Adoptive parents often ask me if I think I’d have been better off left in an orphanage in Vietnam. Of course, I can never answer that question. Believe me, I’ve tried but there just isn’t a definitive answer when reach beyond the boundaries of “dying in an orphanage” as opposed to “flourishing with an adoptive family”. It just doesn’t work like that. When I reach beyond the standard framework, everything becomes reliant on the hypothetical. What if my mother were still alive? What if I’d been adopted by another Vietnamese family? What if I’d fallen into the human trafficking trade? What if my mother had come back for me? The list goes on forever, and there are no answers to any of them.
Though their question is directed at me personally, I sense that some are really seeking to answer the question in a way that’s more personal to them. The hardest thing to say is, “I don’t know,” but that’s the only answer I can give. The reason I brought it up in the first place was to question those who claimed throughout my childhood, to know the answer by informing me of how I was so “lucky”. What did they really know? I was lucky in one sense but what exactly made me so fortunate? What did they see beyond my physical health, seemingly well-adjusted behavior and material gain? They never considered the fact that in order to be so “lucky”; I’d had to lose everything except life and limb. What I had lost meant nothing to them. My heritage, my identity, my birth-family and my connection to all of those had value only to me.
Recently, I managed to get in touch with the other Viet-adoptee I’ve mentioned. I have to confess I’d been wrong about him in many ways and am glad we cleared up some of our misunderstandings. He told me some of his own story which is, in many ways, more tragic than my own. That’s his story to tell when he chooses, but my point is that in light of his story, one could assume that I was indeed better off than him. Given the fact that he went back and found his birth-family, I would disagree. It’s something I may never be able to do given the questionable circumstances of my “adoption”.
The gains only balance the loss depending on how much value one puts upon each. It’s not as simple as “I lost a family/I gained a family”. One cannot cancel out or replace the other. The loss of my birth family will always leave a void. Even if I, by some miracle, found members of my birth family, closing the gap created by time apart and differences in language and culture would be next to impossible. I’m sure I would again enter the scene as the outsider sneaking my way in through the back door.
Underlying that unanswerable “better off” question, some adoptive parents and potential adoptive parents seem to really be asking, “Should I adopt?” I’m not the person to ask. I don’t know the people asking these questions nor do I know their circumstances beyond what they tell me. That’s the kind of question they need to answer within themselves after a hard look at the world around them and into their own hearts.
Sometimes, I feel that adoptees who chose to speak out are asked to carry a burden that is not ours to carry. We are asked to offer answers and solutions to problems that many of us barely understand ourselves. When we don’t have the answers, we are then dismissed as simply wanting to complain. I’m happy to do what I can but no matter how much I might want to, I can’t “fix” the problems. It took me decades just to be able to express what I felt was wrong with my own adoption.
It is my belief that we will never solve our issues by trying to answer the unanswerable. It has to begin with understanding where things have gone wrong and going from there. It’s not that I want to drown in negativism, but as one very sharp KAD once said (paraphrasing), “We must talk until they listen.” That is one of the things that drive me to write because I fear that the minute we stop talking, people will assume that all is well in adoption-land.
For those who presume to know the answer to the unanswerable “better-off” question and choose to use it to justify adoption in general, I would remind them that the “saving” of a child neither ends nor begins with adoption. To view adoption through such a narrow lens presents a danger to the very children people are claiming to save. Such a view may seem to consider all children when in fact; it only affects those “lucky” enough to become adopted. What about those who are never adopted? For those who are, who will hear and help those who struggle with the grief, emptiness, alienation and loss of heritage and birth family? The people who believe they are much better off?
“So you would rather they be left in an orphanage to die?” The unanswerable question often gets twisted and shaped into an argument. The flaw in this is that it is based on the presumption that one knows the answer to a question based on another presumption. Why it works is because it puts the one being questioned under a kind of duress. No one in their right mind would answer “yes”. Let us not forget that the flaw is in the question which makes the answer nothing more than a manipulation.
(*edited for grammatical errors) ugh