I love reading memoirs, and I find that reading adoptee memoirs in particular helps me to look at adoption from a different lens. In book club, we read a lot of memoirs and generally books that center around adoption stories. The latest one was All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung, and certain aspects of her story hit me hard. Maybe it was because she’s a millennial, younger than me, and I’m used to reading the stories of adoptees who grew up in what was called the Baby Scoop era, when all manners of coercion and forced adoptions occurred. For adoptees growing up in that era, it was shrouded in secrecy for the most part, and it’s not unusual to learn of people who didn’t even know they were adopted until they were adults. When Nicole was born, it was the 80’s, the end of that era and the very beginning of change in adoption (which is sloooowwww and even now I run into people who fear birth parents and who are amazed that I can “do” an open adoption).
Nicole’s adoption was not open, and is characteristic of how many still see adoption. She is Korean-American, placed for adoption to white parents and then it was assumed that everything would be fine from then on. What I read in her writing was that she was a compliant child and because of that, didn’t know how to speak up for herself. Her parents were well-meaning, yet dismissive, and she stated numerous times that she withheld information from them, sometimes around racism directed toward her. She was raised in an all-white small town in Oregon, and those small towns in Oregon can be rough given Oregon’s history of being an all-white state. We know Oregon to be progressive, because Portland, but get into the rural areas, especially in southern part of the state and it’s a different story. She cites her parents’ Catholic faith often, that they trusted that she was brought to them by God (they were infertile) and once all the paperwork was done, that was that. She was theirs, and everything should be fine, right?
But it wasn’t, despite the appearance that she was doing well. In fact, she states that questioning her adoption was something that she didn’t really do until she was an adult, and it really didn’t gain momentum until she herself was pregnant with her first child. She writes about how she left for college, suddenly found herself in a diverse group of people plus other Asians and how she felt shocked. I’ve read and heard this before from other transracial adoptees, more often than not they talk about how they suddenly found themselves in diverse situations after growing up in a white bubble. They often talk about not really knowing where they fit in, and Nicole’s story was similar. Not having the cultural background leaves her adrift when she encounters other Asian-Americans. She looks like them, but she doesn’t act like them, and she has to put up with a different sort of discrimination.
And then there’s how her parents act when it comes to her adoption. They appear to act like everything is how it should be, that it’s the grace of God. That’s a tough concept to wrap even my head around. How does the grace of God enter into a decision made by birthparents to let go of their child and hand her over to strangers? This thing where adoptees are not supposed to question, are supposed to be grateful for their situation has always been a source of frustration for me. As I read her story, I kept thinking that how could these people still be thinking this way? Wasn’t it different? And then I had to step back and realize, no it really wasn’t different. She’s a few years younger than me, and if I think about my own family experience, then I can relate. People still do things like this out of fear. Fear of birthparents, fear of someone finding out, and it’s happening today even as more adoptees like Nicole put themselves out there telling their stories. In the day and age of donor assisted conception, people are fearful of telling their kids the truth about how they were conceived, that’s another rabbit hole waiting to be explored.
This kind of stuff drives me crazy. Even though she turns out “fine” much in the same way many people turn out “fine”, there was a lot for her process as she began her search for her birthparents, and then when she learns their story, much to work through and process there. As in all families there are complexities in her birth family that make her reunion somewhat difficult.
I’m grateful for Nicole and other adoptees like her who share their stories, the more they share and catch the attention of the rest of us, the more change will take hold (unsealed records in all 50 states anyone?). It can’t be easy, writing these memoirs knowing that in doing so, you’re putting yourself out in a world that only wants you to recognize “how lucky you are”.