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.
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.