gallery Dear Adoption, You Are a Paradox


Dear Adoption, You Are a Paradox

This is my story of the mind and heart’s fragmented journey and process through loss, love, and the light ahead.

I am a book without the first few chapters; a movie without the first few scenes; a painting without a background; a house without a foundation.

I was:

Abandoned but loved

Unwanted but chosen

Hurting but grateful

Anxious but calm

Angry but smiling

Groundless but trapped

Self-Blaming but victimized

Silent but overwhelmed

Not good enough but a perfectionist

A child but an adult

Lonely, but with a new family

Chinese, but white

I was abandoned, but loved

A little boy screaming his head off, the picture fading into blackness with his cries. Reality loudly pulsates into focus. I am found wandering on a street by myself. No one knows why or how. The memory is the faintest whisper, almost as if a dream. The sheer and utter terror. The confusion. The anxiety. The stress.

Ghost-like images of two figures, appearing like a dream, stand over a cradle, together they are like clouds with no defined features or outlines. I reach out into the dark and try to grab them, but before I can, the image fades.

When I was 11 or 12 years old, I had a conversation with my mom about my birth parents. She told me she was sure my birth parents loved me so much even though they didn’t keep me. That possibly, since I was a healthy boy in China, I was the first son and my parents had another son and couldn’t keep both. They loved me so much they abandoned me. It’s what every child wants to hear!

Just kidding…it’s every child’s nightmare.

I’m confused.

Does this mean you abandon the people you love?

Is abandonment an act of love?

Will people abandon me if they love me?

Will my adopted parents abandon me too, because they love me?

People love me. They say it and mean it. But I don’t understand what they mean. Can I receive this love? It’s not them, but me. What’s wrong with me that I can’t receive it?

You are a paradox…

You are the truth wrapped in a lie. You are a nicely wrapped present with a surprise inside. You are the large white elephant gift holding so much promise, but upon opening, You are mostly empty inside.

Unwanted but chosen

I stand in the shower with my hands stretched out in front of me against the wall and my head down. The water is cleansing, but will it wash off the stain on my heart, this blackness in my soul, this defect in my being?

You made me doubt and question everyone. You made me believe the world was unsafe and no one wanted me. How can I help but think that at one point in my life I was in an orphanage with absolutely no one who cared about me? It feels that way, anyway.

It hurts even more knowing there were parents who decided to keep their children despite the rules and consequences. Yet I was chosen. Chosen from among other children to be part of a family. Special, because my personality would be a good fit for theirs. How can I be both un-wanted and chosen? Two sets of parents; all I really wanted was to be chosen by the first set. Must I live up to this title, “chosen” in order to be loved? How do I erase this unwanted feeling inside of me?

You are a paradox…

Hurting but grateful

I am in an open elevator shaft heading down into the ground. There is only complete blackness when I look beneath me. I look up only to see the sky slowly getting smaller and smaller; as if light has retreated in fear, and won’t ever come back. Will I ever return? How do I plunge your depths knowing it will only lead to more pain? How can I ignore your depths? Is not denial safer? Does it not hurt less? I was but a twisted ball of emotions, unsure of their origin, only knowing the pounding in my head. The pieces of my heart that felt like the shards of a fallen grand glass chandelier, scattered into a thousand pieces. I lie on the floor spread out as if dead.

Society told me to be grateful. They told me You were a solution to my problems, that I had a family who loved me, that I was lucky to be saved. How could I tell them if they truly saw inside me, they wouldn’t see a calm, level headed man, but a traumatized, frightened, insecure, and worried child?

I am grateful to a degree. Grateful I was adopted into a family who loved me, even when I can’t fully love them back. Grateful to have a good education, to travel, to never worry about food or drink. But gratefulness cannot outweigh brokenness. It cannot chase the pain away.

You are a paradox…

You are the past that affects every day of the present, whether I want You to or not. You are conscious, subconscious, unconscious.

Anxious but calm

That incessant voice. The cycles and rabbit holes. The downward spirals and loops. It never seems to end. A bombardment of arrows that don’t stop.

Hyper-vigilance. Acutely aware and sensitive to my surroundings, I try to protect myself from future harm. Watching other people watch people. Prepared for the worst. Irrational maybe, but it is the only way I have known how to live.

My mind runs 100 miles a minute, jumping from thought to thought, moment to moment, fragment by fragment.

I want to control my environment, control myself and my reactions, control my body and my face. It is self-discipline in disguise. My face is blank. It expresses little and doesn’t want to reveal what is happening inside of me. It is a picture of perfect calm or coldness. Strength and stoicism. A mask I have always worn and do not know how to remove.

You are a paradox…

Angry but smiling

A monster, a minotaur in the dark, wandering around with red eyes and roaring with all the rage of a lion. His head feels as if it’s going to explode. He just wants to hit something or someone and run away. He wants to tear at his own skin and rip it apart. A man with his arms outstretched and yelling at the air blowing off steam, raging at nothing and everything. The sound of fury. A ticking bomb that can be set off at anytime. Sometimes I feel so violated, as if my trust has been betrayed.

Yet, I am afraid of anger. Afraid of what I might do. Afraid of losing control. Afraid I will do something bad. Afraid I will regret it. So I smile, and keep it in.

You are a paradox…

You are the rose that others desire; You are the thorn that robs me of peace; You are the root that has no end.

Groundless but trapped

Countless times I have looked at the night sky and wondered why it felt so easy for my spirit to rise on the wind and soar. I am rootless. I am a child of the world. A social chameleon, who can adapt again, and again.

Was I even born? A pilgrim who straddles between spaces. A wanderer on a journey that winds and twists and turns unendingly. Home is but a feeling I truly do not know. I want to be acknowledged for my uniqueness. I want to fit in with the crowd. Do I have to choose between one or the other? Is there room for the in-between?

Bars. A prison that holds me captive. My soul stranded in an unending cavern. Entrapped in its own restlessness and unease. A free spirit chained to a trapped mind.

You are a paradox…

Self-Blaming but victimized

If only.

If only I had been better. It’s all my fault.

I would have done anything for you to keep me. So why did you leave me? Why do I constantly deny myself, and tell myself lies? Why do I constantly stare at myself ready to fight myself?

Forever locked in a struggle I can’t win.

I am a hero, and a monster.

I am an angel, and a demon

I am in a boxing match that has no end, Rocky fighting Rocky and it doesn’t matter who lands the punch. I always lose. I am my worst enemy. For too long my two halves have fought over control of this body and mind. I am tired of this war. Will it ever end?

I am a victim. I had no choice, I was only an infant. The injustice.

The Chinese government who created social conditions that left thousands aborted and abandoned. My caretakers in the orphanage who neglected me. My adoptive parents who didn’t understand me. My birth parents who left me.

But I blame myself.

You are a paradox…

You are a horse with blinders walking down a straight path. Good intentions that are never good enough. You could not see the trail of tears Your actions left. Intentions that could not fix broken hearts and tattered futures.

Silent but overwhelmed

A memory, atop a mountain, walking along a path. The moon shines in the darkness. The faint glow of the lights illuminate my path. A chance to breathe in the night when all else sleeps. How quiet is the night. How peaceful it feels when the world is at rest. It will be a long night ahead.

The silence speaks. Can you hear it? The silence is loud and deafening. A paradox, or the truth? Silence is the only sound I hear.

Silence is a companion that never fails. It does not judge and it does not encourage. It gives space to breathe. It simply, is. But in the silence the dark thoughts come and invade. It is in the silence where thoughts run and the brain can’t stop. I just want to escape my brain. Silence, you are my dear companion. I know you too well. But it is not you who is the problem, you only magnify it. Can I be okay with myself, to be alone with myself?

You are a paradox…

Not good enough but a perfectionist

I don’t feel entitled to good things. I rarely spend on myself. I feel like I can’t ask for anything more than the essentials. I try to be as self-sufficient as I can. I don’t take extras. I refuse help and hospitality.

Other people deserve things before I do. I’m not good enough for good things: jobs, friends, gifts. I am not worth receiving good, and deserve less. How do I shake this feeling? How do I change this belief about myself?

But I have strived so hard to be perfect. To always have the right answer, to think the right answer, to do things the right way, to treat people the right way. To be the perfect son, friend, worker. And I expect it of others. I am sensitive to perceived hurt. The perfect picture of calm, cool, and collected on the outside. Even-keeled and grounded. Don’t ruffle any major feathers. I try to do right, but mostly think I’m wrong.

You are a paradox…

You are the long, narrow, teetering wooden bridge upon which I stand. You are the anguish, with raging waters underneath. You are the looming rocks on either side.

A child but an adult

I used to sleep with my stuffed animals in bed with me. I gave them personalities and names. They were my shield against the world.

We are laying on a bed, him cradled into my arms with pillows and stuffed animals on either side. Safety, with plenty of blankets for extra measure. How could I have not seen him? I used to both hate and love him. But now my heart simply breaks for him. A profound feeling of being unsafe, of confusion, and lack of trust. Help me to see the world through your eyes, to see your hurts and to understand your pain. Will you take my hand and walk with me? We can do this together. I promise. Learning to parent my inner self, a child in an adult’s body.

You are a paradox…

Lonely but with a new family

It’s a stark white room with no windows or door. I am huddled in the corner clutching myself, trying to hide from the light. I make myself as small as I can, afraid and unsure of how I got here, unsure of how to get out. I feel paralyzed and cannot help the feeling that someone is watching me. I spy a glass mirror with faint shadows of other people watching me.

The worst part about loneliness for me is not that I am alone, but that I cannot stop feeling alone. There are so many ways to feel lonely: spiritually, biologically, relationally. I can experience loneliness in a crowd, or by myself. But loneliness kills the soul, it destroys our spirits and robs us of true meaning in life. But there is a safety in loneliness. I don’t have to risk getting to know someone and being intimate. I don’t have to risk my sensitive heart being hurt again, or being broken.

Can’t you see I am lonely? Can’t you see the reasons why?

New people who love me unconditionally, who would do anything to support me. People who want to talk to me, are interested in my life, and seek me out. Why can I not accept their love? Why do I crave both solitude and a family?

You are a paradox…

You are the story whose page I’m afraid to turn. You are the secret that keeps on giving. You are the shadow outlined in the sunlight.

Chinese but white

My face betrays me. I cannot hide my heritage, nor my race. I was born Chinese and raised in China for 3 years. Questions do not cease about where I am from and what I should or should not know.

They say I look like someone they know. They ask if I remember anything. Jokes about looking like your sibling, when you clearly do not. Seeing my parents interact with their biological children, the pain of the similarities I do not share.

White. Midwestern. Middle-class. I know this world all too well. It has become a part of me. My experience does not fit into strict lines of race and culture, but is divided between body and mind. Are they reconcilable? I am not my adopted family. I am not my birth family. A banana. I am somewhere between and always will be. I can create myself into who I want to be; no definitions, labels, or categories.

You are a paradox…

It only takes one person to change your world. One person to destroy it.

My arms are being stretched out, pulled in different directions. A rubber band about to break. There are sometimes no words to describe the confusion and anguish. There aren’t enough tears for adoption.

When I was young, I would sit up in my bed at night and stare out the window toward the nearby middle school which had a glowing red light on the roof. I would stare at the light like a moth to a flame. In those moments, all my thoughts and worries would fade. It was a moment of brief respite, a moment where worries and thoughts were absent. A brief moment of peace and comfort.

Even in the midst of immense suffering, there are moments of light. Moments where we cannot take our eyes away. Moments that remind us there is something worth living for, something worth fighting for. But I don’t want to just stare at the light, I want to live in it.

Joey, adopted at the age of 3 from Xi’an, China in 1996, was raised by a Caucasian family in Wisconsin. He currently lives in San Jose, CA and is in the process of applying to graduate school for counseling. He likes sports, the outdoors, and connecting with other adoptees. He is looking forward to further engaging with the adoptee community and being a part of giving voice to their narratives. Joey hopes one day to be part of an international adoptee conference.


    • This is so powerful and touching. You are a beautiful writer. I am leading an adoption panel this weekend at Heritage Camp. I would so love to have your permission to share your poem. Could you email me.


  1. You are a beautiful Writer, someone who MIGHT be able to write your pain away. You drew tears from me. Not many can do that. Pursue your gift.


    • Joey,

      I don’t want to offend you in any way, by relating to your int’l adoptee experience – but I was sobbing while reading this!

      It expresses so many of my feelings, so many..yet I’m a white, female adoptee. I don’t feel entitled to say I feel as badly as you do, because your experience/abandonment was arguably worse. Still, maybe it all equals out because I was adopted by very abusive people? (I hope you can see the dark sarcasm?).

      Please know that you are not alone – it is our intense pain and aloneness, ironically, that binds us. You might be broken, but we are too – and we ‘get’ you.


      A fellow survivor


    • Come meet and contribute to many other adoptees by becoming part of the Help One Child network in Los Altos. This organization includes international adoptees in all their programs. What you are experiencing is “normal” for children who have experienced early trauma and adoption. Your writing proves that you inherited some good genes and were most likely not exposed to drugs in utero. That’s the great news. The bad news is that the smarter you are, the more aware you are of the deficits that come with adoption. Stay on the path to recovery and one day you will have some peace.


  2. I just love this. Being jealous of other kids who were kept by their biological parents; I didn’t know I was until reading this!


  3. You just helped me to understand my own adopted children’s inner selves. I am sure there are similarities in the lives of many, many adoptees. Sometimes, someone else with the gift of words can help us along the path. Thank you Joey.


  4. Thank you for writing and sharing, Joey. I am in a grateful stupor at your ability to share such deep insights that I couldn’t have understood otherwise. Your writing is powerful, and opens a window on the complexity of adoption. Thanks.


  5. I enjoyed your writing, but feel very sorry for you. I was adopted as a baby . I never felt “less than”, unloved, or unwanted. I was loved and cherished and made to feel so special, not only by my parents, but by all relatives and my parents friends.I never dwelled on who my birth parents were, because I felt secure in the love of my family. I knew from a very early age that my brother and I both were adopted. He was 4 yrs older than me. From the time he was 16, it was always on his mind. In later life he literally drank himself to death. In my mind, having sat and talked to him about adoption many times, and I knew how deep a problem it was for him. I don’t think he ever spoke with anyone else about it. I never could understand his deep feelings about it. He had the same parents, family, relatives, friends as me, and the same deep love I had. I was told my birthparents LOVED me enough to give me up to some older couple who could care for me, and I have learned enough of my background to know for a fact that its true.So, Bless you, I hope you are going to further your education after you get the counseling you need yourself. You have to heal yourself before you can even begin to help heal another. I wish you the best of everything, but most especially, that you learn to give and accept love.


    • [I was told my birthparents LOVED me enough to give me up to some older couple who could care for me]

      I understand the sentiment here, but I don’t buy it. Most parents don’t literally give up their kids out of love – they give up their kids because of drugs, poverty, mental illness, financial hardship, etc. If it was REALLY “out of love”, every single biological parent would have kept their kid (provided the parent is not affected by mental illness, drugs, poverty and mental illness).

      It is the assumption that once a couple gets pregnant, they will keep their kid. I, for one, have always wondered on some level, what it is like to have been kept…


  6. Joey this was incredible. As an adoptee from Colombia I really honestly all of your feelings I have felt them. You did an amazing job articulating something that we all feel and that was just very moving. Thank you for sharing and for helping me not feel so alone.


  7. Thank you for this! I printed it off for my husband to read as well. We are adoptive parents of a boy who came to us through foster care at age 11. He is now 13. Your article has helped us think more about how our son is processing the things he has been through.


  8. Thank you Joey. Not only are you an amazing writer you are incredibly insightful and generous. I am a “China mom,” not unaware of the burden our children carry. I have even told my daughter that transracial adoption is the second- worse thing that can happen to a kid. You shared that so poignantly. This should be required reading for all adoptive parents.


  9. Joey, as we left China with our 4 month old first daughter (the same year you were adopted, ’96) I cried watching us leave the ground. I knew deep in my heart that we were taking her from her birthright of 5000 years of culture and history, and leading her to a country where she would always be a minority and seen as “other”. And yet, at the time, domestic adoption was not an option for orphanage children in China, and I knew that her life there would have been one of deprivation and lack of love & opportunities, being raised in an institution. I believe that our daughter’s life is better than it would have been, given her first circumstances. When I look at the happy, determined and hopeful college senior she’s become, I see someone who will not let the facts of her beginnings determine the rest of her life. Had she been raised by her birth parents, whether they were wonderful or horrible, I think she still would have turned into the strong young woman who chose the direction of her own adult life anyway. Now I do understand that all children are different and grow into very different adults… some of whom just cannot overcome their beginnings and some of whom actually choose to let it impact the rest of their lives detrimentally. It sounds like your adoptive parents did the best they could, and if they gave you the ‘wrong words’ as part of your story (for example, abandonment = love), you need to forgive them. Parents of all stripes make mistakes. I know it would take enormous work to overcome how much your adoption hurts on such a deep level. But I do hope that you find peace, and I hope that you can eventually ‘right your ship’ and help other adoptees as well.


    • [It sounds like your adoptive parents did the best they could, and if they gave you the ‘wrong words’ as part of your story (for example, abandonment = love), you need to forgive them]

      And sometimes that isn’t enough. When your joy comes from something broken, the something broken should not have been broken to begin with.

      Of course, that doesn’t life can’t be full of joy, either. It’s just that life being full of joy does not avoid the “something broken.” They cannot possibly cancel each other out.

      Forgive, but do not forget. It is impossible to forget.


  10. Wow… I really relate to this so much. I’m a college student right now and since childhood have never ceased to deep down have these doubts about myself and heritage. You’re an amazing writer! I hope maybe we can be in touch!


  11. Thank you Joey! Paradox is the perfect word to describe adoption as experienced by so many of us. Sharing this on the Male Adoptee/Alumni Impact Summit FB Page. Do you know Jared Utley, one of our speakers? He’s a fourth year counseling PhD student at the University of Denver who was adopted from Korea, who will be presenting on ambiguous identity. It’s short notice for this year’s event, but you’re welcome to join us Friday night through Sunday Oct. 13-15 in the Colorado Rockies. Best wishes in your studies and life. You are not alone.


  12. Wow. Thank you, Joey, for sharing this beautifully crafted piece. It resonated with me, and I’ll share it with clients, too.
    –Kathy, fellow adoptee and therapist to other adoptees


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