Saturday, April 5, 2014

Rwanda, Inshuti

Tomorrow marks the twentieth anniversary of the genocide. In the summer of 1995, newly married, my husband and I made the long journey from Tennessee to Rwanda.

I have so many memories that it is difficult to type them out. (I have journals but am afraid to read them and face the naiveté of my youth.)

As a photographer, my ambitions were to capture life in Rwanda, post-genocide, but in reality, I could not. The stories and faces of Rwanda are forever imprinted in my mind, where they should be. Their stories should be theirs.

The people of Rwanda had lost so much … something I could never fully grasp and capture. So, instead, I spent my time connecting with people and listening to their stories. The Rwandans gave me joy and grounded me in a way I would never learn in the US.

With my Rwandan acquaintances, we created our own way of recording their truths … their lives, their losses and their triumphs.

In those days, I was able to have disposable cameras mailed to me. I handed them out to my Rwandan acquaintances and friends, and they recorded their lives. These images became precious to them, and some had never used a camera.

I am only in contact with three Rwandans from that time. Two have email, and one I am only able to contact him through an expat. Of the Rwandans I originally knew, two were murdered before we left the country and one died of AIDS in 2000. The other stories are silent except for the messages they wanted me to pass on to the world.

I failed them. Returning in 1997, I contacted Granta, Doubletake, the Guggenheim Trust, the Smithsonian … none took their causes. Today, I am reminded that the internet has afforded me a forum. Perhaps it is time to publish their words and struggles, but first, I will try to connect and ask permission again. Twenty years is a long time to wait.

As you reflect on Rwanda tomorrow, please don’t watch Hotel Rwanda, Hollywood’s glossed over account. If you want to know the truths, see HBO’s Sometimes in April.

For reading, try Fergal Keane’s Season of Blood. In it, you can understand the complex history behind the genocide. While race was a factor, there were other things at work … politics, power and class, enacted by the early Belgian colonists and based on the pseudoscience of phrenology.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

“Breaking the Illusion of the World”

This week, the flyer for Old Navy arrived.

I had two simultaneous reactions. First, “Wow! A transracial family!” Second, “Whoa. A transracial family.”

Let me explain. But before I do, listen to this segment of This American Life. Listen for the cues on “breaking the illusion of the world.”

(You can also hear this on This American Life’s site here if the link is not loading.)

At first appalling, with Elna Baker’s description of Nubbins and his FAO Schwartz Lee Middleton Doll orphanage adoption ward, the story meanders through the hierarchy of our real life society … our society, where white sells to the affluent crowd, where wealthy parents can support their children in adopting dolls that look like them, and when white dolls are not available, we can move on to Asian, Latino and Black babies. But wait, Nubbins, the special needs doll who is white can be purchased by the entitled, young girl who will not love him and wants to call him “Stupid” … and is … before the Black babies.

This is not to say that these are the parents who become adoptive parents. However, I do believe that it speaks to the illusion of race and adoption.

My parents loved and cared for me. My family (both white and Puerto Rican) has embraced and forgotten that I was different. Yet, deep inside, I have always known I was different. My mother hoped to help me with the struggle. She did the best she could and bought this doll, my most cherished childhood toy.

While the ad for Old Navy reaffirmed my place in my family, it also scared me. I feared that others might want that little “China Doll” for their family. The Asian girl might become the trophy child … the child in the advertisements.

As I mulled over the meaning of this flyer in my mailbox, two dolls on Ebay were shared with me.

The first, was the White Swan Hotel Going Home Adoption Barbie, complete with her very own Chinese adoptee. All for $475!

The second was the 1984 “Rice Patty” baby, with her very own Hong Kong passport! She, of course, is a bargain at $78!

These images broke the illusion of my world. While adoption has complex meaning to me, the children of transracial adoption are viewed as fodder in the toy world.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Shame vs. Trauma

In my home state of Tennessee, a federal judge granted an injunction on the state’s gay marriage ban. It was a small victory in my eyes, and I gleefully posted an article by a local news agency on Facebook (FB). In my post, I asked out-of-state friends to read the comments so that they could understand the level of discrimination.

This brought a flurry of comments, utter disgust from non-Tennesseans, and confusion from Tennesseans. A cousin and two schoolmates felt I had misrepresented our hometown, where they still live.

My cousin was the most upset. She interpreted my comments as a sign that I was ashamed of my family and where I grew up. I understand her confusion. My days in my hometown seemed idyllic. I loved time with my family and did well in school. But there was trauma.

My mother knew it from my first day at the local elementary school. I was nine-years-old. The teacher had directed me to the lower parking lot where my mother was parked. My sister was little, so it was difficult for my mother to walk and meet me. As I walked down the hill, a group of children gathered around me. They encircled me and began chanting, “Me, Chinese. Me play joke. Me put pee-pee in your Coke!” All I remembered were large faces with eyes pulled to slants, laughing and looking down at me. I curled into a ball. 

Within seconds, my mother, toddler slung on one hip, rushed up and began screaming at the kids. She wanted names, but they scattered and screamed back, “Come get us, you big, fat hippopotamus!”

My face was wet with tears, but my mother’s was red and hot. Her anger was frightening. 

From that moment, I wanted to protect her. I kept my shame silent. Shame was knowing my family and I faced discrimination because I was different. I wanted my family to be buffered from the hurt I would endure each day, as someone would pull their eyes or make a ching-chong reference. 

So, I must admit, I was taken back by my cousin’s question of my shame. Was I ashamed of my hometown and family? No.

Traumatized by the racist comments? Traumatized by the marginalization? Traumatized by the hatred? Yes.

When I read the hate-filled comments on the recent same-sex marriage decision, it brought back the trauma of victimization. I felt the trauma of losing my friend, Patrick, to gay bashers. I felt the trauma of being discredited because of my Hispanic name. I felt the trauma of never being “normal” enough to date. 

Many do not believe this to be possible. The two classmates assured me that I would be surprised at the progress made in our small hometown. I agreed to go out with them when I returned for a visit to see it in action. But even today, I know Asian adoptees in Tennessee who suffer the same trauma I did. When you are white and local, it is difficult to see the hurt and hatred that lurks in the school bathroom or a nook in the library. I do not fault them for this blindness, but I do ask them for consideration and understanding that my lens was different from theirs.

While the conversation also meandered around a rural versus metropolitan theory, I just listened. Perhaps it may appear that racism and same-sex marriage discrimination occur primarily in rural areas, but if you are a person of color (POC) or a gay or trans person, you know differently. 

This is the year where my Twitter activism and my personal FB page have intertwined. With that, there will most likely be more discussions of race, gender, sexual orientation and adoption. My FB page will no longer be a celebration of a perfect life; instead, it will be a realistic view of my life. 

As adoption loyalty has fallen away, my shame will no longer be silenced.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Fine Line

Oh, Upworthy! You inspire me, then let me down.

As an admirer of the work Upworthy does, I have applied for a position there more than once. My goal in doing so was to see a focus on adoption and its impact on children. Adult adoptees have a unique perspective on adoption to share. There are various blogs and articles as well as the electronic magazine Gazillion Voices, but not much on Upworthy until this.

The story about Kim Kelley-Wagner has splashed all over my Facebook page and my Twitter feed; she lives in Charlottesville, a city we still consider our original home. At first glance, I was ambivalent. I felt that these words were powerful in the hands of a 13-year-old, that it spoke to people to know how insensitive the general public is on transracial adoption. But the more I delved into it, the more upset I became.

As a parent, I know I have made many mistakes. I caught criticism from a recent article I wrote for The Good Men Project as well as the same article on xoJane. This article was based on a photography project I had started on feminism. Upon seeing the comments, I wondered if I had made a grave mistake in writing the piece and including my son. Understand that I did not get paid to write that article, nor do I use my photographs as a means to advertise a business. For me, my writing and my photographs are vehicles for activism.

Activism was my initial thought in the Kelley-Wagner Images post, until I realized that her post was posted from her photography business page! While it may not have been her intention, Kelley-Wagner appeared to be using her children as advertising props.

Maybe I was blinded by another post by an adoptive parent (Rage Against the Minivan) of other transracial adoptees that had hit the internet around the same time. Her photographs of her transracial adopted children copying an ad for the Gap again seemed like a promotional stunt. Again, this site is this mother’s business site. She sells t-shirts and advertising.

Back to Kelley-Wagner, had her photographs not been on her business site, I might have been persuaded on some level. But as a mother, I still have a problem with them. I would understand the project if it were prompted by the 13-year-old, but had not included the 7-year-old. In my mind, it should be written in the hand of the receiver of the comments. If the comments were said to the mother and the 7-year-old, the mother should be standing in the frame with her daughter to show solidarity.

Now, my friend who is both an adoptee and an adoptive parent asked me why the mother should be in the photograph. She felt the images had more impact with the sad children’s faces. She also pointed out that the mother took the photographs. As an art photographer, I can state that a photographer has the means to take self-portraits. Also, as an “art photographer” and not a “commercial photographer,” I do not sell my images. They are a means for my activism; they are an essential part of my being. Selling them would be selling my soul. If you ask my subjects, you will know that they receive a copy of their photographs.

There is a fine line in activism. While activists do not gain monetary riches, we gain pleasure in knowing we might have touched just one life and made it better.

As an artist, I respect these women’s images and therefore am not sharing either of their photographs, as they belong to their businesses. You may view them via the links above. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

What’s in a name?

This video really spoke to me via Upworthy:

I recalled my father’s early days in Tennessee. “Enrique” was hard to say, so he always told people to just call him “Jim.” So, all the newspaper clips read “Jim Gonzalez.”

This video got me thinking, and of course, when I think, I tweet:
My tweets feed into the Facebook account which I maintain for my friends and not the general public. The last tweet brought a flurry of conversation. Unfortunately, not everyone had read the entire thread. 

Commenters tried to console me by letting me know that they too suffered from the name shortening. When I tried to explain the entire thread, a commenter asked this question: “Is everything about race to you?” 

I responded this way:

“Race is a huge part of me. Not just my Korean self but my Puerto Rican self too. I don’t expect you to know that, but I do expect you to try and understand that. Again, I have been called ‘Roserita, Rosalita, Risotto …’ then, when I correct them, I have been asked, ‘Can I just call you “Rosie”?’ I hate shortened names for that very reason. My children’s names were chosen to be short so they couldn’t be butchered. (But alas, they have been shortened even further.) I get that people like to shorten names often as a expression of familiarity, but that hasn’t always been the case for me. I have had new acquaintances ask to call me ‘Rosie’ and I have accepted that politely … ”

The conversation continued both on my Facebook page and in messenger. The commenter continued that my full Puerto Rican name was as “American” as his. I responded that this is very dependent on what our definition of “American” is. I explained that, to me, the melting pot was a middle class fallacy. 

I doubt my commenter understands that I am profiled and assumed by many just on the basis of my name. This commenter’s name is as generic as John Doe. It is difficult for me to explain my experience to someone who has never experienced what I have. My British husband realized this early in our relationship. When we lived in Tennessee and began our hunt for a new apartment to share, I would call and leave a message about a place leaving my name. No one called me back. Then, he would call the same number, and he would immediately get a call back.

If you have followed me for some time, you know how idyllic my life was in Virginia. I had two very dear Asian friends, my kids had friends who resembled them racially. Our community was less segregated, and I was blissful in my everyday life, but there were hints of a longing for an identity. This commenter met me during this time in my life. I was the model minority. Married to a white man, living in a middle class home and going about my daily life as a mother … that was how I was living. I wasn’t questioning the injustices that most likely happened all around me. I was white by default … having a white mother, a white family and white friends.

The commenter’s final words were these: “… it does concern me that you’re so obsessed with race; I think this obsession is a self-defeating waste of energy.” He’s confused. Trust me, I’m still confused, but clarity is coming. My children are the catalysts for change, that is why I spend my time and energy writing about race and adoption.

It seems the further I distance myself from my white identity, the more I am called, “angry.” As long as I stay silent about the prejudices I feel and experience, the less threatened others feel. But why should they feel threatened? I am not angry, but frustrated and motivated to change how we are viewed.

I cope with my racial identity, adopted children cope, my children cope. But why should we just cope? I want to see our communities recognize and address racial inequities instead of saying “It’s better.” I think it is time for those in places of power to cope with the realities of race. 

As my fifth grade teacher taught me, “Good, Better, Best … never let it rest, ’til the good is better, and the better is BEST.” 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

What sucks about being adopted?

Here I go, down to the depths.

But before I take you there, I want to tell you that it isn’t that I am unhappy with my adoptive family. I am not angry at them or as some might say, “ungrateful.” Far from it. You can read about my mother, my father, my sister and my extended adoptive family in past blogs to understand the extent of our love.

Now, I want to tell you what sucks about being adopted.
  1. I have no birth certificate. —This frustrates me to no end. Every time, I needed proof of my birth, I had to dig out my naturalization papers (from age 5) and my adoption papers (from age 13 months). Well, that is not proof of my birth. Neither list my birth family or birthdate. This leads me to number 2.
  2. I have no true birthdate. — Yes, I have one, but it isn’t my true birthdate. It’s an estimate, a fabricated birthdate based on how I appeared on May, 24, 1968. 
  3. I have no birth story. — This never really bothered me until I had children of my own and realized how elemental it was to celebrate that moment when you take your first breath. I love telling my children’s birth stories, and they love hearing them. It bonds us all as a family because we were there at the creation of our family.
  4. I have no medical history. — This one is a true pain in my rump. With every move or change of health insurance, we must have that initial first meeting with the new doctor. It goes, “Any history of heart disease?” There, I stop them, “No history, I’m adopted.” This happens for me and my children, because obviously, the mother’s family medical history plays into the children’s health.
  5. I am not really Korean. — This one is complicated, and I have written about it numerous times. While my dad fed me kimchi, and my mother sewed hanbok sets for me, I really wasn’t exposed to the Korean culture in the way I would have been had I grown up in a Korean household. So, I find it irritating when I am viewed as Korean, spoken to in Korean, asked about my “real” Korean family, asked if I know Tae Kwondo … well, you get the picture.
  6. Reading or hearing the phrase, “like you’re adopted” (insert snarky, teen voice) — Language. Why must people joke with the word “adopted”? Listen, it isn’t funny, and I don’t appreciate being the butt of a joke. I am #notyourbadword. Adoptees are people with feelings, so refrain from using that word in jokes. Got it?
  7. Being referred to as an “adopted child/children” — Even as we grow into adults, we are referred to as “children.” This is especially prevalent in the media’s headlines and news stories. Someone please add this to the AP Stylebook!
  8. Being left out of the adoption conversation — Big one related to number 7. As adult adoptees, this perception of us as children seems to exclude us from the adoption dialogue. The fear that we might say or write words that might hurt adoptive parents is insulting. If an adoptive parent is hurt by the words of an adult adoptee, that parent is a grown up, remember? Adults should have the maturity to take someone else’s words, understand them and learn from them. 
Now that I have all that off my chest, carry on believing what you want of me, but understand that it might be an assumption by you, dear reader, given your history with adoption. Realize that every adoptee is different, has a unique narrative, and struggles with her own demons.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

They want to know what race we are.

This morning in the rush of getting ready for school, my girl mentions something as she packs her lunch.

“There have been a few racist jokes at school,” she says.

“About what race?” I ask.


Before I can respond, my beautifully mature little girl says, “I don’t think they mean to be mean.”

She continued, “I did tell him that it wasn’t nice to Asians, and he said he would stop.”

For me, that isn’t the point, but I don’t want to hurt her as she tries to ease my pain. That my ten-year-old must address these microaggressions in her early stages of identity development is disheartening at first, but also enlightening. She has the unique position of being perceived as white. As I have written, this fact frustrates her.

And so, the topic of race continued at dinner …

“Dad, am I white?” she asks.

“Yes, but you are also Korean and Hispanic,” my husband explains.

“Wait,” interrupts my son, “So, I should be checking the box that says I am ‘Hispanic’?”

“Yes,” says my husband.

“You have Papito and our Puerto Rican family’s influence in your life,” I say.

“Well, that’s a culture, not a race thing for me,” says my son, “That’s confusing.”

“Ain’t it though … ” I concluded in my thickest Southern accent.

My children and I are still working out our identities, and sometimes, they are far ahead of me!

Recently, I applied to a job. As always, the race factor came into play in the application. But this one left me with no option to check. Sometimes, I just don’t have an answer.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Adoption — A Convenient Excuse and A Contradiction

This post was first published on the Lost Daughters website.

Three. A golden age, when toddlers talk and question. They also test … parents, friends, themselves. When my boy was three, he had a fear of the tub. Oh, the fit he would pitch when taken into the bathroom for that cleaning ritual! But look, could this little one really pitch such a fit?

I was frustrated and pregnant at the time. Sometimes, I felt the need to put myself in a timeout and reflect on the joy of the boy. I took long, deep breaths and escaped to the deck to scream at the top of my lungs.

He grew out of it and would later tell us the reasoning for his fits … he didn’t like feeling wet and cold. “Wow,” I thought, “That was all?”

So, I am trying to wrap my mind around the death of 3-year-old Hyun-su, a Korean adoptee. Since hearing this case, I have felt achy. The trauma of this death picks my nerves. It is as though it has happened to my own child. Could it be I feel a connection to this boy as a Korean … as an adoptee … as the mother of a toddler who feared the bath.

My connection with adoptees is visceral. Our bodies know the loss, the feelings of insecurity, the fear of rejection. What affects one adoptee can have an effect on another. The Lost Daughters felt this in the news of Baby Veronica; we felt physically ill. We also have felt the pain in Dylan Farrow’s accusation of abuse at the hand of her adoptive parent.

Why do we feel so much? We spend our lives trying to fit into our families, our communities and the society at large. But there are reminders that we don’t. When Woody Allen married Soon-Yi Previn, we were told that first he was not her adoptive parent, and second, if he was, it’s just adoption, not blood.

But Ronan Farrow, Mia Farrow and Woody Allen’s biological son, described the truth of his family this way:
“I cannot see him. I cannot have a relationship with my father and be morally consistent. I lived with all these adopted children, so they are my family. To say Soon-Yi was not my sister is an insult to all adopted children.”
How can we not be family because of blood, but be family when it suits the argument?

Today, when discussing the death of Hyun-su, I heard several comments. One was, “I wonder how often this happens in biological families versus adoptive families?” To that I asked, “Why does that matter? Why would child abuse be different in an adoptive family from a biological one?”

But on further discussion, the commenter expressed an interest in research in the differences to bring about a change in the process of adoption.

My irrational reaction prompted a realization that the question upset me because as an adoptee, those questions of biological versus adoptive connection bring back my fears that an adoptive child is less somehow, less a part of the family, less deserving of love, more deserving of tough love.

Hyun-su’s adoptive father, Patrick O’Callaghan, mentioned to investigators that he had not bonded with his son since the October 2013 adoption. If he had not bonded than Hyun-su may have sensed his father’s discomfort with him and may have been fearful of his father’s presence, since his mother was out of the house.

It was also difficult to hear the dismissive comment, “Child abuse happens in biological families too,” as if the loss of this little boy is like that of any other child. However, if we think about it, Hyun-su’s death might have been prevented. What if post adoption services had helped in the bonding? What if adoptive parents had been more carefully screened? What if Hyun-su’s family in Korea had been supported? Despite all these questions, the hardest fact for me is that Hyun-su had no choice. His first family, the adoption agency, the adoption industry, social services all made decisions for him, and they failed him.

Perhaps his only decision was to pitch a fit about a shower when he feared being wet and cold.

We may never know the full story, but for now, a 3-year-old is dead after a traumatic bath time and only four months in the US.

While his pain is over, adoptees are left to feel the lingering pain of his loss.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Two Little Words

Yes, I let the anniversary of my mother’s death (February 2) pass without blogging.

The loss of my adoptive mother, the only one I call “mother” in this blog, was expected. She had had a stroke, been rehabilitated, but not offered the by-pass surgery she needed to survive the heart disease her family claimed as its own. But while we knew my mother’s days were numbered, the shock of her death came as a surprise, and I still suffer from it.

Since the beginning of my adoption, I had always been told the story my parents were told by the adoption agency. My parents never hid any letters or papers they had received; they were up front and honest. I knew that I had been found on May 24, 1968, that an investigation had uncovered nothing, and that I had been given a name and a birthdate.

This narrative is branded into my brain.

I have never owned a birth certificate. My proof of being is my US naturalization papers at age five and my Korean adoption papers at age 13 months. On them, my fake birthday and my fake Korean name are repeated numerous times.

So in the same vein as the moment I received the call about my mother’s death, I experienced a similar shock as I read through my US adoption file which arrived on January 29.

To add to my fake birthday and my fake Korean name were these two little words:

“No Record”

Reading them in black and white, shot pains throughout my body. It was as if every cell was devastated.

These words, “No Record,” repeated, over and over, on what is the equivalent of a birth certificate in Korea, the Ho Juk Deung Bon or Family Registration. It continued to say that my “family” of one (just me) was established on August 8, 1968, and that my name had been given to me on July 19. Interestingly enough, I wondered, “So, what did they call me between May 24 and July 19? Just #5596?

Some really poignant words in my progress reports:

“When she came at first, she had a little hardship adjusting herself, but now she is a different girl. … She is loved a lot by her foster family …and [has] a good relationship between her and her foster mother. … Is attached to her foster mother, [sic] and not shy of strangers.”

I am reminded of that frightened little one in this first photograph.

The “hardship”?!?! The pain I felt reading all these words. My body, my being, my soul were aching for my biological family. The sliver of hope for another family vaporized and vanished.

I am still looking, but in the meantime, a movie trailer has haunted me.

"The Drop Box" - Documentary Trailer from Arbella Studios on Vimeo.

(Trust me, I really hate putting this trailer here. If you have seen it, don’t grant it another view, please.)

My daughter watched it with me. Her response? “The mom doesn’t identify herself because people would judge her.” This, from a ten-year-old. The simplest idea was seen by my daughter despite all the feel-good fluff in the movie.

In the trailer, a man says, “These children are helpless … voiceless. Who will speak for them?”

And I am screaming, “Me!! Let me!!”

Please arm yourself with the facts. I have researched them, and you can find them at the Lost Daughters website in the post, “I was the baby in the box.”

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Faith in Adoption

I am not faithless. I just need to split my faith on the two things that have made me the person I am today.

These two things while different are often paired. They have common goals of love and compassion. They are both based on trust.

Yet, they are used to destroy single mothers, single fathers, children and families.

In the beginning, I was innocent and comfortable. I sang the songs and recited the rules. I told the gleeful stories I was told to tell. My trust was blind.

As time went on and I grew up, I began to learn the truths behind these institutions of faith. I questioned the stories. I questioned the bureaucracy. I questioned myself.

I have learned to trust only those people I have taken the time to know. There are many in these institutions who represent the love and compassion that brought me to them. Then again, there are those who abuse the faith by using it to their own benefit … parsing words to confuse.

My faiths run parallel, but the institutions force them to intersect.

My first faith … faith in God and Jesus Christ.
While I grew up in a Christian home, my adoption did not come out of that faith. My parents did not adopt to add to the Christ counter. I am comfortable and confident in this faith, but oftentimes, you wouldn’t know this about me.

For example, an Atheist friend contacted me to see if I would be willing to participate in an ad campaign for Atheism. (They were looking to show a more racially diverse population.) I politely declined and let her know that I was a Christian. This came as a surprise to her. Rightly so, I do not post Christian posts, Bible verses or Christian memes.

There are many Christians who have failed my faith in keeping children and their biological parents apart, like the story of Philomena Lee. While American readers may think that Philomena’s story is only an overseas Catholic story, they are incorrect.

My fellow Lost Daughters sister had a similar instance with Catholic Charities in Connecticut. While she and her original father tried desperately to find one another, Catholic Charities continued to withhold information from her. Her father went to Catholic Charities and granted permission so that if his daughter came to find him, they could give her his contact information, but when she approached them to ask, they revealed nothing. She and her father later found one another through International Soundex Reunion Registry (ISRR).

This of course, leads me to my second faith.

My second faith … faith in adoption.
This faith is far more complicated for me. My childhood was wonderful, and I was well-loved by my adoptive family. If you have read my blog from the beginning, you know that in terms of my personal adoption narrative with my family, I feel blessed. My life from the time I was 13 months of age has given me experiences that I will treasure until I expire.

This faith has also given me a third family of adoptees, in which I have found joy and sorrow. They have opened my eyes to the many injustices around the world that continue to use children as pawns in the game of religious chess. In the minds of proselytizing Christians, these pawns represent the “irresponsible, sinful mothers,” the “lives that abortion would otherwise snuff,” and the “poverty that no child should suffer.” If the pawns make it across the board to the other side, they will become a revived “queen.”

But the queen is left wandering an empty board, wondering what her purpose is and who she was before. Is she the example of how a lost soul was saved by the promise of a better life? This is the tale told by the churches in Korea as they continue to build more baby boxes. Again, the people of the faith are tarnishing adoption.

These children with no record of their past will soon grow up and recognize the feeling. I liken it to the moment when Giselle in the movie Enchanted realizes her anger for the first time. That feeling of being alive without blinders.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Our Voices

We speak to educate. We listen to learn.

I love NPR, as most know. I listen to all sorts of podcasts. Today, I was listening to Weekend Edition’s Sunday story about transracial adoption. My degrees in journalism tell me I should have heard two sides. But shockingly, there was only one voice … the adoptive parent.

I listen to adoptive parents. This weekend, I attended an adoptive parent workshop to mostly sit quietly and listen. For many years, my comments about adoption have been, as the facilitator of the workshop called, “The Gold Standard.” The room was packed. I felt comforted that these parents cared so much about their children that they were spending their Saturday morning here.

What an experience! The facilitator handed out small slips of paper. On each, a quote from a young transracial teenaged adoptee. Their voices were being heard one by one, out loud and anonymously. It was moving, powerful. As some parent said, “It was as though these children were in the room.”

Then, the facilitator asked, “How many of you know what adoption loyalty is?” Sadly, only five  hands floated upward. Here, parents were hearing for the first time, things their children most likely would never feel comfortable telling them. Out of loyalty and love, these children and I have kept these feelings and thoughts to ourselves. I never wanted to hurt my mother or father with the worries and confusion of being so racially different from them.

After hearing the very raw, young voices of these contemporary adoptees, I felt the need to speak for them and allow them to be heard.

Matthew Salesses blogged today about the need to air adoptee voices:
“Even in the current adoption climate, the adoptee is caught between, spoken for, treated as a purpose, or a context, as a way to improve the adoptive parent or agency, as something to be learned from or ignored, as less an individual with her own agency and more a contribution to the agency of someone else. … But valuing adoptees means actually valuing adoptees’ voices, letting them talk for themselves and not interpreting what they say for one’s own purpose. It’s like this: sometimes I read these articles by adoptive parents talking about their kids as blessings, as gifts, and saying what they have done for their kids, taking them back to their homeland and how good that’s been for them, for the kids and for themselves. So often, this is all second hand, all the parent’s account. Sometimes the parent talks about what she has learned about her child’s original culture, how having an adopted child has opened eyes to Asia or so forth. It’s unbearably parent-centric—all aimed at what the parent can (or rather, learned. And when an article is actually about the adoptee and yet written as if the adoptive parent what is going on in the adoptee’s head, how do I believe that? How does that parent believe that? I can write an entire book about denial, and even if I knew exactly how I felt, I would not have wanted to make my parents pity me, or feel confused about me, or, worse, try to explain or to fix me. I suspect it’s like that for others, though of course I am loathe to do what I am arguing against: to put words in other adoptees’ mouths, no matter how I think I understand.”
I needed to comment on the NPR transcript of the show. I wondered how other parents would react to one parent’s viewpoint. And if NPR wanted to do a show on transracial adoption, wouldn’t a transracial adult adoptee be a good interview to include?

The comments exploded. Adoptees and other parents of transracial adoptees questioned the one-sidedness. Two commenters felt it necessary to joke about the emergence of the word “trans-racial” by comparing the term to “trans-fat.” This only made me feel invisible and unimportant. Was that the purpose of this story?

Then, the NPR story’s adoptive parent, Rachel Garlinghouse, posted a blog post of her own about the comments. She quoted a friend that comforted her by saying, “It didn’t do much to silence critics.  No matter how many times you put one in her place, two more pop up with more crazy.”

First, this pulled me back to the time when I was a child, and maybe did need to be “put in my place,” but I am a grown up. My comments did not mention or attack Garlinghouse. I merely wrote about the one-sidedness of the article. Garlinghouse didn’t at all acknowledge in her blog post the horrible comments made about the term “trans-racial.” I was outraged at the comment that criticized my use of the word bi-racial (for my own children) and said, “There’s the umbrella-effect, of recategorizing a disadvantaged group so you can maximize its number, as well as amplify your tolerance and solidarity by calling it out, or joining it.” Well yes, how about this term … marginalizing.

I feel marginalized as an adult transracial adoptee, until I am among other adult adoptees. We talk and listen. We are hungry for validation. We are our own village, and we want to help those youngsters who will grow up to be a part of this village. The important thing for a child is her sense of belonging.

I would love to mentor young transracial adoptees … listen, reassure and validate their feelings of being one person with her feet in two worlds.

UPDATE: There was a voice, and it was hers to be heard, but NPR chose not to air it. Why?

More blogs that address being unheard:

Friday, December 13, 2013

Well, #theyasked …

Last winter, my sister, hooked me on yet another social medium … Twitter. I blamed her youth (six years my junior).

Truth be told, Twitter has opened my eyes, and allowed me to speak more freely about issues of race, gender and adoption. I’ve discovered role models of color, strong women and fellow adoptees. Refreshing … like that ice-cold Coke on a hot Tennessee summer’s day.

This week, I stumbled across Kat Chow (@katchow) and her #theyasked thread. It began with an NPR Code Switch article from May.

Around the same time as this article, many of my friends sent me this YouTube video, via both private messages and emails.

All of these things have come rushing back this week. Two separate people queried in sensitive ways. Change is happening, and that’s refreshing! The question most commonly asked of me this week was, “I detect a Southern accent … ”

To which, I replied, “You do, indeed!  I’m from Appalachia, the Tennessee side.” Then, there is the usual discomfort in their faces, like they are trying to figure it all out. I understand their confusion, but continue as I normally do, acting oblivious to the true question that is lurking behind their smiles.

Call me narcissistic, but I enjoy watching this quizzical look. You see, I have lived this uncomfortable moment for 46 years … always wondering who I am and “where I am from,” questioning my language, my legal name and the face that looks back at me. All these fabulous things meld into the person I am today … the anomaly that confuses and causes uncomfortable moments.

It certainly makes for interesting conversation. The addition of my husband’s English background causes even more confusion as I use words like “toilet” for bathroom, “holiday” for vacation, and all the rude “b” British terms.

This British connection caused me to hide the YouTube video, sensitive to my in-laws and my own children, but now, I realize that such things spark the race conversation. What is even more interesting are all the comments people feel so beholden to make.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Mothers Without Children

The human interest story, as Martin Sixsmith explains, is about “the weak-minded and ignorant.” The feeble do not deserve the mind of a newsman. However, if you read my blog, you enjoy the human interest story. We all do, and Martin Sixsmith becomes magnetized by the story of Philomena Lee.

We gravitate to the human interest story because it validates our own lives as living, breathing people who feel. We feel love, loss, pain, anger and sorrow.

Going into the Sundance Theater today, I anticipated the emotions. A movie about adoption? Stop right there. I know about adoption all too well … right? I’ve lived it.

This story’s viewpoint floored me. I felt shellshocked as I left the building. In my last post, I reviewed Closure, another adoption film and was touched by the mothers. I began to wonder before seeing Closure and Philomena about my own story … about my first six months.

In my fantasy birth story, which I have based on my own experience from my children’s birth stories, I am conceived around Valentine’s Day (though I doubt Korea celebrated Valentine’s Day in 1967), and I am born two weeks early, around noon.

My mother would have cuddled me and immediately started breastfeeding me. She would love me those six months, but being an impoverished woman, she would be struck with the hard reality that she could not feed me breastmilk exclusively after six months. She would have another mouth to feed without the means to do so. I am also a girl, not a desirable boy.

So, on a spring morning, May 24, 1968, she wraps me up and leaves me at the Chong Yang Ri police station. I imagine she waits at a side shop, her watchful eye focused on her precious bundle. As someone takes me inside the station, tears stream down her face. She walks quickly, then breaks into a run. She hopes to be taken far away from the hurt and pain of letting go.

She wonders about her little girl, just as Philomena says, “I’ve thought of him every day.” I imagine the heavy load of losing a child. I imagine the anger and frustration of feeling hopeless. I imagine the grief in not knowing the fate of your child.

I have lived my life believing that I would never find my birth family unless they came looking for me, but what I have seen in Philomena and in Closure, is the rarity of being able to know the truth. The hurdles and road blocks put up by unscrupulous abbeys and adoption agencies. If families searched, would they find their child? Only if they have the means to do so, and that is rare.

Martin Sixsmith spoke of the “weak-minded and ignorant.” I argue that they are neither, but rather, forced to accept the reality of poverty and powerlessness. It saddens me to think of the mothers without children who long to be mothers again.

It is my turn to take a step, my turn to ask the questions, my turn to weave that loose thread.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Road to Closure (Spoiler Alert)

The evening before the weekend adoption conference, this film played at the Minnesota Transracial Film Festival.

In it, I followed adoptee Angela from Bellingham, Washington, to a town I know well, Chattanooga, Tennessee. Her journey is emotionally agonizing, yet beautiful. The filmmaker’s eye is keenly sensitive, yet honest.

Emotions pooled within me that I hadn’t known … a yearning, an aching for biological parents. I have spoken of my adoptive parents through much of this blog. But this night, I began to see the struggles and agonies of those whom adoptive children have left behind.

Angela is brave enough to confront these yearnings, as so many of my Lost Daughters’ sisters have. At 46, it seems futile for me to search … I think my parents could be long gone. But as this movie illustrated, it was bigger than Angela and her original parents. There were siblings, a grandmother, aunts, uncles, and others who wanted to know the lost sibling, granddaughter and niece.

Angela’s biological father also finds that he is not sterile as he had been told, and that in fact, he has a daughter! His delight is infectious. It reminded me of the delight in Haley’s father’s eyes on seeing her in China (Somewhere Between). I imagine the pain of these fathers and of Dusten Brown. It is not enough to recognize the loss of the original mother, but the pain and injustice to fathers who only want to love their children.

I also viewed a side of the adoption industry that troubled me. While I have read these things, to see them in action was agonizing. The agency in Angela’s original mother’s case revealed only scant, but troubling information about Angela’s biological sister’s “severe depression and possible multiple retardation,” reported in 1996, despite having the information about her whereabouts and adoptive family directly in front of her. The adoption agency worker in her Southern way carefully offered to contact “a worker at that office … to see if they have any way of contacting the other family.”

On the other hand, a touching, true testament to Angela’s adoptive mother’s love, was revealed. Every year, she had sent Angela’s birth mother a card with a letter chronicling Angela’s life. True love transcends all. But unfortunately, the adoption agency did not follow through and pass on these letters of love from one mother to another. In this film, Angela, her original mother and her adoptive mother share in the opening of this time capsule … so many years late in the opening.

Just as Angela’s adoptive mother had, my father and mother honestly shared all the information they had with me from a very early age. My parents respected me as an individual and loved me. I couldn’t ask for more … but then again, I just might need to ask the agency a few questions …

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Adoptees are a family.

As an adoptee, there are so many people who create your sense of self … adoptive families, birth families, and most importantly, adoptees. The latter has not come into fruition for me until this year. In September of last year, I met my first Korean adult adoptee. It was a serendipitous meeting.

So much has happened in this last year, but the cap to this year has been my connection to the Lost Daughters. I have learned so very much from them. The stories are all so different, but then again, so familiar.

How we got here has shaped us, and we continue to grow. The internet has granted us access to so many people. Again, only this year have I dived into the sea of social media; the wading has ended.

This flood of people has taught me so much about the struggles we all have … struggles with seeing our original birth certificates, struggles in not having birth certificates, struggles in blending two very important families into one.

Adoptees converged on St. Paul this weekend for the Adoption Policy and Reform Collaborative Conference. My drive to St. Paul had me in a twist of ambivalence. I feared rejection again from the group for having loved my adoptive parents, rejection from having not searched for my birth family, rejection for just being me.

What I discovered was a group that welcomed and enveloped me, as tentative as I was. We are our comfort. Thank you, adoptees.

Enveloped by the Lost Daughters.

With my Lost Daughter sisters.

With Deann Borshay Liem of First Person Plural.

With Fang Lee of Somewhere Between.

Friday, November 15, 2013

My friends and family made me.

This week was my birthday week. Saying “week” must sound selfish, but to be honest, it is the best way for me to celebrate. My mid-November birthday was “given” to me by the Korean government so I have no “birth story.” I have my first pair of shoes that show the year I was born (Sheep). They have cracked with age much like my identity. So, give me a birthday week, people.

My week began with my friend, Adrienne. She and her son visited. Her story of the weekend is here. Adrienne has been my link to my birth country, Korea. She brought me beautiful Korean gifts.

My birthday week brought lovely gifts from my friend, Katherine. She reminded me where my heart lies … Virginia.

But the most poignant gift came from my kids. Their gift was this movie (from my wish list).

I promised them that we would watch it as a family when I return.

So, to cap off my week, I am headed to St. Paul to the Adoption Policy and Reform Collaborative Conference. This will be my way of filling in the cracks. Stay tuned …

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

We are entitled.

Yesterday on a drive around town, my son again opened up the conversation. “I know you are going to hate this, but … ”

These days with a teen, I just never know what is going to be said. One painstaking one was, “I didn’t choose to be born.” Choices. We all have them. Some more than others.

In my teenage days, my stab came in the form of “I wish you had never adopted me.” I’ve been turning all these sayings over in my head, and I regret that last one, just as my son apologized for his.

This week, I was also reminded of my time in Rwanda in the 1990s. Choices in Rwanda were more fundamental. Choices were built on survival. Do you fetch water or go without? Do you trap animals in the forest or go hungry? Western eyes would enter and assess with Western views. Fundamental survival is not a Western worry.

I see parallels in the adoption community. Some adoption agencies and potential adoptive families look at adoption as a way of saving the adoptee. Saving a child from the culture of have nots. But what is it they do not have? A plethora of dining choices? Filtered, bottled water? The newest technology? A chance at fleeting fame?

Much has been said about international adoptees’ lack of gratitude. If a teenage adoptee is not the model teenager (though what teen is), there is the option of rehoming. But what person is grateful when he or she have no choices or too many?

Child adoptees have no choices. They do not choose their parents. They do not choose their futures in families. So what can we do as a society that cares for our children and the future of our world? Listen. The voices of adult adoptees should not be hushed or asked to take a more thankful tone. Adult adoptees are actively looking out for the futures of the young. Choices in the lives of child adoptees need to be mindful and adapted based on past mistakes and successes. 

As a parent, I have parented with a level of choices for my children. When they were small, I realized that my children really did not have the ability to make educated choices, so I often gave them two accepted choices. Now that they are older, I struggle to offer the choices that will ultimately determine whether or not they will make the choice I would. My son is old enough now to see my cracks and flaws and point them out. He sees my choice may not be the best one.

So, his question yesterday ended with “ … I don’t want another phone unless it is an iPhone.” Imagine my frustration. He saw it, then said, “Really, Mom. You love your iPhone and cannot do without it.” Point taken. 

In the 1970s, when Nike became THE shoe, I had a similar conversation with my father. “I don’t want my buddies, I want Nikes!” My parents did not have the means to buy these expensive shoes, so I heard this little ditty as I walked the halls, “Buddies, they cost a dollar-99. Buddies, they make your feet feel fine … ”

My father responded by drawing the Nike symbol on a piece a paper and asked if I might hand him my buddies so that he could draw that coveted symbol on them. Okay, Dad, after all these years. Point taken.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Woman in the Mirror

When I was small, my mother would often be presented with this question:

“Will you tell her she’s adopted?”

My mother’s response was always, “Oh, she has only to look in the mirror!” I talk about this in my first blog post in 2007. When I began this blog, it was to honor my mother and father and to record my history for my children.

The last year has brought many revelations. I’ve met more adoptees, watched adoption movies, written for the Lost Daughters … and I have looked in the mirror more closely. 

Today, as a transracial adoptee, I am often presented with this question:

“When did you know you were racially different?”

Initially, my simplistic answer was, “When I saw myself in the mirror.” But that answer is really a reflection of my mother’s story and her answer. I have repeated that answer for close to 40 years.

Now, the mirror reveals so much more. She’s Korean, yes, but she also still sees the white Tennessean, the Puerto Rican, the wife of the white Brit, and the mother of mixed race children. Unfortunately, the rest of the world only sees what the mirror reflects.

Perhaps that is my biggest frustration. I am so much more than Korean. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Love that Breaks the Mold

Re-homing and litigations have flooded the media stream. I have watched these stories repeat the anger and anguish in the Lost Daughters sisterhood. This frustration and repeated hurt weighed heavily on me.

Just as I felt I could take it no more, my family flew into town! All those negative feelings fell away from me when I saw my father, my sister and my niece. 

It was a euphoric weekend. Words cannot express what my photographs can. It was a joyous time, filled with laughter and love. My father can be so infectiously funny; he brings out the comedian in my son too. 

My daughter told me she heard my sister’s “Mommy voice” but that my sister’s voice was more “thoughtful.”  We were told by my children and my niece that the events on Sunday would not include us! Little did they know, we were thrilled by this declaration, though we didn’t show our delight.

But my sister and I were able to spend time with our father and each other.

We honored the legacy of our mother, in my separate photography project, Portrait of a Feminist.

And while I never was able to photograph my mother’s hands, my memory served me well when I saw my sister’s hands. Hers resembled those hands I remembered … the ones that comforted me, embraced me and held me throughout my life.

Many may ask if this biological resemblance might make me long to have the same. I do not. They might ask if I am saddened that I do not share this physical similarity. I am not. My family is that … my family. Their love sustains me, just as it continues to do for my children. 

Those who know us see the love that broke the mold. Even those unfamiliar with us see it. This Monday, I took my niece to my daughter’s school so that she could see my daughter. A teacher politely said, “I didn’t know you had another child.”

I replied, “Oh, I don’t. This is my niece.”

“Oh! I thought she was yours since she looks just like your daughter!” 

Other friends, upon seeing the photographs of our daughters, wrote things like, “Looking at 2 mini-me’s!” 

We just chuckle, because we know that biologically, our girls are not similar. We love the assumption though!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Perfection is a Façade

An article on Carol Shipley’s new book, Love, Loss and Longing: Stories of Adoption, took my breath away this morning.

Her words had played out in my head for so many years. She said she wanted to be the voice for the voiceless. I had lost my voice years ago. I gave up to become what society wanted me to be.

I became white, Puerto Rican, and an academic over-achiever. My parents glowed as they would say, “It’s not us. She’s naturally smart. She’s so neat and intelligent. It’s in her genes.” They were proud, and I wanted to please them.

My academic achievements were also driven by my outward appearance. As an Asian, I was viewed as a mathematical genius. Teachers and college professors would encourage me to pursue mathematics. Mathematics did come naturally to me, but I yearned to express myself in words and artwork.

Shipley is quoted in the article saying that adoptees internalize an “adoption bargain” that manifests in the need “to be a perfect model daughter so the choice that the adoptive parents made will have been worth it.”

While I know my parents would love me no matter my performance, internally, I struggled with myself to be perfect in every way. I still exhibit this as an adult. I want to be the model parent, the model wife, the model person. As I spiral, I see this quality in my son. He also wants that perfection. He fears failure. Good grades are often not enough for him. I want to help him, but I still find myself struggling with the same demons.

Is there a person in Korea who could help me? Or did that person fear failing in parenthood? By all accounts, she did an excellent job in nurturing me until I was six months old. Her care and nursing has kept me healthy, and I have passed on her flora to my own children.

Here’s where my feelings rush in. I wonder about her and have since that first moment I knew I was pregnant. Not being able to ask her what she felt as I moved underneath her skin is a difficult feeling to suppress.

Shipley says, “The adoptee goes through life not wanting to hurt others, and in doing so, buries her own hurt.”

As a child, my hurt was recorded privately in journals. There are volumes of journals in our basement, spanning the days of “I love Donny Osmond,” to this blog. My emotions rush out on paper or over the keys. I also put much of my energy in trying to help others who might be in need or hurting. Social activism is my outlet. And sometimes, the hurt for others overcomes me.

This blog has helped me to know that others are out there hurting as I have. It has been a cathartic journey. I thank you for following; it heals me.

Monday, October 14, 2013

American = White

I am exhausted. The shutdown, the politics, the racists.

Our lives are consumed by the government shutdown. The man is growing his beard until he can go back to work. That makes me cranky. I can’t kiss that.

But back to my rant. The hardest part for me is the showing of the rebel flag. I grew up in the South where the rebel flag flies high and proud … bumper stickers, t-shirts, flags on the back of pick-up trucks. I moved to escape them and the constant ridicule they brought me. I moved to erase the feelings of fear.

Despite my move from the Deep South, I am reminded that the attitudes and pride in those attitudes still live on. Just this summer, as I was enjoying a outdoor, public dance, a woman stood with her back just feet from my face. Her shirt emblazoned with that familiar, fear-evoking flag.

Now, our president is faced with this same flag. Let me repeat that: Our president is faced with this same flag. The Washington Post blogger, Jonathan Capeheart truly sums up my feelings when he writes:
“For those of you who would push back by saying we’re overreacting, that the Confederate flag is nothing more than a symbol of regional pride, save it. That flag you revere so much is no better than a Swastika, a threatening symbol of hate that has no place in American political discourse.”
The Politico, backs up this idea as it quotes Samuel Wurzelbacher, known as “Joe, the Plumber,” from an article he wrote. Wurzelbacher writes:
“Admit it. You want a white Republican president again. Wanting a white Republican president doesn’t make you racist, it just makes you American.”
I interpret this to mean that if you are American, you want a president like you … white and male. This frightens me, that people in our country feel so strongly about this. That white equals American.

As a young Asian adoptee raised predominately by a white, Southern family, I once bought into that belief. I felt white, despite almost daily teasing that told me the truth … I was Asian.

I left the South almost twenty years ago. I love my Southern family and enjoy holidays where I can stay safely in the confines of my childhood home, but the moment we leave the house, the images from which I want to protect my children are everywhere. They are shocked at the sight of the flag. They know what it means, and I want to protect them from that gut-gripping fear I feel when I see it.

And yet, I cannot protect them. The divide in our country is emerging, and it is very much along the lines of race. I want to believe that the majority of Americans will soon see this divide and demand a reconciliation that respects our president because he was elected president, regardless of his race.