by Kayla Zheng, adopted from China to the USA.
Here is out latest ICAV Perspective Paper, a compilation of responses from ICAV’s members around the world, who wanted to contribute and provide answers to the question:
This collation is provided just over a decade on since ICAV compiled our first lot of answers to this question. I was intruiged to see if our views have changed over time as we journey on and mature in our understandings of adoption.
Reading our views gives you some thoughts to consider on this question from those who have lived the experience. We welcome your views and you can do so by commenting on this page.
I was recently contacted by a fellow adoptee who is seeking views and experiences of adoptees where gratitude is expected and how we feel about this. I immediately responded because gratitude in adoption is such an unspoken about subject, particularly from the adoptee perspective. For me, it was definitely a burden I felt whilst growing up and carry still to this day. Interesting that little has been written on this topic specific to intercountry adoption because our adoptions are so rife with connotations of being saved from poverty, war, slums and the streets. These connotations also come with equal expectation that we flourish in our Western white adoptive countries and families for which we should be grateful for.
It is assumed, somehow, magically, our losses in relinquishment should be negated by the gains in adoption.
I can understand how the majority of people who think of the word adoption would not necessarily equate that with living an experience of being expected to be grateful. But, from my own life experience, the word “grateful”, “thankful”, “be happy”, or “lucky” pops up in adoption conversation regularly. People who are not impacted by adoption expect us to be grateful for the material wealth and education we gain in life having been adopted. As an adoptee, not only have I experienced people’s assumptions about how lucky I am in their eyes to be adopted, I also experienced the expectation of gratitude said out loud by my adoptive parent during my childhood. It was said to me once or twice, but the way in which I was treated most of my childhood until I became independent and moved interstate, told me without words that it was the foundation of my adoption.
In hindsight, knowing now that my adoptive father was not comfortable to adopt a child not his own, from a foreign country, he went against his instincts and clearly gave way to his wife’s desire to save a child from the Vietnam war. What they saved me from, I’ll never know unless I find my first family. Whether I was indeed saved, who knows. Am I grateful? If I answered no, people naturally would recoil and look at me horrified, stunned. How dare I be ungrateful for my life in a wealthy country with material comforts, an education, and the life everyone in poverty aspires to.
But, of course I am grateful in many ways! Without choosing to be grateful, my emotional well being would be one of dissatisfaction, depression, unease and wishing to be dead.
I have been there! For plenty of years! And I had to battle to find a way through.
I choose actively to be consciously grateful, to focus and spend my life turning it into something positive. And it’s much nicer to be in a stage of life where I can choose to be grateful in general, as opposed to being forced to feel indebted for being saved via adoption.
I’m a female adoptee born in Vietnam, flown out as an infant to Australia in the early 1970s. I’ve told my personal story what feels like a thousand times, but yet no one has asked before what it was like to carry that expectation to be grateful for my existence in my adoptive family.
My adoption was not legally facilitated until I was 17 years old and it is still a mystery as to whether my legal adoption paperwork exists somewhere in Vietnam. I hadn’t really come to acknowledge or understand the true meaning of this until the past 6 months. It is enlightening to observe how my story of adoption and relinquishment has changed over time as I’ve become more fully aware of the truths, perceived and real. I am constantly having to rethink what was told to me growing up and comparing that to the truths I find today, and who I have become.
Not having an identity on paper for 17 years, of course I feel the expectation to be grateful to my adoptive country Australia in giving me a birth certificate and hence allowed an identity. But at what cost? The expectation to be grateful these days is overshadowed by questions I have on why it doesn’t seem to have been questioned whether I had an identity in Vietnam or how to preserve or respect it legally.
The words “gratitude” or “grateful” are like an alarm bell ringing inside me. It grates on my nerves and I feel myself inwardly flinching. For me it comes with so many negative memories. Even googling to find an image for this blog and seeing the visuals, created feelings of unease and discomfort in my body. If you can relate to me as an adoptee, saying, seeing or reading the word “gratitude” in relation to adoption is a trigger that I have to deal with all the time.
My adoptive childhood was spent working like a boy slave on the family’s dairy farm. Being thrown the “you owe this family because we adopted you” line because I was standing up for myself, was one of the toughest moments I remember. It was one of those rare times where I was trying to be stand up for myself about not wanting to be forced to help with milking the cows. The other children were allowed to peacefully sleep in every morning. My childhood sense of justice was strong. Why was I constantly singled out to be made to work around the farm with my adoptive father who inappropriately touched me whilst in the dairy or in my bedroom? He had no sense of respect for my privacy as my body developed in early teenage years. I recall a few times he woke me with his cold hands running over my bare chest and stomach, then dragging me out of my bed by my legs, nightie flinging up over my head exposing my naked body, laughing at how “funny” it was to be dragged along the frost covered grass on a cold Victorian morning. This would happen just on daylight before the sun even rose. Nobody else was awake. My hatred rose further when I once removed the outside key from the lock of my door but was authoritatively told how dare I try and lock him out. Everything about my life was dependent on him and I was given no sense of privacy, respect or control.
I grew to resent my adoptive father during my childhood but yet I pined for a tiny bit of love to be shown. I wasn’t grateful for this existence and I certainly hated that my lack of blood relative status meant it seemed to give him licence to work me like a slave and touch me in the way no father should. His other bio children were left to do what they wanted. They were not forced to work like me on hard physical tasks; chopping barrow loads of hardwood, milking cows day and night, cooking and cleaning in the kitchen, being forced to run out in the dark and shut the chooks in every night (I was terrified of the dark), etc. It felt like slave labour with no empathy for my feelings at all. It certainly wasn’t a childhood filled with love, safety or understanding. Nor was there any room for any compassion or support about what I might be feeling from being separated from my biological family and wondering why.
The expectation, verbalised out loud, to be grateful for being adopted was a heavy heavy burden to carry .. and still is. I was forced to justify why I needed hair conditioner and shampoo (I had waist long hair) and he would only provide soap as that was good enough for everyone else who had short or little hair. I was made to feel that buying a toothbrush was too much and how dare I need or ask for anything. I was made to feel and was told many times that I was a “fussy”, “difficult” child, always “telling lies” and “stealing“.
To this day, the “you should be grateful because we adopted you” mantra is what has stopped me from speaking openly about the emotional and sexual abuse I endured from early childhood to teen years. No adoptee should ever have to be thrown that line of feeling we owe a debt of gratitude to our adoptive families. Even when abuse does not occur. Whether spoken or not, we adoptees do NOT owe our families. They adopt for their own self fulfilling reasons. I had NO choice but to survive the adoptive family I was placed in.
You can probably feel the anger I still carry at the injustice of being made to feel that I owed my adoptive family for being rescued/saved. It brings lifelong consequences of being fiercely independent and not easily allowing anyone to help me. I suspect other adoptees can relate. For me, being helped, being given something I don’t ask for, usually comes with a fear of the unspoken price at which that help is provided. Hence, I would rather do it myself. The expectation of gratitude for being saved by adoptive family and society at large, is a heavy burden.
This burden of expected gratitude in being adopted is enhanced by the religious elements intertwined in much of modern adoption advocacy.
Fervent religious organisations and individuals who willingly promote and facilitate the adoption and rescuing of children add another layer of expected gratitude onto us. People who believe adoption is an ordained action by God, that they are following his command to help an orphan, makes it difficult for adoptees to share about the struggles of being adopted and relinquished.
I rarely hear of any adoptee who will willingly stand up in a church or religious institute and share their adoption experience with all its complexities. For me, this would be the worst audience ever! I can’t imagine receiving validation or empathy. Instead, I suspect I would receive unsolicited advice to be grateful and thankful to God that I am in a better place and that all is going well now. The all familiar saying of, “Count your Blessings!” by religious people in response to adversity is one I find hard to stomach.
Google for yourself the word gratitude and you will see the many religious and spiritual images linked to this concept. Our struggles as adoptees go unvalidated and unsupported because of blind prejudice that somehow adoption is meant to be, ordained by God. How can anyone question the unspoken assumption that we should be grateful for our adoption, when this is the long held religious and spiritual belief?
Thankfully, my adoptive family and others have apologised in recent years for the wrong doings in my childhood and I have chosen to be grateful for this and to move on. It’s interesting how with apologies I now feel more at liberty to be open about my life. It’s as if a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I no longer carry the burden of responsibility for family secrets and shame, trying to protect them from the consequences. For many years now, I have been true to myself and will not allow the expectation of gratitude to overwhelm my truths.
I have focused my energies on rebuilding the relationships with adoptive family as they are my one and only family I know, to raise me and give me an identity. For this I am truly grateful – but that’s not to say the journey hasn’t been a struggle and at many costs.
Gratitude in adoption should never be an expectation. It should be a choice we are free to make about life in general – after we come to terms with, and are supported in, understanding our losses and gains from relinquishment and adoption.
I was an artistic child and I spent much of my free time drawing when I was a child. I drew my interpretation of Star Wars. I was not allowed to watch the movie because my religious parents believed it was evil to try and interpret the future. Our hired hand found my drawings in the trash and he took them out and framed them. I was shocked to see my drawing hanging up on his walls. The man gave me encouragement and told me they were some of the best drawings he’d ever seen.
Some months later, when I was 12 years old, I won an art competition from the pool of local schools and won a hundred dollars for the best Christmas drawing in the area. My picture was placed in the local paper and when I rushed home to tell my parents about my accomplishments, their response was, “It’s not good to brag!”
I was 18 years old and returned home from Desert Storm. I was asked to stay on active duty to help process the returning soldiers from the war. I worked very hard and stayed up late processing documents. I made calls to the Pentagon to get answers for my boss. I worked many late nights, improving the old documents to capture the data that we needed and became close friends to everyone whom I worked with. I wanted to serve the individuals who flew back from the war and my boss was impressed with my work ethic. He surprised me with an award. My parents lived about an hour and a half away. My boss recommended I invite them because it was a significant accomplishment. He was thoughtful enough to extend the invite to my parents to attend the awards ceremony.
At the ceremony, it was explained that a junior soldier such as myself rarely received this distinction. The only comment I ever got from my parents was, “Glad you didn’t get into trouble!”
I look back to my youth and vividly remember trying to gain acceptance, to find a place of belonging, and yearning for love from people who could not give it. As a more mature adult, I realize throughout my adult life I have worked harder and done more to compensate for the internalized messages I received (verbal or not) of “never being good enough”.
I’ve seen other adoptees like myself who’ve given their best, worked above and beyond their peers, trying so hard .. but still never giving themselves the credit they deserve. If you can relate … you may suffer like I did, from being conditioned into believing you are never good enough. This feeling lingers in our head and drives us to work so hard it can damage our relationships. This twisted reality can also have negative effects on our health.
I have read some insightful articles that enabled me to work through these negative self beliefs.
“We can’t hate ourselves into a version of ourselves we can love.”
Karl McBride is a therapist who worked with dysfunctional families for more than 3 decades. He believes that individuals who internalize they are not good enough often come from narcissistic and abusive families. These families could be alcoholic parents who send mixed signals as they sway back and forth between being sober and drunk. For children with narcissistic parents, we struggle to comprehend that our parents are incapable of loving us.
The following is two ways in which we as children respond to these false messages that we are unloveable:
All children want to feel accepted and loved by their parents. A child will unconsciously try to fix whatever the perceived issue is, in order to gain parental acceptance. The child may have an internal dialogue as a means of trying to resolve the situation. It may look like the following:
“If only I was a better kid, this would not be happening.”
“If I did better in school, my parents wouldn’t fight.”
“If I listen to my parent’s problems, maybe they will be less stressed.”
“If I do more housework, maybe my mom won’t be so sad.”
“If I become great at sports, maybe my dad won’t drink so much and want to come to my games.”
This type of child ends up over achieving.
The not-good-enough children either sway back and forth from being the Fixer or they may do the opposite and act out, i.e., they become The Lasher. Lashing out in anger, confusion and frustration trying to gain their parents attention.
Regardless of whichever way children respond to not being loved, children internalize the false message and eventually realise they cannot solve their parent’s problems.
Then there’s The Blame Game in which it is not uncommon for abusive parents to blame their children for their own parental failures and problems.
With narcissists, it’s always someone else’s fault. Some of the warning signs that your parent may be narcissistic are:
Does your parent always have to have things their way?
Are they critical of you at all times?
Is your parent jealous of you?
When you discuss your life’s issues, does your parent divert the discussion to talk about their own problems?
Do you feel that you were a slave to your parents?
If you answered yes to most of these questions, the chances are high that your parent was a narcissist.
So why do we as adopted children respond as we do? Many of us as children have been conditioned to believe we are the ones at fault. We say to ourselves, “It must be me.” Adults are assumed to be more educated, experienced and in control, hence it is easy for adopted children who feel vulnerable to think, “It must be my fault if my parent is mean to me, or can’t love me”.
McBride believes the child ends up carrying the emotional baggage of the family and takes on the burden. The child thinks, “If only I could do more” in order to fix things.
If you find yourself always being tired, always over extending yourself, always trying to achieve more, then I would recommend taking a step back and asking why you are doing these things. You may be compensating to overcome those child beliefs which you have carried into your adult life.
I know I struggle with this. I have been told by many bosses that I work too hard and assume I should do more to self improve. It’s like an endless quest to be “good enough“. I think in all things in life, moderation is the goal. I now I force myself to step back, take vacations and not answer calls on weekends. It took me 45 years to re-condition myself from overexerting and extending myself to realize I have a habit of being like this. I now have to ensure I develop strategies to prevent burn out and learn to relax.
Do you feel that you are not good enough? How do you cope with such feelings? Do you think it is something else that triggers these feelings?
I remember learning about Monarch butterflies in college as a Biology Major. Birds and other predators refused to eat Monarchs because they tasted bad from their consumption of milkweed plants. Because of the low predation rates, other butterflies took advantage of this and learned to mimic Monarch’s coloration and design. The most famous of these impersonators of a Monarch is the Viceroy butterfly. To the untrained eye they look identical but today, we know today they are a different species.
This type of mimicry where an edible animal is protected due to its resemblance to another species avoided by predators is called Batesian mimicry. Only in the human species do we find the reversal of Batesian mimicry where the species are the same but the culture, logic, thinking, and behavior is totally different. This is what occurs when an adoptee marries or partners long term with a person from the same birth country.
I am a Korean adoptee and I was raised on a dairy farm in the heart of a little Scandinavia town located in north-central Minnesota. I met my wife when I was stationed in South Korea as a young lieutenant in the US Army. I lived in South Korea for nearly 8 years and I remember having conversations with other servicemembers who had Korean brides and were involved in interracial marriages and I thought to myself, “Wow, I can really relate to the issues that they have.” The men whom I had shared conversations with assumed my marriage was easier because my wife and I are ethnically the same. Yet, I had many of the same issues and problems these men talked about.
These men assumed the relationship between my wife and I was easier than theirs because we looked similar, as does the Monarch and Viceroy. However, as we know, these two butterflies were different species, biologically diverse from one another. My wife and I also look the same racially, but our culture, logic, thinking, and behaviors are totally different. This is why I classify my marriage as an interracial marriage even though we are technically both from Korean descent.
Here is a sample of some of the issues we face as an interracial couple:
Children: My wife is that classic Tiger mom. She is fierce when it comes to my children’s studies. She hovers over them as they do their French, piano, and math lessons. She runs them to karate, boy scouts, girl scouts and numerous other extracurricular activities. I have to navigate our family trips around the school and planned school activities. I see my kids sitting at the table for hours on end and I have to step in as the voice of reason and allow them to have breaks and go to bed. It’s different to the way I was raised and we have to make compromises on how they are to be raised.
Holidays: It was March and my wife was happy with excitement and she asked me to come to the dinner table. I sat down and excitedly uncovered the lid to see what was inside and to my horror, there was a pot of hot slimy green and viscous sludge. She proceeds to tell me it’s Myong-gook, or traditional Korean seaweed soup, which was served after women gave birth and on special occasions. It just so happened to be my birthday and I was fed this special meal whereas, at the time, I much preferred to go out and eat KFC or Thai. There are duplicate holidays that we celebrate such as Choo-suk, also known as Korean Thanksgiving, and there are changes to the traditional menu. It’s not unusual for us to serve the smelly fermented, spicy cabbage called Kimchi along with the mashed potatoes and gravy.
Values: I feel my wife is obsessed with saving money. In the past, she has returned gifts that I bought for her on her birthday, Christmas and special occasions. She tells me not to buy flowers, chocolates, jewelry or anything else because she believes spending money on lavish items is a waste. She would rather see the money pile up in our retirement accounts and do with less. On the other hand, I believe life is about balance. Live a little and enjoy the fruits of our labor as we age. We often have these money talks and come to a compromise. I show her the statements of our retirement account before I ask her about planning a family trip.
Crossed wires: Often communication can end up in a conflict. I’ll be talking to my wife about something at work and she will cut me off to talk about something with the kids. To her, that is more important. She had no idea that she cut me off mid sentence.
Another example is when she asks me if I there is anything she can grab for me while she is at the grocery store, I may pause a few seconds to ponder and return to her with my list. I may respond a half a minute later and ask her to get me my favorite snack and she looks at me with a lost look in her eyes. I have to coax her back into the conversation that we had previously. In her mind, I wanted nothing and was already thinking about something else.
The communication patterns are different and I have learnt to repeat myself over and over again. She also misplaces words by mistake as she translates things inside her head.
“Hey, remember to take the cat to the veterinarian” when she really meant to say to say, “Hey, get some cat food when you’re out”. The crossed wires happens inside her head as she translates and the same happens in other normal conversations.
Name Change: I get a lot of questions and quizzical looks when I introduce myself as Mr Hansen. My name doesn’t match my looks and I’m expecting someone on the US Airlines to pull me off my flight one of these days for impersonating an American. My wife has a similar issue and many people assume she is married to a Caucasian because of the name she took after we were married. We thought about changing our name to my Korean family name but to change all my documents over to a new name seemed exhaustive and we have decided to keep the name for now.
Other Couples: I hate going to another Korean couple’s home when they have a hard time communicating in English. I run out of things to talk about after 5 minutes of conversation which also exhausts all 7 words I can speak in Korean. Many Koreans keep me at an arm’s length away because I’m not a “real” Korean. I feel as though I am the outsider looking in. This also holds true for my wife. She hates attending large groups and intellectually stimulating lectures. She feels as if the whole world is focused on her and when she accidentally slips with the wrong English word – people will make fun of her. I re-charge my batteries being around people and I love to dive into deep conversations.
Life can be extremely stressful, complex, and exhausting at times when married to someone from a different culture. What I found is, it is both rewarding and difficult, just like any other thing worth pursuing. In my education pursuits, for example, it was tough and there were times when I questioned why I was pursuing the degrees that I chose. However, the pursuits ended up well worth the pains and sacrifices I made. Some of the best moments I had were in the dorms of college and the life-long friendships made there, are as meaningful as ever.
The same holds true for a marriage or long term partnerships. I have encountered different issues being in an interracial marriage compared to what I might have experienced if I’d married someone of my adoptive culture and country. But I’ve learnt, not to make assumptions about my partner based on her culture. I also realise our relationship is one in which we are both forever teaching and learning from each other. Like all long term relationships, I will always have to compromise and learn to adapt to changes.
Additional Thoughts: What differences and issues have you seen in your own interracial marriage or partnership? Do you think the I am correct to call my relationship “interracial” when we are ethnically the same?
Further Reading: Monarch vs Viceroy: https://www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/monarch/Viceroy1.html
Within ICAV’s private group for adult intercountry adoptees I recently asked the question: “If we lived in an ideal world, given your adoption experience is as it is, what would you need to be at peace with it all?” I made it clear we could discuss and provide answers that were both realistic possibilities and idealistic fantasies.
The discussion that followed was powerful and I’d love to share some of the themed responses which highlight what’s still missing in intercountry adoption to make it really about “the needs of the child”. You’ll see from some of the replies to my question, we do grow up and continue to have ongoing needs that continue to be umet via intercountry adoption. Often times, it seems that intercountry adoption creates more needs than we began with as vulnerable children which makes me wonder what purpose did our intercountry adoption achieve for us, the adoptees?
Truth and Answers
Many of us have adoption documents which have details that are either totally incorrect or somewhat questionable and shades in between. The worst I can cite as an example of totally incorrect, is a Haitian intercountry adoptee who was given an already dead person’s identity, a false birth mother listed on adoption paperwork and subsequently found out the truth years later, that her biological mother never gave consent. An example of the questionable and changeable information provided is the experiences of countless South Korean adoptees who get given differing information each time they approach their Korean adoption agency asking for details, locked away in their agency files.
This lack of knowing the truth or having transparent access to our relinquishment and subsequent adoption information, can further traumatise us in recreating yet another event in which we are completely powerless to know our basic identity information and compounds our already fragile ability to trust others. As Christine shared,
“Having to doubt that what I thought all along was my story now may not be true, is difficult.”
Like others who shared on this theme, Chaitra listed finding the Truth as her first response, along with others:
- Knowing the truth about the circumstances that led to my adoption.
- Meeting and having a relationship with my birth family.
- Being fully immersed in Indian culture as a child so that I would have had knowledge of food, language, holidays, traditions, etc. as well as racial mirrors.
- Having adoptive parents who openly communicated with me about adoption and race.
Chaitra had none of these things in her life.
The Desire to Find Biological Family
For some who reunite, finally meeting biological family gave them a sense of understanding who they were at the level of physical attributes and personality which were always unlike those of their adoptive family. For example, Thomas shared it this way:
“Meeting my birth family has helped me a lot. I met my grandmother’s side of the family and they’re all like the same as me with huge eyes, light skin and curly hair. They’re also all really shy and tend not to say much unless spoken to, like me. It has really helped me to answer some questions about where I come from“.
For others, like Chaitra above who have not been successful yet in reuniting with biological family, there is still the desire and thinking that IF they could meet, it would help to put together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle which makes up who we fundamentally are. Dominic expressed it well, “Just to know I have relatives would give me a sense of peace. Surely they couldn’t have all perished in the Vietnam wars!”
When adoptees are impeded from knowing the answers and finding biological family, we are left with a lifetime of uncertainty. Our fundamental identity questions remain unanswered.
This was a recurring theme for some adoptees who expressed the wish that adoption not be a necessary and created social response to children who are vulnerable. As Parvathi wisely questions,
“Only if the child has got no parents and feel uncomfortable in his country, he should have the opportunity to move. Why a child who has lost his parents should also loose his country too?“
Sunitha also said, “I think the whole society system and humanity should have been different from the beginning of time! What is international adoption if not a new colonialist way? It just reflects the inequalities of the world through the cover of good will and humanitarian feelings. Another way to see it, is just rich people in need of kids, buying kids from poor countries and raising them in their culture which is supposed to be superior to their original one.”
Through our experience of being intercountry adopted, we inevitably end up questioning the system that created our reality. We are not naiive in believing that intercountry adoption is only about poverty because it’s clearly not, as sending countries like South Korea and the USA demonstrate. Kim explains it well:
“When intercountry is done both ways, it doesn’t seem in the best interest of children either. It only looks like a fair trade of children, a business of import-export, done both ways. The USA already export their children (mostly black children) to Europe, why aren’t those kids adopted in their country first before adopted to other countries?“
As Tamieka shared, the world needs to create more services that focus on first families and “helping them be able to maintain and keep their families and children.” If this happened with as large a revenue as what intercountry adoption generates worldwide, I question whether there would be a need for intercountry adoption.
Justice when Adoption is Done Wrong
For those who wonder whether their adoption was legitimate or not, we are all too aware of the harsh reality that there is little to mostly nothing that is done, or can be done, to prevent further injustices or to punish those who create these situations. Tamieka eloquently expressed this as, “The world needs to provide organisations that hold those who are responsible for the corruption in adoptions, responsible for tearing families and people’s lives apart, to be held accountable for their actions and to be brought to justice.”
Whether intercountry adoption continues to be practiced or not, there is the question of where is justice for those who are already impacted? Sadly, our desire for restorative justice for adoptees who are wronged via intercountry adoption is currently a utopia. This is the harsh reality but it won’t stop us from speaking out against this and highlighting how unethical the practice is without any mechanism for seeking justice.
An End to the Ongoing Pain
Sadly, for many the unspoken consequence of relinquishment on the vulnerable child, is a lifelong path of psychological pain in having been abandoned by our biological parents. Followed by intercountry adoption, our experience can become a secondary abandonment, this time by our birth country. Via intercountry adoption we lose our right to our birth family and country forever and are not given the choice to retain our identity, culture, heritage or citizenship. The pain of abandonment by biological parents and birth country have an ongoing effect which can last a lifetime. If this goes unsupported by the majority of adoptive countries who offer little to no post adoption support services, we can be left with an endless amount of internal psychological pain.
For adoptees who feel this pain intensely, they desire an end to their struggles and can at times, see death as the only way out. Little wonder that adoptees are reported in research as suffering higher rates of suicide, attempts at suicide, mental health issues and reflected in greater proportion compared to the non-adopted population, in prisons or drug and alcohol rehabilitation services. The pain of relinquishment is real and has to be acknowledged. Adoption is often portrayed as a win-win solution but it glosses over the real pain that adoptees can experience, whether openly shared or not.
Kim shared it very clearly:
“Death would give me peace. I think only death can make me stop remembering her, the Me before adoption. Only death can remove from me that kind of pain, loneliness and homesickness that adoption injected into my soul.”
Thankfully, within support groups like ICAV, we don’t minimise or diminish our sometimes painful realities. We openly speak and share, which is so important for healing.
Paul eloquently summed it up: “This is such a hard question. Honestly, I think about this with so much hyper-realism that it’s difficult to get to any perfect world state of mind for me, any wishes for what could be different. My birth father is dead. My adoptive mother is dead. My birth mother, who knows? And what does that mean? And yet I am here. And there are friends, family and strangers and _____. That beauty. But still there’s the Unknown, the tension, the contradiction; the complexity of history; our absurd global socio-political circumstances; etc.. What helps me through all of this? This. Our sharing. Our stories. The potential for moments of connection and understanding, even in all their imperfection. Our various bitter realities. Your question. Our voices. The realization of shared experience and circumstances, not sameness, but sharedness. This helps. Thank you.”
It’s amazing to see the power of peer group sharing and connecting and how it facilitates our journey of growth as adult intercountry adoptees. Read Stephanie’s expression of what she gained from the same group discussion.
As an adult intercountry adoptee, having been outspoken now for 20 years in ICAV, I’ve often wondered whether my intercountry adoption was legitimate or not. That means asking questions like: did my Vietnamese parents really understand the legal concept of “adoption” and relinquishment? Were they offered any other types of support to keep me? Given I came out of war torn Vietnam, was my status really as a true orphan with no surviving parents or family? Was family and kin reunification even attempted before I was adopted out to Australia? And what about any attempts to place me in my own home country first? One day I hope to find the answers to these questions if I’m lucky enough to be reunited with my biological family.
I’m sure other fellow intercountry adoptees ask themselves similar questions at some stage in their life. These are the realities we face as we grow older, mature in our understandings of the complexities of intercountry adoption, and grapple to integrate our realities with the worldwide politics that created our lives, as we know it today.
To consider oneself as trafficked as an intercountry adoptee is challenging because of the legal definition which cuts us out and doesn’t allow any legal scope to take action against the perpetrators.
Human trafficking is the illegal movement of people, within national or across international borders, for the purposes of exploitation in the form of commercial sex, domestic service or manual labour.
Trafficking in intercountry adoption certainly exists but we cannot take legal action because of the fact that no international law or framework exists to allow us to be legally considered as “trafficked” unless we can prove we fit the criteria of “exploitation for sex or labour”.
Yet within intercountry adoption, the degrees to which we can be trafficked can vary immensely. There are those who have:
- outright falsification of documentation and were stolen from their birth families, sold into intercountry adoption for profit, where legal action was taken against those who profited and it was demonstrated in a court of law, that wrong doing had transpired.
- documentation that could appear suspicious but at the time not questioned further; demonstrated years later to be inconsistent or incorrect.
- paperwork that appears legitimate, but at reunion decades later, the story from birth parents does not match in any way the documentation provided by the adoption agency / facilitator.
- no identity paperwork exists due to having been a “lost” child and with little attempt to reunify back with family, we became sold/transacted via intercountry adoption.
Where does the spectrum of having been “trafficked for intercountry adoption” start or end? Difficult to discuss when the concept is not allowed to exist in law. Even ISS International’s best practice learnings from these types of scenarios don’t label it “trafficking”, but refer to it as “illegal adoptions” in their Handbook. And out of the conclusions and recommendations in that handbook, the question has to be asked how many of the Hague signatories have a process to enable biological family, adoptive parents, or adult adoptees who suspect illicit practices (i.e., trafficking) be given any type of support or process – financially, legally, or emotionally?
On 7 December 2017, ICAV facilitated a small group of 7 intercountry adoptees representing India, Taiwan, and Sri Lanka to request the Australian Federal Government, via Department of Social Services (DSS), consider providing some financial support to those who have been trafficked in various degrees. For these adoptees, no amount of money is ever going to compensate for their losses and trauma directly brought on by the degree of trafficking they have endured. Not to mention their biological family! But we can at least ask that some forms of restorative justice be provided by the powers to be who facilitate adoptions and allow it to continue.
There is no way of ultimately fixing the dilemma caused by trafficking in intercountry adoption because adoption IS legally binding, despite the existence of cases of successful prosecution against those who falsified documents.
Sadly, the only legal case that can be made in intercountry adoption for known trafficking is for falsification of documents. The perpetrators get a slap on the wrist, some jail time, and a small fine (compared to how much they profited). In comparison, what does the adoptee or biological family get? Nothing. Not even services to help them move through and past this unnecessary trauma.
I want to raise awareness of the impacts trafficking has on those adoptees who have to live it, forever. Their voices are unheard and diminished by those who advocate for adoption. Their experiences go by without us learning from the mistakes and putting in place much needed processes and international laws to prevent further injustices like theirs. For them, even when the perpetrator is punished by law, they as adoptees are left to live the consequences with NO recognition of what they’ve had to endure. There is NO justice for them.
Please read Roopali’s story. Hers is an example of living the lifelong consequences of an adoption in which it appears her first parents did not voluntarily consent, nor was she a true orphan, and she was old enough to be listened to and given a choice. Her story gives voice to the extra challenges endured directly as a result of having been “trafficked” to some degree. She was brave enough to share her story to the Australian Government with ICAV in 2015 when we met the Prime Minister’s Senior Advisors. There was not a single dry eye in the room, we were all so affected by the obvious trauma she endures day to day. Trafficking of vulnerable children via intercountry adoption needs to stop!
I hope Roopali’s story encourages others to speak out and demand from their governments that action towards legal recognition of “trafficking” via intercountry adoption AND restorative justice needs to occur.
By Sunny Reed
With the popularity of This is Us and the New York Times story about the black baby swapped out for a white one, it’s valuable to take a look at adoption’s portrayal in popular media.
In both my work-in-progress and on my blog, I take a retrospective look at the paucity of adoption resources – both professional and general – to paint a bigger picture of what led people to adopt a child outside their race and country. Today’s article focuses on how Russia and China’s portrayals in the media affected an adoptive parent’s decision to adopt.
Framing Adoption:_The Media and Parental Decision Making
Prospective parents perform research during the adoption process, often based on articles released by popular news media outlets. Jacobson revealed prospective parents’ reactions to these articles and how news stories impacted their decision to adopt.
- Russian mass-media stories are portrayed more negatively than Chinese ones
- Russian adoption is reported on more frequently than Chinese
- Negative Chinese adoption stories focused more on logistics than on the child’s potential mental health issues
- Since the prospective parents interviewed for Jacobson’s study were coming to adoption after risky infertility situation, they showed a desire to avoid additional risk
A certain amount of skepticism is healthy when approaching the decision to adopt a child not your own; after all, it is a huge decision, one impacting the life of a child who had no choice. The author found that, regardless of each news article’s overall tone, the general conclusion she made was that adopting a child into a loving home is fine, but prospective parents may be treading on dangerous political ground.
When adoption becomes politicized, there’s a tendency to dehumanize the child. The child is not a political pawn, some poor waif smuggled out of a war-torn country into a loving home. When media articles portray adoption this way, the child’s developing identity is negatively impacted by these prejudices. Not only may the adoptive parents, despite their best efforts, absorb these damaging viewpoints, but inevitably people less emotionally invested in the adoptee will undoubtedly, without any other frame of reference, use these articles as a way to formulate opinions on the topic of adoption.
Adoptive parents reported being influenced by these articles, some mentioning reports that Russian babies have more attachment issues than Chinese led them to adopting a Chinese baby. This is disturbing, because many adoptees are noted to have attachment issues; it’s not a country-based phenomenon. As Jacobson points out, “the majority of adoptees from both China and Russia have experienced institutionalization that can have serious consequences for child outcomes.” Many of us adult intercountry adoptees reading this can attest to this reality.
Other intercountry adoptive parents used the articles they read, as justification against domestic adoption and in preference for intercountry adoption. They would read of stories featuring local biological parents looking for their child and wanting them back. As reported in the research, in their minds as adoptive parents, this would be intolerable as many experienced their own suffering via infertility or stillbirths.
The views expressed in Jacobson’s research reflect the adoptive parent-centric nature of adoption; the adoptive parents consume the media, the adoptive parents make the ultimate decision to adopt. Obviously adoptive parents need some way to inform their decisions, but slightly concerning is that racial features overrode Russian adoption risks. Adoptive parents persisted in Russian adoptions despite warnings, because they were eager to obtain a child bearing a closer racial resemblance to their own. We need to question that decision, because appearance cannot predict a child’s future outcome.
As transracial and intercountry adoptees, it’s our duty to remain alert to these news articles and ensure the mass media fairly portrays our struggles and political representation. If they don’t, it’s our responsibility to cut through the emotionally-driven bias toward adoption by producing articles that provide balanced accounts.
I grew up on a dairy farm in rural Minnesota. Minnesota is a state, located in the north central region of the United States and borders Canada. Most people do not know the most northern point of the lower 48 states is located in Minnesota. It should be no surprise to learn Minnesota ranks in the top ten states for being the coldest and having the most snowfall. The Minnesota winters are known for dumping heavy wet blankets of lake-effect snow and its frigid temperatures.
If you live in a Northern climate, you gain experiences that only those who live in that region can understand. One learns to watch the weather the night before to know if one should plug in their car so the radiator will not freeze overnight. You learn to bundle up in loose layers to keep out the cold. As kids you learn not to lick metal surfaces when its below freezing otherwise you freeze your tongue on the object licked. Lastly, one learns to never eat yellow snow.
The straw stain that pops out against the white background is the recording of a human or animal’s presence as they relieve themselves in the great outdoors. This mustard stain that violates the white backdrop symbolizes discarded waste and something that is disgusting. Waste of course, is thrown away because it has no value. Garbage is ugly to look at and is an eyesore to the beauty that surrounds us. We put a lot of effort to hide, throw away and rid ourselves of trash. This is the way I felt during my childhood. I lived a childhood where I was taught I had no importance or value. I was the real living breathing ugly duckling. Worse yet, I was Asian. I symbolized that urine yellow stain in the snow.
The counselor at school insisted I take an IQ test and even though I tested a couple of deviations above the norm, I was placed in a “special” class. In the 5 years I was forced to attend this class, I befriended a boy named Raymond. The general public knew Raymond was intellectually disabled. My friend’s face seemed distorted, his pants seemed bulky due to the diaper he wore and his gait could be described as a stumbling walk. Many children mad fun of Raymond’s speech, his simple, s-l-o-w, slurred replies were the brunt of many jokes. I refused to partake in the taunts because I learned Raymond was a human being and like myself, he had feelings and ideas of his own.
After spending “special” classes with him for nearly 5 years, we grew to become great friends. I learned that Raymond loved collecting baseball cards and he would bring extra candy to class to share with me. Some people have asked me whether attending this special program hamper my intellectual growth. It may have but it also allowed me to learn a valuable life lesson. I learned to have compassion for all people. Black, white, yellow, tan, brown … the color of people did not matter. I believe that individuals who have a strong support network can do anything. Nothing can limit an individual in obtaining their dreams and goals. Little did I realize that Raymond and I had much more in common. Like Raymond, I also had to cope with being different, stared at and labeled as an outsider by society.
There was a kid that tormented me on the school bus. He was in high school and I was in first grade. It started out with threats and then it turned into gut punches. He hated me for being Asian. I hid this shame to myself and it was exposed when he took a permanent marker and used it to spell “gook” and “chink” on my face. The physical torment continued on when I entered high school. I endured an occasional punch, oratory lashings, and the constant fear that I would get beaten up. A kid several grades below me would twist my tiny frame into a pretzel on the long journey on the yellow school bus. My thin, waifish 16 year old Asian 100lb frame was no match for his 6ft 2in frame. He was the corn-fed farmer’s son who took pleasure in bending my small frame into a pretzel in the back of the bus. I was forced to feel the shame alone. I felt helpless, emasculated, and humiliated.
I felt further castrated by being taught that I was undatable. I was no match for the jocks. They were strong and good looking. I didn’t belong to the geeks because they were at least smart. I was the outsider to the outsiders. Being raised on a dairy farm meant I had to pull my weight with the chores. I had to carry heavy bushel baskets full of feed through manure covered feed lots and clean the calf pens each morning. I was the target of hate as I arrived to school with a distinct smell of cow faeces. I was the smelly kid in class because my adoptive parents did not allow me to shower before arriving to school. Then to add insult to injury, I was also the brunt of all fashion jokes. I often wore old “hand-me-downs”, garage sale and KMART specials. Needless to say, I was not popular at school.
Not only did I feel belittled but I also felt stupid. I had poor grades. I often fell asleep in class and also at night when I did my homework. My parents never helped me with my homework and without a tutor or a peer to study with, I had nobody to learn from. Many nights I stared into the blank pages of my text books and wondered about the meanings of the literary works or the simple algebraic equations. Nothing made sense to me.
Fear gripped the depths of my soul. Fear of the unknown. Fear for my own future. Later on, when I became an adult I learnt the proper name of the fear that prevented me from doing just about anything. This thing that had a chokehold on my life was called anxiety. My adopted parents described this behavior as being wimpy.
When I did overcome my fears, my behavior could be described as socially awkward. I didn’t know how to act around people because I had little interactions. Other times I would ramble and stay glued to a person because I was so starved for attention. No matter what the scenario, I would act inappropriately and my parents would later reprimand me verbally for my short comings. I never had a chance to be a kid or do simple things such as go to movies, watch popular TV shows, or hang out with friends. It was never an option. I was lacking in personal skills because I was isolated. I had no identity. I was simply a small kid alone in this big world.
My adoptive parents never thought to teach me about my Korean heritage. It never occurred to them to buy me a book about my ethnic origins. When I inquired, they refused to allow me to look at my own adoption paperwork. I was reminded I was American and told to be grateful. I was only taught about their Scandinavian roots. Racial issues that I brought up were immediately dismissed. It was met with the question of what I might have done to provoke someone or it was replied that this was a part of life and I had to toughen up. They called it “tough love”.
When they sicked the dog on me and howled with laughter when the dog tore into my flesh, it was supposedly done out of love too. I never felt like their child. Then again, most parents don’t do these things to their kids. Furthermore, society did not view us as a family either. The mismatch of large, looming Caucasian parents and tiny Asian children looked like the giant bearded lady and dwarf in a circus freak show. I felt awkward showing my face in public. People gawked at us when we entered the room. Our strangeness gave total strangers the courage to walk up and pry into my personal life asking questions like, “Hey are you getting married to your own kind? Are you Chinese? Japanese? Vietnamese?” I have even been mistaken to be Native American, Mexican, and Eskimo. Nobody in Minnesota seemed to know of the existance of a group of people called Koreans. With all this questioning and odd looks I wondered as a child if I was the only Korean left alive on God’s green earth?
A guidance counselor in my high school year was blunt with me when I walked into his office for the mandatory visit. I answered truthfully when he asked me what I wanted to do after high school. I told him I wanted to attend college and work in healthcare. The man told me in a stern voice that I was not college material and that I would steal an opportunity away from someone more deserving. I wondered if he would have said the same things to a Caucasian boy with poor grades? Did he take into consideration the hand I was dealt as child of being bullied, thrusted into child labor and a person who had all self esteem pummeled out of him? I have always wondered why he never offered any encouragement. Isn’t this what guidance counselors are supposed to do? To give individuals the best route towards the goals they were aiming for? Like the rest of the community I grew up in, he saw no value in me. But I ignored all the negativity I faced through out my childhood and focused on achieving everything said to be impossible.
The best way that I could explain my childhood was to compare it to a prison. A small, cold dirty Mexican prison. I was isolated from people. I was not allowed to pursue things I was curious about. My life was filled with hard manual labor, misery, abuse and filth. Despite these beginnings and the statistical chance of being successful, I persevered. I took remedial college course and taught myself how to write simple sentences. I studied evenings and learned the math I was unfamiliar with. I observed people and learned to shed my social awkwardness. I opened myself up to possibilities and fell in love. After several attempts, I married and was blessed with two wonderful children. I earned five degrees and two were graduate degrees from a reputable university. I traveled to more than 40 countries across the globe. One of the countries I visited was my birth country and I found my biological family. I have dined with presidents and met with dignitaries. I can say that I have had a fruitful life and entered into a profession as the CFO of hospitals.
I hope in telling my story, I can encourage others to take steps to push away their fears. I experienced numerous years of conditioning from others saying I was not good enough, strong enough or capable. I encourage everyone to break free from the chains of violence, hate, and anger. I tried as hard as they did in breaking me and I reached for the impossible. I made it despite the odds!
I encourage you to take a chance on yourself. You are worth the wait!
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.