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.

In Memory of Seid Visin

By Mark Hagland, South Korean intercountry adoptee raised in the USA, co-founder of Transracial Adoption Perspectives (a group for adoptive parents to learn from lived experience), and author of Extraordinary Journey: The Lifelong Path of the Transracial Adoptee

What We’re Learning

In the past few days, since the news broke on June 4 that 20-year-old Seid Visin had ended his life through suicide, the Italian and European press have published articles and broadcast segments on his death, with a fair amount of disbelief and confusion involved. There are a number of reasons for the confusion, some of them journalistic—questions over the statement he had apparently made a couple of years ago to his therapist, versus what might have been going on in his life most recently—but most of all, because of statements made by his parents Walter and Maddalena.

Walter and Maddalena adopted Seid at the age of seven; he grew up in their home in Nocera Inferiore, a suburb of Naples. I can understand that they are deeply confused by what’s happened; but it’s also clear to me that, despite their good intentions, that they have no understanding whatsoever of his distress over the racism that he continued to experience. I’ve just viewed an interview with an Italian broadcast program called “Approfondimento Focus,” in which they kept reiterating how happy he was, how his recent psychological issues were related to the COVID lockdown, which they blamed for his recent depression, and how he had no interest whatsoever in his Ethiopian background. They also repeatedly denied that racism had anything to do with their son’s emotional distress.

That last set of statements on the part of Seid’s parents really struck me in a number of different ways, particularly given the excerpts of the text of that letter to his therapist of (apparently) a couple of years ago, that have been released. Per that, Corriere della Sera obtained a letter that Seid Visin wrote to his therapist two years ago, and Rolling Stone Italia has published it. In it, Seid wrote that, “Wherever I go, wherever I am, I feel the weight of people’s skeptical, prejudiced, disgusted and frightened looks on my shoulders like a boulder.” He wrote that he was ashamed “to be black, as if I was afraid of being mistaken for an immigrant, as if I had to prove to people, who didn’t know me, that I was like them, that I was Italian, white.” This feeling led him to make “jokes in bad taste about blacks and immigrants (…) as if to emphasize that I was not one of them. But it was fear. The fear of the hatred I saw in people’s eyes towards immigrants.”

As a sports journalist wrote in Le Parisien, “His death caused great emotion in Italy. In 2019, the young man pointed out the racism he was subjected to, writing a post on social media in which he expressed his discomfort. ‘A few months ago, I managed to find a job, which I had to quit because too many people, mostly older people, refused to be served by me,’ he said. They also accused me of the fact that many young Italians could not find work. The adoptive parents of the victim, however, wanted to provide details. ‘Seid’s gesture does not stem from episodes of racism,’ they told the Italian press.”

Here is the text of the letter; its exact date is not certain, and there is confusion as to when it was written—either very recently, or about two years ago—but in any case, here it is:

“I am not an immigrant, but I was adopted as a child. I remember that everyone loved me. Wherever I went, everyone addressed me with joy, respect and curiosity. Now, that atmosphere of idyllic peace seems very far away. It seems mystically. everything was reversed. Now, wherever I go, I feel the weight of skeptical, disgusted and scared looks on my shoulders. I had managed to find a job that I had to leave because too many people, especially the elderly, refused to be cared for by me. And as if it were not enough for me, they accused me of being responsible for many young Italians (white) not finding work. After this experience, something changed within me. As if I was ashamed to be black, as if I was afraid that someone would mistake me for an immigrant. As if he had to prove to people he did not know that he was like them, that he was Italian.

I have even made distasteful jokes about blacks and immigrants, as if to emphasize that I was not one of them. The only thing that explained my behavior was fear. The fear of hatred he saw in people’s eyes towards immigrants. The fear of contempt that I felt at the mouth of people, even my relatives, who wistfully invoked Mussolini and ‘Captain Salvini’. I don’t want to beg for compassion or pity. I just want to remind myself of the discomfort and suffering that I am experiencing. I am a drop of water next to the ocean of suffering that is living who prefers to die to continue living in misery and hell. Those people who risk their lives, and those who have already lost it, just to snoop around, to savor what we simply call ‘life.’”

A couple of very important notes here. First, it is quite significant that Seid explicitly references not on Mussolini, but also Matteo Salvini, the former Deputy Prime Minister, and still current Senator in the Italian Parliament, who is Secretary of the Lega Nord, or Northern League, which is a right-wing racist, xenophobic political party, whose supporters are pretty much the equivalent of the supporters of Donald Trump in the United States. There has been a massive surge in the expression of overt racism and xenophobia in Italy in the past decade and a half, and the racist xenophobia has exploded in the last several years, particularly as many thousands of Black Africans have entered Italy as refugees from war, conflict, and poverty in Africa. Second, in the letter above, he made it extremely clear that he was deeply distressed by the racism he had been experiencing.

Interestingly, his mother Maddalena, in that interview broadcast on the “Approfondimento Focus” program, kept emphasizing that Seid had recently been depressed because of the isolation imposed on him and others during the lockdown this spring. Obviously, there is rarely simply one single cause for suicidality. Seid could certainly have been depressed during the nationwide lockdown in Italy this spring. But that absolutely does not negate his extreme distress over his lived experience of racism.

Reflecting on all this, I see a tragically classic situation for a young adult transracial, intercountry adoptee, a young person who was racially and socially isolated, who was experiencing ongoing racism, and whose parents, from what we can tell, were in denial about the racism he was experiencing and the distress he was experiencing because of it.

Another tragic loss of yet another transracial intercountry adoptee life.

I’m sharing a post from La Repubblica, with a link to a selfie-video (which has since been taken down so I post this one instead) in which Seid is enjoying dancing.

May the memory of Seid and his life be a blessing.

Related Resources

ICAVs Memorial Page

Read Mark Hagland’s contribution to ICAVs other post: Can we Ignore or Deny that Racism Exists for Adoptees of Colour?

We Need to Talk about Adoptee Suicide, Now