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Sunday, January 23, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Adoptees and identity: Answering "Who Am I?" can be a long, complicated journey

Seattle Times staff reporter

A Search for Identity


Asian adoptees exhibit

Wing Luke Asian Museum "Asian & Pacific Islander Adoptees: A Journey Through Identity" runs through Sept. 4 at the museum, 407 7th Ave. S. Admission is $4 for adults, $3 for students/seniors and $2 for kids ages 5-12. Museum hours are 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information, call 206-623-5124.

Source: Wing Luke Asian Museum

Adoptee resources


For adoptees:

Asian Adult Adoptees of Washington aaawashington.org.

Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network 916-933-1447, kaanet.com

Mavin Foundation 888-77-MAVIN, mavinfoundation.org

Vietnamese Adoptee Network van-online.org

For adoptive families:

iChild for families of adoptees from India, ichild.org.

Families with Children from Vietnam 425-489-2828, kaplanfamily.net/FCV.htm.

Families with Children from China 206-523-7901, fcc-nw.org.

International adoption resources:

U.S. State Department, travel.state.gov/family/adoption

World Association for Children and Parents 206-575-4550, wacap.org.

Holt International Children's Services 541-687-2202, holtinternational.org.

Growing up in Port Orchard, Christina Johnson was your typical all-American girl. Except that she wasn't. Adopted from Korea, she identified with her white adoptive parents and didn't think much about race, even when kids pulled their eyes back in mimicry or when store clerks asked where her mother was even though she was standing right there.

Then, at 16, Johnson left her Kitsap County home for a summer youth program in Seattle's International District. The program was a leadership training session that attracted a diverse group of teens. "It was the first time I'd been around so many Asians," the 20-year-old University of Washington sophomore says. She worried about not being cool enough, not being Asian enough. Normally outgoing, she shut down.

It was one step on a difficult journey toward finding identity as an Asian adoptee, one filled with questions that came from within as much as from others: Why don't you look like your family? Why do you look Asian but act "white"? Who are you, really?

The range of Asian adoptee experiences are the subject of "Asian & Pacific Islander Adoptees: A Journey Through Identity," an exhibit running through Sept. 4 at Seattle's Wing Luke Asian Museum.

The exhibit features mementos such as clothes worn by adoptees upon their U.S. arrival and snapshots of adoptees' return visits to their birth countries. There are journals, video footage and photos of adoptive parents such as Seattle's Diane Robbins and Vickie Wallen, who adopted 3-year-old Sam from Vietnam when he was 4 months old.

With children from countries such as China, Korea, India and Thailand, these families are among the vanguard of an emerging multicultural society.

Perceptions slow to change The origins of Asian adoption, the exhibit notes, rest with U.S. military intervention in Asia, from the Philippines to Vietnam. "U.S. military and economic might," it states, "paradoxically orphaned thousands of children who were later adopted by American parents."

In the 1950s, they started coming from Korea; 20 years later it was Vietnam and Cambodia. In the 1990s, a rising U.S. economy fed growing numbers of adoptions from China, Thailand and India; these days, instead of war, the driving forces are poverty, social taboos regarding unwed mothers and family planning restrictions.

For example, advocates say the vast majority of Korean adoptees are children of young, unwed mothers who suffer a 1950s-America-like stigma.

Though perceptions are slowly changing, "Korean society is not set up for single mothers to raise their children," says Mary Ann Curran, social services director for Renton-based World Association for Children and Parents (WACAP). WACAP is one of many international adoption agencies placing Asian adoptees statewide.

In 2002 — the latest state numbers available — WACAP says Washington families took in 322 Asian adoptees, two-thirds of them from China. Another 40 came from Korea, 29 from Vietnam (which has since halted adoptions) and 20 from India.

Many agencies strive to place children with families of the same ethnicity or race. At the same time, says Lillian Thogerson, WACAP's chief operating officer, "we believe having a family is important, and we won't hold up a child just waiting for a family of the same heritage."

Last year, WACAP placed about 15 percent of its Asian adoptees nationwide with families of similar heritage.

Acknowledging heritage

There was a time when adoptive parents thought it best to fully Americanize their child, cutting all ties to the child's birth country. Jenny Kelly, adopted at 10 from Korea, says social workers told her parents establishing such links would only confuse her.

But, the 38-year-old full-time mom says, "it would be hard for anyone to look in the mirror, see an Asian face, and have their parents say, 'You're just like us ... ' You can't try to stay in the dark about this forever. You have to acknowledge it."

Many parents now go the extra mile, traveling overseas to see their child's origins and fostering appreciation of the child's birth country. One long-popular method of educating adoptees about their birth countries are dayslong "culture camps" where participants learn about native arts, food and traditions.

"Adoptive families are becoming more aware that the child needs to be in touch with his heritage," WACAP's Curran says.

Though their adopted son is only 3, Robbins and Wallen say they aim to give Sam every chance "to make sense of who we are as a family." They've already begun reaching out to determine how to teach him his Vietnamese culture and language.

"It's early, but we're beginning to water those seeds of how one defines oneself," Robbins says. "These days, everybody likes categories, and we kind of defy them."

Kelly says adoptive parents should offer opportunities without pushing too aggressively. It's a fine balance, but she's glad fewer parents now choose to ignore their child's origins.

"The confusing part is being told you're just like everybody else," she says. "That's where you have your identity crisis, because you believe that. You feel totally Caucasian on the inside, but when you go into the real world, you're treated different, as an Asian individual."

Journey to identity

In one installation of Wing Luke's adoptee exhibit, adoptee Mimi Sang Peterson recalls being asked by an Asian American why she hangs around so many white people. "I realized unconscious and insensitive assumptions and comments ... can come from both minority and majority groups," she says.

In another, Korean adoptee Sue Anne Guild confesses: "Ever since I was a young girl, I wanted to be the average 'White American.' "

Some adoptees seek answers in their pasts — in documents, or on "homeland tours" offering visits to their birth countries. Others — like UW's Christina Johnson, who's never felt the need to seek out her birth parents — only pursue the issue so far. "It doesn't map out the same for all of us," says Kelly.

But because adoptees' journeys toward identity can be gradual and complex, support groups such as the Asian Adult Adoptees of Washington (AAAW) have blossomed to provide resources, networking and camaraderie. Founded in 1996, AAAW serves both adoptees and adoptive families — for instance, offering guidance for those considering birth-country visits or just looking for similar companionship.

Other support groups include the Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network (KAAN), the Vietnamese Adoptee Network and Mavin, an organization supporting transracial adoptees and the country's growing mixed-race population.

For adoptive parents, there's iChild, for families with children from India, and the self-explanatory local chapters of Families With Children From China (FCC)and Families with Children from Vietnam (FCV).

But there are also support groups opposing Asian adoption. The Wing Luke exhibit, for example, features a T-shirt with an illustration of a dangled newborn being stamped with the words, "Made in Korea." The shirt is produced by Adoptee Solidarity Korea, a group of adoptees which "recognizes the root causes of Korean adoption in imperialism."

While the Dec. 26 tsunami that ravaged Southeast Asia has raised interest in adoptions, authorities estimate it could be months, or even years, before affected countries determine orphan status and then, whether and when to make children available for adoption.

"In the meantime, what we hope the public remembers is that there are children who ... are already waiting for families, legally free for adoption," says WACAP's Kristine Leander.

A turning point

UW's Johnson doesn't know why she was put up for adoption in Korea, but she's happy with how things turned out.

As a youngster, her parents Douglas and Nancy Johnson sent her to several culture camps for adoptees. For a long time, all she remembered was getting to eat a lot of rice, but now, after years of answering the same questions, she recalls something else: "For that one week, you didn't have to explain why you had white parents," she says. "You didn't have to go through, why is your last name Johnson?"

The summer she spent as a 16-year-old in Seattle proved to be a turning point. It was the same summer a group of Asian youths were cited for jaywalking in an incident that promoted charges of racism and bullying against a Seattle police officer. Johnson embraced her Asian self to such an extent that afterward, friends back in Port Orchard teased her for being too Asian.

She'd grown up the only way her parents knew. "There's no guidebook saying how to raise an Asian baby in a white home. ... They did the best they could. I'm proud of who I am and who my parents are."

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or mramirez@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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