The first adoption fair I ever attended changed my life. My husband and I thought we were attending an info session on domestic adoption, but a quick glance at the tables strategically placed around the perimeter of the room with flags from China, South Korea, and Columbia gently waving in the breeze quickly confirmed we hadn’t read the adoption flyer correctly. The world of international adoption seemed at once foreign and exciting. Embracing both a child and a culture was extremely appealing, but we had no idea what we were getting into. Two adoptions and five years later I’m still learning.
Prior to adopting our son from China in 2015, my family had no experience with adoption. We didn’t understand the intricacies involved, the challenges we would face, or the overall complexity of children placed through international adoption. And that is why whenever a new survey about adult adoptees’ experiences comes out, I rush to read it. Though my children are just newly five and twenty months, hearing from older adoptees who have walked a path similar to my children’s is important to me.
In November 2017, a survey entitled Adult Adoptee Perceptions in International Adoption was published by Adoption Surveys. A total of 253 respondents replied to 90 questions about their experiences growing up as an adoptee. All who responded were adopted from another country and resided with adoptive parents with whom they were not biologically related. Over 34 countries were represented, with the top five countries to include Korea, Columbia, India, China and Vietnam. Most (69%) of adoptees were between birth and one year at placement—an interesting change from international adoptions today, where the average age at placement is between 1 and 2 years of age. Many topics were touched in the survey, but as an adoptive parent, I found three findings the most relevant.
You Are a Conspicuous Family
As parent in a transracial, international adoptive family, I am constantly aware that my children are different from me. They don’t see faces of similar hues hanging in the hallway of their grandparents’ house. At family reunion time, their shining faces stand out in a sea of white. Of those adoptees surveyed, 57% said they felt like they “didn’t fit in” with their adoptive family. 54% report receiving stares in public, though only 28% report growing up in a racially diverse area. A heartbreaking 70% wished for “racial mirrors.” As an adoptive parent, that resonates with me. When my son was the only Asian—heck, the only minority—face in his preschool, we switched him to a more racially diverse school. Every other week we have playdates with fellow adoptive families so my children can see families that look like ours. When they are of age, I plan to find mentors for my children so as to facilitate community mirrors. As an adoptive community, we have learned that there is no such thing as color blindness. We must be color aware.
Tell Their Story
One of my son’s favorite bedtime stories is “Jack and the Beanstalk.” He loves hearing his name uttered over and over again—particularly when Jack does battle with the giant. His second favorite book is “Jack’s Journey from China,” a simple child’s version of his more intricate life book. Only 52% of those surveyed reported being comfortable talking about their adoption as minors. As adoptive parents, it’s important to keep having the conversation. I know for my son, what may start as a children’s life book will evolve into more complex questions of identity as he ages. Only 34% of adult adoptees surveyed celebrated their adoption day as minors. Interestingly, 44% reported they would enjoy hearing their adoption story.
Adoption Is a Journey
In our first PAC (Pre-Adoption Certification) class, a speaker relayed her experience of meeting her son. She was told to watch for the “yellow blanket” coming off the flight from South Korea. When her son was placed in her arms, she thought, “The journey is finally over,” but in reality, it had just begun. As an adoption community, the way we think about international adoption has changed a lot in the last 20 years. No longer do we promote the idea that “love is enough.” Instead we recognize that adoption is incredibly intricate. One of the starkest statistics from the survey is that 84% of the adoptees surveyed struggled with questions of identity, 81% struggled with abandonment issues, and 73% struggled with depression. When I read these numbers, I think of my own family. How a dear family friend quips, “Jack struggled when he first came home, but look at him now. He’s absolutely fine!” And he is. For now. But I know there will come a day when he is not. When he might openly, or not so openly, mourn the loss of biological family, as 65% of respondents did. Or when he will desperately think about the life he might have lived. And when he does, we will navigate that path with him.
Adoption is incredibly complex. If there is one thing we can learn from adult adoptees, it is that we must continue to evolve the conversation of what adoption means from every viewpoint. For my family, I will listen, I will teach, I will celebrate Chinese New Year and Diwali, and I will read every adoptee survey I can find.
Link to the full Adult Adoptee Perceptions in International Adoption survey can be found here.