by Allison Young adopted from South Korea to the USA.
And on those days when we walked to the sea and found Mi-ja waiting at her usual spot in the olle, Grandmother recited common sayings in hopes of comforting us two motherless girls. “The ocean is better than your natural mother,” she said. The sea is forever.”
~ The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See
One year ago on September 11, after a lifetime of waiting (and one devastating almost-encounter in 2003), I finally met the woman who carried me for 9 months and gave birth to me.
I would like to say it was a happily-ever-after situation, that it was cathartic and I’m so thankful for the meeting but due to her circumstances, I was told we could never have a relationship or even further contact.
Although I have compassion, this hurt more than I could allow myself to feel. At the time I allowed myself one day to fall apart and then I put those feelings away. I had 3 kids in a tiny apartment in a different country and was soon going to adopt my son. I knew it would probably come back for me later — because that’s how trauma and grief work.
To be rejected by one mother figure broke my heart and then a few months later, to be scorned by my other mother nearly broke me.
Sometimes it takes a life-altering event to realize what love is, to see who is actually loving you and who is kicking you down, while calling it love. I have learned so much in this past year, by far the hardest year of my life. I am learning the meaning of self-love, self-care and boundaries. I am mothering myself, decolonizing my mind and body and allowing the ocean to heal me.
I did seek professional help and am working with a therapist. I am making changes to my life for the better, for my own future and so I can break the cycle for my kids.
When I look at my 4 beautiful children, I hope they know that while I’m far from perfect, I will try so hard to be a good listener — to learn, grow and change; to value what matters most to them and see them for who they are.
백절불굴 (baekjeol bulgul) is a saying which means “indomitable spirit.”
My birthname,수은 (Soo Eun), means “grace of water.”
I will be okay. And I am ever grateful to those who helped to keep me afloat this past year.
by Mark Hagland, adopted from Korea to the USA, Co-Founder of Transracial Adoption Perspectives(a FB group for prospective and adoptive parents).Mark originally wrote this for his Transracial Adoption Perspectives group.
I had an absolutely wonderful, hour-long phone conversation today with a fellow person of color (POC) with whom I connected some months ago via Facebook. We had originally connected in a very “Facebook” way–through friends of friends of friends–you know, that Facebook way of connecting.
In order to protect her privacy, I’ll just call her “X.” X is a Black-biracial woman who’s close to my age (I’m 60); we’ve connected very strongly around racial justice and political issues. She’s an absolute delight. We’d love to meet in person someday soon (we live quite far away from each other), and we talked about a wide range of subjects, including racial justice and politics, but also about our lived experiences as people of color; and I shared with her about some of what I do in the transracial adoption world. She was extremely supportive and encouraging. And that prompted her to share some deeply personal experiences around racism, colorism, and challenges as a biracial person specifically.
I’m sharing this here because I want to share about the fact that, growing up in near-total whiteness, I was essentially disabled intellectually and culturally when I first entered young adulthood, in terms of connecting with fellow people of color of all non-white races. I absolutely knew that I needed to connect with fellow POC, but it was difficult at first, because I had been raised in near-total whiteness and absolutely inside white culture–even though white people had never allowed me to “be” white. In other words, I only knew how to connect to my fellow POC in a very “white” way, and it showed.
So it took me years to “break into” POC society. Over time, I was introduced to more and more people, and I acquired cultural fluency with individuals from the various non-white racial groups. Of course, every single person on earth is an individual; that goes without saying. But the ability for a transracial adoptee raised in whiteness to break out of learned whiteness is far from an automatic thing. Indeed, a young-adult transracial adoptee raised in whiteness can inadvertently send signals to individuals of color that can make them hesitant to engage, if one presents oneself as not understanding fellow POC; but it’s like anything else in life–until one has certain kinds of experiences, one lacks the fluency needed to pursue those experiences.
My conversation today brought something to mind for me. For several years, I privately and confidentially advised a particular white transracially adoptive mom. I’ll call her “Y.” She and her husband had raised two Black children, one male, one female; I’ll call her daughter “Z.” Y and her husband raised their children in near-total whiteness in a smallish Midwestern city (around 100,000), and when Z moved to a large city to try to integrate with fellow young Black adults, she was devastated by the rejection she experienced. She was so culturally white that people mocked her and dismissed her out of hand. She had several years of painful experiences before she was able to reach a level at which she was socially and culturally accepted. She’s OK now, but she had a rocky several years (which is why her mom had reached out to me for advice).
One of the biggest stumbles I see happening over and over again in transracially adoptive parenting is what happened with “Y” and “Z.” The parents in that family were loving and supportive of their children, but their daughter hit a wall when she tried to penetrate birth culture as a young adult, and was emotionally devastated by the initial non-acceptance and dismissal that she experienced. But it doesn’t have to be that way. White transracially adoptive parents need to prepare their children to try to integrate with their birth culture and also to become adept at interacting with people of color of all races. It took me a while, but I’ve been so happy to be able to interact with people of color of all non-white races, and to be accepted by them as a fellow POC. And no, that’s not automatic at all. I can tell you that I’ve had countless experiences with Black, Black/biracial, Latinx, Native, and Asian (East, South, Southeast) individuals, in which they saw and affirmed my POC-ness. And I want to make it absolutely clear that my referencing that fact is in no way a boast; instead, is simply my reporting that it is absolutely possible for transracial adoptees to be able to navigate society in ways in which other people of color perceive them as POC and interact accordingly.
Some of this is a bit nuanced and difficult to explain, but I can assure you that there are subtextual communications going on all the time, and there’s a world of difference between interacting with fellow POC as a POC and interacting with fellow POC when they’re putting you at arm’s length. I’ve experienced both, and know the difference.
In any case, if your child of color is not seeing daily mirrors of her/himself in adults and children of their specific race as well as adults and children of all non-white races, and if your child is not actually interacting with POC on a daily basis, it will be far harder for them to begin to integrate with people from their birth race and with people of all non-white races, as they approach adulthood. Please absolutely make sure that early adulthood doesn’t come as a terrible shock, as it did to “Z.” They’ll definitely blame you for leaving them in the lurch in this crucial area. Don’t make them have to figure all of this out by themselves; begin building the needed bridges when they’re young children, so that the connections happen fluidly and organically, and so that their competence evolves forward fluidly and organically as well. It’s a huge element in their lifelong journey, and cannot be ignored. Surrounding your child with media and culture that reflect them is essential, but so is helping your child to be able to interact easily and naturally with members of their race and all non-white races. Both are incredibly important.
In any case, thank you for reading and considering this.
I’m very excited and feeling hopeful after hearing Belgium’s recent news, that their Minister has announced his intention to ask Parliament to suspend all adoptions for the next 2 years as a result of their investigation into intercountry adoptions.
Surrounded by incredible adoptee leaders around the world, I know how much effort has gone into getting intercountry adoptee rights to where we are today. News like this does not in any way solve or fix the issues we face but it is at least the beginning of having recognition of the wrongs done — with governments and authorities stepping up to confront the truth that we’ve been talking about for decades. Acknowledgement is the first step of many!
Belgium isn’t the first adoptive country to do so. The Netherlands announced their moratorium on all intercountry adoptions earlier this year in February and published their report. Switzerland announced their report from investigating past practices relating to Sri Lankan adoptions and they are being urged to provide reparation to the victims. Sweden also announced their intention to investigate their illegal intercountry adoptions. And yesterday, the Belgium Minister announced his recommendations to be considered by Parliament. You can read here the full Expert Panel report.
But for some countries we still have work to do
It seems that finally some governments are listening to our lived experience and have decided to no longer turn a blind eye. But even though these 4 have listened, I want to also remind you that there has been much work and years of effort gone into other countries who still haven’t come to the “acknowledgement table”. In France, the adoptees there have had huge support in their petition to have the French Parliament conduct an investigation into their historic intercountry adoptions. In Denmark, the adoptees from Chile have been working with the government to have their adoptions investigated.
In my adoptive country Australia, I have been speaking out and advocating for supports for impacted adoptees and families and for recognition of the abuses in Australia for many years. In fact, it’s been over a decade already and I remember in my early years representing adoptees at NICAAG where Julia Rollings (adoptive mum) and I tabled this issue at the beginning in 2008 and asked that the issue be addressed. More recently, I have also presented a small group of 8 impacted adoptees to meet with our Central Authority, DSS in 2017 asking for very specific supports. However, to this day, those adoptees have still been ignored and dismissed. Despite having very clear cases of illegal activity where perpetrators have been criminally convicted and jailed (e.g., the Julie Chu cohort in image below from Taiwan), nothing has been offered for the adoptees or their families to help them deal with the extra complexities of their illegal adoptions. It’s as if these impacted adoptees don’t exist and Australia hopes the problem will fade away while they face far more important issues, like COVID-19 or an upcoming election.
It is time authorities around the world step up and take responsibility for the processes and structures that ruptured our lives via adoption – for good and for bad.
Intercountry adoption has followed the path of domestic adoption
In intercountry adoption, we are seeing the same pattern where country after country the governments are acknowledging the wrongs in their domestic adoptions. Canada leads the way by providing financial compensation to their victims of the Sixties Scoop. Australia has already provided a formal apology for the women and babies who were impacted under the Forced Adoption era — but are still as yet to be offered any form of compensation. Australia also just announced their compensation for the Indigenous Aboriginals who were forcibly removed and placed into white families under the Stolen Generation. It is interesting that the Australian government can acknowledge these past practices but doesn’t recognise the very close similarities with our historic intercountry adoptions. Ireland as a government has only this year recognised the wrongs and provided a formal apology to the mothers and children who suffered in Babies Homes from forced adoptions. Ireland is also baulking at offering compensation.
What about our birth countries?
Very few of our birth countries involved in our illicit and illegal adoptions have taken any action either. Guatemala, Ethiopia and Russia are the main ones that come to my memory where they stopped all intercountry adoptions because of irregularities — but they too have failed to provide impacted adoptees with services or compensation to recognise the wrongs done to them. Some of them have sentenced perpetrators but their sentence rarely ever matches the depths of their crime.
Let’s have a quick overview at how perpetrators have been sentenced to date:
That the majority of perpetrators in intercountry adoption get away with mild convictions demonstrates the lack of legal framework to protect us. And despite the fact that very few perpetrators in intercountry adoption are ever caught, let alone sentenced, one still has to ask, where is the support for the victims?
The American Samoan Adoptees Restitution Trust is the ONLY restorative justice program I’ve come across, establishing a fund provided by the perpetrators to facilitate connection to birth family and country. But the funds provided have been extremely limiting considering how many people are impacted and out of those impacted adoptees, only 1 was enabled to return to their natural family. Have governments even considered whether intercountry adoptees wish to be repatriated back to their birth country?
What level of responsibility should governments bear?
Many articles have been written about the problems in intercountry adoption via the irregularities in processing us for intercountry adoption, but the most critical issue that governments need to respond to, is our right to identity.
“Article 8 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) notes that a child has a right to identity including a name, a nationality and family relations. Whenever a child is deprived of one of these elements, States have an obligation to restore the child’s identity speedily. At the heart of any intercountry adoption (ICA) is the modification of a child’s identity given at birth.” — CHIP
In summary our report explains what the majority of us want. We each independently submitted our thoughts without knowing what the other was submitting. Here are the top 3 suggestions we raised :
A change to intercountry adoption laws to ensure a legal framework exists for which illicit practices can be prosecuted against. Currently there is none.
An independent investigative body so we aren’t expecting the governments and adoption authorities to “investigate” themselves. Currently that’s what happens.
Fully funded support services for victims. Currently there are huge gaps in general post adoption supports let alone supports specific to being trafficked. Not one country in the world currently provides any sort of trafficking support for adoptees or their families — both adoptive and natural, but especially for natural families who rarely have a voice on the global arena.
I observe the Netherlands who are still working on their National Centre of Expertise might be including support services specific to trafficking victims, so too it appears from the Belgium report they are trying. But supports for trafficking victims needs to be comprehensive not just a DNA or a general counselling service. In our report, we list in full what this support needs to include: legal aid; counselling; financial aid; funded lived experience support groups; family tracing; DNA testing and professional genealogy services; travel support; language classes; translation services; mediation services; culture and heritage supports.
Why can’t adoption be a “happily ever after” story?
People mistakenly think that intercountry adoptees have to be unhappy in their adoption to want to fight for justice. It is not true.
We can be happy in our adoptive life and country but also be unhappy with how our adoptions were conducted and rightfully expect that everything be done to restore our original identities and help us to reconnect with our natural families who have lost us via intercountry adoption.
Our voices have been fighting for decades for our right to origins, to make amends for our lost identity, to have the illicit and illegal intercountry adoptions recognised for what they are – the commodification of children. We need this crazy system to stop, it’s been going on for too long. We are not a small number, estimates vary but we definitely are in the hundreds of thousands globally and possibly a few million.
It’s time for the truth and hopefully long term, we might see some reparative and restorative justice for us and our families. In the meantime, myself and fellow adoptee leaders continue to work hard for our communities globally! Onward and upward! I hope one day to be able to write about our “happily ever after” story, once we get justice and recognition for the wrongs done.
by Marie, a daughter lost via adoption from her Chinese father who shared his story last week: The Sin of Love
I put the truth on a pedestal, but I also see how she’s a shape shifter, whose form changes depending on who holds her and their state of mind. In the few months since I found my father, I believe he’s understood my need for the truth and tried to offer it to me. But that truth keeps changing as my arrival in his life has been equal parts joyful and traumatic.
Confronted with me, the lost daughter he’s longed for, he’s also reliving the past. A past he’s suppressed because it was too painful, alone with memories in a society which erases birth parents and their grief, as if it is something they had agency to prevent. He had no wise mentor and no safety through which to process his pain and loss, not only of me but of his first love. I believe the woman he loved died to him when she signed the adoption papers. While acknowledging she probably had no choice, he couldn’t reconcile that woman with the one he loved eternally. So although he had clues as to where she was, he never looked for her because his love must surely be gone — the Agnes he loved couldn’t have given away their child; in doing so she compelled him into signing the adoption papers too. He tucked away that grief and entered a life in which loss unconsciously drove his decisions.
Years later he sleepwalked into a marriage. Another pregnancy would garner his commitment to his wife and to another child he couldn’t lose this time. But Agnes was a silent guest in his marriage and family – she would never leave, and neither would I.
Since I’ve returned, the truth evolves and shifts. Agnes has been unconsciously a perpetrator, a woman who gave up her flesh and blood and simultaneously a victim of a bigoted and controlling mother who altered the destiny of all three of us. As the months since our reunion have gone by, my father has been tormented by the past: guilt, anger, confusion and loss have plagued him with what he calls “sudden floating rubbish”. Neither of us can ask Agnes what happened from her perspective because she died in October 2016. 4 years before I found her obituary and 5 before I found my father and confirmed it was her. In her absence we both thrash about with what we know, attempting to piece together the puzzle which for me has even more missing pieces which are gradually leaking out of the memories my father accesses in flashbacks and increasing empathy for my mother. He stares, as I do at the one photo we have of her, posted on her obituary. She is young and smiling and though her features individually aren’t mine, somehow her face echoes mine. I saw myself in her, knowing who she was as soon as I saw the picture.
As he moves through the memories now with an altered lens of compassion, and perhaps conscious of how I would view my mother and how he wants me to feel about her, my father has revealed memories which again shift reality and truth. As my birthday approaches the revelations seem to be increasing. In his recollections, now she’s happy and smiling on the day I was born. They named me together and all seems fine when he leaves her that day. But a week later he’s called to sign adoption papers and compelled by a judge to do so when he refuses. He would never make sense of the decision and never talk to Agnes again to unpack what happened. His anger and confusion would hold her at a distance more successfully than her absence, until I arrived sending photos of myself in which she is ever present. In the last week he has seemed to need to share new puzzle pieces, as he puts it back together himself. He now believes he has wronged her.
In his own grief he couldn’t comprehend what a traumatic loss she endured. Yesterday he revealed another piece of the puzzle. When he finally searched for Agnes, he too found her obituary so he sought out her brother, his friend, to find out how she died. What he was told led him to believe she took her own life. This news has shifted reality again for me. While not knowing anything of her life, I can only assume losing me was a devastating event which forever impacted her state of mind and her family life.
I can’t help correlating the month of her death with its anniversary of my adoption. I suspect each year my August birthday would summon a silent grief and perhaps linger through to autumn when two months later, I went home with another family and within a few months unknown to my parents, to another country. I don’t know if she knew when I left the mother and baby home. It’s not clear to me if I was with her for those first two months of life or living in its adjacent orphanage under the care of nuns. Unrelenting in their views of what was best, the nuns lied to my father when he travelled the seven hours from Taiping to take me home, where his mother awaited, wanting to welcome me to their family.
What the Church told anyone is under question and with Agnes gone, perhaps only her siblings might know. It’s possible she shared something with her second daughter or husband. As I think of my maternal sister, I now wonder if my existence would unlock a mystery for her too. If she never knew about me, perhaps her loss also involved a traumatic secret lost in death and added to her grief. I remain stuck with what next in my search – for now just happy to be part of my paternal family and all the absorbing realities of getting to know the family and culture I lived without for almost 49 years.
by a Chinese father who lost his daughter Marie via intercountry adoption.
Tossing High and Low
Longing for Understanding
Living with a Dim Hope
There was a notification on my Facebook that Marie is following me. Normally I don’t accept follower or friend requests, but the name was Marie, so I accepted and left it, not paying much attention. The next day as I was walking with my daughter to go Tesco to get some groceries for cooking that day, I received a message from Marie. “Hello, I am trying trace a Clement who knew Agnes in 1972, please let know if that is you?” I was totally shocked. I immediately answered back, “Yes” and asked who she is. She answered, “I am her daughter.” In my heart I knew it was her, the one I missed all these years. I have been living with a very dim hope of finding her all these years. I replied, “I hope I am not dreaming!” She replied, “I think you are my father”.
The next thing I asked her was about the day that I can never forget. “Is your date of birth 9 August?” She answered with a YES. Never had I imagined this day would come. My daughter Denise saw my expression and she asked me what was wrong. I told her my daughter that was given away through adoption has found me. “Ayoi, you give me goosebumps,” Denise said. I don’t hide my past from my children, only my private life. Time didn’t permit us to talk more over Facebook as I had to finish our shopping then rush back to cook and deliver the food, but I promised to stay in contact.
The whole episode of finding my daughter Marie was supposed to be a happy moment and it still is. But it was more than happiness. After sharing my part of signing her adoption papers and finding out about her life with some photos, she shared two photos which brought back all the memories of my time with Agnes, her mother. When I saw the photo of Marie and her husband, it was like looking at Agnes. She’s so much like her. Another photo of Agnes standing alone reminded me of the only photo both of us had taken as a couple, in a photo studio. She also wore a saree at that photo session.
My daughter Denise wants me to video call Marie. I told her with my bad hearing problem and Marie’s English slang it might be hard to communicate. But the truth is looking at Marie is like looking at Agnes. I am not yet ready. With all these memories coming back, I realise I have not forgotten or ever stopped loving her. I still miss her for all these years. Unknowingly, my love for Agnes has caused my marriage to fail. There was always a third person in our bed. My injustice to my children. I was once involved in Marriage Ministry and I realise I have created so much rubbish in my life.
I have lived a life of denial.
I knew Agnes in 1970 through her brother Bernard. We were close friends as we worked in the same school. He was a temporary teacher and I was the office boy in the school office. I spent most night at his house as my house was nearby. Bernard had three other brothers and three sisters. Agnes was the elder of the three sisters. Agnes always had a smile on her face and was a very gentle and genuine person. She had long ponytail hair. I got along well with the family and had Christmas with them. I started to have feelings for her and asked to go for a dance date on New years eve. She said yes but I had to ask Bernard for permission as he was more or less the head of the family. I asked him and he had no objection, so we went for our first date.
We enjoyed ourselves that night and I knew I was in love with her. Even though I had been with a few other girls previously, I had never experienced this feeling before. I realised that she was my first love. By the time we reached her house it was already 1am and New Years Day. After spending some time with the family and wishing everyone Happy New Year it was time for me to go home. Agnes walked me out of the house. I was alone with her and I expressed my feelings to her and asked her to be my girlfriend. She said yes but we would have a problem telling Bernard. I told her I would talk to him and we ended with our first kiss.
A few days later, I did speak to Bernard about my relationship with his sister but to my surprise, he did not object so I started to spend more time at her house. Bernard was good with his guitar and Agnes liked to sing. I can’t sing but I often jammed with them. I have many happy memories of that time. Agnes and Bernard were often invited to be guest singers at the Singing Talent time contest show. At one of the shows where they had invited Agnes to sing, just as she was about to go on stage she said to me, “This song is for you “. Looking at me she started to sing. She sang “Let it be me”. Can I ever forget that night with that song? NO, never in my life will I ever forget that night.
We were together for two years. As time went by, we became more intimate and one day she found out she was pregnant. We wanted to get married but we had a problem of getting her mothers’ approval. So we decided to go and see the Priest for advice and ask her parents approval. What we didn’t expect was that her mother not only didn’t approve of our marriage but also arranged with the priest for Agnes to go to the Centre for Unwed Mothers. I went to her house to plead with her mother but they chased me out of the house. The family knew all along about our relationship but they went against me. I went to see the Priest but he told me that Agnes would be leaving Taiping in two days time. My mother even went to her house to plead with their family but they said no. They didn’t even allow me to see Agnes before she left.
After two months I couldn’t stand it anymore, I missed Agnes and I worried about her. I went to see the Priest to find out her whereabouts, but he didn’t want to give me information about her. I pleaded with him crying in his office for a long time. In the end, he told me and even arranged for me to meet Agnes with the nun. She was taken to the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Batu Arang, near Kuala Lumpur. That very night I took a train to Kuala Lumpur and went by bus to Batu Arang, quite a distance from Kuala Lumpur. I managed to see Agnes after two months. The nun was good enough to give us time together alone. Before I left that place the nun told me that I could only visit her once a month. During her stay there, I visited her four times. The last time I visited her was a few weeks before her delivery. During the last visit we talked about naming the baby. During her stay there, she was close to a nun by the name of Sister Marie. So, we decided to name her Marie if we had a daughter, or if we had a son, Mario. We even talked about working in Kuala Lumpur after her delivery. She was not keen to go back to Taiping. As for the baby, we would let my mother take care of her.
A few weeks later, I was at the church for early morning service and the Priest informed me that Agnes had been admitted for delivery the night before. I rushed to Kuala Lumpur by taxi. By the time I reached her, she had already delivered. When I saw her, she just out of the delivery room but I didn’t see the baby. She told me the nurse was washing her. When the nurse came out with the baby, she asked me if I was the father, I nodded, and she handed me the baby. I carried her for some time until Agnes asked what to give her as a second name. I suggested Geraldine and she agreed. She gave me her identity card to register the birth certificate. I handed over the baby to her and she smiled, saying to the baby “You are Marie Geraldine L__.” I was with her until after visiting hours. Before I left, I told Agnes that I would see her in three weeks time because I could only take the birth certificate in three weeks time. I did not know that this would be the last time I would ever see them both.
Two weeks later the priest informed me that I was summoned to court to sign Marie up for adoption. I panicked and told my mother about it and she asked me to bring Marie back. I went with a heavy heart. When I reached there, they gave me some documents to sign. I refused to sign and told them that I wanted to keep the baby. The person in charge told me that whether I signed or not, the adoption would be processed because the mother had full rights. I said I wanted to adopt Marie under my mother’s name. What he answered surprised me. A father cannot adopt a female child but if it had been a boy, there would have been a possibility. In one day, I lost everything. I had no choice but to sign the document and rush to Batu Arang. But the nun refused to see me and would not allow me past the gate. Two months later I went again. This time one of the nuns came out to meet me but would not allow me to go in. She told me that Agnes had left the place and the baby had been sent to the government welfare home. There was nothing I could do anymore but to leave with a heavy and angry heart.
For forty-eight years, every year I wished Happy Birthday to the daughter I have never seen but was just a shadow in my heart. I only knew she was somewhere on the planet. I wished her Happy Birthday and said a prayer for her. This is where I have done injustice to my other children. I have not wished a Happy Birthday to any of my own children who are with me. My children have not celebrated birthdays growing up. As time went by, to the time when I realised Marie should be reaching young adult age, I took opportunities to come to Kuala Lumpur shopping mall. I would sit in a corner watching as the girls went by, wondering if any of them could be Marie. It was just a dim glimmer of hope. I might have seen her without even knowing. It gave me some small comfort.
Thankfully this year on her 49th birthday, I can personally wish her happy birthday! All these years, it’s a moment I have waited for with a dim glimmer of hope. Thank you Marie for finding me!
Agnes there is always a place for you in my heart. May you rest in peace as our daughter has found us.
Next Week: Marie’s thoughts from reunion with her Chinese father.
To know your parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, and grandparents …
To know your medical history; whether your mother died of cancer, your father suffered heart problems, whether your grandmother had diabetes …
To know who you look like, where your traits come from, whether your face in the mirror is a reflection of someone else ..
To know your birth story, date, time, season of the year, what hospital you were born in …
To know your country of birth, culture, heritage, language, customs, religion …
To be surrounded by people who look like you racially …
To know your origins is a privilege!
These are the things I don’t take for granted because I didn’t have any of these whilst growing up. I was born in one country, adopted to another, by a family of different race. I’m a transracial intercountry adoptee. I’ve spent a huge portion of my life wondering, searching, trying to learn about my origins.
In my community of intercountry adoptees – to know your origins is definitely a privilege!
The desire to know my origins is an innate and fundamental human need (and right).
My need to know my origins is akin to your need to breath air that keeps you alive.
We only know our origins are important when we don’t have it, or access to it. For people like me, this is our daily lived experience!
As an intercountry adoptee, I live my whole life trying to find who I come from and why I was given up / stolen.
It’s really hard to know how to go forward in life if I don’t know how and why I came to be in this unnatural situation.
My life did not start at adoption! I have a genetic history, generations of people before me who contributed to who I am.
We cannot pretend in this world of adoption and family formation that genetics does not matter, it does – significantly; I am not a blank slate to be imprinted upon; there are consequences to this pretence and it shows in the statistics of our higher rates of adoptee youth suicide!
One of most shared experiences amongst adoptees whom I connect with, is the topic of “feeling all alone”, “like an alien” and yet human beings are not meant to be isolated. We are social beings desiring connection.
Separation from my natural origins and the knowledge of these, left me disconnected and lost in a fundamental way.
My life has been spent trying to reconnect – firstly with my inner self, then with the outer self, and with those around me, searching for a sense of belonging.
As an adoptee, I can be given all the material things in the world but it did not fix the hole that my soul feels, when it has nowhere and no-one to belong to, naturally.
My substitute family did not equate to a natural sense of belonging.
I searched for my origins because my innate feelings and experience of isolation and loss drove me to find where I came from and to make sense of how I got to be here.
I was asked to speak about the lifelong impacts of identity loss. So I shared my story and some statements from fellow adoptees to highlight our experience.
I am one of these children who has not had my identity protected. Children like me, grow up. We don’t stay children forever – and we can have opinions and thoughts about the structures, processes, policy and legislations that impact us and create our lives. I am honoured to be asked to represent just one small group of us with lived experience, that the forum represents as “children from alternative care options”.
I was adopted from Vietnam during the war in 1973. The war ended in April 1975. My adoptive father flew into the country while it was still at war and flew me out as a 5 month old baby. My papers were supposed to follow but they never arrived and my adoption was not finalised.
I lived for almost 17 years in Australia without an identity. It was the family joke that I made the perfect spy because I didn’t exist. I was keenly aware of not existing and having no paperwork – it made me feel insecure, insignificant, unseen.
The practical impacts of not having any identity papers for 17 years were that I could not apply for a passport and travel outside Australia, I could not get my drivers licence, I could not apply for anything like a bank account and, more importantly, I was not followed up on since arriving in the country by any child welfare authority nor the adoption agency.
Finally when I was 16 years old, I wanted to get my drivers licence so my adoptive parents were finally propelled to take action. They went though the adoption process again, this time through the State not a private agency, and my adoption was formalised just before I turned 17 years old.
I was given a brand new Australian identity. It does not state my Vietnamese identity only recognises the country that I was born in, Vietnam.
Via this 17-year-late process of intercountry adoption, was there an official check for any of my identity documents in Vietnam? Or a check to confirm my adoptability or relinquishment? These questions remain unanswered for me. I was certainly never offered other options like having help to look for my origins in Vietnam .. I was only ever told that being adopted was THE solution so I’d be able to exist and have some sort of identity.
In my mid 20s – 30s, I spent over a decade trying to obtain my identity and adoption papers from Vietnam. Via my ICAV network, I came across an ex-policeman who had helped a few other Vietnamese adoptees. He somehow found what appears to be a Vietnamese birth certificate, and he took a blurry photo and sent it to me.
When I traveled to Vietnam in 2019, I went to the place where that document was said to be kept, only to be told the usual story – a flood or natural disaster destroyed ALL paperwork from that whole year. They have nothing for me. I visited the hospital where I was apparently born, only to be told I could not access my mother’s file without her permission – what a vicious cycle! I visited the police station precinct where the stamp on the birth certificate identifies it is held, only to be also told they wouldn’t help me. I asked for help during my visit to the central authority of Vietnam and was told to fill out a form via the website — which is in Vietnamese, which I can’t read or write in. There are so many barriers to being able to access my identity. Language is a HUGE one!
I have since done a few DNA tests and had genealogists help me, but that hasn’t been too successful either.
This struggle to find our identity, is very common for an intercountry adoptee like myself and is definitely worse for those of us who have been adopted out of a war torn or crisis filled country. In the rush to help “rescue” children like myself, processes are bypassed or sped up and vital information gets lost.
Our ICAV Community
Feeling isolated for most of my childhood, in my mid 20s I founded our international network ICAV that provides peer support to intercountry adoptees like myself who struggle just like I did. But I am only one voice amongst hundreds of thousands globally, so it’s important you hear more than just my voice!
I asked the ICAV community to share with you what their lifelong impacts of identity loss are. I’m going to share with you just 8 out of the 50 responses to highlight some of their experiences:
Many thanks to those adoptees who were willing to share!
Within our ICAV community, we could write a few books about the lifelong impacts of identity loss, many have already. There are so many more complexities that I haven’t talked about such as twins being purposively separated for adoption (not being told they’re a twin and the extra layers of impact for them of identity loss); 2nd generation adoptees (children of adoptees) and their lack of access in legislation to their inherited identity; etc. I hope my short talk helped expand your mind from the theoretical to the lived experience which speaks so loudly about the importance of identity rights for communities such as mine.
I was born in China. That’s it, end of origin story. That’s all I know. I was probably born in Jiangsu Province, but even that’s not certain. The earliest known record of my existence is a medical examination when I was estimated to be 20 days old. Many of my friends know where they were born, what hospital, what day, some even know the time down to the second as well as how long it took. I know none of that. They know who was present at the time they were born, what family members they met first. I know none of that. My legal birth date is estimated from when I was found, I have no original birth registration. My name was given to me by orphanage officials. I don’t know what my name was or if my biological parents had even bothered to give me a name. The record of where I was found and when have been lost or forgotten. My (adoptive) mother wrote in a scrapbook which county they were told I was found in. There are no records of it, I have no abandonment certificate like some Chinese adoptees do and I have no recorded finding ad. For many intents and purposes, my life began when I was adopted by a white Canadian couple when I was under a year old. I am one of thousands of Chinese children adopted by foreigners after China opened its doors to intercountry adoption in 1991.
Like most Chinese adoptees, I was adopted under the shadow of the One Child Policy, first introduced in 1979. The One Child Policy (the unofficial name for the birth restriction policy) dictated that couples were only allowed to have one child. There were exceptions for rural families and ethnic minorities, but the policy was implemented and unequally enforced across the country, with varying levels of violence. The cultural preference for sons is well-publicized and is believed to be the reason behind why the majority of Chinese adoptions under the One Child Policy were girls. It is widely known and accepted among the Chinese adoptee community, the majority of us who were born female, that we were relinquished (or stolen) because of our sex at birth.
China’s changing birth restrictions
On May 31, 2021, I checked the news and saw a CBC article that said China had eased its birth restrictions and would now allow couples to have up to three children, instead of the previous two, which was implemented in 2016. I remember reading a similar news article in 2015 when it was announced that China was relaxing the One Child Policy for the first time in decades to allow for two children per couple. At the time, I didn’t think much of it, I was happy that the restrictions were loosened and sad that they were still policing reproductive rights. And yet, this morning when seeing the news, I felt much more strongly. Perhaps it is because during the pandemic, I made an effort to connect to the adoptee community, through joining online Facebook groups, run by adoptees for adoptees. I started trying to (re)learn Mandarin, which I had long since forgotten, despite being put in Mandarin lessons when I was little. Maybe it’s because of the spotlight put on anti-Black and anti-Asian racism due to the multiple high-profile police killings of Black people, the surge in Asian hate crimes due to the racist rhetoric about the origin of the pandemic, that’s forced me to more closely examine my own racial and cultural identity as a Canadian, transracial, Chinese, intercountry adoptee. But perhaps most of all, it’s because I have two sisters, also adopted from China, something that wasn’t allowed in China for most families until now.
For many reasons, reading the news article on China’s new relaxed policy, gave me many more mixed feelings. Again, the happiness at a relaxed policy and the sadness and disappointment at the continued policing of women’s bodies and reproductive rights. But this time, it came with another feeling: anger. I am angry. It feels like a slap to the face for all Chinese adoptees and their biological families who were (forcefully) separated under the One Child Policy. It feels like it was for nothing, even more than before. What was the point of my biological parents relinquishing me (if that’s what happened) if they were just going to change the policy later? What was the point in creating the policy when the birth rate was already falling, as it does when women are given greater access to education, careers and contraceptives, and now they want to increase the birth rate again? What was the point of stripping me of my name, my birthday, my culture, when the driving force behind my abandonment has been (semi-)reversed? If Chinese couples are now allowed to have three children (the same number as my sisters and I), then what was the point of the policy which drove thousands of children, mostly girls, to be abandoned, aborted and trafficked?
Now the policy has been changed and so what? I’m still a Chinese adoptee, living thousands of kilometres from my birth country, with no easy way to connect to any living blood relatives, unless I want to attempt a search. I’m still a Chinese adoptee who doesn’t know my birth name, birthday or birthplace. South Korean adoptees fought for and successfully lobbied the South Korean government for recognition and (limited) reparations. They have been given a way to recover their South Korean citizenship and are now eligible to apply for the F-4 (Korean Heritage) Visa. During the pandemic, the South Korean government sent free face masks for Korean adoptees. China does not acknowledge dual citizenship, nor does it provide adoptees with a special visa that would allow them an easier way return to their birth country. China does not acknowledge intercountry adoptees or how the thousands of children who were adopted internationally were direct consequences of the One Child Policy. The policy has been loosened and now Chinese couples can have up to three children, like my family in Canada. The policy that likely drove my adoption has been loosened and yet nothing has changed for me, and the Chinese government moves on.
I don’t like thinking of the what-ifs and what-could-be’s. I don’t like imagining what my life could have been if I was never relinquished (or stolen), if I was never adopted, if I was adopted by a Chinese couple instead etc. But this recent announcement has forced me to think about the what-ifs. Specifically, “What if my birth family had been able to keep me because they weren’t restricted by the One Child Policy?” I’m happy and satisfied with my current life. Despite the occasional hiccups, racist micro-aggressions and identity struggles, I wouldn’t change anything. That doesn’t mean I can’t and won’t mourn the life that was taken from me due to the One Child Policy. I mourn that I don’t know what my biological parents named me (if they did). I mourn that I don’t know the date, time and location where I was born. I mourn that I don’t know, and may never know, if I look like any of my biological relatives. I mourn that I will likely never know the full story behind my adoption. I mourn that as a Canadian, I will never feel fully comfortable in China and that as a Chinese adoptee, I will never be seen as fully Canadian. And I’m angry that for the Chinese government, they can change the One Child Policy and move on, while I and thousands of others will bear the consequences for the rest of our lives.
by Dilsah de Rham adopted from Sri Lanka to Switzerland.
Ink, Watercolours, Pastel
This is also about the dilemma of the dualities in life faced by adoptees in general. The feeling of the blind unconsciousness – the sad, overwhelmed feelings when we are not aware, the awareness about our identity, feeling in-between the white and biological cultures we belong to as intercountry adoptees.