Wednesday, June 17, 2015

An Open Letter: Why Co-opting “Transracial” in the Case of Rachel Dolezal is Problematic

Dear readers, please share this letter with those who question the validity of the word, “transracial.” Saying the word “isn’t a thing,” is denying my lived experience as a transracial adoptee. If you Tweet, please use #DefineTransracial.

My sister, my parents’ biological child, would never consider herself Korean, but we both consider ourselves Tennerican. Let that sit a while …

June 16, 2015

Please direct all media inquiries to Kimberly McKee, PhD at

This past weekend the world took to social media to dissect the events surrounding Rachel Dolezal, the former president of Spokane’s NAACP chapter who came under heavy scrutiny for falsely representing herself as black. As part of this real-time discussion, the term transracial is being co-opted to describe Dolezal identifying as black despite being born white.

As members of the adoption community — particularly those of us who identify as transracial adoptees — we are deeply alarmed by the gross mischaracterization of this term. We find the misuse of “transracial,” describing the phenomenon of a white woman assuming perceived markers of “blackness” in order to pass as “black,” to be erroneous, ahistorical, and dangerous.

Transracial is a term that has long since been defined as the adoption of a child that is of a different race than the adoptive parents. The term most often refers to children of color adopted by white families in the Global North, and has been extensively examined and documented for more than 50 years by academics and members of the adoption triad: adoptees, birthparents, and adoptive parents.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Twinkie Chronicles … The Isolation Tank

This girl. She sat in the classroom, mostly alone between two seas … one black and one white. Listening … always listening.

Giggles would explode from one group or another. I would often laugh with the white girls, in hopes of “fitting in.” But when the tables turned and either group would make an Asian slight, I was utterly alone … and left laughing nervously with everyone, hoping it would end.

Recently, at the American Adoption Conference (AAC), I had a similar experience that Lost Daughter sister, Amira Rose documented. It went like this …
“Whoa, there was a hospitality suite? How did I miss that?!” (This was me, joking.) 
“Yes, we have been waiting just for you to arrive!” exclaimed the black bartender. I returned his warm smile and said a “thank you.” But then from the only other couple in the room … 
“Can’t you read?” asked the white man, deadpanned.  
“Yes.” I replied. 
“It was in here the whole time. Did you not read this?” he says as he points to the conference schedule book. “I mean, you appear to be an educated woman … ” There was a slight smile and hushed giggle from the white woman. At this, I just needed to flee. I had been here before. 
When discussing the many incidents at this predominantly white conference, I messaged this incident to Lost Daughters founder, Amanda Woolston. I had already heard excuses about why the man was “defensive,” how I needed to get a tougher skin and how I needed to get out more. But Amanda changed me. She said the words no other white person had ever said, “If [you] were white, would he have felt so free to be rude, specifically question [your] abilities and intelligence? The power imbalance of a white male speaking that way to a woman of color in a space where most people are white is incredibly hostile and racist.” When I read her words, I sobbed uncontrollably.

My perforated soul … each blow pierces my heart and bruises my self worth. Each time someone says something demeaning, I shrink … go into my hidey-hole. 

At the AAC, my fellow adoptee Lost Daughter sister, Angela, asked why I laughed nervously sometimes. I couldn’t really answer her. She then said, “You seem fragile.”

I am. I was. I have always looked at women like Angela and wished that I could feel as strong and empowered, like the united front of black girls from my high school with their confidence and bravado. In the 1980s, I longed to emulate them and Lisa Bonet. Having finally secured a job where I could buy clothes, I began to morph into Denise Huxtable. I shrank from the white girls group that I had once coveted. I found my isolation tank.

The most validating moments of my senior year in high school came from the black girls. They wrote me beautiful, sincere notes in my yearbook.

In the Dear Wonderful You video, I speak of this cyclical self I created. Over and over again as I entered a new environment, I began my cycle as an outgoing, white wannabe. I did whatever it took to assimilate. Polo shirts … check. Join a fraternity little sis group … check. Be the graduate school student representative on committees … check. 

But none of this worked. The off-hand comments, the “you almost look normal,” the references to Yoko Ono or Connie Chung, the tokenism of being the “model minority” … all served to place me below the white privilege. Eventually, I would shrink and hide. 

In this solace of aloneness, I would find my voice again and reemerge strong, yet guarded. Each new environment or new acquaintance began the cycle again. 

Today, Twitter has allowed me the freedom to speak strongly and hide, while here on my blog, I reveal more of my vulnerabilities. Having these two parts of myself is exhausting. 

Each tweet or means of speaking out gives me so much validation and relief, but then, the adoptee guilt and adoption loyalty set in. In public spaces, I use walls, podiums and my reading glasses to separate myself, protect myself and hide in the open. I use laughter and my comical façade to mask my pain and humiliation.

As the Lost Daughters take to the road and do more speaking engagements, I fear the notice. I hide in my room. I realize I like the loneliness and isolation. It’s comfortable and safe.

And yet, I know that by hiding I am not claiming my space to be heard.

The valve on the radiator has held back long enough. There have been long pshhhhhhhhts and short, angry spurts of steam. Pressure is building.

This cartoon from Empathize This illustrates what is brewing in many of us.

Shared with permission from Empathize This.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Twinkie Chronicles … Parent School Meetings

Last week, an email was buzzing around the school community in the near west side of Madison.

In it, the parent wrote:
“It has not yet been announced to families but the world languages program at [Middle School] will be drastically cut. This will affect all kids except for the DLI/DBE (bilingual Spanish) program (My kids are in the DLI program so they won’t be affected but I’m concerned for the majority of students at [Middle School], who aren’t in that program). What I have learned through the grapevine and is at this point only been reported to some teachers, is that 7th graders will only be able to take language for 1/4 of the year and for a full year in 8th grade year. (The current program is full 7th and 8th grade years which is equivalent to one year of HS). This cut has a HUGE impact on students potential to articulate into the high school program and will likely increase, not decrease the achievement gap for a large percentage of [Middle School] students.”
An email campaign that flooded the Middle School principal prompted the school to have an open forum to discuss the changes in curriculum. Photo below shows the high numbers of white students who do not speak Spanish at home as a percentage of the DLI (Dual Language Immersion) program.

My reasonings for going were to hear what was exactly happening. I knew of the DLI program in Madison and its impact on kids at different elementary schools. I had seen this program as a means of providing language immersion for students who did not speak Spanish at home. As was restated many times at this meeting, “Kids need to be bilingual in order to be competitive in the workforce.” 

I couldn’t agree more, however, the students everyone in this room were talking about were white, affluent students with supportive parents at home. 

No one seems to talk about the students who already speak Spanish or those who just want to survive day to day living. Students of color were not the subject of this meeting, though the principal was trying to bring the conversation back to the ones most impacted by the achievement gap.

The principal seemed blindsided by the number of parents in the room. He was also not fully prepared to handle the questions. His intentions were well-meaning as he had agreed to this last-minute meeting but did not know the full extent of the privilege he would face.

There were certainly pearls of wisdom in the room … foreign language helps in learning the language of computer programming … kids need creative courses … middle school is not so much academics but a time to find what you enjoy … “language teaches literacy.”

Again, I completely agree with many of these sentiments, but again, the parents in the room were talking about their children.

They were not talking about the ones whose parents were not in the room …

… kids whose parents were most likely working the second shift at the time of this meeting.
… kids whose parents did not have transportation to get to the meeting.
… kids whose parents are fearful of coming to the meetings because they do not speak English well and would need an interpreter who English-speaking parents often have non-verbal disapproving body language as they glare at the “disruptive” interpreter.
… kids who get a crash course in English as a second language to integrate in the classroom, only to later be denied work as an adult based on the sound of their name on their resumé.

… and finally, the kids who for the last three years have been double-dipped (given a second period in the day of a course they have failed in order to close the gap) because their parents couldn’t start an email campaign to stop it.

Last night’s meeting happened because parents discovered that their children would now be double-dipped with all the others at the expense of cutting a foreign language.

When I spoke, all the feelings of knowing the othering came to the forefront. I was emotional as I tried to express my difficulty with what I was hearing, but amidst all this, a white woman interrupted me. I hadn’t finished, but she wanted desperately to share her rebuttal. 

I had had a day of being belittled by an adoptive parent, and this was the straw that broke my back. I said, “Do you mind, I’m not finished.” I regret that (and my Southern mother was turning over in her grave). It discredited everything I had said before. I listened as this woman went after me, listing all her credentials as a World Languages leader and teacher. But where are the credentials in fully understanding the injustices of the others?

I do not have the World Languages certification, and I did not have a full understanding of what was happening. I do, however, see the injustices in the classrooms, in the hallways and have had glimpses of them as I have driven the children I spoke of above home.

None of this was talked about. None of this is ever discussed.

One final word from one of the parents was that she understood the systemic problems of the achievement gap and the racial disparities, but she wondered how it could be solved in that room and in that school by just a curriculum change. 

It cannot, but there needs to be a shift in how we teach. How we reach children who are hurting, children who desire inclusion, and children who just want equity in the classroom. Meetings such as this one only reinforced the true divisions, the illusions of white liberalism and the vast chasm between the haves and have nots.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

My anger protects my pain.

I dread today. That sounds selfish and unkind … especially to those this day is made for …

… those with intact families,
… those who have not lost children,
… those who have not lost mothers,
… those who profit from the expression of love through material items.

I sound bitter and angry. I am.

I have repeated this many times … my anger protects my pain.

As I watched my social media flood with photographs of those who look just like their mothers, it pained me for they have their mother’s eyes, her nose, her lips, her skin-coloring and her hands. They have a physical reference.

Here is where I hate myself. I hate that I feel this way. Here is the person adoption proponents and agencies hold up to say, “See? Look how ungrateful she is. She was loved to such a degree. She was saved from the throes of poverty and woe in Korea as a child of a single mother.”

And yet, what they chose to ignore is that on any other day, I relish the joy of seeing people smile in the comfort of Mom, but on Mother’s Day, I envy it. I want it.

I had it … once … twice and now. I had six months with my mother, seven with my foster mother and Mom’s entire shared lifetime. But those moments of motherhood are now fleeting memories, relegated to the frozen moments in time that film could capture or the moment that only my cellular tissue could memorize.

Luckily for me today, my first read of the day was a post from a new friend, April Dinwoodie of The Donaldson Adoption Institute. I met her at the American Adoption Conference, and we became fast friends. The image below shows Angela Tucker, Kat Nielsen, Dinwoodie and me breakfast fresh!

I could quote Dinwoodie’s entire post, but that wouldn’t do her words justice. You must take the time and read it all. She brought me back … to sanity. She reminded me of focus and purpose.

A little anger doesn’t harm if the intention behind it is well-meaning, right? My purpose is to help the children of adoption sort out their feelings. My purpose is to bring validation to those feelings because it’s okay to own your feelings. They are your feelings, your narrative, your life.

It’s okay to consult qualified professionals (social workers, therapists, psychologists) and allow them to help you sort it out. It’s okay to long for something you just cannot put your finger on.

I longed for the beauty of seeing myself reflected in someone. Today, I have that. My own family is my start from scratch, now that my adoptive parents are deceased. My children are my joy. We share DNA and the longing to be loved. We share the sorrow of loss and the shortcomings of adoption.

My day ended with this beautiful recital piece by my daughter. As she played and a few others too (including a few adoptees), I let the tears fall. Music has always moved me, and these young musicians brought me peace on a day that had also brought me pain.


Friday, April 24, 2015

The Twinkie Chronicles … Dear Mr. White …

Mama Bear is pissed.

I handled the abuse as a young adult Twinkie; I handled the racism. For so long, I have awkwardly smiled when faced with horrible comments and micro-aggressions.

But inside, it ate away at me. I vowed to minimize this for my children. Now finally, the trauma of my high school days has hit home with my son inheriting my discomfort.

So, here I give you my thank you note to white America.

Thank you, Mr. White …

… for the title of “Oriental;”

… for passing down to your children the hurtful words I thought would eventually disappear;

… for the glorification of your learning that “other language” and not understanding why native speakers, hoping to save their children from their stigmatized accent, refused to speak this language you covet in their homes;

… for the separation of my fellow adoptees from their parents who you deem unfit because of the poverty your privilege costs;

… for accusing me of hurting your feelings when I use the word “white” in a general terms (Really, it isn’t about you personally. Everything isn’t always about you, but I understand your white fragility.);

… for showing me how you know best because you control the media; 

… for using our Black President as a means to appease me;

… for stopping my black and brown brothers because they “all look the same;”

… for feeling you own my black and brown sisters’ hair (It is beautiful, but no, you shouldn’t touch it!);

… for assigning me the general term, Asian, when you want to be thought of as German, English, Irish, Italian, Caucasian (Are you really from the region of Caucasus?), etc.;

… for butchering my Puerto Rican name;

… for downplaying racial bullying by comparing it to other forms of bullying;

… for pitting me against black and brown people;

… for confusing me with my Taiwanese and Chinese friends because we “all look alike” (Insert your laughter here.);

… for more and more white movies (How many times do we need to see yet another Cinderella rendition?);

… for judging my curriculum vitae solely on my Puerto Rican name; 

… for asking me if I need an interpreter (Um. I am speaking English to you over the phone.);

and finally, for instilling so much internal conflict and fear within me and my children for simply just being non-white.


Your faithful Twinkie

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Twinkie Chronicles … Madison, #TonyRobinson & #BlackLivesMatter

Yes. Madison. Nineteen-year-old Tony Terrell Robinson Jr. is dead after an altercation with a white Madison police officer. I want to move beyond the demonizing of Tony (as one Tweeter decided fitting) or the police officer so you can understand the historical and systemic racism that resulted in the death of another young black man.

In 2009, our family moved from Virginia to Wisconsin. My husband and I had consciously sought places where our children would not feel singled out as I had growing up in rural Tennessee.

The idyllic, progressive home to the nation’s liberals, Madison, Wisconsin, beckoned with promises of public schools where we naively believed racism to be erased.

On my children’s first day of school, I realized that Madison was only white, affluent liberal. As I walked my children to school, I noticed that the children getting off the buses were predominately black and brown. It was as though I had traveled back in time. (You may ask, “What does this have to do with adoption?”)

My position as a twinkie with a Hispanic name has caused a lot of confusion for those who know me only by name. In person, I am an Asian person with proxy-white privilege, some from my adoptive family, but most from my British husband. In my first years in Madison, I found that white liberals felt safe saying things in front of me because I was masquerading as a white person.

I heard …

“Oh, they send their children (Ethiopian adoptees) to private school because they aren’t like those people.”

“How can I drive a kid I don’t know?” (And yet, this parent was more than comfortable driving other white unknown classmates because she felt comfortable talking to the parents.)

“They are bussed to different schools from the low-income housing because no school wants all of them.” (This one particularly bothered me, so I asked why not.) “If it makes you feel better they all go to one high school and are back together there.”

And I witnessed …

… this t-shirt at a popular Monona Terrace event (yes, the same Monona Terrace from Whad’ya Know fame)

… my daughter’s black kindergarten friends disciplined by substitutes who did not know them, as a white classmate misbehaved and was ignored. 

… school events segregated into haves (mostly white) and have nots (mostly black and brown) when the silent auctions were announced.

… the bussed children being told to get on the bus when they wanted to stay after school and enjoy the after school programs that the affluent, all-white children were afforded.

I was raised in the South, I know racism.  But this sort of “under the table” racism was new to me. I wrote emails to school board members, attended PTO meetings and asked questions of the administration. My questions became muted. After a year as PTO president, I felt the need to step down; the work took a toll on my family. 

White friends became fewer. My connections to other out of state transplants, particularly other East Coasters and Virginians became my solace. I became closer to brown and black friends in Madison, and they educated me.

I heard their stories of …

… being pulled over because they were going too slow, they looked like a “suspect” the police were looking for …

… children of color being ignored as the white classmate’s complaints are quickly attended.

… children of color being disciplined differently from their white classmates.

… being afraid of coming to PTO meetings because of the all white PTO.

People of color (POC) and myself included are singled out solely because we are immediately identifiable as our color. Madison is currently only white liberal. But I do see a shift. A small group is forming to blur the lines. Whites are listening; POC are speaking.

Just as the life of one young Jimmie Lee Jackson changed our nation, may the life of Tony Robinson change Madison and finally advance our nation. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

The 4-way or the Roundabout …

I love a good 4-way. Everyone slows down, stops, and acknowledges those at the crossroads. At a slower pace, you can make eye contact, be polite and motion another to go ahead of you. Others become human.

When I visit the UK with my husband, I am always anxious at the roundabout. Cars whiz by, no eye contact, no recognition of drivers. My heart races, my mind wishes we would all slow down. If we do slow down, the other drivers get impatient, honk and make hand gestures. They have places to go … in a hurry. They have no time for niceties.

Today, our world in the US is the paradox of these two modes of traffic. We once loved our 4-ways when times were slower. Now, we are installing roundabouts. We want to whiz through life, cut the drive time. Just let us flow.

Starbucks and its #RaceTogether campaign made the mistake of trying to create an organic 4-way that functioned like a roundabout. The initial town halls (the prototype) were the 4-ways. Those work. We have time to sit and discuss. But in the retail cafe business, folks just need their coffee … fast. Roundabout. I love a good tea, and Starbucks is often my go-to, but during this, I took the detour.

This week, let’s reinstall the 4-way. I am attending the American Adoption Congress meeting and slowing down … stopping. The beauty of a meeting like this is that all parts of the triad are present. We have the ability to see the intersectionality up close.

In one session, an adoptee mentioned the pain of domestic, same race adoption. Strangers at a funeral were fishing for similarities in her features to her parents. Obviously, for her the amplification of her differences as an adoptee colored her interactions. The funeral brought triggers. I can see that.

Another domestic adoptee mentioned the pain of people saying there is no difference between an adopted child and a biological child in a single family. While she had been matched racially to her parents, she mentioned that she couldn’t see herself in the physical features of her parents like a biological sibling can.

All these voices are valid. Mine may not synch with theirs, but we have common threads … the pain of loss. I wish my fellow conference-goers time to slow down, reflect and respect.

P.S. Sometimes I get carried away in person; my emotions can mask my intentions. Please remind me to SLOW. DOWN.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

#DearMe, speak your truth.

I am truly grateful for the community of adoptees. 

When I first became aware of the #DearMe campaign, I posted a suggestion on Facebook that I thought this campaign and its work with young people reflected the mission of Dear Wonderful You from the AnYa Project. I also suggested that we make our own videos to support our younger selves.

Thanks to Diane Christian of the AnYa Project, Kimberly McKee of the Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network (KAAN) and Amanda Woolston of The Lost Daughters for bringing this small dream to fruition.

For all the beautiful young adoptees out there:

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Twinkie Chronicles … Facebook Follies.

Over the holidays, I hosted my Puerto Rican cousins in balmy Wisconsin. After promising them snow, I failed. It was the warmest, snow-free Christmas since our move to Madison. We, of course, had moments of laughter and took lots of selfies!

On the advice of my dad, I took my cousin shopping. A Gonzo tradition … family shopping. We took everyone to the shops. Even here, I saw the underlying racism. My cousins speaking Spanish or broken English brought employees lurking around the corners … while I tried to establish normalcy by speaking loudly in English and flashing my proxy-white-privilege card.

We had a grand time catching up and FaceTiming my dad. 

Coming down from my family high, I checked my facebook feed. And …

Wow. Facebook can be such a downer and a life lesson.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Twinkie Chronicles … Bullies Galore

“Stop dragging your feet.”

“I wish you would wear clothes that fit you.”

“Don’t slump. Stand up tall with your head up. You are making yourself out to be a victim.”

These words from my mother are replaying in my head, as I watch my son move into his high school days. When you are belittled, you try to make yourself smaller. My mother did what she thought was right and helpful; she also supported me when I dyed my hair and cut it wildly to distract from my otherness. I find myself doing the same for my son, and I am sure one day, he will revive my missteps.

I worry that my son will inherit the low self-esteem from my young adult days.

Back then, I believed that no one would want me, except to use me. I had dated men, only to have them dump me for a blonder, whiter version of myself. When I turned 21, the man I thought I would marry, became a man with a secret life and a fiancée in Appleton, WI. While I had lived my life thinking I would use men before they used me, I just didn’t. I knew my Asian self wasn’t good enough “to hold a man down” in Tennessee. I was masquerading as a white person but always reminded that I was another kind of other.

I heard:

“Do something with your hair. It’s so greasy looking.” Because I couldn’t achieve the Aqua Net Big Hair of the 1980s.

“Does your cooter look different, like is it slanted from side to side?”

“Can you EVEN see with your eyes like that?”

“So, that guy who brought you to the prom … did your parents hire him as your escort?” My high school companion in those days was a Wake Forest college man I met while waiting tables at the Cracker Barrel. He was the only person I could write honestly and expect an honest, kind answer back.

And then, there were the misnomers: “Chinese,” “Cambodian Swamp Rat,” “Jap,” “Dirty Diaper Food Eater” …

I kept many of these things from my family. When I returned home for my father’s funeral, my cousin asked me why I didn’t return to Tennessee every year. I had to be honest with her and tell her of my discomfort and how I felt traumatized when I came home. There were too many bad memories. I felt inadequate and strange in my hometown. She was floored. “I never knew this. Who would say such things to you?!” she asked. I told her that some things were said to me at church. Again, she was floored.

My white family members insist they do not see my color or race. I know they don’t and when I was very young, I tried to ignore that fact too. It worked just fine when the safety of their whiteness was within earshot, but that safety inevitably left with them.

Let’s fast forward. Today, we think we have it better. We do not. The racist comments are now more politically correct, but they are still racist. The Twinkie has begat another Twinkie. This one is more authentic but nonetheless still viewed as Asian.

We moved to liberal, “most livable” Madison, WI, in 2009.

My kids quickly became aware of the prevailing air of racism. At first, I thought they would be immune, that their father’s whiteness would save them. But just like their Twinkie mother, my Asian genes would betray them as well.

I recently found this drawing of my son’s day tucked away in his papers.

Trying to combat racist bullying is hard. Without proof (a witness or video footage) there is little the school can do to stop it. My son returns home with holes in his pants, bruises and anger. He is fearful of school.

My son’s bullies come in all colors; mine did too. I always said, “Shit rolls downhill, and I am the smallest minority.”

For me, the biggest wounds came from whites. Their superiority and power scared me. They ruled the hallways and campuses. They still do. White America continues to beat people of color down, pit us against one another. This fact was emphasized in the first episode of Fresh Off the Boat, in this line spoken by Walter, the only black kid in school, “You’re at the bottom now; it’s my turn.”

Why must anyone be at the bottom?

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Somebody Else’s Past: Growing up in the Shadow of Adoption

Dear readers, below you will find the words of one I call “the second generation of adoptees.” These words are poignant as they may be echoed by my children one day. Read and respect them, because adoption is more than just birth parents, adoptive parents and adoptees. Our lives and adoptee experiences reverberate to those we now call family … our children.

By CS Brown

It makes me a little uneasy to write about the experience of being the child of an adult adoptee.  I feel like I’m stepping into a war zone. There seem to be two camps — adoptees and adoptive parents — and both seem fierce and unforgiving. Whose side am I on?

Mostly my mom’s. She was born in a government hospital in Bombay, India, into a culture and time where poverty and female infanticide went hand-in-hand. Instead of being poisoned or starved, she was taken to a Catholic orphanage, where she lived for two years until she was adopted by a Portuguese Catholic Indian from Goa, which was at the time a Portuguese colony but is now an Indian state.

In the 1930s, under the Indian and Portuguese laws of the time, the legal rights of the Indian adoptee were neither specified nor protected. Foreign adoptions were infrequent; unwanted children were most often adopted by upper and upper-middle class Indians as servants. As she grew, Mom was raised not as a daughter, but as a housekeeper, farm laborer, and nursemaid; an older female servant physically and emotionally abused her.

She bore the paralyzing cultural stigma of being adopted, or poskem. Regarded as socially inferior, most poskem existed on the margins of society. Many remained unmarried, continuing to serve their adoptive families. At the death of her parents, the poskem received no inheritance, but would continue in service to her parents’ biological children. If they wed, it was usually to another poskem

It’s a lot of backstory, but I needed to explain that my mother’s ongoing emotional pain at her abandonment and adoption is complicated by cultural, social and other issues, and I write this with a (mostly) complete understanding of them.

Through some miracle of God, lucky twist of fate, wormhole in the Universe, or whatever else you choose to believe, she and my North Carolina-born father were in the same strange place at the same time, looking for something different than what they had always known. They found it, got married, and came to the States together in 1964.

I can’t remember ever not knowing that Mom was adopted and understanding that it was a source of enormous pain. Her sorrow, anxiety and controlling nature dominated my childhood. When she talked about her biological parents, it was always the mother, never the father. “I still don’t understand how she could just give away her baby,” she says. “How could she do that? What kind of person could do that?”

I’ve always felt kind of sorry for my Indian ajji — I’m sure she had a horrible, horrible life before and after my mother was born — and I always make excuses for her. Maybe she lived in a slum and already had too many children, I speculated. Or her husband made her give away the girl-baby, or she was young and unmarried and her parents made her take the child to the nuns.  “Mom, you hear these stories on the news all the time,” I say. “It doesn’t mean she was a bad person.”

Usually she answers my theories with tears, or as she’s gotten older, silence. As she approaches her 80th birthday, I’ve learned to keep my big mouth shut when she wonders out loud about her mother. At this point, the best response is “I’m sorry, Mom,” and a big hug.

She has a single snapshot of herself as a child, taken when she was ten years old at her first Communion. Her birth certificate is a piece of cut-in-half letterhead from St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Byculla, Bombay, with a few typed lines indicating the days of her birth and baptism. She cried when she showed it to me. She was ashamed of its paucity, especially when compared to the elaborate footprinted and notarized birth certificates of her American-born children. “It’s nothing but a few lines, but I needed to have it,” she said.

She once told me that even though she had a full and happy life, she felt there something missing —  a little hole deep inside that she would never be able to fill. This was too much for the teenage me. Why was she always so sad? Why did I have to spend so much time comforting her?

Why wasn’t she grateful?

She had us, after all. Daddy would have done anything for her. His mother treated her like a daughter. She had two boys and two girls, exactly what she told Daddy she wanted when they got married. We weren’t rich, but we had a three-bedroom house in a decent neighborhood, a big yard, two cars, a phone, and two TVs. It was a lot better than living in a Byculla slum, pissing in an open ditch, fetching water from public taps, and working as the servant of a wealthy Brahmin.

Wasn’t that enough?

What disturbed my 13-year-old self the most was that if Mom hadn’t been abandoned and adopted, she wouldn’t have eventually met Daddy. I wouldn’t be here. She hated the fate that allowed me to be alive?! Even though it was awful, it led her to Daddy and to us.

Weren’t we enough?

Like most teenagers do, I took it personally. Trying to work through it at a young age, I decided there must be “bad” adoptions and “good” ones, and reckoned that my mom’s psychic pain was the result of her “bad adoption.” Adoptees with “good adoptions” were lucky, and probably grateful and happy. A nice and tidy explanation that helped lessen my teenage cognitive dissonance.

Beyond that, it was too difficult to understand or deal with, especially since I was also busy juggling race-related issues. At that time, a chocolate-brown, sari-wearing Indian woman, a white American man, and their four little biracial kids didn’t exactly fade into the woodwork of a small Southern town. I spent most of my time and energy dodging rednecks on the school bus, avoiding racists in the hallways, trying to fit in with anybody who didn’t call me a half-breed, and studying hard enough to be able to get away from the walnut-minded people in our stupid little town.

I only became curious about Mom’s background in my late twenties, after I left the South. Away from my mother, the overtly hostile stares and behind-the-back glances at our freaky mestiço family, and the rest of the South’s creepy racial baggage, I traded in my anger and frustration for sympathy. I began to grow closer to her.

Life happened — career, money, marriage, sickness, suffering, death — the ten thousand joys and sorrows of growing older. In between, I imagined the lives of ajji and ajjo. I dreamed of dozens of aunties and uncles and cousins, and had the staggering realization that I will never know them, ever. I was born in an abundance of inherited sadness, sings Ryan Adams. You're born into this life paying for the sins of somebody else's past, says Bruce Springsteen. I wanted to know: What sadness? What sins? Whose past?

I realized that my emotional needs and longings were so similar to my mother’s. Her sense of loss had become mine, although hers was much deeper and more painful. With a sense of shared experience, my feelings towards her then evolved from sympathy (feeling sorry for her) to empathy (being able to put myself in her shoes). It was a turning point in my understanding.

How could she not be controlling, anxious, and depressed? Much research has been done on the psychological issues of the adoptee. The neglect and loneliness experienced by children institutionalized in orphanages is well documented, as are the feelings of shock, trauma, rejection and loss experienced by many adopted children. Research has shown that fetuses respond and adapt to stimulus in the womb, including elevated stress hormones. Scientists think that the fetus permanently conditions itself to deal with elevated stress hormones, putting it at a higher risk for stress-related conditions as an adult.

Wouldn’t carrying an unwanted pregnancy to full-term, knowing that you’re going to give up the child at birth, be a pretty major source of stress? That would make adoptees biologically more susceptible to anxiety, depression, and other emotional issues from birth. I’m not a scientist, but through the lens of mental illness, it seems kind of obvious.

Adoption itself can be a blessing — but abandonment is a curse. Being adopted is never going to erase the trauma of being abandoned, whether or not the adoptive relationship is “good.” So to my teenage self: yes, adoption saved Mom from life in a Bombay tenement. It brought together two people that loved each other, and many beautiful people exist because of it. But, dear teenage me, adoption by definition is preceded by an abandonment that can have a devastating impact on the adoptee.

I would hope this would be Adoption 101 for prospective adoptive parents, and that they have a reserve of intelligence, compassion and common sense to draw from as their children grow, ask questions, deal with race problems, seek answers about their background, experience emotional issues and setbacks, and perhaps eventually search for their birth parents. But sadly, the online anger of adoptive parents directed at supposedly “ungrateful” adoptees tells me that this is not the case. (In the reaction of many white adoptive parents to their non-white children’s feelings of loss and curiosity about their background, I detect more than a whiff of that toxic-but-so-familiar combination of white privilege and white man’s burden — but I digress.)

And so since the adoption industry, and I use that word fairly pointedly, can’t even seem to properly instruct adoptive parents on how to deal with their child’s potential emotional problems, it has certainly not gone the extra mile to develop guidelines for adult adoptees and their children. We need empathy, understanding, love and maturity to figure out for ourselves how to navigate these rocky shoals.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

What stopped me from adopting.

In my third year of undergraduate studies, I read the most heartbreaking story.

Four Korean sisters, ages 6 to 13, made a suicide pact to relieve the burden they believed their parents shouldered as a low income family of seven on $350 a month. This became my view of my birth country and my driving force as an adoptee and a young woman.

In those days, I had finally fallen in love with a young man from Appleton, Wisconsin. I was making plans. In them, I wanted to have a biological child and adopt a young girl from Korea. I wanted to save a young girl from that feeling of uselessness.

This Wisconsin love of my life crumbled as I found he was promised to another back home. My trust was broken, and I vowed that I would stay single and possibly adopt on my own.

Life throws punches, and we roll with them. My parents fell in love, moved to Japan and tried to start a family. But tragedy struck. My mother delivered a stillborn infant son in January 1968. My parents sunk into sadness. They wanted to be parents. After realizing they could not be biological parents, they ventured into the land of Harry Holt. (Here’s where I come in. I know you knew that!)

On their application, they submitted this photograph of themselves. Don’t they look proud and excited? (Holt will not allow me to have the hard copy of this photograph, even though they have an electronic copy of it with my file. It belongs with me, my sister and our children, but never mind.)

Five years after they adopted me, my parents were able to have a biological child. From her hospital room each night of her one-month bedrest stay, my mother cried as she watched me, a purple-coated dot, in the parking lot. Then … my sister arrived. She was cute and cuddly. I wanted to name her Penelope, but my mother decided against it.

My mother would dedicate her life to her girls. She stayed home, volunteered at school, nurtured us to adulthood and with my father, she would console me when the Appleton man left. I told her I wanted to be a single mother with a job. I wanted my life to play out differently from hers. I wanted to seem strong and independent.

Years later, I would meet the man. We married, and my parents asked about grandchildren. My husband agreed with my initial plans, a few years as a couple and later, parents to a biological child and an adopted one. We lived in Rwanda one year after the 1994 genocide and witnessed so many children displaced by war but happy in their home country. My adoption plan was beginning to crumble.

As I turned 30, my GYN asked if I planned to have children. “Yes, of course!” was my reply. She went on to explain that sometimes women might take years to get pregnant, and that I should discuss this with my husband. This reminded me of the pain my mother felt with numerous miscarriages and the still born son. She shed tears every January for that little boy.

Within two years, I was pregnant. The moment my son’s bony hand touched mine through my stretched skin, I was in awe, and the thoughts of any others fell away.

When the moment came for me to finally meet my first biological relative, he was placed on my chest, and I exclaimed, “He has my square-mouth cry!”

We were a happy threesome, and as that joy set in, my mother passed away. I felt lost. I felt I had hurt her as my sister and I found a letter my mother kept. In it, I had written that I wished I had never been adopted. I felt the pain I had inflicted on her in my teen years. But my sister quietly said, “You know, she was so honored that you decided to stay home and be a mother.”

After all those years of pushing back against my mother, years of ridiculing her life’s decisions, I realized that motherhood was my job. I relished it and was proud to be “Mom.”

I would feel my mother’s pain again a couple of years later as I miscarried my second pregnancy. I felt lost again. I felt a failure and decided I was happy with being a mother to one. My husband revisited our earlier plans of adoption, but at the time, we were three on the salary of one, and adoption just wasn’t financially possible.

We would eventually welcome our daughter into our family. I must admit that I beam when my children say they are like me. I waited so long for a chance to compare myself to another human being who shared my DNA. I also share their sadness when they realize that they don’t share biological similarities to my side of the family.

Now that my parents are gone, I wrap myself up in the comfort of my little family. We still do not have the financial means to adopt, but I am content. My initial well-meaning, youth-driven intentions of saving another little Korean girl like me have disintegrated with each adoptee narrative.

Even if I could adopt a Korean girl, I couldn’t add to the pain of a single mother in Korea feeling hopeless to the point of believing her child would have it “better” in a place where material wealth trumps family.

Instead, my focus turns to learning from the past … my past, looking to the future for my children and the future of other adoptees and their children as we navigate the confusion and complexity of adoption.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Infinite Loss

“It’s like Papito is on a trip. I miss him. 
It’s different when you are traveling, you have the hope of seeing them again.”

These sorrowful words came from my 11-year-old daughter as we waited for our plane to Tennessee. So much wisdom comes from my children. I wanted her with me that day. Traveling alone seemed too daunting.

Less than two days earlier, my father collapsed on his way into work; he was 76.

As we waited, we jotted down the things that we would miss about him …

How he loved the Iced Lemon Pound Cake at Starbucks …

How he could sleep just about anywhere …

How he used his fart machine to bring us to tears …

How he loved Halloween …

He brought us our piano so that my children could learn to play. He loved music.


My daughter insisted on playing her Papito one last lullaby.


The pain is almost more than I can bear. The loss of my father follows many losses that many are able to identify in their own lives. I acknowledge their losses too. But I ask that you understand the profound loss as an adoptee. I have lost many times over. I lost a first set of parents, I lost a foster family, I lost my grandmothers, my mother and now Daddy.

While I still hold the option to search for my first family, I am unable to bear any more loss or rejection right now.

I am alone. Some try to comfort me by mentioning my husband and my children. I know this. But who knew me before? My sister, yes. But my parents, all of them, held their memories of me. Their love sustained me for 47 years.

I will miss the man who intervened when others had questions about our public hugs and affection. At the funeral, an acquaintance asked if I were my father’s widow, then moved on to ask the same of my sister. Daddy wasn’t able to protect us from that pain.

He wasn’t there to accompany us to the local Walmart to pick up goods. We are too identifiable as different. I wanted a cloak of invisibility, so my brother-in-law drove us to the next big city to shop invisibly.

He can no longer be there to FaceTime when I feel weak … when words wound me.

He can no longer reinforce our story of family when strangers doubt my loyalty to him.

He can no longer comfort me in his love and support.

He can no longer show pride in my abilities to elevate my voice.

I am holding on to the last birthday card he sent me. He loved Hallmark and read many cards before choosing the one that said perfectly what he wanted to say.

This year, when I tried to form my identity without the lies of the agency, he was there, sending his approval and love, not on the fabricated day, but on any day in November.

I felt lost this summer when the agency had nothing for me. I called Dad. I mentioned that I wanted him to come with me. He just said, “They won’t listen to me, and they won’t give me anymore than you already have.”

Today, I am truly lost.

I am still wandering around … looking for him, but knowing.


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Jad Abumrad and the Adjacent Possible

So much is ruminating. November, Korea, #flipthescript, angry adoptive parents, co-opting original parents

Before all this, I processed my trip to Korea, the blank spaces in my life, my struggles in parenting a teen who’s forming his identity, while trying to reshape my own identity. I sat in my therapist’s office bouncing all these elements and captured them on his little legal pad.

Even with the success of #flipthescript on #NationalAdoptionMonth, I still feel I sit at the kids’ table. The core of adoption is the child. The child can be coveted and treasured or rehomed and abused. The child is “adopted.” Check that word. A verb or adjective that relates back to the adoptive parent or an adoption agency.

I want to own myself.

Last night, I went to the UW-Madison campus to see Jad Abumrad speak about creativity and discomfort in a piece he calls “gut churn.”

So much resonated with me. He began by talking about voice.
“Voice is yours and no one else’s. When trying to find your voice, you fill it with other people’s voices.” — Jad Abumrad
Wow. He called on audience members to “find your authenticity.” Then, his “idea grenade” went off … the Adjacent Possible, a theory by Stuart Kauffman. Here’s a good description on how complexity comes into play in the Adjacent Possible (Rifkin, 1981, p. 55-56, 76):
“Evolution means the creation of larger and larger islands of order at the expense of even greater seas of disorder in the world. ... In the process of evolution, each succeeding species is more complex and thus better equipped as a transformer of available energy ... Throughout history, qualitative changes in technology have always been toward more complexity ... ” — Jeremy Rifkin
Complexity. It’s scary and intimidating. In #flipthescript, the complexity of emotions in adoption finally came to the forefront and the perpetual parents, both adoptive and original, were scared by it.

I know that fear. I once wanted adoption to be fanciful, light and happy. I listened to the other voices of adoption … the agency voice, the adoptive parent voice, the birth mother voice. They formed my identity. I had, as Abumrad said filled my voice “with other people’s voices.”

Today, my voice is shaky but my own, and it can be angry as it protects my hurt. I admit that. My doctor says I am suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. When she told me this, I said, “I never served in the military.” But adoption and identity search within adoption is stressful, especially when the media and the general public quiet my voice with the voices of the perpetual parents.

My Abumrad “gut churn” was this past November’s National Adoption Month, Orphan Sunday and World Adoption Day. Abumrad asked, “Could the ugly be successful? It comes in the most terrified moment.”

The success of #flipthescript came from my terrifying moment of having to walk through the month of November, after a year of search and disappointment.

But the beauty? Well, Jad Abumrad said, “In periods of dark, walk with someone else.”

I did. Thank you, adoptees for turning my darkest month into a walk to remember.