11 ‘realities’ faced by intercountry adoptees

I will look at these challenges in further detail in posts to come. But for now, I have given an overview of some of the major issues that arise in the life of an intercountry adoptee.


1. Racism

Racists target skin colour and looks. Your white Anglo-Australian parents are no protection from racism, unless you are with your parents, and probably, unless you also happen to be a child. Racists don’t know or care whether you were raised in an Anglo-Australian family and know very little about your ethnicity or culture. Whilst all Australians, adoptees or not, are fortunate that Australia is a peaceful country, the reality is that racism in Australia exists still today. We are fortunate that violent racial attacks are not the norm, but there IS racism here: At the doctor’s office, at work, at school, from people we know, on the street and in the media. Racism can pop up anywhere. Most adoptees that look ‘different’ are going to experience racism at some time, particularly institutional racism which is hard to make visible, and therefore particularly insidious. Adoptees cannot access the white privilege of their parents. Children of adoptees may also encounter racism, so racism can affect more than one generation.

A great article about this topic:

Hey Mom they don’t see your little girl, they see an Asian woman



2. Culture

You lost your birth culture. If you try to claim it, it clashes with the culture in which you were raised

You lost your birth culture – the food, the way of life, the values, the language, the celebrations, sense of humour…and the culture’s unique perspective and experience in life. That is gone. You can watch it on television or see others from outside your culture appropriate it and be considered cool, but if you try to claim it, you are leaving yourself open to racism, or at least criticism, for not being ‘Australian’ enough. Basically, culture wise, it is hard to win. If you go to your birth country, you might find that you don’t really fit in there either. You are too Australian to be Sri Lankan in Sri Lanka and too brown to be Australian in Australia. So you are in between. And what you gained in Australian culture, you lost in Sri Lankan culture.



3. You don’t know your birth language

Even if you have access to your birth certificate, you can’t read it. When you are out and about, people will ask if you know your birth language and some want to converse with you in it. They will be disappointed that you do not and cannot. Aside from the fact that learning a new language is a big task, resources may be an issue. If you wanted to learn a language spoken in many different countries, there will be hundreds of resources to help you. However, if you are a Sri Lankan adoptee who wants to learn Sinhala, you are going to face a stack of hurdles because there are basically NO RESOURCES for you to learn. Sinhala is not widely spoken outside Sri Lanka. This means there are very few resources.

Ultimately this means that, unless your birth family speaks English, if you meet them, you won’t be able to speak to them. Your mother can sit in front of you for the first time in your entire life and you will scream inside because even if you can find the words to express yourself  in such a surreal situation, you are not able to utter them anyway, because you don’t speak the same language. You would have to use an interpreter to speak to your OWN FAMILY. Imagine one of the most excruciatingly intimate times of your life. Then imagine having an interpreter there.



4. People think losing your mother and country made you lucky

Gratefulness, colonialism and capitalism at large

People expect that you ought to be grateful if you are an adoptee. If you are an intercountry adoptee, they expect you to be extra grateful. Basically, if you are adopted from a developing country to Australia, then it is a GIVEN that you are the luckiest person in the world. When your birth mother couldn’t look after you, you WON THE LOTTERY because you dumped what they consider to be your crappy* poor country and came to Australia, the lucky country. People think you are lucky because the only thing they know about your birth culture is that it is ‘poor’ (well, compared to Australia). Even if your family does not prescribe to this view and they tell you that THEY are the lucky ones because they have you in their lives, society will kindly remind you on a regular basis that your parents are wrong: YOU are the lucky one. Australia is a capitalist society. Like all capitalist societies, monetary wealth is the lens through which everything is viewed.

1. Australia is a rich country +

2. A child has a good life if they have money

=  A child adopted to Australia will have a good life because Australia is a rich country



5. Issues +

All people have issues that affect the way they think, behave and perceive the world. Adoptees as a group tend to display certain patterns of behaviour related to issues of abandonment, attachment and identity. You will likely exhibit or experience some or many of these. You may not realise you have these issues until a certain point in time when something triggers them. Aside from these issues, there is another layer of stuff to deal with – ethnicity, racism and culture. And on top of that, there are all those issues that all human beings have. Unfortunately, neither professionals (eg health professionals) nor institutions in Australia are well-versed in adoptee issues, so you will receive extremely limited support, attention and care in relation to the adoptee experience.



6. Ancestry

Trying to do a family tree is not straight forward. Distant ancestors have no lived history with your parents; their connection is purely and solely genetic. This means that it is a connection you do not share. You feel as if you sprung from nowhere and are not part of the ‘circle of life’ so to speak. Aside from this, trying to empathise or relate to the ancestors of your parents is extremely strange, because if you truly put yourself in their place and think this through, your adoptive ancestors probably wouldn’t have cared for you because of your race, in what was then, unequivocally, a much more racist Australia.



7. You don’t look like anyone, ever

Not only do you not look like either of your parents or anyone in your family, but most people in your everyday world do not look anything like you either.^ You are going to stand out nearly everywhere you go. You will get so used to standing out that you may not even realise you stand out,# unless of course you think about it. Or, you go to your birth country and you realise that you aren’t as unique as you thought! There is a sea of people with your hair colour and  skin colour and who are also vertically challenged! This is a great thing! If you are able to meet your birth family, you may be amazed to see that there are people who actually DO look like you. You are not the only one with this unruly hair that doesn’t suit Australian fashion standards or climate!

(^Unless you happen to live in certain suburbs of Sydney or Melbourne where it is possible that you see people that look like you all the time).



8. You are a minority of a minority. Every way you look at it, you’re a minority.

You are a minority because of your ethnicity. You are a minority because you are an adoptee. For those of us who are women, women may not be a minority, but they are the traditionally less-privileged sex. Within the adoptee world, you might also be a minority if you’re an intercountry adoptee. Then within that grouping, you might be a minority depending on which country you were born in and adopted from. (For example, there seem to be more Korean adoptees than adoptees from any other country). Therefore, you are essentially a minority within the minority of a minority.It means that it is very hard to find someone to relate to you or to find any support resources (about adoption or about your birth culture) that have any relevance to you. It also means your rights are often ignored because you are living a very different reality to the majority of your society.



 9. People don’t realise you are related to your own family

If you go out somewhere, or you show someone a photo of you and your family, they won’t realise that you are family….because you look nothing alike. Here is an article in which another intercountry adoptee talks about this in detail.



10. For once, the www can’t help you

Yes, some of your relatives might very possibly be on Facebook. But no, it is not likely that your family is going to be on Facebook. TV reunion programs probably aren’t going to be useful to you either.

You cannot just Google your birth mother, look her up on social media, search the electoral roll or white pages… If you belong to Gen Y, this is entirely bizarre to you and makes you feel totally disconnected.



11. Dealing with government agencies that are meant to provide adoptee services is basically a non-event


NON-EVENT: insignificant event, esp. contrary to hopes or expectations

Oxford Dictionary


The kind people at these agencies (I have only dealt with the NSW agency, which I will say were very kind) send you information about reunion registries and organisations that can help you locate your birth family. What is the point?! They know when they give you that information that it is not going to apply to you because you were not born in Australia. However, they want to send it to you ‘just in case’. When you reply and say, ‘Yes, send it to me, you never know,’ you are only being polite. You feel lost because you don’t know where to find information or assistance. You cannot speak the language of your birth country. How do you get assistance? There are very few post-adoption resources and intercountry adoptees cannot even obtain the full use of the (very limited) Government services that are available.



* This is certainly not my view – I do not see my birth country as ‘crappy’ in any way, but there is a definite vibe that many Australians see developing nations only through the lens of how wealthy they are (not) and as ‘backward’ and strange. 

# This sounds like a good thing. It isn’t. More about ‘internalised racism’ later…

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