July 26, 2007

Opening Minds and Hearts at KAAN

I'm a conference junky, one who unfortunately doesn't get to go to as many as she'd like. So I pick them carefully, and one that I wouldn't miss is the annual KAAN Conference.

I say it every year - this year's was the best. And it always is. We were in Boston this year - Cambridge, actually - which is the perfect setting for any conference. And the conference itself was the perfect combination of sessions, socializing, and entertainment.

Some are the big names of adoption were there this year - Joyce Maguire Pavao, for example, and B. J. Lifton, among many others. There were authors - Anne Sibley O'Brien and Marie Myung-Ok Lee and Rose Kent, for example. Others are up and coming contributors to the adoption and Korean American communities - like Adrian Hong of LiNK, who had the luncheon crowd on their feet after he told them about the horrors he has seen in North Korea, and LiNK's efforts on their behalf. And for entertainment - the amazing Grace Kelly. If you haven't heard about this young woman yet, don't worry - you will.

One of the main reasons I go every year is to catch up with the friends I've made in conferences past. They have become very important to me - people who live all over the country, all over the world really, and who share the experience of Korean adoption. Some I see more frequently, because they live here in the DC area (like the friend I had coffee with yesterday who lives less than half an hour away). Others I see only at KAAN, and very occasionally in between - Terra Trevor, Mark Hagland, Chris Winston, Maggie Dunham, Ross Tabisel (Ross and I manned the registration table with iron hands this year), and many, many others - including Jacey Norton, this year's coordinator, who deserves very special thanks for organizing this great event.

And then there are the new friends. One is Dr. Richard Boas, who started the Give2Asia program that is helping to support single mothers in Korea. Talk about putting your money where your mouth is! He is doing what I have only been able to think and write about, and has my deep respect.

The other is the one and only Claud of Musings of the Lame. Last fall, when KAAN called for session topics, I took a chance and asked Claud if she would be interested in doing a presentation together. I wasn't sure then exactly what we'd say, but I knew it would be about mothers. She accepted immediately.

We called our session Universal Motherhood, Universal Loss. My role was simply to introduce Claud, because it was her story I wanted this audience to hear. Often, we who have adopted transnationally push thoughts of our children's families from our minds. As Claud said, we find ways to say that another person's story doesn't apply to us. But this past Saturday, a roomful of KAAN attendees learned that the experience of a woman in the northeast United States is really no different than the experience of a woman in Seoul, or Guatemala, China, or Ethiopia. Wherever a mother loses her child because life has offered her no other alternatives, that mother grieves in the very same way.

There were few dry eyes by the time she was done. The response to Claud was warm and heartfelt - and clearly, the people in our session walked out with a new perspective, one that will no longer allow them to say that this one young mother's experience doesn't apply to them.

Claud made everyone see that the experience is universal.

Universal motherhood. Universal loss.

Thank you, Claud, for opening minds and hearts this weekend.

Here we are, Dark and Stormy and Mojito in hand.

July 19, 2007

Your assignment while I'm at KAAN

I leave tomorrow for the KAAN conference in Boston - escape at last! The only thing better than going to Boston would be to be going back to Korea where the conference was last year. Maybe soon . . .

The assignment. I'm running out of stuff to say about adoption, and honestly I don't think anyone's interested enough in my personal life to hear too much about that. Give me some ideas!

July 17, 2007

I'm addicted . . .

. . . to Korean TV.

It started years ago with a show whose name I no longer know. It was about a doctor who lived in a suburb of Seoul with his wife and several daughters (two? three?). One was a doctor herself, one had gone to the states to study, and I vaguely remember a third. So much drama, especially with the doctor dying at the end. I was absolutely crushed when it went off the air and never came back. If anyone knows this show, tell me the name so I can buy the video!!!

A year or so ago, I got hooked on Rooftop Room Cat - purely goofball, but gosh I loved that show. I haven't seen it on any of the Asian stations recently, so I think I'm going to have to buy the series. Now it's Lucifer, Over the Rainbow (great dancing), and A Happy Woman. H.I.T. is a great police drama featuring a female homocide detective. R is hooked on As Much as Heaven and Earth. My current favorites are Couple in Trouble and Hello, My Lady. Absolute fluff, but I'm hooked.

And then there are the historical dramas. Daejanggeum (Jewel in the Palace) is absolutely terrific, and very, VERY addictive. As I write this, there's another historical drama on (name unknown) that has jazz, including excerpts from Porgy and Bess, as its background music. Now, that's not something you see and hear every day!!

In case you haven't found these sites yet: HanCinema, Korean Film and YesAsia (which has DVDs and videos from all over Asia, too) are where to go for information about Korean movies, TV shows, actors and actresses. Bookmark them!

So what are you watching these days?

July 15, 2007

Tuning In

This is an article I wrote a couple of years ago that was published in KoreAm Journal, edited to reflect changing adoption terminology (that is, my current use of "parent" or "first parent" rather than "birth parent.") I just re-posted it on the new Rainbowkids website Voices of Adoption and thought some of you might be interested, too. Martha Osborne began Voices recently to provide a venue for just what its name says: a wide range of voices from the adoption community. Lots to read there, so take a look.

When my husband Ralf and I adopted our first child in 1989, we knew virtually nothing about raising a child from another culture. We knew very little about The Boy’s birth country Korea, had no connections with the Korean American community, and knew few Korean adoptive families. “Unprepared” doesn’t begin to describe how little we knew about our impending parental experience. Looking back, it surprises me to remember just how unprepared we were!

That’s not to say we weren’t eager to learn. But even as recently as fifteen years ago, the focus of transcultural parenting was on the parenting more than the transcultural. The prevailing attitude at that time seemed to be to let things take their course, and to let our children guide us to the right amount of Korean-ness to weave into our family’s fabric. There is a We were taught not to “force” Korean culture on our children. Discussion of genetic ties was practically nonexistent, and not unlike other adoptive parents, we felt safe adopting from Korea because there was less chance our children’s families could attempt to “reclaim” them. We became “tourist parents,” got more familiar with Korean history, geography, and food, but didn’t delve much deeper into the Korean American community than that. We were told that “love would conquer all,” and that made us experts.

The wake up call came when The Boy arrived at Washington National Airport in September 1989. When he was placed in our arms for the first time, everyone else in the airport literally faded away. The only ones who remained were The Boy, my husband, me – and The Boy's mother. Her presence was haunting – looking at him, I could picture her with the same eyes, him with the same mouth. Even if we never met, we were bound to one another in a way that no policy, social convention, or personal choice could ever change. How strange that this woman I had once feared in the abstract could become so real so quickly.

I was beginning to tune into reality, and a second experience in 1992 really opened my mind. It was the year after the arrival of our second child, our daughter The Girl. A good friend and I had an opportunity to travel to Korea as escorts for our adoption agency. In addition to a whirlwind tour of Seoul, our itinerary included visits to my children’s birth towns – the Seoul suburb Seongnam (where The Boy was born), and Jeongseon in Gangwon-do (The Girl's birth town). We visited Jeongseon on a sunny October Sunday. We took advantage of a beautiful day with a leisurely stroll through the town.

It’s hard to explain how wonderfully ordinary Jeongseon is. Apart from the gorgeous mountainous countryside that literally rings the town, there’s little else to distinguish it. We passed shops, apartments, a small hotel, the police station, city hall, and a market.
Laughing children rode by on bikes, couples walked hand in hand, and music wafted out of open windows. Any one of them could have been a neighbor or friend of our daughter’s family, or even her mother herself. Leaving was painful, the thought of never returning harder still.

I realized suddenly that this place, these people could have been our daughter’s life, had circumstances been different. But they were lost to her forever. Even if she returned one day, and even if returning brought her back to her family, she could never fully regain the life she would have known there. The enormity and gravity of those losses hit hard. After just one afternoon in Jeongson, Korean people and everyday Korean life could never again be brushed aside as distant concepts. They were real – and they were very, very good.

During the adoption process, adoptive parents and adoption professionals prefer to focus on the positive aspects of adoption. Yes, adoptive parents are told about the challenges our children would face if they stayed in Korea - lives on the fringes of society, lack of family and education, probable poverty. But by and large, the discussion stays with positive topics – forever families, parenting, and the good lives our children will have with us. The role of Korean culture in the family is raised, but in terms of adoptive parent choice. We are encouraged to incorporate Korean culture into our lives, but are also told that it is really up to us. And although the subject of making and maintaining contact with their first families comes up, it rarely goes beyond advice to send letters and photos to our children’s Korean adoption agency files. Rarely are adoptive parents given opportunities to consider more open adoption experiences. Although they do occur with somewhat more frequency now, they are certainly not the norm.

The adoption community generally uses the fact that children gain a family as the primary justification for intercountry adoptions. It’s a potent argument – in the case of Korean adoption, loving families and security on one side, an institutional childhood and fewer life opportunities on the other. Although domestic adoption in Korea is increasing, cultural biases make its advancement slow. And with few social services available to mothers and families who place children in adoption out of financial need, intercountry adoptions from Korea are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

But the families and material advantages our children gain through adoption come at a high price – the loss of cultural heritage and genetic connections. Yet gaining an adoptive family and maintaining birth and cultural ties don’t have to be mutually exclusive. How much healthier for the children when adoptive parents know, right from the start, that nurturing their children’s cultural and genetic identity is as important as nurturing their physical and spiritual health. And how much healthier for the parents when they understand that they are the catalysts for reconnecting their children to what they have lost.

To be that catalyst, adoptive parents must acknowledge some things that we may not have anticipated would be part of our adoptive parenting experience.

We have to accept our children as individuals and as Korean Americans. Playing down their ethnicity and ignoring their families isn’t the way to do that - embracing their heritage and accepting that they have families in Korea is. Acknowledging our children’s genetic connections doesn’t lessen our parental status in any way, because we fulfill it when we make the choices that serve our children best. Loving and supporting them for who they are does just that.

We need to acknowledge the misfortunes that brought our children’s parents to adoption, and from which we have benefited. We therefore have a responsibility to speak out in favor of improved social services in Korea so families on hard times don’t have to relinquish their children. We must offer our support to mothers who choose to parent their children rather than place them in adoption, and we must also work toward increasing and improving domestic adoption in Korea and by Korean Americans.

We must encourage the professional adoption community to teach new parents the importance of nurturing their children’s self-esteem by nurturing their ethnic identity. Parent preparation must include the tools to do it, too: like more agency post-placement resources, earlier Korean community connections, and networking with other adoptive families. Parents should be counseled to disclose the kind of descriptive information about themselves and their families that will give their children a better sense of their genetic roots. And they should also be made aware of possibilities of increased openness, through intermediary communication and earlier reunions.

We must remember that our children didn’t choose to be taken from their families, country, language, and culture. Therefore, nurturing their heritage isn’t our choice – it’s our children’s right.

I returned to Korean in 2001, this time with my family. We went to Seongnam and Jeongson, and together celebrated another step on our family’s journey. It’s hard to describe the look on our son’s face as he stood in the hospital nursery he had been in at birth, or on our daughter’s as we shopped in the market in we know her family must visit frequently. Priceless. We are planning to return in a couple of years, and who knows where the next steps will take us?

In the blink of an eye, The Boy and The Girl have turned 15 and 13. They still are forming their identities, sometimes trying new ones on like sweaters, other times lapsing into the same personalities they displayed as toddlers. But several things are clear: They know they are Korean and are proud of it. They know they are connected to family in Korea that we feel connected to, too. They know we encourage and support them in their search for their identities and roots. In the truest sense of the word, this is what family is all about.

July 14, 2007


I was going to put up an Open Mike on the subject of how polarized adoption dialog often is, but I've changed my mind. I've posted my thoughts on this subject more than once (here and here), and I've also shared my point of view on adoption as a response to poverty, which appears to be at the root of the recent debate. I have the feeling that trying to talk about why so many of us are at the poles will go nowhere.

And anyway, HeatherS sent me a link to a post of hers that I hadn't yet read. It really hit a chord, and has triggered a lot of thinking, and questioning. Go read, and come back.

Those who know my family's adoption story (which I tell with my children's approval) know that my children's adoptions are essentially closed. We have their parents names, have made contact with one mother, but our children haven't yet reunited with their Korean families. I hope, I pray, but I also acknowledge that since my kids are teens, my own efforts here must come to a close. They are old enough to make their own decisions and take their own actions, and they know that my husband and I are here to support them any way we can.

I wonder sometimes, though, if I really tried hard enough. The prevailing wisdom when my children were younger was that adoptive parents should stay out of their children's searches. My husband and I therefore never felt entirely comfortable taking the initiative. In spite of examples to the contrary, we feared the disastrous consequences that were likely to follow finding a Korean mother, and the negative emotional impact to our children of a forced or usurped search. It's been hard to know what's right.

We had a chance to move closer to reunion in 2001, and did take our first steps in that direction then. But once it was clear that a reunion wouldn't happen, at least not then, we stopped. We were afraid to push, even though our child had much to lose if we didn't. It seemed as if everywhere we looked for guidance, we found only cautions: don't disrupt the mother's life; don't force a reunion too soon; don't take the search away from your child.

There is wisdom here, I know, in individual cases and under specific circumstances. But I wonder now if these generalizations really served my children well. How much have they lost because we held back? And how much would they have gained had we not?

I'm having an ever more difficult time accepting that we did the right thing, especially when I see example after example of open adoption that works for the child, for the mother, for the family. And although there's no question that culture must be respected, I question in the case of Korean adoption if closed adoption is the only way to respect it. Privacy and secrecy are two different things, and I wish I had tried harder to find a solution that would have made openness possible for my children.

I know there are no guarantees that search will lead to reunion, or that reunion will lead to relationship. But when I read HeatherS' post, I see so many things my children may never have: the first-hand knowledge of their mothers' love, maybe their fathers', too; the chance to learn their family history, and to know their relatives - siblings, perhaps; grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins.

And then there's the knowledge HeatherS' son will have that his entire family was willing to come together for him - to do their best to understand and respect one another, to compromise through disagreement, and most of all, to acknowledge one another's importance in his life.


July 8, 2007

Mutual Exclusivity

It's been another one of those uncomfortable weeks in adoptionland. For whatever reason, the nonsense caused this week by a couple of very loud shock jocks aggravated me - less for what either of them had to say, but more because of the speed with which the sides divided and the mud started flying.

But Mariča called today, and it all makes sense now - or I should say, it's crystal clear to me why this mess was so misguided.

Mariča is my mother's first cousin. Her father and my mother's were brothers; my grandfather was the elder of the two. My Mom is Slovenian, and her family's story is a circuitous one, with travel back and forth between the two countries and a little intrigue thrown in to boot.

My great-grandfather came to the U.S. in the late 1800's. He brought his wife over, and they had my Grandpa here. But the early years were tough, and before World War II they returned to Slovenia. Somehow they weathered the war, though, and had another child, Grandpa's younger brother. When it was over, my great-grandfather gave the U.S. another try, but fate wasn't with him this time. He was mugged upon arrival in New York City, and lost the money he needed to get back to Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where he was going back to work in the copper mines. In those days, recruiters would meet the immigrant ships at the docks, and under the circumstances Great Grandpa was forced to sign on with a company that ran copper mines in Arizona. Bad move. Within a year he was dead, electrocuted in a mining accident. He's buried out there somewhere, but we've never been able to find his grave.

Grandpa ultimately married in Slovenia, and he and Grandma had their first two children there. But by the time my Mom was born in 1923, Grandpa was determined to get back to the U.S. Since he was born in America, coming back was much easier than it would have been otherwise, so he returned to the Upper Peninsula to work in the mines, and brought Grandma, Mom and Uncle Johnny over within a couple of years.

Since Grandpa was the oldest, the family land had come to him, but when he left he deeded it over to his brother, Mariča's father. She and her family worked the land, but in the years between the wars and after WWII, things were very bad. Mariča married, and she and her husband Joe had their first two children, their sons. But they wanted to get out - no mean feat in Tito's Yugoslavia.

They hatched this plan. Joe and a couple of other men crossed the Alps to Austria, walking barefoot by night so they wouldn't be seen or heard, and hiding by day. Once in Austria, Joe used his connections to obtain papers to bring his family there. They then arranged to emigrate, to Canada, where Joe had an uncle who agreed to sponsor them. In the late 50s, Joe, Mariča, and their family made the move.

They weren't welcomed - Mariča told us how people spit on them when they arrived in Montreal, and how the uncle abandoned them once they made it to British Columbia. Once there, life was harder still. Joe worked for the railroad, and they started their lives in a shack on a hill near the Columbia River south of Golden, BC. Mariča laughed when she told us that the only shoes she had with her when they came were heels, and she had to teeter down the hill, cross the road and railroad tracks, and haul water back up in them. Let me tell you, this lady, who stands about 4' 10" is a powerhouse. From there, their story is one of pure success - hard, hard work, small steps year after year that today is a family with four children, many grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, too. It's the kind of story that would make anyone proud of their family.

But what if you had been adopted away from a family like this. What if, because of the legal obstacles and societal stigmas, you never found this story. Never knew it. Never knew these people. Never even knew that you didn't know them.

Some say you'd have another story to tell. You'd know different people, maybe even better ones. Even in families related by blood, members fall away and stories are lost. But to that I say, why not have it all? Why, if adoption is part of your life, not have both of your families, the whole story, the entire history, each and every precious connection?

Which brings me to my point.

In this week's nastiness, there was no dialog and no middle ground - just anger and name-calling. The side-taking was instantaneous, followed by labeling , and then some good old mud-slinging.

Aiding the children of the world and seeking adoption reform and working to make adoption unnecessary are not mutually exclusive. Acknowledging adoptee and first parent loss and loving your child are not mutually exclusive. Forcing people to take sides does nothing to further solutions to the myriad of problems that face adoption, from child welfare to adoption law reform. And it's the best way I know to stop dialog on adoption in its tracks. It made me sad this week to see how many people were willing to do just that.

Look for an Open Mike on adoption dialog soon.

July 7, 2007

Don't Misses 7-7-07

OK, I'm going to go with the hype and share these links on what everyone is saying is a very auspicious day in the hope the word spreads far and wide. This is excellent news:

American adoptive father launches campaign to help unwed Korean moms

Dr Boas Launches Campaign to Help Unwed Korean Moms

From the second article:

Through his foundation affiliation, Boas now provides funds to the San Francisco-based foundation Give2Asia, which also maintains an office in Seoul. In turn, Give2Asia supports such organizations as the Single Mothers Network, the single and unwed mothers’ group home Aeranwon and the Korean Women Workers Association.

Give2Asia features another article that discusses their commitment to working with Dr. Boas and providing help to single parents in Korea:

Donor visits with groups that help single mothers

It's incredibly exciting to know that we who support first parents in Korea can put our money where our mouths are!! Many thanks to Dr. Boas for starting this important initiative!

July 5, 2007


Something occurred to me while reading a new blog the other day: that that loudest and oftentimes most vehement voices crying to be acknowledged as "real parents" are those who are considering adoption, have just begun the process, or are brand new to a-parenting.

Don't misunderstand - I'm not saying that all new and prospective a-parents focus on this - the a-parents I've come to know online are proof of that. But when I hear a voice demanding to be "real," it most often comes from someone with little concrete a-parenting experience. Conversely, many of the wisest voices, those most willing to recognize and support the complexity and paradox of adoption, come from those who have at least a few, and sometimes many, years of a-parent experience behind them.

This doesn't surprise me, but it does make me sad. Vehemence is certainly an impediment to dialog, but more importantly it can close one's eys and ears, and direct one's focus selfishly inward. I've said before that a-parents aren't the stars of this show, yet paradoxically we hold the power. That makes it all the more important for us to spend the bulk of our time listening and trying to understand, rather than forcing our opinions through adamant declarations.

The light at the end of this tunnel is that we a-parents can evolve. I can remember thinking way back at the beginning of my adoption journey, probably saying out loud, too, how adopting from Korea would remove the complication of having another family in our lives. And I remember with crystal clarity the moment I knew better - that was the moment our first child, our now 18-year-old son, was placed in our arms at National Airport.

I remember many things about that moment - the overwhelming presence of our son's mother; the total deflation of the fear I had previously felt of her and our son's Korean family; the sudden recognition that the only connection I had to her, apart from her son, was a name covered over in white-out on a piece of paper. And I remember the panic that followed - the realization that to find her would be incredibly difficult, and that making that connection and bringing her and her son back together might never happen. Although my teen children both now call the shots on their searches and reunions, I still have moments of that same panic, and it's just as overwhelming as it was back then.

That moment of enlightenment at the airport was just the beginning, though. Over the eighteen years since our son arrived, there have been many more such moments - none as emotional, but many that better illuminated the injustices that exist in adoption today. Every one of those moments has chipped away at my need to declare my "real mother" status; every one has brought me closer to understanding how unnecessary it is to even think about that. I'm here, I'm a presence in two amazing lives, and that's enough. And should the reunions and relationships I've dreamed of for my children ever become reality, it will be so easy to share my love for them with their families in Korea - I'm doing that even now.

Funny how our evolution from who we were to who we are defuses our vehemence and redirects our passion from ourselves to those who matter most to us. It's a shame it takes so long, though; how much better for our children if we had the wisdom of years with us at the start.

July 4, 2007

Happy 4th!

Well, it's been so long since I've posted that I almost forgot my Blogger password!

Worse still, Bloglines tells me I have somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 posts to catch up on. Fortunately, the "mark all posts read" feature will let me start over. With that many posts out there, I know you all have been writing while I've been taking care of business here at home, and although I'll never catch up on all of them, I hope to catch up on everyONE very soon.

With June blessedly behind us, our family is recovering from the chaos we faced at the end of the school year. We're not entirely out of the woods yet - we're awaiting a judgment from our local school board that will determine if we have to lodge and appeal or nor - but the worst is definitely over.

It's interesting to me how adoption faded so quickly into the background as we worked through this challenge. And LOL, it's equally interesting to me how quickly I went from plain old mom to rebellious '60s protester. One of our son's friends gave him a graduation card with the sentiment "question authority" - and that's what I was doing through the entire month of June.

Although things are looking up for us, there are many things about this experience that will keep me questioning, and taking action as well. The imperious behavior of some of our son's school administrators for one, and the unbridled power of the school board reps. I believe completely that if we had simply rolled over, our son would have been expelled. What made the difference for him is that we could afford an attorney. No one should have to buy justice, but even in this relatively minor situation, it's exactly what we had to do.

And then there's the racial component, which troubles me still. Although I can't point to any overt action that race was a factor, the proximity of our son's experience and the tragedy at Virginia Tech - and even September 11, through his principal's own words - nags at me. In the waiting room were an Asian (our son), and two other young men of Middle Eastern and Hispanic ethnicities. Of course the demographics of one waiting room at one point in one day don't tell the whole story, but it gave me pause.

I do have some adoption-related news to share. First, I attended a reception last week sponsored by the Evan B. Donaldson Institute announcing that they are gearing up their legislative efforts at the Federal level. Donaldson's Executive Director, Adam Pertman, spoke about the Institute's priorities, many of which address the very issues we talk about here online: adoptee records and first parent rights, to name the top two. I've long believed that although we have to fight bad laws state by state, we should also be working on legislation at the Federal level. Donaldson's announcement was therefore very good news to me.

I'm also excited that the KAAN Conference is right around the corner - and even more excited to say that Claud and I will be doing a session together. KAAN, for those who may not be familiar with it, is the Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network. If you haven't been to a KAAN conference yet, GO! Great sessions, great people, and lots of fun - this will be my ninth, and I fully expect to attend every one as long as they last. This year's conference is in Boston, by the way, very convenient for all us east coasters!

So - slowly, slowly I will be back. I hope everyone is having a wonderful 4th of July and a great summer! I also wish all the dads a belated Happy Father's Day!

And apropos of nothing - does anyone else think it feels like Sunday?