What No One Told Me About Adoption

Grown In My Heart hosted a blog carnival this past weekend called What No One Told Me About Adoption.

Interestingly, several years ago I wrote a piece for a project that was never published, an anthology of creative writing by Asian/Pacific Island women living in the Midwest. I titled my piece, Things They Never Tell You When You’re An Orphan In Korea.

When I wrote this piece I had just started coming to terms with realizing the impact adoption had had on my life. The mask I’d been wearing as one of those “happy, well-adjusted” adoptees crumbled. I had not yet gone back to college, I had not yet become a social worker. I had just returned from my first trip to Korea, a trip that did not go well. I had not yet found “my people,” those adoptees with whom I could really understand, who “got me.” I felt I was being honest with myself but was conflicted because my feelings were not being recognized or validated in the books I read about adoption or in the volunteer work I was doing with adoption agencies. I was definitely a work in progress.

Reading the blog carnival made me go back and look at what I’d written a very long time ago now. And while I no longer necessarily agree with everything I wrote back then, there are definitely some nuggets that still resonate. I’m posting an excerpt of that piece today. Although I won’t post the whole thing (there are some very private and personal things I included that I wouldn’t want made public, like where I lived and my birthdate), I wanted to give you readers a small glimpse into the Me I Was Back Then. Those of you who are adoptive parents might want to keep in mind that I was in my late 20s-early 30s during this period. If you had asked me even a few years earlier I would have told you that everything was fine, that I had no negative feelings about adoption ever, that adoption was always a wonderful thing. Of course, that wasn’t entirely true.

The point is not that there is a right way or wrong way to feel about adoption, the point is that every person who is adopted has a right to own their feelings, either way. And, things change. Having children changed things for me. Going to Korea changed me. Reading and educating myself about adoption changed me. Working and volunteering with adopted children changed me. Working at adoption agencies with prospective and adoptive parents changed me.

However an adopted person thinks or feels about adoption comes from their own experiences. Adoptive parents and adoption professionals will never know what an adoptee will think or feel about their adoption experience. What I do know is that whether you personally agree or disagree with an adopted person’s opinion about adoption it is not your place to tell someone that how they view their experience is wrong. You can support, you can empathize, you can offer other perspectives. But remember that those other perspectives are just that – other perspectives. Your perspective as someone who is not adopted is not better or more correct than the adoptee’s perspective.

In my experience the more you try and tell an adoptee how they are supposed to feel, the more likely they will stop telling you how they feel altogether.

Things they never tell you when you’re an orphan in Korea

Once upon a time, I was an orphan in Korea. I don’t know if I’m technically an orphan, or if I was just abandoned. But either way, I was shipped off to Minnesota over thirty- some years ago. If you are old enough, they tell you you’re going to get a new Mom and Dad, that you’ll have a nice new home and well, that’s about it. There are so many things they never tell you when you’re an orphan in Korea.

  • For example, when I was an orphan in Korea, nobody told me I would have to grow up in Minnesota, land of white. White snow that blankets the ground half of the year. White bread, white sugar, white folks. I lived on White Birch Lane. My hometown was full of rich white liberals although my parents, for good or bad, were neither rich nor liberal. My parents are Scandinavian, which means a lot of white food. Mashed potatoes, oatmeal, lefse, and plenty of milk. And of course, they only like the white meat on chicken and turkey.
  • When I was an orphan in Korea, no one ever told me that I would become alienated from my culture because of my race, and alienated from my race because of my culture. No matter how much I can talk like a Minnesotan once people see me they assume I’m Fresh Off The Boat. I’m a Foreigner. But Koreans are always surprised that I can’t speak Korean. They shake their heads in pity when I have to explain that I was adopted. I don’t fit in with either culture, and I no longer wish to.
  •  When I was an orphan in Korea, I had no clue that years and oceans later, my children would beg me to sing songs from the musical Annie. Disney re-made this movie a few years ago and my kids love it. They dance and sing, pretending to be ragamuffin orphans and evil orphanage directors.
  • Nobody ever told me that as an orphan,  I would be so gosh-darn appealing to Americans! I swear, when people found out I was an orphan, I received pity and admiration like I never could have imagined. Questions flew fast and furious. Did I know who my real parents were? Where was I found? Oh my gosh, no way, you were found in a box on the steps of City Hall? Was there a note? You’re kidding! What did the note say? I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised. After all, mine is one of the most overused plots in history. From Dickens to Disney, it is a common theme. Little orphaned so-and-so makes good through pluck and determination. We orphans sure provide a lot of dramatic fodder for movies, music and books. Oliver Twist, Tom Sawyer, Anne of Green Gables, Little Orphan Annie, Peter Pan. Maybe my problem is that I can’t sing and dance.
  • When I was an orphan in Korea, no one told me I would become a magnet for adoptive parents. If I’m at the mall or the grocery store or the playground, they swarm to me, unfurling their long coil of studio photos of their kids. They all want me to assure them that their kids are going to grow up as well adjusted as me.
  • When you’re an orphan in Korea, they don’t tell you that either your parents will conveniently forget you are of another race, or they will remind you of it at every opportunity. If they are like mine were, they will forget that you are Korean. Maybe they’ll act surprised when other people bring it up, and they will say, when people make racist remarks, that you must have misunderstood them, because WHY would
    anybody say anything racist? My parent’s ignorance about racism is both a frustration and a compliment – after all, they are so entirely accepting of me personally that their inability to see me as different means they truly feel I’m a part of their lives, no different than their other children or family. It also means that by turning a blind eye to my race and ignoring the racism that occurs, they are ignoring a large part of who I am.
  • When you’re an orphan in Korea, no one ever tells you how important it will be to have biological children of your own, how complete you will feel when looking into the eyes of your flesh and blood children. Sitting at the table in the mornings, watching my yawning and shuffling kids wipe sleep from their eyes while they’re eating their cereal, I am doubly saved. I get to be the parent I lost, and my children get to be the kid I wanted to be. Every time I look at them I see my eyes, my flat little nose, my smile. They are the only two people in this world
    I have ever recognized myself in. Nobody ever told me how much that would matter.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

11 thoughts

  1. “They shake their heads in pity when I have to explain that I was adopted.”
    I got that too, in Taiwan.
    It made me become so angry at myself even though I knew it wasn’t my fault.

  2. Really Jae Ran? You are an AP magnet? Don’t get me wrong- You are an inspiring writer and I have learned a tremendous amount through your written voice. Please don’t stop writing. But- shimmying up to you and busting out photos and seeing you as some kind of fortune teller? That is kind of creepy. How in the world can you shoulder such a collective voice- thousands upon thousands of TRAs are supposed to magically manifest into one through you? How do they even know that you are an adoptee in the first place? I shudder to think of people swarming you because I get swarmed on the AP end and it sometimes ain’t pretty. The nice old lady who asked if my children were brought to me by Santa come to mind…
    As always, thanks for writing.

  3. Very interesting reading.
    Made me think about the swarming my children have seen. Usually it would be a case of isolation where it was obvious who belongs to who and it would often devolve into overly personal questions and expressions of Christian gratitude. Never appreciated it.
    All that stopped a year or two ago. I might have perfected the “don’t even think about it” glare. Or my sons now 5 and 7 keep them busy with ordinary banter.
    I have seen them treated differently because of what I am (white) and that bothered me too, but I have also had them swarmed by a group of Korean women shopping together at Costco. I actually thought that was wonderful.
    To be honest I don’t come here to predict how my children will feel or to hope to truly understand what it is they are going through. I think the best hope I have is the influence it has on the decisions I make. This influence is often subtle, maybe even subconscious. But it is there. And appreciated.

  4. I am also a Korean adoptee, fresh off the boat in 1980. Your post cracked me up and had me nodding in agreement. Points 2, 6 & 7 especially. Thank you.

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