MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. Today on the show, taking care and how what we think is right for our loved ones maybe isn't the best, most loving way to treat them after all.
SARA JONES: When I was adopted, I had a tattoo on my left forearm.
ZOMORODI: This is Sara Jones.
JONES: It was quite large, actually. It was a cross or an X, and there was four dots underneath the cross shape.
ZOMORODI: Sara was born in South Korea, and at the age of 2, she was put in an orphanage and quickly adopted by an American family. No one told them the story behind little Sara's tattoo.
JONES: My parents were very aware that having such a visible mark on my arm would generate all sorts of assumptions, questions, and they didn't want to burden me with that as a young child coming into the United States.
ZOMORODI: So Sara's adoptive parents had her mysterious tattoo removed. And growing up as a member of their Mormon community in Utah, her Korean roots were rarely mentioned. She was told that her adoption was meant to be, preordained even.
JONES: Some of the story telling that was told was that we chose each other in the pre-existence. There's this special purpose. There's a reason. There's a divine reason, and you've got to discover that. You have to kind of, you know, process the ways that your parents are explaining your existence here in the United States.
ZOMORODI: Tens of thousands of Korean children were adopted by Americans in the decades after the Korean War. For many of them like Sara, assimilation was the goal.
JONES: When I went to school, there was definitely this trying to distance myself, right? I'm not, you know, quote, unquote, "Asian." I am American, I'm white - just really trying to just be the same as all the other kids around me. But there were moments of deep, deep emptiness and sadness that I couldn't explain where those came from.
ZOMORODI: Here's Sara Jones on the TED stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
JONES: Korean adoptees were the first massive wave of international adoptions almost 30 years earlier than most other countries. And so there are entire generations of Korean adoptees from children all the way to adults in their 70s dealing with the impact of their assimilation. And there have only been a handful of studies that follow transracial adoptees over a lifetime. While many of us understand that adopting a child from a different race, culture or country is never simple, we rarely acknowledge the complex emotions that children who are adopted can experience. My parents would say things to me like I fell in love with you the first time I saw your photo. My heart broke. They love me. I know that. And I was wanted. But I would often confuse love with gratitude, especially when other people would say things to me like, you're so lucky to be adopted to America or your parents are such angels to adopt you. To a child, it felt like these comments were constant reminders to be grateful to my parents' charity. I have resented that I couldn't tell these adults, I don't like being reminded all the time that I'm adopted. I just want to be a normal kid. But I buried my feelings, and it wasn't until later in life that I realized I never really grieved my own adoption.
If you're taught at a young age that God brought you to America for a special purpose and you're searching, searching, searching - right? - yeah, it created some big questions in my mind.
ZOMORODI: But you went to college, you got a law degree, you got married, had kids of your own. I mean, on paper, your life was great. So what was the moment when you decided to do something about answering those questions that you had?
JONES: Yeah. So my son started asking who his grandparents were, and I had no answer for him. I've got these children that do deserve to know as much as possible. But I did have a closed adoption experience. Lucky for me, I had this tattoo on my arm. And so I drew over a permanent marker over the scar on my arm. And then I started posting pictures in a database for Korean adoptees who are searching for their birth families. It's one of those memories that's seared in my brain forever. I actually am sitting in the same chair as when that happened - same place, same place - and getting an email from Korean Adoption Services. And I just started crying. I just ran and found my husband. I said, oh, my gosh, you're not going to believe the email I just got.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Korean).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Korean). Hello.
ZOMORODI: So in 2018, you flew to South Korea to meet your two brothers and aunt and uncle. What went through your mind when you first saw them at the airport?
JONES: You know, what's kind of fascinating is there's these things that you remember that may feel a little bit odd to folks. But I remember them hugging me and thinking, oh, my gosh, we're almost the same size, you know?
JONES: And just, you know, these moments where - because it's a biological family - right? - and you're seeing your face reflected in them. And you're just noticing these things and processing these things that are just so new and delightful.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Korean). I love you.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I love you.
ZOMORODI: And what did they tell you about why you were put up for adoption? Did you finally get some answers to your questions?
JONES: Yeah. So I learned a lot, and it really definitely was not what I thought.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
JONES: I found out that my birth mother left my family shortly after I was born. When I was 2 years old, my birth father became injured and could not provide for my brothers and me. When my father decided to send us to children welfare services, he was worried that we would be separated and even adopted into foreign countries. And so he took the unusual step to place a large tattoo on each of our arms and on his own so that we could find each other some day.
And he tried searching for me. And he was right. The tattoo did eventually lead me to find the family that I had lost. Unfortunately, he passed away nine years before he could see his children reunited. But the most important thing that I learned was that I had a loving family in Korea who remembered me as a little baby and had never forgotten me. I wasn't abandoned like my adoption records said. I was wanted.
ZOMORODI: Oh, Sara, you put this all out there in your TED talk - your personal journey, your story, your thoughts on the adoption process, your thoughts on your own adoption process. What did your adoptive family make of all of it? How did they respond to you?
JONES: My parents actually were hearing these thoughts for the first time when I was presenting on stage.
ZOMORODI: Oh, wow.
JONES: So there was a lot of emotion that was really underwriting that whole experience. And so I actually wrote my talk in a way that I felt like they could receive it and for them to hear some things that I'd been really holding closely for many, many decades.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
JONES: Children who are adopted can still love their adoptive parents at the same time as experiencing these complex emotions. And many of us wonder if we had had safe emotional spaces to own our own stories when we were younger, would we still be struggling to come to terms with adoption as adults? It's time to reframe our views on adoption. A healthy adoption ecosystem is one in which children, adoptive families and birth families each own their unique stories. When these narratives are placed side by side, it creates better empathy and policies for the lives that adoption impacts.
Here are two things that adults can do to better protect adopted children's stories. First, give children safe emotional spaces to express their emotions, both positive and negative. Phrases such as, tell me more; what do you wish for; and, those feelings are normal, are ways that parents can grant emotional oxygen to their children. Second, validate a child's adoption story. Children may express emotions that may feel hurtful or worry an adoptive parent. As a parent, work to hold and manage your fears separately from your child. Always acknowledge your child's story as valid and important.
Now, it's natural to want to protect children from experiencing pain. But my tattoo is a poignant reminder that every adoption starts with loss, and every child is affected differently. Children who are adopted can live full, rich lives as we accept and build upon this unique set of cards that we were dealt. And as you listen to our narratives with empathy, you will hear other things as well - childlike curiosity, grace, resilience, courage, love and, yes, even gratitude. Thank you.
ZOMORODI: That's Sara Jones. You can watch her full talk at ted.com.
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