Wednesday, July 23, 2014

"Orphans" and Economics

One of my most recent eye-opening lessons in the international adoption community is how “family preservation” is viewed. It seems to make people feel uncomfortable, even a bit threatened, yet it would help so many more children than adoption does.

Anyone involved in international adoption is aware of the role of money. Adoptions cost around $30,000-$40,000. Children who are adopted internationally have birth families that are poor, some more abjectly than others. Children who are adopted internationally have adoptive families who are way better off economically than their birth families. Yes, there are exceptions, but that’s a reality in most cases, whether you were born in Korea, China, Haiti, Russia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, or India. It’s a definite imbalance of power.

Adoptive parents often hold fundraisers to get the thousands of dollars they need to adopt internationally. Friends, family, and strangers contribute. Many of the parents then claim the adoption tax credit after the child is with them, and that way get reimbursed by the US government for the airfare, hotels, meals, and other adoption expenses.

I’m holding a fundraiser, but it’s not for adoption. It’s for family preservation in my home country of Ethiopia. I was placed for adoption not because I was an orphan, or because my parents had died, but because they were poor.

I have told myself I was done fighting with time, I cannot reclaim the past, and I am ready to move forward.  Moving forward has meant not obsessing over every specific detail of what happened and what was lost. It’s a struggle.

I’m not giving up on the struggle, and I am happy that I now know my Ethiopian family. They are happy that I grew up safe and healthy, with a good education. Still, I’ve seen the heartache that adoption has caused each of us, in different ways. These days, I ask myself often what I can focus on. What can I do to fix a broken system, which had failed my first family and many other Ethiopian families like mine?  A system that means mothers must lose their children perhaps forever, that sends children to an orphanage, simply because their parents are too poor to keep them. I decided to open my eyes to my pain and that of first mothers and fathers. I’m not weeping anymore; I’m working.

With this in mind, I am returning to Ethiopia in August to visit my family. My 7-year-old daughter will meet her Ethiopian grandmother for the first time, along with the rest of my family there. On August 17, I will run a half marathon in a national park not far from where my family still lives, and where I lived for my first 5 years of life.

I am running to raise funds for Bring Love In, an organization that unites women who are widows with children who need mothers. Bring Love In also works alongside families who need just a little economic help (about $40 a month) so that they can keep their children with them, and out of orphanages. I find their mission extremely moving and powerful. They, like me, believe in family preservation. 

As an American, I am aware of the role of money flowing into Ethiopia because of adoption: millions of dollars. Some is for adoption/orphanage fees, some for court costs, some for hotels, guesthouses, translators, drivers, and guides. Many people have benefited financially from international adoption; some ethically, some not. It’s hard to talk about the role of money without also talking about fraud and corruption, as well as economic inequity. Americans, western Europeans, Canadians, and Australians spend thousands of dollars for adoption and travel costs in Ethiopia, a country where the gross national income per capita is about $400 a year. (In the US, the GNI per capita is about $47,000.)

As an Ethiopian and an American, I want this to change. I refuse to let anyone write off Ethiopia as a poor and helpless country. There is so much beauty and potential. As an adoptee who is a part of the African Diaspora, I have a sense of duty and obligation to my people and to my family.

My fundraiser to promote family preservation has sparked many conversations. Some people will not donate because they feel my cause is taking away the availability of adoptable children, but that’s not true. There are and will always be children who need safe and loving homes, and who cannot stay in the one to which they were born. Poverty, though, should not be the only reason they are adopted.

Some people admitted to me that they feel threatened by the idea of family preservation, and are far more comfortable with contributing to adoption fundraising. But no mother should lose her child, and no child should lose her mother, because they don’t have the pittance of money we waste on a given weekend here.

I’ve also received beautiful messages and words of encouragement from complete strangers, which has moved me to tears. Some have never been to Ethiopia, and probably never will go, but they understand why this matters.    I’ve never felt so moved by and connected to a project, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to make a difference.

My goal of $5000 is small, relative to the costs of adopting. All the money (tax deductible for donors) will go to Bring Love In (except for 3% that goes to Crowdrise). No tax credit or tax benefits for me. That small amount of money will mean that 10 families will be supported for a year—none of the children will go into an orphanage. They will receive food, clothing, and education.

Imagine if I were able to raise $30,000. Or $300,000. Someday.

I thought $5000 would be an easy amount to raise, and I was wrong. It’s been a struggle, and a reminder that family preservation is far less popular than adoption, at least in terms of fundraising. It doesn’t have the same appeal as many orphan care programs, because most of these children, like most internationally adopted children, aren’t actual orphans. Those who are orphans are remaining in Ethiopia, living with widows as their moms through Bring Love In. The fundraiser is doing well, but I still have a ways to go with fewer than 30 days left. I appreciate any help you can give me in this race towards a transparent, compassionate future for vulnerable children and their families.

If you would like to donate or share information about my fundraiser, thank you. Here is the link:

Awassa Reading Center, Ethiopia 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Oh This Wicked Faith

Oh this wicked faith of mine
And because of what
Why does this keep happening to me
It's not the first time
It seems to happen every time

Why is that
How could that be
Could it be my olive skin
My dark brown Asian eyes or my raven black hair
Is it happening only because I'm Asian
And dress a certain way

I admit that I'm Asian
I'm proud to be Asian and I won't ever deny it
I refuse to be a sexual object
I shouldn't have to be punished based on who my parents are

Docile and submissive I'm anything but that
Maybe it's the Asian fever
Is the Asian fever eqvivallent to a curse

What's so special with an Asian girl ?
Is it really that exoctic
As they claim it is
Why is it that I get noticed wherever I go by the opposite sex
It's not like I'm doing something special

No longer will I confuse male attention with love
Real love means that they accept you and respect you
And think less of a womans body and clothes
Maybe it's my youth or
 Asian heritage I can't be sure

No I say no
Stop this right now
This was the last time
I wasted time on worrying about a boy

I should not be concerned
About weither or not a boy likes me
What's important is something
That I almost forgot
Do I like somebody
Not do they like me or why do they like me

The truth if is as follows
Sure I'm Asian but only by birth and heritage
I'm so much more than just a plain Asian stereotype
You seem to forget among all your prejudices
That I am in fact a human too
I have a heart, feelings and a mind of my own

I refuse to be somebody's personal Gheisa
To be transformed into another man's Asian doll
Blackmailed and threatened into
Nothing more than a personal slave

I'm tired of being a stereotype
As soon as people see me
They assume they know exactly who I am
Just by looking at the colour of my skin
Or the way I choose to dress
Being Asian is so much more
Than eating rice and singing karaoke
Its a culture, heritage
More importantly a human race

Dad keeps telling me I have a choice
People always have
What guy should I strive towards then
A guy whose just like me
Or someone my parents could accept

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


Control. That word was repeated numerous times at KAAN (Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network Conference) a few weeks ago. I guess I always knew it deep down … that I had a freakish need for control. In the past, I phrased it as “anal retentiveness.”

I control many things in my adult life, and I enjoy the stability I feel with that control. If I control my life, there are no surprises … right?

Wrong. Everything about my adoption was not controlled by me. It was controlled by the Korean culture, the Korean government and Holt International.

As I grew up, I learned again that my life was out of my control. I couldn’t control the remarks or the ridicule from others. I couldn’t control my appearance, though I tried.

I tried to be more white; I tried to fashion an eyelid crease. I suppressed my Korean side and emphasized my place in a lower, middle class, Tennessee family. If I was going to be oppressed, I wanted it to be for an affliction that could be remedied. I wanted to regain control.

We all have those instances where we feel oppressed for many different things: our accent, our clothing, our socioeconomic status, our religious affiliation …

Please understand, I am not downplaying these things, but they are things that can be changed or hidden. I cannot hide my face, my eyes or my ochre skin.

Just like the woman on this train in Australia, I would not have been able to control the words of this racist woman. (Be warned there is foul language in this video. Extremely triggering.)

In the racist’s defense on the local news, she talks about criticism she has received in the past. She diverts attention from her remarks by using her hardships … work problems, money problems. Here I have started to understand that often when we are oppressed we are blind to the oppression of others, and we lash out.

Watching this footage was triggering. Her words and gestures brought back all those times where I had no control over what was said to me. My reaction was always to take the words, say nothing and then, silently slink off to a private place to cry. I have done that for years. Lately, my coping mechanism has changed. I learned this at the KAAN conference. When I feel out of control, I lash out at my family … possibly because I know they will still love me.

My daughter has asked when adoption will stop being the focus of my thoughts … when my frustration and misfired anger will stop. While I can never disassociate myself from my adoption, I recognized this in myself at KAAN and have returned determined.

I am resolute in channeling my outrage into change for their sake.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Let Freedom Ring

It’s Independence Day in the USA.  It is a time to celebrate the remarkable day 238 years ago when our young American colonies severed their national allegiance to Great Britain with those courageous words, We hold these truths to be self-evident.

Today, Americans all over the world pause to hold their families and friends close and give thanks for our many freedoms.  Today, I pause to reflect on the ways that, despite my American freedoms, I still oppress myself.

But I haven’t introduced myself.  I am Soojung Jo, born of a Korean mother 37 years ago.  I lived with her for 18 months, and then at the Sungrowon orphanage for another 18 months, and in 1980 I was adopted to a US family.  With that loving family, I experienced all the typical joys and heartaches of youth. Underneath, I wore another layer of unacknowledged discomfort that many transnational adoptees have experienced.  These were feelings I had no vocabulary for back then: displacement, pathological mourning, racial and cultural identity, and mostly, that greatest of undefined words, han.

As a kid, Independence Day was a time for family picnics, matching glow-in-the-dark outfits, and fireworks.  It was a party to celebrate the freedom concept that I was too young to grasp.  When I joined the Army, freedom was suddenly not just something bestowed upon me, but something I was sworn to fight for.  It was what my friends and I were willing to die for, if called, for we learned that there is nothing more valuable.  Let us be forlorn, let us be isolated, let us be destitute – but let us be free.

I cherish the freedoms of this country, and I am grateful for those who keep us free.  In the spirit of honoring liberty, I declare my own independence from self-oppression, and list these facts as proof of my self-repeated injuries and usurpations:

     ShameAs an adopted person, I allowed myself to feel ashamed of my feelings of abandonment and exclusion.  I felt a duty to gratitude and happiness that did not allow room for a full range of appropriate emotions.

     CensorshipI became a first-class social monitor, constantly scanning others for clues about how I should act and speak in order to be accepted. 

     Self-rejectionI forsook the beauty of this unique experience and my scars for the Pleasantville version of my life.  I became an online dating version of myself.

     MartyrdomI assumed the role of martyr in two ways.  First, as an adopted person I  presumed to corner the market on loss.  Second, as a mother I acted in so-called selflessness, but what I really desired was recognition.

In response to those injuries, I submit the following self-evident truths:

     No feeling is wrong.  Thoughts, words, and responses might be wrong, but the underlying feelings come from a place of truth and must not be denied.

     Everyone has a struggle.  Though they range in nature, size, and intensity, no struggle is better or worse.  They are all valid.

     Every voice has a venue.  Whatever your message might be, if it comes from a place of integrity, there is someone else who needs to hear it.  No voice should be silent, for it might be the one that makes a life difference to someone else. 

     The greatest human need is connection.  Whatever reason you have for the hard walls around your heart, you will need to resolve it in order to gain meaningful connection with others.  Without meaningful connection, we can’t achieve wholeness.  My reason was being separated from my mother and country at the age of 3, and then the isolation of lonely childhood in Kentucky.

     We receive as much love as we open ourselves to.  The only thing that limits our capacity to be loved is our willingness to accept it.  Once accepted, love fills us like a reservoir that will, if given a chance, overflow.  My children taught me how to open my heart.  Because of that, when my Korean family found me last year and my two mothers met, I had the capacity to accept them both.

These are the ways that I declare independence from my personal forms of bondage.  This doesn’t meant that I’ve gotten my act together, only that I’ve identified some of the ways I need to be free.  Remember, after the Declaration of Independence it took our founding fathers 13 more years to enact the Constitution, and we're still amending it today.  What does your freedom look like, and in what ways can you liberate yourself? 

I leave you with two thoughts, from a couple of the greatest female minds of our time.

The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off. ~Gloria Steinem

Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.  ~Toni Morrison, Beloved

About me:
You can't label a person, but if you tried, these are some of the labels I've worn:  daughter, orphan, adopted daughter, wife, soldier, veteran, engineer, manager, mother, adopter, writer.  I contribute to the Lost Daughters blog and several adoption-related anthologies, all in development. I wrote for the now-retired blogs Faiths and Illusions and Grown in My Heart.  I have an American family that raised me and a Korean family that lost and found me. Both families met in 2013.  I live with my husband, Brett, and four children (3 biological, 1 adopted from China) in Southern California.

Find me at or on Facebook as Soojung Jo.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Decision To Search

Dear Readers,

My column is going to focus on the journal entires I have been keeping since deciding to search for and reunite with my Birth Mother in early 2010. My story is remarkable - just like yours is or surely will be.  I have yet to meet an adult adoptee who was victim to the closed adoption records of the 1960’s and 1970’s that can say that the experience of reunion has not changed who they are, how they look at the world, and how they view adoption.  My reunion took a naive young Mom of three (me), who had just adopted a baby girl from Ethiopia primarily because of her own “white picket fence” adoption experience and transformed her into somewhat of an emotional wreck, passionate about opening adoption records and preserving biological families when at all possible.  I look back on the past five years with a mix of horror, happiness, regret, peace, closure, trauma, drama, and humor.  Some days I am so sick and tired of adoption talk, but other days I suck it up and admit that my experience can help others and isn’t that what life is all about?  I will end each of my columns with a “Lesson Learned." I believe every life experience, good or bad, teaches us a lesson, and I want to share the lessons I have learned with you all.

Let me take you back to 2009. These are my personal thoughts prior to telling my husband and parents that I wanted to search for my Biological Mother.


What the hell was I thinking? I thought adopting a child would provide me a kindred sprit - an adoption BFF :)  I would relate to her and she would relate to me because we were adopted. The thing is, I have no clue what it means to be adopted other than it is an adjective I sometimes use to describe myself. Usually I leave it out all together - it always leads to weird questions.

Sadie came home from Africa [Sadie Mitike is my daughter, adopted from Ethiopia in 2008] with pages and pages of personal history, pictures of her birth family, pictures of her country, and details of her Mother’s death three days following her birth. She was held, she was breast-fed and she was lovingly named “Mitike” by her Father which means Reflection of Her .  Her Mother was studying nursing in a town 30 minutes outside her village and her Father is a retired farmer and Physics Teacher, supporting a family of eight on the equivalent of 20 US dollars per month. 

The more I get to know Sadie the more I realize we have nothing in common at all in regards to adoption.  I know nothing about my Birth Mother. All I know is I was born in Columbus, Ohio. My parents were called that a girl was born. They got on a plane and then I was home. I wonder what my story is? Crap! I think it’s time I talk to Mike about hiring an investgator about finding my Birth Mother. How can I relate to Sadie and support her if I don’t face the details of my own adoption? How can I fully support her if I don’t do this? What will my parents say? What will Fran [my mother-in-law] say? I’m gonna puke. This is going to be expensive. Mike will never agree. I bet it’s like $5000. I have to do this for Sadie. 

So this is how it all began. My husband was fully supportive of my choice. I was sick for days before calling my parents about my decision. When I finally made the call, they were both on the line, as they always are, and I remember my Mother saying that she always knew I would search at some point in my life. I found this interesting because she never indicated to me that she felt that way.  We never really talked about my adoption unless it involved my Mother telling me that it must have been a young girl that loved me very much. They told me I had their full support and at that point I began researching Investigators in Ohio.  Fran is my Mother-in-Law whose opinion sometimes matters too much too me. She seemed annoyed, mad and skeptical all at once, which sucked, but I had already opened the can of worms. People were going to have to deal with this on their own. I knew early on this was about me, even though I got myself sick worrying about everyone else.

It’s important to also note, that when I went away to College, I made a conscious choice to never mention my adoption. I learned growing up that I had no clue how to answer adoption related questions. I usually just stood there stunned when questions about my adoption arose. College was the perfect escape to just become a normal biological child.  In fact, many of my best friends had no idea I was adopted until I started posting pics of my Birth Mother on Facebook after our reunion.  I was ashamed of my adoption and I hated that people looked at my family differently. I hated feeling that people thought my parents loved me less because I was adopted. Erasing my adoption from my life equation made me seem more normal and it worked for many years.  The stigmas of adoption had such a negative affect on me emotionally that I was terrified to tell Mike when we were dating that I was adopted. It seems so silly looking back, but it was a real fear of mine and one I know many adoptees can relate to. Sadly, I thought of myself as unlovable.

I look forward to sharing the rest of my story with you and I wonder if many of you can relate to the emotions I felt before telling my husband and parents I wanted to search?  I would love to hear if you ever kept your adoption a secret? 

Lesson Learned: People who love you the most always react better than you give them credit for in your head.  And, if they do react negatively, they usually come around quickly.  Bravery is the first step in stepping out of the shadows and stigmas of adoption. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Living Loud: The Art of the Exposition

My nerves worked overtime at the Living Loud DC event. However, I took comfort in the embrace of my Lost Daughters sisters. My friend, Katherine, was there too, and her support in the hours before the event kept me in good spirits.

While I consider myself an extrovert, I am cautious about sharing my true thoughts until I’m confident that I am in a safe community. This event, while adoptee-focused, was an unknown. We were reading some of our most intimate thoughts … in person.

As the trollers know, it is one thing to write, tweet or blog about personal insecurities online. The worldwide web wall shelters. There’s anonymity and inherent safety.

At the reading, I felt exposed. If you look at the photos of the readers, you may notice that I used the podium. Again, I wanted a barrier, a metaphorical wall.

All my life, I have been the oddity … the freak. My voice, my face, my name draw attention. In art, I find solace. When I exhibit my work, it allows me to speak without being seen. It is my way of being intimate with a group of viewers. All eyes are on the work and not me.

Interestingly, when I show my ceramic adoption series, I expect people to pick them up, run their fingers in the deep ruts of the roots. The familial roots represent my strife and the loss of my history. Each cut in the clay is therapeutic; I long to cut through to the other side.

At Living Loud, I opened by asking the audience to touch and feel my ceramic pieces. I wanted them to understand and feel the pain I felt when I created them. Surprisingly, people did not pick them up.

After all the years of intrusive questions, judgement and ridicule, I finally earned respect. But in this instance, I wanted to share my pain. My ceramics served as a conduit to my innermost thoughts and feelings.

What I have found in the Lost Daughters is a means to speak through my writing and now through my voice. I hope that next time my pieces show up, you, dear reader, will touch them.

The beauty of this event in DC was best said by my dear LD sister, Michelle. She said, “Living Loud showed that we were women with fulfilled lives.” Indeed. We are women with children, women whose lives matter to others, and women who want the world to know that we care for others. We care for the children like ourselves, the families like ours, the mothers and fathers who have lost their children, and those mothers and fathers who understand what it is to love a child of adoption.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Adoption Equals Trauma What Now

If you think of adoption as a trauma, is it possible to heal from it ? Can adoptees ever be content with their lives... I'm not sure, it depends on if the adoptee considers adoption to be a trauma or not , but also how well (culturally) assimmilated that particular person is.

A statement such as that, that adoption creates a lifelong trauma for the adoptee, it's certainly controversial. I realize that, there are not many adoptees who dares to say the same---agrees with me---- believes the same thing. Transracial adoptees more than others, may seem to be expected to be grateful for being saved, and behave in such a matter--- even if we're not grateful at all.

Personally I hate when society tries to make us (adoptees) change our minds... aren't you grateful that you got a better life..., excuse me but better for whom!? Everything in life is relative, but don't you dare compare my loss and separation with my adult life or life after adoption.

I will always morn the loss from adoption, that I didn't get the chance to grow up or know my older sisters. I grief that and think about it everyday, not contiously. My inner child will never be satisfied because the only thing she wants will never happen, never be fulfilled. The wish that I had since I was very young is a simple one, that society tries to diminish and wants me to forget. How can you demand me to ignore my deepest desire to know my birth mum and be completely accepted by her...

Monday, June 2, 2014

Photos from #LivingLoudDC Posted--Check them Out!

Photo courtesy of Kevin Haebeom Vollmers.  Not pictured: Amira, Amanda, Aselefech.