Abandoned Adopted Here: Review

Screen Shot 2016-02-17 at 10.13.33 pmAbandoned Adopted Here is an adoptee coming-of-age representation en masse whereby we see for the first time the older aged intercountry adoptees of the 1950s and 60s giving insight as to how they navigated the space between two identities, cultures and countries.

I loved seeing so many creatives/artists in one medium reflecting on their journeys and sharing with such openness on what it means to be transracially adopted.

As an inter-country adoptee from the 1970s era, I loved being able to see a reflection of my own experience! The words many shared, describes mine, yet they are the older generation who I hadn’t publicly heard a lot from. Lucy has enabled them to find their voice which is so important in modelling to the next generations of adoptees growing up! I also learnt about the mass movement of Hong Kong children to Britain interwoven with the history of Britain and how it was so similar to my experience of coming to Australia prior to the multicultural era!

The film is an honest portrayal of the difficulties we navigate to fit in and ultimately how we reconcile and embrace the differences between our identities we were born into but lost versus the identity we inherit from being adopted.

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Abandoned Adopted Here also sharply portrays the lack of preparedness adoptive parents had in those early 50-60s days and how it impacted on the adoptee – of being forced to conform to their white surroundings, stifling their natural curiosity questions which could have allowed openness but instead emphasised Britishness.

The documentary depicts the common struggle most transracial adoptees share of being judged at a physical level by people who don’t know us and then their shock when we open our mouths and speak with such clear adopted-tongue accents!

I love how the film interweaves excerpts from Lucy’s play which gives us an in-depth look at her own personal struggles, layered with the other artists and showing the commonalities inter-country adoptees share.

Abandoned Adopted Here is not just for adoptees, it challenges East Asians in general to “own” their input to the British empire’s history and expect to be included!

Terrific documentary by Lucy Sheen, intercountry adoptee from Hong Kong to Britain.
Her website about her documentary:  Lucy Sheen’s Abandoned Adopted Here.

Review by Lynelle Long
Founder of InterCountry Adoptee Voices
Adopted from Vietnam to Australia

ICAV Meeting with Federal Minister

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On Monday 7 December, I met in Sydney with Federal Minister Christian Porter who looks after Australian Social Services portfolio, which includes adoption. I presented him with a copy of the book The Color of Difference: Journeys in Transracial Adoption and DVD The Girl in the Mirror (huge thank you NSW Post Adoption Resource Centre, Benevolent Society who donated the copies!) The book was instrumental in ICAV’s early beginnings and my own experience of the power of “group” i.e. sense of belonging with people who shared a common experience – and it is uniquely Australia’s first collation of intercountry adoptee’s sharing about the experiences of being adopted.

Our meeting went for only 30mins (cos he’s a very busy fellow!) He started by making note that this was highly unusual to meet face to face with an organisation not receiving Federal Funding.

Next, Minister Porter referred to the success of migrants who are allowed to enter Australia and assimilate well and become quite prosperous if they work hard – I think his inference was that this happens also with intercountry adoptees. He also mentioned he has Korean adoptees in his extended family who have done quite well for themselves!  He asked how many intercountry adoptees are in Australia and when it was at its peak in terms of children arriving. I provided estimates based on my recall of Peter Selman’s statistics.

At his asking, I shared with him the following:

  • our beginnings of loss and how adoption is a lifelong journey and that at different stages various issues can come up (he asked for further details on these issues so we talked about race, identity, feelings of difference to our adoptive families and I dropped in Nancy Verrier’s book The Primal Wound as a reference). I asked him to imagine how he’d feel being the only white person in a black family.
  • the biggest issue for adoptees (domestic and international) is that our identities and inheritance rights get obliterated in the process of adoption because we get given a new or false identity.
  • we need lifelong support systems in place and as per research (eg Swedish) international adoptees can suffer more from mental health, depression, suicide, imprisonment rates than the non adoptee population.
  • Sth Korean adoptees worldwide are leading the way in pushing for changes to their sending country to ensure better supports and options are in place for our biological families.

He asked specifically about our views on the push for adoptions to be faster and with less red tape – I told him this might all be happening but the reality is worldwide international adoptions are on the decline and it is in the hands of sending countries who are now finding more local solutions first, which is in the interests of the child. I also said as per United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child adoption should never be the first resort.

I also spoke about some of the pitfalls of intercountry adoption, namely that the 1993 Hague Convention on InterCountry Adoption allows the exchange of unlimited amounts of money for a child and that this, together with the lack of legal framework to prosecute any wrongdoing, except for falsifying documents which has minimal consequences, allows the very dark sides of international adoption to occur ie trafficking.

He asked specifically had I met with AdoptChange and Deborra Lee Furness, when I said yes he asked what my views were. I mentioned we clashed because I raised the issue that their name at the time “Orphan Angels” was a one sided view of adoption ie not taking into account the experiences of adoptees and our sensitiveness to spreading the impression of us (the orphans) needing to be “rescued” by white wealthy westerners (the angels). I said the organisation needed to embrace political sensitiveness around including all people’s experiences of adoption, not only adoptees but also biological families and the truths about adoption i.e. that it is about serving the interests of the adoptive parents just as much as serving the interests of the child in need.

Minister Porter made mention that it was good ICAV was not too extreme on either end of the spectrum because it makes it easier for Govt to work with us and find commonalities on how to tackle issues.

He ended by making it known that there was an open door for us to himself and his Chief of Staff, Danielle Donegan, who was present and Paula Gelo (who ICAV met in previous Federal meeting) and that he was impressed by our work to date with Federal Govt.

He spoke about the need for reform giving example of how so many children in WA were in out of home care but only 3 adopted but acknowledged the pendulum can swing too far on each extreme and that it was about finding a balance. I mentioned the huge number of domestic adoptees in Australia who would also like to be consulted with to share their views on Australian adoption policy.

I asked what his intentions were for intercountry adoption and he noted he wasn’t going to get involved or change the current direction or mechanisms in place. I spoke about how we have had a 45 year history of intercountry adoptions in Australia and that we hope to work with Government to focus on improving things for adoptees and families involved. I stressed that if Government wants to keep costs to a minimum long term, we need the right supports in place to ensure positive outcomes. I also mentioned how Post Adoption Support for current adult adoptees continues to fall between the gaps of responsibility in the Australian Commonwealth-State Agreement.

All in all, I felt it was largely positive given the Minister requested the meeting. I feel the efforts over the past 17 years of building our adoptee networks and pushing for adult intercountry adoptees to be recognised in their own right to be consulted with by Government in policy is bearing fruit. It’s also a breath of fresh air from the previous Abbott Govt to see current Federal Government actively consulting those who are involved and impacted the most!

Many thanks go to Flora Carapellucci who recommended ICAV to the Minister for his second round of meetings on Intercountry Adoption!!

Complexities of Intercountry Adoption

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Recently a research journalist from Sth American contacted me to ask a few questions on intercountry adoption and my views.  I loved her concluding comment: “We want to understand more about it (intercountry adoption) and we believe the vision of those who lived it is essential for this.”

1. Tell us a little about your life.  How old were you when adopted by your Australian family?  What was this process?  Where you old enough to understand what was going on?

2. Did you feel the need to have contact with the culture of your country of origin? When did this happen?

3. Is it common among children adopted from other countries to have this need?

4. Do you think there are cases in which intercountry adoptions are not the best option?

5. What is the origin of Intercountry Adoptee Voices group?

6. Why do people participate in ICAV?

7. How is your work in ICAV?

Here are my answers.

I’m a Vietnamese adoptee living in Australia, adopted at age 6months.  My adoptive parents organised my adoption privately via a Vietnamese lawyer, Le, who also worked for the Sth Vietnamese Govt during the Vietnamese War.  Le informed my adoptive parents he and his wife found a baby girl for them in July 1973 and advised my parents to fly in to bring me back to Australia as this would be the quickest way.  So my adoptive father flew into Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh) and picked me up and flew me back to Australia, December 1973.  To date, we have never seen adoption papers from the Vietnam end and it wasn’t until I was 16 yrs old that the Australian Govt made up my false Australian Birth Certificate and finalised my adoption into the family who were raising me.

For this process to occur, at the age of 16 another social worker came to visit us to get the adoption process repeated given my adoptive parent’s original adoption assessments seemed to be missing.  The Australian agency that had facilitated this in Sept 1973 no longer existed and in 1977 had shown the paperwork had gone missing although the social worker had clearly been in contact with and assessed my adoptive family.  I remember someone coming to speak with me about adoption things but at that age of my life, I was focused on surviving and given my adoptive siblings had been teasing me about “not existing because I had no birth records”, of course when the social worker asked did I want to be adopted and get papers, I said yes.  What I don’t remember is whether they ever talked to me clearly about what adoption meant nor was any offer made to help me find my biological family or my original Vietnamese papers.

So was I old enough to understand the meaning of “adoption”?  Now that I’m in my early 40s, I say absolutely not.  At that age, I remember my focus was on “trying to fit in” with my peers .. trying to feel part of a community, a family.  So of course when someone is telling me this is what adoption will do, then of course I consent.  But now in my early 40s, I suspect no-one really gave me a great choice.  It would have been if I didn’t consent to being adopted, I would be in no man’s land – not being able to be an Australian citizen, not being able to probably go back to Vietnam because I had no proof of being born there either.  If someone had offered on behalf of the Australian Government to search for my biological family – I’m sure I would have said I preferred that because as a child and into my teens I felt a huge sense of loss – but never spoke about it because I had indirectly absorbed expectations from society and adoptive family that I was “lucky” to be adopted – that I should be grateful to live in Australia – that I would alternatively have been dead or on the streets in Vietnam.  To a teenager, those options sound very dramatic and of course, not something I’d chose if I wanted to survive.

I didn’t feel the need to contact my biological culture and country of origins until well into my late 20s.  Short story is I had some negative issues to overcome first from what I’d experienced in my life, so it took some years to get to the bottom of things and realise as an adult that I also had deeper abandonment issues.  Once I explored those issues, I then became more ready and willing to return to my birth country and see what that would stir up.  I was 27 yrs old when I made my first trip back to Vietnam.  It was an emotionally overwhelming trip but the one highlight I remember the most was a broken english conversation with a local Vietnamese lady who said something to me which captured what I’d felt all my life, but no-one had ever said.  This Vietnamese lady asked me questions about where was I from and why was I here in Vietnam and when I very simply explained “born here but taken away as a baby to have white parents in Australia” she said, “oh, you missed out on so much!”  And yes, in essence, my return trip to Vietnam made me realise just how much I had missed out on in being adopted to another country: I had missed out on knowing my own heritage and culture, language, sense of belonging, knowing my family, the sense of community that ties these communities together despite being poorer on the wealth index, of fitting in and looking like everyone else around me, of knowing the history of the war and hearing it / experiencing the ramifications of it and understanding it at the “lived it” level, of seeing the war’s impact on people all around and understanding what drives the country forward, so much I had missed out on.  In hindsight maybe she was commenting not from the angle I interpreted but maybe as a “lucky you missed out on all the terrible ramifications of the war” but it’s not how she came across – she seemed sad for me and it was her empathy of what I was not but could easily have been which I’d never experienced before.  It was healing in itself.

For many years now I have worked voluntarily in setting up a support group for adult intercountry adoptees like myself.  My own struggles growing up in an adopted country made me realise the need for support.  In my own healing I had learned the power of group validation and empathy from others who had journeyed a similar path.  So over the 17 years since I’ve been running a group called InterCountry Adoptee Voices, I’ve met hundreds of other intercountry adoptees raised not just in Australia, but in other wealthy countries like the USA, Netherlands, England, Canada, etc .. and in my experience of listening to many others like myself, I would say yes, it is common for intercountry adoptees to have the need to want to explore their birth country and culture and learn about the other half of their identity.  For some, there is no desire at all but in general, many do end up wanting to explore this at one point in their lives.  I think for the adoptees who have been raised with very positive adoptive families who embrace all the losses and challenges and raise the child to be able to explore and talk about these freely, it definitely assists in travelling this journey of being abandoned and adopted with more ease.  What I’ve seen for the majority is the journey is usually more complicated than for the non-adopted person because we are primed from our early abandonment to struggle with connection, rejection, self worth, and a feeling of not quite belonging.

The question of whether I think there are cases of intercountry adoption that are not the best option is an awesome question!  I applaud anyone who can ask this.  I wish more Governments would ask this question.  If we look at the history of the Korean adoptions enmasse and find out their realities by talking to them today, one could conclude that many of their adoptions were done simply because of a lack of options available to single mothers.  In other Korean cases, the biological families are still together but at the time, they lacked resources to raise their children – so they sought an alternative – which in Korea, adoption is really the only option rather than changing antiquated attitudes and values.  This is reflected around the world from other sending countries, like India, China, Ethiopia, Romania, Guatemala, Cambodia, Vietnam.  Usually inter-country adoption has occurred because of a lack of alternatives for the biological family.

In 2015, we live in a world where there is a massive divide between those who have wealth and those who live in poverty.  If the world divided its wealth and distributed it more equitably, I do not think there would be as huge a need for adoption.  The other issue we adoptees live is the reality that adoption legally severs our right to our own birthright – being our own identity and heritage.  This is fundamentally wrong when it is done without our consent (at a time when we are too young to understand the implications).  As per the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), if we are orphaned we have a fundamental human right to know our identity and be kept with our family, community, and country.  The issue I see today is intercountry adoption has become a huge money driven machine, powered by the wealthy couples looking for a baby, with baby brokers in the middle taking advantage of the inequitable division between wealthy and poor, and uncontrolled and unpenalised by Governments around the world.  There is not enough done to ensure that all other options are investigated and empowered before allowing a child to be given up for intercountry adoption.  There is no double or triple checking done by sending or receiving countries to ensure a child is truly a legitimate orphan as defined by UNICEF, as having lost both parents.  Where there is family or community, there is not enough provided in terms of “wealth” to ensure the local/country of origin people are given options to raise the child.  There is more that could be done to facilitate micro lending for impoverished families.  There is more that could be done to help families who are struggling from lack of education and opportunities.

Intercountry adoption has become an easy solution for wealthy countries to “allow” children to be exported like a commodity because they lack the backbone to do the right thing by the child and help facilitate these poorer countries (with the exception of South Korea and now the USA since becoming a sending country) to setup enough community based options that would prevent the need for intercountry adoption.  The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption has become a legitimate way for child exporting to continue without there being any legal discouragement from open trafficking which is the darkest side of this business.  I believe adoption by kin was probably the original intention that was good but the issue is adoption has become more than it was intended and there is simply a lack of will power from nations in power and those who don’t have it, to ensure the child is given all options BEFORE intercountry adoption.  This is when adoption is not the best option.

Of course there are also the numerous cases of intercountry adoptions where the adopted child gets mistreated, abused, and murdered by the adoptive family – which is an absolute easy case to highlight as to when intercountry adoption is not the best option.  Also, the cases where the adopted child ends up being deported back to it’s country of origin because the adoptive parents failed to finalise the adoption, even though they never had a say in being exported to begin with.  Then there are the cases where our birth certificates are forged and faked and again, intercountry adoption is not the best option because of this reality – that our original identities, our fundamental human right, are “as if they never existed”.  Intercountry adoptions are not the best option when there is no tracking of children and ensuring in later years of followup that it indeed has been in their “best interests” and they have grown up to become fully functioning, emotionally healthy adults.

So what’s left? When are there cases of intercountry adoptions that ARE the best option?  When both sending and receiving countries have done all they could, given their joint resources, to facilitate all other options for the child’s care, including kinship care and community care, and if these still fail to work then I believe it might be a legitimate option to intercountry adopt – BUT with the original birth certificate remaining intact and with the child having full access into the future.  The child should also be allowed to have dual citizenship in both countries to facilitate ease of returning and access to services to help reunite with biological family if they wish.  There should also be a full suite of services available (e.g. psychological, social, translation, medical, financial) to help the adoptee navigate both cultures and languages and to ensure they grow up well adjusted, emotionally healthy functioning adults.

Note: What needs to be discussed is to apply question 4 from the biological family point of view.  Too often the biological families from intercountry adoption are ever sought after by media to comment and provide their longitudinal views.

The origins of InterCountry Adoptee Voices (ICAV) is it was started as a result of me seeing the power of group validation and support and how it can help one to heal our abandonment wounds by having a sense of belonging from those who have journeyed a similar path.  I started ICAV in 1998 in Australia and it has grown today to include intercountry adoptees from many countries around the world.  I think adoptees participate in ICAV because of the need to feel like someone somewhere can understand what the journey is like – the challenges, the questions, the ups and downs of search and reunions, the racism, the need for a sense of belonging, and many more.  I love my work in ICAV.  I love hearing over the years how life is travelling for adoptees and I’m always passionate about educating the wider public on the complexities and issues involved.

What is it like to be Adopted?

Someone recently asked if I could provide a short statement on these questions:

  • What does it mean to be adopted?
  • How does it feel?
  • And what is it like not knowing who your mother (parents) is?

I struggled to contain my answer in one paragraph but did … and then I decided I’d share the long version because at its essence, this is what we adoptees struggle with and wish others could understand better.

For me, being adopted has meant that I was once abandoned for whatever reason. Mine was in the context of the Vietnam War so I can almost cognitively accept there was a valid reason – perhaps my mother died in the war during childbirth or perhaps my whole family got blown up in a bomb. I still vividly remember watching Heaven and Earth – a film about a Vietnamese woman in the Vietnam War and I had a strong empathy for the atrocities many Vietnamese women went through, especially the ones who’s babies were cut out of their mothers stomachs and the women raped by soldiers. My heart ached for whether that might have been my mother’s situation and I overcame my sadness of why I might have been given up with the reality that – perhaps my mother went through more trauma and loss than I did.

The possibilities of why I was given up are endless and almost comforting to know she probably didn’t give me up because of being pregnant out of wedlock as in Korea or because of a 1-child-policy as in China. Perhaps it was poverty as is the case in many other sending countries like Ethiopia. But at the end of the day, I can rationally see children do get abandoned and some are legitimate orphans … and in a war torn situation like mine, domestic adoption, foster care or other alternatives were just not possible at the time due to everything being in chaos with no stable government to ensure the citizens of that country get looked after.

I do believe when we are old enough to understand the political and economic situations surrounding our adoptions – it impacts how we adoptees view intercountry adoption. For me, I’ve never seen myself as against all forms of adoption because of my situation where in a war torn country there’s almost a legitimate reason for why intercountry adoption was needed. I do question aspects of the Operation Babylift concept which occurred after I was adopted – in particular the speed at which it happened, the lack of clarification of the children who were sent abroad as to their real status, how they were selected, and the politics involved – I dare say if Operation Babylift were done today it would be seen as mass Child Trafficking and receive huge criticism by Child’s Rights activists around the world! Indeed Operation Babylift was controversial in an era were intercountry adoption was in its infancy.

For the Korean adoptees today from a Western mindset, seeing generations of babies being sent abroad because of stigma against single unwed women, one can understand why as a Korean adoptee you would become fiercely critical of adoption! The same will apply for the generations of Chinese adoptees being sent abroad to solve their country’s population problem via intercountry adoption. Adult adoptees from these sending countries will inevitably grow up to ask the question – what did the Government do to assist these babies to be kept in their birth country rather than being conveniently shipped off via intercountry adoption where millions of dollars are saved from having to find a solution in-house? What about the Rights of The Child? In countries like Guatemala, Cambodia, and Ethiopia families have been ripped apart from the corruption and greed of baby sellers under the guise of intercountry adoption – of course these adopted children will grow up to have an opinion of what happened on a massive scale and question why the governments of their own birth country and receiving country did little, early enough, to stop more adoptions when there were plenty of indicators that children were being adopted out without any proper oversight or ensuring they were legitimate orphans.

So the question of what does it mean to be adopted starts with the abandonment concept but then depending on which sending country we come from, gets layered with other social, political and economic issues about why our birth countries allow us to be adopted, layered yet again with how our adoption into another family and culture really turns out, and in the minority of cases, layered again if we can be reunited. Complications arise naturally from the actual adoption in whether we are lucky enough to be placed in an appropriate family with support, empathy and help to navigate the complexities of our life at different stages of development – e.g. were we raised in a multicultural setting to allow us to assimilate and not feel like racially isolated; was adoption openly talked about; was it acceptable to express our feelings of grief and not knowing about our first families; were we allowed to be ourselves or were we subconsciously having to live the life our adoptive parents wanted and meeting their subconscious needs; were we supported in returning to our country of origin and wanting to search for information?

Some of us are not so lucky in obtaining the “awesome adoptive parent” lottery ticket and so our being adopted takes centre stage in trying to understand why we deserved mistreatment and hurt (intentional or not) from our adoptive families and only serves to add to our vulnerabilities and feelings of helplessness from being abandoned. For those of us who have fantastic adoptive families, I dare say we can move quicker through the minefield of trying to understand what being adopted means because we received the love and nurturing that is necessary to flourish and develop healthy self esteem and racial identity – but it’s still not an easy journey even with the best of parents.

So essentially how does it feel to be adopted? The best analogy I could come up with as an adult adoptee now in my 40s, is it’s like peeling away layers of an onion.

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Keep peeling away through the layers of yourself.  It may cause you to cry but these tears will cleanse your soul and uncover who you really are!

You move thru’ life wonderfully for a while and then hit a new layer that stings the eyes and heart.

It takes time to absorb the meaning of one’s abandonment and loss at each new layer and level, and our identity evolves slowly over time.

As time progresses, we realise what these layers are and accept them instead of wanting to run away and escape them. Once we get to understand this, we are able to move through these layers with less disruption to the whole of our lives. For me, adoption has become less of an issue the older I get because I’ve slowly been able to integrate all these facets and complications into my sense of who I am and why I am.

It’s such a complicated thing to try and explain what it is like to not ever know one’s first mother and father. There’s the not knowing in terms of facts – their names, histories, race, and language. Then there’s the gut feelings of sadness and grief and the why’s of “why we aren’t with them?” Then there’s the “well – who am I then” without being able to answer any factual questions.

When I was younger and before I learnt to stop running from the feelings of grief and loss, I would long for my mother. I recall looking into the starry sky at night and wonder if my mother ever thought of me or missed me as much as I did her. I would dream of her leaving me on a dusty road and me crying out, “wait!” I realise now I was full of grief in my years under 10.

I missed a mother I couldn’t put a face to, but one to whom I felt innately severed from.

There is no doubt in my mind and after reading The Primal Wound and watching documentaries like In Utero, that it is true – we do bond in utero with our mothers and we feel disconnected if we never hear her voice or feel her around us again. I couldn’t really come to allow myself to trust my new mother (my adoptive mum) and I see now as an adult how hard this must have been for her. In my child mind, if mother can disappear than I’d better learn to be self reliant and not trust any other mother. I know my adoptive mum tried to show me she loved me but it’s just I couldn’t psychologically let her in. When did it change? I think it wasn’t until in my mid 20s when I did some therapy with an amazing woman (yes, I knew I had to find a female therapist to assist me in my unhealed “mother” work)! I finally learnt to trust a woman and allow my buried grief to surface – to share that very real and deep pain of being separated from one’s mother – with another “mother figure”. It was really only then I could totally embrace my adoptive mother, allow myself to connect and share who I was without being afraid I’d lose myself or somehow be disloyal to my first mother, and understand the three of us were connected.

The not knowing is just my reality. I haven’t known any different. Its like everyone else gets given a cup that’s full of water but my cup is empty and I need to have a drink.  Its a basic biological fundamental that our bodies need water!  But how do I fill the empty cup and even if I figure it out, will it be enough to satiate the thirst?  Normally water quenches the thirst just like having knowledge of our parents and our family heritage gives us the basis/starting point for our identity.

For adoptees like myself who have no facts to go by, the not knowing is like starting to write a book or film without doing any research to ascertain the history in order to create the setting/scene. It just begins with us and it can feel like we are adrift in a huge ocean.  There is nothing to shelter against and no other life lines we can connect to to stop us drifting and getting washed around.  I had many moments during my life where I felt like I might get toppled over and disappear forever beneath the huge waves. I honestly don’t know what I hung onto to survive – maybe sheer will power, maybe some resoluteness within me to find the answers and make sense of it all. Maybe it’s what still drives me today – to find meaning to my solitary existence. But the reality today is, I realise I’m not alone at all. There are many of us, thousands, sitting alone on our ocean amongst the waves … by connecting each individual together with the bigger picture, it helps make collective sense to our meaning and purpose and what we can achieve.