As An International Adoptee, I Know The Dark Side Of Adoption

I know adoption by its less popular name and function: abandonment. Before I gained a family, I had to lose one.
08/03/2017 03:50 pm ET Updated Aug 08, 2017
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Jen Vincej Photography
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Dear adoption,

You are not exactly honest all the time. You are not who you say you are. Your meaning changes depending on who defines you, and to what audience. In my mind, I liken you to the moon; only ever showing one face to the Earth while the far side is perpetually hidden from sight. You are careful to only be cast in the best light to all who gaze upon you. Like the moon, your brighter side often becomes your defining side. However, to ignore the existence of you in your entirety is to ignore reality.

To many, you have proven to be a corrupt and broken system, but no one likes to talk about that. In some cases, you are a cunning cash exchange posing as altruism. Because of you, some are plucked from the frying pan and put into the fire. Because of you, some not only deal emotionally with having been unwanted, but endure further emotional abuse by those who claimed to want them. Because of you, some are beaten to death by the very people who had sworn to protect them. Because you have made such a mess of life, some consider not living life at all. Just because you have been a hero to some, does not warrant the world to shut its eyes to what you do behind closed doors.

There are no blanket statements or one-size-fits-all sentiments that can encompass your duplicitous nature. You can be one thing to someone, but something entirely different to someone else. That is why no one can speak for an adoptee except the adoptee, not even another adoptee. We may share your common ground, but we each have a story that is distinct, complicated, and nuanced. No one should have to feel like they need to fit a mold of a “healthy outlook” based solely off of another adoptee’s “positive experience.” We each have a voice, uniquely ours, that should never be silenced. To only acknowledge your more palatable side, is to invalidate all who have suffered at your hand. You “knowing best” paints the picture of a win-win, when in reality, someone always has to lose. You are a zero-sum game and I am tired of being on the losing side, and then feeling silenced or shamed for the pain of that loss. Those who think that all relevant parties have only gained from your dealings may have to examine the lens which they use to view you.

There are no blanket statements or one-size-fits-all sentiments that can encompass your duplicitous nature. You can be one thing to someone but something entirely different to someone else.

Both your dark and light side are an ever present reality. You are a bittersweet paradox. You are both a cornerstone of my identity and, simultaneously, the source of mystery around my identity. You are the veil between where I stand and what I have longed to know, yet what I am afraid to find out. You are the cause of so much pain and loss, but also of victory and joy.

I know you by your less popular name and function: abandonment. Before I gained a family, I had to lose one. You handed me one identity while you hid the other, like a city built atop ruins. You’ve taken just as much as you’ve given. You hold all of the secrets to my most fundamental questions. Do I have siblings? On what day was I really born? What is my medical history? The average person from the average family does not have to wonder such things. These are all core pieces of a person’s identity that most take for granted, yet were robbed from me.

The first picture my parents ever saw of me.  Shin-Ja Park (orphanage name), Holt case# K83-3751
The first picture my parents ever saw of me. Shin-Ja Park (orphanage name), Holt case# K83-3751

In place of answers, I have constructed a Frankenstein version of possible truths. You provided fertile soil for a lifetime of wild speculation. Glamorizing you was the only defense mechanism I had as a child. Like so many orphans in the movies, I wondered if I too was “special” and “meant for so much more.” I stroked and nurtured my idealized fantasies as a way to silence my unrest. I filled in the blanks of my origin story with glossy Hollywood plots, but I am afraid to find in adulthood that it is in actuality filled with a far less glamorous truth. I have entertained the stories that defend you as the noble and brave choice to give me a better life; but I have also contemplated the possibility of being the source of so much shame, that it was better for me to be disposed of than to expose to society how much of a mistake I was. Were you an act of courage or of cowardice, or worse – coercion? Was I merely an inconvenience? Could I be the skeleton in someone’s closet? Am I looking for people who would rather not be found? Is someone out there remembering me, or desperately trying to forget?

Were you an act of courage or of cowardice, or worse – coercion? Was I merely an inconvenience? Could I be the skeleton in someone’s closet? Am I looking for people who would rather not be found?

You have made me a student in your art of hiding the darker self. You have taught me that I needed to put on a happy face – a grateful face. Outwardly, I could do all of the celebrating, but none of the grieving. You are a different narrative entirely for people on the outside looking in. You are a rescue narrative, a “happily ever after” story that politely asks to erase the “once upon a time.” I grew up feeling as though I needed to protect and preserve this one dimensional view of you. How unfair. My feelings of grief had no welcome avenue of expression or release. Instead they remained festering somewhere inside, becoming impossible to even articulate let alone heal from. I did not want to be perceived as the “ungrateful adoptee.” Why mourn over the loss of a family who didn’t want me when I was graciously placed with a family who did? Didn’t I know how “lucky” I was? Every sense of loss seemed like a threat to my adoptive family’s role, a nullification of their devotion and love. Becoming a blank slate on arrival was the considerate thing to do. Like so many things that were out of my control and chosen for me, I felt like even my own my emotions were not mine to feel- or at least to express. I am undoubtedly grateful and fortunate to have been supplied a nurturing environment to start a new story, a new identity. My adoptive family is my family- the only family I have ever known. They have only ever done their absolute best for me. Yet the loving support and stable home they provided does not negate the sting of losing my first family. Both are equally a part of who I am.

Neville family portrait circa 1991
Neville family portrait circa 1991

It has not been all bad between us. You have molded and shaped me in ways for which I am ultimately grateful. You have shown me how to blaze my own trail, to write my own story. You have given me bravery and the patience to stand in the face of racist assumptions or remarks. Since I do not fit into the neat little boxes people attempt to define me by, I have learned not to judge others by their appearances, but by their character. You made me the sore thumb, the uncomfortable conversation starter, the square peg in the round hole, the constantly misunderstood person; yet because of this, you have also taught me to articulate my point of view and made me an advocate for empathy and understanding for others.

I am a stereotype breaker. A survivor. An avid adapter. But most of all I was a literal outcast, alone in the world, in whose life God was able to display His provision and mercy. But please, let Him receive the credit, not you.

As I matured, my defense mechanism of your glamorization persisted, yet evolved. I took only the rose-colored views about you to build an armor around me. I want to believe the story about the young, unwed mother who made the brave but difficult choice. I imagine many adoptive parents need to believe this. I admit that I, more than anyone, have been guilty of willfully closing my eyes to your darker personality. I have kept you at a safe distance in order to exempt myself from accepting more sobering realities. Getting a closer glimpse of you meant distinguishing the hopeful and gallant truths I invented about you from the cold, hard, and ugly truths that might actually be. You in your abstract form, with all of your variables and unknowns, are a much easier explanation for the pain of abandonment than actually holding a person – a mother… my mother accountable.

The face you never willingly reveal has kept so much of my identity out of view along with it. You have been secretive, but you have also been patient – both a barrier and a shield from the truth I am only now ready to know.

We are tethered together, you and I; like the moon and Earth in their tidal lock. The face you never willingly reveal has kept so much of my identity out of view along with it. You have been secretive, but you have also been patient – both a barrier and a shield from the truth I am only now ready to know. Though your unanswered questions hurt me, I was afraid your answers would hurt more. I realize now that in the years it has taken me to muster the courage to proactively seek the truth, I had been too nervous to flip the coin of your two sides. Which of your two faces would you ultimately reveal? For the first time I am prepared to encounter you for who you really are and not who I imagined you to be. It has taken me my whole life to get to this place. For so long I looked down the corridor of your unanswered questions, too afraid to enter. I imagined the journey to fully know you would be a painful one; but I know that pain is a passage to move through and grow from, not a destination to linger and languish in. I hope you would be so kind as to offer me the closure I have desired for so long. I am ready to accept the full range of who you are, and not who I needed you to be. I am ready to replace the fairy tales I conjured in the emptiness you left, with the blunt truth, no matter how ugly. If in the end you have no answers to give me – if you take your secrets to the grave – having the courage to finally face you candidly will be closure enough.

My hope is that the world would be willing to take a closer and more honest look at you. This cannot happen without adoptee voices. There are some who live more in your shadow than in your light. The more adoptees who speak up, the more accurate an image we will have of you. You are a mosaic of diverse experiences, both positive, negative, and shades of grey in between. The first image of the moon’s far side was not relayed to Earth until 1959 by a Russian space probe. May adoptee voices continue to be the satellites relaying their lived experiences to paint the portrait of who you are. The real you.

This was originally published on Dear Adoption. Dear Adoption, is trademarked and may no be used without permission.

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