Being Truly Seen as a Filipino Adoptee

by Arlynn Hope Dunn, adopted from the Philippines to the USA; presented at the 16th Philippine Global Consultation on Child Welfare Services on 24 September, 2021.

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.

My Beginnings

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.

Young Adulthood

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.

Long lost family

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 because I 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.

Thank you so much for listening to my testimony.

Maraming Salamat po.

Coping with Loss from Adoption Suicide

by Lina Vanegas adopted from Colombia to the USA, MSW.

Artwork by Adriana Alvarez

I have lost two people in my life to suicide, the father of my children who was also my ex-husband and my mom. The father of my children was adopted and my mom was impacted by adoption because she lost me to adoption. Both of them sadly fit the statistics. Adoptees are four times more likely to attempt suicide. I would argue that moms (first mothers, original mothers, natural moms) also have high suicide attempt rates.

I am a transracial and intercountry adoptee who was adopted from Bogota, Colombia and have lived the majority of my life in Michigan in the United States. Suicide loss is a death like no other. It is not like a car accident, heart attack, or cancer where there is a clear explanation of how someone died. People who die by suicide are struggling immensely. There is no closure with this death. Suicide is also highly stigmatised, people do not want to talk about it, and many judge the death. Suicide loss for us as adoptees is further compounded and amplified with all of the loss and grief that we have already experienced and it can trigger many of the issues we suffer with related to adoption. 

If you are reading this and have lost someone to suicide, I want you to know that you are not alone and that I am so sorry you are experiencing this horrendously painful loss. I also want you to know that it is not your fault. There is nothing you could have done or should have done. The person who died was in so much pain. You may also be reading this and have been shocked by the person’s death because you had no idea that they were suffering and maybe they seemed happy and like everything was okay. It is still not your fault. Please do not blame yourself or hold onto any guilt. It is extremely painful to know or learn that our loved one was suffering so much.

One thing that I have learned is that some days are harder than others. It  has helped me to know that I can break up my days and I can take it moment to moment, minute to minute or hour to hour or one day at a time as the famous Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) slogan says. The first year for me was a complete blur. It seemed to drag on forever and I was in a hurry to put it all behind me because it was so painful and difficult. Honestly, I cannot remember much because I was in so much shock. Please be patient, kind and gentle with yourself if you have experienced a suicide loss. Suicide loss is such a painful and life changing loss. The first year of loss was really hard because everything becomes a first without them. 

Some of the hardest days for me are, the person’s birthday, anniversary of their death and the holidays. I have learned to sit with my emotions and feel them. I give myself permission to cry and mourn if that is what needs to happen.  If something was too hard, then I created a new tradition or decided not to do it. Then there are times where I just break down because something triggered me and I am back to feeling my grief. Grief is a journey, it ebbs and it flows. It is not linear and there is no expiration date. Please do not let anyone tell you differently or push you to get over it or heal in a certain amount of time. We all grieve differently and grief is not a one size fits all thing experience. 

Artwork by Nicholas Down

It has been a real journey for me to figure out ways to cope and begin to heal. Suicide loss has really changed the way that I have looked at life. I now see that life is short and fleeting and that each day is not promised. I have chosen to use the loss of my mother as momentum to help me live my life in honor of her. I strive to turn my pain into purpose, a path, and power. There have been many ways that I have found to help me cope which I want to share with you.

For me, sitting with my feelings and truly feeling them has been so helpful. Crying, bawling and literally losing my breath sobbing and having that deep soul cry have helped my grieve and mourn.  Therapy has also been instrumental for me. It is really helpful to have a safe and non judgemental space that is just for me.  It is important to find a therapist who works solely with trauma and ideally someone who is adoption competent. Many therapists honestly have not studied adoption so it is hard for them to truly understand us.

I am an avid reader and for me reading and researching gave me answers and helped me gain understanding.  I threw myself into reading and researching suicide. For me it was important to understand suicide so that I could make sense of things. I read a lot from other suicide loss survivors which was really essential because I could relate to what they were saying and I could learn how they coped and healed. The other group that was really important to read and listen to was, suicide attempt survivors. It helped me to be able to gain a deeper understanding of suicide and mental health struggles. It also gave me insight into how I can help people who are suffering from suicidal ideations.

 I joined a grief support group and a suicide survivor loss support group.  Both of these groups allowed me to connect with other people who were experiencing the same things as me and I did not need to explain myself.  I made friends, I cried, I laughed but most of all I realized that I was not alone and I felt seen, heard and validated. I also attend an adoption group which has been helpful because many adoptees are also dealing with suicide loss. It has been helpful to talk with other adoptees about suicide loss. You can look for a group online and accessibility should be easier now that most groups are being done virtually. 

Attending events such as walks that raise money for suicide prevention or attending International Suicide Survivor Loss Day which is in November have also very helpful.  Again, I was able to realise that I am not not alone and I felt like part of a bigger piece. It is inspiring to see money being raised to help prevent suicide, fund research, and also cathartic. 

Movement such as running, biking, walking, and yoga have also helped me cope because they are an outlet where I can release and channel my emotions. Meditation has been great because it has allowed me to slow down and be present in my body. Journaling and writing have been my creative outlet for processing and coping with suicide loss. Making sure that I am eating a balanced diet and getting sufficient sleep has also been really beneficial. The self care piece is really important and it will look different for everyone. Please do something for yourself that you enjoy doing. 

Social media is also a great way to connect with other survivors of suicide loss. There are many groups and organizations that one can join. There are also many blogs, podcasts and articles on mental health issues that discuss suicide which are great resources. 

It has been almost 7 years since my first suicide loss and just over 2 from the death of my mom so it has been a decent amount of time and not a long period of time. I am at a place where I want to share my story whether it be to one on one, to a group, or through writing. This is not something I could have done early on as it was so painful and I was still processing everything. I find now that sharing my story has really helped me cope and be able to help others.

I have made an effort to  incorporate the people that have been lost into my everyday life. I have purchased ornaments in honour of them for my Christmas tree, framed pictures of them for my house, I purchase flowers regularly in honour of my mom, I light candles, and make their favourite food on holidays or any other time. I am thinking about getting a tattoo in honour of my mom so that she is always symbolically there with me. It has been soothing for me to incorporate them into my daily life. Some other ideas I have thought of are, planting a tree or plant for the person, you can set a place for them at the table, you can buy or create some kind of art that can be in honour of them, you could buy or make a scarf or something to wear that symbolises them. 

I want you to remember that the suicide of your loved one is not your fault. You are not alone in losing someone to suicide.

Please take care of yourself and remember there are resources to help you cope. Be kind and gentle with yourself.

Other Resources on Adoptee Suicide

Dealing with Adoptee Suicide
ICAVs Memorial Page
Adoptee Remembrance Day
It’s a Black Week for Adoptees in Europe

Don’t Tell Me to be Grateful

by Naomi Mackay adopted from India to Sweden.

My Journey

I was adopted to a white family in the south of Sweden from north India in the late 70’s and as soon as I arrived in Sweden, I was told to stop speaking weird and that I was now Swedish. We never spoke about India growing up. If I did ask, I received short answers then a lecture on how horrible India is with crimes, rape, child marriage and killings of baby girls. Because that’s all India is, right? Thank colonisation! I had a packed bag next to my bed with the clothes and jewellery brought from India, just in case.

The trauma of growing up like this invited self-hate and suicidal thoughts and I can’t tell you what stopped me, but animals were my best friends who I would seek solace from when low. There was never a mention of race, only how lucky I was to be brown and my eyebrows and hair would be ridiculed to the point that I would pluck my eyebrows to near extinction and colour my hair to breaking point. I heard talk about race hate but since I’m white, why would this apply to me? I was a white person on the inside who didn’t like to get her photo taken or look at herself in the mirror, as it was a reminder of my colour. I was a white person living in a white world without benefitting from what this means. People from India are not represented in mainstream fashion, music, films and the media and many think that by using one person of colour, they’ve represented us all.

Growing up without anyone looking like me caused much trauma as I found it very hard to accept myself and to find my identity. I wasn’t accepted as white yet this was what I identified as. I wasn’t accepted as Indian but didn’t identify as such. In my early 20’s, when I started to travel abroad more, I realised how uncomfortable I was in my own skin and if a person of colour walked into the room, or anyone mentioned the word, I found it uncomfortable as I realised they were also talking about me. I would divert the topic to something else whenever possible. I started noticing I was often the only person of colour in most rooms, especially in equestrian training and competition which was my whole life growing up.

I have dreamt and fought to become a filmmaker since I was very young. I pursued this despite my family who didn’t see it as a profession, within a Swedish college who didn’t accept me where university tutors laughed in my face on several occasions, amongst funding bodies who excluded transracial adoptees, with Scottish filmmakers who would not let me in and deleted my credentials on a film crew database. I have read many personal statements by Swedish people of colour who relocated to America for a chance at progression within their field. I too was accepted there when I finally gained the courage to apply to do an MA in filmmaking at their two most prestigious filmmaking universities. Do you still think I should be grateful?

Changes

The first time I met Indian people after being adopted was when I moved to Scotland, I was 24 years old and so intrigued and uncomfortable. In my mindset I still saw myself as white and did not relate what was happening to me to be about race. I was cautious of Black people and saw myself above Asians, just in a way I imagine white people do but can’t explain how or why. It kept me safe, mentally. Sometimes I miss this, it was easier to handle than the truth.

In 2020, I became more active in anti-racism activities as I know others who did and I joined many social media groups. There was one particular Scottish group where I live which made me feel very uncomfortable because I was faced by many people of colour with strong confident voices. I found my own without being shut down or drowned out by white people and I came to realise everything which was stolen from me: my culture, my beliefs, my voice as a person of colour, my dignity, my heritage, my language and my roots, my identity. I was sold for profit to privilege others but for which I would never experience the privilege through the Christian faith which I was brought up with. I felt so betrayed. When I continuously keep hearing from my white acquaintances and friends that “You get what you put in”, I started to believe I was just lazy and untalented. I did not take into account their head start and the extra hurdles I have on my journey as a person of colour. It’s a lot to take in and I’m SO ANGRY!! Do you still think I should be grateful?

(Un)Learning

As I started to strip away the whiteness I inherited via adoption, I came to realise that some things are harder than others to remove. My language still needs altering in some ways and I find myself apologising in horror as I become more aware. A few months ago I was asked why I keep using the word “coloured”. It never occurred to me that I was saying it and I’ve even told others off on many occasions for using it. In Swedish, “coloured” is “färgad” and digging deeper I realise it’s still widely used in media and by people in everyday language. After having spoken to several Swedish people and observing the media, I’ve come to realise that there is no alternative wording, so I have decided to establish it, about time!

In Sweden, the English phrases are used and never translated as it makes it more palatable for white people and puts distance between the person and the issue. I have created a Swedish anti-racism page as I really believe in creating the changes needed with a less interactive approach giving white fragility no space. There’s so much about my upbringing I need to unpack and unlearn. The majority of Swedish social media and anti-racism pages I’ve found so far speak only of the prejudice Jewish people face as it’s what white people feel comfortable with. This is not racism through, it’s antisemitism.

I wear my colour/oppression on my skin for all to see and at no point can I ever hide or change this. Why is all this important when talking about my trauma as an intercountry adoptee? Because it shows the very deeply rooted racist societies in which Black and Brown are sold and the deeply rooted internal racism it creates in us. I hate myself for being like this but I hate the people who did this to me more. Hate is a strong word, I’m making no excuses for using it. It’s mental abuse, violence and rape. Do you still think I should be grateful?

Rebuilding

I’m now re-building myself as an Indian woman. A person of colour. A transracial intercountry adoptee and I’ve found yoga is helping me heal although I feel like I’m culturally appropriating it, I know it’s my culture and I have every right to it. Recently I found out I was born a Hindu, so my deep connection to yoga is natural. The more I decolonise yoga, the more I decolonise myself. The most damaging incidences to my healing process have been Indian people speaking down to me for not having grown up there, not speaking any of the languages, nor knowing the culture or religions well, nor dressing in traditional Indian clothing or cooking Indian foods.

For those who are Indian, you are so lucky to have what was denied me. You’re so lucky to know the smells, roots and the love of our beautiful country. I have as much right to any part of it as you and as I’m still learning, I’m grateful to now have understanding people in my life helping me heal. I have privilege in that my accent and whitewashed ideologies fits into Swedish life and people raised in India have privilege in that they didn’t live through the trauma of losing their whole identity via being sold off, and didn’t grow up with the same level of internalised racism, nor seeing parts of the culture on display and being sold back to them. I believe that my inquisitive nature and yearning to learn is the reason why I’ve been open to change and (un)learning. I’ve educated myself on Black history and the trauma of colonialism.

Moving Forward

I believe that as an adult it’s my responsibility to educate myself and learn what I can do to make this world safe for everyone. I am currently working on a documentary film and a book about my life and journey. I recognise many of us are doing this. Our experiences are unique and they’re ours. We all have different ways of coping and I have big trust issues with white people, especially Christians. I see a lot of white centring in my daily life and white adoptive parents speaking about how transracial adoption affected them and the trauma they faced. I’m healing every day and writing this was a step forward.

I have one question for you. Do you support human trafficking? There’s no “but”, just as I could also ask, “Do you support racism?” There’s only “Yes” or “No”. If you would like to support and help children, have a look at what you can do.