Critical things to consider when choosing a birthland tour

It has been exactly one week since I returned from my birthland tour to Korea. I am in the midst of continuing to process the experience, organize photos, journal entries, and play catch up with documenting my experience via the blog (this is in the works…). The experience of being in Korea was unbelievably unbelievable at times. Being surrounded 24/7 with faces that looked like me, even if I couldn’t understand the language 99.9% of the time, made me feel at home in Korea. Even though I spent a better part of a decade in Los Angeles, which is home to one of the largest populations of Koreans outside of Korea in the world, it still wasn’t the same as being in the majority so to speak everyday versus being considered the “other” most days than not in the USA.

Being with other Korean adoptees and adoptive parents/families on this trip also made the experience unique versus simply a tourist tour to Korea. Spending time at my Korean adoption agency, talking to the volunteer staff on the trip (one volunteer was a Korean adoptee and one volunteer was an adoptive parent of 3 children from Korea), and learning more about Korea and the myriad of issues involved in the complex and complicated world of adoption, specifically transnational/transracial adoptions, were all life-changing events.

One of the most challenging aspects of the birthland tour was the fact that the tour director, who was also the director of post-adoption services and education for the US adoption agency, and the post-adoption worker who was tasked with helping with arranging for everything from Korean file reviews at Korean adoption agencies, to side trips to see birth clinics/birth cities, meetings with foster parents, and even birth parents, were both inexperienced with regards to Korea and Korean adoption. Both of these post-adoption professionals had never been to Korea before and had very minimal knowledge and experience about Korea, Korean culture, and the complicated issues involved with Korean adoption. Both of the post-adoption professionals also both stated they did not have any personal connections to Korea or Korean adoption either. The fact that the post-adoption professionals leading and accompanying us on this birthland tour of Korea had no personal connection to Korea, Korea adoption, and minimal at best knowledge and experience about Korean culture was disappointing and frustrating. And having post-adoption professionals who have a personal connection to the adoptee’s birth country and adoption from the adoptee’s birth country is a vital and primary necessity for any adoption agency providing birthland tours for transnational/transracial adoptees and their families.

When looking for a birthland tour, here are some questions to ask of the potential tour and post-adoption agency staff leading the birthland tour:

  • What is the connection post-adoption agency professionals and tour staff have to your birth country, and to adoptions specifically related to your birth country? For example, if you were born in Korea having agency/tour staff who are from Vietnam and/or an adoptive parent of Vietnamese children is not the same as Korean adoption/adoptee/adoptive parent experience.

  • What knowledge and experience do the agency and tour staff have about your birth country culture, and the complex history related to adoptions from your birth country?

  • What training and experience do the the post-adoptions workers you will be working with have in terms of transnational/transracial adoptions from your birth country?

  • What specific kinds of support can you expect from the post-adoption agency professionals before, during, and after the birthland tour?

  • What experience do the post-adoption agency professionals have as far as working with the post-adoption/adoption agencies in your birth country?

  • Why is a birthland tour like this important to you, as the post-adoption agency professional, and how do you see your role on this tour?

  • What kind of activities will be part of the tour that are post-adoption/adoption related to your adoption and birth country?

These are just some basic questions that I think are important to ask of potential tour(s) that you may be considering for your birthland tour.  There are other organizations that also provide post-adoption services such as tours and even birth families searches that are not directly affiliated with US adoption agencies. For example, during my trip to Korea I arranged on my own a visit to the offices of G.O.A.L. (Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link) which is an adoptee founded and run organization in Korea for Korean adoptees and some of their services include First Home Tour and birth family searches. It may take some additional research, but you may be able to find organizations specific to your birth country that provide post-adoption services that are run by adoptees and not associated with a US adoption agency.

As the adoptee volunteer staff on our tour reminded us, these “birthland tours are about US as adoptees and our experience as adoptees.” Adoptees are encouraged to, and are entitled, to advocate for themselves and their post-adoption services such as birthland tours. Post-adoption services provided by adoption competent post-adoption professionals who have personal connections to your birth country and adoption from your birth country is a necessity and not an afterthought or optional option.

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.”?





Feeling oddly at home in my estranged home

The closer we got to arriving in Korea, the more surreal it all felt. The moment we stepped inside the airport in Incheon, the strange surroundings and an unfamiliar country across the globe felt oddly familiar. It's hard to explain and even harder for me to understand the reasons why myself. 

As we zigzagged through Seoul rush hour in the tax if from the Incheon airport to our hotel in the financial district area of Seoul, the sights, sounds, and people felt comforting, exhiliirating and frightening all at the same time. 

We arrived at our hotel around the same time as everyone else and room assignments were being provided and dinner plans debated. My family decided to get settled in and explore the area nearby on our own in search of dinner. It felt empowering to be exploring "my city" despite having no idea where we were and my Korean and ability to read Hanguel is considered a beginner's beginner at best. Again, I can't explain it nor can I understand this feeling myself. 

I'm not sure if it is the fact that I'm in the majority as far as other individuals who look like me versus generally be the "other" in places such as Minnesota. Maybe it's because "home"ecompassses not only state of mind and space, but also a sense of belonging even in a country where I didn't belong when I was born and sent halfway across the world. 

We spent some time wandering around after dinner and absorbing the sights, sounds, and smells all the while wondering, "I wonder how different life would have been if I had grown up here."

Traveling back to the place that was the first place I knew and left...

As I travel across the ocean from my adopted home to my birth home, I have no clue what to expect and I anticipate surprises along the way. This entire journey up until this day has been filled with ups and downs. My sister and I were first drawn to this particular tour of Korea for adoptees because it w promoted by the US adoption agency as a tour where everyone on the trip has a personal connection to Korean adoption. The long time tour director and post adoption worker were both personally connected to Korea and Korean adoption and really understood the adoptee experience and what a trip like this means for so many adoptees and adoptive families. These two agency individuals that were initially with the tour when we signed up were insightful about the Korean culture and sensitive to the adoptee experience. We were excited to be able to have this first time experience back to our birth country led and supported by adoption competent professionals.

About 3 months prior to this trip, we received several emails over the course of a very short period of time that the long-time tour director was retiring from the agency followed by the abrupt departure of the long time post-adoption worker, both of whom many people had established relationships with in particular the post adoption worker who was helping us all find out more our adoptee stories. New staff were announced via emails from the agency and no opportunity was provided to discuss or talk about how this affects everyone especially given that wasn’t simply a sightseeing tour of Korea, but for many of us this was the first time we were revisiting our birth country and learning about our history and our “birth stories” 

For many adoptees, especially transnational adoptees, we don’t have the “birth stories” that individuals who were raised by their birth families have such as “you were born at this time, and this is where we were, what we were doing, what the weather was like, who was there, etc.” All we have as far as our “birth stories” is what the adoption agencies choose to share with us, and often this is limited or in many cases not accurate, vague, or missing information. Therefore, returning to our birth countries is more than sightseeing or visiting orphanages and single mother homes which are presumably a source of the adoptable babies and children for many adoption agencies. Returning to our birth countries is about learning parts of our stories that are often unclear, even when we are able to get what little information that is available.And while everything I’m writing seems very obvious to most individuals who genuinely understand or even acknowledge they can’t fully understand the adoptee experience and dont’ assume to know what it is like, and approach it with open mindedness, sensitivity, compassion, and respect, this was not understood by the new US adoption agency staff who are now leading and supposedly supporting us on this once in a life time experience. 

Despite efforts made to convey how impactful this change in staff/leadership was/is to us as tour participants, especially given the fact that the staffing of the tour director/leader(s) and post-adoption worker changed so close to our trip, and these new individuals have no peronal connection to Korea, Korean adoption, or Korean culture. It took a lot of effort on our part just to get them to acknowledge these facts, AND to admit they have each never been to Korea before this trip. When we tried to emphasize that this alone changed the whole tone of the trip, in addition to the fact that we as adoptee were experiencing loss with the agency staff we had established a working relationship with, the new agency staff and leadership failed to understand where we were coming from. They brushed off our concerns with responses such as “you will still have a great trip because we have a great in-country tour company” to“let’s not use labels such as adoptee and Korean adoptee because we are all people and individuals”also “I’m an adoptive parent of children from Vietnam and have led many trips to South East Asia” (person finally admitted they never have been to Korea, but tried to say that she understands the Korean adoptee experience and Korea simply because she adopted children from Vietnam) when trying to ascertain their connection to Korea and Korean adoption, and the Korean adoptee experience. The list of examples of things these new people have said both through emails, phone conference calls, webinars, and tour orientation meetings is never ending.  These are simply a few examples. In short, the new post-adoption professionals messages via any mode were received as condescending, hurtful, dismissive, and ingnorant. Rather than say “yes, we want to understand your concerns as this is YOUR TRIP as adoptees and adoptive families” they simply became defensive trying to defend the fact that they lack adoption competent knowledge, skills, and experience, and personal connections to Korea and Korean adoption, and the Korean adoptee experience...and are now leading this tour. It doens’t feel great when you know more than the post-adoption professionals charged with supporting us on this personal journey. 

Since they took over the tour, communication and support from the new agency staff and leadership has as been misinformed, inconsistent, and questionable at best. Post adoptions services essentially stopped after the previous person left and no additional information was worked on or found for either me or my sister. Providing wrong information to us, which we had to corrected, suggested they didn’t even read our files or ge to know our histories. And ironically enough they are now the new gatekeepers to our past. 

This is just a glimpse of what has transpired since we began this journey. I’m eager to see how and what unfold and look forward to sharing the experience. I’m trying to accept what is as far as the disappointing new post-adoption agency staff charged with leading and supporting us on this journey. I’m grateful to have my sister and parents along on this journey. And thankful there will be two support staff/volunteers who have volunteered on this particular tour a number of times before and one is an adult Korean adoptee and one is a Korean adoptive parent. I’m determined to keep my focus on this trip as my experience and my tour. 

My experience so far illustrates the imperative need to have adoption competent professionals with personal connections to adoption as adoptees providing post-adoptions services. I think the sad and unfortunate part is that I don’t think my experience with this particular “birth-land” tour offered by this particular US adoption agency is that unique in the sense of post-adoption services provided by individuals with little or no connection to the adoption and adoptee experience outside of formal/information education and training related to their post-adoption service job. However, I could be wrong and would love to have you share your own experiences with birth country tours provided by adoption agencies post adoption services.