I was asked to give a speech at GOAL’s Post Adoption Survey final forum on the topic of adoptee identity from an older adoptee’s perspective. I thought I’d share it here.
I don’t remember where I got all the images. If you’re an image owner and protest its use, I will gladly take the image down.
Here it is, paraphrased (with the odd thing I forgot to add during the speech):
For the first waves of adoptees, we were scattered across America, predominantly to small towns.
These were insular communities, unaccustomed to and fearful of foreigners and devoid of people of color.
Our peers looked much like the students in this class photo. Note not one ethnic face. This was typical outside of cities. It was all WE saw, and they saw us as something totally different.
Back then, there was little or no vetting of adoptive parents. The only requirement was that they had an income, they professed to be Christians, and could get personal references. As a result, many of us were sent to religious extremists. Some were even sent to cults. Jim Jones adopted from Korea. Adoptees sent to cults have told me of parishioners being encouraged to adopt as many Korean orphans as they could. They were exposed to cruel physical and emotional abuse. Other adoptees have told me of being used as farm labor and experiencing physical abuse. Our isolation allowed these things to happen without intervention.
Because we were a minority, oftentimes the ONLY minority, we experienced a lot of cruelty. All adoptees have experienced some racism, but back then it was extreme. The year I graduated from high school, in a town near mine, Vincent Chin was beaten to death with a baseball bat by unemployed autoworkers, simply because he was Asian and all Asians reminded them of the Japanese stealing their jobs. His assailants got 2 years probation and a $3,780 fine. The climate of racism was a very real threat.
And so we carried on as best we could, in our all white communities, with our all white friends, like this church youth group of the 70’s.
Naturally, since this monoculture and monorace was all we were exposed to, IF we happened to meet an Asian, we were afraid of the way they looked and how to deal with them.
IF we saw other Asian youth, we noted how our community regarded them, and we didn’t want to be regarded the same way, so we avoided them.
Even though we made white friends, we were aware that we never really fit in.
Later, IF we saw Asian American youth and their tight communities, they seemed impenetrable to us.
We never felt like we could belong to any of them. A lonely, scarey place to be.
Growing up, there wasn’t any literature for children about adoption. Only about orphans.
Not like today, where there are all kinds of books about being adopted. (although I prefer P.D. Eastman’s book Are You My Mother, because at least in that book the orphan isn’t really an orphan and finds his real mother – while many of these books over emphasize the child’s specialness and the agenda to be grateful strongly permeates between the lines)
We didn’t have adoptee groups or culture camps either. We had to deal with our uniqueness on our own, and we couldn’t (and oftentimes were discouraged from) talking about being adopted or of a different race with our families. We had to censor what we said so as not to appear ungrateful. The result of all of the above meant we had to suppress our feelings about what happened to us and how we dealt with being different/ being adopted. Isolating our inner selves became our way of being.
Our isolation was complete due to the times and location. We barely use cell phone or computers. (we had no computers growing up and were late to accept technology. Very few of us use social networking. Many are just now discovering the internet.
Searching for us is especially problematic.
Because talk of adoption was off the table, many of us had to wait or continue to wait until our parents pass away. In my case, I had suppressed the fact that I was an adoptee so thoroughly that I didn’t even look at the files that were sent to me when my parents passed away. They sat unopened for years and I didn’t discover them until after I had later decided to search, having completely forgotten they existed.
IF we finally recognize that our adoption is an issue that needs to be resolved, then finding out about our past enters our thoughts. For me, it took a personal crisis. By that time, we don’t know anywhere to look except the adoption agency we came from.
That is, if we know. If we don’t know, there are so many to sift through. Quite often, these adoption agencies fold and their files are sent to other agencies, or their names change…
Then, you can only get your files from your adoption agency IF your state has open records laws.
And/or, if you were not adopted directly from one of the major international adoption agencies, then you have to find out which one of them your local agency brokered with.
Then you find out that your international adoption agency isn’t the last word source for all your records, that there is another entity in Korea.
OR, if you were adopted privately, you have to hunt down the lawyer who drafted your adoption, if you can find him and he’s still alive.
Only then you might realize that your International agency is actually a “partner” of one of the four licensed Korean adoption agencies allowed to send children abroad. If, like me, the International adoption agency in your country fails to advocate for you, then you have to try and get your files yourself from one of the four Korean adoption agencies who are licensed to send children for adoption abroad.
Remember, this is the older isolated adoptee who has grown up fearing Korea.
Many older adoptees are easily dissuaded at the first setback. Because our cases are more likely to have irregularities, we are often more likely to experience arbitrary treatment or withholding of documents by the adoption agencies to save face and reduce public exposure to just how many mistakes and/or ethical violations occurred back then. And so, we are an especially vulnerable population.
If attempts to get your information is unsuccessful from the country you were sent to, then a trip to Korea is in order to try and see if you can get more personally. Then, of course, if you are older the odds are smaller that any information which can lead to search and reunion will appear and if it does then you’ve not much time to search. Time is the older adoptee’s greatest enemy.
Then you must take what little facts there are and investigate if there is some hope of local records or a person who can provide more information or leads.
Unfortunately,if you are older, most of the orphanages do not exit. And many hospitals also no longer exist.
Then there is always the option of going on t.v.
Obviously, this is a confusing and arduous process. The Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare provides funding to adoption agencies and organizations to help us sort out the maze, but it’s often not in the adoption agency’s interest to help us. Instead of this maze, we need to have one central place where anywhere we inquire will point to. I was not born to the country of Holt, and my identity documents should not be in the hands of a private corporation. They should be in the hands of the country I was then a citizen of, who can protect those who want to remain anonymous just as well and who there is no doubt there is no conflict of interest. We are tired of being the victims of adoption agencies saving face for past mishandling of cases. We have no confidence in them.
Now, when we come to Korea on this life-changing identity exploration, we don’t want to be treated like tourists. We don’t want the Korean government’s money spent on programs which give us such a superficial view of culture.
Instead of pity, we would prefer sympathy. We want to be welcomed and included.
I also left copies of this wonderful dialogue that transpired between myself and the daughter of an aging adoptee, perplexed as to why her mother was so inaccessible when the topic of adoption came up. I hope it sheds some light on what peculiar creatures we can be at times.
Next post I will go over my suggestions on how I’d like to see Post Adoption Services monies spent.