I cannot remember not knowing that I was wanted.
I know there were times, there were seasons, when my safe adults were not safe and there was no mirroring, loving gaze to meet my eye as a baby. I once had a dream of lying in an institutional setting, on my back, crying and crying and no one coming. As an adult, knowing there were times when as an infant I was left completely alone and that was still a part of my nervous system, I’ve worked on self-soothing. I’ve read books about early attachment and brain development. I know that separation from my birth mother, after all existence in her womb and being programmed to know her smell and crave her body, was nothing short of traumatic. I know that months in an orphanage and shifting foster homes were not what were best for me–that attachment, milestones, touch and mirroring were not sufficient, couldn’t have been. I bear literal and symbolic scars of a time that is unknown to my consciousness, that my imagination and gut gingerly only conjecture. And having been adopted doesn’t make those things right or God’s plan.
In baby, nearly indiscernible steps, I’ve picked up these pieces of my story and looked at them for the first time. I’ve grown curiosity and self-compassion. I’ve submitted DNA samples and shared with Korean friends of my interest in my biological family tree and ethnic heritage. It has been a winding hum of a song, one that starts cognitive and ends limbic, when really it’s probably been the other way around the whole time. I have grown more aware and tender toward my losses. Toward the underbelly of my adoption and, even aside from the interracial and physical dynamics, how adoption in general is fraught with injustice, greed, racism, colonialism and patriarchy. It isn’t a rosey arrangement of mutuality and providence like the Christians say it is and like I first thought it to be. And so my arms are full as I added these stones to the resoundingly positive souvenirs I carry as an adoptee–a childhood trip to my birth country, my parents’ constant celebrations of our first meeting, a life of security, adventure, and awareness of the unlikely, the divine, and the unconventional. But all together, these things good and bad are also not inaccurately identified as “baggage.”
Having been a young age when I traversed the ocean, with several other Korean babies and our caregivers who were outnumbered at a 1:2 ratio, I had the “luxury” of not knowing the normal, of not witnessing people waffle over my future and name and where I was to sleep that night. I don’t remember the comments from my white extended family about my eye shape or at the first summer my skin turned dark. I had the naivety and limitation of being pre-verbal, not that I could not understand the feelings and the smacks of love or disapproval, whatever they were, but I did have limited comprehension, a limited sense of time, and no sense of responsibility in the adoption matter (I think). I, like all other young adoptees, also had no choice. The power distance was vast.
Today, as I read the stories of grown adoptees, transracial or not, I am filled with gratitude for my story and concern for its missing pieces. I insist on learning from them and push aside old storylines for the choices that grown adoptees have and make now. We are not pre-verbal, we were not blank slates and we get to say how it was and how it is. The white lady who has never once been adopted in charge of the adoption agency doesn’t. The accounts of adoptees that are not as kind as mine invite me to expand my understanding of my own plot, knowing that so many fellow adoptees have had different, valid, and newsworthy stories and they are further along in exploring them. I hold those with reverence and I want them centered. In many quick glance ways I am the poster child story for transracial adoption; decades ago, I fed into my own convenient story as being a testament to the virtues and solutions that adoption provide. (Ignore the overfunctioning, caregiver adult-child with body-focused stress-related behaviors and the need to learn emotions and self-soothing in my 20s and 30s.) But that is a one-dimensional story. Even as we became open to adoption earlier in parenthood, I could not continue that false narrative; there is something better. There is something more true, more just, more inclusive, and more respectful.
Yes, I cannot remember not knowing that I was wanted and being adopted means I was forced to go through a traumatic set of losses and ongoing identity disturbance.
It is National Adoption Month. Some churches will talk about this as an anti-abortion cure and cast adoption in a holy patina highlighted by horrifying statistics of children without a home. (While been startlingly silent on immigration causes.) Adoptees are calling it Adoption Awareness Month and they will be telling stories of a different kind—stories with nuance and tension. Stories with clear indictments and yearning, vulnerability and complexity. Especially if you’re white, I hold the door open for you to read the latter. Especially if you’re adopted and starting to feel the ground beneath you be firm enough to ask questions stored within your body, I hold the door open for you and hold your hand. The truth is for us; the truth is good and holy. The truth is inconvenient and honors the intelligence we were born with by removing us from the dumbed down versions.
Adoption Awareness is part of social justice, part of racial reconciliation, part of a true Christian ethic, part of being a parent or a family member and part of knowing and loving.
Here are some stories to learn from:
Korean American Adoptee Taneka Jennings
Kenyan American Adoptee Kae Leonard
Chinese American Adoptee Tiffany Henness shares about her story and the biblical “mandate”