How do you return?

The idea of “return” is an interesting one for Adoptees. When thinking about returning to our countries of birth, it can be a challenge to wrap our minds around the fact that a trip to these countries is, in fact, a return. We are returning to the place where our lives began. The place where people held us, fed us and cared for us before we made our first trip across the world. It is truly special to navigate a place that is both new and strange and yet still holds deep personal connections. What an odd mix of things!

In my position at Holt, I often get asked, “When is it a good time to take a trip back to (insert country of birth)?”  But what I think whether we are adoptees or adoptive parents, what we are all really asking is, “How do I/How does my adopted child return?” It’s a question that many adoptive families encounter at different points in their maturation. Curiosity grows and so does the dream for many of us to put our feet back on the ground in the country where we were born or the place for our parents where we officially became a family. I think that the answer to this question can be quite nuanced, and having an intentional awareness of everyone’s expectations for a “return” is always the first step.

On the Vietnam heritage tour this summer, hosted by Holt International, there were eight families and nine Vietnamese Adoptees ranging in age from 11 to 31. From coast to coast, these families landed in the heat of Hanoi to experience Vietnam together. For me — a Korean adoptee and Holt’s adoptee programs coordinator — this tour was my first time in Vietnam and my first time on a family heritage tour.

It was amazing to be with these families as they navigated Vietnam, and we certainly made our way across the country in an extremely eventful fashion. From wearing handmade long dresses or “Qi Baos” in Hanoi, hiking through caves in the intense humidity at Hao Long Bay, meandering through the quaint and ancient town of Hoi An, to one chaotic and rainy night market in Ho Chi Minh City, we were there to explore and exist in a place of utter vibrancy.

It probably comes as no surprise that making a return trip to a birth country is emotional. It’s emotional for everyone. But during this trip, it was the emotions of the adoptive parents that really caught my attention. Many of the adoptive parents expressed that they wanted to take this trip for their children. But throughout the week, it became very clear that this trip meant a lot to them. Unlike many of the Adoptees who were too young to have clear memories of their lives before they came home to the U.S., Adoptive parents remembered places with distinct clarity. This rediscovery came as they traveled to the same places they traveled years ago when they first became a family. A few times, we ate at the same restaurant, visited the same orphanages and walked down the same streets that they walked down years ago. It was a new concept for me to think that this was a return for the parents as well.

For Adoptees, it was emotional for different reasons. For some, it was the first time they were surrounded by people who looked like them — people that they had wondered about all of their lives — which helped to answer the ever-burning internal question, “What does it mean to be Vietnamese?” Although that question has no simple answers, witnessing the everyday life of Vietnamese families — families out at the park, grandmas and grandpas weaving their way through busy streets, young men and women sitting on tiny plastic stools at roadside lunch stands — helped everyone get closer to that answer.

These two different experiences — the experiences of parents and Adoptees — happened constantly and simultaneously throughout the tour. By observing these families interact with each other, I could clearly see that one great benefit of a group tour is that families can be a source of support for each other — and help each other to see things from multiple angles when they are open to learning from one another. We were always sharing with each other. And in that sharing, it was amazing to know that we were seeing the same things through different eyes and sharing in a common experience through different perspectives.

So the question remains: How do I return? And after this summer, my answer is this: Return clumsily with upended expectations, room for plenty of surprise, and an uninhibited openness to just learn. A week of exploration is not nearly enough to fully comprehend a place. And regardless of past memories, countries change, cultures shift and the world continues to turn.

Experiencing a place can help make it feel more real and I think that that is exactly what the heritage tour did for the participants. It made Vietnam more real than ever. On the last evening of the tour, I sat down with just Adoptees and asked them to fill in the blank of this statement. “Now that I have been to Vietnam….”  Almost every response was, “I plan to come back.”

They all have learned how to return.

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