NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Last week, we talked about whether adoptees should have the right to access their adoption records and track down their birth parents. But there's a big group of adoptees for whom this issue is very different and very much more difficult.
For people adopted from other countries, birth records sometimes don't exist. And thousands of foreign-born orphans are adopted by U.S. families every year. Some, too young to remember, come to this country in the arms of their new parents. Others only remember boarding planes to the great unknown. Many of these children come from Asia and live with parents of a different race.
This month, the New York Times has been hosting a blog called Relative Choices, where adoptees and parents write about identity and the adjustments they have to make to a new country, a new language and a new culture, and the endless quest to find answers about who they are and where they're from.
If you were adopted from a foreign county, we want to hear from you. Have you looked for your birth family? What do you remember? We also want to hear from those of you who have adopted a child from another country. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. The e-mail address is email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.
And we begin with Katy Robinson, the author of "A Single Square Picture: A Korean Adoptee's Search for Her Roots." She joins us now from member station KBSU in Boise, Idaho.
And nice to have you on the program today.
Ms. KATY ROBINSON (Author, "A Single Square Picture: A Korean Adoptees Search for Her Roots"): Thanks, Neal. Nice to be here.
CONAN: You were 7 years old when you came to this country from South Korea. You write in your blog: It took me 20 years to muster the courage to confront the most basic of questions: Who am I? Where did I come from?
Why did it take you so long?
Ms. ROBINSON: I think the biggest thing was that I was afraid of hurting my adoptive parent's feelings. I'm very, very close to my mother and it just felt disloyal to bring up my birth family and my Korean mother. And I had all those questions, and I was just afraid that, you know, by bringing it up I would offend her.
CONAN: You would seem ungrateful.
Ms. ROBINSON: I would seem ungrateful. I would seem disloyal. I just didn't know how she would take it because it wasn't something that we naturally talked about.
CONAN: And when you finally made the decision, what did you say to your mom?
Ms. ROBINSON: At that time, I was 27, I'm married and living in a different town. And when I told her about my decision, I think she was quite surprised and maybe not prepared. And I think her biggest reaction was that she was afraid for me. She was afraid what I would discover and what would happen to me. You know, she had heard all sorts of stories about finding parents and then the parents might not want to meet me, you know, she just didn't know.
CONAN: And what did you find out?
Ms. ROBINSON: I went back and I went to the orphanage where I had stayed for a short time before my adoption. And I was a little bit different because I was 7 and I lived with my Korean mother and grandmother up until the time of my adoption, so I had a lot of memories. And, you know, I went back to the orphanage and gave them the only two pieces of information that I had, which was my Korean name and the date of my adoption. And a social worker there dug in some files and found a folder with my Korean name written across the top.
CONAN: And that revealed?
Ms. ROBINSON: It revealed - what she told me was that she didn't have any information about my mother or grandmother, but that she had information that my Korean father had been to the orphanage 10 years before he had come there looking for me and looking for information about me. And she said we have an old telephone number for him. It's 10 years old. We doubt we can track him down, but we'll try it for you. And I got a phone call at my hotel room in Seoul the very next day and she said we found him and he can come to your hotel at 2 o'clock.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. ROBINSON: And so that's how it happened, and I was able to reunite with my Korean father.
CONAN: After all that time, it happened so quickly.
Ms. ROBINSON: It really did. And it's very unusual that it would happen that quickly. People spend years and years searching. So in my case, it just happened so quickly and I was fortunate.
CONAN: And you must have had an awful lot of question for your dad when you finally met him?
Ms. ROBINSON: Well, I did, but I had so little time to prepare because, you know, my first trip back to Korea, I had no idea that I would be reuniting with any family members on that trip. And, you know it's one of those things adoptees, I think, fantasize about that meeting with their birth parents, and I didn't know if it would be - I would look at him into his face and it would be like finding a long lost family member, but it really wasn't like that.
He knocked at my room and he opened the door and he called out my Korean name immediately and, you know, one of his first words to me were I'm so sorry I couldn't do my duty to you as your father. And not a single day has passed in the last 20 years where I haven't thought about you.
And for me, it was - I didn't really recognize him. He wasn't a big part of my life when I was growing up there. And I was trained as a journalist - in the back of my mind, I had these questions, how do I know that's really my father, you know? Nowadays, they do genetic testing to make sure. And it wasn't until we sat down together and he opened his jacket pocket and pulled out these photographs of me from the time I was a baby all the way until I left Korea. And it was the first time that I had seen pictures of me as an infant, that small. And that's when I really knew, yes, this is my father and here he is and I do look like him. And it was an amazing moment.
CONAN: Did you find out what happened to your mother and why you parents - your birth parents decided to give you up?
Ms. ROBINSON: Yes. He told me my mother was very young when they met. She was 19 when she had me, and she had had an affair with my father who was older, he was in his mid-40s. He was already married and had three other children with his first wife. They fell in love and had me, and he supported both families for a time until when I was 5, his business went bankrupt and he could no longer afford to take care of us. And I think my mother, at that time realizing that she couldn't take care of me in the culture, in that society as a single mother, and that's when she decided that the best thing would be to give me up for adoption.
CONAN: You said, again, in your blog, you haven't found all the answers and probably never will. Nevertheless, was this worth it? Was there some degree of closure? Where some of the answers questioned - questions answered?
Ms. ROBINSON: It was absolutely worth it. You know, I went back to Korea and lived there for a full year to search for more answers and to learn the language and get to know the culture. And in a way, that year was the most difficult and emotional year of my life. But looking back on it, it was vey worth it. And today, I have a Korean family, I still keep in touch with my father, and I met a half brother and a half sister and I have a nephew. So they are very much a part of our lives.
And I think for many adoptees, the questions - a lot of our questions will never be answered and that's just something that we live with, you know? But I do have a sense of closure and that I'm okay. I think I may never be able to find out what happened to my mother, but I know that I grew up very loved for those first seven years and she made an excruciating decision that she thought would be the best thing for me.
CONAN: And your adopted family, what do they think about all this?
Ms. ROBINSON: My adopted family - well, my mother came to Korea when we were living there for three weeks and was able to able to meet my Korean family. And it was an amazing moment - me sitting there at the table with my Korean father and my adoptive mother and kind of translating for them. And, you know, my father said thank you so much for raising Katy and taking care of her. And then my mom would say, no, no, thank you for allowing us to raise Katy. And it was just a very heartwarming moment. And they wrote each other letters. And my mom, today, I think realizes that Korean part of me, and it's brought us closer together, too.
CONAN: We're talking with Katy Robinson, author of "A Single Square Picture: A Korean Adoptee's Search for Her Roots," also a blogger for the New York Times adoption blog Relative Choices.
If you'd like to join the conversation - if you were adopted from abroad or if you have adopted a child from another country: 800 989-8255. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
And let's start with Linda(ph), Linda with us from Jacksonville in Florida.
LINDA (Caller): Yes. Hello. How are you?
CONAN: I'm well. Thank you.
LINDA: I have an adopted daughter who came from Lebanon. And a lot of people are talking about searching for records and adoptive families helping them or not being involved in that. The time that I adopted her was in the middle of the Civil War. It was in 1979. And they, in fact, dummied her birth records just to - the government was in such disarray then so that birth mothers couldn't come back and find children. There was a lot of black market kind of sales of children and that kind of thing. So the records that we have - even though we have Lebanese-Arabic records - are not accurate. So I had no idea how she would ever find, you know, any information.
The interesting thing is she's really not that interested. Every time I ask her if she's interested in going back over there just, you know, want a trip to look at the country and that kind of thing, she says, no, maybe someday, you know? But she's fine. So…
CONAN: How old is she?
LINDA: Right now, she's 28.
CONAN: So more than old enough to make up her own mind.
LINDA: That's right. Absolutely.
LINDA: And it's always been an issue that was open. I was always interested, and we have friends who were - who, in fact, helped us with the adoption, who were from the area she was adopted from. She's close to them, interested in the culture, interested in, you know, claims to be of Arabic descent, you know, on any surveys and that kind of thing. But just the fact of pursuing a family she's never known - maybe it's unusual, but many of the adult adoptees that I know are - have never pursued it, you know, just seemed to be okay with their lives the way it is, knowing that maybe it's too big an obstacle to overcome, you know, too big a challenge to sort through. I don't know. But that's our experience.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call, Linda.
LINDA: You're welcome.
CONAN: And let's see if we can get - this is John(ph). John is with us from Kalamazoo in Michigan.
JOHN (Caller): Hey, how are you doing? Thanks for taking my call.
JOHN: Well, I would just like to comment on how incredibly lucky the author of that book was that she knows as many facts as she does, and that she has some of these memories and experience. I was adopted out of Seoul, South Korea myself when I was 3 months old. I know my parents' approximate height. My mom was approximately 5'3 and my father was approximately 5'6, which would put me right in between there. I know their probable occupation, as factory workers. And, honestly, that's it. I know the relative area in Seoul that I came from.
But it's kind of a lingering question that I know a lot of adoptees, especially the two others that came over with me to this area of Michigan, kind of wonder about. I mean, who am I really? Who am I related to? Who were my parents? And I just kind of want to comment and see how the author feels about that. And I'll take my answer off the air.
CONAN: All right. If we can get a quick response from Katy Robinson.
Ms. ROBINSON: Sure. I think you're right. I am lucky that I came with so many memories. But on the other hand, that made my adjustment very difficult too. I was seven and I did have - I lived with my family up until the time of my adoption. I could read and write in Korean. And so that adjustment was difficult for me to let go of those memories at the same time. But I do agree that I'm lucky.
CONAN: Katy Robinson, thanks very much for your time today.
Ms. ROBINSON: Thank you.
CONAN: Katy Robinson, author of "A Single Square Picture," talking to us from member station KBSU in Boise, Idaho.
If you were adopted from a foreign country, give us a call: 800-989-8255. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
We're talking this hour about finding your roots - children adopted from other countries now searching as adults for their own birth parents, their culture, part of their own identity.
If you were adopted from a foreign country, have you looked for your birth family? 800-989-8255. You can e-mail us: email@example.com. Or send us your stories on our blog: nr.org.blogofthenation.
Joining us now is Peter Catapano. He's the staff editor of the New York Times Editorial/Op-Ed page and oversee the blog for The Times that we're talking about - Relative Choices. He joins us now from our bureau in New York City.
Nice to have you on the program today.
Dr. PETER CATAPANO (Staff Editor, Editorial/Op-Ed, The New York Times): Thank you, Neal. Hi.
CONAN: And how did this blog come about?
Dr. CATAPANO: Well, as part of what we call op-extra in the op-ed department, we develop blogs or projects for online consumption, for the Web site only. And we try to find themes that are rich enough to sort of hold up for a month. We try to get three or four, or in this case, we have almost a dozen writers gathering around a topic, talking about their experiences and, you know, giving a real voice to a topic may or may not be in the news at any given time.
CONAN: But why this particular topic? Obviously, the New York Times has a lot to write about a lot of things.
Dr. CATAPANO: Sure. Well, I have some personal experience. I adopted a girl from - a little girl from China. She's 4 years old now. And in that experience, we went through the adjustments that every family goes through. But after we've sort of got settled in our own lives, we started to talk to other people. And I just found that there were so many perspectives on adoption that it really was worth it to start looking beyond our own experiences and trying to get other people talking about it as well.
CONAN: And there's a focus on Asian adoptees?
Dr. CATAPANO: Well, it did turn out that way. It wasn't particularly planned that way, but in looking for people who had thought about written about their experience with adoption, we did come upon a lot of adoptees from Asia and people who had adopted from Asia as well.
CONAN: And how did you locate the people who became your bloggers?
Dr. CATAPANO: Just through research; we looked at people who had written books, found Jeff Gammage and Katy that way.
CONAN: Jeff Gammage will be joining us a little later in the show.
Dr. CATAPANO: Right. Right. We also looked through blogs, scoured the Internet and talked to people, talked to people who knew people who were adopted, people who are willing to write. And also, in particular, looking for people who were sort of aware of where they stood in relationship to their adoption or their experience in adoption, and were ready to come out and talk about it and write about it.
CONAN: The journalism involved here - and there is journalism involved here. But it's different from a story in the newspaper that might say here are the issues involved in this - relates to pending legislation or something like that. What do you think the effect of this kind of blog is going to be?
Dr. CATAPANO: Well, I can't really say what the effect will be, you know, in journalism, in general. But I do know that we focus on personal narratives and personal viewpoints. And that's something that journalists have - some journalists have done in the past. You know, the classic example is Studs Terkel and doing oral histories with working and things like that.
These are very powerful perspectives, and they transmit actual experiences, and they tend to resonate with people really powerfully, I think.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller on the line with you. And this is Tani(ph). Tani is with us from Ypsilanti in Michigan.
TANI (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.
TANI: I was adopted from Ecuador in the 1970s, and that was at a time when the Peace Corps actually allowed couples to adopt children. And at that time, no known information was left on the identity of my birth family. I was just abandoned at an orphanage in Quito. But I think in - basically, I've had to struggle with that, although I didn't worry too much about not finding my birth family even though I've gone back to Ecuador. But it really has come more as essential for me because I have a child now myself. And as I think of him and as he's growing up, I've really begun to wonder how do I connect him back. And I have a birth mother and birth parents out there who don't know that they have a lovely grandchild. And I think the most I can do for him, which is what I've done for myself, is bring him back to Ecuador, let him see the country from which his legacy comes from. But, you know, there isn't much more that I can do. And it's something I struggle with, but it is all for something I have to live with, too.
CONAN: And that one word you used, Tani - abandoned. That's a hard word to come to grips with.
TANI: Yes. In the academic world, they use the word relinquished. But as an adoptee, it's more than relinquished. It truly is abandonment. And there are many adoptees who have been truly abandoned and that's how it feels as an adoptee. And you have to work through that. You have to forgive the families, both adoptive families and the birth parents. And eventually, you'll learn to forgive yourself because you realize there wasn't anything you could have done to change that. But, boy, it's really hard.
CONAN: I was going say there's another powerful word in there - eventually.
(Soundbite of laughter)
TANI: Yeah. Well, you know, many of us who are adoptees and - had to work through this. It's a real, very serious process. You have a lot of internal work to do. And it's something that isn't really easy to understand until you're - unless you're in it. I speak to a lot of birth or, excuse me, adoptive parent groups. And what I do is I share my story and the process that I've gone through, as both a child, a young adult, and as an older adult, and now as a mother, about how adoption is a tapestry of my life. It is always there. It never goes away. You never solve it completely. But it's always just a part of your real life and how you manage that.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.
TANI: Yes. Thank you.
CONAN: Peter Catapano, I was wondering how typical that story sounds to you.
Dr. CATAPANO: Well, I wouldn't call it typical, but the element of searching and strong emotion runs throughout the whole spectrum. That includes adoptive parents, birth families, birth mothers and adoptees as well. But I know that for a fact that adoption does affect so many families in the Unites States that, somehow, I think it's about 60 percent either know someone who has adopted, had given up a child for adoption or adopted themselves. So it touches a lot of people. And stories like that, yeah, there are so many of them. We weren't able to include everybody who I wish we could, but the people we have right now are doing a wonderful job.
CONAN: Peter Catapano, thanks very much for your time.
Dr. CATAPANO: Thank you. Peter Catapano, the New York Times Editorial/Op-Ed page, joined us from our bureau in New York City.
With us now is another of his blogger, Sumeia Williams, a writer who joins us on the line from her home in North Carolina. Nice to have you on the program today.
Ms. SUMEIA WILLIAMS (Blogger, Relative Choices): Thank you for having me, Neal.
CONAN: And in your first blog, you wrote about trying to reclaim your past and your story, beginning with talking to your father, your adoptive father, for information.
Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah. Well, I grew up thinking, you know, no one tells me anything. I just assumed both of my parents were dead and I was an orphan and I kind of built my identity on that assumption.
CONAN: You were born in Vietnam.
Ms. WILLIAMS: I was born in Vietnam, in Saigon in 1970. And, you know, so I built my identity on that. And then, when I was 14, I went to go live with my dad. I have been living with my mother because they had gotten divorced. And he called me into the room and he said I have something to tell you. And he then told me, you know, he's my genetic father. And, you know, my reaction was just, I guess, kind of bewilderment because I didn't expect it. It just came out of the blue, and so I just kind of gave him a hug and kissed him and I walked out of the room. I didn't know how to react. And…
CONAN: So from first being - thinking that you were a Vietnamese orphan adopted by an American G.I. and…
Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah.
CONAN: …now, you've found out that you were an Asian-American.
Ms. WILLIAMS: Oh, that's what he told me, you know, so I kind of had to recalibrate my identity to try to see myself as an Amerasian. And, you know, of course, you go back and let, you know, kind of think about the trivia and all the - and try to, you know, get facts on what it is to be Amerasian. And he told me stories that my mother was dead, and he came up with this very elaborate tale that he has fallen in love with my mother and, you know, I guess because he was married at the time, he couldn't just bring me over. So he decided he was going to, you know, make it appear that he adopted me. And he told me the story that she had been killed, you know, by Vietcong and that he had taken me to the orphanage and began an adoption process.
CONAN: But that was not the last story he was to tell you.
Ms. WILLIAMS: No. You know, I can't, you know, I let it - my father wanted to give me closure, I'm sure. And you know, I think he was trying to give himself closure as well. But questions kept nagging in my mind, you know? What is my mother's name? What about her extended family? I must have family there because, surely, you know, Vietnamese, they have very large families. And you know, as my - what was I going to tell my children? You know, I had four children who had no clue to what, you know, their mom's past was, where she came from.
And so it really started to bother me. So I started asking him questions. What is my mother's name? And he was very reluctant. And he really didn't want to say anything. So, you know, I finally told him, you know, look, I'm going to die if you don't tell me. This is killing me. And so he then tells me that - he somehow comes to, you know, the story where she was a prostitute.
CONAN: Your mother?
Ms. WILLIAMS: My mother, who came to him while he was on tour there and handed me to him and said, you know, this is yours. And he said, okay. And I said, well, what was her name? He said I don't know it. I go, how can you have a baby with a woman and you don't know her name or, you know, were you so gullible that you would just take any baby that someone, you know, offered you.
And so he maintained that story for a little while and then I called back again. And I called him a week after that. This was going on for months. And I would call him every week and kind of, you know, hint to him that, you know, I want to know more. But he wouldn't - he wasn't very forthcoming. And then, just recently, you know, I finally told him, you know, I really have to know. I'm going to go search and if - you know, I need something to go on.
And that's when he, you know, broke down and he told me that I had been in the orphanage when he got there. And he didn't know who my mother was, that word had gotten out that he was looking for a baby girl to adopt because he had already had two sons with my adoptive mom and they wanted a little girl. And somehow, a woman named Tai Kim Kook(ph) had heard about this and had approached him and taken him to Hoi Duc Anh orphanage where I had been for - it couldn't have been more than a few weeks, and said this is the baby for you. And he said they started the adoption process immediately. And that while he was, you know, off doing his duty, I stayed with her for the next six months.
CONAN: And do you believe this story?
Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, the only thing that makes me believe it is he gave me her address. He told me a story that after I had stayed with her, she had accompanied both of us to the airport in Vietnam and had written her address down on a card and gave to him and said give this to Le Thi when she gets older so that she can, you know, tell me what happened to her.
CONAN: We're talking about issues of identity for people who were adopted from foreign countries. If you'd like to join the conversation: 800-989-8255. E-mail us: firstname.lastname@example.org. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And I wanted to ask you, Sumeia Williams, has your going through the story - another aspect of your story was growing up Vietnamese in an American household, in a community that didn't have any other Asian kids in it.
Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah. Up until, you know, I was 10 years old. It was an odd situation.
CONAN: And very different from other - many of the other Vietnamese who are in this country, people who came - boat people or various kinds of refugees.
Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah. I mean, and my history is quite different from that of, you know, my contemporaries who came over on boats or who, you know, had to go through a very difficult process to get here. It was, you know, for all intents and purposes, very easy for me.
CONAN: And this causes - do you feel as if you have not landed with both feet in any camp?
Ms. WILLIAMS: Yes. I mean, you know, as I described in this last blog post, it's very difficult to, you know - on one hand, I see myself, you know, as kind of a white American because…
CONAN: That's the way you're raised.
Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah, the way I was raised. I wasn't raised to, you know - I didn't know anything about Vietnam. The Vietnamese perspective - I can't tell you what that is. The Vietnamese-American perspective - I really can't tell you what that's like because I don't have that shared history and experience that they've had. I can kind of relate to second and third generation because, you know, we share a lot of the same identity issues of having, you know, kind of seed in, you know, two different soils.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller on the line with you. This is Hung(ph). Hung with us from Maples in Florida.
HUNG (Caller): Yes, I was listening and I totally identify with that. I also grew up. I'm - mine - I'm from Vietnam and I was born in 1974 where my mother, she came down for the hills of Vietnam and had me at an orphanage. And - anyway, I came over on Operation Baby Lift. I was one of the last planes out of Saigon. And my wife, who was looking through my paperwork, she got in contact with the nun that actually signed my paperwork and actually took my footprints and photographed me and everything, then she got me out of there.
So we - I got to meet her about a month ago. And she was, like, looking at me and looking at me and she says, Hung, I don't think you're Vietnamese. And I'm like, well, wait a second. I'm from Vietnam, right? And she's like, well, yeah. But there's a certain group of people called the mountainyard. And she said I look very much like mountainyard. I don't look Vietnamese.
So all in - I grew up in this white culture and I grew up in a really rural area of Minnesota where I was the only, you know, minority around. And it was -1979, was my first year of school and it was really, really hard because, you know, people's uncles and fathers were in Vietnam. And you took the brunt of all that. And I had no idea why anybody - these people were hating me and I was getting spit on and hung outside the bus window. Yeah, I really identify with your speaker there.
CONAN: Katy, excuse me, Sumeia Williams?
Ms. WILLIAMS: Hmm.
CONAN: Yeah. We just have a few seconds with you, Sumeia. I wonder if you had a response to what Hung was saying.
Ms. WILLIAMS: I'm sorry. Excuse me?
CONAN: I was wondering if you had a response to with Hung's story.
Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah. I had - I experienced that, too, where, you know, I was called names. And it is really difficult being the only minority. And, you know, it's not just that you're a minority, you're a minority of a minority because you're the only one. You have, you know, really no one to relate to. It can be very isolating and difficult. And, you know, I think - it affects us in a lot more ways than we realize.
CONAN: Well, Hung, thanks very much for your story, and we appreciate it.
HUNG: Thank you.
CONAN: Good luck.
CONAN: And Sumeia Williams, thank you for calling us. Appreciate it.
Ms. WILLIAMS: Thank you. I appreciate it.
CONAN: Sumeia Williams, a writer, with us on the line from her home in North Carolina, one of the bloggers in the New York Times Relative Choices series.
More on this in just a moment. We're going to be talking with Jeff Gammage, a blogger for the New York Times' adoption blog Relative Choices, a staff writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer, about his decisions, adopting a baby from another country and what to do about their culture.
Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: Today, we're talking with several of the bloggers from the New York Times adoption blog Relative Choices about the challenges of finding roots when you're adopted from overseas.
If you were adopted from another country or adopted a baby from another country, give us a call: 800-989-8255. E-mail us: email@example.com.
With us now is Jeff Gammage. He is staff writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer and author of "China Ghosts: My Daughter's Journey to America, My Passage to Fatherhood." He is with us today from member station WHYY in Philadelphia. Nice to have you on the program.
Mr. JEFF GAMMAGE (Staff Writer, The Philadelphia Inquirer; Author, "China Ghosts: My Daughter's Journey to America, My Passage to Fatherhood"): Thank you, Neal. Glad to be here.
CONAN: And you and your wife adopted two girls from China. Why did you would choose to adopt from a foreign country and why specifically from China?
Mr. GAMMAGE: Well, we chose to adopt because we could not produce biological children. And we began to look around the world at which country would be a match for us and whether our baby was going to come from the United States or somewhere in the rest of the world. And we settled on China pretty quickly. At the time, China was moving fast with adoptions. You could complete an adoption in a matter of months. It's much longer now. It's two years or two and a half years. And it was easy.
The process - it was the same for everyone. Everybody follow the same steps. You filled out a certain number of forms. The process was lockstep, and it was very appealing to us. We knew at the end of it, we would come home with our daughter.
CONAN: It is - it must be a very odd feeling. In a way you were playing God. You're about to change somebody's life completely.
Mr. GAMMAGE: That's absolutely true, and it's something that I struggled with and I think a lot of parents struggle with. My daughters had no say in this process whatsoever. Their lives were changed by me and the Chinese government. And I had all the say, they had none of the say. And that's not always a comfortable place to be or a comfortable thing to live with.
CONAN: And there is, I guess - is there an aspect of when you're adopting particularly a child from another country, a child like from another country like China in particular, that you're saving somebody?
Mr. GAMMAGE: I certainly never felt that I saved my daughters. If anything, they saved me. It's the reverse. Now, I mean, my daughters owe me nothing. I owe them everything. I'd always felt adoption was a selfish choice in that I got exactly what I wanted, and my children just had to accept that and really leave everything behind - their homeland, their language, their culture, the faces of their countrymen, their smells.
You know, Jin Yu, my oldest daughter and Zhao Gu, they gave up everything but their names when they left China. So I certainly never felt that I was saving anyone.
CONAN: Why did you decide that they should keep their names?
Mr. GAMMAGE: Many reasons. We felt that - well, for one, they were beautiful names and that they were bestowed by the people who were there to give them a name when they needed one. Jin Yu, our eldest daughter, who is now 7, her name means gold and jade. And she was born in the year of the dragon, and we just thought that was gorgeous and it was a lovely name and it fit her. And she was also 2 years old when she came to us. She knew her name and she responded to her name. She was not a baby, sleep and unaware.
CONAN: And your second daughter?
Mr. GAMMAGE: Our second daughter, Zhao Gu, she was 11 months when she came to us. She was mostly a baby and adjusted very easily. Our eldest daughter had a much more difficult time. But as far as keeping her name, again, we just thought it was beautiful name and fit her, and we wanted her to always have that her name would trigger the memory of where she came from and we hope that it would show her that her mother and I respected her homeland and the people who named her and allowed us to become her parents.
CONAN: Our guest is Jeff Gammage, a staff writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer but also a blogger on The New York Times adoption blog, "Relative Choices." Let's see we get another caller on the line.
And this is Sonia(ph). Sonia with us from Grand Rapids in Michigan.
SONIA (Caller): Yes. We adopted my daughter through China in '04. And I'm an African-American. My husband is Caucasian. And we have a biological, biracial son, so we kind of have a lot of different cultures and things going on in our family. And I guess I really don't have question, just a comment that, you know, we kind of feel that our daughter really embraces all of our different cultures and ethnicity. She's really Chinese but she also, you know, as being raised and, you know, with an African-American mom and a Caucasian father. So, you know, when we have to check those things off on the forms, we will check multicultural.
CONAN: I wonder, have you made some effort, Sonia, to teach her, her language and her culture?
SONIA: Actually, we do. Yes. We do quite a bit of that. And my husband has the main focus of that. He does quite a bit of that. But yes, we do.
CONAN: And why do you think that's important as opposed to saying, you're an American now?
SONIA: Well, you know, she's an American but she's also Chinese. Those are her roots. And we don't want to ignore that at all. We want to embrace that and bring that into our family and have it be a part of our family because that's who she is.
CONAN: Jeff Gammage, you've thought about these exact, same issues?
Mr. GAMMAGE: I have and couldn't agree more with the caller. We certainly try to celebrate our daughter's Chinese heritage and - not only on holidays and special occasions, but Jin Yu is enrolled in lion dancing class in Chinatown here. And it's important for us not only that she get a sense of the culture and some of the history of China, but that she gets a chance to be in the majority, at least once in a while. And through that class and other activities, she is exposed to strong Asian women, which is something we also want her to see regularly as she grows up.
CONAN: You've written, though in your blog that you cannot give her China, you can only give her Chinatown.
Mr. GAMMAGE: Yes, I'm a poor teacher. My wife and I are both Caucasian. I have no experience at being Chinese. I tried to put my children in situations where they can be around other Chinese and around other Asians and - but that's really all I can offer. We hope to travel back to China. But again, that'll be sort of a limited exposure and a limited time. But it's very important to us to try to keep up our daughter's connection to her homeland.
CONAN: Sonia, eventually, would you think you and your husband would take your adopted daughter back to China?
SONIA: Oh, we do it in a heartbeat. Absolutely, we would do it in a heartbeat. And we're looking, you know, currently looking for opportunities to do that.
CONAN: Sonia, thank…
SONIA: We want her to stay connected, as connected as possible.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, and good luck to you.
SONIA: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's turn now to - this is Lisa(ph), Lisa's with us from Portland, Oregon.
LISA (Caller): Hi. I' just want to really quickly describe our experience as adoptive parents. We have four children. They were three here in the states, one was born in Bolivia. We went down to La Paz to adopt him. We have always been open with our children with as much information as possible, so I hope I can put a positive spin on this.
I'm Hispanic. I'm a first-generation American. My parents are Mexican. I didn't grow up speaking Spanish, but we can celebrate the fact that all four of our children have Hispanic ties. We specifically looked for that when we were out looking at agencies and who - how can we do this because I'm Hispanic? My brother, my - confusing - my husband has some Anglo ties. But had we given birth, which we wanted to and we couldn't, our children would have been essentially, you know, in a sense Mexican-American on my side and then more Anglo on my husband's side.
Our experience has been wonderful. We took our son to Bolivia last summer to do humanitarian work. He came home joyful, said mom, I finally know I look like. We live in a predominantly white city, which is really difficult. But since the day our children could sit up, we have told them as much as we can. We celebrate my husband's Irish roots. We celebrate my Hispanic roots, which are theirs as well, ethnically. We tell them, hey, you're filling out a form in school? Yeah, of course you're Hispanic. Check that off, you know? Maybe, oh, that, you know, I wish he did look like everybody in your school. I wish you did have that experience, but here's what we can do to help you. And it's been joyous for us. It's been wonderful.
CONAN: How old was your son when he went back to Bolivia?
LISA: This was just last year and he was just about 14.
CONAN: Just about 14, so…
CONAN: … an age that - had he had - and your other kids, too. I mean, lots of questions about where do I come from, who are my birthparents, what were the circumstances of my adoption.
LISA: Yeah. I have to say that that's been really difficult for us because our youngest is 7. And when we adopted him, of course, things are much more open seven years ago than they were with my eldest, who is now 18. And my second, who is 16 - and going overseas, I have to say, in Bolivia, things were tight.
And I felt like the door had been shut by the Bolivian government and I was kind of - I was really upset about that because I thought what if we want to go back? But I - there was no sense of we'd work with you on that, and of course, it's so far away and all that kind of thing but - and this is, you know, obviously, 14 years ago but yet, it had brought up issues for me as a mother to try to help my other children grief because it truly is a grieving process for people who are adopted and that, you know, we're not naive to that. We certainly don't have everything perfect here at home, but it's been a joy for him and hopefully, it has made a breakthrough for us to be able to, again, return to this as the kids get older, you know?
What would you like us to do to help? What can we do? We've already asked the others that, but the 7-year-old also has brought the sense of joy and liveliness. Wow, he got to go back, mom. What can I do? And, you know? So I think it's been really good. It's been a breakthrough for our family.
CONAN: Lisa, thanks very much for the call. Good luck to you. Bye-bye.
We're talking about the parents who've adopted children from overseas. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And Jeff Gammage, I just wanted to follow up on that call with you. There is, sometimes, very little in terms of records or information to find when you do go back.
Mr. GAMMAGE: Yes. There's a - it depends on that country, really, whether records are kept by the government, or some of the adoption agencies I know in Korea, returning adoptees will often find at least some kind of record. In China, the children tend to be abandoned at or shortly after birth, so…
CONAN: Most of them girls.
Mr. GAMMAGE: Mostly girls. So it's not like the records are hidden from them. It's that there are no records there to be found.
CONAN: And that was the case in the - terms of one of your children, all you could find was the name of the man who had found her in an alley.
Mr. GAMMAGE: Yes, and that was actually an enormous amount of information, to have the name of the person who found her. Most parents don't even get that. But by getting his name and I also received his workplace and was eventually able to locate him in China and interview him about the day that he found my daughter on the street. She was left outside a health center, in the city of Wuwei.
CONAN: And this was important, eventually, to her; obviously, to you. It turned out to him as well.
Mr. GAMMAGE: I think that was the best part of it for me was not only was there something that I saw as crucial to my daughter that she would know there was someone in her homeland who would be able to say, I knew you when you were a baby that she would have that. But to find out that it was such a big event in this man's life, when we've called his home, his wife got on the phone and she said, oh, no, no. You want to talk to my husband? He always talks about the day he found the baby.
CONAN: That's interesting. Here's an e-mail we got this from Yanni(ph). I was adopted from Greece in the 1950s. At the time, there was a quota regarding the number of children allowed to be adopted into the U.S. My father, still living in Anchorage, Alaska at the time, was one of the writers of the Alaska Constitution Convention. He went to Washington, D.C. with then-Governor Bob Bartlett and saw a Senator McCarran. And McCarran proposed a bill that there'd be no quota for children adopted in the U.S. from foreign countries. The bill was passed because of my adoption. The rest is history. So that's, maybe a little - found out a little about how old this happened. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is Scott, Scott with us from Fresno in California.
Mr. SCOTT (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Hi, Scott.
Mr. SCOTT: Hey, thanks for having me on the show.
CONAN: Sure. Go ahead, please.
Mr. SCOTT: It's an interesting situation. My wife was adopted in the early '70s from Korea, and now in her 30s, has no great optimism that she's going to be able to find much of roots back in Korea. But as a child, she said with me that she went through a process of not wanting to be Korean. She's in Oklahoma in an all white family. And for awhile, somewhat rejected her Asian upbringing and her culture, but now would love to have that opportunity. And we actually just returned from Kazakhstan with a little boy. We've been back about eight, ten weeks.
And we're trying to do all we can do to keep him up to speed on his culture, and would like to someday take him back there. And my wife and I even tried to continue to learn Russian and keep an open contact with the orphanage there. And so, I think it's a big part of their identity. It's not immediately at some point, but the communication stays open so that when they do have the opportunity, it's open to them and that we're an active part of helping them find out that.
CONAN: Well, first of all, congratulations. And second of all, have you been able to find out his circumstances in Kazakhstan and his - the names of his family?
Mr. SCOTT: We do. We actually have a mother's name and a father's name, And that's about it. I think if we wanted to, we could search more, and we're staying in contact with the orphanage there. And more than anything, we were so enamored with the culture there and with that small town that we hope to go back, and either just spend time with our biologic children there and back on new little guy, that over the years, we have to return to that area. And I think without too much prodding, it's a real small town and really isolated there at Kazakhstan. I think we could find.
But more importantly than getting him in touch with that mother, more so that a portion of his identity is this strong exciting culture that Kazakhstan has that is often misunderstood, and that primarily is his identity would be, as a young loved part of the family. But more so, that that's a neat part of who he is and that it's always there and we would love to kind of facilitate that.
CONAN: And, and I would recommend that you might want to let him keep his original name unless it's Borat.
Mr. SCOTT: Yes. Trust me, my friends don't ever stop making fun of that for me, so…
CONAN: I bet.
Mr. SCOTT: His, his name was Turabek(ph), which is a difficult name for high schools in America. We've kept his name shortened as Beck. So he is - he's got a part of that with him.
CONAN: Scott, we wish you and Beck the best of luck.
Mr. SCOTT: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Okay. Bye-bye. Thanks very much for the call. And Jeff Gammage, thank you for sharing your story with us as well.
Mr. GAMMAGE: Thank you. My pleasure.
CONAN: Jeff Gammage is staff writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer, author of "China Ghosts: My Daughter's Journey to America, My Passage to Fatherhood." He joined us today from our member station in Philadelphia, WHYY.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.