Identity

Many parents tell us they adopt internationally or transracially because “they don’t see race.” Our response as adoptees when we hear this is “does that mean you don’t see me? Am I invisible to you?” We need you to see us. There is something wonderfully beautiful about a post-racial society, however we do not live in one. I need you to see me as your Korean, African-American daughter, because this is the way I navigate the world and this is the way people see and treat me. I need you to see all of me, so that I can trust you with all of my hurt. When kids on the playground call me names and make racist gestures like pulling the corner of their eyelids to make them “slanty,” hurts. I need you to empathize with the way I am feeling.

When I was in third grade there was a little girl in my class named April Parker. She had blonde hair and blue eyes and was beautiful. I wanted to be just like her. Then a little boy, in his third grade mind was rude enough to inform me that I would never look like her because of my “flat-nose” and “slanty-eyes.” I was devastated. So I put my head down and cried. My teacher came up to me and asked me “Alisha what is wrong” and I told her “I don’t want to see another white face!” So she promptly responded, “ok, I’m going to call your mother.” Awesome response Mrs. Roth. She was a phenomenal teacher. So my mother came down to school and found me in the same position as Mrs. Roth found me, and she said “Alisha, what’s wrong?” and I responded “I don’t want to see another white face!” My mother did the most amazing thing; she said “ok, you don’t have to look at me.” My mom covered her face with one hand and with the other said “take my hand, let’s go home.” The car ride home was one of the defining moments in my life. It was the first time we talked about what my standard of beauty is and should be. We talked about how I felt being brown. Being Korean and Black is racially ambiguous, I never felt like I fit in anywhere, I had never met another child that looked like me. In third grade I thought maybe I was the only one. While it felt special, it also felt alienating. The car ride home, my mom told me I was beautiful the way I am and was going to grow up and be beautiful. I didn’t need to look like April Parker to have a purposeful life. I realized that I was the only Black Korean Hammett and I needed to figure out what that meant in my family. I had my own identity but that my adoption journey was a family one- I wasn’t a lone voyager.

Most adopted teens we talk to hold the feeling that “mom and dad should just know how I’m feeling because they chose me. They should know that it’s different for me because I’m Asian, Black, Latino, Indian and so forth.” They are always surprised when we inform them that parents really don’t know, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to know. They just don’t think to ask, because no one has every made “slanty-eyes” at them before.

Framing the Adoption Story

I wasn’t left. I was found.

The way birth stories are communicated is phenomenally important. Language is powerful. How our stories are told to us gives us the foundation for our self-esteem. For example, there is a huge difference between “your birth mother left you” and “your birth mother left you where you could be found.” Both are true statements, one of those statements feels better. We were found, because we are in your forever family now.

We are not charity. Some of you are rolling your eyes right now, thinking to yourself how could anyone think that about their kid. You’d be surprised. This is for those kinds of parents. When we say “I wish I was back in Korea” don’t try and argue with a 9 year old and let us know what could have happened if we weren’t adopted. We already know. We don’t need you to tell us how terrible our life would have been. That doesn’t build trust, it builds a mountain of resentment. We just need you to say “I’m sorry you feel that way. I’m so happy you’re my son/daughter. I love you.” Leave it at that. If we seem ungrateful, you need to purge that from your mind also. Ungratefulness should be measured the same way a biologically family would measure ungratefulness. Not because of adoption. That is cruel and your child will harbor resentment and hurt if you ever utter the words, “you should be more grateful we adopted you.” It will take a lifetime of therapy to overcome that statement.  If you said it once, you need to apologize.

If anytime you mess up as a parent you need to fess up. Just like any other healthy relationship. There’s no pass because you’re a parent or because you’re family. When you lose it, say “I’m sorry I lost it. I took what you said personally, and it hurt my feelings. I should have reacted differently. I love you and let’s try this again.” Boom. Awesome. You coming to us gives us the freedom to find the courage to apologize back. Don’t expect us to apologize right away, we’re kids and emotionally immature. We may not apologize until adulthood- we take that liberty because we’re the kid and you’re the parent. The reason we need to hear an apology from you is because it builds trust. If you blow up every time we talk about something emotional, why would I ever come to you again about anything that is hurting me? You get put in the bucket of “mom just doesn’t understand.” That doesn’t start a conversation it ends it.

Many teens we talk with we let them know they are entering a period in their lives where they now have the vocabulary to start discussing some of their feelings. Their statute of limitations on victimization is running out and they need to use their words with their parents. I tell them, if I come up to you and say “you just don’t get it. You don’t understand.” Do you feel like you want to talk to me? They all respond no. So I tell them, why do they think they can say that to their parents and expect a meaningful conversation? They always look bewildered, like duh. Many of your kids don’t know how to start these important conversations. Many of them are afraid of your reaction. Adoptees protect their parents from conversations we think may hurt you, such as talking about our birth parents, talking about our identity. We feel that maybe you won’t understand, or will feel hurt like we’re questioning your parental legitimacy. We need you to create a safe environment for us where we can and want to be open. Many parents feel we have created an environment where our kids can be open, but did you create an environment where your kids WANT to be open? There is a difference.

Attachment Disorder

*Please note that I am not a licensed psychologist and this section is really just my opinion, based on my experience. I’m hopefully offering an alternative perspective to one that has been readily accepted within our community- one that I take exception to. I am not hiding my bias and should you disagree, that is perfectly understandable.

My mom firmly believes that attachment disorder is often a parent disorder. One of the most powerful things my mother told me was that she adopted us knowing we may never love her back. She was prepared as our forever mom to love us unconditionally without expecting any kind of reciprocation. This was completely selfless of her, and her selflessness and courageous decision to adopt us anyway empowered us to learn how to love her back. For some children, our adoption makes us question if we are loveable. That question in turn questions our capacity to receive and give love. Up until you came into our lives we thought no one loved us. Parents can often get very frustrated with our apathetic approach to family at first. Please empathize with us and demonstrate fearless unconditional love. I think what happens is that you are so longing for us in your hearts and then we arrive and I cannot imagine the pain it would be to have your child, whom you’ve loved since you saw our photo, to not reciprocate. It took me 4 years with my family before I decided to love them. My mother said when that moment happened it was like having a completely different child. I really did not believe the Hammetts were going to keep me as their daughter as it had been my second adoption. With their commitment to be my forever family, I learned how to love and how to receive love. This was a life changing experience for myself and my family. My mother refused to label me as having “attachment disorder” she always told me, that she understood where my distrust came from, and that she hoped that one day in my heart I could come to learn to trust and love her as she trusted and loved me. She never made me feel guilty about it, she was always very kind and empathetic. I think when parents feel rejection from their adopted child, it is easy to project feelings and name it as “attachment disorder.” Perhaps change the approach and expectations. Your child has enough “stuff” to deal with just being and international/trans-racial adoptee. They don’t need another “label” especially a disorder on-top of that. Behave in the way you want your child to emulate and eventually we will come around.

Capacity for Love

I never thought I would ever have the capacity to love as much as I do, and that ability fills me with hope. It may seem like an odd thing to say, however when I look back at the little girl standing on a street corner abandoned, and for years thinking that I was left there because something was unloveable about me, it is extraordinary to know that I am loveable and able to love others. I think so many adoptees are haunted by the lie that somehow there is something unloveable about them. We wonder were we loved before we were adopted- and that question is rather ambiguous, because we often don’t know who cared for us before the orphanage. Somehow our lives are a black hole, and don’t begin until we walk down the jetway to arrive at our Gotcha Day.

My mom told me she prayed for me and loved me before she knew I was going to be her daughter. Her telling me that, let me know I was loved before I was adopted- it changed my world view, it changed the way I viewed myself. I was loveable and because I was loveable, I could heal and be loving.

Teasing

In our last official session of 2010, the topic was “Back to School.” The over-arching question that was brought up was “how to deal with teasing.” Teasing is a part of many children’s lives growing up. The difference is that an adoptee views teasing through the adoptive lens (see previous blog dated September 10 below) and the teasing they receive may be targeted specifically at their background/family. “It’s weird that you don’t know your mom.” or “why don’t you look like your parents? Does that mean your birth parents didn’t love you?” As adoptees, we not only have the normal insecurities an average child can have in social settings like school (i.e., do I have the right clothes or cool toys?) but also deal with insecurities in issues that are basic to the foundation of our identity (i.e., do I belong in my family as much as a biological child would?); something a child who lives with their biological parents do not ever have to question.

 
What can parents do to help their children deal with teasing through the adoptee lens? We encourage that you equip your kids with certain knowledge about teasing. Here is some food for thought:

A. Why do kids tease? (i.e., boredom, ignorance, insecurity/fear, plain curiosity)

B. Possible responses (i.e., turn the questions and teasing back on the bully “why do you ask?” “do you know what that word means?”, speak to a teacher/authoritative figure or talk with parents who can help to collaboratively determine a resolution).

  

One big point in October’s session was the concept of “collaborative” resolutions. Parents often allow their maternal/paternal instinct take over a situation when they learn their child has been ridiculed. By this we mean that parents will rush to try and figure out how to solve or make the situation better without consulting their kids. As adoptees, we want to own our adoption story (only share with people we feel comfortable with), own our identity (build confidence in who we are and who we will become)…and own our resolutions to conflicts/problems. If a parent rushes to a principal, teacher or directly to the child who has ridiculed us without talking to their kids on what they would like to do about the problem…the parent has taken away our right to make a choice. Now if the end result is undesirable, we could potentially resent our parents for running off (albeit with good intentions) by themselves and wonder if we would have been happier if we could have been involved in the decision-making process. Allowing your children to participate in the resolution to their challenges is a great tool to build their self-confidence.

 

Teasing does not go away with the graduation from one grade to another or from one school to another. Every adoptee has their own path and getting into a comfortable space with ourselves takes time. We hope that some of the tips and content above can help some parents cope with some challenges. Please just always keep in mind that we always want to be involved in decisions that impact our lives, whether major or minor.

Adoptee Lenses

At every meeting we get asked the question, “How can I tell with my child when something is an adoption issue and when is it just a pre-teen/teenage/age issue?”

The answer every time, is that any issue can become an “adoption issue.”

Adoptees identify as adoptees. The way we came to be a part of our forever families is at the core of who we are as people. We have “adoptee lenses”- we see the world and ourselves in a certain way because of our adoption. Therefore, the average pre-teen/teenage/age issue has the potential to be a culmination of identity, self-esteem and attachment issues that are directly rooted in our being adopted.

Any feelings of loss, unfairness, anger or confusion can lead us to a path where buried emotions around our adoption, have the opportunity to surface. For example, children may have an outburst or an “over-reaction” to a simple request from their parents, or from regular discipline. This is an opportunity to have an adoption conversation with your child. Ask your child why they are angry or upset, or lead them into a conversation in a non-threatening way. For example, my mom used to ask me a series of questions, that had nothing to do with why I was angry, starting with “are you mad because the table is brown?” I would say “no” and roll my eyes. Then she would ask “are you mad because the sky is blue?”, and again I would reply “no” and roll my eyes. Then she would ask “are you mad at me?”…and I would become quiet…or she would ask “are you mad are your birthmom?” and usually she would ask the right questions and we would talk about them. Sometimes I would become angrier when she asked the right questions. Often times, children do not know how to articulate their feelings, or lack the courage to truly share how they are feeling. In my opinion, it is the responsibility of the parent to create a safe environment for their child where open communication can be nurtured. I know this is easier said than done, but don’t take things personally. A lot of times, we are just testing your boundaries. Adopted children often have incredible emotional intelligence and are often very strong willed. This is due to the adaptation adoptees must make an early age to their adopted families. We will resist you, but we need you to raise to the occasion and combat our insecurity, fear, anxiety, sadness, grief and rage with unwavering, steadfast, unconditional love.

Any time you have resistance with your child, it is an opportunity to have an adoption conversation and more importantly an opportunity to show them you love them and they are a part of your forever family.

The greatest gift my mom gave me was the freedom not be angry anymore. She disarmed by anger, filled a heart that was so full of loss with unconditional love. My mom has amazing empathy. When I hurt, she sat with me. When I felt loss, she grieved with me. When I triumphed, she celebrated with me. When I was afraid to love, she loved me. When I was angry about being placed for adoption, she understood completely.

Empathize with your children. Stand in their shoes. Try and see through their “adoptee lenses”, and you will be able to give them incredible freedom, like the one my mom gave me.

Heritage Camps 2010 Teen Discussion Feedback

I was so anxious and excited to facilitate a high school workshop at Korean Heritage Camp this year. Our talk was more of a counseling session, where I really got a pulse of how our young people are feeling about being adopted. I felt incredibly privileged to be able to sit with four groups of incredible campers who were brutally honest, vulnerable and open about their life experiences.

 

“Was I loved before I was adopted?” was the main question that adoptees had during the high school workshop I facilitated at Korean Heritage Camp this year. The answer I told the campers was -“yes, someone loved you before you were adopted.” What was heartbreaking was that for many of them, it was their first time hearing it.

 

Overall, adoptees felt that their parents did a great job of talking about their adoption issues, and felt loved by their parents. Where the void in the adoptee’s heart is mostly from the questions they don’t have answered. Questions such as “What was the relationship between my biological parents?” “How much did I weigh when I was born?” “What time was I born?” “Do I have siblings?” “Why was I placed for adoption?”


Adoptees indicated that they wished their dad’s were more involved with adoption discussions, and showed interest in their culture.

 

One of my favorite discussions was about dating. I asked the campers who they were attracted to and who they dated. The guys stated that they tend to be attracted to Caucasian girls, but found that it was difficult getting them to be attracted back. Whereas the girls tended to look at “everyone on the menu”- one girl stated, “if he’s cute- I’ll date him!” When the boys found out that the girls thought some of them were cute, there was immediate embarrassment and blushing! I think it was interesting to note that Korean boys tend to have greater difficulty with being seen as attractive to the opposite sex, largely due to social stereotypes, and a misrepresentation/under-representation of their demographic in mainstream American media.

 

Boys tended to be more embarrassed or feel greater shame about being Korean. Mostly due to the teasing or the “endearing Asian references” their friends make. Although this was also true for girls, some being called “Asia” or “Korea” by their friends, and peers- the boys indicated that the comments tend to bother them more, and they lacked the communication skills to confront their friends about their discomfort with their “token Asian friend” comments.

 

Another fascinating answer came from the siblings of adoptees regarding the importance of going to a diverse school. The adoptees were largely split on the importance of whether attending a diverse school was important to them, however, their non-adopted siblings had strong feelings that attending a diverse school was important for their adopted sibling. One non-adopted sibling stated that they saw a huge behavior change in his younger sibling when their parents placed his adopted sibling in a more diverse school.

 

Campers were asked how they identify themselves, and the majority identified as 1) Korean 2) American 3) Adoptee. Many students agreed that adoptee was the least likely of the three to identify as, because they often do not open up about being adopted until they have developed a personal relationship with someone- and feel that it is a safe person to open up to. There was no difference between guys or girls on this question.

 

Most adoptees felt that learning Korean language was important to them. Partially because these students are in high school, they can see the long term benefits of knowing a second language, but more so because it gives them greater access to their culture. All of the campers who took Korean language classes when they were younger, admitted disliking the lessons however, felt it was important and wished their parents been a bit more persistent about it.

 

We closed the session by sharing in a circle what empowers each person as an adoptee. Every camper shared- and their answers were moving. Campers stated that they felt empowered as an adoptee because of the relationships they build; because they can relate to a lot of different people and other adoptees. They shared that they want to be counselors at Korean Heritage Camp someday and be able to mentor the younger adoptees. The adoptees felt they have something great to contribute to their families, community and the world.

 

*PS- I want to give a special thanks to all of the counselors this year at the heritage camps. You have all done an incredible job and have really been a positive influence in the lives of so many children and young people.

 

 -Alisha Kwon Hammett 

 

Chinese Heritage Camp II 2010 Teen Discussions:

 

This year was my biggest year with Colorado Heritage Camps. I simply could not say “no” to anyone who was asking for help. This resulted in me volunteering for Korean Heritage Camp, Chinese Heritage Camp, and Indian Heritage Camp as well as helping to locate assistance for Russian Heritage Camp. I was thrilled to do a counseling/discussion group with Chinese Heritage Camp since these high school workshops would be the first of their kind at Colorado Heritage Camps where an actual adult adoptee would facilitate vs. a parent volunteer. The campers seem to trust and be more open to a “peer” vs. a parent.

 

Chinese Heritage Camp II was a little different from what Alisha experienced at Korean Heritage Camp earlier this summer.

 

The dating question definitely sparked a lot of interest and positive feedback from the high school girls. They ranged from 14 – 17 years old and were very forthcoming with their responses on this particular topic. I asked the campers who they were attracted to when selecting a potential significant other. The response was that they did not discriminate against anyone in particular and would be open to all options, however, they did tend to favor minorities! They felt that minorities (i.e., Black, Latin, Asian) had better skin which they considered a material factor in their decision-making.

 

I had a several biological siblings in this group and it was very interesting to see their response to the following question: “Have you experienced racism?” The siblings seemed to be a little shocked. They, of course, believe that racism should not be an issue in today’s world and all had younger adopted siblings. They commented that they never noticed race being an issue with their adopted siblings, but when I informed them that racism could happen every day and in the classroom where they cannot observe every interaction between classmates and their adopted siblings…this caused a reaction. A few got a little emotional with the thought that their adopted siblings could have someone gesture with their fingers to mock their Asian eyes. Racism is something that is communicated verbally and non-verbally. What siblings (biological or not) can do at the end of the day, after school has let out, is be there for their family. I told them I think it is important to ask their adopted siblings how their day was and if there were any stories they would like to share with them. At times, a sibling can more easily get a response vs. a parent simply due to the fact that they are younger and not “mom and dad.”

 

Through Chinese Heritage Camp II, parents were also given the opportunity to submit questions to which I would bring into the discussion group. One question that was asked by a parent was “Do you think adoption is a good thing?” Several responses were that this was a silly question to ask since all of them felt it was obvious they would feel adoption was a great experience and could not imagine life any differently since they were all adopted as infants.

 

Another question submitted by a parent was “if you could ask your birth family a question, what would it be?” Several responses were along the lines of wondering why they were put up for adoption. One particular response was quite sharp: “How does it feel to give up your own child? How could you let go of your own child?” Adoptees are always going to be confused (unless given the opportunity to ask a birth-parent) on the exact reasons of their adoptive status. The perpetual question always is “why?” My response to them is that birth-parents have a lot of reasons why they had to make a difficult decision. Whether it was for financial reasons or otherwise, they all made a conscious decision to take you somewhere where someone could help find you a loving family. This seemed to help some of them to a degree, but I am sure they will still think about this for years to come; if not a lifetime.

 

A particular difference between Korean Heritage Camp discussions vs. Chinese Heritage Camp II was the response on whether the adoptees felt they could talk to their parents about adoption. I do not believe this was an ethnic-specific response, but rather was a response from one group of adoptees vs. another. My group felt that they could not talk as in depth about their adoption story as they would like to because they were “protecting” their parents. Adoptees often feel this way…that we are protectors of our parents who do not want to cause any anxiety or stress. Being a teenager is difficult enough without having a high-stress conversation. They felt that adoption talks were always “big talks” that they wanted to avoid because they did not want to upset their parents or have a discussion become something so drawn out and exhausting. As adoptive parents, I believe that you are constantly in pursuit of more knowledge to help your family become more healthy and stable. The passion for knowledge sometimes comes across as an intimidating factor that causes your children to feel hesitant to share their thoughts because they simply want a conversation that is free-flowing and possibly brief at times.

I am SO happy that Alisha and I had the opportunity to speak to so many young adults about adoption. Our monthly sessions we have with parents spark great conversations between parents and provide you with tools to go back and implement with your children as you see fit. This summer’s discussions with kids has created some bridges of communication between adoptees and their loving parents. If your children are not teenagers yet, please know it all goes by so fast and in the blink of an eye they are headed off as a freshment in high school. Although the discussions were with teenagers, it should be understood that the feelings and thoughts about these topics started years ago. These discussions at the camps have just given them possibly their first opportunity to voice what they have been thinking for quite some time. Discussions about adoption and surrounding topics between parents and their adoptive children can be brief or long, but what’s important is that they happen.

 

-Sheryl Nguyen