Being Truly Seen as a Filipino Adoptee

by Arlynn Hope Dunn, adopted from the Philippines to the USA; presented at the 16th Philippine Global Consultation on Child Welfare Services on 24 September, 2021.

Mabuhay and good morning! My name is Hope and I’m joining you from Knoxville, Tennessee, in the southeastern United States. Thank you to ICAB for inviting me to be a part of the Global Consultation on international adoption. I am grateful to access the post-adoption resources of ICAB, which have been significant in my process to reconnect to my birth family. I emphasize that my story and reflection today are my own and am not speaking for the lived experiences of other adoptees. I hope everyone who listens to our testimonies today will be open to various perspectives on adoption as it influences us across our lifespan.

My Beginnings

I was born in Manila in December 1983 and in July 1984, I was flown from the Philippines with my social worker, to meet my adoptive parents and six year old sister who was adopted from Korea. We had an idyllic, quiet suburban life, my mom was a housewife and my dad was a geologist, who often traveled around the country. Our family most likely would have relocated west to accommodate my dad’s work but we never left Tennessee. My dad had juvenile diabetes and developed pneumonia and passed away three days before my 1st birthday. My mother, a polio survivor, which left her with nonuse of her right arm, was suddenly a single mother of two small children without nearby relatives. The unresolved grief of losing my father reverberated through our family for years through the emotional withdrawal of my sister, who was very close to our dad .. to my mother who cycled into prescription drug abuse so deeply at times she was unable to look after me and my sister. As for me, I oscillated from the role of  comic relief to absorb tensions between my sister and mother to self-regulating my own emotions by hoarding food as a child and bottling up my emotions, to make myself scarce and small. While I grew up in a home that verbalized love, I now recognize patterns of neglect and codependency that  impacted my development. I was also raised in the era of the early 90’s where social norms and media reinforced color blindness rather than offer race as an opportunity to discuss and celebrate unique cultural diversity. 

Unlike the large Filipino communities in California, there was little diversity where I was raised, as the majority of my school and community was white with a few Black students. I was one of three Asian students and we were all adopted. Rather than gravitate towards each other, we leaned into different friend groups as a natural part of assimilation. Of the three of us, I was more quiet and painfully shy, which made me an easy target of bullying. At the age of seven, I was called the “N” word on the school bus. I was told my mother gave birth to me in a rice paddy. Ironically, at the return of the school year in Fall, girls would flock to touch my skin and ask how I got so dark. Those times, I was so proud of my dark skin and I never learned about colorism until I was an adult. Eventually the bullying declined until after the attack of the twin towers on 11 September 2001, where racism resurfaced and another student told me to get blown up with the rest of my people. In response, my teacher made me hug the other student because at 17, “he was just a boy”. My family’s response was to remind me that I am American as though that alone is enough armour to withstand and deflect the verbal violence. I internalized so much shame of being different, which I equated to less than, that I became complicit in my own cultural erasure and plummeting self esteem.

Young Adulthood

As a young adult, I struggled with milestones that came naturally to my peers. I failed most classes in high school but my principal liked me and let me graduate on time. I dropped out of college without a vision of who I wanted to be by 21. I ended a six year relationship and engagement and  couldn’t hold down a job by 23. I was active in the evangelical church but was told by elders that my depression  and suicidal ideation resulted from my lack of faith. Eventually, I gained experience by working with children. I went back to college at age 27 while working multiple jobs and  was accepted into the occupational therapy assistant program, where I  gained mental health tools and later graduated with honors and delivered the graduation speech.

As an outlet from my busy college and work schedule I enjoyed going to the movies alone and in 2016, I saw a movie that was the catalyst for my journey to find my heritage.  Lion is a movie about the real life Saroo Brierly, who was raised by his adoptive Australian parents and eventually reunited with his first mother in India. As Saroo is gathered in his first mother’s arms, a dam of emotions broke within me, primarily guilt that somehow I had misplaced the memory of my first mother. Something deep within me, awakened as I witnessed this tug of war on his emotions, played out on a cinema screen. I saw a mirror that illuminated myself  as he ran interference between two worlds that rarely saw him and the complexities of adoption and how he was left to reconcile this unbearable weight alone.

Reclaiming my Philippine Heritage

I began my journey to reclaim my Philippine heritage through my name. For the last four years, I’ve transitioned from my adoptive name Hope back to my birth name Arlynn which is Gaelic for “oath, pledge”. It feels empowering to return to something that I now know for certain was given to me by my first mother. Before I formally began my search into my history, I told my sister, who supported my decision. It was several months before I asked my mom if she knew any other details about my birth family other than from the correspondence that she had given to me in a binder. I felt I had to protect her feelings as if me wanting to suddenly know about my first family would hurt her. She told me there was no other information.  Later, I would find out that was a lie.

Throughout my life, my mother continued to struggle with her misuse of prescription pain medication. As a child, I recall my mother pointing out which medication bottles she used in case she didn’t wake up for me to call the police. At times, I slept  on the floor by her room to ensure she was still breathing. I was 32 when she required hospital intervention for withdrawal symptoms, she told me in her anger that she wished she had left me in my birth country. It hurt more than if she had slapped me because she never lashed out about my adoption when I was younger. I walked out of her room feeling like I lost another parent.

Eventually, my childhood home was sold and my mom went to a nursing home for care following a brain hemorrhage. My sister and I recovered our mom’s safe deposit box at her local bank, which unbeknownst to me held my full case study. My sister told me I was never supposed to know and our mom made her promise not to tell me, when she was younger.  I sat alone in my car sobbing as I read the name of my first father for the first time as he was not listed on my birth certificate, which I always had access to growing up. It detailed how my parents had seven children and five of them died during childhood from sickness. My parents separated while my father stayed with their surviving children and my mother stayed with her nephew refusing to reconcile with my father not knowing she was pregnant with me. Over time, my mother began to wander away from home and was institutionalised. After I was born she wondered away from home again and found singing to herself.  After my birth, I was recommended to be placed at a temporary child shelter as my mother was unable to care for me. A purple thumb print in lieu of a signature directed her deed of surrender for me to the social welfare authorities.

Long lost family

Searching for Biological Family

Thanks to  the resources of ICAB and Facebook, I was able to locate my surviving brother and sister and learned that my birth parents  have passed on. In early 2021, I was able to find my first mother’s relatives including her only surviving sister. I’m still astonished and grateful that my siblings and extended family have embraced me and I ache with the longing to meet them, to be touched by my people. Before the pandemic I had goals to travel to the Philippines, but during the closing economy, I lost two of my jobs, my mental health suffered from the isolation of living alone during the lockdown, and I eventually lost my housing, and the money that was raised by friends and family to go to the Philippines had to keep me from living in my car, until I could stay with friends. Since last November, I’ve been able to gain a full time job and this summer, I found a therapist, also a transracial adoptee and she has been working with me to process my grief and the survivor’s guilt I’ve felt knowing I somehow outlived many of my siblings. As I slowly rebuild my life, a renewed energy to return one day to my motherland to meet my siblings motivates me further.

While my quest to reclaim my motherland, my lost language, and my siblings has carried profound heartache, there has been tremendous joy in connecting with my nieces who are teaching me Waray Waray and Tagalog phrases. I have curated my social media so the algorithms draw me toward other Filipino adoptees, artists, writers, and healers. This past December, I turned 37, which was the same age as when my first mother had me. On my birthday, I was able to meet with a Baybaylan priest who prayed over me and my ancestors. During all this time since I rediscovered by case study, I was trying to grapple with the grief and at the very end, he began crying. We cried together and that small, kind gesture touched me so deeply because for the first time I felt like someone was sitting with me in my grief, and it was so intimate because I felt truly seen in that moment and worthy of love. 

Thoughts for Adoption Professionals

The practices of the adoption industry have changed drastically over the years since I was adopted. I hope that the conversations around adoption continue to shift toward adoptees to include our stories that illuminate this wide continuum of lived experiences that point not only to the good or bad experiences but hold them all to a critical lens by adoption professionals. I hope practitioners of this industry recognize and acknowledge the degree to which trauma from early child separation from our first mothers and the role of assimilation and the loss of cultural association impacts adoptees. Are prospective parents trained in this and also in grief counselling? Consider looking toward practices which ensure family preservation, if possible. If adoption is granted, how will you ensure that a child has resources to find community if they live in places not culturally diverse? How will they find community? A final question for reflection: when a child is relinquished from your country, what practices will be ensured to support that adoptee who wants to return to their country of origin, without that person to feel like an outsider, a tourist, or intruder?

I have a short video of a photo collage I created that spans across my life from the time I was a baby ’til now.

Thank you so much for listening to my testimony.

Maraming Salamat po.

LION Review by ICAV

As a fellow Australian intercountry adoptee, I watched LION and found it to be better than what I’d expected after having read so many different reviews.

It captured so many emotional aspects of an intercountry adoptee’s journey. I felt the most powerful aspect was that of Saroo’s adopted brother (also from India) who clearly struggled with his adoptive life from day 1 of arrival into his new family. Being a mother myself of a special needs son who experienced meltdowns, the behaviour I saw reflected a boy who not only had endured the harsh beginnings like Saroo that led to trauma related behaviours, but most likely also suffered from other special needs – apparent by the multiple scars on his head when he first arrived and the meltdown on night 1. I must say, his adoptive parents are portrayed as handling that night quite lovingly and calmly even though I’m sure in reality it must have been a shock after having such a “perfect” adoptive son the first time round. It also serves as a healthy reminder of the need for adequate pre-adoptive education and the realistic expectation setting that adoptees do not come as blank slates, not even new born babies.

Saroo’s adoptive brother’s struggles spoke volumes to me for the adoptees I know who don’t fare well, despite being placed with the best of adoptive families. These adoptees suffer daily and have little respite from their deep emotional and mental suffering and I see this especially from those who arrive as older age adoptees into families who don’t understand there might be any pre adoption trauma. In one section of the film it was raw and painful to hear Saroo accuse his adoptive brother of causing his adoptive mother so much pain. The anguish this caused in Saroo’s adoptive brother’s face – his expression was as if to say, “If I could do better I would … and how dare you judge me!”  This raised in my mind the unrealistic assumption we adoptees hold that it is our role to give our adoptive parents only happiness and joy.

I also empathised with Saroo’s adoptive brother because Saroo’s harsh judgement comes from another unquestioned assumption that we adoptees should have nothing to suffer as our adoption already saved us from all the doom and gloom of our past and created in us a “new life”. As Saroo’s adoptive brother portrays, sometimes that new life eludes adoptees and it is the sad reality that many suffer for the rest of their life and never quite manage to capture that elusive dream of being “happy for ever after” in our adopted life, like Saroo wanted to be capable of.

For those adoptees like Saroo’s adoptive brother who can’t escape our fates, the movie did well to capture this reality. I often hear from adoptees within an adoptive family that one adopted child became the people pleaser and upon appearance, does well versus the other who struggles and pulls the rest of the adoptive family with them. Not from any fault of their own, but just because things are tougher with more to face and having a different personality and personal fortuitude to be able to cope any better. Like Saroo’s adoptive brother, this is their best but it often gets judged as not being good enough in return for showing gratitude in being adopted.

For Saroo who appeared to be the “perfect” adoptee, the film did well to show that even the perfect adoptee is silently struggling inside. His relationship with his girlfriend suffered and she was the one closest to Saroo, his relationship suffered with his adoptive parents, his ability to hold down a job, etc. Everything it seemed was affected by his past! It is so true to portray that even for the “perfect” adoptee we still have raging within us just as intense battles as the “difficult” adoptees do. I believe the seemingly “perfect” adoptee hides it better and is as powerfully driven by the nature of our relentless questions and fragments of life and identity before being adopted as our “acting out” or struggling adoptee.

The dynamics between the two adoptive siblings was powerful and I could feel the sense of wishful thinking to move back to the time which Saroo had prior to his adoptive brother’s arrival. The unforgettable scene at the dinner table where Saroo as an adult finally says “he’s not my brother” is the one moment of truth in their family where the unspoken finally becomes spoken. I think for many adoptive families it is not considered enough how much a new arrival of adoptive sibling can impact the first adoptee / child and how they can come to resent the change in the dynamics and balance to the family.

The other powerful theme which I could relate to, was of how Saroo was so sensitive to his adoptive mother and feeling that he needed to protect her from his truths. This is a reality that becomes visible time and again when intercountry adoptees share with me about their desire to search or understand their roots. They don’t want to upset vulnerable mum who clearly loves and wanted them so much. Our adoptee desire to show our gratefulness and love in return costs us our own truths and creates the necessity to hide it. So too, Saroo ends up isolated and going through his journey very alone and unsupported. He’s so afraid that her knowing about his searching will deeply wound and if not literally “kill” his adoptive mother – which he regards his adoptive brother as doing already.

This is an issue many of us intercountry adoptees have, whether warranted or not, in feeling that we need to protect our adoptive parents. There was also a poignant line in the film after Saroo’s adoptive mother shared about her vision that led to adopting him, saying that it made her “feel good for the first time in her life”. That statement said what many of us adoptees feel but never verbalise – that we are there to make our adoptive parents feel good about themselves and we are afraid to give them any information and truth about ourselves or our life before them, that will jeapordise our relationship with them. We live in fear of them regretting us because we haven’t fulfilled their dream or vision.

How sad that Saroo spent so long having to protect his adoptive mother (and adoptive father) from his real feelings of sadness that his memories caused for him – the depth of his desire to reassure his own biological family that he was alive to therefore stop worrying and searching. What is even sadder is that there wasn’t the truth and openness between Saroo and his adoptive parents to allow both to connect and be supportive to one another because in fact, their realities were not in opposition but could have been symbiotic.

This dynamic is again something I hear from adoptees who share with me and what I also experience myself. We are afraid to really let our adoptive families know the true depths of our sadness and loss about our original families because we feel they will be disappointed or feel “less than” parents to us. Saroo’s adoptive family dynamic is not uncommon in adoptive families but rather, I would dare say it is uncommon to see any other dynamic within most adoptive families. Time and again adoptees share they won’t search until their adoptive parent dies, or they don’t want to share about their desire to search because it will “hurt” the adoptive parent, or they don’t need to search because their adoptive parents are “family” and they don’t need any other.

I noticed the many times Saroo tried to reassure his adoptive mother – especially when he was heading off to India and again when he had found his biological mother, that she would always be his family and that he loved her. This is such a burden for adoptees to carry – constantly feeling we have to reassure our adoptive parents of our love and gratefulness. You rarely hear of biological children suffering this same burden!  Wouldn’t it be nice to not have to worry about our adoptive families with such an oversensitive barometer!

I was glad to see Saroo made the trip to India by himself. We adoptees sometimes need do this so as not to complicate our trip with worrying about the feelings and complex emotions of our adoptive family. Our search and reunion for some needs to be a moment in time where it’s just about us, the adoptee and our birth family – as it was prior to being adopted – so we can experience our grief, elation to be reunited, sadness and everything inbetween, without the additional burden of feeling responsible for our adoptive family’s emotions.

I loved the ending which explained why the film was named LION and reflected so well, what we adoptees experience – that of not knowing the correct pronunciation of our original name because our adoptive experience is so immersive and complete that we fully lose any ability to speak or understand our birth language, especially when adopted at an older age.

The film did well to portray the state of affairs in India where children who are vulnerable like Saroo was, have very little help offered. There seemed to be few safe shelters, social workers or services to feed the poor and hungry. I’m personally glad to see the film is being used as an avenue to create assistance to Indian street children in future and provide better options than what Saroo experienced.

I look forward to hearing more about Saroo’s journey for I suspect this might just be the beginning of him sharing his voice. He has shared his journey with the WHOLE world and that is no small feat to be so open after keeping his search and feelings so secretive for so long! I hope he will overcome his over-developed sense of responsibility for his adoptive mother and come to take a useful place in the worldwide intercountry adoption dialogue about what really happens for vulnerable children and their families and what needs to be done to protect them better.

In contrast to his adoptive mother who uses the film to promote further intercountry adoptions, I hope Saroo will help create a forum in which the world can delve into ethical questions involved in the rights of vulnerable children and their families and a rightful place for intercountry adoption after ALL attempts to reunify the family has occurred. In the film there was one line Saroo said about his struggle with being adopted into a “place of so much privilege” and trying to make sense of this in contrast to his internal drive to “find home” and family and no-one helping him when he was a lost child. It made me hopeful that Saroo will use his opportunity of worldwide fame as an intercountry adoptee to drive critical thinking about what we in western countries have and our sense of responsibility to use our resources for enabling a better world, instead of gaining from other country’s vulnerabilities.