gallery Dear Adoption, I Thought I Knew You


Dear Adoption, I Thought I Knew You

I thought I knew you when I was a young girl mesmerized by the video recordings of my arrival. I’d never have let the others down by telling them it made me unsettled. I couldn’t help but notice the look of fear and confusion across my six-month-old face. Yet I couldn’t stop watching as I tried to reconcile the feelings I was too young to process.

I thought I knew you when teachers, family, friends, and strangers marveled over my foreign features. Nobody knew much about Korea—except that I probably would’ve died had I not been saved.

I thought I knew you each time it was echoed that my adopters were saints for taking in this poor unwanted child. It helped overwrite my grief with gratitude and miscredit my pain.

I thought I knew you when at a school ceremony, I recited my winning essay on what the American flag meant to me. I learned early to speak and write to please. It made the adults so happy and proud, filling me with a sense of purpose.

I thought I knew you when we laughed at how my siblings—the biological children of my adopters—somehow forgot that I wasn’t really one of them, and that they didn’t see me as Asian.

I thought I knew you when my adoptive mother cried that she only wished I could’ve been born from her. We never bonded the way she’d hoped and I knew that the failing was mine.

As I continued to write flowery words of how you brought me to my forever family, I thought I knew you then, too.

And when I traveled to Korea and saw the riches of the third-world country I’d expected to find, I began to get confused. Still, I clung onto the comfort of who I’d always known you to be.

I pretended to know you when I first found my people and my people began to find me. We were joined by you—our fairy godmother. I began to discover who you were only then, through safety in numbers.

The more I was able to see the entirety of you, the easier it was to begin to see me. As I peeled back the layers of the girl you needed me to be, I received great resistance from those who didn’t like the unfamiliar woman emerging. They diverted their eyes and their hearts. It was only a matter of time before I was abandoned once more—from the parents who promised forever, who only loved me before they knew me.

I know who you are now. I see you. You are the mythical savior often in form of the great white hope. You are as imperfect as us humans who end up on either end of you, or somehow in between. You have undoubtedly saved many, but you have also torn families apart and drove several to death. Your supporters will overlook the damage you’ve done but your survivors can never forget.

You are the abuser who buys your victims gifts so that others can’t deny they’ve been treated well—because at least it wasn’t the worst of the unknown. You’re the one who’ll befriend and adore some while harming others behind closed doors. That’s how you’ve created your army. You’ve let them paint your victims as imbalanced and ungrateful—when it’s only luck that separates most of us from them, and you know it.

Adoptive parents have hidden behind your royal armor while their children have struggled in silence for decades. But times are changing. Those children are growing and finding the buried truths within themselves and each other. They’re learning to see you for all that you are—not a demon but not the god we were promised.

Strangely enough, I have hope for you. I can see where you’re needed and ways you can still make good if you’re open to change. Much like us humans, before you can improve you must admit to your failings. Swallow your pride. Relinquish some power and help validate our lived truths and concerns. Work first for the children and birth parents. Separating families should be the utmost last resort. Then you’ll be able to distinguish the truly needy and instill a better process to match them with informed, emotionally healthy, loving parents. It will be difficult but it will be worth it.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to be told to be grateful, and in spite of it all, I am. I am grateful to be woke from your fairytale. I’m grateful to be alive and connected to beautiful people I’d never have known if it weren’t for our collective loss through our dealings with you. I’m grateful for whatever it is inside me—maybe stubbornness, maybe light—that has pushed me through the hardest times and the deepest pain to get to this place of peace. And I’m forgiving to those who have let me down because in their absence I have found strength and, at last, my own self-worth. In the end, I’ve saved myself and I will not give you credit for that.

Jessica Sun Lee grew up as the sole adoptee of a large, white American family. She’s the author of the novel, “An Ode to the Humans Who’ve Loved and Left Me”, author and illustrator of the children’s books, “For All the Lives I’ve Loved and Lived” and “For All the Friends I’ve Found”, her memoir, “It Wasn’t Love”, and her forthcoming novel, “Keurium”. She currently resides in the Bay Area of California with her husband and two cats. Find her work at


  1. That last line is perfect. Guts me, because it’s true. We press on in spite of adoption not because of it. Great writing, Jessica. Thanks for sharing your beautiful gift.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. speaks my heart, too. me — 55 years of age, interracial adoptee, reconnection on maternal and paternal sides; but lifelong closeness of grandmother’s loving spirit


  3. Your last paragraph brought me to tears because it’s what I feel and believe. I’m still not at peace but I’m working on it. Thanks for sharing.


  4. I love your honesty, not negativity about adoption. As an adoptive parent all the adoption bashing gets old. In your writings i see reality, i gain insight into the loss and pain of my children and i become better equipped to help them navigate the complexities of their situations. Keep, keeping it real for those of us who want to learn from those who have walked in our childrens shoes. One of the hardest things about being an adoptive parent is that I’ve never walked the path they must. Yes, adoption can be good, but it is always born from brokenness. Guiding children through emotions and experiences we cannot relate to is only possible because of people like you who take the time to share.


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