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.

Adoption: Teary-Eyed Blessing or Horrific Abuse Factory

by Marisha and Luanne

You know those happy adoption stories that the media loves to feature? Adopted woman meets birth father just before he dies and all is well. Yay! Five siblings have been in foster care for three years with no hope of reunification. They are adopted by a middle-aged librarian and all is well. Yay!

The media loves those stories and so, too, do we. By “we” I mean our culture. We eat up this stuff. It makes us feel as if all is well with the world.

We don’t look behind the stories to see that this woman had to wait until she was 55 to meet half her DNA.  She lived through being a baby, a child, a teen, a young woman, a pilot, a mother, and now a first-time grandmother without this knowledge. Without knowing how he felt about her or if he even knew about her.  Without ever meeting him.  We don’t like to think about what those kids have gone through in order to have this happy “ending” (which it is not–an ending or unendingly happy either) with the librarian. Or what baggage they all (librarian included) bring to the table.

On the other hand, the media loves horrible stories about adoption. The child who is locked in a cupboard, fed only scraps, and eventually discovered weighing thirty pounds at age eleven. The child of a celebrity who either dies of a drug overdose or accuses her adoptive parent of abuse who is always identified as “adopted son” or “adopted daughter” by the press, as if that is a title or name.

By the way, all of our examples except the celebrity ones are made up, but representative of what we’ve read.

Why does the media do this? Apparently it is what we demand. We want these superficial and dangerous images of adoption. We want to tear up with joy and we want to fill with outrage.

What we don’t seem to want to do is think rationally and with common sense about adoption.

What would happen if we did? What would change about how our culture sees adoption? And how we treat adoptee rights and issues?

What do you think?

But What Do YOU Think About the Baby Box?

by Luanne
Last Monday, Kasey wrote about the Baby Box in Korea. She talked from the perspective of an international Korean adoptee who has been thinking more in-depth about adoption recently.

The Baby Box is one of those painful controversies where it seems both sides have very valid concerns and the best of intentions. Pastor Lee and the people who support the Baby Box are concerned for the lives of babies who might be at risk because their mothers feel they cannot keep them. Opponents of the Baby Box view it as dehumanizing and a permanent severing for these children from their rights to their own familial and genetic histories.

Many adoptees feel a powerful need to search for their birth families and to learn more about the people they come from and the genes they carry. This will never happen for babies left in the Baby Box.

Here are two videos to help you decide. Then look at the photo of the baby girl left in the Baby Box. Maybe you will cry, too.

Baby girl left in baby box

Baby girl left in baby box

A Korean Adoptee On The Baby Box

by Kasey Buecheler

Living in the InKAS (International Korean Adoptee Service) guesthouse, I have met and made many adoptee friends who come from all around the world (Australia, Denmark, France, Belgium, and Sweden, just to name a few!).  As a result, I have developed a stronger interest in the adoptee community that exists in Korea.

Meeting all kinds of adoptees during my stay so far in Korea has opened my eyes to new issues that I never recognized before.  Growing up, I had many adoptee friends, but we were all from similar families, with similar financial upbringings.  I didn’t have a broad perspective on the subject of adoption, but I did learn to embrace it.  However, coming to Korea and hearing different opinions has really changed the whole way that I see adoption.  In some aspects, I can say it has made me a bit more cynical, but I am glad to have been made aware of certain topics.

One specific topic that has gone viral within the past few weeks is the issue of the baby box in Korea.  Although it has been in use for a while now, recently it has gained media attention due to a documentary called “The Drop Box.”  In this documentary, Pastor Lee is commended for his humanitarian effort with his baby box, which is a box he created as a means of “collecting abandoned babies” that are unwanted by their mothers.   Many believe that this box is saving the lives of children who would have otherwise been abandoned on the street to die.  When I first heard of this story, I was also moved by Pastor Lee’s actions and began to read more on the subject.

The more I read, the more I began to realize the problems that arise with the usage of this baby box.  While some may perceive it as a way of saving babies, it also encourages an unethical method of giving up babies.   Instead of going through the proper steps in putting a child up for legal adoption through an adoption agency, it enables single mothers to abandon their children, leaving them with no birth registration. I can understand the importance of having this information, as many of my adoptee friends have sought this information in order to do birth family searches and know more about their past.  I have met adoptees whose information was incorrect/missing and seen how devastated they are when they come to this dead-end.  On top of this, there is also no way to know for sure who put the child in the box to begin with (which, in itself, has some scary implications).

While I am certainly no expert on the subject, I have read enough to know where I stand on this issue and encourage others to learn more about it and form their own opinions as well.

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What’s a Korean Adoptee Doing in Korea?

Here is what Korean adoptee Kasey Buecheler has been doing in Korea!

by Kasey Buecheler

I am back in America from Korea and visiting family while I figure out the rest of my year.  As some of you may have read before, I have been keeping myself busy studying Korea, teaching English, and participating as part of a mentor program for domestic adoptees in Korea!

I began teaching English through the Language Bound program, started by InKAS (International Korean Adoptee Service).  This is a special program where adoptee teachers are sent to teach children from low-income households who may not be able to afford English classes for themselves.  I had never taught English in this way before, and being employed by InKAS gave me experience in a classroom and memories I will never forget.  My kids were absolutely wonderful. I soon found myself looking forward to each class.  It was so rewarding to see my kids develop an interest in learning–and for me to provide them the opportunity to do so.

It was also through InKAS that I became involved in the Korean domestic adoptee mentoring program, which I can say is one of the most rewarding accomplishments for me from last year.  In Korea, adoption is still very much stigmatized in society and adoptive families usually choose to keep this aspect of their lives secret.  This mentoring program was designed to pair us up with a younger domestically adopted child and help them accept their adoption and learn it is nothing to be ashamed of.  We went to an over-night retreat where we were first introduced to our mentees (mine a 14-year-old girl) and spent time getting to know each other.

It was not easy at first. I had one of the oldest mentees, and she was very shy and seemed really uncertain about her participation in the program.  However, I could tell right away how supportive and encouraging her family was (her mother ran up to me and gave me a big hug the first time we met) and we have been able to get closer by meeting up after the retreat finished.

At one point, her parents invited me and a couple other mentors (who were assigned to two of their other children) to go with them to a church service/adoption get-together at their adoption agency (which I’m assuming specializes in domestic adoptions only). It was amazing to see these families celebrate their adoptions together and feel absolutely no shame in doing so.  It reminded me very much of adoption get-togethers that my own family would go to when I was younger. Food, fun, and friends.  This mentoring program helped me to realize how different the problems of the domestic adoptees are from international adoptee. However, seeing the families connect with each other at this agency made me realize how much we have in common as well.

InKAS Mentoring group

InKAS Mentoring group

Split Between Privilege and Denial, The Truth Brings Wholeness

by Luanne

I finished a book the other day, and I’ve had an irresistible urge to talk about it to every person I’ve seen since then.  Have you had that experience from reading?

If you want to feel that way, read Catana Tully’s Split at the Root: A Memoir of Love and Lost Identity.

It’s a book about adoption, but then it’s not quite about adoption.

Tully was born to a Guatemalan woman of African origin, but she grew up in the household of a German family living in Guatemala. She became a proper German young lady and eventually moved to Germany, where she became a fashion model and movie star.

Although many questions arise for the reader about Tully’s background, the girl herself doesn’t question the narrative she has been given by her German mother.

Only belatedly does Tully realize there is much to be learned about her origins.

Tully moves to the United States where she suffers an identity crisis. She isn’t African-American, although she is a Black woman. Eventually, she realizes the hard truth that she is racist toward African-Americans because she has so absorbed the subtle teachings of her childhood.

She studies and ultimately teaches Ethnic Studies and learns that she has been colonized by the German family who raised her. She begins the long struggle to learn who she is and from where she comes.  To do so, she must search for her birth mother (who has since passed away) and her birth father. Along the way, she meets her birth siblings and another father who tells her that he is her birth father. Additionally, after years of a difficult relationship, she reunites with the German sister who was old enough to be her mother and helped raised her. All this is necessary for Tully’s identity education.

I found Tully’s search to be suspenseful and fascinating. The book reads like a mystery or detective novel in the latter half.  The reader learns the truth along with Tully.

What makes Tully’s story similar to the stories of other transracial adoptees, such as my children who were born in Korea, and what makes it different?

The way Tully absorbed the culture of her German mother and didn’t really “see” herself as the birth child of a Black woman seems true to the experience of many transracial adoptees.

Where I think it differs is here:

SPOILER ALERT

It’s not only where her experience differs, but something that upset me on behalf of the young woman Catana Tully. She was never legally adopted by her German family. Therefore, when the mother dies (the father had been gone for years), the older (bio) daughter inherits the estate, but Tully does not. Tully writes about this injustice, but presents it fairly objectively. Rather than Tully telling the reader how to feel, the reader must pick up the responsibility and get angry (and I sure did).

So Tully had no legal rights as a daughter of the only family she knew at the point that her German mother died.  That she was loved very much is evident, but she was betrayed by this loving parent who didn’t do right by her in death.

The way the book ends answers most of my questions, although I still felt that the German family was an enigma. But what was important was that Tully’s birth parents came to life for me and surpassed the German mother’s heavy influence. Tully’s life seems to blossom into wholeness by the last words of the book.

The only weak point I could find is that the book could have used another editor’s eyes for typos, but I’m picky about those, and many readers might not even notice them.

Split at the Root is a well-written and thoroughly engaging memoir even for those not interested in adoption, and for anybody connected to adoption it is a must read.

Creating a Strong Family Story

Smore Stories – Daring To Journey Through Adoption: Hope On The Horizon

Tara’s next installment.

Smore Stories – Daring To Journey Through Adoption: Hope On The Horizon.

Smore Stories – Daring To Journey Through Adoption: Welcoming Brokenness

Tara’s next post in her series about adoption:

Smore Stories – Daring To Journey Through Adoption: Welcoming Brokenness.

All Together Now

by Robin L. Flanigan

Robin is an award-winning freelance journalist. You can find her at her blog, The Kinetic Pen. Her story, which looks at adoption, infertility, and some inherent complexities, was anthologized in 2007.

Annalie is sitting across from me, dipping her fingers in yogurt and stacking sliced grapes on top of her grilled cheese sandwich. It’s Mother’s Day. My second one. Done with my meal, I pick up the newspaper and start scanning.

“Adoption.”

I drop the paper.

“What did you say, honey?”

She repeated herself. It sounded the same.

“Did you say adoption?”

She nods.

“Where did you hear that word?”

“The treeses.”

So the trees told her. The trees tell her a lot of things.

I ask her what the trees said.

“Annalie is adopted.”

“Oh,” I say. I nod slowly. “Do you know what that means?”

She stares at me.

“What’s adoption?”

“Um…”

That’s all I can get out. My eyes start to tear up. I don’t want her to notice. Standing up, I tell her I’m going to get her daddy.

“He would love to be here for his, okay? I’ll be right back.”

I turn the corner and blink hard, soaking my cheeks.

Almost two years ago, a friend from college sent me a plastic bottle of holy water from Lourdes for good luck. She’d picked it up from a pilgrimage there, when she traveled with dozens of fiercely Catholic relatives on behalf of her uncle, who was battling lung cancer. After praying for him she prayed for herself, that the Lord would see fit to bless her with twins. She gave birth to two girls nine months later.

My friend told me to bless myself with the water and soon I would be a mother. The bottle, half the size of my palm, looked like a tourist shop trinket. The word “Lourdes” was printed in fancy type above the head of a woman praying to a supersized Virgin Mary. The woman wore a long robe; a cross dangled from a chain encircling her wrist. Short lines representing bursts of light surrounded the Virgin, her hands also folded in prayer.

I spread a towel on the floor and lay down, the square tiles hard against my spine. Feet flat, knees propped together, I twisted off the bottle’s blue cap, hiked up my shirt and watched the cold water drip onto my skin, just below the navel.

Catching my breath, I made a sign of the cross out of the quivering pools on my belly. I’m not Catholic, but it seemed like the right thing to do.

I drag myself down the hallway and find my husband in our bedroom, folding laundry.

“I really need your help with a conversation downstairs.”

Patrick puts his hand on my arm and laughs as he heads for the door. I tell him to wait, that I need to fill him in first.

I’m not finished when he walks out and heads for the bookshelf in Annalie’s room.

“That’s perfect,” I say, realizing what he’s after. “It’s over here.”

I reach inside her crib and grab one of her favorite books, A Blessing from Above, an adoption tale about a kangaroo with an empty pouch.

Back in the dining room, Patrick tousles Annalie’s hair.

“I hear you have a question,” he says.

I join them at the table after turning the volume all the way down on a Leonard Cohen song. Annalie’s not saying anything. It’s really quiet.

“Maybe we’re making too big a deal out of this,” Patrick whispers in my direction.

A few more seconds pass and he gets right to the point.

“So you want to know about adoption?”

There it is. Right there on the table.

He opens the book and flips through the pages showing Mama Roo leaning up against a tree to rest; the baby bluebird falling down, down, down out of its crowded nest and into Mama Roo’s pouch; the two of them hugging and happy.

I say it’s like the story of the day she was born. How she was with Jessica and Peter in the hospital and then came home to live with us.

Annalie taps her palm with her fingers and rubs circles on her cheeks.

“I’m putting on makeup,” she announces.

“Do you understand what adoption is?” I ask.

She scowls and sticks out her hand, as if telling me to halt. She pumps her hand back and forth. I tell her to stop, that it’s a rude gesture.

“I’m pushing you away,” she says. Then, “Why did you adopt me?”

Three pregnancies in one year, all through in vitro fertilization. The first was ectopic, ending when my right fallopian tube burst late one afternoon while I was watching TV. My husband didn’t answer his phone at work so I crawled to the middle of the driveway and waited. Patrick spent that entire night, before the morning’s surgery, trying to sleep in a plastic chair at the foot of my bed.

Doctors knew fairly early on that the second one wasn’t viable either. With an ultrasound showing the possibility that the embryo was stuck in my left fallopian tube this time, they advised being injected with a cancer drug to abort the pregnancy. I returned to the clinic, pulled down my underwear and leaned over an exam table for the shot. Except that it didn’t work. I went back for another round the next week.

The third loss was a blessing. It was over fast.

Soon after the last one I got a call while on vacation from my friend Janet, who had just found out she was pregnant. We’d gone through the same five years of infertility treatments together. That night I had a dream I was at a party. I had finally adopted a little girl. She measured a couple of inches and fit nicely in my hand. At one point in the evening I realized I’d forgotten to change her diaper, which made me feel like an unfit mother. Then a woman appeared and asked if she could hold my daughter. I watched as she took my little one into her hands and promptly dropped her. Suddenly transported outdoors, I searched frantically for my baby among the rocks and weeds. The woman laughed, said she had dropped her own children like that. I wanted to ask everyone at the party to stop their conversations, to help me look. But I kept quiet. My baby was gone and I knew it.

I let her father talk first.

“Jessica knew that we would love you,” he says. “When you were in Jessica’s belly, she searched the whole country for a mommy and daddy who would love you very much. And she chose us.”

“And we waited for you for so long,” I chime in. “We wanted you so much.”

“Why mommy and daddy have no babies?”

Two-year-olds are supposed to ask about the sky and bugs and whether they can jump on the bed just this once.

Images of basal thermometers and needles and pregnancy tests flash through my mind. I have no idea what to say. That miracle cures didn’t work? That medical science couldn’t deliver?

Patrick looks just as stunned. He can’t take his eyes off her.

“That’s deep,” he starts. “Well, there are many answers to that question, and you’ll find new answers every year. But one of them, one that I like, is that sometimes mommies can’t take care of their babies, so somebody else takes care of them. God makes it that way.”

The audience tearfully listened to the photographer explain his images of one dead or dying newborn after another, slowly appearing and fading away in a tangle of breathing tubes and unanswered prayers. In one photograph, a woman cradled her underdeveloped baby in crossed palms. In another, a 10-year-old boy, standing next to his mother, had dumped his head in her lap after being convinced that six hours without a heartbeat is too long to bring back to life the brother he had been holding moments before.

This was bereavement photography. Pictures that document the short time parents have with their doomed children. I was there to watch the pain, to measure it against my own and be reassured that I had not gone through the worst. Not by a long shot. That system of measurement had become an obsession, starting two months earlier when I rented a documentary about a single woman who adopted 13 children with severe disabilities. Weeks later I was at the theater for a double feature: the first film followed a blind Israeli lawn bowler on her trip to the Para-Olympics; the second was about a dwarf, the sole survivor of a family experimented on during the Holocaust by Mengele himself.

At the theater again for this lecture, sniffling with strangers, I tried to persuade myself to be thankful my husband and I lost our babies before they beared any resemblance to the smallest child up on that screen. But our own grainy photographs from the hospital flashed through my mind, images of the embryos before they were implanted, proof that I was a mother three times over if only for a couple of weeks.

I kept expecting all of this other suffering, all of this greater suffering, to ease my own. To make my struggle less valid. I had a good life.

But I needed more than one tissue when the photographs stopped shuffling, when the screen was blank and the theater was black and the audience was given a minute to recover in silence.

I’d thought starting the adoption process meant the healing had officially begun, but no crust was forming on my wounds. Some women, even those who had happily adopted, said that the sense of loss never goes away. Decades later it can smack you upside the head when you least expect it. Like when a baby shower invitation comes in the mail or you hear a co-worker gush over the birth of his first grandchild.

Decades.

The dull lights overhead had begun to flicker and I couldn’t even deal with that.

Annalie points to a vase of flowers on a Mexican cabinet behind me.

“Are those good flowers or bad flowers?”

I look at the bouquet. We tell her they’re good.

Next, she points to the Christmas cactus in the middle of the table and says she wants to bring it over to the good flowers.

Patrick unbuckles her booster seat. She hops to the floor, rounds the table and asks me to get up so she can use my chair to get the plant. I rise and she kneels on the seat cushion to reach the cactus.

She extends her arms toward me.

“Can you hold this while I get down?”

I set the plant on the cabinet.

“Is this how you want it?” I ask.

“Yeah.”

Annalie looks at the tall crystal vase and the short terra-cotta pot beside it.

Then, with authority, she makes her pronouncement.

“Adopted.”

I look at my husband, mouth agape, and silently give thanks that our daughter is making sense of her world.

She feels safe and protected and loved.

She belongs.

And so do we.

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