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Where has the time gone?  It was almost a year ago that I received an email from a television show that offered to help search for my supposed Vietnamese foster mother.  The application requires a large amount of personal information.  I start to fill it out, then stop, start filling it out again, then stop again.  My mind seems trapped in the risk/benefit analysis of giving up my privacy to complete strangers and the slim chance of finding a woman who isn’t even my mother.

During my interview with John Safran, he brought up the subject of privacy rights vs. birth searches.  I wish I’d had the presence of mind to convey the thoughts I’d expressed in an earlier conversation with a fellow adoptee.   Some people seem to focus on the privacy of parents over the need for an adoptee to know, but there’s more to it than that.  Many adoptees have to give up their privacy in order to even begin a search.  Many of us have to trust complete strangers with information of which we’re usually very protective.  We become ripe for exploitation.  Then there’s that devastating disappointment when nothing is found.

Thinking about it makes me want to scream at woman considering giving up their babies to stop.  Do they understand the vulnerable position in which they place us?  Did they ever consider it?   I’m sure many were convinced they were doing what was best for themselves and their babies.    Maybe they were in some situations, but it doesn’t feel like it from where I’m standing now.

Part of me dreads another disappointment.  I’ve so far sent out two inquiries.  One ran into a dead end.  The other never got back to me, not even to tell they were still looking or to say they’d found nothing.

So I waffle back and forth, filling out the form a little each day as I continue to weigh the costs against the potential benefits.  I know I’ll eventually send it.  How can I not?

Thinking out loud…

What exactly defines an “adoptee perspective?” In the most general sense, I guess it could mean “from the point of view of an adoptee,” but is there something more specific that makes an opinion, essay, poem, work of art, etc. particularly “adoptee?” If there is, then what are the characteristics that distinguishes it from that of non-adoptees?

As far as I can tell, there are none except the fact that we are adopted. There are signs we can look for in the case of TRAs. Ethnically mismatched names and faces, photos with racially different family members, but even those are extraneous and could be attributed to other factors.

Unlike the previously mentioned, a sense of rootlessness or not belonging can be conveyed as part of an adoptee point of view, yet even these fall short. While perhaps particular to an adoptee, they are not exclusive. So what the hell are we talking about when we say, “adoptee perspective?” And why am I even thinking about this?

I suppose it’s because recent events have forced me to ask myself some hard questions. The recent scandal and subsequent closing of adoptions from Việt Nam, the blog exchange between Kevin Minh Allen and Adam Theodore, recent events in my personal life, and some less than stellar experiences with adoptees and people from the media have all thrown me for a loop. I guess it’s going to take me a while to get my bearings.

There is a new term that’s floating around out there – TRAmbiguity. It was originally coined by TRA writer Bryan Thao Worra. Any number of definitions might be assigned to this term but I prefer to think of it as: a behavior and/or state of being specific (though not exclusive) to transracial adoptees that allows them to remain undefined – ambiguous. The reason I use “TRAmbiguity” is because I am a TRA and that is how I chose to define my existence based on my experience as a transracial adoptee.

I believe living between races and cultures has allowed me to fine-tune my diplomatic skills down to an art-form. That’s not to say I wasn’t sincere. The lens through which I see the world is very gray. At first, I considered TRAmbiguity as more of a tool, but have since come to accept it as a state of existence through which I’ve learned to navigate. There didn’t seem to be a lot of choice in the matter – not if I wanted to avoid getting stuck in the polarized world in which society says we should live. Vietnamese or American? White or Asian? For or against? Pro or anti? Who’s side are you on, anyway?

The nebulousness of TRAmbiguity becomes problematic when faced with situations where I’ve felt pressure to pick a “side” or take a stand on some issue. Sometimes that pressure is internal, sometimes it’s external and at other times, both. The pressure I exert on myself is much easier to manage as I understand its source. The external pressure, however, is outside my control. Dealing with it can be tricky. Of course, one would think neither should matter as long as one is true to oneself, but it’s rarely that simple.

A recent example could be the recent accusations of corruption and subsequent closing of adoptions from Việt Nam. I voiced my concerns quite loudly questioning whether it was wise to continue allowing adoptions from my birth country. In fact, I did feel it was prudent not to until things were sorted out.

Some could interpret that as a stance against adoptions from Việt Nam, against international adoption or adoption period. Yet all the while, I supported Ethica’s efforts to try and ensure that pending and any future adoptions from Việt Nam remained ethical. Some could interpret that as a my being for adoptions from Vietnam, for international adoption and/or adoption period. Both interpretations would have been wrong as I have never expressed either opinion and truly cannot think in such binary terms about adoption or anything else. Support, criticism or outright opposition to one thing need not imply generalized support or opposition to another.

Likewise, choosing to embrace one’s ambiguity need not prevent adoptees from taking strong stands on issues important to them. Support for open records and adoptee rights, pushing for stronger support for birth families, exposing corruption and abusive adoption practices and being critical of ones own adoption or adoption itself should not imply that one is against adoption as a whole.

Ideally it really shouldn’t matter, but functionally it does. Whether a person is perceived as either pro- or anti-adoption can influence who that person speaks to in the media and who speaks to that person. It can be a factor in who links you if you blog, determine whether one’s loyalties are questioned and by whom and sadly, determine who trusts whom and with what.

Being too ambiguous or diplomatic can create doubts about one’s loyalties, foster feelings of suspicion and can make it difficult for an adoptee to find a place in which they feel they “belong.” From an “adoptee perspective” that is perhaps the saddest of all outcomes, because many of us are specifically seeking comradery with our adopted peers. To end up isolated or falsely labeled is detrimental to adoptees as a community. Such a split weakens us and could be exploited for any number of agendas other than our own. If I must be against something, it is that.

The blog exchange between Kevin and Adam was encouraging and drove home the importance of Vietnamese adoptees having similar open discussions – adoptee to adoptee. I think it would be a productive venture to continue discussions started a few years ago and spark new ones relevant to current circumstances.

Unlike forums, blogs allow us the liberty of engaging one another in lively discussions from the comfort of our own “turfs” under our own terms. It’s encouraging to see more and more VN adoptees getting their perspectives out there on their own. Hopefully, that trend will continue to expand and deepen in expanse of topic and depth of discussion.

Perhaps once adoptees begin to actively define and broaden the meaning of “adoptee perspective” on our own terms, TRAmbiguity will no longer be a source of suspicion. Hopefully, it will come to be seen as a liberated state of existence that allows us to speak freely without the fear of being labeled. Maybe it’s just a pipe dream, but it seems like a worthwhile goal – especially if it leads to a greater sense of solidarity among us. At the risk of sounding sappy, that is where I think we’ll find our greatest strength and what will enable us to make some of our most worthwhile contributions.

Timeline in Brief:

Dec 20, 2007
A New Family

Dec 26, 2007
Preparing and Waiting

Jan 3, 2008
Across the Miles

Jan 11, 2008
Aftermath of adoption: adjusting to the culture

Jan 13, 2008
Sent letter to the editor expressing our concerns about the series.

Jan 14, 2008
Kevin receives reply from Anh Do requesting further discussion.

Jan 15, 2008
Anh Do speaks with Kevin over the phone and mentions Jami Farkas will be in touch.

Jan 16, 2008
Response from Anh Do (Letter from the editor)

Mar 12, 2008
Jami initiates contact via email stating she’s “doing a follow-up story on our adoption series and would like to speak briefly” with each of us.

Two of us respond the same day. She tells Kevin she will call him the following evening.

Mar 17, 2008
I respond to Jami’s initial email asking her to elaborate.

Kevin sends follow-up email to Jami inquiring as to why she didn’t call. He also sends a follow-up to Anh Do.

Mar 18, 2008
Anh Do responds to Kevin’s email explaining that Jami had some serious health issues and was unable to contact us.

Mar 26, 2008
Jami sends explanation and apology. She asks if we would agree to answer a few interview questions. She tells Kevin and I that she will send her interview questions later that night.

That’s the last the three of us heard from her.

April 12, 2008
I send follow-up email.

No reply.

* * *

As Kevin previously mentioned, events did not go as we’d hoped. Though it began as a gesture of goodwill, Người Việt’s offer quickly turned into what felt more like a brush-off. I have worked with editors and journalists before, but none have ever dealt with me so unprofessionally and with such disregard.

The three of us had discussed blogging about the series but decided to first write a letter to the editor expressing our concerns. After Kevin received Anh Do’s email response requesting a follow-up discussion with him, we were optimistic and enthusiastic about continuing the discussion. Apparently, Anh Do shared our enthusiasm given her prompt responses. However, once she handed responsibility over to Jami Farkas, there was a marked change in interest on the part of Người Việt.

Jami did eventually get in touch with us – two months later. Yet her email was completely devoid of the kind of professionalism one would expect from “the premier English-language publication of the Nguoi Viet Daily News, the oldest and largest Vietnamese-language newspaper in the United States.”

Wed, Mar 12, 2008

Dear Kevin, Khai, Sume and Anh:

(Fellow adoptee) gave me your e-mail addresses. I am doing a follow-up story on our adoption series and would like to speak briefly with each of you. Would you mind sending your phone numbers so that I can call you?

Thanks!

Jami Farkas

First, we didn’t know who the “fellow adoptee” was as she mentioned him by his first name only. Second, we thought Anh Do had already given her our email addresses. Why was she getting them from another adoptee? We didn’t know Jami from Judas and weren’t entirely comfortable just handing over our phone numbers to her.

Despite our reservations, we continued to express our interest in contributing to Jami’s vaguely proposed “follow-up story.” Two of us sent in replies the same day which resulted in Jami making an appointment to speak with Kevin over the phone that following Friday the 14th. She sent no reply to Anh Dao.

After taking more time to consider, I sent in my reply on the 17th.

Mar 17, 2008

Hi Jamie,

Thank you for your interest. Can you please tell me a little more
about your follow-up story and our expected contribution to it?

Sincerely,
Sume

No response.

Having not heard back from Jami, Kevin sent emails to both Jami and Anh Do the same day inquiring as to why we hadn’t heard back from Jami. She’d missed her appointment with Kevin and had failed to respond to either me or Anh Dao. In his emails to both Jami and Anh Do, Kevin conveyed our concerns about Jami’s lack of communication and professionalism. Anh Do sent a reply the next day explaining that Jami had some health problems and couldn’t get back with us. Feeling bad that we had jumped the gun, the three of us decided to just wait and see.

Jami did eventually get back with us on the March 26 explaining her situation and apologizing for not getting in touch with us. We expressed hopes that we had not been too harsh in questioning her lack of response along with well-wishes regarding her health. It seemed we could resolve the situation as a misunderstanding resulting from events beyond our control. In her email, Jami said she would send us some interview questions via email later on that night, but we never heard back from her. Kevin and I both sent yet another series of emails – mine being the last, dated April 12, 2008. We have not heard back from anyone at Người Việt since.

* * *

Confused? So were we.

Initially, we wondered if perhaps Jami had again experienced health problems and perhaps that might explain her failure to communicate with us. Despite our enthusiasm to get things underway, none of us wanted to jump to conclusions or be inconsiderate of any recovery time she might need.

Shortly after I sent my email on April 12th, we learned that protesters had gathered outside Người Việt’s office angry over a photo they’d published that allegedly “denigrated the old South Vietnamese flag.” Again, we decided under the current situation, it might be understandable that the entire staff at Người Việt might be pre-occupied with handling their sudden public relations crisis. So again, we waited.

It wasn’t until we entered May without a word from Jami or anyone from Người Việt that we began to wonder. Was she so incapacitated that she couldn’t send a brief update or acknowledgment that she’d received our emails? If so, then couldn’t she have asked another staff member to get back with us?

Thinking something might have happened to her, I went to Người Việt’s website to see if Jami had been updating. A quick search proved to be telling.

1. Doctors say stylish helmets less safe
(Thursday, May 22, 2008 12:12:12 AM – Compiled by Jami Farkas from news reports)

2. Teen births cost taxpayers $61 million in O.C. region
(Thursday, May 22, 2008 12:08:22 AM – Compiled by Jami Farkas from news reports)

3. Women wrestlers’ Olympic bid canceled
(Thursday, May 22, 2008 12:01:45 AM – Compiled by Jami Farkas from news reports)

4. UK continues annual grant of $100 million to Việt Nam
(Wednesday, May 21, 2008 11:56:07 PM – Compiled by Jami Farkas from news reports)

5. China quake rattles buildings in Việt Nam
(Friday, May 16, 2008 3:39:11 PM – Compiled by Jami Farkas)

6. Golf courses displacing agricultural land
(Friday, May 16, 2008 3:34:49 PM – Compiled by Jami Farkas)

7. First private plane in years now in Việt Nam skies
(Friday, May 16, 2008 3:25:18 PM – Compiled by Jami Farkas)

8. Car sales up in Việt Nam
(Friday, May 16, 2008 3:22:36 PM – Compiled by Jami Farkas)

9. 2 reporters nabbed for scandal coverage
(Friday, May 16, 2008 3:15:12 PM – Compiled by Jami Farkas)

10. Activist convicted, to be deported
(Friday, May 16, 2008 3:07:50 PM – Compiled by Jami Farkas)

11. Letter from the Editor
(Thursday, April 03, 2008 9:50:36 PM – By Jami Farkas)

12. Practicing what he preaches
(Wednesday, March 26, 2008 10:39:45 PM – By Jami Farkas)

13. Letter from the Editor
(Thursday, March 13, 2008 6:56:20 PM – By Jami Farkas)

14. This label is easy to make
(Thursday, February 28, 2008 7:32:00 PM – By Jami Farkas)
Kim-Oanh Nguyễn-Lâm is an educator, first and foremost.

15. Letter from the Editor
(Wednesday, February 06, 2008 10:38:15 PM – By Jami Farkas)

Obviously she’s been quite active – so busy that she couldn’t take the whole of five minutes to get back with us. Did Người Việt think we would simply go away? In good faith, we’d postponed our response to Venus Lee‘s adoption series only to be stalled, dropped and eventually ignored without a word.

Personally speaking, I never doubted the sincerity of the previous editor, Anh Do. Her response time alone implies her interest. As Kevin states in his previous post:

To say the least, I was impressed with Anh Do’s act of reaching out to our aggrieved party and seeking to make amends by bringing balance to the discussion on adoption from Vietnam. Each of us were notified that Anh Do was going to contact us with prepared questions and conduct a brief interview with each of us.

However, I have to seriously question that of Jami Farkas – not only because of her poor response time, but because of the offhand way with which she approached us from the beginning. Obviously, both the paper and Jami had remained active despite any “health issues” or public relations problems. What Jami’s actions seem to indicate is simply a lack of interest and/or that she didn’t take us seriously.

* * *

As my co-blogger, Kevin Minh Allen, has already done such a commendable job, I will only throw in some supplemental thoughts of my own.

I’m fully aware that there will still be people out there thinking, “So what?” There may be others who question whether it’s even appropriate for us to be pointing out Người Việt’s lengthy yet sadly lacking series. Still there will be others who will dismiss our criticism of Jami Farkas and her paper as nothing more than whining. Whatever.

On a personal level, of course, being dropped is never fun, but I could get over that part. Even the cavalier, flaky way with which Jami treated us, while insulting, could be passed off as a problem with her more than us. However on a deeper level, as a Vietnamese adoptee, being given the proverbial finger by a Vietnamese American paper really bites.

I’m not talking about journalistic integrity or anything so impartial *cough, because this is personal. To try and wrap Người Việt’s actions into a supposedly more objective skin diverts attention away from an adult adoptee perspective. Isn’t that contradictory to the goal (for many of us) of getting our undiluted point of view out there? We can argue about journalistic integrity all we want, but I think that makes it too easy to ignore how events like this can affect an adoptee on a deeply personal level.

And why should we? Life as an adoptee is a profoundly human experience. For many, the effects of adoption are deeply felt and last a lifetime. Dismissing or completely ignoring how our lives as adoptees affect our perspective feels like trying to take the water from an ice cube. Of course, it’s always a matter of balance. Hopefully, I’ll be able to maintain some as I attempt to bring this back down to a personal, though hopefully not overly ranty level.

Người Việt published a series of articles that basically functioned as a sales brochure complete with savior theme whilst adoptions from Vietnam were under scrutiny for unethical practices and outright corruption. On top of that, they completely ignored how being adopted under false pretenses might affect an adoptee. Adult Vietnamese adoptees would have been able to offer more realistic though possibly less idealistic insights into life after identity-revision.

On top of that, the last post of the series – Aftermath of adoption: adjusting to the culture – is so short-sighted that it also ignores the long term “aftermath” of adoption. If any part of the series should have featured adult adoptee perspectives, it should have been that one. And to top it all off, Người Việt offers to interview us after we call them on it, but then quickly drops us without a word. That’s just rude.

But like I said, I can get past that. As an isolated incident, it doesn’t mean much other than Người Việt did a really inadequate job of covering adoptions from Vietnam. It’s when I look at the wider picture and how the Vietnamese American paper contributed to the compounding problem of non-critical, AP-catered adoption literature that it really matters.

In light of the imbalance, is Người Việt obligated to compensate for the disparity? We could debate that endlessly, but in the end it’s ultimately the editor’s privilege and responsibility to make that call. That’s just the reality of it and why many of us have turned to adoptee-run mediums like our blogs, programs like The Adoption Show, and groups/forums like AdopteeRights.net and AdultAdoptees.org. Note the stark contrast between The Adoption Show’s recent contribution and Người Việt’s four-part series.

Người Việt’s recent actions would seem to indicate not only a willingness to pander to adoptive parents, but also a reluctance to allow critical or questioning adoptees to represent themselves. The fact that it’s a Vietnamese American paper seems to suggest an attitude that it’s okay for Vietnamese Americans to speak for Vietnamese adoptees, but not okay for adoptees to speak for themselves – if they have something critical to say about their adoptions. Think I’m stretching it?

Venus Lee isn’t even Vietnamese. As pointed out in the article written by Jami Farkas, Venus is “Half Japanese, half Chinese” who’s fellowship project involved “A study of adoptions from Vietnam.” Great. Given the negative experiences that I and others have had while trying to “re-integrate” into the Vietnamese/Asian American community, this is just the icing to top the you’re-not-Vietnamese/Asian- enough-cake. Thank you very much, Người Việt.

If we zoom out the lens and view the greater landscape of adoptions in the media, very little of it involves adoptees speaking for themselves as they interpret themselves and their experiences. Great strides have been made, but the overall perspective is still a very narrow view, often sifted and re-interpreted by a non-adoptee. For Vietnamese adoptees, who have had their experiences and stories milked relentlessly by non-adoptees for money, self-praise and promotion, political fodder, humanitarian causes and career advancement, this is doubly so.

It’s not that I think only adoptees are capable of and should represent their own stories. That’s unrealistic anyway. I believe we can and should work closely with non-adoptees to get our voices out there. However, there is a fine line between representation and exploitation, contribution and substitution, working with and working for. If, as adoptees, we do not adamantly draw those lines, I believe we endanger the very voices we claim to support.

Listen Now

ANGRATE ACTION ALERTS

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KALI COULTAS

Kali talks with Kevin Minh Allen about current and past adoption practices in Vietnam. Few know or understand what’s going on in Vietnam, such as its 42 operating adoption agencies. What’s disturbing, but not surprising, is that no one is consulting the daughters and sons adopted out of this country: the true voice and perspective of international adoption.

About Kevin: Born Nguyên Ðúc Mînh in Gia Ðịnh district of Sài Gòn on December 5, 1973, Kevin Minh Allen was adopted at 9 months and flown to the U.S. in August 1974. He grew up in a suburb of Rochester, NY, until at 27 years of age, he moved to Seattle, where he is currently enjoying the view. He has written and published poetry, book reviews, news articles and information panels for a museum exhibit. His work can be found online in Tiếng Magazine, Asian American Movement Magazine, The Fighting 44s and the Poetry Superhighway, and in print as well, such as The Northwest Asian Weekly, The International Examiner and HazMat Journal.

WAMU’s The Kojo Nnamdi Show recently hosted a discussion on current changes in international adoption. Kudos to our boy, Kevin, who managed to get in a few excellent questions!

Recently, a growing number of countries have tightened control on the adoption of native children by American parents. And concerns about corruption led several nations to halt requests for U.S. adoptions altogether. Join Kojo as we discuss how restrictions on overseas adoptions are affecting Americans families.

Guests

Michele Bond, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Overseas Citizens Services

Thomas DiFilipo, President and Chief Executive Officer; Joint Council on International Children’s Services

Linh Song, Executive Director; Ethica

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A blog by three adult Vietnamese adoptees as they move forward, reflect back and express their thoughts on just about everything in between. More...

Contributors:
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© All rights reserved, Misplaced Baggage, Sumeia Williams, Anh Ðào Kolbe, Kevin Mînh Allen. 2008. May not be reproduced without individual author's consent. The rights to all referenced content is held by the original owners.