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, KEURIUMin 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 hone 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.

#NAAM