I want to tell you all about my friend Mia, but I am limited in how I can tell you her story as she is no longer here and cannot give consent to my re-telling of what is hers and hers alone.
And so, Korea, I will tell you about my experience and observations of her and of our friendship.
Mia was a fellow adoptee and my friend. We met in your city of Seoul around 2013 or 2014. I was in my fifth year of living there. Mia was, as is the case for many adoptees in Seoul, trying to learn your language and doing various freelance jobs related to writing and teaching English, as well as working as a journalist for publications in the country she had been adopted to and raised in. She was an immensely talented writer and photographer.
Mia was quirky. For example, she loved marshmallows more than any child or adult I have ever met. She loved them to the point of ecstasy–we used to laugh at how deliriously happy it made her to roast a marshmallow on a rotating spit over hot coals where we’d previously been cooking our 양꼬치 (lamb skewers). Mia was her own unique self. When it came to your food and cafes, Mia loved everything about you, but the fact that you could get marshmallows from 다이소 made her love you even more, even if they weren’t (according to her) quite the same as she could get in the country where she’d been raised. She laughingly said it made her life with you that much easier.
Mia was funny, kind, thoughtful, and incredibly generous both with her time and money. She once hunted down and gifted my then-partner and myself with two specialty sakés from Yoshida Brewery because we had told her how much we loved the documentary The Birth of Saké. She cared deeply for others, freely and easily expressed gratitude, and was just an all-around fun person to hang out with. She had a laugh that I can still easily recall.
Mia loved the band 넬(Nell) and used to, needlessly, thank me constantly for “introducing” them to her. “They’re sooooooo good~~~” she’d earnestly exclaim when talking about an album of theirs she’d been listening to on repeat. She was an intelligent, articulate, and creative mind who had a delightful hunger for life, art, travel, new experiences, and good food… and marshmallows.
Mia also had a very deep awareness and understanding of her mental health struggles and was as proactive as one could be about working to be healthy. She sought out the professional help she needed. She used her very real diagnosed depression as a positive in that she allowed it to make her an even more empathetic being, which was so evidenced in her professional career as a journalist and how she conducted her personal relationships. Mia had lived through traumas and tragedies that are all too common for adoptees and had profound sorrows and losses.
Korea, I am writing to tell you that Mia was such a good friend to many, including myself. She was genuinely interested in and curious about the lives of those around her. When one was with Mia, one felt seen, heard, loved, and cared for.
Four years have passed since she took her life, and I still and shall always love and miss her.
Something else I can tell you, Korea, with as much certainty as possible, is that if the adoption agency through whom she was exported from knew of her suicide they would quickly blame her adopters, her circumstances, her environment, her traumas, her mental health, and Mia herself. They would never think to own their responsibility in being the root cause for all of the “reasons” for why she felt she could no longer stay in her life or this world.
Korea, chances are, the agency would tell you that while it’s an unfortunate reality that “every so often” “bad” adopters manage to get through their system–that it’s a “rarity.” They would dig their heels in, feigning willful ignorance and dismissal over the well-researched and known statistic that adoptees are four times more likely to attempt or commit suicide than non-adoptees. They would tell you that they are not to be held accountable for Mia’s mental health, and that she should have gotten the help she needed. They would say that what happened to her is too bad, and I do not doubt that they would mean it, but they would in the same breath tell you that none of this is their fault.
And yet, Korea, it was the agency that placed Mia in the family she was raised in via a system that has been empowered and enabled on both societal and governmental levels to prioritize and value financial gain over keeping children with their ummas and appas. Mia’s physical and emotional safety and support she needed were not prioritized, nor were they valued.
The responsibility for her mental and physical wellness was placed directly onto her shoulders. The responsibility for her surviving her childhood; learning how to thrive; and later, as an adult, trying to adapt to life in Korea; to explore and embrace her cultural and racial identity; to try and learn the language; and to search or not to search for her first family were also all placed directly onto her shoulders. Mia’s birthright to family, culture, and identity had been sold right from under her without her consent when she was a baby, and she was then left to pay the price for someone else’s immense financial profit.
Dear Korea, I want… I need you to know that Mia, like so many adoptees including me, had to constantly navigate statements from the agency, adopters, and non-adoptees like: “You sound so bitter and angry. You should be more grateful.” “Your life is so much better than if you’d grown up an orphan in South Korea.” “You don’t know how poor South Korea was.” “You’re so lucky to have been raised in the West. Your life is so much better.”
I need you to know… to feel… to somehow understand that no matter how emotionally or mentally strong or proactive we as adoptees are in advocating for ourselves, no matter how “perfect” some of our adoptive parents might be, these kinds of statements, which embody attitudes and perceptions of denial, dismissal, and diminishing, take a toll on our mental health. They are forms of what is now known as “gas lighting.” They can cause us to question our sanity, goodness, love, gratitude, self, and sense of worth. They make us feel like we really might be ungrateful, unloving human beings who should be good with not knowing our parents, our ancestral roots, language, or culture because: “We got to grow up in the ‘rich’ West.” These are things that no adoptee I have ever known, myself included, is truly equipped to handle, and yet the responsibility to do so, is always on us.
I think about how all of this must have worn Mia down. I think about how even though she knew on an intellectual level that her traumas were never her fault, she bore the emotional toll.
Dear Korea, when Mia took her life, your citizens did not wail aloud in the streets wearing black and white. The adoption agencies operating on your soil that to this day export children to the West for financial profit did not fall to their knees asking the gods and Mia’s soul for forgiveness.
The ones who were wailing, the ones left falling to their knees under the gut-wrenching sorrow and ache of Mia’s suicide were and remain the same ones who also live as survivors of adoption–us adoptees. You see, when any one of our 200,000 is lost to suicide or addiction or abuse, the loss is deep and the loss is a collective and a permanent one. Four years later, and I still feel the absence of her presence not just in my life, but also in this world.
I am writing you Korea, because it is imperative that you always remember that Mia’s decision to end her life was not her fault. Yes, she made that choice at the very end, but in so many ways that choice had been made for her the day her agency got their hands on her and sold and sent her away from your shores to her adopters.
They say it’s their right, their right to create and own a life, Interestingly enough, this is a perception as old as buying a wife. Are we nothing more than cattle, to be traded and sold? Or we are the light of the Universe, sent through her womb, more precious than gold?
Interesting the amount of studying and toiling that goes into obtaining degrees, Yet, when forming life any and everyone is allowed to do as they please. Change your mind, wrong color, or simply too young? With the swipe of a pen, that new soul changes hands, and their life comes undone.
I knew your heartbeat, your voice, your smell, all before I ever saw your face, Though their arms might have attempted to replace you, no one ever took your place. There was a dark empty yawning void in my soul I never knew existed, Drugs, sex, alcohol, and self-sabotage; still the madness persisted.
Firmly we declare, you can’t own a life, and creating it isn’t your right, The soul is simply in your care, on loan from the Universe, until it can fight its own fight. Take seriously the implications and ripples you drop into the pond of life when creating, Children we are for only a moment, adulting sees us with mounds of trauma sedating.
I would be so bold to say that the vast majority of, if not all, adoptions are the selfish act of those wanting to, or having already adopted. The result of adoption leaves the adoptee in a perpetual state of dehumanisation. If we look at the word dehumanisation defined by the Oxford Dictionary, it means “the process of depriving a person or group of positive human qualities.” For the public and individuals who are not well versed in adoption, the adoption industrial complex, and its practices, this can be quite confusing and the representation of adoption and adoptees have, for the most part, been a glamorised sensational plot twist or form of character development. Yet, here lies one of the many ways adoptees, both on-screen and off, are dehumanised and portrayed as void of any critical thought or experience.
Adoption, as portrayed by social media and film, consistently shows adoptive parents (who are often white) as selfless philanthropic couples whose only intentions are to dote and shower love on a poor child (who are often BIPOC), ever pushing the narrative of white saviours. The consistent and inherent goodness and altruistic nature of whiteness by default shifts both power and racial dynamics in favour of whiteness and the dependent, in need of saving, is helpless without the all-powerful and knowing whiteness bestowed onto the child of colour. When these patterns of adoption become representative and up for societal consumption, it dehumanises the adoptee to be merely a puppet without inherent positive attributes on their own. Any potential is tied and associated to the people who adopted them, leaving the adoptee as a hollow shell used to narrow in the spotlight on the adoptive parents. Through film and TV, adoption is the stripping away of an adoptee (again, predominantly BIPOC), the illumination of adoptive parents (and, again, predominately white), how can society possibly see us as humans when we live in the shadows of those who adopted us? How can we be seen with inherent potential, with the successes of our ancestors running through our blood, and dreams reflecting our truest selves when we are constantly being shown that we are nothing without adoption? That we are nothing without whiteness?
In the continual film and TV portrayal of adoption and adoptees, adoptees are always pitted against one another. When you think of some of your favourite films or characters that are adoptees, who are they? Do they happen to be Loki, Frodo Baggins, Black Widow, Batman, The Joker, Lord Voldemort? The paradox of society’s fascination and indifference for orphans is destructive, the demand for adoptees (and thus, adoption) is binary and forces adoptees to fill the dual desire to save adoptees/orphans and villainize an adoptee/orphan. The loss of biological connection and identity loss is fantasised to create a more contextualised storyline. The need for adoption to contribute trauma and fantasy for character build-up is highly sought after. This is the double dehumanisation of adoptees through film and TV.
The danger with artificial and weak backstories is that it boxes adoptees and orphans into narrow forms and compounds the stigma and expectations surrounding our existence. This forced role of villain or hero does not provide a realistic experience of cohesively incorporating mountainous rage, burdening grief, exuding joy, and love. What Hollywood and the media project of “bad” or “good” adoptees/orphans limits and strips them of their individuality, autonomy, and humanness. The “damaged and broken” adoptee or “overcomer and hero” orphan are roles that are inaccurate and are a weak reality that is far from the nuanced life an adoptee/orphan lives that requires a burden too heavy to carry. Film and TV strips away our humanity and adoptees do not get the privilege to exist as ourselves. We are only for consumption and the limited space provided for us in the binary tropes romanticises our trauma, confines our capabilities, and diminishes us to fit a consumer’s palate. We never belong to ourselves. If we cannot have ownership over our own stories and lives, are we even able to be fully human?
In my experience, the greatest form of dehumanisation occurs for an adoptee within the church. Growing up in an all-white environment and heavily involved in a white church that preached white Christianity, I had to survive in an ecosystem of whiteness that demanded gratitude to the good white Christians who saved me from big, bad, heathen, communist China. I would find myself, more than once, being paraded around as a token of Christian and white goodness. Of how “the Lord works in miraculous ways” and gave lil ol’ me the “opportunity and privilege to be adopted by a Christian family in a Christian country where I learned about Christ.” What that told me loud and clear was that China was irredeemable unless under the power of the white Christian church or through adoption by whiteness. In other words, I did not possess inherent potential and positive traits without the white man liberating me and providing me access to success under the guidance of white Christianity.
The dehumanisation continued, as in my early years during conferences I would be brought in front of a congregation or made to stand onstage alongside my adoptive parents, and they would discuss how adoption was a beautiful gift that touched their life. Other times, youth leaders would openly discuss how my adoption is a metaphor for how Christians are “adopted” into the family of Christ. And how my adoption gave me a new father – we have a new father through Jesus! Different variations and versions of these scenarios have plagued my youth and further trivialised my existence into a metaphor that others could benefit from. Not once did anyone question if adoption was a gift to me, if being taken away from my homeland touched my life in a beautiful way or not, or being uprooted twice before the age of three with a group of white strangers benefited me or could replace a sense of family for me.
To have your story told through a white lens as a person of colour that protects the white man while diminishing your autonomy and the multifaceted complexities of your existence, is one of the most dehumanising grievances that can happen. Adoption through mainstream media and the church gave little room for me to feel human but instead made every space feel like an advertisement that others could project their value onto, for their own benefit. Winners have the privilege to write history or speak about it on stage. Losers, those who are not given the same chance to speak their own story, those who are bought…are dehumanised.
The desire to know my origins is an innate and fundamental human need (and right).
My need to know my origins is akin to your need to breath air that keeps you alive.
We only know our origins are important when we don’t have it, or access to it. For people like me, this is our daily lived experience!
As an intercountry adoptee, I live my whole life trying to find who I come from and why I was given up / stolen.
It’s really hard to know how to go forward in life if I don’t know how and why I came to be in this unnatural situation.
My life did not start at adoption! I have a genetic history, generations of people before me who contributed to who I am.
We cannot pretend in this world of adoption and family formation that genetics does not matter, it does – significantly; I am not a blank slate to be imprinted upon; there are consequences to this pretence and it shows in the statistics of our higher rates of adoptee youth suicide!
One of most shared experiences amongst adoptees whom I connect with, is the topic of “feeling all alone”, “like an alien” and yet human beings are not meant to be isolated. We are social beings desiring connection.
Separation from my natural origins and the knowledge of these, left me disconnected and lost in a fundamental way.
My life has been spent trying to reconnect – firstly with my inner self, then with the outer self, and with those around me, searching for a sense of belonging.
As an adoptee, I can be given all the material things in the world but it did not fix the hole that my soul feels, when it has nowhere and no-one to belong to, naturally.
My substitute family did not equate to a natural sense of belonging.
I searched for my origins because my innate feelings and experience of isolation and loss drove me to find where I came from and to make sense of how I got to be here.
经过 Mary Cardaras, adopted from Greece to the USA; Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at California State University East Bay.
This has been an incredible couple of years but, especially, in the very year of a global pandemic. It was in this year that I found my voice as an adoptee. Seemed like the stars aligned. Meant to be at this time, in this space. I have found people, or maybe it is they who found me, who have brought me out to my community of fellow adoptees, birth mothers, activists and supporters.
It all began after the death of my adoptive mother in 2018. (My father had died 18 years prior.) Her death was one of the saddest times of my life. Left again, I felt. She and I had grown so close over the years and spent much time together, but her leaving also provided the space I needed to consider life before her. And there was a life before her, however brief it may have been. Even my tiny self had a past. It was buried, though. Obscured. In many ways, erased.
What did it matter? How could it matter?
My adoption, which I had put to the side, had been front and center my entire growing up as a child and as a teenager. I didn’t put it there. Everyone else put it there. A label. A tag. My identity was imposed. Sometimes it stigmatized me. And it definitely made me an outsider looking in to a life that I lived, but one that I couldn’t really lay claim to. As mine. From where I actually came.
What brought me to this day and what is the reason that I can now write about it?
In 2018, I wanted to come closer to my roots as a Greek-born adoptee. I signed up for Greek language lessons at a church in Oakland, California. I went to class on my way home to Sonoma every Monday evening coming from the university where I taught. Those lessons re-connected me with my culture. It was an absolute joy to hear the language, learn to speak it, and revel in its complexity with my fellow students all, at least, partially Greek, but fully Greek in their love for it.
It was during this class that I was asked, από που είσαι? From where are you? Είμαι Ελληνίδα, I could proudly say with certainty. I am a Greek. Γεννήθηκα στην Αθήνα. I was born in Athens. Υιοθετήθηκα. I was adopted. I am adopted. Like the recitation of a mantra. Those two things identify me and they are the only two things I know for certain, as I have noted in my writing before.
My classmate, Kathy, mentioned, “I have a cousin who was adopted, Mary, who was also from Greece, too.” I was immediately intrigued. There was someone else who was from where I was and who was branded the same as me?!
“She has an incredible story, Mary,” Kathy said. “You need to meet her and, in fact, you will. She is coming to visit and I will bring her to class.” Kathy told me the story that day and with every sentence she uttered my eyes got wider and I kept repeating the words: No. Are you kidding? Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God. What? That is incredible!
Within a week or two of Kathy telling me her implausible story, Dena Poulias came to class. A pretty, blond-haired, blue-eyed woman, shy and quiet, she came with her cousin to hear our lesson. Did she want to participate, the teacher asked her? No, she demurred. She was only there to listen and to meet us.
After class I introduced myself more fully and told her I had heard her story. I am a writer, I told Dena. I would be honored to write your story. She told me she had been wanting to write her own story for years, but she hadn’t gotten around to it. She wasn’t a writer, she said. I gave her my number and my email address. I think I reached out once, but she wasn’t ready. Hers was a heavy, painful story. It just couldn’t have happened I tried to convince myself.
Weeks later, Dena wrote and said she was ready to talk. She decided she wanted me to tell her story and so over the course of about a year, in intervals of two days here, one week there, the next month we would talk. Well, she would talk and there was so much she couldn’t remember exactly. But her husband was her memory. So was her cousin, Kathy. And her sister. And her mother and father. The story, unlike anything else I had ever written, flowed out of me. I am a journalist and so wrote news and documentaries. This was different. Literary nonfiction. I was recreating scenes and dialogues told to me by first person sources. It was visual in scope. Many who read previews said it was cinematic. Whatever it was, it was all true. Dena, finally, was telling her own story to someone and I was inspired by her finally getting it out there.
In the course of writing, I needed some important information. I was about to implicate a respected Greek organization in some scandalous adoption practices during the 1950’s. Even poking around on my own on social media and asking questions brought some pretty hateful online comments. When I contacted the organization itself, it predictably denied any wrong doing. The president literally said, “I have no idea what you are talking about.” Come look through our files in Washington, D.C., he said. “We have nothing of the kind and no such history.”
Enter one Gonda Van Steen, one of the world’s preeminent scholars in modern Greek studies. In my research, I had come across her new book entitled Adoption, Memory and Cold War Greece: Kid Pro Quo?I wrote to her out of the blue, introduced myself, told her I was a reporter, and asked about this particular organization. Did she know it? Was it involved in the trade and, in some cases, in the “selling” of babies?
The organization was indeed involved in these unethical adoption practices. It was certainly part of Dena’s story. Gonda had said, in the course of our conversations, that the story I was writing sounded awfully familiar. In fact, Dena Poulias appears on pages 202 and 203 of her book and was one of the cases she had followed and chronicled. She said it had been one of the more “moving” stories that she had encountered. Gonda began to fill my head with history and put my own adoption in context.
I kept writing.
In early 2021, about the time I finished Dena’s story, I read another incredible book about adoption called American Baby, written by the brilliant, best-selling author, Gabrielle Glaser. I could not put it down and was transfixed by yet another incredible, unbelievable adoption story that was similar to Dena’s. This book is focused on domestic adoptions, which were just as horrific as what was happening on the international scene. Glaser’s writing both broke my heart and shook it awake somehow.
I decided, after consultation with Gonda, to collect stories from Greek born adoptees and put them into an anthology. This group of adoptees, “the lost children of Greece,” had never been heard from before! During conversations about approaching authors, Gonda suggested, you know, Mary, you should reach out to Gabrielle Glaser and ask her if she would write the Forward. On one hand, I thought that was a crazy idea. I mean, right. Gabrielle Glaser?! Really? Then I thought, well, why not? I wrote to her as I had written to Gonda. Cold. But she was there. She answered. She was lovely. And today we are friends. Her book also made me re-evaluate adoption itself. Including my own.
As I explained in a recent online forum about adoption, I felt like the Lion who found his courage, the Scarecrow, who found his brain, and the Tin Man who found his heart all at once. Dena gave me courage. Gonda made me think about what happened to me and thousands like me. And Gabrielle helped me to feel the beating of my own heart.
Through them I found my way to Greg Luce and Lynelle Long and Shawna Hodgson and so, so many others far too many to name. I stand now with them and our allies, talking and writing and advocating for adoptee rights.
That is how I came to this point. But why do I write here and now?
The sharing of my own adoption story has roused feelings and thoughts in others about me. They wonder. Why and how do I feel the way I do? Why didn’t I share before? My feelings make them sad. They thought I was happy. They simply don’t understand. And you know what? They may never. Understand. And that’s ok. I can’t and I won’t defend my feelings, which are real, however foreign and unreasonable they may seem to others.
I don’t have thoughts about whether or not I should have been adopted. I don’t have thoughts about whether my life in Greece would have been better. I don’t blame anyone for what happened to me and how it happened. I can’t go back and have a do-over with the people who were doing whatever they were doing. I do know they were making decisions that they thought, at the time, were in my best interests.
They didn’t realize that my birth mother was suffering. That she had a family, who had abandoned HER because she was a teenage, unwed mother. She was cast aside and she was relegated unimportant in the story of my life. How can that be? She and I were once one. She was promised by a proxy, that no one would “bother” her ever again. Has she ever recovered from the shame imposed on her? And from our separation? She needed support and love in order to make a sober decision about her baby, her own flesh and blood. I don’t care if she was 14 or 24. She needed help.
I have recently learned the number I was assigned when I was placed in the Athens Foundling Home on January 11, 1955. It is 44488. This means thousands of children came before me, all relegated to numbers. The number, cold as it is, can unlock some information I want and need. I checked some old letters back and forth from the social service agency that handled my case. One letter says there are two people listed on the papers when I entered that orphanage. A mother and a father. I have her name. I want his. Who am I? From where did I come? And what happened? Fundamental to every person’s wholeness is knowledge about their past.
Think of this. If you were not adopted, as you grew up you heard your own story, perhaps over and over again. It was sweet and sentimental as you listened to the story of your own birth and early days. You were conceived under a certain set of circumstances. You were born under a certain set of circumstances. Your parents remember that day. They tell you about that day, what you did, what they did, how you looked, what you weighed, what it was like when they brought you home, what kind of a baby you were. In sum, you had a story that people shared with you. My story started the minute I came into the arms of another family that was not my own. There was something, however brief, before, and I do not know it. That is the point.
I was placed with wonderful adoptive parents and into a large, loving Greek-American family. I did not lose my language or my culture. My parents were incredibly loving and I cannot describe the depth of my love for them and for my grandparents. I appreciate the life they gave me. I appreciate my family and my friends. I was a happy kid and an even happier adult. Those who know me would likely describe my love of life and laughter and my level of commitment to the things and people I care about.
BUT this has nothing, nothing whatsoever to do with what came before. These are two separate things. The adoptees I know strive to become complete human beings. That means they had a past and need to know fully about it. They deserve open adoption records, original birth certificates and citizenship of origin, if they want it. Adoptees are entitled to these and we are also entitled to our feelings and thoughts about our own lives. As one adoptee recently explained, meeting a birth parent enables you to cut the emotional umbilical cord. We invite others to ask questions because they care about understanding us, but please don’t put us on the defensive. We don’t have to explain. We are tired of explaining. We are just thinking through our own, personal experiences, which are all different.
I crave connection. Deep, unmistakable connection to others. You know it when you feel it with another human being. Maybe you feel it so completely that you feel like you have known them all your life or in another life. You know what I am talking about. For me, that connection is almost something divine. I run toward the light and hold that little flame like a precious, fragile flower. I take care of it. Nurture it. I love to feel like I belong and sometimes that feeling, so beautiful, is elusive in the mind and heart of an adoptee.
This adoptee is also gay. So, there are two points of difference that I have had to navigate.
I have been with the same woman for nearly 30 years. Fifteen years or so ago I adopted her sons from a previous marriage. There is no easy way to say this, but their father abandoned them when they were small. I was every bit a parent with her from the time the boys were 2 and 3 years old. They could not have been more “my children.” Our friends recognized my place in their lives, of course, but there were others who never could and never did.
My partner was the “real” parent. Those were “her” boys, not mine, never mine in the eyes of some. I was not a part of their family, but merely an outsider. This was incredibly painful. In fact, just recently the boys (now men) were introduced as her sons while I was standing right there.
What meaning does adoption hold? No, I am serious. Hell, I don’t even know and I was adopted and have adopted!
I was able to re-establish my Greek citizenship years ago and I am happy for it, grateful for it.
Being able to attain it has been the exception to the rule, I have learned. It was, in many ways, a humiliating experience trying to prove over and over again who I was, where I was born and to whom. There was the problem of an altered birth certificate, which never should have happened and it certainly didn’t help, but that’s another story.
My partner is fully Greek (American). The children are fully Greek (American). My partner got her Greek citizenship through her parents (who were born in Greece) and we wanted the boys, too, to also have their Greek citizenship in case, in the future, they someday wanted to work in Greece or within the EU. It was going to be an uphill battle to prove the Greek connection through their maternal grandparents and then also through their own Greek father and his parents, with whom they are no longer in contact. But wait! I was their legal parent and also born Greek. A citizen! They could get citizenship through me, a legal parent. Couldn’t they? Easy, no? But just hold on!
This was not to be. Because I was not a birth parent, lacking that biological connection, it was not allowed. People are getting Greek citizenship through parents and grandparents. Others are being granted Greek citizenship because they are famous scholars or actors or authors, having no biological connection to the people of the country. But me, a Greek-born adoptee, who happened to adopt two Greek-American boys, could not establish citizenship for my sons. Are they less my sons because we are not biologically related? Are they not my sons at all?
You see why we feel the way we do. It is complicated and it often means little in the eyes of some. There remains a stigma. There is discrimination. Still.
Blood is thicker than water. You enjoy the company of some families almost as an honored guest, but often not as a bona fide member. You’re out there of someone else, but not fully theirs.
I don’t blame anyone. I’m not angry. But this is my reality. I own it all and I’m ok with it. I have to be. But to all friends and family of adoptees, please understand that not only are we entitled to all our records. We are also entitled to our experiences and our feelings. They do not reflect on you. They’re not about you. Let us have them. Let us own our cause. And please try to listen first.
Mary holds a Ph.D. in Public and International Affairs and is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication where she teaches Political Communication, Journalism and Documentary Film at California State University, East Bay. Mary is currently compiling an anthology of Greek adoptee stories and has 13 contributors for the collection with the working title “Voices of the Lost Children of Greece”, to be published by Anthem Press in 2022. If you would like to participate, please contact Mary.
I was born in China. That’s it, end of origin story. That’s all I know. I was probably born in Jiangsu Province, but even that’s not certain. The earliest known record of my existence is a medical examination when I was estimated to be 20 days old. Many of my friends know where they were born, what hospital, what day, some even know the time down to the second as well as how long it took. I know none of that. They know who was present at the time they were born, what family members they met first. I know none of that. My legal birth date is estimated from when I was found, I have no original birth registration. My name was given to me by orphanage officials. I don’t know what my name was or if my biological parents had even bothered to give me a name. The record of where I was found and when have been lost or forgotten. My (adoptive) mother wrote in a scrapbook which county they were told I was found in. There are no records of it, I have no abandonment certificate like some Chinese adoptees do and I have no recorded finding ad. For many intents and purposes, my life began when I was adopted by a white Canadian couple when I was under a year old. I am one of thousands of Chinese children adopted by foreigners after China opened its doors to intercountry adoption in 1991.
Like most Chinese adoptees, I was adopted under the shadow of the One Child Policy, first introduced in 1979. The One Child Policy (the unofficial name for the birth restriction policy) dictated that couples were only allowed to have one child. There were exceptions for rural families and ethnic minorities, but the policy was implemented and unequally enforced across the country, with varying levels of violence. The cultural preference for sons is well-publicized and is believed to be the reason behind why the majority of Chinese adoptions under the One Child Policy were girls. It is widely known and accepted among the Chinese adoptee community, the majority of us who were born female, that we were relinquished (or stolen) because of our sex at birth.
China’s changing birth restrictions
On May 31, 2021, I checked the news and saw a CBC article that said China had eased its birth restrictions and would now allow couples to have up to three children, instead of the previous two, which was implemented in 2016. I remember reading a similar news article in 2015 when it was announced that China was relaxing the One Child Policy for the first time in decades to allow for two children per couple. At the time, I didn’t think much of it, I was happy that the restrictions were loosened and sad that they were still policing reproductive rights. And yet, this morning when seeing the news, I felt much more strongly. Perhaps it is because during the pandemic, I made an effort to connect to the adoptee community, through joining online Facebook groups, run by adoptees for adoptees. I started trying to (re)learn Mandarin, which I had long since forgotten, despite being put in Mandarin lessons when I was little. Maybe it’s because of the spotlight put on anti-Black and anti-Asian racism due to the multiple high-profile police killings of Black people, the surge in Asian hate crimes due to the racist rhetoric about the origin of the pandemic, that’s forced me to more closely examine my own racial and cultural identity as a Canadian, transracial, Chinese, intercountry adoptee. But perhaps most of all, it’s because I have two sisters, also adopted from China, something that wasn’t allowed in China for most families until now.
For many reasons, reading the news article on China’s new relaxed policy, gave me many more mixed feelings. Again, the happiness at a relaxed policy and the sadness and disappointment at the continued policing of women’s bodies and reproductive rights. But this time, it came with another feeling: anger. I am angry. It feels like a slap to the face for all Chinese adoptees and their biological families who were (forcefully) separated under the One Child Policy. It feels like it was for nothing, even more than before. What was the point of my biological parents relinquishing me (if that’s what happened) if they were just going to change the policy later? What was the point in creating the policy when the birth rate was already falling, as it does when women are given greater access to education, careers and contraceptives, and now they want to increase the birth rate again? What was the point of stripping me of my name, my birthday, my culture, when the driving force behind my abandonment has been (semi-)reversed? If Chinese couples are now allowed to have three children (the same number as my sisters and I), then what was the point of the policy which drove thousands of children, mostly girls, to be abandoned, aborted and trafficked?
Now the policy has been changed and so what? I’m still a Chinese adoptee, living thousands of kilometres from my birth country, with no easy way to connect to any living blood relatives, unless I want to attempt a search. I’m still a Chinese adoptee who doesn’t know my birth name, birthday or birthplace. South Korean adoptees fought for and successfully lobbied the South Korean government for recognition and (limited) reparations. They have been given a way to recover their South Korean citizenship and are now eligible to apply for the F-4 (Korean Heritage) Visa. During the pandemic, the South Korean government sent free face masks for Korean adoptees. China does not acknowledge dual citizenship, nor does it provide adoptees with a special visa that would allow them an easier way return to their birth country. China does not acknowledge intercountry adoptees or how the thousands of children who were adopted internationally were direct consequences of the One Child Policy. The policy has been loosened and now Chinese couples can have up to three children, like my family in Canada. The policy that likely drove my adoption has been loosened and yet nothing has changed for me, and the Chinese government moves on.
I don’t like thinking of the what-ifs and what-could-be’s. I don’t like imagining what my life could have been if I was never relinquished (or stolen), if I was never adopted, if I was adopted by a Chinese couple instead etc. But this recent announcement has forced me to think about the what-ifs. Specifically, “What if my birth family had been able to keep me because they weren’t restricted by the One Child Policy?” I’m happy and satisfied with my current life. Despite the occasional hiccups, racist micro-aggressions and identity struggles, I wouldn’t change anything. That doesn’t mean I can’t and won’t mourn the life that was taken from me due to the One Child Policy. I mourn that I don’t know what my biological parents named me (if they did). I mourn that I don’t know the date, time and location where I was born. I mourn that I don’t know, and may never know, if I look like any of my biological relatives. I mourn that I will likely never know the full story behind my adoption. I mourn that as a Canadian, I will never feel fully comfortable in China and that as a Chinese adoptee, I will never be seen as fully Canadian. And I’m angry that for the Chinese government, they can change the One Child Policy and move on, while I and thousands of others will bear the consequences for the rest of our lives.
经过 Sabina Söderlund-Myllyharju, adopted from Taiwan to Finland. Translation by Fiona Chow. Original post 这里 瑞典语.
Recently my Facebook newsfeed has been flooded with important news items from places such as The Netherlands, Switzerland and Sweden. The Netherlands has suspended all adoptions from abroad after an investigation revealed systematic abuses as well as illegal adoptions. A similar investigation has begun in Switzerland. In Sweden, adult adoptees from Chile along with those from other nations, are fighting for a nation-wide investigation to be implemented as soon as possible.
This build-up of steam in the adoption world started to stir up feelings inside of me. For a long time now, I have been observing strong opposition against adoption from adopted adults in the international circles I am involved in on social media. But to completely halt all adoptions? That sounded foreign to me. Many years ago, I thought likewise, but since then I have come to the realisation that such thinking is a little too radical. At least, not while there are children out there without parents.
The other night, I listened to a discussion in which a Swedish adoptive parent openly stood in the gap for the illegally adopted children who are now demanding Sweden to take responsibility. She supported them whole-heartedly, even though her engagement is likely to bring negative consequences into her own life. It warmed my heart that she as an adoptive parent is willing to do everything in her power so that her own children in the future would not need to question the adoption system in the same way as the stolen children of today.
My own adoption didn’t go as it should have, and this has been the source of a myriad of different emotions inside of me. These have ranged from the sadness of not having grown up with my biological family, to real anger over a system full of inadequacies. How is it even possible that I was transported from one continent to another with the help of falsified papers? That the offenders have now been tried and punished is of course just and right, but why was there never any attempt to re-unite me and dozens of other children with their original families?
At the same time, I have experienced huge feelings of guilt for even thinking this way, as I have had a good life here in Finland. Who am I really to complain? In fact, this isn’t a question of not being grateful. I am truly thankful for many things, not the least of which include my three children who are growing up in a fantastic country such as Finland. However, am I thankful that I was separated from my biological mother? Is it even possible for me to ever stop wondering why my identification documents were falsified at the time of adoption? Was I sold? Is this what my biological mother really wanted?
It has been many years since my own adoption and at that time, the arrangements were made privately, without the help of an adoption agency, nor the protection such an agency would have provided. I am happy that today’s Finland adoptions are regulated in a totally different way, so that we can be certain that things are done legally and correctly when we place children through international adoption. This is the way it is, isn’t it? Surely our focus is on what is best for the child, just as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) demands? Surely we choose to act without delay when suspicious activity arises on the adoption field?
My hope is that adoptees, adoptive parents and adopters can be assured that all those who work with adoption in Finland are, with good conscious, able to say that everything is working as it should. I sincerely hope that adoption agencies such as Interpedia, Save the Children and the City of Helsinki have been quiet for so long because they absolutely have nothing to hide.
At the same time, I can hardly be the only person who thinks that an independent state investigation is long overdue, even in a country such as Finland.
经过 Erika Fonticoli, born in Colombia adopted to Italy.
What are brothers and sisters? For me, they are small or big allies of all or no battle. In the course of my life I realised that a brother or a sister can be the winning weapon against every obstacle that presents itself and, at the same time, that comforting closeness that we feel even when there is no battle to fight. A parent can do a lot for their children: give love, support, protection, but there are things we would never tell a parent. And… what about a brother? There are things in my life I’ve never been able to tell anyone, and although I’ve had a love-hate relationship with my sister since childhood, there’s nothing of me that she doesn’t know about.
At the worst moment of my life, when I was so hurt and I started to be afraid to trust the world, she was the hand I grabbed among a thousand others. We are two totally different people, maybe we have only playfulness and DNA in common, but she still remains the person from whom I feel more understood and supported. I love my adoptive parents, I love my friends, but she, she’s the other part of me. Sometimes we are convinced that the power of a relationship depends on the duration of it or the amount of experiences lived together. Yeah, well.. I did not share many moments with my sister, it was not an easy relationship ours, but every time I needed it she was always at my side. I didn’t have to say anything or ask for help, she heard it and ran to me.
And the brothers found as adults? Can we say that they are worth less? I was adopted at the age of 5, with my sister who was 7 yo. For 24 years I believed I had only one other version of myself, her. Then, during the search of my origins, I discovered that I had two other brothers, little younger than me. My first reaction was shock, confusion, denial. Emotion, surprise and joy followed. Finally, to these emotions were added bewilderment and fear of being rejected by them. After all, they didn’t even know we existed, my big sister and I were strangers for them. So… how could I possibly introduce myself? I asked myself that question at least a hundred times until, immersed in a rich soup of emotions, I decided to jump. I felt within myself the irrepressible need to know them, to see them, to speak to them. It was perhaps the most absurd thing I’ve ever experienced. “Hello, nice to meet you, I’m your sister!”, I wrote to them.
Thinking about it now makes me laugh, and yet at the time I thought it was such a nice way to know each other. My younger sister, just as I feared, rejected me, or perhaps rejected the idea of having two more sisters that she had never heard of. The first few months with her were terrible, hard and full of swinging emotions, driven both by her desire to have other sisters and by her distrust of believing that it was real. It wasn’t easy, for her I was a complete stranger and yet she had the inexplicable feeling of being tied to me, the feeling of wanting me in her life without even knowing who I was. She was rejecting me and yet she wasn’t be able to not look for me, she’d look at me like I was something to study, because she was shocked that she looked so much like someone else she had never seen for 23 years.
With my brother it was totally different, he called me “sister” right away. We talked incessantly from the start, sleepless nights to tell each other, discovering little by little to be two drops of water. He was my brother from the first moment. But how is possible? I don’t know. When I set off to meet them, headed to the other side of the world, it all seemed so crazy to me. I kept telling myself: “What if they don’t like me?”, and I wondered what it would feel like to find myself face to face with them. The answer? For me, it was not a knowing each other for the first time, it was a seeing them again. Like when you move away and you don’t see your family for a long time, then when you come home to see them again you feel moved and run to hug them. This was my first moment with them! A moment of tears, an endless embrace, followed by a quick return playful and affectionate as if life had never separated us even for a day.
So… are they worth less? Is my relationship with them less intense and authentic than that with my sister, with whom I grew up? No. I thought I had another half of me, now I feel like I have three. I see one of them every day, I constantly hear the other two for messages or video calls. There are things in my life that I can’t tell anyone, things that only my three brothers know, and in the hardest moments of my life now I have three hands that I would grab without thinking about it. I love my family, my adoptive parents and my biological mom, but my siblings are the part of my heart I couldn’t live without. Having them in my life fills me with joy, but having two of them so far from me digs a chasm inside me that often turns into a cry of lack and nostalgia. Tears behind which lie the desire to share with them all the years that have been taken from us, experiences and fraternal moments that I have lived with them for only twenty days in Colombia.
As I said earlier, in my opinion, it doesn’t matter the duration of a relationship nor the amount of experiences lived together but the quality… that said, even those rare moments to us seem a dream still unrealisable. In the most important and delicate periods of our lives we often feel overwhelmed by helplessness and the impossibility of supporting each other, because unfortunately a word of comfort is not always enough. We can write to each other, call each other, but nothing will ever replace the warmth of a hug when you feel that your heart is suffering.
In the most painful and traumatic phase of my younger sister’s life, when she started to be afraid of the world, when she thought she deserved only kicks and insults, when she thought she had no one, I wrote to her. I wrote to her every day, worried and sorrowful, and as much as I tried to pass on my love and closeness to her, I felt I couldn’t do enough. I felt helpless and useless, I felt that there was nothing I could do for her, because when I felt crushed by life it was my older sister’s embrace that made me feel protected. And that’s what my little sister wanted at that moment, a hug from me, something so small and simple that I couldn’t give it to her because the distance prevented me from do it. And neither could our brother because he also grew up far away, in another family. I didn’t know what to do, how I could help her, she was scared and hurt. I wanted her to come live with me, her and my little nephew, so I could take care of them and help them in the most difficult moment of their lives. I’ve been looking into it for months, search after search, and then finding out that despite the DNA test recognised that we’re sisters, the world didn’t.
Legally, we were still a complete strangers, just like when we first spoke.
I would like the law to give the possibility to siblings separated from adoption to be reunited if this is the desire of both, that the law allows us to enjoy those rights that only a familial bond offers. We didn’t decide to split up, it was chosen for us, but we don’t want to blame anyone for it. We just wish we had a chance to spend the rest of our lives as a family, a sentimental and legal family for all intents and purposes. It must not be an obligation for everyone, but an opportunity for those biological brothers whose bond has survived. A chance for us perfect strangers who, in spite of everything, call ourselves family. Maybe someone will find themselves in what I felt and I’m still feeling, maybe someone else won’t, but precisely because every story is different I think there should be a chance of a happy ending for everyone. Mine would be to have my brothers back.