by My Huong Lé, Vietnamese adoptee raised in Australia, living in Vietnam. Co-Founder of Vietnam Family Search, an adoptee led organisation dedicated to helping reunite families in Vietnam.
April 20th marks the 46th anniversary since I was evacuated on an RAAF flight out of Vietnam. That day changed the course of my life and the memories of it will forever be etched in my mind.
April in general is a significant month for many Vietnamese Adoptees as it is the month in which over 3000 babies/children were also evacuated. Like myself these children boarded military transport planes bound for adoption by American, Canadian, European and Australian families.
The fors and againsts of having done this have been debated. I would like to say there was no telling what would have become of my life had I stayed, nor was there any telling of what was to become of my life by being removed. The fact remains that I was removed at the age of 5 from a family I knew and placed in a foreign country. This experience was very traumatic and I lost my identity, language, culture and everything familiar to me. In Australia I experienced a different form of hardship and difficulty to what I would have experienced had I remained.
Fortunately, many who left Vietnam were adopted into loving foreign families. I wasn’t granted that right and was adopted into an abusive and dysfunctional family. Regardless that family clothed me, fed me and provided me with a good education and I will always be thankful to them for that. Australia is indeed a privileged country offering endless opportunities and being removed from war torn Vietnam like all adoptees I had a chance to make a better life for myself.
What happened I cannot change, but what I have the power to change is my attitude and the way I react and deal in all circumstances. I know I am the person I am today because of all that I have experienced. It has made me stronger, more forgiving, more understanding and more loving. For this I am grateful.
What I have been through is also in part what propelled me 17 years ago to return to Vietnam to find my birth mother and to work with orphaned and disadvantaged children. Without a doubt God’s hand has been upon my life. He has guided me, protected me, opened doors and put some amazing people in my life. Gratitude fills my heart for all those who have impacted my life over the years.
During this anniversary month for adoptees, my thoughts too are very much for birth mothers. Many birth mothers returned to orphanages to collect their children and they had gone. This time signifies permanent loss for them. I have hugged some of these mothers and seen their tears. As my mother’s tears have been wiped dry, I too hope these mothers can reconnect with their children.
by Michelle Y. K. Piper adopted from Sth Korea to Australia.
Two years today, they told me you were dead.
15 years from the day I turned 18 until the day I officially began that dreaded, infuriating, dehumanising, grievous process of trying to trace you; 15 years of constant internal conflict, a fierce war raging within.
Remain loyal to the family, society, culture, and country I had been relinquished to; remain obedient to the process of forced assimilation, never questioning or asking why? (at least never out loud) and ALWAYS “grateful” for the privilege to be alive and living in one of the greatest countries in the world (Australia); continue to ignore the ever-deepening awareness of agonising turmoil and grief consuming my soul borne from the empty, rootlessness of my erased past.
Or… Face what I have always so desperately avoided.
Questions… All those questions. So many, many questions. Impossible to voice out loud even to myself in secrecy and solitude, yet impossible silence within the confined walls of my Psyche.
15 years to amass enough courage to search for you; I searched, and a year later I received “the call”. A call I’d been on constant edge waiting for, a year of repeatedly checking my emails and phone. It came from a stranger in a government office, who had only just been transferred to my case. A transfer I was neither asked nor informed about.
On the 2nd January 2019, a strange, unfamiliar voice explained who she was and why she was calling. You were dead. You died exactly 2 months after my 23rd Birthday. You died on the 6th July 2009. 2009, I was 10 years too late. My father could not or did not want to be found. That was it.
For over 30 years, being adopted meant nothing, or at least I told myself it meant nothing. Just a word to explain away the inevitable whispers of confusion when people crossed us. “Did they just call her mum?”, “Maybe the dad is Asian…? They don’t look like half/half’s though.” I was used to these comments, my entire life’s been layered with racism, some out of ignorance, some without doubt intentional. But being adopted was not something to be dwelled upon, simply a fact; accepted and acknowledged only when unavoidable. But unavoidable became impossible.
That call, that damn call; no matter how fiercely I fought back would demolish the foundations of every wall I had established; a myriad of walls forming the incomprehensible and impenetrable maze of protection I had completely encompassed and lost myself within.
15 Years to find the courage to look for you, but a lifetime of wondering….
Was I ever in your thoughts? Did you ever think of me? On the day of my birth? When that inevitable date once again came full circle, a date that would forever mark each year we have spent apart. Another year gone; another year of life missed. Another year of what has been a lifetime of separation. Did you think of me at Christmas? At times of family, cultural and traditional celebrations, when milestones should have been reached. When recipes, secrets, and the stories of our ancestors should have passed from Mother to Daughter. Did you ever wonder as I do now if or how much we look and are alike?
Did the same irrevocable, emptiness, loneliness, grief, and self-loathing consume you as it has me? …..Did I mean anything to you?
Did you, on the day you gave birth simply walk away and never look back? Erasing every memory, every moment, every emotion. Erasing me. Did you reject me from the moment we ceased to be one, refusing to acknowledge the life you had so painfully bore into this world? Did you even once, hold me in your arms? Was my existence always a disgrace? A corruption in the flow and purity of bloodlines. The product of the worst kind of offence one can commit against a culture and people whose social, ethical, political and legal systems are fundamentally embedded in the principles of Confucianism. Was I always perceived as an abomination? An ignominy, an abhorrent consequence of defying what is so vehemently indoctrinated in our people from birth, so fiercely prized and expected from each child from every generation. Obedience. Respect. Respect of your elder’s and absolute obedience in following directives. Know your place, in family, home, and society, in culture and country. Fail to comply; step outside the social norms and be condemned to a life forever tainted by shame, rejection, and dishonour.
Or, on the day you gave birth did your gaze fall upon me, desperate to memorise every detail that time would allow? Did your arms find me, enfolding me close, tightening your embrace? Did you memorise my scent, that beautiful, sweet baby scent while your mind commenced an onslaught; vivid recollections of the 9 months passed? The pain, terror, love, bewilderment, and confusion. The internal struggle of a decision impossible to make yet impossible to disregard. Did your mind force upon you the memories of my first movements you felt within? Undeniable proof of the life growing inside? Did you remember all the times you found yourself cursing me for the morning sickness, or when it became impossible to move around freely?
Did you recall all the times you had spoken to me, and soothed me? Patting your stomach and smiling with happiness and contentment when my restlessness ceased at the sound of your voice? Did you recall all the one-sided conversations you had with me, admonishing me for your weight gain, bloated ankles, constant need to pee, and general discomfort? Did you remember thinking none of those things mattered when you finally beheld the face of your newly born daughter in front of you? Did you remember and retain these precious moments with as much desperation as I did the day my daughter was born? Did I remain an only child? Or were there future children that were deemed “worthy” to keep?
You left endless questions with no definitive answers, not even in death. The agency who sold me insist you are dead, while the government itself cannot seem to confirm this.
What am I meant to do with that? Please 어머니, tell me.
Do I hold onto hope that somehow you are still alive..? Cling desperately to the childish, naïve dream that MAYBE, just maybe, you are? That maybe you’re not dead, but looking for me, maybe I was one of those children never willingly relinquished. Or take the word of the agency who trafficked me, sent me overseas and accept you are gone?
Will it ever be possible to heal if I tell myself you’re dead? How am I supposed to mourn you? How does one weep for a face it cannot remember? How do I release myself of someone who, no matter how much time and distance was placed between us, is still everything I am, yet everything I don’t know? How can I be free when your faceless form haunts my dreams? When each day I am struck by a renewed wave of painful understanding of all that has been stolen. All that’s been lost. For all that has been erased. For my parents who will forever remain faceless strangers, parents I will never have the opportunity to know or meet. For the brothers and sisters I will never know. For the Aunty and Uncles, the cousin’s, and grandparents. For the history of my people, I remained so ignorant towards until now; for the heart-breaking and brutal history of our country; still at war after 70 years, divided, literally torn in two, poisoned by political corruption, military coups, and slavery. Of trafficked children, The Forgotten Generation; a generation who fought, died and rebuilt our country, now languishing in poverty pushed to the fringes of society living in isolation and squalor, afraid to ask for help for fear of “burdening” the country they fought and died to protect. For the enslaved comfort women abused, raped, tortured, and murdered by the Japanese. For the Sewol Ferry Tragedy, which began to sink on the morning of the 16th April 2014, where 304 of the 476 passengers on board, 250 of them students perished; trapped on a sinking ferry, while the captain and crew escaped, telling the passengers on board to stay where they were. Obeying their elders (that prized attribute ingrained from birth), the students placed their trust in the orders given, they remained where they were, waiting to be rescued. A rescue that was never attempted, a rescue that never came. Parents, family, teachers, classmates and survivors alike hysterical, stranded on the shoreline, still receiving messages from the remaining students trapped inside that they were still alive in what was an almost completely submerged vessel. Parents helpless to do anything but watch as the last visible section of the ship sank in front of them. And then nothing. Silence, as the shock and magnitude of tragedy that had just unfolded before them set in. A moment of disbelieving silence before the blood curdling, guttural cries only a parent who has just lost their child can make. Footage later released, revealed to the world the last 20 minutes of some of the students trapped inside. The memories of which will haunt me forever, faces I won’t ever forget. Messages of love and apologies to loved ones, that still produce physical pain to hear.
To watch my people suffer, to die in the most horrifying ways, to feel the overwhelming outrage, and unbearable grief that has consumed our nation time and time again but to be unable to be there with them, to grieve with them; did you never consider how painful these moments would be? Did you ever imagine how much agony it would cause just to observe my native language? When everything appears, sounds and feels so natural, until you remember, none of it makes sense to you. You can’t decipher it. You don’t understand it. You can’t speak it. Did you ever consider just how high a price your baby girl would pay, for that “better” life you were so sure she was going to? If you, my own Mother could not find it in yourself to raise me, whether from the shame, dishonour, or just for being a “bastard” (YES, my adoption papers actually use this word!), if you feared for me, for the prejudice, discrimination, and stigma I would have endured had we remained together in Korea, how could you think that throwing me into a world of white where I was one of maybe 5 Asians for over 18yrs of my life would be to my benefit? Did you honestly think that those of the western world wouldn’t reject me? Debase me, use my status as a Korean adoptee against me in the most humiliating and degrading ways conceivable? If you; my own mother, my own family, my people and country viewed me as nothing more than a product for export, why would anyone else?
If you did in fact die in 2009, you died at the age of 46.
I’m aware you never looked for me, never once tried to find out where I was. And now you’re gone, (maybe), I don’t know. The fact that I don’t know enrages me, consumes me with a desperate hopelessness and despair. But, if you are gone… How could you leave and never say goodbye? How could you leave without ever reaching out, never once trying to find me? Didn’t you care how I was or where I ended up? How could you leave me with so many unanswered questions? No photo for me to remember you, to study your face, to memorise. No last parting words of wisdom or advice. No letter of explanation. Nothing. Just an endless, hollow silence.
And so, inside the now grown adult, still remains, the frightened, confused, rejected, abandoned little girl, who will never grow up. Who will never know why you didn’t want her, why you didn’t keep her? What it was it you saw in her that repulsed you so much you cast her aside and across the seas; keeping the existence of the baby girl you once bore so many years ago a shameful secret, you literally took with you to your grave.
Michelle has published other articles about her experience as a Korean intercountry adoptee at Korean Quarterly.
by Soorien Zeldenrust & Dong-Mi Engels who write this article on behalf of the Adoptee & Foster Coaching (AFC) team, Netherlands.
Standing still with today, with life, surviving and giving up. You’re tired and you don’t want to feel anymore. You wish to find a path, away from the pain and sadness.
A day where 6 suicide reports of intercountry adoptees, which all took place on and around New Year’s Day, have now arrived to our Adoptee & Foster Coaching (AFC) colleagues. One from India, two from Korea, all 3 adopted to Netherlands; one from India, one from Chile, both adopted to Belgium; one from Chile adopted to Germany.
Making the unbearable bearable
Your body is broken the moment you were separated from your greatest commitment: your mother and your origins. Once in a new family and another country you will be obliged to attach yourself to this. Not only from the environment, but also from yourself to survive. As a child you can only stand with yourself by adjusting. When “problems” come later, it will be downplayed or your surroundings try to “fix it”. After all, you were so neatly adjusted (read: devastated).
You’re getting older, the unforgettable feeling and being different from your surroundings remains present deep inside and slowly rises to the surface. Soon it gets to the point that you can no longer ignore (recurring) relationship problems, workplace issues or health issues. Where should you look for it and who should you be with? Is there someone who can really understand what you’re going through and what you’re feeling? Usually not in your immediate vicinity and not from the regular professionals either. And yet you want an end to the intense pain, the unprocessed sadness and (the double) grief. You wish for an end to longing for a home or a place, that desire for hiraeth, a deep homesickness.
Some of us reach a point where they don’t want to feel all of this anymore and can’t handle confrontation anymore. They also feel guilty towards their adoptive parents because they can’t handle the pressure of being “happy”. They’re over it.
By sharing these hopeless looking thoughts and greatest fears with like-minded people, you can break through this and you will feel that you are no longer alone. It really does get better. You can handle this pain and learn to embrace it because you will understand it and never have to wear it alone again.
We as AFC coaches unfortunately can’t prevent what happened last New Year’s Day. There are adopted people who see no way out. All we can do is be there for you when you are ready to reach out and ask for support. By giving recognition and sharing, we want to let you know that you are not alone and there is a place to learn and be yourself, with all your questions, sadness, fears and thoughts. Make yourself known and be heard. We provide a listening ear, the correct aftercare and the necessary awareness in the outside world.
Worldwide, intercountry adoptees commit suicide 4-5 times more than the average non-adopted person. This occurs especially when adoptees can’t find their first parents and relatives and they are very vulnerable during the holiday season.
by Kara Bos, born in South Korea and adopted to the USA. (French Translation kindly provided by Nicolas Beaufour)
It’s been two months since the fateful day of the verdict of my court case where I was recognised as being my biological Korean father’s daughter, 99.981% by the Seoul Family Court. I’ve held countless interviews and there are currently 10 pages of Google that host the numerous articles written about my paternal lawsuit and search journey. I would and could not have imagined that this would happen, and I’m still in awe of it all. However, 2 months after the spotlight and shock of what happened is finally settling in. I’m realising that in my everyday life and in my search journey for my mother, nothing has really changed. I still do not know who she is, and have not been able to meet her. I’m back home with my beautiful family and traversing life as I did before, and continue to be ignored by my father and his family. The hurt and questions that burdened by heart before are still present, and even though victories were won and I’m being cheered on by many different adoptee/non-adoptee communities my search journey is ongoing without any real hope of it coming full circle. I’m in survival mode again as each day passes by and I try to focus on the here and now; enjoying the amazing life I have, the amazing family I have, but in the back of my mind I’m still agonising over those unanswered questions that I had worked so hard to get answered.
It’s amazing how we as adoptees manage it all if I do say so myself. We are expected to forget the trauma surrounding our circumstances of arriving into our new families. We are expected to move on, and not dawdle on mere things of the past, as what good will come of it? We are expected to be thankful and happy for the new life we’ve been given and if we dare to search for our roots, then what went wrong in our childhood that we would ever have this longing? Are we not happy or thankful for our current families? I’ve been criticized quite a bit since my trial broke headlines around the globe from strangers and even loved ones with these types of questions. As often as I say I can brush it off, it of course does hurt. How is it that people are so ignorant about adoption and the complexities involved?
This has become my mantra alongside restorative justice for adoptees right to origin; to educate the everyday person on the street to gain even if it’s a sliver of understanding that adoption is so much more complex then how it was and still is currently packaged and sold: adoptive parents are saviours and adopted children have been rescued from poverty and should be thankful for the new life they’ve been given. I want to tell you that most adoptees are thankful for their new lives, as we’ve been told since we were young to be so. Most adoptees are also afraid to search for their origins or birth families as they feel it will be a betrayal to their adoptive families. Most adoptees also will fall into an identity crisis at some point in their lives, since most are raised in a homogeneous Caucasian society and it’s natural that they will at some point recognise that they themselves are not Caucasian. When most adoptees search it is completely not associated with whether or not they are thankful for their families or lives, and whether or not they love their families or have a good relationship with them. It has everything to do with the fundamental need of knowing as a human being where one comes from, and seeking answers to those life questions.
My lawsuit was representative of a girl searching for her mother and all the culminating events that led to that fateful day of June 12th, 2020. I never imagined even finding a family member, let alone my father; and I never imagined I would file a lawsuit against him. I’ve rehashed countless times in my interviews and all social media platforms that it was never my goal. If my father or his family would have given answers to who my mother was discreetly, does one really think I would go to these excruciatingly painful lengths? Do I not as an adoptee, have a right to know these answers? Does a birth family right to privacy outweigh my right to know my origins? These are questions that are now circulating because of my lawsuit and interviews I have done. Thousands of Koreans in Korea for maybe the first time discussed my actions and in the overwhelming majority of those comments were in favour of my father taking responsibility and telling me whom my mother is. The court also agreed with the legal recognition of myself as my father’s daughter, forcing him to add me to his family register even though my closed adoption case from 1984 through Holt completely stripped me of any family in Korea.
The question remains, will it continue? Will my lawsuit actually set precedent and bring out systemic change? Or will it bring harm to the birth search quest as some critics claim? Only time will tell, but my hope is that the Korean government will give restorative justice to an adoptee’s right to origin when they revise the Adoption Act of 2012. Therefore taking responsibility in their role in sending the more than 200,000 adoptees away and allowing us our rightful place to find our way back “home.”
In my first post, I stated my wish to share a couple of events experienced by few, if any, Greek adoptees. Finding my birthmother, Hariklea Voukelatos, when I was 30 was a gift beyond measure. Twelve years later Hariklea made a remarkable request that changed the lives of my family forever and makes my adoption story truly unique.
It was the summer of 2007, and
I was glad to be back in Greece after two years away. My usual itinerary
involved spending a couple of days in Athens with my cousins before I took the
bus to Patras to stay with Hariklea, my birthmother. A phone call changed
everything. When cousin Zoe phoned Hariklea to tell her I had arrived, I had an
inkling something was up when their conversation lasted longer than what seemed
necessary. Even so, I was not prepared for Zoe’s announcement: “Maria, Hariklea
has made other plans for your weekend. She wants you to come to Patras today.”
“Why today?” I asked. “Because Hariklea wants to go home to her village on
Lefkada Island and you are going to take her there,” Zoe replied. Her comment
was met with dead silence. Then everyone started talking at once and peppering
Zoe with questions. She quieted everyone down and continued: “Hariklea left
Nikolis 44 years ago as a frightened, pregnant, teenager. Now she is an old
woman who wants to see her childhood home one last time before she dies. When
you arrive in Patras, she will rent a car for the drive. You will stay with my parents,
Thodoris and Marianna. Hariklea has even arranged for a translator for your
visit. We sat in silence, each of us trying to get our heads around what this
meant to the family when cousin Eve cut to the chase and stated, “Forty-four
years ago your mother was forced to leave Nikolis because of you. Now 44 years
later, she can return to Nikolis because of you.” In two short sentences, Eve
had articulated the irony of Hariklea’s request. It was understandable and
What a crazy morning! In two
hours, I had gone from sipping coffee on the beach to a hard, wooden bench at a
bus station. I had no idea what to expect, but the abrupt changes in my plans
were small compared to the total transformation of my Greek family’s life. All
these changes only heightened my anticipation of the upcoming trip.
I boarded the bus for Patras
and settled into my seat. Looking out the window at the familiar countryside,
memories of my first visit to Lefkada in 1996 returned. With God’s grace, a
fork in the road and the letter “N,” Bev and I had found tiny Nikolis clinging
to a steep mountainside on our first day of looking. My uncles were more than a
little shocked to meet the child Hariklea was carrying when she left the
island. Hearing the grown woman standing in front of them was their niece must
have been like seeing a ghost from the past. We shared a meal that started with
a bit of tension but ended with Thodoris welcoming me to the family.
Three hours later I arrived in Patras and took a taxi to Hariklea’s home. Parked out front was a funny, little, purple car with an anemic three-cylinder engine. Perfect for our trip, it suited the narrow roads and got good gas mileage. We stowed our bags and climbed in the car. Settled in, Hariklea looked at me and said, “Pame” (“Let’s go”).
Driving together for hours
with an unavoidable language barrier made for a challenging trip. We managed to
converse about simple things, and while there was not much said, a lot was
communicated. Barreling down the road, I wondered what could be more reasonable
than a mother and daughter driving home to visit the relatives. Nothing, except
we were no ordinary mother and daughter, and the home had remained unseen for
four decades. The significance of what we were doing was not lost on us at all.
Five hours and 15
hairpin-turns later we pulled into Uncle Thodoris’ driveway. There were hugs
and kisses all around as he and Marianna came out to greet us. Once inside, we
were introduced to our translator, Kalliopy, a friend of Thodoris. Hariklea and
I got settled in our room before joining the others at the kitchen table. We
stayed up for hours talking, laughing, and drinking Thodoris’ homemade krasi
(wine). Around midnight Kalliopy returned home and we went to bed. Tomorrow was
going to be a big day.
We were up the next morning sipping coffee when there was a knock at the door. I opened it to find a tiny, senior, man with his hands in his pockets, watery eyes, and trembling lips. He was shaking as he asked to come in. The minute he saw Hariklea, he shuffled to her as fast as he could, embraced her and sobbed. Kalliopi explained his name was Andreas Adipas, a childhood friend from Nikolis. They sat close together on kitchen chairs, holding one another like old friends do and sharing their news. The tender scene unfolding in front of us brought everyone to tears. How sad these two friends had lost out on a lifetime of friendship. Andreas was the first villager to welcome Hariklea home, and that meant the news had spread: Hariklea Voukelatos was back on Lefkada.
The excitement in the house was palpable as we changed clothes and prepared to leave for Nikolis. We were all expected for lunch with Nikos and Zahareena. There were five of us, so Thodoris and Marianna led the way in his truck with Hariklea, Kalliopi, and me following behind. The drive was short, but no one spoke along the way. I wanted Hariklea to have time to prepare herself as we drove over the steep, windy, roads she had not seen since she was a teenager. We passed the field where her mother’s dowry of nine olive trees still grew as well as the olive press our fathers had shared. I turned right at the sign that led travelers to Nikolis and within minutes parked in front of Hariklea’s old home.
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.