Category Archives: birthdate

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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Undercover Adoptee

Yesterday morning at breakfast, I heard this Story Corps taping (before you continue, you might want to listen). 
This dialogue between a mother and daughter will surprise you when you reach the end. In less than three minutes we discover the mother was adopted but did not discover this until adulthood.
This 2012 was a year of discovery in my adoption story, but mine focused on the discovery of other adoptees. 
Up until this year, I wandered around believing that I was quite alone and undercover. Every now and then, my secret identity would need verification through statements like, “I have no medical family history because I’m adopted.” and “Well, that isn’t really my birthday, it was given to me by the Korean government.”  
As I have mentioned, my life has been recently touched by three Korean adoptees. In a couple of instances, the adoptee knew immediately upon meeting me face to face that I must be adopted … few Koreans have a full Puerto Rican name.
Over the holidays, I had a cookie exchange. While introducing people, a new friend, Amy. (not to be confused with Amy in this post), asked how Miya and I knew one another. We mentioned that our adoption histories were similar.  At this, Amy said with a smile, “I’m adopted too!”
Amy is a caucasian woman with blonde hair. Her identity as an adoptee is not written on her face, nor does her name give any indication that she is adopted. Amy, Miya and I started sharing our common frustrations with routine questions like “Do you have any diseases in your family history?”
Like me, Amy lost her adoptive mother too soon. Like me, Amy has a younger sibling who is not only six years younger than her, but the sibling is also the biological child of her adoptive parents. 
Unlike me, Amy lost her father to cancer and had a middle brother who was also adopted. She had a sibling with whom she could confide as well as share her adoption questions as they became older. 
Amy is an art teacher. It is our love of art education that brought us together. When she began teaching, she spoke with her adopted brother about her fear that any of the children she was teaching could, in fact, be biologically related to her. Being so close to her birthplace and much like the adoption story in Story Corps, there was the possibility that those whose social circles intersected hers could be biologically related to her. Her brother assured her that she would be a fabulous teacher regardless of the background of her students.
Amy shares the deep love of her adoptive family that I do, but now I see another side of adoption. Those adoptions that are not international pose completely different questions and challenges. When you aren’t racially different from your family, you are undercover. My race has helped me find others like me, albeit some 40 years into my life, but for Amy and the woman in the Story Corps article, no one assumes that they are adopted.
This year has brought me rich relationships with people who share my adoption experience. I am truly grateful for these friendships. While we are all adopted, each of our stories varies and flows in differing ways, but we all can relate to one another in a way that others cannot. With one another, we are no longer undercover.

Tomorrow marks the day …

Tomorrow is my birthday … or rather the day that the Korean government gave me as a birthday. On my first birthday, one of the most important of a young Korean baby’s life, I spent it with my foster parents. They were college professors, according to my mother. The man took my photograph to commemorate the day.

According to my Korean friend, the baby is presented with four things: a pencil, a string, chopsticks and money. Which item the child chooses determines her future. A pencil indicates a scholar, the string indicates a long life, the chopsticks insure that the child never will go hungry, and the money indicates a child who will prosper. I have no idea what I chose that day, but I’m still waiting to find out!

Many birthdays followed.  Here you see my first birthday celebrated with my parents in Puerto Rico; I was two.

My next birthday, my third, was spent with my mother’s family in Tennessee. My father was stationed in Vietnam. I recall sending him a taping where I just said, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!” My grandmother and my mother made it the most special of days despite my father’s absence.

Each year, my mother worked very hard to make November 15th the most memorable of all. She succeeded. This was one where she made my wishes come true with a cake she fashioned with dancing ballerinas around it.

As I turned six, my mother had been hospitalized for some time. She was carrying my little sister, a pregnancy that the doctors had told her might not make it to term. My father made the best of it and bought me a cake. He also fashioned a sign on posterboard for me. I remember visiting my mother in the hospital, she quickly gave me a wrapped present in the cafeteria. As I left, I remember looking longingly up at her hospital room window from the pavement below. She would tell me later that she cried that evening as she watched my little purple coat wave and walk away.

The next year was a big one. We had just moved to Lawton, Oklahoma. I had made a few friends, but it really was a party for our family. My mother spent late nights cutting the letters for the signage out of pieces of construction paper.

I became older, and birthdays passed. There was my 8th pictured here.

And then … I hit nine. We had once again moved. This time we moved to Tennessee, my mother’s birthplace.

This was a monumental birthday for me, because I started wondering more about myself and my background. Having been a military brat until this point, I had been surrounded by diversity. In Tennessee, it was difficult being a lone Asian in a small, rural Appalachian town. I looked more and more at the paperwork my parents had received, and I realized that I was different in another way. The day I had always celebrated as my birthday, may not have been my birthday after all.

When I had been turned into the police station, I had no papers with me. I was taken to a doctor, where my approximate age was determined. Then, the government gave me a birth date, the middle of November, as an estimated birthday.

So, every year, I wonder if November 15th is in fact my birthday, or if I could have been born on the same day as my sister, the 20th, or on the 11th, or the 17th or so on.

I know nothing about the circumstances of my birth. This never entered my mind until I had given birth to my children. Now, I do wonder at times if my birth was easy for my birth mother, if I was born early in the morning after a long night of labor, or born late in the day after many hours of daylight labor. Was I her first child? Or was I a subsequent one whose labor lasted only a short time?

While I am content with my life now, I still have unanswered questions. But I know that the answers make little difference in the person I am today.

The rich birthday celebrations that I have had were celebrations of not only my birth, but celebrations of my place in a loving family.