As a child my dad never tired of yelling, “Who’s the king?” and I’d enthusiastically yell back, “Elvis” as I’d been taught to do, always to hoots of laughter and applause. I was too young to understand the meaning of my words, I only knew what the adults wanted of me.
As children, even as adults our words can have a performative nature; we say things all the time to delight others, sometimes to provoke, or just to make people comfortable in order to maintain harmony. We perfect this skill as children, keenly aware of the stated and unstated demands for loyalty, for silence or for allegiance.
I can think of so many ways in which I would speak someone else’s thoughts packaged as mine. My words had nothing to do with my beliefs and everything to do with fitting in and seeking approval. Something not exclusive to adoptees but particularly difficult for us – as it is for anyone who feels they don’t fit into the community they find themselves in.
you find this relatable then perhaps it won’t be a leap to consider that the
adoptee you know isn’t as fine as you think. Perhaps you see the danger in the
viral video of a little girl talking about meeting her adoptive mother for the
first time expressing nothing but love and gratitude.
Both the larger scale ethics of using this for pro adoption marketing and the more personal danger to this little girl who must already be in an environment in which she understands on a deep unconscious level what’s expected of her in order to be safe. Spoiler alert, it is not to have curiosity or longing for her birth family or the identity she’s lost.
When I look at happy smiling photos of myself as a baby or as a little girl I feel I betrayed myself, and yet I know I was just a child trying to fit in, I wasn’t an ambassador for adoptees. For the little girl in the viral video, I feel pain for her because I see that possible future for her and more so because of the public nature of the video and how it’s being used.
you haven’t yet been in a community of friends and family where the seemingly
perfect couple break up or divorce to the complete surprise of you or those
around you – give it time. If you haven’t yet stumbled on the fact that one or
more of your loved ones have been suffering with depression or mental health
problems for decades without you knowing, perhaps even without them knowing, I
suspect you’re in a minority. I hope that you never have and never will have to
wonder about the true nature of a loved ones’ state of mind after they take
their own life.
Even those who pay close attention to the wellbeing and feelings of others can and will be misguided about the deep-seated fears and fragility of others. Our society is a boot camp in emotional armoury, perfectionism and side-lining feelings.
If you’re not an adoptee, I talk about this in the hope that you can recall a time you were mistaken about someone or some part of yourself, perhaps revisit what you think you know about those you care for and learn how to look a little deeper and trust the lived experiences of adoptees instead of discounting them.
you hang around adoptees long enough with an open mind, you’ll see some universal
themes emerge, and likely discover that we don’t know what we think we do. If you can allow for that, we can begin to be
more honest with ourselves and others about what we do and don’t know. You can listen and inquire with humility,
kindness and willingness to learn from those willing to share. Help us do
better to define the real issues, recognise the biases holding back progress
and build the right support for adoptees.
Notes on becoming less human by Vicente Mollestad (Bolivian adoptee raised in Norway).
On 10 August 2019 in Bærum, Norway, a 22-year-old white male attacked a local mosque armed with shotguns. While failing to kill anyone at the mosque, the arrest and search of his house revealed the murder of his stepsister, an intercountry adoptee from China, only 17 years old.
Upon our arrival, we were once told the laws of the new world, but the reality we inhabit speaks of ignorant wishes and in the worst case, fatal lies. They spoke about us as equals in this society, of us belonging to this country, neither as foreigners nor as immigrants. Words we repeated to ourselves.
But the idea of us as innocent, gullible, dream-fulfilling children became more complicated as we mutated into more hideous and unknown beings of puberty and adulthood. The hair grew long, black and unruly. The skin, dark and distinctly different. The body did no longer resemble the idea of a child but had the features of a stranger. A stranger to our surroundings, a stranger to ourselves, and sometimes even a stranger to those closest to us.
Boys eventually fit a media profile for the cause of violence and danger in society. Girls grew to become sexually desirable and fetishised. This dehumanisation leaves us vulnerable to the current state of the West as the threat of the foreign hangs over Europe as a ghost, a ghost conjured by its involvement in a bloody past. We became targets in the line of fire in a war that isn’t ours.
As intercountry adoptees we are being assimilated in the worst way, losing our languages, our biological families and our cultural roots. Meanwhile, we still carry the negative sides of not being assimilated at all. Because our physical traits are still those of an outsider, of the threat, of the barbarian. And that description and image of us makes us enemies for nationalists like Phillip Manshaus.
Even now, when our position is manifested in the worst way, the society and media at large fails to recognize or support our position and discourse. For us there will be no marches, no mention and no grievance. Even when we are so intertwined with the current state of affairs, we are not yet heard, we are not yet given platforms. If this country insists on bringing us into the place of hate, I suggest they at least give us a chance to speak our cause because I refuse to die at the hands of a white nationalist.
Guest post shared anonymously by one of ICAVs members.
Growing up in near-total whiteness in the Midwest of America in the 1960s and 1970s, as a member of the first large wave of transracial intercountry adoptees, I experienced consistent marginalization and ostracism because of my race, and, to put it more bluntly, because of the race I was not—white. Constantly asked where I was from—no, REALLY, where was I REEEEAAAAALLLY from?????—I can say that the society around me made it very clear that I was an outsider, a foreigner, a stranger, an alien. I was often asked where I was from, and sometimes asked when I was going back to where I was from. And very occasionally, yes, I was told to go back to where I was from. All of this was deeply hurtful and wounding, of course, but I largely internalized a huge amount of racism and xenophobia to myself, and ended up with one gigantic complex about my physical appearance, which it’s taken me more than four decades to self-heal from—and I’m still working on that.
Indeed, one huge element in my participation in groups on Facebook around transracial adoption, as well as in-person participation in conferences around transracial adoption, has been a profound sense of mission around not only supporting my fellow adult transracial and intercountry adoptees to navigate society, including racism and xenophobia, but also around trying to help white transracial adoptive parents prepare their adopted children of color to navigate the world around us. I feel an intense identification with the littlest adoptees, who in some cases, even now in 2019, are experiencing what I experienced as a small child back in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the 1960s; and honestly, with all the resources available to white transracial adoptive parents now, in the second decade of the 21stcentury, is there any reason at all that the littlest transracial adoptee should have to experience what I and other transracial adoptees in the first waves experienced several decades ago???
Meanwhile, a great deal has happened in America, and elsewhere, in the past couple of decades. For one thing, enough white Americans were willing to give a Black/biracial man a chance, that we elected our first president of color, in November 2008. I still remember the thrill of election night on November 4, 2008, when then-Senator Barack Obama appeared on the stage in Grant Park in Chicago (the city that I am proud to say is my home) with his beautiful, accomplished wife Michelle Obama, and their adorable then-children, Malia and Sasha Obama, and were greeted by the most thunderous applause I think I had ever heard, on the part of hundreds of thousands of people gathered there, cheering, screaming for joy, weeping, many in stunned disbelief that our country could have the mind and the heart to break that barrier. And I, like millions of Americans, hoped in that moment that at least some people who had not voted for Barack Obama actually wished him well, and would be willing to give him a chance to lead all of us, all Americans, and to use his position as president of our country to also help lead in the world.
At the same time, I and so many Americans of color knew that there were many who hated President-elect Obama simply for his race (even though he had two, another complexity of his identity), and that some of those people would do everything they could to undermine him simply for his race, even apart from any ideological issues involved. We people of color knew that there would be a backlash; but the size and endurance of that backlash has shocked even many of us. And, shockingly, 62.9 million American voters, or 46 percent of the electorate, voted for Donald Trump, a man with absolutely zero political or public policy experience, and whose entire campaign had been based on racism and xenophobia; and because of our bizarre (and, to non-Americans, essentially inexplicable) Electoral College system, Trump won the presidency, even though 65.8 million voters, of 48 percent, had voted for former Secretary of State, former Senator, and former First Lady Hillary Clinton. In any case, based on how our strange Electoral College system works, Trump assumed the presidency on January 2017, and from literally the first moments of his presidency, he framed everything in apocalyptic terms, speaking of “American carnage” that only he could stop, and intensifying his racist rhetoric month after month.
And then, this month, Trump stepped up his hate-filled rhetoric against four first-term U.S. representatives—Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, hurling insults and accusations against them, branding them as “anti-American,” and piling lie on top of lie, in an effort to solidify his popularity among his core supporters, as the American presidential campaign (which, surreally, lasts two full years here) got underway. And then, on July 14, Trump tweeted that those four congresswomen should “go back to… the places to which they came,” even though three of the four were born in America.
Then, after massive condemnation of his remarks, Trump said on July 17 at a campaign rally in North Carolina, of the four congresswomen, “They never have anything good to say. That’s why I say, ‘Hey if you don’t like it, let ’em leave, let ’em leave.’ … I think in some cases they hate our country.” He then called out Rep. Omar specifically, once again falsely claiming that she had praised the terrorist group al-Qaeda (a charge thoroughly debunked numerous times in the past), and stating that Congresswoman Omar “looks down with contempt” on Americans; and the crowd reacted by chanting, “Send her back, Send her back.” Trump did nothing to stop the chants, and, after feebly distancing himself from them in the days that followed, now appears to be endorsing them.
For those of us who are immigrants of color—and even for many people of color who are not immigrants—we grew up hearing the “go back to where you’re from” taunts. They are hurtful and devastating. Padma Lakshmi, an ACLU Artist Ambassador for Immigrants’ and Women’s Rights, writing in The Washington Poston July 19, spoke for many of us when she wrote that, “Those words, those hurtful, xenophobic, entitled words that I’ve heard all throughout my childhood, stabbed me right in the heart. They echoed the unshakable feeling that most brown immigrants feel. Regardless of what we do, regardless of how much we assimilate and contribute, we are never truly American enough because our names sound funny, our skin isn’t white, or our grandmothers live in a different country.”
And for those of us who are transracial, intercountry adoptees, growing up in whiteness, and often surrounded by racists and racism, the pain can run very deep indeed. Kurt Bardella, who like me is an adult Korean adoptee, on July 17, wrote, in nbcnews.com, the online news website of the U.S. broadcast network NBC News, about his reaction to the “go back” taunts by Trump, in an op-ed entitled “’Go back’ is how racists try to deny my American-ness. But I’m never leaving.” Among other things, Bardella wrote eloquently that, “Like so many marginalized people in America, when we speak our mind in the political sphere, when we challenge the normalcy of the white status quo, we are attacked as less-than-fully American. I guarantee you, every single person of color who writes a column or appears on cable news to debate the national issues of the day (particularly from a perspective critical of the current president) receives a barrage of tweets, direct Facebook messages and emails from white Americans telling them to effectively ‘go back home.’ These reminders in which others perceive the color of our skin as a reason to reject our Americanness, is a constant reality that has been a part of our lives for as long as we can remember.”
What’s more, Bardella wrote, “Of course, Donald Trump’s weaponization of existing racism is not new; it has been his tool of choice ever since he expanded his presence on the political scene by questioning the legitimacy of the first black president. As president, he has praised white nationalists in Charlottesville, pardoned a racist sheriff in Arizona, labeled Haiti and African nations “shithole countries,” attacked NFL players for protesting the National Anthem and presided over an administration that locked up and tortured Central American children and their families at the southern border while deriding them as potential gang members.” Essentially, Trump has filled his entire time in the Oval Office so far—two-and-a-half years—with racist, xenophobic attacks and disparagement, literally nearly every single week.
What Bardella and Lakshmi have written says more articulately than I could, how I also see things. Frighteningly, it appears certain that Trump is going to base his entire 2020 reelection campaign pitch on open racism, white supremacy, and xenophobia, hoping to capture more of the white vote than in 2016, even amid demographic shifts that will make the United States a “majority-minority” country by 2045, according to the United States Census. And actually, that’s what all of this is about. The fear and apprehension of some white people in the United States is now palpable: in big cities and small towns across the country, the presence of people of color, including of very identifiable immigrants of color, is unmistakable. And Trump’s core base supporters are terrified and enraged.
Sadly, a large number of white transracial adoptive parents in America refuse to accept that the explosion in the open racial aggression of people of color has anything to do with their adopted children of color. Ensconced in bubbles of (often-right-wing) whiteness, and with no or few adult friends of color, many white transracial adoptive parents in the U.S. are convinced that their children will be treated as “special,” and further, that Trump and his core followers wish only the best for their children.
I had a very recent involvement in that issue this very week, when a thread in a transracial adoption-focused group that I do not moderate but was a member of, blew up because a friend of mine, a transracial adoptive mom whom I like very much, posted Kurt Bardella’s op-ed in the group. Facebook notified me of it, and I thanked my friend for posting it, stating that I so appreciated her lifting up the voices of transracial, intercountry adoptees in this difficult moment. But a racist white mother who fully supports Trump assured us that Trump could never possibly be racist, and that nothing he says or does could possibly be racist, and things exploded from there. Along with a large number of like-minded members, I (one of only two adult transracial adoptees participating in that discussion thread) and the others protesting racism and white supremacy, were promptly removed by the moderator from the group, while the racist adoptive mother was retained. I was also told that I was removed not only for discussing politics, but also for, one time only, using the f-word in one phrase in one of my comments in the discussion thread.
In other words, using foul language, even once, and in the context of protest, is far more offensive than racism and white supremacy. Not only that, by retaining the racist/white supremacist member of the group and ejecting all of us who were protesting racism and white supremacy, the moderator of that group—which is what many of us in the transracial adoption world refer to as a “rainbows-and-unicorns” group—a group focused only on the sweet, pleasant aspects of transracial adoption, and disallowing any discussion of race or anything else complex or challenging—proved our point. If enforced politeness around middle-class-white-American-woman sociocultural norms, is far more important than challenging racism, then clearly, no authentic, meaningful discussion of racism is possible in such a group.
What Donald Trump is doing right now—absolutely weaponizing the tenets of white supremacy, and banking on the deep racial and sociocultural resentments of white racists—is not only profoundly morally abhorrent, it is frightening to Americans of color, both immigrants and non-immigrants of color. We are now being pointed out as obvious targets for racial aggression, and possibly even violence.
The bottom line is this: America has come to a moment of profound crisis and of moral emergency. It is impossible any longer to stand by in silence. That’s what happened in Nazi Germany in 1934-1937, when the “good Germans” either expressed open support of Adolf Hitler and his storm troopers, or docilely remained silent. We all know what happened afterwards.
So this is where I stand: this is no longer about politics; it is about the safety and well-being of all of us Americans of color. And I will not be silent. But I will engage with those who want to understand, and who are willing to be authentic allies. And I will work. And I will hope.
As a result of my attendance at The Hague Working Group for Illicit Practices in Adoption meeting in May, I met with over 20 Central Authority representatives. One of them was the Executive Director of the Inter-Country Adoption Board (ICAB) in the Philippines. She has invited ICAV as a guest speaker to the 15th Philippine Global Consultation of Child Welfare Services in September this year. Who best to speak than Anna who is a Filipino intercountry adoptee and long serving ICAV Representative!
The work we do at ICAV is done via volunteer time and effort. Travelling around the world to share our lived experience is costly so it is hugely appreciated when others recognise the personal cost and offer to assist.
The amazing and talented Gabby Malpas (ICAV NSW Representative) has been generous by donating 3 pieces of her artwork to help Anna attend. Gabby is running an online Art Auction and the proceeds are being donated to contribute to Anna’s travel expenses. If you would like to support this, go to Gabby’s professional facebook page Gabby’s Art Auction, find the image you want to bid on, and add your bid in the comment by Wed 31 July 11:59pm AEST. The highest bidder wins and the proceeds will be donated, with Australian tax deductibility, towards Anna’s travel expenses.
I would like to personally thank Gabby for her amazing generosity in this specific instance, but also for her long serving role within ICAV as one of our NSW Representatives! Gabby gives her time to many areas in post adoption support. She continues to run her watercolour art classes for teenage Chinese adoptees in Sydney as part of her mentoring role for young adoptees and donates artwork to various adoptive parent and post adoption support organisations around the world because she is passionate about helping her fellow adoptees.
Here are the 3 pieces of artwork that Gabby is donating towards Anna’s travel costs:
…Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being…we can change social conditions to create environments in which children and adults can feel safe and where they can thrive. Van Der Kolk, B. (2014) The Body Keeps The Score. Viking, New York
“Though you may not have direct reports working under you, you are ALL leaders in your project teams,” we were told recently at a work-related strengths finding and building seminar. This got me thinking about what leadership looks like in our community of intercountry and transracial adoptees (ICA/TRAs). Every day I see fellow ICA/TRAs working to bring about change in areas such as the intersectionality of adoption, trauma, race, and loss; family preservation; family reunification; and garnering awareness and even funds for lifelong post-adoption services for adopted people (as well as others in the adoption constellation). If the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts, then our community will best be served if we can collaborate with each other, as united leaders. Therefore, I invite all ICA/TRAs to ask themselves a few fundamental questions about leadership: What are leaders? Who are they leading? Are they leading or are they serving? If they are serving, whom are they serving? How can leaders influence in the absence of direct authority?
As an adopted person, the leaders in my life who have resonated most with me are the ones who have listened, validated, felt all “the feels,” and who worked diligently and gently at helping others grow and learn, setting them on the path to becoming leaders themselves one day. I believe that we all are – or have the potential to be – caring, impactful, servant leaders in our family, professional, and community settings.
The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The best test is: do those served grow as persons: do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived? Greenleaf, R.K. (1977) Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. Paulist Press, New York
The concept of servant leadership, in which the main goal of the leader is to serve, was first outlined by Robert K. Greenleaf. Though an in-depth look at servant leadership is outside the scope of this blog, I hope that the short quote above will speak to many in the ICA/TRA community. It certainly speaks to me as someone who empathizes with those who are harmed by the power differential inherent to modern day adoption: vulnerable women and children.
Following in the footsteps of earlier generations of vocal adoptees, such as Betty Jean Lifton and Sherrie Eldridge, who advocated for adoption reform, some members of the ICA/TRA community who were born and adopted between the late 1960s and the early 1990s have published books, become adoptee-centric grief and trauma therapists, set up local support groups, and initiated DNA programs for adoptees and first families, amongst other noteworthy projects. However, unlike our pioneering predecessors, who were almost exclusively white, same-race domestic adoptees, we are the ones paving the way for critical thinking about intercountry and transracial adoption practices.
Furthermore, our community is in the very unique position of being the first generation of adult intercountry, transracially adopted people who have had time to think and heal AND who are connected globally, thanks to the internet, AND who have access to affordable DNA testing AND whose voices are starting to be heard by local and international governing bodies. Over the past few years we have begun to leverage all of these resources and opportunities, and in doing so, many members of the ICA/TRA community are now devoting their time and energy to serving adoptees and first family members. Whether we realize it or not, we are already practitioners of servant leadership.
The traditional business model of leadership has been about increasing power and profit margins by getting people to do what you want by wielding your authority. This model is not only waning in the business world, but it is wholly inappropriate in the ICA/TRA community: we have neither profit margins to increase nor authority to wield. Therefore, effective leadership in our community, namely leadership that educates, empowers, supports, and influences even without direct power or authority, I believe, will find its strengths in empathy, values of truth and justice, and the desire and ability to knowledge-share that many ICA/TRAs have developed as a result of their unique lived experiences.
There are so many aspects and nuances that are particular to the experience of being adopted from a different country and growing up in a family of a different race. There is often no mistaking or hiding from the fact that the one Black/Brown/Asian/Indigenous/non-white Latinx child in a white family is adopted (the overwhelming majority of intercountry adoptions follow this pattern). The reality of this situation may force the adopted person to “come out of the fog” earlier rather than later in life. Coming out of the fog and learning to take a critical look at both one’s own adoption story and the institution of adoption, and specifically intercountry adoption, are difficult yet incredibly important steps to take in terms of personal growth and working to heal the community. By finding ways to support our fellow ICA/TRAs during these painful and sometimes volatile stages, we can also help lift and heal ourselves, because we will be acting as leaders and creating the next group of leaders at the same time.
We were powerless as babies and children when we were removed from our families and sent around the world to grow up in adoptive families, often with no connection to our original selves or families. As a result, many of us have struggled with our identity and sense of self worth. We paid a very high price for something we never gave our consent to in the first place. Yet, the flip side to all the pain many ICA/TRAs endured while growing up, and often continue to endure well into adulthood, is that we often have specialized knowledge acquired only through lived experience. Many of us also feel an intense desire to give back to our community by sharing that knowledge (with each other, with adoptive parents, and with policy makers) to help ensure that things are done better for current and future generations of vulnerable families and adopted people. To me, that is certainly a big part of leadership.
Finally, it is no stretch to see reflected in the ICA/TRA community most, if not all, of Larry C. Spears’s ten characteristics of effective, caring leaders (Character and Servant Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders. Journal of Virtues & Leadership, Vol. 1, Iss. 1, 2010, p. 25-30):
Listening Empathy Healing Awareness Persuasion Conceptualization Foresight Stewardship Commitment to the Growth of People Building Community
Being a member of a group of individuals who exhibit such characteristics is very powerful, and very empowering indeed. If our ICA/TRA global community can harness the benefits of servant leadership by fully owning and exercising all of our inborn strengths as well as those characteristics we have acquired through our lived experiences, I believe we not only help each other heal but can also shape governmental policies in favor of family preservation and post-adoption support. As we move forward as a community and as leaders in the field of intercountry and transracial adoption, I hope we will continue to grow, to learn, and to hold each other accountable as leaders who serve with kindness, and no expectations of glory in return.
Guest post shared anonymously by one of ICAVs members and originally published in the Transracial Adoption Perspectives group which is setup to promote a greater understanding of transracial adoption for adoptive and prospective parents. An excellent resource and one of the safest spaces being managed on Facebook, for the triad.
Once again yesterday evening, I found myself in a nearly-all-white social space (the only people of color were myself and one Black/biracial woman). I was there for a very good reason, and have no regrets whatsoever, and everything went totally fine.
But every time I go into all-white or nearly-all-white social space now, it reminds me both of the lived experiences of my childhood, including the intense sense of social isolation and of differentness I experienced, and of why I chose to push myself into racial diversity and representation as soon as I could, as a young adult, and why I’ve now been living in vibrant racial diversity and representation in a major city for the majority of my adult years. Growing up in near-total whiteness was devastating for me, and it took me many years to “peel the layers of the onion” and to find myself as a person of color, to “place myself” as a POC, as it were, and to center myself in an environment that worked for me.
I had deeply loving parents, but honestly, no-one knew anything during that first wave of transracial and intercountry adoption in the late 1950s and the 1960s, and there were absolutely ZERO resources for adoptive parents back then–ZERO–and those of us in that first wave, suffered as a result. My parents did an incredible job with zero resources, but still, there were negative consequences.
So my wish for the littlest transracial and intercountry adoptees is that they not have to spend several decades of their lives finding their social place in the world, that they find their identities, voices, and social spaces, as people of color, decades before I did, that they grow up to be confident young adults of color. Indeed, one large element in my sense of mission in co-founding the group Transracial Adoption Perspectives, was to influence the white adoptive parents of the second decade of the 21st century to learn about and recognize some fundamental truths about the lived experiences of transracial adoptees, in order to help those littlest adoptees, who are their children now.
My journey into wholeness, integration, and self-confidence as a person of color has literally taken me several decades. My profoundest wish for the littlest adoptees is that they not have to struggle for several decades to get to their equivalent of the place where I am now, because taking several decades is just too long a journey, honestly.
I hope that adoptive parents around the world will be able to hear this, and will be able to do what it takes to support their children on their journeys. That would be an amazing thing, truly.
In any case, thank you for reading and considering this.
I remember back in my mid 20s when I had been in a serious intimate relationship for 7 years – my first love! Do we ever forget our first? No! For me, it was sooooo intense! The first person who I felt truly loved me as I was – warts and all. The first person who really tried to understand my mind and heart. The first person whom I felt “safe” with. As an intercountry adoptee, I had grown up in an adoptive family that hadn’t been an overwhelmingly positive experience and I yearned to feel love, yearned for a connection that wouldn’t be scary or hurtful. I remember my adoptive dad saying more than once not to be so “clingy” to people when the occassional visitor gave me attention. I craved their warmth and nurturing mannerism! The words of my adoptive father made me feel there was something wrong with my desire. In his words I was, “All over them like a bad smell”. But looking back, I recognise this now as the adoptee within who was hurt, abandoned and seeking the connection with a mother figure who wouldn’t let me go.
I kept looking for that “connection” and into my young adult life, I had several serious intimate love relationships. Each time, when it ended, as it inevitably did – it really hurt! I desperately wanted to be loved but I also needed to keep the person at a distance so they couldn’t hurt me too much. My experience of life was that people who said they loved me, either left me because I was “too much” or they hurt me.
Through alot of therapy in my mid 20s and 30s, I eventually recognised what was going on. I call it the push-pull dance that we adoptees master. The dance says: I want you close but I want you far away. It is the powerful dichotomy that we adoptees live. It reflects the dance we have going on within ourselves of wanting to believe we are loveable but living a reality that says the opposite – if we are loveable, then why are we left alone on our own, without our mother. We then subconsciously search for that connection to repair the hurt damaged child within, to want to see a reality that says “we are loveable”. I internalised my relinquishment as “there is something wrong with me” which was enhanced by an adoptive family environment in which I was neglected and abused. These experiences compounded into a feeling that I was always inferior, of no worth and why would anybody want to stay with me. The damage was so immense that I did actually hate myself and this was reflected in self harming behaviours such as suicide attempts. My self hatred was turned inwards upon myself. Others may show it in different ways.
Every human being has a powerful desire to feel loved and for adoptees – it is enhanced on steroids. Our rejected inner child drives our motivations and instincts to recreate and bring back that connection which was unfairly severed with our mother who carried us in-utero. We never really get over that loss of “mother”. I’ve done alot of therapy in my life but fundamentally, it still hurts to have lost her and never know who she is, to be held within her arms as a babe usually is, and to never hear her soothing voice or be held up to see her smiling, adoring face. We adoptees lose those precious moments forever, even if we manage to reunite and find each other again it doesn’t undo the trauma imprint left upon our heart and psyche. So it is not surprising that we carry on our search for that magical “mother-child” intimate connection through our romantic adult relationships.
The hard part is, when we feel so unloveable there is a mismatch between what our heart and our mind says. Our mind says what we all know logically – that every human being is of worth. But yet in our body, our heart, we don’t feel loveable. So our mind wants us to believe we can be in a relationship and that somehow we will find that one relationship which will wash away our pain – we pull people towards us, desperate to find that connection. But in our body and heart we don’t feel we’ll ever be good enough and therefore we push them away. We then get into a cycle of judging ourselves harshly for being in these patterns, saying, “See, told you so! Nobody will ever love me. I’m not loveable”, and it becomes a self fulfilling and cyclical prophecy.
So the question remains: are we adoptees left to forever be incomplete in someway? Going through the motions of this constant push-pull dance? I believe through my own experience, that we can find healing and it can vary for individuals as to what that healing looks like. For me, it was the deep body reconnection therapy I did which helped the most. It was a powerful moment when my therapist helped me recognise that my mother and I are not separated forever – that I am a part of her, that I haven’t lost her, for she is actually within me. That I carry her within me! That blew me away to actually feel this truth. I finally grieved and consoled my inner hurt child.
I also had spent several years working through the negative impacts of my adoptive family and the damaging messages I had internalised. But eventually, it all came together through perserverance and commitment to being on the path of self recovery. Once these things happened, I learnt to reconnect with myself and stop pushing away my own inner feelings of hurt, loss, rejection and to deeply love my inner child, accept her and not make her feel bad for “being needy” and wanting love. The subconscious instinctive response to push people away no longer controls me and I’ve been capable of being in a healthy positive intimate relationship. I now understand why many of us adoptees can journey along without ever being aware that we have “adoption related issues”. It is not until we see the repetitive cycles of our intimate relationship patterns, the push-pull dance, that we begin to fathom how much our relinquishment impacts our life. For some of us, it can be the first overt signal that something is not quite right.
A really useful book that helped me along while being in therapy, was Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Connection. (The first book of hers that I read, The Dance of Anger, was so important to my healing!)
If you are an adoptee reading this blog post and you can identify with the pattern of wanting people close to you but subconciously pushing them away, you are not alone. This is a completely normal response to a difficult beginning. We act this way for a reason and the good news is, it can be changed. It starts with a conscious decision to learn as much as possible as to why we became this way and how the pattern began. Then its a matter of finding a way for yourself that helps free you of the subconscious drivers. I refer to this as being on the path towards healing and recovery.
In the past month, I’ve become a fan of Anthony Robbins after watching his Netflix I Am Not Your Guru show. So much of his approach matches my healing journey where I learnt to accept and nuture my wounded child. I think that’s why it’s so devastating if we have an experience of an adoptive family who never fully accepts (or even understands) our wounded traumatised child within. When adoptive parents reject and push that hurt child away, it gives us the subconsciuos message that our child is not loveable and therefore, we as adults replicate what they’ve done because we don’t know any better. We push our inner hurt child away too but yet, the real path to finding healing from our relinquishment, is to embrace our inner child, love it, nuture and protect it and then allow it co-exist with our adult self. Only then do our beginnings no longer control our destiny.
Our path towards healing and recovery can start any moment. It is a choice. We don’t have to be controlled by our beginnings forever. A healthy positive intimate relationship is possible! Reaching out to post adoption supports are a great place to start. Finding a therapist who suits your style and personality is another. Doing yoga or meditation is another. But give yourself the chance and be gentle on yourself. This stuff doesn’t change overnight, it can take years of commitment to healing and recovery. It starts with awareness and the desire to figure it out.
At ICAV we often post and publish about the not so talked about aspects of intercountry adoption from the adoptee perspective. Some could label us as “anti” adoption because it’s all too easy to put us into a box and ignore our voices because the things we talk about can be hard to hear. During the summer vacation, I was asked by a fellow adoptee why I do what I do at ICAV and how have I remained involved for so long without burning out. Today I want to share what it is that keeps me inspired and why I love being connected to my fellow adoptees. It is afterall, almost Valentines Day!
Whilst growing up in regional Australia, I was always the only non-white person, except for some Aboriginals, in my communities at school, church and interest groups. I experienced a very isolating childhood. I had no peers, mentors or roles models who could help me understand my journey. I had no concept of what my issues were but remember feeling out of place and alone.
Fast forward to today and I no longer feel this way. I have met thousands of fellow adoptees like myself around the world and it is these friendships and connection with other intercountry adoptees that I love in ICAV. We have become and created our own place / space, our own sense of “family” where we understand and talk freely about the complexities that impact us. We not only share our journeys but now enmasse, we are turning our lived experiences into positive action on a global scale.
On the weekend, I caught up with some of my close adoptee friends in Sydney and this small group reflects what I love in ICAV. We all come from completely different birth countries and have massively different experiences of adoption – but the bond we share is just awesome!
Rafael is departing in two weeks to return and live in his birth country Colombia for the next 6 months after reuniting with his Colombian mother last year. It will be his first experience of living in his own country with his Colombian family for an extended period of time. It was because of Rafael leaving that we got together to wish him well. I am looking forward to hearing how this part of his journey goes and via the adoptee network, he will have plenty of support from fellow adoptees! Whilst in Colombia, he will also work with Plan Angel to help provide DNA kits to families of loss.
JD also found his Filippino mother last year despite great odds because he had been a “lost child” with no documentation and information about his identity. This year he is working on a documentary, utilising his multimedia skills and passion to create a greater awareness of intercountry adoptees and their desire to search for biological family.
Gabby is a Chinese adoptee and she is travelling to Hong Kong shortly to showcase her watercolour artwork in which she unveils the complexities of transracial adoption in a subtle and more mainstream way. I love how she has the courage to share how her journey as an intercountry adoptee influences her work. Adoption artwork can sometimes be confronting but Gabby has found a powerful way to reach the mass audiences in a subtle, non-threatening manner. This year she will also continue to provide art classes as a peer mentor to younger Chinese adoptees in Sydney.
As a Vietnamese adoptee who has very little paperwork, I returned to Vietnam last year for the second time and am still trying to find my family of origin. Maybe one day I’ll find them but until then, alot of questions about my original identity and family remain unanswered. I live with this and it is the only way I know. I listen to my adoptee friends who have found their families and the issues they face and I always ponder what it might be like, when and if it happens to me. So many complexities, so many challenges, so many times we as adoptees have to juggle difficult circumstances and issues.
Each of us is driven by our own journey in adoption to help make this world a better place for our fellow adoptees. When we get together, there is a bond between us. Our journeys are so uniquely individual but yet we share so much in common. Only amongst fellow intercountry adoptees do I find true understanding and empathy, true connection and a shared resilience. And what I love even more is that we all have a passion to give back to our intercountry adoptee community to try and make the path easier, better, and somewhat smoother. THIS is what I’ve always meant ICAV to be .. a place where we can turn our journeys (whether they were harsh or amazingly positive and anything in between), into something more than our individual experience and it creates momentum to build something amazing, as a collective.
Like my small group catchup in Sydney on the weekend, the connection and support between fellow intercountry adoptees is replicated around the world in each of our adoptive countries and across our many birth countries. I love that since founding ICAV, when almost nothing existed worldwide except for a few KAD groups, there are now literally so many adoptee led groups around the world. They all do something in their unique way to support fellow adoptees. This is truly inspirational when we see that out of each journey, so much can flourish and thrive. Being witness to this growth and seeing what we can achieve as a community worldwide, is what motivates me to continue ICAV. What we achieve together as a collective remains open and time will show the fruits of our labours.
Several comparisons have looked at social climate and economic factors to understand the motivations for why the South Korean government continues to export its children via intercountry adoption. Some individuals claim it’s due to impoverished conditions after the Korean War but I find this to be misleading. America has a long tradition of sounding a rallying cry after a great disaster such as the collapse of an economy, famine or war. Modern intercountry adoption began from South Korea and has remained popular over time. Other nations have become popular sending countries in recent years, for example China. However, South Korea still reigns as having the highest number of children sent away to a foreign country via intercountry adoption.
Korean War the Rallying Cry but Not a Major Contributor
The graph above shows the number of adoptions that occurred by year. The rally cry for South Korean adoptions may have started with the aftermath of the Korean War and for 17 years, the children did trickle into the America. The gap between the Korean War and the start of the first wave of Korean Adoptions that occurred in the 1970s was nearly a full generation after the Korean War. Therefore, there must be another driver that motivated South Korea to export its children.
If the safeguarding of the children after the War was an important driver to aid South Korean children, then one would expect to see the number of adoptions rising after the War. However, the increase in adoptions did not occur until sixteen to eighteen years after the War had ended. One argument often used has to do with the poor economy. However, the two peak periods with the largest number of children sold off via intercountry adoption occurred during the largest economic boom for Korea. Therefore, other reasons must exist that motivated South Korea to sell of its most precious asset, its children.
This essay will investigate the underlying motivation in depth for why South Korea has sent out so many children via intercountry adoption. I will draw from both my professional financial background and as a person who has lived this exporting experience.
American Adoption Trend or Preference?
The bulk of children adopted to America came from Asia and Russia and former Soviet-controlled countries. Preferential selection based on race has been cited numerous times to be the main reason for this disparity amongst the Caucasian community who adopts the majority of children into America. The article Discouraging Racial Preferences in Adoption by Solangel Maldonado summarized this context well:
“Tracing the history of transracial adoption in the United States, this article argues that one reason why Americans go abroad to adopt is race. The racial hierarchy in the adoption market places white children at the top, African American children at the bottom, and children of other races in between, thereby rendering Asian or Latin American children more desirable to adoptive parents than African American children.”
If Americans were really concerned for children involved in conflicts, then there are huge gaps in adoption trends. One would assume children from the massacres of Rwanda, Darfur and other Wars and disasters would be reflected in adoption statistics but America has a preference to adopt children that are from light-skinned countries. Ethiopia is located in northern Africa and Ethiopia has some of the lighter shades of skin color in Africa. The culture was influenced by Judaic influences as well as the middle east. The reality is Americans do have a preference, they want as many light skinned babies as possible.
In the past, I have been asked to talk about the business side of adoption. The following information is initially from an interview I did with Kevin Vollmers for an interview on Land of Gazillion Adoptees. I found a great explanation about supply and demand and how it correlates to business, to include the adoption industry.
“Supply and demand are perhaps one of the most fundamental concepts of economics and it is the backbone of a market economy. Demand refers to how much (quantity) of a product or service is desired by buyers. The quantity demanded is the amount of a product people are willing to buy at a certain price; the relationship between price and quantity demanded is known as the demand relationship. Supply represents how much the market can offer. The quantity supplied refers to the amount of a certain good a producer is willing to supply when receiving a certain price. The correlation between price and how much of a good or service is supplied to the market is known as the supply relationship. Price, therefore, is a reflection of supply and demand.”
A focus on factors that influence the supply side of the equation of adoptions from South Korea was highlighted and shows how changes in prices and the use of subsidies have made adoption a very lucrative business.
Demand Side within America for Intercountry Adoption
Some individuals are very ignorant about the large demand for children in America. For the most part, prospective parents are looking to adopt infants to allow them to experience parenting. I was surprised by the number of couples incapable of conceiving and although technology is advancing to assist conception, the barriers to use these technologies are at high costs and the toll it places on the woman’s body as compared to the trade-offs of not conceiving.
The latest information from the Centers of Disease Control (CDC) estimates the following:
“About 6% of married women aged 15 to 44 years in America are unable to get pregnant after one year of trying (infertility). Also, about 12% of women aged 15 to 44 years in America have difficulty getting pregnant or carrying a pregnancy to term, regardless of marital status (impaired fecundity)”.
National Survey of Family Growth stated that 7.5% of all sexually experienced men reported receiving help with having a child at some time during their lifetime. This equates to 3.3 – 4.7 million men in America. Of the men who sought help, 18.1% were diagnosed with a male-related infertility problem. This data points out that there could be as high as 6.7 – 10.8 couples that will have problems in conceiving children and are likely candidates for adoption. This isn’t to say that infertile couples are the only ones wanting to adopt. There is evidence that families without fertility issues and families with biological children have the desire to adopt too.
In a recent survey conducted by the National Council For Adoption and their testimony before Congress on foster and adoptive parent recruitment reform; their polling concluded the following:
25% seriously consider becoming a foster parent/ or adopt;
63% believe religious leaders should do more to encourage people to become foster parents or to adopt;
76% support hiring more case workers, even if cost millions of dollars.
Besides the desire to raise a family by infertile couples, the adoption industry has been heavily influenced by the evangelical movement in America that spans nearly a decade. During this time, large established families without infertility issues have adopted in high numbers. The evangelical adoption movement also fought to lobby in Congress to keep the adoption tax credit and won in 2017 to extend the bill to support growing evangelical families.
It’s extremely hard to determine how large the demand side of adoption is, it’s true that not all infertile couples will look to adoption as part of their basket of choices and furthermore, there are large segmented groups like the evangelicals that are very pro-adoption and that too is also hard to determine but the demand side potential could be easily be in the double digit millions.
Demand Side within South Korea
South Korea has little-to-no demand for adoption within its own borders. It’s estimated that South Korea takes in around 4% of their unwanted children. Despite selling off 200,000 children, it has nearly a ten-fold increase that remains within their state-run orphanages in the past six decades. It’s estimated that more than 2 million children have been brought up by the state in South Korea. For the most part, Koreans adhere to Confucian principals and conform to staying within their own bloodlines. Therefore, the demand side in Korea is near non-existant. To understand the cultural differences, The Economist ran an article entitled “Why adoptions are so rare in South Korea“ and stated:
“Traditional Confucian notions of the bloodline family still hold sway, as do aspects of primogeniture. Women who cannot bear children face strong social stigma, as do orphans and adoptees, whose chances of getting a job and marrying are limited. Many adoptions in South Korea are concealed from family and friends—and, in many cases, the adopted child. Parents ensure that the baby’s blood type matches their own; some mothers even fake pregnancy. All this sends the message that adoption is shameful, in turn discouraging more of it. The secrecy also explains why 95% of infants adopted within South Korea are less than one-month-old: young enough to be passed off as biological children. A majority of adopted babies are girls so as to avoid difficulties over inheritance and at ancestral family rites, which are normally carried out by bloodline sons”.
Supply Side in America for Domestic Adoption
The Department of Health and Human Services produces a report every year about the number of children who are in foster care or in need of a home. Adoptionnetwork.com provides a plethora of adoption statistics to give an idea of how large the supply is within America. The site gave the following examples:
428,000 children are in foster care in the United States;
135,000 children are adopted in the United States each year;
In 2015, over 670,000 children spent time in the foster care system;
2% of Americans have actually adopted, more than 1/3 have considered it;
Around 7 million Americans are adopted;
State and federal expenditures for foster care administrative costs (placing and monitoring children in foster care) totaled $4.3 billion
In America the figures show the vast majority of children are not adopted and the system is heavily subsidized by Federal and States funds that has turned into a multi-billion dollar business.
Supply Side in South Korean for any Adoptions
The exact number of children that are available for adoption each year in South Korea is unknown and has been artificially inflated due to laws and incentives that encourage abandonment. The math doesn’t lie, its estimated that 4.2% of the 51.5 Million Koreans were either raised in state ran institutions or sent off for adoption. The real issues are glossed over when emotions are used over facts. The main reason why South Korean mother’s give away their children is because there are no social welfare programs nor civil rights that support single parenting in South Korea. A single parent receives on average 70,000 won (US$84) per child a month compared to the 1.1 million won that is spent for each child in an orphanage and this disparity helps push desperate mothers to relinquish their children.
If the support went to the mother instead of the institutions, the supply side in Korea would dry up overnight.
Despite these perverse laws, the number of children in welfare centers that house orphans has dropped considerably. In 2015, the number of children taken care of by the State declined to 12,821 from 17,517 in 2006, i.e., a 26.8% drop. Many organizations try to point to the fact that South Korea has shipped 200,000 children to other countries as an indicator of a large supply of children available for adoption but does anyone show the research for this? No because in doing so, we would understand there is not a large supply side in South Korea.
Joel L. A. Peterson is the national award-winning author of the novel, Dreams of My Mothers and he stated in a Huffington Post article in 2015:
“Instead, my research suggests that many — maybe most or all — “abandoned” Korean children were wanted and their mothers went through a horrendous, agonizing process to reach a decision that showed that their mothers cared for their welfare and did the only thing they could to give some advantage to their child by at least conferring Korean citizenship.”
He further explains why there isn’t a supply curve in South Korea by stating:
“Recent surveys conducted in Korea indicate that greater than 90 percent of single mothers desire to keep their child if their circumstances and society had allowed. It would seem that, indeed, Korean mothers are no different from mothers everywhere. Just Korean laws and the weight of Korean social norms.”
Unscrupulous Practices Decrease Input Costs
Adoption agency costs are much lower to operate in poorer developing nations. Operating costs could be much lower – a few thousand dollars to cover a year supply of expenses for lodging, food and incidentals. During the height of the baby sales in South Korea there was a large disparity in GDP per capita between America and South Korea. WIth the lower operating costs in Korea during this time period, this allowed the South Korean government to make more profit. The cost could be dramatically less if unscrupulous practices that were market driven to bring in children for foreign adoption. Other benefits to the adoption agency and the adopters include the lack of resources for poor families to look for their child or petition the legal system if the parents change their mind.
Adoption Incentives Drive Profits Upwards
The American tax incentive plays a negative roll in driving up costs in adoption. Several economists correlate the rise of College tuition with the increase of Federal grants and subsidies. This means for every dollar a student received in grants and free money – the university had increased the tuition costs and the amount of debt the same for the student. The government provided funds did not offset costs for the student. Instead, what the system did was increase the total cost of tuition. No matter how much this can be pointed out by economists and smart legislators – people will demand to get more of their schooling funded through grants and government subsidies instead of asking for ways to lower tuition costs.
The same problem holds true for those who want to adopt. Funding is available via tax write-offs, loans, and grants to prospective parents, incentivizing them to adopt.
There is no clear evidence that the input costs are being driven up or that parents are being matched with better children due to more extensive search or process. Specific adoption expenses such as adoption fees, court costs, attorney fees and travel expenses are used as a tax credit. Remember a tax credit is a dollar for dollar reduction in federal tax and not a reduction of taxable income. Furthermore, the adoption tax credit allows US$13,460 worth of tax credit for the adopted child. So, one must ask, where does this money go? Adoption agencies respond saying the increases in costs are caused by tougher regulations, longer holding times and increases in input costs (food, shelter, clothing, etc.).
An assessment was made at the financials of Holt International to determine where the funds were being distributed throughout the system.
Holt International, as well as numerous adoption advocacy sites, have used the figure of US$40,000 to be the average cost a prospective family spends on each adoption. Using this for 2010 on the number of children processed for adoption into America, the total amount of revenue earned was US$29,560,000. Subtracting the adoption fees Holt International charges to each family, the total liabilities unrecorded is US$18,756,000 i.e., 63% of the funding is unaccounted for.
A Washington Post article states that the biggest cost outside agency costs (which are separate) is legal fees that range from US$6,000 to $8,000. Much of what Holt and other adoption agencies publish is vague and the financial records change from year to year, making it hard to determine where the funds are spent and preventing transparency. In 2010, how did Holt earn an additional US$14 million worth of revenue when half the revenues came from adoption fees?
Adopt for All Children is another American adoption agency and they list a greater breakdown of their costs. They co-operate with the Eastern Social Welfare Society to place children from South Korea to America.
Smoking Gun Another adoption agency called New Beginnings that deals with South Korean Adoptions gives some insight of the greater detail of their South Korean Program Fees:
“Korean Program Fee Program Coordination $6,500 for program sponsorship and development; working with ESWS to identify a child and arranging for an adoption; receiving a referral of a child that includes the Child’s Background Study; securing the child’s legal information to present to USCIS for immigration approval; filing the documents in Korea for court approval and emigration permission, establishing the itineraries while the family is abroad for the adoption hearing, the placement of the child and the child’s travel visa. ($2,500 due at home study approval; $1,500 due at acceptance; and $2,500 due at submission of Emigration Permission).” Foreign Agency Fee and “Donation” $19,500 For child care expenses prior to the adoption, identifying a child available for adoption, securing the necessary terminate parental rights, providing the background study on the child, arranging for the finalization of the adoption and the immigration of the child (due at acceptance). Total Korean Program Fees $26,000“
The document provided by New Beginnings show that a large portion of the adoption costs gets returned back to the South Korea Government. I dislike the term that these agency use. They call it donations and that means the funds are unaccounted for. South Korean agencies need to be transparent on the funds they received and how the funding is spent. Regardless, this is the amount of funding that could have contributed to Korea’s economy: to pay for salaries to process documents, cost of care for the children and other expenses. I will refer to these numbers throught the study as the Foreign Agency Fee and Donation.
Holt Case Example It is almost impossible to obtain any real assessments from Holt’s online financial statements. Most years, Holt will publish a total number of children adopted into America vs. splitting the numbers between adoptions made from the parent country and domestic adoptions. Due to limited data I have to make some assumptions. I will assume the majority of the costs will be transferred to the American families and that the majority of costs would be for foreign born children i.e., the domestic adoptions should be cheaper to process.
In 2007, Holt listed the domestic and international adoptions to America separately and if we peel back the onion, the overall costs for the international adoptions would increase if we sliced the domestic adoptions out of the equation. I used the 2007 figures to come up with the new cost: 59 domestic and 561 foreign adoptions and this implies approximately 10% of all Holt adoptions, for an average year, are domestic.
The Federal Adoption Tax Credit was enacted in 1997. I do not have enough data to determine if the law increased these costs. I would need to look at financial statements going back to the early ’90s to make an accurate assessment but it doesn’t mean this data is totally useless either. First, the adoption fee per international child is close to what other sources are reporting. The increase in Total operating Revenue suggests the costs are passed down to the potential parents, the number of adoptions is not increasing dramatically and the annual operating funds have increased from year to year, on a whole. This may be due to inflation of 2-3%.
The annual reports also list the areas the adoption agencies are actively working. We can see numerous trends. First, they are constantly going to economically depressed areas to obtain these children. We see where they are focusing their attention and possible patterns of abuse. For instance, in recent years adoption agencies have been prohibited from doing business in Russia and Guatemala due to perceived or real abuses within the adoption process. Overall, one can assume that the policy is working well in encouraging individuals to adopt. However, other sources point out that the program is supporting foreign adoptions and not helping the domestic foster care system.
A recent Child Trends research brief uses 1999–2005 data from the US Treasury Department to determine who most benefits from the credit. In his report summary, author Rob Geen reveals that:
The vast majority of adoption tax credit recipients completed private or foreign adoptions rather than adoptions from foster care.
The tax credit disproportionately supports higher-income families.
The tax credit primarily supports the adoption of younger children.
Nearly all foreign adoptions were supported by the … tax credit but only one in four foster care adoptions were.
Estimated Size of the Adoption Industry
The adoption process is no different to other programs where federal assistance increases the wealth of those who run them. Together with increasing demand for international adoptions, the federal assistance acts to inflate costs and enables those who run the programs to become wealthier.
I went to the US Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs to get the average number of intercountry adoptions per year. The site has a database that lists the total number adoptions as 271,833 from 1999-2017. I took the average year to be around 15,101 adoptions a year and multiplied it by Adoption.com’s average intercountry adoption cost of US$35,000 to determine the size of the American market. It is US$529 million dollars a year. This does not factor in legal fees, medical fees, counseling costs and immigration costs. It also doesn’t factor in all the other developed countries that adopt abroad. Several sites estimate that Europe and all other developed countries adoptions numbers, equal that of America. Therefore, the entire intercountry adoption industry is worth at least a billion US dollars a year.
There were actually two peak periods where children were adopted out of South Korea enmasse and these occurred during the 1970s and 1980s. There was no correlation between the adoption rates against GDP per capita. If this was true, then one would expect more children being exported during the IMF crisis in the later part of the 1990s, however, this never occurred. One could argue that size of the family may have been the key driver. This could be said for the children born in the 1970s. The average household size contained 4.53 children per household.
South Korea’s birthrate stabilizes near the current rate which is below 2 children per family around 1982. However, a large number of children were still being adopted for nearly 8 years after the birthrate dropped below 2 per family household.
A better explanation for the adoptions has to do with South Korea being a patriarchal society. If a South Korean woman losses support from her partner, she is shunned and ridiculed by society. She has no support system to turn to and is given only one option to give her child a fighting chance: adoption.
Wikipedia states: “Statistics demonstrate the success of South Korea’s national education programs. In 1945 the adult literacy rate was estimated at 22 percent; by 1970 adult literacy was 87.6 percentand, by the late 1980s, sources estimated it at around 93 percent”.
In relatively a short period, South Korea greatly improved its education system which meant a larger number of women entered university. The age when women gave birth in the 1970-80s was 20-24 year old mothers and this is where a large number of children for adoption came from. The number of children born to this segment shrank dramatically after the 1980s. This was largely due to 2 factors: firstly, the use of ultrasound technology to determine the sex of the child and perform targeted abortions on female fetuses; and secondly the increased use of contraceptives and abortion by women in South Korea.
This also explains the high percentage of South Korean girls given up for adoption throughout this period. More than likely, the poorer women who could not afford to have an abortion or use contraceptives were forced to give up their child due to social pressures.
“Imbalances in the sex ratio at birth in Southeast and East Asia increased especially after the mid-1980s. We study how ultrasonic technology affected sex ratios at birth in South Korea, a country with a strong son preference. Between 1985 and 1995 fetal screenings and abortion services were widely available, though not available in the years before, and prohibited in the years after”. (Source: NIH article)
As a direct means of avoiding unwanted births, particularly after contraceptive failure, induced abortion gradually increased in South Korea especially among urban women (Choe and Park, 2005, Stephen, 2012). By 1970, abortion had become a common practice with more than 40% of women reporting having had an induced abortion to terminate unwanted pregnancies and this rate rose to over 50% by the 1980s (Chun and Das Gupta, 2009). Abortions were easy to obtain in clinics throughout the country and the operations were safe, cheap and completed without social resistance despite the illegality of the procedure (Tedesco, 1999).
Adoption used for Cost Avoidance
What could be another driver for South Korea to sell off their children? I believe we really need to look at the economic incentives. The first economic incentive is the cost avoidance. South Korea forfeited the costs to raise children in institutions from the age they enter the system until adulthood. One needs to remember economic growth in South Korea was extremely high and the average growth between 1970 to 1990 was 18.7% each year. Imagine the amount the government would have to carry as the costs of wages, food and shelter continue to rise by that amount each year?
I measured the growth by looking at the GDP per capita as an indicator. I calculated the cost to house, feed and educate a child under an institution would cost more than a family given the children need 24 hour care. I used the cost of 40% of the given years GDP per capita as the cost to raise the child for that given year. The costs could actually climb higher when factoring in the higher cost of labor to take care of infants and special needs children. I also estimated that the average child spent 16 years inside the institution. An assumption was made that the average age of the child sent to Korean institutions was 2 years old.
The total cost to the South Korean Government in terms of cost avoidance for only 20 of the 62 years that Korea was exporting children (1970-1990) is estimated to be around US$6.4 billion!
This is evidence that South Korea had an economic motive to sell off its children and supports this theory of cost avoidance. South Korea spend way less money on social welfare programs than other OECD countries which means they have more funding for other programs such as its R&D and military.
In her 2010 book, Kim Rasmussen said: the root cause of the number of adoptions out of South Korea in 2010 was South Korea’s lack of spending on its social welfare system. Rasmussen also shared that the other OECD-30 countries spent an average of 20.6% of their GDP on social welfare benefits while South Korea only spent 6.9% of its GDP on social welfare benefits. Rasmussen believes that South Korea’s promotion of domestic adoption does not address the heart of the problem and that South Korea should raise its spending for social welfare benefits.
Adoption as a Revenue Maker
In the graphs below, I estimate the average cost for the Foreign Agency Fee and Donation as a steady state (US$19,500 per child) times the number of adoptions per year in South Korea. I compare the revenue in terms of the GDP per capita and determined that in 2015, when the article was written, the cost is around 35% of the GDP per capita in America. I then took that percentage and calculate it by the American GDP per capita stated for each corresponding year. I took the information and compared it against the cost and number of barrels of oil used in Korea to determine how much adoption could have impacted the South Korean economy (if any). The Tax and South Korea’s GDP was compared to determine the strength of the economy and whether it had any effect on the number of adoptions. There doesn’t seem to be any correlation.
The price adjusted to today’s dollars of the total adoption program from 1970-1990 earned South Korea a revenue of US$3.1 billion, averaging US$157 million a year.
To understand the magnitude and impact, the equivalent to a program in America which is more than 6 times the size of South Korea, the revenue gained by selling off its children would be the equivalent to the cost of the fight on AIDS in Africa. In that program America spent roughly US$1 billion a year. Or you could equate the amount to the American national After-School Lunch Program for the entire country that fed hungry impoverished children.
The yellow line in the graph (above) takes the adjusted Foreign Agency Fee and Donation times the number of children that were adopted each year. Most of the funds went to the South Korean government as above the line profit. Articles have been published stating that the South Korean government has made money from adoption, such as this article on International Adoption of South Korean Children in Wikipedia.
A 1988 article originally from The Progressive and reprinted in Pound Pup Legacy says the South Korean government made fifteen to twenty million dollars per year from the adoption of Korean orphans into families in other countries. The 1988 news article also says the adoption of orphans out of South Korea had three effects: it saved the South Korean government the costs of caring for the Korean orphans; it relieved the South Korean government of the need to figure out what to do with the orphans and it lowered the population.
I think the amount of revenue gained from exporting South Korean children has been understated!
Due to a lack of transparency, there is no exact method of calculating how much revenue the South Korean government made during the adoption process. Holt and other adoption agencies that operate out of South Korea declare their financial statements on an annual basis and if the amounts are lower than the average adoption transaction, one could assume the difference is given to the South Korean government. Issues that make transparency difficult are that adoption agencies such as Holt change their financial statements on a frequent basis and only a fraction of the adoption companies share their financial statements with the public.
The graph below shows a comparison of Korea’s GDP Growth (grey line) in comparison to profit made from adoption (blue line), changes in oil useage (orange) and increase in tax revenue (yellow) over time.
A comparison was made of the cost of barrels of oil used during the twenty years. The amount of money made in adoption sales stays above, or at the level of oil used, when using the steady state number ($6000/adoptee) and it jumps dramatically higher when applying the Foreign Agency Fee and Donation ($19,500). The blue line would grow three fold.
Economically selling off the children via intercountry adoption has been a suicidal move because the population ultimately fell below 2.1 children per household. In developed countries, sub-replacement fertility is any rate below approximately 2.1 children born per woman, but the threshold can be as high as 3.4 in some developing countries because of higher mortality rates. Going below this number will result in the current situation that South Korea faces and that is a sub-replacement fertility rate. This occurred around the early or later part of 1982.
I theorize that the rapid drop in fertility rates in South Korea occurred for two reasons:
Cultural: it was unacceptable for women to have children if they weren’t married. That segment quickly disappeared (20-24 year olds) because of contraception and abortion use took place. I need to overlay this to see if more kids are being raised in orphanages. South Korea makes it too easy for parents to dump their kids off and run.
Someone (or the government) was economically gaining from the wholesale of children: if we average the profit throughout the years of $5000 x 200,000 children the profit would be equivalent to US$1 billion dollars .
In 1980 South Korea’s GDP was $68 billion, showing the wholesale of its children would have significantly contributed to the economic growth of the country. There must be a South Korean document somewhere that is equivalent to Germany’s Final Solution. Instead of eradication, South Korea had a plan for the mass exportation of its children.
Following 1988, there was a large drop in intercountry adoptions after the Seoul Olympics. This is an important date, as many nations were chastising South Korea for the exportation of its children. Feeling this pressure, South Korea immediately reduced the number of adoptions per year by 75%.
The Number of Institutionalized Children and Adoptions are Dropping
With the recent passage of laws and strict requirements for adoption the number of children exported by South Korea for adoption has declined sharply over the past decade. In numerous studies, I note the statistic that America has been taking in nearly half of the adoptions worldwide.
An online journal The Conversationarticle says international adoptions have dropped 72 percent since 2005 and quotes:
“In recent decades South Korea, Romania, Guatemala, China, Kazakhstan and Russia– all former leaders in foreign adoption – have also banned or cut back on international custody transfers. In 2005, almost 46,000 children were adopted across borders, roughly half of them headed to a new life in the United States. By 2015 international adoptions had dropped 72 percent, to 12,000 in total. Just 5,500 of these children ended up in the U.S., with the remainder landing in Italy and Spain”.
Furthermore, the number of children sent to orphanages in Korea has also fallen. See this article which quotes:
“In 2015, the number of children staying in welfare centres caring mainly for orphans dropped by 26.8 per cent to 12,821, from 17,517 in 2006”.
Adoptee Parents are Rapidly Dying Off
During the early 1970’s, fertility rates within South Korea and the ratio for women giving birth was one third in the early to mid 20s age range, one third in the mid to late 20s, and one third in their 30s or older. As South Korea progressed, the number of women in the younger segment shrank greatly. My initial graph above showed potential age lines and made the assumption that the father was on average a couple of years older than the mother.
I also found an article on life expectancy which increased by nearly 20 years from the 1970s to today. The dotted horizontal red line in the graph above is the changes in life expectancy and will merge with the mean age of the parents. The life expectancy shot up and stayed around 84 years from the mid 80s to the present. Where the dotted vertical red line meets the dotted horizontal line shows a high likelihood that the fathers have passed away and where the dotted yellow and first dotted red line meets, also holds true for the mothers. I also calculated the ages by the number of adoptees adopted by year group and estimated, using current actuary tables, that more than 2,000 parents are dying each year. Roughly one third of all adoptee’s biological parents have already died and it’s crucial for adoptees to do their searches as soon as possible if they want to find parents alive.
The money spent on the intercountry adoption of South Korean children would have done more to support single mothers, prevented the separation of children from their surroundings and prevented unnecessary negative externalities experienced via adoption. South Korea could have used the funding to begin its social welfare programs such as Canada’s training programs which train mothers how to raise their children, cope with stresses and empower them to become productive single parents.
The issues facing many 3rdworld countries are not about bad parenting but rather a situation of a lack of resources. If a mother cannot afford to provide for her child, she will do anything to ensure that her child will have a better life. Few individuals see the altruistic actions of desperate mothers. These mothers are willing to give away their children to afford them a better life. Furthermore, nobody has dethroned the archaic ways of doing business and management of governance in South Korea. Rights and laws go to protect the same patriarchal men who hold the keys to the power in South Korea. Nothing is being done to provide for the millions of women and children left vulnerable when the man decides to abandon the family. Nothing is done to ensure child support is provided and a safety net developed by a government who chooses to bury its head in the sand, instead of dealing with issues that have plagued them for over 5 decades.
“Although Korean women are participating more in the labour market than in previous years, the gap in the level of employment between men and women, regardless of their education level, is enormous. In fact, the gender gap is wider among those with a tertiary education than among those with only preprimary and primary-level education; and South Korea is the only OECD country that shows such an effect”. (Source: OECD)
This past November was the first time I’ve celebrated [Inter]National Adoption Month. In honor of centering the adoptee narrative, in honor of me, my family, and my bio family, I’m excited to share some thoughts. Here’s a bit about my perspective and experience of being an intercountry and transracial adoptee from China, having grown up in the US.
I want to stress that these are entirely my own perspectives and observations, drawn from my own life and relating to other [Chinese] adoptees I’ve spoken with; I do not intend to speak opinion for the entire adoptee community.
I used to tell people that I had no problem talking about being adopted because everything was fine for me. At a surface [and immensely privileged] level, it was. I was always very social and extroverted. I was oriented towards making as many friendships as I could. I was *that kid from camp who tried to stay in touch just a bit too long*. I told people I was fine talking about being adopted – even that there was nothing to talk about- because it had happened in the past.
But I am older now, and it’s taken me a while to dig into exactly how and why being adopted has had such an impact on me.
Being adopted is weird, and honestly I’m constantly in awe these days, learning new ways that its weird, and how it situates me in relation to most others, in and outside my communities.
I think we all face abandonment and loss, and the fear of these things, in different ways. I personally do not feel upset with my birth family at this point, but even so, I’ve realize that being abandoned (even if I don’t remember it) really feels present, and has been present throughout my life. I feel it’s important to name this phenomena of the fear of being abandoned, as its really not something I think any adoptee can ever really shake, no matter how conscious or unconscious those fears are. I’ve been doing a lot of work to understand how this fear affects me, and how I may be subconsciously reacting to it even if I don’t realize — whether it’s losing a camp friend at age 12, or the way I communicate in my relationships.
I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out what it meant to be read as an Asian woman. I felt completely foreign to this identity that I assumed publicly. I grew up in, and around white people, and white culture – as many adoptees from China do. I used to feel like I was a white kid in an Asian body. You’ll find this (or versions of it) aren’t uncommon for young Chinese intercountry and transracial adoptees.
Two examples of comments I received as a child are below for example:
“I don’t see you as Asian, you’re just normal!”
“Can you see ok?”
These comments were obviously steeped in racism, xenophobia and the essence of the marginalized identity, versus the construction of “normalcy”. They made me wonder what it was that people saw me as, and why it was so different compared to who I felt I was. I felt “normal,” which in itself was a horribly racist and xenophobic sentiment that I had been socialized to carry.
The sociologist Robin DiAngelo describes White Privilege as “To be perceived as individual, to not be associated with anything negative because of your skin color.”
There were two things that I continue to unpack there. While I was socialized in white culture within the US, I too learned how to read “Asians” as “abnormal.” Just as well, I discovered that I was read as abnormal — as out of place, too.
My White-Jewish and queer family culture has played a large role in my socialization and makes up huge parts of my identity and personality. But there’s this other piece that stands as a nebulous question mark, always looming over me:
Where do I come from? Whom do I come from? What are the struggles, joys, and histories of my people – biologically and culturally?
As I continue to understand the situation, more and more it feels like my birthright was taken from me — the right to know my culture, language, and ancestry: the stories and realities that I may never get to hear and that will never fully be a part of me. I also feel I was stolen from my family; there were very real and systemic pressures that inclined them to give me away.
The situation of adoption is inherently both deeply personal and individual, as well as global and systemic. It involves Chinese gender roles, family, culture, income inequality/classism, combined with the Western/American White Christian legacy of imperialism, savior-ism, and more.
A lot of my experience has been hallmarked by both the feeling of being different and that nothing fully belongs to me/that I do not fully belong to anyone (not even my family). This caused a deep dissonance for me. This underlying socialization has pushed me to constantly search to find belonging in groups, and via individual people as a mechanism of survival. This is also inherently motivated by the fear of further loss and abandonment.
While some of these questions around my origins may never be answered, I believe the hardships given to me by being adopted have pushed me to be resilient, self aware, grounded, and perseverant in connecting with others. I am so proud of being an adoptee for these reasons. I wouldn’t trade it for anything because I think one of the most precious things in life is being able to love and connect with others, in as many ways as possible.
I have mostly hated being asked where I’m from because it tells me that the person asking recognizes I must be from somewhere else. This question implies I don’t really belong and must have an explanation for being on this land (interesting, do you feel you belong on this land, white Americans?)
However, I’m beginning to find it to also be an empowering question!
I’ve begun to find beauty in this assumption that I’m not from here and in the recognition that I do in fact come from somewhere. I am the product of generations and generations of people who have lived their lives since the beginning of time. These people, while I don’t know them, are in my blood and in my DNA, showing me how to survive every day!
How sad that somehow, the acknowledgement that I am from somewhere else has largely been, for me and other transracial adoptees, a source of feeling out of place, and is a tool of implicit and sometimes explicit social exclusion.
And what a blessing that I’ve been asked this question and that I have, and plan to continue, to explore and uncover where I come from.
Being transracially and intercountry adopted has made me inherently feel that I don’t belong anywhere – in any group or community. It’s made me feel a little more like an outsider in virtually every community I’ve been a part of. While all these things – the sentiment of this question “where are you from,” the look of surprise when people hear I’m Jewish, the feeling of being “othered” by people I consider my own, have caused conflict in my identity in numerous ways, they’ve also asked me to dig deeply into what it means to build bridges and to continue to share, connect, and depend on community.
My adoption has caused me to ask myself, “Well, what and who are my roots? What and who matter to me?”
Even if it’s taken this long to get here, even if I may never know my biological ancestry and have lost the opportunity and privilege to connect to my original people, I do know the beauty, importance, and imperative of figuring out how to connect deeply to my given histories, ancestries, and communities. I know that I can even choose my communities, and that I have that agency – something all adoptees deserve to know and practice.
This white supremacist culture largely holds power through convincing its inhabitants relentlessly to be numb and to grow cold to their own struggles and inherently, the struggles of others. We are taught that to be strong is to remain stoic. This encourages isolation, which is the antithesis of community. By opening up to my own pain and understanding the situation of my adoption, I turn painful realities into curiosity and eventually compassion. By sharing this pain with others, I build relationships where I can give and receive support, and feel understood and known, despite always feeling unseen in certain ways. For me, this is what resilience and healing looks like.
And that’s been a deeply powerful experience but not without pain. It’s taught me to root myself in me, and to trust my ability to build relationships/community with love, curiosity and determination through listening, trust, and vulnerability.
While growing up with two White-Jewish and gay moms wasn’t ever helpful in making me feel “normal,” it’s also been a remarkable privilege that I would not trade for anything else. The cultures of Judaism and queerness that my moms embodied and raised me with, have saved me in so many ways. I’m speaking specifically of white Judaism and queerness because my moms experiences have been white. Being Jewish and queer growing up, my parents both learned mechanisms of survival and resilience from their struggles, families and communities. These communities, in different ways, each have their own societal traumas to deal with, past and present. Therefore, built into the fabric and practice of their Jewish and queer identities, they raised me with these inherent strategies of coping and healing. Their strategies are all based on unconditional love and support through gathering and processing — of holding a place for pain, and not running from it. They taught me the importance of chosen family because they, themselves know it.
I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to learn from communities and individuals of color who have shared and articulated their strategies of resilience and healing – of returning to real strength and love. Many intercountry adoptees grow up inside homogenous communities – largely white Christian spaces and don’t really have the access, in multiple ways, to address their identities and their pain. That is why I feel it is so important to share my own experience.
People of Color know this deeply through the multitudes of marginalization, dehumanization and struggle that we have experienced globally. We are, and have to be, inherently more connected to our people. We know this to our core even if it’s unarticulated; we have to know this, living through white supremacy. We know how to love and how to connect, how to to depend, and how to empathize. We have histories of resilience and practices of healing, both collectively and in our blood.
For me, my people are Chinese adoptees.
We as adoptees have mountains to climb. But we are able to connect to each other through our shared experience of feeling unmoored and untethered; not quite “enough” to fully belong to any group, we are our own.
We have so much work to do. We must learn again and again that we are worthy, after a multitude of things has made us feel that we are not. We must learn of our peculiar and particular systemic disadvantage, of parsing through our (largely white) parents’ (and our own) implicit racism and participation in western imperialism. We must learn how to get situated as Asians in our adoptive countries, and sift through the social locations of privilege and marginalization/oppression we experience. As Asians, we are used as a tool to uphold white supremacy and perpetuate anti-blackness. All of that is mapped onto us everywhere we go, and we must learn to navigate it appropriately.
I hope this post gives perspective to some aspects of my community through my story. Give us some space and time to figure ourselves out. Try to put yourself in the perspective of literally feeling like you are never part of the majority, never feeling fully understood, and feeling an odd and ever present dissonance between the way you present and who you actually are.
Ask those of us who are willing, to share about our experiences. (Also be prepared if the answer is no. No-one owes you an explanation of their life!) A lot of the time, the adoptee narrative is overshadowed by adoptive parent voices so let us speak and try to take in what we say, please!
Oh also ! Don’t eeeeeeeevvvvvver tell us that we “should be thankful” or “are lucky” that our parents adopted us! While saying this has absolutely no bearing on my own deep feelings of gratitude and love for my parents (having more to do with who they are as parents and not the mere fact that they adopted me), every one of our stories, hardships and inheritances is different. After losing original/biological family, no-one should have to count on “luck” or “goodwill” to receive love and care. This type of comment puts us in a situation of perpetually making up for a favor, as if we are unworthy of that type of love – something that too many adoptees experience coming from their own adoptive parents.
I may not know how to parent but I do know that the goal of having a child, adopted or by blood, cannot be to fulfill your own dreams. When you have issues with your child becoming an autonomous human who is Different Than You, that is a beautiful (and hard!) opportunity to connect through difference! And begin to let go of that urge to control who and how your child is. Don’t ever make your child feel like they are still making up for being adopted or your need to be seen as Good and Charitable! This is quite applicable to all parenting though, I think.
Also, attention astrology folks (yes, that means you, queer millennials!):
I’m glad you love astrology and it’s your religion but before you go on a rant/yell about people’s moon and star signs, maybe try and recognize that some people do not KNOW those details! It’s not real anyway! Yes, I’m salty! I much prefer the enneagram!
In reality, my bitterness towards astrology worshipers is just a cry for folks to pay attention to the people around you, in multiple ways. Do you know for sure that people around you would know exactly where and when they were born? Read this whole post again if you are confused or upset for being called out, or are wondering why bringing something up like not knowing your actual birthday, time, location, or family etc., might be hard for some people.
This concept of sensitivity though, can be generalized. We all do mess up and miscommunicate and the best we can do is to check in with each other about our particular sensitivities.
I’m really thankful to be able to share some of the insights that my identity and situation have afforded me. I hope you may find them useful as well. Thank you for engaging.
*I used concept “(k)new,” combining the idea of the “known” and the “new” in the title. I came across this quasi-antonym through the paper “The context within: My journey into research” By Manulani Aluli Meyer: it uses “indigenous ways of knowing” to understand the concept of knowledge through experience, connoting knowledge that is simultaneously “known” and “new.”