When in Rome

I often think that the experience of the older child adopted is like the adage, “When in Rome, do as the Romans.”
I thought about this while having soup with my friends.

When I first came home I ate with my elbows on the table, head in bowl slurped up the soup with noise that annoyed the bajesus out of my parents. “Get your elbows off the table, this is not a horses stable” ring in my ears still. “What band do you play for?” Was the other oft remark. This was meant to be humorous at times and sometimes it was.  Mostly, though, it wasn’t funny at all to me.  It felt unnecessary and ruined the meal, the intention of why we were having family dinners at all.  The quest?  I was to eat silently. It was not so easy, thus constant “reminders”. 

Fast forward, to the year I spent in Korea. I am sitting in the cafeteria of the orphanage eating and I was struck by how noisy it was in the room!  Not because there were 50 kids, metal chopsticks on metal trays, but because of all the slurping and chewing that was going on.  I would often hear the staff cluck like mother hens, “he makes eating sound so delicious.”  Really, eating can SOUND delicious? It was just a matter of weeks living in Korea that I realized I could resume my life with elbows on the table, slurping and with my head down and it would all be ok.  When in Korea, do as the Koreans would.  If you have a chance to watch the Korean drama, ‘Let’s Eat!” you will totally get why eating sounds delicious.

In remembering these memories, I think about the young boy I worked with who got “rehomed” by his first adoptive family and told me, “I just didn’t understand the rules of their house.” His words hit my heart; that a 7 year old would have such wisdom. The “rules” were what I focused on with this kid as a novice social worker. Now I also get that he didn’t “understand”.  Of course.

In Korea, it makes sense to show you enjoy your meal by making sounds. In America it makes sense you show enjoyment with lip service. In Korea you show you loved the food by how you eat. In America you show you loved it by using words. Neither is more meaningful.  Now that I’ve got the rules straight, both seems just right in my head.

Checking myself

I had my first dream in Korean.  I talk in my sleep too. My dreams are most vivid the minute before I wake up and open my eyes.  I can’t remember what I said, but it was in Korean.  So surprised, I tried hard to go back to sleep to figure it all out.  I was so excited!  Alas, nothing.

A week later, I had my second dream in Korean.  I was in a public bathroom needing to change my little one’s diaper.  Looking for the changing table, I noticed all the sinks were full of water with clothing soaking in them.  It felt like we were in a massive bathroom and upon quiet reflection, was it a public bathroom or was it? My little boy is sleeping soundly and with my right hand cradling his chubby cheeked face,  I quickly futz with my left to remove his clothes.  And then I hear her voice.  A woman standing behind me holding a little girl and talking wistfully – “Aigoo, look at her legs, they are so skinny.  I found her outside…Aigoo, she is so dirty…What to do….”  I don’t look up, just glance behind me to see a woman carrying a little one.  All I see is legs and yes they are skinny.  I awake.  Wait?  Was that all in Korean?  How did I know what that woman was saying?  I am not a great dream interpreter, but this one hit me hard. I KNOW what this one was about but I was so distracted that it was in Korean, I have spent little time dwelling on the deeper meaning of it.

I watch Korean dramas just before sleep.  The last thing I usually hear is Korean.  After years of drama watching, the language is finally seeping into my unconscious.  This “seeping in” of Korean has been a parallel process of seeping into the culture as well.  With language comes deeper understanding, more questions and slow acceptance of how things are.  Understanding how things are does not mean I accept, but I am becoming more and more aware that to be Korean means taking on more than just things I like, but also the things that I don’t or can’t.

The media has always been in no small measure a litmus of what we are doing, thinking about, hoping for and contending with.  Just look at the cast of movies that were up for an Oscar this year – slavery, AIDS, aging, death, greed, bravery and yes, even birth mothers and adoption.

In the course of the several years I have immersed myself into Korean dramas, I have noticed trends.  Adoption, birth secrets and abandoned children have always been a main staple.  But now, so is single motherhood and international adoption.  I haven’t seen one yet where they actually have an adoptee who is adopted to White/American parents cause the characters always return to Korea with revenge on his/her mind and speaking impeccable Korean. But the recently completed third edition of the “I Need Romance” series reminded me that I was not watching “Sex and the City” in the USA, but something entirely of a different culture and language.  There was a character who got pregnant after a one night stand and at the ripe old age of 31 must contend with this being her first and last possibility to becoming a mother.  Her Team Leader at work is also a single businesswoman with her own struggles with love and intimacy.  When the word got out of this unwed mother-to-be, it was the Team Leader that got chastised – she is leading the first group in the company’s history with such a scandal, her leadership is in question, her management abilities is judged and it is HER job to fix the issue.  Solution offered up by this male executive?  Lie.  Make up a fake wedding and send employee off for a month.  2014 and this is how Korea is dealing with this issue in its fantasy world.  This scene was a crude and illogical reality check that I am not Korean after all.  My indignation meant only that I still have much more work to do.

Reality check #2.  I was interviewed for SBS TV Morning Wise show.  They wanted to do a public interest story on the recent death of Hyun Su, the little boy recently adopted from Korea.  The accused is his adoptive father.  I don’t have to rehash the Korean adoptee movement that happened online, in Korea and in the hearts of so many of us who walked around like zombies mourning the brutal death of this little baby.  Reading Facebook and blogs, I was under the impression that this news was big in Korea.  I wanted to believe that all our words were being translated into Korean as we all watched in hopes that for a brief moment the world stopped in Korea.  Alas, nothing.  Reality sucks.

This interview almost didn’t happen.  The reporter wanted to speak to Korean American leaders in the community about their reaction to this recent death. It took a friend and colleague, a leader indeed, to remind this reporter that she simply cannot do a story on international adoption and NOT interview an adopted person.  I watched as the reporter asked questions for nearly 40 minutes to my colleague and then looked at me in wonderment as to what to ask me.  And then I dropped the stat!  The mother of all statistics – Korean adoptees represent about 10% of the Korean American community in the United States.  There are over 110,000 of us here in the United States.  That gets them every time.  I have been saying this for years!  And the fact that this statistic still blows someone’s mind reminds me again, we have so much work to do.  This presumably smart, educated person who reports on Korean Americans to Korea never considered speaking to an adopted person about adoption.  When I asked how significant will this story be in Korea, she responded, “Not very.”  Her network is not known to do serious pieces, but she will do her best to make it interesting for their viewership who would prefer to hear about the latest celebrity gossip.  When I asked how she felt about the adoptee activism in Korea, she really had very little to say.  It simply does not register on her radar.

Stunned is my reaction and then slight mirth.  I think adoption is incredibly interesting and I liken the issues facing domestic adoptees, and their rights to their original birth certificates, as THE last human right issue here.  I think adoption and how it is conducted, perceived and portrayed is a paramount issue for this country and most definitely in Korea. Checking myself and my ego on this one. Adoption barely registers on most people’s consciousness.  I got text messages from Korea today after the building collapse in Harlem wondering if I am ok.  I got zero messages or acknowledgement from Korea about the death of an adoptee.  More work to be done.

And then reality check #3 hit.  The SNL Korea episode that blew up Facebook and all the adoption bloggers out there.  Ah, humor.  A language all unto itself.  Am I the only Korean adoptee who did not think it was particularly offensive?  I didn’t think it was funny, but I was not outraged.  I have come to learn Korean humor can be incredibly cruel and biting.  The level of shame that people are put through in the name of humor makes me wildly uncomfortable.  For years, to my naive ears, I was offended by everything Koreans said to me, about me, about adoption, about my Umma, about my Americanness, about my size, my weight.  Perhaps after decades of immersion in this community Stateside and in Korea, I was not overtly angry.  My first reaction to the skit was, “Ouch, really makes American adoptive parents look racist and stupid.”  And then a knowing thought of how predictable he would chastise his birthmother; she “threw away” her baby.  And then a little smirk to the ironic rap of how Koreans abuse alcohol.  But, in the end, I was thinking, hmm, we adoptees must have arrived in Korea if SNL is spoofing us. Dare I hope that this might begin another round of dialoguing, educating and conversing among my Korean mommy friends and others who remain ignorant of the issues we adoptees face?  Will the controversy push Koreans to think about adoption and the issues of single mothers?  What do my “orphanage siblings” think about it?  What does my Umma think about it?

I don’t like Saturday Night Live in NY.  I don’t watch it.  I didn’t grow up watching the “brilliance” of John Belushi or Eddie Murphy.  But if I recall correctly, there have been many many controversial skits over the years.  I never found the show to be particularly funny either.  I usually found it offensive and physically uncomfortable to watch.  So, I suppose I came out with the same reaction to a Korean version.  Humor is so culture specific.  And no matter how much Korean I learn, humor alludes me at times.  I just don’t get it.  I don’t get Aziz Ansari sometimes and he is hugely popular here in the US.

I also don’t get why some adoptive parents felt compelled to apologize to us or on behalf of Korea.  To me, this skit was more indicative of how poorly Koreans think of Americans and the not so good job they are doing raising “their” children to be competent in Korean language and culture.  As an adult, I don’t feel much when an adoptive parent comes out in joint outrage.  I don’t find it incredibly allying.  Instead I reached out to friends, some who are adoptees and others who are adoptive parents.  One mom and dear friend spent many rounds of emails and phone conversations with me.  I get why she was sick to her stomach.  She was responding like a mother, responding to the ignorance and judgement she predicts for her children as they struggle to learn Korean like a native and take pride in their ability to do Taekwondo.  Mother to mother, I got the mother bear instinct she was conveying.    

I do get why adoptees are angry.  But I don’t know if SNL is where my anger would be directed to.  I often hear people say that making it on SNL here in the US is a badge of honor.  Being a guest on that show is a big deal in one’s career.  To be parodied is in some weird way is an acknowledgement that said person or issue has arrived in the social consciousness of a community.  So, perhaps a thanks with a small “T” to SNL Korea, for making adoption important enough to find a way to put it into their show?

SNL Korea apologized, but I am not so sure they know what they are apologizing for.  Their insensitivity?  Do they get why they were offensive or are they just being typical Koreans and apologizing for making noise, for creating a “scandal”, in response to the volume of discontent?  If yes, that would really make me angry.  There is no contrition in that, just a saving face.  I wonder if we, in our outrage, managed to shame them the very same way we have felt shamed.  For sure, this cast of comics won’t touch the topic of adoption again even though more Koreans are talking about adoption and international adoption because of this episode.  Have we successfully shoved Koreans back into the closet so they will now never touch adoption again?  That would be truly disappointing.


Codeswitch, Part I

Code-switching – the practice of shifting the languages you use or the way you express yourself in your conversations. www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch

Anyone who enters the adoption community or has gone through the adoption process quickly learns that our constellation has words all unto ourselves.  To hear an adoptee talk about her mother, we automatically know she is talking about her adoptive mother, no distinction needs to be made among us.  What’s interesting is that those who go through the adoption process are taught that a birthmother made an “adoption plan” while we adoptees say, “when she gave me up for adoption.” We learned that adoptive parents don’t like using the word “abandoned” so they are encouraged to tell their child, “you were put in a place to be found.”  We, adoptees know, we were abandoned and if not abandoned, we opt for alternate words to describe the severing of our connection to our family of origin.  There are so many ways that we have made “nice” with the concept of adoption so that those who benefit from it feel nice too.  What I think we have managed to do is code switch.

To be equitable, I do notice the adoptee community writing/speaking in code as well to describe how passionately angry they feel about adoption.  There are those of us who use “trafficking” and “kidnapping” in interesting ways to describe their adoption narrative.  While I do not disparage one’s own interpretation of their own story, I find these words speak the code of the adopted in a different way than I do. Code?  Accurate?  Truth?  My verdict is unclear. The effect is clear.

As more adoptees come forward saying not so nice things about adoption, it sort of feels like we are at a critical state of new understandings.  I am gratified that there are adoptive parents who are beginning the struggle to understand that adoption is complicated, sometimes amazing, alternatively painful and at its best, transformative.  The idea that we are “transforming” the discussion of race, identity and adoption has been at the core of many adult adoptee organizations starting way back in 1996!

Transforming is taking a lot longer than I anticipated from when I was an idealistic 20something.  One reason may be because the messaging is transforming on both sides.  As more adoptees demand a change in the way adoption is conducted, talked about and discussed, there is another side code switching to make adoption sound urgent, necessary and in peril of going extinct. I should clarify….international adoption.  Frankly, it’s driving me crazy.  Imminently, our legislators are seeking ways to pass the CHIFF legislation and their code is amazingly effective.   It makes me wonder what is wrong with my brain that I seem to read their words in a completely different way than what I see.  Right now, there are groups in the US who are in near hysterics about the “orphan crisis” in the world, mobilizing people to believe they must adopt, adoption is the only solution.

Every time this happens, I call upon my friends and colleagues who are adopted and it does feel like we are reading another language.  We don’t agree universally on every issue, but I appreciate the passionate civility we dialogue.  Our code has always been with the intention to have the adopted as the center of our focus.  It is clear and trusted.  I asked for help and I got it.

Melanie Chung-Sherman, my co-author, lives in a place that I swear speaks a different English at times.  Her “Blessings” sign-off at the end of every email causes me to chuckle and I look to her to help me better understand the language religion plays in the adoption world.  Living in a more secular, rather less evangelical, area has be me blind to the codeswitch.  She agreed to write with me and help clarify from her perspective the code switching that happens in the world of “saving the orphan” movement that I struggle with.  So, here is our list of how the code is switching in our heads.  I am hoping it drives you equally mad!  I am hoping when you read the CHIFF legislation and future media pieces on adoption that you may begin to see the code for yourself.

  • child advocates– code for those in support of perpetuating and increasing the number of foreign born children being adopted to White American couples.  If you read the list of supporters of the CHIFF legislation, the list of adoptee organizations and organizations internationally recognized as working for preserving children in their country/family of origin is glaringly light.
  • children in families first – code for children from third world countries into the homes of privileged, American couples
  • growing up in a family is a child’s basic human right – code switch for “growing up in an adoptive family in America”; perpetuation of international adoption
  • international adoption as a solution – code for international adoption is THE solution
  • best practices – code for ways to primarily advance the process and promotion of international adoption
  • orphan – a complex code word steeped in biblical meaning that has been simplified that has categorized  and subsequently emotionally petitioned the adoption community into action on behalf of children in need who may or may not be legally available for adoption. It does not diminish the fact that there are children without direct care, but is overly referenced for all children who appear in need and lacking a road to Christian salvation by Western standards. At one time this terminology was antiquated, but was revived at the height of the evangelical adoption movement.
  • rescue –to save a child in need by means of international adoption in a Westernized home (“being called to adopt”) and many times not critically considering the long-term implications for that child and first family, alternatives to permanency in-country or the possible reasons and/or methods in which a child was referred for international adoption originally. Taking on the theological salvation narrative and attempting to vertically apply to the child while overlooking the fact that adoption is about permanently building a family, not rescuing someone.
  • resources can be reallocated to achieve more timely, effective, nurturing, and permanent familial solutions for children living without families–code for taking existing federal funds already benchmarked to promote family permanency in-country and reallocating them to ensure international adoption policy, practice, and placement is securely funded.
  • shall lead the development and implementation of policies that will ensure the timely provision of appropriate, protective, and permanent family care for children living without families – policy codeswitch that will engender the least restrictive, fastest, and Western-centric measures to ensure international adoptive placement while deconstructing and maneuvering around current international and federal accountability standards in an effort to boost numbers of adoptions.

 And for the ultimate codeswitch, when we read that a piece of legislation is in keeping with the core American belief that families are the best protection for children, this really means, regardless of global cultural considerations, which include the impact of poverty, gender and social class bias, diverse social norms, as well as a country’s sovereignty, Americans still know what is best. Thus, it is only in an American family that a child can truly flourish.


Codeswitch, part II, A vs. A

I have been planning a vacation to California with my Korean family, Sun-Ohk and Won-Chan.  They have decided to come to the mainland of the USA for the first time.   We have agreed to meet them there.  One hiccup, they neither speak nor read English.  So I have taken on the herculean task of creating a fun filled week for two families.  I am a terrible vacation planner.  My brain does not work with any amount of glee looking at hotels, air flights, activities, car rentals etc.  I had to get a friend to walk me through it and seeing the sheer joy she had in helping me, I know I did not miss a calling of any sort.

Itinerary complete and sent to Korea, the first question back is, “can we go to Las Vegas?”  I had to laugh as all I could respond in baby Hangul was – “9 hours driving, too far, USA is very big.  Sorry.” Lots of apologetic emoticons later, we are sticking to my plan, thank you very much!

I write this all to say that perspective is everything.  If you come from a country that can take one afternoon to travel from one end to the other, a trip to another state should not be so bad.  Right?  So, if you are adopted into a family where you felt understood, saved, happy, full of love and resources, it stands to reason, you might have a very different perspective than from an adoptee who felt isolated, misunderstood, kidnapped or abandoned.  I often find that being adopted is never enough of a unifier for our community to stand firm in solidarity.  Even the idea of “giving voice to the adoptee” is not “giving A voice to the adoptee.”  Unfortunately, so much of where we grew up, how we grew up, events that triggered our epigenes along with time, place and age of adoption can challenge us to realize that we cannot always stand with our brothers and sisters in adoption.

Since working on the “codeswitch, part I” piece, I have learned of a couple of adoptee run organizations who have come out in support of the CHIFF legislation being pushed through Congress, and my gut reaction was not pretty.  I called people up to find out, in earnest, how they came to this decision.  In my almost panic, I had feelings of betrayal, shock, disappointment.  And then, I hit pause. Who the hell am I to judge?  To me, there are certain issues that are no brainers and I really was thinking that the company I kept in this crazy mixed up world of adoptees was on my side.  And if they weren’t, they had enough respect for our common sense of humanity that we could talk about it.  I am not prone to public hyperbole when it comes to speaking in support or against issues or perspectives.  I like doing it in person, one on one.  Adding the human factor makes things easier to come to some understanding.

In coming to a very different decision about how they feel about a piece of legislation, I fear the chance for dialogue is over.  Instead, it has now become adoptee vs. adoptee.  Now there is no room to talk about the issues and how to change them.

It is amazing how adoptees are used in a pawn-like manner.  Adoptive parent groups, adoption trade organizations will come out in favor or against something, but the minute an adoptee or adoptee organization comes out in favor, radio silence for the other groups.  An adoptee run group supports something and now no holds barred, it’s a go.

I wish we adoptees knew our power.  We keep demanding a seat at the table, but the reality is our table is set but the only ones with dance cards are the ones in support of international adoption continuing status quo.  Whenever one person stands up in support of adoption, they get lots of air play.  If there are adoptees who come against it, they are looked at as rogue, dissenting, angry and not given time unless they create it themselves via facebook or change.org. With great power comes great responsibility.

So, here’s the rub.  I am so glad that groups of adoptees are getting acknowledged.  I am proud of their hard work in empowering themselves and others.  I just wish we could play a little nicer WITH each other.  No one is being asked to be THE voice for adoptees, but the responsibility for those of us who do get the odd chance to be heard, I wish we could accept that we have the power to influence more complexity and diversity into the adoption discussion.  This rarely gets played out in public.  It would be nice to be the three dimensional people we are and help the public see we can disagree and change the course of how international adoptions are conducted and perceived all at once.

optical illusions, 3D stereograms and eye tricks

Ever stare at one of those prints where you are supposed to cross your eyes and slowly step back and a 3D image is supposed to pop out of the picture?  Some people get it immediately and listening to them explain the image to someone who is not seeing it can be alternately humorous and incredibly awkward, especially if you aren’t seeing it either.  It feels like the world is conspiring against you and you are a complete idiot for not “getting it!” AND THEN, Eureka!  You see you and of course!  Why would ANYONE think it would be something else?

The crazy bit about those pictures is that once you see the new image, you can’t undo it, you can’t NOT see it.  The picture has changed forever.

I am always thinking about my ongoing obsession with topics of race, identity and adoption.  I have been preparing for a presentation to do with a friend and colleague on this topic.  We realized that our lives have come full circle and our paths have met again talking about the very same things 10 years ago!  I look at my bookshelves and half of the shelves are filled with writings of Asian American authors who through various memoirs, fiction and non-fiction, keep writing about these very same topics.

I have been reading The Accidental Asian by Eric Liu again and Child Catchers by Kathryn Joyce.  Interesting mix of reading but pretty much sums up where my head is lately.  Always seeking a metaphor to explain what my mind’s eye experiences, I liken staring at one of those 3D pictures to conversations on race, identity and adoption.  Once you see the pain, the loss, the injustice, the dishonesty, the hypocrisy, the racism, the aggression, the privilege…you can’t not see it and feel it and be changed by it.  Once you experience the amazing moment that someone gets how complicated adoption can be just by simply stepping into another persons narrative and holding it, it is impossible to not hope that others will see it too.

I saw some relatives this weekend while they were waiting for another one of their kids to begin the process of launching into adulthood, interviewing for college.  Along the way of our lovely coffee, we got to talking about adoption.  I love these relatives.  They are curious, witty, brilliant and always loving to me.  Someone they know is adopted and at the age of 50something, has been found by his birthmother.  His birthmother never married, never had any other children and was beginning to be described as a bit strange.  His children have a hard time relating to her and while they call her “grandma” they are perplexed by her oddity and cold ways.  Didn’t I think that was odd?  Didn’t I wonder why this woman went to great lengths to find her son only to be so cold and distant?  No, I said.  I didn’t think it was odd.  I began to use words like shame and grief.  I suggested that for her, I wonder if time has stood still?  She might have searched, but perhaps her grief has morphed to grieving the past AND the present.  Perhaps she doesn’t know how to convey warmth, never having felt entitled to show those emotions to her one and only child?  And now her grandchildren?…”Oh, I never thought of it that way…”

Onto the next story of how adoption has hit their lives, this time of someone young and in college and adopted.  He has been found by his birth sibling and has now learned that his birthparents actually got married and he has full siblings.  Wow!  How crazy is that.  Facebook found his birth family but not of his choosing.  How must THAT be like?  To be found?  Well, I was found too…I have to say, I hope he has lots of support and stability around him, he is in for one very interesting ride.  But I wonder if he knows he can create boundaries, can say no, can opt to put them at arms length…at least while he is still trying to figure himself out, as he is not yet a grown man still on the path of creating his own identity. “Oh right…you’ve got a point there.”

That moment, when the conversation goes from interesting anecdote to questions to a quiet, “Ohhh”…is that the moment that the 3D picture comes into focus?  Has the image created change in perception?

This is all in the course of one conversation and while the work I do generates a fairly higher percentage of these stories for my ears, I am reminded that the perception of adoption, about search and reunion, about birthmothers, about class and culture have felt more and more like I am seeing one image and they are seeing another.  I do not mean to insult, nor be hyperbolic in my claim that this feels like a burden in any way, but I am struck by how there can never be a casual conversation around these topics with me. But I struggle to find the right inviting words to stress just how desperately I want others to see what I see.

It is as important to have these conversations as it is for me to talk about the latest weather phenomenons, the latest credit card breach and what my kids will be doing for the summer holiday. It is essential for me in my hope that at the end of the conversation, there will be another person who will be moved to educate, correct, validate or invalidate their next chat with someone else. I am in the business of collecting allies, fellow seers of the 3-dimensional sides of adoption.

In reading Child Catchers by Kathryn Joyce, I started doing what I usually do, flagging pages and writing down quotes I didn’t want to forget.  After the first chapter, I stopped.  It was getting ridiculous.  Ms. Joyce has way too many noteworthy quotes.  I realize I have been in this work for a very long time since she mentioned just about everyone I knew or hear of in the field.  It has been scary and oddly satisfying to read that this person, a non-triad member, someone who had so little personal connection to adoption, sees my community the same way.  She sees the underbelly of adoption, the business of it, the ethical quagmires, the conflicts of interests and the suffering of the children who grow up having been pawns, not cherished human beings.  Her sarcasm and dry wit is palpable as she relays the messaging of various agencies, church organizations and prospective adopting parents.  Reading this book has made me understand that words like “orphan” and “adoption” have becomes so altered these days that I don’t recognize it for what I have always believed them to be.  I am beginning to wonder if I have been fooled all along and it is me that needs to re-examine those pictures again.

Put a label on it

When I was 16 I was talking in name brands.  I didn’t know it then, but I am acknowledging it now, I think it is in my DNA to do so.  My Korean DNA.  At 16 I was an awkward, very skinny, very gangly albeit graceful ugly duckling.  I hid in baggy clothes too busy trying to hide the violated, teased, mislabeled shell of a body but I was thinking brands and styles that I had no name for.  For the longest time, I thought it was a remnant of my issues with class and arrogantly belittled the notion of succumbing to pop culture and being a slave to fashion.  I think I need to reconsider.
I had one Korean friend in high school who always wore the latest trends and was comfortable in black in a way I wished.  It took going to college and meeting more Korean American kids to realize that there was a dress code I was longing for and by sophomore year, I was fully immersed in the black code of dress.  My long black hair and pale skin and gangly parts were beginning to make sense.
By the time I was in my mid twenties, all my girlfriends were Korean and adopted.  One would think that our common Americanized culture would have come through in our attire, but what happened was that I found girls who spoke my language of labels, trends and yearnings. In fact, we laughed and cried about all the ways we tried to make ourselves look American and failed miserably.  I believe in our quest to try and assimilate, we were practicing the art of defining our DNA, the part that looks at dress code and accessorizing as diligently as we look at character.  It took “Sex and the City” to teach me the words like, Manolo Blahnik, Birkin, Prada, Jimmy Choo, Gucci and the like but in reality, it was my girls who loved this show so much who gave me words to describe the trappings that accessorized my body.  It is a wonder that we Korean adoptees actually have sessions at conferences and gatherings where we learned about make up and how to apply it.  I have hosted and facilitated those very same glamor girl sessions for my younger Asian adoptee girls to grand success.
I am not a label whore, but I know them.  I know them like it is important things to know.  Hang around enough Korean women and you will well appreciate the language of labels as not just gossip material or symbols of status or class, but also the language of commonality, humor, glee and yes, even joy.  My Americanized semblances scoff at the dropping of a brand, but in my heart, I understand it…I appreciate it, and for damn sure – if I like it – I am online looking at it when I get home.
Pulling the lens back a little, I would widen my community beyond the Korean or Asian adoptees I know.  I have heard parents say their Latin American adopted child is super label conscious much to their dismay and slight confusion.  I have oft heard the comments that they can’t understand why it matters so much.  These parents, so busy trying to build the inner core of their child but so comfortably sitting in their privilege of looking mainstream have a hard time realizing that there is more to labels than a high price tag.  I would offer that for many of us international, transracial, transcultural adoptees, it is a way to fit into the very bodies that look and feel like no one else in our families.  We are a group of people who have been stared at, examined, pointed at so often, it is making sense to me that we would have a slight obsession of how we look without a clue as to HOW we look.  Clothes make a man….perhaps clothes make a human too?
So, in my writing of this post, I am mindful I am up way too late into the night thinking about one of the most superficial things a person can think of.  Why am I wasting my time justifying the perpetuation of an industry so vacuous?  Well, it’s the holidays and I am still online shopping for my Korean family and I am laughing at myself as I click on gifts that have certain names as if it truly matters.  Because the care in which I am examining such items is equal to the love I have for these people.  I am thinking of things I never felt I had a right to think about for people I never felt I had a right to yearn for or love.  Does one have to connect with the other?  As insanely superficial as it sounds, well?  For tonight, yes.  yes it does.
Happy Holidays to you!  Hope your shopping went well and your kids are as happy as mine are today and STILL believe!  Oh Magic!


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



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!


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:

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)

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.


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.


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.


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.