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.

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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.

 

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

(R)Evolutions

Reflections on the KAAN 2013 conference and launch of Gazillion Voices Magazine

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Last weekend I attended the KAAN 2013 Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was a somewhat spontaneous decision, meaning that I did not submit a proposal months ago when the call came out, and that spending the money to attend in a year when I have many other conferences to attend seemed out of the question. Another reason why I had no intention of attending is that many years ago I did attend some KAAN Conferences and I left both (2002 and 2004) with the impression that it definitely did not meet my own personal needs as an adult Korean adoptee.

But several things have happened over the almost decade span of time since I last attended KAAN. One important change involved the addition of some Korean adoptees I really respect and care about in leadership positions within the organization. Another was the general progressive shift in the purpose and “feel” of the conference mission. What seemed to me an over-reliance on the “feel-good/let’s not talk about anything difficult” goal of connecting Korean adoptive parents with other Korean adoptive parents, and Korean adopted children with other Korean adopted children and a “celebrate Korean heritage!” mentality in the organization has changed over time to an acknowledgement of race and white privilege in transracial adoption, and the importance of the full, lived experience of adopted individuals. Whereas before it seemed the goal was to show non-adopted Korean role models, a recognition of adopted Korean adult role models seemed to be evident. Also an earlier sense of only showing “positive” adult adoptee perspectives (i.e. those who were uncritical of Korean adoption) has been replaced by an acknowlegement that adoption is not always sunshine and rainbows, and that positioning adoptees as pro or anti adoption is unproductive and polarizing. I was told by several people that the current leadership was amazing to work with and really believed in the importance of adult adoptee leadership (and they were right!).

And then the most compelling reason of all – the chance to see some dear transracial adoptee friends who live scattered around the U.S. See, for many of us, it is these interactions with those whom we’ve cultivated deep friendships over time at adoption-related conferences that help us endure the long droughts of transracial adoption isolation and segregation we experience in our daily lives. In particular, it was the opportunity to attend panels led by adoptees and to have discussions at dinner or over drinks and stay up until the wee hours of the night critically deconstructing, sharing experiences, strategizing ways of coping and supporting and validating each other that compelled me to cold-call the organizers at KAAN and ask if I could still get involved.

This year KAAN did something I wouldn’t have seen a decade ago – they invited transracial adoptee speakers who are not Korean adoptees. And they (parents, adoptees) talked about commonalities among transracial and international adoptees, and about racism and white privilege. This is a welcomed change for me. In my own personal and professional work I have been spending less time with Korean adoptees and more time developing relationships among other adoptees. This is a reflection of my own growth, because I see my own adoption story and narrative as interconnected to other adoptees.

One of the greatest benefits of being privileged to attend graduate school has been the opportunity to really deepen my understanding and knowledge of the historical roots of child placement and adoption and look at the arc over time for how children have been conceptualized and how adoptions have changed and morphed in terms of practice and law (but ultimately with the same underlying theoretical basis, at least in the U.S.). When I learned about the orphan trains, about the Native American boarding schools, the Indian Adoption Project, when I read Regina Kunzel and Dorothy Roberts and Rickie Solinger – I realized how interconnected Korean adoption is with Native American Indian adoption and transracial adoption of African American children, and the immigrant Catholic children who were adopted to Scandinavian protestant farm families in the midwest through the orphan train movement, and the children adopted from Ethiopia and Haiti. Displacement, isolation, racism, cultural erasure, unaddressed grief and loss, these are all commonalities we adoptees have. We transracial adoptees also have many commonalities among “baby scoop” era white domestic adoptees from the maternity home generation.

In his keynote at KAAN, Dr. John Raible emphasized this point, our commonalities across race and situation, with a lot of passion and intensity. I’m sure there were some, adoptees and adoptive parents alike, who were taken aback at his bold challenges but I was heartened that John challenged the old paradigms about transracial adoption. John is not just about helping how we conceptualize transracial adoption evolve over time, his ideas are revolutionary.

Sometimes it seems that when it comes to adoption and child welfare, the pendulum swings back and forth from an emphasis on removal and placement to family presevation. At least in the U.S. that is what many child welfare professionals have said. But as I was recently reminded, it is perhaps not so much of a pendulum swing but a spiral – what seems to be a circular movement away from, then back to, a certain paradigm. But even when it seems like things are coming back to where we started, maybe in truth it has changed in fundamental ways so that even what looks like a circle from looking at it top-down is actually many degrees separated when looked at from the side view.

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Cover of August 2013 issue of Gazillion Voices

Yesterday, a project I am involved with, Gazillion Voices, launched its monthly online magazine. This is also revolutionary in that Gazillion Voices is the first ever adoptee-led publication. Unlike every other publications on adoption, this one does not relegate adoptees to the sidelines, in an “Ask the Adoptee” advice column or limited to one or two stories by an adoptee author. Gazillion Voices is challenging, provocative, and most importantly – led by adult adoptees and includes majority adult adoptee voices.

Kevin Vollmers, one of the editors of Gazillion Voices magazine, and I were debriefing the KAAN conference as we waited for our flight to take off back to Minnesota. We both agreed that it feels we are on the precipice of some incredibly big paradigm shift when it comes to adoption. I’ve been feeling it for about a year now, ever since the CCAI and the State Department (including Ambassador Jacobs) met with a grassroots group of us adult adoptees to hear our collective concerns  for the first time last July.

I am so proud to be part of a community of revolutionary adoptees. With social media platforms, it appears like this adoption revolution is new and those of us with blogs and websites can appear to be doing new and groundbreaking work. But we recognize we are not the first. We are incredibly grateful and humbled by the incredible work of so many adoptees who have been doing this work for decades, without much acknowlegement and very little fanfare. In fact, many adoptees have taken the hits for years on our behalf. Adoptees have been working in policy, advocacy, community organizing, research, academia, and very importantly through art for decades. We in this current generation of adoptee rebels are not taking their hard work for granted; no, we are trying to continue the work and will pay it forward – so that the next generation of transracial adoptee leaders can take it to the finish line.

 

 

Seeking participants for my doctoral dissertation study

holding-hands

Are you an adoptive parent of an internationally adopted child with a disability?

Since the finalization of your child’s adoption, has the child been placed out of the home – either temporarily or permanently –  in a group home, residential treatment center, foster care or another adoptive family?

If so, I am interested in speaking with you. I am looking to interview adoptive parents of internationally adopted children with disabilities for my doctoral dissertation research.

Who: Minnesota adoptive parents whose internationally adopted child:

  • Is currently between 6 and 21 years of age
  • Has a disability diagnosed at least 6-months ago (or more) by a medical professional, mental health professional, or school professional for an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) including (but not limited to):
    • Intellectual/Developmental disability including Austism Spectrum Disorders
    • FASD
    • Mental health disability
    • Learning disability
    • Physical or medical disability including sensory (vision/hearing) impairment
  • Is currently, or has in the past, been placed in any of the following for any length of time other than for respite care of a 72-hour hold:
    • Shelter
    • Foster care
    • Residential treatment center
    • Group home
    • Hospital treatment center
    • With another caregiver (in legal or informal transfer of custody)
    • With another adoptive family after a dissolution of the adoption

What is involved: I am asking adoptive parents for about 60 to 90 minutes of their time to interview them about their experiences. Participation is voluntary and your information will be protected and confidential. Your participation in this study will never be disclosed.

Why: Adopting a child with disabilities can be both challenging and rewarding. Parents who have adopted children from outside the United States with mental health and intellectual/developmental disabilities sometimes struggle to find appropriate pre- adoption education and/or post-adoption support to help them manage the challenges of parenting a child with a disability. The purpose of this study is to inform adoption practices and improve adoption supports for families that adopted children with disabilities.

How: To participate in this study, or to find out more information about this study, please contact JaeRan Kim at jaerankim@gmail.com  (personal research email), blev0001@umn.edu (university email) or 612-626-3831.

You can also download my recruitment flyer

This study has been approved by the University of Minnesota Institutional Review Board #1301P26761

Where Russia goes, will others follow?

 

Artyom_savelyev--300x300

From the New York Post

International adoption has been in the news a lot lately. In the days prior to the Christmas holidays, newsfeeds were abuzz with the reports that Russia was going to enact legislation effectively closing down adoptions to the U.S. as a retaliation for the U.S.'s recent legislation approving sanctions to Russia for human rights violation.

This past week, China also made news, but interestingly this story about baby buying and corruption for international adoption was posted in the international version of the NYT and not the U.S. version. 

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From the New York Times

People are naturally outraged, and the usual pundits have weighed in. Many are saying Russia is putting politics over children, saying children are being punished by not being able to be adopted.

Except that let's remember Russia isn't banning international adoption outright, it's banning adoption to the United States

Just under 1000 children were adopted by American families last year, a little less than a third or so of the total number (3,400) of Russian children placed for international adoption from the country. 

Whether the bill was passed as a retaliatory political statement or not, it is striking to me that they chose to enact such politics through what they thought was something that would get people's attention: international adoption. I also believe that had the U.S. not had so many problems already regarding adoptions from Russia, this may not have been the road Russia would have taken.

When you consider the return of Artyom by the Tennessee adoptive parent Torry Hansen, or the abuse of Masha Allen by her adoptive father, or the Ranch for Kids, the residential placement that specializes in treating Russian adoptees, or the deaths of Russian adoptees due to the abuse or neglect of their U.S. adoptive parents, is it really any wonder that Russia would make this move?

A total of 19 Russian adopted children (3% of the estimated 60,000 children adopted from Russia) have reportedly died (see this account or this one). And for those of you who say only 3%, the percentage of children in the general population who died in the U.S. due to abuse and neglect is around 0.2% (2010 figures). I find this particularly egregious since supposedly adoption is to be the safety intervention for a child who has already experienced abuse, neglect and abandonment.  [ETA 9:49 pm: Thanks to readers who pointed out the percentages should be 0.03% (not 3%) and 0.002% (not 0.2%) above.]

Clearly the move is political, however I think that this was a natural and expected reaction from Russia. Without all the problems involving Russian adoptees over the past two decades, and without the U.S. being more concerned about the entitlement of American parents to adopt children at their demand than other children's human rights (for example, the U.S. still has not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child) then I don't think Russia would have taken this move. Clearly the problems involving Russian adopted children over the past two decades alone was not incentive enough to create this ban and recently the U.S. and Russia had worked on a bilateral agreement concerning protections of children adopted to the U.S.

So Russia made a political move. As if the U.S. doesn't do that as well, all the time. And perhaps maybe 1000 children in Russia won't get adopted by American families. That doesn't mean they won't get adopted. They could still go to other countries, or be adopted domestically in Russia since the country has also been working hard on improving their domestic adoption practices. Several years ago I spoke with a delegation of Russian child welfare professionals, judges, and orphanage directors. They spoke about their biggest challenge in domestic adoption – getting people to consider adopting sibling groups, older children and those with disabilities…..hm. Sounds familiar, like all those American families who won't adopt our children in foster care with siblings, who are older, and who have disabilities.

I predict that Russia won't be the only country that will ban or impose even more strict criteria for adoption in the near future. And the U.S., being resourceful, is already working on other countries to open adoption programs. When it comes to international adoption I see it as a re-work of this old metaphor – when one door closes, we break open windows. 

Where is the outrage and concern for children's safety and well-being in other parts of the world? Or do we only care for them if they're considered "adoptable" and available to Americans?

 

More:

NYT: Putin signs bill that bars international adoption, upending families

CNN: Families in 'limbo" after Russian adoption ban

Guardian: Russia's ban on adoption isn't about children's rights

Repost: Inside the mind and heart of an internationally adopted child

This is another re-post from my other blog that was written while on hiatus from this blog. People sometimes have asked me about adoption-themed books for children and young readers. Honestly I think most are terrible. I agree with my friend and scholar of children's literature, Sarah Park Dahlen, that most of these children's books on adoption were written more to satisfy and soothe adoptive parents than adoptees themselves. That said, this was my review of the book, Betti on the Highwire, which is one of the few I can recommend. For more of my book suggestions, please see my recommended reading page here

 Originally posted May 11, 2011.

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This afternoon, a children's novel I ordered online arrived in my mailbox and a few short hours later I had devoured the book. Betti on the High Wire is the story of a young girl, Babo, living in an unnamed country devastated by war. Babo finds herself unexpectedly adopted by Americans (or "melons" as Babo refers to them because of their round, pink faces) and soon she is living in an unnamed town in the U.S. with a new name, new sister, new parents – and she vows to never "adapt" or forget where she came from.

Author Lisa Railsback was inspired to write the story from her work volunteering in a refugee camp. As a Korean adoptee, I am often skeptical about how international adoption is portrayed in novels, particularly the feelings and thoughts of the internationally adopted child themselves. Often I find children's books about international adoption to be largely about making adoptive parents feel better as much as they may be outwardly intended to reassure the internationally adopted child. Babo/Betti is a complex child and I found Railsback's conception of what Babo/Betti thinks and feels about her experience being adopted by Americans, and having to leave everything she has known and loved in her country – especially her chosen family there – to be the most realistic and complex portrayal that I have read.

Adoption books for children being what they are – that is typically all nicely resolved in the end, this book doesn't exactly challenge the dominant narrative about adoption. The unnamed country is, after all, portrayed in pretty stark terms, providing exactly the American-style justification for taking Babo away. Babo and the other children of course must be dirty, mostly illiterate, scavenging for food, etc., yet remain likable (i.e. not prone towards Reactive Attachment Disorder). And while Railsback does critique the consumerist, materialist and consumptive patterns of Americans to some extent, as well as portray how mean white American children can be towards children who are different, it is unlikely that a real internationally adopted child of this age would adapt as quickly as Betti does in the book. While the choice to make Babo able to speak some English helps the reader, it is pretty unrealistic in my opinion and serves more as a device to move the character through the story plot more quickly than it is realistic for most older, internationally adopted children (such as the little girl adopted in the movie Wo Ai  Ni Mommy, who would have been close to Babo's age in the story).

Even so, I recommend this book for its most nuanced portrayal of an internationally adopted child's inner thoughts and feelings that I've read so far. If I were an adoption agency, I would require all prospective adoptive parents to read this book before any child adopted internationally was placed in their home.

More than the sum of our losses

"I suppressed any notion
of being Asian and just thought of myself as white." Suki Leith was
adopted by an American family in the 1960s, she tells the BBC why the
Korean government needs to change the laws regarding international
adoption.

Even though I study adoption and write about adoption and read countless media and academic articles about adoption; even though I read books and memoirs and watch films by adoptees and adoptive parents; even though my personal social circle is heavily populated with adoptees – domestic, transracial, international, same race – believe it or not, most of the time I do not sit around thinking about adoption losses.

Most days I get up and go to work, take care of the household chores, talk with my kids, take them to their activities, make dinner, take the dog for a walk, do the dishes and laundry, study and read and study and read, hang out with friends, and participate in numerous volunteer or community events. Most days I don't think about what I've lost by being a transnational, transracial adoptee.

But today, I am thinking about those losses. Several hundred adoptees like myself are in Seoul right now, attending the IKAA Gathering, and I am at home. There is both a sadness and a sense of relief of having to be stuck at home studying this August instead of being with many friends and fellow Korean adoptees at the conference.

I've been to the past two IKAA Gatherings and there is no way to adequately express what it feels like to be surrounded by 600+ others who have experienced the same life experience of being adopted out of our country of birth. 600 of us is a small number compared to the 200,000+ in South Korea's 50+ year history of adoption, and I am sure if it did not cost so much to travel to Korea, many more would be there. 

It is hard to convey what it feels like to know you don't have to explain why you are who you are – why you look Korean but don't speak the language, why you always have to explain how you fit in your family, and why you sit on the fence between a cultural identity you don't physical match and a racial identity you don't culturally match. Who else knows the frustration of being told constantly through our lives that we should be grateful for not growing up in this country where we are now spending lots of our hard-earned money so we can get a tourist's version, a "Korea 101-lite" and trinkets at the market to put up on our walls than someone else – in fact several hundred others – who have been there and done that.

And yet, being in Korea at the IKAA Gatherings sometimes makes me very angry. I get angry that the country that didn't want me and wouldn't provide for me now wants me to come back and put on a happy, smiley face. I get so damn frustrated when I meet adoptees from all ages and backgrounds who share how unprepared their adoptive parents were in dealing with racism, racial identity struggles and understanding adoption losses. 

There were times, when I was at past Gatherings, that being with 600+ other adoptees who all experienced this huge loss made me overwhelmingly sad. Looking around and seeing so many others who had lost their Korean families and had been adopted to mostly white European, American or Australian families – how could I not feel sadness, when basically, we were a room full of survivors – a room full of people abandoned, abused, neglected, rejected – who somehow found the means to find each other. It's basically one huge support group.

Most days, I don't think about these things. I don't want to think about these things. I don't want to feel the pain and sadness associated with being adopted. But then I listen to a documentary like this BBC report. I read and view an art installation, A Collection of One, that showcases the impact of all of us who have been adopted from South Korea. 

Or, I read something poignant by a fellow adoptee. Yesterday, another fellow adoptee posed on her facebook page the question,

A diagnosis is not a destiny. Or does it have to be? Once
called "at-risk & special needs" and more, I can testify that one
can out-do and out-live a diagnosis. At least to live a productive,
happy, and fulfilling life. But how often do people live up to the
expectations of a diagnosis, just because that's expected?

My response was this: "I think it's easier for some to live a self-fulfilling prophecy than to
spend our lives convincing both ourselves and others that we are more
than the sum of our childhood losses."

I rarely write about my personal feelings about my adoption experience, especially in the past several years. I also turn down any request for interviews with the media, like this BBC documentary, when I believe they want me to walk down that path of "do you get along with your adoptive parents?" or "how was your adoption experience?" I turn down such requests for a few reasons: first of all, my adoptive experience is much more complex and layered and nuanced than a sentence or two that is published in an interview can adequately express and it always ends up being framed as "good" or "bad." I hate that dichotomy, and I hate it when something that might be negative gets turned into a statement about my adoptive parents that portrays them as bad parents. So while I want to write about some of the not-so-great things about being a Korean adoptee, I don't want to be pathologized nor do I want people to judge and pathologize my adoptive parents.

Secondly, I tend to really want to focus on the larger structural issues that are at play in the adoption-industry machine and to always frame adoption as one family's story negates those larger structural problems and societal attitudes. As often as possible, I want to focus attention on the ocean, not on the individual starfish

But I'm going to be honest today, and admit that today, I'm feeling sad. I'm feeling loss and grief. Several years ago, my grandmother passed away. I was very close to my grandmother; she was the one person in my family that constantly made me feel that she was the lucky one to have me in her life. Last weekend I saw my grandfather and his new wife. While I think highly of my grandfather's wife and am very happy she is in our lives, every time I see her I can't help but feel sadness over the loss of my grandmother. It doesn't mean I don't love this person, it just means she is not my grandmother and I have the right to love the one without feeling guilty for having loved the other. And no one in the family has the expectation that we'll all forget about my grandmother because my grandfather remarried. It would be ridiculous.

I may have gained many things by being adopted to the U.S., but I've also suffered many losses. And while I believe I am much more than the sum of my childhood losses, there are days when sadness bubbles up and overwhelms me. Because it's hard. For many of us adoptees, it would be easier to just shove all those feelings of loss and grief way down deep, compartmentalize them, and throw away the key. For others, it is easier to let ourselves stay overwhelmed with grief. I totally understand why many adoptees don't make it. As difficult as it may be to believe, every time I hear about an adoptee who has killed themselves, I understand. For many adoptees it IS easier to live up to the expectation that we are no more than the sum of our losses and our "at-risk" and "special-needs" diagnoses. I've had to work hard to convince myself that I am more than the sum of my childhood losses – and having to constantly prove to greater society as well takes a heavy toll.

My adoptive parents were great parents and I'm fortunate that we still have a good relationship. However, having a good adoptive home did not erase the losses I've suffered. There is nothing that my American, middle-class upbringing could have done to erase the loss of my Korean family and culture and language. I am tired of this prevailing assumption that as long as the adoptive parents are "good" ones, the adoptee won't ever feel loss and grief. I'm really exasperated at this notion that a "well-adjusted adoptee" is one who never questions adoption loss, who never feels sadness or grief, or who never goes through an identity crisis over who s/he is and where s/he belongs. I hate that we are constantly told that we should "get over it."

I'm not going to defend adoption – in any manner, shape, or form – today. I'm not going to add a caveat that "it's better than an orphanage" or "it's better than lingering in foster care." I'm not going to be "balanced" in my analysis. Because this isn't an analysis. This is about feelings. Which I, and every other adoptee, is allowed to have, without justification and without a parenthetical about how of course we love our adoptive parents. I'm not going to accept comments on this post either, because this isn't about anyone else but how I'm feeling right now, right here, and I don't want advice on how to "get over it" or suggestions that I get therapy or any of the things that we adoptees are often told.

Recently I heard one adoption "expert" (not an adoptee, of course) state that despite the losses involved in adoption, as an institutional child welfare practice, "adoption is still the best intervention we have for children who are parentless." Every generation of adoptive parents think they're doing a better job
than the ones before, and some are downright glib and smug about
it. Get over it. As an "intervention" adoption gave me a home and a family but it did not "cure" the losses that caused me to be in need of a home and a family. Adoption is not a cure, it's a treatment that – if the adoptee is lucky and it's done well – potentially helps makes the sorrow manageable.

An art installation in Korea

I am one of 200,000.*

From one of the artists behind this piece:

The art installation we’ve been working on the past month is to illustrate the relationship between the number 1 and 200,000. We lose sense of the impact of our actions when we allow ourselves to look at only the number right in front of us. The reality is that 200,000 is almost unfathomable. This is an attempt at showing what one looks like, 200,000 times. One adoptee at a time, processed in the perpetual motion machine that is international adoption.

This was installed last month, but the video has just been uploaded to YouTube. For more information about the story behind the art, click here.

*I participated in this art installation by sending my photo to be included.

A chorus of starfish

I recently returned from a business trip to find my adoptee
friends and allies engaged in numerous discussions both on- and off-line about
the May 10th New Yorker article, “The Last Babylift: Adopting a Child from Haiti”
by John Seabrook and the subsequent NPR interview with Seabrook and Fresh Air
host Terry Gross
. A fellow friend and scholar, Korean adoptee Kadnexus, offered
a critique of the NPR story. Mr. Seabrook himself found the blog and commented,
setting off a series of comments from adult adoptees, adoptee allies, and
adoptive parents.

Up until yesterday, I had intended to deconstruct Mr.
Seabrook’s comments as exemplary of how adoptive parents dismiss the adult
adoptee voice – and indeed he is dismissive and at times very patronizing and
demeaning. I also was torn between the two – no, three – different “hats” I
wear – the first as an adult adoptee of color who was transracially and
transnationally adopted, second as an adoption scholar and researcher, and
third as a social worker and former adoption worker. Each of these perspectives
from my own life, and I could maybe even add another hat, that of a parent,
informs how I see Mr. Seabrook’s initial New Yorker essay as well as the
comments he offers at the Kadnexus blog.

Each of these perspectives (and indeed, they are so
intertwined it may be impossible to separate any of them) has a definite view
of the article, NPR interview, and the author’s comments on the Kadnexus blog.
In the end, I have decided not to deconstruct Mr. Seabrook’s comments (of which there are several) on Kadnexus’
blog in full. I want to say I am disheartened that Mr. Seabrook does not show
the kind of compassion he claims to have for his adopted daughter to the adult
cohort of adoptees of color that she will someday join (and I don’t mean an
organized “group” – I mean that some day this child will grow up and by the
experience of being adopted transracially and transnationally, will be counted
as one of us, whether she ever personally chooses to engage in a social way or
not). You can all read Mr. Seabrook’s comments for yourself.

I decided instead just to highlight a few things that were
brought up by Mr. Seabrook in his New Yorker article, which for the record let
me state that I found interesting and in many ways both refreshing and
problematic.  I also want to claim
a broader space. So, although Mr. Seabrook’s New Yorker piece is the jumping
off point for my thoughts here, I do not want to paint Mr. Seabrook as some
kind of ogre. He is, in fact, all too typical of many adoptive parents,
especially those early in the journey.

First of all, it is clear that Mr. Seabrook was aware of the
complexities of adopting a child from a foreign country. He spends a lot more
time than many of the other articles I’ve seen in the New York Times
(especially the blogs), Slate, Salon, etc. by adoptive parents. I thought Mr.
Seabrook highlighted a lot of the difficulties of being an adoptive parent in
light of the complications and complexities.

A few things stand out for me, however: first, in terms of
adult adoptees (for which, it turns out, he is not as understanding of the
nuances) he describes Mei-Ling Hopgood’s memoir as “bittersweet” – and I’ve
noticed that Ms Hopgood’s memoir is often held up as the “good” one. Is it
because by the end of the book, Hopgood comes to appreciate her adoptive parents
more after her birth family reunion, and writes about adopting herself someday?
Jane Jeong Trenka, on the other hand, he dismisses as “bitter.” Is this because
her narrative counters his own justification for adopting internationally? When
he writes that he and his wife chose international adoption in part because
birth parents in other countries “don’t change their minds about giving up
their children” that is in direct contradiction to the fact that Trenka’s mother
sits outside the social worker’s office every day for months in order to find
her daughters. Is it because Trenka’s adoptive parents are so unwilling,
(unlike Hopgood’s) to engage in the paradox of transnational adoption that
makes Jane come off as “bitter?” Because that to me would emphasize and kind of
clarify that maybe having a less rigid sense of entitlement as an adoptive
parent actually improves an adoptive parent’s relationship with their child
through adulthood.

Mr. Seabrook also valorizes the Holts and Pearl Buck because
they were willing to look beyond the race matching in adoption that brought
them to the critical attention and animosity of American child welfare
agencies. It isn’t just that the Holts and Buck’s “radical notion – that love
could transcend any cultural barrier – was ridiculed within the adoption
profession.”
What is not explained are the reasons why agencies in the
U.S. found the Holts and Buck problematic. Yes, at the time there was an
emphasis on race matching but let’s not forget that the majority of the adoptive
parents
at the time demanded matching by race, religion and other physical
features. Having just spent several months researching the Child Welfare League of
America archives and the International Social Service archives
, there is more
to the these organizations concerns about Holt and Buck than Seabrook’s
assertion that their opposition was solely based on race matching. The majority
of adoptive parents – even in today’s multicultural society – are not rushing
to adopt children of different racial, ethnic or national origin.

Child welfare agencies such as the CWLA and ISS
were opposed to the growing international adoptions sponsored by Holt and Buck
because of their concern about corruption and coercion of birth families, and
because of the lack of preparation by American adoptive parents. The CWLA in
fact had long been concerned about independent adoptions (and Seabrook fails to
mention that for many years, the Holts operated as independent facilitators
conducting proxy adoptions – that is, no home study of the prospective adoptive
parent, and the child was adopted by the American family sight unseen,
delivered to them without having full information about the child). CWLA and
ISS were opposed to American families adopting children without the auspices of
agency oversight over concern about the child. What CWLA, ISS and other
organizations were espousing were standards based on the best interest of the
child, not on the best interests of the prospective parent. It is because
children who were adopted by white American families were being rejected as
they grew because of the racial, physical, and intellectual differences that
led agencies to recommend “matching.” Other adoptive parent scholars and
academics have written about this in greater detail, especially Ellen Herman in
her book, Kinship by Design.

To me, the most disturbing aspect about this whole “conversation”
over at Kadnexus is Seabrook’s own words in the comments. Time after time he
makes demeaning, sarcastic comments about the adoptees who responded to his
article. Obviously, “we” struck a nerve. We criticized his decision –
HIS DECISION – to adopt a child from Haiti (and furthermore, to write about it
in a way that felt very disrespectful to many). We, those of us who as children who had NO DECISION
about our adoption experiences, can be criticized but somehow he should be
immune from critique? As a journalist, shouldn’t Seabrook know that once he puts something
out there in a published forum that it is open for critique, the same way
people often critique my work and that of adult adoptees? I won’t even get into the whole part of Mr. Seabrook’s
assumption that because of his critique, Kadnexus must “have had an unhappy experience.” I, and many
others, have written about this in the past.

As an adoption scholar, I thought he started to do some
research but let his own subjectivity as an adoptive parent skew what research
he studied. From his comments it looks like he only read research that
validated what he thought, which is really, really easy to do. After all, the
majority of the research on transracial and transnational adoptees look at us
while we’re kids, many of the findings are based on what white adoptive parents
reported about their kid’s views (not the adoptee themselves), and most use
white, middle class measurement standards of “well-being” and racial identity,
not those developed to reflect diversity in race, ethnicity, culture or
especially socioeconomic class. In his article, I believed that he had an understanding of structural problems. But in
his personal comments at Kadnexus, he emphatically only ascribes importance to
the individual. I suppose it’s a version of the starfish story. As a social
worker, I hear this all the time and I don’t like it, because it totally strips
away personal responsibility to do anything on a larger level. We may “make a
difference” in the life of one “starfish” but we do nothing to address what is
happening in the ocean that is causing all the starfish to wash ashore. Mr. Seabrook states in his comments that those of us who critique from a structural level are "Clever people making clever arguments their esteemed colleagues will
esteem without any heart in the arguments at all. Not that this
endeavor isn’t important to one’s career, but from my perspective it’s
very far from the point."
I would disagree with Mr. Seabrook. I think some of us critique because we actually care about MORE people than just the cute child that is adopted. We actually care about the child's country and community and what inequalities in a global world mean to all of us.

As a social worker and former adoption worker, I question
whether he sees his own adoption experience as finding a family for Rose or finding a
“Rose” for his family.  I’m
heartened by his family’s commitment to raise his daughter in a diverse area,
and that his family has ties to her community. That will certainly help. I
worry, however, that his comments show that he views Rose as a “rescue project” and
himself as a savior. From a child development point of view, is Mr. Seabrook
prepared for the potential times in the future when Rose may come to have
questions or feelings about her adoption experience? I would want to suggest
that Mr. Seabrook and his wife read Vera Fahlberg’s excellent book, A Child’s
Journey Through Placement.

As a parent, I can see that Mr. Seabrook’s love for his
child is immense and he ferociously defends his parenting towards a “happy”
(his words, not mine) place. As a fellow parent, I understand wanting our
children to be happy. I want that too. I’ve never met a parent who wants their
child to be miserable. Yet I also know, as a parent, we have blind spots – and
we cannot shelter our children from pain nor force happiness onto them. We can
set the stage for them, and we can do everything possible to create a stable
and nurturing place for them, what I call the “soft place to land” when the
world is not so friendly or loving. But Mr. Seabrook and other adoptive parents
must make sure this includes a soft place to land in terms of adoption and
race. Because as a parent, you can’t guarantee that the world will accept you
and treat you fairly based on who you are and your merits alone – but as a
family, you can and must.

And finally, as an adult adoptee of color, I am so proud of
being part of an amazing and awesome community of adoptees who have so
eloquently articulated and offered to engage in dialogue with Mr. Seabrook and
the general public at large. There are many myths we still need to deconstruct.
We are often demeaned, mocked, and treated like children.  It's frustrating – when we talk about our personal experiences, we get accused of trying to over-generalize the adoptee experience and inappropriately apply our personal stories to other adoptees. When we talk in terms of structural critique we get accused of not seeing the "heart" of the matter.

Mr. Seabrook is not alone in doing
this, and I am giving him the benefit of the doubt that he never thought his
words and ideas would be so challenged by us. If his, and other adoptive
parents, take-away from all this is that adult adoptees of color are “angry” or
“bitter” or whatever, then all we, and our adoptive parent and non-adoptee
allies can do, is continue to make our voices heard, and support each other in
compassionate and caring ways, and know that in addition to making a difference
in the life of a starfish that we didn’t stop there – in the end, we at least
tried to make a difference for all
the starfish – and everyone else who shares the ocean. Remember, those of us adult adoptees raising our voices – we were those starfish. What we're saying now is, don't forget about the rest of them.