Everyone asks me ― an adoptee ― what I’m doing to celebrate National Adoption Awareness Month. As if I should rejoice each November because I’m so “lucky” to have been adopted.
But to me, this month feels like being at a wild party and losing something in the crowd. You try calling for help ― asking others to join in your search ― but the music and festivities drown out your voice. Your interruption is not only unwanted; it is unacknowledged. This party is not for you.
The name itself irks me. National Adoption Awareness Month. I don’t believe our country is generally unaware of adoption. The practice has been happening everywhere in various forms since ancient times. America’s first modern adoption law dates back to the 19th century. Today people seem well versed in the popular “rescuer and rescued” adoption narrative. We don’t need a month, week or day to celebrate this.
Nancy Verrier wrote in her book The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child, “When the adoptee is separated from her birth mother, she undergoes extensive trauma. She will not remember this trauma, but it will stay in her subconscious as she lived it.”
Some would consider me fortunate because I’ve been able to cope with my trauma. I went to therapy for the first time at the age of 32. My counselor expressed her surprise that I was so quickly able to name the root of my issues. The desperation to please people, inability to say no, fear of abandonment, low self-esteem, susceptibility to abusive relationships — it all traces back to this thing that we’re supposed to celebrate.
National Adoption Awareness Month minimizes individual experiences of adoptees and masks the deeper systemic problems that keep the practice in existence. The month remains dominated by happy stories of adoptive parents and their “forever families.” Adoptees who deviate from the narrative are deemed angry or bitter, traitors to the narrative of adoptees as ”the lucky ones.”
On the surface, I’ve lived the fairy-tale adoption story. At 3 months old, I was one of the youngest adoptees to arrive from South Korea to the United States. My entire extended family waited at the airport to welcome me lovingly. I’ve felt that blanket of love every day since May 21, 1986.
I returned to South Korea in 2008 for a Future Leaders’ Conference sponsored by the Overseas Koreans Foundation. During a visit to my adoption agency, I learned that I had two elder biological sisters who may or may not have known about me. That day, I decided to begin a long and emotionally taxing birth family search.
The adoption agency sent telegrams to my birth mother’s home address for years. I went on a South Korean television show in the hope of reaching someone who might have a clue to my past.
In September 2013, I received an email from my social worker in South Korea. Although it was against the rules for her to reach out to my biological sisters, she had sent a telegraph to one of them. My sister responded. The family (including my younger brother, who I didn’t know existed) had been searching too. They wanted to meet me as soon as possible. I flew to South Korea and reunited with them over Thanksgiving week.
It was during this trip that I understood fully: Adoption is loss. Not only the loss I experienced as an adoptee but also what my birth family endured.
My social worker had advised me to take childhood photos to share with them. I did her one better and played a video montage my mom made for my college graduation. As they watched my younger self dance across the screen in old high school show choir clips, the reactions weren’t what I expected. One of my sisters started crying and left the room. Naively, I thought the video would bring them some sort of joy or comfort. In reality, I was forcing them to face the inescapable proof of a life they missed.
Afterward, they shared the painful story of my adoption. It turns out that my fairy-tale ending wasn’t so happily ever after: My birth father, who died in 2004, was abusive. He already had two daughters and wanted a son. After learning my gender, he coerced my birth mother into relinquishing me for adoption.
She wrote in a letter to me, “After you were born and I was alone holding you, in that short time, I wanted to hold you until I died. It’s a feeling I still can’t forget today.”
I left South Korea with more questions than I arrived. With language and transportation barriers, there will never be enough time together to make up for lost years.
Being adopted means a lifetime of either searching or denial. Following trails of breadcrumbs, trying to find clues to your existence without losing yourself. It is an ever-present reminder that you belong nowhere. Sometimes the burden becomes too much to bear.
A study conducted at the University of Minnesota from 1998 to 2008 found adopted offspring to be nearly four times as likely to attempt suicide as non-adopted offspring. Even with a relatively positive adoption story, I’ve battled with depression — in silence, because I felt society’s pressure to be grateful for my adoption. Though I never slit my wrists, there are scars on my ankle from self-mutilation as a teenager. Years of bullying and microaggressions marked my body and heart. I kept the cuts hidden under clothing, masking my pain with a smile I wore onstage in show choir and theater.
My high school in Southlake, Texas, recently made the news after a video of white students chanting the N-word went viral. This seemed shocking to some but came as no surprise to me. In my class of more than 500 students, I could count on my hands those who were people of color. During a diversity week at school, a classmate asked what I would do if he called me a Chink. He proceeded to repeat, “Chink, Chink, Chink,” until he tired of my unresponsiveness. Though I wouldn’t let my anger rise to his ignorance, internalized racism haunted me for years.
I’ve encountered many adoptive parents who insist they don’t see their transracially adopted child as different from them. This false concept of colorblindness denies the existence of racism in America and their children’s racial identity. Some even claim their children have never experienced bias or encounters with racist people. It is more likely that they have but are afraid or don’t know how to discuss it. To speak truth is to be ungrateful.
Please do not mistake my tone as anti-adoption. I’ve visited the Eastern Social Welfare Society’s home for babies in Seoul. I stood helplessly on the other side of the glass staring into a room filled with days-old infants wailing without comfort. I didn’t have the proper vaccinations to hold and soothe them and quiet their cries. I would never want them to live without a sense of belonging or family. But I do know: This is only the beginning of their struggle.
My call to action is not for the end of adoption. It is for a deeper understanding of its complexities, even the not-so-pleasant parts. There needs to be a centering of adoptee voices and value placed on their experiences. We must acknowledge their loss and develop trauma-informed support systems for them.
If you must do something to commemorate National Adoption Awareness Month, please honor the words of adoptees. We build our stories on top of foundations filled with cracks and voids. No matter how many resources we’re given to construct our identity, we are in a constant state of imbalance.
The fact that I am a thriving, happy and healthy adult adoptee is not luck; it is resilience.