Birth Country Travel: Upon Arrival

Perhaps the most significant thing about heritage travel is what adoptees are doing with the experience related to identity building. It is so interesting to see adoptees country after country doing the same kinds of things as they work toward understanding of self.

Step One….Literally off the Plane

As international adoptees step off the airplane and onto home soil a universal moment happens.  Beneath the airport chaos, it’s like you can hear the thought: “Wow, everyone looks like me.”  And then the actual conversation begins. Adoptees traveling with The Ties Program talk about this a lot and find it both overwhelming and comforting.  As they travel, a new visual sense of self begins to take shape, one that transforms with each and every experience and interaction in their birth country.

Arrival stirs not only a visual sense of self, but a plethora of emotions as well.  Perhaps one of the most vivid accounts we have ever read, came from Julia Mendelson. Slightly edited and shared with her permission prior to her passing in 2008, Julia’s writings were profound and one of her many gifts  to the world. 

Julia writes…

When I returned to Korea (for the first time since I was 8 months old), I went under the delusional self-convinced theory that I was just going because I love to travel and had the opportunity at a fully-paid, friend-escorted trip. No, it would not matter one bit that I was born there. Adopted from there. My only biological relatives somewhere lost there in that place filled with ‘my people.’ That would never affect me, I convinced myself. Just another college trip.

Shock! Hurt! Confusion! It smacked me in the face like something I never knew possible from the moment I stepped off the plane. Those faces – my faces – followed me everywhere. I became paranoid. Enraged. Repeating to myself, ‘just a college trip’ in my head. I never felt so close to be being found and so lost.

I went to powder my nose in the airport bathroom a moment after my arrival. As I leaned in to wash my hands a middle-aged woman next to me asked me something in Korean. I looked up at her through the mirror in front of us and I gasped out loud. “Is that HER?” was the thought that shot through my head.

It was the beginning of a series of absurd thoughts that expressed desires I never knew I had.  The woman gave me a dirty look that clearly said, “What the hell is her problem?” and shook her head in disbelief and walked out. 

I wanted to run after her! I wanted to grab her by the arm and yell to her in the language I know not even one word of and say, “You’re my birth mother! Aren’t you?!” Truly, I had gone insane. As I was walking out of the ladies room I was imagining that she would turn around, embrace me and with tears streaming down her face, she’d say, “Julia? My baby! I missed you…”

At that moment I stopped dead in my tracks, looked up and saw before me the hundreds (or so it seemed) of middle-aged Korean woman. All possibilities. –Julia

Other adoptees describe the experience differently, but clearly filled with emotion.  Emily Freeman, who was 15 when she traveled wrote, “Wow! When I first arrived, I was a complete mess. I had all these emotions in my head. I was so excited to be there, but also nervous that it would not be what I thought it was.” And Carmen Knight describes it this way, “As we landed I was in complete awe of what I saw, the beautiful mountains and buildings. This was where I was from, this was my first home.”

Younger kids tend to arrive one of two ways—tremendously excited or “I-can’t–stand-up-tired.”  Either way, once they get their bearings, we hear things like, “Wow, everyone looks like me,” said with both enthusiasm and anxiety.  Some kids verbalize, “Oh my gosh, my parents won’t be able to find me.”  But then reality strikes.  “Oh yeah, I’ll be able to find them!” 

As they wait the short time in the airport, their eyes are already scouring the scene, making lots of comparisons about tangible things.  “Hey, they have Coke here, but it’s in smaller cans.”  Or, “Look, they have Inca Cola, not Coke.”  Soda cans seem to be a hot topic because it is something kids can readily connect with. 

In time, most go deeper in their thoughts.  Way deeper.  And by the time we are ready to leave, most adoptees feel a real connection to their birth country and are anxious to find ways to keep those connections alive.  Language is just one of those ways.

Next up in this series: Language and Birth Country Travel. Watch for it in a about 10 days! (Note-by requesting to receive our blog, you will receive notification when each part in the series is posted. If you already receive our mailings, no need to subscribe. We’ve got you covered!)

To read the intro to this series, click here.


I’m sitting here drinking a cup of tea and reading through feedback we’ve received from Ties travelers. It is humbling to think of the magnitude of birth country experiences.

One child wrote, “My birth country is dimensional, beautiful, and breathtaking.”

And another, “My birth country made me feel magical.”

These heartfelt statements got me thinking…what makes birth country travel so magical?

Let me show you in pictures.

I turn a page and read a parent’s words:

“It is important to leave one’s pre-conceptions at home, and enjoy everything the child’s birth country has to offer. After all, it is all about them, and seeing the experience through their eyes.”

And this: “I watched my child blossom and feel accepted, yet continue to process many aspects of his birth country.So much self discovery happens on this trip.”

And that too is part of the magic.

International Adoption: Do Adoptees Need to Know Their Past?

Emerson wrote, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” But how do we know what lies within us without knowing the past or the future? Is it possible? Certainly, we live life without knowing the future. But the past?

The past gnaws at us because we feel like we should have it, because unlike the future, it CAN be possible to know. Further, we’ve been told we “learn from the past” and “history repeats itself.” We’ve come to accept that history impacts us and provides a foundation upon which to grow and hopefully flourish.

Birth Country is More Than a Place

A person’s birth country is more than a place on a map. It is more than soil, more than environment. It is the core upon which international adoptees create their identity.  Each of us begins building identity within a geographical sphere that starts with our place of birth and the circumstances of our conception.  Throughout our lifetime, that sphere expands to all the places we’ve been, and integrates all the experiences we’ve had and all the people who have touched our lives. A unique identity emerges, and like a fingerprint, no two are ever alike.

But unlike a fingerprint, identity changes from day to day, indeed from moment to moment as life unfolds. 

So, how do we help those we love so much learn their histories? 

How do we help them complete the sentence “I am…..”

Perhaps the most significant thing about heritage travel is what adoptees are doing with the experience related to identity building. It is so interesting to see them country after country doing the same kinds of things as they work toward understanding of self.

About this Series

In our 25 years helping international adoptees visit their birth countries, we’ve observed so much. With the goal of sharing what we’ve witnessed and learned, we’ve created a multi-part blog series. The series will explore things adoptees are doing as they travel that lead us to believe that “Yes, adoptees do need to know the past!”

Next Up:  Birth Country Travel:  Upon Arrival
Watch for it in a about 10 days! (Note-by requesting to receive our blog, you will receive notification when each part in the series is posted. If you already receive our mailings, no need to subscribe. We’ve got you covered!)

Journey to Acceptance

Lia, 16, a China Ties participant, reflects on what led her from heartache to healing.

Lia at the orphanage gate 16 years later

Summer, 2001. An elderly couple hobbles up to a promising gate guarding a quiet orphanage with a baby swaddled in a soccer blanket. A girl, who wouldn’t carry on the family name or have the responsibility of taking care of her parents in their senior years, wouldn’t do their family any good. The law stating that only one child is allowed sealed the deal; boys were better. Setting the child down before daybreak, they disappeared back into the streets and into a world I could’ve called home.

The only thing I have of my birth country, China, is the note my grandparents left with me and my foster family’s email address.

China never meant anything to me. It was a land riddled with abandonment and apathy for its daughters, and the holiday emails I received from my foster family always held a tinge of heartache and a bit of stomach sinking. I know these people once took care of me, but they didn’t want me enough to pay a hefty fine for another child and I took it as deeply insulting.

I abhorred China no matter how many times I tried to convince myself otherwise.

I did until I went there on a heritage tour with other adoptees.

I hated China until I met the culture and the people. The other adoptees on the trip were like me; a little battered, a little bruised, but still intact and smiling.

In the evenings, women would gather in public areas to dance with each other, and children would laugh and chase each other as their parents tried to round them up. I remember so clearly the way the elderly couple slow danced in the park to dim music and the smile that crept up on my face and that familiar stomach sinking feeling.

Street dancing–a beautiful, healthy Chinese tradition

What if….

What if those are the people that left me? What if I just passed my mother? What if that little boy was my brother? Questions barreled into me at every turn through the trip.

On the flight to my city, Nanchang, I lost it. I started crying and let fat globules of tears run down my face and drip onto my lap. The questions caught up to me and my mind was buzzing with disbelief and confusion, and in the same day it disappeared.

After landing, I saw my orphanage: pastel colors, too many cribs, and not enough parents.

And after the orphanage, I saw them.

They walked through the swinging hotel doors and they were real. They were so real and I could finally see the way they walked and how they acted and who they were.

Lia and her foster mother

My foster family greeted me as if I was their daughter. My foster mother wouldn’t let go of my hand. Our translator had to work hard to keep up with her, and when it was time for them to leave, it still didn’t fully sink in that they wanted me.

The next night we went out to dinner, and they reserved a room and a table filled to the edges with freshly prepared dishes. Dozens of pictures were taken, but not nearly enough.

My revelation didn’t come until arriving back to my home country. Wait, I thought. They wanted me. I wasn’t just a charity case or a mark of abandonment and shame, I was wanted. Finally, I was wanted.

My stomach doesn’t sink anymore. My heart doesn’t ache anymore.

No… when I think of China, I think of a timeline. It’s in the past. Just because I wasn’t kept doesn’t mean I wasn’t wanted. Just because I’m adopted doesn’t mean I’m alone.

Summer, 2018. I step into Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and I don’t feel hatred.

I feel rejuvenated. I feel happy. I feel wanted.

Lia with her foster family.