Let’s Talk about Transracial Adoption

Code Switch: Our Homeland is Each Other (10/10/2018)

Before reading, I invite those who are following and reading along on my journey to pause and listen to this whole episode. My words cannot do justice for what the interviewees do in this episode. Second, I am one person and I am not in this space to speak for other adoptees. Each of our stories and experiences are different and unique. I share my own in the hopes of reclaiming my voice and story and to add context to the current narrative.

So maybe two years ago, my husband and I took a quick weekend trip away while our kiddos stayed with grandparents. For some time he had been telling me about a podcast episode on transracial adoption he’d heard about that he felt like would be meaningful for me. I’m the kind of person who needs to let things marinate a bit before jumping in so I had been hesitant to listen.

I think, for many reasons, my adoption and adoption itself were not anything new for me or some kind of mystery. I was at an age of awareness when I went to live with my adoptive parents and understood on some small level that it was an important layer to who I was. I also just didn’t have a sense that others might relate to or know my internal thoughts in such an intimate way. I hadn’t met many adoptees, let alone transracial adoptees in my life. Along with the ideas about adoption I had been given, it didn’t lend itself to exploring the experiences of the few I did know.

In listening to this podcast on our drive home from our weekend getaway I stepped into a hug born of loss and pain. Hearing other adoptees speak of things I had spoken aloud but hadn’t fully comprehended, it was an acknowledgment of all the things I had fumbled to string into coherent thoughts.

I am a Korean American transracial adoptee who went to live with my adoptive parents when I was nine years old. Prior to this, I was bounced around from home to home of my Korean family members and a family friend. Some of my time was spent in the US, some in Korea. I was raised in my latter years by white American adoptive parents. I don’t want to bore you with all details if you’ve already been following along so for those who may be new, I have past posts that tell more of my story.

I recognize the privilege of my experience in that questions about who my birth/first family are are not part of my experience. I have always known, at least in a concrete sort of way, who my birth/first family were/are. Knowing this also meant that the loss I experienced was something I could name, something I could see. It was faces I no longer saw, food I no longer ate or smelled, traditions and holidays no longer celebrated.

My life after going to live with my parents was spent trying to find something that was within reach but I couldn’t grasp. Something I knew in some part of me but couldn’t clear the haze enough to fully picture. I cannot imagine feeling this loss in an abstract sense that I imagine other adoptees who were much younger have, the knowing that something is missing and yet not having a sense of what that exactly is. It would seem a disconcerting and never-ending quest for something that even when reached might not be fully realized. I cannot image that pain.

Not fitting anywhere is an unease that dwells in my bones, even still today. It’s the not whatever…Asian…Korean…American…white enough. I see themes of living in-between when I read about other transracial adoptees’ experiences. Proximity to whiteness due to living with my adoptive parents did not actually make me accepted by my white peers. I still wear the same face indistinguishable to others as belonging to the AAPI community. I was still the brunt of all the “Asian” jokes with kids pulling their eyes back, calling me “flat-face,” or “slant-eyes,” being fetishized as some sexual object solely for their possession and pleasure. Or when I was targeted for an “Asian scavenger hunt” simply because I exist looking as I do…I was not exempt from these experiences because I was adopted.

And yet, I also struggled to be in the fold with other Koreans, other Asians. As divorced as I was from my culture, I couldn’t draw upon it enough to be accepted and welcomed in those circles. In part, this is not a result of adoption itself but because it resulted in not being immersed in the culture enough to be seen as authentic. Some combination of all of this resulted in me shunning any curiosity in my culture until later in my adulthood. While I recognize that there are things I wish had been done differently by my adoptive parents, I also recognize they did the best they could equipped with the limited knowledge they had of adopting a transracial child.

Adoption is complex and transracial adoption only more so. When I was young and dreamed of starting my own family, I often thought I, too, would adopt. Even as I struggled with my own feelings of abandonment, I hadn’t yet connected it all full circle to my own adoption. It’s not a conversation my husband and I have revisited in some time. I’m grateful for a partner in life who is as supportive and nurturing as he is. Someone who steps back to give me space to breath, think, and grow.

I recently saw a post from someone in the adoptee community on the topic of pro- versus anti-adoption. I tread carefully here. Adoption and transracial adoption a complicated space, raw with emotion for many of us due to our losses, abandonment, regrets, and a host of other bits of baggage. It’s only compounded by the involvement of multiple invested parties that all have a stake: adopted children, birth or first parents, adoptive parents, and others. It is not in my nature to take an all or nothing stance on many issues as I often can empathize and understand the various perspectives involved. Please don’t misunderstand that to mean I agree with all sides or condone the actions of all individuals. My background and experiences have taught me the value of exercising this and I endeavor to do this as much as I am able. I strive to learn from others’, examine my own ideas and beliefs, and adjust my views as needed based on new information. So with that, I am not here to denounce or condemn any view on the issue of adoption.

My parents were provided little in the way of support for raising a transracial child. No resources or guidance was given, to my knowledge, on how to best support this split identity I would have from that moment on. Best practices on how to cultivate strong connections and reflections of myself were non-existent. That’s certainly not to say that those things would have saved me from the grief of losing part of myself but having some connections certainly might have helped minimize the constant otherness I feel.

I often wonder what adoption must be like now for families. Are these things that agencies are discussing? In some spaces, it seems maybe. I don’t know that trainings or information like that eases my discomfort. As I mentioned, I don’t necessarily disagree with adoption itself…I have discomfort in the system of adoption. I can understand the pain of couples who have tried to start their own families, yearning for the same love and relationship I’ve been able to have with my own children. From a young age, I knew I wanted children. I cannot imagine the pain and heartache of not being able to give that love away freely the way I’m able. So I cannot place my discomfort entirely at the feet of hopeful adoptive parents, it would seem unfair to me.

I also understand the genuine barriers and challenges for some birth/first families. Our society is such that there is a great divide between the haves and the have-nots, only exacerbated by the racial inequities woven into the very foundation of our nation. The despair I imagine some feel wondering how they can support and care for a new human life might be overwhelming. I also don’t know that I am confident that adoption is always the right answer to those barriers and challenges. It would seem to me that in a society as advanced as ours, we would have better systems in place to support our citizens and reduce inequities, but what do I know? I know the struggles and barriers my first family experienced. I know, on some level, the challenges to keeping me. I can empathize with the pain and loss of making these decisions and the stigma attached.

As far as international adoptions, I cannot even begin to know enough about all the layers of context around culture, politics, religion, etc. to speak intelligently to that.

Largely, my discomfort on adoption is laid at the feet of the system of adoption. A system that seems to relish in the trauma of children being removed from families. A system that seems to minimize that removal’s impact on children. A system that practices, what I would think, are ethically questionable practices with birth/first parents that borders very closely to manipulation or coercion. A system that seems no better, at times, than a child black market, posting children and their qualities for people to fawn over as though some good being marketed. A system that would practice and allow adoptive families to find new families for children they deem to “not be adjusting well.” What are we dogs? The system props up privilege as currency and weaponizes the pain and trauma of all involved.

Certainly there’s more nuance and depth in the conversation around adoption and transracial adoption. There are layers around the gratitude and savior model that adds texture to the narrative along with notions around divine intervention. That’s the term my mother often used growing up. By chance, she happened to cross paths with my birth father while he was still alive. She believes she recalls seeing a young girl as well. She and I discussed this from time to time with her coming to the conclusion that it was kismet of sorts…as though God were giving her some calling to care for me. I was meant to be their child. I talk more about the weight of being chosen here along with a great read from Nicole Chung on her experience as a transracial adoptee. While I know that my mother’s intention wasn’t of ill-will, what I often think about with this story is that for me to be their child, I also had to lose my father and all of my family. Somehow our kismet adoption also meant a significant and traumatic loss. Somehow this notion is sold to so many adoptive parents as a means of comforting their adoptive children when telling our story.

I don’t know that there is a “right” way to do transracial adoption that eliminates the pain, loss, and nagging othering that is likely to be part of the experience. I don’t say that to mean one should not do it. I think awareness of what it means and what the experience might be like is a start to doing a bit better with situations that may be inevitable, given our current society and system. Do I think doing better is the solution? I honestly don’t know. I do know that if something could have better supported me in my situation, I might be grappling less with my sense of self. I suppose that’s something.


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