Sunday, February 26, 2017

My Real Family: The Story of Mara's Adoption

I was adopted. And it was never a secret because I am Asian and my adopted family is Caucasian. It was very obvious that I was not genetically related to my parents.

For kids in the early 1980's in a small Northern California town, mixed-race adoption was unusual. I was the only kid in any of my schools who was adopted from an Asian country. For comparison, in 2008 when my daughter started kindergarten in Los Angeles, there were two kids in her classroom who were adopted from China by Caucasian families. 

Needless to say, my peers had a lot of questions. Many were shy about asking me about my family. So instead of asking, some came up with strange stories of divorces and re-marriages to explain my existence. Often when going out with my family, strangers would assume I was my bother's friend or girlfriend, or even that a friend I'd brought along with us was my parents' daughter, and I was just her friend.

But I didn't know anything different. It never offended me. Instead of being upset that people would think that, I felt embarrassed that my mere existence caused questions. I didn't want people to notice me or notice my parents when they were with me. I always felt like I had to explain my family before I introduced them to new friends or teachers because otherwise there'd always be that uncomfortable moment of confusion when they met.

And while answering questions about being adopted is sometimes awkward, it's never made me angry except when people ask me about finding my "real family." Aside from always being asked if I was from China (I'm from Korea), the question most people have asked me about being adopted is if I want to ever find my real family—my real parents. It's hard to describe the emotions for me when I hear that question. I know people aren't trying to be offensive when they ask—they're just curious. And if they've never had a first-person experience with adoption, the concept of not being blood related to their "family" seems foreign to them.

But the answer for me is, no. I don't want to find my "real family" because my real family is the family I have known for the last 39 years. My real family are the mother and father who adopted me from an orphanage in Korea in 1977. They're the ones who spent nights comforting me from the many nightmares I had in the years after I arrived in the U.S. My real family are the ones who rushed me to the hospital when I got hurt. My real family are the ones who celebrated my birthdays and who comforted me when I was disappointed and cheered for me at my dance recitals.

Blood is not thicker than water for me. Because I have never once wondered if someone who shared my DNA would love me more than my parents did.

I know that when people ask if I want to find my real family, they mean do I ever want to find my biological parents. And I suppose I have over the years wondered from time to time what they would be like. But I don't have any real desire to spend time and effort trying to find them, anymore than I would guess other people would if you told them they might have an uncle in Ireland or Switzerland. Would it be interesting? Sure. Do I feel as if my life is incomplete in any way because I don't know them? I don't.

My life has had it's share of ups and downs. And in many ways I have struggled more than I think many of my peers have. But I never thought that my struggle was because I wasn't loved enough, or because my parents didn't love me as much as their biological child, or that I was not as much a part of the family as everyone else. 

I have never once imagined that if I had somehow remained with my biological family, I wouldn't have any problems. I have never once thought that I would be happier with parents who shared my DNA. Because the truth is that no matter what situation you're in, life is not perfect. No matter who your parents are, difficult things will happen. I don't imagine some magical scenario where I remained with my biological family and had a perfect life. Perfect lives don't exist. Many of my friends who were not adopted aren't happy with their families. And the reality is that clearly my biological family was not in a position to care for me, or I wouldn't have been in the orphanage to begin with. 

So, my answer is, no, I don't need to find my real family. My real family has been by my side for my entire life that I can remember. 


Questions for my mom:

Why did you decide to adopt a child?

It was pretty simple, really. My brother was adopted, so after having had the experience of a pregnancy with your brother, it seemed natural to adopt when we decided we wanted a second child.

What were some of the reactions you experienced from people regarding the fact I was Asian?

People reacted very positively, so we didn't go through what you did. It must have been hard to have to respond to people always asking you if you were Chinese and even harder to respond when people asked probing questions about your "real parents." Your dad and I didn't have to go through that and I'm sorry you did.

The only thing that was irritating was that a few people acted as if we'd done something charitable and special by adopting a child-in-need, especially one of a different race from us. When they acted like that, it felt as if they were exhibiting that terrible "white man's burden" mentality from colonial days. It always bothered me. We never felt that we were being charitable or special. To us, you were the one who was special because you completed our family.

I was three when you adopted me. What advice would you give to other parents thinking about adopting an older child?

Well, it's definitely not the same as adopting a newborn. When you came, you spoke Korean, you had a lot of your own preferences and habits, and you also had your share of fears (you mentioned the nightmares). So I would advise people to realize that they're bringing into their family a young person who is already formed in many ways. This means you have to be flexible—be willing to provide special food, be willing to help your child through any traumas he or she is experiencing.

So, it's not the same as bringing a newborn into your house (as was the case with my brother) where, even though the baby is adopted, it's as if you've given birth and so you're starting with a blank slate, so to speak (although I remember how, when you were put into my arms at the airport in Los Angeles, it felt as if I was giving birth to you).

Overall, I loved that you were already three-years old. For one thing, no diapers! But mainly it was because it was like bringing a young person with a developed personality into the house. And so, despite the challenges, I think it was a much richer experience than having a newborn whom you can't even talk back and forth with!

One last thing, Mara: I just want to share with everyone that reading your essay made me weep. What a blessing and privilege it is to be your mother.


Note: If you'd like to read more about our adoption story, a few years ago, I posted three pieces at Psychology Today. Here's the link to the first one; it contains the links to the other two: "Adoption Diary, Part 1: Giving Birth in an Airport." Part 3 was written by Mara and is a moving and incredibly insightful essay about how the birth of her own daughter helped her make peace with her past.

Mara, soon after her arrival from Korea


  1. This is just beautiful, and made me weep, too! Thank you for sharing.