Messages of Birth Country Travel

When birth country travel includes the adoptive family, a team of supportive adoption specialists, and other adoptees (and their families), the ingredients are in place for a powerful experience filled with life changing messages

THE MESSAGES:

  • The people I share my heritage with are warm, wonderful, genuine people. Now I see that in ME. 
  • My adoptive family understands my need to explore who I am and is supportive. I want them to be ok with this. 
  • I have a safe place to acknowledge the loss in my life, and a safe environment to heal. In looking at the losses, I can also see the gains and see them in a new light.
  • Traveling with other adoptees and their families has given me a community where I feel like I belong in a way no other community ever has. Everyone just gets it. 

VALIDATION

In a study by the Evan B. Donaldson Institute, Hollee McGinnis reports, “For international adoptees positive identity development is most effectively facilitated by lived experiences. Travel to the country of birth topped the list.” Indeed, adoptees embarking on heritage travel are having profoundly significant lived experiences that validate and provide a sought-after first hand knowledge.

What most adoptees know about their birth country, culture, adoption and first family are things other people have experienced and shared with them. The lack of firsthand knowledge is unsettling at best. One Ties participant described it this way, Whenever anyone asked questions about the circumstances of my birth and adoption or my birth country, I recited it like I was telling a story about someone else.  When I got to my birth country, all of that changed.” 

Another said, “This has been the best thing a kid like me could ever ask for. The reason I say that is if you would like to understand your own heritage you actually need to go to where you were born.  It’s like you’re starting from the beginning again.” 

Starting at the Beginning

Ties birth country journeys offer opportunities to revisit chapter one. They incorporate visits to birth cities, finding sites, maternity clinics, hospitals, orphanages and foster homes. Adoptees often meet caregivers, doctors, foster families and more frequently than we imagined early on, birth family. (Note: all visits are choices, not expectations, and sometimes they are not possible or even desired. We get that and will support adoptees and their families in what they choose to pursue.)

These experiences provide adoptees validation that their stories are real. There is often a sense that adoptees feel more real themselves as a result.

One teen who traveled recently recounted the emotion he felt when the caregiver at the orphanage called him by his orphanage name. “I had been told Ole was my crib name, but it didn’t seem possible it had really been true. What was even more amazing was that someone remembered ME by that name.”

Adoptees are often surprised to find things like their intake papers, post placement reports and photos (things their parents sent) in a file they can actually see and touch. “When we arrived at the baby home, I saw the same papers that are sitting on the coffee table at home. They even let me take a picture!” a Ties adoptee said with surprise.

Other Ties adoptees have shared:

“I met the doctor who delivered me, and he did a quick physical exam, listening to my heart with a stethoscope and checking in my ears. Even though I’m now 16 years old, he said, ‘You seem to be as healthy as the day I delivered you!’ The idea of a doctor actually delivering me in Korea felt really cool.”

“As an adoptee, the whole day at Social Welfare Society, seeing my file, and meeting my foster family meant the most to me. She was the person who actually cared for me and loved me. When we were having lunch, she kept feeding me, physically feeding me, showing me I had been loved.” 

“I went to the park where I was found. I realized I had truly been there and that someone cared enough to take me there. I thought someone had made that up, but now I’ve seen it for myself.”

Birth Family

As you can imagine, meeting birth family has a LOT of impact as well. While not all international adoptees are able (or even desire) to have this experience, there is quite a lot of international birth family reunion happening in most of our programs.

One adoptee sent us this note after his trip: “EVERYTHING changed!  When I was younger, even though my parents told me I was loved and adopted, I still felt resentment and insecure.  While visiting my birth country and meeting my birth family I had a feeling such as somebody letting the air back into the room.  I felt complete and that there was no longer a piece missing.”

This is not to say that meeting birth family is always an intensely satisfying experience. But more often than not, Ties adoptees express positive emotions around the experience, new understandings of circumstances, choices and emotions.

When There’s Nothing

Andrea Christensen recalled how emotional she had become when seeing her file.  “I think I had always known there would be nothing there about my birth family, but there was always this part of me that had hope.  When there really was nothing, I cried, and I don’t usually cry.”   When asked if that experience created greater sadness, she said, “No, I think it brought me more to acceptance and being ok with it.”

In perhaps the most poignant words ever spoken on this topic, Aimee Sonkiss described where the “not knowing” has taken her. “Like those who have lost a parent through illness, or absenteeism, I know I have an emotional burden of the uncertainty, hurt, and unfairness of the situation surrounding my birth parents and unknown history. But like many others, although I can’t say I’ve found peace with the situation, I’ve come to terms with it as a part of my whole. Instead of covering the emotions over and pretending they’re not there, I think I’ve learned to accept their existence and live alongside them.

Other Ways Adoptees Connect & Validate

Being There Matters

For many adoptees, simply BEING there is intensely significant. Returning from China Ties, Molly McPeak wrote, “I knew I was adopted from China, born in Anhui Province, found somewhere in Tongling City, but when you actually get a chance to go back to your roots, everything seems to come together. Even though I can’t remember the years I was there, it felt like the missing part of me was finally found. I found out the reason behind my name and the actual site where I was found. All the missing information was finally right in front of me.  I learned who I truly am.”

Peruvian born Carmen Knight describes it this way, “Through our senses we are able to make a connection to the place where we started our lives. While there are many wonderful things about our countries, there usually are some things that are sad and are hard for us to confront, such as poverty. Yet, the processes of making our birth countries and culture real is acknowledging and accepting the good and the bad. Once we can come to terms with all that is our birth country, we can be proud in where we come from.”   

Being There Opens Opportunities

While Eleanor Chin traveled, she interacted with lots of school kids, all wearing uniforms.  She remembers, “A desire to have my own uniform kindled inside me.” So, the next day, she and her dad went on a mission to purchase one. “You can only get those in schools” a store owner advised her.

To her surprise, the store owner went on to say, “My daughter graduated. You can have her uniform.” Even more surprisingly, the store owner offered to have it mailed to Eleanor’s next hotel!  Can you imagine the power of this stranger’s kindness? Eleanor now has her very own Chinese school uniform. “My happiness in that moment was unsurpassed,” Eleanor told me.  “The experience contributed greatly to me as a ‘Chinese girl’ –I’ve always known I was adopted from China, but I feel more connected to those roots now.”

Being There Communicates

Sometimes things that would otherwise go unnoticed have the most impact. “I traveled the summer I turned 12,” recalls this Ties participant. “I cannot even begin to put my experience into words, but I believe this story best captures what the trip meant to me. Upon landing at the capital city airport, I noticed all the models on all the billboards looked like me. For the first time in my life, I truly felt beautiful.”

Boys in our Guatemalan Ties program are also tuned into how their appearance connects them to their birth country. We often find them at the barber shops where stylish haircuts with grooves cut into them are all the rage. We’re pretty sure this picture says it all!  (After their haircuts, the boys decided to start a band called The Hot and Spicy Tortillas. This is their cover!)

Guatemalan Ties: After their haircuts they decided to start a band called
The Hot & Spicy Tortillas. This is their cover!

Next up in this series: A Homeland Journey Answers Your Child’s Biggest Question:  Why?  Watch for it in a about 10 days! (Note-by requesting to receive our blog, you will receive notification when each part in the series is posted. If you already receive our mailings, no need to subscribe. We’ve got you covered!)

Other parts in this Identity Series:
Introduction
Birth Country Travel: Upon Arrival
Language and Birth Country Travel
Blending In and Standing Out

Blending In and Standing Out

“I dreamed of going back to my birth country just to be able to fit in.”

We hear that a lot.

Given the opportunity on a birth country trip, many adoptees are anxious to walk a few steps ahead or a few steps behind whoever they are traveling with (sorry Mom and Dad!) to see what it feels like to blend in, to be “like everyone else.” 

For most, it is the first time in their lives where they’ve had the chance, and the call is often irresistible.

As they seek to blend, adoptees tend to consciously factor in the language issue, sharing (usually afterward), “I thought if I just didn’t talk to anyone, no one would know.”  And for short periods of time, that works. 

Then: Wait a minute, I still stand out?

Despite being in a country where blending feels like an option (and to an extent, it is), many adoptees quickly begin to unpack years of emotion around fitting in, a process that feels essential to healing. Issues of dual identity become front and center.

One piece is of course appearance. Spoiler alert—blending is not all about appearance.

 “For most of my life I felt different. I felt that I wasn’t worth as much. It seemed that I could not be more out of place. Even in my family it seemed that way. I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. Going to my birth country changed that for me. Everyone looked like me and I belonged.”  –Ties teenager

For many adoptees, the path to healing is not so clear. In our 25-year-18-country history taking adoptees and their families on this important journey, we’ve heard a continual dialogue on this topic as adoptees seek to work through the feelings of having a foot in two worlds.

One Ties adoptee reflected, “I was amazed that people in my birth country actually do look more like me than the people at home – if only I knew how to speak Chinese.”

Another noted, “I learned that even though I was born in Paraguay, I have not lived there and experienced their culture, so I am therefore not a TRUE Paraguayan.”

Even if an international adoptee can speak the verbal language or appearance is not an issue (think Russia), the struggle to speak the cultural language is ever present. The sense of knowing how things work, the food culture, the family culture, the comedy, music & sports cultures, the what’s-cool-and-what’s-not culture—it’s all there. And then some.

The dual identity conversation we hear on Ties trips sounds like this:

  • Are my facial expressions different?
  • Did I laugh at something that wasn’t funny?
  • Do I dress differently? Wait, it must be my hair!
  • Did I use the wrong condiment on the food? What was that we were eating anyway?
  • Does anyone have any idea who is singing this song? Crap, why don’t I know that?
  • Do I stand differently?  Taking a few steps:  Do I walk differently?

Subtle nuances. Things that matter when you are trying to find your tribe and make sense of the world and your place in it.

Sound like an uncomfortable reality? It is.

Where struggle takes us

Struggle takes us places, places we often need to go to understand ourselves better, to settle into who we are and get comfortable.  The struggle and the healing process are a part of nearly all adoptees’ birth country experience.

I often think how wonderfully supportive it is that during this time, parents, siblings, spouses, grandparents and close friends are in the wings, part of the journey, honoring those they love by giving them the opportunity to explore all parts of themselves.

I love that adoptees travel together on Ties trips, being there for each other and creating community among themselves.  “There were a lot of adoptees on my trip and I learned that what I think and feel about my adoption is normal, and I am not alone.” There is really no way to overstate the significance of adoptees traveling with other adoptees on this particular trip.

I love that adoptees are learning about what feels comfortable for them: “I learned to embrace both cultures rather than to try to separate them. I can be happy being adopted and I can have two families, two cultures and two homes.”

I love that the experience has such a high impact: “No matter what I do in life, this will be the number one thing that will always be on top. Nothing is more life changing than going and visiting your birth country. I’ve never experienced such emotion before. I felt things throughout the trip that I never knew were possible. For the first time in my life, I felt complete and at peace with who I am.

Identity is . . .

Identity is a continuum. Who I am today is not who I will be tomorrow. For tomorrow I will be a culmination of who I have been in all my yesterdays and who I hope to be in my tomorrows.

Birth country travel does not take away sorrow. But it can make it part of yesterday, leaving open the door for hope in the tomorrows.

Next up in this series: My Birth Country is Real and So am I.  Watch for it in a about 10 days! (Note-by requesting to receive our blog, you will receive notification when each part in the series is posted. If you already receive our mailings, no need to subscribe. We’ve got you covered!)

Other parts in this Identity Series:
Introduction
Birth Country Travel: Upon Arrival
Language and Birth Country Travel

Language & Birth Country Travel

Language is a bridge, but not the bridge you think.

For most adoptees on a homeland journey, language and the ability to communicate is an immediate piece of the journey and has a high impact on identity development. 

Very few adoptees are able to speak their birth language.  As a result, their first interaction with people in their birth country is usually awkward and unsettling. 

Thankfully, for adoptees traveling with other adoptees, the moment happens almost simultaneously.  Practically in unison, we hear, “I was at this shop and this lady was talking to me and I had NO IDEA what she was saying!”   

Language (or lack thereof) is a bridge that connects. 

Because awkward things tend to feel less awkward when they happen to other people at the same time, adoptees do something really wonderful at this point.  They use the experience as a bridge to one another, bringing them closer together and better able to help each other as they explore identity. Amazingly, something that divides can also connect. 

When I do workshops, I try to help participants understand the feelings created in these awkward moments. “Close your eyes for a moment,” I request. Then, I say, “Raise your hand if you have ever walked into the opposite gender restroom by mistake.” The discomfort in the room becomes palpable, even without others being able to see who has raised a hand and who has not. (Nearly all hands are always raised. 😊) 

With eyes still closed, I ask the audience to think about the scene and what they felt. We talk about the feelings of embarrassment. Most remember quickly trying to find their way to the correct bathroom and hoping (really hoping) their blunder had gone unnoticed. We acknowledge that the self-talk was no doubt less than positive, internalizing negative emotions about themselves.

Then, I ask them to open their eyes and say, “Now imagine we all walked into the opposite gender bathroom together.  What would we be doing right now?” Laughter ensues and the energy in the room suddenly changes. “We would all be laughing like crazy,” someone will offer. Yes, we would be joking and laughing, and for time immeasurable, we’d retell the story because it was something fun that happened together rather than something miserable that happened in isolation. It would create a bond between us.

That is what happens with the awkward language moments when adoptees are traveling with other adoptees. The experience allows them to internalize positives rather than negatives.

It gives them space to be who they are without judgement, a powerful piece in identity development.

Learning the Language

Many adoptees traveling to their birth country talk about wanting to learn their first language so they can connect better with people the NEXT time they visit.  This desire seems to reflect the hope of integrating “where I come from” with “where I’m going” and speaks to intention if not action. In reality, very few adoptees return home and actually learn their first language.

Learning first language has been a topic for as long as adoption has taken place. On many adult-adoptee panels I have attended over the years, a question related to language has come up many times. 

A parent will invariably ask the panelists, “When you were younger, did your parents encourage you to go to language classes?  If yes, were you glad they did?  If no, what do you think about it now?”  

The answer usually sounds something like this, “Yes, my parents encouraged it, but I didn’t want to go.  Looking back on it now, I wish they had made me.” 

Does that mean you should? Not necessarily.

Next up in this series: Blending In and Standing Out. Watch for it in a about 10 days! (Note-by requesting to receive our blog, you will receive notification when each part in the series is posted. If you already receive our mailings, no need to subscribe. We’ve got you covered!)

Read the Intro to this series.

Read Birth Country Travel, Upon Arrival.