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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.