Erin, a foreign student studying in a prestigious South Korean graduate school, shares her perspective on the word ‘grateful’ based on her experience as an inter-country adoptee. Ironically, the school of the university that she currently attends has her family’s name, Underwood. ― ED.
By Erin Underwood
The word “grateful” is such a small word but it can carry a significant impact. Being “grateful” for something is supposed to have a positive effect, however, society has caused me to resent the word. Adoptees tend to hear this term from strangers, acquaintances, extended family members, sometimes even their adoptive parents (mine excluded).
Adoptees are told to be grateful by people who fail to realize the struggles that adoptees face daily due to our adoption, such as a lack of security, lack of identity, abandonment issues and more. We are told to be “grateful” toward four people: our biological parents and adoptive parents. Adoptees are told to be grateful that their biological parents were selfless enough to relinquish their rights to us. Furthermore, we should be thankful that our adoptive parents decided to adopt rather than conceive. Throughout history, society has deemed adoptees as being “model children,” causing immense pressure on adoptees. Adoptees are told to do, and not do, numerous things, mainly for the benefit of another. Such as not misbehaving because that does not show our appreciation for our adoptive parents. We should do well in school because another child could have been “saved” and done better. We should never want to find our biological parents because our adoptive parents would be offended. The list goes on and on.
Adoptees should be allowed to live their lives without societal pressures that tell us to feel gratitude for our lives. How can we show appreciation when we had no say in the adoption? We, being in closed international adoptions, usually are not involved in our adoption. Adoption was a choice that was decided for us. From our relinquishment, we have no say in what country we would reside in and who our adoptive families will be. Adoptees are placed into the system and our identities are stripped from us. We grow up with parents that do not look like us, languages that are different, and names that do not match our ethnicities. We grow up in our adoptive countries that do not fully accept us and eventually discover our birth country does not either.
Growing up we read books, and people tell us that our biological parents wanted to raise us but due to certain circumstances, they were unable to. Therefore, they made the ultimate sacrifice with hopes that we would live a better life. But this creates a false narrative for many adoptees. Unbeknownst to many Koreans, thousands of adoptees return to Korea hoping to learn more about their roots and potentially find their biological families. Unfortunately, some adoptees discover that their biological families do not want anything to do with them. For many adoptees, we are our biological parent’s biggest secret that they have feared would be unleashed. Therefore, some adoptees are informed that their biological parents are too ashamed and embarrassed to meet them. This can cause greater resentment towards the word “grateful,” and biological parents.
Now tell me, why should adoptees show gratefulness toward their biological parents that do not want to know whether their child is living a better life? Yes, when a parent relinquishes their rights to their child there is a part of them that is hoping the child will live a better life. But no child is guaranteed a perfect or easy life when they are born. Children who are placed up for adoption could grow up in many scenarios, such as growing up in an orphanage or being adopted by abusive parents. Look at the thousands of adoptees who have been deported or the adoptees who were abandoned by their adoptive families. In life, there is no guarantee, adopted or not. So, the hard truth is, the relinquishment was so that the biological families could live a better life, not necessarily the child.
Honestly, no one can decide the family that they will grow up in. Yes, we all have our “chosen” families made up of our friends and the people we surround ourselves with. However, people are born into a particular family, adopted or not. I was born into this world to be raised by my family, just like a child raised by their biological parents. Yes, children raised by their biological families are sometimes told they should be grateful or that they are lucky. Nevertheless, when someone tells an adoptee that they should be grateful, there is an underlying meaning behind it, intentional or not. So please, stop assuming that we automatically lived a better life because we are adopted. In reality, we do not know anyone’s circumstances, so we should not make assumptions.
I hope that everyone is grateful for certain aspects of their lives. Sadly, the world is not perfect, but we should make small steps toward making it better for those around us. Korean society should stop shaming biological parents for relinquishing their rights. There should be better assistance that helps single parents. Adoptive parents need to be better educated on adoption. Lastly, non-adoptees need to stop telling adoptees that we should be grateful, thankful, or that we are lucky.
Erin Underwood is an American adoptee from Korea. She grew up alongside her two non-biological adopted brothers. Over the last four years, she has been residing in Korea. Currently, she is pursuing her master’s degree at Yonsei University in Global Affairs and Policies with a field concentration in International Law and Organizations and International Trade and Economics.
Author’s disclaimer: This article is based on the author’s perspective on the word “grateful” as an international adoptee; this means that not all adoptees have the same perspective or experiences.
*This article was originally published in The Korea Times