Returning to Vietnam in April this year was partly to do some searching but what I’ve realised since being back, is that it actually had more to do with my inner healing. What I didn’t realise until now, was the after-effect and impact that would continue strongly, three months since returning to Australia.
I was blessed to be able to make my fourth trip back to Vietnam with my adoptive parents and my youngest biological daughter. The trip was a three-generation shared story.
It’s been 25 years since my Aussie mum, dad and I made our first trip back. I recall on that first trip, declaring that I’d changed my mind about returning and mum had to physically support me off the plane as I wept at the enormity of the situation. This time, I looked lovingly out the plane window at the lights of Ho Chi Minh city and felt genuine happiness to be back.
We had a plan to meet with a priest who was in the same order as the priest, Father Oliver, was who ran my orphanage when I had been here as an infant before my adoption. This priest still works at the same church where Father Olivier had been head priest. The most amazing thing was, we got to see where I was born!
Throughout this trip, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude for the people I met who have invested in helping me search for my family. I also got to meet the investigator who was working with ISS Australia before they lost their funding. This investigator has been the only person able to locate a document that had my Vietnamese mother’s name on it. The investigator is herself a fellow Vietnamese Australian adoptee, so she completely understands my story and the feelings associated with my search.
Whilst in Vietnam, I enjoyed eating as much like a local as possible and I made sure I had a Vietnamese coffee every day. But the real surprise has been what’s happened for me since returning from Vietnam this time. I am filled with a genuine sense of peace about my search. I’m truly okay with not being any further along with finding blood relatives. The connections I have made with people who are still searching for me has been amazing. Just knowing there are people who care enough to help is very humbling.
Since being home in Australia, I have a real sense of being more present in my life and I have more space within, to just be me. I can’t explain the feeling but I’ll try. I feel content and no longer have the need to operate from a place where I’m trying to impress people or get them to like me. I don’t care if they do now or not. I’m filling myself with more self worth and know that I can trust myself to be my own keeper i.e., take care of myself. This return trip has been a real growth journey for me.
I’m also excited knowing that I will return again next year. I left not needing to be sad or wondering when I’ll be back. I’ve decided I need to make a trip back at least once every two years to stay connected to my homeland, where my soul feels at peace.
In Sweden where I grew up, people like me are called adopted. It’s easy to spot an adopted. We look like we are from somewhere far away but we don’t know our native language or culture. This creates confusion wherever we go. It also creates confusion within ourselves.
Who are we? Who am I?
We grieve our traumas in silence because as soon as we share our sadness, we are told that we should be grateful: to our new amazing country and our kind adoptive parents.
This is something a Swedish biological child never has to hear: that they should be grateful to live in Sweden! This creates a sense of being worth less compared to everyone else; that we exist in Sweden on other terms compared to our peers; that it’s conditional. In many cases, our adoptive parents didn’t take good care of us. They disregarded our traumas. And they didn’t understand the racism all of us had to endure, both as children and adults. We were unprotected. We were fair game.
When you are adopted you sometimes grieve and think about your mother. For some reason you don’t think very much about your dad. I think this is because we are under the impression that our mothers were clueless and young, perhaps drug addicts, perhaps prostitutes. And that our dad was just some dude. The part with the prostitution, by the way, is part of the narrative that adopted girls are handed when they are young. “If you stayed in your country you would have been a prostitute, so why aren’t you grateful?!” Can you imagine what this message does to us?!
Daddy, like most of the other adoptees, I have spent time wondering about my mother, but I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about you in the past. Now, I think about you all the time.
As a child, I remember playing near the burn pits that laid by the small village of unpainted traditional Korean style homes (Hanoks). They nestled below a small outcrop of mountains, located in central Korea. My brother grabbed my hand to take me to see the prize he had found lying in the small garbage heap near our modest home. Among the charred remains of the trash there laid a couple of discarded light bulbs glistening in the harsh summer sun. We laughed as we smashed the bulbs into small shards of glass.
The small journey to the garbage pile and playing had worked up an appetite and I told my brother I was hungry. “Come follow me!” he called. I ran behind him as we raced down the trail towards the community garden. We stopped for a minute to catch our breath and we scanned the garden to find something to eat. There amongst the tall weeds, we found the brightly yellow-colored melons called chamoe. It begged us to bite into its juicy flesh. I grabbed one of the fruits hungrily and sunk my teeth into the hard flesh. The fruit wasn’t ripe and it had a bitter taste. I threw the fruit on the ground in disgust and we ran home to see if grandma could make us something delicious to eat.
By the time we arrived home, it was nearing dusk and my stomach hurt with the pains of hunger. My brother ratted me out, telling my grandfather I had tried to eat the unripened fruit. My grandfather gingerly placed me on his lap and started patting my stomach in a circular motion to reduce the pain. I immediately fell asleep and was woken up by the sounds of feet pitter-patting around the rice mat floors. It was the sound of my brothers and sisters getting ready for school. I too got up, to walk my siblings down the country dirt road to school. As we walked, I was chastised by my siblings and told to go back home. I stood at the end of the dirt road waving goodbye as I watched my family vanish down the road that wound amongst rice paddies and train tracks, covered by the cool mist of the morning fog.
When I was married and in my mid-thirties, I asked my aunt to give me the contact information to meet up with my half siblings who I remembered from my youth. We made a phone call and I waited anxiously to see if we could connect. The person on the other end of the line was the wife of one of my older brothers and she was scathing mad that I was trying to connect with my siblings. She told me, “This is in the past and that is where it needs to stay!”
Several months later, I called the family again hoping to get my brother on the phone. I was chastised again for calling and disrupting the family. I was rejected, never to be allowed to reunite with the family from my childhood memories.
I sat uncomfortably on the hard lino covered floor of a traditional Korean Restaurant. The smells, sights and sounds so foreign to me. Just moments earlier, I had felt like I was on an epic journey “around the world in 80 days” with my aunt. That same morning my aunt was waiting for me at the entrance of the military camp where I was stationed. We rode the 5-hour long journey using a variety of transport: the jerky movements and clackity sounds of a train, the bumpy, vinyl covered back seat on a community bus that bellowed black smoke, and then a short ride on the Hyundai cab to the restaurant. None of the transport had air-conditioning and the hot sun beat down on my black hair. My brain felt as though it was boiling from the inside out. Large beads of sweat flowed from my brow when I arrived to meet my biological family.
When I entered the small restaurant, I scanned my eyes around to look for my new family. I caught a glimpse of my beautiful sister and then my father. It was odd for me to see someone who looked like me but a much older age. I felt as though I were in a time machine to meet a much older version of myself. My father’s head was covered with thinning grey hair and a receding hairline. The sunken cheeks and the deep wrinkles above the brow were telltale signs of a defeated person. My father was looked down at the table in shame.
I was asked questions about my life in America and how I liked Korea. Once all the niceties were exchanged my father asked, “Why did you look for me?” I was dumbfounded by the question and as I was about to answer, a blur entered through the front entrance and walked up to our table. A short stout young man entered the room with a wide grin on his face. His light brown eyes scanned the room looking at his dad and then at me … his face was distorted with confusion and then he rushed up to me and gave me a bear hug and began sobbing in my arms. I look like a younger replica of my father and my brother recognized that I was his brother immediately.
As a child, I remembered the siblings I had grown up with. I never assumed my father would marry again but via his third marriage, he brought two more siblings into this world for me to unite with.
The pecking order went like this: the four half brothers and sisters I grew up with in Chong-Ju, my sister and I who were sent to America, and the two half-siblings from my father’s third marriage. My father was a success in being a prolific procreator. My father’s personal decisions led to his first two separations and sadly his third wife succumbed to illness when her children were beginning elementary school. I think I bonded with my half siblings because they knew how it felt to grow up without a mother.
Within a year of uniting with my sibling, my father had a stroke that made him fully dependent for care. My younger sister Mi-san faithfully went to my father’s home each day to feed and bathe him. I wanted to be part of my siblings’ lives but the language barrier prevented me from picking up the phone or arriving at their doorstep to visit.
A year after I kindled the beginnings of a new relationship with my new family, I received orders from the military to move back to the United States. There was a five-year separation where life was a blur and my day to day actives was filled with school and work. In 1998, I received another chance to reunite with my family in 2001 when I was given assignment orders to South Korea as a second lieutenant. I was so happy to again partake in their lives. I attended my sister’s wedding, the birth of her daughter and visited their small home that was established near the place of my birth.
Life happens in a blur and six years later, I was once again moved away in 2007 due to my reassignment by the Army. As I left Sth Korea, I assumed I would get the chance to hang out with my new found brother and sister when I retired from military service. I hoped I would again have a chance to play with their kids, go on trips and share in the bounties of life.
In 2011 when I was serving in Afghanistan, I received an email from my aunt stating my brother had died unexpectantly in his sleep. My heart was crushed and I immediately flew back to Korea to bury my younger brother. I learned one of life’s hardest lessons: that we cannot always look to the future to share and bond with those most important to us.
Taken for Granted
I was one of the lucky few adoptees to be adopted with a biological sibling. Initially, my sister was the annoying younger sibling that followed me everywhere. She was 2½ and I was 4 ½ years old when we were sent to the United States. I began kindergarten the same year that I arrived and learnt about American culture the hard way.
I was in trouble for going with the girls to the girl’s bathroom. I was chastised for not returning the books to the school library. I received detention for copying graffiti that was already written on the gym wall. I had no idea that the words, “the principal is a fucking retard” was derogatory! Life was a learning experience and nobody understood me at all.
My sister, on the other hand, was gifted. Life was unfair and it gave all the talent to one sibling but it was not me! She was a straight-A student. She made it to the State Finals as a gifted athlete. Even though I was 2 years older, she beat me when we raced towards the school bus. I later realised I was a pretty fast runner but my sister had that rare gift as an athlete. Lastly, my sister was way better looking. She won the local beauty pageant and after I joined the Army at 17 years old, I quit showing pictures of my little sister to my Army buddies because they would always ask me to set them up on dates with her. My sister had it all: she was stunningly beautiful, extremely smart and a gifted athlete who had the potential to compete at College or even at Olympic level.
Once my sister reached adulthood she chartered a different course and over time the energetic, bright young woman who I was familiar with, morphed into someone I could not recognise. The resilient person I knew became a shell of her former self. She sought out love and married at a young age. The love she was seeking was fleeting. At the end of 3 divorces, she lost everything that mattered to her, including her own children. She squandered her opportunities. She received the GI bill to pay for College but she never enrolled.
Time took its toll, her beauty faded and the life of constant defeat opened up a crevasse that allowed her to be defeated in everything she did. The desire to be successful was now a distant memory and today she stares in the mirror wondering who the defeated person is on the other side: the older woman with a scalp of thinning grey hair, wrinkled face from living a tough life, thin frail yellow nicotine-stained fingers that work minimum wage jobs to barely make ends meet. Every time I reach out she tells me everything is fine. Yet I hear from her children about the suffering she endures. Being evicted from her home, having to sell her car way below market price to make ends meet. I can read between the lines when she speaks to me. I no longer understand her and my privileged life cannot understand the difficulties that she faces.
My family search was bifurcated. On one side, the door was slammed shut and I was met with rejection. On the other, across the hall, the door was opened for me to meet my half-siblings. The hallway that leads to my sister has been eroded by the termites of life, treading down a once familiar path now filled with navigating around an unstable sister who has squandered her life away.
This is what life has taught me:
Don’t have unrealistic expectations when it comes to searching for family.
The range of emotions and outcomes will vary with each person’s journey.
If you are searching, be prepared you may be greeted with open arms to meet a family who may not want anything to do with you. What you think will happen may be something completely different. Treasure the journey.
I’m grateful for all the people who helped me along the way to find my family. Many people went out of their way to help and guide me through the process. Sometimes it takes patience and time for relationships to blossom. Of course, the opposite can also occur. Like in the case of my biological sister, our relationship has deteriorated over time and I can no longer recognize the person she has become.
Today I want to share a powerful life experience of an Indian intercountry adoptee raised in Belgium, a member of ICAV, willing to share about her desire to know the truth of her life before adoption.
Being adopted from India, it is usually very difficult to search and find one’s genetic family. This is for a variety of reasons such as the Indian intercountry adoption laws that do little to promote searching and reunion, coupled with the lack of documentation, and/or truth of the documentation from either the birth or adoptive country.
What Serafina’s story demonstrates is that because she was willing to question everything told to her, sometimes the outcome is unexpected.
Enjoy reading Serafina’s story to find out for yourself how her journey unfolded and the message she wishes to share!
I was recently contacted by a researcher who wanted to know if we could share our experiences of how searching and reunification impacts us. I decided it was a good reason to put together a long overdue Perspective Paper.
I didn’t realise this paper would end up being a book as it includes over 40 intercountry adoptees, contributing 100 pages!
Questions asked to stimulate the kind of responses I was seeking were:
What country of origin are you from? What country of origin were you adopted to and at what age?
What do you think it was that made you search? Was it something you always wanted to do or did you reach a point in your life that instigated the desire? What were your expectations?
How did you go about conducting your search? What resources did you utilise? What obstacles did you encounter?
What outcome did you have? What impact has that had upon you? How has that impacted your relationship with your adoptive family?
What has the experience been like of maintaining a relationship with your biological family? What obstacles have you encountered? What has been useful in navigating this part of your life?
How have you integrated your search and/or reunion in your sense of who you are? Has it changed anything? In what ways?
What could be done by professionals, governments and agencies to help assist in Search & Reunions for intercountry adoptees like yourself?
These questions were guidelines only and adoptees were encouraged to provide any further insight to the topic.
All types of outcomes were included, whether searches were successful or not.
This resource will provide adoptees with a wide range of perspectives to consider when contemplating the issues involved in searching for original family. The paper will also provide the wider public and those involved in intercountry adoption a deeper understanding of how an adoptee experiences the search. Governments, agencies, and professional search organisations have direct feedback on what they can do to improve the process for intercountry adoptees.