Korean adoptee

The poetically painful, yet often unspoken, moments in one adoptee's adoption experience


The Language of Blood by Jane Jeong Trenka explores the painful moments in an adoptee’s experience that are often overlooked, underplayed, or ignored. The author shares some of her innermost thoughts and feelings growing up in Minnesota as a transracial and transnational adoptee with her biological sister who was also adopted by a Minnesota couple. The memoir traverses the landscape of Korea and Minnesota, and the author’s Korean birth family and Minnesota adoptive family with care and frankness that some readers may find uncomfortable, especially adoptive parents. The author’s recounting of her frustrating and disheartening experiences with post-adoption support services through Lutheran Social Services MN, now Children’s Home Society/Lutheran Social Services (CHSLSS), in trying to access information about her own adoption history over 10 years ago was sadly an accurate portrayal common to many aodptees’ ongoing experiences with post-adoption services and support via adoption agencies. The author also gives us a glimpse into her family’s life and experience in Korea, and the circumstances at the time her Korean mother made the grueling decision that the author and her older sister were to be adopted and the lifelong impact of this decision for the author’s Korean and adoptive family.

Skimming some of the online reviews of this book, I found they ranged from supportive, to appreciative, to the not uncommon critique that embodies the “playing a victim, self-pitying, ungrateful adoptee”. Some of the critical comments were made by individuals who identified as either adoptees, adoptive parents, or family members who grew up with adopted siblings. While the author’s story and experience is important in its’ own right, and it is only one adoptee’s story, the reviews highlight the tenuous dance felt internally within adoptees and externally within adoptive families and the larger society between the ideas of “gratitude” for “being chosen/adopted/saved” and feeling of guilt/shame/confusion when adoptees also experience disenfranchised grief, ambiguous loss, anger, and sadness in response to the trauma inherent in the adoption experience.

There is an unspoken widely accepted belief that adoptees who feel anything but “gratitude” for being “chosen/adopted” are somehow “ungrateful, self-pitying, victims.” This false, yet dangerous narrative that is implicitly and explicitly told to adoptees from family, friends, peers, teachers, spiritual leaders, adoption agencies, post-adoption agencies, and media can lead to feelings of isolation, shame, guilt, anxiety, and depression. In truth, adoptees and humans in general can hold two opposing feelings at the same time and both are valid. An adoptee can feel love for their adoptive family and birth family without being it being an either or situation. An adoptee can feel sadness and appreciation for their adoption experience. An adoptee can feel anger and love for adoptive families and birth families. An adoptee can long to search for their birth family and know more about their story, and also love and appreciate their adoptive family. Refusing to allow adoptees, adoptive families, and birth families to have permission to feel whatever they are feeling, and be able to share their own personal stories is only leading to disconnection as individuals and families. Connection, sense of belonging, and validation are essential to our experiences as human beings and individuals part of the adoption community.

Book Review: The Dance of Identities: Korean Adoptees and their journey toward empowerment by John D. Palmer

This book explores the multiple identities inherent of the transracial and transcultural adoptee experience. While the author focuses attention on the Korean adoptee experienced, and is transparent about identifying as a Korean adoptee, the topics around race, culture and identity formation can be applicable in other transracial/transcultural adoptee experiences other than the Korean adoptee experience.

Identity as individuals is multifaceted and complex. Identities have the power to build and divide communities, nations, and families. We identify ourselves by race, gender, sexual orientation, culture, country of origin, region of where we were raised, school identity, familial identity roles, socioeconomic status, political orientation, religious/spiritual identities, etc. And as adoptees, our identities within our families and our communities inform and impact all of our other identities. This is particularly relevant when we are adoptees who were adopted by families of other races and other cultures other than our family of origins.

How identity is approached, explored, and discussed within adoptive families can be an uncomfortable, and yet a powerfully healing experience for adoptees and adoptive families. An important way adoptive families can support and empower adoptees is by initiating these conversations about identity and making it part of the regular conversations as a family versus the approach “ we won’t talk about issues related to identity” until the adoptee “brings up the topic. Talking about the “dance of identities” adoptees face daily throughout their lives also requires adoptive families to examine their own privilege, views, and experiences related to race, racism, and culture.  Being able to discuss identity issues adoptees experience requires adoptive families to do their own work and education to be able to have meaningful discussions that are validating and empowering.

Mr. Palmer’s book validates many experiences transracial/transcultural adoptees experience related to identity, provides a well-informed narrative that may help adoptive families understand the Korean adoptee experience, and is place to help families have a place to start to have these difficult conversations.