My Gifts from Korea and China

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Since the adoption of our children 14 and 17 years ago, I have been told repeatedly how lucky my daughters are and that they are a gift to our family. The definition of a gift is something that is given freely. Although I am not exactly sure of the reasons their birth families chose not to raise them, I don’t think it was a choice that was freely made.  In Korea there is no social or familial support of unwed mothers and in China the pressure from the family is to produce a son to carry on the family name.  Circumstances prevented their mothers from making a free choice.

This week is Kamp Kimchee, a camp for Korean adoptees in northern MN, and a time when I get away from our hectic daily lives to  reflect on how adoption has changed our family and changed my perspectives. And this is when I hear from many of the older Korean adoptees that have been thinking about this from a personal viewpoint for much longer than I and that are brave enough to share their stories with adoptive parents. The reality is that in order for the gift of adoption to benefit my family, parents in another part of the world lost their child and our daughters lost a culture. Our fortune is built on others misfortune.

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Lee and Whitney Frisk, Korean adult adoptees who are married and live in Tennessee, shared their stories with us this week and provided some insight into what our kids may face as they venture beyond their home nests. The gifts that were adorable Asian toddlers  will be seen as “not white” or foreign when they venture out into the world in young adulthood. Having been seen as Asian within a Caucasian family, they will now be viewed as Asian with a non-Asian sounding name. They will be repeatedly asked, “Where are you really from?”. They will need to look at the part of the country where they receive job offers to determine if they are brave enough to face discrimination on a daily basis. Living in a part of the southern US, they have seen a sharp rise in the amount of racism directed their way since the election. In this era of globalization, our children  will need to determine if they ever want to return to their home country and search for birth parents or learn more about their origins.

As a white parent with white privilege I can never fully understand how all of this will make my daughters feel. In the words of another adoptive parent, Martha Crawford, I am an invited guest to the adoptive experience and my job is to support, always love and accept who they become. Not that much different from a bio parent but with the possibility of another family a world away becoming part of our extended family if a birth family search is started and successful.

But the unexpected gift that no one told me about all those years ago when we attended our first adoption meeting is the wonderful friends we would make thru this experience. Our week at Kamp is when I get to reconnect with many of these friends from other parts of MN and share both joys and sorrows, laugh and cry together. Because only these special people understand the slight curves in the road that an adoption journey can bring. My daughters have allowed me the privilege to be a part of their cultures, share their fabulous food and art and only ask that I pay for a few melon bars at the end of each day.

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Our non-traditional family and why it matters

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The non-traditional part of our family

I forget about the unusual origins of my family until I am asked a question or view another family that shares some of our qualities. This happened three times this past week and became a good way to reflect on how far we have come as a society over the past 25 years – and how far we still have to go.

  1. South Dakota recently passed a bill and was signed by the governor that allows adoption agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ couples, single parents, mixed faith and inter-racial couples when it determines placement for children from the foster care system. Since there are many more children in the foster care system than there are prospective parents, this means that children will wait longer for permanent placement. Or, they may never find a forever family. Multiple studies have shown that children raised in non-traditional families function as well as those children raised in traditional families. South Dakota is sacrificing children’s futures due to religious beliefs.
  2. A woman who has acted as a surrogate parent for another couple questioned whether I had a difficult time separating  emotionally from my egg donor children. While I did have emotional moments when the children were young, they have been replaced by a thankfulness for the ability to connect with these three kids as teenagers/young adults. I see my current role as extended family, providing emotional support and fun times that a day-to-day parent is not afforded.
  3. One of my daughters classmates was featured in the local paper this week. His single mother died when he was in middle school and his extended family lived out-of-state. He was taken in by his best friend’s family, where he often lived during his mother’s illness. Over the past 4 years, this couple have become “Mom” and “Dad”.  The parents are white, the young man is black.

Our family is non-traditional: 2 white heterosexual parents, 3 biological children, 3 children via egg donation to another couple and 2 Asian adopted children. 25 years ago when my husband and I were first considering the idea of egg donation for a good friend, we decided that it was to be kept a secret from our extended family. Due to religious reasons, my friend’s family was also not made aware of the origin of a triplet pregnancy. As society changed and the children grew older, the story was explained to relatives and friends. By this time, both families were well established in 2 different communities separated by 5 states and the reactions were overwhelmingly positive.

Adoption stories have undergone the same transition over the years. Many children adopted domestically in the 1940’s thru 1960’s were not informed that they were adopted. As society changed and became more accepting of adoption, as well as the emotional damage that was noted when young adults discovered their hidden origins, adoption became more open and celebrated. Now you can make the cover of People magazine if you are a celebrity in your late 40’s who adopts a baby.

Early international adoptees were seldom connected to their original culture and parents were instructed to raise the children as if they were white and their biologic children. The trouble was that the outside world did not see them as “white” when they became adults, and these adoptees had to navigate the world between 2 cultures, one of which they had few connections to. Diversity training for potential adoptive parents is now part of the adoption process. The Asian culture camp that we attend each summer has many discussions about culture, identity and diversity.

The role of  mom/parent has been the most rewarding/difficult part of my adult life and one I would not trade for any other experience that I have had. Being able to offer that opportunity to a friend was an easy choice despite the knowledge that there may be bumps in the road as the children became older.  Providing a home to children born in another country was also an easy choice as I knew that love developed while caring for a child and was not necessarily automatic. Each of these choices was made available to me as a white heterosexual female married to a white male who shared a mainstream religion. We are not special and should not be any more privileged than a gay biracial couple who is able to meet the same requirements for providing a home for a child in need of a forever family. Religion, sexual orientation and skin color are only part of who we are as individuals. Loving children and providing them with a home and future should be open to all of us.

Traveling with an Immigrant

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Last weekend, we left Minneapolis for Seattle. At the time the plane departed, the 3 judge panel was still deliberating the enforcement of the travel ban imposed by President Trump. When we landed 4 hours later the news had changed. The judges had unanimously ruled against the travel ban and our country was now in legal limbo. I looked at my traveling companion, an immigrant to this country 17 years earlier, and thought about how differently her life would have been if she had not immigrated to this country. Her parents on both sides of the Pacific made financial and emotional sacrifices so that she would have education and life opportunities that were not available to her in her home country. This immigrant is my daughter, born in a Korean society that does not have social support for single, unwed mothers and their children. We were visiting a college in the Pacific Northwest, far from her home in Minnesota but closer to her birthplace both in terms of geography and culture. I hastily brushed away tears as we grabbed our luggage to exit the plane (those tears might be the reason I forgot the umbrella in the overhead compartment), thinking about stories of families in the news that had been denied entry to America earlier in the week and who would now be reunited with family members already here.

Unlike the immigrant families from the 7 banned countries, my daughter is the beneficiary of white privilege. My husband and I were able to afford the adoption fees because we had the advantage of college educations and professional jobs. She grew up in an upper middle class neighborhood and attended above average public schools. She has participated in extra curricular sports and activities, attended summer camps and traveled throughout the United States and internationally. A college education is expected by her parents and peers and she has many excellent choices. Her high school friends are multi-racial and from many different socioeconomic backgrounds. Unfortunately, the majority of this would not be possible if she happened to be from a Muslim majority culture. Why does the color of your skin in this country dictate what your future may hold? When will Americans be able to look past skin, hair and clothes for the qualities of the person underneath?

Today, February 16th, immigrants are trying to remind us of the contributions that they provide this country by staying home from work and school. Ethnic restaurants are closed, children are staying home from school and college and adults are staying home from work. Some service businesses will have a difficult time functioning, but isn’t that the point? Until we realize the contributions of immigrants in our daily lives, only then are we better able to understand how these new immigrants can benefit America.

I received a phone call from a friend this morning, torn between staying home with her husband and children in solidarity vs feeling guilty about her job that is difficult to fill on last-minute notice. She is a citizen of this country, born here to an immigrant mother. Her husband is a Dreamer, brought to this country illegally as a child by his parents. Despite multiple attempts to obtain citizenship, he has not been successful. He has worked full-time since his teen years, supporting his family and contributing to the American economy. These are the difficult stories behind the majority of immigrant families. They are not here to bring in drugs, commit crimes or spread terrorism. They are fleeing their home countries due to these problems, looking for a better life in a country that was founded by immigrants. What would this world look like if white privilege meant that those of us who are bestowed this advantage by birth use it to offer a helping hand to guide others as they ascend the mountain of life? That is the world that I would love to live in.

Family, Culture and Food

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This is Korean Culture Kamp Week, otherwise known as “Stuff your face with Korean Food Week”. I have been attending this camp with my daughters for 11 years and each year come away with a different reflection on how important this experience is for them. As I was eating lunch today (spicy green beans, jap chae, roasted vegetables, rice and kimchi, crispy chicken wings and marinated cucumbers), I realized how important the food is to our memories of Kamp. The first time we walk into the building at the beginning of the week, we are greeted with the familiar scents of sesame oil, soy sauce and kimchi. The kids eagerly wait to hear the menu of the day, announced at 9 am family time. Many of the kids compete during lunch to see who can eat the most squid. Kimchi is eaten by the gallon containers. Mandu or dumplings, the crowning glory to the last meal of the week, requires all hands onboard for last-minute construction and frying.

They love this food, but more importantly, their fellow kampers love the food equally as much. There is no teasing about being Asian and eating rice, because everyone is too busy inhaling the food so that they can get back in line for seconds. This is not food they could easily share with their friends at home, without worrying about the response to a mouthful of kimchi.

Food is a powerful reminder of home, whether we are born in a different culture or are returning home after a long absence to a home cooked meal. It has been shown that the sense of smell is closely linked with memory and can invoke memories that have been previously forgotten. For any of you who have had the pleasure to smell sesame oil or kimchi, I think you will agree with me that Koreans have a fragrance advantage with their food.

Food is only one of the reasons why this week is relished by all of us. Both the girls and I can relate to others differently during the week. They are able to spend time with friends who “get it” regarding biculturism, and I am able to spend time with other parents who also “get it”. No other parent cares about my “adoption story”  because they have repeated their story far too many times. If one of the Kampers has been struggling in school or emotionally, there is no judgment about adoption vs. birth child, just support and encouragement.

Food and companionship are such a part of Culture Kamp, that each year adoptees that have attended Kamp in the past, along with their parents, friends, spouses and children, return to eat lunch and reminisce.  What better endorsement is there than people traveling hundreds of miles just to share a meal.

Keeping Moms and Children Together in Haiti: The best Mother’s Day Gift

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Mother’s Day brings a feeling of overwhelming gratitude for the many mothers in my life – the mother that raised me, the mother that raised my fabulous husband, the mother of my 3 children created thru egg donation  and the Korean and Chinese mothers that gave birth to my daughters and then made the difficult decision to place them for adoption. I have always imagined what their life would have been if,  instead of completing reams of paperwork and writing checks for large sums of money, we had worked to provide for their original families so that they would have been able to be raised in their country of origin. That venture is much more difficult and involves a more long-term world view than a short-term individualistic approach. But that is exactly what the founders of Second Mile Haiti are trying to achieve. We were fortunate to spend a few hours touring their expanding facility on our last day in Haiti.

The founders of Second Mile Haiti are Jenn Schenk and Amy Syres, two young women who had a vision to create a sustainable option for families who were previously relinquishing their malnourished children to care centers, where the children were  either placed for international adoption or reunified back into their impoverished families after their malnutrition was corrected. ” It didn’t seem right that the only available way to help these families was to take their kids from them. We really had to ask ourselves if there wasn’t some sort of alternative” says Amy, regarding the experiences that led the co-founders to start Second Mile Haiti.

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The alternative that they have created is flourishing. Severly malnourished children are referred to their program from nearby hospitals. Each child is admitted with a caregiver, usually their mother, and spends 4-6 weeks in the program slowly being nourished back to health. Caregivers are taught what causes malnutrition and how it can be prevented. They are part of the team that works to improve their child’s malnutrition. Second Mile also offers daily business, literacy and home gardening classes so that the caregivers can participate in sustainable small business projects. At the end of each caregivers stay, she is given instructions and goals for her child in follow-up. Providing these goals are met, which they almost always are, the caregiver is given the goods she will need to begin a small business that will continue to provide for her family, preventing the recurrence of malnutrition in addition to empowering her to become a leader in her community and share her knowledge with others.

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Currently, the facility has room for 12 moms and children. Construction of a second building to house another 12 caregivers and their children was in full swing on the day of our visit. An additional 30-40 Haitians were employed in the building project. The gardener proudly showed off the 4 acres of produce that is used to feed the caregivers, children and staff. A large mango tree in the middle of the property supplies the mango jam that flavors the newly made goat yogurt. These are the ingredients that help to break the cycle of poverty and undernutrition. The benefits extend beyond the walls of the compound – each person that Second Mile touches with their program, whether it be a caregiver or employee, amplifies the effect in the community with information and salaries.

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Mother’s Day is everyday for these fortunate women, as they are able to continue to care for their children and provide them with adequate nutrition. The cost of this program is far less than housing a “relinquished child” and then trying to reintegrate them back into Haitian society. A United Nations Grant is funding the expansion project and will hopefully replicate this program in other parts of the developing world.

Adoption or Child Sponsorship

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On my most recent trip to Haiti, another child was abandoned at the Hospital Bon Samaritan. Named John by one of the volunteer doctors, he weighed only 10 lbs but appeared to be 18 months in age. We don’t know why he was so emaciated – whether it was lack of food or an undiagnosed medical illness. The caregivers at the hospital orphanage started to feed him and during the first few weeks he responded to the attention and the improved nutrition. Unfortunately, he stopped eating after 3 weeks and despite IV hydration, died within 12 hours. There was no family to notify of his passing.

The hospital orphanage, Kai Mara,  has been present for 40 years as a way to care for the children that families are not able too. Most of these children are not true orphans in that they have relatives nearby, but none that are able to feed or cloth them. Six of the 16 children at Kai Mara are severely mentally or physically handicapped and often bedridden. However, 10 of the children are of normal intelligence and mobility and range in age from 3 to 10. The four older children attend a local school and are learning to speak english from the American volunteers.

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During my first few trips to Haiti 8 years ago, I explored the possibility of adoption for two of the children. Although this was before the earthquake chaos, the adoption system was still in disarray and full of corruption. It was much simpler and less expensive to sponsor one of the children financially so that the school fees, meals and portion of childcare was subsidized. Our Haitian “daughter” is now in third grade and we are able to spend time with her each year when we return to HBS. Her life is much different than the life she would have experienced had she stayed with her birth family. Three meals a day are provided by the kitchen staff, clean water runs from a faucet, school uniform and fees are paid and an after school tutor comes each day. She is missing the loving guidance of parents, but the hospital staff is available to provide much of the needed structure. Like most Haitians, she has a large extended family of siblings and cousins in the rest of the orphan kids. Haitian culture will be a daily part of her life, rather than something she reads about in books. Educational opportunities and her ability to navigate both Haitian and American culture is what many developing countries need in their future leaders and workers.

Adoption can be a wonderful option for many countries and families. I have two daughters that are proof of this. Neither of them were orphans, but were unable to be raised in their birth families or country due to cultural expectations (lack of support for single parents in Korea and the need for a son in China). Domestic adoption within their country would have been the next best solution, but adoption of an unrelated family member is not widely practiced in Asian cultures. Due to many factors, international adoption is now becoming less common and orphaned children are being raised in their country of birth. The American vision of “saving” children from a poor country is being replaced by better social service infrastructure in the sending countries.

We have found financial sponsors for eight of the ten children at HBS. My hope is that they will be the new leaders of Haiti and bring together the best of both of our countries by implementing what aid foreign nations are able to provide while keeping the rich cultural heritage alive.

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on being a Proud Parent

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This post isn’t what it may seem from the title. In fact, I am not sure that any other parent may have had these same thoughts. But just maybe, some of you may relate to my post and I won’t feel like I am alone.

This is the time of year that I love looking at all of the cards and pictures that we receive from friends and family. It is also when many of us post pictures of family events on our facebook page. “Proud Parents” often detail their children’s accomplishments during the past year – sports teams, academic honors, exciting job opportunities. Don’t get me wrong, I am excited to hear about all of these accomplishments and honors. But sometimes our children who work the hardest and have fewer endowed athletic or mental abilities need to be acknowledged outside of the Christmas card or the facebook post.

Being the parent of 5 children, biologic and adopted, has led me to reflect on innate abilities, personalities, and home life as to what seems to be the most important factor in a child’s life. Realize how I parent now is very different from how I parented 24 years ago when I first started on this journey. Part of this is experience in knowing what matters, part being overwhelmed some days, parenting teenagers and young adults is different than toddlers, and probably the most important factor is the varying personalities and abilities of my children. Here are just a few examples:

1. The ability to stay organized with schoolwork/sports gear. Impossible for one of my kids who does not possess the gene for orderliness and further, didn’t get upset when the sports jersey was at home in the closet as the coach always had extra. The organization gene is present in triplicate for one of my kids, who has packed her own sports bag since age 5 and never missed an assignment.
2. Report card grades. Some of my kids get great grades with a moderate amount of study. Others need extra tutoring and have a higher frustration level and still attain a lower grade.
3. Independence. Although I wanted to be independent from my parents ASAP, this doesn’t seem to be the mentality of the current generation. Still not sure if this is an improvement or not. While I enjoyed visiting with my older son’s friends this weekend, I wasn’t so thrilled when they watched a movie until 2 am.

It is much harder to be a Proud Parent of a disorganized child or a child who works hard in school and can only achieve average grades. I have never seen a facebook post of a Proud Parent when their child’s team loses every game at a tournament or gets straight B’s on their report card. But sometimes these accomplishments may have taken much more effort on the part of the child. Simply participating in a sport can be challenging for kids who shy away from competition. Getting a B on a math test can be incredibly rewarding for a student who puts in extra effort with tutoring and after school help. An introverted student may have a difficult time agreeing to participate in a club activity that requires socializing.

The good news is that 5 different personalities and abilities in my house have made me a much more patient, understanding and overall better person. I was once one of those students to whom everything came easily (academics, not so much sports!) and I was judgemental of others who didn’t seem to try hard enough or didn’t care. Helping a child struggle thru math problems, cleaning their room or being part of the daily social interactions involved with 4 siblings is an example of how personality and ability work together to create an individual. Part of that I have the ability to influence by setting expectations, but beyond that it is my child’s duty to create a life that will make them happy. Being a Proud Parent means I need to be satisfied with their choices and tell them so, even if those choices are different than what I would want for myself.