The Power of Language

Adopted just three days apart, my friend Miya and I decided to read each other’s adoption letters. Strikingly, the language and tone of the letters were on opposite sides of an emotional spectrum.

Miya’s read, “As this child was an abandoned child, her background information about her birth, parents and family are unknown. She was named and her birthdate was estimated by the Seoul City Babies Home.” 

The word, “abandoned” has stayed with Miya her entire life. She struggles with this word. That word cuts me when I hear it. My other adopted friend, Amy M., pointed out the two uses of this word in the film Somewhere Between, and it angered her. One was spoken by an audience member at a panel discussion, and the other was said by the adoptive mother to her daughter’s birth mother. 

My adoption introduction letter is written in this way:

“We are pleased to tell you that we have selected a child for you who we think will fit nicely into your family. She is from the Chong Yang Ri police station on 24 May 1968 and admitted to us and placed at our Korean Foster Home on that day.

Naturally, you are anxious to meet Kim, Sook Hyun. We have found that it is more helpful to the adoptive couples if they think of this first meeting as a time to get acquainted, and not as a time to decide whether or not this is the right child for you. It is a strain on both adoptive parents and child when their first meeting is interwoven with this question of acceptance or rejection, but this strain is removed if the parents have already made up their minds to accept the child, based on the picture and the information we provide and relying on Holt’s experienced professional judgment.

May we therefore suggest that you too think of your coming trip to Korea in this light. In the meantime, we should appreciate your writing us about your acceptance of this child we have chosen.” 

“Chosen” is a word my mother used often. She never used the word “abandoned.” She said, “You were dropped off at the police station, and we were fortunate to be chosen as your parents.”

Here is the first picture of me that was attached to the letter; it is dated June 7, 1968. I look a bit frightened.

 

Later, pictures show me happier, and all the pictures of me with my family show me at my happiest (until the teen angst set in).

Words can hurt or nurture. In the recent WISE Up Conference that I described in an earlier blog post, I noticed that some of the younger children chose the “Walk Away” or “It’s private,” option quite often, even when the question was simply, “Hey, are you adopted?” That sent signals to me that they felt that it was something they should be ashamed of, or something others would interpret as negative. One youngster even said that she was jealous of the other kids who lived with their birth parents and who never had to answer ridiculous questions.

Linda Goldstein Knowlton, the filmmaker of Somewhere Between, says she hopes it will spark a conservation that will begin “normalizing our language about adoption. Adoption is changing the face of the country, creating these complicated family trees — we need a way to address that.”

In the following clip by Knowlton, Adam Pertman, Executive Director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, explains the adoption language barrier in this way:  

“We don’t have words for this [adoption]. When we don’t have words for something, it makes it more difficult. It creates the aura of something ‘otherly,’ and maybe something negative, something lesser. And none of that is true. We need the language to catch up to the reality.”

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/61559200″>Beyond Somewhere Between-The Language of Adoption</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/somewherebetween”>Linda Knowlton</a> on <a href=”http://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Associate Professor of Child Development at Tufts University, Ellen Pinderhughes in this segment describes our families beautifully.

 “Until we as a society can value that there are all these different ways to become parents, to become a family, that they’re all positive, they’re all important, we may continue to contend with some of this issue with the  language of adoption not getting into the mainstream.”

So, let’s not only continue this conversation, but please post your ideas in altering the language of adoption. There are children all over the world being discovered everyday. Let’s make them feel like the treasures they are!

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