For many of us adoption is a cross we must bear alone. The deep pangs of loneliness, emptiness and sorrow lingers – even amongst the perfect backdrop of life filled with success and wealth. Even in a crowd, I can still be alone.
Who am I is not a question but rather a reoccurring nightmare that haunts me on a daily basis. No matter where I run. No matter how I hide. No matter what I do. It still remains. No matter how I change .. it has a way of finding me. It reminds me that I do not fit in. It casts shadows of self-doubt. It also fills me with shame.
I am that odd jigsaw puzzle that was placed in the wrong box. I am misplaced. Misshaped. I do not belong to the world that I was forced into and a foreigner to the world I seek to find. People call it my home land but it doesn’t feel like home to me. Strangers look at me as oddly as the place were I was raised. I look like them but looks are not everything.
They know I am different. Different language. Different mannerisms. Different smells. They know I am .. unlike them. As I pass through their space, it’s as though I am wearing a scarlet letter. During my childhood that letter is in the shape of my almond eyes, yellow complexion, and shiny black hair. I am reminded of the shame of who I am each time I stare at my own reflection. A shame for being different. Like I said. Who am I? Who am I? WHO AM I!
I hear from more and more adult intercountry adoptees, adopted at older ages, about some of their traumatic experiences in transition from their homeland to their adoptive country. I acknowledge this is not the only layer of trauma we experience in our adoption or relinquishment and that transition for younger age adoptees can be just as traumatic. The key difference for younger aged adoptees is they may grow up not being able to verbalise the experience due to a lack of language development at the time of transition.
I question why adoption agencies and governments are not putting more resources into ensuring these major transitions are done better, especially considering it is older age adoptions that are the majority of intercountry adoptions done today around the world.
Children who are older aged and have language skills need to be given clearer understandings of what being adopted to another country and family means, apart from the “heaps of toys and food” examples that are the obvious material benefits. Perhaps the orphanages themselves have little idea of the impacts and complications experienced in intercountry adoption, so how would they know to better prepare children emotionally? Sending and receiving governments who licence adoption agencies to facilitate adoptions should hold the responsibility to better prepare children and lessen the trauma of transition!
Adoptive parents could be required to visit the orphanage and the child in it’s birth country more times, before the child is flown overseas. Have some experiences to bond and connect together in the child’s country before being flown out.
Adoptive parents could be required to live for x months in the town of the child after the adoption before bringing the child home to ensure not too many changes are occuring at once and to allow the child some continuity to stay in contact with the other children or carers from the orphanage. The parents would then get to know the other children who were of importance to their newly adopted child.
A carer of the child, someone the child knows and trusts, could travel with the child and remain with the family for the first few months to lessen the trauma. This would help the orphanage staff become more aware of the realities of the transition for the child upon entering their new adopted country, and feedback into better preparing future children.
Education could be given to orphanages about the trauma the transition creates, from adult adoptees themselves.
Adoptive parents could be required to become fluent in the child’s language before receiving the child. This would ensure one element of the transition which can potentially create trauma due to not being able to communicate, doesn’t unnecessarily add to the overall whole of being an overwhelming experience.
Both sending and receiving governments could listen to adult intercountry adoptees more about the experience of transition and learn from our views.
The child could be assessed psychologically, from an emotional well-being point of view, to establish how additional trauma of transition and uprooting them from everything they know, might impact them – and then develop a plan with a timeframe that is reasonable for the child’s well being.
Isn’t adoption supposed to be in the ‘interests of the child’? We need to move towards a model of incorporating a ‘whole journey’ view about the interests of the child who grows up – not just the immediate life or death survival extremist position that seems to justify intercountry adoption and how it is still conducted today.
I want to share Jayme’s experience to highlight my points above. Jayme is a Korean intercountry adoptee, raised in the USA from the age of 4.5 years old. His experience tells us just how strong the memories and trauma is of his transition from Korea to the USA.
I did previously share another from Thai adoptee Min and she briefly mentioned the trauma she remembered in her transition.
I hope in sharing these experiences, it will serve to remind us of how intercountry adoption is experienced by the child. We do grow up and our experiences need to be acknowledged. Intercountry adoption policy and processes by governments and agencies around the world would do well to ensure better outcomes for those who follow by learning from us who live it.
I was recently contacted by a researcher who wanted to know if we could share our experiences of how searching and reunification impacts us. I decided it was a good reason to put together a long overdue Perspective Paper.
I didn’t realise this paper would end up being a book as it includes over 40 intercountry adoptees, contributing 100 pages!
Questions asked to stimulate the kind of responses I was seeking were:
What country of origin are you from? What country of origin were you adopted to and at what age?
What do you think it was that made you search? Was it something you always wanted to do or did you reach a point in your life that instigated the desire? What were your expectations?
How did you go about conducting your search? What resources did you utilise? What obstacles did you encounter?
What outcome did you have? What impact has that had upon you? How has that impacted your relationship with your adoptive family?
What has the experience been like of maintaining a relationship with your biological family? What obstacles have you encountered? What has been useful in navigating this part of your life?
How have you integrated your search and/or reunion in your sense of who you are? Has it changed anything? In what ways?
What could be done by professionals, governments and agencies to help assist in Search & Reunions for intercountry adoptees like yourself?
These questions were guidelines only and adoptees were encouraged to provide any further insight to the topic.
All types of outcomes were included, whether searches were successful or not.
This resource will provide adoptees with a wide range of perspectives to consider when contemplating the issues involved in searching for original family. The paper will also provide the wider public and those involved in intercountry adoption a deeper understanding of how an adoptee experiences the search. Governments, agencies, and professional search organisations have direct feedback on what they can do to improve the process for intercountry adoptees.
Many in adoption circles and the wider public incorrectly assume if an orphaned and relinquished child could be adopted via intercountry adoption into a family of same race – the issues of racial identity, feelings of belonging, and cultural understandings wouldn’t be as difficult to deal with growing up.
I recently interviewed Prema, an intercountry adoptee, adopted into a same race family, who has experienced just as many difficulties as those of us, like myself, adopted into an adoptive family of differing racial background. This isn’t the first time I’ve listened to an adoptee expressing this. I guess it’s similar to the experience domestic adoptees have in-country, adopted into same race families, where some of them have expressed to me that at least for us intercountry adoptees of differing race to our adoptive families! “People can’t help but notice” the difference whereas for those in same race families, its harder for those complexities to be visible and therefore, harder for adoptees to receive much needed validation of their experiences.
For any same race adoptee, strangers don’t have the confronting skin and physical appearances to make them think about and ask questions – welcomed or not.
Here is Prema’s story so she can tell you for herself, that intercountry adoption is fraught with just as many complexities when adopted into an adoptive family of the same race.
Adoption is a kaleidoscope of experiences – we must honour and validate all of these stories and experiences to gain a deeper understanding of the impacts to those it affects.
I was writing to an adoptive mum about how we adoptees express anger and it reminded me of how frightened people are, in general, of that “adoptee anger”. In the aim of creating greater understanding of this misunderstood and feared emotion, I thought I’d write about why anger is a valid component in an adoptee’s journey and how people can support an adoptee in the midst of the anger. I don’t speak for all adoptees but share from my own experience.
I don’t recall being aware of my anger being related to my abandonment until I reached my mid 20s. I do recall feeling angry as a teenager but at the time my anger felt like a result of feeling confused about my place in the world, feeling like I didn’t fit in, that people teased me about my looks, and at being treated differently in my adoptive family. I know if anyone had approached me during those teenage years and talked about adoption or abandonment I would have brushed it aside saying it had nothing to do with how I was feeling. I was a teenager who had no idea of the issues that were underlying my feelings. My adoptive family didn’t seek to look for issues other than normal teenage issues – they were told that love should be enough – an era where adoption and abandonment was just not understood.
I was the teenage adoptee who never rebelled overtly. Personality? I’d say it was my fear of rejection that created my drive to “fit in” and my desire for “acceptance” that drove me to succeed at school academically. My emotional outlet was music. I played the piano all the time and I recall my adoptive sister demanding I stop thumping the piano so loudly and angrily. Looking back I realise now it was my only outlet and sign of deep seated anger and primary to that, sadness. I certainly felt like I had no-one who talked to me about those feelings, to initiate those conversations, and perhaps I was so shut off from trusting anyone instinctively that I couldn’t see them even if they were in front of me. I grew up with other children at school and church who were also adopted domestically, but I don’t recall any conversations about “adopted” children except to overhear that they were causing their parents a lot of trouble.
As an adult adoptee, I I personally know quite a few intercountry adoptees who grew up rebelling and getting into drugs, alcohol, sex. They’re all addictions to a degree that help to bury our feelings because they are so overwhelming. I can totally understand why we turn to these comforts and what is driving them. For adoptees, it’s our deep seated feelings of hurt at being abandoned. The persistent questions in our psyche of why were we given up? People are so blinded by the fairytale myths of adoption of “forever family” and “love is enough” they don’t see the signs so obvious to an adoptee like me. You may treat us like forever family and love is enough but WE don’t feel like that. Not for a long time. For kids like me, who appeared well behaved, our struggles go undetected – only to show up later in early adulthood as deep seated depression and suicidal attempts or other covert symptoms. Perhaps parents should consider themselves lucky if they have a child who is acting out – at least the adopted child is trying to tell you there is something they are struggling with – it’s their call for help. As for adoptees like me on the other hand, my parents had no idea of the depth of my struggles and for some unknown reason I’m still alive to write about it. For those adoptees who manage to cut off those feelings permanently by ending it all, I say it’s a terrible reflection on our society in the ways we perpetuate adoption myths, failing to support and offer the help and acceptance they are seeking before it’s too late! My parents certainly never realised I had deep seated underlying issues that might have benefitted from some guided assistance. I looked on the exterior as the model child, always conforming, performing highly at school, despite being caught for shop lifting in my early teens.
The reality is anger is a normal emotional response to our unordinary beginnings of loss, detachment, disconnection, severing of our ties to mother who carried us, loss of our genetic heritage, feelings of not belonging in our adopted land and environment, feelings of displacement, confusion as to where exactly do we fit in and why it is so hard to wrestle with all these feelings that no-one else seems to have, let alone relate to. Unless the people surrounding us and closest to us understand this anger and have an interest in “hearing” what this anger is about, I think as adoptees we continue to escalate in our behaviours of expressing anger in poor and dysfunctional ways which sabotage further our abilities to develop relationships that otherwise might be supportive.
I came to the realisation in therapy one day that in fact harming myself was my anger turned inward. Adoptees who act out their anger are displaying it out, those of us who are perfectionists and trying to conform will turn it inwards if there is no appropriate avenue to express it. So how can we best help an adoptee with anger? First and most importantly we need someone to listen to us and accept we have a real valid reason for feeling anger. This means not being afraid to hear the adoptee’s anger. Don’t turn the issue away from the adoptee and make it about you. I know many people who are afraid of hearing/seeing/being on what they perceive is the receiving end of anger – if so, I encourage you to read The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner. In blocking the adoptee’s innate need to express that anger, you will also be blocking their need to express their innate sadness of loss and disconnection.
Second, don’t react to the anger expressed in a negative way. If you do, this gives the impression that our anger is wrong. No, what is wrong is not the emotion and sound reasons for it, but the way in which we turn that anger energy onto others or ourselves. What we need when we express anger is someone to validate and confirm that our anger is ok and that underlying it is our pain and sadness at being abandoned.
Third, once you allow the anger to exist, you might be surprised to see it turn into tears of raw sadness, hurt, and pain. This is when we need a nice warm accepting cuddle that offers comfort and demonstrates you are sharing our pain with us.
As adoptees, if we constantly receive the message overtly or covertly that our anger is not ok, you are reflecting back to us that it is not ok to be who we are. We are a result of a terrible beginning so naturally our psyche has to resolve this and find a way to heal. If you block the anger, the adoptee will never get to the other end of the spectrum of healing because anger is our secondary emotion to sadness. If we are too afraid to express our sadness, we express it as anger. If you can’t hear our anger, you won’t be able to hear our sadness. If we never get to express our sadness and pain, we never get to resolve our beginnings.
The message I’m trying to convey is please don’t be scared of our anger or try to inhibit it from being expressed. Once our anger gets heard, we won’t be as explosive or reactive. It is like uncorking a bottle of wine, if you let the anger gas out, the wine goes nice and mellows. Now I’m not saying we only have to let our anger out once, no, sometimes we need multiple times of expressing this anger and being “heard” and listened to. In my experience, the power of healing for me came from being able to tell my story fifty different ways to fifty different audiences. It was the validation I needed. Having people come up to me and empathise and give that understanding I’d been seeking all along. After a while of getting people’s validation, I learnt that my feelings were ok and not to run from them. I learnt it was good to listen to my anger within but the trick was to find an appropriate method to channel the energy and turn it into something useful for ourselves. For me, it was to create a support network for other adoptees who were struggling like I did. For others, it could be an artistic outlet, music, writing, anything that allows us to express the anger and sadness in a safe and healthy way.
The above is written specific to adoptee anger based only upon the initial abandonment wound. If an adoptee gets further hurt, abuse, racism on top of their abandonment, then of course the anger gets compounded by these extra causal factors. I’m also not advocating for violence which is anger acted out towards others or justifying an adoptee purposively hurting others because of their “anger”. I’m simply writing about a much misunderstood topic specific for intercountry adoption and hoping to share some insight as to why we display anger, where it’s coming from, and how you might help us resolve it in a healthy way.
My wish is to live in a world where an adoptee’s anger will be heard for what it is i.e. instead of labelling us and pushing us away because people are afraid of the force in the emotion, they would instead embrace us and validate that we have every reason to feel sad and angry. If our anger is embraced, you will enable us to heal ourselves by being true to our feelings and to start to truly connect to you and share our deepest needs by embracing who we are at our deepest core.
In today’s climate many politicians, organisations, and activists are trying to promote adoption as a solution to many of the western country’s complex social, economic and race problems. When they do this, it is often observed these same people and organisations use phrases to promote their cause stating “it is in the child’s interest” yet how often do they actually include and ask us for our input.
Since the 1970s there have been thousands of Vietnamese, Korean, South American, Chinese, African and other country’s orphans sent to western nations via intercountry adoption and we have now grown up and become professionals in our own rights. We are old enough to have thought deeply about how our experiences of adoption have impacted us and those around us. We are mature enough to understand the political and economic drivers behind the decision that led us to be sent abroad, away from our mother culture, language and people. Our experiences can offer the ray of insight into the conversations as to whether this is in fact a good solution or not. Yet too often, our voices are overlooked, ignored conveniently and even discouraged.
Our voices need to be heard and included otherwise there is no point bandying around the phrase “in the interests of the child” if you are not going to recognise that as children we grow up and become old enough to participate in the same conversations that impacted our whole lives! We want to have a say and we want to influence how intercountry adoption occurs today. It should not be happening without including those same children who have lived the experience and know innately “how” it impacts us and what it means.