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.

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Left to right: Gladys, Jackie, Hieu and Mona



The Parental Bond – birth vs adoption


This past weekend I fulfilled a promise that I had made to my oldest daughter on the first day 18 years ago that I saw her olive skin and almond eyes in the far away land of Korea. We were traveling west to move her in for her first year of college 1600 miles away. Just like that first trip, my nerves were on edge for the entire time – anxious about having her so far away and excited for her sense of adventure and for the incredible experiences that she would have.  Remembering the first time that we held her, I was reminded of that long ago promise – to raise her for 18 years, pay for her college and then she would move out of our life.  Memories have a way of showing up at the most inopportune times. What a difference those 18 years have made.

Bonding to an infant or child is different for everyone. Sometimes it is instant and other times it takes days and months of care giving. When my biological children were born, I never thought too deeply about bonding. Nursing was a time when I allowed myself to slow down and focus on my love for their tiny bodies and connect thru their eyes. Bonding with an adopted child is a bit different – not bad, but different. They have already had time to be fed by someone else, to form a personality separate from their adoptive parent. Some adoptive parents bond instantly.  That was not me.

I realized when I first saw my daughter that we may have completed this adoption for the wrong reasons. Was wanting a daughter to complete our family of 3 boys an adequate reason to take a child out of her homeland of Korea and raise her in a predominately white culture?  Was I qualified to parent an Asian child? Was I doing a dis-service to my three boys by creating a family that would forever be viewed as different? And amidst all of those thoughts swirling in my head, I made the promise out of fear. Fear of the future. Fear of walking out of the room and telling everyone this had been a mistake and I was not up for the challenge. I thought I could fake the “bonding” for 18 years and then go back to my normal life. As we all know, life doesn’t work like that.

The process of caring for someone unrelated to you but who is wholly dependent on you for food and shelter eventually creates a bond just as strong as birth. I was able to fake being a loving parent for a few days and gradually the fear went away and was replaced by a steadily growing love. It may have taken a bit longer than a biological child but the eventual bond was no different. Now I have the same hopes, dreams and worries for my adopted children that I do for my biological children.

Within a day of leaving my daughter at college, she had her first stab of homesickness and questioning whether she had made the right choice by moving so far from home. I reminded her of my promise 18 years previous and how our lives would have been so different if I had decided to walk away from the unknowns. Now it was her turn to “fake it” for a few days or weeks or months until she grew to like this new phase of her life.


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 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.

Family, Culture and Food


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.

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.