Can a famous example of conservation teach us anything about adoption? Most people can’t see a correlation but I do! Less than a hundred years ago, there were just 16 whooping cranes left in North America. These beautiful majestic birds were near the brink of extinction. Men who over hunted and destroyed the bird’s habitat also became its savior. People dressed in bird costumes attended to the young chicks.
In nature, it is not uncommon for cranes to lay two eggs. When this happens, the parents would ignore the weakest of the chicks and let it perish. However, at the conservatory, the scientists would raise the chicks in groups. The whooping cranes are carefully incubated and then hatched inside a plexiglass to observe a real whooping crane. This is done to imprint the chicks with what a real mother would look like.
Individuals meticulously ensure that the whooping crane chicks are attended to, using puppets that teach the young chicks how to find food and drink water. The puppet would mimic drinking water and then raise its head back as the crane does in nature. The attendants would teach the young cranes how to fly. They used an ultra-light plane to lead the cranes on a short flying lesson and eventually lead the cranes from Canada and fly them down to southern Florida. The scientists spared no expense and the average cost to raise a chick to adulthood cost around US$100,000.
The program was hailed as a huge success because the sixteen original whooping cranes that had four breeding females grew to a flock of more than 500 whooping cranes in the wild. Numerous documentaries were made about the success of this 11-year-long endeavor. The picture of the ultra-light plane leading a group of whooping cranes was popularized and shown in newspapers across the globe. The birds were then flown into their mating territory and the birds paired together and laid eggs. However, the overwhelming majority of birds would abandon their eggs after laying them. Of the 500 birds, only two or three mating pairs successfully hatched their chicks. This puzzled the scientists and after much consideration, they deduced the likely causation for this problem stemmed from the bird’s unorthodox upbringing. The scientists said it best by stating:
“They have so much baggage from a screwed-up and not normal childhood”!
Does this story sound familiar to you? Because it looks eerily familiar to some of the adoptees I’ve met and their lives. No matter how well the adoptive parents treated their adoptive child – they may have grown up as a disappointment to the adoptive parents or had a hard time adjusting to their new surroundings. Other times, the adoptees look to be successful: they have degrees from reputable schools, they drive high-end cars and attain high levels of success. But after closer examination, you might find their personal life to be a total disaster.
Like these cranes, some adoptees look like they achieve success but a small flaw prevents them from achieving full potential. I have met numerous adoptees incapable of keeping a relationship or keeping a partner. They might behave over clingy and suffocate anyone they come across, they might privately deal with overwhelming guilt or anxiety, or perhaps prone to performing some other social faux pas.
Like the whooping chicks, the interactions before or during our upbringing may have made an indelible mark on our lives. It may stem from the lack of empathy or touch when we were young. The traumatic experience of being separated from our mother at a certain age, or being left alone in dark bedrooms, or forced to lie still for hours in our cribs, changed the course of our personalities and lives. No matter how wonderful our lives are afterward, we are faced to confront issues that we cannot fathom or explain.
I think these birds explain in some part why adoptees are four times more likely to commit suicide, or why they are disproportionately represented with learning disabilities and have higher than average rates of drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders and incarceration. The reason for both the birds and adoptees is that we all had to deal with living without our natural mothers.
You can hear the story about the cranes in detail on a podcast called Radiolab:
For more on issues that plague many adoptees see:
In third grade, I was in Mrs. Peterson’s class and given the assignment to do a family history project. I asked my adoptive parents about the project and they stated my Aunt Eirene had worked on the family tree and traced back across several hundred years. My family automatically skipped the fact that my own biological family existed and was not included. I was adopted at the age of four and a half years old. I had a lot of residual memories from my childhood but did not understand the things that I could recall. I was told I had an overactive imagination and that I daydreamed a lot. Later as an adult, I met numerous other adoptees and many of them had fantasies about their biological families. Some adoptees had dreamt that their biological families were royalty, others that their biological families were wealthy and looking for them.
I recently met a bunch of adoptees. One shared about identifying with a podcast in which a male adoptee fantasized that his parents were royalty and were looking for him. During the conversation it was stated,”Who knows – one of us might be royalty!”
On the day of the family tree assignment I stood up in front of the class and talked about my biological father being very old and that he fought in the Korean War. I also talked about army men marching past our village and seeing their tanks and machine guns. I was recalling events as best I could from memory. It is true that it is highly improbable that my father was in his late forties or early fifties when he had children. A simple calculation of the age of most fighting soldiers during the Korean War would fall within a narrow range of ages. It was highly improbable that my father was that old. The town where I had lived was located several hours south of Seoul and was not as heavily guarded as the Korean border or coastal cities. An initial impression might consider I was on the cusp of telling great tales. In fact, the teachers concernedly told my adoptive parents what I recalled in class and said I had a heightened sense of imagination. I was chastised by my adoptive parents for lying.
In my early twenties, I joined the military and selected to serve in Korea. While I was there, I learned that the construction of Korea’s expressway number 1 began in 1968 and was completed in the summer 1970. The 660 mile stretch of highway became the main artery that moved commerce from the ports of Pusan through the capital city of Seoul and up to the North Korean border. This main expressway is the second oldest and most heavily traveled expressway in Korea. It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that this corridor was also the main route for the movement of troops and military equipment. It so happens that the highway passes along the outskirts of Cheong-Ju, the town that I grew up in. The memories of seeing soldiers walking alongside the road past my village is highly probable. As for my father for being old, I was confused about that. In my formative years, I was living with my grandfather because my father was away from home. I mistook my grandfather for being my father. I have memories of being ridiculed and told I was being untruthful. These memories flood my mind as I write this. I never meant to lie, all I did as a young child was to do my best to explain what I recalled.
DNA testing with 325Kamra has taken me all over the globe and as a result, I’ve been able to meet thousands of intercountry adoptees. During these travels, I’ve heard numerous stories that were often stranger than fiction. The first story is about one of the few Caucasian children adopted by a Korean family. Both families worked together in diplomatic channels and the boy’s parents were both killed in a motor vehicle accident. The Korean family took the orphaned boy in immediately and raised him as their own. I met this individual during my first tour to Korea when we were both stationed in Tong-du-chon in the mid-nineties.
In Europe, I met a Korean man adopted by a Korean family and a Korean girl raised by a Jamaican family. From all the stories that have been shared with me, about 99.9% of all Korean adoptees were adopted to Caucasian families. The unique adoption stories also occurred in the United States. In the early nineties, my next-door neighbor was a Korean adoptee and she was actually found by her biological father. Her father worked hard in the construction business and became a millionaire. He hired a private detective to find his daughter in America and he showered her with gifts. He paid off her mortgage and the costs to refurbish her home. He even threw in tickets to fly the whole family to visit him in Korea.
In college, I started the first multi-cultural diversity club on my university campus. As the president, I was invited to visit other campuses around the state and I met up with Korean student groups in Cornell, NYU and various universities on the East Coast. At one student conference, I met a Korean adoptee who was raised in a Jewish family. She was able to recite part of the Torah and read Hebrew. What I learned from these interactions is that adoptee lives are as varied by the families who adopt them. Things that adoptees might dream about, can actually occur.
I think it is a common practice for adoptees to fantasize or dream about who their parents are. What I found interesting is that the fantasies are rarely about common everyday individuals. I’ve never heard an adoptee tell me that they believe their parents were librarians or bakers. I mostly heard things like, “I think my family was royalty” or the extreme opposite of the spectrum and believe their mother was a prostitute. I think many adoptees make sense or cope with their adoption by making up stories. I think this is a normal occurrence and families and friends should not dismiss everything that adoptees might share as memories. As in my story, I was able to verify everything with my biological family after I found them. As for finding a princess … I found a Korean adoptee who was able to trace her family back to the last princess of Korea. I met her in Germany – very fitting, since it’s the land of a thousand castles!
My recommendation for adoptees who believe in the stories you are told or you have created to cope with life is: you never know – maybe you will be the next adoptee whose life is stranger than fiction!
The meditation hall at Garchen Institute in Chino Valley was brightly colored with royal reds, canary yellows, lush greens and deep blues. Buddhist thankas adorned the walls. A gorgeous mandala was in the center of the floor that held sacred items and offerings. Brilliant candles and Buddha statues lined the front. Reverent lamas sat in the front right, reciting traditional Tibetan mantras. I sat on the opposite corner, behind the mandala, near the isle, hidden from sight from the lamas. In this meditation space, I received my Vajrakalaya empowerment. In this space, I gave my Bodhisattva vows.
Why was I doing this, you ask?
In light of the storm of adoption awareness month and the struggles within me as an adoptee, I was here to purify my heart and mind.
The Vajrakilaya and Vajrayana Buddhism
In this Vajrakilaya Drupchen retreat, I generally understood that the empowerment was designed in a way to vanquish the obscurations in my heart and mind, to clear the “poisons” that tend to aggregate within me in the material world, which cloud the original pure nature of every one of us–that is love and compassion. According to Garchen’s website, Vajrakilaya is a wrathful manifestation of Vajrasattva, the Buddha of Purification. Thus, the practice in this Vajrakilaya retreat focuses on removing intense inner and outer obstacles to peace, happiness and enlightenment.
The Vajrakilaya is a part of Vajrayana Buddhism, and these teachings express that the source of suffering is the self-grasping of the “I” that doesn’t exist. The altruistic goal in these practices is to cultivate Bodhicitta or enlightened compassion within ourselves, which is also the nature of the Buddha. This compassion cultivation is the antidote that can dispel all suffering from ourselves and others. Thus, the Vajrakilaya is like a vehicle that cultivates compassion inside us, and in an accelerated pace.
Here is a video of me receiving the empowerment. I enter the video stage left at about 7:12:16. And to be honest, I had no idea what I was doing.
Garchen Rinpoche first applied a scepter to the crown of my head and chanted. I walked to the next lama. In a second, I was instructed to put my left hand out. This lama suddenly poured wine into my palm. At that moment, I felt really surprised, because I simply wasn’t expecting that.
I walked to the next lama, my hand still out. Next, this lama plopped a mid-sized, round seed into the liquid in my palm, and now, total puzzlement descended upon me. I halted, wondering hard at what I was supposed to do. I took a few more steps. “Drink,” this lama instructed, so without hesitation, I basically slammed the contents into my mouth. With the wine and the seed in my mouth, my tongue whirled around the objects, and I swallowed the liquid. I halted in front of the lama with the grape basket.
Oh no. What am I supposed to do now? I thought.
This lama ushered me to take a grape, so I took a grape. Not knowing what I was supposed to do with this grape either, I threw it in my mouth instantly, which I believe was the seed of longevity. The last lama had a bit of a half-grin watching me. It seemed he then remembered to give me a bracelet, and then I walked back to my seat as gracefully as I could.
I gulped the empowerment seed as I found my seat, trying not to choke or make a face. After that, I started reciting prayers.
The drubchen is one of the most powerful yidam or diety practices that include continuous recitation of mantras to aid in watering the empowered seed planted within. It is usually for about 7 to 10 days of uninterrupted practice, and for this retreat it was 8 days. Several days of drubchen is equivalent to years of solitary retreat. It is practiced to create a transcendent environment for the deity to arise, and to destroy the forces within us that are counteracting our compassion. At the meditation hall, there was a blend of sacred rituals including trumpets, dances, as well as incense burned to stimulate the senses.
For this retreat, I wasn’t there continuously. The center’s guest quarters were all booked for this drubchen, so staying off site made way for commuting and having breaks. This turned out very good for me.
Knowing myself, I tend to push myself too hard at times. Most new practices for me need to be at my own pace, so I can gently submerse myself.
In my breaks, I stayed in a hotel nearby. I listened to the live Youtube feed that the institute showed during the drubchen sessions, meditating at the hotel. There, I practiced Vipassana meditation too.
I was at the center practicing most days. I hopped in my car early in the morning and drove back at sunset. Still, I felt the need to be gradual for this. I knew that next time, I will be better prepared and more disciplined.
Working With Negative Energies Effectively
I look back at myself in this video and admit, I chuckle to myself. As an adult adoptee with internal struggles, I’ve taken so much of my life and thoughts seriously. But lately, I’ve been practicing Buddhism to shake off my deathly seriousness, and expel my negative energies and obscurations, which have kept me locked into habits and afflictions for so long.
I hope to be lighter and more controlled with what I have inside me–which includes adoptee anger, that Lynelle writes about in a blog post.
By doing these practices, I make a personal effort to control and next, turn my most negative emotions into positive thoughts, feelings and actions.
The goal in these practices is to practically manage my life and energies more effectively, so that I may be useful in today’s society.
What’s Coming Up Next
I’ll be heading to see Amma, a well-known hugging saint, next week in Northern California! I will be attending this Bay Area Retreat with my friend, with more photos and experiences to share soon.
I was stationed in Korea for eight years and have made more than a dozen trips to Korea since I left in 2007. During my last visit to Itaewon, I came across a small bronze statue of a girl sitting on a chair, next to an empty chair, located at the stoplight intersection closest to the US military base. I read the inscription on the plaque and learned that the statue of a young girl wearing a traditional hanbok with clenched fists commemorates the estimated 200,000 girls and women who were forced into prostitution to service the Japanese during WWII.
Currently, there are 40 comfort women statues erected in and outside of South Korea, located in the United States, Canada, Australia and China. The statue is a visible reminder of the abhorrent pain and suffering the Japanese brought upon so many lives. It’s believed that three-quarters of all comfort women have already died and those that survived, told unspeakable accounts of torture.
In recent years, many comfort women have been outspoken and demanded apologies and reparation for what they endured. In 1994, the Japanese government set up a public fund called the Asian Women’s Fund (AWF) to provide compensation to the countries where the Japanese had occupied during the war and enslaved the women for sexual exploitation. In recent years, there has been a public outcry by the Korean citizens against the Japanese government for sweeping this gross violation under the rug. The Japanese government has never officially recognised nor apologised for the exploitation of women in this manner.
The Japanese could learn how to do the right thing from their WWII allies. The German government has apologized for their atrocities during WWII and they’ve erected a Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. The US government apologized five times to the American Japanese for their involvement in rounding up citizens and sending them to internment camps. Furthermore, the US House and Senate apologized for their wrongdoings to their own citizens, apologizing for slavery and the Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation in the United States.
However, this story doesn’t end with the Japanese. I agree that the comfort women deserve both an apology and reparation for their pain and suffering. I believe this is the proper thing to do. But I want to point out the hypocrisy of the Korean government as they use the same tactics and verbiage of the Japanese government as to how they also deal with the issue of the 200,000 children displaced through intercountry adoption. Korean society ignores that adoptees suffer from adoption trauma as well as a moral injury. Many of my fellow adoptees can remember being forced on planes and sent into the arms of strangers. The psychological damage for many adoptees go beyond that one experience and the US Department of Health and Human Services study estimates the percentage of adopted people seen in mental health settings fall within the range of 5 to 12%, or 2.5 to 6 times the percentage of adopted children in the general population.
Adopted people are nearly four times more likely to attempt suicide, according to a study published in the online journal of Pediatrics. The Institute for Family Studies learned through their studies that adoptees are more likely to have difficulties through school and are four times more likely to repeat a grade and three times more likely to be expelled from school. The rosy outcomes promoted by pro-adoption groups in the US and elsewhere are very misleading. The media largely ignores the adoption stories that are about death, rape, abuse and neglect. Numerous adoptees have endured horrific lives, not unlike those of comfort women.
Like the comfort women, adoptees are being ignored by the same government that caused the initial pain and suffering. Adoptees are asking for honesty when their histories are being shared. They ask for honesty and transparency. It’s statistically impossible for all adoptees to have been abandoned and left on doorsteps of every police station in Seoul.
Adoptees have taken matters into their own hands and have become videographers, sharing their stories and showing the flaws in the records and the stories that were told to them. The truth may be that the records of children were switched at birth or exchanged with other children who had more favorable stories.
Adoptees are speaking out and want to be told the truth even if it means there is nothing in our files. The government programs providing assistance to adoptees are largely run by Korean Nationals and have little to no input from adoptees. How can the largest stakeholder have no voice in designing the programs that are meant to support them? Doesn’t it make sense for the Korean government to hire Korean adoptees to support fellow Korean adoptees?
The red tape and lies don’t stop here. Numerous Korean families have been outspoken because they were given lies and the run-around when they enquire to find their children sent abroad. Furthermore, the organizations supposedly providing support to Korean adoptees are largely tone deaf and not motivated to provide assistance. I met a Korean adoptee who was diagnosed with liver failure and when he turned up for assistance, he was given little to none and died a slow and painful death.
Sadly, that is not an isolated case. Adoptees who are stranded and deported to Korea have reached out to the Korean government for resources and support. They were met with a plethora of demands from the Korean government in order to obtain assistance. Individuals with possible learning difficulties or prior formal educational experience were expected to pass Korean language classes to receive benefits. The benefits given were not enough for these adoptees to meet their basic needs. These adoptees then turned to their adoptee peers to pay for basic necessities such as food and clothing. I know this from first hand experience.
I met an adoptee just prior to his death and I have worked with adoptee-led organizations who raise funds to support the deported adoptees in crisis in Korea. I have also met with adoptees who erected the statue in memory of murdered adoptee Hyunsu O’Callaghan. The reality is that the real work for adoptees still comes from fellow adoptees.
3 NOV 15 Korean Herold article stated: “Kang Tae-in, a representative of a group of Korean birth families, said it was untrue that most birth parents don’t want to be found. He said many members of his group have tried to search for their children, only to be insulted and lied to by adoption agencies”.
The Korean government imposes restrictions that make it hard for adoptees to find their biological families. Adoptees have been forced to resolve issues on their own. A group of Korean adoptees got together to start a non-governmental organization (NGO) called 325KAMRA, largely funded by Thomas Park Clement, a Korean adoptee sent to America. 325KAMRA was formed because there was no consolidated DNA database widely available for Korean adoptees around the world to search for their biological families. There are approximately 150,000+ Korean adoptees in America and 50,000+ Korean adoptees in Europe – many of them wish to find biological family in Korea.
The South Korean Police have a separate database that started in 2004 and it has been used largely for missing people. Adoptees can access this but only if their adoption paperwork states that they were not given up by their parents. According to a news article in 2013, this police database had 24,764 samples from “missing people (mainly people with intellectual disabilities at institutions) while only 1,732 family members of missing persons had registered their DNA in this database. As of 2013, since 2004 there had been only 236 cases of reunion (children under age 14 (110 cases) and disabled (112 cases)).
325Kamra has been extremely successful compared to the closed system established in Korea.
As of November 2018, 325KAMRA has enabled 70 adoptees to be re-connected with biological families through DNA matches, genetic genealogy and DNA detective work. Moreover, there have been at least 100 matches to close family members using autosomal DNA tests. That means 170 Korean adoptees have found biological family through the use of autosomal DNA tests in the last three years. This is 72% of what the Korean police database yielded in over a decade. To date, Thomas Park Clement and 325Kamra have distributed over 4,700 DNA kits to Korean adoptees – primarily in the United States, Europe and Korea.
3 NOV 15 Korean Herold article states: “According to the law, one can access their birth records without their birth parents’ permission only if the birth parent is dead or cannot be found, or the adoptee has a medical condition or other reason for doing so.”
I personally think the Korean government needs to be reminded of their own obligations. We should use the same tactics that have been used by the Korean government against the Japanese. We should erect statues by every comfort woman to remind them that another group of individuals is also being overlooked.
I recommend we erect a statue of a younger girl squatting on the ground in her hanbok crying. The girl is crying is because she is forcibly removed from her homeland and exported to a foreign country via intercountry adoption. It’s a girl because a larger percentage of adoptees sent out of Korea are females.
If we don’t speak out, then the Korean government will continue to reduce the support promised for adoptees. To date, the Korean government has already slashed operating expenses which funded adoptee programs – programs such as the travel exchange program that facilitated the return to homeland for adoptees. What also needs fixing is the loopholes in Korea’s legal system. For example the 2012 Adoption Law gives adoptees the right to petition for their birth records but the same request cannot be granted to biological parents wanting to search.
Korea can be a beacon for other countries involved in intercountry adoption but there is still much work that needs to be accomplished. It will require adoptees to speak up and petition the Korean government in order to make real changes. I pray we can accomplish this before all our parents pass away.
Further Reading (articles cited):
http://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/news/article/article.aspx?aid=3042845 Be Tenacious – How to get your Identity Back
On 15 October 2018, four Chinese intercountry adoptees were brutally murdered in their home by their white adoptive mother in Columbia, Tennessee. We honor the deaths of 14 year old Bo Li, 14 year old Meigin Lin, 15 year old Lian Lin and 17 year old Kaleigh Lin.
In light of National Adoptee Awareness Month, I assert the mantra:
“Adoption creates a different life, not necessarily a better one” for adoptees.
This is a re-imagining (fiction) of the final hours from the perspective of Bo Li, one of the Chinese adoptees murdered not so long ago.
A sound like a firecracker went off. I instantly looked up from the game I was playing on my phone and turned my head around looking for the sound. A couple more bangs followed as if a fireworks show was beginning. But that seemed highly improbable and I wondered where the sound was coming from. I thought maybe they were coming from outside, but they sounded closer. Maybe one of my siblings was just slamming the door really loudly. Our house was rather large and we could each hang out in a room without anyone else and the sound could have come from anywhere. I wasn’t too concerned though and returned to my phone.
BANG! BANG! The same sound echoed through my ears and I began to feel a sense of fear as the same sounds rang out again. A sense of dread came over me. For some reason this feeling of fear felt familiar, as if I’d been really afraid before in my life but I couldn’t remember. My body was in its own fight or flight mode. What was happening in our home? Would the sound happen again? I paused my game and it grew surprisingly quiet. I listened carefully for any sound in the house. There was some rustling and what appeared to be footsteps, but I wasn’t too sure. I texted Meigin and Kaleigh to see if they heard something and then went back to crushing my game.
BANG! BANG! Yet again the sounds pierced the air and I knew for sure they were coming from our house. My siblings didn’t return my texts and fear was beginning to beat in my heart more rapidly. I knew my mother had two guns in our home but couldn’t for the life of me imagine what was going on. I was confused and didn’t want to get up and check. It felt like there was something wrong, like an alarm was going off that just continued to ring louder inside my head. As quietly as I could, I closed my bedroom door and hid under the bed because I didn’t want to leave my room. My limbs felt like giant pieces of stone. A cold sweat broke out over my body as I shivered in fear. An eerie silence filled the house as I couldn’t hear anything. Minutes passed and then, I heard a sound. Footsteps were approaching and growing louder as they came nearer to my room. The pit in my stomach immediately dropped and became empty as anxiety and fear filled it from top to bottom. Were my siblings dead? Was my mom dead? Was this the end for me? I wasn’t even old enough to drive, or to go to my first homecoming dance. I don’t know my birth parents and I also feel like I have lost my adopted father. Will I lose even more? Why was this happening? Was this our mom or one of my siblings? Was it a complete stranger?
The footsteps were now walking outside my room as shadows began to show from beneath the door. I heard the doorknob turn and the door swung open. The shoes of the mother I loved were entering. What happened to my siblings, I thought? Why would she do something like this? She loves me, right? The footsteps came to a stop a few feet inside the room and I heard a voice say, “Bo, it’s me, it’s okay. Bo, come on out. I won’t hurt you, I promise.” The same voice I had heard for years that had provided me so much comfort, now gave me so much fear. I wanted so badly for her to be telling the truth but my gut told me otherwise. I was so confused. Did she love me? What was this sinking feeling in my stomach? However, my body betrayed me. My muscles began to move of their own accord in response to the mother I loved, who I knew, deep down, loved me. But was this love? Before I knew it, I got up from under the bed and stood shakily.
There was a look I had never seen before in my mother’s eyes, as if something had gotten loose and made her crazy. I glanced at her hands and saw a gun in them. My gut told me this was the end but I wanted to believe with all my heart that this wasn’t going to happen. Was my life going to end so quickly? Was this why I was adopted? To be killed by the people who claim to love me, to protect me, to be there forever? My heart was bursting with sadness, confusion, and anger. My brief life was flashing rapidly before me.
With tears in my eyes, I looked back up into hers and whispered so softly, “Mom, why?” Without missing a beat and probably before she changed her mind, she quickly raised her gun towards me and said with a pained look and tears in her eyes, “I’m so sorry.”
BANG! BANG! My eyes glazed over as my focus could only see the barrel of the gun pointed at me. I was falling, losing sight of the lights in my head. My head grew heavier and heavier and the ringing in my ears grew louder. As I drew my last breaths I hit the floor and thought, “Goodbye dear world, to all the memories I shall never know nor have. Alas, my time has come. Farewell”.
I get up in the morning and I try. That’s basically what it’s like every morning as an adult adoptee. Whenever I look back in my mind, my past stretches past a million acres of difficult terrain that’s emotionally challenging and left psychological imprints on me. An adoptive family I never got that close with. A birth family in the Philippines that I met but also couldn’t get close with. Memories that are warm and fuzzy, hard and cold; and the cherished ones I made for myself growing up in the Midwest of the United States that are whimsical–full of bright stars, meditation, books and humorous moments.
As an adult adoptee, I am 33, and I recognize that it’s taken me longer to do many things. It took me longer to find myself, love myself, search for answers, travel, learn about my “sanskaras” or psychological/emotional/spiritual imprints made within me from how I was born, raised and developed as a child through adulthood. It’s taken me longer to understand the world and myself, push past my own fears and barriers, and finally, have healthy relationships which is one of my ultimate goals. It’s taken me longer to find my callings in life and professions that suit my personality and talents too.
What I want to stress in this blog is being alone. It’s hard to address because I wish I were more popular and successful as a person but I’m going to write where I am in life now. I’ve been more isolated as a human being in this world and I believe it’s due to my own hardships. Due to its own uniqueness, I’ve had to work on my problems alone, solve them on my own and seek therapies and healing modalities that best suit me as I’ve gotten older. I don’t know if anyone else relates to this, but it is hard doing all of this and feeling so alone.
A difficult hurtle has been to forgive and accept myself for where I am today. I have flaws, quirks and imperfections. I’m often hard on myself for being sort of odd. I know I don’t fit the image of being normal. I get tired of my ups and downs and everyday is a hurtle onwards. I know I’m at-risk due to my complex background and undiagnosed PTSD, which calls for tight management on myself. I have to constantly be vigilant on my therapies, keeping mentally positive, keeping connected with life and God as best as I can, and keep open and social with others even though it’s hard. Every day.
In the end, I can’t give up. Some answers for my own life is to substitute teach for the day, work in a library or go home and shut out the world, turn on music, make art and journal write. Living in Northern Arizona, I like to hike, drive out to Sedona and visit my favorite stupa or drive to my favorite Buddhist institute, the Garchen Buddhist Institute in Chino Valley, Arizona where I learn, meet others and practice in what I’m passionate about. I feel alone, but every day, I work on my goals, as well as forgiving, letting go, accepting myself and embracing the world as it is. Being in nature helps. And, always learning.
It is a fight at times but it’s worth it.
I began alone in this world but we all do. This life itself has been my most challenging story to tell, a story beyond words. A human story that has so many threads, and naturally, some threads will break in places when worn too thin. But this is where I pick up and weave my own story. This is where I can live all over again in a new way. And, this is where I can connect with others and move forward from the past, by living in the present.
So in this month of November during National Adoption Awareness Month, I encourage everyone reading this, and any who can relate, to keep trying. Every day is a hurtle, a journey, a timeless opportunity of creation. Every day, we can live and weave this life with what we’re given. Even if we feel alone.
As a child, I remember playing near the burn pits that laid by the small village of unpainted traditional Korean style homes (Hanoks). They nestled below a small outcrop of mountains, located in central Korea. My brother grabbed my hand to take me to see the prize he had found lying in the small garbage heap near our modest home. Among the charred remains of the trash there laid a couple of discarded light bulbs glistening in the harsh summer sun. We laughed as we smashed the bulbs into small shards of glass.
The small journey to the garbage pile and playing had worked up an appetite and I told my brother I was hungry. “Come follow me!” he called. I ran behind him as we raced down the trail towards the community garden. We stopped for a minute to catch our breath and we scanned the garden to find something to eat. There amongst the tall weeds, we found the brightly yellow-colored melons called chamoe. It begged us to bite into its juicy flesh. I grabbed one of the fruits hungrily and sunk my teeth into the hard flesh. The fruit wasn’t ripe and it had a bitter taste. I threw the fruit on the ground in disgust and we ran home to see if grandma could make us something delicious to eat.
By the time we arrived home, it was nearing dusk and my stomach hurt with the pains of hunger. My brother ratted me out, telling my grandfather I had tried to eat the unripened fruit. My grandfather gingerly placed me on his lap and started patting my stomach in a circular motion to reduce the pain. I immediately fell asleep and was woken up by the sounds of feet pitter-patting around the rice mat floors. It was the sound of my brothers and sisters getting ready for school. I too got up, to walk my siblings down the country dirt road to school. As we walked, I was chastised by my siblings and told to go back home. I stood at the end of the dirt road waving goodbye as I watched my family vanish down the road that wound amongst rice paddies and train tracks, covered by the cool mist of the morning fog.
When I was married and in my mid-thirties, I asked my aunt to give me the contact information to meet up with my half siblings who I remembered from my youth. We made a phone call and I waited anxiously to see if we could connect. The person on the other end of the line was the wife of one of my older brothers and she was scathing mad that I was trying to connect with my siblings. She told me, “This is in the past and that is where it needs to stay!”
Several months later, I called the family again hoping to get my brother on the phone. I was chastised again for calling and disrupting the family. I was rejected, never to be allowed to reunite with the family from my childhood memories.
I sat uncomfortably on the hard lino covered floor of a traditional Korean Restaurant. The smells, sights and sounds so foreign to me. Just moments earlier, I had felt like I was on an epic journey “around the world in 80 days” with my aunt. That same morning my aunt was waiting for me at the entrance of the military camp where I was stationed. We rode the 5-hour long journey using a variety of transport: the jerky movements and clackity sounds of a train, the bumpy, vinyl covered back seat on a community bus that bellowed black smoke, and then a short ride on the Hyundai cab to the restaurant. None of the transport had air-conditioning and the hot sun beat down on my black hair. My brain felt as though it was boiling from the inside out. Large beads of sweat flowed from my brow when I arrived to meet my biological family.
When I entered the small restaurant, I scanned my eyes around to look for my new family. I caught a glimpse of my beautiful sister and then my father. It was odd for me to see someone who looked like me but a much older age. I felt as though I were in a time machine to meet a much older version of myself. My father’s head was covered with thinning grey hair and a receding hairline. The sunken cheeks and the deep wrinkles above the brow were telltale signs of a defeated person. My father was looked down at the table in shame.
I was asked questions about my life in America and how I liked Korea. Once all the niceties were exchanged my father asked, “Why did you look for me?” I was dumbfounded by the question and as I was about to answer, a blur entered through the front entrance and walked up to our table. A short stout young man entered the room with a wide grin on his face. His light brown eyes scanned the room looking at his dad and then at me … his face was distorted with confusion and then he rushed up to me and gave me a bear hug and began sobbing in my arms. I look like a younger replica of my father and my brother recognized that I was his brother immediately.
As a child, I remembered the siblings I had grown up with. I never assumed my father would marry again but via his third marriage, he brought two more siblings into this world for me to unite with.
The pecking order went like this: the four half brothers and sisters I grew up with in Chong-Ju, my sister and I who were sent to America, and the two half-siblings from my father’s third marriage. My father was a success in being a prolific procreator. My father’s personal decisions led to his first two separations and sadly his third wife succumbed to illness when her children were beginning elementary school. I think I bonded with my half siblings because they knew how it felt to grow up without a mother.
Within a year of uniting with my sibling, my father had a stroke that made him fully dependent for care. My younger sister Mi-san faithfully went to my father’s home each day to feed and bathe him. I wanted to be part of my siblings’ lives but the language barrier prevented me from picking up the phone or arriving at their doorstep to visit.
A year after I kindled the beginnings of a new relationship with my new family, I received orders from the military to move back to the United States. There was a five-year separation where life was a blur and my day to day actives was filled with school and work. In 1998, I received another chance to reunite with my family in 2001 when I was given assignment orders to South Korea as a second lieutenant. I was so happy to again partake in their lives. I attended my sister’s wedding, the birth of her daughter and visited their small home that was established near the place of my birth.
Life happens in a blur and six years later, I was once again moved away in 2007 due to my reassignment by the Army. As I left Sth Korea, I assumed I would get the chance to hang out with my new found brother and sister when I retired from military service. I hoped I would again have a chance to play with their kids, go on trips and share in the bounties of life.
In 2011 when I was serving in Afghanistan, I received an email from my aunt stating my brother had died unexpectantly in his sleep. My heart was crushed and I immediately flew back to Korea to bury my younger brother. I learned one of life’s hardest lessons: that we cannot always look to the future to share and bond with those most important to us.
Taken for Granted
I was one of the lucky few adoptees to be adopted with a biological sibling. Initially, my sister was the annoying younger sibling that followed me everywhere. She was 2½ and I was 4 ½ years old when we were sent to the United States. I began kindergarten the same year that I arrived and learnt about American culture the hard way.
I was in trouble for going with the girls to the girl’s bathroom. I was chastised for not returning the books to the school library. I received detention for copying graffiti that was already written on the gym wall. I had no idea that the words, “the principal is a fucking retard” was derogatory! Life was a learning experience and nobody understood me at all.
My sister, on the other hand, was gifted. Life was unfair and it gave all the talent to one sibling but it was not me! She was a straight-A student. She made it to the State Finals as a gifted athlete. Even though I was 2 years older, she beat me when we raced towards the school bus. I later realised I was a pretty fast runner but my sister had that rare gift as an athlete. Lastly, my sister was way better looking. She won the local beauty pageant and after I joined the Army at 17 years old, I quit showing pictures of my little sister to my Army buddies because they would always ask me to set them up on dates with her. My sister had it all: she was stunningly beautiful, extremely smart and a gifted athlete who had the potential to compete at College or even at Olympic level.
Once my sister reached adulthood she chartered a different course and over time the energetic, bright young woman who I was familiar with, morphed into someone I could not recognise. The resilient person I knew became a shell of her former self. She sought out love and married at a young age. The love she was seeking was fleeting. At the end of 3 divorces, she lost everything that mattered to her, including her own children. She squandered her opportunities. She received the GI bill to pay for College but she never enrolled.
Time took its toll, her beauty faded and the life of constant defeat opened up a crevasse that allowed her to be defeated in everything she did. The desire to be successful was now a distant memory and today she stares in the mirror wondering who the defeated person is on the other side: the older woman with a scalp of thinning grey hair, wrinkled face from living a tough life, thin frail yellow nicotine-stained fingers that work minimum wage jobs to barely make ends meet. Every time I reach out she tells me everything is fine. Yet I hear from her children about the suffering she endures. Being evicted from her home, having to sell her car way below market price to make ends meet. I can read between the lines when she speaks to me. I no longer understand her and my privileged life cannot understand the difficulties that she faces.
My family search was bifurcated. On one side, the door was slammed shut and I was met with rejection. On the other, across the hall, the door was opened for me to meet my half-siblings. The hallway that leads to my sister has been eroded by the termites of life, treading down a once familiar path now filled with navigating around an unstable sister who has squandered her life away.
This is what life has taught me:
Don’t have unrealistic expectations when it comes to searching for family.
The range of emotions and outcomes will vary with each person’s journey.
If you are searching, be prepared you may be greeted with open arms to meet a family who may not want anything to do with you. What you think will happen may be something completely different. Treasure the journey.
I’m grateful for all the people who helped me along the way to find my family. Many people went out of their way to help and guide me through the process. Sometimes it takes patience and time for relationships to blossom. Of course, the opposite can also occur. Like in the case of my biological sister, our relationship has deteriorated over time and I can no longer recognize the person she has become.
Life as an intercountry adoptee has those moments that feel extremely vulnerable and painful. I described it years ago as “peeling away layers of an onion“. I’ve had that this week. Firstly, I found out after 8 months the media company who were investigating and searching for my mother in Vietnam have failed to turn up anything substantial and no longer have funding to continue. I have spent many times over two decades trying to find a lead that will help me find my mother. In desperation I finally agreed to media taking on my case although I’m loath to having no control over how they portray one’s story. Each time after searching, I experience disappointment, grief and sadness. I give up for a while until I find the strength to be able to go through it all again. Secondly, I have spent over 10 months seeking the right experts to help me fight for my rights arising from my adoption. I’ve had to relive my years of life growing up in my adoptive home and the memories and feelings are still there. They never go away but fade into the distance because usually I get on with life and move forward. Thankfully, I don’t get stuck or spiral down anymore.
I just watched the SBS documentary Searching for Mum which follows two Sri Lankan intercountry adoptees adopted in the 1980s to the UK and their return to Sri Lanka to try and find their identity and families. There was one heartbreaking moment that resonated within me, where Rebecca went to the Registry to see if a record of her birth existed. It was her last chance to know if she had an official identity. She ended up finding out her birth was not registered at all and she is left with the confirmation that she “does not exist” on paper as a Sri Lankan identity. It struck a chord with me as I’ve lived my entire life too with little documentation except for my Vietnamese passport. The Australian government made up adoption papers and a birth certificate 17 years after my adoptive father flew to Vietnam and brought me to Australia as a 6 month old baby.
My adoptive parents and siblings teased me many times when I was growing up that I would make the “perfect spy”. They all knew and rubbed it in that I did not exist on paper anywhere. It was meant to be a “joke” but on so many levels then, and more so now, as a mature age adult I cannot fathom how or why my adoptive family were so insensitive and cruel. Only those who have an identity that they take for granted could be so thoughtless as to tease another for not knowing who they are, where they come from or having anything to show. Together with an adoption based on literally nothing – thin air – because no documents on the Vietnamese end have ever been found, I have no way to know how I came to be adopted nor to whom I originally belonged.
Last year, a private detective sent me a blury photo of what might be a Vietnamese birth certificate for me but he’s now gone underground. The media company who tried to get the Vietnamese police station to release the hoped for copy of the “real” document that the photo captures, refuse to do so. It is so excruciatingly frustrating to be held back from what is a basic human right. Like Rebecca, I just want to know who I am and the circumstances for why I was given to strangers from another country – and whether my adoption is legitimate without coercion. My journey to find the right experts so far this year, brought all this home again with a punch!
Like Rebecca, I live my life without the certainty of knowing who I am, how I came into this world, whether I was wanted or not, or who my clan is. I live with a shell for an identity – formed by my adoptive experience. Up until my adoptive family left to go overseas as missionaries at the beginning of my year 12, I had experienced quite a damaging journey that left little room to exist in a positive way. Thankfully, I found healing in my early 30s and now I mostly have a sense of peace in my “non existence”.
It blew me away to listen to the documentary Searching for Mum where one of the search detectives said, “At least 50 percent of his Sri Lankan cases in finding mothers the documentation was fabricated” and he had done over 400 cases. In my years of connecting with adult intercountry adoptees worldwide, I know of many individuals who suspect and/or confirm their documentation is false. To listen to someone who sees the outcomes of each search conducted in only one country and can quote that kind of statistic, it is a damning reality for intercountry adoptions in Sri Lanka. It matches my current project of translating into english the book Het verdriet Sri Lanka whose title translates into The Sadness of Sri Lanka. It is an eye opening book about the mothers in Sri Lanka who lost their child to intercountry adoption, written by a Sri Lankan intercountry adoptee who discovers the terrible truth about her own and so many Sri Lankan intercountry adoptions.
I know this reality is not just Sri Lanka because a good majority of our birth countries have shown the same pattern of unethical adoptions over many decades. It also matches the doubts I’ve always held about my own adoption. Until I find my Vietnamese family and hear from them myself, I don’t think I’ll ever stop wondering whether my “relinquishment” was legitimate and uncoerced. How could it be? A war torn country just like Sri Lanka. So much bribery and corruption coupled with outright child trafficking enmasse by world superpowers who believe to this day that flying out hundreds of vulnerable babies and children via Operation Babylift was a mercy mission.
How many other intercountry adoptees live their lives like myself and Rebecca with no known documents and identity, who have been removed from our country, our origins with little thought for our rights to identity? And what about those who do have documents but find they are falsified. This is where I say intercountry adoption is simply, downright wrong. A child always grows up and we have a right to know who we are, where we came from, to whom we were born and where we belonged until our adoptions. Our paperwork needs to be true and accurate because like the BBC documentary highlights, it is our ONLY source to know who we are and our origins.
To rob us of our truth by falsifying paperwork or creating an adoption based on thin air, goes against all human rights and ethics. If you cannot guarantee our original identity intact with no lies, then we shouldn’t be flying a child out of its country. Experience of adult intercountry adoptees like myself show that in being adopted to a foreign country we usually lose the ability to communicate and understand the culture and ways of our homeland. This then makes the pathway of trying to regain what is rightfully ours, even more complicated.
And what do governments or those who facilitate our adoptions say or do when we confront them with the truth of how intercountry adoption has operated and continues to operate? Or that we want help in finding our original identity and the truth? They largely turn a blind eye and do very little!
My journey to the right experts this week has made me aware that I could technically be considered “stateless”. They are now investigating this for me but it really brought home that the paperwork for my intercountry adoption is so dodgy and based on thin air. Even the Australian made up identity papers mis-spell my original name in 3 different ways on the same document. So am I even adopted?
To have confirmation that we don’t exist as an identity in our birth or adoptive country is another layer of the onion that some intercountry adoptees have to grapple with in situations like mine or Rebecca’s. It’s painful. There is a powerlessness we experience and very little can change it. We simply have to live with it and find a way to move through life and retain our hope. Like Rebecca, I live my life hoping one day I might find my mother and know the truth of who I am.
There are a lot of opinions and pieces surrounding Crazy Rich Asians right now. I am simply adding to the chorus, but from a slightly different perspective as a Chinese American intercountry adopted person. As an adoptee who watched Crazy Rich Asians, it is hard to describe all of the feelings I felt while sitting in the movie theatre, well twice. It was beautiful, funny, smart, and fun. Of course, the movie is receiving extra praise because of a cast that is all-Asian and not just the cast, but the music and the cultural representation as well. Representation matters and it was with a smile that I approached the end credits of the movie.
As an adoptee, I felt proud to see people who looked like me on the big screen. People who had similar features, presented in different shades where not every Asian was the kung fu master or nerdy IT tech support. The movie was refreshing and quite frankly a new experience, at least in major Hollywood films.
But…and this is a big but. I felt represented by the way I look, but not necessarily by how I grew up. As an adoptee I straddle in between the Asian and white cultures where I look Asian but was raised in a white household. To be honest, I am not sure I understood every joke in Crazy Rich Asians, and definitely didn’t understand every song. My parents didn’t necessarily practice the honor/shame ritual of guilting their children. I recognized it and laughed, but on an experiential level I couldn’t relate.
My immigrant story is a solo journey of going from a poor orphanage in China to a middle class white family in America. My immigrant story came without a choice and the expectation of gratefulness attached, because to some, I didn’t suffer as much as other Asian immigrant families did. That’s a topic for a different discussion. To the point however, Asian adoptees and others have struggled with identifying as Asian American or Asian because we aren’t seen as Asian enough. We are called “whitewashed” by other Asian Americans and we are clearly not white, but we are familiar with white culture because we had no choice but to be raised in it. We are left out because we don’t fit any conventional norms. We are the true bananas.
There was an article the other day of the mixed Asian actresses and whether they were “Asian enough” for the film. This type of debate only leaves my head scratching. To be clear, this is not a knock on the film. The film was great step in the right direction. I’m not asking for an all adopted Chinese American film. But if Asians complain about white people leaving them out of Hollywood and that there needs to be more representation, then surely Asians should also be open to a more diverse Asian representation and what it means to be Asian. Just like there are all different shades of what it means to be American, to some degree there can be different shades to what it means to be Asian or Asian American. I understand Asians are mostly homogenous within their own cultures and countries, but the world we are increasingly living in is multiracial and multi-ethnic. If Asians want more representation in a space they occupy like society, then maybe they should be open to others who occupy a similar space to them.
Change is slow. I get it. Crazy Rich Asians was a monumental step in opening the door for an all-Asian cast and potentially for more representation of minorities of all shapes and sizes. Personally though, I can’t wait until we can stop categorizing people and putting them in boxes just because it’s convenient or because it’s the way it’s always been. Rather, I’d like to let people blaze and add new categories and labels so they can be themselves. There is more to be done for sure but that doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t celebrate when it’s appropriate to do so. I left Crazy Rich Asians with a smile on my face and hope in my heart.