by Maars, taken from the Philippines to Canada. You can follow Maars @BlackSheepMaars
Birthdays are hard for an adoptee.
It’s a reminder of the day I was given life. It’s a reminder of what a mother and father could only dream up for me.
However in adoption, those dreams are short-lived and someone else dreams a new one for me, but it’s never guaranteed. Not all dreams carry the same intention and love and that’s true in a lot of ways for me having lost my birth parents.
But now I dream for myself, and that’s me reclaiming myself.
As I reflect on today, what 34 years has been, I still grieve that baby with that smile, how much she didn’t know would be ahead of her. How much loss and grief she’d have to overcome as the years passed and the loss of all that she was born with.
I wish I could have saved her. I wish I could have saved her from all the painful moments she’d face, and I could have held her for every time she wailed for her birth parents. I wish I was able to guarantee her that one day, she’d find all her pieces again and that it would come with a different type of grief. I wish I knew how to be there for her.
Today, I wish for her and myself, that baby Maars and myself may continue to heal the wounds she no longer needs to hold onto. I wish that she can find peace and happiness in the present.
Some things I never get over, some things will always find its way to surface. Some things will heal over time.
by Maya Fleischmann, a transracial adoptee born in Hong Kong, adopted into a Jewish Russian adoptive family. Author of the fictional book Finding Ching Ha, A Novel.
“The more you know yourself, the more clarity there is. Self-knowledge has no end – you don’t come to an achievement, you don’t come to a conclusion. It is an endless river.”
The journey of self-discovery
This quest to discover who we really are is the stuff that novels and movies are made of. Though our self-perception transforms with time, events, social, and physical settings that alter our connectedness with different people, groups, and places, the foundation upon which we build our identity remains the same (although the perception of historical events can change). As an intercultural adoptee, my unknown beginnings have been an unstable bedrock in the explorations of my identity.
Who am I? In 1972, I was adopted by a Russian Jewish expat couple living in Hong Kong. I was three, or maybe four years old (my adoptive parents had told me both ages, so I am going by my fake birth certificate that was issued four years after my date of birth, also listed on the same certificate). I was raised in a household that observed Jewish traditions as well as Chinese and Russian holidays, such as Chinese New Year, and Russian Easter and Christmas. We also celebrated holidays, such as Boxing Day and the Queen’s birthday, that were observed by my British school and the-then-British Crown Colony of Hong Kong. Memories of my years before four are a blur of nightmares and dreams, memories and fantasies. I am not sure which is which anymore, which is why I wrote Finding Ching Ha, my novel about a Chinese girl who is adopted by a Russian Jewish couple, as fiction.
Where am I from?
I remember asking my parents this question once, maybe twice, in their lifetime. I remember the way they looked at me, eyes large, teeth digging into lips, fingers fidgeting with imaginary dirt under nails, and them looking away. It conjured an awkwardness and angst, as though I had caught them having sex, that I didn’t broach the topic of my Chinese ancestry with them again. I didn’t ask, and they never did tell me, what, or if, they knew of my past.
Although my multi-cultural background was a conversation starter for as long as I can remember; my lack of foundation, and my insecurities about my unknown origins, made it difficult for me to respond to the questions and comments that I encountered. I was always flummoxed by perceptions and judgements people made that negated my beginnings, my history, my life. “Oh, you’re not Jewish if you haven’t been bat mitzvahed.” “You’re not really Chinese if you don’t speak Chinese.” “Your adoptive parents’ Russian history isn’t your heritage, because they’re not your real parents.” “Aren’t you a lucky little girl to have been adopted?” “Who knows what your background is?” And each remark about my identity was made as nonchalantly to me as if they were recommending a menu item, “Oh, don’t order the soup. You won’t like it.”
Growing up with all these pronouncements made me wonder about my identity – or lack thereof. If I wasn’t entitled to my Chinese heritage because I had been adopted out of it, and I wasn’t entitled to partake in any ownership of my parents’ history because I wasn’t born into it, then who exactly was I? Where did I belong? Even the British (albeit Hong Kong British) identity I embraced the most as a child, disappeared in 1997 during the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China.
At an early age, the answer was for me to disown my Chinese background. More and more I noticed my Chinese face in the synagogue, and social circles filled with Westerners, or at the parties where everyone who looked like me was serving food or washing dishes. And, with this awareness, came annoyance and shame about being Chinese, not fitting into the country of my birth, nor into the home of my new family. Even as an adult, I shied away from organizations that were based on my ethnicity, lest I be asked, “how can you be born and raised in Hong Kong, be Chinese, and not speak Cantonese?” Instead, I joined groups and made friends based on common interests like reading, writing, or parenthood.
As the base of experience in life grew, I became more comfortable in my sense of self, as well as the subject of my missing self. With Finding Ching Ha, I struggled to convey how Ching Ha assimilated into the different cultures of her new life. Writing this made me realize that my own childhood shame and self doubt, the triggers to unidentifiable emotions, and my angst in eking out an identity in the mosaic of cultures, were real and challenging. Writing the novel helped me make sense of my own emotions growing up and come to terms with some of these complexities.
Who am I today?
I’m in my fifties now. The sense of being ungrounded has faded. I have created a family history with my own husband and children. My feng-shui’d household is infused with traditions and stories from Russian and Chinese cultures, the Jewish traditions, and a sprinkle of Buddhist and Stoic insights for good measure. Still, in a culture filled with contentious conversations about race, where boundaries are so clearly defined, even when there are many people of mixed race, I find myself still wondering about my past — especially when I fill out medical forms inquiring about family history. So, a week ago, I decided to take a DNA test. Perhaps I can learn about my genetic makeup, and glean insight into current and future medical conditions, or get confirmation that I am 100% Chinese. Ultimately, my deep desire is to find someone, or something, that will quell the dream and voice that wonders if there is someone looking for me.
If in two weeks the DNA results reveal nothing new, I won’t be too disappointed because I have found familiarity in the unanswered questions. Though there will be no one to tell me the tale of my origins, my journey of self discovery will continue, for I am the writer for the rest of my story.
Mabuhay and good morning! My name is Hope and I’m joining you from Knoxville, Tennessee, in the southeastern United States. Thank you to ICAB for inviting me to be a part of the Global Consultation on international adoption. I am grateful to access the post-adoption resources of ICAB, which have been significant in my process to reconnect to my birth family. I emphasize that my story and reflection today are my own and am not speaking for the lived experiences of other adoptees. I hope everyone who listens to our testimonies today will be open to various perspectives on adoption as it influences us across our lifespan.
I was born in Manila in December 1983 and in July 1984, I was flown from the Philippines with my social worker, to meet my adoptive parents and six year old sister who was adopted from Korea. We had an idyllic, quiet suburban life, my mom was a housewife and my dad was a geologist, who often traveled around the country. Our family most likely would have relocated west to accommodate my dad’s work but we never left Tennessee. My dad had juvenile diabetes and developed pneumonia and passed away three days before my 1st birthday. My mother, a polio survivor, which left her with nonuse of her right arm, was suddenly a single mother of two small children without nearby relatives. The unresolved grief of losing my father reverberated through our family for years through the emotional withdrawal of my sister, who was very close to our dad .. to my mother who cycled into prescription drug abuse so deeply at times she was unable to look after me and my sister. As for me, I oscillated from the role of comic relief to absorb tensions between my sister and mother to self-regulating my own emotions by hoarding food as a child and bottling up my emotions, to make myself scarce and small. While I grew up in a home that verbalized love, I now recognize patterns of neglect and codependency that impacted my development. I was also raised in the era of the early 90’s where social norms and media reinforced color blindness rather than offer race as an opportunity to discuss and celebrate unique cultural diversity.
Unlike the large Filipino communities in California, there was little diversity where I was raised, as the majority of my school and community was white with a few Black students. I was one of three Asian students and we were all adopted. Rather than gravitate towards each other, we leaned into different friend groups as a natural part of assimilation. Of the three of us, I was more quiet and painfully shy, which made me an easy target of bullying. At the age of seven, I was called the “N” word on the school bus. I was told my mother gave birth to me in a rice paddy. Ironically, at the return of the school year in Fall, girls would flock to touch my skin and ask how I got so dark. Those times, I was so proud of my dark skin and I never learned about colorism until I was an adult. Eventually the bullying declined until after the attack of the twin towers on 11 September 2001, where racism resurfaced and another student told me to get blown up with the rest of my people. In response, my teacher made me hug the other student because at 17, “he was just a boy”. My family’s response was to remind me that I am American as though that alone is enough armour to withstand and deflect the verbal violence. I internalized so much shame of being different, which I equated to less than, that I became complicit in my own cultural erasure and plummeting self esteem.
As a young adult, I struggled with milestones that came naturally to my peers. I failed most classes in high school but my principal liked me and let me graduate on time. I dropped out of college without a vision of who I wanted to be by 21. I ended a six year relationship and engagement and couldn’t hold down a job by 23. I was active in the evangelical church but was told by elders that my depression and suicidal ideation resulted from my lack of faith. Eventually, I gained experience by working with children. I went back to college at age 27 while working multiple jobs and was accepted into the occupational therapy assistant program, where I gained mental health tools and later graduated with honors and delivered the graduation speech.
As an outlet from my busy college and work schedule I enjoyed going to the movies alone and in 2016, I saw a movie that was the catalyst for my journey to find my heritage. Lion is a movie about the real life Saroo Brierly, who was raised by his adoptive Australian parents and eventually reunited with his first mother in India. As Saroo is gathered in his first mother’s arms, a dam of emotions broke within me, primarily guilt that somehow I had misplaced the memory of my first mother. Something deep within me, awakened as I witnessed this tug of war on his emotions, played out on a cinema screen. I saw a mirror that illuminated myself as he ran interference between two worlds that rarely saw him and the complexities of adoption and how he was left to reconcile this unbearable weight alone.
Reclaiming my Philippine Heritage
I began my journey to reclaim my Philippine heritage through my name. For the last four years, I’ve transitioned from my adoptive name Hope back to my birth name Arlynn which is Gaelic for “oath, pledge”. It feels empowering to return to something that I now know for certain was given to me by my first mother. Before I formally began my search into my history, I told my sister, who supported my decision. It was several months before I asked my mom if she knew any other details about my birth family other than from the correspondence that she had given to me in a binder. I felt I had to protect her feelings as if me wanting to suddenly know about my first family would hurt her. She told me there was no other information. Later, I would find out that was a lie.
Throughout my life, my mother continued to struggle with her misuse of prescription pain medication. As a child, I recall my mother pointing out which medication bottles she used in case she didn’t wake up for me to call the police. At times, I slept on the floor by her room to ensure she was still breathing. I was 32 when she required hospital intervention for withdrawal symptoms, she told me in her anger that she wished she had left me in my birth country. It hurt more than if she had slapped me because she never lashed out about my adoption when I was younger. I walked out of her room feeling like I lost another parent.
Eventually, my childhood home was sold and my mom went to a nursing home for care following a brain hemorrhage. My sister and I recovered our mom’s safe deposit box at her local bank, which unbeknownst to me held my full case study. My sister told me I was never supposed to know and our mom made her promise not to tell me, when she was younger. I sat alone in my car sobbing as I read the name of my first father for the first time as he was not listed on my birth certificate, which I always had access to growing up. It detailed how my parents had seven children and five of them died during childhood from sickness. My parents separated while my father stayed with their surviving children and my mother stayed with her nephew refusing to reconcile with my father not knowing she was pregnant with me. Over time, my mother began to wander away from home and was institutionalised. After I was born she wondered away from home again and found singing to herself. After my birth, I was recommended to be placed at a temporary child shelter as my mother was unable to care for me. A purple thumb print in lieu of a signature directed her deed of surrender for me to the social welfare authorities.
Searching for Biological Family
Thanks to the resources of ICAB and Facebook, I was able to locate my surviving brother and sister and learned that my birth parents have passed on. In early 2021, I was able to find my first mother’s relatives including her only surviving sister. I’m still astonished and grateful that my siblings and extended family have embraced me and I ache with the longing to meet them, to be touched by my people. Before the pandemic I had goals to travel to the Philippines, but during the closing economy, I lost two of my jobs, my mental health suffered from the isolation of living alone during the lockdown, and I eventually lost my housing, and the money that was raised by friends and family to go to the Philippines had to keep me from living in my car, until I could stay with friends. Since last November, I’ve been able to gain a full time job and this summer, I found a therapist, also a transracial adoptee and she has been working with me to process my grief and the survivor’s guilt I’ve felt knowing I somehow outlived many of my siblings. As I slowly rebuild my life, a renewed energy to return one day to my motherland to meet my siblings motivates me further.
While my quest to reclaim my motherland, my lost language, and my siblings has carried profound heartache, there has been tremendous joy in connecting with my nieces who are teaching me Waray Waray and Tagalog phrases. I have curated my social media so the algorithms draw me toward other Filipino adoptees, artists, writers, and healers. This past December, I turned 37, which was the same age as when my first mother had me. On my birthday, I was able to meet with a Baybaylan priest who prayed over me and my ancestors. During all this time since I rediscovered by case study, I was trying to grapple with the grief and at the very end, he began crying. We cried together and that small, kind gesture touched me so deeply because for the first time I felt like someone was sitting with me in my grief, and it was so intimate becauseI felt truly seen in that moment and worthy of love.
Thoughts for Adoption Professionals
The practices of the adoption industry have changed drastically over the years since I was adopted. I hope that the conversations around adoption continue to shift toward adoptees to include our stories that illuminate this wide continuum of lived experiences that point not only to the good or bad experiences but hold them all to a critical lens by adoption professionals. I hope practitioners of this industry recognize and acknowledge the degree to which trauma from early child separation from our first mothers and the role of assimilation and the loss of cultural association impacts adoptees. Are prospective parents trained in this and also in grief counselling? Consider looking toward practices which ensure family preservation, if possible. If adoption is granted, how will you ensure that a child has resources to find community if they live in places not culturally diverse? How will they find community? A final question for reflection: when a child is relinquished from your country, what practices will be ensured to support that adoptee who wants to return to their country of origin, without that person to feel like an outsider, a tourist, or intruder?
I have a short video of a photo collage I created that spans across my life from the time I was a baby ’til now.
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:
1 / 9
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 Kara Bos, born in South Korea and adopted to the USA.Kara became the first Korean intercountry adoptee to fight legally and win paternity rights to her Korean father.
Almost one year ago it was confirmed that 오익규 was my father. It’s the first time I’ve publicly shared my father’s name.
As I walk under these beautiful Cherry Blossoms and appreciate their beauty my heart continues to attempt to mend after being shattered into a million pieces over the course of one year. The confirmation in DNA in knowing who my father was, brought a sense of victory when I was constantly faced with uncertainty and being told I was wrong. The continued lack of communication, inhumane treatment and not allowing me to meet my father by his family pushed me to fight back, and reclaim my identity.
June 12th, 2020 marked the date that I was recognised by Korean law that 오익교 was my father, and I was added into his family registry as 오카라, which should have been done back in 1981 when I was born. This again was a victory of reclaiming what was lost, justice rectified. I was no longer an orphan, with parents unknown, and no identity. However, my one and only meeting will forever be etched into my memory and heart as a horror movie. One filled with regret and what if’s….as I found out later, from August he was taken to the hospital and stayed there until his death on December 3rd, 2020 (86 yrs).
If I hadn’t filed the lawsuit in November 2019, I wouldn’t have known in April 2020 that he was my father, I would never have met him and I wouldn’t know now that he has passed.
Even if this heart break has been immense, at least I know … that’s what it means to be adopted.
by Erika Fonticoli, born in Colombia adopted to Italy.
What are brothers and sisters? For me, they are small or big allies of all or no battle. In the course of my life I realised that a brother or a sister can be the winning weapon against every obstacle that presents itself and, at the same time, that comforting closeness that we feel even when there is no battle to fight. A parent can do a lot for their children: give love, support, protection, but there are things we would never tell a parent. And… what about a brother? There are things in my life I’ve never been able to tell anyone, and although I’ve had a love-hate relationship with my sister since childhood, there’s nothing of me that she doesn’t know about.
At the worst moment of my life, when I was so hurt and I started to be afraid to trust the world, she was the hand I grabbed among a thousand others. We are two totally different people, maybe we have only playfulness and DNA in common, but she still remains the person from whom I feel more understood and supported. I love my adoptive parents, I love my friends, but she, she’s the other part of me. Sometimes we are convinced that the power of a relationship depends on the duration of it or the amount of experiences lived together. Yeah, well.. I did not share many moments with my sister, it was not an easy relationship ours, but every time I needed it she was always at my side. I didn’t have to say anything or ask for help, she heard it and ran to me.
And the brothers found as adults? Can we say that they are worth less? I was adopted at the age of 5, with my sister who was 7 yo. For 24 years I believed I had only one other version of myself, her. Then, during the search of my origins, I discovered that I had two other brothers, little younger than me. My first reaction was shock, confusion, denial. Emotion, surprise and joy followed. Finally, to these emotions were added bewilderment and fear of being rejected by them. After all, they didn’t even know we existed, my big sister and I were strangers for them. So… how could I possibly introduce myself? I asked myself that question at least a hundred times until, immersed in a rich soup of emotions, I decided to jump. I felt within myself the irrepressible need to know them, to see them, to speak to them. It was perhaps the most absurd thing I’ve ever experienced. “Hello, nice to meet you, I’m your sister!”, I wrote to them.
Thinking about it now makes me laugh, and yet at the time I thought it was such a nice way to know each other. My younger sister, just as I feared, rejected me, or perhaps rejected the idea of having two more sisters that she had never heard of. The first few months with her were terrible, hard and full of swinging emotions, driven both by her desire to have other sisters and by her distrust of believing that it was real. It wasn’t easy, for her I was a complete stranger and yet she had the inexplicable feeling of being tied to me, the feeling of wanting me in her life without even knowing who I was. She was rejecting me and yet she wasn’t be able to not look for me, she’d look at me like I was something to study, because she was shocked that she looked so much like someone else she had never seen for 23 years.
With my brother it was totally different, he called me “sister” right away. We talked incessantly from the start, sleepless nights to tell each other, discovering little by little to be two drops of water. He was my brother from the first moment. But how is possible? I don’t know. When I set off to meet them, headed to the other side of the world, it all seemed so crazy to me. I kept telling myself: “What if they don’t like me?”, and I wondered what it would feel like to find myself face to face with them. The answer? For me, it was not a knowing each other for the first time, it was a seeing them again. Like when you move away and you don’t see your family for a long time, then when you come home to see them again you feel moved and run to hug them. This was my first moment with them! A moment of tears, an endless embrace, followed by a quick return playful and affectionate as if life had never separated us even for a day.
So… are they worth less? Is my relationship with them less intense and authentic than that with my sister, with whom I grew up? No. I thought I had another half of me, now I feel like I have three. I see one of them every day, I constantly hear the other two for messages or video calls. There are things in my life that I can’t tell anyone, things that only my three brothers know, and in the hardest moments of my life now I have three hands that I would grab without thinking about it. I love my family, my adoptive parents and my biological mom, but my siblings are the part of my heart I couldn’t live without. Having them in my life fills me with joy, but having two of them so far from me digs a chasm inside me that often turns into a cry of lack and nostalgia. Tears behind which lie the desire to share with them all the years that have been taken from us, experiences and fraternal moments that I have lived with them for only twenty days in Colombia.
As I said earlier, in my opinion, it doesn’t matter the duration of a relationship nor the amount of experiences lived together but the quality… that said, even those rare moments to us seem a dream still unrealisable. In the most important and delicate periods of our lives we often feel overwhelmed by helplessness and the impossibility of supporting each other, because unfortunately a word of comfort is not always enough. We can write to each other, call each other, but nothing will ever replace the warmth of a hug when you feel that your heart is suffering.
In the most painful and traumatic phase of my younger sister’s life, when she started to be afraid of the world, when she thought she deserved only kicks and insults, when she thought she had no one, I wrote to her. I wrote to her every day, worried and sorrowful, and as much as I tried to pass on my love and closeness to her, I felt I couldn’t do enough. I felt helpless and useless, I felt that there was nothing I could do for her, because when I felt crushed by life it was my older sister’s embrace that made me feel protected. And that’s what my little sister wanted at that moment, a hug from me, something so small and simple that I couldn’t give it to her because the distance prevented me from do it. And neither could our brother because he also grew up far away, in another family. I didn’t know what to do, how I could help her, she was scared and hurt. I wanted her to come live with me, her and my little nephew, so I could take care of them and help them in the most difficult moment of their lives. I’ve been looking into it for months, search after search, and then finding out that despite the DNA test recognised that we’re sisters, the world didn’t.
Legally, we were still a complete strangers, just like when we first spoke.
I would like the law to give the possibility to siblings separated from adoption to be reunited if this is the desire of both, that the law allows us to enjoy those rights that only a familial bond offers. We didn’t decide to split up, it was chosen for us, but we don’t want to blame anyone for it. We just wish we had a chance to spend the rest of our lives as a family, a sentimental and legal family for all intents and purposes. It must not be an obligation for everyone, but an opportunity for those biological brothers whose bond has survived. A chance for us perfect strangers who, in spite of everything, call ourselves family. Maybe someone will find themselves in what I felt and I’m still feeling, maybe someone else won’t, but precisely because every story is different I think there should be a chance of a happy ending for everyone. Mine would be to have my brothers back.
Nous ne choisissons pas de naître Nous ne choisissons pas d’être adopté.e
par Thomas Zemikaele SJ né eb Ethiopie et élevé en France. English translation here.
Comme à des milliers de personnes adoptées, une des nombreuses questions qui m’a été posée fut “Tu viens d’où ?” Ma réponse commençait invariablement de la même manière : “Je viens de loin. Et même de très loin.” Car psychologiquement, géographiquement, et comme beaucoup de personnes, je (re)viens de loin.
Longtemps et plutôt inconsciemment, j’ai considéré que j’avais eu de la chance. La chance d’avoir été choisi, malgré tout, la chance d’avoir pu être sauvé. C’était une loyauté implicite. Mais tout aussi inconsciemment et en parallèle, une part de moi ressentait fermement que c’était et que c’est en réalité un faux sujet que cette loyauté. Une approche et une lecture pernicieuses même.
Aujourd’hui, je le dis sans hésitation et sans trembler : en tant que personne adoptée, nous ne devons absolument rien. Je dis bien : absolument rien. Pourtant, mon propre parcours me ferait dire, et ferait dire volontiers, que je suis supposé devoir quelque chose, la survie. Sauf que je ne suis pas responsable de ce qui s’est produit. Avoir été adopté n’est pas, de mon point de vue, et ne peut pas être fondamentalement avoir été sauvé. Alors que c’est exactement ce que les autres entendaient lorsque je leur disais d’où je venais ; ils entendaient que j’avais été sauvé (grâce à l’adoption). Mais s’ils m’avaient bien écouté, ils auraient surtout entendu autre chose, ce que j’avais pourtant clairement dit : j’ai survécu. La nuance est de taille.
Car oui, il serait plus exact de dire que j’ai survécu. J’ai survécu car même en ayant souffert moralement et physiquement, en touchant du doigt la solitude glaçante, en ayant ressenti la peur, l’inconfort, en ayant été immergé dans une obscurité où la mort n’était pas bien loin, j’ai tenu. J’ai tenu car mon père biologique avait été là, juste un peu avant que je ne fasse l’expérience de la laideur du monde. Il avait fait en sorte que je survive. De lui, oui, je pourrais dire qu’il m’a sauvé. Oui. Et s’il y a bien un autre être à qui je dois quelque chose, un sentiment, une chaleur, c’est à ma mère, celle qui a dû supporter l’impensable pour une mère : accepter et continuer de vivre sans son premier enfant. Elle non plus n’a pas choisi.
Systématiquement, chaque fois que je songe à ces décennies perdues, gâchées par le hasard et les circonstances, gâchées par l’incompétence de certains incapables, ma gorge se noue et je dois m’efforcer de retenir et mes larmes et mes cris. Si je m’autorisais à flancher, une seconde, juste une seconde, on me prendrait pour un fou. Je dois à mon père les risques qu’il a pris et fait prendre aux autres, sur plus de 1000 kilomètres pour ne pas que je succombe. Non, ni mes parents, ni ma terre, ni moi, n’avons véritablement choisi tout ce qui a suivi.
Bien sûr, je peux être respectueux de ce que j’ai eu par la suite, des soins, de l’éducation, du toit qui n’a pas toujours été protecteur et apaisant, je peux être respectueux pour l’assiette pleine. J’ai été et je suis respectueux mais pas redevable. Je ne dois rien. Car je n’ai rien demandé, j’ai accepté. Accepté de vivre. Mais ce qui m’avait été promis, ce qui avait été promis au travers du deal de l’adoption, je ne l’ai pas vraiment eu, loin de là. J’ai subi d’autres pertes, mon sourire s’est fait plus rare, mes rires ont disparu, beaucoup trop tôt, mes douleurs ne se sont pas toutes envolées. Ma flamme intérieure a continué de vaciller sous les vents de l’existence et des névroses d’adultes. La sécurité, la paix, ne parlons même pas du bonheur, je ne les ai pas vraiment eus. J’ai fait avec. Ou plutôt sans.
Mais “ça va” ! Combien de fois a-t-on éludé des questions derrière ce “ça va” alors que rien n’allait. Bref beaucoup de choses sont désormais claires dans mon esprit, je ne négocie plus ni implicitement ni ouvertement. Tous comme certains de mes souvenirs enfouis jusqu’ici, ma colère se libère. Une colère froide, une colère qui n’emprisonne plus, une colère qui n’aveugle plus. Une colère que je pense être légitime. Je n’avais pas compris. Je ne comprenais pas. Je n’avais pas digéré.
De nombreux témoignages loin d’être anecdotiques, et pourtant on continue de présenter l’adoption comme une chance, un cadeau. Mais à bien y réfléchir, NOUS SOMMES le cadeau. Nous n’avons reçu aucun cadeau et n’en recevons toujours aucun. Sauf à considérer que le fardeau de la survie soit un vrai cadeau. Nous avons perdu et continuons parfois à perdre au fil du temps. Clairement, nous sommes offerts à des destinées hasardeuses, et rien ne nous est offert. Pas même parfois l’amour désintéressé, non égocentré, le véritable amour, et pas même l’écoute. Nous comblons des manques, des carences, mais nos propres manques et nos doutes sont parfois démultipliés, confirmés, nourris. Nous sommes supposés dire “merci” alors que ce sont des “pardon” que l’on devrait nous dire, sans manipulation. Nous sommes parfois considérés comme illégitimes alors que ce sont les conditions de l’adoption, ses modalités, qui sont parfois manifestement illégales, illégitimes. Et il arrive même que ce soit notre “nouvelle famille” qui soit en réalité complètement illégitime. Illégitime quant au droit qu’elle est persuadée d’avoir sur notre mental et sur notre corps, et quelquefois sur les deux en même temps. La légitimité est de notre côté. Nous ne sommes plus des enfants, et nous avons aussi, d’une certaine manière, je le crois, une responsabilité vis-à-vis des petits, des jeunes, des adolescents dont on croit qu’ils sont juste en crise d’adolescence ; une responsabilité aussi pour ces adultes dont la parole continue d’être niée, caricaturée, décrédibilisée, minorée. Nous ne choisissons pas de naître. N’oubliez jamais, qui que vous soyez, que nous ne choisissons pas non plus d’être adopté.e.
J’ai vécu mon arrivée et mon “adoption” avec la sensation profonde d’émerger d’un long cauchemar, d’un monde sans sons, sans saveurs, fait simplement de peurs et de douleurs. Comme un véritable moment de renaissance inversé. Ce n’était pas une “adoption” à mon sens, ce n’était pas ma “nouvelle” famille, c’était ma famille. Sans forcément être heureux, j’étais à la fois fasciné mais surtout apaisé. Comme si enfin je déposais les armes après une éternité faite d’instants d’hypervigilance. J’étais apaisé lorsque je me suis retrouvé devant mon père “adoptif”. Oui, bien qu’épuisé par le voyage et l’intensité des instants, j’étais happé par ce nouvel environnement, ce nouveau monde, lors de ce soir d’arrivée. Ca pourrait sembler beau présenté ainsi. Et pourtant… C’est tellement plus complexe et tellement différent en profondeur. Car n’oubliez pas non plus : un bébé, lorsqu’il naît, il crie et pleure. C’est plutôt bon signe et rassurant pour sa courageuse mère et pour ceux qui le font venir et l’entourent. Mais des cris et des pleurs, ce n’est pas un hasard, pour le coup. Je n’ai pas crié, je n’ai pas pleuré ce soir-là. Je regardais juste, je levais et relevais la tête, silencieux. C’était il y a près de 32 ans.
Pendant ces 3 décennies, je n’avais pas saisi certaines choses, je ne réalisais pas quelques-unes des facettes de sujets qui pourtant me concernaient aussi. Comme celui de l’adoption. Je n’avais pas été un enfant adopté, je n’étais pas une personne adoptée. C’était autre chose. Les circonstances avaient juste permis que je vive plus longtemps que ce qu’un hasard avait tenté d’imposer. Cette même loterie qui m’avait enfin permis de sortir de cette obscurité.
Pour toutes ces raisons, et longtemps, je n’ai pas été très critique concernant l’adoption. Mais c’était tout “simplement” parce que je tenais à la vie que j’avais accepté le moindre mal. Parce que j’étais déjà épuisé, éprouvé, dans tout mon être. Alors je crois que je voulais simplement souffler un peu. Mais même si elle a été plutôt supportable au début, l’adoption n’a pas manqué directement ou indirectement, de m’apporter son lot de difficultés, d’autres traumatismes, d’autres souffrances.
Pendant plus de 30 ans, j’ai vécu, ou cru vivre, au grès des flashs, sans savoir d’où je venais exactement, sans avoir d’informations sur mes origines précises, sur mon passé. Seuls quelques instants étaient préservés, gravés. Imprimés dans un cerveau en mode sécurité car en alerte permanente. Bien sûr je savais que je venais d’Ethiopie. Mais l’Ethiopie c’est 2 fois la France et avec une diversité que l’on imagine pas. Nous, adoptés éthiopiens, sommes tous nés à Addis-Abeba à en croire la version officielle. C’est écrit noir sur blanc sur le certificat de naissance. Dans notre cas, c’est surtout écrit blanc sur noir le plus souvent. Pourquoi faire compliqué lorsqu’on peut faire simple et modeler une réalité, lorsqu’on peut falsifier et s’arranger avec les “faits” ?
Survivre à certaines affections physiques et chocs psychologiques, c’est parfois possible. Parfois. Mais clairement, les quelques difficultés majeures restaient de ne pas savoir, de se sentir multiple, d’avoir parfois le sentiment étrange d’être un autre, au fond, tout au fond, et donc de ne pas se sentir vraiment soi. Comme s’il y avait un autre “je” préservé quelque part, comme si parfois on était juste spectateur de cet autre soi déraciné et contraint de vivre une vie dans un environnement différent, un environnement dans lequel il avait fallu s’adapter, se nier aussi parfois. Un tiraillement constant, plus ou moins tenace. Qui vous freine, vous désoriente, vous fragilise, vous affaiblit, vous oblige, donc malgré vous, à creuser en vous, pour voir s’il reste quelque chose. Oui, le plus dur ça a été de ne pas savoir, et de faire l’expérience de parties de soi qui s’éteignent. Il en va du muscle comme de parties de votre âme. S’éteindre en partie, littéralement.
Pourtant, j’avais accepté le principe de mon adoption, en témoignait le fait que je ne le vivais pas en tant qu’adoption. Et puis objectivement, il n’y avait pas d’autre solution dans mon cas, dans le contexte, dans cette époque. Tout ça, je l’intégrais et le cautionnais même. Mais je n’ai jamais compris pourquoi ça devait aller de pair avec l’injonction d’être heureux, voire même avec celui de faire le deuil de son passé. Je n’étais pas heureux et je n’avais fait le deuil de rien. On ne m’avait pas prévenu qu’il y aurait autant de deuils à faire. Même après. Surtout après.
Hélas, le bonheur ne se décrète pas. Ca se saurait si tel était le cas et le monde ne serait pas à ce point barré, éclaté, instable. Je n’acceptais pas et je n’accepte toujours pas que l’on prétende, même subtilement, que je suis supposé être heureux, content, satisfait, sous prétexte que j’ai échappé à la mort, à la famine, à la guerre, à un non avenir. Je ne l’entends pas et je l’entends plus autrement : le plus triste et douloureux reste malgré tout que je n’ai pu échapper à l’adoption. Car dans l’adoption, tout y est pour partie : la mort, la famine, la soif, la guerre, le non avenir, un avenir perdu car non vécu. Des pertes. Des pertes inestimables. Mêmes si l’on a l’immense joie, la délivrance, de retrouver les siens ou d’avoir été retrouvé.e. Des instants, des années, une part d’une vie est perdue.
Non décidément, nous ne choisissons pas d’être adopté.e et au fond, je pense que nous subissons au moins une double violence. La première, la naissance, est acceptable et même belle, magique, sauf éventuellement pour l’être qui naît. C’est la vie, le mystère et le sublime de la vie. La seconde violence, l’adoption, est beaucoup moins belle : car c’est le monde. Le monde que l’on fait, le monde que nous subissons, le monde et ses injustices. Nous les avons subi, nous les subissons longtemps parfois ces injustices, sous des formes diverses. Mais subir ne signifie certainement pas accepter, ni tolérer.
It wasn’t until I was in my 40s (yes, you read that right), that I started making friendships with Latina women. By this I mean Latina women who grew up within their Latina families, language, and culture. Non-adopted Latina women.
Why? Why did it take me so long to be able to make connections with other Latina women? Because from the moment of my adoption at age 2.5 months, my Latina identity and environment were replaced by a white, Jewish one. Now, there is nothing wrong with having a white, Jewish identity – if you are white and Jewish. But what if you’re not?
I grew up with so many truly wonderful people and things around me. There were hard times for sure, but there was always love, friendship, family, educational opportunities, vacations, warmth, food, shelter, etc. All feelings and things that no one can or should take for granted.
Yet, still, something was missing. Not only the figment of mi mami in Colombia, but me, myself. My identity as the Latina I was born to be, thanks to all that had transpired in the lives of my ancestors.
It’s crazy hard to say these things, to say that I got hurt even though I was raised by people who loved me, who had the best intentions, but who wanted me to be – and who were erroneously told I could be – the product of their ancestors and not mine.
Again, it all leads back to the damaging, majority viewpoints that have dominated the system of adoption since the late 1950s. Telling adoptive parents that they don’t need to see color, that they should fully assimilate their intercountry transracially adopted child into their family, along with name change, new language, new religion, new environment, is to tell adoptive parents not to see all of their adopted child. It’s how it was done back in the early days of intercountry transracial adoption, and, sadly, much of this continues today even though experts – the adoptees who have lived this whitewashing – have started speaking up on how the impact has been harmful despite the intent being good.
I speak not to be hurtful but that, hopefully, guardians, foster parents, and adoptive parents of children of a different race and ethnicity than theirs can understand and learn to do things in a way that helps raise racially comfortable and competent individuals.
It took me decades to start breaking down my internalized whiteness. And it is an ongoing process. It started with legally reclaiming my original last name, Forero, about 20 years ago. This was NOT done to deny or disrespect my (adoptive) parents. Absolutely not. It was done to respect myself. To recognize I have always been here, that I have always been Colombian, that I have always been part of another family as well as my adoptive family, and that I have always had worth just as I was and always have been.
My light brown skin has never been white. And that’s OK. My dark brown eyes have never been blue. And that’s OK. Spanish filled my brain from within the womb. And that’s OK. My ancestors didn’t come from Eastern Europe. And that’s OK. I was racially incompetent. And that’s NOT OK. I am still surprised when I look at pictures of myself and see an Indigenous Latina woman. And that surprise is NOT OK.
Recognizing differences amongst people is not problematic. What’s problematic is discriminating against people based on visible and invisible differences. What’s problematic is pretending not to see people fully. When we put our blinders on to others, we put our blinders on to ourselves as well. Every child, every woman, every man has history that is carried in their genes. No one is less than anyone else. Everyone deserves to be seen.
Today, I dedicate I Ain’t Movin’, by Des’ree to my fellow transracial adoptees. May you all walk with dignity and pride.
(Originally posted on my facebook feed during NAAM2019)
“Time’s much too short to be living somebody else’s life.”