Sixty Years of Adoptee Identity & Experience

In the 60 years since Holt began placing children through international adoption, both the adoption process and the services we offer have been influenced by the stories and lives of those who matter most — adoptees. 

Through the years, many Holt adoptees have decided to adopt — making them second-generation adoptive families. Here, Korean adoptee Ky Miller and his family welcome their daughter, Camille, home from Korea in February 2016.

Kim Lee grew up the first of five “Johnson kids.” In their neighborhood in suburban Ohio, the Johnsons were something of a celebrity family.  Each time Jack and Dorothy Johnson welcomed one of their five children home from Korea, reporters came to their home for interviews and photos and shared about the Johnson kids with the whole city — in the newspaper, her father’s ice cream company union paper and even on television.

It was Columbus, Ohio, 1956, and international adoption was something completely new.

The newest member of Holt’s board of directors, Kim Lee is also a Holt adoptee and a mother through adoption. Through the years, she has also worked as a child advocate in Korea and as an escort for children coming home to their families.

Now in her early 60s and a mother herself through adoption, Kim still remembers what it was like growing up as a Korean adoptee in a largely white city in the Midwest.

“We were a novelty. There were no Asian people there,” she says. “But today, you see so many adoptions.”

This year, Holt celebrates our 60th anniversary of uniting children with permanent, loving families through adoption. Sixty years ago, Harry and Bertha Holt founded the first international adoption program. That same year, Kim was among the first adoptees to come to the U.S — traveling alongside Harry Holt on Holt’s second chartered flight out of Korea in December of 1956.

Since that time, much has changed — in both the practice of international adoption, and in our understanding of the complex ways that adoption shapes identity and impacts adoptees throughout their lives.

In mid-1950s Korea, our founders felt called and inspired by what they felt was a clear solution to a tremendous need. For children left orphaned or abandoned in the wake of the Korean War, they realized that most of all, these children needed the love and stability of a family. Today, the need continues, but the reasons are varied and complex. Often, it is the stigma of unwed motherhood or a family’s inability to care for their child’s special needs that leaves children all over the world in need of permanent, loving families. Sixty years ago, the Holt Adoption Program began in Korea. Today, Holt International has adoption programs in nine different countries.

As Holt has grown over the years, we have also progressed as an organization — developing a core philosophy around which we have built robust, child-focused programs that meet the needs of over 83,000 children annually, and enable children to grow and thrive in the loving care of their birth families. Today, about 85 percent of the children we serve are not on track for adoption.

But no matter how much care and support is offered, the enduring truth is that not every child can remain or reunite with the family to which they were born. For this reason, we continue in our founders’ legacy of seeking adoptive families for children who truly need them.

Both international adoption and Holt as an organization have seen significant changes through the years. But no less important are the more subtle, internal differences that those impacted by adoption have experienced in the past 60 years.

“Everyone has their own story,” says Kim, “their own adoption experience.”

While Kim didn’t grow up knowing much about her adoption or her Korean birth culture, she has embraced it later in her life through frequent trips to Korea, her personal advocacy efforts for vulnerable children and a strong connection and partnership with Holt. Beginning in the 1980s, and while working as a flight attendant, Kim began volunteering as a Holt escort — a role once vital to the adoption process, but no longer needed as countries now require families to travel to bring home their child. Over six years, Kim escorted nearly 300 children from their birth country to their home in the United States. She even traveled once with Bertha Holt, meeting her once she arrived in the U.S. then accompanying her to bring children to their families in Chicago and San Francisco. But perhaps her most memorable trip escorting a child was her last one, when in January 1991 she flew home from Korea with her newly adopted son.

Over six years, Kim escorted nearly 300 children to their families in the U.S. — memories she has captured in photo collages that now hang on the walls in her home.

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While not all adoptees have a life that is so intertwined with Holt and adoption, each has their own journey of processing their adoption and discovering what it means for them in their life. But while each adoptee has their own unique story to tell, generationally, some share a closer experience than others.

“There’s certainly been some evolution and some changes [in adoption],” says Holt’s director of adoptee services, Steve Kalb, who is both a licensed social worker and a Holt adoptee himself. Steve is also currently working toward a doctorate in adoption discourse. He says these changes in adoption and adoptee experience correspond loosely to three different generations of international adoptees.

The very first generation of Holt adoptees united with their families in the late 1950s and early 1960s. When these early adoptees came home, international adoptees — and mixed-race families — were a new phenomena in many communities in the U.S. Almost all were adopted from Korea and when they came home, parents and adoption professionals presumed that it would be easiest for them to assimilate into mainstream society as quickly as possible. This was in part influenced by the 1950s culture of conformity and “fitting in.”

While it was never an issue for Kim or her siblings, the attention her family received by the media made it very clear that they were “different.”

For other families, this same experience of being “different” was felt, but to perhaps a lesser — or less public — extent. Such was the experience for Mary Masterson, an adoptive mother to two girls adopted from China and herself a Korean adoptee who grew up in the small rural community of Stayton, Oregon.

“It was never held from us that we were adopted,” Mary says. “But there also wasn’t a lot of trying to focus on retaining our culture.” She says that she and her siblings tried to blend in more than anything.

Together with her daughters Meiling and Malia, Mary Masterson has made an effort to connect with the adoptee, Chinese and Korean communities in their hometown of Portland, Oregon.

But as she’s gotten older, Mary, too, has come to identify more strongly with her adoption and birth culture. Especially meaningful for her was traveling to Korea on a Holt heritage tour. “Even though it was as late as I did,” she says of the trip, which she took in 1999, “it was kind of closing the loop.” The experience was an emotional one for her, especially when visiting care centers. “I kept thinking that I was like these children in the orphanages when I was a toddler,” Mary says.

Connecting with Korea also had a profound impact on her future. “I think the heritage tour reinforced my desire to adopt,” Mary says. She took the trip just two years after her mother had passed away, and after the trip she decided to use her inheritance to adopt her two girls, Malia and Meiling — a decision she said her mother would have been thrilled by.

Adoptees who came home between 1970 and 1990 can be loosely defined as the second generation of international adoptees. By this time, Holt was placing children from not just Korea, but also Vietnam, Thailand, India and even Ecuador and Romania. And this time many agencies, including Holt, took a different approach to adoption. While there was no formal pre-adoption curriculum for adoptive parents during this time, many adoption professionals encouraged adoptive parents to introduce adoptees to as much about their birth culture as possible. This philosophy came in response to the lack of connectedness many first-generation adoptees felt. Steve grew up in this second generation of adoptees, and he remembers feeling confused about the strong emphasis on his Korean birth culture.

Pictured here with his family, Steve Kalb, Holt’s director of adoptee services, is a second-generation Korean adoptee who grew up in a small farming community in Iowa.

“My parents were saying, ‘Korea is really special,’” he says. He remembers his parents giving him rice shoes and a book of Korean folk tales as a way to stay connected with his birth culture. “But it just didn’t have any relevance or salience in my life,” Steve says. Through his own personal experience and research as an adoption professional and scholar, Steve says this is a feeling shared by many adoptees of his generation. While his parents lovingly and with good intentions instilled the importance of his Korean birth culture, he felt torn.

“Society was telling me something different,” Steve says. “Society was telling me I should be white and I should act like everybody else. And everybody else around me wasn’t saying how important Korea is. They’re just saying how normal you should be by playing basketball or running track or playing music.”

While like Kim and Mary, some adoptees have come to embrace their birth culture later in life, growing up many felt as Steve did — that it was mostly just confusing. “Unless you’re living in the culture, you can’t just tell someone that it’s important,” Steve says. “Adoptees don’t really have any real ties to it except your parents telling you that it should be important to you.”

Over the past 60 years, Holt has learned from the first two generations of adoptees — gaining a greater understanding about how best to prepare adoptive families and adoptees for lifelong success. For the third and current generation of adoptees — who began coming home around 1990 — Holt now provides their parents with a detailed education informed by lessons from the first two generations. Holt’s parent education curriculum now includes a module about race and racism, explores adoptee identity and recommends neither over-emphasizing the child’s birth culture nor leaving it out completely. It’s important for adoptees to recognize their uniqueness as an adoptee, Steve says, but also feel confident about fitting in with society as a whole.

Steve Kalb talks to a group of adoptees at the 2016 Holt Adoptee Camp in Oregon.

This shift is evident in the post-adoption realm as well. “Things have been shifting a bit here at Holt to focus on the adoptee identity and working with what’s relevant to them,” Steve says. In 2006, the Holt Adoptee Camp program made the shift from a birth culture focus to a focus on adoption culture. Campers participate in group conversations about race, racism, adoption, birth parents and identity development. “Those are the things that we focus on just so we can relieve some of the pressure that they feel,” Steve says.

All parents desire for their children to grow up happy, well-balanced and confident — with a healthy sense of who they are. For adoptees, achieving this sense of self often includes processing their thoughts and feelings about adoption, their birth family and culture, and who they are in light of these unique experiences.

Mary Masterson recognizes that her girls, Malia, 15, and Meiling, 13, have had a different experience than she did growing up as an adoptee. “For my girls, I feel their adoption experience is more seamless,” Mary says. This is in part because, although Mary is Korean and the girls are Chinese, most people assume that they are all biologically related. But this is also because adoption is now more normalized and accepted within society and U.S. culture.

As her daughters grow up, Mary is intentionally and gradually introducing them to their Chinese birth culture. Malia and Meiling learn Mandarin in school and this past spring break, they all took a school trip to China.
As her daughters grow up, Mary is intentionally and gradually introducing them to their Chinese birth culture. Malia and Meiling learn Mandarin in school and this past spring break, they all took a school trip to China.


“[Malia and Meiling] know they are adopted, but they don’t feel that this is an extraordinary or exceptional experience because they have grown up knowing a number of other adoptees like themselves,” Mary says.

The Masterson family has made an effort to interact with other adoptees and people who are Asian. “I think it’s easier when you see people who look like you,” Mary says. “It just makes it more natural feeling, being able to identify yourself as Asian rather than thinking you don’t want to be Asian because nobody around you is.”

And as a parent to adoptees, Mary considers her own adoptee experience to be a helpful resource.

“I think it’s been easier for me, as an adoptee, to understand the adoption process for my girls,” Mary says. She intentionally makes adoption part of the casual, everyday conversation in their home — not overstating its role in her daughters’ lives, but recognizing its presence. In effect, her girls have grown up knowing that it’s a part of them, but having the healthy sense that it’s not the entirety of their identity. “It hasn’t really changed how we act,” says 15-year-old Malia. “It’s just there.”

Sharing the experience of growing up adopted has, however, created a closer bond between Mary and her daughters. “[As adoptees], you just have this unspoken sense of understanding that you don’t even have to explain,” she says. “They know how you feel, what you’re thinking and vice-a-versa — you just kind of have that invisible bond.”

This bond between adoptees — and the identity that adoptees find as they recognize how their life can encompass multiple places, families and cultures — is what many adoptees prioritize today. Through pre-adoption parent trainings, birth country tours, assisting with birth parent searches and other post-adoption services such as Holt Adoptee Camp, Holt is dedicated to helping adoptees develop their own unique identity.

As an agency, we celebrate how far adoption has come in 60 years, and strive to continue growing in our understanding of how best to serve adoptive families and adoptees throughout their lives.

“Hopefully,” Mary says, “the changes that have occurred over these past 30-40 years have helped to ensure that most international adoptions are successful and result in well-adjusted adoptees and families.”

Megan Herriott • Staff Writer

To learn more about Holt’s post-adoption services for adoptees and families, click here!


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