Korean Killdeers

I was reared on a small dairy farm that rested on the edge of the Red River Valley on the Minnesota side. I grew up in a rural farming community that was filled with a lush green forest of corn, amber waves of grain and intermittent dots of farm homesteads covered with thick deciduous trees. On these vast plains lived a curious little bird, in scientific terms, called a Charadrius vociferous. These small insignificant brown birds with long thin spindly legs made their nests on the ground in the fields and shoreline all over North America. The locals, where I grew up, name this bird by the falsetto cry it makes … kill deer, kill deer. I am certain, if birds could speak, they would poke fun at the killdeer’s pencil-thin legs and scrawny body.

What makes this benign lusterless outward appearance memorable are the bird’s acting abilities. This bird pretends to have a broken wing to draw predators and trespassers such as a curious dog or small children away from their precious eggs. It’s amazing to observe these birds screaming around and flapping their wings and then dart away when you get near them. The birds deserve an Emmy Award for their dramatic performances. I have fond childhood memories of chasing these small feathered friends and was tricked into believing they needed medical attention. I never located the bird’s eggs but remember seeing fluffy plumed chicks darting about like a group of frolicking school children on the playgrounds.

In my studies I learned that the killdeer birds were aboriginal to North America, so I was dumbfounded to see similar antics during my travels to Korea. At first, I thought the kids waving at the soldiers were the average child as we passed in our armored track vehicles. Moments later, I realized these masqueraders were actually professionals pulling a scam. These acting children reminded me of the pretentious wounded Killdeers back home on the Minnesota prairies. Like the birds, they played wounded. Instead of broken wings, they acted out with alligator tears and pouting faces. The familiar killdeer, killdeer cries of distress were replaced with childish voices begging for items, “M.R.E., M.R.E.,” “GI gimme M.R.E.!” The children were asking for prepackaged Army food called Meals Ready to Eat or MRE’s for short. I eyed the children with caution and was disrupted from my stare by my friend.

“Hey, Hansen! I ate part of my lunch during our drive and I’m gonna give the rest of my meal. Watcha think?” “I don’t care,” I answered. I deliberated for a second and focused the children back into view. “Hmmm, to be honest, I really don’t think they want your leftovers.” Barrick jumped off the vehicle before I could finish my reply. Barrick seemed like a towering giant compared to the two little girls and it was comical to see him trying to speak Korean with them. I watched with amusement as the little girls refused his opened MRE package. They gestured that they wanted whole MRE packages that lay on top of my armored personnel carrier. Barrick insisted that the items inside the familiar brown plastic bag were indeed still good. “See,” he contended as he held the sealed crackers in the air and made facial gestures that the items were delicious.

I could tell that the eldest girl who was around 8 years old, was getting annoyed. She huffed several times and then blatantly refused the offer by waving her hands for him to get lost. As he made his final offer, the older girl stuck her fist in the air and gave Barrick the bird!

Barrick turned to me in shock and asked in disbelief, “Did you see that? She stuck up her middle finger!” Barrick took a few steps back toward the track vehicle and looked back once more to watch the little girl stick out her tongue at him. He shook his head in disbelief and said, “Just to think, I felt sorry for her!”

Another soldier walked up to the small children and handed the youngest some candy, she appeared to be about 5 years old. The tiny fingers clutched the pieces of hard candy and she began to place a piece inside her mouth. Then fast as lightning, the eldest child struck the littlest one with candy in the face. She landed a couple of hard blows to the small cheeks with her open palms. The eldest child’s face filled with rage. Then as punishment, the larger of the girls pulled the thinning mittens off the smaller one and stuffed them inside her coat pockets.

We all stared at the scene with horror and disbelief. I asked my KATUSA (Korean Augmentee to the US Army), a Korean National soldier who was attached to our unit, to come with me and translate for me. I kneeled in the snow and gingerly grasped the eldest girl by the shoulders and asked her why she was hitting her sister. The girl pulled away from me and put her back towards my face. I got up and walked in front of her and kneeled. This time I asked her if she loved her younger sister and if so why she had hit her in the face. The KATUSA again translated my message, and after a few minutes of questioning the eldest girl’s strong cold glare dissipated and she began to sob in my arms.

The crying girl blurted out a stream of words and left my hug to embrace her little sister. After a short conversation, I learned that the children were forced to stand outside in the twenty degrees below temperature to beg for MRE’s from the passing US Soldiers that trained near her home. Her parents were poor farmers and they supplemented their meager income by selling the Army rations on the black market. As I was listening to her story I started to see the telltale signs of neglect. I noticed that the exposed fingers were red and swollen from mild frostbite and the cheeks chapped from exposure. The hair was matted and dull flakes of dandruff were present in their hair and the horribly tight clothes barely kept them warm from the chilling mountainous winds of Korea.

So many questions fill my mind as I recount this story that happened so many years ago. I wonder what asshole would teach a little girl the meaning of the middle finger. I hope I made a better impact on her and that she has learned to cherish and love her sisters, despite the burden her parents placed on her shoulders as an 8 year old. I revisit this story from time to time and ponder on how this girl is doing. Would she have been better off adopted like me and suffer like I, or was she better off to have been kept with her poor family in Korea? The “once in a lifetime” trip to see my “homeland” taught me more about myself than I imagined possible. I hope this girl has grown up to be a strong, independent woman who has nothing but happiness.

Trauma of Transition for Older Aged Adoptees

I hear from more and more adult intercountry adoptees, adopted at older ages, about some of their traumatic experiences in transition from their homeland to their adoptive country. I acknowledge this is not the only layer of trauma we experience in our adoption or relinquishment and that transition for younger age adoptees can be just as traumatic. The key difference for younger aged adoptees is they may grow up not being able to verbalise the experience due to a lack of language development at the time of transition.

I question why adoption agencies and governments are not putting more resources into ensuring these major transitions are done better, especially considering it is older age adoptions that are the majority of intercountry adoptions done today around the world.

Children who are older aged and have language skills need to be given clearer understandings of what being adopted to another country and family means, apart from the “heaps of toys and food” examples that are the obvious material benefits.  Perhaps the orphanages themselves have little idea of the impacts and complications experienced in intercountry adoption, so how would they know to better prepare children emotionally? Sending and receiving governments who licence adoption agencies to facilitate adoptions should hold the responsibility to better prepare children and lessen the trauma of transition!

Some suggestions:

  • Adoptive parents could be required to visit the orphanage and the child in it’s birth country more times, before the child is flown overseas. Have some experiences to bond and connect together in the child’s country before being flown out.
  • Adoptive parents could be required to live for x months in the town of the child after the adoption before bringing the child home to ensure not too many changes are occuring at once and to allow the child some continuity to stay in contact with the other children or carers from the orphanage. The parents would then get to know the other children who were of importance to their newly adopted child.
  • A carer of the child, someone the child knows and trusts, could travel with the child and remain with the family for the first few months to lessen the trauma. This would help the orphanage staff become more aware of the realities of the transition for the child upon entering their new adopted country, and feedback into better preparing future children.
  • Education could be given to orphanages about the trauma the transition creates, from adult adoptees themselves.
  • Adoptive parents could be required to become fluent in the child’s language before receiving the child. This would ensure one element of the transition which can potentially create trauma due to not being able to communicate, doesn’t unnecessarily add to the overall whole of being an overwhelming experience.
  • Both sending and receiving governments could listen to adult intercountry adoptees more about the experience of transition and learn from our views.
  • The child could be assessed psychologically, from an emotional well-being point of view, to establish how additional trauma of transition and uprooting them from everything they know, might impact them – and then develop a plan with a timeframe that is reasonable for the child’s well being.

Isn’t adoption supposed to be in the ‘interests of the child’? We need to move towards a model of incorporating a ‘whole journey’ view about the interests of the child who grows up – not just the immediate life or death survival extremist position that seems to justify intercountry adoption and how it is still conducted today.

I want to share Jayme’s experience to highlight my points above.  Jayme is a Korean intercountry adoptee, raised in the USA from the age of 4.5 years old. His experience tells us just how strong the memories and trauma is of his transition from Korea to the USA.

I did previously share another from Thai adoptee Min and she briefly mentioned the trauma she remembered in her transition.

I hope in sharing these experiences, it will serve to remind us of how intercountry adoption is experienced by the child. We do grow up and our experiences need to be acknowledged. Intercountry adoption policy and processes by governments and agencies around the world would do well to ensure better outcomes for those who follow by learning from us who live it.

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.

Intercountry Adopted into Same Race Family

Many in adoption circles and the wider public incorrectly assume if an orphaned and relinquished child could be adopted via intercountry adoption into a family of same race – the issues of racial identity, feelings of belonging, and cultural understandings wouldn’t be as difficult to deal with growing up.

I recently interviewed Prema, an intercountry adoptee, adopted into a same race family, who has experienced just as many difficulties as those of us, like myself, adopted into an adoptive family of differing racial background. This isn’t the first time I’ve listened to an adoptee expressing this. I guess it’s similar to the experience domestic adoptees have in-country, adopted into same race families, where some of them have expressed to me that at least for us intercountry adoptees of differing race to our adoptive families! “People can’t help but notice” the difference whereas for those in same race families, its harder for those complexities to be visible and therefore, harder for adoptees to receive much needed validation of their experiences.

For any same race adoptee, strangers don’t have the confronting skin and physical appearances to make them think about and ask questions – welcomed or not.

Here is Prema’s story so she can tell you for herself, that intercountry adoption is fraught with just as many complexities when adopted into an adoptive family of the same race.

Adoption is a kaleidoscope of experiences – we must honour and validate all of these stories and experiences to gain a deeper understanding of the impacts to those it affects.

Why is it important to have Intercountry Adoptee Voices?

In today’s climate many politicians, organisations, and activists are trying to promote adoption as a solution to many of the western country’s complex social, economic and race problems. When they do this, it is often observed these same people and organisations use phrases to promote their cause stating “it is in the child’s interest” yet how often do they actually include and ask us for our input.

Since the 1970s there have been thousands of Vietnamese, Korean, South American, Chinese, African and other country’s orphans sent to western nations via intercountry adoption and we have now grown up and become professionals in our own rights. We are old enough to have thought deeply about how our experiences of adoption have impacted us and those around us. We are mature enough to understand the political and economic drivers behind the decision that led us to be sent abroad, away from our mother culture, language and people. Our experiences can offer the ray of insight into the conversations as to whether this is in fact a good solution or not. Yet too often, our voices are overlooked, ignored conveniently and even discouraged.

Our voices need to be heard and included otherwise there is no point bandying around the phrase “in the interests of the child” if you are not going to recognise that as children we grow up and become old enough to participate in the same conversations that impacted our whole lives! We want to have a say and we want to influence how intercountry adoption occurs today. It should not be happening without including those same children who have lived the experience and know innately “how” it impacts us and what it means.

from their original identity, genealogy, country, culture or language!