My father was admitted to hospital yesterday as he had tightness in his chest and pain across his shoulder radiating down to his shoulder blade. The first question he was asked was, “Is there any family history of heart disease?” He was able to say, “My father had a heart attack, my brother had a stent put in and my sister also has heart disease, so yes there is.” This was then able to inform the medial team assessing him that there was a high possibility that this was heart related and so they could act accordingly.
When I was diagnosed with hip dysplasia back in 2010 the first thing I got asked was, “Is there any family history?” This of course was not the first time I’ve been asked that question. I’ve been asked that question my whole my life when I’ve presented for menial whatever’s. I’m adopted … oh right … sometimes awkward silence …. and therefore I don’t know.
The first thing we did of course when we found out that I had hip dysplasia, was get my daughter tested and bingo – guess what ?! It’s genetic!! She had it too. I was pleased but also sad that I had passed this on to her. I was pleased that for the first time in my life my newly discovered diagnosis meant I could help her catch hers early enough for her to still need surgery but not as invasive as what I needed to have. And there is the case in point, from a medical perspective on why biology matters.
Biology doesn’t matter. But they say blood is thicker than water. Biology doesn’t matter. But more than 26 million people have taken a genetic ancestry test. Biology doesn’t matter. But you have your grandma’s eyes. Biology doesn’t matter. But I’m so happy you got your dad’s musical talent. Biology doesn’t matter. But most states in the USA seal original birth certificates. Permanently. Biology doesn’t matter. But DNA carries the genetic instructions for development, functioning, growth, and reproduction of all known organisms. Biology doesn’t matter. But 406 episodes of Forensic Files kept TV audiences enthralled using biological evidence to catch violent criminals. Biology doesn’t matter. But ‘Finding Your Roots’ is a primetime hit for public television in the USA. Biology doesn’t matter. But an estimated 8 million children have been born worldwide using IVF and other reproductive technologies. Biology doesn’t matter. But all I ever wanted was to know who my mother is. Biology doesn’t matter. But mothers and the children they lost to adoption are desperately searching for each other, all over the world. Biology doesn’t matter. But it does. It really, really does.
Một giọt máu đào hơn ao nước lã / A drop of blood is worth more than all the water in a pond.
In the house I grew up in, on the second floor, there was a formal dining room and then a hallway leading to a large bathroom, a sewing room, the master bedroom and lastly my bedroom. On the wall opposite the dining room there was plenty of space for my adoptive parents to hang framed black-and-white photos of distant relatives who stemmed from both their family trees. In order to go down the hallway to my bedroom, each day and night, I had to pass by this orderly array of photos. Sometimes I passed right by them, sometimes, usually when I knew I was alone, I would look deep into the subjects’ eyes, so much so, that I’d start to believe they were staring back at me.
It was at these times, and in so many other ways, that I wanted someone with facial features, hair colour and physical stature similar to mine to peer back at me and explain the strange dissonance in which I increasingly felt trapped. But no help was coming because I was beyond help in some odd excommunicative aspect. No matter how much I tried dampening my distinguishable appearance, it carried me right back to my peers who generally judged me to not be wholly compatible with their cliques. As far as my adoptive parents and immediate family were concerned, I was theirs, for all intents and purposes, but when it came to innocuous remarks about familial traits or good-natured physical comparisons between cousins I was set aside and ignored. It was as if they were letting me know that this was “family business that doesn’t concern you.”
When you don’t resemble the people you’re forced to swim with in the big pond of The World, then you lower your body temp and try to cope and always look for an escape.
This is the last in the ICAV Blogger Collaborative Series that was created for Adoption Awareness Month 2019. Huge thanks to our ICAV Blogging team for their commitment and generosity in sharing their voices.
#3 ICAV Blogger Collaborative Series from Adoption Awareness Month 2019
Let’s say I’ve opened up and shared that intercountry adoption has put me in a place of living beside society and that I’m feeling my losses. If I open up to one family member in Sweden and one family member in my native Iran, both of them will say the same thing in response: “You should be grateful that you didn’t end up an orphan in Iran”. Implicitly all other alternatives would be worse so I don’t have the right to complain. I should stay quiet.
When discussing the alternatives to being adopted, people generally talk about prostitution, poverty, rejection from a cruel society where family is everything – basically zero prospects at all for a good life.
Would I have preferred that to the comfort of growing up in a free country and receiving an education, being able to travel? If that’s so bad, what other solution do I have?
Implicitly my Iranian relative would say that their country cannot change – that orphans will always be frowned upon and that sex outside of marriage, drug abuse or poverty are irredeemable. Implicitly my Swedish relative would believe that intercountry adoption is the best solution. There is an embedded colonialist viewpoint which only becomes visible if you reverse the reasoning: what would you think if a white, Swedish orphan was randomly sent to a strange country like Iran? When we have orphans in Sweden, what would we do with him or her? We would try WITH ALL OUR MEANS to find their relatives and place them there. If that didn’t work, we would put them in a safe home where there’s accountability and support for his or her trauma. We would make sure the child knows as much as possible about their birth family so that they can search for them at any point and always feel connected to them. This would be the alternative to adoption.
But as long as richer countries mine poorer countries for babies, using adoption as bargaining chips in diplomacy, there are no incentives for the poorer country to deal with its problems. The orphanages in my native country are still flooded. After the Islamic Revolution, Iran didn’t want to use us children as bargaining chips anymore and stopped letting the orphans go abroad. Nowadays, you need to be an Iranian citizen, you need to write over one third of your assets and you will be monitored with the baby for six months before the adoption gets finalised.
If you don’t think the Iranian way sounds like a more reasonable solution for orphans it’s probably because of the colonialist viewpoint, that western countries have to be a better option for EVERYBODY to grow up in. You probably think the stigma of being spotted at every class photo as an adoptee (italics), not knowing your native language or culture, getting questions about your background every single day and being subjected to racism from early childhood is a price everyone is willing to pay.
The most reasonable solution is, of course, what we would do to our “own” here in the West. I am aware this requires a movement in the poorer countries to create a shift. That’s why we need adoptee voices!
When I see this question – I feel it’s a classic sea-lioning trope i.e., a type of trolling or harassment which consists of pursuing people with persistent requests for evidence or repeated questions, while maintaining a pretence of civility and sincerity. It may take the form of “incessant, bad-faith invitations to engage in debate”.
This question and others like it puts the onus on adoptees to have the solutions and answers while declining to centre adoptee voices as integral to defining the issues.
I look to guardianship over adoption, care not erasure. Care of children in crisis doesn’t need to involve wide scale secrecy, severing of family bonds and complete removal from birth culture.
An emotional and financial burden of search lies on adoptees because of the secrecy. Birth families are often disempowered and actively discouraged from contact. And yet it seems that more adoptees are open to contact if it’s led by the birth families, when the fear of rejection is lessened. No government assisted systems are in place to offer genetic testing and support for reuniting and no pressure exists from adoptive or birth countries, or the Hague Convention to do so. Adoptees are forced to deal with complicated feelings about searching because of ongoing concealment of information in adoption which is especially the norm within intercountry adoption. Clandestine practices are entirely normalised within adoption where it would otherwise be unacceptable and illegal.
The public is fascinated with family secrets and reunion stories. Television, film and books on search and reunions are plentiful but never does anyone question the reason for such punishing anonymity and severing of all biological relationships. Never does anyone ask the adoptive parents why it’s a component of adoption or ask them to imagine what affect that would have on a person, or invite them to imagine how easy it would be to talk about those feelings with adoptive parents who convey fragility and fear around the topic.
The answer to this question could be an essay, thesis, or book in itself. I can’t do it justice here but I’m going to mention some initial thoughts because it is such a relevant question. Ultimately, this question asks:
Is adoption a solution and should we be doing it?
The underlying concept in adoption is that most people recognise humanity is not perfect, there exist children and families who struggle and need help, and most of us want to help vulnerable children but how we go about giving that help is really what we think about when we ask for alternatives to adoption. It is assumed that the legalised way of intercountry adoption must be a good thing because governments have agreed on it, they look like they have safeguards in place in the form of Conventions (The Hague Convention for Intercountry Adoption) and it’s been happening for decades. However, having lived the life of an intercountry adoptee and knowing thousands around the globe, my response to people who ask what alternatives to adoption is three-fold.
Firstly, I believe we should be doing more to prevent the need for intercountry adoption and many organisations are doing amazing work in this. We need people to spend the amounts of money from the adoption industry into preventative programs that focus on family and community preservation.
Secondly, when people ask what alternatives to adoption, I reply with asking whether they know who the top 10 sending countries are in the past 20 years. I then point out that China, South Korea and Russia are in the top 10 sending countries despite being first world nations with substantial GDPs. One has to ask why are they continuing to send their children abroad? And this includes America who is in the top 25 sending countries. Intercountry adoption is NOT about a lack of money and resources yet most people will not consider alternatives to adoption because it’s about their need for a child, having that child as “theirs” to keep forever, instead of focusing on what is best for the child. If we were interested in what is best for the child, we’d listen to adult intercountry’s adoptees who by and large, share about the difficulties of growing up between two lands. Adult intercountry adoptees say we need to do more to help keep children in their countries and address the lack of alternatives to adoption there.
This brings me to my third point. If we look to some of our first world countries who have great alternatives in place already, we know that alternatives exist and many of them work effectively.
Some examples: France uses Simple Adoption compared to the widely used Plenary Adoption. In Australia, some states use Guardianship/Stewardship, Kinship Care/Out-of-Home-Care, and Permanent Care/Foster Care models which have been operating for many years now. Sweden is rewriting their social infrastructure to ensure that children’s rights are central. A Swiss report that compared child protection systems internationally, provided 14 recommendations of what is necessary for “good practice”. A recent Quartz report lists the best countries in Europe who are currently providing amazing family welfare programs. This sort of social infrastructure is often missing from poverty stricken birth countries. Helping them develop family support systems would go a long way to prevent the need for ever having to consider adoption. There are also some experts in the field like Lori Carangelo whom we can turn to and understand what they consider as alternatives to adoption. More recently, a first-of-it’s-kind research has just been released by Karleen Gribble at Western Sydney University in which she surveyed impacted foster and adoptive people, asking what we preferred to plenary adoption. Her research has been given to the Australian government by AdoptChange, where you can access the whole report for free.
I believe asking about alternatives to adoption is one the most relevant questions we should be discussing in intercountry adoption. When this is properly discussed, it leads to the realisation that other solutions exist and that holding onto an outdated Plenary Adoption model is for no useful reason other than — because “we’ve been doing it like this for decades”. People don’t like change. Change costs money. Change requires a new mindset. We do know alternatives exist, we just don’t have the political will power to change the hugely profitable industry that has built up over decades to do what is right for the children and families involved.
Intercountry adoption is all too often portrayed as the ONLY saviour to a complex problem that gets simplified to marketing concepts such as “Orphanage vs Adoption” i.e., darkness vs light, death vs living. This portrayal is overly simplistic and to think of change, we need to move away from these all or nothing concepts.
Adoption in its current Plenary form should not be a solution today given we have alternative options and more importantly, ways to prevent the need for such an extreme solution. Plenary adoption should never be a first solution. If a community and family can no longer care for their children despite first being offered many preventative strategies, then Kinship Care, Simple adoption, Guardianship models do far better to protect the rights and interests of all involved. It’s time we discuss this question fully and to listen to those who live it from a broad range of experiences.
#2 ICAV Blogger Collaborative Series from Adoption Awareness Month 2019
When someone says “I don’t see colour,” to me this means they don’t see me. They will argue that they see me as a “person,” just like we are all people. But I counter that view because my personhood, my identity, my humanity, cannot be uncoupled from my brown-ness.
Pretending not to see colour has the effect of negating everyone’s ancestry, personal and familial history, and their lived experiences in the racialised society we all live in – no matter where we live. In intercountry adoption (ICA), this “colourblind” view can be absolutely devastating because ICA is dominated by white people adopting brown and black babies from all over the world. If white adoptive parents refuse to see their child’s skin colour or their own skin colour, how can they fully parent and love their child unconditionally?
For, it would seem, being colourblind is only possible under certain conditions: (a) I don’t have to see your colour; (b) I don’t have to acknowledge my colour; (c) we never have to talk about what your colour or my colour means; (d) we never, ever have to talk about how those colours exist in relation to each other within the larger context of culture and society.
From the perspective of a brown intercountry adoptee like me, I feel a mixture of sadness and anger towards anyone who espouses a colourblind mentality because they essentially negate the history of my brown ancestors.
If you refuse to allow that humanity has attached certain assumed behaviours and levels of privilege and importance to different skin colours, how can we possibly have a conversation on why these structures are in place, who’s benefitting and who’s being harmed by them, and why it’s important to create a truly level playing field?
When white adoptive parents pretend to be colourblind, how can they help their child be proud of the skin they’re in? How can they recognise their child’s need for racial mirrors? How can they help their child understand the beautiful and rich aspects of the child’s ancestry and culture as well as the pain and oppression their race has experienced and continues to experience, and how those dynamics relate to each other? How can they help nurture a racially competent child who grows up into a racially competent adult – even if that means their son or daughter is racially competent in a race that doesn’t match their own? How can they see the role that their white privilege has played throughout their own lives and via the intercountry adoption of their child? How can they decide how to use their white privilege going forward?
None of this is possible if we are teaching and encouraging people, including white adoptive parents, to pretend not to see colour.
Congratulations you’ve just completely erased my first culture, my birth family, my genetic history, my country of origin! Look I know you meant well, but underneath this, there’s an insensitivity or lack of awareness about everything that I was and still am before I was adopted. It’s kind of like you’re saying, “Good job – you have assimilated so well that you’re just like me/us now!” But I’m not.
One of my fellow intercountry adoptee friends joked about how we are coconuts – brown on the outside and white on the inside. It’s funny, but it’s also not funny.
My adoptive parents tried to show me books and documentaries about Vietnam when I was growing up, but I wanted nothing to do with anything that highlighted my difference. When I got sunburnt on my nose, I asked mum if I’d be white underneath. So I got caught up in the “not wanting to see my colour thing” either.
I was very good at being a chameleon, it’s like I had to become one to survive. I was so desperate to fit in and to belong that I learnt fast about how to adapt my personality to be loved and liked. I still do this to this day, but I’m learning that I’m enough as I am and I don’t need to perform to be worthy of being loved.
The popular TV show This Is Us wowed audiences again with its coverage of transracial adoption. I don’t watch the show, and a lot of adoptees can’t bring themselves to watch it either. And yet it’s immensely popular with adoptive parents. The supposedly “mic drop” scene is as follows:
Jack: When I look at you, I don’t see colour. I just see my son.
Randall: Then you don’t see me, Dad.
During NAAM, it’s particularly biting to see this interaction getting mainstream attention. You see, many of us adoptees of colour have had this exact dialogue with our colourblind families and friends (myself included).
This isn’t an original line, and dare I say, I wouldn’t be surprised if the writers lurk in adoption spaces and stole this from the stories of adoptees, co-opting our stories for better ratings.
This isn’t some TV script for your entertainment; this is a painful part of our real lives. It hurts us in deep, existential ways to be denied access to our birth culture and traditions and then to be unseen by our adoptive families. It is actively rejecting us a second time.
If you refuse to “see” the parts of me that are a brown Indian, then you are actively refusing to support me on my journey to discover who I was born to be. Your choice to take the easy road to claim, “I’m not racist” actively isolates me and in turn plays into its own racial problems. Take the harder road with me, with any of the people of colour in your lives, and learn how to unlearn racial biases. This work requires you to see, so take off your (colour)blinders.
The fact that it takes a network TV show to get this concept to take hold rather than the direct words of real adoptees should disgust anyone and everyone who loves an adoptee.
I challenge adoptive parents and allies who support the adoptee attempt to “flip the script” during NAAM to think about how prioritising entertainment over the real words of adoptees is its own form of silencing; to be more intentional about whose voices you choose to uplift; and be more critical of the media you choose to consume.
Somewhere along the way in my life, I got the message that I’m not a real Asian. As a mixed race adoptee I don’t even dare try to join Chinese adoptee communities or Indian ones for fear of not being enough in some way. I can’t make sense of what it is to be a Malaysian Chindian — I don’t know any others, I’ve never met one. There are no books I know of, no museums or movies. Even if there were, I would be reading them the way an outsider learns about history.
Something I resent is the suggestion I should do something in order to belong. Belonging isn’t a citizenship test!
As an intercountry adoptee brought to England by a white couple with no friends of colour, all the markers of my culture have been erased. Except my skin colour, my hair, it’s texture, my eyes. Each time someone says, “I don’t see colour”, or simply behave as though they don’t, this implicit message that I don’t belong in my biological culture is reinforced and I’m erased a little more.
I don’t forget that my gay friends are gay, I don’t forget their struggle to belong or to feel safe holding hands or kissing in public. To erase that would be a failure of empathy and allegiance. Of course it isn’t the only part of their identity and I’m interested in all the other parts too. The ones that are like me (or not), the parts that amaze, amuse or confuse me — I love them all.
Everyone just wants to be seen. I wonder what makes you feel unseen?
When we experience ourselves differently to how we are seen, there’s a disconnect, a disruption to our identity which isn’t resolvable with free will alone.
Belonging is relational – by its very nature it demands the acceptance of others.
Since the later years of coming to terms with my identity, fitting in between my two worlds (adoptive and birth), understanding the impacts of being relinquished and adopted, I have shared many of my experiences to wide audiences but one situation close to me, never ceases to frustrate me the most. This is when my own adoptive family make this comment, “But we see you as one of us” or “We don’t see you as being different” after trying to explain how I’ve always felt so different and out of place.
I acknowledge, in their eyes, they are trying to say to me that I am accepted and embraced by them as being one of their “clan” despite my skin colour and outward obvious differences. But without any in-depth discussions about the complexities of being intercountry adopted, these types of comments just made me feel even more disconnected and isolated from them. What it showed me was they had very little understanding of my intercountry adopted journey. When they don’t have these important conversations with me, they are oblivious to how their comments make me feel even though I know it is not what they intend.
What would I prefer my family to say? I would prefer them to acknowledge my differences and really try to understand where I’m coming from. For me it’s about the discrepancy I experience on a daily basis because strangers throughout my life meet me once and make basic assumptions that I am NOT one of them (white Australian) based on my appearance – my skin colour, my eyes, my hair. The internal battle I face as an intercountry adoptee, is that whilst in my private family circles I might be fully accepted, it is NOT the experience I have in public outer life.
The constant jarring reminders of “not belonging” in my wider adoptive society leaves me with a lot of unresolved questions of who I am, where do I belong, who are my clan, and how did this reality eventuate. Are my adoptive family even aware of these impacts? No because they are so blind to what everyone else can see and received very little education on race, culture, and the importance of open discussions. Ignorance is not bliss in this case.
So when my adoptive family says, “I don’t see your difference, you’re one of us” when clearly I’m not as clarified by many strangers, this comment only acts to shut down the conversation instead of opening it up and allowing me the space and love to process competing realities.
Being intercountry adopted is not a reality we adoptees can ignore for too long!
I don’t know if it’s the fact that I didn’t grow up in an English-speaking country, but we don’t use the word “colour” to describe a person. In Sweden, we use “foreigner” as opposed to being Swedish. So instead of saying “I don’t see colour”, people would say “I never think of you as anything but Swedish” or “I see you as the same as us”. They say that to be nice.
When I grew up there were very few people in Sweden with a darker complexion. Most didn’t speak the language well and some of them (of course, a small minority) appeared shady. Swedish mindset is to question if they (dark complexion people) could be trusted.
To tell me that I don’t appear foreign means I am a person they trust. But … when I go on dating sites strangers viewing my profile, only see colour. I get less guys who write than my white peers, less matches with white skin but more super likes from “foreign” men.
One time I wrote in my profile text that I was adopted so as not to appear scary. Then I thought adopted might also sound scary, because in Sweden that implies psychological problems. So I deleted it again and had to come to terms with being less popular online.
My close friends have never said these words to me about not appearing foreign but I do things said like this occasionally and every time, I am offended. As if that random person has a right to put an approval stamp on me. As if I were to do anything untrustworthy, he or she would judge me much harder and say, “Hmm, I guess she wasn’t like us, after all”.
What defines me is not what you see, it’s what I see. Colours don’t colour my life, but my experiences in a prejudiced and bigoted society have.
A transracial adoptee’s worth as a human being is both legally and socially determined by his adoptive parents, his adoptive family, their friends and neighbours, and the entire local community that is encouraged to invite him in as one of their own. But as I eventually learned the security blanket of immediate family didn’t always save me from explaining what I was doing there or defending how I belonged. In my youth, it seemed like I was constantly feeling a barrage of disconcerting interactions with other kids who called me out, in so many words, as being a foreigner, even though I knew nothing else than what my Irish Catholic family had taught me: That I was an “Allen”, that I had to go to Mass every Sunday, that I spoke English and that I belonged to them.
The erasure and then replacement of my identity reverberated in how I developed a sense of self: I didn’t really have a Self. I had a mock-up of one, a misfitting template that I was encouraged to carry around and display each and every day. I didn’t know what it meant to be Vietnamese because that was not the point of this whole adoption experiment. I was trained to look in the mirror and pretend that I was just another Irish Catholic kid with a bad temper. I was trained to not read about the war I had been exfiltrated from. I was trained to see myself like everyone else.
I even trained myself not to see colour. Even though my graduating class in high school comprised many kids from refugee families from Southeast Asia as well as several Asian adoptees, including me, I couldn’t pick them out because I refused to see them other than strangers. I didn’t hang out with any of them or even talk to them because why would I? I was “Kevin Allen”. Son of Evalyn and Bob, and oldest brother to two sisters. I couldn’t even find myself for so long because I was lost. Lost in the fantasy that I was just like my parents, just like my aunts and uncles and cousins, and just like the community that held me under its tutelage.
In art studio class in high school we had to do a self-portrait. I took my time drawing mine. I used coloured pencils and got the shading and features of my young face all correct and flattering. I thought it was a great representation of me. It was one of my proudest works. But I never kept it for myself. I gave it to my parents. I felt I had no use for it.
#1 ICAV Blogger Collaborative Series from Adoption Awareness Month 2019
One of the first things people will ask me is how old I was when I was adopted. When I reply that I was 2 months old, I can see them discount my loss. They may even say, “So you don’t remember” but it’s a misconception, not only because things don’t have to be recalled to be subconsciously remembered, but also because I don’t have to remember having something to know what I’m missing.
Imagine if you were bitten by a dog as a baby. You might have no conscious recollection of it, but your subconscious will have it stored somehow and you will likely be terrified of dogs for the rest of your life, without understanding it. Adoptees experience a loss which is pre-verbal but there is no such thing as pre-feeling; implicit memory is body held. Childhood relinquishment creates life-long fear of rejection and loss and either a distrust of others or of self. Our resulting attachment styles can make it difficult to connect with others and maintain healthy relationships.
The smell of our biological families is not remembered, but is palpably different to our adoptive family, even in adulthood I notice this every time and it jars me.
The absence of someone or something can be important not just in the moment of losing it, but in everyday life. For example, the loss of sight or hearing, or use of a limb, or the ability to empathise or navigate. Having no memory of those things doesn’t mean we wouldn’t have a longing for them — their importance and meaning isn’t lost on us because we don’t have it. Those who’ve grown up poor have no memory or experience of being rich — but likely they still would like to have money, just as those of us without our bio families, genetic mirrors, belonging or culture, to name just a few, know there is something missing — but not just missing, taken.
When I was a young-under-20 year old adoptee, I would have agreed with the statement, “You were just a baby, you don’t remember”. As an over 40 year old now, having fully shed my adoptee oblivion and so fully aware that adoption and relinquishment actually have many impacts on me, I can attest that the body does remember the separation from mother, even if we are infants at the time of separation and adoption.
I remember going through years of therapy, mostly cognitive, until I found an amazing therapist who helped me reconnect with my body. The work I did, helped me to heal the dissonance between my mind (influenced largely by my white adoptive life) and body (influenced largely by my genetics and biological).
My mind always tricked me, telling me everything my adoptive life imbued, for example, that I was lucky to be saved by adoption and living in this amazing country, Australia. But my body told me differently. It was where my deep sadness sat, feeling that I didn’t know who I really belonged with (who was my tribe?), where I came from and feelings of isolation. I spent most of my life in my adoptive family pushing away those body feelings and living the persona of my adoptive life … looking very together, high achieving, and seemingly happy. But it all became too much in my mid 20s and I experienced deep depression and attempted suicide multiple times trying to escape and push away those deep body feelings. The therapy literally saved my life. It was the only space I had been given that allowed me permission and validation to grieve and allow my body to express what I’d spent most of my life until then, trying to suppress. Finally, I was able to grieve for my mother who I actually had no cognitive memory of, but in allowing myself to grieve, I learned that my body did in fact remember.
So, I know today why that therapy was so powerful because despite the myths of adoption like this statement, we DO remember everything about our mother who we are symbiotically connected to for 9 months. That separation from her was imprinted in the cells of my body. I might not have had the words to describe the sadness, grief, pain and confusion of why I never heard, felt, or smelt heard her again, but it took an amazing therapist and certain type of therapy to help me unlock the body memory so that I could do what I needed — to reconnect with that memory of her and honour it. To give it a place in my life and no longer deny she didn’t matter, because she totally did.
In every cell of my body, there was the undeniable truth. So for me, that statement that we do not remember as infants, is so not true. I was just a 5 month old baby when I arrived in my adoptive family but I did remember. She was deeply imprinted in me and I spent years trying to ignore that truth which only made the trauma of separation worse.
I only began to heal once I recognised and embraced the truth of that body memory, which doesn’t lie.
This statement itself is true for me. I don’t remember. I’ve always thought that I’d be more damaged if I came here at an older age. More damaged in the sense that I would be harder to love and easier to disregard if I got into major trouble with either mental health or society at large. It’s as if this is an entry ticket for people to want to get near me, an assurance that I will be just like them.
Even after telling people that I was three months old when I came here, they still continue to ask me if I know the Persian language. That always puzzled me. What baby speaks a language at three months? Is this evidence of how little these people have spent energy putting themselves in my situation? Probably.
When it comes to someone who loses a parent when they are too young to remember, people show a lot of compassion. Nobody would say to them, “You were just a baby, you don’t remember”. Instead they are showered with helpful words about the tragedy. Their trauma is affirmed. The only time our trauma is affirmed is when an adoptee gets into trouble or has depression. Then these same people say that there is nothing to be done about it, that we were already damaged.
I was adopted at 10 months old. Prior to this I lived for six months with a French Vietnamese family with the lawyer who facilitated my adoption. I lived in their house with them. Before this, I was in an orphanage being cared for but not loved nor given all the attention a mother normally gives a new-born. Even in-utero my mother probably knew that she could not keep me.
“As a fetus grows, it’s constantly getting messages from its mother. It’s not just hearing her heartbeat and whatever music she might play to her belly; it also gets chemical signals through the placenta. A new study finds that this includes signals about the mother’s mental state” (Science Daily, 2011)
The first year of a baby’s life and during pregnancy is so important. A mother’s physical and emotional availability is vital for the babies emotional and psychological development. It can also impact on our future ability to learn and retain knowledge, amongst other things.
My body remembers. I had my first major panic attack when my now ex-partner found out she was pregnant. I was happy and excited but my body responded differently. It went into complete panic around the threat of being rejected and abandoned all over again. The physical attack on my body as a result of the trauma experienced in my first year of life was so great that I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I lost 7 kilos in two weeks through stress and physical fear that I would be left and replaced by our new baby.
Any loss of significant intimate relationship I have formed in my adult life has triggered varying degrees of anxiety. I’ve done copious amounts of counselling, Craniosacral therapy, acupuncture, dance therapy, art therapy, massage, regular exercise to manage my body’s response to old stress and trauma stored in every single cell. I’ve done a lot of work to change the narrative that I am enough and I am able to care and look after myself in times of adversity such as a relationship break up.
I know that I will not die now and that I have enough resilience and self-love to care for myself and truly believe I’m worth it.
My son had a recent health scare. Thankfully he’s fine, but at an appointment with his new paediatrician, the subject of family history came up, especially as I’d been diagnosed with a hereditary syndrome only a few months earlier. I said I could only provide limited family history, having been adopted and thus far only able to find my mother and some half-siblings. The doctor asked how my syndrome manifested itself because my son’s symptoms were possibly related. We discussed my physical symptoms and then she asked if I also experienced “brain fog” (moments of forgetfulness and/or being unable to process information). I replied that I do sometimes experience it but I’d always considered it to be “trauma brain.” This, of course, prompted her to ask what trauma I had suffered.
I answered, “I’m an intercountry adoptee. I lost my mother, my everything — and was adopted by a family of a different race on a different continent.” “How old were you when you were adopted?” she asked, a look of sympathy in her eyes. “Around 2 months,” I answered. All sympathy vanished, replaced by a slightly exasperated look, “Oh, but you were just a little baby at the time. You couldn’t possibly remember.”
Her comment implied: (a) babies cannot form emotional/cognitive/somatic memories; (b) babies cannot experience trauma; (c) losing your mother immediately or shortly after birth has no effect on a baby; (c) any combination of the above.
Though I have heard this comment countless times before, I was shocked to hear it coming from a paediatrician. Had she not learned about the numerous studies that have been done on various animal species, as well as humans, showing the detrimental effects of early baby/mother separation?
What if I had told her that the trauma I’d experienced at the age of 2 months hadn’t been the loss of my mother but physical abuse instead? Or sexual abuse? Or severe neglect? Do you think she would have immediately poo-pooed THOSE causes as legitimate causes of pain and trauma – even to a baby – as she did for adoption? No way! She probably would have been outraged and rightfully so!
Programs like Kangaroo intensive care therapy for premature babies are in place in hospitals across the globe because it is widely recognised that babies need skin-to-skin contact with their mothers. Books about early infancy remind us that a baby and its mother are one organism until the umbilical cord is cut, and that newborns do not realise they are separate individuals from their mother. Science seems to grasp the fact that the mother-child bond is critical to preserve, especially very early on in life and throughout much of childhood. Yet society has been conditioned to think that babies who are separated from their mother due to adoption don’t/can’t remember (either cognitively or somatically) and/or aren’t traumatised by this early loss. You can’t have it both ways. Pain is pain. Trauma is trauma. All babies need their mothers – not just the ones that aren’t adopted. Every cell of an adopted person’s body knows empirically that she/he has lost her/his biological mother.
We remember. One woman is not just any woman. One baby is not just any baby. People are not interchangeable. Except when it comes to adoption.
My origins have not left me, my history still lingers in archives and attics, my blood relatives may still be circulating somewhere in the region from where I was scooped up and transported out of South Vietnam and into the United States in 1974.
Sure, as an eight-month-old infant, I had no idea what was going on around me and there was no way I was given any choice in whether I stayed or not.
Being uprooted and re-settled, and re-named and re-homed, all within my first year of life, made not a dent on my infant memory.
The failure of recall of all the micro and macro events and faces behind them who coordinated and shaped my early beginnings was expected and encouraged.
I was trained to not look back at the person I was prior to my transformation into a naturalised U.S. citizen.
My infanthood as an orphaned foreigner was seen as illegitimate; my “real life” was only recognised when I became an American citizen.
But what I cannot remember is still what I cannot forget.
What I do remember are the many times when I withdrew from my community because it became readily apparent to me that I was never going to truly settle quietly and comfortably into the life crafted for me.
What I cannot forget is my adoption was meant to ostensibly wipe the slate clean for me while at the same time wipe my mother and my father and their child off the face of the earth.
by Kate Coghlan, Vietnamese adoptee raised in Australia.
Returning to Vietnam in April this year was partly to do some searching but what I’ve realised since being back, is that it actually had more to do with my inner healing. What I didn’t realise until now, was the after-effect and impact that would continue strongly, three months since returning to Australia.
I was blessed to be able to make my fourth trip back to Vietnam with my adoptive parents and my youngest biological daughter. The trip was a three-generation shared story.
It’s been 25 years since my Aussie mum, dad and I made our first trip back. I recall on that first trip, declaring that I’d changed my mind about returning and mum had to physically support me off the plane as I wept at the enormity of the situation. This time, I looked lovingly out the plane window at the lights of Ho Chi Minh city and felt genuine happiness to be back.
We had a plan to meet with a priest who was in the same order as the priest, Father Oliver, was who ran my orphanage when I had been here as an infant before my adoption. This priest still works at the same church where Father Olivier had been head priest. The most amazing thing was, we got to see where I was born!
Throughout this trip, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude for the people I met who have invested in helping me search for my family. I also got to meet the investigator who was working with ISS Australia before they lost their funding. This investigator has been the only person able to locate a document that had my Vietnamese mother’s name on it. The investigator is herself a fellow Vietnamese Australian adoptee, so she completely understands my story and the feelings associated with my search.
Whilst in Vietnam, I enjoyed eating as much like a local as possible and I made sure I had a Vietnamese coffee every day. But the real surprise has been what’s happened for me since returning from Vietnam this time. I am filled with a genuine sense of peace about my search. I’m truly okay with not being any further along with finding blood relatives. The connections I have made with people who are still searching for me has been amazing. Just knowing there are people who care enough to help is very humbling.
Since being home in Australia, I have a real sense of being more present in my life and I have more space within, to just be me. I can’t explain the feeling but I’ll try. I feel content and no longer have the need to operate from a place where I’m trying to impress people or get them to like me. I don’t care if they do now or not. I’m filling myself with more self worth and know that I can trust myself to be my own keeper i.e., take care of myself. This return trip has been a real growth journey for me.
I’m also excited knowing that I will return again next year. I left not needing to be sad or wondering when I’ll be back. I’ve decided I need to make a trip back at least once every two years to stay connected to my homeland, where my soul feels at peace.