How We Talk (and Don’t Talk) about Our Adoptions

A friend of mine, like me, was adopted from Korea into an American family as a young child. Unlike me, however, he was not an infant; he was an older child when he was separated from his biological family. Contrary to the experience of many adoptees from Korea, he has memories of his birth family, a full and accurate story of why he was given up for adoption, and photos of his biological family members. He also has an incredibly sad story about his adoption, which he shared with me in confidence. While he wanted to keep his story private for now, I did notice that he was very public about sharing photos of his biological family on Facebook. It got me thinking about how many of us adoptees choose to talk (or not talk) about our adoptions.

Some people are very vocal about their situations. When I was living in Korea, a fellow adoptee stopped me in the English section of a Korean book store. (Do I physically stand out in Korea as an adoptee?) I don’t think she even knew I was adopted when she first approached me, but after about 15 seconds of small talk, she suddenly opened up to me about herself.

I never caught her name, but I feel I know some of the most intimate parts of her life. She was ethnically Korean but was adopted as a baby into a family in the Netherlands. I would have placed her to be around my age at the time our paths crossed – mid-twenties. She told me she had come back to Korea to look for her birth family but so far had no leads.

I can’t recall if she, like many adoptees, paid an insane amount of money to conduct her search, but I do know the conventional ways of finding her biological mother were not panning out. She did tell me she even went on a Korean reality TV show in a public plea to find her birth mother, but that too did not produce results.

I can’t remember, but I might have mentioned to her that I too was adopted. I know I didn’t go into details about my life or my feelings about being adopted. I have always chosen to keep my adoption private. It’s not that I have denied the fact that I was adopted; it is just that I have never offered much information about it to others – perhaps because I don’t have much information to share even, if I wanted to. And unlike many adoptees, I have not had the urge to find my birth family.

I also remember encountering another adoptee, again in Korea. Like the other encounter, it was a random meeting, and I cannot remember where she was from or how I came to meet her, but I remember her telling me that she had actually found her birth mother, and one of the first things her birth mother asked her was when her (the adoptee’s) birthday was.

The young woman was appalled and hurt, wondering, “How can this woman forget the day she gave birth to me?” I didn’t know what to say to comfort her at the time. It could have been because the moment was so emotionally painful for her birth mother that she had to block it out of her memory, or it could be due to the fact that Koreans celebrate birthdays according to the lunar calendar, which can make it hard to remember certain milestones without a lunar calendar right in front of you. I really don’t know the reasons how a mother could forget the date she gave birth to a child, and again, I was surprised a complete stranger was willing to have this conversation with me.

Until such discussions, as random and organic as they have been, I had taken for granted the fact that while I was curious about my roots, this missing piece of my life has not left an unfilled hole within me, much like it has with other adoptees. I have also taken for granted the fact that while some people are more than willing to share every detail about their search for their birth families and their feelings as adoptees, there are others, like my friend, who don’t like talking about it so much but who do communicate about it through other ways (such as by sharing photos on Facebook of him and his birth family in Korea).

All this just goes to show that for many adoptees, their adoptions are very personal stories and are communicated in personal ways — not always by talking. For those who have not interacted much with adoptees (international or domestic) for some, the topic brings to surface many complex feelings about what happened to them as children and why this happened; sadly many of will never have all their questions answered.

Throughout this all, I have come to appreciate that human expression is a beautiful, emotional thing, and that it comes in many forms. Spoken, written, illustrated, performed — however adoptees’ stories are communicated, it is beautiful to see they are at the least, being expressed. I know it can be hard for some to share their stories. For me, there is a sense of vulnerability to discussing such a foreign concept to others (I don’t know what time I was born, I don’t know which parent I look most like, I don’t know who I inherited my temper from or where I got my freckles and I certainly can’t explain why I hate sea food).  I know there are others like me who feel they don’t have much to share, but for those who do, I encourage them to keep sharing.

And while I’m not necessarily advocating that we stop random strangers in the book store and tell them our life history, I do think it is healthy to find the best personal method of communicating our experiences and stories as adoptees so that our beginnings — not matter how little we know of them — are not lost forever.

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