Friday, October 2, 2009

Finding Home, Feeling at Home -- An Adult Adoptee's Painful Story

Nine year old tidbit for the day:

"Hey Mom! Did you know if you whisper --" she drops her voice a notch below audible and, with exaggerated precision, mouths: "'E-le-phant shoes,' -- people think you're saying 'I love you!'"

This pleases her.

My daughter is full of good humor and snappy comebacks these days while I've been scrambling to launch her back into the school year and launch myself, full force, back into the job hunt. We've had a lot going on. Last week, the stress got the better of me. Out of patience, I launched into a lecture and told her if she couldn't learn to help around the house and clean up the trail of mess she leaves behind -- in the front hall, on the couch, on the dining room table, all over the kitchen counter -- and find a home for each and every one of her belongings, I'd have to assume they were leftovers. Trash. Oh, yes. The 18 origami cranes that lay for the past two days littered about the piano bench like leaves in the yard? Trash. Obviously trash.

She stammered, looking for the right response. "But, but... they're not trash! That, that... that is their home! It... it's... it's a display, Mom."

The corners of her mouth twitch and a wry smile escapes at this unexpected flash of creativity. I too am taken by surprise, and explode with a belly laugh. The cranes earn a reprieve and she quickly sweeps them into a nearby drawer.

We are back to innocent, happy days once more. But, in my off hours here and there, I continue the adoptive parents' journey in due diligence. Two weeks ago, a Korean adoptive parenting group (Korea Focus) and our local FCC (Families with Children from China) organization sponsored the showing of Point Made Films' documentary "Adopted." And so it was, thanks to an invitation and prompting from one my blog readers (Thank you Laura) I found myself with a gathering of 15 or so other adoptive parents in a well lit church basement one Tuesday evening.

According to the Point Made Films' web site, "'Adopted' reveals the grit rather than the glamor of transracial adoption."

The film is controversial and it's easy to see why.

We meet John and Jacqui Trainer of New Hampshire. They are just beginning their adoption journey and they're filled with great hope and joy at the prospect of becoming parents. They want to do the right thing by their child. There's no doubt they're completely committed and will love their daughter deeply. At the same time, it's clear they have no concept of the issues and challenges involved in transracial adoption. These issues and challenges are highlighted by Jen Fero, a 32 year old Korean born woman, adopted and raised in the late 70's and early 80's by a loving Euro American family in a small Oregon town.

Jen is the dominant voice in the film and, as she looks back, sharing her experience, she raises a number of blunt, difficult questions not only for her own adoptive, now terminally ill parents -- but for other adoptive parents, particularly those with children of differing racial backgrounds. Jen narrates her story and shares how early on she came to put on a game face, to present herself to her family, to the broader world, as the happy, funny, affectionate daughter she thought her family wanted.
Underneath this veneer, she struggled.

As a child, Jen heard again and again from people in her community what a "lucky" girl she was. But Jen didn't feel lucky. As much as she loved her adoptive parents, she felt loss and sadness over her abandonment by her Korean family. Jen's adoptive family emphasized their love and sense of good fortune in having her as their daughter -- but her losses were never referenced or acknowledged. Jen feared disappointing her parents, contradicting their joy. She felt she ought to be happy. Unable to discuss or explore the possible reasons behind her abandonment, Jen was left with a nagging vulnerability. What if she failed to please her adoptive family? She assumed a kind of vigilance, striving to please and placate her family. She learned to deny her more challenging, difficult feelings.

Growing up in a white family and predominantly white community, Jen identified with those around her. Since Jen's parents believed love was more important than race, they chose not to discuss racial differences. But -- if there's an elephant in the room and no one mentions the elephant -- will the elephant disappear? Jen was left to wrestle with the differences that announced themselves in the mirror each morning. The image of her own uniquely Asian face, her eyes, her nose, her skin tone, created a dissonance within her. When she was out in the neighborhood, in the school yard, on the playground, other children saw these differences too and they teased and taunted her. Jen felt ashamed. Lacking any kind of dialog at home, she had no words, no language, no safe harbor, place, or person to confide her troubles.

Remarks not only from other children but from others, elsewhere, over the years, made Jen aware there were people who didn't view her as fully American. Jen yearned to return "home" to Korea. But when she traveled to Korea, she found she was far more American than Korean -- and Koreans saw this too. When Jen moved away from her hometown to a larger city for work, she struggled to feel fully accepted within white communities -- but also had difficulty feeling a sense of belonging with other Korean Americans.

In the film, Jen makes an earnest effort to communicate her struggles and bridge the connection with her terminally ill parents. But the message they have failed her is too much and perhaps, too late, and too painful for them to take in. They don't understand and Jen feels even more alone. She succombs to anti-depressants and pain killers and is forced to leave her terminally ill parents to commit to her own self care, to enter a rehabillitation program.

Watching "Adopted," I felt a little like Ebenezer Scrooge witnessing the slow parade of ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future. I remembered the dark moment Scrooge stood perched at the edge of what would prove to be his grave, afraid to peer over and confront the worst.

Was Jen's fate my daughter's fate? Our fate? There was still time. What more could I, can I do, here in the present, to re-cast our future?

I'm being a tad melodramatic. But there's no denying Jen's story is tragic. By all appearances, her parents were loving, well meaning people. It took great courage for Jen as well as her parents to allow the film makers into their home, to share their story, and offer the seeds of hard-won wisdom.

I think there were two distinctly different issues at stake for Jen.

The first problem was that Jen was never encouraged or given the opportunity to recognize her own unique story -- and losses -- as a separate, legitimate reality apart from her adoptive parents' story -- their journey and joy in adopting and raising their daughter. Jen sensed her sadness and grief at losing her birth parents posed a threat or, at the very least, would prove hurtful to her parents. So she bottled up her sadness. As she grew older, as the pain persisted, she tried to numb it, then medicate it away.

As a community, as adoptive parents, we've learned how important it is to help our children own and process their stories -- including their losses. We live with the irony that our children's greatest loss is the basis for our joy: their presence in our lives. As threatening as that may feel, we have to support our children, to help them grieve one family so they are free to celebrate the next. Jen's experience is, in part, a desperate cry for this recognition and validation.

The second issue Jen wrestled with is, I think, even more complex.

Jen’s well meaning parents failed to recognize and address the challenges that come with being a mixed race family. To be fair, I think the Feros followed the beliefs of their generation. Once you adopted, you treated your child as if s/he were -- had always been -- your own. Love and acceptance trumped dislocation or differences. To acknowledge the rift or difference threatened the fantasy the bond could be re-made, perfect and whole. So families didn’t discuss abandonment, adoption -- or race. Korean adult adoptees like Jen have taught us the price of this denial.

Listening to Jen, I couldn’t help wondering if her struggle to fit in was unique to her experience as a transracial adoptee – or part of the broader experience of persons of color, of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities in this country. Friends of mine raised by immigrant parents, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Italian, Polish, and Russian, have shared childhood memories of not fitting in, of being the outsider, living betwixt and between two cultures, the culture of their parents' generation versus that of the American school yard and the media. Those of my friends who were happiest seemed to have found a way to mix and move comfortably in both worlds, having made their peace, even taking pride in a hybrid identity.

Is it possible Jens’ struggles to fit in were more authentically Korean American, or Asian American, than she realized?

As for adoptive parents, how many of us truly acknowledge, or understand that, when we adopt a child of another race, we become a family of color?

When I first made my decision to adopt my daughter, I threw myself into reading and learning everything I could about China. I developed a deep, one could argue na├»vely romantic fascination for its difficult history, politics, and people. Now, as much as I know it’s helpful to give my daughter a sense of pride in her birth country, I see there are many more layers to my job.

White adoptive parents have only known the world of white privilege. We have no idea what it feels like to walk about in someone else’s skin, to enter a classroom, apply for a job, shop at the local mall or museum, wander a city street and greet the world with a face that isn’t Euro American -- but is Asian American, Latin American, or African American.

We are blind and yet, we need to learn more, read more, reach out more, if we are to help our children feel at home, with a mix of faces, in a variety of places.


Joan said...

I have not seen this movie yet but will one of these days. But, I feel there is a large group of parents that are more aware of the loss in adoption. My daughter is 7 and struggling with sadness and missing her foster family. She has never expressed the same for her birth family. I fear she has that buried. We have started counseling to help her learn how to express her feelings and to help me learn how to listen and encourage. I thought I was doing ok with that but just this week she said she couldn't tell me what was wrong. I kept working and found out it was her foster family sadness again. Maybe its more but we are working on it now so she isn't struggling more later. Or maybe she will always struggle with this but I will give her the tools to help her. Long Commet... but I have listened to many stories on adoption and believe that once we know better we do better and our kids will feel that.

Lisa said...

Hi Joan
I think you're right that the current wisdom has changed and that adoptive parents today have learned from prior generations of adoptive parents and adoptees. These stories are hard to hear and I confess I worried about writing about something so bleak. But if Jen's story can help us help our children, it seems worth it.

It does seem that its around the age of 7 and 8 that these issues come to the fore for our kids. My daughter really struggled last March and I wrote about it in the hopes of helping other parents learn from our experience. ( The biggest thing I learned was how incredibly important it was for me to let her know she could feel safe telling me absolutely anything and that I understood and could imagine how much she was hurting. It was a difficult time, but it also seemed to help. She appeared to emerge even stronger. At least that's where we are currently. (I know these things are never static!)

Wishing you and your family all the best.