RACE CARD PROJECT

I am an NPR/WNYC junkie.  Brian Lehrer saved my sanity when my little one would sleep only in a car seat every morning for his nap.  So for two hours I would drive around and listen to Brian.  My daily intake of NPR expanded to many other segments and in particular Michele Norris and her Race Card Project.  This project came at a time when we believe ourselves to be living in a post-racial society to which I consistently balk.  However, it also stimulated my curiosity as to where we, Asian/Korean American adoptees fit into the perception of race and identity within the larger context of this discussion which so often gets bifurcated to black and white.

This past summer, I was asked to come to a culture camp for Korean adoptees and American born Korean children to facilitate a conversation on their sense of identity as children with a hyphenated identity.  The Race Card Project was the perfect way to get the campers and counselors thinking, talking and creating their ideas on how they see themselves, their community and America.  What started out as an exercise of creativity for the counselors and teachers and subsequently, the campers (ages 11-16) became THE project for camp.  Everyone contributed at least one card, some multiple cards, and posted them on a wall in the cafeteria.  Not one was identical to another.  This one week long camp also brought daily visitors who were intrigued by the display and also added their thoughts on cards as well.  The result was an amazing presentation of the 6-word essay challenge.  It was so exciting, I got permission from every participant to publish the wall of essays.  

What stood out for me was how much has not changed in the world.  These are kids who are being raised in a more diverse world of wider definitions of race and family and yet, the feelings of difference, uniqueness, prejudice and misperceptions still pervade.  It is our package that consistently alters our inner realities of what it means to belong and to whom.  However, all is not doom and gloom.  I found myself laughing out loud to the immense humor that arose from this discussion too.  Our younger kids may be facing the same as we did, but their core is a lot more intact making room for more sarcasm and inside jokes.  Lessons were learned all around.

I have sent this to Michele Norris twice now and have never heard back from her, so I am putting it out there for my readers.  I hope it inspires you and maybe someone will be able to reach Ms. Norris.

The challenge is to create a 6 word essay on race and/or identity:

We are all people of color

Not one or the other, in-between

I eat with forks and chopsticks

I am more than your stereotypes

Toast for breakfast, rice for dinner

I’m me, not only my face

I know exactly who I am

Adaptation: the true Korean adoptee experience

I’m not my parents, I’m me

I have always known my identity

We are all one in a billion

Foreign because of my Asian name

In the end we are all people

Oriental is a cookie, not me

I am me that is it

Malleable as clay, imprinted as stamps

My name doesn’t mean anything, sorry

You know you have yellow fever

I use chopsticks at home, mostly

Race is only one broad term

It’s always about rice and noodles

Life is more complicated than speaking English

We are doctors but also patients

Korean-American is not Korean or American

As a foreigner, they categorize me

Home is where you make it

I don’t eat cat or dog

I decide what shapes my identity

Race is nothing but a word

No, I can’t do your nails/laundry

Everyone has feelings, so be nice

Transcending into one world as Korean

White privilege makes me feel guilty

Adoption is different, difference is pride

I am a Korean American girl

Race is nothing but a word

Color is just color, not identity

Be yourself, but also be unique

Guess what?  I suck at math

The world is a melting pot

I really like being Asian (Korean)

I do not bow like that

My skin color is kinda yellow

Not all of us are cousins

Asian doesn’t mean I am Chinese

Guys, I actually don’t speak Korean

I bet I’m a better driver

We the people appreciate our life

I don’t speak like Ching Chong

I do not love my calculator

I’m just as American as you

This is not the 40s anymore

We are more than our appearance

I’m Korean American, are you jealous?

I heart my long Asian hair

We have better hair than you

People think I’m quiet, I’m not!

Americans are just jealous of us

Watch out for our nuclear weapons

I am a yellow rice love

I’m actually good at math

Wish I was a k-pop star

I don’t work for Samsung, What?

Need help with your math homework?

Starcraft is not my national sport

My parents actually loved me

God made me for a reason

I am not a rice farmer

I’m from Korea and I’m adopted

My heritage is who I am

Don’t be hatin’ cuz I’m Asian

I’m blazian and I am proud

Racism will last until the end

I am Korean, deal with it

Different colors different people all human

 

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Kin

I saw “Frozen”.  Awesome!  Beautiful!  Love!  Ok, so my boys thought it was “slightly girlie.”  No matter, I hope everyone sees it.  What made it so special for me and probably most adults was the love of sisters, siblings.

I saw two sisters who have their children attend the same school as mine.  I see them walk together to drop off their kids.  Their physical resemblance is uncanny and while unique in their individual appearance, they are sisters.  They have the same kind of hair and walk the same way and even wear similar jackets.  It is really lovely to see.  I think, how nice for their children to grow up in such a tight knit family where everything is contained and insular.

Over dinner one night, my nephew from the other side of the family asked aloud “Aunt Joy, where is your family?  Don’t you have a family?” Dramatic pause from others who heard that blunt question.  I was a tickled.  From the traditional standpoint, I have it covered.  I married into a family and we spend a whole lot of together time.  From my children’s perspective, they are covered with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in the usual traditional sense.  For me, my identified family is a little less traditional.

It has taken me a long time to be comfortable with the constellation of the chosen family I have.  I don’t think as a 40 something year old woman, I need to be tethered to my family of origin.  But the holidays are here and it always brings up the natural questions – where do you go, what do you do, who do you spend these special days with?  In my twenties it was totally ok for a bunch of us to just gather, New York city is perfect for those of us in transition.  Everyone is transitory, so the idea of “chosen family” felt trendy. But time makes us settle and revert to the ways we grew up.  But when you choose to change your life’s path it still gives people pause.  For some reason, to sit in a room pretending to be family because that is what you do during the holidays seems to be common.  Thus a fair amount of alcohol is required to muster.  It comes up a fair amount in the work I do where the common question around this time is, “Do I have to go?”  I have the smallest of samplings, but I am struck by how many adoptees struggle with the idea of going “home” to a place not of their choosing.  The questions of loyalty, family, identity, love, tolerance and belonging come up in poignant color as they decide to go or choose another option.  This conflict of choice flows too powerfully through all these different questions.  For some it is absolutely insane that I would offer the option to stay in their apartment and invite friends to play.  For some it is the perfect invitation to begin thinking about themselves, to begin protecting themselves, to creating a self.  For some there is no choice. Of course, this is not just applicable to adopted people, but that is my world.  I just notice how organic, albeit challenging, it can be for others.  But for my community, it is so deeply layered.  Too often I find the adoption component and the race component are the extra societal layers we keep having to work through before even getting to think about who we are and what we need.  I often grapple with the notion of those personal thought vs. what is expected.  Oh sure, it is easy to say, the hell with them, they can think whatever they want, but when you have grown up for decades now as the walking billboard for international adoption, societal expectations of your identity pinned on you, it is much harder to be so cavalier about what others think.  The perpetual “micro-expectations” inferred in comments and questions can cut away any possibility of a tough shell.  And so, what is left is “Do I have to?” rather than “What do I have?”

I ask this of myself all the time.  I have had a fair amount of sister action lately, watching “Frozen” was just the culmination. One sister traveled across country and one lives an hour’s drive.  As the oldest, I love mothering them especially because they let me.  Our language is food so you can well imagine, delicious.  There are things I cook for them that only I do and they make small requests via text for things they love, mostly of the Korean persuasion.  We are not sisters related by blood.  We don’t look alike, walk alike or think alike.  We have made very different choices.  We were adopted into the same family but we commit to choosing each other to have as sisters.   We remain stalwart planets in each others orbits.  Still, they are only one small part of what I call “family.”

I have had the good fortune of creating new friendships each year I am in school with my kids.  And yet it is the short and sweet texts of “happy thanksgiving!” or “I went to a EF and thought of you” or “got some great deals today!” from my adoptee “sisters”, “Aunties” to my children, who make me feel at home.  We don’t always get to see each other in person, but it’s easy.  Love should always feel this easy.

I went to an event that celebrates adoption and foster care.  One woman, who was at one time a foster child, defined family as “people related through kinship.” I liked that.  I would define my family as kin too, “kindred spirits.”

Threading the needle

I mess up idioms.  I have often been caught saying, “I’ll see it when I believe it” much to my husband’s derision.  I also have a habit of saying “5 and 4” instead of “4 and 5”. I chalk this up to not having English as my first language during my formative years.  As much as I love the English language and finding new ways to say things, I do find that talking about adoption has made me even craftier.  Words matter, they always have.  After all, it was words that made me feel less than others and it is words now that make me feel I have competency.

I keep hearing the term “threading the needle” lately in our national political discourse.  I think it is perfectly fitting in adoption work and policy too.  On the one hand, being adopted does not qualify me in the category of “special needs,” and yet, I do believe being adopted is special and there are needs we adoptees must have in order to feel safe and secure and belonging to our adoptive families.  On the one hand, adoption is just like every other way of forming a family except when it’s not, when the “adopted child” of a said couple is excluded by that adjective distinguishing him from all other children in the family.  On the one hand, adoption is permanent and yet we have been challenged again and again when a child is rehomed, sent back on an airplane or when the country where the child was born claims her as theirs.  Different, the same, just like, as if…I realize I am threading the needle of descriptives to try and accurately address our community.

It came to a head for me when I read Kathryn Joyce’s Slate article.  This article cannot be read while you are eating, your body will reject the food by sheer gag reflex.  Ms. Joyce’s plain and simple words will make you cry as she gives voice to children who have experienced the horrific and survived and others who have perished.   Yet as I was reading this article, I was thinking of David Pelzer and his memoir “A Child Called It.”  Mr. Pelzer was not adopted and his story, among many others, are equally horrific.  I add this because, as thorough as Ms. Joyce was, I found myself threading the needle of understanding the complication adoption naturally breeds.  What stuck out for me was the paradox of how horribly wrong adoptions can go and yet the need for it.  On the one hand, there are families who should never have been able to adopt a child and yet it was another adoptive family who said yes to that same child and loved deliberately so that he/she can begin to heal and know what it means to have a family.  On the one hand, adoptive families are “forever” and “just like” all other families and yet we demand oversight, progress reports for decades, statistics and a level of lifelong scrutiny no other family must endure.  On the one hand, we expect adoptive parents to claim their child as their own and yet are mistrustful that they will.  On the one hand, adoption agencies/facilitators/attorneys aid in the creation of a family and yet are given no legal recourse to say “no” to prospective adoptive parents.  When I was an adoption social worker in placement, I would have loved to have them sign an affidavit that says that they will not say racist remarks to their children, they will not spank their child, they will move to an area with more diversity, that they will honor their child’s birth/family, that they will seek assistance and support when things are getting rough.

Why does this matter?

When I finished reading David Pelzer’s book, I found myself honoring Mr. Pelzer’s courage and survival with a tsk tsk and judgment of his mother as mentally ill.  When I read articles of abuse of adopted children, there is a wholey different lens from which I read it.  When I read these articles, I don’t get the sense that I am reading about the survival and courage of the child, but rather an examination of the adoption system.

What’s the problem with that?  I think one reason is that there is a fundamental truth we keep not wanting to say.  Adoption IS different from giving birth to your child and parenting your child.  It just is.  I keep going around and around and it comes down to this admission.

My reality is that adoption is not just like anything else. It is just different.  it is more than just another way to bring a child into a family, it involves a different way of parenting and there are different issues that need to be addressed time and time again well into adulthood.
So, I find myself standing on this very precariously thin line in knowing that not every child can nor should stay in their family of origin, and he/she will need to belong somewhere else with others.  As long as that is true, we must never stop being creative in finding ways to give safety, support and love to that child.  As long as that is true, adoption must and should remain in the multitude of options for a child.  BUT, as long as adoption exists, we must continue to seek ways to make the child the center of decisions.  From that vantage point then, I believe we must seek accountability and responsibility from organizations like Joint Council on International Children’s Services, National Council for Adoption, Congressional Coalition on Adoption, North American Council on Adoptable Children and the Council on Accreditation.  The leaders of these groups, past and present, should be held to a higher level of scrutiny in what their core beliefs are and how they implement them.  Every one of these groups uses and manipulates the problems facing vulnerable children to fit their greatest constituency.  I wonder what would happen if they actually had more people who went through their system as their actual constituents and in turn had them dictate their policies.  Sure, there are adoptees who believe that adoption is best, that their lives were only positively effected by being adopted, but it would sure be challenging for them to say that too vociferously if they were in the same room with other adoptees who said otherwise.  The longer I am in the work of hearing stories, the thinner the line gets and I am finding threading the needle awfully difficult.  Why?  Because, for every situation I hear about, I can actually name a name and picture a face making every decision personal.

Thank you

As a parent, I am always listening for politeness, especially in my own children.  It’s interesting to see who of my kids’ friends remembers to say “thank you” and I know I am not the only one keeping a mental tally of the ones who do or not.  I try and remember to say “thank you” often.  My big boy recently asked me why I say thank you to the maintenance man/superintendent of our apartment complex.  I reminded him that this man, who works seven days a week, spends most of his time cleaning and tending after a whole lot of people, us included.  He is the reason our lights work in our building hallways and that the leaves and snow are cleared in our parking lot.  It reminded me of something my Aunt told me when I asked her the very same question as she was picking up dirty towels at the spa where she worked.  My Aunt lives in Hawaii.  While it would seem she lives in paradise, that paradise has been decimated due to hurricanes and other natural elements many times.  Each time, the residents of her island work hard to create paradise again for all those of us who go to escape life.  Hawaii is life for my Aunt and when she got a job after months of not working, due to a disastrous hurricane that left most resorts and hotels flattened, she was grateful.  So she said thank you to every customer who dropped a towel on the floor because it meant she had a job.  I will never forget her simple, matter of fact way of expressing it too.  “Thank you”…it was so humbly and honestly coming from her each and every time.

The only time I get a bit sketchy on the gratitude thing is in the context of my adoption. Growing up adopted, I had a tendency to itch when I heard people tell me that I should be grateful I was adopted. Gratitude is a hard pill for me to swallow in the context of how I got to where I am.  I have a tendency to feel grateful with shame all at once.  But I wonder if my allergy to gratitude permeates other areas of my life? We don’t have to be grateful to be adopted, we shouldn’t be made to feel grateful for anything that every other human being seems to have an inalienable right to have and it does not have to remove gratitude from the other aspects of our lives. And yet, if I were really being honest with myself, there is one area I fail to be truly grateful.

Today is my real birthday, the one that my Umma acknowledges.  I woke up to a message from my brother and it was lovely.  He is happy today too.  He has found love in his life and I am so grateful.  I am grateful to the woman who has said yes to him and has taken him as the full package, meaning Umma included.  Forever the big sister, I had to grill him, much to his amusement.  It felt nice, natural, real. Grateful.

As I think about the day I was born, my thoughts of Korea are never too far.  Today, I am grateful to Korea and to many of my “people.” This is not an organic sentiment that comes out easily for me.  Truth is, my place in Korea, my sense of pride of being Korean, my understanding and misunderstandings of Korea were not created in a vacuum.  What I took away from being in Korea recently were not the great conversations I had with other adoptees.  I actually had very few of those.  Instead, it was the conversations and time spent with the Korean Koreans who worked so hard to put the Gathering together for my fellow adoptees and me.  While I don’t deny that the adoptee organizations worked HARD to organize and mobilize, there were Korean Koreans who dealt with the sponsors who only spoke Korean; sponsors and politicians whose perceptions of adoptees prejudiced the way they manipulated the money they were willing to spend, who demanded changes to the itinerary, who wanted certain speakers removed, who wanted many many things.  There were the Korean Koreans who woke up earlier than anyone else roaming the hallways to make sure everything was set up correctly, that there was enough food, that the bus came on time, that the drivers were compensated appropriately.  There were those who waited patiently for participants who showed up 30 minutes past the allotted time, who stood on line with us to navigate food orders, ticket purchases, all the meanwhile assuring that Korean hospitality was presented with a smile.  I humbly thank the Korean Koreans who struggled to speak only English to us to make sure we got everything we needed, wanted, demanded and yearned for.  I thank the Korean people for showing me their pride and love for their country.  My heart filled with pride and love too as I know I am of these people.  I thank the many Korean people who complimented my earnest attempts to speak Korean.  I nearly bursted with childish boastfulness knowing I was understood and praised.

In Korea, we need other non-adopted Koreans to not just be our allies.  They must at times, many times, be our voices too.  They do this with the same level of passion, anger and insistence we would.  We speak about needing allies in the adoption community – adoptive parents, birth parents, non adoptees, politicians, service providers.  Yes, we need them.  But, for the many of us who hunger to claim our birth culture and identity, we could not do it without the gracious, reluctant, confused and overwhelmed fellow citizens of our birth country.  I admit great impatience and frustration in learning the “Korean way” and am embarrassed at the many temper tantrums I throw in having to explain and explain why we must be in Korea, seek Korea and learn the Korean way. I admit to thinking “screw the Korean way, I am American, and this is just untenable!” I admit to being childishly angry that I can’t understand and just go with the flow as the Koreans would. Deep down, I suffer from envy cause I want to fit naturally and with ease. But in the meantime, I must express gratitude. I need those Koreans to do what I cannot and at times, will not.

So tonight as my birth day is dwindling down, I say thank you. Kamsahamnida!

Brave

This post will take a bit to read…please be patient

“Show me how big your brave is…” – Sara Bareilles

In recent weeks, the adoption community has been tackling some tough questions – the validity of the adoptive family unit, the rights of birth (first) parents, the role of government in the way we Americans declare family and of course, the role of adopted people as the agents for change.  You can spend hours on the internet reading articles about what happened to Baby Veronica, the supreme court case and ICWA (Indian Child Welfare Act).  I stand firm only one thing.  We, the observers, know only a small percentage of the story.  I am left more with curious questions.  I am curious about Veronica’s birthmother and how she came to her decisions.  I am curious how Veronica’s (adoptive) parents will explain away her birthfather and all he did to parent her.  I am even more curious how the initial promise of an open adoption will now be put into place and enacted.  Who is really doing anything for Veronica?  For many, if not most, of the adoptee community, the transfer was a sad day.  For some of us, we wondered aloud…notwithstanding the time, the signature, the legal relinquishment, Veronica has a family who wants to parent her.  Veronica was not taken from her family of origin due to abuse or neglect.  She has birthfamily who wants to raise her as their own.  Is the decree on a piece of paper versus the decree of a parent who is biologically related sacrosanct?  I wonder how Veronica will make sense of her story when she googles her name later on in life.  I don’t have an answer, but for any of us who have worked through a contested adoption, the lines become awfully blurry.  When people say that every child belongs in a family, I can’t help but get an uneasy feeling that we are never talking about the same definition of family.

Take a listen to this podcast, I think you will agree, there are no straight lines – http://www.radiolab.org/story/295210-adoptive-couple-v-baby-girl/

Then there was the Reuters article on “re-homing” internationally adopted children to families found on the internet because their new first families were not able to parent them.  I think you would have to be dead to not have a reaction of disgust that human beings can do this to other human beings.  It feels like the idea of finding families for children has been relegated to the equivalent of a swap meet.  The words “trafficking” and “commodification” are rampant when thinking about this article.  As an adoptee who cringes whenever I read those words, never owning such labels as mine, I can’t deny those words ring slightly true here. And yet part of me is also thinking, how many domestically adopted children has this happened to, how many children who have been living with their biological families have been passed around to extended family members and been treated with such depravity?  While we are casting stones, are we looking at those casting too?  While we are waiting for others to change the system, is it enough for the adoptee community to just be angry and scream for change or scream for the banning of international adoption?

I like to always cloak myself as just another adoptee, but truth be told, I have some crazy connections.  There are adoptees in the field, in our community, who have been sounding the alarms for at least 10 years while simultaneously working with the very families who think about or do what the Reuters article mentioned.  To name just a few of my friends – Melanie Chung-Sherman, Dr. Judy Eckerle, Susan Branco-Alvarado, Jackie Skalnik.  I name them for anyone reading this post to get to know their names.  Why?  Because they are busy doing the work and are brilliant too in their construction of ideas and programs to help these vulnerable children.  Our community has been so effective in supporting and propping up the angry voices we have neglected the voices of the helpers, those vested in one interest – the child who grows up to be one of us and needs a “family” of his or her own.  So I shout out the names of my peers who are effecting change one family at a time in hopes that more people will call upon them and make them even busier.

There are other connections too that kept me dumbfoundingly silent these last few weeks.  Sometimes knowledge paralyzes.  As the Reuters article was blowing up Facebook, there were wheels turning to figure out how to address the issue of adoptive parents abandoning their children to the nether.  What I saw was the systematic mobilization of groups that support the perpetuation of adoption come out with their one page press releases in outrage and taking no ownership of responsibility.  Our system of international adoption remains as child-like as the way we see adoptees.  Why are the parents and parent groups the ones penning words in response?…

I ask BECAUSE…there is CHIFF (children in families first).  While the timing was interesting, this was not in response to the Reuters article.  Oh no, that would mean our government actually CAN move swiftly.  Still, I believe, more outrage is due in response to this interesting solution to the worlds’ orphan problem.  More outrage and more action!  Spend any time with a group of adoptee therapists and workers in adoption and your eyes will roll with the mundane questions we keep asking – where is the money going to come from to staff this and effect the changes, who will be the accrediting body to oversea the ethical implementation of this new program, why are only groups and legislators who are doing the adopting the only ones supporting and why are the child protection/development organizations silent? We are a suspicious lot but annoyingly persistent in our pursuit for an ethical, transparent program to address the needs of vulnerable children.  It is proposals like CHIFF that make me understand why we must declare our position on being pro or anti.  Any nuance is lost on our legislative representatives.

I have taken a long time to respond to all of the goings on in our adoption community lately.  Frankly, I was just too overwhelmed.  I am just one person, one adoptee, one social worker and like many of my other friends, carry the stories, heartaches and pain of dozens of other adoptees in the work we do as our “job.”  But then I realized, I have 99 people who read my words on my blog.  If I subtract about a dozen of my “followers” because you are my dear friends and love me and are already in the trenches with me, that still leaves a decent number of readers out there.  If I could get just one of you to think about adoption differently and speak up, write a letter, make a phone call, I will never be only one.  For the next time you read an article about adoption, think of me – a person who was adopted over the age of 5, who had her story changed in order to be adopted, who had multiple placements without a name or face to recall and who wants to find wholeness and fulfillment just like you, I hope your thoughts have been altered.  How big is your brave?!

While the government is shut down and many of our representatives are not able to respond to our emails and calls, I ask you to compose your letter or script to be sent in shutting  down CHIFF.  Why?  Please read the most comprehensive analysis of CHIFF out there.  With permission from the writers (who are adoptees), Kerry and Niels of Pound Pup Legacy, I have also added their post below.  Check out the Stop CHIFF page on Facebook too.

But first, here is the list of legislators who are in support of CHIFF who need to hear from all of us:

Senators
Roy Blunt* (R)
Mary Landrieu* (D)
Richard Burr (R)
Kirsten Gillbrand (D)
James Inhofe (R)
Eddie Berniece Johnson (D)
Mark Kirk (R)
Amy Klobuchar (D)
Claire McCaskill (D)
Patrick Murphy (D)
Jeanne Shaheen (D)
Elizabeth Warren (D)
Roger Wicker (D)

Representatives
Michele Bachman* (R)
Kay Granger* (R)
Karen Bass (D)
Suzanne Bonamici (D)
Trent Franks (R)
Steve Israel (D)
Albio Sires (D)

From Pound Pup Legacy:

Late last week, Senator Mary Landrieu launched the latest initiative of the adoption lobby in congress, with the introduction of The Children In Families First Act of 2013.

The bill is intended to counteract the decline in inter-country since 2004, a trend that has many prospective adopters worried and cuts heavily into the revenues of  adoption service providers.

The inter-country adoption lobby has been in full blown panic over this decline for several years now.

Already in 2009, a legislative attempt was made to curb the downward trend by means of the Families for Orphans Act. This effort failed miserably, but now the adoption lobby has regrouped with new blood and fresh money.

Children in Families First (CHIFF) is a much more powerful lobby group than the Families for Orphans Coalition ever was.

The backbone of both groups is the same, centered around adoption advocacy organization Kidsave International and the two trade associations of adoption service providers: Joint Council on International Children’s Services (JCICS) and National Council for Adoption (NCFA), augmented by the treacherously named adopters group Equality for Adopted Children (EACH).

Gone are Buckner InternationalInstitute for Orphan Advocacy – which was never really more than a (now defunct) website owned by America World Adoption Association -, North American Resource Center for Child Welfare (NARCCW)Weaving Families Adoption Ministry (dissolved in 2009, after having operated for little over two years) and Jane Aronson‘s celebrity adoption vehicle Worldwide Orphan Foundation.

The current incarnation of the the inter-country adoption legislation lobby group has added several heavy-weights: American Academy of Adoption AttorneysBoth Ends Burning Center for Adoption Policy (CAP)Christian Alliance for OrphansCongressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI) and the Saddleback Church.

The inclusion of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute is especially important. CCAI, as a coalition of members of congress, has access to legislators, even K street can only dream of. This enmeshment of special interests and legislature is unprecedented. Never before have members of congress so publicly embraced the interests of an industry and its clients.

With the backup of CCAI, the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, and the money from adoption zealot Craig M. Juntunen, founder of Both Ends Burning, The Children In Families First Act of 2013, actually has a chance of being enacted.

Before we dig into the details of this legislative effort to revitalize international placement of children, let’s first look at the underlying assumption, the decline of inter-country adoption.

When we compile the statistics over the time frame 2004 – 2012, we can create a chart like this:


Based on this time-range, we can indeed see that inter-country adoption has declined from almost 23,000 children in 2004, to a number just shy of 9,000 in 2012. A very different picture emerges when we choose a different time range. A graph for inter-country adoptions from 1990 to 2012 looks like this:


It is not without reason, Mark Twain spoke about “Lies, damned lies, and statistics”. Using statistics, and especially the graphical representation thereof, we can make things look very differently from what they really are.

The common thesis that inter-country adoption has been in decline is a ruse. Inter-country adoption is returning to normal levels after extreme growth between 1992 and 2004. What we are facing is not a decline, but a market correction after an adoption bubble.

That bubble was mainly caused by three factors:

  • the fall of the iron curtain and subsequent adoptions from Russia,
  • the backlash of the one-child policy in China,
  • the rise of corrupt adoption practices in Guatemala.

Adoptions from these three countries almost entirely explain, both the enormous growth of inter-country adoption between 1990 and 2004, and its decline since 2004.

In 1990, inter-country adoption from China was virtually non-existent, with only 29 Chinese children adopted in the United States. That number rose quickly in the early 1990s and reached its peak in 2005, with 7,903 Chinese children being adopted in the United States. Russian adoptions only started in 1992, and peaked in 2004, with 5,862 Russian children adopted in the US. Guatemalan adoptions were already somewhat developed in 1990. That year 257 children from Guatemala were placed with American adopters.

In 1990, the total number of children adopted from China, Russia and Guatemala was 286. In 2004, the number of children adopted from those three countries had risen to 16,164. This is an increase of 15,878. The total increase of inter-country adoption in that time-frame is 15,898. So it is safe to say that the rise of inter-country adoption between 1990 and 2004 can entirely be contributed to these three countries.

In 2012 the total number of children adopted from China, Russia and Guatemala was 3,452 (mostly from China). This is a decrease of 12,712 since 2004. The total decrease of inter-country adoption between 2004 and 2012 was 14,323. Again these numbers are in the same ball-park.

Any other explanation than the burst of the bubble of adoptions from China, Russia and Guatemala, for the decrease of inter-country adoption since 2004 is bogus, or to speak with Mark Twain, a damned lie.

The lobby-group Children in Families First (CHIFF), created to promote the The Children In Families First Act of 2013, are damned liars. The worst of their lies is that they claim the entire initiative is not about increasing the number of inter-country adoptions in the United States. In the FAQ section of their website, the following is listed:

Q. Isn’t this bill really just a way to increase the number of children available for international adoption?

CHIFF is about one and only one thing: aligning United States foreign policy and programming with the undisputed, scientifically proven fact that children need loving, protective families to thrive. It therefore embraces every pathway to a permanent family and works to ensure that all options are being used to their fullest capacity in every country where there are children in need.  To meet the needs of the MILLIONS of children outside of family care, governments all over the world will need to increase their efforts to preserve and reunify families; provide more direct support to kinship, and encourage domestic adoption as an important way to ensure families for children.  At the same time, they will also need to put in place laws and systems that allow for international adoption as it is a necessary and appropriate way to meet the needs of children who cannot find homes domestically.  The sad reality is that number of children internationally adopted by US Citizens is not declining because of a lack of need.  It is declining because international adoption has wrongly been forced off the table of appropriate permanency options for children.  CHIFF would change that.

It must be said, this is a clever statement, in an Orwellian sense of  the word “clever”. There is no downright denial of the fact that the bill is just an attempt to increase the number of inter-country adoptions, but it tries to frame the issue in a different light. Of course it can’t be done without adding further lies.

Let’s start with the phrase: the undisputed, scientifically proven fact that children need loving, protective families to thrive.

The text of the bill itself is even more explicit, stating:

Science now proves conclusively that children suffer immediate, lasting, and in many cases irreversible damage from time spent living in institutions or outside of families, including reduced brain activity, reduced IQ, smaller brain size, and inability to form emotional bonds with others.

While we won’t dispute that intensive contact with adult care givers is of the utmost importance to the brain development of infants, there is no scientific consensus that living in institutions or outside families is damaging to all children.

In fact, an article published in Scientific American in 2009, under the title Orphanages Rival Foster Homes for Quality Child Care, refutes the stereotype that children fail to thrive in orphanages, and in fact receive care just as good as they would in foster care or through adoption. The research leading to this result had, unlike many other studies about developmental delays of orphans, not taken place in the dark and run-down children’s homes of post-communist Eastern Europe, but in countries like Cambodia, Ethiopia, India, Kenya and Tanzania, where care was given to children in more community-based orphanages.

The adoption-centric agenda of the bill reveals itself in how children are confounded with infants. After all, most adopters have primarily interest in obtaining infants, and shy away from adopting children over the age of five. There is proof that infants that are not held and are not being socially engaged, indeed suffer all sorts of developmental problems, both emotional and cognitive. However, there is no proof that brain development of children above the age of five is seriously harmed by institutional care.

Most of the children, the MILLIONS of children, mentioned in the FAQ answer, are not infants, and with that, of little interest to the adoption community. Their numbers are only included to inflate the statistics, and make the problem look worse than it really is.

This brings us to the following lie: the MILLIONS of orphans mentioned. In a one page leaflet of Children in Families First, the following statement is made:

Every day, all over the world, more children find themselves living without  families – on the streets, in orphanages, in refugee camps. By some estimates, there are now 200 million orphans in the world.

Of course, like all the Pinocchio emulating efforts of the CHIFF group, it is not a complete lie. There is certainly some estimate that there are now 200 million orphans in the world. We could make up a figure out of whole cloth that there are now 3 billion orphans in the world and that too would be “some estimate”.

The figure of 200 million, however, is based upon, and an inflation of a figure of 143 million orphans, mentioned in the report Children on the Brink, which UNICEF published in 2004. To reach this number, UNICEF used a very broad definition of the word orphan: a child who has lost one or both parents through death. While it is sad so many children lost one or both parents, it doesn’t warrant the claim these children actually go without parental care. Ironically, if children that have one living parent, get adopted abroad by a single parents, they suddenly don’t count as orphans anymore, while they move from one single parent household to another.

The number of 143 million is already inappropriate to use in the context of this bill; inflating the number and speaking of “more children find themselves living without families” is most disingenuous. Not only are many of those 143 million children not living without families, their number is likely not to be growing.

When UNICEF published their report, the Second Congo War had just formally ended with a estimated death toll between 2.5 million an 5,4 million. Despite ongoing turmoil and devastation around the world, there is no conflict of that scale at the moment. It is therefore more likely that we will see a decrease of the number of orphans than that we will see an increase.

The third big lie in that one answer in CHIFF’s FAQ is the following statement:

The sad reality is that number of children internationally adopted by US Citizens is not declining because of a lack of need.  It is declining because international adoption has wrongly been forced off the table of appropriate permanency options for children.

Since the reason behind the decline in inter-country adoption has already been discussed earlier, we have to question the motive for CHIFF’s claim that international adoption has wrongly been forced off the table of appropriate permanency options for children.

The background for the statement can be found in the closure of Guatemala for inter-country adoptions, back in 2008. For many years, the adoption programs from Guatemala were known to be deeply corrupt. Already in 2001, Canada ended the adoption of Guatemalan children for that reason. The Netherlands followed a year later, and France ended adoption from Guatemala in 2004.

While all receiving countries in the world were ending adoptions from Guatemala, or reducing the numbers to single digits, the export of children to the United States grew almost three-fold.

The ease of adoption from Guatemala was seen as a sign of a deep problem in the rest of the world, but it was seen as a boon in the United States. Prospective adopters loved the programs, despite the steep price, and adoption agencies loved the programs, because of the steep price.

In the end, Guatemala ended inter-country adoption in 2008, under pressure of UNICEF. Prospective adopters were furious about this decision, and so was the Joint Council on International Children’s Services (JCICS), a trade association of adoption service providers. UNICEF was blamed for putting the rights of children above the desires of adopters. Of course it wasn’t phrased in such politically incorrect terms, but it actually boiled down to that.

UNICEF, as an international organization, uses an international philosophy of child protection. The United States, always in search for exceptionalism – it is the only country in the world that doesn’t use the metric system – has its own philosophy of child protection, rooted in the notion of permanency.

Angered by UNICEF’s role in the closure of the adoption programs from Guatemala, and frustrated by the fact that the rest of the world doesn’t accept the American approach to child protection, CHIFF aims to realign the foreign policies of the United States, independent of UNICEF.

In a message point document, CHIFF makes the following statement:

The U.S. Government has effectively relinquished its policy role on international child welfare to UNICEF.

We need to retake control of U.S. foreign policy on this critical issue and lead the way in shifting the world’s focus on to the importance of family for all children.

According to CHIFF, it is time to take unilateral action in foreign policy. We all know how that worked out last time such an approach was attempted.

The permanency agenda effectively reduces the child placement options to only two options, reunification with biological parents or adoption. This becomes clear when we carefully read the definition of permanency as given in the bill:

The term ‘‘appropriate, protective, and permanent family care’’ means a nurturing, lifelong, commitment to a child by an adult, or adults with parental roles and responsibilities that:

  • provides physical and emotional support;
  • provides the child with a sense of belonging; and
  • generally involves full legal recognition of the child’s status as child of the parents and of the parents’ rights and responsibilities regarding the child.

The phrase “full legal recognition of the child’s status as child of the parents and of the parents’ rights and responsibilities regarding the child”,rules out any form of foster care, guardianship, or institutional care.

It is all the more hypocritical of CHIFF to demand other countries in this world to end these child placement options, while the United States itself has one of the largest foster care systems in the world and has thousands of children placed in residential treatment centers.

It all makes sense when we read this bill for what it is, a duplicitous attempt to increase inter-country adoption, to the benefit of prospective adopters and adoption service providers. In that context, the notion of permanency makes perfect sense, because it blocks all other child placement solutions other than adoption.

In that context too, it makes perfect sense to disregard all systemic problems faced in the field of adoption.This issue is tackled in the same FAQ on CHIFF’s website as follows:

Q. International adoption has so many problems and so much fraud. Don’t we have to fix that before we increase the numbers?

It’s really important, when thinking about international adoption, or any humanitarian program, not to lose perspective and get misled because a few tragic cases go badly.  We all grieve those cases.  But we don’t shut down hospitals because a hospital’s error causes harm to a patient.  We don’t shut down the banking system because a bank gets robbed.  Instead, we work to ensure that there are laws in place that protect against errors and crime and prosecute wrongdoers.  In this vein, CHIFF includes important elements that will help us be sure that we get it right for birth parents, adoptive parents and most importantly children in the international adoption system. Most notably, CHIFF better enables both the State Department and USAID to do the necessary work to identify unparented children, determine what is in their best interest and help them to get it, whether it’s family reunification, kinship, domestic or international adoption.

It is also important to understand that there are children in the world for whom international adoption is not only the best option, but the only option for a permanent family. In almost every country in the world, older children, children in larger sibling groups and with special medical needs, domestic options are very limited.  When international adoption is eliminated as an option, these children spend a lifetime in an institution, or worse, are left to fend for themselves.

Interestingly enough the question itself – which, as is usual in FAQ’s, is phrased by CHIFF itself, not by some outside questioner – hints to the  fact that the bill is indeed about increasing the number of inter-country adoptions, and not some other lofty goal CHIFF insists on working towards.

The answer to this question comes right out of the play book of adoption propagandists. Every systemic problem in Adoptionland is always aregrettable incident and always limited to a few tragic cases.

The realities of Adoptionland are that every country that exports more than a few hundred children each year for adoption, is faced with serious corruption. Do we really have to list the multiple trafficking cases in BulgariaCambodiaChinaEl SalvadorEthiopiaGuatemalaIndia,Liberia,  MexicoNepalRomaniaRussiaSamoaSouth KoreaUkraine, and Vietnam, to make it clear that child trafficking for the purpose of adoption is a systemic problem, or should we treat the long list of Child trafficking cases all as isolated incidents?

The comparisons in the FAQ answer to the medical field and the banking system are either erroneous, or make absolutely no sense. Hospitals are shut down when errors are systemic.

Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital is set to close down soon after failing a federal inspection. The action comes after a new round of questions about care, including one in which a woman writhed on the floor of the emergency room lobby for 45 minutes before dying of a perforated bowel. No one stepped in to help her. The Willowbrook hospital, once known as King/Drew, has been plagued by allegations of poor treatment almost since its inception 35 years ago. Scroll down for the latest coverage plus The Times’ 2004 series on King/Drew.

http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-kingdrew-gallery,0,5651209.storygallery

Renaissance Hospital in Terrell had its license terminated and its doors shuttered Tuesday following the results of an investigation of massive safety failures that led to at least two deaths.

http://www.wfaa.com/news/health/renaissance-hospital-terrell-state-nursing-investigation-190907101.html

On March 23 a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conducted a surprise inspection of the hospital near Ashland. Its conclusion was there is, “Immediate jeopardy to the health and safety of patients.” There are no patients at St. Catherine, and after state action last week, it cannot take in new patients.

http://wnep.com/2012/04/04/federal-inspection-local-hospital-put-patients-at-risk/

The banking system, doesn’t get shut down because a bank gets robbed – a most absurd comparison, since banks are not guilty when being robbed. More prudently, a bank doesn’t even get shut down when it is entirely corrupt and should be closed, since most members of congress receive huge donations from those very banks. In that sense the banking system receives similar protection from congress as the adoption system. Both can continue their corrupt practices even when systemic abuse and corruption has been demonstrated, because it suits members of congress to maintain the status quo.

Unlike the answer to the FAQ question claims, the bill contains nothing to prevent corruption. In fact, it makes it easier. By  collecting data toindentify unparented children in foreign countries, the bill makes it easier for child traffickers to find victims for their crimes. It may also make it easier for pedophiles to book their next holiday destination.

The most flagrant dishonesty is reserved for the final paragraph of the FAQ answer. It claims that the bill helps older children, sibling groups and children with special needs. These three categories of children are notoriously unwanted by adopters and no speeding up of the adoption process is going to change that. In fact, the only reason that children from these categories are adopted to some degree these days, is because it is very hard to adopt infants.

Also, by redirecting funds form USAID to facilitate inter-country adoption, as the bill aims for, less money will go toward older children, sibling groups and children with special needs. Exactly the most vulnerable children in the world stand the most to lose when this monstrosity of a bill gets enacted.

Finally, we’d like to address one of the most egregious parts of the CHIFF bill, which reads as follows:

All options for providing appropriate, protective, and permanent family care to children living without families must be considered concurrently and permanent solutions must be put in place as quickly as possible. Solutions include family preservation and reunification, kinship care, guardianship, domestic and intercountry adoption, and other culturally-acceptable forms of care that will result in appropriate, protective, and  permanent family care.

Preference should be given to options that optimize child best interests, which generally means options which provide children with fully protected legal status and parents with full legal status as parents, including full parental rights and responsibilities. The principle of subsidiarity, which gives preference to in-country solutions, should be implemented within the context of a concurrent planning strategy, exploring in- and out-of-country options simultaneously. If an in-country placement serving the child’s best interest and providing appropriate, protective, and permanent care is not quickly available, and such an international home is available, the child should be placed in that international home without delay.

Let’s forget the lofty words kinship care, guardianship, and other culturally-acceptable forms of care, we already established that appropriate, protective, and  permanent family care, requires parental rights. With that, the only real options are family preservation/reunification and adoption.

The passage is about concurrent planning, a strategy already in use in the American foster care system. The Child Welfare Information Gateway gives the following definition:

Concurrent planning is an approach that seeks to eliminate delays in attaining permanent families for children and youth in foster care. Effective implementation requires comprehensive and early assessment. It involves identifying and working toward a child’s primary permanency goal (such as reunification with the birth family) while simultaneously identifying and working on a secondary goal (such as guardianship with a relative). This practice can shorten the time to achieve permanency if efforts toward the primary goal prove unsuccessful because progress has already been made toward the secondary goal.

On the surface, it sounds reasonable to explore all options simultaneously, but it can easily lead to fast-tracked adoptions with only pro-forma investigations into family preservation/reunification. Concurrent planning only works if the agencies involved have no bias towards the chosen option. This is not the case in many foreign countries, where adoption agencies run orphanages, or donate large amounts of money to orphanages. Family preservation/reunification costs money, while inter-country adoption makes money and keeps customers happy. In such situations, concurrent planning is only a ploy to fast-track inter-country adoption.

For all the reasons outlined in this article, Pound Pup Legacy started an action to stop this bill. On our website we will add further analysis of this bill, and report on any developments in congress to advance its enactment. We also created a  Facebook pagehttps://www.facebook.com/StopCHIFF to raise more awareness about the terrible Children In Families First Act of 2013.

INFJ

After 10 days of international travel, I was invited to a Korean culture camp for adoptees and American born Korean kids.  This camp is special in that it melds the two communities – Korean adoptees and American born Korean kids.  While I thought I was showing my age by admitting that college was the first time I was fully and openly in the company of other Korean people, I am again learning that this continues to still be the case depending on where a child is adopted.  It is still possible for an adoptee, no matter the age, to feel like the only one.  I often find that the melding of American and Korean culture is still a challenge and often not fully addressed without a full commitment from the adopted person to go all in.  I am hoping this camp will hang around more so our future kids won’t feel so alienated from the community that most emulates them.  However, working at a sleep-away camp with your kids in tow is a weary experience.  On the one hand, I was fully engaged and engrossed with everything that was going on at camp, but felt like I had grown that mysterious third eye watching for my kids.  It was kind of crazy to see them in the mix of all these Korean American kids.  I could see them taking things in for the first time – grace in Korean, bowing at the end of every class, calling all the elders “teacher” and the celebration of Korean independence day literally made their jaws drop.  My big boy morphed in completely.  My little one proudly proclaimed he neither showered nor brushed his teeth all week!

So much acculturating, traveling, laundry…I was exhausted and wished for nothing more than a week to speak to no one.  I thought it was post-camp blues, but I realized that for the last three weeks, I have been in constant motion and constant thought.  And then I remembered, I am an INFJ of the Myers Briggs personality assessment.  A rare breed, we INFJs.  My desire to be mute and sit in silent contemplation could only be excused as a severe case of jetlag and the odd little personality quirk of mine to think ALOT before speaking.  As exciting as it is to do all that I did in August, the ideas and thoughts kept going in circles while my hands were busy being Mommy.

Now that I am in the comfort of a schedule and the kids are occupied with a remarkably smooth transition to school, I find myself reflecting over the last month the changes I experienced in Korea and in me.

The big wow for the kids about Korea was the motion sensors on the escalators.  We first avoided them when they were still thinking they were broken, ’cause that would be the case here in New York.  I can’t wait till America owns this idea too.  What stood out for me was seeing young women smoking in public.  After multiple visits where the ladies bathrooms would choke a horse with the smoke that filled the air, I was amused.  This development has also seemed to have impacted the men smoking  There are designated locations where smoking is permissible.  Still the men totally outnumber the women.  The nicest thing I saw was that PDA has now transcended gender.  It used to be only girls would hold girls hands and boys would walk with their arms over other boys.  Now heterosexual couples hold hands.  Finally!

Korean elders are bemoaning the demise of the Confucian ways.  Children are now being spoken to in formal Korean and that is disrupting the hierarchy that keeps the chain of respect in tact.  And yet, the very nature of etiquette is bred in the language.  The suffix -ayo/-eyo is never not used to indicate formality, politeness and distance between an older and younger person.  So I am not so convinced that the public face of Korea is in jeopardy.  Korea will remain ever polite and the expected suppression of freely expressing oneself  is still going strong.  We are still talking about Korea.

While it was really lovely to not be snickered at when speaking English out loud, I need to learn how to speak English Korean-style.  It is possible to order in English but not a guarantee you will get what you ordered.  By the time my kids travel to Korea on their own, I truly believe Korea will be bilingual, but not just yet.  I nearly laughed out loud when the English translation was sounded over the loudspeakers at the train station.  “This station stop is Uljiro Sam Ga.”  What is so funny about this is that “Sam” = 3.  If only they would say “This station stop is Uljiro Three Ga”  every single English speaker would know exactly where they are!  My last little gripe would be that no matter how modernized Seoul is, visions of its third-world past is not all together obliterated.  We loved the Korean GPS, it just didn’t save us from walking around in circles for hours to find my friend’s store.

My last thought of Korea is a personal fashion dare.  The next extremely sunny day, dare I open my sun umbrella instead of my sunglasses? I found myself eyeing them in their lovely colors and designs.  It was a moment that when in Korea, do as Koreans do…not yet in New York.

The changes in me are more conflicting.  I am forever seeking to find my place in this community of Koreans, Korean Americans and adoptees.  I am loving how easily I transition from English to Korean now both in language and mannerisms.  I am proud of the hard work put in to find such an equilibrium.  Yet, I am struck by how embroiled I can feel with the conflicts in our community of adoptees who differ so much in my perspective, my delivery, my deliberations on being adopted, being Korean and American.  I think I am finally finding the right words though.  In my adopted self, the profession I sought and the way I operate, I seek to be “eminently useful.”  I heard that phrase in church of all places.  I am at my best when I feel useful, involved, personally engaged. Being at camp getting kids to talk about race, culture and identity was thrilling.  Getting adoptees to share their stories and have others affected by them is empowering for them and for me.  Being asked by a Korean professor to teach others what I know about adoption was a high.  Coming home to sit with adoptees as they find their words to better understand themselves, create a sense of family, self identity and worth has made me feel eminent.  While I am always curious about the grander politics of adoption and I do want to be present as policy is discussed, I am realizing my INFJ ways more and more.  I work better one on one.  A contradiction here as I write these words to send out to the nebulous in hopes to reach more people outside of my little world.  Maybe there is more changing I need to do.

OHK

I seem to have left my blog in Korea along with my senses.  Last I wrote, I had not come to the meat of my journey, the real reasons I was anticipating my trip with so much enthusiasm.  The last three days of our trip was spent with my other family, the third one, the one connected to my orphanage.  My time at the orphanage is unmeasured and remains a mystery.  There is no one who is alive anymore to tell me where I was, who I was with and for how long.  I am unfinished about how I feel about those missing 2.5 years, but that time of “transition” must have packed quite a punch in the creation of me.  I can’t seem to forget about it and yet it no longer burdens me or terrifies my dreams.  Instead, I have been filling that hole with memories of people who have taught me that family can be a choice.

By week’s end, we said goodbye to the luxurious Lotte Hotel and began our weekend with S and W.  I can’t quite seem to find the right words for who they mean to me in my life.  W is from my orphanage and so my “little brother.”  The year I went to live in Korea, in the orphanage, S was a teacher there.  We spent so much time together talking and sharing the load of caring for the kids, it created an intimacy I have with no one else.  She was the only witness to a transformation that left me permanently connected to Korea beyond birth and culture.  I left Korea 20 years ago having found a soul mate in her.  So when S and W got married, it solidified in my mind the notion that they were my family.  Their children call me “Como” (Paternal Aunt).   And now, my children call them “Samcheon” and “Seungmo”.  Every person has a name depending on how you are related, so these are really special.

First priority was food for us and then for our visit to the orphanage.  My love for grocery shopping has not waned.  There are some things I hope will come to the States.  For one, there is a huge fridge of yogurts and instead of four packs, they come in twos and you can pack any multiple of two into a sealed bag – 10 for… Same goes for ice-pops among other things.   Nice.   Second, the ramen selection was AMAZING.  I wanted to skip through the aisle singing “Food glorious food!”  Third, all my favorite K-drama stars advertising everything and anything in full splendor and color.   For our trip to the orphanage, we pre-ordered pizzas.

Our trip to OHK was long, updated, modern and very familiar.  Things have changed a lot in the actual inside of the Home after the much publicized scandal of suspected abuse.  There was a complete revamping of the first floor of the two floor building.  Most apparent was the aesthetics of the place.  There were paper flowers and cute signs everywhere replacing the barren walls.  Second were the closed doors to the residential wings of the floor.  You can’t just indiscriminately walk around.  There were flat screen tvs in each wing replacing the one 16 inch that was in the cafeteria.  There were bunk beds in each room with only two or four kids per room.  I cannot believe the kids sleep in beds now, remembering that I had the only bed in the Home the last time I was there.   There are more boys than girls here so the girls are upstairs.  Bars and screens cover the windows now too.  CCTV and a high tech security system is in place now.  AND the kitchen!  In 1993, the kitchen was still open to nature’s elements with the girls waking up early to built a fire to cook the rice in a cast iron cooking stove that looks just like what you will find in the Korean Folk Village or an historical drama representing thousands of years ago.  The floor of the kitchen was made of stone and a hose was the source of COLD water to cook and wash dishes on the ground.  Now, there is a proper enclosed kitchen with fridges, range and oven, countertops and tiles on the floor.  That was a total OMG moment for me.

There seems to be an intention to humanize the children more too.  Each child has a box for shoes with his/her name on it INSIDE the home.  I cannot tell you how meaningful that was to S and me as we recalled the rubber house slippers the kids would wear, often mismatched.  S talked about how the shoes would be frozen as they used to be outside of the residence.  There is a photo of every child in the main office.  Necessary and at first glance a little jarring, but I liked it.  It acknowledges the existence of these children, something that was always missing when I was there.

And then there was much that didn’t change.  The room to the “study” was locked and unused.  Not a single kid was studying, reading or on the many computers lining the large community room.  What kid doesn’t want to be on a computer these days?  Something was wrong here.  The “library” was locked because of “water damage to the ceiling”….and yet on closer examination, the books look like they were the exact same books from when I was there 20 years ago and untouched.  What books would look so neat if 40+ kids were rifling through them even with the littlest amount of enthusiasm?  The inaction spoke louder than the pretty tour and words we were given.

Most of all, the Home was still so eerily quiet.  Visit any institution housing children and you will be startled at the silence.  It is always so quiet.  No laughing, no arguing, no talking.  The empty looks on the kids’ faces have not changed either, leaving me with that feeling that I must do something, but not quite sure what would be of any use living halfway around the world and knowing my next time to Korea is always just a wish amounting to lots of hope.  I forgot I could speak Korean and only stood in front of the kids, embarrassed at the grand introduction, and cried.  We ate together though.  Not one of the ten pizza pies went to waste.  One group of mischievous boys decided to deconstruct the pizza instead of eat it.  After a quiet round of elders looking at it and reprimanding them, I notice they begrudgingly sat down again and ate the entire pie.  As always, the elder boys and girls dictated the younger ones.

I am unsure as to how the rest of our little family felt about this visit.  We haven’t talked about it since that day.  I will just wait to hear when they are ready.  The boys went outside pretty quickly.  The shrimp, cranberry, pepper, sausage concoction of a pizza was not remotely appetizing to them.  S told me her own son rarely comes inside and her pre-adolescent daughter is less willing to stay inside and hang out with the kids as she connects the dots to this place that once was her father’s only home.  We promised them a chance to swim and play in water so our visit was short.  It was enough.

We brought kites, I couldn’t come empty handed.  This was fine as it was the little boys who were the only talkative bunch and they seemed to genuinely like the kites.  They must have known we were coming though.  I was amused that the only person they talked to was George.  The minute he got out of the car, they questioned whether he was indeed American and challenged him to say something in English!  Hilarious.

Our day ended with hours of fun by a stream that was supposed to be waist high for swimming.  Instead it was ankle deep, perfectly cold and enough entertainment for the kids to really bond and play.  We went from a five star hotel with $7 coffee to sitting on the floor eating over a butane powered flame and some cold beers.  The bathrooms were sketchy but brought back some funny memories for me.  My big boy was mortified when he learned that he needed to fill the scooper with water to “flush” the toilet but grateful he was a boy so he could remain standing!  No matter, it was good fun.  We sat by the water, S and me, talking talking talking.  Two ajummas now but laughing like we were still in our 20s.

unmyeong

It seems every time I am in a hotel for an adoptee event, there is some correlation with the Korean War.  Once again, I walked in the lobby to see men in uniform commemorating the armistice of the Korean War.  Even a coffee at a neighboring hotel, I find the one set of seats next to a group of veterans from England talking story with each other.  Curious “unmyeong” or destiny?  No matter, it has not dampened one minute the celebratory nature of IKAA’s gathering.

Admittedly, my participation in the gathering events are peripheral in nature.  I am here with my kids, so I am out and about most of the time walking a ton without really thinking about what is going on back at the hotel.  My boys have made friends with another family with boys their age with the same obsession for Minecraft and card games.  The only difference is that they are from the Netherlands.  I am always amazed at the lack of ceremony stood on the fact that verbal communication is troubling.  My big boy pulled out a set of Top Trump cards and for the next hour, they were all hunched over sitting under the hot humid sun playing cards and trying to navigate the point system without the aide of a common language.  Of course, our crazy American school system lags behind in learning other languages and with a year of English under his belt, the oldest one at 10, managed just fine.  Then again, Minecraft has its own language which none of us adults seem to understand at all.   They enjoyed each other so much we went swimming all together after our day trip without skipping a beat.  Unmyeong.

Meanwhile, we adults are completely dependent on English no matter where the adoptee was raised.  So thankful for that personally.  However, it is the Korean that is giving some of us trouble.  For our first family excursion out, some of us brought our birthfamily members along for the day.  Despite the many looks from the other Korean Korean people who knew full well we were not natives, our birthmothers, sisters, brothers, cousins, neices and nephews blended right in without fanfare.  It was lovely despite the awkward silences and broken Korean/English passing through.  Even when my Umma was living with us for three months in NY, we didn’t get to spend this kind of quality time.  She watched the shoes while the boys waded in the water, she fanned the boys to cool them from the heat, she gossiped with me about her thoughts on how much to push my brother to get married.  I find I am not so prickly this time around.  Language is less of an issue this time, but I think I am just getting used to her as well.  So far so good.

Of course, you put a group of adoptees together and then find our kids get along nicely, we start to talk and share our stories.  It is never lost on us that our lives have had odd destinies.  I could have been Dutch and she could have been American.  Our birth parents are not different in their thinking.  My Umma thought I went to Europe and another adoptee’s birthfather thought she was sent to the United States.  Unmyeong.

What has happened over the last day has been filled with many wonderful memories for my children already.  They made friends, they have eaten quite a lot of bulgogi and while they miss their puppy in New York seem to be just fine knowing they are going to be in Korea for more days.   For now, Lotte Hotel is home.

Tonight, George and I got to go out for a spell and have that drink we rarely get to have alone.  Umma was happy to stay in the room with our sleeping babies.  Lovely.

Relative

Spicy is relative.  Here in Korea, when someone says things are not spicy, buyer beware, it is.  At least if you have to feed children not used to the relative nature of what constitutes spicy and what does not.  Our accommodations are beautiful here at the Lotte Hotel, but the food situation has forced our little family to seek elsewhere in search of something a little more accommodating to our wallets.  Aside from jetlag being my nemesis (thus writing at 2AM), it seems we will need to actually patron the many American restaurants I keep poo-pooing in order for the children to have a full meal without worry that they will end up fuller from the water in order to cool their tongues.  Traveling around Korea is different already this time.   George and I however, are in spicy heaven.  We ordered way too much food and after tasting some of the best chili chicken wings, were happy to give it away to a couple of homeless men in the subway. It felt just like New York City for a moment.

We have had lots of relatives to greet from the time we got off the plane till well into tomorrow.  I knew this would happen, but glad for it nevertheless.  There are three sets of “family” to meet after all.  My Umma and brother greeted us with flowers and my Umma was all dolled up in a simple hanbok.  I already kicked myself for not capturing the moment on camera too confused trying to figure out the phone situation, dealing with a quesy stomach  and gleefully happy to see my dear friend S and her family who were at the airport to go on a vacation to the States.  It was my one moment to meet her family.  S and I have known each other since the orphanage days and I have always wanted to meet the parents who raised her so wonderfully and created a soul so beautiful.  To me, she is heaven sent, so to thank her parents was a true honor.

The reality of having my boys here set in all too quickly, with my big boy getting sick from the plane ride.  Ironic to know his stomach is as weak as mine as I recall all the vomiting I did en route to the America so many years ago.  He braved on for the rest of the evening trying to take it all in.  “Mommy, Korea is just like New York, only with a bunch more Koreans.”  No fear, so far so good.

We planned our trip so we could relax and take in the sites over the weekend.  Lotte World was our first major stop.  We had an unplanned guide with us.  CYJ, one of my orphanage brothers, joined us for the day.  He was gracious to give up sleep to show us around and help us navigate.  My last time at Lotte World was 20 years ago and I cannot recall a single moment.  It functions more like Playland and Great Adventure simultaneously.  We got there way too early waiting for the doors to open only to be mobbed by tons of kids, families and groups by days end.  Korean ice cream and melon ices were a huge hit with a declaration that next time, the boys will be more ready to try more rides.  There is a “next time” in their heads already.

CYJ was 15 when I was at the orphanage last time.  He is in his thirties now and getting ready to get married.  Soft spoken, gentle and kind, my boys took to him immediately.  He tried hard to communicate with them in English while snapping photos and little videos of our day.  By days end, he had a full video montage accompanied with music for us.  It was amazing.  I don’t ordinarily put anything here of my children, but I will try and post his video if I can.

CYJ caught me up on what is going on with the others.  I will be meeting up with a few more by the end of the week.  He informed me that the latest scandal at the orphanage was due to an extortion plan by a father of one of the kids.  All allegations have been deemed inaccurate, charges have been dropped.  August 15th is “going home day” in Korea, so all the OHK alums will meet up and spend the day with the kids who remain. We will have a mini version on Friday or Saturday of this week while my family is there.  I look forward to going with a lighter heart.  Admittedly, I was not surprised that scandal would hit the orphanage.  Personal feelings and hopes that the institution would shut down aside, I am relieved that nothing truly terrible happened to that child.

I leave you tonight with an image worth a chuckle.  I decided to pack for five days with a simple rotation of clothes throughout the week.  I thought we would be good.  After all, having multiple changes of clothes feels like a first world problem and being caught wearing the same thing days in a row is no big deal here.  I blame it on a brain fart on my part as the heat, humidity alone accumulates more changes in a day than anticipated.  Good thing I brought detergent.  What happened later in the day feels like a MacGyver moment.  The bathtub filled with water and clothes got me feeling like a housewife (ajumma) thinking “same stuff, different location.”  Only in Korea, does it seem to make sense that I am once again washing clothes by hand, wringing them out of all their water and decorating our room with wets things.

Now, to get over the time difference and hoping the boys sleep till well past dawn would be the next best achievement right about now.  One moment the boys were literally passing out at dinner and the next wrestling like wolf cubs on the bed.  Jetlag in full steam.

Next on the agenda, breakfast that won’t cost $50 a head!

 

Butterflies

What’s that saying, “not my first rodeo?”  This is not my first time to Korea, not my first long plane ride with young children.  There are no firsts for this go-around.  There is a full itinerary, there is a plan.  So, what’s the apprehension?  Why still the butterflies?

I have been going back and forth with my Umma about our pending trip.  There is nothing new about it particularly and yet thinking about seeing her makes me anxious.  Being with her has all the potential to make me feel euphoric and unfulfilled all at once.  Our last conversation was so ordinary in the way one talks to a parent as we planned and stated our thoughts on how much time we will get together.  While I can bask in the simplicity of how ordinary this phone call was, it always feels like a first.  Every time there is movement closer to each other and every hang up makes me sigh in apprehension that nothing will go as I hope…one step forward, two steps back.

Me – So, you will come to the airport?
Umma – Yes.
Me – So, you will come to the hotel on Monday and stay with us till Thursday?
Umma – No. I will go home. Your brother needs dinner.
(Pause. Insert eye roll and thoughts of, my brother is a grown man, I am SURE he can figure dinner out for himself.)
Me – What? Your home is so far from Seoul, that will be way too hard for you!
Umma – It’s ok. I will be fine. I am healthy and strong and it will not be so hard.
Me – But, I got the biggest room for us at the hotel, there is a separate bed for you too. You must stay with us. I don’t know when I will be in Korea again. I thought we would see a lot of each other this time.
Umma – We will talk about it when we are together, ok?

“We will talk about it when we are together…” Makes sense. We will see each other and we will hash this out. So ordinary. What every parent would say in a situation like this. I just need to be in the same air space and all will be sorted. Of course, there are many other grown children who have moved far from home and are petulant when they realize that those who remained are the primary thought.

There is nothing ordinary about this. Because underneath it all is my inference that I am, yet again, the third wheel, the one who is not part of the family. Never mind that it is taking everything I have to make this trip possible. Of course, I have a right to demand her time! Or do I? The seesaw goes back and forth. I am not worthy of her time. I am the one who disappeared. I am just a visitor in her life. I can’t trump my brother. He is her rock, her stability, her priority, her family.

The head starts to rationalize. I know it is absolutely bizarre for Umma to want to be in the company of me and several hundred other adoptees in a hotel room. There is no way she wants to meet other birthmothers, see other women walking with their adopted children. She has no interest in being in the company of these other women. My work in adoption and my identification with the adoptee community is wildly uncomfortable for her. She does not want to hear about my plans to visit the orphanage. I am not an orphan to her.  She is not an intrusive person, so it just makes sense she wants us to have our alone time and rest without her.  Further rationality ensues when I know I will probably be grateful she isn’t on top of me.  Our room will be a safe cool haven for the long hot days that I will be out and about. Jetlag has no predictable pattern so my kids will be up at all weird hours.  I will want to walk around in my pajamas and not have to worry about her comfort.

The heart is not so rational.  It starts to worry and mild panic begins.  This may be the last time I see her.  The next time I go to Korea will be when she is sick or dying or dead.  I am not typically a pessimist, just haven’t figured out how to turn my skin right side out so the tougher part is shielding my heart from disappointment, rejection, silence, apathy and so little time to cultivate a happy memory of her.  I am anticipating the end before I have begun.  What if this is the last time I see her? The little girl has not caught up with this grown woman.  Almost twenty years in reunion and I am still stuck in a time warp.

This will all go by so fast.  May my feet stay on the ground long enough to keep me tethered to the present.