Growing up Asian in a white household

Yeong and her sister, Holly and brother, Paul.

Yeong and her sister, Holly and brother, Paul.

As an Asian-Australian adoptee, I’m often asked a lot of questions: some are harmless (“Do you remember your birth mother?”) others not as much ("But how come you seem so well-adjusted?"). My Caucasian-looking siblings and I, much to some people’s extreme discomfort, often joke about our uncanny family resemblances. Sometimes strangers would search long and hard to find proof of any Asian heritage on my brother and sister's faces.

In all fairness, most people are comfortable with the concept. Many say they’d love to adopt themselves. Growing up, my friends and I have discussed overseas adoptions too. It was a somewhat naive dream and as I’ve grown older, it's dawned on me how unlikely it is that any of us ever will do it.

In 2012-13 there were just 129 intercountry adoptions. I’d hazard a guess and say you’ve probably got a better chance of winning the lotto than successfully adopting a non-Australian child. That is, until recently. In December last year, Tony Abbott pledged his support to intercountry adoption advocates Deborra-Lee Furness and Hugh Jackman, and while it remains to be seen what will actually happen, for me it’s a small win.

The Sassall family today.

The Sassall family today.

I was adopted at five months old and raised as the South Korean daughter of two white Australian parents, with two natural born elder siblings. In hindsight, it must seem pretty strange – you put your name down for a child and wait. Then, through fate or sheer randomness, someone decides to give up her baby and that child becomes yours.

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I always knew that my adoption was a positive and conscious choice by my parents. They were not infertile and unlike some adoptees born in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, learning I was adopted was not a life-altering adult revelation.

Lucky for me, being adopted in the 80s was not a rarity. I had friends, both Australian and Asian, who were also adopted. I still do. Despite what many people may assume, I didn’t grow up feeling rejected by my birth mother. But I still haven’t searched for her.

Yeong and her mother.

Yeong and her mother.

I’m curious to meet her, but not desperately so. Sure, there are things that suck. Not having access to my family medical history, for one. Plus, there’s the superficial stuff – like knowing where I got my nose, my unusually-wavy-for-an-Asian hair, or any of the other characteristics you inherit from your family. But these are just the physical things, really.

Growing up in a mixed-race family can be rewarding, but it has its challenges too. In primary school, some marvellously clever kid pointed out the obvious – they weren’t my real parents.  I’ve also experienced bouts of extremely offensive racism. But once you compare experiences with other non-white Australians, I know I could no more be sheltered from being mocked walking down the street or abused on a train than any other minority group. Try as you might, you cannot shield your kids from playground nastiness or bigotry.  

I understand why some people have reservations about intercountry adoption – is it right to displace a child from their cultural heritage? In an ideal world, no. But in a perfect universe there wouldn’t be orphans, poverty stricken countries and couples unable to conceive. The world is not a fair place.

Yeong Sassall

Yeong Sassall

But then there’s that old chestnut – it’s not natural. Criticisms like that are vexing, and they’re similar to the arguments against same-sex parenting. Sure, it’s not the stereotypical nuclear family setup, but isn’t every family different and (if we were to be honest) a teeny bit dysfunctional?

As far as I’m concerned, children who are adopted or have same-sex parents should feel pretty special because it took a lot of love, patience and effort to ‘have’ them. 

In truth I’ve had a pretty standard upbringing. You could pin down teenage fights with my family as a product of my frustration at being the physical odd one out, or you could blame raging teenage hormones. Certainly, my hard-to-pronounce name (the ‘e’ is silent) caused a lot of complaints.

But, to paraphrase my friend Lucy’s favourite quote, I know that if I threw my baggage into a pile along with everyone else’s, I would have a look around, and promptly go and fish my own out. I realise that no one’s life is perfect and it’s the positive and negative experiences that strengthen and shape you. To me, family is more than just blood and genes, it’s shared memories, messy fights, tears, laughter, unshakeable loyalty and unconditional love. That’s my understanding of ‘real’.

 

26 comments

  • What a great family.

    Commenter
    Rob
    Date and time
    January 29, 2014, 8:55AM
    • Your photos look very familiar to mine, adopted from Korea in the eighties by white parents. I am often asked where my parents are from and I usually play around with it haha. "Mum's from England" ... "Oh I wouldn't have picked it, where's your Dad from?"

      Commenter
      YJK
      Date and time
      January 29, 2014, 8:57AM
      • I read these stories in hope of finding the government has actually done something to progress their review of the inter-country adoptions. Each time I am disappointed and saddened.

        Whilst first investigating adoption, both australian and overseas two years ago, my wife and I were told by the government agency that manages the process 'not to bother' due to existing demand.

        We were initially excited when the governor General got involved to reform the whole process but were dismayed when the first step was for her to suspend all overseas adoptions.

        Hopefully Hugh Jackman, his wife and the prime minister can keep the ball rolling but I assume any reform will be drawn out over years and anyone 30+ who is currently hoping to adopt may need to coming to the realisation this may never happen for them like we have.

        Commenter
        Scoop
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        January 29, 2014, 9:22AM
        • Thanks very much for sharing Yeong. As a father of two adopted OS girls I wonder sometimes what the future holds for them. If they are half as articulate as you when they grow up I'll be well pleased! You raise some difficult questions and share your personal experience really clearly. I look forward to reading your story with my daughters this afternoon.

          Commenter
          Greatful
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          January 29, 2014, 9:28AM
          • I think we need to be very careful with allowing adopting of children from other countries. For every success story there appears to be a horror story. Stories that include child trafficking, parents being forced to give up their children or worse children just being stolen from their parents. I think it is impossible to control given the enormous disparity in wealth levels between the countries, it is a form of wealthy countries taking advantage of much less wealthy countries and I believe it is something that must be strongly discouraged.

            Commenter
            A Different View
            Date and time
            January 29, 2014, 9:57AM
            • As part of a mixed marriage, I don't have a problem with multi-cultural adoptions. But A Different View raises a very good point about the whole "adoption industry" and the dangers of child trafficking in poorer countries. While it is heart-warming to read of children in need being adopted by loving parents from other countries, unscrupulous people inside the industry (including some Third World governments) are only too willing to take advantage of poor mothers and adoptive parents alike. That's something I don't condone.

              Commenter
              Common Sense
              Date and time
              January 29, 2014, 3:27PM
          • Hi, I found your story fascinating. I am curious you have mentioned that you were curious but not desperate to find your birth mother, but were you curious to learn more about and embrace your Korean culture?

            Your parents must be very proud to have 3 beautiful children.

            Commenter
            Steve
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            January 29, 2014, 10:07AM
            • It's interesting how the more things change the more they remain the same. I was born and adopted in Australia but with one Greek parent, in the 1960's while the White Australia Policy was still alive and kicking. As such I was deemed a "coloured" child and there was some concern how I would assimilate into "white" society. The adoption agency even did a follow up to see if I'd adjusted - obviously from some innate 'unwhiteness'. People are people and children are children - and the most important thing is the love, care and support they get from whatever kind of family they have.

              Commenter
              wrenne
              Date and time
              January 29, 2014, 10:12AM
              • You seem to be an example of a well adjusted young lady with her head screwed on and the right attitude. Give yourself, (and your parents), a gold star.

                Commenter
                Peter
                Location
                Melbourne
                Date and time
                January 29, 2014, 10:39AM
                • Sounds like you grew up in a great family and as far as most people are concerned,
                  well who matter anyway, are a typical well adjusted Australian woman.
                  I found out a few years ago my parents tried to adopt a Vietnamese child after the war
                  and for what ever reason, maybe because they already had three children, were refused.
                  Every one looses, especially us. Hopefully the changes will make it better for all concerned.

                  Commenter
                  J Walker
                  Date and time
                  January 29, 2014, 10:40AM

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