September 27, 2010

Will we learn from "In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee"?

Of all the publicly-told adoption stories I have heard since adoption from Korea became a part of my life (apart from Julia's, which holds a very different place in my heart and mind), it is Deann Borshay Liem's that has touched me most deeply. In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee, which can be viewed online at PBS' POV through Octobrer 15th, picks up where First Person Plural, which can also be viewed online at POV through November 20th, leaves off. Both films document how Deann Borshay Liem refused to let the dismissal of those around her deter her from finding out the truth about her adoption, her identity and the woman whose name she brought to the United States when she was sent for adoption in her place.

A couple of weekends ago, I watched In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee, then reprised First Person Plural before watching Cha Jung Hee a second time. There are some similarities between Ms. Liem's story and that of one of my children, and I wanted to watch the film very carefully to understand why and how it was so easy for everyone involved in Ms. Liem's adoption to ride roughshod over her identity and history.

Depending on your connection to adoption, you may be thinking I can stop right here and attribute it all to adoption agency avarice and adoptive parent entitlement. I think the reasons this kind of fraud went on for so long (to the present, I do not doubt) are more complicated, and that well-meant actions played as important a role as outright greed and adoptive parent desire to help an orphan or desperation to have a child.

It was painful to watch the details of Ms. Liem's story unfold; I cannot imagine how painful it has been for her to live with the knowledge that she was someone other than everyone told her she was, and then to be dismissed every time she brought it up.  I wonder how and why her adoptive parents, who had the photos that made it clear that something was amiss, either missed the point or refused to believe it.  I am frustrated by the Korean social workers who excused their actions and showed surprise that they had caused Ms. Liem pain.

Human beings have a desire to know themselves and their histories. We may demonstrate it with different intensities, but it is always there, a simple fact of life. As long as adoption tinkers with this reality, or pretends that our desire to know can be replaced in some way by new attachments formed through adoption, it will fail to do its best.

And you know what? The perverse notion that one family can replace another, no strings attached, has created nothing but division. Everywhere in the adoption community you see the result of this in increasingly extreme points of view and polarization. I want to mention here Jean Strauss's documentary Vital Records; listen to Tom Atwood's comments and you'll know exactly what I mean. Peel adoption back to its fundamental purpose – connecting children truly in need of families with families anxious to love them – and I think we can agree it has a valid, supportable purpose. Justify deception as a necessary part of the process and the house of cards falls down.

The fact is that Deann Borshay Liem’s life may have followed the same path had Kang Ok Jin not been told to go to the U.S. as Cha Jung Hee. Her Korean family may have made the same sad decision (which deserves its own discussion) to send her to what they thought was a better future in the U.S. Her adoptive parents may have decided to adopt Kang Ok Jin had they been told that Cha Jung Hee had returned to her Korean family. The fraud and fudging that mark her story were never a necessary evil. The explanations provided by the Korean agency are weak, the justifications weaker.

I applaud Deann Borshay Liem for telling her story in both of her films. They should be required viewing for all adoptive parents of children from Korea. With them available online now, and for sale for a very reasonable price at Mu Films, there is in my opinion no excuse for not watching them both. Please do, and then take what you learn and use it for the good of the cause of ethical, just adoption.

September 8, 2010

Reflections on "Wo Ai Ni Mommy"

Movies have the ability to place questions in our paths which force us to think, long and hard, about our lives. Stephanie Wang-Breal’s Wo Ai Ni Mommy certainly did that to me.

I watched it about a week ago, taking time to watch it carefully, without interruption. Now, a week after watching, my initial reactions have mellowed into broad impressions, each bringing questions rather than answers about the international adoption experience.

First impression: Wo Ai Ni Mommy is beautifully made. Stephanie Wang-Breal has approached Sui Yong’s journey with great sensitivity, and in many places zeroes in wordlessly on the heart of the issue, which to me is yet another question: Why, for the love of God, was it necessary to take this child of eight from everything she knew? Wasn’t there in all of humanity someone who could have said Wait, there’s another way!?

Second impression: If you watched the film, you may have had this reaction, too. Was this family prepared in any objective, substantive way to parent an eight-year-old child from another culture, race and language? Add Sui Yong’s disability to the picture, along with the adoptive mother's authoritarian nature, and you struggle even more to understand; at least I did. The language lessons hit me particularly hard, given that linguistics is my field and I have taught second languages to English speakers and English to speakers of other languages. I didn’t get the sense that Mom, in spite of the fact that she knew some Chinese, respected the language or Sui Yong’s significant abilities, which were sacrificed all too quickly.

Third impression: This is a close family. Mom may be an authoritarian, but there's real warmth here. The siblings genuinely care for one another, something that I think will be a treasure to them all in adulthood, and is a treasure now, even if they don’t realize it or are unable to verbalize it. Dad provides the perfect foil to Mom’s sternness.

Fifth impression: This one is about me rather than the film. I began watching steeled for a story I wasn’t going to like, and after watching adoptive mom meet Sui Yong in China, I also wanted to dislike her. But I find that the emotions that have stayed with me are resignation and frustration: resignation to a process that just doesn’t seem able to get it right, and frustration that in spite of all the information that is available in books and on the internet and from organizations and individuals, adoptions continue to take place with their focus on the adoptive parents and little concern for this children who lose so much in the process.

Ah, someone is saying; ah, but look how much Sui Yong gained. She gained a family, loving siblings, loving parents, the opportunity for treatment for her disability. What was there for her in China? Even her foster father said that she had to come to the U.S., she had to leave China, which would never accept her as she was.

I will say right now that I know very little about Chinese attitudes toward disabilities. But it seems to me that an adoptive family could have been found for Sui Yong in all of that vast country. Perhaps there was no way to reunite her with her first family; we are never told what motivated their decision to send her to the orphanage. But it seems to me that her losses could have been softened had she been adopted by a Chinese family. Maybe then she could have maintained her relationship with her foster family, with whom she had developed a strong attachment.

All supposition, I know. But these are considerations which need to be addressed with every single intercountry adoption.

Sixth impression: At the end of the day, my family’s experience is really no different than the Sadowskys'.  Loss is loss. Their daughters lost, my kids lost.  Sensitive, prepared parenting may soften the pain of adjustment and improve the possibility of attachment, but it doesn't change that basic fact.

Something Stephanie Wang-Breal describes in the interview at the end of the film how, as she filmed over a nearly two year period, she watched Sui Yong blossom. But do you remember the scene in which Sui Yong, her adoptive mother and grandfather, and her foster family meet? At the family’s home after sightseeing, Sui Yong and her Guangzhou Mei Mei, her Chinese foster sister, danced together, laughing and giggling.

There, in familiar surroundings and with people she loved, it was clear that Sui Yong had already blossomed.

September 2, 2010

Comparing adoption in Australia and the U.S.

I watched Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy last night.  Post forthcoming after I watch it again.  Seriously, once was not enough.
It got me in a "adoption is really screwed up and things have to change" frame of mind (not only because of what I saw in the film), so I spent a little time surfing today to see what I could find.  I came across the website of Clova Publications and Evelyn Robinson.  Information about Evelyn from the site:
Evelyn Robinson is a mother who, in 1970, was separated from her first child, Stephen, through adoption. They were reunited in 1991. When Evelyn wrote her first book, Adoption and Loss – The Hidden Grief, she wanted to have full control over the content, presentation and marketing of her book. For this reason Evelyn created Clova Publications and published the book herself.

Since Adoption and Loss – The Hidden Grief was first published in 2000, Evelyn has also published a revised edition in 2003, followed by her second book Adoption and Recovery – Solving the mystery of reunion, in 2004. Evelyn then published her third book, Adoption Reunion - Ecstasy or Agony? in 2009.
Evelyn kindly posts her articles and presentations, and in the course of perusing her library, I came across two that were particularly interesting to me.  I hear a lot and you may, too, about the fact that Australian adoption practices today (not necessarily historically) are more respectful of mothers' and children's rights to stay together than are U.S. policies.  Coincidentally, Cedar posted today about an article entitled Unmarried mums get State apology.  I dare you to hold your breath in this country until that happens.

Anyhow, in the course of this surfing and finding Evelyn Robinson's site, there were two articles in particular that caught my eye.  I scanned both and will be reading them more carefully, but even the scan tells me that we have a lot to learn from our friends down under.
There's much more on the site.  Enjoy - and let me know what you think of these two articles in particular, as well as any others you may read, too.

September 1, 2010

Thinking about the international adoption films on PBS POV

Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy aired on some PBS stations yesterday.  I was surfing around the POV website last night in the hopes that I’d find it on one of our local schedules, but they don’t have it scheduled yet, so I’ll be watching online starting tonight.

Each of the film’s pages includes online discussion, so I spent a little time reading some of the comments. Although it hasn’t been aired yet, there were several comments on the page for In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee, Deann Borshay Liem’s second film about her adoption experience. Perhaps the commenters had seen preview showings elsewhere, perhaps they were commenting with Deann’s first film, First Person Plural, in mind. Regardless, it was disappointing to see comments by adoptive parents that show how far we have to go to get them to see reality.

A couple of comments were of the “I’m the real parent and I’m tired of the media saying I’m not” variety. I understand this, because I remember thinking the same thing when our kids were little. The media likes sensational adoption stories about adoptees who murder their adoptive parents and adoptive parents who abuse their children.  And frankly it makes sense that a reunion story would focus on the reunited.  At the end of the day, ordinary adoptive families aren’t news.

Deann Borshay Liem’s films, however, aren’t media coverage, and they’re far from sensational. They tell a true story about a Korean adoption experience that isn’t unique (very important to remember that), and tell it in a personal way that demands adoptive parent attention. It's disappointing to read comments by adoptive parents focusing on their role in the experience, rather than acknowledging that what happened in the case of Deann Borshay Liem’s adoption was simply wrong, and is wrong whenever it happens.

It was also interesting that more than one adoptive parent pointed out exorbitant adoption fees. Honestly, it’s stunning to realize that there are people who adopt who believe they deserve a special place in the parenting hall of fame because they went through a homestudy (one called it “rigorous scrutiny in two countries”) and paid a fee (the same commenter called it “a small fortune to ransom them”).

A homestudy and payment of a fee, no matter how high, do not give adoptive parents the right to consider themselves “real parents.” Our job is to love our children, to be the best parents we can to them, and to respect their individuality, which includes their heritage and connections to their first families. Period.

I just don’t know how to say this any more clearly. And I don’t get why this is such a stretch for so many adoptive parents.

When I look at my kids, I see two young adults whose have lost more in their young lives than I have lost in my long one. I see potential: to love, to learn, to enjoy, to grieve, to search, to be satisfied with what life brings their way, to strive for more. I see individuals who have a right to know the truth about their origins, not a half-baked “truth”.

I also see two young people who love my husband and me. If they were both to decide tomorrow to go to Korea to meet their families and live with them, I’d applaud their decisions. I don’t feel threatened by that, because the relationships we have will continue, no matter where life takes them. I suspect that should they decide to do just this, at some time or another they’d invite Third Dad and me to join them, so we could know their families, too. I also know that if they chose to keep those relationships to themselves, that would also be fine.

It’s all good. Being their mom is an honor and a privilege. I’m happy to stand on the sidelines and watch them go for their personal golds. That’s real enough for me.
Visit the POV website for details. Click here for check local listings.

Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy
PBS Broadcast August 31, 2010
Online September 1, 2010 through November 30, 2010

Stehanie Wang-Breal's film about an 8-year-old Chinese girl adopted by a family in Long Island, NY airs on Aug. 31.

In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee
PBS Broadcast September 14, 2010
Online September 15, 2010 through October 15, 2010

Her passport said she was Cha Jung Hee. She knew she was not. So began a 40-year deception for a Korean adoptee.
Off and Running
PBS Broadcast September 7, 2010
Online September 8, 2010 through December 7, 2010

Nicole Opper's film about Brooklyn teenager Avery, the adopted daughter of a white Jewish lesbian couple.

First Person Plural
PBS Broadcast August 10, 2010
Online August 11, 2010 through September 11, 2010

After being told all her life that she was an orphan, filmmaker Diann Borshay Liem recounts her discovery that her Korean birth mother was alive.