Adoptee Egos and the Struggle to be Seen
by JS LEE
For many us, our adoption experiences are key components of our identities. Non-adopted people often take pride in their heritage and ancestry. Since so many adoptees lack the information that should be rightfully ours, there’s a tendency to cling to what we have. I’m one of those adoptees. My personal experience with adoption has become as important to my identity as being Korean American.
As a kid, I perceived my adoption as a simple fact, much like birth order among siblings. It came with many more questions, but I was prepared. I’d overheard my adoptive parents speak of my adoption to strangers throughout my whole life. At first, it made me feel special to have a more interesting story than others. I memorized answers without understanding the deeper meaning behind them because I trusted my parents, as I was always implored to do.
Things got more complicated with age. The questions shifted from harmless curiosity to invasive probing, followed by cruel assumptions and jokes. With increased complexity, I grew defensive of my story. Unwilling to let anyone see that their words made me feel less than, I did what I could to prove I belonged—even if I didn’t feel it.
Raised in racial isolation without access to my Korean culture, I did what many adoptees did: I embraced my adoptive family’s identity. I wore green on St. Patrick’s Day with a “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” pin. My favorite food was Italian. I listened to my grandmother’s Scottish pride because her history was supposedly mine. I tried to make sense of their family tree, overwhelmed by how many branches I encountered at weddings and funerals. Still, it was easier to get lost in their connectedness than to recognize what I lacked.
In the fourth or fifth grade, I won an award for gratitude towards being adopted to this country. I read my essay in front of the school before a ceremony, where the flag that swayed outside all year long was folded and presented to me with great honor. At home, I was rewarded for flowery poems about how much I loved my family. Any question of my place in it—or who I might’ve been beyond it—ostracized me. I was sent to my room without discussion.
In my twenties, I was still receiving positive recognition for writing about my wonderful adoption. People loved to hear that I was grateful, how I never felt othered or lonely—and I gave it to them. I’d yet to understand that I needed the applause to drown out the growing awareness inside me.
Once outside the family home, I attempted to make sense of my past. Disapproving of my path, my adoptive mother sought to teach me a lesson. No one would write or call on my birthdays. Holidays went by without gifts or invitations. Phone calls and emails remained unanswered. She wanted to show me what life would be like had I not been adopted by them. The first couple of times, I reverted to an infant wailing from her mother’s sudden absence. But with repetition, I became more resilient. I eventually learned to get by on my own, and clear my emotions enough to see patterns. In fact, it was her lack of love that opened me up. Void of her family and their identity, I had no choice but to find what I could of my own.
Sometimes I think it’s harder for adoptees who’ve had more loving families to find and embrace their identities. They may fear what they’ll discover will separate them from the people they love—as it often does. Consider how difficult it can be for some biological children not to follow their parents’ laid-out plans. Adoptees may feel increased pressure to comply, not wanting to upset the ones they believe saved them and gave them everything.
On the internet and in my travels, I’ve met adoptees of color who still identify as white because they were adopted to white families. They see nothing wrong with it, and often embrace it with self-deprecating humor and internalized racism. They publicly deny racism exists, crediting their tolerance to a sense of humor, appeasing their longtime friends and family. They diminish adoption’s role in their family dysfunction by stating that every family has issues. While that may be true, it prevents them from getting to the root of their suffering, delaying the healing they need.
It’s my belief that the more an adoptee denies their true identity and adoption experience, the more triggered they are by negative adoption experiences. A story that opposes theirs become a personal attack. There’s often a fierce protectiveness for their families and a need to preserve their perceptions. They’re unable to separate the topic of adoption from what it means to them.
On the other hand, adoptees who’ve suffered greatly are often offended by positive stories. The mainstream narrative has always been in favor of adoption and adopters, erasing the history of human trafficking, cultural genocide, child abuse, deportation, suicide, and murder. Our voices are often silenced, infantalized, and pathologized. Due to society’s denial of our trauma, we can be easily triggered by anyone using neutral-to-positive words to describe any part of it.
Both examples are due to how much we attribute our identities to our adoption experiences, whether we see it or not. It’s understandable that our adoptions are woven into who we are—often in lieu of our own biological history.
I’ve been accused of conveying that positive adoptions don’t exist in my recent novel, KEURIUM—in which the protagonist’s very own boyfriend is a transracial adoptee with a positive adoption experience. There’s a need to reduce things to absolutes if we don’t like the way something challenges our beliefs and experiences. We home in on a perceived offense, frightened to accept the wholeness out of fear that it might shift our thinking, crumbling our entire world into ruins.
I’ve often thought about how minorities have a history of perpetuating the beliefs of those in power, because we think their power will protect us, or we suffer from Stockholm Syndrome. I believe empathy is both lacking and incredibly necessary to operate with compassion and make the world a better place. But I also believe empathy can allow us to shirk our own needs as we sympathize with and work for those who harm us. In order to discern where to put our efforts, we must be able to take in the view beyond the place we reside.
This is why I encourage us all to be able to accept stories that oppose our own—not to honor those who can’t honor us, but because denying the full spectrum makes us short-sighted and dishonest.
But the struggle is real. Meeting injustice halfway is still injustice. There’s a push to be fair, with the misconception that fairness equals compromise. I’ve seen how this thinking has failed in my personal relationships and politics. Not everything can be met in the middle with fair results. Sometimes one side needs to concede because it’s the right thing to do, and the work needs to fall on them. Egos and fear of change keep us back. Holding on to antiquated beliefs and systems is why we’re still here today—claiming those who fight white supremacy are equal to white supremacists. We’re afraid to offend someone by using the word racist more than we are of upholding a system that jails, kills, and punishes people for their race. We complicate these realities with flawed logic and toxic debate tactics because it makes our lives simpler, disregarding the lives of many others.
Society claims we’re all equal under a guise that our egos employ to believe we’re good people while we enable and contribute to injustice.
We shift the blame to the victims, denying our part in their pain—when we should accept when we’re wrong and change. It’s one of the ugliest parts of humanity, in my opinion.
Luckily, being able to acknowledge injustice doesn’t mean that we have to deny justice where it stands. Seeing where there are holes in systems doesn’t mean there are holes where there are not. Sadly, someone’s good fortune doesn’t cancel out another’s misfortune. Therefore, someone’s story of their traumatic adoption doesn’t nullify your beautiful one.
Adoption, and what we allow to be spoken of it, is in need of major reform. Considering enhanced social services, family preservation, and legal guardianship, doesn’t mean that your healthy adoption should never have been. Instead, it will allow more adoptees to have experiences like yours. Tightening the acquisition and placement process, and enforcing post-adoption check-ins, will create less trafficking, abuse, deportations, suicides, and murders. If our goal is to protect the children and give them the best chances in life, we need to hear from those who’ve been failed. So, please. Let us speak.
November 4, 2020 @ 1:44 pm
I have often struggled with feeling invisible. It didn’t occur to me that this is common with adoptees for a long, long time. As a child, I felt special, and imagined myself chosen from an orphanage because I was the cutest one. I was a “good” adoptees who sought approval. In middle school, the song “Love Child” by Diana Ross and the Supremes resonated with me, and I began to feel second best. Nobody ever said anything rude to me, but I somehow got the feeling that I was born on the wrong side of the tracks. As a Caucasian, I did not struggle with racial issues. But like most adoptees in that era, I was expected to squelch the inner voice that longed to know about my genetic families.
The biggest “ah-ha” moment as I read your article was that the adoptive parent’s pain was there much longer than the adoptee’s pain. The remedy of this pain was adopting a child (me). But humans sometimes are not clear on all the expectations they put on that child. So if the child turns out to be a mixture of acceptable and somewhat unacceptable traits, and if some of those traits trigger pain to the adoptive parent, there is a turn off. Not all adoptive parents are well enough to understand this. They place blame elsewhere.
As a child, I had frequent strange fantasies of being a slave girl. As a grown woman, I can now see that adoption itself is somewhat like slavery. I was taken out of my family of origin and the transaction (even though it was not monetary) was meant to make my adoptive mom’s pain decrease. I was adopted to do the work of lessening my mom’s sense of loss at her infertility. She was a good mom to me. It is easy to love small children. They are moldable, and the transaction seems to work. But as an adoptees sense of self grows, it can be threatening to the adoptive parent. They see that we are not blank slates like they were mistakenly promised. My adoptive mom always promised to help me find my birth mom. She did carry out this promise. But it was a strained transaction.
Your confusion as you looked at your family tree echoes my own. It was when my grandmother’s family issued a family tree book, and my name was in it, that I really realized for the first time that I needed to find the truth. Forty years later, I now know my birth relatives. The peace is quite lovely, especially since I am in contact with several siblings who accept me unconditionally. It is a sense of relief. There is nature, and there is nurture. Both are important. But unconditional love is the most important part of all.
November 4, 2020 @ 2:15 pm
Thanks so much for sharing. It’s always interesting to hear the similar experiences of same-race White adoptees. I’m so glad that you were able to find your family. <3
January 14, 2019 @ 3:10 pm
RE: Adoptee Egos and the Struggle to be Seen
JS, you are a gifted writer, and I look forward to reading your book.
Thank you for sharing this amazing article on your blog.
Blessings & Light to you.
January 14, 2019 @ 5:51 pm
Thanks so much, Suz. <3
December 3, 2018 @ 11:21 am
Thanks for sharing. This is a powerful piece about adoption narratives and identity.
Thanks to adult adoptees sharing their truths, my husband and we have been able to provide a differnt upbring for our son who is a Korean adoptee. His daily life is filled with people of color, racial mirrors and ongoing correspondence with his birth family. Without guidance from adult adoptees, we would not be able to say that.
So thank you!
December 3, 2018 @ 1:17 pm
Thanks for listening, Amy! <3 All my best to your son.
November 30, 2018 @ 10:48 am
On the Denial of Race and Racism
A lot of people are fond of saying, “Race is a social construct”
As if, by saying those magical words they have completely negated any notions that such a thing as race exists, and have thereby completely washed away the problem of racism in society.
How convenient. Now they don’t have to feel guilty about all of the racial inequality and injustice that occurs in our society. There are no problems because “race doesn’t exist.”
It is true that there is very little scientific evidence that groups of people with different amounts of melanin or other superficial physical differences are fundamentally different.
Our notions about the differences between groups of people who look different from other groups ARE social constructs. But people act as if saying that something is a ‘social construct’ means that it isn’t real.
Wealth is a social construct.
Ideas about nations, national boundaries, and patriotism are socially constructed.
Kings and queens, and the office of the President are social constructs.
So are laws.
And ideas about morality, religion,
what is beautiful and what is good,
who is popular and who is not,
what is love, friendship, loyalty, honor, decency, etiquette, . . .
We are social beings. Almost everything in our lives is socially constructed. Social Constructs make up the fabric of our reality.
Race may be socially constructed, but it profoundly affects those who are discriminated against, and those who benefit from being a member of the privileged group. Our lived experience is impacted daily by the socially constructed perceptions that others use when deciding how they will interact with us, or even if they will talk to us.
November 30, 2018 @ 10:51 am
Spot on, Eric. Thanks for dropping some much needed wisdom!
December 3, 2018 @ 2:31 am
I love everything about this article.
December 3, 2018 @ 10:31 am
December 3, 2018 @ 3:10 am
Race is indeed a social construct but so too is this sudden wave to reduce it to such. It’s all very strategic and tactical. Race has historically been lauded as the ultimate marker of superiority. But now that people of color are coming against the “All Things White Are Better” narrative there is this movement toward “race is a social construct”. It’s all designed to undermine the achievement of racial and ethnic pride for people of color. To all the “there is no such thing as race” folk I say (and I say it loud) “I’m Black and I’m proud!”
December 3, 2018 @ 10:31 am
Yes! *Fistbump* <3
November 30, 2018 @ 8:15 am
“Adoption, and what we allow to be spoken of it, is in need of major reform.” This statement is so powerful! Thank you so much for your writings. As an adoptive parent of six children, I found your thoughts enlightening.
We are fortunate enough that Vietnam has open adoption records, and have taken three of my kids back to Vietnam to visit birth family, many times. I thoroughly enjoy our relationship with their birth family and thrive on the cultural exchange. My other three adopted kids are American, and we keep in touch with their birth families.
I am deeply sadden by your adoptive mothers response to your feeling and writings. In my opinion, your mother must be older, certainly a different generation. We take our kids to Colorado Heritage Camps. They have camps for each ethnic group. Like China, Korea, Vietnam, Ethiopia , South American countries. The camps talk about exactly what you are are saying. I know they would love to have you as a speaker. The camps also teach the kids about the cultural identity ,which is so important! The counselors are that ethnic group from the Colorado community.
Thank you for your article.
November 30, 2018 @ 10:38 am
Hi Cindy. I’m glad that you appreciated my words. It’s telling when adoptive parents are able to read them without taking offense. I also love to hear that you’re working to ensure your adoptive children are seeing the world and embracing their culture, and preparing them to be more secure in their identities. Best of luck to you all.
November 30, 2018 @ 8:06 am
Jessica, you -and others-need to stop using skin tones or regional origins in your dialogues because the science of genetics, as well as level headed thought, has proven that race and ethnicity are artificial constructs as are geo-political borders. As MLK would remind, we need to assess one another on the basis of our characters, not on the basis of our skins and their shades. The shade of one’s skin is a genetic code relevant to our ancestor’s degree of distance from the sun’s UV rays; the closer we are to the equator, the more UV protection we will need. Every person has exactly the same genes for this process. It is these genes that provide our shades of hair and eyes, some are dominant -the darker hues versus the reticent -the lighter. The darker shades are the majority of the world’s population. And all peoples share 99.50 %-99.99% the same genes as all creatures share percentages of the same gens. Did you know that you and your cat share 70% of your genes?
Ethnicity is an artificial way to divide and conquer, a way to create the Other, a way to dominate , a way to cause a feeling of inferiority or its opposite superiority. It is a way to divide and conquer a group more populous than the invading army, a way to excuse genocide., a way to convince others of the need to eradicate those who do not conform to the status quo, to enforce assimilation.
I have been an adoptee far longer than you and until I finally escaped my captors, the adoptee in the room or at the back of the bus. The difference between you and I -aside from my experiences being far greater in number than yours-is that I have been an advocate first for myself and later for others – and always the ungrateful adoptee who took every opportunity to cry foul at the system who allowed adopters to abuse me, excused my parents from abandoning me and my younger sister, who denied me my own and very real identity and access to m y own records -including an OBC (which the state never had because I was not born in that state.) Because I fought the system, I was able to obtain my OBC by sheer determination and pluck (far before the internet and birth records and search angels and advocates for change), and later a copy -scant as it was- of the adoption file. All of this-including being the impetus of the state of my birth to change its adoptee laws to allow access to adoptees of their own records, including birth records, because I understood the rights of all to be treated equally and inclusively-not because their eyes are black or their skin is albino (the only skin that IS white, by the way) but because all children (and adults) have the right of birth to know who they are and from whence they came, and to be treated fairly and justly without fear of being harm or of retribution. regardless of how or where they were conceived and born or of their physicality.
Adoptees are only a tiny fraction of the world’s population, perhaps 2% if that. Until we understand that we share loss, pain , grief, separation, anxiety, denial of ourselves as the people we really are (thanks in whole to our DNA) and coalesce as a unity instead pretentiously sounding off the person K is far more affected (or is that afflicted?) than person N nothing will change. because divisiveness destroys, it does not heal or bring people together. Whether you wear Gucci shoes and I sandals is not germaine to the implicit rights we all have to equitable treatment. What is germaine is found in this simple indigenous American proverb which says: Never judge another until you have walked 10, 000 miles in his (or her) moccasins.
As a parting statement I want o express my empathy for your having been separated from your DNA roots and from the places of your ancestors and all that encompasses. But in truth, all adoptees have that experience.
November 30, 2018 @ 10:21 am
Hi Rachida Djebel. Welcome to my site. For now, I’ll ignore your condescending word choices and assumptions about what I’ve done in my life—aside from write this piece that obviously hit some nerves—and focus on the facts.
Yes, race is a social construct created by dominant Europeans to build hierarchies among humans. I’m aware of that. I’m also aware that despite its origin, it has been weaponized to abuse darker skinned minorities throughout history and today, which is why I will not stop talking about it. If you read the Constitution, you will see how it claimed African Americans and Native Americans/Indigenous People were inferior, to put it mildly. That is racism—using one’s skin tone and heritage to obtain power over them. It’s invasive on a systemic level.
Since you’re such a fan of Martin Luther King, Jr., I suggest you follow his daughter, Bernice King, who is sensitive towards people using her father’s words out of context to prove a point he did not believe in. While he wanted people to not judge others by skin color, he very much saw that they were—otherwise, he wouldn’t have done all that he did. I also suggest you read Ijeoma Oluo’s fantastic book, “So You Wanna Talk About Race.” While some of your words appear to show an understanding of how race has been used unfavorably, it’s peculiar that you tell me to stop speaking of it for hurting countless innocent people every day.
It’s great that you were able to obtain your OBC—that is a privilege that many international adoptees do not have, as our records are missing, inconsistent, and fabricated. Many of us spend our entire lives and last pennies searching, to no avail, given the systems that have been allowed to be in place for too long. It’s not for a lack of intelligence or self-advocacy. I promise you that.
I’m also aware that adoptees are a fringe minority, and that we share a lot of similar grief and pain. Perhaps the emotions that led to the offense you took, made it difficult to see my intentions.
Lastly, your Indigenous proverb is ironic, considering the incredible amount of judgment you brought here today. You assume to know my age, which might surprise you. You presume to know what I’ve done and haven’t done, beyond what I’ve openly shared. You might want to consider your motives to leave such a long, somewhat contradictory comment on a stranger’s blog, that attempts to position yourself as superior.