Search and Reunion in Intercountry Adoption

Search & Reunion: Impacts & Outcomes

In 2016, ICAV compiled a world’s first resource of our lived experience voices sharing the ups and downs of searching and reunions, specific to intercountry adoption. No such resource existed like this before and yet, as adoptees, one of our hugest challenges across our lifespan, is contemplating if we want to search, what’s involved, and figuring out how to go about it. I wanted to provide a way to address these questions so I asked ICAV adoptees to share their experiences, focusing on lessons learnt after looking back in hindsight. I also asked them to share what could be done by authorities and organisations to better support us in our search and reunion process. I published our perspective paper in english and french and it ended up being a 101 page paper (book) covering the experiences of adoptees from 14 birth countries, adopted to 10 adoptive countries.

Given one of the core topics for discussion at the recent Hague Special Commission is Post Adoption Support, I felt that it was timely to re-share our paper and provide a summary of what it captures for those who don’t have time to read the 101 pages and for the benefit of Central Authorities and Post Adoption organisations to learn from our experiences.

Summary of key themes from ‘Search and Reunion: Impacts and Outcomes’ by InterCountry Adoptee Voices (ICAV) 2016

Issues and challenges faced using tracing services:

  • The need for specialised counselling is a recurring theme throughout most stories, particularly to prepare adoptees for the first meeting, delivered from someone who understood and specialises in intercountry adoption
  • Searches are often conducted through social network sites that can leave adoptees can vulnerable and not properly supported to engage with birth families
  • Privacy issues and barriers
  • The need for access to birth records to help with birth reconnection
  • Several cases mentioned issues with passport and visas
  • Adoption agency would not disclose identifying information about their birth family due to privacy
  • Transparency of services and where to access them
  • Assumption that birth records are accurate, despite corruption
  • The sense of ‘rebuilding your history’
  • Challenging to maintain a relationship with birth family due to language and cultural barriers
  • Need more standardised laws  and processes for adoption agencies to follow when adoptees are seeking their information
  • Laws passed to allow adoptees access to their files
  • More support is needed for adoptees in counselling, and translation when searching
  • Facilitated counselling service that assisted with the search and reunion process from beginning to end
  • Listing of adoptees as mentors who have been through the process
  • Stories of adoptee searches and their reconciliation of those searches would provide emotional support to other adoptees thinking of beginning their own search

Suggestions for improved support for adult adoptees when searching for birth families:

  • Documentation is the key and open adoption is the best way to lend support
  • The need for interactive support groups and to know where to find them
  • A comprehensive education for adoptive parents to help them manage the lifelong issues for adoptees, and affordable counselling for all parties in the adoption process, and particularly to have access to this support regardless of the stage of the adoption process
  • Having a social worker ‘check in’ on people who are adopted throughout their lives
  • Maintenance of a database to allow the search to be conducted with access into other databases such as births, adoptions, deaths and marriages in each country
  • Some adoptees want adoptive families to have mandatory training that helps them manage adoptee issues up to the age of 18 – education in language, culture history, the importance of having all the documents, the value in making regular visits together to the country of origin
  • Include adoptee DNA testing done, Y or N on the adoption file

Key quotations from adoptees about their experience of reunification:

“Adoption is a life long journey and even to this day I have fresh revelations of my adoption. The “general” impact has been one of profound empowerment which arose from great anguish.”

“Although I had a session with a very good psychologist before my reunion, I still feel there was so much more I should have been made aware of. I wish I had been directed to other adoptees willing to share their experience of their reunion with tips, advice and support.”

“It was devastating for me to realise my birth family are basically strangers and if I wanted a relationship with them, I would have to sacrifice the life I built after they rejected me and re-alter the identity I have struggled to develop, just to fit into their expectations.”

“The biggest obstacles for search and reunion in my experience have included:

Being a ‘tourist’ in my country of birth. I found it surprisingly confronting and difficult to have people of the same nationality assume I was one of them and then having to explain my adopted situation.

Post reunion i.e., working through the consequences of opening the door to the past – it is irreversible! I should have been better prepared and better supported for the post reunion aspects and consequences.”

“It took many years to properly come to terms and to get my head around my adoption after reunion. It has undoubtedly affected my identity and the course of my life for the best. My adoption has become something I have grown to appreciate and evolve with. Learning my life should have ended before I was even born, has made me incredibly grateful and motivated to do something with my life.”

“Primal wounding when separated from mothers is exacerbated by the mystery of unanswered questions.”

To read the full ICAV Perspective Paper: Search & Reunion – Impacts & Outcomes in English or French, see our collection of Perspective Papers.

A Journey in Re-defining My Identity

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.”

Jiddu Krishnamurti

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. 

Since the writing of this article, Maya has received her DNA results. Click here to read her blog post and find out what she discovered: https://findingchingha.com/blog/finding-family/

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Maya Fleischmann is a freelance writer and the author of Finding Ching Ha and If You Give a Mum a Minute. Her book reviews are published in book industry trade journals, such as Foreword Magazine, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and Audiofile Magazine. Her stories and articles have appeared in travel and cultural magazines and books, to include Peril and Chicken Soup for the Working Mom’s Soul. You can find out more about Maya at mayafleischmann.com and findingchingha.com. Finding Ching Ha: A Novel, is available in paperback and ebook on Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble and Kobo and other leading bookstores.

The Sin of Love

by a Chinese father who lost his daughter Marie via intercountry adoption.

Lone Sitting
Tossing High and Low
Longing for Understanding
Living with a Dim Hope

There was a notification on my Facebook that Marie is following me. Normally I don’t accept follower or friend requests, but the name was Marie, so I accepted and left it, not paying much attention. The next day as I was walking with my daughter to go Tesco to get some groceries for cooking that day, I received a message from Marie. “Hello, I am trying trace a Clement who knew Agnes in 1972, please let know if that is you?” I was totally shocked. I immediately answered back, “Yes” and asked who she is. She answered, “I am her daughter.” In my heart I knew it was her, the one I missed all these years. I have been living with a very dim hope of finding her all these years. I replied, “I hope I am not dreaming!” She replied, “I think you are my father”.

The next thing I asked her was about the day that I can never forget. “Is your date of birth 9 August?” She answered with a YES. Never had I imagined this day would come. My daughter Denise saw my expression and she asked me what was wrong. I told her my daughter that was given away through adoption has found me. “Ayoi, you give me goosebumps,” Denise said. I don’t hide my past from my children, only my private life. Time didn’t permit us to talk more over Facebook as I had to finish our shopping then rush back to cook and deliver the food, but I promised to stay in contact.

The whole episode of finding my daughter Marie was supposed to be a happy moment and it still is.  But it was more than happiness. After sharing my part of signing her adoption papers and finding out about her life with some photos, she shared two photos which brought back all the memories of my time with Agnes, her mother. When I saw the photo of Marie and her husband, it was like looking at Agnes. She’s so much like her. Another photo of Agnes standing alone reminded me of the only photo both of us had taken as a couple, in a photo studio. She also wore a saree at that photo session.

My daughter Denise wants me to video call Marie. I told her with my bad hearing problem and Marie’s English slang it might be hard to communicate. But the truth is looking at Marie is like looking at Agnes. I am not yet ready. With all these memories coming back, I realise I have not forgotten or ever stopped loving her. I still miss her for all these years.  Unknowingly, my love for Agnes has caused my marriage to fail. There was always a third person in our bed. My injustice to my children. I was once involved in Marriage Ministry and I realise I have created so much rubbish in my life.

I have lived a life of denial.

I knew Agnes in 1970 through her brother Bernard. We were close friends as we worked in the same school. He was a temporary teacher and I was the office boy in the school office. I spent most night at his house as my house was nearby. Bernard had three other brothers and three sisters. Agnes was the elder of the three sisters. Agnes always had a smile on her face and was a very gentle and genuine person. She had long ponytail hair. I got along well with the family and had Christmas with them. I started to have feelings for her and asked to go for a dance date on New years eve. She said yes but I had to ask Bernard for permission as he was more or less the head of the family. I asked him and he had no objection, so we went for our first date.

We enjoyed ourselves that night and I knew I was in love with her. Even though I had been with a few other girls previously, I had never experienced this feeling before. I realised that she was my first love. By the time we reached her house it was already 1am and New Years Day. After spending some time with the family and wishing everyone Happy New Year it was time for me to go home. Agnes walked me out of the house. I was alone with her and I expressed my feelings to her and asked her to be my girlfriend. She said yes but we would have a problem telling Bernard. I told her I would talk to him and we ended with our first kiss.

A few days later, I did speak to Bernard about my relationship with his sister but to my surprise, he did not object so I started to spend more time at her house. Bernard was good with his guitar and Agnes liked to sing. I can’t sing but I often jammed with them. I have many happy memories of that time. Agnes and Bernard were often invited to be guest singers at the Singing Talent time contest show.  At one of the shows where they had invited Agnes to sing, just as she was about to go on stage she said to me, “This song is for you “. Looking at me she started to sing. She sang “Let it be me”. Can I ever forget that night with that song? NO, never in my life will I ever forget that night.

We were together for two years. As time went by, we became more intimate and one day she found out she was pregnant. We wanted to get married but we had a problem of getting her mothers’ approval.  So we decided to go and see the Priest for advice and ask her parents approval.  What we didn’t expect was that her mother not only didn’t approve of our marriage but also arranged with the priest for Agnes to go to the Centre for Unwed Mothers.  I went to her house to plead with her mother but they chased me out of the house. The family knew all along about our relationship but they went against me.  I went to see the Priest but he told me that Agnes would be leaving Taiping in two days time. My mother even went to her house to plead with their family but they said no. They didn’t even allow me to see Agnes before she left.

After two months I couldn’t stand it anymore, I missed Agnes and I worried about her.  I went to see the Priest to find out her whereabouts, but he didn’t want to give me information about her. I pleaded with him crying in his office for a long time. In the end, he told me and even arranged for me to meet Agnes with the nun. She was taken to the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Batu Arang, near Kuala Lumpur. That very night I took a train to Kuala Lumpur and went by bus to Batu Arang, quite a distance from Kuala Lumpur. I managed to see Agnes after two months. The nun was good enough to give us time together alone. Before I left that place the nun told me that I could only visit her once a month. During her stay there, I visited her four times. The last time I visited her was a few weeks before her delivery. During the last visit we talked about naming the baby. During her stay there, she was close to a nun by the name of Sister Marie. So, we decided to name her Marie if we had a daughter, or if we had a son, Mario. We even talked about working in Kuala Lumpur after her delivery. She was not keen to go back to Taiping. As for the baby, we would let my mother take care of her.

A few weeks later, I was at the church for early morning service and the Priest informed me that Agnes had been admitted for delivery the night before. I rushed to Kuala Lumpur by taxi. By the time I reached her, she had already delivered. When I saw her, she just out of the delivery room but I didn’t see the baby. She told me the nurse was washing her. When the nurse came out with the baby, she asked me if I was the father, I nodded, and she handed me the baby. I carried her for some time until Agnes asked what to give her as a second name. I suggested Geraldine and she agreed.  She gave me her identity card to register the birth certificate. I handed over the baby to her and she smiled, saying to the baby “You are Marie Geraldine L__.” I was with her until after visiting hours. Before I left, I told Agnes that I would see her in three weeks time because I could only take the birth certificate in three weeks time. I did not know that this would be the last time I would ever see them both.

Two weeks later the priest informed me that I was summoned to court to sign Marie up for adoption. I panicked and told my mother about it and she asked me to bring Marie back. I went with a heavy heart. When I reached there, they gave me some documents to sign. I refused to sign and told them that I wanted to keep the baby. The person in charge told me that whether I signed or not, the adoption would be processed because the mother had full rights. I said I wanted to adopt Marie under my mother’s name. What he answered surprised me. A father cannot adopt a female child but if it had been a boy, there would have been a possibility. In one day, I lost everything. I had no choice but to sign the document and rush to Batu Arang. But the nun refused to see me and would not allow me past the gate. Two months later I went again. This time one of the nuns came out to meet me but would not allow me to go in. She told me that Agnes had left the place and the baby had been sent to the government welfare home. There was nothing I could do anymore but to leave with a heavy and angry heart.

For forty-eight years, every year I wished Happy Birthday to the daughter I have never seen but was just a shadow in my heart. I only knew she was somewhere on the planet. I wished her Happy Birthday and said a prayer for her. This is where I have done injustice to my other children. I have not wished a Happy Birthday to any of my own children who are with me.  My children have not celebrated birthdays growing up. As time went by, to the time when I realised Marie should be reaching young adult age, I took opportunities to come to Kuala Lumpur shopping mall. I would sit in a corner watching as the girls went by, wondering if any of them could be Marie. It was just a dim glimmer of hope. I might have seen her without even knowing. It gave me some small comfort.

Thankfully this year on her 49th birthday, I can personally wish her happy birthday! All these years, it’s a moment I have waited for with a dim glimmer of hope. Thank you Marie for finding me!

Agnes there is always a place for you in my heart. May you rest in peace as our daughter has found us.

Next Week: Marie’s thoughts from reunion with her Chinese father.

Forget Your Past

by Bina Mirjam de Boer adopted from India to the Netherlands.
Originally shared at Bina Coaching.

Forget your past!

I was told this sentence 5 years ago today, when I visited one of my children’s homes for the 2nd time.

The woman who received me wasn’t interested in my questions about my past and didn’t even understand why I wanted to see my file. I had no rights, “Forget your past!”, was screamed loudly! She threw the papers I gave her with a disdainful gesture at my head. She wanted to close the visit with this. The next 2.5 hours were really awful with a lot of screaming, manipulation and arguments between myself, the wife, the interpreter and the social worker.

This visit ended up giving me more questions. Fortunately, thanks to other employees, I finally received answers after 3 years. But my identity is still unknown.

The answers I received brought pain and sadness, but eventually also acceptance and resignation over that part. In my opinion, not knowing is ultimately a heavier fate to carry!

If you are going to search for your identity as an adoptee, it is important that you prepare yourself well. Understand it is almost impossible to know how things will turn out! You can’t imagine how the visit will go beforehand and how you will react if you receive information or not. In India we notice that obtaining information very much depends on whom you speak to.

In addition, there is the difference in culture. We are so devastated that we often view our native country with western glasses. We are not aware that our practices and thoughts are often so different to that of our native country. Sometimes that means that we don’t have compassion and can sometimes even feel disgust for the traditions of our native country.

Root trips often give you the illusion that you can find your roots on one trip or visit. The reality is that you have to go back to your native country and your home several times to get answers.

I myself notice that every time I visit India, I feel more at home and that it’s healing to be able to visit my past. Each piece of puzzle creates more resignation.

English
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