To know your parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, and grandparents …
To know your medical history; whether your mother died of cancer, your father suffered heart problems, whether your grandmother had diabetes …
To know who you look like, where your traits come from, whether your face in the mirror is a reflection of someone else ..
To know your birth story, date, time, season of the year, what hospital you were born in …
To know your country of birth, culture, heritage, language, customs, religion …
To be surrounded by people who look like you racially …
To know your origins is a privilege!
These are the things I don’t take for granted because I didn’t have any of these whilst growing up. I was born in one country, adopted to another, by a family of different race. I’m a transracial intercountry adoptee. I’ve spent a huge portion of my life wondering, searching, trying to learn about my origins.
In my community of intercountry adoptees – to know your origins is definitely a privilege!
I was asked to speak about the lifelong impacts of identity loss. So I shared my story and some statements from fellow adoptees to highlight our experience.
I am one of these children who has not had my identity protected. Children like me, grow up. We don’t stay children forever – and we can have opinions and thoughts about the structures, processes, policy and legislations that impact us and create our lives. I am honoured to be asked to represent just one small group of us with lived experience, that the forum represents as “children from alternative care options”.
I was adopted from Vietnam during the war in 1973. The war ended in April 1975. My adoptive father flew into the country while it was still at war and flew me out as a 5 month old baby. My papers were supposed to follow but they never arrived and my adoption was not finalised.
I lived for almost 17 years in Australia without an identity. It was the family joke that I made the perfect spy because I didn’t exist. I was keenly aware of not existing and having no paperwork – it made me feel insecure, insignificant, unseen.
The practical impacts of not having any identity papers for 17 years were that I could not apply for a passport and travel outside Australia, I could not get my drivers licence, I could not apply for anything like a bank account and, more importantly, I was not followed up on since arriving in the country by any child welfare authority nor the adoption agency.
Finally when I was 16 years old, I wanted to get my drivers licence so my adoptive parents were finally propelled to take action. They went though the adoption process again, this time through the State not a private agency, and my adoption was formalised just before I turned 17 years old.
I was given a brand new Australian identity. It does not state my Vietnamese identity only recognises the country that I was born in, Vietnam.
Via this 17-year-late process of intercountry adoption, was there an official check for any of my identity documents in Vietnam? Or a check to confirm my adoptability or relinquishment? These questions remain unanswered for me. I was certainly never offered other options like having help to look for my origins in Vietnam .. I was only ever told that being adopted was THE solution so I’d be able to exist and have some sort of identity.
In my mid 20s – 30s, I spent over a decade trying to obtain my identity and adoption papers from Vietnam. Via my ICAV network, I came across an ex-policeman who had helped a few other Vietnamese adoptees. He somehow found what appears to be a Vietnamese birth certificate, and he took a blurry photo and sent it to me.
When I traveled to Vietnam in 2019, I went to the place where that document was said to be kept, only to be told the usual story – a flood or natural disaster destroyed ALL paperwork from that whole year. They have nothing for me. I visited the hospital where I was apparently born, only to be told I could not access my mother’s file without her permission – what a vicious cycle! I visited the police station precinct where the stamp on the birth certificate identifies it is held, only to be also told they wouldn’t help me. I asked for help during my visit to the central authority of Vietnam and was told to fill out a form via the website — which is in Vietnamese, which I can’t read or write in. There are so many barriers to being able to access my identity. Language is a HUGE one!
I have since done a few DNA tests and had genealogists help me, but that hasn’t been too successful either.
This struggle to find our identity, is very common for an intercountry adoptee like myself and is definitely worse for those of us who have been adopted out of a war torn or crisis filled country. In the rush to help “rescue” children like myself, processes are bypassed or sped up and vital information gets lost.
Our ICAV Community
Feeling isolated for most of my childhood, in my mid 20s I founded our international network ICAV that provides peer support to intercountry adoptees like myself who struggle just like I did. But I am only one voice amongst hundreds of thousands globally, so it’s important you hear more than just my voice!
I asked the ICAV community to share with you what their lifelong impacts of identity loss are. I’m going to share with you just 8 out of the 50 responses to highlight some of their experiences:
Many thanks to those adoptees who were willing to share!
Within our ICAV community, we could write a few books about the lifelong impacts of identity loss, many have already. There are so many more complexities that I haven’t talked about such as twins being purposively separated for adoption (not being told they’re a twin and the extra layers of impact for them of identity loss); 2nd generation adoptees (children of adoptees) and their lack of access in legislation to their inherited identity; etc. I hope my short talk helped expand your mind from the theoretical to the lived experience which speaks so loudly about the importance of identity rights for communities such as mine.
by Mark Erickson, adopted from Vietnam to the USA.
Sharing this to process feelings about my birth family, trying to write down some difficult things.
I have a confession to make: I killed my Vietnamese parents. I don’t know when I did it or how I did it, but I did. Actually, what I did was worse. In order to kill them, I would have actually had to know them, acknowledge their existence, and forget them. Instead, I fully erased them: no names, no memories, no feelings.
No one specifically told me to do it, but the message was loud and clear. Let’s play pretend. Your Vietnamese parents are never to be acknowledged or mentioned. We are your real parents. You were born in our hearts.
If there was a part of my young self that ever believed that my Vietnamese parents were still alive, then the burden of carrying that hope was too much for me. So I stopped. I was not Oliver Twist. I was not Little Orphan Annie. Instead, I became a twisted three-headed Scarecrow-Tin Man-Lion: unable to question my experience, disconnected from my feelings, and non-confrontational to a fault.
What I didn’t count on was that this matricide-patricide was actually a double homicide-suicide. In order to erase them, I also had to erase a part of myself. I self-medicated. But instead of self-medicating with substances like others in my immediate circle, I became a compulsive over-achiever.
This worked for many years. But my Vietnamese parents wouldn’t play along and stay erased. Instead, they haunted my nightmares and later my day dreams. When I looked in the mirror, was I looking at the image of my creators?