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Adoption and Child Separation at the Border

On June 1, 2018 Rebekah Henson published an important thread on Twitter critiquing the hashtags #FamiliesBelongTogether and #Ke...

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Asian, Adopted, and Anxious During COVID-19

With more than 400,000 global deaths from COVID-19, a plunging economy, soaring rates of unemployment, a rise in anti-Asian racism and violence around the world, and a clear racial disparity in the fatality of the illness here in the United States, this is one of the most devastating collective events in my lifetime. This year will surely be a memorable period in history with both this global pandemic and widespread social unrest, as cities all over the country and world have protests to honor Black lives and produce meaningful societal changes. As we adapt to an ever-evolving world that includes global climate change, public health crises like this pandemic may be something we have to prepare for more frequently.

Despite all of the tragedy from COVID-19, one remarkably positive outcome for me of the shelter-in-place policies around the country has been the ability to participate in virtual events hosted by organizations that I wouldn't have access to otherwise. An adoptee organization for which I sit on the Advisory Council, KAAN, has started hosting Community Conversations to hold space for adoptees and create community in the absence of physical presence. I participated in a townhall on anti-Asian racism hosted by 18 Million Rising and a talk called "Confronting Xenophobia and Supporting Asian and Asian/Pacific American Communities during COVID-19" given by the Minnesota based professors Erika Lee and Sarah Park Dahlen. Last month, I also had the opportunity to partake in a virtual conversation through Families with Children from China of Greater New York (FCC-NY) called, "Coping with Anxiety in the Age of Coronavirus."

This FCC-NY session was particularly impactful to me because many of the townhalls addressed anti-Asian racism broadly, but not specifically the ways in which COVID-19 is impacting Asian adoptees. This conversation was facilitated by Dr. Amanda Baden, a practicing therapist, professor, and Chinese adoptee in the New York area. My first awareness of Baden came when I was 17 years old, watching the documentary "Wo Ai Ni Mommy" on PBS with my parents. Baden was interviewed for the film as a transracial adoption therapist, and I remember being in awe as her title appeared on the screen, because I didn't know that such specific adoption work existed outside of adoption agencies.

Baden's professional and lived experience aided the FCC conversation. She highlighted that adoptees often live with anticipatory grief as a result of being adopted and having lost our first families. Because of this, adoptees may have a heightened fear of the death or loss of their parents, and the hyper-visibility of morbidity and death right now makes this threat all the more real. Moreover, adoptees have the potential for a double loss of biological family, that they may or may not know, and their adoptive families. For those who have found biological family, the possibility of COVID-19 ending relationships that have already been lost once before and now may be lost for a second time, while still in their early stages, is devastating. And for those who have not found their biological families but are hopeful, COVID-19 may close the door on that possibility forever.

In addition to the potential loss of our first parents and adoptive parents, adoptees who are Asian are feeling the anticipatory grief of when they will fall victim to an act of COVID-19 inspired anti-Asian racism. Experiencing this type of racism for adoptees is complicated by several unique factors. First, young adoptees who grew up in predominantly white communities and families may not feel particularly Asian. These racist attacks prove that people see our Asian bodies without understanding the whole host of factors that have contributed to our identities. Secondly, adoptees may attribute a sense of shame or inadequacy as the reason for which they were abandoned or relinquished for adoption. Being targeted for anti-Asian racism layered upon this can have a compounding impact that there is also something wrong with being Asian. Thirdly, young Asian adoptees often are racially isolated and may not have been prepared by their white adoptive parents to face racism. The absence of having racially aware mentors who can uplift and validate one's racial identity can result in the further internalization of this racism.

While adoptees are no strangers to living with continuous loss and disenfranchised grief, this time period is unique because many people around the world are currently experiencing anticipatory grief and ambiguous loss. We are all fearing for the people we love who may die or fall ill. We are collectively experiencing losses of hugs, friends, traditional work and class spaces, and freedoms right now. We are grieving the loss of the pre-COVID-19 world, wondering what will happen going forward, and what changes will be permanent.

In a time where many of us feel powerless, what can we do to confront or cope with anti-Asian racism? If we are put in the position of being the target of racism and must confront it directly, the first priority is always safety. Assess the situation, and if it's something that could escalate violently, remove yourself. Being right is not more important than being injured. If the situation is safe, and you want to respond, I often choose to say that I am American or am an American citizen or some variation of that. If the person has asked a question about my country of origin, ethnicity, or other qualities, I might tell them that it is none of their concern. Correcting misinformation or relaying the real facts may work in some instances as a counter to racism, but oftentimes the other party does not truly want information -- they want to get a rise out of you. While it's sometimes easier said than done, do not internalize the racist words or remarks made by the other person. Their actions reflect negatively on them, not you.

Even when we are not the direct recipients of racism, it can be jarring and emotionally draining to read news article after news article on the topic, and engaging in self-care is a good practice. Self-care is not about bubble baths or binging T.V. shows or eating mouthfuls of cake. It is about setting boundaries, and what works for one person may not work for another. Some may want to stay current with the news and others may need to limit the amount of news media or social media they consume. Self-care might take the form of setting boundaries with certain family members or acquaintances who are less aware of racial dynamics and power structures. It might be creating a daily or weekly routine. Self-care can also be seeking out communities of Asian Americans or adoptees and replacing negative statements heard about China or Asians with positive ones through learning about key Asian American figures in history that bring pride to who we are [View the PBS docu-series, Asian Americans, here].

However you choose to cope with COVID-19 inspired anti-Asian racism, stay safe, stay healthy, and I hope to see you in a townhall or virtual event until we can be in physical community again. 

Sunday, May 24, 2020

An Asian Adoptee's Perspective on Asian American Heritage Month

"Yeah, but you're not really Korean. You're American, right?"

* * *

I am about a month away from my 45th birthday. And yet, it is only in the past decade that I have finally begun to explore my own identity and history as an Asian person.

As a transracial, transnational adoptee, i.e., an Asian person raised by a White family in predominantly White communities, I spent most of my life severed from Asian culture, people, and history.

Then, in 2009, after seven years of searching, I got a call that my Korean parents were alive and waiting to meet me. Suddenly, upon reuniting with my Korean family, my identity and origins were thrust before me. Everything I thought I knew was turned upside down, inside out, and ultimately, burned to the ground.

I have been rebuilding my life and identity ever since.

* * *

Several years into post-reunion, I remember having a conversation with a loved one, at which point he stated, "Yeah, but you're not really Korean. You're American, right?"

My identity was emerging and shifting as a result of reconnecting with my Korean origins. This loved one sensed the evolution unfolding and was trying to reassert to what and whom my allegiance should be.

And yet his question of allegiance contrasted the other side of what is ultimately the same dilemma--the assumption that I cannot possibly be American while simultaneously being demanded to prove just how American I am. 

Asian Americans are expected to be assimilated, English-speaking, God-fearing Americans, while we are simultaneously yet paradoxically perceived and treated as foreigners who must have arrived in America only two weeks ago.

Asian Americans are often pushed into a state of limbo, or a tug-of-war that requires us to never be too much of who we are, while simultaneously being expected to demonstrate allegiance to a nation that has never seen us as anything but "the perpetual foreigner." 

As Asian adoptees, these demands are forced upon us in the context of a false but dominant narrative that we were "saved" or "rescued." Hence, our identity is assumed to be subjugated to the expectations and perceptions of White Saviorism for the sake of White Comfort.

Furthermore, Asian American identities are often manipulated and politicized during times of economic unrest, brutal wars, and racial tension. We are witnessing once again the racism and xenophobia so familiar to Asian Americans during the current COVID pandemic. Asian communities are being scapegoated and targeted, just as they have been throughout American history. 

Asian Adoptees, while often invisible within this back and forth, are still impacted by the racism, discrimination, and xenophobia that result, as exemplified by the detainment and deportation of adoptees to over 30 countries.

Furthermore, Asian Adoptees in some ways experience an even greater expectation and demand to conform and assimilate within the White families that adopted us as a show of gratitude for being charitably "rescued" and brought to America. We remain eternally indebted to the White families that "took us in," and are therefore expected to pay that debt by exemplifying the "Model Minority Myth" (which is indeed a racist stereotype fabricated to serve white supremacy).

As Asian Adoptees, our Asian identities become a trophy for Whiteness to hold up only insofar as our Asianness serves the White Savior narrative. It must otherwise be erased when it does not serve that purpose.

Furthermore, as a Korean adoptee I must also mitigate the rejection by my own nation and people. Korea sent me away ultimately because I was not born in the "right way," i.e., I was born to an unwed mother. I had no proof of paternity and hence, I did not exist. So, they sent me away like I was dust.

Consequently, as an Asian adoptee, I feel a simultaneous yet paradoxical disconnection and connection from and to my Asianness and the collective history of Asian communities. 

I am connected to Asian communities through the profound impact that Empire, White Supremacy, Imperialism, and Colonialism have had on my existence. I am also connected to Asian communities through my experiences of racial violence and discrimination. But I am disconnected from the core of my Asian heritage as a result of being severed from my Korean family, culture, and origins.

Some days I feel at odds with my Asianness. Other days, I feel reluctance. On good days, I feel solidarity, yet from a distance. Rarely, do I feel fully at peace with my inherited Asianness. 

For me to be Asian American means I was involuntarily taken from my mother, my family, my origins. It means my identity and origins were erased.

More specifically, to celebrate my Asian heritage requires me to first acknowledge that my Asian heritage was taken from me. The reason I am an Asian in America is a result of the oppression and exploitation exacted through American colonialism and imperialism.

I spent the first three decades of my life cut off completely from my origins and identity. 

While, yes, I can celebrate the progress I have made and the reconnection with my Korean family, any celebration of my Asianness inevitably and inextricably also carries with it the profound trauma, loss, and grief that I bear as an Asian person who was forcibly separated from my origins. 

I lost everything. That kind of loss, at least for me, will never be reason to celebrate.

I am not lucky or fortunate to have lost everything. I am not blessed to have been severed from my own mother, paid for, and brought to a nation and people that would despise me as perpetually foreign.

Nor am I lucky that my own nation and people were willing to send me away, along with almost 200,000 more children for a small price that they could profit off of culturally-inflicted shame. 

In some ways, I feel neither Asian nor American. And in other ways I cannot escape that I am both Asian and American.

It’s a terrible no man’s land of purgatory, in which I must make my own way. 

Of course ultimately, I get to decide who I am, even if the world around me cannot see beyond their own eyes and minds.

Yet that is in large part what being Asian American means to me--constantly having to assert who I know myself to be while managing and mitigating the identity and expectations forced upon me by others who think they know who I am, but ultimately have not a clue.

 * * *

So while May is the month marked to celebrate my Asian heritage and the contributions made by the members of a vastly diverse community of Asian Americans, I feel both proud and conflicted, both pensive and grateful, both united and divided.

Yet one thing I can embrace is the powerful and resilient presence and history Asian communities can claim. This rich history often goes unseen and is regularly neglected and ignored. As I educate myself, I am learning just how vital the role of Asian communities has been in this country (and around the globe).

While I may struggle to find my place, I do not struggle to find inspiration from those who have gone before me, as well as those who are following after me.

It is of course always important to acknowledge the pain and suffering our communities have endured. It is also equally vital to remember all the stunning and powerful ways our communities have resisted and overcome here and throughout the history of the world.

Even as I continue to grapple with my own identity as an Asian American, I am able to grasp that I am also a valuable part of the big, beautiful tapestry that is Asian American heritage. While I may never feel fully resolved or fully connected, I cannot deny that my thread exists and brings its own color and meaning to the larger story of the collective.

And that, for now, is enough for me.


*I also want to acknowledge our Black and Brown brothers and sisters who have suffered profoundly under the same oppressive and brutal systems. We are not the same, but we have all suffered under the same systems that seek to undermine and exploit our self-determination and power for their own profit and benefit.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

One Child at a Time*

With my foster family in South Korea

I recently published an essay titled, Colonized through Adoption.” After I published the piece, I realized that I could have just as appropriately titled the piece, “Erased by Adoption.**”

But then, I thought to myself--or I could simply write an additional piece examining the ways in which I have experienced erasure through adoption.

I have been intensely reflecting upon my adoption and reunion recently, primarily because this January of 2019 marks a decade since I reunited with my Appa and Omma. Who I am and how I frame my adoption have dramatically evolved over the past decade. It would be diminutive to qualify any of these changes as good or bad. Rather, I can only recognize that they have been necessary.

One of the necessary paradigm shifts that has transpired over the past decade is recognizing the painful truth that I, along with so many of my cohorts, have been erased by adoption. Through adoption, we were required to participate in the erasure of not only our ethnic and cultural identities but our genetic and ancestral identities.

Once we arrived here in America, we disappeared. What do I mean by this statement?

An original performance piece I wrote and subsequently performed in the fall of 2018 attempts to elucidate this erasure through poetic prose:


was the beginning

of a New Death
for Two Hundred Thousand of Us

We vanished and

are vanishing
like a secret

that lies down with the dead,
as though we had never lived.

Being born in Korea of Korean people only to be taken from them to be given to White America and its people demanded that we forsake the identities bestowed upon us through DNA and history.

And yet, how does one erase DNA and history?

Adoption has taught me, one child at a time.

Taking a Korean child from her original family, people, community, and nation and placing her in a foreign family, people, community, and nation requires the erasure of the previous. It’s inevitable and necessary, both practically and for survival.

I forgot everything, because I had to do so in order to survive within a community that was ultimately hostile toward people that look like me. I was adopted in 1975--not too long after the American/Vietnam War which had followed previous violent conflicts between America and Asian nations, including World War 2 and the Korean War. Furthermore, I was adopted into a White American military family.
Halloween, 1982

Hence, I spent the majority of my childhood growing up on U.S. military bases both overseas and here in the States. The irony of being an Asian child adopted into a White American military family growing up in Asian countries and otherwise on U.S. military bases is not lost on me. As I addressed in "Colonized Through Adoption," my life was the exemplification of Whiteness as both Savior and Oppressor, Savior and Colonizer.

Imagine being the lone Asian face riding your bike, playing on the playground, walking to the bus, attending school--but on a U.S. military base? Imagine finding yourself in this context as a child, coupled with the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype.

Subconsciously, a child takes all that in and knows what needs to be done. You make yourself disappear. You make sure your Asianness vanishes, as though it never existed.

And at the time I was growing up, folks didn’t even know what Korea was. I was attending schools consisting primarily of Caucasian children who had not yet been alive long enough to know that the world was inhabited by other Asian countries beyond China, Japan, and Vietnam.

People often refer to the Korean War as the forgotten war. While I was growing up trying to explain to my friends from where I had come, it wasn’t only the war that had been forgotten. It was as though the country had been forgotten, and with it, as though the people from whom I had come never existed.

Because of my utter isolation from Korean and Asian communities due to my complete submersion within White communities, there were times that even in my child’s mind I began to wonder if perhaps Korea was a make-believe far-off land contrived to keep children like me in the dark, away from the families to whom we truly belonged, or maybe to protect us from a peril that would otherwise endanger our lives.

Or maybe, I was who the adoption papers said I was--a child abandoned by her mother and Korea, an insignificant place, so poor and so forgotten, that no one cared to inform their children of its people or their existence.

This is the inevitable and cruel erasure I speak of. The forced and choice-less vanishing that we adoptees must ultimately endure in order to steel ourselves from what is obvious to not only us but to everyone else around us--we do not belong.

So, we accept our Korean names being replaced with American ones. Our original languages being replaced with English. We accept that we have White parents and that we are being raised as White sons and daughters. We accept that we will most likely never know who we look like or why we are who we are. We accept that while we were born in Korea and we look Korean, we are expected to forsake those origins as though they never existed and replace them with White Eurocentric origins. We accept that when we are asked to create a family tree for a school assignment that not only we but our eventual children are expected to simply draft ourselves into a genealogy as though nailing a frond from a palm tree onto an apple tree is perfectly normal.

Adoption and erasure are inextricable from one another, just as war and killing are two sides of the same coin.

The moment I began to have the courage and strength to acknowledge this truth is the moment I began to redress that erasure. Of course, I cannot magically rematerialize all that was erased. But I can begin to examine what faint markings remain and either rewrite or write anew what I discover along the way.

The erasure by adoption need not be complete nor permanent. For while it is true that adoption erases DNA and history one child at a time, it is also true that DNA and history can be and will be reclaimed one adult at a time.


*The month of January 2019 marks a decade since I reunited with my Korean family. I am publishing a series titled, "Reflections from the Other Side of 10 Years Post-Reunion" to honor and explore what I have learned over the past decade.

**You can read more regarding the topic of identity erasure, here and here.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Are You Anti-Adoption is Like Asking Are you Anti-Amputation?*

Recently I published an essay titled, “I Don’t Believe in Adoption Anymore,” as a part of my series “Reflections From the Other Side of 10 Years Post-Reunion." Inevitably, a reader always asks some variation of the question, "are you anti-adoption?"
This time, the specific question was “Is this post advocating against adoption?”
It’s a common question I have come to appreciate, because it always leads to deeper discussion and education. It also keeps me honest by compelling me to revisit the question and re-examine what I actually think--because our perspectives and views are not static. They often evolve over time as we gain new information and circumstances change.
When answering questions like these, I like to use metaphor to illustrate why these types of questions are inherently problematic and almost impossible to answer.
For instance, when you ask an adoptee are you “advocating against adoption,” it’s akin to asking me if I am “advocating against amputation?”
Ultimately, it’s the wrong question to ask.
The question we should be asking is “how do we prevent amputation?” What other less extreme and consequential solutions can we implement and develop? What can we do to keep the leg or arm in tact?
And certainly, I would never advocate for amputating someone’s leg or arm, especially against their will, for the sake of some other person over there saying they want another leg or arm. Can you imagine telling a person, “We need to amputate your leg to give it to that person over there who needs another leg.” That’s not even an option. Doesn’t even pop onto the radar of your mind, right?
Well, that’s how we should feel about severing a child from his or her mother and family. It should generally just not be an option. Rather, like amputation, it should be a last and desperate resort when all other options have been pursued and cultivated.
So, when you encounter adoptees or others advocating for family preservation or expressing that poverty and duress should never be reasons to severe a child and mother for the purposes of adoption, rather than ask with alarm, “is this person advocating against adoption?,” I hope you’ll ask the question, “how do we prevent this from happening?” How do we prevent severance of mother and child? What can we do to prevent adoption?
When we can move beyond the binary ideas of "for vs. against" adoption--and rather start asking and answering questions that get at the root of the issues, then we stop seeing adoption as a primary solution. We are able to see it as a symptom of deeper, more complex issues that need attention and care.
I am not advocating against adoption any more than I would advocate against amputation. Rather, I I would prefer to prevent adoption just as I would prefer to prevent amputation. I don’t think that’s too much to ask, particularly in a day and age when the resources and opportunities to do so are at our fingertips.
*The month of January 2019 marks a decade since I reunited with my Korean family. I am publishing a series titled, "Reflections from the Other Side of 10 Years Post-Reunion" to honor and explore what I have learned over the past decade. For additional essays, click here.