Who Am I?

by TLB, adopted from Vietnam to Canada.

Do I look like my father or mother? What is my real name? When was I born? Who am I really? I have been going through these questions my whole life and not quite sure if I will ever find the answer.

I was born in Vietnam, adopted by a white family in Canada in the early 70’s. I am part African-American and Vietnamese but I look more African-American, and I’m also physically disabled which I contracted from polio and a gun shot wound (something I have been told as a child, but not sure if it’s true). I have always known I was different growing up, not because the colour of my skin but because I was disabled. When I arrived to Canada I had to go to the hospital for many surgeries to straighten my legs and back due to scoliosis. When I arrived home from the hospital, this is when I felt I didn’t belong in the family. As a young child I was stubborn and barely spoke because the effects of leaving Vietnam and being in a different environment, I was overwhelmed.

Being an African-American Asian disabled child, living in a white world, I knew I was different and I wanted so much to fit in. At an early age, I knew that my adoptive mother treated me different than my other siblings. They had two other biological children along with another adopted child from Children’s Aid Society, so I was the black sheep in the family and that was my nickname to other family members and neighbours. My adoptive mother wasn’t the perfect mother everyone thought she was behind closed doors. Using my wheelchair was forbidden in the house so I had to always crawl around on the floor and carpet, but leaving marks on the carpet didn’t look good and caused my adoptive mother to always vacuum, so I had to have my bedroom moved down in the basement – being isolated away from my siblings. Whenever my siblings would come down to play with me, they were sent back upstairs and told not to play with your “black sheep” sister. Being alone in the basement, I stopped talking and had to entertain myself as a child. From not talking, my vocal cords didn’t develop well so whenever I went to school, I had trouble interacting with other students and was bullied and labelled as being dumb.

My adoptive mother always told me I should be grateful to them for adopting me. I always kept my feelings inside because if I told them how I really felt, I would be beaten. I always had to thank her for saving my life every time I did anything wrong. The first time I said “I wish you’d never adopted me” my adoptive mother emotionally and physically abused me. Sometimes I wouldn’t care what she did to me, I was happier just to be in my own shell in the closet.

I was never involved in any of the family gatherings or family vacations. I would always eat alone after everyone else ate. The one memory I will never forget was when my adoptive family went away to Florida and I wasn’t allowed to go because my adoptive mother said “black and crippled children were not allowed”. I went to the mirror and looked at myself. I wanted so much to be white that I scrubbed my skin so hard but it just turned red. I pushed my wheelchair down the stairs and tried to push myself up to walk, instead I fell down and was left lying on the floor for days until a neighbour found me bleeding. Instead of being a good neighbour and help a young girl, he took advantage of me for days while my family was away having fun. When my family returned, I tried to tell my adoptive mother what happened. All she said was, “You were looking for attention and that’s what you deserved”.

I wanted so much to be a part of the family to the point that I would agree to clean the house. My adoptive mother would always introduce me to her friends as the “black maid of the third country”. My adoptive mother emotionally abused me by continuing saying she never wanted me because of my disability and skin colour. She didn’t think I would turn out to “be soo dark” and a troubled child needing therapy appointments. All I wanted was to make my adoptive mother proud of me, but nothing I did ever satisfied her. Whenever my siblings got into trouble, I would stand up for them and would lie and steal for them so they would play with me. There were times I would sneak food at night because I was so hungry but whenever I got caught, I was sent to the closet for days. Nothing I did was good enough for my adoptive mother.

When I was 11 years old, I was told that I was leaving the family and spending a few days somewhere else. I didn’t know what I did wrong. That night I stayed up all night rethinking the day – what did I do to displease my adoptive mother. All she told me was I would be going to a better place that can care for my “crippled-black” behaviour. I cried the whole way begging my adoptive mother that I would be a “good girl”. Four hours later I was dropped off to a big stone house with lots of stairs and other children running around the living room. My adoptive mother told me it was only for a few weeks and that the family will help me with my behaviour. For the next few days, all I did was sit by the window waiting for my adoptive mother to return. Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months. I had to eventually realise that I was staying in this house and no-one was coming back for me.

I was living in a house with 25 other children. I tried to fit in and be a part of the family but still felt like an outcast. Even though I was not the only disabled child, I felt that I didn’t belong. I found out that the foster mother of this home, was the woman who helped my adoptive parents adopt me from Vietnam. The foster mother had an organisation that helped Canadian and American families to adopt children from third world countries out of orphanages that she opened. I wasn’t the only child adopted and sent to the foster family. During the years, living at the foster family I became a reserved and quiet child and during my teen years I still wanted to know “who am I”? I asked the foster mother if she knew anything of my birth mother and every time I asked her, the answer was always, “Wait until you are eighteen”. From then I just left the question alone and tried to live my teen years in the home.

When I first went to the foster family, I was placed in a school with other disabled children but I felt it wasn’t for me. I wanted to be independent and be left alone so I became very stubborn especially during therapy sessions. Having therapists lift my legs and try to stretch them wasn’t working for me, they tried to get me to use braces and crutches, I definitely didn’t want that. So they finally agreed for me to use a sports wheelchair and what freedom I felt!! Using the wheelchair built up my teen arms and I became very strong, during recess time. While other children were at therapy, I could be found in the gym bouncing basketballs. This is when a sports coach saw me throw my first basket and she asked me, “Do you want to be an athlete and travel?” I quickly answered her, “Yes!” Little did she know that I didn’t just want to be an athlete but I wanted to travel so I could be out of my foster house as much as possible. My foster father was abusing me whenever we went to the family home in Montreal every summer, so whenever I found out that I would be travelling in the summer – I looked forward to the summer knowing I would be out of the country!

If it wasn’t for that sports coach, I wouldn’t have been able to be the Paralympian athlete I am today. I have travelled to many countries and won numerous medals, but a part of me felt that I didn’t deserve it. Whenever I was away, I still felt like an outsider to my team mates and other athletes. Deep down I believed they all knew who they were and they always talked about their family. With my timidness, I still had trouble interacting with my team mates. By the end of every trip, I dreaded going home because I knew what I was going home to.

My foster family didn’t really recognise my athletic achievements. There were times they didn’t even know I went away for a week because there were so many children in the house and the foster mother was busy with her work. I remember one time I arrived home from my first competition where I’d won my first 5 gold medals (being the youngest on the team) and when I arrived home, I just sat at the front door with my bags waiting for someone to greet me. When my sister came down the stairs to see me she just said, “Are you running away?” From that moment, my enthusiasm just dropped from my heart and I wished I could just run away. So from then on, I just continued on with my competitions with no feeling of accomplishment, feeling like a nobody.

I competed in two Paralympics, two PanAm games and many small competitions. When I won my first Paralympic 5 gold medals, I was interviewed by the paper but a lot of the words written were just not true. The story portrayed a young girl winning medals from a foster home that cared for her, but they really didn’t know the truth.

I am grateful for the foster family to let me stay with them, but behind closed doors they portrayed themselves as looking like the perfect couple helping many children. The house was not accessible, I continued to crawl up and down stairs to get to my bedroom, and I had to crawl up and down and bring my chair down stone stairs outside to get to my school bus.

My whole life living in the foster family, I wanted so much to be out and living on my own. When I turned 16 years old, I finished high school and left the foster home. I went to college and received a degree in Business Administration.

Throughout my life, I always felt unloved and not wanted by anyone. I thought of my biological mother not wanting me, my adoptive mother not wanting me and within the foster family, I was just “another child”. I have tried my best to do right things, never gotten involved on the wrong side of the law, etc. I always felt I didn’t fit in anywhere, had trouble with social gatherings and interacting with adults my age. To this day, a large part of me continues to feel isolated, not wanted and most of all not knowing who I really am.

Recently, I decided to register with 23&Me to know my background and I discovered I have many 2nd and 3rd cousins out there. I was surprised to know that I have some sort of distant family out there but disappointed to not have any information about my parents. I just want to have the feeling of belonging. Growing up, I never had that feeling.

Bolivian Family Searching

by Atamhi Cawayu, doctoral researcher at Ghent University (Belgium) and the Bolivian Catholic University ‘San Pablo’ (Bolivia). Together with Vicente Mollestad and Teresa Norman, they run Network of Bolivian Adoptees.

This blogpost was initially posted on Atamhi’s Facebook profile and Instagram-account @displaced.alteño

Searching for first family and adoptee activism: Some reflections

In 1993 I got displaced/adopted to Belgium when I was six-month-old. According to my papers, I was found as a new-born in the city of El Alto in Bolivia. Since my twenties, I started to return and reconnect with Bolivia. In the past two years I live more in Bolivia than in Belgium and I consider myself ‘based in Bolivia’. In all these years, I have attempted to search for information about my pre-adoptive past. Since June, together with a fellow Bolivian adoptee friend, we started our search here in Bolivia by starting a big campaign to make ourselves visible.

Reflection 1: Putting up posters in the city

In June 2020, my friend and I started to prepare our searches for our Bolivian relatives by designing posters and putting them in various streets and neighbourhoods in the cities of La Paz and El Alto. It’s not the first time I engage in searching for first families, in the past years I have completed searches for other Bolivian adoptees, which sometimes led to reunions. However, searching is challenging, especially when you don’t have names, places or anything that might lead to our families. 

In Bolivia there is a central authority responsible for international adoption, yet there is no support from organisations or institutions who can really help us. In our cases, we have limited information, but other adoptees have the full name of their mother, or names of family members. Even in their cases it’s often a bureaucratic journey to obtain more information. In addition, most of us don’t know the language, are not familiar with the system, and do not always have the time to search. 

When I started to do my PhD on this topic, my goal has always been to have not only a better insight into the adoption system in Bolivia but also to ‘crack’ the system and understand which clues are necessary in finding one’s family. Besides I think it’s important to document the stories of the first parents and take their experiences into account if we really want to make an honest evaluation of the system of adoption. 

When preparing the posters, making the design, paying the prints, I could only think of one thing: we as adult adoptees have the resources to start this search and do it in an almost professional way. Our parents probably didn’t have the same amount of resources, and even if they did, their stories were regarded as less interesting than ours right now.

Reflection 2: Engaging with TV media

After our first round of posters, we received a message from a journalist from a Bolivian TV channel who was interested in our stories. A few days later they interviewed us, and it was broadcasted one day later. Since then our story was covered by national TV media in Bolivia and it received lots of attention. The media is a necessary evil. It helped a lot in having our cases visible, yet it’s hard to control the questions. They also have their own narrative they want to show.

These experiences made me reflect about several things. Our stories were largely framed as ‘abandoned babies’ returning to Bolivia, after being adopted internationally, however this narrative already makes a lot of assumptions of our mothers abandoning us. When reading the comment section (I know I should not do this) a big part of the viewers didn’t understand why we would search for someone ‘that doesn’t look for us’. However, it’s so much more complex… 

In my case I was found, but I don’t know what really happened. It’s easy to assume I was ‘abandoned’ by one of my parents, but I don’t know. In my research on first parents, I have encountered several parents who never gave up their child to adoption, did it in vulnerable circumstances, or were even pressured by intermediaries (and I’m not even talking about kidnap and illegal adoption). Yet, in many cases they were interested to know what happened to their children, if they were still alive, if they ended up well, etc. Part of our activism is also to speak about this other side of adoption. It’s not always a fairy-tale as many people think. We are part of system that exploits global inequalities, displaces poor brown/indigenous bodies from South to North, and prefers parenthood from the Global North over parenthood of the Global South. 

It is irritating people don’t understand the complexity and violence relinquishment and adoption can entail. Even if our parents wanted to look for us, they wouldn’t be able to find us as we have been relocated and displaced to other continents. When I search for my ‘family’, it is to make myself findable, so they know I am here in Bolivia and willing to be in touch with them. 

Reflection 3: The violence of international adoption

In the days after our first interview, various Bolivian TV channels called us for an interview. Our story was spread nationwide by radio, TV, newspaper. We tried to take advantage of this moment to open the discussion on transnational adoption.

During the interviews we tried to mention that for us adoptees there is no assistance for adoptees to search. Not in our adoptive countries, nor in Bolivia. We have to do almost everything by ourselves, and then I am not even talking about learning the language, understanding the documents, being familiar with the city. As my friend mentioned in several interviews, “searching is something political”. For me searching is doing something you were not supposed to do. It’s opening up histories that were meant to be hidden, it’s doing something within a system that tried to erase everything of your being.

Moreover, another dominant idea is to be lucky and fortunate when being adopted transnationally. One of the journalists said to me “you must be very fortunate”, “many people here would love to be in your shoes”. Throughout the years I have met many people, especially here in Bolivia, who told me I must have been lucky to be have been saved from my ‘miserable future’ in Bolivia and to have a ‘wealthy’ life in Europe. It’s like people think we only ‘won’ by being adopted internationally, but they often forget we have lost many things. I consider all the opportunities I have because of growing up in Europe as compensation for everything I have lost, and I have lost everything.

From my personal perspective, the violence implicit in transnational adoption is to be involuntary transcontinentally displaced, completely severed from our genetic ancestors, disconnected from our community, culture, language, nation, continent, and without any possibility to find our families ever again. For most of us Bolivia will become a country we once lived in. In addition, all our former identities are erased so we can be reborn, renamed, Christianised and assimilated with our adoptive countries. We grow up with complete strangers we are expected to love and call family. We are being brought into a society that doesn’t want us, that racialises us and discriminates us, without any community that provides shelter or understanding. This so-called child protection system – mostly in the benefit of well-off Western adoptive parents who wants to fulfil their heteronormative parental dream – erases everything from us. It is not the first time in colonial history child welfare systems are used to shape, control and erase indigenous children’s identities, and most children adopted from Bolivia have an indigenous background, be it Aymara or Quechua. Transnational adoption is for me an ongoing colonial project of civilising, controlling and managing children from the Global South, transforming them from ‘savages’ to ’civilised’ citizens in the benefit of the capitalist machine of the North. Transnational adoption would not have been possible without a history of colonialism and its ongoing colonial gaze towards countries in the South such as Bolivia.

The adoptee experience is something very diverse. I know some adoptees might disagree on this and that’s fine. I also know other adoptees might recognise themselves in what I write. Every experience is valid. However, my fight and activism are structural against a system that has caused a lot of injustices and is not in the benefit of first parents and adult adoptees. As another adoptee once told me: our parents maybe didn’t have the resources to fight for their rights, but we have, and we will fight for them.

Further Reading

Atamhi’s latest research paper: From Primal to Colonial Wound – Bolivian adoptees reclaiming the narrative of healing

Life Lessons from an Adoptee – Part 6

This is a series written by Tamieka Small, adopted from Ethiopia to Australia.

‘Be your own hero, be your own saviour, send all your suffering into the fire. Let no foot, mark your ground, let no hand, hold you down.’

Patrick Wolf

I don’t know about you but as a woman we are force fed the idea since we were little girls that a big strong man will come along and ‘save us’ from our troubles and fix all of our problems. And maybe not everyone believed that literally but I think you will find that especially for women the fantasy may linger in our subconscious more than we think. It can sometimes be a narrative we subconsciously place ourselves into, especially in relationships where all our inner fears and unhealthy beliefs are mirrored to us.  I also know especially for the younger generations that love is painted as this happily ever after where the partner will come along and solve all our problems if we just find the right one, when really it is no one else’s responsibility but our own to fix our problems.

Maybe that’s just the nativity that comes with youth and young love. And for me personally I believed that as a little girl and when I got older I thought that to an extent that my partner should be there to go through every battle with me, to hold me up, be a shoulder to cry on, to cheer me on, to be everything to me, and I went through an abusive 3 year co-dependent relationship to realise that is not love. Its co-dependency. And co-dependency tends to happen with people who haven’t worked on themselves and their unhealthy coping mechanisms to defence mechanisms to having an unhealthy definition of what love is.

With being adopted as a little girl in some way or another I would dream of getting a letter from my birth family to come in the mail and to come tell me everything as to why they abandoned me. To come and save me from my loneliness, from feeling like I don’t belong in this country or community. It felt like I was an alien that fell out of the sky with no history, no past, just a blank canvas. I remember watching films like ‘Lilo and Stitch’ and feeling like Stitch exactly; who was exactly an alien with no real parents and trying so hard to understand why he didn’t. I felt like every hero and heroine who had no back story, and would often fantasize about being suddenly whisked away on an adventure, where I would find out an epic story about my roots and my birth family and realise my place in the world.

Basically, I was waiting for someone to come save me, to help me understand my pain but no one ever came. And that was devastating.

What I realised growing up, and from having experiences in different relationships that I was the one who had to save myself. I was the woman who had to pick up the sword and fight my own battles, to find out my own truth, to wipe my own tears from my face. I had to be the hero in my own story. I had to be the one to unpack my trauma and unhealthy coping mechanisms, unhealthy definition of love, and heal myself because no one else was going to do that for me. And frankly it’s no one else’s responsibility but mine. I think as adoptees we need to realise that, take accountability in our pain and trauma and take the steps in unravelling that and healing ourselves.

Because honestly if we’re told since children or traumatized into a narrative where we have to rely on others for our happiness and our rescue from our pain or suffering; we rid ourselves of our own personal power to do so. We put ourselves into a narrative where we become even more powerless than we already imagined ourselves to be as orphans or children or adoptees. But we have a choice when we get to adulthood; we can choose what our narrative is, we have the power, the proverbial pen to our story in our hands.

Life Lessons from an Adoptee – Part 2

This is a series written by Tamieka Small, adopted from Ethiopia to Australia.

‘Forgive those who have wronged you, not because they deserve forgiveness but because you deserve peace’.

Depending on your unique individual adoptee story, adoptees in general experience a lot of hardships, from trauma, separation trauma, to abuse. Trauma can rewire the brain sometimes in a way that makes us more susceptible to pain, whether that be from rejection, bullying, abuse or stress. It’s very easy to hold onto pain and build resentment and anger, and I know for me personally growing up I was the type to hold grudges, even years after the wound had been inflicted.

It wasn’t until I stumbled across this quote that it shifted my perspective on forgiveness; that it isn’t something we do for the other person, but what we do for ourselves, for our own sanity, for our own healing and wellbeing. Carrying around pain (and this is not to say we have to do this to deal with trauma as trauma is more complex than that, that’s not to say it cannot be a part of that process) is a heavy burden to carry, and you might not think so, but when you begin to unravel all the past pains, whether that be on your own or in therapy, and you see how it can affect you emotionally, psychologically as well as physically, and spirituality you will be surprised about how big of an impact it can have on a human being.

Carrying around anger or resentment is like carrying around poison, it may be repressed and under the surface, maybe buried down deep, but it can eat away at the beautiful soul you have underneath all that pain. You can easily spot someone who is plagued by their past and pain from a mile away, you can feel the weight of their pain within the way they carry themselves, the way they speak and speak about themselves and the world around them.

When I found this quote and I truly embraced it into myself. I felt so much weight being lifted it was almost euphoric; although for me I carried around years of pain and anger, from being bullied all my childhood to separation trauma and neglect. And truly I did sit there and think ‘why should I carry around this pain while this other person goes on with their life with no care in the world? Why should I suffer for their mistakes or their mistreatment made from another human being?’

Sometimes it’s a choice we make for ourselves, whether or not to move on, or carry that pain with us, or to let it go so that we can find the peace and happiness we deserve.

The Legacy and Impacts of Abuse in Adoption

Part 2 of a 3 part series on Sexual Abuse within Adoption

When abuse happens to a child from the very people who are supposed to protect it, a devastating legacy of impacts is created. I lived with my adoptive family for 19 years until they left to go overseas to be missionaries. Up until that point in my life, I had learnt to suppress my truths and bury it deep within my body.

How can one ever describe the impacts and legacy we are left with as a victim of sexual abuse within an adoptive family? Words feel inadequate.

The Worst Crime is Being Expected Not to Tell – Darrell Hammond

I watched Darryl Hammond’s Cracked Up life story on Netflix – it helped me find the words. I highly recommend watching it for those who seriously want to understand childhood trauma and the legacy it leaves. I related to his story on so many levels: the anger at self for having been so vulnerable, the conflicting emotions about these very people who are your parents who others only see as amazing and wonderful people, the memories of abuse where my body felt violated, disrespected and used for their own purposes, the coping mechanisms I developed to survive, the trail of devastation left behind in early relationships and choices because I knew no better until I got professional help, the attempts to take my life because the pain was so unbearable, the depression, the darkness that would consume me. So many parallels with the life I lived until I found help and healing. Thankfully it didn’t take me over 50 years, but it certainly consumed a large part of my prime adult life and I still continue to deal with the impacts to this day. I think this is the part most people don’t understand which Darryl’s documentary highlights – our trauma never leaves us – what can get better, is that we learn to forgive ourselves for our survival and coping mechanisms, and we can learn to reconnect with and care about ourselves. It is a lifetime journey of healing and coming to terms with what was taken from us – our innocence and potential to live life without those brutal scars.

Each day, each week, each year I struggle to comprehend my adoptive family. My childhood mind just can’t integrate that they could have been so cruel, nasty, neglectful, mean — but yet they were also my saviours, my lifeline to surviving a war, my rescuers. It is their unspoken expectation that I should just get on with life as if nothing has happened that continues to hurt the most. I did this for many years but it becomes harder the older I get and I can no longer accept this anymore. I can no longer deny the emotional impact I feel each time I interact with them. It’s been so hard to pretend that I don’t hurt, I can’t do it anymore. What they choose to see is a strong, resilient survivor who has overcome. Yes that is part of who I am, but what they don’t want to see, is the other half – the hurt, traumatised inner child me who wants to be protected, loved and nurtured. I have had to learn to give to myself because they have not been capable. Not one member of my adoptive family wants to know how I’m impacted or understand my struggle. This is because their shame is deeper than my pain. This is what no-one will talk about. It did not escape my notice that Darryl Hammond tells his story publicly after both his parents have deceased. I recognise we subconsciously protect our parents if they’ve abused us and it’s at our cost in mental health, to do so. This is the sad reality of childhood trauma inflicted upon us by our supposedly “loving” parents.

I’ve barely written about this topic in over 20 years – in places I refer to it briefly but rarely in-depth. It’s not a topic I love nor is it a topic I talk about to shame my family. I do so now, to encourage others who are tortured by the shame of what happened to them — to speak out, find their voice and empower themselves. The first article I wrote on this topic I kept anonymous out of my own shame and desire to protect my adoptive family. I look back at how ridiculous it is that I should have ever felt I had to protect them. As an adopted person, there is nothing worse than being relinquished by my first family then being unprotected by my second. My layers of loss and grief are multiplied!

We never forget what happens to us as survivors of sexual abuse, we can only simply move forward from the hate and anger that is so valid, to realising it only damages ourselves if we allow it to fester or hurt ourself. For my own survival, I have to live with it and move on – somehow I’ve learnt to remain true to my own needs and ensure my life is no longer controlled by the thoughtless actions of the perpetrators many years ago, or the shame and guilt that controls them now.

My sexual life is forever tarnished and damaged. I will never have a relationship with my partner that I might have had, had I not been sexually interfered with. Being abused in this manner has always compounded my ability to trust, to want to be close, to feel safe with people and figures in power, it destroys my belief in a greater power – my spirituality. It was not surprising that after the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse, the documentary Revelation revealed that many children had suicided whom the investigators attributed directly to having been sexually abused. It is no secret that many of us who have been abused end up self intoxicating, destroying ourselves because our soul is so damaged and hurt. We just want the pain to end, we want someone to reach out and help us.

I cry for the child within me who was so vulnerable and trusting but was so misled and taken advantage of by the males in my adoptive family (extended and immediate). I cry for those all over the world who have to live with this horrendous crime to us as innocent children. Sexual abuse is a terrible reality for anyone but having it done to you from within an adoptive family adds so many more complex layers of trauma that become almost impossible to unravel and deal with. Relinquishment trauma in and of itself is terrible enough. Relinquishment and then abuse in adoptive family is just soul destroying. I hope one day people will stop talking about adoption as if it always saves us and awaken to the realisation that sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse is too prevalent in adoptive family environments. We need to change this!

I want to note that I have met many amazing adoptive parents and I am not that bitter and twisted to label them all with this brush stroke, but I do want to awaken our society to the biggest myth that adoption saves us. From a place of honesty – for those of us who live abuse in adoptive families, it is likely the biggest silent killer of adoptees!

I never spoke up while I was young because I was constantly told how lucky I was by friends and strangers. I never spoke up because I was made to feel like shit in my adoptive family, picked on, singled out, the family slave, called names like “tree trunks” or “monkey face”. I remember one young man Matthew, I never forgot him, he was a rare one who was kind to me and could sense what was going on. Matthew was employed as our new farm hand by my father to help out. He was blonde, blue eyed, respectful and strong. I remember he stood up to my adoptive father questioning why he was so tough on me, forcing me to do the labour a young man like himself could do, but yet I was pubescent girl. My father quickly got rid of him. I never heard or saw from Matthew again.

I wonder how Matthew is today and whether he found another job. I felt bad that it was because of me that he lost his job but to this day, I always remember him for being kind without sexual implications and very respectful of me. He had shown pure concern for me. I wish he’d reported my father and his ways. Little does he know how far my father went with the abuse and if he knew, he’d probably hate that he didn’t do something.

My friends at church and school sometimes saw how my father treated me but it seems no-one reported anything. Why would they? My mother was the school Principal, my parents both seen as strong Christians with a missionary background, active in the church and community, leading the youth groups, hosting the fire brigade. I wasn’t acting out. I was a school academic and high achiever. I wasn’t into drugs. But I retreated within myself. I always thought I was an introvert until my adoptive family left while I remained behind to start Year 12 while they went to live and work overseas as missionaries.

In reconnecting with some of my extended adoptive family in the past few years, it has confirmed that some had concerns about how I was being treated from as early as toddler years. Some have said to me they wish in hindsight, that they had done more, reported their suspicions. As an adopted person, I’ve just never experienced a protective or safe parent. I grieve that!

I have the resilience these days to watch things like Revelation and Cracked Up. I use to avoid because I’d be such a wreck watching anything that closely resembled my traumas. I have learnt to turn my emotional churning into something constructive. I write to share with the wider world about how we can better protect vulnerable children. I turn my childhood tragedy into an opportunity to speak out and empower others to do likewise. I advocate for those who are still struggling to find their voices. I talk about the hushed up topics that people don’t want to discuss. I speak out to give hope to other adoptees like me, with the message that your life doesn’t have to be destroyed. There is a way to heal and move forward. We don’t have to stay ashamed. We have nothing to be ashamed of! We can speak up even if we don’t get legal justice. We can help encourage our fellow sufferers to find their braveness and shed off their mantles of shame. It’s not ours to carry, it is the system and the adults who fail to protect the most vulnerable!

I speak out to bring light to this hidden tragedy of sexual abuse within adoptive families. We don’t even know what our rates of sexual abuse are because nobody captures it or researches whether we are more prone to sexual abuse in adoptive families than others. I can only refer to research in similar situations like foster care and if our statistics somewhat mirrored foster care, then we really are the silent victims because we don’t have any one monitoring us once we join our adoptive family. We have no avenues to call out for help. We are totally vulnerable within our adoptive family. We have to do better to protect vulnerable children and ensure we are placed in better environments than what we have already lost. Sexual abuse in adoption must be talked about for this change to happen!

Coming Next: Part 3 – What Needs to be Done about Abuse within Adoptive Families

Trauma Informed Resources

I Killed My Vietnamese Parents

by Mark Erickson, adopted from Vietnam to the USA.

Sharing this to process feelings about my birth family, trying to write down some difficult things.

I have a confession to make: I killed my Vietnamese parents. I don’t know when I did it or how I did it, but I did. Actually, what I did was worse. In order to kill them, I would have actually had to know them, acknowledge their existence, and forget them. Instead, I fully erased them: no names, no memories, no feelings.

No one specifically told me to do it, but the message was loud and clear. Let’s play pretend. Your Vietnamese parents are never to be acknowledged or mentioned. We are your real parents. You were born in our hearts.

If there was a part of my young self that ever believed that my Vietnamese parents were still alive, then the burden of carrying that hope was too much for me. So I stopped. I was not Oliver Twist. I was not Little Orphan Annie. Instead, I became a twisted three-headed Scarecrow-Tin Man-Lion: unable to question my experience, disconnected from my feelings, and non-confrontational to a fault.

What I didn’t count on was that this matricide-patricide was actually a double homicide-suicide. In order to erase them, I also had to erase a part of myself. I self-medicated. But instead of self-medicating with substances like others in my immediate circle, I became a compulsive over-achiever.

This worked for many years. But my Vietnamese parents wouldn’t play along and stay erased. Instead, they haunted my nightmares and later my day dreams. When I looked in the mirror, was I looking at the image of my creators?

Check out Mark’s photography and book of Vietnam or follow him on Instagram.

Adoption Like This Has To STOP!

To my fellow adoptees who were triggered recently by the news about the Stauffer family who publicly told the world about rehoming their 4 year old little boy Huxley (of Chinese origins also living with autism).

I speak out with you in solidarity against the way some adoptive families and the adoption industry continues to treat us as a commodity! The recent coverage crassly reminds us of how traumatic our life has been .. the adoption wounds together with our bedrock of relinquishment trauma, gets further layered upon when multiple abandonments occur. I know when the “system” allows or facilitates re-abandonment like this (deportation is another form), we personally feel violated, as if it has literally happened to us, again.

I personally know adoptees who have lived this experience of being relinquished by multiple adoptive families – “rehoming” is such an impersonal term for an experience that is so immensely personal! What most people don’t understand is the trauma never leaves our being and it takes us decades to war through it – if we get through at all!

I want adoptees who suffered this experience to know, it wasn’t something wrong with you — it’s that there is SO much wrong with the current system of intercountry adoption that allows this to happen.

The recent experience highlights everything we adoptees speak up about that is wrong. We are treated like a commodity! Given away and discarded when it becomes too hard, not the ideal that the family signed up for (and purchased).

There is something inherently wrong with the mantra of adoption that everyone naively believes Huxley will be better off with his second family. This assumes that second time round, the agency and adoptive family will get it right — but our lived reality of adoption highlights that the process of matching is such a random lottery! The agency may do no better the second time round, especially when they have no incentive or punishment for either outcome, nor are they forced to be held accountable for failures like this or to report it.

I’m sure that you, like me, might feel mad about this situation because we continue to receive the message that something is wrong with us – that we are not good enough. As relinquished children, this is an internalised message we spend our lives fighting to correct! We often feel like damaged goods. Sadly, not even the best adoptive family in the world can ensure Huxley or others like him, come out of messes like this without lifelong consequences.

The system is wrong when prospective parents are not adequately assessed, educated from a trauma informed base, nor rejected. Not everyone should be given the privilege to parent us! It takes a very gifted and emotionally aware type of person to truly help an already traumatised child to heal, flourish, and feel accepted enough to be able to overcome their beginnings!

There is also not enough post adoption supports to ensure better long term outcomes. Governments and agencies treat adoption like a once-off transaction where their responsibility ends the day our adoptive parents take us home. They are rarely given adequate support and their “education” ends the day the transaction is complete, whereas we know, every phase of life opens up a new layer of complexities to unravel. We have no independent advocate who watches out for us long term to make sure we flourish and no reports exist on our long term outcomes over decades. There are certainly very few mechanisms for adoptees to report or take action at the time or later on, when we are mistreated or further damaged. Will Huxley be given a fund from the adoption agency or first adoptive family to provide him with a never ending supply of professional helps should he want – to wade through the maze of compounded traumas? I can’t imagine so! And when we speak out about experiences like this, our voices are usually silenced in preference for the adoptive parents and it is expected the child should “move on” as if a “magical other adoptive family” will “fix us”, so we can live happily ever after! Problem is, we are not living a fairy tale and the next adoptive family is probably not given extra post adoption supports for life either!

The myths in adoption such as “forever family” create unrealistic ideals of adoption that add to the mountains we adoptees and our adoptive families have to overcome. Even with the best family and resources, sometimes there is just too much trauma and sometimes, nothing ever makes it better! Do they teach prospective parents this to set more realistic expectations?

What makes this recent experience for Huxley so triggering for me, is the lack of respect for his personal journey and struggles – his journey made public from day zero with almost a million viewers seeing every detail! His additional challenges publicly displayed to the whole world. That the family monetised their YouTube channel off the back of his trauma is unforgiveable and he will one day consider all this when he’s in his 30s or 40s and ask all the questions we adult intercountry adoptees ask now — how could a family do that, when they are supposed to be supporting and loving? Was it ever really about him or them? We are not a cockle or a peacock to be displayed and show cased when it suits for adoptive parents to be seen as a saviour! Our journey is a lifetime of trauma and loss! Ignorance on a scale like this only acts to compound existing traumas. I wonder if he’ll consider it abuse when he’s older? I would.

It is not okay to participate in an adoption system that churns and spits out adoptees as if we are a gidget with no feelings or soul! We are of immense value, we are vulnerable and deserve better. If this is how intercountry adoption is conducted, we should be all shouting out for it to stop until it’s done in a more appropriate manner that respects us as human beings and teaches families that you either take us with all our gifts and challenges – or you let us go, help us stay with our family and culture, or with another family who has the capability to be there for us long term! With the sheer volume of adoptee led platforms in cyberspace that provide education and insight into our journeys, I wonder how any adoptive parent or agency can continue to claim ignorance and naivety.

I hope the collective anger we adoptees feel right now will encourage us all to shout out from the roof tops about our experiences and free ourselves from the inherent shame we feel in being abandoned and rejected. This is not our shame to bear – it is a system that perpetuates further trauma onto our already traumatised bedrock.

For adoptees who experience rehoming, it’s abandonment multiple times. There is nothing wrong with us but everything wrong with a system that perpetuates a type of people who adopt from a naive and grossly inadequate understanding, fooling themselves into believing they can rescue us – only to fall flat on their faces. I’m a parent of a child on the autism spectrum. I totally know how hard parenting can be – but I’m also an intercountry adoptee with foundational traumas and I understand how important it is, that we get this right so that the trauma vulnerable children live, is no longer compounded by the damaging system we see glaring right in front of us!

Note: I have been astounded by how many amazing and astute adoptive parents exist out there in cyberspace who have been as angry about this as I. I hope that you too will turn that anger into encouraging adoptees to speak out and be heard. Help to elevate our voices!

Resources

Reuter’s Rehoming Expose

Since sharing my thoughts, I have seen many other intercountry adoptees writing and sharing theirs! Wonderful to see our voices coming out of the dark and giving exposure! Here’s a list of what’s been written since:

https://redthreadbroken.wordpress.com/…/myka-stauffer…/

https://gal-dem.com/huxley-adoption-story-youtube…/

https://www.mother.ly/news/myka-stauffer-adoption (this article includes Prof JaeRan Kim, also an intercountry adoptee and the only academic who has so far researched intercountry adoption breakdowns)

https://taylorshennett.wordpress.com/…/a-chinese…/

https://stephaniedrenka.com/open-letter-myka-stauffer/

https://www.buzzfeednews.com/…/huxley-stauffer-youtube… (this article includes Susan Cox, also an intercountry adoptee who works for Holt International)

https://www.insider.com/im-an-adoptee-im-tired-white…

https://danielibnzayd.wordpress.com/2020/05/29/adoptive-parents-not-your-story-to-tell/?fbclid=IwAR35OG2l4M28K4M2-AfcorS7yIW9DjHI_I9sXJim7MJ6QUL7vATtI2Dzb

My Mother

by My Huong Lé, Vietnamese adoptee raised in Australia, living in Vietnam. Co-Founder of Vietnam Family Search, an adoptee led organisation dedicated to helping reunite families in Vietnam.

A mother should not just be remembered for being special on Mother’s Day, but each and every day. Just over two years ago I was miraculously reunited with my mother. Every day with her since then has been amazing, but on this Mother’s Day I want to honour her in a special way.

My heart also goes out to mothers all over the world who have been separated from their child/children for whatever reason. Mothers you are never forgotten!

This is my mother’s story:

My eyes gazed upon my baby with love the moment she was born. As I held her the day she took her first breath, a feeling of immense joy leapt into your heart. 

She had no father as he left me when I was pregnant and returned abroad having finished his military service. Regardless, I decided from conception that I would cherish this child as a gift. 

As I held her close for the first time, I examined her. She had all her fingers and toes and with that relief came the realisation of her larger extended nose. 

Within moments everything turned into a blur as I bled profusely. As I lay unconscious the nurse forewarned my mother that I would die. However, hours later as I drifted in and out of unconsciousness, in a faint voice I whispered, “Where is My Huong?”. In response, I was told, “Two friends visited and took your baby to care for her.” 

With a sense of relief in my heart, I was grateful that my newborn was safe and as I lay in bed for weeks in a state of weakness, my thoughts drifted — longing to hold my cherished baby in my arms. 

After nearly two months of gaining enough strength, I slowly set off on foot to visit my friends to bring my daughter home ….. but they were not to be seen. The questions began to swirl in my head and a feeling of dread began to set like a stone in my chest as the search began.

The days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months and months into years. I ploughed the fields in the scorched golden sun. With a broken heart, I wept silently each night not knowing what had become of My Huong. I prayed for her safety and yearned that someday she would return. My only wish was to be able to see her face one time before dying.

Then in mid Feb 2018, I received a message to say that My Huong was seen on TV. My mind drifted back over all the years of longing and I wept a valley of tears. That night those tears were tears of relief — that the possibility of finding My Huong could now be real. 

My prayers were answered and two weeks later, you stood face to face with me – your daughter who had been cruelly stolen from you. After almost 48 long years of being apart, the overwhelming reality of having your daughter beside you made you want to faint. As you stroked her face and kissed her cheeks, she knew in that moment that you were her mother.

Mum, I don’t know how to express all you mean to me. Since our reunion two years ago, you have shown me that your love is never ending and you have brought immense joy into my life and filled my heart. You are the greatest gift and daily I am thankful to God for the miracle of giving you back to me. 

On this special Mother’s Day, I want to honour you. I am honoured and blessed to have you as my mother!

I love you with all my heart!
My Huong Lé

For so many years, I have hidden my deepest childhood traumas under a mask of smiles and perceived positivity. Now, I am being forced to face these past traumas and weaknesses, as well as the more recent trauma caused by the web of deception, which was unveiled when I was contacted by my true mother two years ago. Wounds from the fake mother and family are still deep, but daily I am healing and I am so thankful to now have my dear mother living with me. She is such a precious gift and I thank God for the miracle of having her in my life.

For those interested in my story you can read the following article which was written by Zoe Osborne.

ANZAC Day Reflections

Australian War Memorial – MELBOURNE

ANZAC Day for people from Australia and New Zealand is a time of reflection that connects us through the generations. For me as an orphan from the Vietnam war, it gives me a time and place, admist all the beautiful gifts of everyday life, to acknowledge the undeniable tragedy I carry in my heart.

To have my whole family and identity lost through war is often something too painful to talk about. For those who know me well, self pity is not my song but in respect to my biological family, I can’t pretend the loss of not knowing them is not a deep wound to carry.

As I have grown older and possibly wiser, the symbols of rememberance have gained in personal significance. As I sit next to the eternal flame at the shrine, in my heart I see the flame as a beacon of light that I pray draws me closer to those I have loved or have loved me, whether we know each other’s names or not. I feel we share our hearts. The warmth of the eternal flame comforts me, as it reflects the love I am praying to send out to the world, like a portal to those I have lost and yet to find.

Please don’t feel unnerved by my sharing. My sharing is a chance to say thank you for allowing me this day, this moment in space to lay down my grief without question or judgement. It is only because I am loved and I can love those around me that I can share these thoughts.

And now, as I do for every other day in the year I will embrace the beautiful life I have and the adventures of the unknown future.

by Sue-Yen Bylund