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.”

Stranger Than Fiction

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In third grade, I was in Mrs. Peterson’s class and given the assignment to do a family history project. I asked my adoptive parents about the project and they stated my Aunt Eirene had worked on the family tree and traced back across several hundred years. My family automatically skipped the fact that my own biological family existed and was not included. I was adopted at the age of four and a half years old. I had a lot of residual memories from my childhood but did not understand the things that I could recall. I was told I had an overactive imagination and that I daydreamed a lot. Later as an adult, I met numerous other adoptees and many of them had fantasies about their biological families. Some adoptees had dreamt that their biological families were royalty, others that their biological families were wealthy and looking for them.

I recently met a bunch of adoptees. One shared about identifying with a podcast in which a male adoptee fantasized that his parents were royalty and were looking for him.  During the conversation it was stated,”Who knows – one of us might be royalty!”

On the day of the family tree assignment I stood up in front of the class and talked about my biological father being very old and that he fought in the Korean War. I also talked about army men marching past our village and seeing their tanks and machine guns. I was recalling events as best I could from memory. It is true that it is highly improbable that my father was in his late forties or early fifties when he had children. A simple calculation of the age of most fighting soldiers during the Korean War would fall within a narrow range of ages.  It was highly improbable that my father was that old. The town where I had lived was located several hours south of Seoul and was not as heavily guarded as the Korean border or coastal cities. An initial impression might consider I was on the cusp of telling great tales. In fact, the teachers concernedly told my adoptive parents what I recalled in class and said I had a heightened sense of imagination. I was chastised by my adoptive parents for lying.

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In my early twenties, I joined the military and selected to serve in Korea. While I was there, I learned that the construction of Korea’s expressway number 1 began in 1968 and was completed in the summer 1970. The 660 mile stretch of highway became the main artery that moved commerce from the ports of Pusan through the capital city of Seoul and up to the North Korean border. This main expressway is the second oldest and most heavily traveled expressway in Korea. It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that this corridor was also the main route for the movement of troops and military equipment. It so happens that the highway passes along the outskirts of Cheong-Ju, the town that I grew up in. The memories of seeing soldiers walking alongside the road past my village is highly probable. As for my father for being old, I was confused about that. In my formative years, I was living with my grandfather because my father was away from home. I mistook my grandfather for being my father. I have memories of being ridiculed and told I was being untruthful. These memories flood my mind as I write this. I never meant to lie, all I did as a young child was to do my best to explain what I recalled.

Korean Princess

DNA testing with 325Kamra has taken me all over the globe and as a result, I’ve been able to meet thousands of intercountry adoptees. During these travels, I’ve heard numerous stories that were often stranger than fiction. The first story is about one of the few Caucasian children adopted by a Korean family. Both families worked together in diplomatic channels and the boy’s parents were both killed in a motor vehicle accident. The Korean family took the orphaned boy in immediately and raised him as their own. I met this individual during my first tour to Korea when we were both stationed in Tong-du-chon in the mid-nineties.

In Europe, I met a Korean man adopted by a Korean family and a Korean girl raised by a Jamaican family. From all the stories that have been shared with me, about 99.9% of all Korean adoptees were adopted to Caucasian families. The unique adoption stories also occurred in the United States. In the early nineties, my next-door neighbor was a Korean adoptee and she was actually found by her biological father. Her father worked hard in the construction business and became a millionaire. He hired a private detective to find his daughter in America and he showered her with gifts. He paid off her mortgage and the costs to refurbish her home. He even threw in tickets to fly the whole family to visit him in Korea.

In college, I started the first multi-cultural diversity club on my university campus. As the president, I was invited to visit other campuses around the state and I met up with Korean student groups in Cornell, NYU and various universities on the East Coast. At one student conference, I met a Korean adoptee who was raised in a Jewish family. She was able to recite part of the Torah and read Hebrew. What I learned from these interactions is that adoptee lives are as varied by the families who adopt them. Things that adoptees might dream about, can actually occur.

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I think it is a common practice for adoptees to fantasize or dream about who their parents are. What I found interesting is that the fantasies are rarely about common everyday individuals. I’ve never heard an adoptee tell me that they believe their parents were librarians or bakers. I mostly heard things like, “I think my family was royalty” or the extreme opposite of the spectrum and believe their mother was a prostitute. I think many adoptees make sense or cope with their adoption by making up stories. I think this is a normal occurrence and families and friends should not dismiss everything that adoptees might share as memories. As in my story, I was able to verify everything with my biological family after I found them. As for finding a princess … I found a Korean adoptee who was able to trace her family back to the last princess of Korea. I met her in Germany – very fitting, since it’s the land of a thousand castles!

My recommendation for adoptees who believe in the stories you are told or you have created to cope with life is: you never know – maybe you will be the next adoptee whose life is stranger than fiction!