Unearthing the roots of adoption
Agencies are retooling their support programs as a generation of Asian adoptees seeks to reclaim their neglected heritage
From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
July 31, 2007 at 9:23 AM EDT
— Jennifer Jin Brower was born in South Korea, but until a few years ago, she had never used chopsticks or heard of kimchee.
Because she looks Asian, strangers ask, "Where are you from? Do you speak English?" But English is her mother tongue - her adoptive mother's tongue.
Ms. Brower, 29, was raised by a Caucasian family in Grand Rapids, Mich. As a child, she says, "I didn't think that I was Asian." But that didn't stop other children from mocking her features.
Ms. Brower, who now lives in Seattle, says she didn't feel confident in her identity until she spent two months in South Korea last year. "I finally felt proud to be Asian and Korean because I finally knew what that meant," she explains.
The generation of children adopted from Asia in the seventies and eighties - mostly from South Korea - has come of age. As adults, thousands are returning to their countries of origin to search for their birth parents, learn the language and reclaim the heritage they lost as infants.
Now, some adoption agencies are taking cues from their stories.
Agencies such as Children's Bridge, based in Ottawa, have started holding mandatory sessions for new adoptive parents on topics such as interracial issues and identity. Organizations such as Families with Children from China, which has chapters in four provinces, run playgroups and culture camps. They also match adoptive families with Chinese immigrant families.
Increasingly, adoption agencies are organizing visits to host countries and other cultural activities for families, according to Sarah Pedersen, information co-ordinator for the Adoption Council of Canada. "We are seeing a lot of this going back, reconnecting and maintaining the cultural identity of the child," she says.
In Canada, a little more than half of the 4,000 or so children adopted each year are from other countries, according to the Adoption Council of Canada.
Speakers at the Children's Bridge sessions include adult adoptees originally from South Korea or Vietnam, says Cathy Murphy, director of adoption services. "They let parents know the challenges they faced along the way."
The challenges are significant, judging by the outpouring of films and writing by international adoptees. Recent works include documentaries such as Operation Babylift: The Lost Children of Vietnam, anthologies such as Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption and online publications including Inthirdspace.net.
Adoptees have also founded organizations such as the International Adoptee Congress, KoRoot - a guesthouse in Seoul for returning adoptees - and Adoptee Solidarity Korea, which is lobbying for the end of intercountry adoption out of South Korea.
A small but vociferous group argues that all international adoption should be abolished. They exchange rants on websites such as Transracialabductees.org, calling the process a "racist system of forced assimilation and brainwashing."
The experiences of today's adult international adoptees are distinct from those of voluntary immigrants and domestic adoptees, according to Richard Lee, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota who studies how Korean adoptees form their identities.
"They were raised at a time when parents were encouraged to take a more colour-blind approach," he says, "which meant ignoring race."
But society treats Asians as a racial minority, Dr. Lee says. For some adoptees, "that came as a shock," he says, "because they were not always aware of their minority status as children."
Nevertheless, most international adoptees grow up to be well-adjusted adults, he adds.
Some become advocates for international adoption. Leah Buchholz, a 24-year-old Korean adoptee, was raised by a German-Canadian family in Vancouver. As an adoption advocate, Ms. Buchholz says, she encourages parents to accept children's curiosity about their birth parents and preadoption lives.
Language lessons, homeland visits and culturally diverse schools can all help give children a sense of their heritage, according to Ms. Murphy of Children's Bridge, who is the mother of two international adoptees in their teens.
"Going to Chinese New Year once a year - that's not enough," Ms. Murphy says. But parents should offer, and not insist on, cultural activities, she adds.
Programs such as these can go a long way toward building a child's positive sense of ethnic identity, according to Dr. Lee.
Ms. Buchholz, who visited South Korea briefly as a teenager, says she is eager to know more about her culture. She may search for her Korean parents some day, she adds, but would "never abandon my adoptive family and go back to my birth parents."
For Ms. Buchholz, it's easy to relate to other Korean adoptees. "There are these key elements in our lives that we don't have to justify or explain," she says. "That's a great source of comfort, it really is."
International adoption has never been so in vogue. Check out the glamorous media coverage of Angelina Jolie's multihued brood, Madonna's Malawian boy and Meg Ryan's little girl from China.
But the hype is offensive to some international adoptees.
"A lot of us aren't very happy with how trendy it is to have a child of colour," says Jennifer Jin Brower, 29, who was adopted from South Korea. "It's like we're a fad, like getting a new purse."
Today's celebrities are hardly the first to start international families, though.
Mia Farrow began adopting children from countries such as India, Vietnam and South Korea in the seventies.
Earlier still, the famed sex symbol Josephine Baker started gathering her "rainbow tribe" of a dozen children in 1954. She even bought a French chateau in which to raise the pan-ethnic crew she called "an experiment in brotherhood."
The debt-ridden Ms. Baker was evicted from the chateau in 1969. Fortunately, Princess Grace of Monaco gave her a villa so Ms. Baker could keep her United Nations family together.
Finding the missing link
For adult adoptees, finding birth parents in Asia is a huge challenge, since most adoption agencies guard their records closely.
Jennifer Jin Brower of Seattle tried to locate her birth parents in South Korea last year. She had her DNA tested and appeared on reality television shows and in the press to publicize her search, but to no avail. The experience made her feel "very vulnerable," she says, "because I was in a foreign country and barely knew the language."
Others have had more luck. Mihee-Nathalie Lemoine, a Korean adoptee based in Montreal, succeeded in finding her birth mother in 1991. Although she hasn't kept in touch with her - "I think I remind her of the bad," she says - Ms. Lemoine developed a relationship with her biological grandmother and lived in South Korea for 13 years.
While there, Ms. Lemoine co-founded Global Overseas Adoptees' Link, an organization that helps others find their birth families and adjust to living and working in the country. Returning adoptees needn't feel alone, she says.