Why I’m Not Going Back: One Intercountry Adoptee’s Perspective

Guest post shared anonymously by one of ICAVs members.

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Growing up in near-total whiteness in the Midwest of America in the 1960s and 1970s, as a member of the first large wave of transracial intercountry adoptees, I experienced consistent marginalization and ostracism because of my race, and, to put it more bluntly, because of the race I was not—white. Constantly asked where I was from—no, REALLY, where was I REEEEAAAAALLLY from?????—I can say that the society around me made it very clear that I was an outsider, a foreigner, a stranger, an alien. I was often asked where I was from, and sometimes asked when I was going back to where I was from. And very occasionally, yes, I was told to go back to where I was from. All of this was deeply hurtful and wounding, of course, but I largely internalized a huge amount of racism and xenophobia to myself, and ended up with one gigantic complex about my physical appearance, which it’s taken me more than four decades to self-heal from—and I’m still working on that.

Indeed, one huge element in my participation in groups on Facebook around transracial adoption, as well as in-person participation in conferences around transracial adoption, has been a profound sense of mission around not only supporting my fellow adult transracial and intercountry adoptees to navigate society, including racism and xenophobia, but also around trying to help white transracial adoptive parents prepare their adopted children of color to navigate the world around us. I feel an intense identification with the littlest adoptees, who in some cases, even now in 2019, are experiencing what I experienced as a small child back in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the 1960s; and honestly, with all the resources available to white transracial adoptive parents now, in the second decade of the 21stcentury, is there any reason at all that the littlest transracial adoptee should have to experience what I and other transracial adoptees in the first waves experienced several decades ago???

Meanwhile, a great deal has happened in America, and elsewhere, in the past couple of decades. For one thing, enough white Americans were willing to give a Black/biracial man a chance, that we elected our first president of color, in November 2008. I still remember the thrill of election night on November 4, 2008, when then-Senator Barack Obama appeared on the stage in Grant Park in Chicago (the city that I am proud to say is my home) with his beautiful, accomplished wife Michelle Obama, and their adorable then-children, Malia and Sasha Obama, and were greeted by the most thunderous applause I think I had ever heard, on the part of hundreds of thousands of people gathered there, cheering, screaming for joy, weeping, many in stunned disbelief that our country could have the mind and the heart to break that barrier. And I, like millions of Americans, hoped in that moment that at least some people who had not voted for Barack Obama actually wished him well, and would be willing to give him a chance to lead all of us, all Americans, and to use his position as president of our country to also help lead in the world.

At the same time, I and so many Americans of color knew that there were many who hated President-elect Obama simply for his race (even though he had two, another complexity of his identity), and that some of those people would do everything they could to undermine him simply for his race, even apart from any ideological issues involved. We people of color knew that there would be a backlash; but the size and endurance of that backlash has shocked even many of us. And, shockingly, 62.9 million American voters, or 46 percent of the electorate, voted for Donald Trump, a man with absolutely zero political or public policy experience, and whose entire campaign had been based on racism and xenophobia; and because of our bizarre (and, to non-Americans, essentially inexplicable) Electoral College system, Trump won the presidency, even though 65.8 million voters, of 48 percent, had voted for former Secretary of State, former Senator, and former First Lady Hillary Clinton. In any case, based on how our strange Electoral College system works, Trump assumed the presidency on January 2017, and from literally the first moments of his presidency, he framed everything in apocalyptic terms, speaking of “American carnage” that only he could stop, and intensifying his racist rhetoric month after month.

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And then, this month, Trump stepped up his hate-filled rhetoric against four first-term U.S. representatives—Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, hurling insults and accusations against them, branding them as “anti-American,” and piling lie on top of lie, in an effort to solidify his popularity among his core supporters, as the American presidential campaign (which, surreally, lasts two full years here) got underway. And then, on July 14, Trump tweeted that those four congresswomen should “go back to… the places to which they came,” even though three of the four were born in America.

Then, after massive condemnation of his remarks, Trump said on July 17 at a campaign rally in North Carolina, of the four congresswomen, “They never have anything good to say. That’s why I say, ‘Hey if you don’t like it, let ’em leave, let ’em leave.’ … I think in some cases they hate our country.” He then called out Rep. Omar specifically, once again falsely claiming that she had praised the terrorist group al-Qaeda (a charge thoroughly debunked numerous times in the past), and stating that Congresswoman Omar “looks down with contempt” on Americans; and the crowd reacted by chanting, “Send her back, Send her back.” Trump did nothing to stop the chants, and, after feebly distancing himself from them in the days that followed, now appears to be endorsing them.

For those of us who are immigrants of color—and even for many people of color who are not immigrants—we grew up hearing the “go back to where you’re from” taunts. They are hurtful and devastating. Padma Lakshmi, an ACLU Artist Ambassador for Immigrants’ and Women’s Rights, writing in The Washington Poston July 19, spoke for many of us when she wrote that, “Those words, those hurtful, xenophobic, entitled words that I’ve heard all throughout my childhood, stabbed me right in the heart. They echoed the unshakable feeling that most brown immigrants feel. Regardless of what we do, regardless of how much we assimilate and contribute, we are never truly American enough because our names sound funny, our skin isn’t white, or our grandmothers live in a different country.”

And for those of us who are transracial, intercountry adoptees, growing up in whiteness, and often surrounded by racists and racism, the pain can run very deep indeed. Kurt Bardella, who like me is an adult Korean adoptee, on July 17, wrote, in nbcnews.com, the online news website of the U.S. broadcast network NBC News, about his reaction to the “go back” taunts by Trump, in an op-ed entitled “’Go back’ is how racists try to deny my American-ness. But I’m never leaving.” Among other things, Bardella wrote eloquently that, “Like so many marginalized people in America, when we speak our mind in the political sphere, when we challenge the normalcy of the white status quo, we are attacked as less-than-fully American. I guarantee you, every single person of color who writes a column or appears on cable news to debate the national issues of the day (particularly from a perspective critical of the current president) receives a barrage of tweets, direct Facebook messages and emails from white Americans telling them to effectively ‘go back home.’ These reminders in which others perceive the color of our skin as a reason to reject our Americanness, is a constant reality that has been a part of our lives for as long as we can remember.”

What’s more, Bardella wrote, “Of course, Donald Trump’s weaponization of existing racism is not new; it has been his tool of choice ever since he expanded his presence on the political scene by questioning the legitimacy of the first black president. As president, he has praised white nationalists in Charlottesville, pardoned a racist sheriff in Arizona, labeled Haiti and African nations “shithole countries,” attacked NFL players for protesting the National Anthem and presided over an administration that locked up and tortured Central American children and their families at the southern border while deriding them as potential gang members.” Essentially, Trump has filled his entire time in the Oval Office so far—two-and-a-half years—with racist, xenophobic attacks and disparagement, literally nearly every single week.

What Bardella and Lakshmi have written says more articulately than I could, how I also see things. Frighteningly, it appears certain that Trump is going to base his entire 2020 reelection campaign pitch on open racism, white supremacy, and xenophobia, hoping to capture more of the white vote than in 2016, even amid demographic shifts that will make the United States a “majority-minority” country by 2045, according to the United States Census. And actually, that’s what all of this is about. The fear and apprehension of some white people in the United States is now palpable: in big cities and small towns across the country, the presence of people of color, including of very identifiable immigrants of color, is unmistakable. And Trump’s core base supporters are terrified and enraged.

Sadly, a large number of white transracial adoptive parents in America refuse to accept that the explosion in the open racial aggression of people of color has anything to do with their adopted children of color. Ensconced in bubbles of (often-right-wing) whiteness, and with no or few adult friends of color, many white transracial adoptive parents in the U.S. are convinced that their children will be treated as “special,” and further, that Trump and his core followers wish only the best for their children.

I had a very recent involvement in that issue this very week, when a thread in a transracial adoption-focused group that I do not moderate but was a member of, blew up because a friend of mine, a transracial adoptive mom whom I like very much, posted Kurt Bardella’s op-ed in the group. Facebook notified me of it, and I thanked my friend for posting it, stating that I so appreciated her lifting up the voices of transracial, intercountry adoptees in this difficult moment. But a racist white mother who fully supports Trump assured us that Trump could never possibly be racist, and that nothing he says or does could possibly be racist, and things exploded from there. Along with a large number of like-minded members, I (one of only two adult transracial adoptees participating in that discussion thread) and the others protesting racism and white supremacy, were promptly removed by the moderator from the group, while the racist adoptive mother was retained. I was also told that I was removed not only for discussing politics, but also for, one time only, using the f-word in one phrase in one of my comments in the discussion thread.

In other words, using foul language, even once, and in the context of protest, is far more offensive than racism and white supremacy. Not only that, by retaining the racist/white supremacist member of the group and ejecting all of us who were protesting racism and white supremacy, the moderator of that group—which is what many of us in the transracial adoption world refer to as a “rainbows-and-unicorns” group—a group focused only on the sweet, pleasant aspects of transracial adoption, and disallowing any discussion of race or anything else complex or challenging—proved our point. If enforced politeness around middle-class-white-American-woman sociocultural norms, is far more important than challenging racism, then clearly, no authentic, meaningful discussion of racism is possible in such a group.

What Donald Trump is doing right now—absolutely weaponizing the tenets of white supremacy, and banking on the deep racial and sociocultural resentments of white racists—is not only profoundly morally abhorrent, it is frightening to Americans of color, both immigrants and non-immigrants of color. We are now being pointed out as obvious targets for racial aggression, and possibly even violence.

The bottom line is this: America has come to a moment of profound crisis and of moral emergency. It is impossible any longer to stand by in silence. That’s what happened in Nazi Germany in 1934-1937, when the “good Germans” either expressed open support of Adolf Hitler and his storm troopers, or docilely remained silent. We all know what happened afterwards.

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So this is where I stand: this is no longer about politics; it is about the safety and well-being of all of us Americans of color. And I will not be silent. But I will engage with those who want to understand, and who are willing to be authentic allies. And I will work. And I will hope.

And no, I will not “go back.”

Expectations of Gratitude in Adoption

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I was recently contacted by a fellow adoptee who is seeking views and experiences of adoptees where gratitude is expected and how we feel about this. I immediately responded because gratitude in adoption is such an unspoken about subject, particularly from the adoptee perspective. For me, it was definitely a burden I felt whilst growing up and carry still to this day. Interesting that little has been written on this topic specific to intercountry adoption because our adoptions are so rife with connotations of being saved from poverty, war, slums and the streets. These connotations also come with equal expectation that we flourish in our Western white adoptive countries and families for which we should be grateful for.

It is assumed, somehow, magically, our losses in relinquishment should be negated by the gains in adoption.

I can understand how the majority of people who think of the word adoption would not necessarily equate that with living an experience of being expected to be grateful. But, from my own life experience, the word “grateful”, “thankful”, “be happy”, or “lucky” pops up in adoption conversation regularly. People who are not impacted by adoption expect us to be grateful for the material wealth and education we gain in life having been adopted. As an adoptee, not only have I experienced people’s assumptions about how lucky I am in their eyes to be adopted, I also experienced the expectation of gratitude said out loud by my adoptive parent during my childhood. It was said to me once or twice, but the way in which I was treated most of my childhood until I became independent and moved interstate, told me without words that it was the foundation of my adoption.

In hindsight, knowing now that my adoptive father was not comfortable to adopt a child not his own, from a foreign country, he went against his instincts and clearly gave way to his wife’s desire to save a child from the Vietnam war. What they saved me from, I’ll never know unless I find my first family. Whether I was indeed saved, who knows. Am I grateful? If I answered no, people naturally would recoil and look at me horrified, stunned. How dare I be ungrateful for my life in a wealthy country with material comforts, an education, and the life everyone in poverty aspires to.

But, of course I am grateful in many ways! Without choosing to be grateful, my emotional well being would be one of dissatisfaction, depression, unease and wishing to be dead.

I have been there! For plenty of years! And I had to battle to find a way through.

I choose actively to be consciously grateful, to focus and spend my life turning it into something positive. And it’s much nicer to be in a stage of life where I can choose to be grateful in general, as opposed to being forced to feel indebted for being saved via adoption.

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I’m a female adoptee born in Vietnam, flown out as an infant to Australia in the early 1970s. I’ve told my personal story what feels like a thousand times, but yet no one has asked before what it was like to carry that expectation to be grateful for my existence in my adoptive family.

My adoption was not legally facilitated until I was 17 years old and it is still a mystery as to whether my legal adoption paperwork exists somewhere in Vietnam. I hadn’t really come to acknowledge or understand the true meaning of this until the past 6 months. It is enlightening to observe how my story of adoption and relinquishment has changed over time as I’ve become more fully aware of the truths, perceived and real. I am constantly having to rethink what was told to me growing up and comparing that to the truths I find today, and who I have become.

Not having an identity on paper for 17 years, of course I feel the expectation to be grateful to my adoptive country Australia in giving me a birth certificate and hence allowed an identity. But at what cost? The expectation to be grateful these days is overshadowed by questions I have on why it doesn’t seem to have been questioned whether I had an identity in Vietnam or how to preserve or respect it legally.

The words “gratitude” or “grateful” are like an alarm bell ringing inside me. It grates on my nerves and I feel myself inwardly flinching. For me it comes with so many negative memories. Even googling to find an image for this blog and seeing the visuals, created feelings of unease and discomfort in my body. If you can relate to me as an adoptee, saying, seeing or reading the word “gratitude” in relation to adoption is a trigger that I have to deal with all the time.

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My adoptive childhood was spent working like a boy slave on the family’s dairy farm. Being thrown the “you owe this family because we adopted you” line because I was standing up for myself, was one of the toughest moments I remember. It was one of those rare times where I was trying to be stand up for myself about not wanting to be forced to help with milking the cows. The other children were allowed to peacefully sleep in every morning. My childhood sense of justice was strong. Why was I constantly singled out to be made to work around the farm with my adoptive father who inappropriately touched me whilst in the dairy or in my bedroom? He had no sense of respect for my privacy as my body developed in early teenage years. I recall a few times he woke me with his cold hands running over my bare chest and stomach, then dragging me out of my bed by my legs, nightie flinging up over my head exposing my naked body, laughing at how “funny” it was to be dragged along the frost covered grass on a cold Victorian morning. This would happen just on daylight before the sun even rose. Nobody else was awake. My hatred rose further when I once removed the outside key from the lock of my door but was authoritatively told how dare I try and lock him out. Everything about my life was dependent on him and I was given no sense of privacy, respect or control.

I grew to resent my adoptive father during my childhood but yet I pined for a tiny bit of love to be shown. I wasn’t grateful for this existence and I certainly hated that my lack of blood relative status meant it seemed to give him licence to work me like a slave and touch me in the way no father should. His other bio children were left to do what they wanted. They were not forced to work like me on hard physical tasks; chopping barrow loads of hardwood, milking cows day and night, cooking and cleaning in the kitchen, being forced to run out in the dark and shut the chooks in every night (I was terrified of the dark), etc. It felt like slave labour with no empathy for my feelings at all. It certainly wasn’t a childhood filled with love, safety or understanding. Nor was there any room for any compassion or support about what I might be feeling from being separated from my biological family and wondering why.

The expectation, verbalised out loud, to be grateful for being adopted was a heavy heavy burden to carry .. and still is. I was forced to justify why I needed hair conditioner and shampoo (I had waist long hair) and he would only provide soap as that was good enough for everyone else who had short or little hair. I was made to feel that buying a toothbrush was too much and how dare I need or ask for anything. I was made to feel and was told many times that I was a “fussy”, “difficult” child, always “telling lies” and “stealing“.

To this day, the “you should be grateful because we adopted you” mantra is what has stopped me from speaking openly about the emotional and sexual abuse I endured from early childhood to teen years. No adoptee should ever have to be thrown that line of feeling we owe a debt of gratitude to our adoptive families. Even when abuse does not occur. Whether spoken or not, we adoptees do NOT owe our families. They adopt for their own self fulfilling reasons. I had NO choice but to survive the adoptive family I was placed in.

You can probably feel the anger I still carry at the injustice of being made to feel that I owed my adoptive family for being rescued/saved. It brings lifelong consequences of being fiercely independent and not easily allowing anyone to help me. I suspect other adoptees can relate. For me, being helped, being given something I don’t ask for, usually comes with a fear of the unspoken price at which that help is provided. Hence, I would rather do it myself. The expectation of gratitude for being saved by adoptive family and society at large, is a heavy burden.

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This burden of expected gratitude in being adopted is enhanced by the religious elements intertwined in much of modern adoption advocacy.

Fervent religious organisations and individuals who willingly promote and facilitate the adoption and rescuing of children add another layer of expected gratitude onto us. People who believe adoption is an ordained action by God, that they are following his command to help an orphan, makes it difficult for adoptees to share about the struggles of being adopted and relinquished.

I rarely hear of any adoptee who will willingly stand up in a church or religious institute and share their adoption experience with all its complexities. For me, this would be the worst audience ever! I can’t imagine receiving validation or empathy. Instead, I suspect I would receive unsolicited advice to be grateful and thankful to God that I am in a better place and that all is going well now. The all familiar saying of, “Count your Blessings!” by religious people in response to adversity is one I find hard to stomach.

Google for yourself the word gratitude and you will see the many religious and spiritual images linked to this concept. Our struggles as adoptees go unvalidated and unsupported because of blind prejudice that somehow adoption is meant to be, ordained by God. How can anyone question the unspoken assumption that we should be grateful for our adoption, when this is the long held religious and spiritual belief?

Thankfully, my adoptive family and others have apologised in recent years for the wrong doings in my childhood and I have chosen to be grateful for this and to move on. It’s interesting how with apologies I now feel more at liberty to be open about my life. It’s as if a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I no longer carry the burden of responsibility for family secrets and shame, trying to protect them from the consequences. For many years now, I have been true to myself and will not allow the expectation of gratitude to overwhelm my truths.

I have focused my energies on rebuilding the relationships with adoptive family as they are my one and only family I know, to raise me and give me an identity. For this I am truly grateful – but that’s not to say the journey hasn’t been a struggle and at many costs.

Gratitude in adoption should never be an expectation. It should be a choice we are free to make about life in general – after we come to terms with, and are supported in, understanding our losses and gains from relinquishment and adoption.