Save Me, Acculturate Me, Inform Me
The evolution of how our society views children has been changing with every generation. I am of the generation of parents who would like to believe I treat my children as individuals with potential, not mere vessels to fill. Not so in the world of adoption. The stagnation of how we, adopted children, are viewed is troubling. We were and still are the commodity for those doing God’s will. We continue to fill the void of infertility. We are the recipients of many years of purposeful re-education of parents to be more holistic in their parenting.
There has been an unanticipated but very natural consequence to adoption no matter the same intentions. We, the children, grew up. We became adults with thoughts, feelings and questions. What has transpired over the last twenty years of being, working, creating in the adoption diaspora has been the ever-growing plantation of us, the adopted people.
“Who Am I Also Known As?”
Intercountry adoption was considered a “social experiment” that went well. The belief that the children of intercountry adoption were fully acculturated to the American way of life and properly grateful to be saved by their adoptive parents seemed to be enough proof that the idea of taking a child of another race and culture was an excellent option to becoming parents or expanding a family. While the likes of Rita Simon and Howard Altstein were making their case in support of intercountry adoption, there was an equally powerful case being made by a growing group of adoptees putting a dramatic pause to this way of thinking. As in every movement, it takes a few brave souls to bare the deeper recesses of their hearts to give air to the hard stuff. What began with Korean adoptees (as we were greatest in number) has continued to evolve for children adopted from Asia, Southeast Asia, Latin America, South America and Eastern Europe. Out of isolation, they gave voice to the pain of being adopted and the lingering imprint adoption makes on all aspects of the human condition long after the event. Jo Rankin’s anthology “Seeds From A Silent Tree” was such a seminal awakening for many international adoptees who were to be given permission to be real, bold, angry, hurt, betrayed, demanding, entitled and questioning. There were the provocateurs – Mi-Ok Bruining, Mi-Hee Nathalie Lemoine – who challenged the “industry of adoptions,” the purpose for adoption and demanded justice for the adopted. One by one, there were memoirs, anthologies, films and documentaries of individuals sharing their experiences and challenging the perception that international adoption was a win-win-win situation. The piece that transformed my perception of what my truth was and could be was the 2000 film by Deann Borshay: “First Person Plural.”
In the adolescence of our community, more and more adoptees were coming forward to find others who were just like them. Some of us who felt the injustice of our stories decided to work to garner justice and reconciliation. Others of us have decided to educate and talk about what we missed so the next generation of adoptees is not without. No matter which path we took, we universally declared that the mistakes of the past were not going to be made again – not on our watch.
By 1996, there were groups in the United States, both on the West Coast (AKA SoCal and SanFran and AAAWash) and East Coast (Also-Known-As/NY) created by and for adult international adoptees. The European adoptee presence was already well established (Korean Klubben of Denmark). Through these organizations came the sense of community needed to empower ourselves to speak up, mentor, socialize and create our chosen families. By then, there were heritage camps (Holt Camp, Camp Mujigae, Camp Sejong, Camp Mugunghwa) and motherland tours, first to Korea then to other countries. Our pioneers like Deborah Johnson and Susan Soon-Keum Cox recognized the need for us to gather, to be in each other’s company and to reconnect with the countries of our birth. By 1998, GOA’L (Global Overseas Adoptee Link) made its mark in South Korea: a home created by and for the adopted person to seek assistance, empowerment and family, as well as begin the dialogue of changing the perception of international adoption in Korea. No more content to being just a part of our adoptive countries, adoptees were making their way back to Korea to try and gain a place in a society that displaced us – to reclaim a part of our identity and lineage. By 1999, there was the first international Gathering of Korean Adult Adoptees where 500 amassed on Washington, D.C. Since then, there have been mini-gatherings all over the United States and Europe. There is a gathering in Korea every other year and there are adoptee groups in the double digits now spanning the entire globe. In no small measure, adult adoptees from Vietnam, Hong Kong, India, Paraguay, the Philippine, and Colombia are gathering, meeting, seeking each other and making connections. What may have started out as a need to find others that look like us has evolved to Facebook groups exclusively for adopted people, conferences only for adoptees, and social functions and professional networks just for those with adoption as part of their identification.
These groups and gatherings began as a means to self-explore the hyphenated identity, culturally and societally, but they have changed the adoption narrative permanently. We international adoptees have come of age. We are hundreds of thousands strong, and we are finally being heard. We are talking and demanding accountability, responsibility and access to our full stories beyond the day we stepped off the airplane into the arms of our would-be parents. We are acknowledging that our stories do not begin with, “Once upon a time there was a man and a woman who wanted to be a mommy and daddy.” Rather, it may begin more like, “Once upon a time, there was a woman who lived very far away who gave birth to a baby.” We are understanding that we are the only ones who can own our adoption story.
Who Are We Becoming?
I believe we are the only community that self-identifies with the word “adult.” It is an interesting concept to feel we need to constantly remind ourselves and others that we are “adult adoptees,” so strong is the pressure to never individuate from our adoptive families. In that way, we have had to mete out our expertise slowly and deliberately. Our generation of adoptees and those behind us are gaining more professional bona fides, intentionally, to get beyond our personal narrative in order to better the practice of adoption, meet the needs of other adopted people and change the dialogue the professional world is having about what it means to be adopted and the lifelong perpetual needs the adopted must have.
Nearly 20 years old in our organizational formation, the landscapes look rather different yet still the same. We still need the provocateurs and those willing to go to the extremes of the argument of whether we perpetuate or ban the practice of international adoption. Without them, how will we find the necessary middle ground? We still need the allies, the non-adopted, to listen and learn in order to raise the volume of discussion on the many needs we must have to pursue a fulfillment in life equal to others. We still need the existence of all the groups that are here and are forming to serve as home base for many of us who need a place to rest, seek comfort and take us out of our sense of isolation. And of course, we need every narrative to come forward as each individual voice only emboldens the textures of the adopted experience.
Is Being Adopted Enough?
The challenge for the future is to decide how our myriad of voices, backgrounds, languages and perceptions about adoption will progress us. Is the singular experience of being adopted enough of a unifier for our community? If so, how do we use this collective power? Do we have a responsibility to effect change? Is there room for all of us to do so? No generation is immune from having an identity crisis; it is the privilege of youth. We adoptees have several to overcome.
First and foremost, we have our individual selves to care for: once in book form, now in blog form. Not a week will go by when I don’t discover another adopted person posting about their search for identity, their birth family, their name and their history. With each generation, we find the newly forming, and I hope our community is woven tightly enough to catch all of them. The declaration that only adoptees can hold authority over their narratives has finally taken root. For whom will these narratives serve? I think about the child who is trying to make sense of how she ended up in the family she is in. I think about the teen struggling to find an identity that matches his outside and inside. I think about that young adult wanting to travel to her country of birth to find her birth mother. I think about the adult adoptee who wants to honor his adoptive and birth cultures and empower his child to do the same. All of them need our stories to hear, feel and identify with. All of them need the vocabulary to describe the bridges they have to create and need the resources to learn how to build those bridges.
Second, for those of us who look beyond our personal story, how will our beginnings determine our future? The past can do more than provoke curiosity, and it cannot be undone. How will our past serve us to progress beyond the belief we are unique? Rather, I am seeing many colleagues and friends use themselves to serve as a foundation of expertise to welcome others through teaching, writing, researching, counseling and advocating. Will we be the generation who sits comfortably in the place of being the experts, sought and acknowledged, neither the curiosity nor the exception?
Third, as the adults in the room, can we now create a different paradigm in which the practice of adoption includes the child, the adopted one, as the permanent client with her best interests the central focus of the decision making process? Even if it might mean that adoption is the very last option?
When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would answer that I wanted to be a doctor: one to administer aid to make someone feel better. I didn’t ever become that doctor, but I became the administrator: the giver of space and air to express and try on. My wish for the next twenty years would be to expand our space and influence. My hope is that those voices will progress to effect changes in the conversation of how children are viewed, respected and the choices they are entitled to.
So many of us have lived in that in-between world, knowing the sense of belonging and not belonging. Is there a way for us to push beyond the simple dichotomy of pro- and anti-adoption and use our currency to be real with the options and choices for children and the adults in their lives who have to make the impossible decisions they do?
The 2000s seem to be the century for self-expression. I believe we are uniquely qualified to strengthen such powerful expression. I believe we are challenged to figure out how we will coalesce this power for a collective good. May this magazine be the beginning of such a collection.