Intercountry adoptees speak often about the return to their birth country, a time defined by searching and finding. Lynelle’s recent post made me consider my relationship with Korea, the land that, over three decades ago, released me to a country made of dreams. We speak of “the return” as a journey of healing, confrontation, and conflict. Today I’m sharing my perspective on what “the return” means for me and how that phrase is set against my experience with adoption and my parents.
An ocean and several continents occupy the distance between myself and an invisible past. A past that suffers me its opacity every time I hear the word Korea.
For many years, Korea was a Bad Word, something spat out, a noun formed in the back of your throat where phlegm collected. It was shameful. It was ugly. It was full of people with flat faces and squinty eyes and coarse dark hair like me. But Korea was the country, my home in only the metaphorical sense, that I was instructed to embrace.
Many families encourage intercountry adoptees to go back, to find the place that let them go, suggesting a return trip will erase an adoptee’s discontent and otherness and experience with racism. A trip to the homeland might replace those evils with the satisfaction of a curiosity fulfilled. Perhaps this helps some adoptees. I certainly support them and I hope a trip serves those purposes and more. It has, for many, and I’m proud of them. But I have never returned, for either lack of money or desire. Here’s why.
On her deathbed, my mother urged me to Go to Korea. She had pushed for this trip my entire life, pressing me to return while things like I’m going to kick your eyes straight and Chinese people can’t be punks competed for space in my developing self-image. My mother shoved Korea at me as my Asianness became a liability, weaving her misguided request into our relationship’s growing divide.
One late afternoon, my mother sat across from me in our breezy kitchen, perched on her backless padded barstool while I did homework and complained about teenage life. Somehow, either adoption or race came up, topics we fit the criteria for but on which we ourselves boasted ignorance. She fixed her bright blue eyes on me and in that wide open kitchen asked Why don’t you like Korea? Is it because it gave you up?
I gathered my things and raged into my bedroom. Her carefully hung family portraits shook when I slammed my door. My teenage self couldn’t articulate anything but anger in response to her accusatory question. Today I understand my reaction.
From my mother’s perspective, my lack of curiosity was a flaw. She died never realizing that I couldn’t accept a country not because it “gave me up” but because years of external conditioning taught me to hate it.
But we can undo this damage. Adoptive parents eager to change the public’s one-sided adoption narrative can support adoptees struggling to find their place, to accept what fragments of a heritage they assemble as their own. We must allow adoptees the room to grow into whatever culture they choose—or not—to inhabit. Or maybe an adoptee will embrace their freedom to float freely between worlds, content in independence, drawing strength from ambiguity.
In the end, it doesn’t matter. As long as the adoptee makes the choice to visit their homeland, we must consider them independent human beings. We can operate separately from our adoptions, finding ourselves on paths we finally forged ourselves. If this happens with or without a homeland visit, it’s because the adoptee chose that way.
I’ve just returned from a 3+ week return trip to my country of birth, Vietnam. This trip attests to the mantra “adoption is a lifelong journey“! My return to homeland has been another unwrapping of the many layers in exploring who I am and where I belong.
This trip was such a contrast to the first which I made 18 years ago. In year 2000, I returned to Vietnam for the first time. I was in my late-20s. I had only just begun awakening to understand I had “adoption” and “relinquishment” issues. I certainly had no idea I had a mass of grief and loss sitting beneath the surface of my daily life.
When I arrived in Vietnam for the first time in year 2000, I was affected by overwhelming feelings I had not known existed. I remember the deep intense grieving that arose within me as we were landing at the airport. Overwhelming emotions flooded me and I spent the first week crying and trying to work out why I was crying and what it all meant.
That trip ended up being quite liberating, a wonderful and very healing visit. The most memorable moment was the local woman in the Mekong Delta who asked me in faltering english where I was from. In my broken english I explained very simply that I’d left the country as a baby and was raised by white Australians because I didn’t know my mother or father. Having lived almost 3 decades of hearing people’s response, “Oh, how lucky you are” to learning of my adoption status, this woman in the Mekong Delta had been the first to immediately comprehend my losses. She spoke my truth which resonated within when she replied, “Oh, you have missed out on so much!”
18 years later, I am a different Lynelle, no longer fragmented and confused. I am now very aware of the impacts of relinquishment and adoption. It is now 20 years later of speaking out and encouraging fellow adoptees to become proactive and share about the issues we face. This time, I returned and I felt so grounded being back in my homeland and knowing my place, time and date of birth. I revelled in being back in my district and hospital of birth. I enjoyed blending in amongst people who look like me. I felt a natural affinity to the place and people. I love the vibrancy of Ho Chi Minh City! I can now call it home because my birth certificate has been found and I know some basic truths about myself!
Clearly it wasn’t just me who could sense that I felt at home. My husband is a 3rd generation Aussie Chinese and he said to me, “Wow, I’ve just realised I’m married to a Vietnamese woman!” It was one of those humorous moments but beneath the surface, the truth in what he said was profound. I am actually Vietnamese and I feel I have finally reclaimed that part of me that was missing. I no longer feel I am just an Aussie girl, I am Vietnamese – Australian. This second visit highlighted to me the many aspects of who I am, are fundamentally, very Vietnamese!
The mother earth connection, respect for nature and nurturing things has always been within me but it became obvious during my travels in Vietnam that this is a very Vietnamese way of being. I travelled from South to North and everywhere I went, whether it was in the city or the country areas, there were so many plots of land with fields growing vegetables, flowers, rice or something. The city ways in Vietnam have not as yet forgotten the link between mother nature and our human needs.
The innate desire in me to build and be part of a community, I also saw reflected in the Vietnamese way of life. In Vietnam just the example of how they navigate around one another on the roads is amazing. People and the traffic just flow around one another, allowing each other to go their ways without aggression, pushiness or competition. There is a natural way to “work together” in harmony that resonates within me.
I am by nature a very friendly person, always interested in finding out about others at a deeper level. I found this reflected in many of the Vietnamese locals I met and spent a great deal of time with. My taxi driver Hr Hien took me for a 12 hour trip to the Floating Markets. He embraced me, a stranger really, as his little “sister“. Turns out we were actually born at the same hospital with him being only 7 years older. He sheltered and protected me all day long. He could easily have abused his position of power, given I speak no Vietnamese and he could have robbed and dumped me in the middle of the Mekong Delta. Instead, he took me for the whole day and treated me with respect, welcoming me into his life sharing his thoughts and views about Vietnamese life, culture, family, laws, and ways. When we purchased things, he would say, “Don’t say a word, I’ll tell them you’re my sister returned from Australia who left as a baby to explain why you can’t speak Vietnamese“. Then he’d negotiate for us and get the “local rate“. It was experiences like this that showed me the soul of the Vietnamese people with which I relate – the sense of looking out for others, being kind and generous in spirit.
Returning to visit the War Remnants Museum, I was once again reminded of the Vietnamese spirit of resilience, forgiveness, and ability to move on despite a terribly, ugly history of wars and atrocities. Attributes I’ve seen within my being and now I comprehend where these flow from. It’s my Vietnamese spirit, my Vietnamese DNA! I am hardwired to have survived and flourish, despite the adversities.
For me, returning to birth land has been so important to embracing all the aspects of who I am. I am a product of relinquishment and adoption, in-between two cultures, lands and people. In growing up in my adoptive country, I had been fully Australian without understanding or embracing my Vietnameseness. Now, in my mid 40s, I feel I have returned to myself. I am proudly both of my two cultures and lands. I love the Vietnamese aspects I see in myself and I also love my Australian culture and identity. I no longer feel divided but am comfortable being both at the same time.
It’s taken years of active awareness to embrace my lost identity, culture, and origins but it is a journey I wanted to do. I had realised in my late 20s that being adopted had resulted in a denial of a large part of who I am, at my very core.
I look forward to future returns to Vietnam. I hope one day it will be to reunite with my Vietnamese birth family. That will be an amazing path of discovery which will open up even further facets in discovering who I am!
I can so relate to the Lotus, the national flower of Vietnam!
To the Vietnamese, lotus is known as an exquisite flower, symbolizing the purity, serenity, commitment and optimism of the future as it is the flower which grows in muddy water and rises above the surface to bloom with remarkable beauty.
Click here for my collection of photos from this recent return trip and here for the photos from my first visit, 18 years ago.
Author, Julayne Lee, is an intercountry adoptee born in South Korea and raised in the USA. Being an avid reader but not specifically into poetry, I totally enjoyed Julayne’s book because I could relate to what she shares about her own journey and the wider sociopolitical experience as an intercountry adoptee. Her voice is one of the hundreds of thousands of Korean adoptees (KADs) to be exported from their country of birth via intercountry adoption.
Not My White Savior is a deeply engaging, emotional, haunting, and honest read. Julayne depicts so many angles of the intercountry adoptee experience, reflecting our life long journey of striving to make sense of our beginnings and who we are as a product of our relinquishment and adoption. I love the images created by her words. I admire that she left no stone unturned with her courage to speak out about the many not-so-wonderful aspects of the adoptee experience.
Some of my favorite pieces which I especially resonated with, was her letter to her mothers, racist hair, map of the body, and homeland securities.
For those intercountry adoptees who have died from the complex traumas experienced in their adopted lives, I salute Julayne for memorializing their names forever in such a potent way. Through her book, their lives will not be forgotten nor for nought.
She also packs heavy punches at her birth country and spares no empathy or excuse for giving up on so many of its children. Her words in pieces, such as Powerful Korea ICA – Internment Camps of Abduction are a powerful way of explaining the trauma KADs experience in processing the multiple layers of loss and relinquishment, not only from their birth families, but also their birth country. I loved the irreverence and truth captured in the Psalm for White Saviors.
Not being a KAD, as I am adopted from Vietnam, I found this book to be educational about some of the history of South Korea’s export of children which I was previously unaware of.
Overall, I totally recommend reading this collection of poetry for anyone who is open to thinking critically about intercountry adoption from the lived experience.
Between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, 1.5 Million DNA kits were sold online by AncestryDNA, a US-based DNA testing company. The sudden increase for DNA testing may be due to YouTube and Facebook’s large cache of emotional stories about the outcomes of DNA testing. Two YouTube video’s that stick out for me are: “DNA Journey” series by Momondo where individuals are shocked to learn they have DNA from groups they did not know about; and History Channel’s video where a man repeatedly checks his mailbox for test results – he learns of a small amount of Viking genes and celebrates this heritage with his daughters, by dressing up in traditional Viking garb on his front lawn.
The videos were emotional and popular with each getting around 4 million reviews. I didn’t need these stories to motivate me to get a DNA test. I already had a degree in biology and was scouring the internet for reasonably priced DNA tests and was one of the first individuals to test with 23&Me. The motivator for me was curiosity. I was hoping to gain some detailed information about myself that I didn’t know already. Along with most adoptees, I took a DNA test for numerous reasons:
Health: Some adoptees are worried about their health and have nothing to determine their risk. DNA tests can provide extensive health related information.
Curious:Many adoptees have a curiosity of who they are and would like to know more about their genetic make-up.
Search:Numerous adoptees want to search for their families. Several databanks exist that allow individuals to share their DNA data to be cross-matched for relatives
Validate:Some individuals may have found people potentially related to them. The surest way to determine if individuals are related is by taking a DNA test to confirm.
For me it’s frustrating to listen to people who have little to no understanding of basic science, or the courtesy to contact experts within the field, before they make judgment about DNA testing. Many people can be skeptical and ignorant about the science behind the new research and technologies. I dealt with this while working at United States Army Medical Research Unit Kenya (USAMRU-K) while assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, Africa. Our labs employed more than 600 doctors, research scientists, and nurses to work on cutting-edge research to combat Malaria, HIV and Leishmaniosis.
I began DNA testing in Europe with a non-profit organisation (NPO) 325kamra. Their mission was to give away free DNA test kits (minus a small shipping and administrative fee) to Korean adoptees who lived outside the United States and to relinquishing parents. The aim was to facilitate finding biological relatedness. A false rumor being spread was 325kamra was profiting by exchanging genetic information to laboratories.
DNA Testing Fears
Something can always go wrong in life and people have fears about DNA that are no different to anything else in life. In my experience, this sector is highly regulated and followed by numerous watchdogs across the globe. In the United States the U.S. House of Representatives foresaw issues and passed the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) in 2008. The law prohibits the use of genetic information for use by health insurance companies and for employment. However, I still read newspaper articles that use scare tactics and sensationalism to induce fear. A recent article that circulates on Facebook states that the police can use your DNA test against you in court. I find this highly unlikely, I make this decision with more than 20 years of experience working in hospitals as a CFO, nurse and as a paramedic. The reasons why I think this is impossible hinges on confirming the test on its accuracy. The sample could have been contaminated, individuals may have switched the vials, aliases could be used and most importantly, there is no chain of custody that shows that the DNA was accounted for during collection, through shipment and as it arrived to get tested inside the labs. Furthermore, there is also an issue of variance within the industry.
Companies run different algorithms to determine their results. Each laboratory has their own standards and policies – all of this produces variance. Like any standard warranty, evidence can be obtained to be used against someone suspected of committing a crime. However, it’s highly unlikely that the police will ever request or use DNA samples from a DNA testing company. Furthermore, it is far easier to obtain a search warrant to obtain DNA specimens from the individual or from their home. We all leave traces of our DNA everywhere as we touch the surfaces of things. The traces of saliva left on the toothbrush, traces of spit on the forks left in our dirty dish piles and the hair follicles that land on the bathroom floor from brushing our hair.
Test Result Differences
There has been some criticism by people because they found differences in their DNA results when taking multiple tests from competing companies, or when variances are found testing against a close relative. People need to remember that DNA testing is relatively new and companies incorporate findings at different rates. I saw this in my own DNA test. When I first read my DNA composition in 2007, 23&Me stated I was 100% Korean. Today, when I read through the report, the company updated its haplogroup information and now it has identified 4 distinctive ethnicities within my DNA. These are not necessarily mistakes on the part of a DNA testing company.
Some of the reasons we get different test results from different labs include:
Differences Between Siblings:It is true that children receive 50% of their genetic inheritance from their mother and the other 50% from their father. However, the segments shared by the parents are random. This is why one child is taller, had darker hair or is smarter than other siblings from the same parents. When siblings take a DNA test, the results will be different because of the random distribution of genes. DNA companies predict a relationship between two people in part by looking at the amount of DNA they share and it’s measured in a unit called centimorgans (cM). Closer relationships will have share more centimorgans of DNA with you.
Mistaken Identity:I have been asked by people on numerous occasions to do a DNA test on someone because they found someone who looks eerily similar to them or they found someone who had similar traits. I recommend viewing the YouTube video on DNA testing on a set of doppelgangers where it was found the individuals had no genetic relationships at all, despite the fact they looked identical!
But My Family Said: You may be one of the lucky few who have already found your biological parents and were told you were half Italian or 100% Korean but your DNA test shows you are way less than expected. Families often hide embarrassing facts, trace only one side of the family tree, or simply do not know the truth – they only know of the more recent events. Genetic tests can trace over 1,000 years and can show you within a range of certainty of when the genes were passed.
Just for Men:The three big DNA testing companies in the United States (FTDNA, AncestryDNA, and 23&Me) use autosomal testing and both men and women are tested the same way. There is another test called a Y-chromosome, also known as a mitochondrial DNA test that reflects the direct father-to-son relationship. The mitochondrial testing can look deeper into your family tree and get results dating 10,000-50,000 years, compared to traditional testing that focuses on a few hundred to a thousand years.
In closing, individuals need to realize that the processes used to do DNA testing is different amongst companies. One company looks specifically at programmed locations for specific values, other companies offer a full scan of all 16,569 locations during a full mitochondrial testing. Each year, new haplogroups are found each year and the results change over time as more people participate in DNA testing.
The science behind DNA testing technology is advancing rapidly and surpassing Moore’s Law in driving down the costs and increasing the speed of testing. It will only get better over time. I recommend people keep an open mind about DNA testing. Hopefully the results will provide some answers to previously unanswered questions .. and who knows, you may find a cousin or two, maybe even 1,000 of them!
Question: Have you taken a DNA test and were you surprised by the results? Would you recommend taking a DNA test and why?
For additional Reading:
DNA testing between the big 3: http://thednageek.com/the-pros-and-cons-of-the-main-autosomal-dna-testing-companies/
DNA Sales record: https://www.wired.com/story/ancestrys-genetic-testing-kits-are-heading-for-your-stocking-this-year/
DNA testing facts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UhQoYYHcHRE
Ancestry DNA ethnicity estimate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MjZiT6YDbgI
Doppelganger DNA Test: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_370DhsvQGI
History Channel: https://www.facebook.com/HISTORY/videos/1398297886941748/
DNA Journey: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fw7FhU-G1_Q
This collation is provided just over a decade on since ICAV compiled our first lot of answers to this question. I was intruiged to see if our views have changed over time as we journey on and mature in our understandings of adoption.
Reading our views gives you some thoughts to consider on this question from those who have lived the experience. We welcome your views and you can do so by commenting on this page.
One of the most memorable moments, forever ingrained in my memory, is the birth of my son. I remember the anxious months waiting for my beautiful son, developing inside his mother’s womb – feeling his small frame kicking about and waiting to be born. I remember staring at the ultrasound pictures and wondering who he would look like. Would he look like me? His mother?
I remember rushing my wife to the hospital and the miracle of birth as he brought into the world. I felt scared and excited at the same time as I stood in the delivery room, watching the nurse wipe him clean and cut his umbilical cord. I was in awe, wonder and amazement as he suckled at his mother’s breast. I witnessed a miracle of life and entered the realm of fatherhood. I wanted to give my son a life that I never had: to give him happy memories, a sound education and the best things I could afford. But little did I realize my son would give me something in return, far more than anything I could ever do for him.
It wasn’t until years later when I sat with other adoptees and shared the memories of my son’s birth and they too shared how they were overcome with a flood of deep love and extreme emotions at the birth of their children. For many of us adoptees, with our constant issues of abandonment and loss, I wonder whether the birth of our child is far more meaningful and overpowering than to the non adopted person? I believe there are several reasons why I think the birth of our child is more overwhelming to us:
For many intercountry adoptees, the chances of finding biological family is literally one in a million. Our birth papers are often forged, misplaced or incomplete. The birth of our child could be the first person we meet who is biologically related to us.
We grow up hearing strangers and family members talk about having a relative’s eyes, nose or other body features. I have been curious about my physical features and who I inherited mine from. I am no longer jealous of other people because now I see my traits passed onto another human being and I can experience what it is to share genetic features, gestures, and traits.
A new Respect for my Birth Mother
I watched my wife suffer from morning sickness, frequent trips to the bathroom, and fatigue. Motherhood changes the body and hormones – the kicks of the fetus, the need to eat unusual foods, the thousand other quirky things that happen to a woman during pregnancy. I could not help but imagine what my mother experienced with me during her pregnancy and realize it’s a life-changing event that one cannot forget or dismiss.
As a Parent, understanding what it means to Sacrifice
For an overwhelming number of adoptions, a large number of mothers were either single or the family was placed in a financially precarious position and forced to relinquish their child. Despite the hardships, the mother’s still carried their child to full term. As a father, this was the first time I had to routinely place the needs of someone else above my own. I now understand what it means to sacrifice as a parent – even if it means the smallest person in the household gets the last cookie.
My Life became Fuller
Having a child changed my social life dramatically. I ended up shuttling little people to lessons, classes, and clubs. I gained an appreciation for silence. I tried new things I never dreamt I would do. Children tested my patience and expanded my ability to accept things I could not tolerate before. It’s because of these experiences that my life became richer and fuller.
First time I understood “Longstanding Love“
The Greeks believe there are six types of love. Many of them I felt within my first relationships. I had experienced Eros, the sexual passion. Also, Philia, the deep friendship with those we are really close to. But the first time I felt Pragma, the longstanding love, was when I had children. Pragma is where I am willing to give love rather than just receiving it. If you had asked my younger self whether I would love sitting on the couch watching Dora with my daughter, enjoy playing tea or spend hundreds of dollars finding an Asian version of “American Girl” doll with matching outfits for her – that younger me would be in disbelief!
Closure and Peace
I once felt as though I were an empty vessel. Relationships, commendations and achievements could not fill this void. I’ve worked hard. I’ve traveled to dozens of foreign countries to fill my mind with the sights and sounds. I’ve spent thousands of hours searching for my biological family and looked for things that could give me closure with my adoption experience. Nothing seemed to help until I had children of my own. They gave me the love and satisfaction to be myself and gain the closure I needed, to move on with my life.
I have met individuals who have rushed into having a child, mistakenly thinking it would resolve relationship issues. I am not recommending that at all. I think that is a wrong motive to have a child and could actually lead to a repeat of what happened to our birth mothers who lost their child to adoption. This happened to my biological sibling who was raised with me in our adoptive family. Sadly she lost the custody of her children. I saw her fall into despair and into the deep abyss of depression and denial.
For me having a child changed me forever and helped me to re-connect with the world and bring meaning to my life. I could say my child was the catalyst that helped me to start living a better life. Becoming a parent forced me to change for the better. It was the catalyst for me to accept my adoption journey and helped me to find closure with the issues that once bothered me.
Sharing: Have you experienced similar things as an adoptee when you became a parent? Would you recommend single adoptees get pregnant if they decide to stay single forever and want a child? How did having a child change your life?
I was recently contacted by a fellow adoptee who is seeking views and experiences of adoptees where gratitude is expected and how we feel about this. I immediately responded because gratitude in adoption is such an unspoken about subject, particularly from the adoptee perspective. For me, it was definitely a burden I felt whilst growing up and carry still to this day. Interesting that little has been written on this topic specific to intercountry adoption because our adoptions are so rife with connotations of being saved from poverty, war, slums and the streets. These connotations also come with equal expectation that we flourish in our Western white adoptive countries and families for which we should be grateful for.
It is assumed, somehow, magically, our losses in relinquishment should be negated by the gains in adoption.
I can understand how the majority of people who think of the word adoption would not necessarily equate that with living an experience of being expected to be grateful. But, from my own life experience, the word “grateful”, “thankful”, “be happy”, or “lucky” pops up in adoption conversation regularly. People who are not impacted by adoption expect us to be grateful for the material wealth and education we gain in life having been adopted. As an adoptee, not only have I experienced people’s assumptions about how lucky I am in their eyes to be adopted, I also experienced the expectation of gratitude said out loud by my adoptive parent during my childhood. It was said to me once or twice, but the way in which I was treated most of my childhood until I became independent and moved interstate, told me without words that it was the foundation of my adoption.
In hindsight, knowing now that my adoptive father was not comfortable to adopt a child not his own, from a foreign country, he went against his instincts and clearly gave way to his wife’s desire to save a child from the Vietnam war. What they saved me from, I’ll never know unless I find my first family. Whether I was indeed saved, who knows. Am I grateful? If I answered no, people naturally would recoil and look at me horrified, stunned. How dare I be ungrateful for my life in a wealthy country with material comforts, an education, and the life everyone in poverty aspires to.
But, of course I am grateful in many ways! Without choosing to be grateful, my emotional well being would be one of dissatisfaction, depression, unease and wishing to be dead.
I have been there! For plenty of years! And I had to battle to find a way through.
I choose actively to be consciously grateful, to focus and spend my life turning it into something positive. And it’s much nicer to be in a stage of life where I can choose to be grateful in general, as opposed to being forced to feel indebted for being saved via adoption.
I’m a female adoptee born in Vietnam, flown out as an infant to Australia in the early 1970s. I’ve told my personal story what feels like a thousand times, but yet no one has asked before what it was like to carry that expectation to be grateful for my existence in my adoptive family.
My adoption was not legally facilitated until I was 17 years old and it is still a mystery as to whether my legal adoption paperwork exists somewhere in Vietnam. I hadn’t really come to acknowledge or understand the true meaning of this until the past 6 months. It is enlightening to observe how my story of adoption and relinquishment has changed over time as I’ve become more fully aware of the truths, perceived and real. I am constantly having to rethink what was told to me growing up and comparing that to the truths I find today, and who I have become.
Not having an identity on paper for 17 years, of course I feel the expectation to be grateful to my adoptive country Australia in giving me a birth certificate and hence allowed an identity. But at what cost? The expectation to be grateful these days is overshadowed by questions I have on why it doesn’t seem to have been questioned whether I had an identity in Vietnam or how to preserve or respect it legally.
The words “gratitude” or “grateful” are like an alarm bell ringing inside me. It grates on my nerves and I feel myself inwardly flinching. For me it comes with so many negative memories. Even googling to find an image for this blog and seeing the visuals, created feelings of unease and discomfort in my body. If you can relate to me as an adoptee, saying, seeing or reading the word “gratitude” in relation to adoption is a trigger that I have to deal with all the time.
My adoptive childhood was spent working like a boy slave on the family’s dairy farm. Being thrown the “you owe this family because we adopted you” line because I was standing up for myself, was one of the toughest moments I remember. It was one of those rare times where I was trying to be stand up for myself about not wanting to be forced to help with milking the cows. The other children were allowed to peacefully sleep in every morning. My childhood sense of justice was strong. Why was I constantly singled out to be made to work around the farm with my adoptive father who inappropriately touched me whilst in the dairy or in my bedroom? He had no sense of respect for my privacy as my body developed in early teenage years. I recall a few times he woke me with his cold hands running over my bare chest and stomach, then dragging me out of my bed by my legs, nightie flinging up over my head exposing my naked body, laughing at how “funny” it was to be dragged along the frost covered grass on a cold Victorian morning. This would happen just on daylight before the sun even rose. Nobody else was awake. My hatred rose further when I once removed the outside key from the lock of my door but was authoritatively told how dare I try and lock him out. Everything about my life was dependent on him and I was given no sense of privacy, respect or control.
I grew to resent my adoptive father during my childhood but yet I pined for a tiny bit of love to be shown. I wasn’t grateful for this existence and I certainly hated that my lack of blood relative status meant it seemed to give him licence to work me like a slave and touch me in the way no father should. His other bio children were left to do what they wanted. They were not forced to work like me on hard physical tasks; chopping barrow loads of hardwood, milking cows day and night, cooking and cleaning in the kitchen, being forced to run out in the dark and shut the chooks in every night (I was terrified of the dark), etc. It felt like slave labour with no empathy for my feelings at all. It certainly wasn’t a childhood filled with love, safety or understanding. Nor was there any room for any compassion or support about what I might be feeling from being separated from my biological family and wondering why.
The expectation, verbalised out loud, to be grateful for being adopted was a heavy heavy burden to carry .. and still is. I was forced to justify why I needed hair conditioner and shampoo (I had waist long hair) and he would only provide soap as that was good enough for everyone else who had short or little hair. I was made to feel that buying a toothbrush was too much and how dare I need or ask for anything. I was made to feel and was told many times that I was a “fussy”, “difficult” child, always “telling lies” and “stealing“.
To this day, the “you should be grateful because we adopted you” mantra is what has stopped me from speaking openly about the emotional and sexual abuse I endured from early childhood to teen years. No adoptee should ever have to be thrown that line of feeling we owe a debt of gratitude to our adoptive families. Even when abuse does not occur. Whether spoken or not, we adoptees do NOT owe our families. They adopt for their own self fulfilling reasons. I had NO choice but to survive the adoptive family I was placed in.
You can probably feel the anger I still carry at the injustice of being made to feel that I owed my adoptive family for being rescued/saved. It brings lifelong consequences of being fiercely independent and not easily allowing anyone to help me. I suspect other adoptees can relate. For me, being helped, being given something I don’t ask for, usually comes with a fear of the unspoken price at which that help is provided. Hence, I would rather do it myself. The expectation of gratitude for being saved by adoptive family and society at large, is a heavy burden.
This burden of expected gratitude in being adopted is enhanced by the religious elements intertwined in much of modern adoption advocacy.
Fervent religious organisations and individuals who willingly promote and facilitate the adoption and rescuing of children add another layer of expected gratitude onto us. People who believe adoption is an ordained action by God, that they are following his command to help an orphan, makes it difficult for adoptees to share about the struggles of being adopted and relinquished.
I rarely hear of any adoptee who will willingly stand up in a church or religious institute and share their adoption experience with all its complexities. For me, this would be the worst audience ever! I can’t imagine receiving validation or empathy. Instead, I suspect I would receive unsolicited advice to be grateful and thankful to God that I am in a better place and that all is going well now. The all familiar saying of, “Count your Blessings!” by religious people in response to adversity is one I find hard to stomach.
Google for yourself the word gratitude and you will see the many religious and spiritual images linked to this concept. Our struggles as adoptees go unvalidated and unsupported because of blind prejudice that somehow adoption is meant to be, ordained by God. How can anyone question the unspoken assumption that we should be grateful for our adoption, when this is the long held religious and spiritual belief?
Thankfully, my adoptive family and others have apologised in recent years for the wrong doings in my childhood and I have chosen to be grateful for this and to move on. It’s interesting how with apologies I now feel more at liberty to be open about my life. It’s as if a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I no longer carry the burden of responsibility for family secrets and shame, trying to protect them from the consequences. For many years now, I have been true to myself and will not allow the expectation of gratitude to overwhelm my truths.
I have focused my energies on rebuilding the relationships with adoptive family as they are my one and only family I know, to raise me and give me an identity. For this I am truly grateful – but that’s not to say the journey hasn’t been a struggle and at many costs.
Gratitude in adoption should never be an expectation. It should be a choice we are free to make about life in general – after we come to terms with, and are supported in, understanding our losses and gains from relinquishment and adoption.
Within ICAV’s private group for adult intercountry adoptees I recently asked the question: “If we lived in an ideal world, given your adoption experience is as it is, what would you need to be at peace with it all?” I made it clear we could discuss and provide answers that were both realistic possibilities and idealistic fantasies.
The discussion that followed was powerful and I’d love to share some of the themed responses which highlight what’s still missing in intercountry adoption to make it really about “the needs of the child”. You’ll see from some of the replies to my question, we do grow up and continue to have ongoing needs that continue to be umet via intercountry adoption. Often times, it seems that intercountry adoption creates more needs than we began with as vulnerable children which makes me wonder what purpose did our intercountry adoption achieve for us, the adoptees?
Truth and Answers
Many of us have adoption documents which have details that are either totally incorrect or somewhat questionable and shades in between. The worst I can cite as an example of totally incorrect, is a Haitian intercountry adoptee who was given an already dead person’s identity, a false birth mother listed on adoption paperwork and subsequently found out the truth years later, that her biological mother never gave consent. An example of the questionable and changeable information provided is the experiences of countless South Korean adoptees who get given differing information each time they approach their Korean adoption agency asking for details, locked away in their agency files.
This lack of knowing the truth or having transparent access to our relinquishment and subsequent adoption information, can further traumatise us in recreating yet another event in which we are completely powerless to know our basic identity information and compounds our already fragile ability to trust others. As Christine shared,
“Having to doubt that what I thought all along was my story now may not be true, is difficult.”
Like others who shared on this theme, Chaitra listed finding the Truth as her first response, along with others:
Knowing the truth about the circumstances that led to my adoption.
Meeting and having a relationship with my birth family.
Being fully immersed in Indian culture as a child so that I would have had knowledge of food, language, holidays, traditions, etc. as well as racial mirrors.
Having adoptive parents who openly communicated with me about adoption and race.
Chaitra had none of these things in her life.
The Desire to Find Biological Family
For some who reunite, finally meeting biological family gave them a sense of understanding who they were at the level of physical attributes and personality which were always unlike those of their adoptive family. For example, Thomas shared it this way:
“Meeting my birth family has helped me a lot. I met my grandmother’s side of the family and they’re all like the same as me with huge eyes, light skin and curly hair. They’re also all really shy and tend not to say much unless spoken to, like me. It has really helped me to answer some questions about where I come from“.
For others, like Chaitra above who have not been successful yet in reuniting with biological family, there is still the desire and thinking that IF they could meet, it would help to put together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle which makes up who we fundamentally are. Dominic expressed it well, “Just to know I have relatives would give me a sense of peace. Surely they couldn’t have all perished in the Vietnam wars!”
When adoptees are impeded from knowing the answers and finding biological family, we are left with a lifetime of uncertainty. Our fundamental identity questions remain unanswered.
This was a recurring theme for some adoptees who expressed the wish that adoption not be a necessary and created social response to children who are vulnerable. As Parvathi wisely questions,
“Only if the child has got no parents and feel uncomfortable in his country, he should have the opportunity to move. Why a child who has lost his parents should also loose his country too?“
Sunitha also said, “I think the whole society system and humanity should have been different from the beginning of time! What is international adoption if not a new colonialist way? It just reflects the inequalities of the world through the cover of good will and humanitarian feelings. Another way to see it, is just rich people in need of kids, buying kids from poor countries and raising them in their culture which is supposed to be superior to their original one.”
Through our experience of being intercountry adopted, we inevitably end up questioning the system that created our reality. We are not naiive in believing that intercountry adoption is only about poverty because it’s clearly not, as sending countries like South Korea and the USA demonstrate. Kim explains it well:
“When intercountry is done both ways, it doesn’t seem in the best interest of children either. It only looks like a fair trade of children, a business of import-export, done both ways. The USA already export their children (mostly black children) to Europe, why aren’t those kids adopted in their country first before adopted to other countries?“
As Tamieka shared, the world needs to create more services that focus on first families and “helping them be able to maintain and keep their families and children.” If this happened with as large a revenue as what intercountry adoption generates worldwide, I question whether there would be a need for intercountry adoption.
Justice when Adoption is Done Wrong
For those who wonder whether their adoption was legitimate or not, we are all too aware of the harsh reality that there is little to mostly nothing that is done, or can be done, to prevent further injustices or to punish those who create these situations. Tamieka eloquently expressed this as, “The world needs to provide organisations that hold those who are responsible for the corruption in adoptions, responsible for tearing families and people’s lives apart, to be held accountable for their actions and to be brought to justice.”
Whether intercountry adoption continues to be practiced or not, there is the question of where is justice for those who are already impacted? Sadly, our desire for restorative justice for adoptees who are wronged via intercountry adoption is currently a utopia. This is the harsh reality but it won’t stop us from speaking out against this and highlighting how unethical the practice is without any mechanism for seeking justice.
An End to the Ongoing Pain
Sadly, for many the unspoken consequence of relinquishment on the vulnerable child, is a lifelong path of psychological pain in having been abandoned by our biological parents. Followed by intercountry adoption, our experience can become a secondary abandonment, this time by our birth country. Via intercountry adoption we lose our right to our birth family and country forever and are not given the choice to retain our identity, culture, heritage or citizenship. The pain of abandonment by biological parents and birth country have an ongoing effect which can last a lifetime. If this goes unsupported by the majority of adoptive countries who offer little to no post adoption support services, we can be left with an endless amount of internal psychological pain.
For adoptees who feel this pain intensely, they desire an end to their struggles and can at times, see death as the only way out. Little wonder that adoptees are reported in research as suffering higher rates of suicide, attempts at suicide, mental health issues and reflected in greater proportion compared to the non-adopted population, in prisons or drug and alcohol rehabilitation services. The pain of relinquishment is real and has to be acknowledged. Adoption is often portrayed as a win-win solution but it glosses over the real pain that adoptees can experience, whether openly shared or not.
Kim shared it very clearly:
“Death would give me peace. I think only death can make me stop remembering her, the Me before adoption. Only death can remove from me that kind of pain, loneliness and homesickness that adoption injected into my soul.”
Thankfully, within support groups like ICAV, we don’t minimise or diminish our sometimes painful realities. We openly speak and share, which is so important for healing.
Paul eloquently summed it up: “This is such a hard question. Honestly, I think about this with so much hyper-realism that it’s difficult to get to any perfect world state of mind for me, any wishes for what could be different. My birth father is dead. My adoptive mother is dead. My birth mother, who knows? And what does that mean? And yet I am here. And there are friends, family and strangers and _____. That beauty. But still there’s the Unknown, the tension, the contradiction; the complexity of history; our absurd global socio-political circumstances; etc.. What helps me through all of this? This. Our sharing. Our stories. The potential for moments of connection and understanding, even in all their imperfection. Our various bitter realities. Your question. Our voices. The realization of shared experience and circumstances, not sameness, but sharedness. This helps. Thank you.”
It’s amazing to see the power of peer group sharing and connecting and how it facilitates our journey of growth as adult intercountry adoptees. Read Stephanie’s expression of what she gained from the same group discussion.
As an adult intercountry adoptee, having been outspoken now for 20 years in ICAV, I’ve often wondered whether my intercountry adoption was legitimate or not. That means asking questions like: did my Vietnamese parents really understand the legal concept of “adoption” and relinquishment? Were they offered any other types of support to keep me? Given I came out of war torn Vietnam, was my status really as a true orphan with no surviving parents or family? Was family and kin reunification even attempted before I was adopted out to Australia? And what about any attempts to place me in my own home country first? One day I hope to find the answers to these questions if I’m lucky enough to be reunited with my biological family.
I’m sure other fellow intercountry adoptees ask themselves similar questions at some stage in their life. These are the realities we face as we grow older, mature in our understandings of the complexities of intercountry adoption, and grapple to integrate our realities with the worldwide politics that created our lives, as we know it today.
To consider oneself as trafficked as an intercountry adoptee is challenging because of the legal definition which cuts us out and doesn’t allow any legal scope to take action against the perpetrators.
Human trafficking is the illegal movement of people, within national or across international borders, for the purposes ofexploitation in the form of commercial sex, domestic service or manual labour.
Trafficking in intercountry adoption certainly exists but we cannot take legal action because of the fact that no international law or framework exists to allow us to be legally considered as “trafficked” unless we can prove we fit the criteria of “exploitation for sex or labour”.
Yet within intercountry adoption, the degrees to which we can be trafficked can vary immensely. There are those who have:
outright falsification of documentation and were stolen from their birth families, sold into intercountry adoption for profit, where legal action was taken against those who profited and it was demonstrated in a court of law, that wrong doing had transpired.
documentation that could appear suspicious but at the time not questioned further; demonstrated years later to be inconsistent or incorrect.
paperwork that appears legitimate, but at reunion decades later, the story from birth parents does not match in any way the documentation provided by the adoption agency / facilitator.
no identity paperwork exists due to having been a “lost” child and with little attempt to reunify back with family, we became sold/transacted via intercountry adoption.
Where does the spectrum of having been “trafficked for intercountry adoption” start or end? Difficult to discuss when the concept is not allowed to exist in law. Even ISS International’s best practice learnings from these types of scenarios don’t label it “trafficking”, but refer to it as “illegal adoptions” in their Handbook. And out of the conclusions and recommendations in that handbook, the question has to be asked how many of the Hague signatories have a process to enable biological family, adoptive parents, or adult adoptees who suspect illicit practices (i.e., trafficking) be given any type of support or process – financially, legally, or emotionally?
On 7 December 2017, ICAV facilitated a small group of 7 intercountry adoptees representing India, Taiwan, and Sri Lanka to request the Australian Federal Government, via Department of Social Services (DSS), consider providing some financial support to those who have been trafficked in various degrees. For these adoptees, no amount of money is ever going to compensate for their losses and trauma directly brought on by the degree of trafficking they have endured. Not to mention their biological family! But we can at least ask that some forms of restorative justice be provided by the powers to be who facilitate adoptions and allow it to continue.
There is no way of ultimately fixing the dilemma caused by trafficking in intercountry adoption because adoption IS legally binding, despite the existence of cases of successful prosecution against those who falsified documents.
Sadly, the only legal case that can be made in intercountry adoption for known trafficking is for falsification of documents. The perpetrators get a slap on the wrist, some jail time, and a small fine (compared to how much they profited). In comparison, what does the adoptee or biological family get? Nothing. Not even services to help them move through and past this unnecessary trauma.
I want to raise awareness of the impacts trafficking has on those adoptees who have to live it, forever. Their voices are unheard and diminished by those who advocate for adoption. Their experiences go by without us learning from the mistakes and putting in place much needed processes and international laws to prevent further injustices like theirs. For them, even when the perpetrator is punished by law, they as adoptees are left to live the consequences with NO recognition of what they’ve had to endure. There is NO justice for them.
Please read Roopali’s story. Hers is an example of living the lifelong consequences of an adoption in which it appears her first parents did not voluntarily consent, nor was she a true orphan, and she was old enough to be listened to and given a choice. Her story gives voice to the extra challenges endured directly as a result of having been “trafficked” to some degree. She was brave enough to share her story to the Australian Government with ICAV in 2015 when we met the Prime Minister’s Senior Advisors. There was not a single dry eye in the room, we were all so affected by the obvious trauma she endures day to day. Trafficking of vulnerable children via intercountry adoption needs to stop!
I hope Roopali’s story encourages others to speak out and demand from their governments that action towards legal recognition of “trafficking” via intercountry adoption AND restorative justice needs to occur.