Presentation on Korean Adoptees as parents study

Each year University of Washington Tacoma invites faculty to present on their research and I was fortunate to be asked to participate in this year’s Lightening Talk. These are very short presentations (5 minutes!) with timed slides. It was challenging to condense a research study into 20 slides in five minutes, but here is a video of my presentation, highlighting the findings of our study on Korean adoptee parenting.

For more information about this study, please click here.

Review: The Hundred Year Flood by Matthew Salesses

hundred year One of my personal goals this year is to read more books by authors of color, and to that end I’ve committed to reading only fiction by authors of color. I was excited to receive an advanced copy of friend and fellow Korean adoptee writer Matthew Salesses’ new novel, The Hundred Year Flood.  I am a big fan of Salesses’ writing. I enjoyed Matthew’s books, I‘m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying, Different Racisms, and his essays on the Good Men Project and recently published on The Offing. Matthew is one of the most prolific and productive writers I know! I don’t know how he balances all of his different projects (in addition to his teaching, his PhD candidacy and his family). I read The Hundred Year Flood on a recent weekend trip, mostly on the plane. I seriously paused a couple of pages into the first chapter to just savor and admire the poetry of Matthew’s prose. Matthew’s writing is beautiful. The main character in this novel is 22-year old Thomas, known as Tee, a Korean adoptee. The novel is set in both present time where Tee recovers in the hospital, and in flashbacks set in Prague where Tee has been spending the past year in search of himself and where Tee receive the injury that leads to the current hospital stay. There are now many memoirs written by Korean adoptees but I’ve been frustrated and disappointed with the limited portrayals of Korean adoptees in fiction over the years, particularly by non-adopted Asian American writers like in these novels. I think I’m always wary about how Korean Adoptees are presented in fiction because they often feel very stereotyped to me, and so focused on the adoption part that it seems there is nothing else to them. I feel strongly that adoptees are so much more than their adoptee identity and yet it has not been easy to find representation in either film or on the page that adequately gives us nuance and complexity. So I was appreciative that while adoption does play part of Tee’s journey, it is not all of it; finally we get to read a story about a person whose adoption status is one aspect of their identity and their story, not the sum game. I won’t say much more about the plot of the story in hopes you will get the book for yourself and read it. I will say that much of Salesses’ writing is just my cup of tea (sorry, couldn’t help it!) all the way around. I liked the splashes of magical realism and the unique and powerful imagery in the writing and was sad when I finished reading, wanting more of Tee’s story. Which is always a good thing, to end wanting more. The Hundred Year Flood will be available in August.

Review: Ghost of Sangju: A Memoir of Reconciliation

imgresMemoirs are tricky business. I have known for a long time that I would never attempt to write a memoir because they are so difficult. They must draw the reader in, excite without being overly melodramatic and yet be approachable so the reader can relate and empathize. Ghost of Sangju: A Memoir of Reconciliation by Soojung Jo, meets these criteria in both ways.

I first came upon Soojung Jo’s writing when she was blogging at Faith and IllusionsI’m not quite sure how I stumbled upon her blog, but I recall being interested in her take as both a Korean adoptee and as an adoptive parent. I was disappointed when she stopped blogging, but found her through other social media sites and remember when she reunited with her Korean family. Ghost of Sangju details her reunion but for me, it is her description of her childhood with her adoptive family that was most engaging and relatable.

imgres-1The book begins with a prologue describing the horrific events that led to her birth and relinquishment and segues into how Soojung/Raina is found by her omma, her birth mother. The remainder of the book intersperses segments of omma’s letters to Soojung with narratives of her childhood, time in the military, and being a mom. As you get to know Soojung, little by little, you also get to know her omma. Like many Korean adoptees who were adopted to rural white communities in the U.S., navigating life as a perpetual outsider, even within a family’s enveloping love, was difficult. A few sections stand out in particular. Soojung describes her adoptive mother, in particular, with such tenderness that as a reader, I could feel that maternal love emanate from the page. As a mother, I also appreciated the way Soojung describes her pregnancy and new parenting as an adoptee.

Although I have not reunited with my Korean family, I have had many friends who have, so Soonjung’s descriptions of her reunion – while unique to her family – were strikingly similar to other narratives of reunions heard firsthand or read from intercountry adoptees. That Soojung’s descriptions in this book of feeling like an outsider, of compartmentalizing her emotions, of being overwhelmed with a birth family’s desire to make up for lost time, and dealing with hurt adoptive parents are similar to many Korean adoptees’ narratives speaks to how adoption practices have largely discounted and minimized the emotional tolls that relinquishment and adoption place on everyone involved.

In the prologue, Soojung writes, “Omma has had many years to live with her ghosts…she has tasted every flavor of loss, but she never swallowed bitterness. The only reason I know about her story – our story – is because she never sowed those seeds of hate and despair.” Soojung Jo’s omma has indeed had many years of living with her ghosts, as I imagine many birth mothers, birth fathers, and extended birth relatives do; and we cannot forget that adoptees also live with these ghosts whether or not we know them. From outward appearances, Soojung is a “successful” adoptee judged by her strong leadership and business skills, distinguished military service, loving parenting and even adopting herself – yet even all these accomplishments cannot erase the losses that are inherent in adoption. An important lesson is gained through reading this memoir: that grief and loss must be acknowledged, and secrets brought to light.

Ghost of Sangju is a valuable contribution to the adoptee-memoir canon, and I recommend that adoption professionals and prospective adoptive parents in particular read this book. It might be difficult to read and tempting to discount Soojung and her omma’s story as only one story; it is one story, but it resonates because it is, in fact, many of our stories. It is time that these narratives are honored and validated, so that birth families and adoptees do not have to exist, as Soojung writes, as “a spirit suspended between two worlds and two families, to be forever in between.”

Ghost of Sangju: A Memoir of Reconciliation will be available soon through Gazillion Strong. For more information, click here.


First thoughts about St. John’s Conference

The St. John’s/Montclair University Adoption Initiative conference holds a special place in my heart because it was the site of my very first academic conference back in 2006. This year I was honored to win the Outstanding Pre-Dissertation Scholarship Award for my dissertation study. Below, I am with fellow winners, Outstanding Practitioner Award Susan Harris O’Connor, Outstanding Scholar awardee David Smolin, and Dr. John Raible representing Gazillion Voices for the Outstanding Practitioner Award, and conference co-chairs Dr. Amanda Baden and Dr. Rafael Javier.

The Adoption Inititative conference has always been good to me. Fresh from my MSW, I presented a paper comparing whether or not the “best interests of the child” included a child’s culture in ICWA and MEPA/IEPA. I also participated in a book signing with Dr. John Raible and Dr. Kim Park Nelson (pictured below) for Outsiders Within.


This conference has been significant to my professional development in another way: seeing so many adoptee scholars presenting and keynoting! At that time, I did not know that I would end up enrolling in a doctoral program and that one day I would be invited to be a keynote speaker myself. It is through this conference setting over the years that I have learned from and been inspired and encouraged by other adoptee scholars and have found my peers, particularly among adoptees of color. It is incredible to connect with so many and they have been incredibly kind and helped me in ways I can’t even express.

I attend a lot of conferences in my field and in those, I am the lone (or one of a very few) adoptee-scholar doing research on adoption. In social work the field is dominated by adoption scholars who are adopted parents. In fact, Dr. Amanda Baden just a few days ago at the conference mentioned a well-known adoption researcher whose research I am critical of, and it turns out that this researcher is an adoptive parent. But as Jenna Cook articulated in her presentation that she was accused of doing “me-search,” I have to ask why aren’t adoptive parents accused of doing “me-search” in the same way adoptees are? Why are adoptive parent researchers and practitioners given extra credibility for their personal experiences shaping their professional work when adoptee researchers and practitioners are accused of trying to work out their “personal agenda?” Jenna and I agreed that when a cancer researcher goes into the field because they lost a loved one to cancer, no one gives them the side-eye to accuse them of having a personal bias.

In the past there were an awful lot of adoptive parent researchers doing studies on adoptees – particularly transracial and transnational/intercountry adoptees. Are we doing well? Are we adjusted? How many items about us are marked on the Child Behavior Check List? These studies, to me anyway, overwhelmingly feel like they are less about adoptees and more about trying to answer questions and assuage the fears of adoptive parents. Much of the adoptee scholars have also conducted research on adoptees – not as “me-search” but I believe as a means of providing alternative views on the experience from the actual subject’s point of view. Adoptive parent scholars and scholars without any connection to adoption sometimes just miss asking certain questions that adoptee scholars ask.

I’ve noticed (because of Jenna, Dr. Elizabeth Raleigh, Dr. Baden, Dr. Indigo Willing, Dr. Raible and others) that things are changing in terms of who and what aspect of the adoption experience adoptees are studying.It shouldn’t be a surprise then that some of us are actually, as Dr. Indigo Willing describes it, “reversing the gaze” and focusing our attention and our questions to adoptive parents or others participating in the adoption experience (such as agencies and non-adopted siblings). This comes again from different questions that adoptees, based on our lived experiences, ask that perhaps others just would not have thought of because their lived experiences are different. I hope that those of us “reversing the gaze” are able to contribute to the body of knowledge about adoption. I met a couple of Chinese adoptee scholars in their early academic careers who are doing amazing and groundbreaking work and am so excited to watch for them and their work over the years.

In some ways I think my overall thoughts about the conference mirror some of my feelings after watching the panel following the screening of the film, Somewhere Between, which kicked off the conference. I’ve seen the film several times and have attended talkbacks with the film’s director Linda Goldstein Knowlton or film participants Fang Lee and Jenna Cook several times now. This panel was different because not only were Linda, Fang and Jenna on the panel but they were joined by participant Haley and moderated by Angela Gee (participant Ann is in China and was unable to attend).

Like all documentaries, films freeze their subjects in a certain place and time. And, like much of the early research on adoptees, this film centers their questions on adoptees who are still children – teenagers in this case, but in any case, not adults that have had the ability to have some time, distance, and space to begin to independently think about what adoption meant to them without the interference (and support) of their adoptive parents. And so this is what I think is the biggest problem with the film – that it purports to be an honest portrayal of these articulate, thoughtful and likable Chinese adoptees’ thoughts and feelings and experiences – yet directed by an adoptive parent and moderated completely by the reality that these adolescent adoptees will eventually be watching the film with their adoptive parents by their side (as one of them said).

Fang, Jenna and Haley, in their panel afterward, clearly had their own thoughts and feelings about adoption, largely changed over the past 5+ years – something that I think is fair to say from my view in the audience seemed to be something of a surprise to director Knowlton. Knowlton, like the adoptive parent researchers conducting studies on adoptees, was attempting to answer her own questions related to her experience as an adoptive parent and maybe didn’t realize that of course they were going to grow and change in their view and look back on this experience – and on adoption – differently than Knowlton.

Knowlton says in the beginning of her film that this film was for her Chinese adopted daughter and that she was seeking to understand the experience from the girls that had come before – and if that is so, then there was a certain “type” of girl that Knowlton was hoping to be role model for her daughter and these four succeeded in modeling the smart, emotionally stable, thoughtful and likable Chinese adoptee – not the “angry adoptees” or critical adoptees that most adoptive parents want to run away from and avoid like the plague. The thing is, the critiques these smart, emotionally stable, thoughtful and likable young women now have about adoption sound similar to the “angry” and critical adoptees views that were avoided in the film or presented as being only from older Korean adoptees.

Of course, it is impossible to say whether these young women would have come to their current positions and opinions about adoption on their own without having been part of this film or not – it definitely introduced them to a wider adoption community and through that, perhaps more knowledge of the spectrum of adoption politics in a way that many of us without the benefit of being thrown into that community don’t find until much later in life. On the other hand, Haley’s story really resonated with me – not the search and reunion aspect, but being raised in a conservative, evangelical family and having very uncritical views on adoption that changed dramatically once I went off to college. For a long time, I moderated my answers about adoption to protect my adoptive parents, not to be honest about my thoughts and feelings – something Haley discussed as having done in the film. And even without an adoption community I went to college and ended up having completely different views than my adoptive parents.

So how did this panel relate to my overall thoughts about the St. John’s conference? Both the film and traditional adoption research has emanated from a paradigm that was all generated from adoptive parent perspectives that tend to conceptualize adoption as only impacting the adopted person through childhood and adolescence and largely ignored the lifelong effects that adoption has on a person. St. John’s has, like the panel of the young women from Somewhere Between, opened up a space for adoptees to take ownership of their own experiences without the adoptive parent moderating it on behalf of us. Adoptive parents are now having to defend their positionality in ways that were previously unquestioned. And I’m thankful that the Adoption Intiative conference has never shied away from centering on the adopted person, wherever they are in their journey.

Catching up

In my mostly absent blogging here at Harlow's Monkey I've neglected to point you to some of the work I've been a part of in other spheres, namely my contributions to the online adoptee-led publication, Gazillion Voices.



I initially signed on as a regular contributor under the "Research, Policy and Advocacy" column and I have written two articles. I've decided to step down as I am deep in dissertation-land, but wanted to at least point these out if folks are interested.

I encourage you to subscribe to Gazillion Voices, the first adoption magazine founded by adult adoptees, with an almost entirely adoptee-authored staff. One of the exciting aspects of this online magazine is that some adoption agencies are now purchasing subscriptions for propspective adoptive parents. I never thought I would see that day.

My articles include: 

I also wanted to particularly point out an article written by friend and fellow scholar Kit Myers, Alternative Voice, Truths and Knowledge of Critical Adoptees, in which I discuss the importance of giving space for including the adoptee perspective. Specifically, I share with Kit an incident that really was one of the driving forces in my own decision to pursue a career in adoption and social work. 

I will also have my first article sharing some early findings from my research study on the placement stability of internationally adopted children with disabilities for the June issue of the Roundtable, published through the National Resource Center for Adoption

In addition, I've been presenting at conferences. For a list of events, please see my presentation page at my other blog. 

An adoptee model for activism

I recently had a conversation with another transracial adoptee who mentioned that many years ago she had tentatively attended some Korean adoptee social events but quickly felt she didn’t fit it. Part of it was a political view on their adoption –  the division between those who felt they had good adoptive experiences and those who did not. The retreat lasted almost twenty years and now, this TRA is venturing out into the adult-adoptee world again.

I didn’t mention which “side” (i.e. the “good” or “bad” binary) this particular adoptee was on because it doesn’t matter – I’ve seen this dynamic happen in both directions. Those who consider their adoptions to have been really fulfilling often are very resentful of adoptees who critique adoption. And those that critique adoption are quick to dismiss other adoptees as “drinking the Kool-Aid” or being in denial.

Adoptees are like anyone else, human first. We are cliquish, and judgmental and so what? It’s frustrating that this is used against us by others to diminish and dismiss the crux of what our common message is – that it is OUR message, however messy and complex and contradictory it seems.

Adoptee engagement happens across many levels – some people feel the political pull more strongly than others. Some want to effect change from the inside out. Others feel the only way for change to happen is to agitate loudly and boldly. Some don’t want to be political at all and want to ignore the difference and some choose to assimilate to the larger dominant society’s view of adoption.

My personal view is that it takes both – change from within and pressure from without – to make the most impactful changes on structural inequalities that lead to current adoption pratices.

I like visuals and thought I’d share a model I put together to help me think about this idea of adult adoptee activism. I created a version of this model when I was a fellow in the LEND program a few years ago (and have recently adapted it thanks to feedback from some folks). At the time I created this, I was thinking about the activism that adult adoptees were doing in ways both large and small, inside and outside of the institutional structures. I was greatly informed in my thinking by Robert O’Connor, a mentor and friend, who really shared the idea of what he called the “capitulate or militate” spectrum. I realized that what I was seeing in the adult adoptee community was really similar to what I’d seen in other civil rights arenas – for example the civil rights movements for African Americans, the Disability Rights movement, feminism, LGBT rights.

Civil rights model 2

In the middle of this model are people and communities that experience oppression. At the top you can see where the oppression comes from – society (in all its ways, individual and collective) and institutionally (such as government, schools, courts, churches). To the bottom are three of the ways persons and communities deal with oppression – some choose to adapt and assimilate (join in with the oppressor), others choose to hide or ignore the oppression –  the “head in the sand” approach.

And some choose activism- those who reject the other options of either assimilating or hiding and instead organize for social change. By organizing with the goal of asserting the wholeness of individual and collective identities and inclusion and ownership of our own narratives, and equal rights, people and communities strategize along the continuum of working outside the institutions or within. Let me be clear that these are not the only ways to be an activist. Being an activist may mean supporting adoptee projects and programs, artists, attending adoptee social events, etc. [Edited to add: And research!! How could I have forgotten to add conducting and supporting research!?!] Activism can mean many things.

I hope that this model has been helpful. Clearly, it’s a much simplified version of how I see activism but as all models are, it just provides one way of conceptualizing and thinking about a set of complex ideas. I think that those of us working to enact change in the adoption realm can see that we have a lot of good models to draw from and for me personally, it was really helpful to see our struggle for equality is tied in so much to others’ freedoms as well.

Shifting and changing structures

It was shortly after the IKAA Gathering in 2010 that I "retired" this blog, and here it is, three years later and another IKAA conference has just wrapped up. On facebook, I "like" all my friends' photos and statuses posted of their trip. I haven't been to Korea since 2007. I can't believe it's been six years. At the time of the 2010 Gathering I wrote a sad and sobering post about the mixed feelings the Gatherings evoke for me. 

As wonderful as they are, there is always a part of me that is irritated that there is the necessity for these spaces. Our lives are lived so much on the binaries of the world that these spaces for adult adoptees only often serve as the only "safe" spaces. 

Yet in reality they're not safe. Because the feelings and emotions that crop up easily put us in turmoil. The Gatherings and in other adult-adoptee only spaces are the only times in my life where I feel both simultaneous joy and sorrow. Joy to be with others that have shared my experiences; sorrow that we've felt so much marginalization in our lives that the spaces are even necessary.

 I feel as if we are on the edge of a huge shift. I see it in my job – working with adoption professionals. I see it in the community work I'm part of – the launch of Gazillion Voices magazine, the formation of groups such as the Adoptee Policy and Reform Collaborative (APRC), the Society for Adoptee Professionals in Adoption (SAPA), the shift over the past 5-7 years from adoption conferences led by non-adoptee scholars and professionals to ones where adoptee scholars and professionals have leadership roles on committees and boards. Adoptees are now on boards of adoption agencies and hold high-level positions and are doing incredible art. It almost makes me giddy thinking about it all.

I've also noticed that with this growth comes some tensions and, let's be honest, some pushback from those who have traditionally held the power in the adoption realm, namely adoptive parents and adoption agency professionals. This is a natural and expected tension, and one that can be fraught with a lot of anger and accusations and finger pointing. But in the end it is all productive, even when really, really difficult. We must learn that power must be shared. 

I recently wrote in the forward to Amanda H.L. Transue-Woolston's (from the Declassified Adoptee blog) upcoming book that we've pretended for a long time that there was this adoption "triad" – and that in most conceptualizations of this, the image was that of an equilateral triangle.



But we know that this is false; the triangle has always in truth been more of a scalene triangle, one in which there are no equal sides. And honestly, the adopted individual and the birth family – have never been the longest side. 

So now that birth families and adoptees are demanding – not asking permission – for more say and decision making power, will that "triangle" begin to look more equal? My guess is that no, it won't. Because many of us (including adoptive parent allies) are actually working to dismantle the triangle all together. Because this (adoption) isn't a closed system, a closed family system that chooses who is in/out, represented/excluded – the thought of an adoption constellation (see for example Michael Grand's book or Adoption Mosaic) makes much more sense…the exponential possiblities for the many ways families can look and be.  

Twins separated by adoption

What happens when intercountry adoptees find out they have birth family they never knew existed? Lately it seems there have been several adoptees publicizing their discovery. And many are twins who were separated. WTF is up with that? 

I wanted to highlight some of these projects so here you go. Please support. 


"aka Dan" is a documentary project chronicling Dan Matthews' journey to Korea in summer 2013, centering around his struggles with identity and family during the IKAA (International Korean Adoptee Association) 2013 summit, his first live concert performance in Korea, and his reunion with his Korean birth family. Accompanying the documentary project will be a full-length music album inspired by his experiences.

And here is one by actress Samantha Futerman who discovered her twin sister, Anais, adopted to France. Their project is called Twinsters.



On February 21, 2013, Samantha, an American actor living in Los Angeles, received a message via Facebook that would drastically change her life. It was from Anaïs, a French fashion design student living in London. Anaïs' friends viewed a KevJumba YouTube video featuring Samantha. They were immediately blown away by the identical appearance of Samantha & Anaïs. After a few light Google stalking sessions, Anaïs & her friends discovered that both girls were born on November 19, 1987 & adopted shortly after. Anaïs knew immediately that it was possible for Samantha to be her biological twin sister & reached out to her through Twitter & Facebook.

And last, Deann Borshay Liem's film, Geographies of Kinship, feature a Korean adoptee Michael Holloway who reunites with his twin brother who was kept by his birth family (starts at about the 2 minute mark and again at 4:32).


More stories about twins separated through adoption

From The Week: 9 Incredible Stories About Identical Twins - see #3, #5 and #9

From MSN: Twin brothers reunited in China

From The Nation: Twins separated at birth reunited after 25 years

From Huffington Post: Bao Lulin and Yang Yanfei, identical twins separated at birth, find each other 24 years later