When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child….

…..when I became a man, I did away with childish things. – I Corinthians 13:11

In Korean, the last part of the word for adopted person is directly translated to English as ‘child’ or ‘baby’.  Only in the last dozen years, maybe less, have adoptees been self-identifying as an adult – “I Byung In.” Here too, in the United States, the debate is out there as to what to call us people, adopted and adults.  Some choose “adult adoptee” and for others it’s “a person who is adopted” or “adopted person.  I like “adult adoptee” because it is not as finite as all the others after all, I AM adopted not WAS adopted.  It becomes a vernacular tongue twister to figure out how to be PC when addressing an adopted person.  But I think it strikes at the heart of why so many of us adult adoptees struggle to find our true way.  For so many of us, our identity is so intrinsically grafted to the adults who adopted us that it becomes impossible
to stand alone, grown, an adult.

It is an odd feeling to always be identified as someone’s child.  At what point then can an adoptee be considered an adult and called to the carpet to accept responsibility for her own life?  I remember one time proudly walking in the Korean Day Parade in NYC with my fellow adoptee friends, young and grown.  A group of grandmas were waving little Korean flags and when they saw a couple of the kids with their Caucasian American parents, they knew immediately that the Korean children were adopted.  They began to shove flags into the children’s hands smiling and clicking their teeth with pity.  I went up to one of the grandmas and said in Korean that I would like one for myself to which I was given a shocked look and a quiet murmur among the grandmas as they said, “you are so big!”  They were amazed and tears rose to their eyes as they saw that the whole group of people in front of them were adopted – as young as 9 years of age and as old as 30something.  It never occurred to them that these children actually grew up and became adults.  It was at that moment, I realized that even after 50 years of Korean adoptions, the language has hardly aged to reflect who we are now.

It got me thinking… I believe we are the only community of people who are always referred to as children, forever intertwined with our parents – birth and adoptive.  Divulge your adoption status and automatically, the follow up questions are related to whether or not you thought about and found your birthmother.  Shortly afterwards, you will hear accolades of what great parents you must have.  Shudder the thought that you might say your relationship with your adoptive parents is compicated or that you don’t have a relationship with them.  Admit you have no interest in finding your birthmother and looks of confusion cross your audience as if you are in denial of something.  Without proper gratitude for being adopted or proper angst of not finding birth family, it seems you are looked at as the one with issues.

As I spend more time as an adult, I am struck by how many of my non-adopted friends don’t have close relationships with their mothers and/or fathers, have siblings in other countries and far away cities seeing them once or twice a year.  I find it intreguing the nonplussed way I am told about a crazy sister or over involved mother who needed to be shut out.  No guilt, just a simple fact.  I wonder then, why it is so important that I share the nature of my relationships with my family?  Rather, why do I feel obliged to put a positive spin on the nature of my relationship with my parents?  As if to not do so would be a bad reflection on my parents and a negative statement about the institution of adoption not to mention how it looks for an orphan like me to sound so real like everyone else who is not totally thrilled with all that makes up their family.

In the adoption world, it is always about the baby, the child.  The ads rarely show the big kids who need homes.  You won’t find too many prospective adoptive parents coming in saying they want an eight year old.  Presentations, workshops, articles, photos…always of and about the children.  I find most successful post-adoption programs go up to age 9 and then end.  There are even occasions when adoptive parents get down right hostile if you invite them to adoption events when their kids are older as if they are insulted that they are still on the list.  In a profession where being a social worker, adopted person and working in adoption is still a rarity, I run into a constant quagmire.  Since my peers are predominantly adoptive parents who come to the profession after having adopted children themselves, I am consistently looked at as a reflection of their child.  I realize too that at times, I am complicit in their assumptions; it’s so much easier at times to be what I am most comfortable being, someone’s daughter, child.

It got me thinking then about us.  This group of adopted people who are never referred to as adults.  At what point do we shed our childish ways and become responsible adults, owning our own stories, our own identities, our own journeys?  I wonder if some of my frustration with some of my peers is the whole sense of childish entitlement they feel to have life go the way they want.  Only when we are grown do we learn that life never goes in the way we want, it just goes, ever moving, never resting.

I insist on using the words “adopted person” no matter how cumbersome it feels.  I use “I-byung-in” whenever I speak Korean.  It is not something that rolls off my tongue easily either.  I wonder if I have yet shed all my childish ways as I still trip over how to explain myself at times.