“To me, family is more than just blood and genes, it’s shared memories, messy fights, tears, laughter, unshakeable loyalty and unconditional love.”
When Lewis Williams reads his favourite quote written by Yeong Sassall, an Asian-Australian adoptee and the author of Growing up Asian in a White Household, published on DAILYLIFE, his eyes gleam and he smiles.
“I feel like that she is writing how exactly I feel for my family, ” he says.
“I’ll always call my parents my family, my home is always Australia even though I know I was born in South Korea.”
When I meet Williams in a café Dome in a shopping mall in Bassendean, he wears a black T-shirt and a pair of beige shorts, with a pair of brown gold-rimmed sunglasses on his head, looking like a typical laid-back Aussie.
“I am an open book,” Williams says.
Then, he crosses his legs and leans back on the sofa, his hands resting naturally on his stomach.
Williams was adopted from an orphanage in South Korea when he was four months old by a family in Western Australia, one of 244 families who had placement adoptions of inter-country children during 1998 – 1999.
While intercountry adoptions are not uncommon in Australia, adoptees have often reported feeling out of place here or having to deal with racism, even though their families are typically very welcoming. The struggles facing adoptees have increasingly been recognised and efforts have been made to better support and their Australian family members.
The Australia Federal Government defines adoption as a legal process involving the transfer of the rights and responsibilities for the permanent care of a child from the child’s parent(s) to their adoptive parent(s).
According to the latest statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, there were 57 finalised intercountry adoptions in Australia in which only 18 percent of total adoption cases from 2018 – 2019. The median waiting time for families adopting from overseas was 2 years and 1 month. Sixty-five per cent of intercountry adoptees were aged under 5-year-old and most of them come from Colombia, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Thailand.
According to AIHW, Australia has 13 active partner countries of intercountry adoption in compliance with the Hague Convention and Bilateral Arrangement, which are Bulgaria, Chile, China, Colombia, Hong Kong, Latvia, the Philippines, Poland, South Africa, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, and Thailand.
Intercountry adoptees come from different ethical backgrounds around the world. They call themselves Australian and this is their home too. Yet, the community does not always see them in the same way.
Despite spending almost the whole lives here and being raised by Australian families, adoptees still face more challenges and difficulties of values and morality as they grow up. The confusion of self-identity seems to be one of the biggest struggles for intercountry children.
Williams says: “When I was younger I did suffer from a bit from bullying. The bullying was more about questioning why my parents are white and why I am not like the same. So, from a very young age, I was very confused.
“I remember when I was in year one, you know, my parents dropped me off the school every day and came in and made sure I was all right and then left. There was just a random student who came up to me and said, ‘hey, why do your parents look different?’
“I was like, ‘what do you mean by different?’
“I didn’t know how to respond because I didn’t understand it at the time.
“To me it felt like, OK, am I missing something here?
“Why do I not look a lot of like my parents? Who am I as a person?”
Williams picks up his chocolate caramel milk drink takes a big sip out of it, then leans back to the sofa.
“I always knew I was born in Korea, but at the same time, I didn’t realise I had another mother who gave birth to me.”
In Williams’ Australian family, he also has a two years younger sister who is adopted from Korea as his adoptive parents don’t have biological children.
Williams visited Korea twice in 2008 and 2013, and stayed in the orphanage in the middle of Seoul where he grew up till 4 months old before adoption. Unfortunately, he hasn’t had any luck in finding his birth parents or relatives as he was left at door of the orphanage. Nevertheless, he said intended to keep looking.
Discovering the myth of birth is not exclusive to Williams, Alex Gilbert is also a player in the team.
When I first met Gilbert on Zoom, his Kiwi accent proves that he has been living in New Zealand for almost of his whole life, although he was born in Russia.
He explains: “I’m Adopted is a community to help adopted people across the world connect.
“I wanted to create I’m Adopted because I’ve always needed help from people from the same background as me and at my age, when I went through the process of finding my family in Russia and tracking down my birth parents.
“A lot of adoptive people don’t know how to go through the journey of their own adoption. When they are into adulthood, they might have unanswered questions, they might want to know things from someone who has roller coaster of emotions or all sorts of things happening in their life.
“It’s very important to connect and ask help from those people who are adopted as well, because they might have been to the similar path.”
Gilbert has re-connected with his birth parents and met his two half-blood siblings from his father side in Saint Petersburg seven years ago. He said it was great to meet his birth father and stay with his current family when he visited Russia.
“He’s opened up his whole world to me and I always stay in touch with him,” Gilbert says, smiling.
Knowing he is his birth mother’s only son, he said that it was quite special to his birth mother because she thought she lost him forever.
Now Gilbert is learning to speak Russian and will be moving to Russia for six months next year.
For Asian Australian adoptees, the experience has been difficult for some, particularly when we trace back at the peak time of intercountry adoption in the 1970s.
Helen Baker is one of those.
As an adoptee from the Philippines being taken into an Australian white family living in a small country town called Gippsland in Victoria in 1970s, Baker was aware of being different, and unlike her two non-biological siblings who had blonde hair and blue eyes.
“There were some moments I wish I didn’t get adopted during teenager time.”
As an adult Baker is one of the board directors from Adopt Change, which provides support for adoptive children and families by believing every child deserves a safe, nurturing and stable family upbringing.
She says: “I was adopted from the Philippines when I was 13 months old, and I was the only Asian in my school. I felt very different to peers and consequently I was subjected to racism and I felt very much like an outcast growing up in a small town.
“It was very challenging to have an understanding of my identity from a young child’s perspective, because I appear to be seemed very different to everyone else.
“I had a lot of racism and my parents faced a lot of difficulties in their broader social networks as well with the decision of adopting a child from another country.”
Baker pauses and then continues: “Growing up being a different colour skin and being teased all the time, you know you just don’t fit in, so you feel really ostracised. So, yeah, there are struggles that I faced with growing up as a kid was trying to understand who I was.
“There were some moments I wish I didn’t get adopted during teenager time.”
While Baker is exploring self-identity and her birth country’s culture, she sees herself fitting in Adopt Change by helping kids find a permanent home.
Being adopted into Australia, intercountry adoptees often find themselves being in limbo. However, there are something can be done for them.
Janeen Cameron is a Perth-based psychotherapist and a mother of a daughter through intercountry adoption. The dual roles help her have a better understanding about the importance of support and considerations for overseas adoptees.
Cameron believes early intervention is critical on helping adoptees settle and meet the developmental milestones of western culture in Australia.
Cameron says: “The pressures and expectation on adoptive parents when there are medical and developmental concerns for their newly adopted infant or child can be immense.
“We have to be very vigilant in making sure that we are checking the progress of each child from both a developmental milestone perspective and the ability and awareness of the adoptive parents to cope and seek assistance early,” she says.
“I think there are gender differences between adoptees. There seems to be general trends that the identity development of girls will often potentially start earlier but it’s completely individual and unique. Many adoptees face struggles with their sense of belonging and identity during pre-adolescence and as an emerging youth aged at 14 – 25 years old.
“One of the most important determinants of a sound sense of self is the resilience strategies and interventions parents have identified, supported and implemented during early childhood.
“The adoptee coming into Australian community has no choice as to the family adopting them and the adoptee has no choice as to what kind of community it will grow up in. Adoptive parents can consider carefully the environment, community and exposure to multiculturalism which can be of benefit for their children.”
Gianna Mazzone, a coordinator of Intercountry Adoption Family Support Service, agrees early intervention is important but says it should start even earlier when families plan to adopt a child.
Mazzone says: “In my mind, early intervention should go back to the supporting education provided to the perspective of adoptive parents. When they first approach the government department to register to adopt, those adoptive parents need a lot of support and education more than what they get at the moment.
“It’s a big challenge to promote the service that is available for adoptees because it’s difficult to know where they are and what kind of mediums to use to inform them that there is help being provided.
“In our program, we have phycologists being contracted all around Australia so that we can support families and individuals who need help for free.
“The adoption doesn’t end when it happens. The child needs the right support and understanding from people around to overcome struggles on the sense of belonging and attachment.
“The part of our role is to raise the awareness among the community of this specific understanding for those intercountry adoptees.”
If you or someone you know needs help, please contact Intercountry Adoption Australia on 1800 197 760 for free service.