It is November, National Adoption Awareness Month (NAAM) 2018. At ICAV, we want to raise awareness of the realities some live who rarely get to express their voice because they are too downtrodden and trying to survive, let alone tell their story!
Today, I share the journey of a very brave young woman adopted from Ethiopia to the USA. Her life experience needs to be told to intercountry adoption agencies, governments, lawyers, social workers and middle-people who continue to facilitate intercountry adoptions without learning from the past. When I interviewed this young woman, my heart was shredded as I listened to the heartache, trauma, re-trauma and sadness that has filled her life. Adoption is meant to be a forever family isn’t it?? Don’t adoption agencies and governments promote adoption as being in the best interests of the child?? Don’t they equate adoption with permanency??
It is fellow adoptees like this who inspire me to continue to raise awareness in intercountry adoption. Too many times, intercountry adoptions are done poorly, with little responsibility or ethics for the long term outcomes. We need to learn from these worst case scenarios and stop telling ourselves the lie that it only happens to a minority.
In my opinion, if it happens to one, it happens to too many! These issues are a reflection of an international system that clearly has little oversight, little controls, too much monetary incentive to “make the transaction” and not enough checks and balances to ensure the child is actually placed in a safe, loving, psychologically healthy and nurturing family. Not to mention the lack of means and routes for justice for the child who grows up! Until these real life experiences for intercountry adoptees stop happening, I cannot support intercountry adoption as it is conducted today.
We must learn from the lessons and do what we can to stop intercountry adoptions like this from happening. That means, we have to stop blindly promoting intercountry adoption as if it’s the answer for all vulnerable children around the world. The fact that intercountry adoptions like this are happening in recent times and still occurring (not just from my 70s era) tells us that very little has changed to ensure adoptions are done in the best interests of the child.
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on intercountry adoption after you read Sha’s life journey, Abandoned by All.
There are a lot of opinions and pieces surrounding Crazy Rich Asians right now. I am simply adding to the chorus, but from a slightly different perspective as a Chinese American intercountry adopted person. As an adoptee who watched Crazy Rich Asians, it is hard to describe all of the feelings I felt while sitting in the movie theatre, well twice. It was beautiful, funny, smart, and fun. Of course, the movie is receiving extra praise because of a cast that is all-Asian and not just the cast, but the music and the cultural representation as well. Representation matters and it was with a smile that I approached the end credits of the movie.
As an adoptee, I felt proud to see people who looked like me on the big screen. People who had similar features, presented in different shades where not every Asian was the kung fu master or nerdy IT tech support. The movie was refreshing and quite frankly a new experience, at least in major Hollywood films.
But…and this is a big but. I felt represented by the way I look, but not necessarily by how I grew up. As an adoptee I straddle in between the Asian and white cultures where I look Asian but was raised in a white household. To be honest, I am not sure I understood every joke in Crazy Rich Asians, and definitely didn’t understand every song. My parents didn’t necessarily practice the honor/shame ritual of guilting their children. I recognized it and laughed, but on an experiential level I couldn’t relate.
My immigrant story is a solo journey of going from a poor orphanage in China to a middle class white family in America. My immigrant story came without a choice and the expectation of gratefulness attached, because to some, I didn’t suffer as much as other Asian immigrant families did. That’s a topic for a different discussion. To the point however, Asian adoptees and others have struggled with identifying as Asian American or Asian because we aren’t seen as Asian enough. We are called “whitewashed” by other Asian Americans and we are clearly not white, but we are familiar with white culture because we had no choice but to be raised in it. We are left out because we don’t fit any conventional norms. We are the true bananas.
There was an article the other day of the mixed Asian actresses and whether they were “Asian enough” for the film. This type of debate only leaves my head scratching. To be clear, this is not a knock on the film. The film was great step in the right direction. I’m not asking for an all adopted Chinese American film. But if Asians complain about white people leaving them out of Hollywood and that there needs to be more representation, then surely Asians should also be open to a more diverse Asian representation and what it means to be Asian. Just like there are all different shades of what it means to be American, to some degree there can be different shades to what it means to be Asian or Asian American. I understand Asians are mostly homogenous within their own cultures and countries, but the world we are increasingly living in is multiracial and multi-ethnic. If Asians want more representation in a space they occupy like society, then maybe they should be open to others who occupy a similar space to them.
Change is slow. I get it. Crazy Rich Asians was a monumental step in opening the door for an all-Asian cast and potentially for more representation of minorities of all shapes and sizes. Personally though, I can’t wait until we can stop categorizing people and putting them in boxes just because it’s convenient or because it’s the way it’s always been. Rather, I’d like to let people blaze and add new categories and labels so they can be themselves. There is more to be done for sure but that doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t celebrate when it’s appropriate to do so. I left Crazy Rich Asians with a smile on my face and hope in my heart.
These past weeks have been frustrating to say the least! I received an official letter from the Australian Government – Minister Tehan’s office, Minister for Social Services, one of the Federal departments responsible for intercountry adoption. Our stakeholder community has been actively writing and contacting the Minister to request a review of the decision to end the funding of our much needed Search service in intercountry adoption. But we have been denied.
After only 2 years, the ISS Australia Intercountry Adoption Tracing & Reunification Service (ICATRS) which was granted less than AUS$500k each year, with an uptake of over 200 adult adoptees and adoptive families, will be closing and the cases handed back to the States/Territory Central Authorities. Historically, the States/Territory governments have provided minimal resources to post adoption support in intercountry adoption, and even less to searching and reunification. Since becoming a signatory of The Hague Convention, Australia devised the Commonwealth-State Agreement which separates the responsibilities between States and Commonwealth. The Commonwealth owns the relationship with our sending countries. This means, for the States/Territories who largely assess prospective parents, they have little day to day communication with our birth countries, hence are not always well placed to conduct searches for us – years/decades after an adoption has occurred.
Australia moved from making history in providing a much needed national and free search service for all adult intercountry adoptees, to now re-joining the rest of the world governments who participate in intercountry adoption but do little, to ensure positive outcomes by providing comprehensive post adoption supports. It is a requirement as a signatory of The Hague Convention but not one country around the world has stepped up to provide a comprehensive service – and especially not targeted to support adult intercountry adoptee needs.
I would understand if the Federal Government decided to close intercountry adoption altogether AND remove the search service, but to continue conducting intercountry adoption without comprehensive post adoption supports, in my eyes is unethical and just plain wrong!
Since 2014, the Australian federal government allocated a budget of AU$33.6m across 5 years to spend on facilitating intercountry adoption. Out of that budget, little to nothing has been given to those who are already here – the adult adoptees and their adoptive families. For those who are impacted by the lack of intercountry adoption policy from the late 1960s era, post adoption services are so much more important. Adoptees of my generation were, for the good majority of us, adopted with poor documentation and questionable procedures. Funding the loudest and most powerful stakeholder has seen a blatant skewing of tax payer money. I ask where is the conscience and ethics of the Australian Government? How can they justify spending AU$33.6m on services for prospective parents but do little to nothing for those of us who are already here, asking for help and support?!
We live in an era where apologies are given and past policies recognised for the harm done. The Stolen Generation. The Forced Adoption Apology. The Forgotten Australians. Now the Royal Commission into Sexual Abuse. Well, one day, our small minority of intercountry adoptees, who have been left out of all these similar scenarios, will have to be acknowledged and recognised. Our day of reckoning will eventually come. But we may have to force it instead of speaking nicely and being politely grateful for our adopted lives. We are adopted to a country that treats us as a symbolic gesture to “help those less fortunate”. Intercountry adoption policy prances about in disguise as being “in the interests of the child”. Yet overtly – the rhetoric is clearly not true. Actions speak louder than words. The actions are for those wanting a child, not for the child itself.
In the past weeks, I also submitted a letter to the Australian Human Rights Commission for their annual report on how Australia is tracking in Children’s Rights. In my submission, I point out the many breaches that occur under Children’s Rights in intercountry adoption from the lived experience perspective. Past and current intercountry adoption practices and the variety of outcomes dating back to the late 1960s, goes against 13 of the 41 Part I Articles under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Around the globe, I see adult intercountry adoptees speaking out enmasse – BUT, we are continually being ignored. The Dutch adoptees are now suing their Dutch government for their illegal adoptions in which their own birth countries are acknowledging illicit practices. Ultimately, this is what it will come down to. Clearly when we ask politely, nicely, respectfully to listen to our experiences and do the right thing, governments all over the world will only take reponsibility when it comes to the legal crunch. It won’t be until many of us start finding ways to seek justice through litigation around the world that we will no longer be ignored. This is the reality of intercountry adoption.
I observe closely the harsh debate going on in the USA between pro adoption parents and adoption agencies who are criticising the US Department of State for implementing tighter controls in accreditation of adoption agencies and standards. These lobby groups are sending around petitions to ask the US President to support the increase for international adoptions and are attacking the US Department of State for bringing in much needed reforms to prevent illicit practices. It’s interesting how these same lobby groups will push to bring in more children who need saving around the world, but do nothing to ensure those already here, are granted automatic citizenship.
These lobby groups and agencies clearly do not speak to deported adoptees who sink into depression and are hard hit by being uprooted yet again, with no choice of their own. Do these lobby groups take any responsibility for children being placed into families that were not suitable under previous regimes with loose procedures? No. They don’t speak out about the rights of these children, now adults. They don’t care that America ships these people back the same way they were bought into the country. Yes my choice of word is correct. Bought – meaning purchased. It shows the truth of their motivations! Lobby groups and adoption agencies promote and advocate for their own self centred needs but at the same time conveniently turn a blind eye to these same children (now adults) who are being ignored, unsupported, and treated unethically. Where is their lobbying for these children who grew up? For those still fighting for automatic citizenship, adopted to the USA prior to 1983? I dare to judge and say, they are not interested in the “needs of the children” … only to satisfy their own needs and interests.
Adoption break downs, illicit practices, deportations, human rights abuses – these are not words adoption lobbyers and agencies use or want to acknowledge. I suggest before they promote further adoptions with laxer processes, they need to sit and listen to the hundreds of adult intercountry adoptees whom I meet every year around the world, in every adoptive country, from every birth country.
It breaks my heart time and again to hear our experiences. They are not just stories. They are our realities. We are a minority amongst minorities. Our experiences mean little to governments who make decisions as to what they will fund because we are not on their radar to appease or acknowledge.
For those who naiively think ICAV is a melting pot for a minority of angry/embittered adoptees who suffered in their adoptive families, think again. We have just as many members who have been loved and given a great adoptive family as those who have suffered within not so positive environments. We are not against adoptive families. We are against the processes of intercountry adoption, the governments, the stakeholders who make decisions that impact our lives without our say and who are consciously choosing not to learn from the past.
At a certain age and maturity in understanding the phenomenon of intercountry adoption and opening themselves up to learn the politics involved, many adult intercountry and transracial adoptees can’t help but wonder. We question why the system is so skewed towards adopting without taking any truthful responsiblity for ensuring all people impacted by the adoption are better supported.
Our rights and needs remain ignored. The money trail does not extend to us, the children who grow up. It’s only there for those who want to gain a child with little foresight as to whether that child experiences a positive or negative outcome in the long term.
I’ve been around for 20 years now, actively speaking out, supporting intercountry adoptees and creating much needed resources to prevent the reinvention of the wheel for many of us who struggle in the journey. In my early years, we were alone. Now … we have created something different altogether. We are harnessing our energies and working together.
I will use this reality to continue to encourage fellow adoptees to keep pushing, keep demanding change, keep trying, keep speaking out. One day, something will have to give and the changes we ask for will happen.
The truth of intercountry adoption cannot be silenced forever.
The ICAV website provides alot of information for a variety of audiences – fellow intercountry and transracial adoptees, adoptive/prospective parents and professionals. One of our main goals, is to provide a platform so can you hear from those impacted the most, the adoptee. I say “impacted the most” because we are the one party out of them all (biological parents, adoptive parents, lawyers, social workers, government workers) who isn’t usually an adult at the time of the relinquishment and adoption decisions. We are impacted by the very fact that we are children with no mature voice for ourselves or understanding of what is happening.
Here we provide our voices at an age where we speak for ourselves. We share our journeys honestly in the hopes it will help others better understand how complex it is to search for our identity and find our place in this world.
At the ICAV website, in the Individual Stories section, we provide a wonderful collection of personal experiences. It may not be the same as our parents, but it is our unique perspective.
Today, I want to bring attention to our newest contribution. It is a beautifully written piece by a Vietnamese adoptee, Paul Bonnell, raised as an American growing up in Malaysia, Philippines and the USA.
I’ve just returned from a 3+ week return trip to my country of birth, Vietnam. This trip attests to the mantra “adoption is a lifelong journey“! My return to homeland has been another unwrapping of the many layers in exploring who I am and where I belong.
This trip was such a contrast to the first which I made 18 years ago. In year 2000, I returned to Vietnam for the first time. I was in my late-20s. I had only just begun awakening to understand I had “adoption” and “relinquishment” issues. I certainly had no idea I had a mass of grief and loss sitting beneath the surface of my daily life.
When I arrived in Vietnam for the first time in year 2000, I was affected by overwhelming feelings I had not known existed. I remember the deep intense grieving that arose within me as we were landing at the airport. Overwhelming emotions flooded me and I spent the first week crying and trying to work out why I was crying and what it all meant.
That trip ended up being quite liberating, a wonderful and very healing visit. The most memorable moment was the local woman in the Mekong Delta who asked me in faltering english where I was from. In my broken english I explained very simply that I’d left the country as a baby and was raised by white Australians because I didn’t know my mother or father. Having lived almost 3 decades of hearing people’s response, “Oh, how lucky you are” to learning of my adoption status, this woman in the Mekong Delta had been the first to immediately comprehend my losses. She spoke my truth which resonated within when she replied, “Oh, you have missed out on so much!”
18 years later, I am a different Lynelle, no longer fragmented and confused. I am now very aware of the impacts of relinquishment and adoption. It is now 20 years later of speaking out and encouraging fellow adoptees to become proactive and share about the issues we face. This time, I returned and I felt so grounded being back in my homeland and knowing my place, time and date of birth. I revelled in being back in my district and hospital of birth. I enjoyed blending in amongst people who look like me. I felt a natural affinity to the place and people. I love the vibrancy of Ho Chi Minh City! I can now call it home because my birth certificate has been found and I know some basic truths about myself!
Clearly it wasn’t just me who could sense that I felt at home. My husband is a 3rd generation Aussie Chinese and he said to me, “Wow, I’ve just realised I’m married to a Vietnamese woman!” It was one of those humorous moments but beneath the surface, the truth in what he said was profound. I am actually Vietnamese and I feel I have finally reclaimed that part of me that was missing. I no longer feel I am just an Aussie girl, I am Vietnamese – Australian. This second visit highlighted to me the many aspects of who I am, are fundamentally, very Vietnamese!
The mother earth connection, respect for nature and nurturing things has always been within me but it became obvious during my travels in Vietnam that this is a very Vietnamese way of being. I travelled from South to North and everywhere I went, whether it was in the city or the country areas, there were so many plots of land with fields growing vegetables, flowers, rice or something. The city ways in Vietnam have not as yet forgotten the link between mother nature and our human needs.
The innate desire in me to build and be part of a community, I also saw reflected in the Vietnamese way of life. In Vietnam just the example of how they navigate around one another on the roads is amazing. People and the traffic just flow around one another, allowing each other to go their ways without aggression, pushiness or competition. There is a natural way to “work together” in harmony that resonates within me.
I am by nature a very friendly person, always interested in finding out about others at a deeper level. I found this reflected in many of the Vietnamese locals I met and spent a great deal of time with. My taxi driver Hr Hien took me for a 12 hour trip to the Floating Markets. He embraced me, a stranger really, as his little “sister“. Turns out we were actually born at the same hospital with him being only 7 years older. He sheltered and protected me all day long. He could easily have abused his position of power, given I speak no Vietnamese and he could have robbed and dumped me in the middle of the Mekong Delta. Instead, he took me for the whole day and treated me with respect, welcoming me into his life sharing his thoughts and views about Vietnamese life, culture, family, laws, and ways. When we purchased things, he would say, “Don’t say a word, I’ll tell them you’re my sister returned from Australia who left as a baby to explain why you can’t speak Vietnamese“. Then he’d negotiate for us and get the “local rate“. It was experiences like this that showed me the soul of the Vietnamese people with which I relate – the sense of looking out for others, being kind and generous in spirit.
Returning to visit the War Remnants Museum, I was once again reminded of the Vietnamese spirit of resilience, forgiveness, and ability to move on despite a terribly, ugly history of wars and atrocities. Attributes I’ve seen within my being and now I comprehend where these flow from. It’s my Vietnamese spirit, my Vietnamese DNA! I am hardwired to have survived and flourish, despite the adversities.
For me, returning to birth land has been so important to embracing all the aspects of who I am. I am a product of relinquishment and adoption, in-between two cultures, lands and people. In growing up in my adoptive country, I had been fully Australian without understanding or embracing my Vietnameseness. Now, in my mid 40s, I feel I have returned to myself. I am proudly both of my two cultures and lands. I love the Vietnamese aspects I see in myself and I also love my Australian culture and identity. I no longer feel divided but am comfortable being both at the same time.
It’s taken years of active awareness to embrace my lost identity, culture, and origins but it is a journey I wanted to do. I had realised in my late 20s that being adopted had resulted in a denial of a large part of who I am, at my very core.
I look forward to future returns to Vietnam. I hope one day it will be to reunite with my Vietnamese birth family. That will be an amazing path of discovery which will open up even further facets in discovering who I am!
I can so relate to the Lotus, the national flower of Vietnam!
To the Vietnamese, lotus is known as an exquisite flower, symbolizing the purity, serenity, commitment and optimism of the future as it is the flower which grows in muddy water and rises above the surface to bloom with remarkable beauty.
Click here for my collection of photos from this recent return trip and here for the photos from my first visit, 18 years ago.
Author, Julayne Lee, is an intercountry adoptee born in South Korea and raised in the USA. Being an avid reader but not specifically into poetry, I totally enjoyed Julayne’s book because I could relate to what she shares about her own journey and the wider sociopolitical experience as an intercountry adoptee. Her voice is one of the hundreds of thousands of Korean adoptees (KADs) to be exported from their country of birth via intercountry adoption.
Not My White Savior is a deeply engaging, emotional, haunting, and honest read. Julayne depicts so many angles of the intercountry adoptee experience, reflecting our life long journey of striving to make sense of our beginnings and who we are as a product of our relinquishment and adoption. I love the images created by her words. I admire that she left no stone unturned with her courage to speak out about the many not-so-wonderful aspects of the adoptee experience.
Some of my favorite pieces which I especially resonated with, was her letter to her mothers, racist hair, map of the body, and homeland securities.
For those intercountry adoptees who have died from the complex traumas experienced in their adopted lives, I salute Julayne for memorializing their names forever in such a potent way. Through her book, their lives will not be forgotten nor for nought.
She also packs heavy punches at her birth country and spares no empathy or excuse for giving up on so many of its children. Her words in pieces, such as Powerful Korea ICA – Internment Camps of Abduction are a powerful way of explaining the trauma KADs experience in processing the multiple layers of loss and relinquishment, not only from their birth families, but also their birth country. I loved the irreverence and truth captured in the Psalm for White Saviors.
Not being a KAD, as I am adopted from Vietnam, I found this book to be educational about some of the history of South Korea’s export of children which I was previously unaware of.
Overall, I totally recommend reading this collection of poetry for anyone who is open to thinking critically about intercountry adoption from the lived experience.
This collation is provided just over a decade on since ICAV compiled our first lot of answers to this question. I was intruiged to see if our views have changed over time as we journey on and mature in our understandings of adoption.
Reading our views gives you some thoughts to consider on this question from those who have lived the experience. We welcome your views and you can do so by commenting on this page.
I was recently contacted by a fellow adoptee who is seeking views and experiences of adoptees where gratitude is expected and how we feel about this. I immediately responded because gratitude in adoption is such an unspoken about subject, particularly from the adoptee perspective. For me, it was definitely a burden I felt whilst growing up and carry still to this day. Interesting that little has been written on this topic specific to intercountry adoption because our adoptions are so rife with connotations of being saved from poverty, war, slums and the streets. These connotations also come with equal expectation that we flourish in our Western white adoptive countries and families for which we should be grateful for.
It is assumed, somehow, magically, our losses in relinquishment should be negated by the gains in adoption.
I can understand how the majority of people who think of the word adoption would not necessarily equate that with living an experience of being expected to be grateful. But, from my own life experience, the word “grateful”, “thankful”, “be happy”, or “lucky” pops up in adoption conversation regularly. People who are not impacted by adoption expect us to be grateful for the material wealth and education we gain in life having been adopted. As an adoptee, not only have I experienced people’s assumptions about how lucky I am in their eyes to be adopted, I also experienced the expectation of gratitude said out loud by my adoptive parent during my childhood. It was said to me once or twice, but the way in which I was treated most of my childhood until I became independent and moved interstate, told me without words that it was the foundation of my adoption.
In hindsight, knowing now that my adoptive father was not comfortable to adopt a child not his own, from a foreign country, he went against his instincts and clearly gave way to his wife’s desire to save a child from the Vietnam war. What they saved me from, I’ll never know unless I find my first family. Whether I was indeed saved, who knows. Am I grateful? If I answered no, people naturally would recoil and look at me horrified, stunned. How dare I be ungrateful for my life in a wealthy country with material comforts, an education, and the life everyone in poverty aspires to.
But, of course I am grateful in many ways! Without choosing to be grateful, my emotional well being would be one of dissatisfaction, depression, unease and wishing to be dead.
I have been there! For plenty of years! And I had to battle to find a way through.
I choose actively to be consciously grateful, to focus and spend my life turning it into something positive. And it’s much nicer to be in a stage of life where I can choose to be grateful in general, as opposed to being forced to feel indebted for being saved via adoption.
I’m a female adoptee born in Vietnam, flown out as an infant to Australia in the early 1970s. I’ve told my personal story what feels like a thousand times, but yet no one has asked before what it was like to carry that expectation to be grateful for my existence in my adoptive family.
My adoption was not legally facilitated until I was 17 years old and it is still a mystery as to whether my legal adoption paperwork exists somewhere in Vietnam. I hadn’t really come to acknowledge or understand the true meaning of this until the past 6 months. It is enlightening to observe how my story of adoption and relinquishment has changed over time as I’ve become more fully aware of the truths, perceived and real. I am constantly having to rethink what was told to me growing up and comparing that to the truths I find today, and who I have become.
Not having an identity on paper for 17 years, of course I feel the expectation to be grateful to my adoptive country Australia in giving me a birth certificate and hence allowed an identity. But at what cost? The expectation to be grateful these days is overshadowed by questions I have on why it doesn’t seem to have been questioned whether I had an identity in Vietnam or how to preserve or respect it legally.
The words “gratitude” or “grateful” are like an alarm bell ringing inside me. It grates on my nerves and I feel myself inwardly flinching. For me it comes with so many negative memories. Even googling to find an image for this blog and seeing the visuals, created feelings of unease and discomfort in my body. If you can relate to me as an adoptee, saying, seeing or reading the word “gratitude” in relation to adoption is a trigger that I have to deal with all the time.
My adoptive childhood was spent working like a boy slave on the family’s dairy farm. Being thrown the “you owe this family because we adopted you” line because I was standing up for myself, was one of the toughest moments I remember. It was one of those rare times where I was trying to be stand up for myself about not wanting to be forced to help with milking the cows. The other children were allowed to peacefully sleep in every morning. My childhood sense of justice was strong. Why was I constantly singled out to be made to work around the farm with my adoptive father who inappropriately touched me whilst in the dairy or in my bedroom? He had no sense of respect for my privacy as my body developed in early teenage years. I recall a few times he woke me with his cold hands running over my bare chest and stomach, then dragging me out of my bed by my legs, nightie flinging up over my head exposing my naked body, laughing at how “funny” it was to be dragged along the frost covered grass on a cold Victorian morning. This would happen just on daylight before the sun even rose. Nobody else was awake. My hatred rose further when I once removed the outside key from the lock of my door but was authoritatively told how dare I try and lock him out. Everything about my life was dependent on him and I was given no sense of privacy, respect or control.
I grew to resent my adoptive father during my childhood but yet I pined for a tiny bit of love to be shown. I wasn’t grateful for this existence and I certainly hated that my lack of blood relative status meant it seemed to give him licence to work me like a slave and touch me in the way no father should. His other bio children were left to do what they wanted. They were not forced to work like me on hard physical tasks; chopping barrow loads of hardwood, milking cows day and night, cooking and cleaning in the kitchen, being forced to run out in the dark and shut the chooks in every night (I was terrified of the dark), etc. It felt like slave labour with no empathy for my feelings at all. It certainly wasn’t a childhood filled with love, safety or understanding. Nor was there any room for any compassion or support about what I might be feeling from being separated from my biological family and wondering why.
The expectation, verbalised out loud, to be grateful for being adopted was a heavy heavy burden to carry .. and still is. I was forced to justify why I needed hair conditioner and shampoo (I had waist long hair) and he would only provide soap as that was good enough for everyone else who had short or little hair. I was made to feel that buying a toothbrush was too much and how dare I need or ask for anything. I was made to feel and was told many times that I was a “fussy”, “difficult” child, always “telling lies” and “stealing“.
To this day, the “you should be grateful because we adopted you” mantra is what has stopped me from speaking openly about the emotional and sexual abuse I endured from early childhood to teen years. No adoptee should ever have to be thrown that line of feeling we owe a debt of gratitude to our adoptive families. Even when abuse does not occur. Whether spoken or not, we adoptees do NOT owe our families. They adopt for their own self fulfilling reasons. I had NO choice but to survive the adoptive family I was placed in.
You can probably feel the anger I still carry at the injustice of being made to feel that I owed my adoptive family for being rescued/saved. It brings lifelong consequences of being fiercely independent and not easily allowing anyone to help me. I suspect other adoptees can relate. For me, being helped, being given something I don’t ask for, usually comes with a fear of the unspoken price at which that help is provided. Hence, I would rather do it myself. The expectation of gratitude for being saved by adoptive family and society at large, is a heavy burden.
This burden of expected gratitude in being adopted is enhanced by the religious elements intertwined in much of modern adoption advocacy.
Fervent religious organisations and individuals who willingly promote and facilitate the adoption and rescuing of children add another layer of expected gratitude onto us. People who believe adoption is an ordained action by God, that they are following his command to help an orphan, makes it difficult for adoptees to share about the struggles of being adopted and relinquished.
I rarely hear of any adoptee who will willingly stand up in a church or religious institute and share their adoption experience with all its complexities. For me, this would be the worst audience ever! I can’t imagine receiving validation or empathy. Instead, I suspect I would receive unsolicited advice to be grateful and thankful to God that I am in a better place and that all is going well now. The all familiar saying of, “Count your Blessings!” by religious people in response to adversity is one I find hard to stomach.
Google for yourself the word gratitude and you will see the many religious and spiritual images linked to this concept. Our struggles as adoptees go unvalidated and unsupported because of blind prejudice that somehow adoption is meant to be, ordained by God. How can anyone question the unspoken assumption that we should be grateful for our adoption, when this is the long held religious and spiritual belief?
Thankfully, my adoptive family and others have apologised in recent years for the wrong doings in my childhood and I have chosen to be grateful for this and to move on. It’s interesting how with apologies I now feel more at liberty to be open about my life. It’s as if a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I no longer carry the burden of responsibility for family secrets and shame, trying to protect them from the consequences. For many years now, I have been true to myself and will not allow the expectation of gratitude to overwhelm my truths.
I have focused my energies on rebuilding the relationships with adoptive family as they are my one and only family I know, to raise me and give me an identity. For this I am truly grateful – but that’s not to say the journey hasn’t been a struggle and at many costs.
Gratitude in adoption should never be an expectation. It should be a choice we are free to make about life in general – after we come to terms with, and are supported in, understanding our losses and gains from relinquishment and adoption.
Within ICAV’s private group for adult intercountry adoptees I recently asked the question: “If we lived in an ideal world, given your adoption experience is as it is, what would you need to be at peace with it all?” I made it clear we could discuss and provide answers that were both realistic possibilities and idealistic fantasies.
The discussion that followed was powerful and I’d love to share some of the themed responses which highlight what’s still missing in intercountry adoption to make it really about “the needs of the child”. You’ll see from some of the replies to my question, we do grow up and continue to have ongoing needs that continue to be umet via intercountry adoption. Often times, it seems that intercountry adoption creates more needs than we began with as vulnerable children which makes me wonder what purpose did our intercountry adoption achieve for us, the adoptees?
Truth and Answers
Many of us have adoption documents which have details that are either totally incorrect or somewhat questionable and shades in between. The worst I can cite as an example of totally incorrect, is a Haitian intercountry adoptee who was given an already dead person’s identity, a false birth mother listed on adoption paperwork and subsequently found out the truth years later, that her biological mother never gave consent. An example of the questionable and changeable information provided is the experiences of countless South Korean adoptees who get given differing information each time they approach their Korean adoption agency asking for details, locked away in their agency files.
This lack of knowing the truth or having transparent access to our relinquishment and subsequent adoption information, can further traumatise us in recreating yet another event in which we are completely powerless to know our basic identity information and compounds our already fragile ability to trust others. As Christine shared,
“Having to doubt that what I thought all along was my story now may not be true, is difficult.”
Like others who shared on this theme, Chaitra listed finding the Truth as her first response, along with others:
Knowing the truth about the circumstances that led to my adoption.
Meeting and having a relationship with my birth family.
Being fully immersed in Indian culture as a child so that I would have had knowledge of food, language, holidays, traditions, etc. as well as racial mirrors.
Having adoptive parents who openly communicated with me about adoption and race.
Chaitra had none of these things in her life.
The Desire to Find Biological Family
For some who reunite, finally meeting biological family gave them a sense of understanding who they were at the level of physical attributes and personality which were always unlike those of their adoptive family. For example, Thomas shared it this way:
“Meeting my birth family has helped me a lot. I met my grandmother’s side of the family and they’re all like the same as me with huge eyes, light skin and curly hair. They’re also all really shy and tend not to say much unless spoken to, like me. It has really helped me to answer some questions about where I come from“.
For others, like Chaitra above who have not been successful yet in reuniting with biological family, there is still the desire and thinking that IF they could meet, it would help to put together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle which makes up who we fundamentally are. Dominic expressed it well, “Just to know I have relatives would give me a sense of peace. Surely they couldn’t have all perished in the Vietnam wars!”
When adoptees are impeded from knowing the answers and finding biological family, we are left with a lifetime of uncertainty. Our fundamental identity questions remain unanswered.
This was a recurring theme for some adoptees who expressed the wish that adoption not be a necessary and created social response to children who are vulnerable. As Parvathi wisely questions,
“Only if the child has got no parents and feel uncomfortable in his country, he should have the opportunity to move. Why a child who has lost his parents should also loose his country too?“
Sunitha also said, “I think the whole society system and humanity should have been different from the beginning of time! What is international adoption if not a new colonialist way? It just reflects the inequalities of the world through the cover of good will and humanitarian feelings. Another way to see it, is just rich people in need of kids, buying kids from poor countries and raising them in their culture which is supposed to be superior to their original one.”
Through our experience of being intercountry adopted, we inevitably end up questioning the system that created our reality. We are not naiive in believing that intercountry adoption is only about poverty because it’s clearly not, as sending countries like South Korea and the USA demonstrate. Kim explains it well:
“When intercountry is done both ways, it doesn’t seem in the best interest of children either. It only looks like a fair trade of children, a business of import-export, done both ways. The USA already export their children (mostly black children) to Europe, why aren’t those kids adopted in their country first before adopted to other countries?“
As Tamieka shared, the world needs to create more services that focus on first families and “helping them be able to maintain and keep their families and children.” If this happened with as large a revenue as what intercountry adoption generates worldwide, I question whether there would be a need for intercountry adoption.
Justice when Adoption is Done Wrong
For those who wonder whether their adoption was legitimate or not, we are all too aware of the harsh reality that there is little to mostly nothing that is done, or can be done, to prevent further injustices or to punish those who create these situations. Tamieka eloquently expressed this as, “The world needs to provide organisations that hold those who are responsible for the corruption in adoptions, responsible for tearing families and people’s lives apart, to be held accountable for their actions and to be brought to justice.”
Whether intercountry adoption continues to be practiced or not, there is the question of where is justice for those who are already impacted? Sadly, our desire for restorative justice for adoptees who are wronged via intercountry adoption is currently a utopia. This is the harsh reality but it won’t stop us from speaking out against this and highlighting how unethical the practice is without any mechanism for seeking justice.
An End to the Ongoing Pain
Sadly, for many the unspoken consequence of relinquishment on the vulnerable child, is a lifelong path of psychological pain in having been abandoned by our biological parents. Followed by intercountry adoption, our experience can become a secondary abandonment, this time by our birth country. Via intercountry adoption we lose our right to our birth family and country forever and are not given the choice to retain our identity, culture, heritage or citizenship. The pain of abandonment by biological parents and birth country have an ongoing effect which can last a lifetime. If this goes unsupported by the majority of adoptive countries who offer little to no post adoption support services, we can be left with an endless amount of internal psychological pain.
For adoptees who feel this pain intensely, they desire an end to their struggles and can at times, see death as the only way out. Little wonder that adoptees are reported in research as suffering higher rates of suicide, attempts at suicide, mental health issues and reflected in greater proportion compared to the non-adopted population, in prisons or drug and alcohol rehabilitation services. The pain of relinquishment is real and has to be acknowledged. Adoption is often portrayed as a win-win solution but it glosses over the real pain that adoptees can experience, whether openly shared or not.
Kim shared it very clearly:
“Death would give me peace. I think only death can make me stop remembering her, the Me before adoption. Only death can remove from me that kind of pain, loneliness and homesickness that adoption injected into my soul.”
Thankfully, within support groups like ICAV, we don’t minimise or diminish our sometimes painful realities. We openly speak and share, which is so important for healing.
Paul eloquently summed it up: “This is such a hard question. Honestly, I think about this with so much hyper-realism that it’s difficult to get to any perfect world state of mind for me, any wishes for what could be different. My birth father is dead. My adoptive mother is dead. My birth mother, who knows? And what does that mean? And yet I am here. And there are friends, family and strangers and _____. That beauty. But still there’s the Unknown, the tension, the contradiction; the complexity of history; our absurd global socio-political circumstances; etc.. What helps me through all of this? This. Our sharing. Our stories. The potential for moments of connection and understanding, even in all their imperfection. Our various bitter realities. Your question. Our voices. The realization of shared experience and circumstances, not sameness, but sharedness. This helps. Thank you.”
It’s amazing to see the power of peer group sharing and connecting and how it facilitates our journey of growth as adult intercountry adoptees. Read Stephanie’s expression of what she gained from the same group discussion.
I had no idea that I had a deep need to see my children feeling happy. I realise now how negatively I viewed anger and frustration. I hadn’t realised that when I set out to adopt a child, part of it was about fixing a broken child. I had so much love to give, and I thought I could love a baby until he was whole again. p94
LIONHEART: The Real Life Guide for Adoptive Families is a book written by what I would term awesomely switched on adoptive parents. If all adoptive parents were as embracing of our traumatic beginnings as these 3 couples, with the efforts they’ve clearly gone to to deal with the complexities involved, my guesstimate is – we would see far less tragic and negative outcomes from intercountry adoption worldwide.
This book needs to be read by prospective adoptive parents in every receiving country! In America alone, this book would make a HUGE impact to the necessary and truthful education that should be provided to prospective parents about the reality of the task they are taking on via intercountry adoption.
This book is the best hands-on manual I’ve read that comprehensively gives prospective and adoptive parents a relevant guide to handle the challenges we inevitably bring as adopted people. From the go-start, the authors make it clear this is not a book for the faint hearted, hence the title Lionheart. The authors outline the reality which I’ve also experienced as an intercountry adoptee, raised in the same type of family as represented in their book i.e., of being an intercountry adopted child amongst adoptive parent’s biological children.
I related to this book on a few levels. Firstly as an adult intercountry adoptee I saw myself through the journey’s of their adopted children – struggling to feel secure, behaving in many of the same ways in childhood, wanting to develop trust but afraid, confronting many of the same challenges, etc.
” … parenting a baby who was both desperately ill and emotionally scarred is different in a lot of ways. I am a biological and adoptive parent, and I can tell you from first hand experience, they are not the same.” p90
Secondly, as a parent to my own biological child with additional needs, this book was a reflection of my own parenting across the past 11 years! I could totally relate to the sensory issues, the challenging behaviours, the search for answers and therapies, the exhaustion of trying desperately to find something that works, and the differences in parenting a child with no additional needs versus one with many, etc. The authors correctly make the connection, that adopting a child is literally the same as having a child with additional needs.
Much of the standard advice for parenting children with a mental illness applies to adoptive families. p102
Thirdly, these 3 families came together to form their own support network because they realised they were in a unique situation and that support was crucial to their survival in adoption. This book came about as a result of their friendship, from supporting each other and realising the lessons learnt could be valuable to others. So too, I have built a support network with my fellow adult intercountry adoptees, and we have produced many great papers, books and resources that are of value to others.
The one area this book doesn’t cover at all, which I would recommend any prospective and adoptive parents investigate, are the big picture ethical, political, social, and human rights questions and dilemmas within intercountry adoption. My personal adoption journey is a lifelong one and what I’ve noticed particularly after having children of my own, is I’ve slowly opened my eyes to the bigger picture of intercountry adoption. This stage includes asking questions my adoptive parents never asked but which sit deep within and eventually rise to the surface.
Questions such as: was my relinquishment and hence adoption legitimate, was money exchanged and was it equivalent to what it would cost to process the adoption or was money made from the transaction, who gained from that money, how many children are sent from my birth country each year and why, what happens for the birth families and how do they cope after losing their child, what if they didn’t have to loose their child and how can we empower that option?
Human rights questions like: what did my birth country do to try and help keep me with my family, my extended family, my community, my country, before I was intercountry adopted out? How did my adoptive parents participate in this trade/business? Was it willingly or blindly? Does it make any difference? Is intercountry adoption as black and white as generally portrayed in media? Were there other outcomes I as an adoptee might have lived, if I had not been adopted in an adoption industry fuelled by money?
Maturing in my understanding of adoption, I’ve realised it is not what it first appears and we need to prepare adopted children at age appropriate stages for the big picture questions. The book had a couple of intersections where this could have been explored but was not. For example, the death of a child allocated to one adoptive family and later because of the grief and feelings of loss, the parents changed country and agency to adopt from. Then in a different chapter, one adopted child asks (what is termed a “strange” question), “can you buy a child?” I pondered how can it be that we adoptees clearly see the connection but not adoptive parents. In our simple view, if you choose and select a child from whatever country you wish, or change because it doesn’t suit any longer, pay some money to process the transaction, how is this not akin to shopping i.e., buying a child? Is the question really that strange? It’s a powerful reality we adoptees eventually come to question and reflects just one aspect of the social-political-economic-gender complexities which all adoptive parents would be wise to consider and discuss openly as adopted children grow up.
Within ICAV, I can vouch we DO think and discuss these higher level complex issues. We also write extensively about how intercountry adoption is facilitated, by whom, whether the cycle is perpetuated by demand (prospective parents), and why we have no legal rights – clearly apparent when our adoptions break down, we are trafficked or have falsified documents, or suffer abuse or deportation.
Perhaps the authors of the book have yet to reach this stage with their children and that could possibly explain why it is absent. If so, I would love to see them write in years to come, a longitudinal book covering the later stages of adoptive parenting as their children grow to my age and beyond.
Regardless of the omission of big picture questions, I’d highly recommend this book to all prospective parents because it’s certainly a massive head start from the help adoptive parents from my generation received.
This book provides a no-punches spared, honest account of what REALLY happens when you adopt a child from a foreign country. The premise of the parenting advice comes from a trauma informed and attached parenting perspective. In my opinion as an intercountry adoptee, this is a true account of the emotional baggage we come with regardless of whether we are adopted as infants or not. I have written before we are not blank slates. If prospective parents are NOT prepared to take on the realities as presented in this amazing resource written by experienced adoptive parents, then I suggest intercountry adopting a child may not be for you. But if they are willing to embrace what this book has to offer, plus be open to discuss the bigger picture of intercountry adoption, I believe this will enable your family, the best chance of better outcomes.