What happens when you fall down the rabbit hole of overseas adoption and identity in Australia?
‘When my brother and I were adopted it made the local paper. There were that few non-white people in the neighbourhood.’
– Amy Coe
Amy Coe and I sit at a busy cafe in Carlton, tucked in behind the Melbourne University where she works as a mental health researcher. The chic cafe bustles with a rush of business types on coffee meetings and the wait staff move at feverish pace.
All this activity is in stark contrast to the deeply intimate story that Amy tells me in her careful, methodical way. She maintains her poised, almost rigid demeanour, as she talks to me about her experiences of being adopted.
Later she will show me a photocopy of a newspaper clipping from the late 1980s. In it her two smiling parents are holding one child each. Amy is on her mother’s lap; she is a young girl while her brother is just a baby. Amy is beaming to the camera, clinging a soft toy. The headline reads ‘Coes fulfil adoption dream’.
Amy, who is now thirty-one years old, doesn’t seem amused by the fact that her adoption had novelty worthy of local press coverage. Rather, she gives it to me as an example of her feelings of isolation. She doesn’t seem angry, but there is weariness.
Amy’s childhood is not one she recounts with fondness. When she was five years old, her parents divorced and she stayed with her father, whom she describes as not particularly interested in raising her. He later remarried. Her mother died when she was twelve.
Each time she talks about the family who raised her in Australia, she adds the prefix of ‘adoptive’.
While the other adoptees I speak to call their biological parents their ‘birth parents’, Amy gives the woman she would meet in Korea many years later the title of ‘my mother’.
I ask her about it and she says, dismissively, ‘Well, yeah, she is my mother.’
After the forced adoption of thousands of British children from the 1870s onwards, known as the ‘home children’ program, Australia’s next official foray into inter-country adoption through government-sponsored programs began in the early 1970s from South Vietnam.
At the end of the war in 1975, around 3000 babies were urgently flown out in what would be known as ‘Operation baby-lift’. Around 300 hundred ended up in Australia.
Adopting from overseas continued, less dramatically, into the 1980s. Since then, every year several hundred families go through the long, expensive and bureaucratic process involved in inter-country adoption.
The countries from which children are adopted have changed over time due to political and economic circumstances, but today most children come to Australia from various parts of Asia. In the 1980s and 1990s Korea was the largest country of origin; today is it China and Taiwan. The Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Thailand are also common.
When we think of adoption, we inevitably think of young children, but today there are thousands of Australians who were adopted from overseas and who now navigate a complex sense of identity.
I became interested in the topic of adoption after reading a few articles, including one by Korean adoptee Ellie Freeman, in Peril magazine and Vietnamese adoptee Dominic Golding, for the ABC. I read about how some adoptees, when older, were critical and angry about the lack of oversight and regulation for children in the adoption system, including what they believe were insufficient checks around family background.
Others wrote more personal stories of the long search for birth parents through adoption agencies. Everyone seemed to be exploring identities that didn’t neatly fit into boxes, negotiating the intersections of cultural identity, ethnicity, nationality and family.
I also had a personal interest. I was raised by my white mother and I have a noticeable Asian appearance from my dad’s Chinese-Malaysian side.
Race wasn’t something I thought about at all when I was young, but when I look back on high school and my experiences of racism and bullying, I realise I never really spoke to my mum about it. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why, but I guess I felt she just wouldn’t understand. There was a gap by then, between the questions I was starting to have about my identity in a country where citizenship has been defined by race (until relatively recently), and the experiences of my mother, who had never needed to ask those questions.
While I wasn’t adopted, I did experience a disconnect between the cultural experiences of a white Australian household, and the Othering of race through the label of ‘Asian’ in the schoolyard. An experience in common with all the adoptees I spoke to.
It was this question of identity and how it is formed that drew me into the topic. Does identity come from family? From the way you fit into broader society? Or from a skin colour that designates you as coming from a distant non-European land: ‘not from here’.
They formed a sense of belonging between the blurred lines.
I was interested to hear how other people, who also grew up in white households, regarded their sense of ‘Australian- ness’ and ‘Asian-ness’. How they formed a sense of belonging between the blurred lines.
After reading some personal accounts, I wrote to a couple of Facebook groups of adoptees explaining that I was looking to work on a photography project exploring the issue. Amy was one of the four people I met.
Amy was adopted from Korea at four months old. Her parents weren’t together when her mother became pregnant and social stigma was the main reason they decided to put Amy up for adoption. The experience of being adopted into a different family must be an unbelievably dislocating one for any child, but for Amy the issues of race and culture added another complex layer.
‘Of course, I went through a period of hating being Asian. You grow up white, when you look in the mirror you are confused. I went through a period of self-loathing, of wanting to change the way I look,’ she explains to me in the cafe.
Amy says it was only when she reached the age of sixteen or seventeen that it really started upsetting her, and she notes these feelings of ‘self-hatred coincided with a lot of that Pauline Hanson-era stuff’.
When she was eighteen years old, Amy started looking for her family in Korea with the help of an adoption agency. She made first contact with her Korean family around two years later and for a few years kept up limited contact, with occasional letters sent and translated by the agency. Around five years later, she decided to go with her partner to visit Korea.
She says the experience of meeting her family, who were surprisingly affectionate, was unexpectedly comforting. She said her mother cried a lot.
‘When I got back from Korea I was grieving. But I was also pretty angry, seeing the family I could have versus the family I did,’ Amy says.
I wonder whether her feelings towards her Korean family were influenced by her negative experiences of growing up in Australia. If she had not had such a neglectful upbringing would she feel the same way?
Amy is glad she went to meet them, but she is also happy to leave it at that. There is closure. ‘I know they are there and who they are. That’s enough for me right now.’
Amy’s experience of frustration is far from unique. A few weeks later, I met with Ra Chapman, whose story is similar to Amy’s.
Ra is an actor and has appeared widely in Australian film and television. She has a way of immediately making you feel at ease. She talks fast and with confidence.
Ra was also adopted from Korea in the 1980s, but at three-and-a-half she was older than Amy had been. Ra’s biological mother had left her with her father, which was fairly uncommon in Korea, and economic and social pressures had later led the single father to give his child up for adoption.
Ra, like Amy, hadn’t known the history of her adoption until she began looking into it in her late teens with the help of an agency. Her Australian mother was encouraging and supportive of her search when she began writing letters to her birth father. However, when Ra decided to go over to meet her birth family later, as an adult, her mother was upset that she wanted to go alone and not together as a family.
Ra grew up in the small city of Mount Gambier in South Australia. While there wasn’t much diversity, there was a small group of families who had all adopted Korean children around the same time. The parents held camps and get-togethers for the children, but despite her mother’s encouragement to participate, Ra wasn’t interested. She wanted nothing to do with that ‘Korean nonsense’.
‘My older sister, who wasn’t adopted, had blonde hair and blue eyes. I always wanted to look like her and was resentful.’
‘My older sister, who wasn’t adopted, had blonde hair and blue eyes. I always wanted to look like her and was resentful,’ she says.
Today Ra is involved with support groups and mentoring for children who are Korean adoptees to Australia, and she knows Amy through these networks. She doesn’t blame her parents for the problems she had with her lack of cultural connection growing up, because the advice adoptive parents received back then was quite different to today.
‘Nowadays there is a much more common connection in the mainstream [between Korea and Australia], between K-pop, more language schools and a different attitude encouraged among parents,’ she explains.
Ra says that in the 1980s and early 1990s parents were largely advised not to make the kids feel any different, but to treat them the same as the other kids. They were advised to ignore the differences and to effectively pretend their adoptive children were white. Today, the common school of thought is to acknowledge the differences and to teach the children about their heritage.
At the cafe below her Collingwood apartment, Ra allows me to photograph some of the evidence of her adoption. There are massive piles of letters with Korean stamps going back over many years; writing in Korean and clean professional English translations to accompany each letter; stacks of photos from her Korean family.
Ra smiles proudly at the photo of her biological father, a smart, well-groomed Korean man in tight blue jeans and a tucked-in green polo shirt. She is not resentful about being given up for adoption and talks fondly about her birth father.
She is curious about her birth mother, but there isn’t any sadness or frustration. Ra knows most of the story and that’s enough for her.
Among the documents is a meticulously collated scrapbook her adoptive mother put together of Ra’s life and her parents’ experience of travelling to Korea to adopt her. One photo was taken by the adoption agency at the orphanage in Seoul, and it shows toddler Ra with a black bob and blue overalls gazing sadly at the camera with a printed Australian flag pinned on her shirt. She looks like a shop-doll, an item being labelled and shipped-off. There is a look of commodification.
Ra was close to her adoptive parents growing up, but the resentment she felt towards her white sister for her looks, and other experiences she had with race and racial difference, she felt unable to bring up with them. She knew they wouldn’t know what to say. She remembers walking with her father in public and people assuming she was his girlfriend.
‘At first it bugged me so much I would stand far away from him. Then I thought why should it make me change our behaviour?’ Ra adds that she knew her dad noticed the glances in public as well but that they never talked about it. It was too awkward a topic to approach.
Amy also had the same experience as Ra as a teenager. People in public would sometimes assume that she was her father’s girlfriend or wife, and it was an unnerving experience she couldn’t talk about. Their experiences of race frequently intersect with gender. When I tell people I’m bi-racial it’s always assumed that my father is white. While the conscious and subconscious reasons for every mix-race relationship can’t be assumed, the phenomena of White Man–Asian Women couples (WMAW) is so common as to have its own online acronym.
People assumed, despite the twenty-year age gap, that they were dating their fathers.
The term ‘Yellow Fever’ is also used exclusively for Asian women. Colonial fetishisation of Asian women, coupled with gender-based power dynamics and sometimes significant age and wealth gaps often inform public perception and assumptions. Not only were Ra and Amy (ethnically) Koreans growing up in white neighbourhoods and families, they were also Asian girls. People assumed, despite the twenty-year age gap, that they were dating their fathers.
Meeting her birth father in Korea was uneventful for Ra. She says she went over expecting a dramatic reunion and instead there wasn’t much to talk about. It was, she says, ‘a little bit awkward’. She now advises other adoptees searching for family not to have too many expectations about what the reunion will be like.
Given that Ra’s reaction to meeting her birth father was very different to Amy’s experience, I wonder whether Ra’s strong relationship with her Australian family influenced the degree of connection she felt with her family in Korea. Ra wasn’t looking for the family she never had. Unlike Amy, she calls her adoptive mother, ‘mother’.
The online Korean adoption group that Ra and Amy are part of hold occasional dinner meet-ups. I go along to one at a Korean restaurant in a narrow city street. The people are a diverse bunch: high-paid white-collar workers and younger students. Everyone orders in English.
In many ways the event reminds me of the other get-togethers I’ve been to with second-generation Asian-Australians or persons of colour. People from vastly different lives and backgrounds, somewhat dislocated from the values of the traditional diaspora communities, trying to form communities around an ethnic commonality, experiences of Othering and dislocation.
But not everyone I meet has sought out those connections. In 1972, fourteen-month-old Lassale Gebbie was taken from an orphanage in Saigon through a government- sponsored adoption program. He would have been one of the earliest adoptees to Australia under this program during a time when people – with the White Australia Policy still in place – were largely hostile to Asian immigration.
Lassale grew up in a wealthy family in the inner-southern suburbs of Melbourne and had a good private-school education. When we talk about his upbringing there is a vast difference between his experiences and those of Amy’s and Ra’s. He doesn’t see himself as ‘Asian’ in any way, and admits, curiously, that he’s ‘probably more racist than your average White person,’ after remarking how many Asians are coming to Australia these days.
‘Walking down the street people probably see me as another Asian, I guess. I forget that I’m in Asian skin. I don’t know, is that a good thing or a bad thing?’ He chuckles to himself, as if waiting for me to pass judgement.
I wonder how much Lassale is a product of his generation. He is almost a decade older than the other adoptees I speak to and when he was adopted rhetoric around Asian migration would have been very different.
He mentions that he mostly dates Asian women these days, saying that he naturally finds them more attractive, and my mind immediately jumps to the White Man-Asian Woman fetish. But it doesn’t really apply to the entirely Vietnamese- looking man before me and I’m left baffled and confused as to what to think.
When I ask Lassale what racism he experienced growing up, he says flat-out that he didn’t have any, although he later mentions being badly beaten up by a bunch of skin-heads as a teenager. He is forgiving, saying they weren’t really motivated by deep racial hatred, but were just confused young men. He never mentioned it to his parents or his brother because he never saw the need.
Lassale is entirely happy not having any knowledge of his ethnic heritage. He has never looked into his past, and never tried to find out anything about his parents. I ask if he has ever thought about going to Vietnam. ‘Not really,’ he says. ‘I’ve been to Bali and Thailand, though, and I’d love to go back again.’
I meet Kristopher Hinz after Lassale. Kris is a university student, adopted from a Sri Lankan orphanage at six months old. He says he is ‘pretty sure’ he is Singhalese, although he doesn’t know for certain.
Kris’s mother and father, unable to have kids of their own, adopted three children: one from Australia, one from Korea and Kris from Sri Lanka. His father is German, and his mother jokes that the family is like a little United Nations.
Kris says he always felt a connection to his Sri Lankan heritage, and read and learned about Sri Lanka from a young age. His room today has several Sri Lankan cookbooks on the shelves. He explains that this interest wasn’t actively encouraged by his parents, but something he pursued himself.
After Kris finished VCE in 2012 he went with his father to Sri Lanka for a holiday.
‘It was a surreal feeling. I didn’t feel like I fitted in there, but it also made me think about how much I don’t fit in in Australia,’ Kris says.
They visited the orphanage where Kris was adopted from and he says it was an incredibly depressing place. It was underfunded and unclean, and many of the kids there, who had cerebral palsy as he does, stood little chance of being adopted.
‘It was strange looking back and seeing where I could have been if I hadn’t been taken out at such a young age. If I was there, if I didn’t have good access to physiotherapy I would have had a very different level of ability compared to what I have now.’
Kris and his mother are close. I notice natural warmth and affection when I visit him at home. She holds his hand as they look over family photographs and editions of the ‘Hinz Family Bulletin’ that she would produce each year and send to family friends, letting people know what they were up to.
Kris has never looked into his personal adoption story, despite going back to visit Sri Lanka and the orphanage. He hasn’t tried to find out anything about his biological family. When I ask him if it’s something he has ever wanted to do, his mother answers for him.
‘Sometimes it is better not to dig up the past. He was left, but he is here now. Some things are better not known,’ she says.
I pause and look at Kris, curious to see if his answer would have been the same, but he smiles, nods and says nothing. I feel an injustice on his part. An outrage.
I think about how I would feel if I didn’t know what my ethnic background was. But the anger stops when I reflect that this is his experience and his story. It isn’t my place. Almost all of his twenties lie ahead of Kris, the decade Ra and Amy say most people start looking into their background.
He, too, will find his own way and his own place, somewhere between the borders of what it means to be Australian and Asian.
Image credit: Neha Viswanathan