My first job out of grad school was as the policy analyst at the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. The timing could not be better as one of the major projects I had was the first survey of adult Korean adoptees in preparation for the First Gathering of Adult Korean Adoptees in Washington, DC. I loved the job. I loved my boss. She was thoughtful, thorough and relentless in her demand for perfection and accuracy. She is one of the best in synthesizing research and presenting it in palpable and provocative tones. She made me think about my adoption story and helped me define a place for it in my career so that it was not front and center. This idea encouraged me to do my work on my own time, which I think was the best advice. I would pay that advice forward to any adoptee interested in working in adoption. Do the work on you on your own time.
Simultaneous to my getting this job, I got to be a counselor/cooking instructor at a culture camp for Korean adoptees. There was a group we ran for the kids to talk about being adopted. It was in that group that a little girl got up and presented a photo of a baby, not her. She introduced herself as a “replacement” for the baby in the photo. “I am replacement child.” My heart hurt for this little girl. She had gone years with the knowledge that she was not the one chosen for her parents and the burden of making sure her parents did not regret saying yes was clearly all over her face. I was immediately angry at her parents. How could they make her feel so unwanted? How did the mere photograph of a baby trump the real presence of a baby in their arms?
Fast forward 7 or 8 years and I am reading the letter exchange between my parents and the directress of OHK orphanage. I am struck by a paragraph…. “KYJ is no longer available for adoption, her father came to reclaim her. But there is another little girl with the same name and birthdate.” I was a replacement? When I asked my mother, she could not recall. After all, she said yes to a referral based on nothing but a letter of gender and age, no photograph, no medical, nothing else. It didn’t matter. I was a child in need, she was waiting to be a mother. Could there be anything but serendipity in that?
What I have come to understand is that words matter. The specificity of words matter. It is a wonder that anything in the world of politics and policy gets accomplished so mired are the players in the words that it can be crippling. I learned from the Institute that a birthmother is not a birthmother until after she has given birth and actually relinquished. An adoptive parent is not an adoptive parent until they actually have a child they adopted and are actively parenting. A child can be a true orphan or an orphan on paper. There is a big difference between the two. The latter can be a matter of creation. From life, I realized that I never identified as a replacement, a substitute. But, I have never really lost the “orphan” in me and I have separated the concept of emotional abandonment and legal abandonment.
Which brings me to my last point and to current time. If abandonment has to be a legal fiction in order to be adopted, does that mean there is trafficking involved or is it fraud? Or is it something else? I found myself among these words when I was speaking to a wise sage in my life. There was something she said that jarred me – “intention.” I have found myself lost in the provocation of emotion when “trafficking” comes up in our context. And yet, I acknowledge that there have been those who walk into ethical quagmires and made questionable choices – agencies, facilitators, prospective adoptive parents, even birthfamily members. Is it fraudulant, neglect, trafficking if I was a replacement child for another who was not able to be adopted? Was it the case when the directress of the orphange openly admitted to sending me away without due diligence in finding my birthmother? Even if she had no legal right to me? What of my parents who asked no questions, supposed nothing and didn’t even remember that letter as anything significant. Who intended what? Does intention change the meaning of one’s actions?
I have no right answer, just a personal jaunt through all the landmines we walk as adopted people when coming to terms with our stories. I don’t look at this through a policy perspective or a clinical case study. This is life.