Several years ago, Holt adoptee Dan Schuman traveled to his birth country of Thailand and met his foster mother. Here, his wife recounts his unforgettable experience.
“Where are you from?” is a question many international adoptees get from time to time. When my husband Dan answers, he usually gives the name of our hometown, Fort Dodge, Iowa. But he knows that is not the answer they are looking for.
As long as I have known my husband, people have made assumptions about his race and ethnicity. We have gone to Chinese restaurants where the owners expect him to speak Chinese. Much to their dismay he smiles and shakes his head before ordering chicken fried rice in English. He once got a speeding ticket where the police officer marked down his race as “Hispanic.” It is all very innocent, and even fun to laugh about at times, but under all of this racial identity confusion lies a truth that many international adoptees know well — they are different. Different from their families, different from the community they live in and different from the people of their birth country, too. Dan will always be in that middle space. Not white, but not quite Asian either.
Dan feels a disconnect from many people. He describes it as a subconscious feeling of abandonment. He believes this feeling of being unwanted is shared by many adoptees. Feeling drawn to return to his roots, he always planned on someday going back to Thailand. A few years after we were married, we had finally saved up enough money for the trip.
When our plane landed at the Bangkok airport it was just before daybreak. Tears welled up in my eyes and Dan put his arms around me. For him, it was a familiar but distant feeling to finally be in the country of his birth. It was the culmination of everything we had been waiting for.
The taxi that took us to our hotel was mostly held together with duct tape and bungee cords, and the driver darted aggressively through the morning rush hour traffic. I gripped my seatbelt and cringed, but Dan was unphased. After two deployments with the Marine Corps, there were few things that rattled him.
We were truly strangers in a strange land, but we enjoyed being immersed in the Thai culture, language and food. Everywhere we went, Thai people expected Dan to speak the language, but he knew almost no Thai. One man stopped us on the street and asked where we were from. Dan smiled and said “America” only to have the man stare back at him intensely. After a long moment the man replied in English, “You say you are American, but you have the face of a Thai.” Dan nodded politely before walking away.
Prior to our arrival, the local Holt staff had been working hard to locate Dan’s birth mother. Unfortunately, they had little success. It was rumored that she was somewhere in Bangkok. But she had a common name and it was almost impossible to track her down in the big city. In spite of this disappointment, another very important person was still there and very eager to meet Dan —his foster mother.
On the day we visited the Holt Sahathai Foundation in Bangkok, the staff gave us a tour of the office and we got to meet with social workers who had known him when he was just a little boy. The women beamed and squealed with delight when he entered the room, and called out to him by his birth name “Vuuthi Chai Chai-Oon!”
It was magical to meet these people who once knew him so well. When his foster mother arrived, accompanied by her oldest son, the small woman approached Dan with her arms outstretched. To Dan, she looked more familiar than the others in the room, a face he had always known. During a long tearful embrace she said something to him in Thai. Holt staff helped translate, “I have been waiting a long time for you to come back and visit me.”
Dan was her first foster child, and her son was old enough to remember when he lived in their home on a Thai military base. They brought pictures to reminisce over and shared stories about the little boy they called “Bon” who loved standing at attention and saluting his foster father with a courteous “Krup!” The afternoon was full of laughter, tears and stories as the group tried to catch up on 25 years of lost time. Before we parted, his foster mother asked, “When are you going to have a baby, and when are you going to visit me again?” Two questions that are all too familiar to a young married couple, no matter what country you live in.
Later, reflecting on this meeting, Dan recognized it as a significant moment in his life.
“She and her family accepted me as their own, caring and loving me, knowing that one day I would leave,” he said. “As a small child I have very few memories, but the ones I remembered were confirmed by my foster mother. Sitting and being able to listen to her talk about how I was her first foster child, how much she loved and cared for me…the feelings of abandonment and being unwanted faded.”
Four years have passed since that visit and we just recently had our first child, a baby girl. She is the first biological relative that Dan has ever known. As a new father, Dan understands how hard it must be to make the decision to place a child for adoption. Moreover, how difficult it would be to be a foster parent and give love to a child knowing that one day you will have to let them go and maybe never see them again. The sacrifices of his birth mother and foster mother, along with the dedication of the Holt staff, made it possible for Dan to have the life he has today. Our family will always be grateful.
Lindsay Schuman | Wife of Holt Adoptee