A tale of two cities: Adoption (in Australia)

  • April 21, 2012 7:00PM
emma irving ngita bowers


BOTH these women were adopted from overseas. One has always felt at home in Australia, but the other struggles to fit in.

Jemma Irving describes herself as an “ocker” Aussie. Raised on a property north of Tamworth, NSW, she loves beaches, Vegemite and the Wallabies. Yet every time she goes out, she braces herself for reactions that range from rude to downright scary.

While out with her dad, she’s been mistaken for his mail-order bride. In pubs, she’s regularly subjected to people presuming she doesn’t speak English or saying loudly, “Welcome to Australia.” She’s even been pushed to the ground in a shopping centre, by a person who yelled, “Get the f**k out of Australia.”

“I probably had a more Aussie upbringing than they did,” fumes the 26-year-old. But it doesn’t look that way, because Irving is an inter-country adoptee from South Korea.

Irving is smart. She’s bought a house and is studying for her second degree. She loves Australia and her family, which includes a sister, Sallie, who’s also adopted from Korea. But, she says, inter-country adoptions can cause stuck-in-the-middle complications.

With no Korean family or friends, she lacks the support to see her through racist taunts. If she did have Korean friends, she believes, she wouldn’t be picked on as much. She also suspects that if she wasn’t so desperate to fit in, the comments wouldn’t bother her.

“I feel I constantly need to apologise for being me,” admits Irving. “On Australia Day, I wanted to buy an Australian flag bikini, but I knew I couldn’t wear it because someone would have a go at me. Sometimes I’ve thought, I could be the prettiest Asian on earth, but I’d give anything to be white. I just want to fit in.”

South Korea has long been known as the ‘orphan exporter’, though many of the babies being adopted were actually those of unwed mothers shamed into giving them up. Due to campaigning from those mothers, returning adoptees and adoptive parents, the Korean government is phasing out the practise and using financial incentives to encourage domestic adoption.

Evelyn Robinson is delighted about this change. For the past two years, she’s sat on a committee which advises our attorney-general about overseas adoption; something Robinson believes should be stopped completely. She has written several books on the topic, and has long been vocal on the issue of the forced adoptions which took place in Australia between the 1950s and 1970s.

“It was about affluence versus poverty, competence versus incompetence and power versus powerlessness,” she says, levelling the same accusations at supporters of inter-country adoption. “According to the Hague Convention, inter-country adoption is about providing care for children in need. There are needy children in every country. However, children are adopted between poverty-stricken and affluent countries almost exclusively in one direction.

“We’re saying to these countries, ‘We’re better at raising children than you are.’ But there are other ways we can support these mothers; we don’t have to take their children. If it wasn’t right in Australia, how arrogant for us to say it’s all right for these women.”

But what about countries such as India and China where baby girls, in particular, are abandoned and left to die? “We still have no right to step in and impose our cultural values on them,” Robinson insists. “We don’t have to say we support the abandonment of children, but we have to let the countries work it out their own way.”

Diane Amato, president of World Families Australia, disagrees. “Every child deserves a loving family, no matter where they’re from. The first choice is a child remains with their family or extended family. If this can’t happen, we encourage fostering in their country. Inter-country adoption is the last option.”

Analee Matthews was adopted from Vietnam when she was 10 months. She suspects her parents were killed in the Vietnam War, but can’t be sure. All she knows is that nuns were picking up babies, like her, lying in cardboard boxes in the street almost every day during the war. “To everyone’s knowledge, my parents died in the insane violence that I was born into,” says the 38-year-old writer. “Their death is untraceable, as is their identity, the identity of any siblings or my family history.”

She agrees there should be better support and resources dedicated to keeping children in their country where it’s appropriate and in the best interest of the child. But, she points out, that’s not always the case. “I think inter-country adoption can be very successful. Despite some issues, it worked for me.”

Fear of abandonment is common among people who’ve been adopted, but it can be worse for inter-country adoptees – a lack of records, language skills and cultural nous mean there’s little chance of them ever finding any birth relatives.

Initially, Matthews was reluctant to explore her heritage, fearing her family might think she didn’t appreciate them. She had a happy childhood in Melbourne and Anglesea, Victoria, raised by “the best parents in the universe”, alongside their three biological red-haired sons. But she always had a niggling feeling of loneliness, a yearning to find someone who understood her situation. After meeting other inter-country adoptees, she began to explore questions that never occur to many of us: Who am I? Where do I fit in? Am I Australian or am I of the culture in which I was born? “I look Asian,” she says, “but, inside, I feel I’m a white, blonde, blue-eyed surfer chick.” At 29, she visited Vietnam. One of her first encounters left her despairing; a Vietnamese waiter presumed she was Malay. “I thought, I don’t fit in here and I don’t fit in at home.”

Gradually, things improved. She sat on a stool in the street and ate pho with locals. A shopkeeper called her by her Vietnamese name, Vo Thi Thanh Thuy. “It felt fantastic!” On her 30th birthday, she visited the orphanage where she spent the first months of her life.

“I wasn’t prepared for what I saw,” she recalls. “A room filled wall-to-wall with cots, and in every cot, at least one baby. This was where I’d been, the same as all these helpless, abandoned babies. I burst into tears; I couldn’t stop crying.”

Noticing the ward carers sharing love and hugs with the children, she joined in, and left her birth country with an “inner peace and a sense of pride at being Vietnamese”. “It filled the black hole I used to carry around; I had a better understanding of who I was.”

Matthews is now married and mother to one-year-old daughter, Jindy, and says having a genetic link to someone is “overwhelming”. “Jindy is my only known living blood relative, the only opportunity I’ve ever had to see myself reflected in someone else’s eyes.”

Becoming a mum raised abandonment issues, which a counsellor helped her make her peace with. “She said instead of thinking of myself as ‘baby abandoned at birth’ – which is how my birth certificate reads – I should think of it as ‘baby found’. That kind of flipped my mind.”

As a baby, Ngita Bowers was found abandoned and badly beaten on the roadside in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and taken to Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying. When she was about 18 months, she was adopted by a family from Sydney, alongside a sister from Burma and a brother from India. “We have our own little golden triangle happening,” she laughs.

The 38-year-old media planner appears to suffer none of the angst experienced by Irving. “I don’t let my adoption define me,” she explains. “I don’t even think about it. Your sense of who you are should come from you; it’s nothing to do with where you were born.”

Bowers has visited Bangladesh, the first time when she was nine. She dislikes the caste system and poverty that exist there. “I’m really glad I was brought here,” she says of Australia. “Why would I want to be married off at 16 and producing kids in a Third World country?”

Her mother, Joan, raised the children to be proud of their heritage. They grew up in a house filled with Indian artefacts. Joan visited India regularly and had such a strong affinity with the region, she’s even said she feels Indian – which Bowers admits is “bizarre!”

Perhaps equally bizarre is the fact that, in her dreams, Bowers is white. “I only know I look Indian because the mirror tells me so.”

Bowers evidently had a difficult start to life. She has scars on her body and recurrent dreams about being drowned by her birth mother. Is her reluctance to dwell on her beginnings due to the fact she may uncover unpleasantness? “Life’s hard enough without trying to make it harder by analysing something that just is,” she says.

Down the track, Irving hopes she might reach a similar level of acceptance. At present, she hasn’t visited South Korea, although she may go there with her family one day. There’s a possibility her birth mother could still be alive. Would she be interested in meeting her? “I’d have nothing in common with her,” she says. “I wouldn’t even be able to say, ‘Hi, how are you?'”


One response to “A tale of two cities: Adoption (in Australia)

  1. This website is amazing, thank you Kim. It has deeply touched me and the advice you offer is priceless. Thank you also for sharing my article!

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