Every adoptee has their own very personal and unique adoption story. That history is a part of who they are as they move from childhood, through adolescence to adulthood. It is important for adoptees to come to their own peace with how adoption fits into their life and achieve a comfortable balance. For international adoptees, their story began in another country and culture and includes issues of race, ethnicity and heritage.

“I have a great family. When I was growing up I always felt like just anotherkid in the community. But when I got older, it became more important to know about where I was from. Not necessarily my biological family, but my Korean heritage.”
---Alicia, age 18 from Korea

Typically an international adoption search will require working with a different country, language, laws and culture. While geographic distance and language can be difficult, the greatest challenge may be understanding the cultural context and nuances.

“I grew up in NYC where there is a lot of diversity. My parents never treated me differently from my siblings who were not adopted. But when I went away to college I was reminded repeatedly that the rest of the world sees me as Korean. I am searching for that part of myself. It doesn’t take away from the relationship I have with my parents and family. But I cannot and do not want to ignore my Korean connection.”
---Peter, age 23 from Korea

The country where search is most commonly pursued by adoptees is South Korea, since that is where adoption has been practiced the longest and most actively. It has generally been assumed that it is rare to successfully complete an international search. In the last few years some adoptees have found and reunited with birth families. However, the reality is that is quite unusual, and it is important to be realistic in expectations.

In domestic adoption search, an adoptee is looking for biological family, for family history, for answers to specific questions regarding their own personal circumstance. For international adoptees a search includes, and may be limited to, the search for culture and ethnicity. More and more adoptees are traveling back to birth countries to see where they were born and experience the rich culture and history they left behind to begin their new lives.

“I went back to Vietnam because I wanted to try to find my birth family. I was 4 when I was adopted and so I could remember them. I did find them and it has been good. I was able to introduce my birth mother and my adopted mother to each other. But since then, it has been hard. I feel torn sometimes between two places and responsibilities. It was more than I anticipated in the beginning. If you’re going to search, you better be prepared for what you may find. Search is not easy. I’m glad I did it, but it makes relationships more difficult.”
----Tuy, age 27 from Vietnam

For many international adoptees, traveling back to their birth country is the first time to experience being with others who are the same race and ethnicity as themselves. It is a curious and unusual feeling to be with people who look like you, but do not speak the same language, eat the same food, share the same religious beliefs or cultural history. For international adoptees, search requires not only navigating through the adoption aspect of the process, but the cultural component as well.

International search has additional layers to be discovered and considered. Often a birth mother who chooses adoption for her child has done so in secrecy and with anonymity. The secrecy is not necessarily an indication of her commitment to her child, but assures she can melt back into her life after the baby is born.

Considerations for International Search:

Geography:

Intercountry adoption literally means inter country, between two different nations. It requires working through the laws and procedures locally, nationally and internationally. While the laws and practices of another country may be unfamiliar and seem confusing, it is important for anyone pursuing search to acknowledge the right of the birth, or sending country, to establish their own guidelines and perimeters.

It is necessary to honor the birth country and critical not to circumvent their system, government officials, orphanage staff, others who assist or are a part of the search itself. To do otherwise is both shortsighted and potentially undermines the immediate search, as well as future search activities.

Language:

Good communication is key to any successful dialogue. Countries where international search is taking place do not share English as a first language. It is necessary to locate a resource who can translate communications, and is also competent in sometimes reading between the lines of answers that are given, or perhaps withheld. Finding someone sympathetic to the objective of search, who does not have their own political or ideological agenda, and can objectively present information and facts is critical.

Culture:

Adoption has been an accepted practice in this country for several generations. However, the concept of search for adoptees and others in the adoption triad is not easily understood, and in fact is still considered quite controversial. It is logical to assume that countries that have only experienced adoption for one or two generations, would find it even more difficult to understand.

In reality, most sending countries are quite eager to assist adoptees and adoptive families in their quest for discovery. One of the concerns of birth countries in sending a child to another country for adoption, is the sending county’s concern that the child will lose their birth heritage and identity. For this reason, while sending countries may not understand some of the more complex and abstract issues that are a part of search, they are both reassured and pleased with the concept.

International laws & Policies:

International adoption are under the authority of individual countries, and that includes search issues relating to files and records. An international search includes complying with U.S. state and federal laws and overseas laws as well. Laws vary from state to state as do policies of adoption agencies who were involved in the initial adoption placement.

Expectations:

No matter how positive the experience, an adoption search is intensely emotional. Even contemplating a search can be emotional. Like other life experiences that require complex decision making and intense soul searching, it can be helpful to seek a professional with experience working with adoption issues, to sort out feelings and bring clarity to the decision making process.

It is useful to talk with other adoptees who have searched and learn from their experience. Ultimately, the choice is as uniquely individual as the experience itself. This choice belongs to the adult adoptee. When making this decision, it is essential for adoptees to thoughtfully consider motivations, objectives, time frame, resources, and boundaries, prior to beginning a physical search process. Consider how this may change or shape present relationships. Although it is impossible not to be influenced by the thoughts and feelings of others, know with clarity that the desire to search for birth family is truly and deeply felt. Be certain it is not a response to the wishes of adoptive parents or others. Adoptees should also not deny their desire to search, feeling they must protect adoptive parents or others with negative response to search.

As search for biological family becomes more accepted and commonly understood to be a benefit for all members of the triad, adoptive parents are increasingly attempting to assist in potential future search activity of their children. This can be as simple as informing the adoption agency or facilitator they are interested in being contacted by birth family, to assertively soliciting information about birth family to ‘have available’ when the child is ready to search. The more assertive action creates an assumption by the adoptive parents that their child will someday desire to search for biological family. This can also be a subtle influence throughout the childhood of the adoptee that compromises the integrity of the primary choice belonging to the adoptee.

The reality of search and reunion is that it is extremely complex and intense. It is the deeply held view of many international adult adoptees with the experience of search behind them, that while they believe search is positive and the right of every adoptee, those who search should be emotionally mature and prepared. The feelings and emotions experienced during the search process are so powerful, complicated and overwhelming, that they can be difficult to understand and process.

Realize in advance there will be almost nothing which can be controlled. Circumstances and unknown variables will often dictate and steer what happens. That reality must be accepted as part of the search process.

Be flexible. Be realistic. Move forward slowly.

Take time to acknowledge and evaluate your feelings. Expect emotions to be fluid and uncertain. Give yourself permission to take as much time as you need and readjust as circumstances unfold. Like the adoption process itself, international search can be complicated.

International search and reunion is more difficult and complicated for many reasons, making the possibility of finding biological family less likely than in a domestic search. Although this is changing, records and resources were not always kept in developing countries and commitment to long term record keeping varies greatly from one orphanage to another.

Take joy and satisfaction in small discoveries as well as big ones...learning of, or seeing the orphanage or hospital, child care worker or foster family, visiting the town or province of birth. These are all remarkable milestones to be treasured, not minimized.

Process:

Begin by collecting and organizing all the personal adoption information available. Quality and amount of information will vary widely among individuals, including:

  • adoptee birth name, birth date and other birth information
  • name, location and dates of all orphanage(s) or child care center(s)
  • names and locations of hospitals or other facilities visited
  • dates of any activity (moves, visitors, examinations, etc.)
  • any and all names of caregivers, orphanage directors, medical staff, government officials, and others personally involved
  • visa and immigration information
  • any and all anecdotal information

Contact the direct service agency that facilitated the adoption and inquire if they can assist in searching. The agency is likely to have names and addresses of overseas contacts.

Depending on the agency response, the next step is establishing a personal connection, generally by letter, with someone in the birth country.

Conclusion:

Adoption is a lifelong process. For many touched by adoption, that process includes the desire to search. That is as normal a response as the many adoptees who never have those longings. Both emotions reflect the reality that while the adoption experience may be shared, the differing reactions to the experience itself, reflects the wonderfully varied and unique individuals who are adopted.

Support & Resources:

Family and close friends can be invaluable in providing support, comfort, encouragement and objectivity. It is especially helpful to know other adoptees who have searched and personally understand your experience. Learn all you can about the culture you are exploring. It will help provide appropriate cultural context to the information you learn during searching. Find someone who can read and speak your birth language and is willing to translate and assist with communication. There are an increasing number of books, articles, web sites and organizations that provide information, advice and support regarding international search.

Susan Soon-Keum Cox
adopted from Korea, 1956