Adoptees discovering their homeland and heritage
by Robin Munro, senior writer
For Shannon Landry – a 16-year-old Nebraskan girl adopted as a baby from China – life so far has mostly revolved around school and soccer, friends and family. Returning to China rarely crossed her mind, though she thought it would be cool, she says, to see where she was born.
But from the time she turned 10, her mother told her that one day, they would go.
That day arrived this past summer, when she embarked on a two-week tour of China. She expected a cool adventure – an adventure that has since become a lifelong journey.
“I just feel like there’s so much more I could learn about me. Before, I never really thought about it,” Shannon says, “but now that I’ve had the experience, I don’t want to lose it.”
Joining 21 other adoptees and their families, Shannon and her mom, Melanie, traveled to China on a Holt heritage tour. The adoptees – all girls from this country of the one-child policy – explored the land of their birth, together. They climbed the Great Wall and toured the Forbidden City. They learned to cook traditional Chinese dishes, studied calligraphy and honed their chopstick skills. On a cruise down the Li River, they saw cormorant fisherman and water buffalo. They traveled to a panda reserve, where some even held these squirmy, soft-furred vegetarians, subdued by honey on the paw. They biked and cruised and climbed through China, ending where they began their adoption journey – at the White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou, the southern city home to the American Consulate, where all adoptive families secure their child’s visa.
But for many of the girls, the most meaningful part of the trip occurred on separate journeys – journeys to their finding places, their orphanages and foster families. Here, they found a connection to their past.
When Shannon visited her orphanage, she broke down in tears. “I got to meet the old [orphanage] director, which was really cool,” she says. “It kind of felt like I had a connection with her.” Shannon spent the morning at the orphanage, holding and playing with the children. She met children with special needs, a characteristic shared by many of those needing adoptive families in China. “That definitely impacted me the most,” she says. “That stood out for me and I think it did for a lot of the girls.”
Holt heritage tours are designed for adoptees and their families to experience the customs, culture and history of their birth country. Central to the tour philosophy is the adoptee’s personal story, and personal journey. To recreate this story, Holt strives to coordinate visits to adoptees’ orphanages and reunions with foster families, whenever possible.
Seeing the places and people significant to their adoption story also helps clarify, for many of the girls, why they were adopted. “It hit,” says adoptive mom Colleen Koester. “Wow, this is the building I lived in. This was the kind of situation I was in.”
On a heritage tour to Korea, Holt’s adoptee outreach director, Courtney Rader, had a similarly eye-opening experience. “It made me appreciate being adopted and where I came from,” she says. Growing up, she explains, she heard stories of what her life would have been like had she not been adopted. “Going to historical sites and museums in Korea gives a glimpse of what it was like when adoption was at its peak.”
Colleen also valued the opportunity for her daughter Hannah, 13, to learn about her heritage. “I think for her as well as the other girls, you grow up in the United States, with no memory of where you came from,” she says. “It’s easy to be just American and not appreciate your roots.”
“We learned about the ethnic groups – there are 56 of them,” says Hannah.
Led by experienced Holt staff and professional tour guides, these two-week summer trips are open to any adoptee – not just Holt adoptees – ages 8 and older for China. For Korea, all ages are welcome. Adoptees over 18 may also travel on the Korean heritage tour alone, without a guardian.
Activities vary from year to year, but one constant is the bonding that occurs on the trip.
“There’s this connection that cannot be explained among adoptees,” explains Courtney. “You can bypass the question of, ‘What’s it feel like to be adopted?’” This summer, Holt reintroduced the adult adoptee tour of Korea – for the first time in partnership with another placing agency, Bethany Christian Services. Courtney planned the itinerary and co-led the trip with the executive director of Bethany’s Western PA branch, Sandy McLaughlin. She also blogged – and recruited adoptees and adoptive parents to blog about their journeys too.
All women, the 13 adult adoptees on the tour ranged in age from 21 to 50-something. But the adoptee bond trumped the age difference. One night, in particular, forged the connection. Toward the end of the trip, they gathered in one of their hotel rooms and talked over Korean junk food… for four hours. “That night solidified that this is a safe group to share our deepest feelings, and it stays in the room,” says Courtney.
For the younger heritage tour participants, the chance to travel with other adoptees is also a major draw. “I was really happy that I got to be with other people [who shared] my experience,” says Shannon. Two of the girls on the trip, twins near Shannon’s age, became especially good friends. “When we had to say goodbye, it felt like we were sisters,” she says.
China has stuck in Shannon’s mind since returning home to Nebraska. She’s decided to attend more Families with Chinese Children – or FCC – events, and to stay in contact with fellow adoptees.
Her desire “not to lose” the connection to her heritage, and to continue exploring, is not uncommon. Though the tour ends, the journey continues, says Courtney. “It changes their lives,” she says. “We stay connected because we shared an experience that no one else can relate to.” The adult adoptees on the Korean tour continue to talk and email, and some plan to visit each other.
Even the adoptive parents forge a special bond on the tour. “These other adoptive families have been through the same experience you’ve been through – the same emotions, the same understanding,” says Colleen. “These people can relate.”
For both Melanie and Colleen, another highlight was the chance to learn the little details of their daughters’ early lives in China – to learn that Hannah ran around a lot as a toddler, and Shannon was always “in the know” at the orphanage. And to observe their daughters reconnect with their past. “The highlight for me was how much [Shannon] got out of the experience,” says Melanie. To meet those who cared for her affirms the love and nurture she received before being adopted. “That is a really important connection for a child – to know that they were loved,” she says.
The sights visited, the memories created, the bonds forged, all amount to a monumental experience in the life of both adoptees and their families.
“What I would tell anybody who’s contemplating going is that it’s an absolute must,” says Colleen. “It was so worth it and so much more than I expected.”