"The only reason your real parents gave you away is because they didn't love you!" Words like acid spilled from my bully's mouth on the playground. He was a year older, a second grader, and impossibly large to the first grade version of me. I can only assume, many years later, that he singled me out since I was, as far as I can remember, the sole Asian student in my private, Catholic elementary school. As an adult looking back, I can't even begin to comprehend how a seven- or eight-year-old could know to say something so hurtful and mean. Perhaps he didn't fully understand the weight of his words (it is even more disheartening to think that he learned those words from an adult). But their stinging, corrosive effect has lasted me twenty years.
Up until two or three years ago, I was living an ignorant and uneducated existence when it came to my adoption, who I was, and how it all affected me. I had been fed - and had whole heartedly believed - the all-too-common dialogue of, “Your birth mother loved you so much that she gave you away so that you could have a better life” and “What matters most is that you have a family who loves you, who wanted and wants you, who will always be your family” and “Think of the life that you might have had if you had stayed in Korea! It would have been terrible! You have a family that saved you from what could have been a terrible situation!” It is certainly easier to believe that all of those things are true. Why would anyone, especially a child who had been relinquished for adoption, want to believe that perhaps her biological mother not only did not want her, but could never want her? Why would anyone want to believe that she gave her child up for adoption because the culture shunned her and looked down upon her for having a child out of wedlock? Why would anyone want to believe that her adoptive family may not have been the best choice for her or that being taken from her homeland, her culture, her language, her people was not necessarily better than remaining there?
To my family’s credit, particularly my mom, they all did the best they knew how. I know that none of them ever saw me as an “outsider” or “different;” they always considered me a part of the family. My parents disciplined me when needed and had the same expectations of me as they did my two older siblings, both of whom are biological to our parents. They wanted wonderful, beautiful, amazing things for me - they loved and love me, they supported and support me. I will never consider them anything other than my family. But my feelings about the positive-only portrayal of adoption has - finally - changed.
I find it extremely important - and so very necessary - that there is honest, open dialogue about adoption, particularly from the viewpoint and experience of adoptees. Often times when I see a discussion about adoption (usually the benefits of it), the conversation is dominated by adoptive parents and people who have their own biological children. Sometimes, when an adoptee chimes in with something that may be less than ideal, she or he is attacked for being ungrateful or for being a singular, isolated representation of what adoption is like for people. Even if that were the case, that person’s opinion still needs to be heard and acknowledged. It is still that person’s life and experience. It is just as valid as everyone else’s.
But the fact of the matter is - it is not just that one person’s experience.
I recently read an article on The Lost Daughters, "I Didn't Need my Biological Mother, I Just Needed a Mother," and I was reminded of the interaction from elementary school, so many years ago. I remember wondering if what my bully had said was true. I had no way to really verify his claim. I had never known or had contact with my biological parents, so it was not as if I could check. In that moment (or perhaps even earlier), a little voice began to whisper: “You need to be better so that no one ever leaves you again. You were just a baby who did absolutely nothing but be born, and look, they got rid of you then. Imagine what they’ll do if you aren’t perfect!” I heard so much of my life, my confusion, my identity (or lack thereof) echoed within that article. Constantly afraid of people leaving me, whether through voluntary actions or not, I superficially sought connections with others. I was a walking paradox: I wanted nothing more than to have meaningful relationships in my life, yet I was completely terrified of them and, more often than not, subconsciously tried to sabotage those same relationships (if I let them manifest at all). I was, as Mila pointed out in her article, a self-fulfilling prophesy. I did not deserve to have those meaningful relationships. I was not worthy of people staying. I was not worthy of love and of friendship. And so my behavior reflected these internalized beliefs. Friendships faded, people left, and I was left with a reaffirmed lack of self-worth. If I had the resources then that I have now, I know that things would have been different, and overwhelmingly so.
In 2012, my husband and I were planning our wedding. We chose to keep it very intimate and small, since we both had large extended families, as well as close family friends, and if we tried to include them all, it would have gotten out of hand financially and practically. As a compromise, we agreed that it was best to keep it to immediate family only. My mom was not happy with this idea, and it caused a great deal of tension between us. We never fight, both of us champion avoiders of confrontation. But there was no way to avoid those arguments and screaming matches. After one particularly bad squabble, I had a major panic attack and immediately started asking my mom, rather desperately, whether she still loved me. I remember her saying, “Why would I ever stop loving you and being your mom just because we had a fight?” For me, though, the fear was very real and very terrifying. I worried that, because I was no longer fitting the mold of Perfectly Obedient Adopted Daughter, it was grounds to get rid of me. The first mother I had did so when I had not even the tools to speak or reason; what would keep the second one from doing the same? Especially if I was being defiant in some way?
I believe that there really needs to be open, supportive dialogue for adoptees and adoptive parents to speak their minds. Adoptees’ voices need to be heard - the positive, the negative, the outright ugly (such as the tragic death of three-year-old Madoc Hyunsu O’Callaghan) - and everything in between. My parents were never prepared for the kinds of struggles I would face. Once I was placed under their care, it was as though I couldn’t have been bothered to be thought of again by the adoption agency. That was where the story ended for them - that was the happy ending everyone sought. But that’s not where our lives and our adoption journeys come to a close. They continue, for the rest of our lives, constantly evolving and changing and altering themselves.
Adoption is certainly not stopping any time soon, and I don’t believe it should. But I do believe that all parties involved, including the agencies both here and in the adoptees’ respective countries, need to very seriously think about what adoption means - not just to the family who is receiving the child, but also to the child who will someday grow into an adult and perhaps a parent of his or her own. Everyone needs to consider the negative consequences of adoption - the loss of identity, the confusion of self, the fear of abandonment, the difficulty in creating and nurturing long-lasting relationships, and so on - just as much as they consider the positive. Adoption is not a one-time event. It is something that began shaping us into the people we are today, before we even had the ability to communicate through words. It is something that is always with us, something that is in us, something that defines us. It is an integral part of our lives.
About the Author:
Name/Alias: Maryalice (May) Smith
Korean Name: Kim, Chae Won
Biography: According to the paperwork, I was born prematurely outside of Seoul on June 10, 1987. On January 15, 1988, I landed at JFK Airport in New York, then placed into the waiting arms of my grandmother. As the home video shows, she ran down a long corridor with me in her arms before reaching the waiting area where the rest of my family was loitering. My family consisted of my two parents, my older brother, and my older sister. I grew up in New York until July 2013, when I moved down to Charleston, SC with my husband and our two cats. I update two blogs on Tumblr, one that is primarily about adoption ( http://tidestheyturn.wix.
and one that's about everything else (http://ifonlyfor.tumblr.com).