people decided it was the perfect match. They did however also have a Dutch couple that was going to visit me in the morning. If the Dutch couple didn’t want me, then I was my mother’s. So, they put my mother up in a hotel suite that the doctor had organised.
This was during the Vietnam war in 1974 and when my mother called my father to explain where she was and what was going on, my father became very worried as it was dangerous for civilians to be off base. Fortunately, the next morning the Dutch couple wanted a boy, and I could go home with my parents! The next step was for my father to get me adopted in Thailand. Adoptive parents had to be a certain age to adopt in Thailand and my parents were too young. The Thai doctor wanted my father to lie about his age and bribe the consulate with a bottle of whiskey. My father didn’t want to do such a thing because he was in the US AirForce and could get into substantial trouble. The Thai doctor then had to get ahold of my “biological mother” to sign a release form for my new parents to take me back to the the USA. The doctor arranged a visit with my father and my bio mother at a restaurant outside of Bangkok. The doctor explained to my father that she came from the south and that my father had to pay for her travel expenses. When they met at the restaurant, the doctor and my bio mother only spoke Thai; she signed and left. My father had no idea what was said.
We happily left for the USA and I had a fantastic childhood. I had the privilege of seeing and living in different parts of the world, thanks to my father serving in the US AirForce. Throughout my childhood, I always had the desire to search for my biological family and to find the truth about myself. I remembered what the Thai doctor and wife told me which was to avoid contacting the people on my birth certificate as they would lie and take my money. I took a risk and didn’t listen to them. I decided my only choice was to find the people on my birth certificate so I contacted them. In the beginning they had said yes they are my family. They proceeded to ask if I was Mali or Malai. I then said I was Malai but asked who Mali was? They told me Mali was my sister. They said to call back the next day because they knew someone who could speak English. So I did and then they told me they were not my family, but knew of my family because they were neighbours at one time. They told me the family name and said I had an older sister who died in a car accident and the family had moved away. They asked me to call back in two weeks and they would help me try and find this family. They ended up not being able to find them.
As a result, I hired a private investigator in Thailand to find them and the investigator was successful. This family acknowledged I was part of their family and that my immediate family passed away but could locate my aunt, uncle and cousins. I was able to receive pictures of them and they were able to finish the story about me and knew the Thai doctor, so I believed them.
This was in the early 2000s before DNA testing was well known. I took the initiative to take my first trip to Thailand to meet them. I gave them money because they were poor. My aunt had a stroke so I bought her a wheelchair, medication and food. I set up an international bank account so they could take out money when needed. They would even write to me and ask for more money throughout the years and said my aunt would die if I didn’t pay for her blood transfusion.
I decided to do a DNA test with my late sisters’ son and the results showed there was no relation at all between this family and me. Sadly, I gave up searching for a while. Eventually, as time passed, I contacted the people on my birth certificate again and they told me I am possibly theirs after all. So I did a DNA test with the biological mother on my birth certificate (this was when I booked my 2nd trip to Thailand with my family). Unfortunately two days before leaving for Thailand, the results revealed I was not related to her. We went on the trip anyway and met with her. When I met her in person, she told me that the doctor paid her to sign as my biological mother and that she was the one at the restaurant who met my adoptive father.
Since then, I have done DNA tests with her husband’s side of the family and no luck. Unfortunately, I’ve done countless DNA tests only to find 3rd to 4th cousins and they have all been adopted as well so no help there either. The hard part with my search is that my identity in Thailand is fake. My true identity seems like it’s been erased from existence.
It has been challenging throughout my life, wanting to know the truth but being lied to consistently with no explanation as to why. I don’t know how old I am, my real name, or where I came from. Everybody that knows some truth REFUSES to help or tell me anything. I have a beautiful family with three grown children and I’m happily married but I would love to share with my children and one day, my grandchildren, my own biological family.
Through my journey, I relate to other adoptees feelings and emotions and so I have dedicated my time to helping other adoptees find their biological families for 20 years. I am a private investigator for adoptees. I understand both sides of the story and can empathise. Even though I haven’t found the end to my story, I find joy in helping others in their journey and I’ve also found what I was looking for via the actual journey itself.