Chosen Family

My sisters

One benefit of being an adult is that you do actually create your own family and it does not always include the ones you are related to.  I have been working on that creation for some time now and it has bloomed into something quite extraordinary.  I wonder how it goes for others? For me, it started with my mother, my adoptive mother and her rather unusual way of thinking.  She thought that if she adopted two girls at the same time, they would grow together and have companionship. I don’t think that adopting “artificial twins or sibs” is something that I would recommend.  I believe each child coming into a family deserves her own time and attention.  And if the children do not know each other, teaching them to be siblings and a part of a family at the same time can be quite daunting.  For me, it worked well but I believe it had more to do with the fact that I had an affectionate relationship with my sister prior to coming to the States.  I am the oldest of four girls adopted from Korea but there were many children in and out of the home – from India, from Vietnam, from the USA.  Some could speak English, others could not.  I feel I have been blessed to have all these different personalities and cultures in my memory.  As the oldest, I think I had an easier time adjusting to the many permutations of children.  My position and standing in the family stayed consistent.  It allowed me to remain a bit out of the rivalry and confusion.  I served as a comfort and support to my younger siblings.

Growing up, my parents always said two things to me.  One, if I have one friend I would be lucky.  Two, my sisters are the most important people in my life.  They were right.  At the time of my younger sisters’ adoption I was engrossed in all things Lousia May Alcott.  We were named in honor of the four Little Women.  While we are not at all like the characters for whom we were named, there remains a family connection like theirs.  I have always taken a special responsibility to pave the way for my sisters, to guide them and lead them.  I am most grateful that they too see it that way.  We are all Korean adoptees, we all came to our family at older ages from 4-6 years of age, and we came in twos – A and me, M and B.  But, we are all very different in temperament, personality and the way we view the world.  We are all in very different places with regard to our thoughts on being adopted. We all made different choices as far as careers, friends, partners and lifestyles.  But we are sisters.

We are family because we were adopted into the same unit, but it is not our parents who keep us together.  It is our love for Korean food that does.  When we got together, it was usually over food that I carefully cooked.  We don’t get together as a foursome anymore, but we have chosen to remain sisters.  I say chosen because it has been a conscious choice to remain connected.  We don’t so much as lean on each other when times are tough, but being our foursome is a validation that we are good and we are here.  We house memories for each other, we remind  each other of the ways we were in order for us to measure just how much we have grown.  We have been each other’s emotional support and oftentimes the only people we share our true thoughts about being adopted.

As much as my sisters strongly influenced my growing up years, I have grown to depend on others for conversation, support and acceptance in ways many may depend on their siblings.  Perhaps it is an offshoot of my many transplantations the first six years of my life that makes me a seeker of people to enfold me.  Perhaps because I lived in a family of so many women.  No matter, I have always sought the friendships and mentorship of women.  In my quest for understanding, I have been blessed to meet amazing women who have served as sisters, teachers, guides and sages.  No surprise I ended up in social work, a female dominated profession.  In looking at my life these past 20 years, I see that each milestone has been marked by a strong woman to guide me.  These women embraced all of my multiple identities before I accepted them myself.  They saw me as a complete person.

The Ladies I Lunch With

I love being a social worker, but as I leaned into more and more clinical work, I particularly loved working with a group of ladies who I always just referred to as the “ladies I lunch with.”  They were the women of the post-adoption department at a private agency and with whom I had the privilege of dining with every day for nearly four years.  I was one of the younger women of the group and it was under the careful guidance of these woken I navigated motherhood and family.  It was at lunch that I got to know them not as professionals, but as mothers, grandmothers, daughters, caregivers and friends.  I loved having lunch with them.  While none of them were adopted, it was a valuable lesson for me to hear of their lives, choices, trials, tribulations and triumphs because, at the end of the day, I walked away more assured that life as an adoptee is no different than anyone else.  All family is dysfunctional and love comes in all shades.  As the only adopted person in the department, I never felt like I was on display, a template for the work they do with their clients.  Rather, I felt it was a non- issue, but still respected in a quiet dignified way.  They honored me with their acceptance and normalized the many questions I thought just adopted people had.  Questions of how to make friends, choose a partner, raise a child, deal with racism, anti-semitism, sexism – all became universalized for me.  What I had in common with these women was the desire to grow, to learn, to ask oneself questions and to change just a little to be better.   They taught me to stand up for myself and celebrated with great joy when I became a mother.  They showed me that you could show concern and care just because you are a human being; that you matter because you are here.

My Unnee

I remember clearly the first time I saw an Asian woman on TV.  She was the “Hanes lady”, a glamorous woman running down the stairs in a beautiful short party gown with this amazing confident smile on her face.  I was in awe.  I only recall that feeling one other time.  It was at a board meeting for Also-Known-As and Susan Soon-Keum Cox joined us for a meeting.  She was beautiful, composed, and passionate.  But what I remember most of all was that she wore Korean jewelry amidst her Western clothing and couldn’t figure out her new digital camera!  She joked that as an Korean she should know how the darn thing worked!  I saw for the first time that an adoptee could be proud of her two cultures, joke about stereotypes and wear it all out for the world to see.  It was a powerful image and I walked away saying to myself, “I want to be like her when I grow up.”  I found my compass.  I was 25 years old.

I don’t recall when I started to call Susan, Unnee (big sister), but I remember asking her if I could.  I had always wanted a big sister, someone to guide me and let me know the path was cleared for take-off.  Susan took that calling seriously.  When I decided to work in adoption, she literally took me by the hand and introduced me to everyone and allowed me to be a part of the adoption profession with some legitimacy before I even had to prove myself.  She was genuine in her welcome of other adoptees into the professional world.  We don’t agree on everything, she has challenged me to think beyond my story and taught me that every thought, negative or positive, must be said with grace.  People hear you much better.  I have taken her words to heart and I hope I honor that lesson well.

Girls Nite

I was so glad when I turned 30.  I truly celebrated that birthday as I felt I was finally a grown up and did grown up things. I had completed graduate school, declared a profession, paid my own bills and had a man to share my life with.  I truly felt liberated.  But I didn’t get there alone.  I had this group of young women who marked that special day with me.  There were seven of us.  All of us were Korean adoptees, in our twenties and trying to figure out where we were going.  We were “Sex and the City” Asian-American style.  And rather than going out about town, we did Girls Nite In – someone’s apartment, Korean food, lots of drink and limitless conversation.

Girls Nite was about discovery – self discovery.  For what it felt like the first time, we talked about ourselves – our bodies, our Asianness, our biculturalism, our identity as women of color.  It felt like we were trying to catch up with each other. While we all grew up in different places and with different families, religions, socio-economics, being adopted Korean women seemed to be the tie that bound.  But that commonality was a discovery in itself.  These beautiful women of Girls Nite were all like me.  We joked about all the ways we tried to contort our eyes, hair, bodies to look like the girls we saw in fashion magazines.  We related to being the only one in our respected communities and schools.

Being adopted flowed in and out of our conversation with as much ease as a bad joke.  We were all in very different places with our adoptions. Some of searched, many of us were found by our birthfamilies, some had no interest.  Some of us traveled to Korea, and we shared that emotional roller coasters with the first timers.  Some of us have vivid memories, and they became the reality checks for others who had no memories.  All of us love Korean food and a good margarita!

We rarely delved into family dilemmas.  In fact, we actually knew very little about each others’ families.  It was not as important to us as getting to know each other as individuals.  Perhaps it was because we all knew what it felt like to be constantly identified with our families, that thing that made us stand out everywhere else. On Girls Nite, we were just us.  We were there to share and celebrate our existence – laugh, be cajoled, encouraged, supported, challenged but most of all feel like we were a part of something, a group.  Together, we were our own clique, our own entourage.  I felt safe, powerful and no longer alone. All that I hated about myself was for once being celebrated, respected and I began to feel I had a place in this world…my life had some value.

We have not all remained close friends, but I am so grateful for having had them in my life.  The women I remain close to are akin to sisters. As Susan Unnee once said, we are chosen sisters for life.  They have been at every noteworthy moment in my life and have been my strong arm of comfort and reassurance.

The list

I have another chosen family of sister friends.  All of them are adopted and have chosen to work in the field of adoption. They are doctors, advocates, therapists and social workers. Over the last ten years I have seen some leave their work in agencies and go toward advocacy and others who chose to stay in the trenches but create something on the side.. all of us continuing to work in adoption even when our other friends and sometimes family wished we would get out. What is particular about this group of women is that we are of different generations, at different stages in our lives and from different countries of origin. We have very different adoption stories, some tough, some ordinary, all individual. We even have very different feelings about the state of adoption, how it should be done, where it goes wrong and how we can improve. We are passionate about our work and at times it consumes us to the detriment of the other jobs we have in our lives.

What I have come to adore about these women is that there is never judgment, only encouragement. We mostly email about the latest celebrity who adopted, the latest film released with adoption as a theme, the latest adoption disaster sprawled in the press and celebrate when adoption is handled with respect and reality. We reach out to each other when we have a “talk me off the edge!” moment – a particulary tough case, when our adoptee buttons get pushed or when we have hit a wall and cannot see how to help a family, an adopted person or ourselves.

Family and adoption is so often synonymous.  It is adoption that creates family.  But for us adopted people, whose choice to be in the family we are in is not of our own making, there comes a time when the choice is ours.  I know plenty of people who were never adopted who talk about how their friends are their family.  That almost feels like a dirty statement in adoption.  I wonder though, how many of us have done just that.  Have you?  Who is your family?

5 thoughts on “Chosen Family

  1. For various reasons I want to say that my birth family is my real family, for obvious reasons. Because I’ve realized that some APs takes certain freedoms which birth parent never does. Like telling your child that it would have been aborted not adopted if the birth parents wasn’t poor… What good really could come out of such a comment none!!! At least for the adoptee, maybe the AP feels better after making such a statement. I wonder what the agency would say if I told them of all weird comment my mum has made over the years…

    Because my birth family is bigger in numbers compared to my A family I say that I’m the same nationality as my birth family..

  2. Loved this post. Totally related to it and having chosen families. As adopted people-we know, more than anyone the expanded definition of “family”

    I like the “List” and appreciate people such as Susan Cox who helped pave the way for valuing the work and perspective of adoptee professionals in the field!

    Keep posting Sister!

  3. Joy, thank you for your writings and for sharing them. So thankful for others that I can relate to and find peace among the chaos. Adoptee love!

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