“Open your eyes.” Christmas, 1991. My adoptive mother fiddled with the camera and tripod while I swiped uselessly at my bangs and tried not to blink. She straightened and glared at me. “Open your eyes. No, not like that. Look natural.” I didn’t tell her my eyes were already open.
As a transracial adoptee born in South Korea, I am a product of war. During and after the first Cold War, Korea was ashamed of the mixed-race babies produced by the influx of American soldiers and wanted them gone. Abortion was not legalized in South Korea until 2021, so they had to find alternatives. Prior to World War II, race-matched adoptions in segregated America were standard practice, but by 1945 the demand for adoptable children far outstripped supply. Spurred by relatively low fertility rates in the West, and many Christians’ treatment of adoption as a religious calling, South Korea expelled the first wave of adoptees to white parents in the United States and then Europe, establishing a pipeline for over 200,000 baby exports that helped revitalize South Korea’s economy. One nation’s shame fed the ravenous demands of another. In this way, I am a product of both war and consumerism.
“Be grateful,” I have heard many times. Often, the demand is preceded by “How much did you cost?” More often, by “We couldn’t have our own children, so . . .” while onlookers smile and nod at me as I shrug into my name like an ill-fitting sweater—my second name, which wasn’t meant for someone who looks like me. “Be grateful,” my adoptive parents said, “because we both know the life you could have had.” A second chance. A second name. A second glance that looked more like a backup plan filling in for a biological child they couldn’t have.
Fin de siècle Gothic literature scholar Rebecca May once described the difference between terror and horror: Terror is entering a dark room knowing there’s a dead body somewhere but not knowing when one will stumble on it. Horror is stumbling on the dead body in the room and turning on the light, only to recognize it as someone you know. To be an adoptee is to be the stumbler and the body, both at once.
In adoption, all rights, responsibilities, and filiations are transferred permanently and legally to the adoptive parent. Think Moses, one of the first adoptees recorded in the Bible, who later led his first family out of slavery. Or Esther, who became queen and saved her people. Or Hercules, stolen from Mount Olympus and raised by humans, restored to his heritage only after a series of heroic feats. Beneath their glorious veneers, they suffered deeply to figure out how they could fit into their true heritage—and if they couldn’t, then how they could establish new identities for themselves.
People tell me I’m good with babies. Thus, I was tempted. My friend said she dreamed I gave birth to three children. My neighbor held her rounding belly and said I should have a couple of my own. So, dutifully, like Hannah mother of the prophet Samuel, like Sarai mother of Isaac, like so many women before, wife and companion in suffering, I went to the weeping wall to beseech whatever god would listen. And I, a woman, taught not to want—but want I do, and want and want and want—
“Your mother loved you so much she gave you up,” my adoptive parents often said to me. In the triad of first mother, adoptive mother, and adoptee, this assumption is called the “broken angel” theory, in which the first mother wanted but couldn’t care for her baby, whether because she was poor or because the conception happened in violent or otherwise shameful circumstances. The foil for this figure is the “demon woman,” a birth mother unfit for parenthood due to promiscuity, addiction, or a propensity for physical or emotional abuse. Please note that in both cases the first father’s responsibility goes unmentioned. Please note that nothing in my adoption file even remotely hints at stories I was told about where I come from. Please note that all of these assumptions position adoptive parents as benevolent saviors offering young, poor, often non-white children a “better life.”
I have never been pregnant. I have never had a pregnancy scare. In this way, I know I am lucky. Not one time anxiously pacing the bathroom tiles after peeing on a stick. Not a single moment of nausea or a questionable morning of vomit. Not even one missed period. My body is nothing if not rigorously punctual.
“But don’t you want children? Don’t you want to know what they would look like? Aren’t you trying? Are you crazy? Who doesn’t want at least one? Children are God’s greatest blessing. If you don’t want to have children of your own, you can just adopt. Don’t you want don’t you want don’t you want?”
In this way, I know I am unlucky.
As a woman, I have been taught to beg only for a child, to be willing to tear myself open to finally meet someone who looks like me, of whom a stranger might say, She has your face or your hands or your unblinking monolid eyes. I was taught not to be tempted by any other kind of life, lest I be called a madwoman. Instead, I demand the Lord answer the unspeakable questions. To which god do I make my sacrifice, blood spat from between my thighs? Lord, here am I. Behold—
And lo, I saw many gods cradling their children devoured, broke-necked and bulleted, drowned, set aflame, wrapped breathless in plastic, hands duct-taped together, slit-veined and organless, spines bent to fracture, orifices defiled. O, threnody. O, Lord, the children you did not save.
Born in South Korea in 1974, Phillip Clay was adopted in 1983 by a white family in the United States. His adoptive parents never applied for his citizenship, and naturalization was not an automatic part of the international process until 2021. In 2012, Clay was deported to South Korea. According to The New York Times, “He could not speak the local language, did not know a single person and did not receive appropriate care for mental health problems, which included bipolar disorder and alcohol and substance abuse.” He died by suicide in South Korea at the age of forty-two on May 21, 2017. He is one of at least 35,000 undocumented transnational adoptees whose adoptive parents did not complete their naturalization paperwork.
In the summer of 2020, YouTube stars Myka and James Stauffer dominated social media channels. Among other things, they were known for documenting the three-year process of raising money to adopt Huxley, a two-year-old boy from China. Viewers became suspicious when Huxley quietly disappeared from their vlogs, and only after several hundred comments did the Stauffers finally post a video in which they explained they had “rehomed” Huxley, by then five years old, because the adoption agency hadn’t properly informed them of the extent of care required to manage his autism. “He has now joined his new forever family,” the Stauffers wept.
Adoptee and TikTok content creator Kirsta, a.k.a. @karpoozy, then went viral for explaining the term “rehoming,” and exposed Facebook private groups such as “Second Chance Adoptions” for trafficking adopted and fostered children, revealing countless posts describing them like shelter animals. For example, “[REDACTED] is a nine-year-old boy and is typical in most ways. He is described as compliant, a follower, kind, and usually obedient. He is a good eater, and sleeps well. Please consider if [REDACTED] can be your son.”
In times of war, children have often been separated from their families. Consider the Ottoman Empire’s tradition of taking the children of a conquered country as tribute. Consider the American slavery system, which, among its many atrocities, brutally separated and sold Black families. Consider the child evacuees from London and Jewish refugee children from Nazi-occupied countries whisked to the British countryside during the Blitz in World War II. What is the reason for separating families in times of peace?
1854–1929 / The Orphan Train Movement transported children from the Eastern Seaboard to foster homes in the Midwest. Children were either adopted or shipped to the next town; teenagers were fostered as farmhands or domestic servants—or even as young brides.
1869–1963 / Native children were forcibly removed by government agents and placed in boarding schools hundreds of miles from their homes, with the intention of systematically destroying Native cultures and communities. The stated purpose of this policy, backed by several religious groups, was to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” The last boarding school was closed in 1963. In 1978 the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed, allowing tribal governments complete jurisdiction over the placement of Native children in adoption and foster cases, to best serve the interests of the child by preventing them from being severed from their culture and community. The ICWA is being contested to this day.
1958 / Psychologist Harry Harlow separated infant primates from their biological mothers and assigned them to one of two surrogate mothers: the first constructed of wire and wood, the second covered in foam rubber and soft terry cloth. At times, one or the other surrogate had a milk bottle.
1960–1962 / In Operación Pedro Pan more than 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children ages six to eighteen were covertly evacuated to the United States because their parents feared that Fidel Castro and the Communist Party were planning to terminate parental rights and place minors in indoctrination centers.
1960–1972 / Owing to the many placements of Korean adoptees and the increased demand for “adoptable” children, U.S. adoption agencies experimented with placing other children of color into white homes. By 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers issued a statement that was a “vehement stand against the placement of Black children in white homes for any reason,” arguing that “white families are ill-equipped to raise a Black child in a racist society, and that such transracial adoptions were done with the benefit of the white family in mind, rather than for the benefit of the child.”
1975 / At the end of the Vietnam War, Operation Babylift was responsible for the mass evacuation of over 3,000 South Vietnamese infants and children, who were then adopted by families in the United States as well as Australia, France, Canada, and elsewhere. Mixed-race children fathered by American soldiers were in particular danger. Journalists began asking why only children were taken, why not entire families. An attorney in the U.S. called Operation Babylift “one of the last desperate attempts to get sympathy for the war.” Hope became a double-edged sword when paperwork couldn’t match children back to their parents. Prospective adopters clamored for “more untraceable” babies, and paperwork was often falsified. In 2,000 cases brought to court over the following decades, only twelve children were ever reunited with their first families.
2018–present / The U.S. government divided thousands of asylum-seeking families at the U.S.–Mexico border, deporting the adults and holding the children in cages. Physicians for Human Rights estimated that in just three months of 2018, more than 2,600 children were forcibly separated from their parents. As of 2023, over 1,000 are still not reunited.
What did it cost these families, who could only save their children by letting them go?
Luke 18:15–17: “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of God.”
April 8, 2010 / Artyom Savelyev, 7 years (abandoned: one-way solo flight from Tennessee back to Russia)
July 2, 2010 / Kairissa Mark, 4 years (murdered: beaten for 83 days)
Unknown, 2011 / Erica Parsons, 13 years (murdered: homicidal violence)
February 11, 2011 / Nubia Barahona, 10 years (murdered: doused with chemicals)
May 12, 2011 / Hana Grace-Rose Williams, 13 years (murdered: hypothermia from being locked outside)
September 22, 2013 / Asunta Fong Yang, 12 years (murdered: drugged and smothered)
February 3, 2014 / Madoc Hyun-su O’Callaghan, 3 years (murdered: hurled against wall)
November 17, 2015 / Laila Daniel, 2 years (murdered: kicked with such force her pancreas split open)
Unknown, 2015 or 2016 / Jonathan Gray, 15 years (murdered: abuse and starvation)
July 2016 / Grace Packer, 14 years (murdered: choked and dismembered)
November, 2016 / Adam Crapser, 41 years (deported)
December 21, 2016 / Maliyha Hope Garcia, 5 years (murdered: starvation)
Unknown, 2017 / Charisma Marquez, 11 years (murdered: abuse and neglect)
Unknown, 2017 / Heather “Sophie” Gray, 13 years (murdered: abuse and starvation)
May 21, 2017 / Phillip Clay, 42 years (murdered: suicide after being deported)
October 7, 2017 / Sherin Matthews, 3 years (murdered: homicidal violence)
March 26, 2018 / Markis Hart, 19 years (murdered: driven off cliff by adoptive mother)
March 26, 2018 / Hannah Hart, 16 years (murdered: driven off cliff by adoptive mother)
March 26, 2018 / Devonte Hart, 15 years (murdered: driven off cliff by adoptive mother)
March 26, 2018 / Jeremiah Hart, 14 years (murdered: driven off cliff by adoptive mother)
March 26, 2018 / Abigail Hart, 14 years (murdered: driven off cliff by adoptive mother)
March 26, 2018 / Ciera Hart, 12 years (murdered: driven off cliff by adoptive mother)
September 29, 2019 / Raelynn Keyes, 3 years (murdered: found in hot car)
September 29, 2019 / Payton Keyes, 3 years (murdered: found in hot car)
May 6, 2020 / Raven Thompson, 5 years (murdered: blunt force trauma to head, neck, chest, abdomen, extremities)
May 27, 2020 / Huxley Stauffer, 5 years (“rehomed”)
October 3, 2020 / Josie Ann Abney, 10 years (murdered: starvation and dehydration, “appeared like a Holocaust victim” to a detective who saw her)
October 13, 2020 / Jeong-in, 16 months (murdered: severe abdominal injuries and internal bleeding caused by repeated beatings)
December 30, 2020 / Christian Hall, 19 years (murdered: shot seven times by police officers called to de-escalate mental health emergency)
Open your eyes, said a voice. Look again. So I looked, I who once wept for a child of my own, once tempted to forget the history and boundaries of my own garden in order to be called a savior.
And lo, there were already children given into our hands:
children made of wood
children made of ash
children made of coins
children made of sorrow
all these children ours.
Mark now my mouth, enlarged. We must let them live, and let them live well. I grind the scaled head of disappointment into the dust with my heel. Who, after all this, could mistake me for a madwoman?
Next up in the portfolio: “Forgiveness Is Not a Star but a Dragonfly” by Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello
Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello is the author of Hour of the Ox (University of Pittsburgh, 2016), which won the Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, and the translator, with E. J. Koh, of Yi Won’s The World’s Lightest Motorcycle (Zephyr Press, 2021), which won the Literature Translation Institute of Korea’s Grand Prize. Her work has appeared in Best New Poets, The Best Small Fictions, Kenyon Review Online, AGNI, The New York Times, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships from Kundiman, the Knight Foundation, and the American Literary Translators Association. She serves as co-founder of the Adoptee Literary Festival, co-leader of PEN America’s South Florida Chapter, and a program coordinator for Miami Book Fair. (updated 10/2023)