Archive for September, 2010

Why we won’t be trick-or-treating for UNICEF this year

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

Like a lot of people, I used to regard UNICEF as an organization founded to protect and advocate for children. Not anymore. Not after everything I’ve learned about UNICEF’s role in shutting down adoptions in countries such as Guatemala. That’s why I’m sharing  this article by attorney Candace O’Brien, posted by friends on Facebook, and encouraging you to do the same.

In this post, I’ve included only the parts specific to Guatemala; to read the entire article, click on the link here

“UNICEF has been waging war against international adoption for many years contrary to popular understanding… UNICEF’s premise that parents in underdeveloped countries should be provided the means to keep their children is not arguable.  Neither is UNICEF’s stance that international adoption should only be a last resort.”…

“Let’s take the example of Guatemala.  After intense pressure from UNICEF, Guatemala finally closed its doors to international adoption on December 31, 200[7].  Prior to that time, foreign nationals adopted approximately 5,000 Guatemalan children per year.   Oscar Avila, ‘Guatemala Seeks Domestic Fix to Troubled Overseas Adoptions,’ Chicago Tribune, October 26, 2008 indicated that ‘Guatemala has launched an ambitious campaign to recruit foster parents and even adoptive parents at home.’  So far, the program is failing miserably.  Avila reports, ‘Only about 45 families in a nation of 13 million currently have taken in foster children since the program began this year.’”

“The approach that Guatemala is taking by attempting to gain domestic attention to the problem is certainly meritorious; however, this approach could and should have been implemented concomitant with an international program which would ensure that thousands of children will find homes rather than waste away in institutions that are often underfunded, understaffed and unable to provide for the needs of these children.”… (more…)


Reading in Boston

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

Greetings, friends on the East coast!

Thanks to the determined efforts of my sister, Deanna, I will be reading from Mamalita at Borders Books on Boylston Street in Boston (how’s that for alliteration?) on Sunday, December 12 at 6 p.m. Please mark your calendars. I would love, love, love to see you there.

Securing readings at bookstores is harder than one might think, at least for an unknown, first-time memoir writer like me. But it’s worth the effort. I know that one of my favorite activities is to go to my local bookstore, Book Passage, and listen to other writers read from their work, answer questions from the audience, and talk about their process. I always leave feeling energized and inspired—“She wrote a book, and if I work hard, so can I!” I bet others feel the same way, too. Plus, what’s better than listening to someone tell a great story?

Now, at last, after decades of enjoying other people’s books and many happy hours listening to them talk about them, I’ve written one myself. And I get to read from it! Please join me at Borders on Boylston on December 12 and share the celebration.

See you then! xoxox

P.S.: You’ll recognize my sister Deanna. She’ll be sitting in the front row, beaming.


Really brother and sister

Monday, September 27th, 2010


It happened again on Saturday morning, after Olivia’s ballet class. A woman I have never met before, the mother of another dance student, saw me with Olivia and Mateo, and out of nowhere asked, “Are they really brother and sister?” 

I gulped and took a deep breath, after which I smiled and replied, “They are now.” 

This particular question is the one I get asked most often by all kinds of people—from strangers in the grocery store to teachers in my children’s classrooms—and the one to which I still haven’t found the correct answer. I’ve heard other adoptive parents recommend saying, “Why do you ask?” or “They’re not biologically. But otherwise, yes.” Although both of those options seem like good answers, I haven’t yet found a way to make them trip off my tongue. 

I know people ask the question out of interest and curiosity, but I have to admit, it’s the question that unsettles me the most—even more than the inevitable, “Are you their ‘real’ mother?” Why? Because it undermines my children’s relationship to each other. I imagine Olivia thinking, “If this guy who torments me at mealtimes, steals my toys, and borrows my markers without permission isn’t my real brother, then who is he?” Or I see the thought bubbles in Mateo’s head: “Only a big sister would protect me on the playground, show me how to jump rope, and sleep in the top bunk of my bunk bed, right? That’s what I was told, anyway.” 

Regardless of whether or not they have other, biological, blood-related siblings, Olivia and Mateo are “really” brother and sister. That’s what the institution of adoption does—it creates families. It makes me my children’s mother and my husband my children’s father. And although Olivia and Mateo were born in two different parts of Guatemala to two different birth mothers, they are, and will forever be, “really brother and sister.”



Friday, September 24th, 2010

Last week, while drawing a picture of our family, Olivia held up the marker she was using to draw me and said, “Everyone at school calls this ‘skin color,’ but it isn’t. This color is ‘peach.’” 

I’ve heard it said that children don’t notice skin color, but that has never been the experience in our family. In a very matter-of-fact way, Olivia began commenting on variations in skin color at about age three. Mateo, too. Maybe it’s because they’re such visual people and my husband and I look different from them; or maybe it’s because my husband is a dermatologist who studies, treats, and writes about the skin; or maybe it’s because our family looks different from most of the families around us. It could be due to any of those reasons, but here’s my theory: The reason my kids discuss skin color is because when the subject comes up, we don’t avoid it. For whatever reason, in our family, a conversation might sound like this: 

Olivia: “Which girl are you talking about? Does she have peach skin?”

 Mateo: “No, the other one. She’s brown like us.”

Or, Olivia: “Mom has peach skin with round spots.”

Me: “Those are freckles. ”

Mateo: “Olivia’s skin is tanner than mine. Dad’s skin has more yellow.”

 My children often identify people by skin color, with no judgment attached. They report color the same as any detail: green eyes, long hair, good at bike riding, likes to hula-hoop. Olivia and Mateo know we’re all the same on the inside. That’s one fact that doesn’t vary, and the one that counts. (more…)


A Post by Holt adoptee #A-20

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

This comment by Don Gordon Bell appeared in response to my September 15  blog, “In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee Impressions.”  Born in Korea and adopted to the United States in 1956, Don Gordon Bell moved to South Korea in 1995. In my opinion, his thoughtful and long-term perspective on international adoption merits its own blog post. Learn more about Bell’s life story and insights into adoption at his website, KoreanWarBaby.

“I am Holt adoptee #A-20, was on the First plane from Holt Adoption Program, leaving on May21, 1956. I was a founding member of GOA’L which Ami Nafzger founded in 1998 and active since I moved to South Korea in 1995.”

“The film is powerful and yet as you say cannot answer many questions, which is true in most cases. Even the many Cha Jung Hee that [filmmaker Deann Borshay] Diem met (There are only so many names in Korea, 35 family names so many with same name) demonstrate that life is Korea would have been so different. One cannot change their past but instead deal with it. I have found that though the attitude of Korean society is slowly changing it is still a shameful and embarrassing thing (adoption) to speak about.” (more…)


NY Times article calls residents of Solola “Best-Dressed”

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

It’s always a great day around here when the New York Times publishes an article that includes Guatemala and the news is good. That happened this morning, when I opened the Sunday edition, and saw the front page of the Travel section announcing an article by Seth Kugel on page 6: “The Highs and Lows from 13 Weeks Traveling From Sao Paolo to New York on $70 a Day.” I’ve been following Kugel’s Times reports on his journey throughout the region–he writes as “The Frugal Traveler”–and was eager to see how he rated Guatemala.

Winner of Kugel’s “Best-Dressed” Award? The “Residents of Sololá, Guatemala.” Whoo-hoo! (Readers of this blog may remember Sololá’s fabulous traje from a photo I posted  this past summer.)

Kugel writes: ”I  did not expect Sololá to be memorable. I was just changing buses there, but since it was Friday— market day—I stopped to explore.”

“I expected to see stands offering spices and batteries, women dressed in colorful local costumes making tortillas and men buying (and wearing) the cheapest fashions that Chinese factories have to offer.”

“But this market was different: the men wore traditional woven shirts and pants so riotously colorful — bright oranges and yellows and pinks and purples, sometimes in the same square inch — that even the most non-fashion-conscious shopper (i.e., me) couldn’t take his eyes off them.”

The Times even ran a large photo of the beautiful traje.  We all know it’s spectacular, but now it’s official. (more…)


How a California garden is like adoption

Friday, September 17th, 2010

In September, all the work we’ve put into the garden during the past year finally pays off. Tomatoes, strawberries, Meyer lemons, basil. In sauces and gazpacho, smoothies and pies. Sliced onto cereal, on ice cream, broiled with parmesan cheese. Meyer lemons, Meyer lemonade. And Pesto! Pesto by the quart. On pasta and bread. Pesto for lunch and for dinner. Buckets of pesto. 

Summer comes to Northern California not in July or August, but in September. The days are warm enough, at last, to turn our tomatoes red, our lemons yellow. Before breakfast, Tim goes out with a basket, and by the time I wake up the kids, a bowl on the table is filled. 

Because I am who I am and my husband is married to me, we see parallels between our garden and adoption. Tim noticed it first. In Texas, where he once lived, there are four seasons. Everyone, he says, plants tomatoes the same week; gardeners can predict their harvest to the day. But here in California, we plant in February, March, April, or May. Our tomatoes come in, variably: maybe in August, or else in September. Some years, we eat tomatoes off the vine at Thanksgiving. 

How is a California garden like adoption? As Tim pointed out, a normal pregnancy takes nine months. With a pretty good degree of accuracy, expectant parents know when their baby will arrive. There is no such calendar with adoption. Maybe it will take six months, unless it takes two years. For the families still waiting for their children in Guatemala–whose cases have been stalled since adoptions closed in January 2008–it must feel as if it will take forever. 

Guatemala 900, we’re thinking of you as another season passes.


“In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee” impressions

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

Last night I watched a third documentary on PBS told from the point of view of an adoptee. In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee is different from the two previous offerings—Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy and Off and Running—because the subject of the film, Deann Borshay Liem, is also the filmmaker. In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee is Liem’s second documentary about adoption, building on themes introduced in her first film, First Person Plural.

I don’t know if it’s possible for me to watch any documentary about adoption without feeling great sorrow. In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee is no different. For me, there is no adoption story that doesn’t contain, at its center, a profound sense of loss. (I wrote my book, Mamalita: An Adoption Memoir,  to help me process the overwhelming emotions I felt about adopting my own daughter.) Although I’m writing this piece the day after watching In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee, I still feel sad and depressed.

That said, as an adoptive parent, I have learned so much from hearing the stories of children and adults were adopted. My sincere hope is that my generation of adoptive parents continues to learn from the experiences of the first wave of parents and children, who share their stories with eloquence and candor.

Deann Borshay Liem grew up as Kang Ok Jin in an orphanage in Korea, placed there by her mother, a widow who struggled to support her five children. In the same orphanage was another little girl, Cha Jung Hee, who was receiving monthly letters from her American sponsors, the Borshays. Days before the Borshays requested to adopt Cha Jung Hee, the girl was taken from the orphanage by her father and not returned. Rather than disappoint the Borshays, the orphanage directors substituted eight-year-old Kang Ok Jin, by pasting her photo onto the passport of Cha Jung Hee, and sending her instead. The orphange staff warned Kang Ok Jin, soon to become Deann Borshay, not to reveal her true identity. (more…)


Third PBS documentary about adoption, “In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee”

Monday, September 13th, 2010

PBS’s award-winning non-fiction showcase, Point of View, will broadcast a third documentary about adoption, tomorrow, Tuesday, September 14 at 10 p.m. Titled In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee, the film was directed by Deann Borshay Liem, born in Korea and adopted by an American family. Please note: some PBS affiliates are screening the show at a later date. Check your local listings for air time by clicking on this link and typing in your zip code.

Here’s the PBS synopsis: 

“Her passport said she was Cha Jung Hee. She knew she was not. So began a 40-year deception for a Korean adoptee who came to the United States in 1966. Told to keep her true identity secret from her new American family, the 8-year-old girl quickly forgot she had ever been anyone else. But why had her identity been switched? And who was the real Cha Jung Hee? In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee is the search to find the answers, as acclaimed filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem (First Person Plural, POV 2000) returns to her native Korea to find her “double,” the mysterious girl whose place she took in America. A co-production of ITVS in association with the Center for Asian American Media and American Documentary/POV.”

As always, I welcome your comments and impressions.


A letter to José Heaton

Friday, September 10th, 2010

Back in July of this year, I posted a blog about Tom Heaton of Mission Guatemala, whose twenty-year-old son José, was shot and killed on a bus in Guatemala City. This past Sunday, our church in California offered a Mass in honor of José. Although I know Tom, I had never met his son, but as our priest said the prayers asking for “the repose of the soul of José Heaton,” tears streamed down my face. 

Tom adopted José from an orphanage when José was twelve years old.  At José’s memorial service, Tom read a letter to his son, which he later posted on his Facebook page. With Tom’s permission, I am reprinting his letter in its entirety here.

Dear José,

It has been just over a week since I received the news of your death. I played back the message on my answering machine three times to make sure I heard everything correctly. I could not believe the words of George, a pastor in the neighborhood where you lived when I heard them. Jose is dead. It was the call I had dreaded would come for months. I shared the news with Manuel who immediately broke into tears.

There is so much that was left unsaid between us. I am certain I will continue to search for answers until my dying days. I was glad we were able to talk briefly on the phone just a few days earlier and both say, “I love you.”

Your life, especially your early years, was filled with such tragedy, and you had so many questions of your own that were never answered.

I am sure you must have wondered many times why you had to go live in the orphanage while your younger sister, Bea, got to live with family members. Although you were loved and cared for at Hogar Miguel Magone, it still isn’t the same as being loved and cared for by a family. I looked the other day at the picture of your birth mother holding you when you were around two years old. I too wonder why you ended up in the orphanage. I wonder why your birthfather never claimed you or Bea to be his children. I am sure it hurt you deeply that your aunt and grandmother cared for your sister while you lived away from them. I am also sure that you went to the orphanage because they loved you and wanted to make sure you were cared for… and you were.

I am also sure that the tragic murder of your mother affected you far deeper than I could ever know. Still, I will never forget the first day we met at Fundaninos orphanage. You had no idea what was going on, but the smile on your face charmed me right away. I know after we left, Vilma told you that I wanted to adopt you. After spending some more time together while we were in Guatemala, I am so glad you said yes. I think we still have the fastest Guatemala adoption on record. It was 45 days from the time my paperwork entered the system until the signature went on the paper making you Jose Luis Heaton. You told me that you never dreamed anyone would want to adopt a 12 year old boy.

Our family did not turn out how I had dreamed. Your life did not become what I had hoped it would be. But nonetheless, we were still a family. I am grateful that I was able to provide for you experiences and opportunities you would not have had otherwise. (more…)