As the plane landed, my friend and I grabbed our bags and quickly boarded the car waiting for us at the Pittsburgh airport. We maneuvered through the city traffic and found our way to the hotel, bypassing the checkin, and rushed into the presentation room with just four minutes to spare. This was how the conference began.
In late June, I had the honor of presenting at the Korean Adoptee and Adoptive Family Network (KAAN) Conference for the third time. I had spoken at the conference before on behalf of Gazillion Voices Magazine and with The Lost Daughters, but this time I represented only myself. The panel I was on discussed the similarities and differences among the root causes and challenges of transnational adoption from India, China, and Haiti.
I had the pleasure of sharing my hotel room with the Haitian adoptee from the panel. Though we had started out as just strangers, we talked for hours in our room about our experiences growing up, our relationships with our adoptive families and significant others, and other thoughts as women of color. I felt an immediate sense of comfort with her and in our shared experiences. The adoptee bond is one that connected us across race, age, and place of residence.
I again felt the strong solidarity provided by the adoptee experience again the next day, as I was able to attend workshops on Asian American masculinity, the loss of adoptive parents for adoptees, patterns in adoptee parenting, as well as a mental health session. The multigenerational setting of KAAN allowed me to bounce ideas off of people who have had challenges I have yet to face but also allowed me to share my opinions and experiences with equal respect and gratitude. The stories I heard throughout the day resonated again and again with me as I found myself nodding my head in unison or sharing empathetic remarks.
This conference was different than the other KAAN conferences I had attended, not just because of how my friend and I arrived, who I stayed with, or the panels available, but because I realized that I was in a more vulnerable position this time. This was my first KAAN conference since leaving the strong adoptee network in the city I had attended college. It became abundantly clear to me how much I missed having a community of peer adoptees.
Confronted head on by what I lack but truly need in my everyday life, I came to a profound awareness that hit me suddenly and with such clarity, it was alarming. I realized just how much of myself I’ve had to withhold and suppress in order to live happily in my hometown again. I came back to my mid-sized midwestern city after college, leaving behind a large adoptee community, a politicized campus community, and a diverse place of engaged learning. And I’ve really had to tamp those components of myself down.
I excused myself from the post-gala dinner musical performance in tears. As I entered the hallway from the conference room, a woman from the group next door approached me. “Y’all look so fancy. Is this a cotillion?,” she asked.
“No,” I said, brushing away tears from my face. “It’s a Korean adoption conference.”
She smiled back at me and asked, “Are you an adoptive mother?” Baffled, I shook my head and she continued, “Are you hoping to be an adoptive mother?” My face froze in confusion, as I stammered nonsensical syllables. How odd that her conception of adoption made it more likely that I was an adoptive parent or prospective one in my twenties rather than an adult Korean adoptee, though I’m Chinese.
She then asked me, “Are these tears of joy?” I looked panicked again, not knowing how to respond. She grabbed my head and held it to her bosom, lifting a hand in the air and began praying for me. “Lord Jesus, I ask that you bless this child and bless these tears on her face whether they are from joy or pain or something else. I ask that you allow her to feel your touch on her life and everything around us. Thank you, Jesus. Amen.”
The woman released me from her hold and her prayer. And this was how the conference ended. I left Pittsburgh feeling extremely high and extremely low and extremely confused simultaneously, not quite knowing where to go next but knowing with certainty that I couldn’t remain stagnant.