When adoptees and adoption are called "gifts"...

Today was technically our first full day in Korea. It was one filled with excitement and irritation. Excitement started early -330AM early - in part due to the jet lag and the excitement to see what lay outside the darkened night once the sun rose. We ended up going on our own and exploring parts of the city close to our hotel for about 1 hour before breakfast at the hotel. We had a chance to see Seoul as it wakes up.  We found ourselves at the Gwanghwamun Plaza and were greeted by several memorials erected in rememberance and in response to the tragic 2014 Sewol Ferry disaster. It was heartbreaking to see the faces and read the stories, and reassuring to see that people are not letting others forget either about this event.

As we found ourselves walking along the Gwanghwamun Plaza we ended up in front of the statue honoring King Sejong. We followed the plaza to one of the famous palaces and then wound our way back to the hotel. We took the tour bus to the Korean folk village which describes itself as “a typical village of the Joseon dynasty which was created by relocating and restoring about 270 actual houses.” This includes museums, re-enactments, and even an amusement park. I found this place to be a strange and eery. It was quiet and almost felt deserted. It's unclear if this is the normal crowd size or not.

One of the main activities of the day was a visit to the Aeran Single Parent Family Network. Aeran promotes itself as” providing unwed single family and pregnant woman in crisis with one-stop network service with the programs to assume the responsibility of delivering babies safely and support mother and baby until they stand on their own feet in local community.“ The visit consisted of meeting two Korean women a small, cramped classroom where they shared their stories regarding their own personal experiences relinquishing their son and daughter in the 1990s for adoption by US families.

The women were honest and emotional in sharing their thoughts, feelings, and fears both pre and post adoption. Like many single unwed mothers in Korea, these women shared how their pregnancy and the subsequent adoption of their babies was a family secret and how their options when they were pregnant for them were limited to essentially deciding if they wanted their babies to be adopted by an American or European family. This is due in part to the laws affecting single, unwed pregnant women, family, cultural and political norms in Korea. The women also talked about steps they have each taken on their own to try to find information about the babies they relinquished such as registering their DNA in the registry, updating information with adoption agencies, and one wrote a letter to their child and that the adoption agency told the woman that their birth child read the letter and did not respond. The women said they never stop thinking about the children who were adopted and that they often wonder what their lives are like and hope one day to meet. I found their stories compelling and emotional, but it didn't trigger as much of an emotional response as hearing the post adoption professional working for the US adoption agency leading the tour make the following statement to a room full of adoptees, adoptive parents, and the two Korean birth mothers that “we tell all adoptees that they are gifts and that this is what this is all about.” They then followed this statement up while on the bus ride back to the hotel by saying that this experience at Aeran “is a good reminder of what a gift they [birth mothers/women today] have given to the families”.

As an adoptee, being referred to as a “gift” or “blessing” is akin to the often ill-uttered phrase generally by non-adoptees to adoptees “aren't you so lucky to have been adopted by your family.” Referring to adoptees and adoption as “gifts” is language that is insensitive, hurtful, and ignorant for a host of reasons that are different for each adoptee. One reason using language to refer to adoptees and adoption as a “gift” can be offensive and hurtful is the very definition of the word “gift” According to most dictionaries the word gift is defined by “a thing or something that is given voluntarily or willingly transferred from one person to another person without payment.” Many adoptees have experienced first hand that the adoptee experience is one associated with payments in the form of emotional and mental health concerns. There are also great costs and payments emotionally, mentally, and financially by the birth mother and even to some extent the adoptive family. And in many cases the birth mother’s “voluntary” relinquishment of their baby was not as voluntary as adoption agencies and adoptive families may want to acknowledge or talk about. The truth is that adoption incurs explicit and implicit losses that affect adoptees and their birth mothers their entire lives.

Experiences such as this highlight the importance of post-adoption professionals being mindful and knowledgeable about the language used in supporting and addressing the needs of adoptees in sensitive, respectful, and in an adoption competent manner. An important part of being an adoption competent professional is also being informed and knowledgeable about the social, political, and cultural issues associated with transnational and inter-country adoptions, in particular when leading a tour for transnational adoptees to their birth country. What has been your experience with being told you and your adoption is a “gift, blessing, etc.”?