The Children of Alenah’s Home

Story and photographs by Juliet Ercolano

This summer, I traveled to China for the second time in as many years. My purpose was to volunteer as a temporary “ayi” (caretaker) at Alenah’s Home for a two full weeks alongside my mother. For those of you who don’t know, Alenah’s is a Beijing-based non-profit foster home run by Children’s Hope International to provide between 20 and 30 babies from orphanages all over China with medical care (including surgery) that they need. The children’s medical issues range from cleft lip and palate to heart conditions to small birth anomalies.

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Working at Alenah’s was an incredible experience! My mom and I lived in the foster home and ate most of our meals with the regular workers in the home’s bustling kitchen. (It seems there is always steam coming from the big rice cooker, and vegetables being chopped on the big, round, wooden cutting board.) The meals are prepared by the foster home’s excellent chef, a young man with a beautiful smile and a wonderful way with the children. In fact, “Gege” – “elder brother,” in Mandarin — was an orphan himself, so he has a special bond with Alenah’s children.

The fact that my mom and I knew hardly any Mandarin – she can say a few words, such as “hello,” “I like Chinese food,” and “I love you,” and I have just a year of college Chinese under my belt – did not prevent us from bonding with the children and the staff of 15 devoted ayis who care for them night and day. It’s kind of amazing how much you can communicate with a smile, a touch, and even some energetic pointing!

Juliet

Juliet

As a Chinese adult adoptee working at Alenah’s, I found myself becoming emotional from time to time, no doubt because I could relate in a very special way to each of those babies and children. Twenty years ago, I, too, was an orphan being cared for in an institution, and needing to rely on the kindness of strangers to get my basic needs met. Although it’s certain that the conditions at Alenah’s are far, far better than the conditions of the orphanage I lived in for five months back in 1994, the realization that these babies and children still need “forever families” sometimes brought me to tears.

In the month since I have come home, I can honestly say that I think about the babies and children there multiple times a day, and long to see them again. Fortunately, Alenah’s staff has created a Facebook page, where I can get frequent updates on each of them and see their photographs.

What struck me the most in my time there (other than how hard the staff work every day) is that each baby and child at Alenah’s that I fed, held, read to, played with, helped walk, sat with, or talked to radiated the simple human desire to be loved. It was a true delight getting to know each ones unique personality.

Although I did not spend as much time with the older children – they go out of the foster home to school every day — they remain my biggest concern and worry. Most families who want to adopt prefer the cute babies and toddlers. But what about the children ages 3 to 8, who need families, too?

One boy, in particular, is stuck in my mind and heart. “Tony” (he told us that was his American name!) is 8-years-old and is paralyzed from the waist down after surgery for spina bifida. He can get around just fine in a wheelchair, and enjoys being the fastest and first at things. He loves to play, to read, to listen to and sing music, and is already a gifted visual artist. Though he and I didn’t have much shared language (he knows some very simple English and I know very simple Chinese), we spent hours drawing together and even writing back and forth in my elementary level Chinese. What came through to me, loud and clear, in every interaction with Tony was his intense desire to be loved and to be adopted by a family in the U.S. (Several of Tony’s best friends at Alenah’s have been adopted by Americans, leaving him behind. It is very painful each time.) I worry about this boy aging out of his eligibility to be adopted. He needs a permanent family in order to thrive and explore all his abilities, especially his ability to love and be loved.

"Tony"

“Tony”

Prospective adoptive parents, won’t you please consider bringing one of these “older” children into your home?

Can you find it in your heart to help the children with a donation?

Please consider a one-time donation to Alenah’s, or better yet, a monthly donation (tax-deductible) of $30 or more. Many Americans spend this much a month at Starbucks or buying lunches at work. That dollar a day could make a huge difference to helping offset the expense of running Alenah’s, including paying the staff of warm, wonderful ayis, feeding the children, their medical care costs, and the rent and maintenance of the home itself. Donating is as easy as going to this link, and you will get a receipt to use on your taxes to prove you donated.

Poetry as Salvation

by Luanne

Lee Herrick has a poem in Perpetual Child: Dismantling the Stereotype (Adult Adoptee Anthology) called “Salvation.”

In this poem, Herrick, a Korean adoptee with two published poetry collections and poems published in numerous literary journals and magazines, borrows the language of African-American Blues music.

He writes:

The blues means

finding a song

in the abandonment, one

#

you can sing in the middle

of the night when you

remember that your Korean name,

Lee Kwang Soo, means bright

light, something that can illuminate

or shine, like tears,

little drops of liquefied God,

#

glistening down your brown face.

By focusing on the sad and resilient music created from loss, the poem creates a poignancy more powerful than any storytelling.

I love the poem so much that I sought out more of Herrick’s writing–his “Blues songs.”

On his website, he shares these poems:

Four Poems and a Self-Interview, Kin Poetry Journal, 2013.

“Gardening Secrets of the Dead,” Tending the Speculative, Asian American Writers’ Workshop, 2013

“Self-Portrait” and “Kwi Ch’on,” Mascara Literary Review, 2012

“Van Gogh Writes to Gauguin” and “Focus Theory,” Pebble Lake Review, with audio, 2012

Because literary poetry like Herrick’s has such a small readership, I was thrilled to find his poem in the adult adoptee anthology. I hope more people will seek out more of his work. It should be read by everyone involved with adoption.

 

 

Slavery and Adoption

by Luanne

Our society has a storyline for adoption to which all involved are expected to adhere. Adoptees, birth parents, adoptive parents, friends, neighbors, extended families, teachers, and passersby have been taught these points (among others):

  • Adoption “is a positive, one-time occurrence in a child’s life”
  • Adoptees who don’t believe in that viewpoint are ungrateful or angry
  • Adoption is an incidental fact about an adoptee, NOT “who you are at the very core of your being”
  • Adoption fees are a necessary evil to pay for the costs of the paperwork, hospital bills, etc.
  • Adoption is orphan rescue
  • Adoption saves children from living in institutions
  • Pointing out the flaws in (and helping to improve) the institution of adoption is tantamount to being against all adoption

These points are part of a credo of adoption that our society has swallowed completely. In “Question Everything, Including Adoption,” by Laura Dennis and published in Perpetual Child: Dismantling the Stereotype (Adult Adoptee Anthology), Dennis touches upon each of these misconceptions and argues that we’ve got it all wrong.

In this essay, Dennis covers all the bases of the adoption credo and presents her own arguments against each. The essay is engaging and personal.

At the center of her argument is a comparison between adoption and slavery. Because of her writing style (maybe), her case didn’t feel airtight to me. And it could have.

There are a lot of commonalities between adoption and slavery. The exchange of money for a human being, for one. A contract involving the fate of a human being that is not even signed by that person, but by others, for another feature in common.

For me, one of the great commonalities is that adoptees have been ripped from their backgrounds, origins, and genetic histories. This also happened with slaves forcibly taken from Africa and brought to the “New World.” Many adoptees and slaves/descendents of slaves have been unable to track down their own pasts.

Dennis approaches the subject in many ways and makes a lot of valid points, using concrete imagery and compelling logic. Then, just when I want her to hammer home the point, she sidesteps it. Maybe her reasoning is this: she’s stirred up so much in this essay that the reader is bound to consider the slavery-type aspects of adoption and begin to ponder the issue–and yet, by not bringing home her point, Dennis doesn’t risk comparing the wholesale atrocities of slavery perpetuated on a race of people with the plight of adoptees.

This essay covers a lot of ground and gets the reader thinking about the fundamental nature of adoption as it is practiced today in our society.

Dennis blogs at http://www.laura-dennis.com/

Taking on the Identities of Others

Lucy Chau Lai-Tuen Sheen, an adoptee born in HongKong, has a poem in Perpetual Child: Dismantling the Stereotype (Adult Adoptee Anthology) called “Musings of a Transracial Adoptee.” She grew up in the sixties in the United Kingdom.

According to the poem, Sheen was Othered and objectified not only by society, but by her adoptive mother, as well.

I was placed upon the school desk as the / subject of “bring and tell”

It was my Adoptive Mother who brought / and placed me upon the desk

This treatment happened in front of 30 white children.

The stripping away of her language, name, heritage, and culture had a profound affect on Sheen. She describes herself as being “like one of those nests of Russian dolls / The difference being there was nothing at my centre / I was empty.”

 

Lucy Chau Lai-Tuen Sheen is a stage and screen actor and has worked alongside some of the British acting greats. In this poem, she makes a connection between her adoption and her career.

I chose a profession where I take on different identities

Speak other people’s words and feel other people’s

emotions

It sounds as if she has spent her life trying on identities to see what fits and as a way to fill that emptiness at the center of her layered identities.

Governor Christie, Can You Read 3 Little Pages, Please?

by Luanne

Julie Stromberg’s story “Let’s Pretend,” in Perpetual Child: Dismantling the Stereotype (Adult Adoptee Anthology), takes the reader inside the experience of an adoptee who learns that her birth certificate is a lie. Her adoptive parents are listed as her  birth parents. With that lie in place, how can she trust the rest of the information on the document? What if everything else about it is a lie?

Although Stromberg is now an adult adoptee in reunion, with a family and a successful career, she still feels as if she is stuck in a game of “Let’s Pretend.”

Like many of the pieces in this anthology, Stromberg’s is short. Like the others, it hits me hard and takes me time to absorb all the thoughts and feelings it conjures up.

To think that adults are being deprived of knowledge about themselves is medieval.

Maybe Governor Christie should read Stromberg’s story. He has until April 28 to decide on the New Jersey Adoptees’ Birthright Bill that would give adopted adults over 18 access to their full original birth certificates. He vetoed a version in 2011, and he’s been dragging his heels on a decision on this one.

So far, only seven states –Alabama, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Ohio, Oregon, and Illinois –have passed access legislation for adopted adults since 1999. I hope that Governor Christie will allow New Jersey to be the eighth. Then we need 42 more states!

Adoptee rights advocates have stiff opposition in this fight.  You know what groups are against adoptees having access to their own records? New Jersey Right to Life, the state Catholic Conference, the New Jersey State Bar Association, and the American Civil Liberties Union New Jersey chapter.

That’s pretty bad when the ACLU doesn’t think adoptees should have rights. And how does giving adoptees the rights to which they have a right! affect abortion? Do you really think in this “day and age” that the stigma of illegitimate births is a big deal? Do you know what the statistics are for births occurring outside of marriage today? More than half of babies are born to unmarried women.

The whole thing is ridiculous. It’s 2014. Why are adoptees being left back in the days of repression and secrecy?

 

 

 

Should I Read The Excerpt in the Anthology or the Whole Book?

A few carefully chosen sections from Catana Tully’s memoir, Split at the Root: A Memoir of Love and Lost Identity, were selected for inclusion in Perpetual Child: Dismantling the Stereotype (Adult Adoptee Anthology). I’ve reviewed Tully’s book before at “Split Between Privilege and Denial, The Truth Brings Wholeness.” Check out the review for a better idea about this important book for anyone interested in adoption identity issues.

When you read this section in Perpetual Child you can get a sample of Tully’s powers of description and the fascinating and original details of her life story.  The selections have been very carefully chosen and arranged to tell their own story within this anthology.

It might even be better, though, just to skip this section and order your copy of Tully’s book now. Read the whole thing. You won’t be satisfied with this excerpt once you see how caught up you get in her story.

Back to the portion in the anthology. There is a haunting (and gut-wrenching) scene in here. It so clearly shows what it’s like for an adoptee to have her boundaries trampled by others and to be forced to discuss in public things she doesn’t understand in her own mind and heart. In this scene, the mature adult Tully is interrogated mercilessly by a six-year-old demanding to know about Tully’s birth mother and her origins. She relentlessly hammers the woman with questions that serve to emphasize how little Tully has dealt with these issues. This child is both her own real person, but also a representation of all the children and adults and institutions that perform similar aggression on adoptees.

Read Tully here or read her in her own book. But READ HER.

A Focused Mind, A Bursting Heart

Karen Pickell’s story “The Letter,” in Perpetual Child: Dismantling the Stereotype (Adult Adoptee Anthology), takes the reader on an emotional ride through the narrator’s mind.

The scenario is simple, chronicling the trip to mail a letter.  The narrator is an adult adoptee with children of her own. Through a “Search Angel,” she has found the name and address of her original mother and has carefully composed a letter to her. The story begins when the narrator is getting dressed in the morning, the letter already sealed, stamped, and addressed.

The narrative is addressed to this mother, the intended recipient of the letter. In one beautiful rushing movement, like a wave that dissolves into another wave which then dissolves into another, the narrator shares her varied thoughts about the letter, her mother, her adoption, her own needs and wants, and the politics of adoption.

If that sounds like everything including the kitchen sink, it doesn’t feel that way. It’s all so seamless, so intense, and so well thought out.

The narrator is understanding about the reasons her mother wouldn’t have been able to keep her. She understands about being a Catholic girl, about what it might have been like in 1968, about how her grandparents could have had a hand in the turn the story took.

Her mind worries through a list of all that can go wrong with the letter itself. It could fall under her car tire if she throws it in the mailbox. It could be opened by a man in her mother’s house–someone who will throw it away.  Her mother might throw it away herself, without even reading it.

If her mind sounds a little obsessive, that makes sense. The narrator has been waiting 37 years for this moment. She’s nervous, and it shows in her thinking.

Underneath all that thinking is her bursting heart.

As the waves move forward, each one breaking gently into the next, the suspense builds.  Will she actually be able to mail the letter?

I guess you’ll have to read this story yourself. Did I mention that it brought me to tears? I suspect it will bring you to tears, too.

An Invitation to Contribute to “Letters for Them”

If you could write a letter to your birth mother or birth father, what would it say?

Here’s an invitation for adoptees to do just that–through a project by an adoptee at Rhode Island School of Design:

 

Hello!

I’m Robin, a junior studying Graphic Design at the Rhode Island School of Design. I recently launched a project called Letters for Them. This is to be an ongoing project, and I’m hoping some of you will join me in this work.

Kindergartner Robin and her mom, 1998

Kindergartner Robin and her mom, 1998

A little background about me and my work, I was adopted when I was eight months old from Hefei, China, and as a young child I always struggled to fully understand my story. As I’ve grown up I found that art helped to work through and express the complexity of thoughts and emotions. Even now at RISD, I’m constantly looking for ways to explore my personal history in my work.

For a while now I’ve had this idea…It all began when I found some old drawings I had made as a kid (maybe six or seven years old). They were letters that I had written to my birthparents when I was first beginning to understand where I came from. They were never sent as neither I nor my mom know my birthparents nor had any way of contacting/finding them.

One of Robin's childhood letters to her birth mother

One of Robin’s childhood letters to her birth mother

My mom and I went back to China between my senior year of high school and my first year at RISD. While there, we were able to visit my orphanage, which has changed quite a lot. We saw my file, which as we had expected, offered no new information as to who these unknown people were/are. Since then I continue thinking about what I’d want to say to them if I ever did have the chance to meet them. Letters for Them came as an idea that perhaps other adoptees think about this as well. Wouldn’t it be cool if we all had a common place to send these technically unsendable letters? Thus, Letters for Them was born.

Leter received for "Letters for Them"

Leter received for “Letters for Them”

Letters for Them is an open invitation to any and all adoptees. No matter how old you are or where you were adopted, whether you know your birthparents or not, if you are an adoptee, you are invited to participate. This is meant to be a public, open space for adoptees to write to their birthfathers and/or birthmothers.

To learn more about the project and ways to participate/get involved please visit: http://www.lettersforthem.com/.

Thanks!
Robin

Who is Peter Pan in the Adoption Story?

This is my third post about Perpetual Child: Dismantling the Stereotype (Adult Adoptee Anthology). Lynn Grubb’s essay “Mother May I?” is a thought-provoking reflection on the perpetual child syndrome.

In this piece, Grubb structures her personal experience as a how-to manual for a game. Only it’s not a game, but her very life.

The government and the adoption agencies and her (birth) mother have all conspired to keep the narrator a perpetual child. She’s not allowed to have any knowledge of her origins unless they decide she can know. She describes the hoops she has to jump through to find her mother.

Ultimately, she does find her mother, when she’s past 40, and she asks about her father. Her mother says she has no information and, anyway, he’s a “bad man.”

The narrator tries to find the father through a DNA test, but who she finds is someone else with a dead-end.

The last part of the essay describes the feelings of rejection that she got from her mother’s decision.  It wasn’t a “loving choice” or a “desperate decision” to the narrator.

Grubb describes feeling like a perpetual child in a way that I can’t stop thinking about:

Realize that you are similar to Peter Pan in that you can never grow up according to the authorities inside the adoption world.

In the adoption world of agency, adoptee, adoptive parent, birth parent, government, and the media, only the adoptee is Peter Pan. And Peter Pan is a fantasy story, not real life. It’s time that Peter is allowed out of Neverland and into the real world with knowledge of his origins and background and his larger connections in that world.

Art from Adoption

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m taking great care in reading Perpetual Child: Dismantling the Stereotype (Adult Adoptee Anthology). Last time I talked about Amanda H.L. Transue-Woolston’s essay, “Discovering My Imposed Age & the Effects of the Institutionalization of Perpetual Childhood.” The second piece in the book is a lyric poem. As a poet, it thrilled me to find such excellent poetry collected alongside essays.

The poem is “Everyone Loves An Orphan,” and it was written by Nicky Sa-eun Schildkraut, a Korean adoptee. According to her website, her bio (there is also one in the back of the book) looks like this:

I am a poet, scholar and teacher who teaches creative writing and college composition in Los Angeles. As a Korean-American adoptee, my creative and scholarly work reflect an ongoing interest to explore the emotional and historical aspects of the Korean diaspora as well as transnational adoption.  Previously, I collaborated on avante-garde music and art projects with composers and visual artists. I have advanced degrees in poetry, (M.F.A. degree in poetry, 2002 and M.A. in Literature, 2010) and a Ph.D. degree in Literature & Creative Writing from the University of Southern California (2012).  My first book of poetry, Magnetic Refrain, was published in February 2013 by Kaya Press. I am currently completing a second book, lyrical and narrative poems Until Qualified For Pearl and a non-fiction critical book about adoption narratives in literature and film.

The premise, if you will, of “Everyone Loves An Orphan” is the story is of an orphaned child “born from a field of weeds / they later called lilies.” She learns to fantasize a story about her origins. Questions–such as was her mother the mistress of a married man, did her mother work in a garment factory, and so on–came to her, but eventually she discovers that  a deception surrounds her very origins–that she wasn’t an orphan at all.

The child was adopted by a family in a strange land.

. . . you’ll learn

another language. In your sleep,

you’re already talking

to yourself, filling in

the rest of the story.

Once upon a time,

there lived a family . . .

Notice that the poem is written in 2nd person (you, rather than I or she). I believe this creates a distance that almost frames the story, thus drawing focus. It creates the illusion of objectivity, but increases the poignancy.

This poem isn’t a simple display of emotion, but a complex and beautifully written exploration that forces the reader to think and feel more deeply about what it means for a child to grow up with lies and secrets.

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