Part 3 of a 3 part series on Sexual Abuse within Adoption
In memory of Oscar André Ocampo Overn, adopted from Colombia into a family in Norway. He was murdered last year at the age of 15 years old, by his adoptive father after speaking out about the sexual abuse he endured at his adoptive father’s hands. Look at the price he paid for speaking out! Abuse in adoptive families happens. It is one of the most hushed up topics in adoption. Perhaps we fear the reality will shatter the illusions of the happy forever adoptive family marketing myth?
Sexual abuse within adoptive families needs to be talked about. I didn’t say “.. talked about more” because it currently just isn’t talked about at all! The only sexual abuse the adoption community openly talks about, is that which happens in orphanages which acts as a way to further demonise our origins and make our adoption fantasy seem even more like saviorism. I know intercountry adoptees who suicide where sexual abuse within the adoptive family was a known added layer in their traumas, yet adoptive families fail to understand why their child decided to end it all, or their role in this death. We need to help adoptive families reach out for help when they become aware of sexual abuse happening in their environment. We need more education on what are the signs and symptoms to look out for in adoptees who suffer sexual abuse, we need deeper psychological assessments of prospective parents to understand more how their own traumas can manifest in the lives of their prospective children, we need further resources to guide adoptive families on how to respond to sexual abuse. Silence should never be an option!
Due to my own life experience, I have a strong sense when other adoptees have lived a similar experience without saying so in absolute words. I know how to gently ask and it saddens me each time I meet another and they tell me what they’ve rarely or never told before. I hear all the scenarios – mother is abusive, father is abusive, grandparent is abusive, uncle is abusive, adopted sibling is abusive, parent’s biological sibling is abusive, close family friend is abusive. It is rarely a stranger! Adoptive parent preparation sessions and post adoption education sessions need to include more discussions on sexual abuse. Sometimes sexual abuse might be talked about in the context of children being removed from a family because of abuse and hence available for adoption or abuse that happens in the institution before arriving to adoptive home, but it is rarely considered that a child can be placed into an abusive adoptive home.
We need adoptive couples to be mindful of what healthy boundaries are so they can identify early on when things do not seem right. We need to create an environment that doesn’t result in hushing things up, burying the knowledge. I cannot say more loudly and strongly enough how damaging it is for an adoptive family to ignore any sexual abuse that occurs within the family dynamic. When left with no professional support, we develop coping strategies that are unhealthy for us and leaves an aftermath of destruction. Suicide is one path of that destruction, there are others like alcoholism, drugs, prostitution, perfectionism, over achieving, workaholism, eating disorders. As Bessel van der Kolksays, the body never forgets. Adoptees who have been sexually abused have to find one way or another to deal with the dis-ease that sits within us.
If your adopted child tells you of some form of sexual abuse, please believe them and seek professional help immediately. Report the issue to the police. Do the right thing even if it is your spouse, your other child, your family friend whom you have to report! I am told too often of adoptive families who treat the victim as if there’s something wrong with them, saying they’ve lied, made up stories, saying they have a mental illness and cause trouble in the family. Most children do not make up these stories and the child should never be made to feel it was their fault in any way!
We need the adoption community and professionals to talk more openly about these questions: how does sexual abuse within the adoptive family occur? How does demonising the birth family with a history of abuse set us up to heroise the adoptive family as if they are immune from being as abusive? How are adoptees more vulnerable to abuse than the non-adopted child? How can we better prevent sexual abuse in adoptive families? How can we better listen to adoptees who struggle with this type of trauma? How can we better record and capture data to reflect how often this occurs? How can we better assess prospective parents? How does sexual abuse impact the whole adoptive family? How does sexual abuse compound the relinquishment trauma already held by an adoptee? How can we help family members come to terms with the terrible deeds of the perpetrator(s)? How can an adoptive family heal and move forward from what has happened?
I’ve lived years of seeing exactly what happens when these questions aren’t discussed or addressed. It’s devastating for all family members and leaves generational impacts. We need to help shift the fear, shame and guilt that prevents adoptive families from openly acknowledging when sexual abuse happens so that adoptees and the family can find healing.
By not responding appropriately, the trauma of sexual abuse within the adoptive family is compounded with our relinquishment trauma.
Do not allow adoptive family shame to be more powerful than love and honesty.
For adoptees who’s adoptive family closes their eyes to your abuse, I hope you will one day find your voice and speak your truth. Your vulnerable child did not deserve abuse and it’s okay to walk away if your adoptive family are not capable of bearing their truth and giving you the support, love and protection you deserve. It’s taken me 27 years to be this open about this topic, being abused and adopted certainly is not an easy journey! The hardest part has been feeling so alone and wanting to belong to a family so desperately that even an abusive one will be okay. I share in the hopes of encouraging others who walk this path. Don’t give up on you. You do not have to feel alone. Find professional support, connect into your peers, don’t isolate yourself. Create a new sense of family for yourself. Find other “mother” or “father” figures in your life who CAN be nurturing and supportive. Fight to give yourself the healing you deserve! Speak up!
by Geetha Perera, adopted from Sri Lanka to Australia
I can stand in a crowd Or I can stand alone And still no one will notice me I cry in a crowd Or I can cry alone And still no one will notice me I can hold someone’s hand Or I can stand next to a person And still no one will notice me For I am not a stand out I’m not the brightest star I’m not the skinniest I’m not the prettiest I’m the one in the corner Alone
Hello. My name is Thomas Fernandes but everybody calls me TJ. I was born in Nanjing, China in August 1998 as Yu Ming Yang. I was found with baby formula at only 4 months old which makes me honestly feel that my Chinese family cared about me.
I was adopted by awesome family at the age of 6. I have three siblings and my older brother was also adopted from China. My parent also adopted my sister from India. I was also born deaf with microtia which is an ear deformity. My sister from India is also deaf like me. This mean that when I was adopted into the family, the communicate was not that hard because they were already familiar with creating an environment supportive of deaf kids. We would communicate by pointing to things and using actions. My parents were a doctor and nurse so they knew medically what was best for me. I am truly grateful for what they have provided to me and my sibling.
I was 7 years old when I started to learn my first language which was American Sign Language. I used sign language until I got my hearing aid at around 8 years old and from then, I was able to learn how to speak English. I went to the South Carolina School for the Deaf until 8th grade. Then I went to MSSD (Model Secondary School for the Deaf) which is on Gallaudet University (a well known university for deaf and hard of hearing students). After graduating from MSSD, I am currently at RIT (Rochester Institute of a Technology) for my IT Technician major (3rd year). I am also currently studying Korean and Chinese at the same time.
In thinking about my past, I learned that my orphanage, known as Changshu Children’s Welfare Institute (in Nanjing, China) is a place for children who have a disability and with special needs such as down syndrome, cerebral palsy, blindness, deafness and heart disease. The nurse put me in a room where it has many beds and I remember that my bed was near the wall. I did try to make a friend but I noticed their mouths moved a lot and I knew that they were hearing. I tried to talk with them but I didn’t know how to speak Chinese.
Lucky for me, I did make one friend and she didn’t talk. She was very hyper so I decided to hang out with her. Surprisingly her bed was right next to me. We always communicated a lot about what we saw in the books and on the television. Her and I would always watch Teletubbies shows and my favourite character was the red one. I think she might have been deaf too because she seemed normal to me.
One day I saw her with a group of people. That was when I knew she was going to be adopted. I was deaf at that time and didn’t have a hearing aid. I tried to get her name so I ran to school (in the orphanage) to get a note so that she could write her name and I could find her when I got older. But since she was deaf, she didn’t know her name either. I also didn’t know my name at that time. We only knew our character name but didn’t understand how to write it. So I went to nurse and pointed to her, then at the paper, trying to communicate – could she put my friend’s name on the paper – but they didn’t understand me. I was left crying and bawling hard because I wanted her to be my best friend for rest of my life.
I still think about her and wonder how she is doing. I hope I see her again one day. That was the most heartbreaking experience for me. I do think of her and hope she’s doing great. I hope she was adopted by an amazing family just like I have because she deserves it. Maybe I might find her someday, maybe in one of the groups for asian adoptees?
I wish I knew her name! Hopefully she’ll recognise my orphanage photo and remember me. If she does, she can contact me here.
To my fellow adoptees who were triggered recently by the news about the Stauffer family who publicly told the world about rehoming their 4 year old little boy Huxley (of Chinese origins also living with autism).
I speak out with you in solidarity against the way some adoptive families and the adoption industry continues to treat us as a commodity! The recent coverage crassly reminds us of how traumatic our life has been .. the adoption wounds together with our bedrock of relinquishment trauma, gets further layered upon when multiple abandonments occur. I know when the “system” allows or facilitates re-abandonment like this (deportation is another form), we personally feel violated, as if it has literally happened to us, again.
I personally know adoptees who have lived this experience of being relinquished by multiple adoptive families – “rehoming” is such an impersonal term for an experience that is so immensely personal! What most people don’t understand is the trauma never leaves our being and it takes us decades to war through it – if we get through at all!
I want adoptees who suffered this experience to know, it wasn’t something wrong with you — it’s that there is SO much wrong with the current system of intercountry adoption that allows this to happen.
The recent experience highlights everything we adoptees speak up about that is wrong. We are treated like a commodity! Given away and discarded when it becomes too hard, not the ideal that the family signed up for (and purchased).
There is something inherently wrong with the mantra of adoption that everyone naively believes Huxley will be better off with his second family. This assumes that second time round, the agency and adoptive family will get it right — but our lived reality of adoption highlights that the process of matching is such a random lottery! The agency may do no better the second time round, especially when they have no incentive or punishment for either outcome, nor are they forced to be held accountable for failures like this or to report it.
I’m sure that you, like me, might feel mad about this situation because we continue to receive the message that something is wrong with us – that we are not good enough. As relinquished children, this is an internalised message we spend our lives fighting to correct! We often feel like damaged goods. Sadly, not even the best adoptive family in the world can ensure Huxley or others like him, come out of messes like this without lifelong consequences.
The system is wrong when prospective parents are not adequately assessed, educated from a trauma informed base, nor rejected. Not everyone should be given the privilege to parent us! It takes a very gifted and emotionally aware type of person to truly help an already traumatised child to heal, flourish, and feel accepted enough to be able to overcome their beginnings!
There is also not enough post adoption supports to ensure better long term outcomes. Governments and agencies treat adoption like a once-off transaction where their responsibility ends the day our adoptive parents take us home. They are rarely given adequate support and their “education” ends the day the transaction is complete, whereas we know, every phase of life opens up a new layer of complexities to unravel. We have no independent advocate who watches out for us long term to make sure we flourish and no reports exist on our long term outcomes over decades. There are certainly very few mechanisms for adoptees to report or take action at the time or later on, when we are mistreated or further damaged. Will Huxley be given a fund from the adoption agency or first adoptive family to provide him with a never ending supply of professional helps should he want – to wade through the maze of compounded traumas? I can’t imagine so! And when we speak out about experiences like this, our voices are usually silenced in preference for the adoptive parents and it is expected the child should “move on” as if a “magical other adoptive family” will “fix us”, so we can live happily ever after! Problem is, we are not living a fairy tale and the next adoptive family is probably not given extra post adoption supports for life either!
The myths in adoption such as “forever family” create unrealistic ideals of adoption that add to the mountains we adoptees and our adoptive families have to overcome. Even with the best family and resources, sometimes there is just too much trauma and sometimes, nothing ever makes it better! Do they teach prospective parents this to set more realistic expectations?
What makes this recent experience for Huxley so triggering for me, is the lack of respect for his personal journey and struggles – his journey made public from day zero with almost a million viewers seeing every detail! His additional challenges publicly displayed to the whole world. That the family monetised their YouTube channel off the back of his trauma is unforgiveable and he will one day consider all this when he’s in his 30s or 40s and ask all the questions we adult intercountry adoptees ask now — how could a family do that, when they are supposed to be supporting and loving? Was it ever really about him or them? We are not a cockle or a peacock to be displayed and show cased when it suits for adoptive parents to be seen as a saviour! Our journey is a lifetime of trauma and loss! Ignorance on a scale like this only acts to compound existing traumas. I wonder if he’ll consider it abuse when he’s older? I would.
It is not okay to participate in an adoption system that churns and spits out adoptees as if we are a gidget with no feelings or soul! We are of immense value, we are vulnerable and deserve better. If this is how intercountry adoption is conducted, we should be all shouting out for it to stop until it’s done in a more appropriate manner that respects us as human beings and teaches families that you either take us with all our gifts and challenges – or you let us go, help us stay with our family and culture, or with another family who has the capability to be there for us long term! With the sheer volume of adoptee led platforms in cyberspace that provide education and insight into our journeys, I wonder how any adoptive parent or agency can continue to claim ignorance and naivety.
I hope the collective anger we adoptees feel right now will encourage us all to shout out from the roof tops about our experiences and free ourselves from the inherent shame we feel in being abandoned and rejected. This is not our shame to bear – it is a system that perpetuates further trauma onto our already traumatised bedrock.
For adoptees who experience rehoming, it’s abandonment multiple times. There is nothing wrong with us but everything wrong with a system that perpetuates a type of people who adopt from a naive and grossly inadequate understanding, fooling themselves into believing they can rescue us – only to fall flat on their faces. I’m a parent of a child on the autism spectrum. I totally know how hard parenting can be – but I’m also an intercountry adoptee with foundational traumas and I understand how important it is, that we get this right so that the trauma vulnerable children live, is no longer compounded by the damaging system we see glaring right in front of us!
Note: I have been astounded by how many amazing and astute adoptive parents exist out there in cyberspace who have been as angry about this as I. I hope that you too will turn that anger into encouraging adoptees to speak out and be heard. Help to elevate our voices!
Since sharing my thoughts, I have seen many other intercountry adoptees writing and sharing theirs! Wonderful to see our voices coming out of the dark and giving exposure! Here’s a list of what’s been written since:
Guest post by Mike, adopted from Hong Kong to New Zealand.
I remember growing up in an orphanage until the age of 6. Some of my memories include playing in the little park which had a pond and loving nature, the little frogs and birds. When we were naughty, the older kids would hide rubber spiders in our beds saying they only came ’cause we naughty, till one night I got angry, sad at it and cut it in half – laughing and crying at same time, chucking it at other kids. I was always being the big brother figure.
I remember getting pushed off a stage and hurting my head. That’s where my fear of falling and being scared of heights comes from. It was heaps of fun growing up in orphanage. There I learnt what family was, my culture, my heritage, my language, I had a sense of belonging and identity. I was the smart but naughty kid!
I remember the last day before getting taken to New Zealand for adoption. My birth mother came to see me to say goodbye but I didn’t recognise her. She could only spend a couple of minutes with me because she didn’t do the paperwork. So for a while, that was always on my mind about so many “what ifs” and if it was my fault that I got taken away because I didn’t recognise her.
When I got adopted at age 6 and taken away to New Zealand by a white European couple, I had to re-learn and adapt so fast. It was all about fitting in and surviving!
My adoptive parents were not ready for the challenges that came with an older adoptee with a sense of identity. There was a lot of physical and emotional abusive. It was a crap family environment where they were abusive to each other, physically as well. They also had 2 foster kids who were spoilt! I was the black sheep of the family. I got bullied at school then would come home to be abused and beaten up there too. It made me grow up real fast and made me tougher.
They often used their abusive ways to try and mend me into the child they wanted. This of course, pushed me further and further to the point of running away at an early age, depression, attempted suicide, self harm, etc. At age 10, I ran away from home and ended up with a bunch of street kids for a week until they turned on me and beat me up, leaving me bloodied for the police to come pick me up and take me back to my adoptive parents. They tried so hard to mend and fix me with various psychologists, counsellors, etc., but to no avail.
My adoptive parents eventually got divorced when I was aged 15 and I ended up with my adoptive mother. Things went more downhill after that, which eventually lead me to a life of crime. I loved life as a youth criminal, the excitement of shoplifting, stealing, breaking into cars, etc., being part of a youth street gang. But this eventually led me to prison at age 19. I put 2 white boys in hospital from a group fight. The reason for the fight was because of my own racist views against the white people because at that time, I didn’t know all the issues and the mental state of mind I was in.
I got out of prison at age 21 and went back to my adoptive dad. It didn’t last very long because he was still stuck in that mentality that he could bully me and mould me into that model citizen that every dad can dream of. Much to his disappointment, I was in a deep state of depression, denial and hatred because I was so institutionalised – prison was kinda like the orphanage. I ended up joining the Triads and becoming a leader.
I have no regrets with the adoption, my past and everything that has happened as I have achieved so much through sport. I represented my country/homeland in sports, travelled the world, married the girl of my dreams, etc., but as I get older (37 in July), I am afraid of what future I have. My wife wants kids but I don’t have a job or stable income. I don’t want my kid(s) to go through what I did. In a gang, the lifestyle that I live, it’s hard when you have a criminal history, PTSD and a sense of fear of rejection.
A few years ago, my birth mother found me on Facebook. I went to Hong Kong to meet up with her a couple of times. It was disappointing. Maybe I expected the movie dramatic emotional meet up – but it was nothing like that! I was just like, “Oh yep! You’re my mum”. But we couldn’t communicate much due to the language barrier, so it was a bit disappointing. I have half sister who speaks English who lives with my mum. I found out my mother was only 18 years old when she had me and at the time. She was living in a women’s home. Her mother (my grandmother) was divorced at age 15 and had no ability to give her 2 girls stability – so she sent them to a girls home to survive.
Despite all I’ve lived, I guess what I want to say to adoptive parents is, you have a responsibility to the child you adopt – be a positive mother/father figure to the child that you’re bringing into your world. Try to have a better understanding of the challenges that your inter-racial child may have.
Mike welcomes your messages in response to his story.
by Ming Foxweldon 白宜民/明, adopted from China to America written for Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, #AAPIHeritageMonth
Our stories matter Just like the generations before The future generations will look back to us We must pave the way History can be written by those in power However we’ve to strive to be agents of our time Activism is what you make of it Find your medium Use it Believe in it If not, change gears Accept that sometimes this journey Will be lonely People may stand by your side for a second To gain the lime light Only to try and extinguish yours Stand up for those who are unaware of the dangers that lay before them Not for recognition Just out of compassion Be an active protector of the community Bystander attitude only perpetuates bad behaviour For those who don’t believe you Haters gonna hate Your convictions Decisions will impact others Of the current moment History in the making Don’t let others’ experiences overshadow your own You’re valid Stay strong Know when it’s ok to take breaks Heroes and heroines alike Setting the cape aside Transform into someone who can smell the flowers from time to time …
Resource The documentary, Asian American’s has been aired this month at PBS and Amazon Prime.
Most of my life, until I returned and had a chance to reintegrate my Vietnamese identity with my adoptive identity, I thought of Vietnam as a backward Communist country. I absorbed the mentality I heard from my privileged white western adoptive country. Emotionally, I felt compelled by the assumptions I absorbed, to question how anything good could exist in a country where they couldn’t look after their own children. I was raised to think negatively about my homeland and I was always told how “lucky” I was to be adopted to Australia. Being lucky usually implied “Australia is better”.
Most times, when people make comments about my adopted status, being “lucky” refers to material gains – plenty of food, shelter and clothing; a good education; and plenty of opportunities. Yes, I have had all that for which I am thankful! But having spent over a decade trying to integrate my lost identity after being in the fog about the lifelong consequences of being separated from my birth land, culture, and people — I speak out now to help others realise there is more to being adopted than the material gains in my adoptive country.
COVID-19 has further challenged my beliefs about my birth country compared to my adoptive country. It has been the first time I’ve read something in mainstream media to highlight a positive about my homeland over my adoptive country. Here’s the recent article on Vietnam’s response to the coronavirus. I’ve seen more about other birth countries being held in high regard (see Taiwan and South Korea). It’s an unprecedented time to see some of our birth lands viewed with pride in mainstream media. In contrast, is the wealthiest, first world democratic country America and how it is responding to COVID-19. Right now, with the media coverage, I imagine the whole world is questioning whether America is better than anywhere else. From an adoption perspective, American intercountry adoptees have been trying to voice for some time that not granting automatic citizenship and actively deporting intercountry adoptees back, after 40 years, is completely unethical, unfair, and wrong. No other adoptive country does this yet America has still been upheld by most birth countries as the land to send children. Perhaps now, after seeing how America handles COVID-19, birth countries might think twice about sending children to America? Maybe the rose coloured glasses might fall away?
COVID-19 has made it quite apparent that our birth countries aren’t all backwards! They aredifferent, but not less. Seeing our countries portrayed positively in mainstream media is novel for me. I wonder how many South Korean, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese intercountry adoptees in America might be, for the first time, wondering why they believed the mantra about how “better off” they are compared to being raised in their birth countries? This COVID-19 is impacting far more American adoptees than those impacted by non-citizenship or deportation! And with racism towards Asians at an all time high in so many of our adoptive countries, there’s a lot that COVID-19 raises in our minds.
Right now, the whole world is re-evaluating many things but what it does for me as an intercountry adoptee, is it encourages me to look critically at how our countries are portrayed and challenges me to re-evaluate how I regard my birth land and people. I rarely see any birth country portrayed in a way where other democratic first world governments might look to them as an ideal. I’m sure I’m not the only intercountry adoptee to notice these changes and ponder what it means. This period in time adds yet another layer to consider what it means to be intercountry adopted.
I have a T-shirt bearing this witticism which I received from someone who knew of me only from my newsletter for German-born adoptees. I have since become aware of its occasionally being reformulated, substituting the word “Texan” for “German.” The idea, of course, is that being a German – or a Texan – can be so self-evident from observable indicia that even strangers can see it in a person’s behaviour, dress, or demeanour. Many people have commented that I exhibit personality traits they characterise as “typically German.” I don’t know if there are heritable personality traits that are “typical” of Germans, or, if so, whether my alleged exhibition thereof is a result of having been born there, or if it’s simply the natural consequence of the particular formative experiences of my childhood. In any event, having known of my German origin for as long as I can remember, it has always been a foundational aspect of my identity.
Identifying as German has had a strong influence on many of the choices I have made in life. When, in junior-high school, we were required to choose a foreign language to learn from the available options of Spanish, French or German, naturally, I chose German. Even then, I had already formed the intention to search for my birth mother in Germany, and I imagined that it would be useful and/or necessary to know the language. My effort to learn German in junior-high and high school didn’t really pan out, and so, when I was stationed in Germany in 1979-80 as a member of the U.S.A.F., I availed myself of the opportunity to resume learning German. I discovered it came easier, for some reason, while living in the country, and I would continue to learn it – mostly by using it, when reading letters from and writing letters to friends I’d made while I was there, for example – more or less continually for the rest of my life.
When my parents purchased a new (used) car, ostensibly for my mother to drive, but with which I would in any event learn to drive, they asked for my input. I suggested buying a Volkswagen Beetle. I was partly inspired by my German teacher, who drove a Bug; but I also wanted to learn to drive in a car with a stick shift. (Ultimately, the car became “mine” by default, as Mother refused to drive it.) Ever since, whenever I have owned a car of my own (until 2010, always a VW Bug), I would display a “D-Schild,” an oval-shaped placard formerly affixed to vehicles in Europe to identify the nationality of the owner (“D” stands for Deutschland).
Other, less consequential signs of my Germanophilia included the purchases of a three-foot-by-five-foot tricolor flag, which I would hang on the wall wherever I might be living at the time, as well as an album of songs by the German singer Roland Kaiser, which I found when shopping at a nearby record store in Brooklyn, NY, not long after I’d moved there in 1980.
At the same time, I never felt any strong sense of fealty towards the United States. When I was naturalized, at the age of five, repetition of the requisite oath was probably waived under INS rules due to my age; my adoptive father signed the certificate. Even so, when, as children, we were required to say the Pledge of Allegiance each morning in school, I cannot say that it represented anything more meaningful to me than a rote recitation of a memorized sentence. Eventually, I publicly acknowledged this lack of significance by boycotting its daily reiteration, beginning in junior-high school. (I don’t recall if anything happened as a result of this protest, but I imagine I would remember if there had been significant consequences. Perhaps my right to do so was simply acknowledged and respected?)
Growing up as a boy in America in the 1960s, I was acutely aware of the war in Vietnam, as well as my eventual obligation to register for the draft when I turned 18 and the concomitant potential risk of being sent to fight in that conflict, should it still be going on at that time. Even before the draft was officially ended, in 1973, I had acknowledged – to myself, at least – that I was gay, and so I had already formed the intent, if it came to that, to apprize the Selective Service officials of my sexual orientation, thereby avoiding military service by peremptorily being deemed “unfit.” War or no war, I had no desire to be drafted into the army. Having never been in the closet, as it were, I wasn’t worried about any backlash to publicly “coming out,” but I never had the chance to prove the strength of these convictions; the Selective Service office in my hometown was permanently closed in 1975, the year I turned 18. I eschew patriotism as easily as I eschew religion; both are equally meaningless. (The irony of my subsequent voluntary enlistment in the U.S.A.F. is not lost on me; however, that decision sprang not from any patriotic feeling, but rather from a desire to end what was looking like an interminable period of unemployment, with the added appeal of potentially acquiring a skill that could be parlayed into a civilian job later on. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out, either.)
I don’t know when the thought first occurred to me, but by the summer of 1978, at the age of 21, it was already well established in my mind; I wrote in my diary at the time, “The more I think about it, the more I want to know if I may acquire dual citizenship.” The question was more properly formulated as, “I wonder if I ever lost my German citizenship.” Be that as it may, shortly after I wrote those words, I obtained a form from the German Consulate in New York City which they said I needed to complete and submit in order to answer the question. The information required to be provided concerned the citizenship status of my natural relatives; my mother and father, and their respective mothers and fathers, and so on, as far back as information was available. (German citizenship is acquired via blood – jus sanguinis – as opposed to where one is born – jus soli.)
As soon as I was able, i.e., as soon as I had searched for and found my birth mother (having been born illegitimate, only her information was relevant), I completed as much of the form as I was able and sent it in. Had you asked me at the time, I probably would have said that I fully expected there to have been some basis for involuntary expatriation, so it came as a very pleasant surprise when I received my Staatsangehörigkeitsausweis, a certificate attesting to my status as a German citizen. I immediately applied for and obtained a German passport. (Interestingly, like the passport, the citizenship certificate bore an expiration date; I faithfully renewed it until they finally changed the law and issued a certificate that doesn’t “expire.”)
I am very enamoured of the idea of having dual nationality, and I eagerly mention the fact whenever circumstances allow, sometimes showing off my Reisepass. I have never used my German passport for purposes other than identification following my return to Germany in 2018, but I did once encounter a problem when I obtained employment at a company that contracted to provide background investigation services to the federal government. The contract was with the Department of Defense, and I had to officially acknowledge my dual-national status in the course of having my own background investigated. The DOD had no problem with my retaining my German citizenship while performing the contracted work; but it did demand that my employer hold my German passport for the duration of the contract – or my employment, whichever ended first. As it happened, the contract ended first, and my employer, in order to continue employing me, had to reassign me to work under a different federal contract, this time with the Department of Energy. Unlike the DOD, however, the DOE did object to my retention of a foreign nationality, and, for want of another alternative position within the company, my employer was forced to terminate my employment because I wasn’t willing to renounce my German citizenship.
It did not take long after I’d begun trying to ascertain the means and methods I would need to employ to search for my birth mother, in the mid-1980s, that I discovered that such information was unavailable within the existing Adoption Reform Movement in the U.S.; nor did the available literature offer any guidance. As a result, I felt very disconnected from my fellow, U.S.-born adoptees, particularly after I learned that German-born adoptees had been given access to their original records in the late 1970s. After visiting my recently discovered half-brother in Germany, in March of 1988, I decided that I would try to fill that information gap by publishing a newsletter, which I entitled “Geborener Deutscher” (“German by birth”), and which I then distributed to all the existing adoption search support groups in the U.S.
I likewise do not know exactly when I fixated on the idea of returning permanently to Germany. I do remember wishing, as early as 1980, when I was discharged from the U.S.A.F. while still stationed in Germany, that I could have remained in the country, instead of having to return to the States to process out. I think I recognized, however, that it would not have been practical to remain in Germany then; my command of the language was completely inadequate, and I had joined the Air Force in the first place because of my difficulty finding work in the country where I had grown up. But having spent almost a full year effectively living in Germany, I had come to believe that it could be done, under the right circumstances; the seed had been planted, and remained always in the back of my mind. Eventually, it matured into a promise to myself, as well as a life goal I would express at every opportunity, a goal that I vowed I would attempt to accomplish as soon as the time was right.
A bit more than 25 years from the day my first German passport was issued, the time became right. With the deaths of my husband, in 2015, and my adoptive father, in 2016 (my only other immediate family members had already passed away: my sister in 2003, and my mother in 2010), I had lost all personal ties to the U.S. of any significance, and so I began seriously contemplating my “Rückkehr” – my return. Moving was something I was planning to do in any event after my father died – I had never particularly liked living in New Mexico – and the first thing to do was to figure out if moving to Germany was even practicable.
The logistics were pretty straightforward, but there was one prerequisite that represented a “make or break” criterion: German residents are legally required to have health insurance; if I couldn’t afford to obtain health insurance on my limited income (SSA survivor’s benefits on my late husband’s account, supplemented by the proceeds of the sales of both my childhood home and my then-current residence), either within the state-sponsored system or from private sources, moving to Germany would not be possible. Once I was assured, however, in December 2017, that I would, in fact, be able to get coverage within the state-sponsored system once I had established residency in Germany, I started preparing to relocate, a process that culminated in my arrival, on June 23, 2018, in Frankfurt-am-Main, with little more than the clothes on my back and my then-12-year-old cat, Rusty. (Some might imagine that the recent political upheaval in the U.S. played some role in my decision to relocate when I did, but it was purely coincidental; my late husband just happened to pass away two weeks before Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015, and my father just happened to pass away one month prior to the 2016 election. It took as little time thereafter as possible, given the need to await the final settlement of my father’s estate, to begin the actual process of moving, and arrange for the orderly “wrapping up” of the life I had built up to that point.)
April 2, 2020, marked the second anniversary of my arrival in Germany on my initial mission to find a place to live, either permanently or temporarily while looking for a more permanent residence. I was extremely fortunate to have found an apartment – just a furnished room, really, but nonetheless adequate for my purposes – within the first two weeks; and then, after briefly returning to New Mexico to tie up the loose ends of my old life, an apartment better suited to long-term residency within three months of my permanent return to Germany in June. So far, everything has been as good or better than I imagined or expected. In particular, it feels as if I have done more bike-riding since returning to Germany than I had in 25 years of living in New Mexico. In any event, I have absolutely no regrets. I do not miss anything about my life in America, except for some food items that are unavailable, or prohibitively expensive to obtain (and even those items are not as numerous as one might imagine, because, while they are invariably more expensive to obtain, they’re not all prohibitively expensive).
When I was awaiting a determination of my citizenship status in Germany, I published an article in Geborener Deutscher, which I headlined, “Am I German or American?” Some time later, after having established my status as a dual national, I published an updated version of that article under the headline, “I Am Both German and American.” But these labels referred exclusively to my citizenship status, and not to any other form of self-identification. If I had been writing about how I identify culturally, I might have said, “I am neither German nor American.” Being an accidental citizen of two different countries, and having no sense of belonging to either, I sometimes describe myself as a “citizen of the world”; but that is as much a misnomer as “German” or “American.”
Nevertheless, regardless of how long I live in Germany – and regardless of how much I might wish it weren’t so – I will forever carry my “American-ness” within me. And while I feel very much more at home here than ever I did in the U.S., it’s really just a matter of comparison. I never really felt “at home” anywhere in America, and that feeling of alienation only increased with time. It didn’t help that I never developed any familial bond with my adoptive parents; or that I socially isolated myself as a child, as a reaction (perhaps an overreaction?) to perceived social ostracisation; or that I never found community with any of the social subgroups to which I claim membership (adoptees, generally, and intercountry adoptees, particularly; or gay men). Consequently, I have experienced an intense sense of disconnection from humanity, a persistent feeling of “separateness” that began as mistrust and which has morphed, over time, into misanthropy.
I often imagine the life I might have had if I hadn’t been adopted, or if I hadn’t been adopted by Americans; the life I might have had had I grown up in Germany. As I envision it, it is a life that probably would have been less stable or comfortable, but which might have been more fulfilling; a life that might not have provoked me to distance myself from my fellow man, and which might have afforded me the opportunity to develop the sense of belonging that has forever eluded me – and which I know now I will never find. I do not necessarily regret the life I have lived, but I do sometimes feel intense regret for the life I lost, and likewise, intense anger at having been deprived of it.
We are in the midst of unprecedented times with COVID-19 taking over the world but as an Asian intercountry adoptee raised in a white adoptive country, I find myself once again, in that uncomfortable “in-between” space. I have lived the experience of sitting between two very different cultures and races – east and west. I am a product of both but yet at this point in time, I feel ashamed at how human beings can behave and treat each other when ultimately, we are of the same human race.
I have been raised with the white mindset of my adoptive country but I have also spent over a decade embracing my once removed cut-off Asian heritage. My current pride in being Asian didn’t happen easily because I was adopted in an era without education to advise parents that our cultural and racial heritage is of immense importance. I had to put years of concerted effort into reclaiming back my birth heritage, race and culture. So I find this period of overt racism against Chinese/Asians as very confronting. It reminds me of how I once use to hate my own Asian-ness. I was teased as a child for how different I looked — picked on for my slanting eyes, flat nose, and non European profile. I grew up isolated being the only non-white person in my community as a child. I know that for many Asian adoptees (and many adoptees of colour) right now, we are having to relive those racist moments all over again.
What has been particularly triggering recently, is to see the American President choosing to consciously speak about the COVID-19 disaster with pointed fingers at a whole race, calling it the “Chinese Virus”. I felt personally offended. Did you?
When a leader of the world’s superpower labels a whole race in such a negative manner it overtly tells us that racism is very real, acted out by those highest in power. They make it appear as if it’s “normal”, “okay”, “justified” to do so —- but racism should never be okay! So adoptive families, if you haven’t recognised that we intercountry and transracial adoptees experience racial micro aggressions every day, I hope that this period in time, is your wake up call!
Racism is one of the most common issues we intercountry adoptees end up having to navigate. Facing racism and having to constantly explain why we look Asian (or any colour different to the majority) but speak, think and act like a white person in our adoptive country is a constant challenge. This has been documented in many of the resources we adoptees contribute to and create, eg. The Colour of Difference and The Colour of Time. Sadly, not all adoptive parents recognise the racism we experience and many are definitely not equiped to know how to prepare us for it.
Some more-awoke-adoptive-parents have recently asked what they can do to support their adoptive children who are of Asian descent. I’m sharing this advice from Mark Hagland, a Korean adoptee who has been co-educating adoptive parents at this facebook group for many years:
“I think that parents absolutely need to find ways to explain the situation and the environment to their Asian children. Of course, whatever they say must be age-appropriate and sensitive to the individual temperament and stage of development of their individual child/ren. And every child is different. But all children deserve the truth–sensitively and lovingly shared, of course.
Some parents will inevitably say things like, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly harm my child! I want her/him to remain innocent for as long as possible!” Any such sentiment reveals white privilege. All children of colour end up experiencing racism. The least loving thing possible is to avoid preparing one’s child to experience the inevitable. Far better to lovingly explain to one’s child that there are going to be difficult experiences out there, but that they will be okay because they will be supported by you, their parents.
I often tell parents of young children that even the youngest children can understand the concept of fairness. Start with that, if you have a young child. Start with the idea that some people are mean/unfair just because of how someone looks or where they’re from. It IS mean/unfair. With a young child, we need to prepare that child without imparting fear or trauma.
I made sure as a young adult to move to a very large, diverse, welcoming, progressive city in order to live in psychological comfort. And this is literally the first time as an adult that I’m even the least bit worried about experiencing aggressions or micro aggressions against me personally, in the city where I live. I believe it will mostly be okay, but who can say for certain?“
I have also been like Mark and as an adult, I ended up relocating myself to a city area that is much more diverse than where I grew up. In my city of Sydney, Australia, I have found a place to belong where I’m not the only Asian or non white person in my community. I have also married into an Asian family which has helped me immensely to embrace my race.
For young adult adoptees, if you are struggling at the moment due to the increase in racism you see directed towards Asians from COVID-19, I highly recommend joining adoptee led groups and communities where you can connect with others and be supported by your peers. There’s nothing like being able to freely speak amongst a group of people who understand what it’s like! The validation and peer support is invaluable. If you have found yourself hugely triggered and struggling emotionally, please seek out further professional support and surround yourself with a strong support network of people who understand what it’s like to be a racial minority. Here is also a link with some great tips.
Right now it’s not an easy time for anyone, but for adoptees and any people of colour, it is a heightened time for being a target of racist acts/comments and/or for being triggered. Please take time to nurture yourself and join into communities who do their best to support and understand you. Let’s all: