Her name, in Korean, was Chun Hee. Bright Girl. It was on the paperwork that completed the little girl’s adoption in Canada.
Chun Hee was adopted by strangers in a country she didn’t know, a Caucasian couple who spoke a language she didn’t understand.
For days after she arrived in Canada, the terrified young girl clung to the home she carried on her body: her clothes and her tiny backpack.
“I wouldn’t let anyone take off my clothes. I slept with my backpack on.”
Finally, her new mother, although it wrenched her to do so, removed the backpack and clothes, the last things that tied Chun Hee to home.
She was given new clothes, and a new name: Jenna Wiebe.
“I cried and cried and cried,” Jenna said.
She adapted soon enough to the warm, loving Abbotsford, B.C., family; there were two older biological kids, and later another adoptee, a boy from Hong Kong.
As Jenna grew up she would learn that she had been given up for adoption in Seoul at the age of three.
What she didn’t know was why.
Jenna, now 28, is one of thousands of inter-country adoptees in Canada, part of a global demographic that has been called the “quiet migration.”
Between 1971 and 2001 in the United States, more than 265,000 children were adopted from abroad; in Canada, numbers have hovered around 20,000 per decade since the 1980s.
It is a demographic that is coming of age.
Many of these children, like Jenna, face unique issues of racial and cultural identity, and belonging. For inter-country adoptees, searching for resolution by finding a birth parent is daunting, if not impossible.
Lee Crawford, an art therapist and registered clinical counsellor, sees many adoptive families in her practice.
“Many of the psychological and emotional issues are the same for domestic and international adoptees: the loss of the biological family system,” Crawford said. “But with international adoption we have an additional loss, of culture and country.
Even a child adopted at birth can grow up grieving for a country she has never known.
“They ask, ‘What would it be like if I was living in Mexico, Romania or China? Why am I in Canada?’ It first surfaces around ages eight, nine, 10. Peers start asking questions, and often that opens the door.”
Jenna’s parents made her file available, and made sure she knew they were willing and ready to talk when she was.
“Anyone who is adopted always wonders why they were given up,” Jenna said.
She was around 10 or 11, she says, when she leafed through the file of her adoption papers.
There wasn’t much information: her name. The names of her birth parents. What she liked to eat, how much she slept.
But Jenna had memories, feelings, sensations, like glimpses of the beach glass that sometimes surfaces and then tumbles back into the waves.
She remembered the roof of a house. It was wavy, like corrugated plastic.
She remembered being locked up, wrapped tightly in a bunch of blankets, in the dark, peering through a crack into another room. She remembers being afraid.
“I didn’t know when that was, or why it was. I just knew it wasn’t a dream, and it wasn’t made up.”
As much as her adoptive parents wanted to be open, Jenna was not able to communicate the strong feelings that moved inside her. She was in a wonderful, loving, tight family, but she was different.
“Abbotsford is a very Caucasian community,” she said. “I remember saying, ‘I want to be white.’ ”
It wasn’t just race. It was part of herself she was missing: “To look around the dinner table and never see that I have my mother’s nose or my father’s eyes.”
Jenna’s parents had adopted a fourth child, a boy, from Hong Kong.
“My little brother was feeling some of the same things,” she said. “It helped to be able to talk to him.”
The feelings were as unique as their situation.”It was not a lack of love or good parenting. It’s abandonment. It’s identity. Part of me felt a bit of guilt if I questioned why I was feeling the way I was feeling. It felt like I was not being loyal.”
Throughout her teens a mix of feelings surfaced: resentment, anger, perfectionism.
“I felt that if I was perfect, I would be more loved.
“If I was perfect no one could be mad at me, or not love me, or give me away.”
At 20, Jenna met a journalist from Korea who had come to do a documentary about one of her former high school teachers, who was also Korean.
At a dinner, the reporter casually invited Jenna to visit her in Korea some time.
“Something inside me said, ‘Just go.’ I quit my job and two weeks later I had a ticket.”
Her parents wanted to come, her boyfriend wanted to come, but she knew it was a journey she had to make alone.
“I needed the freedom to feel my feelings without guilt, whatever happened. This trip wasn’t about having fun. It was about finding myself.”
In Seoul, she felt like she fit in, somehow. “Even though I didn’t speak the language any more, I never felt stressed or anxious.”
Jenna visited the agency that had handled her adoption, and its staff agreed to help. She travelled around Korea and visited Dageu, where she had been born. She saw small shacks with corrugated plastic roofs. The roofs she remembered.
On the train back to Seoul, the agency called: Her birth mother was sitting in their office.
Reunions with birth parents, mothers in particular, have become part of the rite of passage for domestic adoptees.
For inter-country adoptees, this is not always possible.
Some don’t want to go there, no matter how difficult their adjustment to their adoptive identities.
Kim Parker, 25, who was adopted from Seoul at the age of six months and spent her teens struggling with racial bullying, said she has no desire to go to Korea.
“I grew up on steak and potatoes, not kimchee and rice. I didn’t know how to use chopsticks until 2008.
Kim’s adoptive family moved from Richmond to New Zealand when she was a teenager.
“In New Zealand I felt very alone.” There were few Asians, certainly no families like hers: Her adoptive mother had red hair and freckles. Once she was mouthy with her mom at a soccer game, and another mother told her mom off: “How could you let an exchange student talk to you like that?”
The racism was intense, and confusing. “I identify as white,” Kim said. “In New Zealand, they would yell ‘f—off monkey,’ throw stuff at me from car windows, tell me to go back where I came from.”
She did. For her, coming home meant returning to Vancouver, a city where she sees herself in all the multicoloured faces around her.
“I’m pretty grateful for what I have here,” she said.”I feel lucky to be in a society where it’s acceptable to be transracial.”
Others, like Jenna, are part of a quiet tide seeking more distant shores.
The truth about inter-country and trans-racial adoption, Crawford said, is it’s complicated.
“In the early part of their lives, a lot of good things are said to kids about adoption. ‘We chose you.’ ‘We wanted you to have a better life.’ ‘You’re in Canada, you’re safe here.’
A lot of inter-country adoptees hit 14, 15, 16, Crawford said, and realize they won’t have the opportunity to meet with their birth parents. “They are disempowered and this makes the loss more complex.”
Sometimes the best an international adoptee can hope for is a visit to the country or the village of origin.
In China, and Mexico, where children are often abandoned with little or no information on the steps of an orphanage, the searches are more challenging
Anna James, at internationaladoptionsearch.com, facilitates inter-country adoption searches — something that became a passion for her after adopting her second son, Justin, from Ukraine.
“I was adopted in the U.S. at five days old,” Anna said. “I found my birth mother at 39. She was overcome with happiness. Many years of guilt were taken away for her when I said it was OK.”
She wanted that connection for Justin, and for his birth mother.
With the help of the Ukrainian translator she had met while adopting Justin, she was able to locate her.
Anna sends pictures, and hopes they will meet one day.
Since then, she has facilitated more than 1,000 searches and reunions in Kazakhstan, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia and Guatemala for adoptees and families in countries around the world including Ireland, Africa, Germany.
Jan and Lindsey Graham-Radford, a Vancouver lesbian couple, are adoptive parents of Romanian twins Mikaela and Zoe.
They brought the girls back to Romania for an extraordinary reunion with their birth mother, Moria, when the twins were just nine years old.
The girls’ birth mother had slipped a piece of paper into Jan’s hand at the courthouse in Romania, with her contact information.
A few months after they were settled in Canada, and the babies, who had been near death, were nursed back to health, Jan sent a letter to Moria in Romania to let her know the girls were doing well.
“We kept in touch with her,” Jan said.
Although the girls had been adopted at birth, “Mikaela struggled right from the beginning,” Jan said.
“She used to play a game called ‘little girl lost in the forest,’ where she would find a baby and come and drop it at Lindsey’s feet.”
The trip to Romania, and a reunion with their birth family, was a turning point for the girls.
They had lunch and took photos, and met cousins and extended family.
“Mikaela seemed to be floating on clouds after that. She just kind of relaxed,” Jan said.
“I found it really fascinating to see where I would have grown up,” Mikaela said.
“There was a shack with a big back garden with vegetables and a pig . . . Zoe and I really look like our birth mom. I’m really happy to have that connection.”
For Jenna, making the connection with her birth mother, Sung Ja Yang, meant making a connection with herself, the bright girl she had once been.
“My mother was a stranger when I first saw her,” Jenna said. “She was petite, and beautiful and ladylike. Part of me said, ‘There’s my mom.’ Another part of me said, ‘What if she isn’t?’ ”
Yang seemed to understand. Through a translator, she asked Jenna if she had a mark on her stomach.
Jenna nodded. Her birthmark.
Yang explained that it wasn’t a birthmark. It was a scar, from when she had fallen, as a toddler, against a steaming kettle.
It was a story that only her birth mother could have told her.
The tears came.
“She kept putting her hand over her heart and saying she was sorry,” said Jenna.
“She said she and my father were very much in love, and very happy to be pregnant with me. But a year into the marriage, my father became very abusive to my mother, and then abusive to me. She was pregnant with my little brother, and had to leave my father.”
Her mother had nobody; her own mother and father had both died. She was just a teenager herself.
“She had no education. No chances. No way to support us.”
She took her daughter to an orphanage, hoping she would have a better life.
But the next day, she went back to see her, perhaps to get her. The orphanage turned her away.
She told Jenna that she had prayed, every day, that her daughter would come back one day.
Jenna spent her last week in Korea at her birth mother’s modest home, among the family who remembered the child they knew as Bright Girl.
She eventually learned that her birth father had been killed in an auto accident, and that the brother she has never met was also put up for adoption.
Jenna discovered that she and her mother had identical mannerisms; she saw herself in her mother.
“I was very sick with strep throat,” Jenna said. “She kept making me food she said was my favourite, and feeding it to me. She made a fish soup and she’d pick out the fish and make sure there were no bones in it like I was still that little girl.
“I let her, because she’d never had the chance, and I had never had the chance to be cared for by her.”
The journey changed Jenna’s life. “People think finding a birth parent is the completion of something. Really, it’s a beginning.”
When she returned home, Jenna felt more at ease with herself. She is trying to find a balance between her birth family in Korea and getting on with her life, which is here.
Her search only deepened the bond with her Canadian parents.
“When I left, they gave me a card at the airport, saying they were taking care of the flight. It was the most selfless thing they ever could have done. They are amazing parents, and amazing people.
“I told my mom here no matter what, you raised me. I have two mothers, yes. But you couldn’t have been my mother without her.”