DNA databases have been a part of the post-adoption landscape for quite a while for adoptees from China. As more and more Chinese adoptees become legal adults, we are hearing from them as they navigate their biological and cultural identity as adoptees. While it is so easy for us to be siloed into our respective countries from where we came, there are some universal themes for all of us to consider as international adoptees. IAMAdoptee is about helping create a universal foundation of resources, all the while distinguishing the individual narratives of every internationally adopted person.
Katie Mantele, adopted from China, has been one of our more vocal advocates in ensuring accurate information and caution to her fellow adoptees considering DNA testing and birth search. She has agreed to share some of her thoughts and lend resources, as well as give us a fuller narrative on how DNA testing is impacting the Chinese adoptee community. With gratitude, here is our interview:
BASIC BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION
Katie Mantele 郴巧玲
How do you identify yourself?
“Chinese” for convenience, but a more accurate identification would be “Chinese American” or “Chinese adoptee.”
Where were you adopted from, when and if you would like to share any aspect of your life before adoption?
I was adopted from Hunan Province, China in January 1996. I was supposedly from the second group to have ever been sent abroad for international adoption from my orphanage.
Where did you grow up and where do you live now?
I grew up in Brooklyn, NY and then in NJ; I currently live in NJ.
What is your profession/what are you pursuing?
I’m a graduate student pursuing a MA in Social & Cultural Analysis, which is essentially American Studies. My research interests include Asian American Studies, race and ethnicity, diaspora, kinship formation, and critical adoption studies.
Our paths have intersected a couple of times, but most recently, we have been talking about the impact of DNA testing in the Chinese adoptee community. What is the current landscape of DNA tests and databases in China, as you know it?
Within the context of Chinese birth searches, DNA testing has become quite the norm and essentially a required step in the Chinese birth search process, whatever that process is. I would argue that there isn’t really a set or systematic process, but over time there have been some patterns that I have observed as a member of various Chinese birth search Facebook Groups (e.g. the use of flyers, leveraging Chinese social media, contacting Chinese press, DNA testing), but the actual search can be very individualistic depending on one’s age, supposed geographic origin, and the amount/accuracy of any information from the orphanage.
There are a handful of in-China DNA databases that were originally created to address the amount of missing children who were already living in China, i.e. were not adopted internationally. The most well-known database within the Chinese adoption community is called Bao Bei Hui Jia (寶貝回家/宝贝回家) which translates to “Baby Come Home.” People can register a missing person through this website, and many adoptees have been registered. The website is in Chinese, but there are a few Chinese birth search Facebook Groups that have created English-language resources for how to register and navigate the site, as well as other Chinese social media like Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter. Chinese-Seeking.net is another similar resource.
Additionally, there is another resource created by an adoption agency (CCAI) called MyTapRoot which offers DNA tests to potential first families in China. Chinese adoptees can register through their website. Only specific DNA tests are used in China, therefore Chinese adoptees outside of China looking to do DNA testing must use the same or compatible tests. MyTapRoot offers the necessary DNA test, making it a popular option. They have also partnered with Bao Bei Hui Jia. Their Facebook page provides updates of matches.
MyTapRoot has also partnered with the Nanchang Project, an initiative started by two adoptive mothers who arranged trips specifically for finding potential Chinese first families. The Nanchang Project, while originally focusing their work in Nanchang, China, is (at the time of this writing) able to offer a free DNA test to any Chinese first parent through MyTapRoot, even if they are not from Nanchang. Their Facebook provides regular updates on matches, new searches, etc.
There are also many Facebook Groups that are province-specific, but this Group is for all of China and is quite popular with over 3,000 members. The documents under “Files” may be helpful if you are just starting: Family Ties: Chinese Adoptee Birth Family Search.
What is working well in regards to this resource?
I think the idea of DNA testing as a search method is effective because it offers Chinese adoptees, and perhaps even Chinese first families, hope that reunion is possible. Most Chinese adoptees do not have accurate (or any) information about their lives pre-orphanage/pre-adoption, and so searching is nearly impossible. Record keeping by Chinese orphanages was little to none, especially if you were adopted in the earlier years of mainland Chinese adoption like I was, and China also has a history of child-trafficking, making the search even more difficult. Therefore, DNA testing becomes a legitimate, and sometimes only, option for Chinese adoptees who may not have enough information to search by other means.
I also like how some of these resources are working together through partnerships to expand their reach and thus increase the chance that there will be a successful match. Since some of these resources, like Bao Bei Hui Jia, also cater to separated families within China as well as adoptees, these initiatives have become unique spaces of transnational cooperation. That said, sometimes these groups–especially the Facebook Groups, which are usually run by adoptive parents–can overlap too much, making the process somewhat overwhelming or more difficult than intended.
What are some of your concerns?
My main concern is how birth searches are essentially new business ventures for people, both inside and outside of China. There are already a few well-known individuals within China who do private searches for adoptees, some having done them for years and with varying degrees of success, and at various costs. I think it’s safe to say that these types of services were not available, or even imaginable, 15-20 years ago when the demand for this type of service was little to none. (For reference, mainland China did not officially open its doors to international adoption until 1992).
I understand that DNA tests, travel, interpreters, etc. cost money; however, what I am strongly against is any individual or group that aims to profit (or is not being transparent with where funding goes and how it is being used) off of the pain, trauma, and perhaps desperation that may accompany the search.
If anyone who is reading this is familiar with Chinese birth searches, then they have probably noticed I left out a well-known search group in the last question. I did this intentionally. While I acknowledge that the data this group has collected is invaluable and that it has lead to some matches, I cannot ethically support them because of their lack of transparency (in terms of where the money they accumulate goes), the way they have treated concerned adoptees in the past who have legitimate concerns about their business, and because they rely on taking DNA tests out of China in order to test them in the United States, which is against Chinese law. Additionally, they previously used 23&Me to process the DNA they collected while in China, but received a cease and desist letter from the company after 23&Me was made aware of it. However, many adoptive parents support this service, probably because of the plethora of information they have managed to collect over the years, there have been some successful matches, and it is run by adoptive parents.
This concerns me because they are essentially holding a monopoly on this precious information that they charge approximately $35-$400 to access, depending on what the information is and if the person interested has or has not donated to them in the past. It is also gross in that their Facebook pages constantly market this data in ways that literally commodify information that most people (i.e. non-adopted people) take for granted: “Don’t settle for a black & white xerox of this wonderful piece of your child’s history. Get a razer-sharp [sic] color scan of their [finding] ad¹, and possibly the actual newspaper it appeared in. These photos are awesome!!” There is certainly a level of commodification that is involved in adoption in general (check out Korean adoptee and scholar Elizabeth Raleigh’s book Selling Transracial Adoption: Families, Markets, and the Color Line for more on this) that is worth discussing, but the fact that some people willingly capitalize off of the desire to search post-adoption is still appalling.
I truly understand why some people may choose to use this service: they have a lot of information, it is marketed in an effective way (i.e. using a framework of time, before time runs out, etc.), and one of the people who run it is fluent in Chinese and has Chinese cultural capital that most of us adoptees have lost. But I fear that, given their lack of transparency and their standing by removing DNA from China, they are putting DNA testing/birth search in jeopardy, and that some/all of this information may eventually be lost or locked up if no one is able to or willing to pay for it. I even asked what would happen to the information if someone could not afford to pay to access it, and they would not give me a direct answer, but instead twisted my words to make it look like I didn’t want adoptees to find their first families. On a related note, this resource was featured quite prominently in Nanfu Wang’s new documentary One Child Nation; however, none of the pricing or other business-related details were shared, and unfortunately those who run this resource stood in as the de facto voice of Chinese adoptees in the documentary.
Of course, any other searcher may pose the same/similar risks as this particular group. But what makes this situation different is that they accumulate information systematically, and then charge a lot of money to access it from adoptees and adoptive families who are just trying to piece together any missing information.
¹ Finding ads are usually newspaper ads that the orphanage puts out once children have been found or brought to the orphanage. They can vary depending on orphanage, the time they were created, etc. Many have photos of the children, while others may not, and usually include information such as the sex of the child, an approximate age, and where the child was found.
What would you like your fellow Chinese adoptees to know about DNA testing and submitting their biological data?
DNA testing has its pros and cons. While some people (and adoptees) aren’t comfortable with using DNA tests, I also understand how using them may feel necessary as there are very few, if any, alternatives. However, I would caution Chinese adoptees who are interested in doing DNA testing to be aware of the Chinese laws regarding DNA testing. It is illegal for people to remove any bodily fluids, which includes DNA, from the country; in other words, if someone is trying to collect DNA from Chinese first families within China but test them in the United States, it is illegal. While I understand the concerns some may have about the validity of tests within China versus outside of it, I would not want to take a chance with this as DNA testing is still relatively new. Additionally, I fear that if individuals or organizations continue to transport DNA tests outside of China, it could negatively impact the searches for others in the future, especially as DNA testing for the purpose of searching is becoming more popular. Please see this document, which was created by an adoptive parent active in Chinese birth searches, with more information about the specific Chinese laws regarding the removal of DNA from China.
What would be a good few steps about searching in China that you would like adoptees to know?
From my personal experience, the process of searching has been incredibly difficult, emotionally draining, and at times quite demoralizing. I’m proficient enough in Chinese to be able to use Chinese social media in order to spread information, but the interactions I’ve had with people through these platforms have been mixed. I have gotten many messages from people wishing me the best and offering to help; however, I’ve also gotten messages from people who question why I’m searching and who claim that I am not being filial/loyal to my adoptive parents. I understand where these sentiments come from, and have come to expect them at this point, but they still hurt. I don’t say this to discourage Chinese adoptees from using these platforms in their search–in fact, if you can use them, do it–but instead as a warning and to urge you to be as prepared as you can for such moments. I think it is helpful if you have an adoptee friend that you are comfortable with to talk to about the search, and who can help you process what is happening, because there is so much emotional labor on your part that goes into it.
What is the conversation in adoption you would like to have more of? What is going on in the adoption community you wish would get more air time?
Rather than a specific topic, I would love to see the adoption community move outside of the binary framework that usually portrays adoption. In other words, instead of thinking about adoption as either “good” or “bad,” or of adoptees as either “happy” or “angry,” let’s try to move past that. From both my academic work and personal conversations with other adoptees over the years, it is very clear to me that adoption is not black and white. Complicating strongly held understandings of adoption, especially for non-adoptees, may be difficult and even messy at times, but I think it is necessary in order to be able to better understand why adoption is what it is today.
ADOPTEE to ADOPTEE
What is the best part of being an adoptee?
The community of adoptees that I have been privileged to be a part of. There is truly something very special and powerful about adoptee friendships, and I consider myself lucky to have them when I know so many others do not.
What is the hardest part of being an adoptee?
I think one of the hardest parts for me personally is how adoption is almost always framed within a binary narrative: it’s either a “good” thing or a “bad thing,” or adoptees are either “happy” (i.e. grateful) or “angry” (i.e. ungrateful). Adoption is so nuanced; there are so many other aspects and factors that encompass adoption that are historical, political, geopolitical, sociological, etc. that oftentimes get overlooked. I believe these other factors deserve more recognition and to be taken seriously when thinking about and discussing adoption.
Is there something of the Chinese culture you have incorporated into your daily life?
I’m not a very superstitious person, but whenever I see the number 4, which is pronounced in a way that sounds similar to the word for “death,” I do feel a bit uneasy, at least initially. In fact, one of my best friends, who is Chinese American, and I changed the amount of tip we gave on a bill at a Chinese restaurant because we realized the original total ended in 44.
If you’ve been to China, please finish this sentence – Next time I go to China, I…..
Next time I go to China, I would like to walk around my hometown without anyone with me, and just blend in.
Continuing our conversation on DNA testing as a resource to connect with birth relatives, IAMAdoptee recently spoke with Katherine Kim and Jayme Hansen, co-founder and CFO, respectively, of 325KAMRA (325kamra.org).
The mission of this organization is to DNA-test birth searching families in Korea and collect medical and family history data from them; to distribute DNA kits to Koreans and Korean adoptees worldwide, and to help families reunite when possible.
Basic biographical information:
Katherine Kim Bradtke (KK)
Jayme Hansen (JH)
How do you identify yourself?
KK: A mixed-race Korean adoptee, first wave
JH: KAD (Korean Adoptee), Army Officer, Husband, Father, Kitty lover
Where you were adopted from, when, and (if you want to) share any aspect of your life before adoption?
KK: I was born in Bupyeong-dong, Incheon in 1957 and lived with my birth mother till I was just over two years old. She (my birthmother) gave me to a GI for adoption; his application was denied so I remained in an orphanage till 3.5 years old.
JH: I was born in Chung-ju, it lies about 1.5hrs south of Seoul. It’s a small city that’s known for its cherry blossoms and a narrow stretch of road that’s flanked on both sides by gorgeous symmetrical towering trees.
Where did you grow up and where do you live now?
KK: I first lived in Southern California but in (the) third grade we moved to Washington, soon thereafter Georgia, then Texas and finally Missouri. I spent most of my adolescent years in St. Louis.
JH: I grew up on a tiny dairy farm that was nestled in North Central Minnesota. The closest village was Battle Lake and it had 1 stop light, it was 12 miles away from where we lived. I grew up in this rural community until I joined the Army when I was 17 years old. I currently reside in Ramstein, Germany, where all the wounded from the Middle East are evacuated to.
What is/was your profession?
KK: I had been a teacher and worked as a technical editor in my early work life. For a long-time, I was a stay-at-home mom. Today, I am the president and co-founder of 325Kamra, working with Korean adoptees and Korean hapas (a person is who is partially of Asian or Pacific Islander descent) on finding their biological family thru the use of DNA.
JH: I am a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army and I am the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of a Medical Center and 5 surrounding clinics that service Europe. I have worn numerous hats during my 30-year career with the military: cook, combat medic, information operator, nurse and hospital administrator. I have also 27 years of NGO/NPO/Volunteer work. Today, I am the CFO and director of European Operations for 325Kamra, I assist with the strategic planning and have traveled to 40 locations/12 countries to meet up and test more than 1,200 adoptees throughout Europe in the last 3 years.
What is the origin story of 325KAMRA?
KK: In September 2015 there was a Koreans and Camptowns conference in Berkeley, CA. Many of the attendees there were mixed race adoptees, like myself, and another co-founder, Bella Siegel Dalton, was one of the speakers there who talked about using DNA to find her father’s family.
I personally had done DNA testing in 2011 with no close matches, and many in the KAD community were doing the same. (This was made possible) in part to the gift program of free (DNA) kits that Thomas Park Clement established in late 2015.
During the conference many of us talked about using autosomal DNA tests in Korea and trying to get bio family there to come forward and test. We knew if we could do this that many would find more family.
The name 325 is the number of the hotel room that we founders shared that conference weekend…and Kamra is an acronym for Korean American Mixed Race Adoptee.
How did you get involved and what is driving your passion for this organization?
KK: Seeing the successes of DNA matches, we knew that DNA could lead us to bio family either through automatic matches or through reasonably close matches (second cousins or higher). I believe everyone deserves to know their heritage, and medical history, and when we contact bio family this is what we ask for.
JH: When I moved to Europe, I began searching for KAD organizations to belong to and I noticed that there were thousands of KADS living in Europe. I heard about the work of 325KAMRA and I approached them about servicing the 50,000 KADS that resided here. What’s driving my passion was the heartfelt stories from the Adoptee community and their search to find family. I was lucky enough to find my biological father and it helped me to have peace with what happened. I wanted to be a part of a team that was trying to change lives and give real hope in reuniting with their families.
How would you like Korean adoptees to consider DNA testing and submitting their biological data?
KK: Our mantra is to test everywhere: FTDNA, ancestry, 23andme, to upload DNA to all the free sites (Genesis Gedmatch, MyHeritage, etc.). We are also suggesting leaving your DNA with the police in Korea, and for adoptees to monitor their DNA accounts on a regular basis.
What are the recent statistics for 325KAMRA and its ability to connect adoptees with primary (parents and siblings) birth family relatives?
KK: As of today, we have connected 87 people with bio family thru DNA and the tools of genetic genealogy (researching archived records, state records, obits, newspaper articles, etc.). We have at least 4 other cases that are close to confirmation. As far as automatic matches for KADs there have been well over 200 automatic matches with people finding parents, siblings (half and full) and close cousins.
If a Korean adoptee wants to connect with 325KAMRA as a resource in their search, what are the steps you recommend?
KK: First, make sure they have DNA tested everywhere. If they have a match of 200 centimorgans or higher, they should contact us, become a member and then we will help them. If they have a match to kit we have collected from Korea, we will also help them establish contact (with membership).
JH: Yes, DNA test with the big 3 testing agencies: 23&me, Ancestry and FTDNA. Obtain your records and check to see if anyone inquired for you – do it in person by visiting the agency in Korea. Be patient and learn from the success of others. Like me, some have gone on National TV shows such as KBS. Others have hired detectives.
How much does this service cost?
KK: An annual membership is $50 USD; A lifetime membership is $300 USD.
JH: The tests themselves are free of charge to anyone who identifies as Korean. Specifically however, we provide services to Korean Adoptees, Korean HAPAs, US Service members who believe they may have Korean children and Korean families in search of children they may have relinquished. The annual memberships open the door for additional services. Shipment of test kits to overseas locations maybe subject to administrative fees that cover shipping, maintaining a website, and other administrative costs.
What happens to the DNA data?
KK: This depends on the company. You would have to read each individual site (Ancestry, FTDNA, 23andme) to make that determination.
JH: Katherine is absolutely correct; this depends on the company. Most DNA testing companies have strict guidelines, controls, and operate under tight physical security. All companies have a processing center where the personal information is separated from the actual DNA sample and tested in a separate facility. The DNA sample itself is often identified by a small barcode or inter-company specific code/number to prevent workers from identifying those that submitted their test samples.
Who owns it (DNA material)?
KK: The tester owns the DNA. For those who test in Korea and who want us to manage their kits, then we manage those.
JH: First, an individual’s DNA is placed everywhere. When a person eats a partially eaten sandwich, touch a door knob, or brushes their hair off their coat collar…they leave trace amounts of DNA virtually everywhere. The DNA is unique to each individual and it belongs to them. This is why DNA testing companies must ask individuals for their consent before they are tested. Most DNA testing companies with place safeguards to help individuals to remain anonymous and to anonymized specimens. As for true ownership, legally, nobody can own or have ownership of DNA information. Companies initially requested patents on snippets of DNA after the onset of CRISPR but it was later made illegal to have ownership of any piece of the human body to include the DNA. The tests themselves will degrade overtime and it is a standard practice for many DNA testing facilities to destroy samples after 25 years. It also costs a lot of money to house and store the samples for the long term. Specialized freezers that reach -80 degrees or liquid nitrogen is used to prevent degradation of the DNA samples. Most testing companies will allow individuals to withdraw/destroy their samples at any time for a nominal fee.
What happens if a match is made?
KK: If a match is made thru FTDNA, the kit that is free to KADs, we get notification of the match. Sometimes a KAD may be aware of this (if they have put in their email for registration on the FTDNA website – not all do though). When we are notified, we in turn notify the KADs. Some KADs get notice on other sites and then approach Bella or myself…Some just contact their closest match directly.
JH: The notification as Katherine described is correct. However, each individual reacts differently to the news when they are contacted. Some adoptees ask to keep their reunion private to meeting individuals that are in jubilee and willing to share their stories with the media and public.
What words of encouragement do you have for fellow adoptees and DNA testing?
KK: For those interested in birth searching, DNA is a total game changer. It cuts through the fiction that many of us have. But it does require patience. People get discouraged when they find themselves without close matches. I first tested in 2011 and didn’t have my first close match till October 2015. I then did a records research on my Korean mother, found a potential candidate, and got her daughter to DNA test. This was 2019. So from 2011 to 2019….that’s eight years of waiting and searching. This is a long game and people have to go into it knowing that…But DNA is a tool that works, especially when all other methods fail. Some lucky ones have instant automatic matches….but most don’t. So people need to test everywhere, and keep faith and be patient.
- Be realistic: Most individuals do not understand the science of DNA and may have unrealistic expectations of what it can or can’t do. Each company has their own algorithms on measuring the percentage of ethnicity and a variance can be seen between the companies. Some companies have a larger catalog of regional haploid groups and be more accurate.
- Be patient: Companies run specials all the time. It may take an additional 2-4 weeks for the DNA sample to process through the system. Individuals may become worried that the samples have become lost and we have to give individuals encouragement to remain calm.
- Read up: Each individual has a unique genetic marker that is different as each snowflake or fingerprint. New research has shown that identical twins share many of the genes but identical they are not. This is why crime and paternity DNA tests cannot be refuted.
- Have hope: When I first joined the organization 3 years ago our success rates were around 1:230 people yielded into a familial match and today it is closer to 1:65. Katherine, Bella and some of our volunteers have access to other powerful search tools and become proficient with the use of these tools.
What words of caution do you have for our community?
KK: If they DNA test, that they must be patient and test everywhere per the aforementioned recommendations. Manage their expectations if they do find bio family…every outcome is different and you have to be prepared for the worst, just in case.
JH: Each one of our journeys are different. I see many adoptees become divisive and defensive. We cannot make our community better if we remain that way. I am in awe by this small group of adoptees that united together to form 325KAMRA and make a difference in the lives of so many adoptees.
I love what Katherine said about managing expectations. I have seen adoptees get rejected again (by birth relatives) to the sobbing heartfelt reunions many imagine. I was very lucky to witness the reunion of 3 siblings. One resided in the United States and the other 2 siblings lived in Europe within a 100-mile radius of each other. You may find a sibling instead of a parent.
What is the conversation that you want to be having in adoption that you are not hearing?
KK: Adoption is such a controversial topic in our community…with those who are pro- or anti-, etc. I can’t say that there are topics I am not hearing about, but the area that I think needs to remain spotlighted is the one pertaining to citizenship for ALL adoptees. I think that conversation needs to stay at the forefront!
JH: Mental Health/Suicides/Resilience: The United States Military spent $117M on how to increase psychological resilience. The adoptee community needs to speak up and use these techniques to save lives. My heart is distraught to learn about another adoptee death. We can’t accept these deaths and we need to band together and save lives.
Deported adoptees/adoptees in crisis: I know some heroes out in our community that are working behind the scenes to provide support and assistance to the most vulnerable within our community. So many adoptees are in need and sometimes they don’t have the maturity and executive skills to take care of themselves. I have a sister that did not live up to her potential and I have had to come in several times to assist her and we cannot be apathetic or hate people for not being as capable or for having issues.
I have to echo Katherine again! We need to fix the loopholes in the Child Citizen Act of 2000 that left (estimated) 64,000 adoptees without citizenship.
What do you wish people would know about adoption that gets little air time?
KK: This is hard to answer….air time in the adoptee community or air time in the public at large? Within the adoptee community, I feel like a lot gets aired but for the public at large, they need to be reminded that adoptees always have two families, whether they are recognized or not….and that adoption is complex. So many still push their gratitude attitude on many of us, and that to me is offensive. While I personally am very grateful for my adoption, I dislike when I read comments from others how birth searching or this or that is a betrayal to our adoptive families. In truth, I think even among adoptees that the notion of betrayal to adoptive families remains strong and there might be more discourse on this…helping KADs process these types of feelings….
JH: Katherine nailed it on this one too… when an adoptee searches it’s not about you. It’s something for them. Some of us need closure. Some of us need to try. Some of us need to experience our culture and see our motherland. Some of us want to know our medical history… whatever reason we have to go on this journey…it’s for our own healing, learning, and growth. Families that reject, demand that they don’t go forward or disown them because they feel they were somehow rejected only add more pain to an already injured soul. I have heard so many adoptees tell me this… it breaks my heart every time.
Adoptee to Adoptee:
What is the best part of being an adoptee?
KK: Having opportunity that I would never have had otherwise.
JH: The adoptee community. “I’m adopted”…with one phrase we can know so much about each other. We can be a loving, caring, crazy, off the chain bunch! I’ve learned so much from other adoptees and I am a better person because of it.
What is the hardest?
KK: I think being relinquished for adoption is a source of hurt. Being a mixed-race Korean adoptee, it was very evident that I was adopted so it always came with an onslaught of private questions from perfect strangers…this was hard for me to talk about it, but I got better at it growing up, but I think this was still the hardest part for me.
JH: I remember older TV’s would have a condition called “burn-in images” and these images were also known as “ghost images”. I think many adoptees have these ghost images burned into them – often a negativity or fear that’s retained from our childhood. It maybe fear of abandonment, fear of relationships, or in my case – a constant fear that I am never good enough. This fear came from the abuse, name calling, and neglect shown by my adoptive parents and the constant bullying from kids at school.
Is there something you have incorporated into your daily life that is specifically Korean?
KK: I jones for Korean food at least 2x per week. And Korean masks, yah, gotta have my Korean beauty products! Lol
JH: Korean food is now a requirement, my kids love watching Korean Dramas, and I love Ginseng Tea – I drink a cup before I go to bed almost every night.
Finish this sentence: “Next time I go to Korea…”
KK: Next time I go to Korea, I hope to meet my half uncle and that side of the family.
JH: Next time I go to Korea, I will gain 10 lbs! I can’t wait to meet my adoptee friends that work and reside in Korea!
You can learn more about 325KAMRA by visiting their website at 325kamra.org.
IAMAdoptee recently connected with Robyn Joy Park, Korean adoptee (the whole of who she is will be evident in our interview!)
Robyn just returned from running a marathon in South Korea. The marathon was part of her personal journey but also to advocate for and raise funds for 325KAMRA (325KAMRA.org). She raised $3780 to support the “work 325Kamra is doing (as it) is transforming our community and changing lives. The heart of their mission is to reunite Korean families separated by war, adoption, death and tragedy by DNA testing Korean adoptees, armed forces personnel who served in Korea, and anyone of Korean descent to expand the worldwide database.”
Here is our interview with Robyn Joy Park (formally Shultz), previous name assigned with adoption identity: Park, Joo Young…
How do you identify yourself?
believer. globetrotter. foodie. marathoner. transracial adoptee. qpoc. LMFT. gryffinpuff. IPNB. cushie. fighter. she/her
Where you were adopted from, when and if you want to, share with us any aspects of your life before adoption?
I was adopted from South Korea and unfortunately these days what I thought I knew about my life prior to coming to America is no longer accurate or is still yet to be understood. What I do know, is that at one point during my time in Seoul I was in foster care with a foster mother until I was brought over to America in the early 1980’s. I do not know where I was born as well as my date of birth.
Where did you grow up and where do you live now?
I grew up in the land of a gazillion adoptees- Minnesota (yeah you betcha!). Went to undergraduate school in Minnesota and then soon after set off on an adventure and moved back to Korea where I lived for over two years. Following this, traveled around the globe before settling back in the states where I now currently live in Los Angeles and have been here for 10 years.
What is your profession?
I am a Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) and specialize in working with children and families who I get the privilege to journey alongside as they are seeking therapeutic services. A large focus and passion within my practice is working within the foster care and adoption constellation. Am blessed to currently be working alongside an amazing multi-disciplinary team founded by my parenting Guru Tina Payne Bryson at The Center for Connection and also for many years have been in private practice alongside my mentor/Jedi Master Angela Gee, LMFT (and fellow adoptee!). Have worked in various in-home, educational, agency, residential and therapeutic settings. I also do specialized trainings and workshops locally and nationally addressing various things such as adoption, maternal mental health and interpersonal neurobiology.
We met last year at KAAN, but it was our phone call afterwards that stuck with me. Your enthusiasm about getting the adoption narrative right, with joy, with authenticity, was my main reason for wanting another chance to connect. What do you feel is the driving desire in the work you do?
It was such a joy meeting you at KAAN! I truly believe my heart has been called to support and work alongside those who are suffering and experienced tremendous challenges and heartache. As I too have faced different adverse experiences and challenges in my life, my threshold of tolerance is pretty wide and thus helps me be able to more deeply understand other’s pain, vulnerabilities, sorrow, and suffering. I believe my own faith and equanimity are what guides and drives my desire and passions in the work I do. As you may know or can imagine, it is an incredibly powerful experience to be able to witness other’s transformations and see how it impacts not only themselves but their relationships with others.
What is the conversation that you want to be having in adoption that you were not hearing?
These days I would like our communities to be discussing the impact DNA testing is having on the micro/meso/macro levels. Since 2012 when I first realized the personal impact it can have on one’s search and reunion experience, I have been trying to bring attention to this as it is another complex issue within adoption. While it is helping advance things, it is also important for us to be mindful of what it can reveal. In the past I started to engage in this conversation in various ways bringing attention to it to individuals, agencies, and organizations. However now with advanced tools and technology it has become a larger dialogue for those who are seeking to find their birth families. On the flip side, it also may impact individuals who may have no intentions to search for their birth families and suddenly are connected. Additionally, I think it’s important for us to be discussing the coulda-should-wouldas. That if you have been reunified with your birth family and did not take a DNA test to confirm this, there is a possibility that you may not be in reunion with your biological family and thus inhibiting another possible reunion. Ignorance is not always bliss (!) and anything is possible.
How much of who you are intersects with what you do?
Constantly intersecting within personal and professional worlds and identities! Always colliding and at times it can be hard to keep separate and I have a difficult time for example leaving my offices as I do what I love and love what I do. As a queer person of color, also a Believer, and an adoptee—all of these aspects of who I am influence, inspire and impact what I do/seek and how I try and connect and relate with the world.
Congratulations on running your marathon! And in Seoul, South Korea! How did this happen for you?
Thank you! This was a dream come true and had been dreaming and scheming about it since my good friend who is also a Korean adoptee first did it in 2008 while we were living in Korea. It inspired me to want to run it one day and after doing seven marathons in different parts of America, it was time to do one back in the motherland. What made this one particularly special was my brother ran it (this was his first marathon!) and a friend that I’ve known since Kindergarten. There were other family and friends that also met up in Seoul for the weekend to run and support the event (also amazing long distance/remote support!) as well as promote awareness around 325Kamra’s work with DNA testing and birth family search and reunification. It was an incredible journey and worlds colliding in Korea!
DNA testing and your adoption story is intricately linked. What would you like to share about this part of your search journey?
Adoption has a lot to teach the world. My personal story is no exception, but I do feel compelled to share it so others can learn from my unique experiences- the good, the bad and the ugly. While DNA testing can be a tool and resource to help advance a birth search, it’s important to be mindful of the information it will uncover and reveal. This is something that I was not prepared for and wish that I would have advocated for with the adoption agency prior to being reunified. To ensure quality and care in the best interest of everyone, I think it is also something that should be embedded within the search and reunion process to ensure everyone’s information is correct. It is important for us all to understand the significance of how it can help empower individuals to search on their own (separate from the adoption agencies). It can also open up information that like in my case, shows inadequate information. As I have learned throughout the years, there are others impacted similarly and my sense is that through DNA testing similar circumstances will continue to arise. At this point in my search journey the blessing in all of this has been finding others who have also experienced similar search and reunion experiences. Our connections have formed bonds that continue to give me strength and encouragement to keep searching and never give up hope.
*Editor’s insert* Robyn’s initial search for her birth family matched her with a family she was in reunion with for 6 years only to find out they were not actually biologically connected to each other. DNA testing proved them to not be a match. Here is a clip of part of her journey, talking about this experience:
What do you wish people would know about adoption that gets little air time?
Adoption is a life long journey and the core issues/themes (loss, guilt, grief, rejection, control, relationships and identity) certainly come up at all different ages and stages. I wish that we could all have more compassion on one another and lift each other up as we all continue to navigate our own journeys. That we continue to learn from one another’s unique adoption experiences. That we recognize and support the mental health needs that can impact our community. The fact that studies and evidence is revealing that adopted kids are up to FOUR times more likely to attempt suicide than kids who live with their biological families is incredibly heartbreaking. We need to be talking about this and finding ways to address the underlying pain and suffering.
Lastly, Adoptee to Adoptee:
What is the best part of being an adoptee?
I love that you’re asking this question as I think we often focus on the challenges or hard parts of being an adoptee. While I didn’t always embrace this aspect, I have come to appreciate being in between two cultures and being able to find the best of both worlds. I love finally feeling able to have the choice to pick and choose various aspects of both American and Korean cultures that I deeply love and embrace as they both have shaped and influenced who I am. I have come to think of this journey similarly and in many ways parallel of how Joseph Campbell describes a Hero’s Journey (https://youtu.be/d1Zxt28ff-E). Have you ever noticed how many superheroes, supervillains, wizards, warriors, and Jedis have also experienced loss and separation from their families in various ways? (Luke Skywalker, Rey, Harry Potter, Superman, Spiderman, Iron Man, Kung Fu Panda, Amethyst). They all have been called to duty and transformed and as we know with great power comes great responsibility! As an adoptee and now a therapist, I feel I have a lot of “superpowers” and privileges and that as a result of my own challenges, transformation and re-birth must uphold in order to help heal so there is less pain and suffering in this world and we can experience more joy, love, hope and empathy with one another. This to me is the best part.
What is hard about being an adoptee?
Indeed there are many, however constantly living with ambiguous loss, or in other words the physical absence with psychological presence, I feel is the hardest. Was first introduced to this type of loss by the work of Dr. Pauline Boss who has researched and written extensively on various types of losses. This loss in particular applies to the adoption constellation and has helped me more deeply understand my own grief and loss.
Is there something you have incorporated into your daily life that is specifically Korean?
Korean food! After living in Korea for over two years, my palate expanded and exploded. My tolerance for spice increased especially after growing up not eating much spicy food. Fortunately Los Angeles continues to support this daily lifestyle with many Korean markets and restaurants alongside my mother-in-law’s amazing cooking.
Finish this sentence – next time I go to Korea…..
…so many things I always want to do when I go to Korea! To name a few…
- Connect with others and organizations
- Eat as much street food as I can!
- Get another tattoo
- Hopefully will be at a different point in my birth family search
We will post again the English subtitled version, but in the meantime, here is Robyn’s piece in Korea on her marathon run. Congratulations!
YTN piece (part 1 of 2) highlighting the marathon and also shining light on the significance of DNA testing and the impact it can have:
#IAMonemillion is an ongoing project to find creative ways to get to know the nearly one million international adopees worldwide. Every story is unique. What better way to express our individuality among such a large community than by sharing them one at a time?
We had a chance to connect with Kassaye, adopted from Ethiopia and co-creator of the podcast “Out of the Fog”:
How do you identify yourself?
For pronouns, I use she and her because I am a cis-gendered woman. In terms of ethnicity, background and experience, I refer to myself as Ethiopian, Black, African person raised in the West.
Where you were adopted from, when and if you want to share any aspect of your life before adoption?
I was born in Northern Ethiopia in late 1985 or early 1986. The exact place and date is unknown to me.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the Eastern Townships (Abenaki territory) of Quebec but have lived in Tiohtià:ke, which is also unceded Indigenous territory colonially known as Montreal for the past 15 years.
What is your profession?
Currently a new mom, the rest is TBA!
I came to know a little about you from your podcast, “Out of The Fog,” what was the conversation you wanted to have in adoption that you were not hearing?
We wanted to bring more awareness to the political nature of family separation such as, (the idea) that adoption is about power and privilege and how this intersects with race, class, education and access to resources and supportive communities.
Is there a particular episode or guest that helps best exemplify this awareness?
I think every episode speaks to these issues to varying degrees. In terms of getting a glimpse into some of the experiences of mothers of adoption loss, I would listen to Episode 2 on Forgotten Mothers, however I think people should tune into whatever episode they feel attracted to or interested in.
Did doing the podcast change any of your perceptions of adoption, your own story or offer a new thought about adoption?
I learned so much about adoption through doing the podcast. For me, the biggest takeaway was how family (of origin) members, specifically mothers and fathers of adoption loss need to be listened to and supported more. I think there is more work around creating stronger ties with communities of family members of adoption loss as they continue to be very marginalized in the adoption conversation.
Are you doing anything adoption related now that the podcast is no longer?
I am mostly focusing on other things, however we are slowly working on finishing the anthology by Ethiopian adoptees, but we do not have a publication date yet. Another TBA!
What do you wish people would know about adoption that gets little air time?
That no matter what peoples’ experiences of adoption is, it is inherently based on economic inequality. Wealthy people do not “give up” their children – it is usually poor women who don’t have access to various forms of birth control or who do not have the means to care for their children. Knowing this, I think acknowledging the loss, pain and suffering of mothers (and other family members) is really crucial for our own healing journey and for theirs.
You’re a first time mom now, congratulations! How has being adopted impacted your current understanding of motherhood?
I am still unpacking this, perhaps I will write about it in the future when I have a clearer understanding that I can articulate. At the moment, what I can say is this; I think mothers are all doing their best – we really learn as we go and our actions, choices, decisions come from our own experiences, conditioning, traumas, victories or accomplishments. I think being a mother really forces you to rethink and negotiate many things in life, so one of the most helpful things is having compassion for oneself, so that you can have compassion for others.
What’s the best part of being Ethiopian Canadian?
Quite frankly, for me it is about freedom. There are so many benefits to being a Canadian citizen, just having a passport that allows me to travel anywhere on the planet and come home to a stable country with an extremely diverse population and very good social policies is truly the best thing. For instance, paid maternity leave in Quebec is 12 months!
What is one way you honor either or both these cultural identities?
I don’t really identify culturally as Canadian since Canada is made up of so many peoples and cultures. We have Indigenous peoples whose cultures we may not even be aware of, but whose land we live on. That said, I feel influenced by all the cultures and languages I’ve been raised with or grown up or lived around which are: English, French, Spanish and Amharic. I love languages and culture, so I can say that I honor all these cultures and languages in different ways – whether it is through conversation, travel or food. I’m also part of a group of Ethiopian women (many of them mothers), where every month we get together to share a meal or do activities. I don’t really speak Amharic yet, but being in an Amharic environment definitely helps me improve my vocabulary. One of my goals is for my son and I to have functional spoken/written Amharic!
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to share your story with us.
The largest organization in the US for adoptees from China has historically been FCC (Families with Children from China) with chapters in almost every state. While Taiwanese adoptees would be considered the pioneer group, many of whom are in middle age now, the first wave of adoptees mostly from mainland China are now emerging adulthood. As this group of adoptees start to claim their own space in the adoption community, FCC is evolving and in New York, the first Adoptee Board of FCCNY was recently established. Over the holiday break, Joy got to meet up with the President of this Adoptee Board, Lisa Gibson and fellow member, Rachel Berger-Hart (pictured) to talk about what they are hoping to do as they start to develop programming around the young adult Chinese adoptee community. Here is what they shared with IAMAdoptee….
What is this new chapter of FCCNY and the purpose of its creation?
We are an adoptee-led entity consisting of Chinese adoptees 18+, created to focus on programming and creative outputs that are created for us, by us. FCCNY’s Adoptee Board was initiated in 2017 to build upon the existing resources within the FCC of Greater New York chapter, and to develop the foundation for, and provide the community with, a much needed Chinese adoptee-driven network.
What would you want the adoption community to know about this new board?
We are among the oldest Chinese transnational adoptees, with the largest of our population just beginning to come of age. There are spaces and narratives that have historically been run or told by our parents, other involved individuals, or the broader public who are generally unaware of our experiences. As we become adults there is opportunity for us to start creating and collaborating, which we have done and encourage others to do the same. Feel free to reach out and to learn more about who we are at fccny.org/adopteeboard.
What are some things we should be looking forward to?
More FCCNY and FCC events around the country, especially those that are adoptee-centered or led. Additionally, our FCCNY Board of Directors is transitioning to include more adoptees, with the immediate goal of consisting of at least 50/50 parents and adoptees, and eventually becoming entirely adoptee led. We are also looking forward to presenting at this summer’s KAAN conference in MN with our open session “Community Transition: Chinese Adoptee Leadership, Parent Supported”.
Happy 2019! The United States and many countries in the West have just finished celebrating the holidays of Hannukah, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Ethiopia and other countries following the Julian calendar, just celebrated their Christmas. And most of Asia is waiting to celebrate the Lunar New Year, Year of the Pig!
IAMAdoptee is grateful to all of you who shared your thoughts on how being adopted has impacted the way the holiday season affects you.
Presenting, a video conversation with international adoptees Katie Naftzger, LICSW and Kathy Sacco, LCSW and their wisdom on the challenges, the opportunities, the tough parts and the ways we can authentically navigate the holiday season.
With gratitude and collaboration with Connect-a-Kid.
Here’s what Connect-a-Kid Board Chairman Kim Hanson had to say about the holidays:
- Holiday traditions for me are always a special place even if I wasn’t checked in with my family growing up. But the holidays I appreciated more when I left the house and went to college. Thanksgiving to Christmas always holds a special place for me. Even if I do not have the holiday cookings unless I go home and my sister cooks I will always have fond memories of my mom’s cooking. Certain dishes always will carry heart warming memories. Her cranberry salad with marshmallows, her stuffing, her yams, mash potatoes and gravy, her lefse all of which we eat at Christmas time too. Easter is there but not like Thanksgiving or Christmas. New Years never held a special time for the family so never had a fondness for NYE myself. So what have I kept for my son? I make it a point to go back every year for my son so he experiences all the things I did. My mother has Alzheimer’s and getting worse and why she doesn’t cook anymore. But it is a tradition that I take him back during these holidays. Now that I am divorced it is harder to take him back but I like it that now we alternate Thanksgiving and Christmas for him. I started a Father Son Christmas dinner and Star Wars Advent Lego Calendar. Writing this with a glass of wine listening to Xmas music. Which by the way I listen to year round as it brings me back to my childhood days even if I wasn’t checked in or wasn’t close to my family growing up. Something I guess I always yearned for inside of me. – Kim Hanson, adopted from Korea
- How I get through the holidays…well, it’s not an issue anymore for me. I think I struggled with the holidays throughout my young adulthood because I was attached to some idea of how the holidays should be or how they should unfold. As a child, I had SO much fun on Christmas day. It was just about playing games with my siblings and cousins – having wrapping paper wars after we’d opened the gifts, playing outside in the snow aka getting thrown in big snow banks, building forts or going sliding. I also really enjoyed eating my grandmother’s apple pies! But, when my grandparents passed away and my siblings started having their own families or moving away, Christmas changed – we could no longer get together as a family anymore. At this point in my life, I was also dealing with conflicting feelings about being adopted and being separated from my culture of origin and its traditions…so, I found myself feeling unhappy about what I lost (Christmas no longer being the same) and also what I felt was taken from me (Ethiopian traditions). Needless to say, the holiday season became a dark period for me. I felt depressed for quite a few years. What changed for me has been working to accept all the losses – not just around Christmas but all year ’round! I find the biggest barrier to acceptance is resistance and I had a lot of it! It has definitely been a process of intense self-help or what I like to call self-development! It’s a work in progress, but I can now say that I appreciate the holidays more now because I don’t have expectations of what they should look like. – Kassaye Berhanu-Macdonald, adopted from Ethiopia and creator of “Out of the Fog” podcast
- I love going home for the holidays! I seldom get to visit for extended periods of time, so when I can I try to spend as much time as possible with my niece and nephews. My best moments with my (adoptive) parents always hinge on how much patience, honesty and direct communication we employ with each other. In the frenzy of festivities this can be trying, but we give it our best shots! Something I look forward to every Christmas break is when the whole family casually, inevitably, lolls around my parents’ kitchen counter and we gab and joke for hours. – Michaela K. Dietz, adopted from Korea
- The holidays is bittersweet for me. I love all the festivities, the lights, the music and the good will that is encouraged. I grew up with a love of baking Italian cookies and German apple pie. Still, the proverbial assumption that I am going to my (adoptive) home for Thanksgiving and Christmas always gives me heartburn. The performance of the Holidays, that as an adoptee, one is gratefully going “home” makes me sweat a little. I’ve mastered the pivot really well without giving a whole answer and listen with a Mona Lisa smile as others relay their family holiday plans. – Joy Lieberthal, adopted from Korea
- I’ve always enjoyed the holidays but of course, they become more complicated as you get older, and I do dread that aspect. Now that I’m married, we have to balance time between “his” and “hers.” Additionally, my birth family reunion makes me long to be in Korea around this time of year. All the while, we try to maintain our own family traditions. In recent years, we have chosen to shed the expectations of others and spend our time doing the things we most enjoy. While it can be misconstrued as selfish, we prefer to spend the holidays celebrating in our own way versus in an airport or driving hundreds of miles just because that’s what you’re “supposed” to do this time of year. – Whitney Fritz, adopted from Korea
- Making new traditions with my family — children and husband — and keeping those traditions from my adoptive family that I treasure and skipping those that I don’t — allows me to re-write and re-create the holidays to what I want them to be. – Hollee McGinnis, adopted from Korea
- The holidays hold a duality that is both emotionally liberating and challenging. I can hold several of these conflictual emotions at once–and continually learn how important it is to be kinder, gentler, and loving to those parts of myself during this season. I do not claim home in the same way. . .home is with my children, spouse, and our chosen family. Several years ago, my husband and I made the difficult, yet intentional choice to remain in absentia. Family should not break down your body, back, or spirit. As an adoptee, the concept of family is complicated, but it is also specific–that as I came into myself (especially as a mother), I owned choice–and I owe it to no one to explain further. Living in ambiguity and tension is familiar to so many of us–myself included. Adoptees are assumed to be ever-grateful to their adoptive parents and the world around them. There is an expectation that we share personal tidbits with others based on our adoption-status combined with the assumption that our adopt families are not human, flawed, and in some cases toxic and harmful. Grounded in those assumptions tend to be gratefulness and exceptionalism. There is difference between gratefulness and gratitude. Adoptees can extend gratitude for the loved ones in our lives along with the opportunities that have been bestowed to us, but we do not have to assign the act of gratefulness to anyone or anything specifically unless we choose (that is a sacred, personal space that does not have to be publicized at anyone’s behest). Societal pressure to embody unrealistic “Hallmark” moments within family will always be a tightrope act, How/whom I choose to share our holiday plans with is personal. Today, the ones who get an invitation to our shared table are not out of obligation or pleasantries, but through delight, enjoyment, and authenticity. I’ve found that the more genuine we become, the more we attract those in our lives that can hold these spaces really, really well–and learn to re-parent those parts of ourselves and allow others to do the same. We celebrate our chosen family as well as family (by marriage) who have remained loving, steadfast, and supportive without caveats or demands. – Melanie Chung-Sherman, adopted from Korea
- As an adult, the memories of holidays that resonate strong are the self-implicated obligations and stress of having a perfect Norman Rockwell Christmas. My mother’s good intentions for a picture perfect Christmas ended being stressful and not very enjoyable. Now that I have a family of my own, I keep holiday traditions very light. I partake on what I like, such as caroling, presents, music, and time with friends. I don’t do anything that doesn’t bring myself and family joy. – Anna Hu, adopted from Korea
- For holidays, I bring my partner of 10 years wherever I go, and we support each other in our losses. I also take time for myself when I need it. Traditions I love was making wontons with my dad (who has passed), making sweet potato pie / potato salad the way my mother-in-law taught me (she also passed), and going to see my mom and sister. – Taneka Jennings, adopted from Korea