There isn’t an orphan crisis, it’s a family separation crisis.
Vulnerable families are being targeted and needlessly separated from their children. When you come to realise that 80-90% of children in orphanages have families, we must adjust our thinking. We need to stop saying there is an orphan crisis and when we hear churches, friends, family or see facebook posts claiming these lies, we must be courageous and challenge these misconceptions. If we continue with the adoption rhetoric as it is now we are doing no good! Needlessly stripping a child from their family is not a “better life”. A child losing everyone they love and everything familiar to them is not in their “best interest”. Doing something for the sake of “it’s what we’ve always done” is irresponsible and in this regard I believe criminal. If we are aware of these realities and we do nothing to address them, even if we choose to ignore them, we are complicit.
In developing countries orphanages are not viewed as we in the west understand them to be. Many loving parents have been convinced orphanages are a way to give their children the opportunities they were not given. Just as every loving parent does, we all want better for our children. Orphanage directors and child finders promise families a better education, 3 meals a day, upgraded amenities and a safe place so sleep all while they are still able to see their children. Sadly, the reality is often very different, especially when it is a corrupt orphanage. This type of orphanage will do everything in their power to keep the family and child apart.
I’ve said this before and I will say this again. If you choose to adopt internationally you should not even consider this unless you are willing to invest your time and money into ensuringevery effort has been made to keep that child/children within their family and culture. Trusting an adoption agency, orphanage director or any other party that is profiting from the adoption is not acceptable or enough. At first, I failed miserably at this. I was ignorant to the realities at play, and because of MY ignorance I enabled criminals to traffic an innocent child from her family. I’ve publicly made my mistakes and the realities known within the intercountry adoption community in the hopes that my mistakes and revelations through this process will enable others to do better. In all honesty, should we even be discussing orphans, adoption, etc if we haven’t properly addressed the family separation crisis at hand? It’s only after we have ensured every family has been given every opportunity to stay together that we should ever even utter the word adoption.
Written and shared by Jessica Davis during National Adoption Awareness Month.
It is November, National Adoption Awareness Month (NAAM) 2018. At ICAV, we want to raise awareness of the realities some live who rarely get to express their voice because they are too downtrodden and trying to survive, let alone tell their story!
Today, I share the journey of a very brave young woman adopted from Ethiopia to the USA. Her life experience needs to be told to intercountry adoption agencies, governments, lawyers, social workers and middle-people who continue to facilitate intercountry adoptions without learning from the past. When I interviewed this young woman, my heart was shredded as I listened to the heartache, trauma, re-trauma and sadness that has filled her life. Adoption is meant to be a forever family isn’t it?? Don’t adoption agencies and governments promote adoption as being in the best interests of the child?? Don’t they equate adoption with permanency??
It is fellow adoptees like this who inspire me to continue to raise awareness in intercountry adoption. Too many times, intercountry adoptions are done poorly, with little responsibility or ethics for the long term outcomes. We need to learn from these worst case scenarios and stop telling ourselves the lie that it only happens to a minority.
In my opinion, if it happens to one, it happens to too many! These issues are a reflection of an international system that clearly has little oversight, little controls, too much monetary incentive to “make the transaction” and not enough checks and balances to ensure the child is actually placed in a safe, loving, psychologically healthy and nurturing family. Not to mention the lack of means and routes for justice for the child who grows up! Until these real life experiences for intercountry adoptees stop happening, I cannot support intercountry adoption as it is conducted today.
We must learn from the lessons and do what we can to stop intercountry adoptions like this from happening. That means, we have to stop blindly promoting intercountry adoption as if it’s the answer for all vulnerable children around the world. The fact that intercountry adoptions like this are happening in recent times and still occurring (not just from my 70s era) tells us that very little has changed to ensure adoptions are done in the best interests of the child.
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on intercountry adoption after you read Sha’s life journey, Abandoned by All.
Since May, over 2,300 immigrant children have been forcibly separated from their parents at the Mexican border due to President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy. When I watched the news, I was speechless. I was terrified for the children being placed into foster care because they don’t belong there. These children belong to families, they are wanted and certainly aren’t in need of new care. And I believe foster care should never be used in this way–their services shouldn’t be used to house children who belong to families.
How was this even made possible? I wondered.
And another thought struck. Where is this leading to?
I read recent news to find out how the funding evolved. It looks like back in 2014, the Obama Administration created a network of foster care programs back when immigrants and unaccompanied minors were crossing the Mexican-United States border. Now, in the wake of Donald Trump’s recent “zero tolerance” immigration policy, these foster care facilities are being used to house the children who were forcibly separated from their families too.
This is what shocks me. Back in May, 2014, it looks like the federal U.S government gave a US$2.28 billion budget to help set up state-licensed shelters and foster care agencies around the country, for these unaccompanied minors. From this Newsweek article, I learned that the White House established a linked network of foster care programs to cater towards these immigrant children too. Thus, now presently, these foster care programs are funded in the same way that state or county laws and regulations govern domestic foster care.
Additionally, the news article states that the children who are removed from their parents by ICE are still legally considered “unaccompanied alien children.” Because of this technicality, these children could spend an average of 51 days in a temporary shelter before they are put into sponsor homes with relatives already living in the U.S — or be placed into the U.S foster care system. And this is where my horror turns into anger since the immigrant children at the border wereaccompanied by a parent or legal guardian.
I’m shocked because the U.S is not being truthful in its own administration–which from experience can be extremely damaging for these children in the future when they become adults. This detail is also destructively misleading, assisting children into dangerously enter the world of foster care and the adoption industry where so many risks are involved.
My Personal Statement
As a Filipino-American adoptee, I was orphaned at birth because of destitute poverty. My birth family couldn’t take care of me. I wasrelinquished and had to live in an orphanage until I was two, then adopted in the U.S, where I grew up experiencing the hardships of my displacement and my adoption placement. I wouldn’t want to wish this on any child especially for those that aren’t a part of the intercountry adoptee realities.
I believe these immigrant children do not have the same qualities surrounding their displacement as intercountry adoptees.
These children belong to families who want them.
They had not been abandoned or relinquished and they should not be termed “unaccompanied” when they were accompanied. These children were forcibly separated by the U.S government, a traumatizing action which will need healing and repair for each family that this is impacting.
Shame on the U.S government for creating a funded system in place that would even begin the process of orphaning these immigrant children at the border. In my opinion, the U.S. government should be reprimanded for the mistreatment of children and for the flagrant misuse of today’s foster care system.
And, I think we should all care about this issue–because the misuse of the foster system and the systematic funding that allows this, especially in a leading developed country like the U.S, jeopardizes today’s foster care system and adoption industry on domestic and international levels.
I urge spotlighted attention to be placed on the immigrant children being placed into foster care and shelters. I am asking journalists, writers, social media networkers, lawyers, caring citizens, adoptees, non-adoptees and everyone to watch the news and make sure that these children are being treated well and will not be placed for adoption. We need to see that these government funds will be used to reunite these children back to their families.
Intercountry adoptees and adoptive families, what are your views? Do you have feedback, or ideas of what can be done or ways to keep an eye on each immigrant child that is placed in U.S foster care and shelters?
Part of my personal goal in the past couple of years within ICAV, has been to find ways to help empower the voices of our first families in the intercountry adoption arena. For some years I have been pointing out they largely have no voice and remain invisible. Having not found my own Vietnamese mother yet, I often wonder about the circumstances that led to my relinquishment. Now, as an educated professional raised within western thinking, I view the larger picture of intercountry adoption and wonder how much our journey’s as intercountry adoptees and those of our families, could be prevented. In speaking with other adult intercountry adoptees from all over the world, I know I’m not alone in this pondering.
Last year in October, I had the privilege to meet online an inspiring young woman, a Colombian intercountry adoptee raised in Germany. She spoke with enthusiam about a project she was about to embark upon which connected with my personal goal. I shared with you here about Yennifer’s goal to raise awareness of the experiences Colombian mothers live, who have lost their children via intercountry adoption. Like me, she was driven to do this because she too had always wondered about her mother and what caused her own relinquishment.
Now, just over half a year on, I interview Yennifer to hear how her first journey to homeland has been, together with an update on her project.
Read here for Yennifer’s update on her project entitled No Mother, No Child.
These past weeks have been frustrating to say the least! I received an official letter from the Australian Government – Minister Tehan’s office, Minister for Social Services, one of the Federal departments responsible for intercountry adoption. Our stakeholder community has been actively writing and contacting the Minister to request a review of the decision to end the funding of our much needed Search service in intercountry adoption. But we have been denied.
After only 2 years, the ISS Australia Intercountry Adoption Tracing & Reunification Service (ICATRS) which was granted less than AUS$500k each year, with an uptake of over 200 adult adoptees and adoptive families, will be closing and the cases handed back to the States/Territory Central Authorities. Historically, the States/Territory governments have provided minimal resources to post adoption support in intercountry adoption, and even less to searching and reunification. Since becoming a signatory of The Hague Convention, Australia devised the Commonwealth-State Agreement which separates the responsibilities between States and Commonwealth. The Commonwealth owns the relationship with our sending countries. This means, for the States/Territories who largely assess prospective parents, they have little day to day communication with our birth countries, hence are not always well placed to conduct searches for us – years/decades after an adoption has occurred.
Australia moved from making history in providing a much needed national and free search service for all adult intercountry adoptees, to now re-joining the rest of the world governments who participate in intercountry adoption but do little, to ensure positive outcomes by providing comprehensive post adoption supports. It is a requirement as a signatory of The Hague Convention but not one country around the world has stepped up to provide a comprehensive service – and especially not targeted to support adult intercountry adoptee needs.
I would understand if the Federal Government decided to close intercountry adoption altogether AND remove the search service, but to continue conducting intercountry adoption without comprehensive post adoption supports, in my eyes is unethical and just plain wrong!
Since 2014, the Australian federal government allocated a budget of AU$33.6m across 5 years to spend on facilitating intercountry adoption. Out of that budget, little to nothing has been given to those who are already here – the adult adoptees and their adoptive families. For those who are impacted by the lack of intercountry adoption policy from the late 1960s era, post adoption services are so much more important. Adoptees of my generation were, for the good majority of us, adopted with poor documentation and questionable procedures. Funding the loudest and most powerful stakeholder has seen a blatant skewing of tax payer money. I ask where is the conscience and ethics of the Australian Government? How can they justify spending AU$33.6m on services for prospective parents but do little to nothing for those of us who are already here, asking for help and support?!
We live in an era where apologies are given and past policies recognised for the harm done. The Stolen Generation. The Forced Adoption Apology. The Forgotten Australians. Now the Royal Commission into Sexual Abuse. Well, one day, our small minority of intercountry adoptees, who have been left out of all these similar scenarios, will have to be acknowledged and recognised. Our day of reckoning will eventually come. But we may have to force it instead of speaking nicely and being politely grateful for our adopted lives. We are adopted to a country that treats us as a symbolic gesture to “help those less fortunate”. Intercountry adoption policy prances about in disguise as being “in the interests of the child”. Yet overtly – the rhetoric is clearly not true. Actions speak louder than words. The actions are for those wanting a child, not for the child itself.
In the past weeks, I also submitted a letter to the Australian Human Rights Commission for their annual report on how Australia is tracking in Children’s Rights. In my submission, I point out the many breaches that occur under Children’s Rights in intercountry adoption from the lived experience perspective. Past and current intercountry adoption practices and the variety of outcomes dating back to the late 1960s, goes against 13 of the 41 Part I Articles under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Around the globe, I see adult intercountry adoptees speaking out enmasse – BUT, we are continually being ignored. The Dutch adoptees are now suing their Dutch government for their illegal adoptions in which their own birth countries are acknowledging illicit practices. Ultimately, this is what it will come down to. Clearly when we ask politely, nicely, respectfully to listen to our experiences and do the right thing, governments all over the world will only take reponsibility when it comes to the legal crunch. It won’t be until many of us start finding ways to seek justice through litigation around the world that we will no longer be ignored. This is the reality of intercountry adoption.
I observe closely the harsh debate going on in the USA between pro adoption parents and adoption agencies who are criticising the US Department of State for implementing tighter controls in accreditation of adoption agencies and standards. These lobby groups are sending around petitions to ask the US President to support the increase for international adoptions and are attacking the US Department of State for bringing in much needed reforms to prevent illicit practices. It’s interesting how these same lobby groups will push to bring in more children who need saving around the world, but do nothing to ensure those already here, are granted automatic citizenship.
These lobby groups and agencies clearly do not speak to deported adoptees who sink into depression and are hard hit by being uprooted yet again, with no choice of their own. Do these lobby groups take any responsibility for children being placed into families that were not suitable under previous regimes with loose procedures? No. They don’t speak out about the rights of these children, now adults. They don’t care that America ships these people back the same way they were bought into the country. Yes my choice of word is correct. Bought – meaning purchased. It shows the truth of their motivations! Lobby groups and adoption agencies promote and advocate for their own self centred needs but at the same time conveniently turn a blind eye to these same children (now adults) who are being ignored, unsupported, and treated unethically. Where is their lobbying for these children who grew up? For those still fighting for automatic citizenship, adopted to the USA prior to 1983? I dare to judge and say, they are not interested in the “needs of the children” … only to satisfy their own needs and interests.
Adoption break downs, illicit practices, deportations, human rights abuses – these are not words adoption lobbyers and agencies use or want to acknowledge. I suggest before they promote further adoptions with laxer processes, they need to sit and listen to the hundreds of adult intercountry adoptees whom I meet every year around the world, in every adoptive country, from every birth country.
It breaks my heart time and again to hear our experiences. They are not just stories. They are our realities. We are a minority amongst minorities. Our experiences mean little to governments who make decisions as to what they will fund because we are not on their radar to appease or acknowledge.
For those who naiively think ICAV is a melting pot for a minority of angry/embittered adoptees who suffered in their adoptive families, think again. We have just as many members who have been loved and given a great adoptive family as those who have suffered within not so positive environments. We are not against adoptive families. We are against the processes of intercountry adoption, the governments, the stakeholders who make decisions that impact our lives without our say and who are consciously choosing not to learn from the past.
At a certain age and maturity in understanding the phenomenon of intercountry adoption and opening themselves up to learn the politics involved, many adult intercountry and transracial adoptees can’t help but wonder. We question why the system is so skewed towards adopting without taking any truthful responsiblity for ensuring all people impacted by the adoption are better supported.
Our rights and needs remain ignored. The money trail does not extend to us, the children who grow up. It’s only there for those who want to gain a child with little foresight as to whether that child experiences a positive or negative outcome in the long term.
I’ve been around for 20 years now, actively speaking out, supporting intercountry adoptees and creating much needed resources to prevent the reinvention of the wheel for many of us who struggle in the journey. In my early years, we were alone. Now … we have created something different altogether. We are harnessing our energies and working together.
I will use this reality to continue to encourage fellow adoptees to keep pushing, keep demanding change, keep trying, keep speaking out. One day, something will have to give and the changes we ask for will happen.
The truth of intercountry adoption cannot be silenced forever.
The ICAV website provides alot of information for a variety of audiences – fellow intercountry and transracial adoptees, adoptive/prospective parents and professionals. One of our main goals, is to provide a platform so can you hear from those impacted the most, the adoptee. I say “impacted the most” because we are the one party out of them all (biological parents, adoptive parents, lawyers, social workers, government workers) who isn’t usually an adult at the time of the relinquishment and adoption decisions. We are impacted by the very fact that we are children with no mature voice for ourselves or understanding of what is happening.
Here we provide our voices at an age where we speak for ourselves. We share our journeys honestly in the hopes it will help others better understand how complex it is to search for our identity and find our place in this world.
At the ICAV website, in the Individual Stories section, we provide a wonderful collection of personal experiences. It may not be the same as our parents, but it is our unique perspective.
Today, I want to bring attention to our newest contribution. It is a beautifully written piece by a Vietnamese adoptee, Paul Bonnell, raised as an American growing up in Malaysia, Philippines and the USA.
I’ve just returned from a 3+ week return trip to my country of birth, Vietnam. This trip attests to the mantra “adoption is a lifelong journey“! My return to homeland has been another unwrapping of the many layers in exploring who I am and where I belong.
This trip was such a contrast to the first which I made 18 years ago. In year 2000, I returned to Vietnam for the first time. I was in my late-20s. I had only just begun awakening to understand I had “adoption” and “relinquishment” issues. I certainly had no idea I had a mass of grief and loss sitting beneath the surface of my daily life.
When I arrived in Vietnam for the first time in year 2000, I was affected by overwhelming feelings I had not known existed. I remember the deep intense grieving that arose within me as we were landing at the airport. Overwhelming emotions flooded me and I spent the first week crying and trying to work out why I was crying and what it all meant.
That trip ended up being quite liberating, a wonderful and very healing visit. The most memorable moment was the local woman in the Mekong Delta who asked me in faltering english where I was from. In my broken english I explained very simply that I’d left the country as a baby and was raised by white Australians because I didn’t know my mother or father. Having lived almost 3 decades of hearing people’s response, “Oh, how lucky you are” to learning of my adoption status, this woman in the Mekong Delta had been the first to immediately comprehend my losses. She spoke my truth which resonated within when she replied, “Oh, you have missed out on so much!”
18 years later, I am a different Lynelle, no longer fragmented and confused. I am now very aware of the impacts of relinquishment and adoption. It is now 20 years later of speaking out and encouraging fellow adoptees to become proactive and share about the issues we face. This time, I returned and I felt so grounded being back in my homeland and knowing my place, time and date of birth. I revelled in being back in my district and hospital of birth. I enjoyed blending in amongst people who look like me. I felt a natural affinity to the place and people. I love the vibrancy of Ho Chi Minh City! I can now call it home because my birth certificate has been found and I know some basic truths about myself!
Clearly it wasn’t just me who could sense that I felt at home. My husband is a 3rd generation Aussie Chinese and he said to me, “Wow, I’ve just realised I’m married to a Vietnamese woman!” It was one of those humorous moments but beneath the surface, the truth in what he said was profound. I am actually Vietnamese and I feel I have finally reclaimed that part of me that was missing. I no longer feel I am just an Aussie girl, I am Vietnamese – Australian. This second visit highlighted to me the many aspects of who I am, are fundamentally, very Vietnamese!
The mother earth connection, respect for nature and nurturing things has always been within me but it became obvious during my travels in Vietnam that this is a very Vietnamese way of being. I travelled from South to North and everywhere I went, whether it was in the city or the country areas, there were so many plots of land with fields growing vegetables, flowers, rice or something. The city ways in Vietnam have not as yet forgotten the link between mother nature and our human needs.
The innate desire in me to build and be part of a community, I also saw reflected in the Vietnamese way of life. In Vietnam just the example of how they navigate around one another on the roads is amazing. People and the traffic just flow around one another, allowing each other to go their ways without aggression, pushiness or competition. There is a natural way to “work together” in harmony that resonates within me.
I am by nature a very friendly person, always interested in finding out about others at a deeper level. I found this reflected in many of the Vietnamese locals I met and spent a great deal of time with. My taxi driver Hr Hien took me for a 12 hour trip to the Floating Markets. He embraced me, a stranger really, as his little “sister“. Turns out we were actually born at the same hospital with him being only 7 years older. He sheltered and protected me all day long. He could easily have abused his position of power, given I speak no Vietnamese and he could have robbed and dumped me in the middle of the Mekong Delta. Instead, he took me for the whole day and treated me with respect, welcoming me into his life sharing his thoughts and views about Vietnamese life, culture, family, laws, and ways. When we purchased things, he would say, “Don’t say a word, I’ll tell them you’re my sister returned from Australia who left as a baby to explain why you can’t speak Vietnamese“. Then he’d negotiate for us and get the “local rate“. It was experiences like this that showed me the soul of the Vietnamese people with which I relate – the sense of looking out for others, being kind and generous in spirit.
Returning to visit the War Remnants Museum, I was once again reminded of the Vietnamese spirit of resilience, forgiveness, and ability to move on despite a terribly, ugly history of wars and atrocities. Attributes I’ve seen within my being and now I comprehend where these flow from. It’s my Vietnamese spirit, my Vietnamese DNA! I am hardwired to have survived and flourish, despite the adversities.
For me, returning to birth land has been so important to embracing all the aspects of who I am. I am a product of relinquishment and adoption, in-between two cultures, lands and people. In growing up in my adoptive country, I had been fully Australian without understanding or embracing my Vietnameseness. Now, in my mid 40s, I feel I have returned to myself. I am proudly both of my two cultures and lands. I love the Vietnamese aspects I see in myself and I also love my Australian culture and identity. I no longer feel divided but am comfortable being both at the same time.
It’s taken years of active awareness to embrace my lost identity, culture, and origins but it is a journey I wanted to do. I had realised in my late 20s that being adopted had resulted in a denial of a large part of who I am, at my very core.
I look forward to future returns to Vietnam. I hope one day it will be to reunite with my Vietnamese birth family. That will be an amazing path of discovery which will open up even further facets in discovering who I am!
I can so relate to the Lotus, the national flower of Vietnam!
To the Vietnamese, lotus is known as an exquisite flower, symbolizing the purity, serenity, commitment and optimism of the future as it is the flower which grows in muddy water and rises above the surface to bloom with remarkable beauty.
Click here for my collection of photos from this trip and here for photos from year 2000 return visit.
Author, Julayne Lee, is an intercountry adoptee born in South Korea and raised in the USA. Being an avid reader but not specifically into poetry, I totally enjoyed Julayne’s book because I could relate to what she shares about her own journey and the wider sociopolitical experience as an intercountry adoptee. Her voice is one of the hundreds of thousands of Korean adoptees (KADs) to be exported from their country of birth via intercountry adoption.
Not My White Savior is a deeply engaging, emotional, haunting, and honest read. Julayne depicts so many angles of the intercountry adoptee experience, reflecting our life long journey of striving to make sense of our beginnings and who we are as a product of our relinquishment and adoption. I love the images created by her words. I admire that she left no stone unturned with her courage to speak out about the many not-so-wonderful aspects of the adoptee experience.
Some of my favorite pieces which I especially resonated with, was her letter to her mothers, racist hair, map of the body, and homeland securities.
For those intercountry adoptees who have died from the complex traumas experienced in their adopted lives, I salute Julayne for memorializing their names forever in such a potent way. Through her book, their lives will not be forgotten nor for nought.
She also packs heavy punches at her birth country and spares no empathy or excuse for giving up on so many of its children. Her words in pieces, such as Powerful Korea ICA – Internment Camps of Abduction are a powerful way of explaining the trauma KADs experience in processing the multiple layers of loss and relinquishment, not only from their birth families, but also their birth country. I loved the irreverence and truth captured in the Psalm for White Saviors.
Not being a KAD, as I am adopted from Vietnam, I found this book to be educational about some of the history of South Korea’s export of children which I was previously unaware of.
Overall, I totally recommend reading this collection of poetry for anyone who is open to thinking critically about intercountry adoption from the lived experience.
This collation is provided just over a decade on since ICAV compiled our first lot of answers to this question. I was intruiged to see if our views have changed over time as we journey on and mature in our understandings of adoption.
Reading our views gives you some thoughts to consider on this question from those who have lived the experience. We welcome your views and you can do so by commenting on this page.
I was recently contacted by a fellow adoptee who is seeking views and experiences of adoptees where gratitude is expected and how we feel about this. I immediately responded because gratitude in adoption is such an unspoken about subject, particularly from the adoptee perspective. For me, it was definitely a burden I felt whilst growing up and carry still to this day. Interesting that little has been written on this topic specific to intercountry adoption because our adoptions are so rife with connotations of being saved from poverty, war, slums and the streets. These connotations also come with equal expectation that we flourish in our Western white adoptive countries and families for which we should be grateful for.
It is assumed, somehow, magically, our losses in relinquishment should be negated by the gains in adoption.
I can understand how the majority of people who think of the word adoption would not necessarily equate that with living an experience of being expected to be grateful. But, from my own life experience, the word “grateful”, “thankful”, “be happy”, or “lucky” pops up in adoption conversation regularly. People who are not impacted by adoption expect us to be grateful for the material wealth and education we gain in life having been adopted. As an adoptee, not only have I experienced people’s assumptions about how lucky I am in their eyes to be adopted, I also experienced the expectation of gratitude said out loud by my adoptive parent during my childhood. It was said to me once or twice, but the way in which I was treated most of my childhood until I became independent and moved interstate, told me without words that it was the foundation of my adoption.
In hindsight, knowing now that my adoptive father was not comfortable to adopt a child not his own, from a foreign country, he went against his instincts and clearly gave way to his wife’s desire to save a child from the Vietnam war. What they saved me from, I’ll never know unless I find my first family. Whether I was indeed saved, who knows. Am I grateful? If I answered no, people naturally would recoil and look at me horrified, stunned. How dare I be ungrateful for my life in a wealthy country with material comforts, an education, and the life everyone in poverty aspires to.
But, of course I am grateful in many ways! Without choosing to be grateful, my emotional well being would be one of dissatisfaction, depression, unease and wishing to be dead.
I have been there! For plenty of years! And I had to battle to find a way through.
I choose actively to be consciously grateful, to focus and spend my life turning it into something positive. And it’s much nicer to be in a stage of life where I can choose to be grateful in general, as opposed to being forced to feel indebted for being saved via adoption.
I’m a female adoptee born in Vietnam, flown out as an infant to Australia in the early 1970s. I’ve told my personal story what feels like a thousand times, but yet no one has asked before what it was like to carry that expectation to be grateful for my existence in my adoptive family.
My adoption was not legally facilitated until I was 17 years old and it is still a mystery as to whether my legal adoption paperwork exists somewhere in Vietnam. I hadn’t really come to acknowledge or understand the true meaning of this until the past 6 months. It is enlightening to observe how my story of adoption and relinquishment has changed over time as I’ve become more fully aware of the truths, perceived and real. I am constantly having to rethink what was told to me growing up and comparing that to the truths I find today, and who I have become.
Not having an identity on paper for 17 years, of course I feel the expectation to be grateful to my adoptive country Australia in giving me a birth certificate and hence allowed an identity. But at what cost? The expectation to be grateful these days is overshadowed by questions I have on why it doesn’t seem to have been questioned whether I had an identity in Vietnam or how to preserve or respect it legally.
The words “gratitude” or “grateful” are like an alarm bell ringing inside me. It grates on my nerves and I feel myself inwardly flinching. For me it comes with so many negative memories. Even googling to find an image for this blog and seeing the visuals, created feelings of unease and discomfort in my body. If you can relate to me as an adoptee, saying, seeing or reading the word “gratitude” in relation to adoption is a trigger that I have to deal with all the time.
My adoptive childhood was spent working like a boy slave on the family’s dairy farm. Being thrown the “you owe this family because we adopted you” line because I was standing up for myself, was one of the toughest moments I remember. It was one of those rare times where I was trying to be stand up for myself about not wanting to be forced to help with milking the cows. The other children were allowed to peacefully sleep in every morning. My childhood sense of justice was strong. Why was I constantly singled out to be made to work around the farm with my adoptive father who inappropriately touched me whilst in the dairy or in my bedroom? He had no sense of respect for my privacy as my body developed in early teenage years. I recall a few times he woke me with his cold hands running over my bare chest and stomach, then dragging me out of my bed by my legs, nightie flinging up over my head exposing my naked body, laughing at how “funny” it was to be dragged along the frost covered grass on a cold Victorian morning. This would happen just on daylight before the sun even rose. Nobody else was awake. My hatred rose further when I once removed the outside key from the lock of my door but was authoritatively told how dare I try and lock him out. Everything about my life was dependent on him and I was given no sense of privacy, respect or control.
I grew to resent my adoptive father during my childhood but yet I pined for a tiny bit of love to be shown. I wasn’t grateful for this existence and I certainly hated that my lack of blood relative status meant it seemed to give him licence to work me like a slave and touch me in the way no father should. His other bio children were left to do what they wanted. They were not forced to work like me on hard physical tasks; chopping barrow loads of hardwood, milking cows day and night, cooking and cleaning in the kitchen, being forced to run out in the dark and shut the chooks in every night (I was terrified of the dark), etc. It felt like slave labour with no empathy for my feelings at all. It certainly wasn’t a childhood filled with love, safety or understanding. Nor was there any room for any compassion or support about what I might be feeling from being separated from my biological family and wondering why.
The expectation, verbalised out loud, to be grateful for being adopted was a heavy heavy burden to carry .. and still is. I was forced to justify why I needed hair conditioner and shampoo (I had waist long hair) and he would only provide soap as that was good enough for everyone else who had short or little hair. I was made to feel that buying a toothbrush was too much and how dare I need or ask for anything. I was made to feel and was told many times that I was a “fussy”, “difficult” child, always “telling lies” and “stealing“.
To this day, the “you should be grateful because we adopted you” mantra is what has stopped me from speaking openly about the emotional and sexual abuse I endured from early childhood to teen years. No adoptee should ever have to be thrown that line of feeling we owe a debt of gratitude to our adoptive families. Even when abuse does not occur. Whether spoken or not, we adoptees do NOT owe our families. They adopt for their own self fulfilling reasons. I had NO choice but to survive the adoptive family I was placed in.
You can probably feel the anger I still carry at the injustice of being made to feel that I owed my adoptive family for being rescued/saved. It brings lifelong consequences of being fiercely independent and not easily allowing anyone to help me. I suspect other adoptees can relate. For me, being helped, being given something I don’t ask for, usually comes with a fear of the unspoken price at which that help is provided. Hence, I would rather do it myself. The expectation of gratitude for being saved by adoptive family and society at large, is a heavy burden.
This burden of expected gratitude in being adopted is enhanced by the religious elements intertwined in much of modern adoption advocacy.
Fervent religious organisations and individuals who willingly promote and facilitate the adoption and rescuing of children add another layer of expected gratitude onto us. People who believe adoption is an ordained action by God, that they are following his command to help an orphan, makes it difficult for adoptees to share about the struggles of being adopted and relinquished.
I rarely hear of any adoptee who will willingly stand up in a church or religious institute and share their adoption experience with all its complexities. For me, this would be the worst audience ever! I can’t imagine receiving validation or empathy. Instead, I suspect I would receive unsolicited advice to be grateful and thankful to God that I am in a better place and that all is going well now. The all familiar saying of, “Count your Blessings!” by religious people in response to adversity is one I find hard to stomach.
Google for yourself the word gratitude and you will see the many religious and spiritual images linked to this concept. Our struggles as adoptees go unvalidated and unsupported because of blind prejudice that somehow adoption is meant to be, ordained by God. How can anyone question the unspoken assumption that we should be grateful for our adoption, when this is the long held religious and spiritual belief?
Thankfully, my adoptive family and others have apologised in recent years for the wrong doings in my childhood and I have chosen to be grateful for this and to move on. It’s interesting how with apologies I now feel more at liberty to be open about my life. It’s as if a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I no longer carry the burden of responsibility for family secrets and shame, trying to protect them from the consequences. For many years now, I have been true to myself and will not allow the expectation of gratitude to overwhelm my truths.
I have focused my energies on rebuilding the relationships with adoptive family as they are my one and only family I know, to raise me and give me an identity. For this I am truly grateful – but that’s not to say the journey hasn’t been a struggle and at many costs.
Gratitude in adoption should never be an expectation. It should be a choice we are free to make about life in general – after we come to terms with, and are supported in, understanding our losses and gains from relinquishment and adoption.