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Adoption stories

The first photo that was sent to my adoptive parents by Holt International prior to my adoption. My case number was K-4404, given name was Joo Yang Hee, given birth date was 2-26-74. It was taken in South Korea.

Jennifer Arndt-Johns
Minneapolis, MN

Birth Country: South Korea
Decade of adoption: 1970s

"You were abandoned when you were a baby at a police station in Korea. ... We're sorry we don't know anything more. We love you very much."

My parents' response to my questions about the precursors to my adoption always left me feeling profoundly empty. I never doubted my adoptive parents loved me. Their love was obvious. I have experienced it throughout my life in a multitude of ways and I continue to feel their love for me, their child. Sadly, they provided me with the only information they had been given from the adoption agency. And in turn, the adoption agency provided them with the only information they had been given. My story, like the stories of thousands of others, is a legacy of unknowns.

What I didn't understand is why the individuals who should have constituted my biological Korean family abandoned me. The questions are endless. They have taunted me relentlessly throughout my entire life, even despite my attempts to silence their tirades. I managed to suppress them for the greater portion of my youth, but my efforts waned as emotional ripples turned into riptides and the riptides turned into a massive wave of emotions that threatened to drown my very being.

I drowned.

I drowned in sorrow for the initial loss of my connections to my birthright. I drowned in hate towards the society that would not permit the woman who birthed me to keep me. I drowned in anger because of her inability to stand up for herself and fight to keep her child. I drowned in the envy I felt towards others who were not like me. I drowned in sadness because of the isolation I felt. I drowned in fear because of all that I did not know. For these reasons and many more, I drowned. And when I let it all wash over me, somehow, I surfaced with new understanding.

Understanding myself has not been something that has come easily. In fact, for half of my life I have misunderstood who I am and in return, I have been misunderstood.

I often reflect on what landed me in this complicated predicament. What I have come to realize is that my identity is fraught with contradictions within the context of the society where I have been raised. When set within the majority, I am not normal, which I have learned to accept and understand now, but getting here hasn't been an easy task. Further compounding the issue is the fact that when I return to the country of my birth, when set within the majority, I am not normal there either. One can easily see how this might start to make a person a little bit insecure.

... In 1996 I returned to South Korea for the first time since my adoption. Here, I met an entire collective of adopted Koreans who had traveled to the other side of the world seeking the same answers to the same questions I had been asking myself my entire life. Out of this experience I created a documentary, "Crossing Chasms," about the experiences of adult adopted Koreans and their respective journeys back to their country of birth. Through meeting other individuals who had been adopted from Korea, as well as other countries from around the world, I realized that I was not alone. I also realized that I was as normal as normal can be. If only I had known earlier.

After returning from Korea, I made a commitment to myself that I would continue to seek knowledge and educate myself about my country of birth. In doing so, I quickly learned about the many social, political and historical events that lead to the beginnings of adoption. This understanding provided me with a frame of reference about where I belonged on the historical spectrum of Korean adoption. I also endeavored to get involved with artists and activists who were working to galvanize social change within the institution of international adoption. These experiences have contributed to what I look back upon as a complete deconstruction of my identity and gradually, piece by piece, like a collage, I have been reconstructing who I am and who I want to become.

The better part of the reconstruction process has been letting go of things that have negatively impacted me. I would like to share something that a dear friend of mine, Marietta Spencer, founder of post-adoption services, shared with me years ago. I met Marietta at the debut of my documentary at the Walker Art Center in 1998.

Marietta introduced herself to me after the screening and expressed she would like to keep in touch about my efforts in the field of international adoption. She proceeded to tell me that the story I was told about the beginning of my life was incorrect. I was a bit confused at first, but I listened.

"You've expressed you were abandoned on the steps of a police station. I am here to let you know you were not abandoned, you were left to be found. Whomever was faced with the difficult choice of choosing adoption for you, made sure that you were placed somewhere where you would be found. Abandonment is a word that was created by the social institutions and legal institutions facilitating adoptions, but it should be removed from their terminology. I just wanted you to know that."

I stood stunned for a moment, whacked over the head by a word that had up until that point defined my very existence. I had told my story over and over and over again to people when asked about my adoption, "I was abandoned. ... I was abandoned. ... I was abandoned." I never realized how profoundly negative and damaging that word had been to me until that moment. That evening, I went home and looked up the word in the dictionary.

ABANDONED, adj. 1. forsaken, deserted 2. unrestrained; uncontrolled 3. utterly lacking in moral restraints; shameless.

How could anyone feel good about the circumstances of their adoption when they were "abandoned"? How could anyone feel anything but anger and betrayal by individuals who had "forsaken" and "deserted" their child? But, for the first time I sat and embraced the thoughts that Marietta had shared with me, "You were placed somewhere where you would be found." I closed my eyes and imagined for the first time the anguish and heartache that must have enveloped whomever carried me to my destination on that very day. Tears poured down my face as I forgave those who didn't abandon me, but who placed me on those steps with all the hope in the world that I would be found.

Since then, I have learned thirty-one years ago, I was found on the doorstep of a police station in Milyang, a rural town located outside of Pusan, South Korea. After I was found, officials took me to the local orphanage. My records indicate I was approximately three months old at the time. Because the orphanage did not have the facilities to care for infants, I was transferred to Holt Adoption Agency and three months later, at the age of six months, I was adopted into an American family. This is how my life as an adopted Korean began.

For everyone, life is a continuous journey. But for those who are adopted internationally, we have a few extra steps that we need to take as we strive to create healthy identities for ourselves. Through the communities our families have forged through adoption and through being connected to one another, we can help each other and help others better understand our experiences so that we can be understood. We cannot allow ourselves to be defined by others, less we will continue to be misrepresented and misunderstood. May we find strength in our personal histories and be proud of who we are, with all of our intricate complexities.

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