Burning and Building Bridges: A Korean Adoptee Returns to Korea

A powerful story from the New York Times about a writer, activist, adoptee: read it here.

South Korea is widely regarded as the country that began international adoptions, in the late 1950’s. There are now hundreds of thousands of adult Korean adoptees, all around the globe.  The voices, writing, and activism of Korean adult adoptees are particularly significant, given their numbers and ages, and are the face of the future for other countries involved in international adoption. 

Jane Jeong Trenka a adopted from South Korea as a baby in 1972, and raised in Minnesota. She struggled with racism growing up, as well as a hefty amount of mis-information about the realities of her origins and reasons for adoption. In the mid-90’s, she traveled to Korea, reunited with her birth mother, and learned many truths. Over the next several years, she wrote two memoirs, connected with other Korean adoptees, and moved permanently to Korea.

Jane Jeong Trenka http://www.minnpost.com/sites/default/files/asset/9/92c7ij/92c7ij.jpg

She is widely credited with being a pivotal force behind recent legislation to reduce the number of adoptions from Korea by providing increased protections for single mothers to keep and raise their children, and by promoting more adoptions within Korea. Jane is currently the president of TRACK, Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea. Here’s a part of TRACK’s Mission Statement:

TRACK is an organization advocating full knowledge of past and present Korean adoption practices to protect the human rights of adult adoptees, children, and families. We belief that birth families and adoptees need rights, recognition, and reconciliation with society in order to fully contribute to a strong Korean society.

Now 41, Jane has learned to speak Korean. Her birth mother passed away in 2000. The New York Times article quotes her as saying South Korea is her “unrequited love,” and Jane is living out that complexity now in her country of origin, speaking out, insisting on transparency and accountability. She’s controversial, insightful, effective. And along with other adoptees, she’s making huge changes, not just in South Korea, but in the world of adoption.

DNA Testing, Adoption, and Outrage

Imagine a room with a bunch of nice, older ladies. They are mostly smiling.  A few are cranky. I’m in there too, along with other grandmas. (It still shocks me I’m a grandmother, but Zariyah will be 7 in October, and I’ve come to terms with it.  Best thing ever.)

Imagine that some of these nice, older ladies are fundamentally denied two basic civil rights: access to their own original birth certificates, and knowledge of their medical histories. Imagine that your mother or grandmother has no idea what contraindications exist for medications. Imagine your grandma’s painful medical condition that could have been easily prevented with proactive treatment.

I tend these days to first think of adoptees as being not children, but young people, because of my own young adult children. I need to be more inclusive in my thinking and acknowledge more fully the adoptees in their 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, and beyond. That’s especially relevant around medical histories.

I posted yesterday about DNA testing and its value to adoptees. I received an absolutely on-point comment from TAO, a blog which you should follow. Now.

Here’s a quote from her comment:

“I am glad there is genetic testing available for many of the same reasons you note and while I don’t disagree with the statement “Finding out about potential future medical conditions could be frightening.” yet, I can’t begin to tell you how frightening actually living through a medical emergency without FHH is, and that reality plays out for adoptees more often than people want to believe.”

Family Health History, or First Family Health History, should be a given. TAO (The Adopted Ones, from the Baby Scoop era) is so right, and has put my delicate statement “Finding out about potential future medical conditions could be frightening” into the light of day where I now say:

Denial of medical histories is an outrage. Knowledge of one’s medical realities is so taken for granted by those of us who don’t have to think twice about it.

Knowledge of one’s medical history can be a matter of life and death. Certainly that knowledge can hugely impact the quality of one’s life.

And yet there are hundreds of thousands who ARE NOT ALLOWED to have this information.

Yesterday I was polite, and provided DNA testing information as if I were giving out lovely little flowers to brighten your day.  I have no doubts that DNA testing is valuable, and provides great information.

But today, I am angry. US and international adoptees, whether they were adopted today or 75 years ago, should have access to their original birth certificates: there remains no doubt in my mind about that. They should also have as full, accurate family health history as possible. It’s an outrage that they don’t, and that they have to struggle to get it.

I would love to see more adoptive parents, grandmothers, grandfathers, adoption attorneys, adoption agency workers, and medical professionals joining in outrage.

TAO noted also in her comment to me that “not all genes have been found for common diseases let alone the estimated 7,000 rare diseases that affect 1 in 12 Americans…genetic tests are a poor substitute for a good FFH.”

Excellent point. Genetic tests are helpful on some level, no doubt. But genetic tests, as they exist now, are no substitute for a thorough, accurate first family health history.

From TAO’s “About” page:

“As you will notice as you read our posts both of us were impacted in different ways by the lack of current updated family health history because of being adopted.  While having the family health history may not have changed the course of our diseases – the knowledge in my case may have prevented two life threatening events, and for shadowadoptee the knowledge that she would go blind sure would have been nice to know…”

Gazillion Voices– An All-Adoptee Led Online Magazine

While there are lots of articles, magazines, and policies about adoption, most are written by adoptive parents or adoption agencies. Very few are written by adoptees. Well, that’s all about to change.

Gazillion Voices will be the first All Adoptee Led publication addressing adoption issues from an adoptee-centric perspective. They’ve assembled an astonishing group of (US and international) adoptee writers, artists, academics, chefs, musicians, actors, researchers, change agents, activists, iconoclasts, and more. It’s gonna be great.

Its roots are in the Land of Gazillion Adoptees blog, and its branches are now looking for a little green.  The Kickstarter campaign launched today. Your donation will be well-placed. The magazine launches in August–I can’t wait.

Full disclosure:  My daughter Aselefech–the one who wrote the most viewed post on my blog ever–will be a contributing columnist. I will also be writing an article for a fall issue.

DNA Testing and Adoption: Filling In Many Missing Pieces

Access to information about our DNA is now easily available. This genetic information is wonderful and daunting for all of us, and perhaps especially valuable for adoptees, whether US or international.

It’s relatively inexpensive ($99) now to find out what percent of your DNA comes from what population (Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, South America, etc.). Adopted people of mixed background can get an accurate breakdown of information that they may never have received nor otherwise could find out. A friend of mine, adopted from Colombia, found out she is Mayan, Middle Eastern, and Spanish/French.

You can also find out about medical matters,  such as whether you are a carrier for cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs disease, sickle cell anemia, and many more. You can learn your genetic risk for diabetes, macular degeneration, Parkinson’s, and other serious conditions.  You can discover how your genetic makeup could impact sensitivity to certain medications and drugs, such as Plavix and Coumadin.

Because the DNA results are all part of a global database, it is possible to find previously unknown relatives, from close family to distant cousins. In terms of search, for adopted people, this is huge.

I drew the information above largely from the website of one of the most popular sites, www.23andme.com. The “23” refers to the number of pairs of chromosomes we humans have.

The testing is done via saliva, about a half teaspoon’s worth. Young children can be tested; the kit is modified for folks who can produce saliva but not spit.

Adoptees are often missing their own medical histories. Every visit to a doctor’s office can be a reminder of loss, guesswork, and uncertainty.  Writing “Adopted” and crossing out the Family History section can be frustrating. DNA testing eliminates some of the mystery, and fills in some of the blanks.

Of course, this genetic information opens a lot of potentially complex new doors.  Finding out about potential future medical conditions could be frightening.

I still will say, though, that information is power. These days, we all have to be really strong advocates for our physical and mental health. Genetic testing gives us more information to work with, and allows us to engage our health care providers more effectively.

I’ve offered to get the testing kits for each of my (young adult) adopted children. They are considering it, and I can understand the need to take some time to decide. I’m going to get the testing done on myself.  I’m not adopted, and I feel pretty confident that my ethnicity will be fully Irish. My mom died at 74 from cancer; she suffered with interstitial cystitis for years. Dad, now 83, is in great physical health, and also in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. So I have some sense for the possibilities, and, at this point in my life, would rather have the information than wonder about it.

Everyone should have that option.

DNA helix

Here are some interesting sites to explore and consider:

www.23andme.com

www.FamilyTreeDNA.com

www.mixedrootsfoundation.org/global-adoptee-genealogy-project

https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/AdoptionDNA

Far Away, Always in My Heart

This post is written by my daughter Aselefech Evans. Thank you.

I assumed that once I (re)met my biological family in 2011, I would feel more complete and sure of whom I was becoming.  Some hard questions were answered. And a lot of new ones are on my mind now.

I was 6 years old in 1994 when my twin sister and I arrived in the US from Ethiopia. We had memories, and family, parents, siblings, cousins. For years, I had this soft image of my mother, a kind, loving and giving individual who would just about give up anything in the world for her children to be happy and safe.  That was the love that kept me strong. That was the love that allowed me to embrace my (first) (Ethiopian) family when I returned in 2011.

See, the thing was that distance never changed how much I love her.  Although her face slowly started to disappear as I lost my native language, that tender feeling in my heart for her was always alive and burning. No one could ever tell me that I was not loved nor well taken care of before I came to the US.  Because you see, my past says otherwise.  I came from a poor family, but we all were rich in the sense of culture, unity, and love.

Embracing my mother upon arrival in Ethiopia, and looking into her tired eyes, I saw years of pain, emptiness, regret, and much heart ache.  Although in that moment she was happy to see me, the sadness really never left her eyes.   In front of me I saw a strong and resilient woman, one who had grown very weary of her circumstances but yet was still hopeful.  It’s quite profound that hope and faith during times of destitution and despair are what give certain people purpose and meaning.

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So where do we go from here? I really don’t know. We can’t change the past. I’m trying to figure out the future, without a common language but with lots of love.

Hangouts, Insights, and Possibilities

Many thanks to the insightful, thoughtful Angela Tucker and Aselefech Evans for their time and conversation at last night’s Google + Hangout.

What we talked about: growing up in diverse/non-diverse places as transracial adoptees; thinking about first families; deciding when/how/why to search; how searching affects parents, siblings, others; how we fit in (or don’t) with the culture to which we were born.

Wonderful discussion of the weight and power of the words “mom” and “birth mom” and “first mom.”

Affirmation of the incredible value of conversations among adopted adults and adoptive parents. We need to keep doing this. Birth parents/first parents were there with us in words/mind/heart/spirit. They have a place at the table, no doubt–just need to keep working on getting them there.

Great stuff.

What needs work: My use and understanding of the Hangout process. We were not able to record this, and had some glitches in the live streaming. I spent a few hours last night after the Hangout reviewing what went well and how next time is going to be a seamless web of audio and video heaven.

Next steps: More Hangouts.  While it will never be possible to schedule them at a globally mutually convenient time, the next ones will be live-streamed and recorded.

Topics: So many possibilities, and I welcome more. Whose search is it anyway? Can international adoptees really reclaim their culture? What is “fair” in adoption? What does it mean to be comfortable in one’s skin? Is fraud really new in adoption, or are we just more aware of it now–and how do we reduce/eliminate it? How to deal with differing perspectives on search in the same family, or differing amounts of available information about birth families. What issues arise for adoptees working at adoption agencies? How can we work together to ensure that all adoptees have their original birth certificates?

So let’s keep talking.

Angela Tucker and Aselefech Evans On Transracial Adoption, Search, and Reunion

Angela Tucker, featured in the new documentary Closure, and Aselefech Evans will talk about transracial adoption, search, and reunion on Tuesday, June 4 at 7 p.m. PDT. You can watch their conversation live on Google+ Hangouts On Air here, or later on a YouTube page I’ll link to after the conversation.

Angela was adopted as a baby from Chattanooga, TN, and grew up in Bellingham, Washington.  Aselefech was 6 years old when she and her twin sister arrived from Ethiopia to join their US family in Maryland. Both Angela and Aselefech have searched for and reunited with their birth families. Each now in their 20’s, Angela and Aselefech will talk about race, hair, identity, loss, grief, and love, hosted by yours truly, Maureen McCauley Evans.

Update, Previews, and Teasers

It’s good to be back.  In the last few weeks, I’ve gone from Seattle to Vancouver and back, and then from Washington State to Maryland to New York City to Maryland to Washington State.

Update:

During these 3 weeks: One of my daughters ran her first 5k, and finished in the top 20. My other daughter made the honor roll for her college semester, and was asked to be a teaching assistant this fall in the psychology department. One of my sons received the certification for sanitation at the Culinary School he’s attending. My other son closed on several real estate/rental contracts.

I attended my granddaughter’s dance recital in Maryland.  She has since had two tee ball games, Field Day in kindergarten, and her piano recital.

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In New York City, I saw the play “The Call,” about a white married couple considering adopting a child from Africa. I also attended the annual conference of the Joint Council on International Children Services. I presented a session on “Standards of Practice for Adoptive Parents: Ethics, Economics, and Responsibilities,” as well as a lightning talk (20 PowerPoint slides in 5 minutes) on The Art of Adoption, featuring poems, paintings, and plays by adoptees.

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And each Friday, whatever time zone I was in, I skyped with my dad in Massachusetts. He’s in amazing physical health for an 83 year old.  He lives in the Harbor unit of an assisted living facility, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.  He’s delightful to talk with, often asks if any of my kids are getting married. No word on that yet, Dad.

I’ve had lots to reflect on in terms of family, adoption, being in the moment, the futility of art-directing others people’s lives, and more.

Previews and Teasers

Tomorrow night (Tuesday June 4), 7 pm pdt/10pm edt: Angela Tucker (of Closure) and Aselefech Evans via Google + Hangout. The conversation will be about transracial adoption (US and Ethiopia), hair, race, diversity, search: how perception and understanding of adoption changes over time for adoptees, how our definition of “family” can be so complex.

In the next week or so, I will be posting my JCICS workshop information about Standards of Practice for Adoptive Parents.  (Teaser: The basics are citizenship, DNA testing, and role models/mentors who are adult adoptees.  The more controversial: Insisting on equitable pre-adopt and post-adopt services for birth families.)

I’m thrilled to be soon getting an advance review copy of The Declassified Adoptee‘s soon-to-be-published book. It’s going to be wonderful, powerful, provocative, insightful. A tremendous benefit to the adoption community.

Washington State has also provided two items of fodder recently for writing and commenting. For one, a less than adequate “compromise” bill on access to OBC’s. The second item is still not having a trial for Hana Alemu, more than two years after she was found dead in her adoptive parents’ back yard. A hearing is scheduled this week.

So.  There’s lots going on. Lots to write about, think about, reflect on. It’s good for us to be here.

Birth Mother’s Day

Birth Mother’s Day was created by Mary Jane Wolch-Marsh and shared with other birth mothers in Seattle in 1990, to help with healing from the loss of children placed for adoption. It is observed on the Saturday before Mother’s Day. This year, Birth Mother’s Day would be May 11, and Mother’s Day, May 12.

Is it on your calendar? A complicated, welcomed, loathed, non-Hallmark kind of day. However, there indeed are cards for it, some astonishing in their insensitivity. There are cards against it.

Controversy abounds around it. Start with the designation of “birth mother,” and find those who prefer “first mother” or “biological mother” or “natural mother” or “mother.”

Move on to the idea of a separate day: A rose by any other name is still a mother, and why should there be a distinct day? Alternatively, there are those who see it as a day to honor the realities of loss, grief, selflessness, coercion, courage, love that birth/first mothers may or may not feel.

If one does observe it, how so? Rituals? Cards? Flowers? Photos? Jewelry? So much depends on the relationship, the communication, the connections between the first family and the adoptive family, including of course the adopted child (teen, adult).

And Happy Birth Mother’s Day? Some birth mothers note that Mother’s Day is almost as painful as is their child’s birthday.

Here’s one take on it from a birth mother’s perspective: “Birthmother’s Day Created Out of Love or Just More Adoption Propaganda?”

Here’s one from an adoptee: “Birthmother’s Day and Mother’s Day” One quote: “In my reconnection with my birth family, I’ve been fortunate to find myself in the midst of communicators…We have taken a moment to communicate with each other, to say with love some of the difficult truths.”

To me, the bottom line is the value of acknowledging that adopted children indeed had/have a mother before their adoption. The acknowledgement can take many forms. From loss comes healing, with luck, and love: We are all in this together. I believe in adoption, if it is done transparently, equitably, and with integrity. I believe that doing so is possible, and I know it’s complex.  I have no magic words.

Here’s a post I put on the Facebook Adoptive Families page Sunday May 5, in response to a post that negatively portrayed birth mothers:

Children become available for adoption for a huge range of reasons. Some reasons include coercion, fraud, and trafficking. Some mothers are heartbroken and grieve deeply for the loss of their children. Some children are placed because of addictions, abuse, neglect. Some are placed because the mother did not have enough money to keep her children from dying. Some mothers have temporary short-term crises, and had they received even a small amount of help, might have kept their children.
We as adoptive parents have a responsibility to acknowledge the realities of our adopted children’s histories, including the fact that children can have difficult histories and still feel a connection to and love for their first mother.
We also have a responsibility to know that those histories can be complicated, and we may not know or have been told the full story–the options, the emotions, the choices.
And in any case, the first mothers of our children should be spoken of respectfully by us adoptive mothers to our children, regardless of how we view them.
Our children grow up. They can form their own views about their first families, and given technology and access to information plus the passage of time, they may learn much more about their first family, and they deserve to have all the truth, as difficult, simple, complicated, bittersweet as it may be.
I’ve known a lot of first mothers in the US and elsewhere,  have heard their stories, held their hands, and shared their grief. It’s powerful beyond words. Few things are as simple as we might like to think, once we hear their truths.
My 4 children’s first mothers have always been a welcome part of our family. I’ve met only one. The others are with us in our hearts, and maybe those children–now young adults–will choose to search and connect. It’s their choice, their truth, their reality. I am grateful for my children, and to be their mother.  I wish peace and healing and joy to all mothers.

Stuck: We Can Do (So Much) Better

The thoughtful Margie Perscheid–adoptive mom to now-young adults from Korea, insightful blogger, and a person of many talents–has written this balanced, knowledgeable  review of Stuck.

I also highly recommend Margie’s blog generally.

Well done!