A Korean adoptee shares her story from orphan to social worker
Transracial adoption: What comes to mind when you see those two words? Unless you are a transracial adoptee or have adopted a child from a racial background other than your own, you may think of a celebrity adoption story. Solo Mom Sandra Bullock adopted two children with a racial background different from her own, and runner Ryan Hall and his wife, Sara, recently adopted four Ethiopian sisters.
However, in the 1970s, transracial adoption was considered unique, and many transracial adoptees and adoptive parents had no one to identify their story with because the instances were so few and far between. At the time of my adoption, I was the only adoptee in my immediate and extended family. I was born in Seoul, South Korea, and my beautiful Dutch parents living in Grand Haven, Michigan, adopted me with the help of Holt International adoption agency.
Ironically, my neighbor was also a girl adopted from South Korea, so this was a beautiful gift. Sometimes when we played dolls together, we would pretend that they were adopted from countries such as South Korea or Japan. We would make up little stories about how they came to the United States. This sweet little girl was my best friend, and it normalized transracial adoption for me in so many ways.
Unfortunately, as I recently shared with ESME’s Kathleen Laccinole, my adoptive father, James Vande Vusse, died about two weeks shy of my fifth birthday from cancer. His death resulted in many things, and one of those things meant I would be moving to Grand Rapids, Michigan, with my mother, who was now a Solo Mom herself. It also took me away from my friend.
Moving to a new neighborhood was exciting, though, as was the prospect of starting kindergarten at a new school. I quickly realized that neither the kindergarten class I was enrolled in nor the subdivision I now called home had another family with a transracial adoptee. At times, children on the playground would ask where I was born, and I would tell them Korea. They had never heard of the country, so they would call me Chinese. I wasn’t teased, but it was fairly obvious to me that other children weren’t asked to identify where they were born.
Although English was the only language I ever spoke at home, I was tested for special education in kindergarten. They thought that perhaps I was so quiet in school because I wasn’t understanding the language. To their surprise, I was reading several grade levels above where I was expected to, and, in fact, my mother proudly reports that I began to read at age four. When my academic test results came back, it was a very distinct moment for me. I was told that I would now be given individual reading assignments that were considered advanced, and I would be working on these while the other students did the “normal” work. That boosted my confidence, and I fell in love with school.
However, I do remember one time I felt isolated because of my appearance. A girl slightly younger than I was persistently asked me why my eyes looked “slanted” and then she asked if I was able to see out of my eyes. All of this occurred within earshot of her mother. The barrage of questions were unrelenting, and I actually remember thinking, Why isn’t her mom stopping her? I tried to dodge the onslaught by changing the topic. That did not work. And then finally, just as I was ready to walk away, her mother stepped in and ended the conversation. The mother even acknowledged that her daughter had asked too many questions and I didn’t seem like I wanted to talk about it.
Now the story has changed, and I am more than willing to talk about transracial adoption. After all, my transracial adoption story has shaped the way that I see oppression and social justice issues at a global level. I know from my own personal experience that it is possible to not only get along with someone from a racial background other than your own but also to love that person deeply.
The blessing, if you will, behind any adoption story is being able to share with your child that you chose him or her. I am proud to say that several years after my adoption, my dear uncle adopted a child from South Korea.
My cousin is named Nathan, and they chose this name because it means “given” or, in some books, “gift.” My uncle and aunt felt that they had been given this gift, their child.
We are all given various gifts, and I was provided the gift of advanced education. My own transracial adoption is the reason that I pursued a master’s degree in clinical social work. The very history of social work embraces those who have been marginalized. My journey from Seoul put me on a path to helping those who struggle or are in pain—and it helped me find my calling.
ESME understands the power of each journey. Are you a Solo Mom or the child of a Solo Mom with an adoption story to share? Please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kristin Meekhof, ESME’s Bereavement Resource Guide, is the coauthor of A Widow’s Guide to Healing: Gentle Support and Advice for the First 5 Years. A licensed social worker and daughter of a Solo Mom, Meekhof became a widow in 2007 when her husband died from cancer.
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