Adoptee genealogies

Multicolored Korean lanterns.
Image from dreamstime stock photo.

The start of a new year encourages reflection and this year I was thinking a lot about genealogies – but not the type you might be thinking. For those of us who celebrate the Lunar New Year, honoring ancestors is an important part of the holiday activities.

I’m two-thirds through Sandy White Hawk‘s beautiful memoir, “A Child of the Indian Race”: A Story of Return, and I have been reflecting on how much Sandy means to me. I don’t remember exactly when we first met or through whom, but we used to meet up for breakfast or lunch at a Perkins in Roseville, Minnesota back in the day, not too far from where I lived. Her granddaughter would typically accompany us. I think I was attending college in my social work undergraduate program when we first met.

I attended a couple of Sandy’s “Gatherings” – ceremonies and events aimed at bringing indigenous people separated from their families and tribes via foster care, adoption, or boarding schools back to the wider Native American community. Although these Gatherings were intended to be a healing space for indigenous fosterees/adoptees, Sandy included me and welcomed me with generosity and kindness. I shared with her my wish that South Korea would offer a truly heartfelt apology and pathway for healing and reconciliation for Korean adoptees. I truly believe my participation at Sandy’s Gatherings influenced my work and life as an adoptee. Sandy modeled the ability to be both critical and forgiving, one of the touchstones in the Adoptee Consciousness Model I’ve been working on with adoptee colleagues.

I consider Sandy my friend and mentor, but more importantly, I consider her one of my adoptee elders. Not an elder by age (although she is older than me); I consider her my elder in that she embraced me during a time I was exploring my own adoptee identity, generously shared her own story, invited me to partner with her on adoptee-related work, promoted my work when I started to put myself out there, and shared a lot of laughs and tears.

Sandy is but one of many others who I consider part of my own adoptee genealogy, and I imagine many of us adoptees who are active in adoption education, counseling, research, or write, create art, music, and are activists for change have similar lists of those folks who were important to our emerging critical consciousness.

As adoptees, we experienced a severance in our biological genealogies and too many have not found connection or support in their adoptive families either. In my recent interview with Haley Radke for Adoptees On, I mentioned other adoptee scholars who came before me but these folks did more than just set a high standard for me to emulate. Dr. John Raible, Dr. Amanda Baden, and Dr. Gina Samuels supported and mentored me in different ways. Dr. Kim Park Nelson and Dr. Jini Roby are two other adoptee scholars who were highly influential in my life. I also want to include some other folks who mentored, encouraged, and championed me including – Robert O’Connor, Sun Yung Shin, Mary Mason, and Susan Ito. These folks challenged my thinking, offered to collaborate with me, passed on opportunities for personal and professional growth, and became my chosen family in so many ways. It is important for me to mention that most of these folks are not Korean adoptees. It’s important to mention because through these folks I learned about what we have in common as adoptees as well as what is different because of the various ways our communities have experienced adoption. I know my experience as a Korean adoptee born in the late 1960s and adopted in the early 1970s. I don’t know what it is like to be a Lakota adoptee, or an African American adoptee or an adoptee from Colombia or Haiti or a U.S. baby-scoop adoptee.

There are, of course, many others who have become dear friends, siblings, and cousins in our adoptee journeys together – I specifically highlight the above individuals because they were further along in their careers or adoptee activism and had some status or power to listen and engage with a newbie like me and encourage her to take that next step in their adoptee consciousness.

Last week I was in Hawai’i. The banyan trees there were stunning. One aspect I think is super cool about banyan trees is that they send out their seeds via roots that drop down to the ground. These roots become a sort of trunk of another tree. You’ll see clusters in which several trunks support each other and continue to send out more shoots. I like to think of the adoptee community like a grove of banyan trees, each of us supporting one another’s projects and creative ideas.

A banyan tree in Hawaii.
Imageof banyon trees from dreamstime stock photos.

I felt it was important for me to share my personal adoptee genealogy here on this blog. As I shared with Haley, I was a very shy, quiet, timid person back when I began this blog in 2006. The adoptees in my life who believed in me and thought I had something to offer literally changed the course of my life – often in ways my adoptive family and non-adoptee friends just couldn’t quite manage in the same way. So, as I was thinking about my ancestors this Seollal, I thought about my adoptee elders and ancestors, my gratitude for the work they’ve done, undertaken at a time when there were many more barriers and resistance to critical adoption discussions than I’ve experienced. Thanks to their courage and perseverance and innovation, a path was opened for my own work, as well as a reminder of the importance of paying it forward.

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