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ADOPTEES SEARCH FOR THEIR ROOTS


Lisa Gubernick, Wall Street Journal, March 20, 2002
IT WASN'T the McLoughlin family's usual summer vacation. Peggy and Peter McLoughlin traveled from Newton, Mass., to South Korea with their daughter and three sons for some mountain climbing, beach combing -- and a visit to a local adoption agency.

Two of the McLoughlin's children were adopted from Korea -- their daughter, Clare, in 1983, and their son, Will, in 1986. On the family's trip in July, they met the family that had cared for Will when he was abandoned as a baby, and they shared a dinner with Clare's birth family.

"It was a lot to handle, but it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life," says Clare, now 18. "My mother fed me as if I were a baby, wiping my mouth, patting my back."

Families helping adopted children connect with their roots are fueling growth of so-called heritage tours, a tiny niche of the U.S. travel industry. International adoption by U.S. parents has mushroomed, hitting more than 125,000 children over the past decade. These parents often are eager to take their adopted children to their birth places and, in some cases, arrange meetings with birth parents.

"In order to piece together their identities, kids who've been adopted from abroad need to see their birth countries," says Chris Cowles, a Wisconsin mother who took her adopted son, Will Collentine, back to Paraguay in 2000, when he was 11. Ms. Cowles watched her son grow silent as children begged outside the window of their bus, as it traveled down the main street of the capital. "That could have been me," he said. It was a difficult but worthwhile experience, she says.

The tours fan out through Asia and South America, to South Korea and China, to Paraguay, Guatemala and Peru. Families may spend two or three weeks seeing the sights and, in some cases, visiting adoption agencies and orphanages where their children lived when they were only a few years or months old.

Some of the tour operators are not-for-profit adjuncts of U.S. adoption agencies. Some offer help in contacting birth families, while others simply hit the standard tourist spots. Our Chinese Daughters, based in Beijing and run by Jane Liedtke, an American business consultant and mother of an adopted Chinese daughter, is organizing a Yangtze River cruise and a Beijing shopping trip this year. It also tries to help arrange visits to orphanages, the source of the vast majority of adopted Chinese babies.

Nearly a dozen heritage-tour outfits have sent 1,000 people or more on these trips over the past few years, according to operators' estimates. Costs begin as low as $2,000, not including airfare, and go up depending on accommodations, length of stay and itinerary. The Ties, one of the oldest and largest heritage-tour operators, based in Wauwatosa, Wis., sent 17 people, including seven children, to South Korea back in 1994. In 2001, it dispatched a little more than 400 people to five countries, including Paraguay, Chile and Peru, grossing more than $1 million.

Becca Piper is the founder of the Ties, a former professional tour guide and mother of two adopted children born in the U.S. When she was working with various adoption groups in Milwaukee, she says, she saw "a need to take kids back."

Indeed, many experts say these visits are healthy experiences for adopted children. "It's hard for a child to understand intellectually that they lived in this country they've never seen," says Susan Caughman, publisher of Adoptive Families Magazine. "It's pure good sense for them to see it and see what it looks like."

But many experts warn that attempts to meet birth parents, or vist orphanages, are delicate undertakings, raising "complex issues that should be dealt with when a child is ready," Ms. Caughman notes. Both children and adoptive parents must be ready for strong emotions and difficult questions.

"There's stuff that can linger for months or years afterward that parents didn't anticipate," says Lois Melina, an adoption expert and the author of "Raising Adopted Children." Children "want to know why they were given up, and who they would have been if they hadn't been adopted."

The trips can help adopted children understand the cultural and economic reasons why their birth families may have placed them for adoption. Seeing things first-hand helps prevent them from thinking it was "because of something they did -- that they were ugly, they were naughty," says Deborah Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Adoption Resource Network, who was adopted as a child from Korea. "A parent can tell a kid something 100 times, but when you go and experience something it suddenly makes sense."

There aren't recommended minimum or maximum ages for children making these trips, experts say. For the youngest, the question is mostly whether they can handle the travel; for the older ones, it's an issue of whether they want to go. Ms. Johnson says she thinks the ideal age is from 10 to 12, when kids are "open, curious and adventurous. . . . Kids in the midst of adolescence -- 14, 15, 16 -- can be really difficult. If they don't want to go, that's not the time to force the issue."

Last summer, Stephanie Cotsirilos and her 10-year-old son, Gabriel, traveled from Orono, Maine, to Peru for two weeks with a tour organized by the Ties. "My son has always expressed an interest in his heritage," Ms. Cotsirilos says. "I wanted to give him the opportunity to see where he was from." On a trip to the ruins outside Cuzco, they met a group of school kids who were Gabriel's age. "He called them `my kids' and posed for picture after picture with them," she recalls.

In practice, only a small portion of people on heritage tours actually contact birth families, Ms. Piper says. Some countries limit such attempts. In China, at least for now, there are few if any records available on the nearly 30,000 Chinese children who have been adopted by Americans over the past decade. More records are available in Korea and many South American countries, but some adoption agencies won't permit adopted children under 18 to search for birth parents.

Ms. Cowles and Will learned that Will's birth mother was probably still alive but they didn't attempt to reach her in Paraguay, because she had indicated she wouldn't welcome such contacts. Ms. Cowles says her son still exchanges e-mails and Christmas cards with other adoptees he met on the trip. He now talks with confidence about his birth country. "He has seen it. He can tell people who ask what Paraguay is like," Ms. Cowles says.

In Korea, the Ties offers to help families working with adoption agencies to find birth parents, as it did with the McLoughlins. There is even a box on the Ties' tour application for adoptive families to check off if they want to make such contacts.

"I said `Sure, why not,' " says Clare McLoughlin, now in her freshman year at college. When she boarded the flight to Korea last year, she had no idea whether she would actually get to meet her birth family. The day after the McLoughlins arrived, they went to a Seoul adoption agency, and an American social worker led Clare into a room. Her biological mother, her oldest sister and an aunt were waiting.

"My mother let out this huge wail," Clare recalls. "She kept saying `I'm sorry, I'm sorry' and `Thank You' to my parents." Over the next 2 1/2 hours, through a translator, her birth mother told her the story of why she had put her up for adoption. The family had been under financial strain, she said; they'd wanted a boy.

Clare stays in touch via e-mail with her sister, whose English is limited. "When she writes, `I love you and I miss you,' it means a lot to me," Clare says. "This is why I'm learning Korean now. I really want to know the finer details of their story and their life.

"I really think of myself as being lucky," she says. "I have two sets of parents, two cultures."

Keywords: adoption, international adoption, family, identity