30 November 2015

Mariette Williams: In Her Own Words

For this final day of National Adoption Month, I think it fitting to republish my Lost Daughters’ sister, Mariette Williams’ own words. So many times, adoptees are asked to tell their stories to the press; and so many times, our stories are misconstrued through non-objective wording.

Words matter a great deal. As an academic in journalism, I am shocked at the stories that have a “slant.” Mainstream journalism feels bought and sold just as adoptees’ narratives are told from every aspect but the adoptee’s point of view.

If a writer cannot be objective about a story, the story should be told in first person. Plain and simple.

A Search for Family in Haiti Raises Questions about Adoption: The Whole Story

By Mariette Williams

On Friday, November 27th, I woke up to a barrage of twitter notifications. I had been waiting for a few days for Ben Fox, the Associated Press journalist, to post the story of my reunion with my family in Haiti. He had said it would be posted during the Thanksgiving weekend. When I clicked on the link to read the story for the first time, I was stunned.

I retweeted the story a few times, but I wasn’t sure how to explain in 140 characters that I wasn’t comfortable with the story, that it had missed the mark. On Friday afternoon, Ben texted me and asked if I was okay. I said I thought 85 percent of the article was good, but there were some situations that were inaccurate. I didn’t go into too much detail, and I decided to try and put it out of my mind. But it kept bothering me. I didn’t sleep well on Friday or Saturday night. I had to explain myself before I could let it go. On Sunday afternoon, I sat down and wrote Ben this email:

Hi Ben,

I’ve been thinking about this story all weekend, and I can’t let it go until I address some things that you wrote. Like I texted you on Saturday, I think 85% of the story is good and accurate. But there are some things that are bothering me, and I'll address them below.

“Four days later, Sandra gave her side in a letter to Mariette. Sandra noted that her adopted daughter could have ended up with some other family, or might not have survived in Haiti at all. She said she had always prayed Mariette would return to her country to meet her family. 
‘I feel we have all been victims of deception, but I also believe God is ultimately in charge,’ she wrote. 
For almost two months afterward, Mariette didn’t speak to Sandra. 
She was furious.”

I actually asked you not to write about this letter. I asked my mom for space while I was figuring things out. I was not “furious.” Hurt? Yes. Confused? Yes. Shocked to find out my mother in Haiti had not consented? Yes. This was a private, personal letter, and I am surprised that you used it.

“She decided to go to Haiti to celebrate her mother’s 70th birthday. Sandra gave her a necklace and earrings as gifts for Colas. 
Mariette seethed. She left them behind.”

I showed you the card and the necklace. I explained to you that I would not bring them because I didn’t think it was an appropriate gift. The card said “Thank you for sharing your daughter with us.” Given the circumstances, I didn’t think that was the right message. Should I have brought the earrings? Maybe. If you wanted to include this, you should have given the context of the card. “Seething” is an inaccurate description.

Up to this point, I think the story is okay. When we get to Haiti, everything kind of falls apart.

“She was surprised, and a little annoyed, that her Haitian relatives weren’t at the airport.”

Nope, not true. I had arranged to have a driver from the guesthouse pick me up. My family was supposed to meet me at the guesthouse. You saw yourself that we landed at the airport and there was a gentleman holding a sign with my name on it. I rolled my bags into his van, and you followed us to the guesthouse in your own vehicle.

“Over the coming days, Mariette could get little more from her mother. She cursed herself for not learning Creole.”

I said my biggest regret was not learning Creole. I said that if I could change one thing, it would have been to learn more Creole. I did not curse myself.

“She had planned to spend the night at the house. Instead, she traveled two more hours to the one hotel in Pestel.”

Again, not true. It was never the plan for us, or me to stay at my mother’s house. You had brought it up the day before that you would like to travel to Deron. I agreed that it would be good to see the house where my mother lived. When we arrived, we spent a few hours there talking and taking pictures. As we were getting ready to leave, you asked me, “Are you going to stay here tonight?” And I looked at you like you were crazy and I said, “No, I’m coming with you guys.” I had no cell phone reception and no way to getting in contact with you. It was never my plan to stay there.

“The next day, Junette said she would like to either move their mother to the capital or fix up her home, where two or three of her children and their families stay at any given time. The implication was clear: Mariette would pay.”

When was this? Junette met us back at the guesthouse after that long and crazy ride back to Delmas. We ate cake, you took some pictures, and then you went back to the AP house. When was this conversation?

“Her brothers walked through the home with two barefoot contractors. Mariette ended up with a rough estimate of around $5,000 — far more than she could afford.”

We both know that the $5,000 number was inflated, and it is not “far more than what I can afford.” I was sitting in front of my mother’s house with Evens, who was helping me translate. I asked my mother how I could help her. She told me I could help her with the house. At that point, my brothers called the neighbors to get an estimate for the work that could be done. I brought it up, and I am more than happy to help my mother with her home.

“Her family saw her as the rich American relative. Her youngest sister and a niece hinted that they could go to nursing school, if they could only come up with the tuition. Colas wanted to prepare a meal, but didn’t have money to buy a chicken. Mariette paid.”

As for my younger sister and niece, they had been studying for the nursing exam, something that is very difficult to pass. On our first day, we sat around the table and they told me that they had passed the exam. Great. My mother praised God, and said that I was like “good luck” for them. They did not ask me to pay for their schooling.

Most importantly, my mother was not prepared to have me and a camera crew and a reporter show up to her home. She explained through a translator that she was embarrassed that she didn’t have anything to serve us. She was also embarrassed to have a camera crew in her home, taking pictures. It was very intrusive, and she never complained. She gracefully made us coffee and brought out chairs so we could sit around her yard. Before she arrived, the plan was for us to meet up in Delmas. Also, before I arrived in Haiti, she had told me that she didn’t want to give any interviews or to appear on camera. But any request we made, she complied. You asked her questions, took her picture, and she gave an on camera interview. I think she did more than her part. I gladly gave her $5 to buy dinner.

What about that interview I gave in front of my mother’s house? I said that I was grateful for my adoption, that everything I have I am thankful for. Why not include that? Or the conversations we had that I had a great childhood, growing up on a farm in British Columbia? Being able to attend a private school? If you weren’t pressed for length, why not include that?

Both my mom (Sandra) and I were disappointed in the tone of this article.  It didn’t feel like good journalism. You filled in the blanks in places, presenting a story that wasn’t accurate. I know you were trying to go for a narrative, but it didn’t work.  We had such an opportunity to tell a great story. Adoption is so complex, so beautiful and at the same time so heartbreaking, and you missed that. Although adoption gave me so much, it was still very important for me to know where I came from. I waited for four months for this story to come out.  Not for any personal gain, but to share my story and give hope to other adoptees still searching for their families. I am thankful for your friendship and your help navigating while we were in Haiti. I could not have done this trip alone. I don’t regret going or the new friendships I have with Chery or Evens. I am only sorry that my Haitian family was portrayed the way they were, and that you left out much of my positive comments about my adoption.

I wish you nothing but the best going forward,


Ben and I have since talked and he has apologized, but the story cannot be undone. I still feel it necessary to explain my side of the story.

I know that very few people who read the first story will read this, but I am at peace knowing that I shared my side. In all of this, I believe even more strongly than before in owning and sharing our own stories, which would not be possible without personal blogs, podcasts, and social media. It’s not just important to tell a good story, we are responsible to each other to tell the whole story.

21 November 2015

Korea: The Deep Sigh of Relief at the Border

In 1995, my husband and I moved to Rwanda, just one year after the genocide that took more than 800,000 lives in 100 days. We arrived to find shards of glass on the walls of our compound and metal gates with gatekeepers. It was a country still in conflict.

Expatriates were advised to take R&R frequently. I was naive and visibly shaken all the time. Every stream or stairwell had my mind racing with dead bodies and floating limbs. I could not shut the memories of the loss that played out on every face I met.

In those days, our place of respite was Uganda. After going through all the roadblocks with machine-gun totting teenage boys rifling through our washbags, we would finally cross the border where we drove on the left and let out an audible S-I-G-H of relief. Every muscle in my body would relax.

Today in Seoul, I feel the same stress taking hold of my body and squeezing me tightly. Just walking down the street can be stressful. Seoul is certainly not dangerous, but the trauma of original family loss is the same as a death.

Top this with the language barrier and the connection with single mothers and mothers of loss, and the tension in my body becomes so tightly wound.

In October, after six weeks in Seoul, we took a much needed R&R to the southern tip of South Korea, an area called Namhae. After a long car journey, we settled with our three kitties in the hotel. We explored the Buddhist Temple and the serene mountains which reminded me of my life in the Appalachia. I felt at peace again. When I find that peace within myself, the sweet yielding to my fate and acceptance of the known facts veils my anxiety.

I stood outside of the Boriam Temple, gazing in. The people in the temple were at peace, quiet and reflective. I entered the area where you take off your shoes, but I stopped there. I yearned to enter, but I felt paralyzed by my guilt. Once again, I was reminded that I was an outsider, no longer connected to a faith that may have been my own.

I stepped outside and took this image … a shadow of myself looking in and wishing to be a soul on the wall.

No one wanted to leave once our three days were up. I had made the audible S-I-G-H as we left the city limits of Seoul. Crossing over again, meant that I would tense up … my irrational Mom outbursts and control issues would return. The triggering faces and crowds of Seoul would once again hit me head on.

Since returning, I am tighter than ever. I visited my adoption agency, but that experience will need to wait for another post. I do not have the energy to address that.

This week, we celebrate the one American holiday I love … Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving means a homecoming, much like Chuseok here in Korea. My home is ambiguous. What made “home” was my mother, father and grandparents; they are no longer living. My kids now love the holiday for their father’s roast dinners, but here in Korea we only have a microwave.

So, our family is heading to Japan for Thanksgiving. Japan is where my parents lived when the plane from Korea brought me to them on a chilly day in December. Japan holds the loss of my parents’ first born, stillborn son and the beginning of my life as a puertorriqueña. Japan revived my parents’ marriage in the wake of my father’s lost son.

I am looking forward to that deep S-I-G-H as our plane lands.

11 November 2015

Korea: Marriage, White Privilege and Bullies

Marriage is hard. It’s exhilarating at first; then the relationship slides into routine. Add children, and it shifts from the couple to the kids.

As an adoptee, this is bliss until the moment you realize you have some deep-seeded racial identity issues. It isn’t that I didn’t know I had them, I knew I wanted to be white. But I never felt strong enough to speak for myself, so I stayed silent, dated only white guys and you know the rest of that story.

The strength in our marriage is that we are able to adapt and learn. Sometimes, the learning is hard for both of us, as we learn that we are the two extremes that play out in our children. Many times, I get frustrated and angry without explaining why. That is truly tough on my husband.

Monday, he took the day off so that we could take a much needed family break at Lotte World Adventure, “the largest indoor amusement park in the world.” There was joy and excitement. We were taking selfies and “wrecking noobs.”

No one spoke English, and we often wandered around not really knowing what to do. Of course, as usual, when we tried speaking or ordering, the cashier would always look to me and talk to me in Korean. Then, my sheepish voice would reveal that I was an American. That’s a running theme here … Korean women speaking for the family as a whole. But my voice is again silenced in that role.

My husband can speak English, and Koreans rush to help him and find translation. Or they just throw up their hands and make a face.

Two distinct things happened to us that day. We learned about white privilege in Korea, and how it isn’t the same as just plain bullying.

The first incident happened as we waited to give one another whiplash on the bumper cars. As we inched up to the front of the line, the ticket woman asked us how many we had in our party. My husband held up his four fingers. She counted and allowed the two women behind me to enter and take the last two remaining cars. This, of course, sparked our families competitive side.

We watched for the fastest, most responsive cars and yelled out to one another what car we were eyeing. It was sheer family fun! As the last group cleared the track, my husband, son and daughter began to rush toward the cars, but the ticket taker stopped me at the gate and asked for my ticket. She hadn’t asked my husband for his ticket, and my ticket was in my husband’s pocket.

I called his name once, louder a second time and then I shouted his name in panic the third time, telling him I needed my ticket. He was trying to seat himself in his car, so he was a bit perturbed that I had yelled at him. He showed my ticket, and I was allowed to enter the arena.

My head was spinning. “Hadn’t she just a few minutes before counted us as a party of four? And why would she separate me from my family?” I felt stupid and less than. Once we got off the ride, my daughter sulked saying she was embarrassed by what had happened … Mom yelled and Dad was visibly irritated.

I apologized, and we moved on to our next adventure. But as we waited again for the next ride, we had the same thing happen. This ride took families, so we were once again counted. When my husband gave the young woman our four tickets, she questioned where the fourth person was, and my husband had to point out that I was his wife.

There are many things I have tried to rationalize … “maybe the Korean women hold the tickets, maybe my kids look more like my husband and less like me, maybe I just do not look like I belong in my family.”

As we took off in our fake hot air balloon, I let my family know how I was feeling. This second time, they came to the realization that I was indeed not seen as part of our family. I was othered, and it stung just as it always does.

In the old days, when I spoke to adoptive parents and social workers, I advised them to make sure they had put themselves in a situation where they were the minority. But that day, I realized that even if a white person is the minority, he or she still holds white privilege and is afforded things based on that role in our world. 

When my husband and I lived in Rwanda, we were in the minority, but he was viewed as superior, and I was inappropriately touched and questioned by teenage soldiers. As a Korean woman, I feel less than no matter where I am. Most times, I am a lone Asian woman, so there are no allies. In my aloneness, I am quiet and try to blend into the background.

Having said this, I want to tell you what happened next. Our last ride was a Magic Pass ride, so we we were able to miss some of the queuing. Once we got to the final part of the line, I noticed two teen boys behind us staring at my son and making rude gestures about him. They were looking at my son, making faces and laughing. When I realized what was happening, I began to stare at them with disdain. They noticed my stare and began to hide behind others in line between us.

Feeling that I had stopped it before my son noticed, I moved my gaze to the front of the line. Here I witnessed a group of eight teenage boys. The most attractive one wore a white shirt and a Kpop hairdo. He was making fun of my husband’s nose. Using his hands, he acted as though he had a large nose and made odd gestures with his eyes too. The other seven laughed and looked back at my family.

Again, I stared at them, showing my disgust. They, too, looked away and hid. They would quickly glance to see if I was still there, and my laser gaze met theirs. I wanted them to feel ashamed and scorned. I whispered to my husband that this was happening so that he could stare at the eight in front of us, and I could stare at the two behind.

Once that ride was over, so was I. We left Lotte World and moved to our favorite restaurant. We arrived to the cheerful staff who always serve us. They were chatty and friendly. Dinner time is our family time to discuss our day. My husband opened with discussion about the eight boys. He asked me if I wanted to tell the story.

But I began with the story of the two boys. My husband asked why I started with that story, but I felt our son needed to know he was being targeted as much as he needed to know that his father was targeted too. You see, in my mind, these were not instances of racism against my husband as a white man, but instances of bullying. The boys would make fun of anything different, and it wasn’t based on a power structure.

My kids understand so much already about racism and bullies, it seems fair they know the full story. They see their parents disagree, discuss and assess together. It isn’t always pretty, but they know we love one another and that disagreements are not cause for divorce in our family. There is respect. While it may take us time to fully understand, we work to see the other’s side.

We have a few more months here in Korea. I doubt this will be the last day we will need to detox, but boy, was it a doozy.

06 November 2015

“I am done with crying … ”

Since the death of my father, my shell has hardened. There are few things that make me cry …

My children have seen me cry so few times, that when I cry, it terrifies them. I broke down the first week we moved to Seoul, but not necessarily because of sadness. My tears flow because of hurt. I have explained to them, that meetings with agencies will NOT bring tears. Tears here are reserved for those I love. Tears are for the lost connections.

Last night, I attended the puppetry artistic performance, “Untold Story,” about an adoptee named David. There were three very beautifully crafted puppets for the toddler David, the teen David and the grown man David. Five actors of the Pangaea Arts worked the stage, the puppets and acted scenes in David’s life.

Each scene plucked a memory from my mind. The most poignant “core memory” was the airplane ride back to Korea as an adult. All the things that David experienced, I lived and relived and continue to relive as I walk the streets of Korea.

The complexities of adoption played beautifully as though I were watching scenes from my own life … the tenderness and wanting of the adoptive family, the scenes of teasing, the isolation amidst so much love. All these scenes added to my quilt of comfort, another layer in the adoptee community.

After the performance, Pangaea Arts invited the KoRoot group back to the dressing room to see the puppets. There was joy and excitement to see the puppets.

But then, the performance group asked us for our feedback. They wanted specifics of how we, as adoptees, felt. Moments like this are often few online, so I am always taken by surprise when someone who isn’t an adoptee wants to know my opinion!

One person in our group, of whom I had never met and who spoke Korean, spoke up. She had cried and embraced the life-sized David. I felt for her and fought my physiological urges to cry. But then, as someone translated, I sobbed.

Her words were the words I needed to hear from someone all my 48 years. She said she had given her baby boy to my adoption agency, and she had been searching for him. He is currently 26 years old. As my agency has blocked me, it has blocked her from connecting with an adult son.

She shook as she told how she had been told her son would “have a better life” and that she had believed this for so many years, yet the scenes of bullying and the ever present “Where are you from?” question broke her. She never wanted her son to feel disconnected from her and his country. She never wanted him to feel the pain adoptees express. She said she would “have this hole in her heart” until she could see him again.

I moved closer to her and had Pastor Kim translate. I told her that her strength in this situation would be passed to this son. That we, adoptees, are looking for our mothers and have never forgotten them. I also told her how I wished she were my mother. We embraced and cried together.

As I left the theatre, I was angry with myself at first for crying and I muttered, “I don’t usually lose my shit in public, unless I am angry.”

Tears are not shit. Tears are more valuable. Tears mean we feel. Tears mean we care. Tears mean we are connected.

04 November 2015

Once you know, you cannot unknow.

I sit in our small apartment in Korea … my shoulders tense.

Each walk outside our door brings me deep anxiety. Lately, I have reflected on the days when I began my blog. Those were the salad days … the sunny, joyful days. I began this blog in 2007, six years after my mother’s death. I had always meant to write a book to tell about my experiences growing up as a Tennerican with slant eyes and chemically curled big hair.

As my life was changing from the me-focus to my children, I realized that I wanted them to know the oral stories of our family. I had written countless black journals, but who wants to comb through those? So, I decided to begin my life story in a blog. It seemed a good way to document our small family’s history … what little I knew of it.

The first three posts were picked up by my adoption agency and featured in its magazine. I was a proud “chosen” one. That was the language my family was taught to use to describe me and make me feel special.

Oh! The posts we had! So much fun and fluff! I met my two Asian friends in Virginia and wrote of the antidotes they shared with me about my Asian culture. We talked of our “Caucasian” husbands and how our children were often interchangeable.

I would continue to struggle and ask, “Who was I?” … a Tennerican, a mom to two “Hapas” but definitely not really Korean.

My blog has become a study in how one comes to terms (albeit very late in life) with the struggles of identity as an international, transracial adoptee. There have been landmarks in my later life that have influenced my thinking about who I am.

One of the first was meeting my first Korean adult adoptee … happenstance in a tiny cafe in Madison, Wisconsin. It was life-changing. I met others as well. Each one was a curiosity to me. One in particular shared so many similarities (including adoption decrees signed just days from one another). We began a quick, yet fleeting friendship.

As I limped along learning, I began to understand more fully the complexities of adoption and how it intersected with other aspects of my identity.

One evening at a Korean celebration, this Korean adoptee friend and I sat at a table with another younger, adult adoptee. There was a discussion about how a four-year-old Korean adoptee was wanting blonde hair. While I saw this as a feminist issue with a basis in the princess phase, my adoptee friend argued it was a race issue. I shared that my own daughter who had a Korean mother as a role model wanted Ariel’s red hair at age four. But my friend burst out that I was “ignorant” about adoption and my own identity issues. She angrily said, “You have only started your journey and have no idea. I will ask you when you finish your journey.”

Reflecting on that now, I realize she jolted me. Her words struck me like the cold shower on an drunk’s face. Having lost a crucial friendship that day, I sought the help of the younger adoptee to process the conversation we all had had. He introduced me to the work of Susan Harris O’Connor. Her work validated me. Her work made me more than a one-dimensional person. Another landmark passed.

Then, I became an adoptee with a mission. I wanted to help others like me, but what I didn’t realize fully was that I needed the help. I needed my eyes open; I needed an education. The beginning of this education came in the form of a panel; here I met John Raible. He encouraged pride in my narrative and in being Asian. That would be my last agency panel.

In walked the Lost Daughters. These women have seen me at my most vulnerable. They listen and reflect. They are honest and respectful. I could ask for no better support.

My work with the Lost Daughters began in the fall of 2013. This relationship has pulled me through some of my darkest moments. My search for my family began after seeing the film on Philomela Lee. I realized that searching was not solely about me as an adoptee, but also about the mothers I left behind in Korea.

This search became problematic as I petitioned for information and traveled to Korea. I have learned of the injustices adoptees face, the roadblocks by agencies, the power of the adoption industry and the deep shame in the Korean culture.

I have learned that single mothers in Korea are given a mere $59 a month while orphanages (like the Baby Box operator) receive $900 a month for each child in their care. All these things, I cannot unknow.

I can no longer be the blissful adult adoptee who only focuses on the beauty of her life with her adoptive family for somewhere one woman grieves for me on my birthday and another remembers the fleeting seven months I spent with her as my Omma.

I can no longer walk around ignoring the racism of both of my home countries for somewhere my half-brother faces racism as a half Korean-half Puerto Rican and knows little of his birthfather’s life.

I cannot forget or lie. I cannot be silent or politely hold in the frustrations I have. To care for myself and my family, I need honesty and transparency. We all deserve that faith in humanity.

02 November 2015

Wearing Adoptee Proudly

Today, I woke from a restless night. Yesterday, I visited my adoption agency with my children. Again, we were disappointed and left with only a sliver of hope that they would look more to “see if anything in my file stood out.”

But this morning, with sleep in my eyes, I read the words of my Lost Daughter sister, Rebecca. She wrote how my pendant had given her strength and reassurance as an adoptee.

My intention in creating the Pregnant Belly Bowl and its adoptee pendants was to show the community of adoptees. All the pendants were made to be given at first to my Lost Daughters’ sisters. Each takes two hours to carve and polish, then a full day to stoke the fires of the wood kiln. Much work goes into them, but the love and work was worth it for my sisters.

I appreciate their work … their understanding … and most importantly their support when I am feeling weak.

Korea has weakened me. It did last year as I tried to come to terms with the fruitless meeting with my agency. It weakens me today as I roam the streets of Seoul as a temporary resident, a longterm tourist.

I find myself turning my pendant around to the Korean stamp side while I am here in Korea. I find that I just cannot bear to see the sorrow and shame of the viewer once they understand the written word on my pendant.

Once at a ceramics workshop in Wisconsin, a woman said to me, “I am really surprised that you would want to wear that so prominently.” I told her I was not ashamed of being an adoptee. She then said she was an adoptive parent and that the adoptees she knew tried to downplay their identity as such. Then she said something surprising. “You’re brave.”

No, I AM an adoptee.

There should be no shame in that word. It is who I am. I have been made by an original family, a foster family, my adoptive family, my spouse, my children and myself.