Yesterday I had the great pleasure to attend two events through the Still Present Pasts exhibit, both featuring filmmaker Deann Borshay. The first event was a panel discussion about Korean Adoptee filmmakers, with Deann, Jennifer Ahrnt-Johns of Crossing Chasms, and Kevin Kamin. Later last night, SPP had a viewing of First Person Plural, Deann’s film, as well as a preview to her new film, Precious Objects of Desire.
I felt like a fawning groupie, because First Person Plural is, in my opinion, the absolute best movie about international adoption made thus far. Because of Deann’s skill as a filmmaker first and foremost, her movie stands alone as a work of art and not just because her individual story is so compelling. Deann is, at heart, a skilled storyteller.
I first came upon First Person Plural back in late 2000, months after returning from my first trip back to Korea and my own birth family search. First Person Plural was the first film I’d seen about a Korean Adoptee; my reaction to the film was raw and visceral. I wept through most of the film. At that time in my life I was in my early 30s, and was confronting the ghosts of my past along with the reality of my present existence in a forced, confused and hyper-emotional collision.
My first reaction to the film was anger towards Deann’s adoptive parents, who I transferred all my own feelings regarding my relationship with my own adoptive parents, for being so clueless and ignorant about my emotional state as a Korean adoptee growing up with the forced assimilation into their world and absolutely no effort to assimilate into mine. I saw my family members echoed in Deann’s family, their ignorance was my family’s ignorance and their attempts to silence Deann was my parents attempts to silence me.
What I didn’t see at the time, because I was so engulfed in my own hurt at having come to dead ends in my birth family search, was the palpable pain that Deann’s parents felt. Although I’ve remembered every scene of the film, seeing First Person Plural again with several years behind me, I saw the desperate pain and fear of Deann’s parents. With every step towards her Korean birth family, Deann’s adoptive family saw it as a step away from them. And my own parents at the time were seething and silent about what they saw as my rejection of them.
And here is where my anger has changed. I don’t harbor anger towards my adoptive parents any more, for all the things they didn’t do. Because they did everything they were supposed to do; everything their social workers told them was important.
What burns me now is this incessant, pathological force-feeding of happiness and sunshine narrative that society at large and prospective adoptive parents in particular receive. For the most part, and I am generalizing here, adoptive parents LOVE their adopted children with the same degree and purity of intent as any parent loves their child. There are always that select group of adoptive parents who will single out and consider adopted children lesser than biological but that is not what I see for the most part in my experience with adoptive families.
I’ve always known that my parents loved me, they just didn’t like to share. They didn’t want to share me with my Korean family and they didn’t want to share me with the Korean American community.
Most adoptive parents I have spoken to or met think the sun rises and falls on their children. And this is the reason it hurts so much to imagine that these children may someday not feel the same about them.
Prospective adoptive parents often ask me for advice, hoping for a "Top 10 ways to . . . " with their adopted children. I can’t do this, and frankly, I think it’s unfair.
The problem is, each child is an individual person with an individual journey ahead of them. I can’t tell anyone what another transracially- or transnationally- adopted person will think and feel, especially years before a person would get to such a point. There are too many variables involved. I can tell a person about what patterns I’ve observed and I can talk about what research has found, but ultimately it’s not fair to put me in the position to prescribe a list of easy things an adoptive parent can do and then bear the responsibility when it doesn’t pan out the way it should have. I can only imagine some adoptive parents griping some day, saying, "Well, Harlow’s Monkey told me I should do x,y & z and now my angry adopted kid won’t talk to me!"
As a friend of mine today said, while discussing First Person Plural, there are no prescriptions that we can give adoptive parents that will truly make a difference. Adoptive parents are better off listening to as many adult adoptees as they can; read their books, watch their films, attend their lectures, etc. Because each of us will have something different to say, different experiences and different opinions – but collectively, there will be a narrative that will emerge, patterns will form and adoptive parents will be able to see the rest stops on the way to the destination. But like anything else in life, there are many ways of getting to said destination.
Perhaps the most effective parenting strategy for a transracially and transnationally adopted child has much less to do with "Top 10" lists such like:
- Attend culture camp and "culture" school on Saturdays
- Eat cultural foods at home or patronize restaurants of child’s ethnic origin
- Have child learn native country’s language
- etc. etc. etc.
and more to do with adoptive parents investigating their own privileges of race, culture, education, class, gender, sex and religion and their views about normative family structures. I’d like to see adoptive parents stop making excuses for why they can’t do these things – "oh, it’s too much to do this with all the day-to-day parenting issues," or "I’m just trying to get by every day as it is," or "I feel too much guilt over all this new information I’m getting that I just need to shut it down now to feel better" thoughts. I’d like for adoptive parents to look at their adoption in a broader context than their own intimate family bubble and look at the wider historical lens of the factors that made their particular family unit possible.
In other words, stop making the children bear the responsibilities of adapting and adopting and assimilating. I would love to see a day when adoptive parents are required to live in the child’s country of origin for 3 years before they could move back "home." Why do we place so much burden on the children to make the adults feel better? I know it seems easier, but it’s like extending yourself too much with credit cards. Eventually you’ll have to pay the bill. Whenever I think about how difficult it is to have those conversations about sex, drugs, violence and ethical issues with my children – or having to discipline them – I always remind myself that if I don’t "pay" for it now (that is, bear the responsibility of how hard it is to do this) then I’ll pay for it later – with interest.
I don’t talk much about my adoptive parents on this blog for several reasons; I want to protect their privacy, first and foremost. Second, anything I might write about them will be misconstrued. If I write about what they did wrong then people will vilify them in the comments box. Readers here can only see a small slice of the whole picture in terms of how my family raised me and I don’t want adoptive parents to collectively sweep their hands over their foreheads and sigh, "whew" as if they’re somehow exonerated from being as ignorant or as bad as Harlow’s Monkey’s parents – and to say to themselves that if they do things different their child won’t end up as "angry" or whatever as I might appear to be.
I think Deann’s parents were extremely brave to allow their lives to be documented so publicly. In one scene, Deann asks her mother Alveen why she never asked Deann what was going on inside, when she could tell that Deann was going through some very hard times trying to integrate her Korean and American identities. Alveen is unable to express why she didn’t. First, she tries to explain it as, "you should have told me, I was waiting to hear it from you." Deann’s father says, "communication is a two way street."
But finally, Deann expresses the reason – "Were you afraid of losing me?"
And there it is, the elephant in the room, exposed at last.
My own parents have never been able to talk about the elephant in the room, but I know that the idea of losing me was the reason they were unable to talk to me about my adoption. The sad thing is that by not talking to me about their fear of losing me, they forced me to find other people to process my adoption with and caused me to segregate my life. Thus, as I began to get my poetry and essays published, I never told them. As I began to get involved with Korean adoptee organizations and activist groups, I did not tell them. I didn’t talk about my feelings about traveling to Korea. I didn’t tell them I was doing a birth family search.
The reasons I didn’t tell them these things was because I was protecting their feelings. Because I knew that in our relationship, their feelings were more important to protect than mine.
I didn’t and couldn’t understand how much my parents loved me and how much they thought they might lose until I had children of my own. Yet, the job of a parent is to give their children all the tools they can so as adults they can be productive and creative and loving and contributing members of society.
Adoption agencies who do not train prospective adoptive parents about the reality of adoption are hurting those parents and those future children. Too many adoption agencies want to perpetuate the sunshine and happiness of adoption and way too many prospective parents are too willing to believe it.
I think many adoptive parents make the mistake of fearing their adopted child’s search to explain their past. They are afraid that if their adopted child finds birth parents that they’ll love them (first parents) better or maybe in total. That they will lose their place as #1 in that child’s life. Yet we fully believe that parents are capable of loving more than one child and we don’t stop people from having more than one child because they "might" love their second child more!
Adoption reform can never truly happen until those who control adoption – agencies, the government and adoptive parents – get real about what adoption truly does. Adoption is not just about "building families." It’s about the most traumatic event in a child’s life – separation from his or her first parents – and the placement of that child into another family. Adoptive parents MUST face the fact that while they are the parents in charge of raising this kid to adulthood, that child still has a history and a story and a family that exists outside the adoptive parent’s scope of control.
Pretending that past history and story and family no longer exists, or trying to erase it for the child, does not make it go away. If and when that child goes searching for that past, it will be the adoptive parents who will bear the responsibility and the possibly the locus of anger by the adoptee. Transparency is important for agencies and for adoptive parents as well.
Alveen is ultimately able to voice her fears about losing Deann and as a result creates the opportunity for a more authentic relationship with her daughter. Ironic, isn’t it? The more willing adoptive parents are to let their adopted children move towards their own authentic identities, the more likely the adoptee will be willing to engage and share this process with their parents.
But then, I think this is true for all parent-child relationships.
Adoptive parents may be able to control all the externals, but they’ll never be able to control how their child feels.
One of my favorite songs is Bruce Springsteen’s song, If I Should Fall Behind and I think one stanza describes particularly well what I have always hoped for in my own relationship with my adoptive parents:
We said we’d walk together, baby come what may
That come the twilight, should we lose our way
If as we’re walking
A hand should slip free
Ill wait for you –
And should I fall behind
Wait for me
I’m still waiting. I’ve come to a point in my life where I no longer blame my parents for what they didn’t do. I hold them responsible for what they won’t do now that they know, but the past is the past and ultimately I hold my adoption agency culpable for their lack of information and truthfulness.
So in the meantime, I can wait. I just hope that some day, my adoptive parents will catch up so that we can continue on this journey together. Not because of obligation, and not clinging because of the fear of losing each other, but simply because we want to.