Mothers Day Immigrant Style


 I have written a previous blog about two mothers in Korea and China who I will never know but yet I honor each year on Mother’s Day.  This blog  post is about those moms from throughout the world who moved to America and have raised their children in a world where their family looks different, may dress differently and are caught between two very different cultures. While most of us will celebrate our mothers this weekend for providing us with guidance, car rides, food and love, immigrant mothers in this country have done even more to make sure that their children have a better life than they did. They have left their country of birth, their extended families and all that they have known, to move to America and start over so that their children would have more opportunities. I recently had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with four of these women and asked them to share their stories.

Mona was 15 when she moved to the US with her parents and three siblings from Somalia. Both of her parents learned English and held more liberal views, but still believed that girls needed to be more submissive in their behavior than boys. Mona often needed to stand up to her parents in order to gain much of the same independence that was granted to her older brother and friends. Because of the ongoing conflict in Somalia, her mother has not had an opportunity to return to her home to reconnect with her siblings and parents. If she had remained in Somalia, childcare would have been shared between relatives as well as cooking and socializing. Raising her family in America left her much more isolated and without a support system when her independent daughter brought home a Caucasian boyfriend who she would later marry.


Hieu entered the US from Vietnam at age one, accompanied by her parents and two older brothers. Their family was sponsored by a church in Hinckley. Unlike Mona, who grew up in a diverse metro high school, Hieu and her family were the only Asians in a rural community. Although Hieu never thought of herself as different from her classmates, she remembers her mother struggling to assimilate as she had a difficult time learning the language and mourned the lack of a community of women and the comfort foods of Vietnam.  A monthly trip was made to Minneapolis to purchase some of the ingredients for homemade Vietnamese food. This move to America had been Hieu’s dads plan and her mother went along with the idea as she believed her children would have greater opportunities in America rather than in Vietnam, which was just starting to rebuild after the war.  Although she has had a few opportunities to return to Vietnam, the memories and lost connection with family makes the trip emotionally difficult.


Jackie came to the US from Kenya at age 19 on an academic scholarship to attend college. Her parents had saved and worked 2 and 3 jobs in order to put her and her 8 siblings through boarding schools and college. As each child graduated from college and got a job, they were expected to give their paycheck back to their parents in order to help the next child in their education. The expectation was even higher for Jackie as she had the opportunity for a well-paying job in America and could send larger funds back to Africa to provide for education for nieces and nephews.


Jackie’s mom

Gladys won the green card lottery at age 36 due to the medical needs of her son with sickle-cell. The medical care that he could receive in the US far surpassed what was available in Kenya.  Gladys had worked as an RN in Kenya and soon found a job in the US but had to move here 3 months before her husband and children could follow.  Once her family arrived she noted that the big difference in this country was that she was not able to afford a maid or in-home childcare provider, as she had done in Kenya. Like many working moms in America, she was faced with a second full-time job when she returned home from her paying job as a nurse.


Gladys’s mom

Despite coming from different parts of the world and at different ages, all of these women shared with me many of the same stories. Feeling responsible for family members that remain in the home country – whether that be paying for the education of a niece or being asked to help fund the purchase of a house by a cousin you have never met. Trying to keep parts of the home culture alive in your children while also allowing them to feel fully American. Sharing stories of the struggles you had to overcome to make a life in this country in order to combat the entitlement that can be a pervasive part of teen life in America. Creating a middle ground in your nuclear family between the opposing pull of the individualistic American culture and the community culture back home.

Observing a woman become a mother is something I see happen every day in my work as an ob/gyn physician. Giving birth is not what makes a mother. That task is accomplished in the sacrifices mothers make for their children and the love they bestow on them. Immigrant mothers have often made one of the largest sacrifices imaginable – leaving all that they know to try to create a better life for their children in a foreign land with a foreign language. I often wonder if I would have the strength to do the same.

IMG_7214 (2)

Left to right: Gladys, Jackie, Hieu and Mona



Birth vs. Adoption; Child vs Animal


15 years ago this month I was agonizing over the delay in travel plans to China where we would meet our soon to be 2-year-old daughter for the first time. Fast forward to last week when that same daughter, now 17, lamented that the rescue puppy we were adopting was getting older without her. Although we have had 3 dogs over the past 29 years, this is the first dog that we have obtained thru a rescue agency. I am impressed with the thoroughness that is provided to make sure that each dog goes to a home where they will be loved and well taken care of.  I am saddened that we as a society do not do as good of a job with children – both those who are born into a family and those who are adopted. Over the past month we have been made aware of the family in California who kept their children hostages in their own home while using  home-school as the cover and the father in Texas who disciplined his newly adopted daughter so severely that she died.  I was struck with the similarities between adoption of an animal and a child and believe that we would make lives better for our country’s children if we borrowed some of the same guidelines.

  1. Home Study – Thankfully we passed both the child and dog home study. Slightly different requirements each time. We didn’t need a fenced in yard for a child, but did for a dog. All family members required an interview for the child but not the dog. Fifteen years ago the house was large enough to add a fifth child; today the house is too empty and we are adding a dog. In contrast, no home study was required when I became pregnant with each of our first three children. In my job as an ob/gyn,  I often recite a silent prayer when discharging infants to a parent that I feel is living in a dangerous situation or has had difficulty taking care of  herself during pregnancy. The lives of many children could be remarkably improved if we were proactive in helping families provide a safe living situation.
  2. Cost – The cost of a child adoption, whether domestic or international, is something that many families are not able to afford or need to take on additional debt to accomplish.  The cost of a rescue dog adoption is considerably less but still significant.  Creating a child is free. I wish there was a warning before conception similar to the one on the rescue dog webpage. “If you don’t think you can afford the adoption fee, you probably shouldn’t consider adopting a dog”.  Access to free birth control and improved contraceptive education would help to reduce the incidence of unplanned human pregnancies – currently at 50%.  And when you plan a pregnancy, you are much more likely to be able to afford the costs of raising a child.
  3. Parenting – As part of the child adoption classes we attended, we heard from parenting counselors about problem solving and resources for seeking help. We agreed to puppy obedience classes as part of the dog adoption and were instructed in how to perform redirection type of discipline. No formal parenting training was provided for my birth children. I quickly learned with boys that parenting is similar to dog training – short, repetitive commands with frequent redirection and lots of love. We could help break the cycle of child abuse if we required basic parenting classes of both birth moms and dads and resources for follow-up support.
  4. Healthcare –  We needed proof of medical insurance with the adoption of a child and were encouraged to purchase pet insurance for the puppy adoption. Many children in this country don’t have health insurance because their parents can’t afford it. Needed childhood immunizations and check-ups are put off, only to incur greater healthcare costs later in life. This is only one of the litany of reasons why our healthcare system needs to change.
  5. Food – The multitude of choices for puppy chow is overwhelming – organic, high protein, vitamin supplemented, minimally processed.  We were instructed in portion control and not overfeeding.  Putting a priority on feeding children similar quality food in appropriate amounts would pay dividends in reducing the epidemic of obesity and diabetes. If I wouldn’t give my dog a Happy Meal with a Coke, why should I feed it to my children?

Our puppy has now been home a week and has settled into a routine. That process took much longer for the Chinese 2-year-old. Different language, food, smells and faces, in addition to grieving for her foster family, required 3-4 months to produce a child who slept thru the night and allowed her dad to hold her. Giving her wings this fall as she moves on to college will likely dredge up memories of those first few months; sleeping beside her so she could fall off to sleep, sharing a meal @ 3am as she recovered from jet lag, listening as she lost her Cantonese language and formed a new vocabulary in English. Tears will be shed on that day – mine for sending off the last child to college, hers for missing her dog.  But she has assured us she will facetime weekly – if only to see her dog.


My Gifts from Korea and China


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.


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.



The American Welcome Mat Has Been Pulled


Our country is deeply divided on many issues, the most recent concerning immigrants from Muslim countries. I find it disturbing that the wealthiest country in the world is shutting the door on those that are the most marginalized and in need of our grace and acceptance. Arguing with those who don’t believe as I do doesn’t work. But sometimes personal stories cause others to stop and consider how we may appear to the rest of the world.

I have felt more acceptance and a welcoming spirit during my travels abroad than I have felt from my own neighbors here in Minnesota. During a recent trip to China, our guide became lost during a 6 hour trek thru terraced rice fields. When asking directions of a young man on the path, he offered to show us the shortcut to our final destination. He saw that we were wet and cold and had us stop by his house so that his elderly grandmother could fix us hot tea and serve us oranges. Three hours later we arrived safely at our destination and he waved at us as he turned and walked back home.


I have been welcomed into humble Haitian homes and served a Coke, knowing that the family may have skipped a meal in order to purchase the beverages.


When we traveled to Kenya as part of a medical mission trip, my group was hosted and feted almost every night for hours at a stretch.


Tapestry, a movement I co-founded to increase interfaith dialogue and acceptance, has been welcomed into Muslim, Jewish and Christian places of worship in the Mpls area. Unfortunately, it has been the Christian places of worship that have expressed more reservations when it comes to accepting the beliefs of another religion. In an attempt to spread the wonderful work that we are accomplishing, I have spoken to representatives of churches outside the metro area about hosting similar gatherings in their communities. I have not been successful in receiving a single invite. Those Christian communities who follow the same teachings of Jesus that I do – welcoming the poor, oppressed and marginalized – won’t let anyone cross their threshold who doesn’t “accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior”, to quote one person that I spoke with. And yet we Christians have been warmly welcomed and hosted by both a synagogue and a mosque.

Even Pope Francis has spoken out on the treatment of refugees by Christians. “It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help,” he said. “If I say I am Christian, but do these things, I’m a hypocrite.”

One final story about why America is already great. This picture depicts a Chinese American girl born in China, a girl whose father was born in Ecuador and a girl whose mother has survived breast cancer twice due to medical research in the US. These girls used their time last weekend to help pack reusable menstrual pad kits for less fortunate girls in Haiti. What are you doing to keep this country great? Are you reaching out to those who are less fortunate with a helping hand? Or are you supporting the America First Agenda where those who have much refuse to share with others. img_1551

The blurred lines of International Adoption



When my husband and I make the choice to pursue International Adoption, we also made a commitment that we would try as best we could to expose our daughters to their birth culture. Culture camps, Chinese and Korean restaurants and musical performances have all come and gone over the intervening years since they came home. These are the activities that are relatively easy to arrange. A week-long trip returning to a birth country can be a different matter.

We had returned to Korea, the birthplace of our oldest daughter, in 2009. The trip was memorable for many reasons; some good, some not so good. Trying to herd 5 children thru the busy Korean subway and returning with the same 5 children as we started with is probably by best/worst memory. The following two pictures sum up the best memories for our kids.


A return trip to China, the birthplace of daughter #2,  has been more difficult to organize as our children became older, went off to college and the business of a girl’s social life. The stars finally aligned last month and we were off to China with our daughter and a close friend,  who is also a Chinese  adoptee. I was reminded of the Korean subway experience all over again when I easily lost track of the girls whenever we were in a crowd of Asians – which was frequently.  They enjoyed the anonymity and I panicked when I couldn’t pick them out of the thousands in Tienanmen Square.

The sights and sounds of China will have to wait for another post, as my most memorable experience from this trip was a book that I read while in China and a second book that was waiting for me when I arrived home.  “The Light Between Oceans” by M. L. Stedman has been on my “to read” list for over a year. It was uncanny how appropriate it was for this trip. The story involves a childless couple who find a child in a boat and decide to claim the child as their own. Two years later, they discover the circumstances surrounding  the child’s abandonment and that the birth mother continues to grieve for a child that she believes is lost. The characters in the story realize that there is no right answer to who should claim this child and justice for one person is another’s tragic loss. If similar circumstances had come to light regarding either of my daughter’s adoptions and I found that their birth families had not relinquished them voluntarily, would I have the principle or justice to allow them to return to their families of birth? At what point in time could I claim that they had lost their birth culture and were now better served by remaining in their adoptive home? Does the privilege and advantage of Western culture they are afforded trump the supposed hardship circumstances of their birth? Just as the characters in the book struggled with these questions, so would I.

Chinese adoptees and their parents have always known that a search for birth family is near impossible, as they are abandoned anonymously due to government restrictions on adoption . The research I did at the time of our daughter’s adoption in 2002 cited the one child policy and need for a son in the family as the primary reason for these abandonments. If a Chinese couple had a daughter first, they were usually allowed to have another child in order to secure a son for their family name. When this second child was a girl, she may have been relinquished by placing her in a public park, train station or at the gates of an orphanage, so that the family could try again for a son. Second daughters were thought to encompass the majority of healthy girls in Chinese orphanages.

This was a different story than the circumstances surrounding Korean adoptions. In Korea, birth outside of marriage is socially unacceptable and the majority of children placed for adoption were by single women who felt that they had no choice in raising their child. Most children were turned over to social service agencies shortly after birth and although the circumstances surrounding the placement may not have always been recorded correctly,  the birth mother had to sign papers relinquishing her parental rights before an adoption could be pursued. Abandoning your child in Korean does not make them eligible for adoption, either domestic or international, and these children spend their life growing up in an orphanage.

What I thought I knew about Chinese adoptions was radically changed when I returned home. I had ordered a copy of “China’s Hidden Children” by Kay Ann Johnson before the trip, intending to read it while in China. I am glad that it arrived when it did as it would have made the trip more difficult from a psychological perspective if I had spent my evenings reading the anguished stories of Chinese families who had not willingly relinquished their children for adoption. It seems that only a minority of families fit the previously cited “second daughter” construct. Couples wanted daughters and often had a second pregnancy after a son to try for a daughter (a second pregnancy is only allowed after a daughter, not a son), either hiding their second child or paying a steep fine. The Chinese government requires each person to be registered with a hukou or household registration system, similar to our social security number. The lack of a hukou is the  limiting factor in the advancement of these children thru the school system and eventually the ability to secure a job. You may be able to hide your child from village family planning authorities for a few years but that child would be unable to enroll in school. Families often hoped to pay large bribes or penalties to lenient officials after the child was born and a few years of age or they hid the child with relatives until the laws periodically became relaxed. When these options didn’t work out was when children were relinquished – either forcefully by being removed by government officials or “abandoned” in public places. These girls were very much wanted – unfortunately they couldn’t be kept.

International adoption was a convenient escape that brought in larger sums of money than domestic adoption. Couples adopting from abroad were required to travel and stay in China for two weeks, adding to the local economy. They also paid higher fees to the orphanage. Orphanages were plentiful and it seems that some children may have been placed in the orphanage “temporarily” by the family until they were able to afford the fine imposed by having a second child. When the family returned with the money saved, the child had been placed into an international adoption.

Those adorable Chinese babies and toddlers are now teens and young adults. Although they may not have had a voice in their origins, they do have a say in their futures and the rest of their story. Knowing what I now know, I would advocate for an attempt at finding my daughter’s birth family and reassuring them that their daughter is loved and thriving in her adopted culture. But this is her story now and her choice. I cannot change the policy of the Chinese government that created the need for adoptive families. Given the current imbalance in male:female ratios and the rapidly aging population demographic in China, the country has repercussions far beyond our family story.

What women are willing to do for fashion

Last week I traveled to China and was able to participate in one of my favorite activities – people watching. I was struck by the differences in women’s dress, depending on the part of the world that they represented, and the sameness of men’s dress. Fashion for women is much more changeable than men and often dictated by what is considered “sexual” or, in some cases, trying to distance females from sexual beings.


Bound feet compared to normal feet

China has a history of binding women’s feet to make them appear much smaller, usually less than 4 inches in length.  Historically, the shape of the bound foot was compared to a lotus blossom and considered erotic as was the mincing, unsteady gait that resulted when women were forced to walk on only the heel of the foot. Bound feet were also a symbol of wealth as it prevented women from participating in daily homemaking activities due to the inability to walk or stand for prolonged periods. The process of binding the feet of a young girl to create a woman who would have improved marriage prospects was a painful, disfiguring process. At the age of 4-7 ,  toes were bent under the sole of the foot and bound in place. This produced multiple fractures of the foot that, when healed, created the high arch and small foot that was desired.


Today we consider footbinding backwards and disfiguring. However, western culture has an equivalent – the 4 inch heel. Stiletto heels are considered sexual and prevent women from participating in normal household chores, in a very similar fashion to the lotus blossom feet. Daily wearing of high heels has been found to increase the risk of bunions, ingrown toenails, back and leg pain. Although a woman’s walk may be considered more sultry with heels, we know that she is not on her way to do the laundry and has the luxury to spend time on herself.

In some cultures women are considered sexual by simply being women and the purpose of clothing is to hide the woman’s figure. During my recent wait in line with immigration, I witnessed a woman, presumably from a Middle Eastern country, walking thru the airport with her husband and three children. The two older children, a girl and boy around 3 and 4 years of age, were cavorting in the hallway under the watchful eye of their father, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. The mother was following at a distance carrying an infant in outstretched arms.  Her gait was limited by her full length dress and a veil that only exposed her eyes. Observing the twirling and jumping of her daughter, I was saddened at the contrast between childhood and adulthood.


Western culture has it’s own version of the two extremes between making a female more or less sexual. In the US, Amish woman can easily be identified by their dress, plain but practical. Hair is covered with a bonnet and legs with long skirts. At the other extreme is the child beauty pagent competitions, with young girls dressed and made up as mini adult women.

Beyond fashion and dress are the ways in which we disfigure our bodies to make them more pleasing to society and men. Luckily, the tide has turned in Sub Sahara Africa and female genital mutilation is being banned in many countries. This practice of removing part or all of the labia at a young age is not only disfiguring but can lead to lifelong complications of chronic bladder infections and obstructed labor. But can the practice of labiaplasty (surgical reshaping of the labia) currently popular in the US be considered any less barbaric. It may be done under more hygienic conditions, but I consider the practice almost more horrendous as women are choosing to have their bodies disfigured and paying an out of pocket cost. The majority of women electing for this surgery cite partner satisfaction as the driving force.

History has many more examples of the ideal female body figure and clothing, choices that are driven by both men and women. There are far fewer examples of body disfigurement or restrictive clothing for men. I hope that sometime in the near future we can see men and women as having different but equal body types.


Happy Mother’s Day to the unknown Moms

There are 2 mothers in this world who will go unrecognized on Sunday. One lives in Korea and one in China. They gave birth to my 13 and 15 year old daughters and have not seen them since days after their birth. Their stories are presumably very different. In Korea, most children that are placed for adoption are born to single mothers. Public acceptance of unwed mothers is low and the family often hides the pregnant woman from the outside world. Adoption paperwork is completed  in the first few days after birth, as was the case with our daughter. If the woman later marries, she often does not inform her husband of the first child and her family never talks about the child.  This is only one of the many reasons that searching for birth parents can be frustrating.

The reasons that children in China are placed for adoption has changed over the last few years with the relaxing of the one child policy and the increase in economic prosperity of the people.  When our daughter was born in 2000, the one child policy allowed for a second child if the first child was a girl. We do not know her exact circumstances, but she was probably the second daughter of a rural family who needed a son to continue to farm the land.  Her mother would not have had much input into her abandonment (placing children for adoption in China is illegal) as this is often the decision of the husband and mother-in-law.

I am not judging either of these women. If in the same circumstances, I can’t say that I would have made a different decision. I would love to reach out to each of them and communicate how much their daughters are loved and flourishing in their current environments. However, this  needs to be a personal decision by each of my daughters. So much of their early story was out of their control that this is one important choice that they can control. They are aware of my feelings about openness in adoption, but have heard enough stories about family searches that have not ended well, that they have put any ideas about searching into the future.

Currently, open adoption is very common in the United States and preferred by both adoptive parents and birth parents. International adoption is traditionally closed, with adoptive parents receiving very little information about the circumstances of the birth family. This is slowly starting to change as the world is getting smaller. More adoptive families are traveling to their child’s country of origin and meeting extended family members. Social service agencies are facilitating communication between families after the adoption is completed. I can only see this as a positive as it helps a child have a history of less “unknowns” regarding the circumstances of their early years.

As much as I love my daughters and cannot imagine life without them in our crazy family, I still sometimes wish that they could have grown up within their birth countries.  They will both be strong woman and they may have been able to change some of the strong social mores in Korea and China that led to their adoption stories. Individualism is a strong force in America, unlike Asia where more of the focus is on the family. My daughters were sacrificed for the overall betterment of their birth family. They were received in American to benefit an individuals desire.

In my work in the developing world, I have seen some families make even harder decisions.  When there is not enough food for everyone, which child will need to go hungry?  When there is only limited funds for school, which children will benefit from an education?  If a child is sick, does it warrent the expense of a medical visit? These are choices most of us cannot imagine making once, let daily or weekly. These are the moms that most deserve our thoughts on Sunday if we have a quiet moment. On Sunday,  I will be thinking of the stories I have heard both in Africa and Haiti and giving thanks to a special mom in Korea and China.