Kit Myersa, Amanda L. Badenb, and Alfonso Fergusona†
aUniversity of California Merced, Merced, California, USA; bMontclair State University, Montclair,
This mixed-methods study examines 20 adult Hong Kong Adoptees (HKADs) with an average age of 53.7years who attended a Gathering of HKADs in Hong Kong. It has three elements (pre- and post-Gathering surveys and an interview). All participants engaged in two of the three parts of the study, while 14 of those 20 participated in all three parts. Survey data for the HKADs revealed significantly increased comfort with their Hong Kong identities following the visit to Hong Kong. Interviews with 20 attendees yielded themes sur- rounding reasons for attending; experiences and emotions; and the challenges and benefits of the gathering and return- ing to Hong Kong.
Received 8 August 2019 Revised 16 June 2020 Accepted 17 June 2020
Hong Kong adoptees; adoptee gathering; return to birth country; transnational adoption
This mixed-methods study examines a 2015 gathering of adult Hong Kong Adoptees (HKADs) that took place in Hong Kong. Although they are one of the oldest groups of transnational adoptees, HKADs are a vastly understudied population in the adoption community. Hong Kong’s adoption history has led to a cohort of HKADs that was primarily in their middle adulthood, which means they are also from a different adoption generation than post-1990 Chinese adoptees from mainland China. Although identity is widely recognized as lifelong, the very limited explo- rations of other transnational adoptee gatherings have centered Korean adoptees in their early adulthood (e.g., early 30s) with focus on their adoptive, racial, and cultural identity (Freundlich & Lieberthal, 2000; Park Nelson et al., 2013), whereas this study explores adoptees who attended a Gathering when nearly all were in their 50s, Erikson’s middle adulthood (Erikson, 1968).
CONTACT Kit Myers email@example.com History & Critical Race and Ethnic Studies, SSHA, University of California Merced, 5200 N. Lake Road, Merced, CA 95343-5001, USA
†Present address: Centenary University, Hackettstown, New Jersey
” 2020 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
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For these adoptees, who were primarily women adopted in the early to mid-1960s from Hong Kong to the USA, the UK, and Canada, we sought to explore the aspects of their identity, feelings about Hong Kong, and their experiences interacting with other HKADs and returning to Hong Kong.
Theoretical frameworks that guided our work come from both develop- mental psychology and adoption-based theory. Within the psychology lit- erature, Erikson’s (1968) work on life stages has rooted identity within adolescence and predicts that adults in their 50s are typically coping with concerns around generativity and meaning-making in the course of one’s life. Although identity is now recognized as a lifelong process, we theorized that identity and generativity concerns were overlapping (Erikson & Erikson, 1981) for our sample of HKADs. Additionally, generativity, for this group of HKADs, may express itself beyond procreativity (i.e., not in family and kinship tied to biology or adoption) but instead in building kin- ship and familial bonds with other HKADs.
With respect to adoption, adoptee gatherings may also fulfill cultural socialization needs among transracial and transnational adoptees as iden- tified in other research (Shiao & Tuan, 2008). Baden et al. (2012) have theorized that transnational adoptees’ development is also characterized by efforts to reclaim birth culture through the process they call “reculturation” by participating in different reculturative activities such as motherland or heritage tours and adoptee gatherings based on coun- tries of origin.
Given the theoretical foundations identified above, we designed and ana- lyzed our study using a mixed-method approach, in which participants completed pre- and post-Gathering surveys for a quantitative comparative analysis and completed one-on-one phenomenological interviews to explore the essence of their experiences returning to Hong Kong.
Transracial adoption in the USA—generally defined as white families that adopt nonwhite children in either domestic or transnational contexts— began to increase in the 1960s and came under greater scrutiny in 1972, when the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) raised concerns about cultural genocide, racial identity concerns, and maladjust- ment (National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW), 1972). Early questions about the outcomes of domestic and transnational trans- racial adoptions led to numerous studies from the 1970s into the 2000s, which concluded that such adoptions were generally beneficial and not significantly different from (and in some cases better than) same-race
adoptions and non-adopted relations in terms of identity development, self-esteem, educational achievement, and other measures (Brooks & Barth, 1999; Grow & Shapiro, 1975; Hamilton et al., 2015; Juffer & Van IJzendoorn, 2007; Feigelman & Silverman, 1984).
At the same time, other studies have shown the difficulties and underly- ing structural issues, racial ethnic identity challenges, and behavioral issues presented by transracial and transnational adoption (Hjern et al., 2002; McKee, 2019; Park Nelson, 2016; Patton, 2000; Raleigh, 2018). Additionally, adoption scholars have noted other limits on earlier research such as centering the perspectives of adoptive parents rather than adult adoptees, interviewing adoptees when they were in the presence of their parents, or only interviewing adoptees as children and not as adults (Feigelman, 2000; Rushton et al., 2012). More contemporary perspectives on transnational placements have advocated domestic adoption within birth countries (Cheney, 2014; Groza & Bunkers, 2014).
Although scholars have produced insightful research on transnational adoption, especially on the challenges and resilience of transnational and transracial adoptees (Baden et al., 2012), the experiences of individuals adopted from Hong Kong have been understudied. Additionally, literature directly addressing adoptee life stage development tends to be quite limited in its predictions for life stage developmental issues after young adulthood (Hajal & Rosenberg, 1991), further illustrating the need to better under- stand the middle to later life stages among adoptees. Furthermore, while many studies focus on adoption outcomes, less is known about how adult adoptees—in this case HKADs—connect with each other and what they experience at all-adoptee gatherings.
Hong Kong adoptees
Transnational adoptions in the USA began post-World War II from European countries such as Germany, Poland, Hungary, Greece, and Italy (Choy, 2013; Winslow, 2017). They increased in the mid-1950s after the “end” of the Korean War (Kim, 2010). Scholarly research has centered adoptions from Korea during this time, but in 1958 and 1959, International Social Services (ISS)-United States and ISS-United Kingdom began facilitat- ing adoptions from Hong Kong to the USA, UK, and other countries (Bryer, 2012; Choy, 2013). By 1961, after the first postwar census, Hong Kong’s population exploded to from 1.8 million post-WWII to 3.1 million people due to many Chinese leaving mainland China after the establish- ment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, with more than 50 percent (1.64 million) being migrants (Ching, 1974). An estimated 700,000 refugees fled to Hong Kong in 1956 (Feast et al., 2013) and 300,000 people lived on
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the streets (Bryer, 2012). ISS reports indicated that this led to poverty and overcrowding, and contributed to increases in children being abandoned or relinquished in Hong Kong (Feast et al., 2013).
In what was called the “Hong Kong Project,” ISS-USA and ISS-UK ini- tially sought to match children with other Chinese families abroad, but eventually realized that white families were also interested in adopting Chinese babies (Bryer, 2012; Choy, 2013). In a four-year period, from 1958 to 1962, families in the USA adopted approximately 700 children from Hong Kong (Special to the New York Times, 1962). By 1970, families in the UK adopted a total of 106 children from Hong Kong (Feast et al., 2013). The geographical proximity and temporal bracketing of the UK adoptions made that particular cohort the target of the few and only stud- ies on HKADs.
Bagley and Young’s (1979) mixed-methods study was the first to examine the experiences of UK Hong Kong adoptees and their adoptive parents. With a sample size of 40 families (40 parents and 42 adopted children), researchers focused on identity development, adaptation in school, motiv- ation to adopt, cultural inclusion, and relationships. Using Maslow’s hier- archy of needs, the Coppersmith measure of self-esteem, and Erikson’s developmental model, researchers concluded that UK HKADs faced some discrimination (even in the extended family) but in general had “Anglicised” well. Researchers noted that in comparison with their non- adopted counterparts, HKADs achieved similarly if not better on educa- tional and self-esteem measures, and overcame early challenges (e.g., age at placement, congenital difficulties, divorce). Bagley (1993) conducted a fol- low-up study when the HKADS were 22 to 28 years old and reported that the HKADs did well in terms of educational and occupational achievement; identified as English with half maintaining an interest in Chinese culture; and the vast majority “enjoyed [their] life as an adopted child” (91%) (p. 153).
Feast et al. (2013) conducted a mixed-methods study of 72 HKAD women (72 questionnaires and 68 interviewed) adopted to the UK in the 1960s. The authors explored the links among early orphanage experiences, life span development, and adult outcomes; comparisons with other adopted and non-adopted women born in the UK; and the experiences of transracial intercountry adoption, ethnic identity formation, and commu- nity connectedness. The study reported that HKADs generally fared well. As children, they received orphanage care that compared favorably to that found among other transnational adoptee groups. Most HKADs grew up in nurturing homes but some experienced problematic psychological adjust- ment due to family dynamics. Even though HKADs reported limited con- nectedness to Chinese communities as well as struggles with alienation,
identity (e.g., being comfortable with Chinese appearance), and racism, the vast majority (86%) felt a sense of belonging within British society. In com- parison with other adopted and non-adopted groups, HKADs’ life satisfac- tion scores were nearly identical, and they sought professional psychological and emotional support at a similar or slightly lower rate. Still, one of the main takeaways was that “adoption continues to have an impact across the life span and for some women that becomes more salient as time goes by and at certain periods in their lives” (pp. 2–13, 218).
A ramification of the complexity and lifelong impact of adoption as well as the differences and feelings of not belonging has been that many trans- national adoptees have begun to formulate gatherings as a way of increas- ing connectedness and community among other adoptees. Thus, while this limited research on the early experiences, adjustments, and outcomes of HKADs has been important, this study focuses on the aspects of identity but also the experience and significance of the 2015 HKAD Gathering.
Transnational adoptee gatherings
Currently, there is no research focusing on HKADs Gatherings, but there have been two studies on Korean adoptee (KAD) Gatherings (Freundlich & Lieberthal, 2000; Park Nelson et al., 2013). In 1999, nearly 400 Korean adoptees met in Washington, D.C. for the first major Gathering for any transnational adoptee group. In small groups, attendees discussed reasons for attending the Gathering, early memories of Korea and arrival to new homes, and early life experiences. Of the attendees, 167 KAD attendees (mean age 31years) participated in a qualitative survey exploring demographics, ethnic identity, Korean heritage, adoption stories, birth search, reasons for attending gatherings, and connectedness to Korea (Freundlich & Lieberthal, 2000). At another KAD Gathering in 2010, the International Korean Adoptee Association (IKAA) commissioned a survey for the Gathering, which took place in Seoul, South Korea. Of the 415 KADs who attended, 179 (mean age of 34years) participated in the 23-item survey. This brief survey covered demographics, pre-adoption experiences, life experiences, ethnic identity, and post-adoption service interests (Park Nelson et al., 2013). Since the initial KAD Gathering in 1999, there have been numerous large and small KAD gatherings. Importantly, though, neither study examined the significance of the Gathering or how it may have affected participants.
In 2010, a group of HKADs met in Hong Kong for the first “Chinese Adult Adoptee Worldwide Reunion.” Many HKADs who attended kept in contact, which led to the establishment of the Hong Kong Adoptees Network (HKAN), which consists of transnational Hong Kong adoptee groups with the primary group being in the UK. The purpose of HKAN is
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to “build connections with adoptees locally [from the UK] and meet for events, gatherings & reunions,” while also connecting with other “international HKAN groups” (Hong Kong Adoptees Network, n.d., para. 1). Although the experiences of the HKAD Gathering might be different due to the difference in circumstances and context of their adoptions, com- monalities are also likely to exist between the HKAD and KAD commun- ities. It is important to examine the experiences of HKADs to better understand their unique challenges and resiliency as older adoptees, many of which were adopted into same-race families. Moreover, it is important to examine the potential benefits of gatherings for all transnationally adopted populations. In addition, this study examined why adoptees chose to attend the Gathering, the emotions experienced at the Gathering, and the significance of returning to Hong Kong.
Gathering in Hong Kong
Attendees for the Gathering came from multiple countries as identified in Table 1, though two HKADs adopted to the UK were living in China and Hong Kong, respectively. Most of the HKADs who attended stayed one week, while many stayed longer. The Gathering was loosely structured around four main activities done as a large group: 1) visits to former child- ren’s homes and orphanages; 2) meeting at University of Hong Kong for large group sharing and discussion; 3) visiting International Social Services to learn about root tracing; and 4) a large sit-down dinner. The remainder of the week consisted of medium-to-small group outings such as going to finding sites, shopping, night markets, museums, and tourist spots. Former orphanages included Po Leung Kuk, the Children’s Reception Center, Fanling, and St. Christopher’s. Po Leung Kuk and the Children’s Reception Center still exist but have been repurposed with different functions. Fanling and St. Christopher’s were demolished many years prior, but the group visited the sites of the homes. Many attendees chose to also apply for Hong Kong I.D. cards, or permanent residency cards that are akin to citizenship with the right to abode in Hong Kong. These residence cards are granted upon proof of birth in Hong Kong.
In the current mixed-methods study, participants completed survey items prior to the Gathering, face-to-face interviews at the Gathering in Hong Kong, and survey items after the Gathering. In this article, we will report on both quantitative and qualitative data that were gathered. The research questions for this study are as follows:
Table 1. Descriptive statistics and self-reported ethnicity of HKADs.
n1⁄414a n1⁄46b n1⁄420c
British Hong Kong Chinese Adoptee British
Have searched/in process
Made Contact with Birth Family
Visited HK Prior to Gathering as Adults
American British Canadian English from HK
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Mean Age at adoption Adopted sibling from Asia Non-adopted sibling Adopted country
USA Non-USA UK
Hong Kong Canada
Type of adoption
TRA (Both white)
Same-race (at least one Asian parent)
Identity as An Adult
50to61 55.3 years 93%
2.6 years 29% 57%
50% 50% n1⁄414a 7.1% 14.3% 28.6% 14.3% 7.1%
7.1% 7.1% 7.1%
7.1% 50% 7.1% 85.7% 85.7% 100%
38 to 57
83% 92% 17% 8%
67% 29% 40% 50%
17% 45% 55% 33% 35% 17% 10% 33% 10%
50% 55% 50% 45% n1⁄46b n1⁄420c
5% 17% 15% 17% 25% 10% 17% 10%
17% 5% 5% 5%
17% 10% 17% 5% 5%
33% 45% 0% 5% 50% 70% 100% 90% 100% 95%
38 to 61 53.7 years
aHKAD attendees who completed pre- and post-Gathering surveys and an interview.
bHKAD attendees who completed the pre-Gathering survey and an interview but did complete the post-
cKAD attendees who completed the pre-Gathering survey and an interview.
- Were there differences between pre- and post-HKAD 2015 Gathering survey ratings by Hong Kong adoptee attendees on their comfort with their HK identities, the importance of visiting HK, positive feelings about HK, and anxiety about the Gathering?
- What led the adult HKADs to attend the 2015 Hong Gathering?
- How did HKADs at the Gathering describe their experiences and emo-tions while attending the Gathering?
- What is the significance of HKADs returning to and gathering inHong Kong?
In this study, we utilized a phenomenological qualitative and a comparison analysis quantitative approach to collect and analyze the data. The phenom- enological approach aimed to explore the lived experiences of HKADs who
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attended the gathering to understand the essence of their experience (Creswell & Poth, 2017; Merriam & Tisdell, 2015). In addition, we also employed quantitative methods to collect and analyze the data, that is, a pre- and post-Gathering test comparative analysis of attendees. This mixed- methods approach allowed participants an opportunity to reconcile their experiences before, during, and after the gathering. Moreover, a mixed- methods approach offered authors the possibility to measure the impact of HKAD gatherings on the HKAD population.
After obtaining permission from the organizers of the 2015 HKAD Gathering to recruit for this study, the organizers contacted those interested in attending the Gathering with our recruitment letter. Of the 30 adoptees attending the Gathering, 73% (n1⁄422) agreed to participate in our study. We conducted interviews with 67% (n1⁄420) of the HKAD attendees in Hong Kong during the latter portion of the Gathering. Seventy percent (n1⁄421) completed the pre-Gathering survey, whereas 57% (n1⁄417) com- pleted the post-Gathering survey. Forty-seven percent (n 1⁄4 14) HKAD attendees completed all study-related measures and interviews, and an add- itional 20% (n1⁄46) were interviewed and completed the pre-Gathering sur- vey but not the post-Gathering survey. For the purpose of this study, we reported the demographic details on the 20 attendees (all of whom were interviewed) from the pre-Gathering survey in Table 1 including data grouped based on which measures were completed. Analyses for pre- and post-Gathering data were conducted with the 14 attendees. Individuals who only completed one measure were not included. All interviewees and sur- vey respondents were adopted from Hong Kong and of Chinese descent, and their mean age was 53.7 with a median age of 55 for all respondents. Interviewees were given pseudonyms to protect their identity. See Table 1 for more information about the 20 participants who attended the Gathering based on their pre-Gathering survey responses. Respondents who were interviewed completed some combination of the Gathering sur- veys, which are measures developed for this study that reported on multiple items regarding their connections to Hong Kong, their Hong Kong identi- ties, and their experiences prior to the Gathering in the pre-Gathering sur- vey in Table 2.
As displayed in Table 1, the attendees of the Hong Kong Gathering were raised in four different countries, and nine were raised in same-race fami- lies (i.e., at least one adoptive parent was also Chinese), whereas 11 were raised in transracial adoptive families. The mean age of the adoptees in the current study was 53.7years (SD1⁄45.77) illustrating the older life stage at
Table 2. Descriptive statistics for pretest and posttest.
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20 8.0 20 4.73 20 5.60 20 7.94 20 8.70
17 9.18 17 9.06
16 5.81 16 6.44 15 7.20 15 9.13
15 4.53 14 8.64
12 8.17 9 3.33
Attendees (completed all measures and interviews)
Comfort with Identity as HK Adoptee
Degree to which Identify with Hong Kong
Degree to which Identify with Being Chinese Importance of Visiting
Hong Kong Importance of Info About
Personal History Importance of Info About
Positive Feelings About
Anxiety About Attending
the Gathering Post-Gathering
Success of Gathering Comfort with Identity as
Interest in Applying for
Hong Kong ID Card DNA Testing Interest Root Tracing Interest Search Interest Importance of Visiting
Hong Kong Satisfied Orphanage/
Personal History Info Satisfied Finding Birth
Positive Feelings about
the Gathering Anxiety about Gathering Expectations Met
for Gathering Experiences Match
Expectations for Return
to HK Experiences Match
Expectations for Birth Search
SD nsub 2.15 14
2.07 14 2.91 14 2.46 14 1.89 14
SD nsub 1.02 14 1.09 14
3.54 13 3.29 13 3.12 13 1.81 12
3.68 12 2.59 11
1.99 10 3.00 8
Msub SDsub 7.57 2.24
4.86 2.25 5.57 2.68 8.06 2.31 9.00 2.00
Msub SDsub 9.21 1.05 9.07 1.14
6.23 3.77 7.38 2.72 7.54 3.23 9.42 1.24
5.42 3.58 8.27 2.83
8.40 1.90 3.63 3.07
which these adoptees attended this Gathering in comparison with an aver- age age of 34 (Freundlich & Lieberthal, 2000) and 31 (Park Nelson et al., 2013) for the past Korean adoptee Gatherings.
This 41-item survey was created for this study by the authors. The items included background demographic items (e.g., age, education, and
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occupation) as well as seven items rated on a Likert scale of 1 to 10 with higher scores indicating positive assessments. Some example items are as follows: (a) How important is visiting Hong Kong to you? (2) How com- fortable do you feel with your Hong Kong identity? and (3) How much anxiety are you feeling about attending the Gathering? This survey also contained four open-ended items such as “In one paragraph (45 senten- ces), how has your life been affected by your adoption?”
A detailed semi-structured interview guide was created by the authors con- sisting of 20 items. These questions covered issues ranging from partici- pants’ adoption stories, memories of their orphanages, expectations for the Gathering, impressions of the Gathering, and desire to search for first/ birth families.
This 25-item survey, created for this study, included 14 Likert scale items (scoring 1 to 10 on each), including a post-assessment of anxiety, satisfac- tion with the Gathering, and importance of visiting their birth country. Six open-ended items were also included regarding the impact of the trip on participants’ identity, their expectations for first/birth relative searches, and the difficult and best parts of the trip.
For the purpose of this study, we are reporting on only a portion of the survey and interview data.
Following approval from two university institutional review boards, we recruited participants using the listserv developed for the HKAD 2015 Gathering. Both the pre- and post-Gathering surveys were developed by the authors for this study and included demographic questions about the attendees and their adoptions. Likert scale items were added to provide metrics for HKADs’ self-assessments of their feelings and attitudes to the Gathering, their identities, and their relationships to their adoptions. These study-created measures were not previously validated and were first used in this study. The surveys were posted using the online data collection plat- form, Qualtrics. Volunteer participants completed the pre-Gathering survey during the three weeks prior to the Gathering and those attending the Gathering scheduled in-person interviews with the two lead researchers and were audio recorded. All interviews took place in Hong Kong during the week of the Gathering. Three months following the Gathering, we
prompted participants via e-mail to complete an online post-Gathering sur- vey. Interviews were recorded and then transcribed using a transcription service and a college student trained in transcriptions.
The two primary authors identify as HKADs. One is from a similar gener- ation and cohort as the vast majority of the HKADs in the study, whereas the other researcher was in his early to mid-30s at the time of the study. One of the primary authors is also an adoptive parent. A third author is a recent doctoral graduate in Counseling who has worked on numerous adoption-related research projects.
Design and analysis
This study used a mixed-methods design and featured pre- and post- Gathering surveys of attendees’ evaluations of their attitudes, feelings, and actions primarily related to their experiences with Hong Kong and the Gathering as well as face-to-face interviews to answer the research ques- tions. The two surveys and the interview of each participant provided three data points of the attendees to create a holistic overview of the HKADs’ Gathering experiences, thoughts, and feelings prior to, during, and after the Gathering. The quantitative items from the pre-Gathering and post- Gathering surveys were analyzed at the Montclair State University (MSU) Adoption Research Team lab using statistical software, SPSS version 23.0, and the qualitative findings were analyzed at the University of California, Merced and MSU using another software package, Nvivo version 11. For our first research question, we used conventional descriptive statistics (Sandelowski, 2000) and paired samples t-tests to determine pre- and post- Gathering differences and tested to ensure assumptions were met. For our other three research questions, we used a phenomenological approach and thematic (Braun & Clarke, 2006) analysis to examine the qualitative data. The authors did not begin with predetermined themes or codes and instead separately developed detailed codes for the transcribed interview data using Nvivo. This produced a coding hierarchy that resulted in more than 230 codes of which 40 were broader themed parent nodes. Underneath the par- ent nodes were 174 detailed child nodes, and 19 were neither parent nor child nodes. Many of these nodes covered personal background and other aspects of their adoption that were discussed but not the focus of this study. We focused on coded nodes that included at least three or four sour- ces and then determined their salience in relation to our research ques- tions. Many of the nodes were not included in this study but might be
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interesting to use as a starting point for follow-up studies. Furthermore, authors facilitated an inter-reliability test through Nvivo and had a Kappa of .44, or fair to good agreement.
In this study, trustworthiness was verified through triangulation, direct quotes from the participants, and bracketing. Triangulation was accom- plished through the involvement of multiple researchers during the data analysis process. Using Nvivo, two authors used descriptive and thematic coding analysis to identify representative quotes from the participants. These two authors then cross checked their coding analysis to authenticate accuracy and consistency of the data collected (Creswell & Poth, 2017). The third author served as an external auditor and provided additional tri- angulation through cross checking for accuracy, consistency, and enforced trustworthiness (Creswell & Poth, 2017). Authors also used direct quotes from participants that provided detailed descriptions of thematic findings and supported the transferability and trustworthiness of the findings. In addition, member checking, a common form of validating trustworthiness in qualitative studies, was utilized. Moreover, authors utilized bracketing before, during, and after interactions with participants. Epoche (bracketing) occurred when authors journaled or processed their thoughts and opinions during the research process to set biases aside. Bracketing decreased the likelihood of potential findings being affected by biases and strengthened the trustworthiness of the study (Finlay, 2009; Young, 2017).
We compiled detailed information on our sample of HKAD attendees from the pre- and post-Gathering surveys as seen in Tables 1 and 2. Table 1 reports separately the information on the 14 HKADs who completed both pre- and post-HKAD Gathering surveys and interview as well as the total sample of 20. These findings indicate that the HKAD attendees use various self-labels to identify their ethnicity and nationality with the majority of them combining ethnicity and nationality (e.g., Chinese American).
Table 2 contains descriptive statistics for respondents’ reports on mul- tiple items regarding their connections to Hong Kong, their Hong Kong identities, and their experiences prior to the Gathering in the pre- Gathering survey. With respect to factors that may have influenced HKADs’ decisions to attend the Gathering, HKADs reported that visiting Hong Kong was somewhat high in importance to them. HKADs also reported that their identification with Hong Kong and with being Chinese
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Figure 1. Pre- and post-Gathering means and standard deviations for HKAD attendees. Note: n 1⁄4 14. p<.05
was in the low-moderate and moderate range. In contrast, however, HKADs reported somewhat high levels of comfort with their identities as Hong Kong adoptees. The other factors that the HKADs reported were their high level of interest in attaining information about their orphanages or personal history and their moderately high interest in searching for or meeting birth/first families.
To answer our first research question regarding differences between pre- and post-HKAD Gathering survey ratings, we used the four Likert-scale items that the attendees (n1⁄414) completed (Figure 1). Using paired sam- ples t-tests analyses, we conducted comparisons between pre- and post- Gathering responses for the HKADs. The Shapiro-Wilks test of normality (p 1⁄4 .093) assessed that our sample was normally distributed and all other assumptions for paired samples t-tests were met. Our findings indicated increases in mean scores for the four items that were measured pre- and post-Gathering (see Figure 1). HKADs reported significant (t(13) 1⁄4 2.43, p < .03) increases of 1.5 degrees, 95% CI (–2.84, 0.17) of self-rated com- fort with their Hong Kong identities according to the paired samples t-test with an effect size of .65. Although not statistically significant, HKADs also reported increases in their beliefs about the importance of visiting Hong Kong. With respect to emotions about the Gathering, HKADs reported feeling a low-to-moderate amount of anxiety prior to attending the Gathering, and after the Gathering reported a lessening of their anxiety about the Gathering, albeit not significant. Similarly, attendees were posi- tive toward the Gathering both prior to and after the Gathering and no sig- nificant differences were found.
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Figure 2. Themes and subthemes in HKAD interviews.
HKADs’ reported increased comfort with their Hong Kong adoptee iden- tities after the Gathering may be reflected in their interest in applying for their Hong Kong Identity/Residence Cards. As seen in Table 2, HKADs’ interest in DNA testing, root tracing, and searching for birth family contact was also reported.
Thematic analysis findings
Our analysis of the interview transcripts resulted in three main themes with multiple subthemes as depicted in Figure 2. To de-identify interview- ees, countries of residence and ages are not included for this small sample.
Theme: Reasons for attending the gathering in HK
Subtheme: Meet and connect. HKADs offered many reasons for attending the Gathering, but the most common response (n1⁄416) was to meet and con- nect with other HKADs. Elaine (TRA, indicates transracial adoption), des- pite knowing other HKADs while growing up, said she simply liked the “idea of meeting other adoptees,” or as Remy (TRA) stated, she wanted to“meet other adoptees from Hong Kong from all different parts of the world” and “hear their stories.” For Gayle (SRA, indicates same-race adop- tion), this social aspect of the Gathering was the key component: “Yes, it’s that connection. It could have been in America and could have been in the UK. To me, it didn’t make any difference … I could have gone to the
States, Australia, anywhere for this reunion and it would not have made any difference.”
Subtheme: Seeing “our homeland.”. In addition to meeting and connecting with other HKADs, nine stated that being in and seeing Hong Kong was important. “Hong Kong is our homeland,” Beth (TRA) stated, “So to have that kind of Gathering in our homeland, I knew it was going to be special.” From the survey data, attendees had been to HK on average 2.2 times, but the range was zero (n1⁄41) to more than 10 times (n1⁄42). Additionally, nearly all of the previous trips were because of work (n 1⁄4 4), including the two who had been more than 10 times; as a tourist or on family vacations (n1⁄48); or to visit other adoptive family (n1⁄44). A few HKADs (n1⁄43) explicitly noted that time was running out for many of them who were older and because of age, health, or budget might not get another oppor- tunity like this again.
Subtheme: “Feet on the ground” for root tracing and birth search. The previous trips to HK for work and vacation meant this trip held greater personal meaning for many HKADs. Eight respondents wanted to do root tracing to learn more about their personal history. For Jackeline (SRA), the trip gave her the chance to see her birthplace and have her “feet on the ground” to make better progress on tracing her personal history with the help of the larger group. Additionally, seven expressed wanting to do a birth search while attending the Gathering. Nicole (TRA) noted that being in Hong Kong as a group, they could use each other as resources:
I felt like this was going to be the most important and significant reunion that I could go to because it is in Hong Kong, my birthplace, and that as a group, there would be the support to pursue our searches. Because I think when I have tried to do things alone, I don’t get very far. With us being here and as a large group, we had more resources available for us.
Vanesa (SRA) similarly stated that HKADs “have pieces of the puzzle” that she needs, adding, “It’s my fourth trip back, but it’s never been for root tracing, orphanage, or my identity.” Natalie (SRA), who wanted to find her birth certificate and apply for her Hong Kong I.D. card, added that it is easier to do this and birth searching in person: “[I]f you are in search of your own, it also can save you some time to circumvent some of the systems to get to where your end result is. I mean why spend 4days doing something when you can cut it down to 1?”
Subtheme: Multiple reasons. The vast majority of HKADs gave multiple rea- sons from the list above for attending. They mentioned wanting to meet other people who “were like me”; find out if others had childhood
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experiences “similar to mine”; “get to know their stories”; and “hear differ- ent people’s struggles” (Natalie, SRA; Remy, TRA; Frank, SRA). As Wendy (TRA) put it, “I knew that it would be a unique opportunity to be with other Hong Kong adoptees.” While this appears to be a mundane quote, the “be with other Hong Kong adoptees” should not be overlooked. Many HKADs relayed experiences of not only growing up in isolated and alienat- ing environments but also living their whole lives without knowing other HKADs.
Diving into more specific reasons for attending, Remy (TRA), for example, was interested in similarities such as, “How many more were from the same orphanage that I was at, and if so, were we of the same [or] similar age group that maybe we knew each other?” She was also looking for “adoptees that had not so good matches” similar to her own experien- ces. While it might be easy to identify Remy’s reasoning as an outlier, it resembles what Natalie said in “hearing people’s struggle.”
Theme: Experiences and emotions while attending the gathering
Subtheme: Visiting orphanages—“I have a connection here.”. One of the high- lights for HKADs was visiting the various orphanage sites. Given the older average age (2.7years) and range of age (1 to 7years) at adoption for HKADs, their connection to orphanages may have more meaning. Po Leung Kuk was unique in that it was the only orphanage that still existed and was operational. For Gayle (SRA), a highpoint included visiting Po Leung Kuk, where the group met resident toddlers. A few HKADs even had the opportunity to embrace the little ones, which for Gayle was a “moving experience.” For Jackeline (SRA), in visiting Po Leung Kuk, she appreciated “seeing the spot where I would’ve laid in my crib, seeing the playground I would have played on,” which provided “intangible [sic] evi- dence of my existence here.” The other two orphanages, St Christopher’s and Fanling, were both torn down, a school in place of the former and a fenced grassy space for the latter, but this did not diminish the value of vis- iting these sites. Speaking about the two, Sasha (TRA) stated, “To be together at St. Christopher’s walking around and then Fanling walking around. I find it just really—like, wow this is where I really was.” Vanessa’s (SRA) visit to Fanling was her first time being back, and even though the building was not there, it left her “speechless” and unable to put the experi- ence into words. Perhaps Nicole (SRA) summarized it best, “It didn’t mat- ter [that Fanling was not there] because Saint Christopher’s is not there either … I understand that going to the site is equally as important to those adoptees even if it’s not there anymore. There is something, there is an attachment to that spot.” Kacy (SRA) also revealed the power of visiting Fanling, “When we went up to Fanling where the area is, because the
home’s not there, when we went there and took a group picture something happened inside. And it’s the first time I actually felt like I have a connec- tion here and not just as a tourist.”
Subtheme: Meeting other fanlingers. During the group’s visit to the children’s home site where Fanling once stood, the group had the unexpected oppor- tunity to meet five women who had been raised at Fanling but never adopted. A Chinese Hong Kong non-adopted resident who helped several HKADs with root tracing and birth search had arranged the meeting. Teresa said it was “amazing” yet “raw” for both groups, especially without being prepared for the meeting beforehand. Gayle (SRA) observed, “[T]hey are a very tight-knitted group,” who seemed content and had “effectively become family themselves.” Confirming this, Natalie (SRA), who is bilin- gual and raised by Chinese parents, stated, “When I talked to them in Chinese, they were happy still. That’s the coolest thing. That was the sun- shine out of this whole trip.” While it brought joy for Natalie, it also pro- vided insight for Gayle, offering “a much better picture of the whole part of our lives,” or what HKADs could have been.
Subtheme: “Mixed emotions.”. As one might expect, the Gathering produced a range of emotional experiences for many HKADs. For many, like Nicole (SRA), it spawned joy and laughter, “The only thing I can tell you is that I have laughed harder than I have laughed in a long time … We actually almost got kicked out of a restaurant two nights ago because we were too loud, and we couldn’t stop laughing.” Or as Reese (TRA) put it, “We would be able to really laugh and just I think we understood the laughter that we could just have belly laughs.”
For Vanessa (SRA), the Gathering generated an indescribable sadness, “I can’t verbalize the sadness or the feelings that things are triggering … My impression is a lot of mixed emotions. I really feel for some of the men and a lot of the ladies. I can sense in what they say. There is almost a deep hole in some of their hearts and a lot of identity issues.” Nicole (SRA), however, explained her sadness as coming from a place of love, “I am kind of worried about flying home because I am going to be a crying mess all the way back to [home] because I already know that you just leave, and I feel like I am leaving people that I love.”
In another example, Penny (TRA) described herself as emotionally con- trolled except when around other adoptees, “But for some reason when I’m with other adoptees, I can’t control it. You control it with your brain, but now my heart and soul wants [sic] to come out and I can’t keep it from coming out.” As Elaine (TRA) noted of the large meeting at Hong Kong University, “You get all the emotions especially when you’re in a bigger
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group like we were on Monday. The emotions were high. … I think it’s good to have a big group but you certainly get a better overall picture of what everyone has been through.” As mentioned earlier, most of the HKADs grew up in isolating and alienating environments, so Elaine’s state- ment reveals the emotional effect and importance of being in a large group of people whose experiences reflect your own.
Subtheme: “Collective memory” and “unstated connections.”. The interviews also revealed that the engendered emotions were tied to collective memory and unstated connections with other HKADs. Lana (TRA) explained the importance of these connections, “Yeah it’s much much much more force [to be here without her daughters] because we [HKADs] have that collect- ive memory.” She described the Gathering as an emotive experience and that even if she did not remember parts of her past, others might because there was an overlapping experience and history: “That’s what I wanted. To go through this with people that know what it was like. We were all in the same shoes. … So we all have that understanding.” Nicole (SRA) had simi- lar feelings, “I feel there is this really deep bond, and I think it just has to do with us being adoptees that we understand… there are just some unstated things that we don’t have to explain to each other. I don’t know if I can put it into words.” It might be best summarized when Reese (TRA) thought about why she did not update family and friends during the Gathering:
Yeah, it’s really weird even just thinking about that. I don’t know why I’m emotional. It’s almost like, “How will they ever understand?” … I think I will tell them some things, but there are some things that feel so unique and intimate. It’s very strange. … But when we’re in the Gathering, then you feel like you’re more free and more comfortable with other adoptees. You don’t have to explain.
These quotes show the interesting strength of adoptee bonds, which are not necessarily built upon close connections with development over time but conceptions of “unstated” shared history, experiences, and therefore understanding of each other.
Subtheme: “Transformation”: From alienation to affirmation and belonging. Nested subtheme: Alienation. A few HKADs expressed that they were willing to partake in this study because it did not replicate the recent UK study. For this reason, we focused less on HKADs’ earlier years, their fond memo- ries, and the challenges that they have faced since childhood. Yet, many HKADs still described difficult childhood experiences due to racism (n1⁄410) and alienation (n1⁄49) from being one of a few (or only) Asian kids in their school or hometown. For example, Frank (SRA), who grew up in a blue-collar city, recalled his Chinese parents wanting him to assimilate
and not speak Chinese. Frank lamented, though, that “you can’t hide behind this face.” In terms of isolation, Gayle (SRA) stated, “[A]ll through my childhood I felt I was the only child like me. I didn’t realize there were loads and loads of us.”
Nested subtheme: Disconnection and denial. Additionally, more than a hand- ful (n1⁄48) interviewees expressed a lack of connection on their first and earlier trips to Hong Kong due to loss of language and culture or percep- tion of inauthenticity by local Hong Kongers. Gayle recalled her earlier trip as a young girl to Hong Kong with her adoptive family, “I wasn’t inter- ested. I was sort of standing there thinking what am I doing here? I want to be somewhere else.” For Pam (TRA), being in Hong Kong was estrang- ing, “My first impression was, my god. All I saw was Chinese people and it was very busy. I said, oh wow. I almost felt like a stranger amongst the people.” Two HKADs explained the disconnect was due to denying their own adopted status. Jackeline (SRA) stated, “I didn’t feel like I had that connection until recently. In fact, it was more of that whole denial that I was subconsciously denying that I was adopted or that I was just, this was my family and so I didn’t really ever have that urge to look for my birth parents.” Jackeline’s quote illustrates how the rejection of one aspect of identity (in this case, adopted status) can overdetermine how one imagines (non)belonging and notions of family.
Nested subtheme: “I wasn’t alone” and affirming identity and belonging. Being in Hong Kong with other HKADs has produced connections to people and place, both of which have affirmed their identity and sense of belonging. Reese (TRA) explained how she originally did not want to gather in Hong Kong because it felt like a “distant, almost exotic place,” but by the end of the trip, she felt completely different: “I was really surprised when I came here and realized how important it was to watch these adoptees be here in Hong Kong … . We couldn’t have done it anywhere else and had the kinds and transformations and experiences.” Reese imagined Hong Kong as “exotic,” “inaccessible,” and a “far away, distant place” so much so that she“didn’t even feel like [she] was from there.” She later indicated that form- ing intimate connections and visiting finding sites (i.e., locations where HKADs were relinquished and found prior to entering care), in particular, contributed to the unexpected transformative experience of being in Hong Kong. Not only did it bring Reese and others closer to the place of Hong Kong but it also made them more comfortable with their identity:
They were very, very profound and painful sometimes events [of visiting finding sites], but we could socialize and laugh and identify. That’s a really interesting position and it is something that I think is unique and I don’t think you could do
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that with any other group. I feel much better about myself. I feel more confident. … That’s what sometimes happens in a group like this where we have something in common that is so deep and profound and almost non-verbal. … I just had a really negative sense of who I was. I knew that I had a face that I really hated and being stared at or being told that I was different and called names and teased. It was not a positive experience. I didn’t have positive images of Chinese or Asians and then just being an adoptee. I just felt so isolated and alone, but after meeting Hong Kong adoptees I just felt like I wasn’t alone, and I felt more connected. … Yeah, it felt like it was okay to be who I am. I could even be proud of who I am.
Together, this connection to people and place has helped affirm Reese’s identity and belonging. Table 2 shows how HKADs felt more positive about their Hong Kong identity after the trip. In this way, it was not just the existence of and belonging to an HKAD group but the added signifi- cance of being in Hong Kong that helped transform how attendees viewed themselves.
Nested subtheme: HK identification card—claiming “birthright.”. One promin- ent activity to happen during the Gathering was the application for Hong Kong identification cards, a highly bureaucratic process that required many original Hong Kong and U.S. documents and multiple visits to the Immigration Center. There were certainly mixed feelings among HKADs about applying. Three expressed that they were uninterested, as Carly (unknown) stated, “Hong Kong was my old life. I am now fully British and happy.” Two lamented that they tried but were unsuccessful, while four said that they were interested but did not have time or the correct docu- ments. Yet, six HKADs earnestly started the process during the trip. Remy (TRA) explained that the “moral support and applying with others encour- aged me,” and Reese (TRA) started, “to feel more connected to my birth country,” while Penny (TRA) expressed, “[I] don’t want my Hong Kong heritage denied from me.” For these HKADs, the Hong Kong identification card was both a communal expression carried out in a supportive environ- ment and an expression of claiming identity. As Frank (SRA) claimed, “[I want to] verify and claim [my] birthright as [a] Hong Kong citizen and son of the Motherland.” That 12 HKADs out of 28 attendees (excluding the two who lived in Hong Kong) desired to have a Hong Kong ID sug- gests that possessing such a government issued document could have impli- cations for claiming identity and belonging.
Subtheme: Root tracing1 and im/possible searches. Of the 17 respondents to the post-Gathering survey who answered about their level of interest in root tracing, only one, Carly (unknown), expressed complete disinterest: “Not interested. My parents live in the UK as far as I’m concerned yes.” This was similar for level of interest in searching for birth family with one
(out of 17 answers) who expressly stated, “Not interested.” Nine have tried to do a birth search, with only one HKAD finding family. A couple con- veyed ambivalence because of the difficult prospects of finding any infor- mation. These ambivalent sentiments capture the middle and all but one of the lowest scores. Most of the respondents, however, were very or newly interested or had already partaken in root tracing, with a few starting the process with ISS-HK at the Gathering. Nicole (SRA), who raised the topic in her interview but did not participate in the post-Gathering survey, stated, “I just want to know something. Any little piece of information is good I think.”
Nested subtheme: “Locked door.”. Common among many respondents was a
narrative of impossibility. For example, Wendy (TRA) believed that finding
her information was much more difficult—“something that wasn’t a possi-
bility for me”—than for domestic adoptees in the UK who had their
records. Natalie (SRA) described how she would love to hug, embrace, and
thank her birth mother for providing her the chance for a different life. But she also wondered, “I also feel like, Hong Kong is so big. And how do I know she’s still here?” Others stated it was like “a locked door and no one gave you the key,” where dying would provide a “better chance of find- ing my birth mother” (Reese, TRA); “I felt hopeless, like I’m never going to find her” (Penny, TRA); and “being told that my records are sealed any- way, to me it was like what’s the use?” (Remy, TRA). For Lana (TRA), her adoptive parents said that both her birth parents were killed in a car crash, “So I kind of thought well that’s not possible because my mother’s not alive. So, end of story.” All of these statements underscore a narrative of impossibility (and in some cases the secrecy and lies prevalent in closed and transnational adoption) of finding birth parents.
Nested subtheme: New possibilities—“I can help you.”. As already noted, root tracing and birth searches are important for many adoptees, and despite the strength of the narrative of impossibility, being with other HKADs in Hong Kong presented a new sense of possibility. HKADs such as Sasha (TRA) realized that there is more information than they had previously known, “Yes, because I didn’t realize that after being there at that meeting that ISS Hong Kong was different from ISS United States. I am kind of hopeful that I can maybe just get an address.” This new knowledge was gained through the group session at ISS-HK, where social workers explained the root tracing process, among other things. Moreover, as Nicole (SRA) commented, there was no “better place” to look for birth parents than in Hong Kong because “it is really hard to do it on the com- puter and without very many resources.” In Lana’s (TRA) case, she thought
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that her mother was dead and did not have any of her papers until very recently. While she “never had that really strong desire” to find her birth mother before, the trip changed her view: “But now of course people are talking about it I’m kind of, it’s pricking my consciousness in thinking, ‘Oh, yeah, maybe.’” Additionally, some HKADs, who had experience or knowledge in the process of root tracing or birth search, were actively assisting their fellow HKADs. Elaine (TRA), who lives in Hong Kong, has tried to be “a support base” for those who are searching, “pointing people in the right direction.” This sort of assistance did not go unnoticed by Beth (TRA): “I just found that everybody was so supportive of everyone …. Many people have said, ‘Oh I can help you.’” In this way, the usually hyper-individualized process of root tracing and birth searching can become a larger or even collective effort, disrupting predominate narratives of impossibility and indeed creating new narratives of possibility.
Theme: Challenges and benefits of the gathering and returning to Hong Kong
Overall, the return to Hong Kong, attending the Gathering, and the pos- sible search for roots have affected HKADs’ views and feelings about Hong Kong, their identity, and adoption in general. Only one person expressed that it had no effect, “No, it has not affected my view or my feeling about Hong Kong. It was just nice to go back to my birth country.” Another sur- vey respondent rated the return to Hong Kong as having “somewhat” of an effect, whereas all others (n1⁄415) seemed to indicate a greater effect that was attributed to sources that included being among fellow HKADs, learn- ing about their past, having deeper connections to Hong Kong, and helping confirm their Chinese and HK identities.
Subtheme: Difficulties of disclosure. One interesting revelation was that more than a handful of HKADs (n1⁄47) were not fully forthcoming with their adoptive parents about the trip to Hong Kong and/or their current/previ- ous desire to search for birth parents. For earlier transnational adoptees, it was common to not talk about birth parents and adoption issues with adoptive parents. At the same time, the absence of conversation continues even for many of today’s adoptees. Part of this is born from adoptees want- ing to protect their adoptive parents (Berge et al., 2006). Four HKADs explicitly expressed sentiments about wanting to be a “good daughter” by being “loyal” (Sasha, TRA); not “hurt[ing] my current family” (Beth, TRA); “not wanting to upset” her mother (Pam); and not wanting to “dishonor” or “upset” his adoptive mother “because to me she is my mother” (Frank, SRA). This might also be explained in part because a few HKADs had poor relationships with their adoptive parents. As Remy (TRA) explained, “I was looking for other Hong Kong adoptees and my interest was that I was in
search of other adoptees that had not so good matches of their adoption families, just like I was not matched in a good way.” For three HKADs, the fact of their adoption was hidden from them. For two others, the adoptive parents lied about their history in the name of protection or under the claim of ignorance. Another two HKADs felt fully detached from their adoptive family. Of course, a few HKADs also stated how their adoptive parents were quite supportive (or became supportive later on) of their interests in roots or birth searches.
Subtheme: “Had it not been for the internet.”. A surprising aspect of this study was how people became connected in the first place. Approximately half of the interviewees (n 1⁄4 10) found other HKADs or the HKAN through online means. There are three different websites that have served different but overlapping purposes of connecting HKADs. We know that the Internet has made connection for young adoptees easier (Cherot, 2006; McKee, 2016), but this shows that older adoptees on their own initiative (and correspondingly with less institutional support) are doing the same. If such online forums did not exist, then the likelihood of HKADs finding other HKADs would presumably decrease dramatically. For Gayle (SRA), connecting to people in person and online seemed impossible, but as she said, it became a calling: “Suddenly, we have all found a group of people that are like us that all belong to the same group and we all can identify.
… For me, I think everybody looks for a purpose of why they have been brought on this earth. For me, I feel this is my calling, this is what I have been brought on this earth to do.” And as she put it, “[HKAN] would not have been possible had it not been for the internet.”
Subtheme: “It’s a kinship.”. Another prominent theme was the expression of family and/or kinship among other HKADs. As Frank (SRA) articulated:
It’s a kinship, and understanding, and it’s a bond that we’re all family of adoptees no matter what home we come from. And we like to just share that experience and try to understand each other and understand ourselves, more importantly why we think and do things in our lives that maybe non-adoptees would not do or would not say.
Expressions by other HKADs of an unconscious “shared history,” “collective memory,” and being in the “same shoes” (Lana, TRA); having a “common background” (Wendy, TRA); being “missing sisters and brothers” (Beth) or “orphanage sisters” that have “deep bonds” (Vanessa, SRA); and sharing “sisterhood and brotherhood” (Jackeline, SRA; Teresa, TRA) hap- pened simultaneously with being physically present in Hong Kong. This bolstered the connections of kinship based on common experiences and sufferings as well as transformative attachments to a common place. This study has revealed the importance for Hong Kong adoptees to connect
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with other HKADs. Vanessa (SRA) remarked that finding other HKADs “has deeply affected me in words I can’t even describe,” and as Penny (TRA) explained, “We are searching for the wrong people, not parents, we really should be searching for each other.”
Returning to the place of birth and finding one’s origins are both experien- ces that can be associated with the developmental stages of generativity ver- sus stagnation as well as identity versus isolation (Erikson, 1968). These stages are typically associated with very different tasks; however, for adult adoptees, identity is a particularly compelling and lifelong journey. The generativity versus stagnation period of life, however, is typically associated with middle to later adulthood. Within the literature on adult adoptees, few studies focus upon adoptees during this latter life stage. The findings of this study should be considered within the context of these life stages and how they are not separate but can “overlap in different ways” (Erikson & Erikson, 1981, p. 267).
Our findings indicated that although all the HKADs from our study who were, for the most part, from an older generation than other transnational adoptee gathering participants, had found their ways to Hong Kong in the years before this Gathering, the HKAD Gathering itself seemed to lead to modest increases in the attendees’ HKAD identities. The findings of this study demonstrate that having an event that brings adoptees with similar origin stories together in their birthplace served as a source of support for these adoptees in their generative years. Interestingly, the increased comfort with their HKAD identities after the Gathering did not translate into a similar increase in their comfort with being Chinese.
Other findings suggest that the high level of interest in birth search and Hong Kong residence status was likely to be somewhat influenced by the Gathering. As noted above, our sample of HKADs were primarily in their 50s and several had never initiated a serious birth parent search nor had they applied for Hong Kong residency status until their experiences with the Gathering. Based on these findings, we can speculate that the HKADs may want to culturally socialize (Shiao & Tuan, 2008) and reculturate (Baden et al., 2012) in these specific ways (i.e., embrace and reclaim aspects of their birth identity and culture through seeing Hong Kong, searching for birth family, or applying for their Hong Kong I.D. as opposed to learning the language, for example). Additionally, they may cognitively separate their Hong Kong adoptee and Chinese identities. The internalization of the meaning behind being a Hong Konger, Chinese, and mainland Chinese could be further explored for HKADs.
Those who attended (and completed pre- and post-Gathering surveys) reported significant increases in their comfort with their identities as HKADs, suggesting that visiting Hong Kong and attending the Gathering may have been influential. Being with peer HKADs in the place of their birth while experiencing Hong Kong, sometimes for the first time, likely impacted their comfort with their status as HKADs. We speculate that, like many transnational adoptees who report mixed feelings—both con- nected to and disconnected (McGinnis et al., 2009) from their birth coun- tries—HKADs in our study benefited from being with others who shared their mixed feelings and their feelings of being foreign in their birth country. In other words, this collective in-birthplace experience may help cultural socialization (Shiao & Tuan, 2008) and reculturation (Baden et al., 2012) more so than solo or non-adoptee-group reculturative experiences.
Our qualitative analysis of the data revealed that HKADs attended the Gathering for many reasons, the most common being to meet, connect, and “be” with other HKADs. This mirrored Freundlich and Lieberthal’s (2000) study that found KADs wanted to meet and learn about the experi- ences of other KADs. HKADs also revealed that they experienced isolation, alienation, and racism while growing up, which were also found to be true in the 2000 and 2010 studies (Freundlich & Lieberthal, 2000; Park Nelson et al., 2013). Nearly, all of the respondents (n1⁄420) grew up not knowing another HKAD outside of an adopted sibling (n 1⁄4 6), and the vast majority did not know another transracial adoptee (n 1⁄4 16). In the majority of cases, HKADs had not met another HKAD until connecting with the HKAN. While we did not specifically ask if the latter is linked to the desire to meet and connect with other HKADs, we suspect this to be the case. Research shows that most transnational adoptees have grown up in isolated environ- ments (Park Nelson, 2016) and want to meet other adoptees like them (Baden, 2015; Myers, 2019). This differs from Erikson’s (1968) understand- ing of isolation, which is a result of lack of partner intimacy rather than lack of social belonging. Additionally, HKADs experienced deep and vary- ing emotions that were linked to being in a large group with other HKADs in Hong Kong. Baden (2015) has shown being in the same space as others who counteract this formative or even life-long experience of isolation pro- vides a positive adoptee socialization experience and significant impact. Importantly, a couple HKADs wanted to learn of other HKADs’ “struggle[s]” and meet “other adoptees that had not so good matches of their adoption families.” While they may appear as outliers, their interests bring nuance to show that the experiences of HKADs are more complex than the positive narratives that adoption discourse often portrays (Myers, 2014).
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Many HKADs (n1⁄49) explicitly mentioned feeling out of place or lack- ing a connection to Hong Kong either now or in previous visits (see also “Identify with Hong Kong” in Table 2), which is similar to the 2000 Gathering study, reporting 22 percent of KADs who had returned to Korea had a negative experience. Some KADs also expressed that Korea felt like a distant and foreign place (Freundlich & Lieberthal, 2000). Yet, HKADs also articulated an appreciation for visiting former orphanage sites, which reveals an interesting relationship between the lack of connec- tion to an “existing” and present Hong Kong on the one hand and a dis- appeared but experienced orphanage on the other. In other words, visiting the orphanage site viscerally rooted the experience of HKADs in ways that simply visiting Hong Kong has/does not. Reflecting similar findings as the quantitative results with regard to identity and belonging, HKADs also articulated how the Gathering helped reveal the unstated yet common history and understanding of each other, which affirmed their Hong Kong identity and belonging. The latter is something shown to be true in other contexts of adoptee birth country travel (Bergquist, 2004). Despite identity being an earlier stage in Erikson’s (1968) life cycle, the quantitative and qualitative data appear to show that identity remains important for HKADs into their generativity stage and possibly holds more salience with the simultaneous group activities of meeting other HKADs, returning to Hong Kong, visiting orphanages, and attempting to obtain Hong Kong identification cards.
Our research also reveals that although HKADs expressed the “narrative of impossibilities” as well as the difficult realities of root tracing and birth search, being with other HKADs gave many attendees hope to find infor- mation about themselves or their family, which was reflected in quantitative findings of increased interest in birth search. Learning more about their personal past and imagining new possibilities of connecting to birth family reshapes how they might understand their identity. Moreover, HKADs expressed ideas of family and kinship beyond biological and adoptive, often calling other HKADs sisters and brothers. A broad notion of kinship is useful here. Sahlins (2013) argues that kinship is a “mutuality of being,” and in the context of transnational/racial adoption, kinship could then seemingly hold consanguineal (biological); “fictive,” social, and chosen (i.e., adoptive relations and adoptee relationships with other adoptees); and geo- graphical (connections to homeland) ties. Connections such as these are no longer imagined or impossible but significantly attached to people, com- mon experience, and place. This relates back to Erikson’s (1974) notion of generativity that is not just about producing children but the“establishment, the guidance, and the enrichment of the living generation and the world it inherits” (p. 123). This HKAD group has—through
creating an online and in-person community—has established a form of peer adoptive kinship.
Earlier studies on KAD Gatherings centered demographics, identity, adoptive experiences, birth search, and to a small extent reasons for attend- ing the gatherings (Freundlich & Lieberthal, 2000; Park Nelson et al., 2013). Similarly, the only recent study on Hong Kong adoptees centered early adoption and life span experiences (Feast et al., 2013). Our research examined these areas to an extent, but it is significant because the Gathering was not just the site of the study but the object of study, specif- ically focusing on reasons why HKADs attended the Gathering, their expe- riences at the Gathering, and other significant elements related to the Gathering. In this way, this research is similar to emergent research on cul- ture camps and adoptee community building. Facilitators from the 1999 Gathering noted that the Gathering was a time for “healing and sharing”(Freundlich & Lieberthal, 2000, p. 23). We believe this to hold true for the 2015 HKAD Gathering. Going back “home” to their birth country, orphan- age sites, and even back to their current home (after the Gathering) impacted their identity, sense of belonging, and familial connections to other HKADs, where HKADs shared connections, stories, experiences, tips, laughter, tears, and bonds of kinship.
Though this research study provides a rich in-depth exploration of the experience of HKADs who have returned to their home country, some lim- itations are worth noting. A limitation for any qualitative study is the small sample size and the inability to generalize the findings. However, phenom- enological studies typically have sample sizes of about 10–14 participants (Hays & Singh, 2011; Merriam & Tisdell, 2015). While this study employs a mixed methodological approach, and provides both qualitative and quan- titative data, the sample lacked power within the quantitative analysis. Nonetheless, the quantitative results effectively contributed to the reported lived experiences of participants. The generalizability of this study is further limited by several factors also including the small sample size of the study. Given the expenses related to traveling to Hong Kong for this Gathering, HKADs who did not have the resources for international travel from Europe or North America likely limited the participation among HKADs. In addition, HKADs who did participate may not be representative of the socioeconomic status of all HKADs. Conclusions regarding the differences between pre- and post-Gathering were explored using a survey that had only four items on which to compare their responses to the Gathering.
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Furthermore, not all attendees completed both the pre- and post-Gathering surveys leading to different sample sizes.
Implications for research and practice
Overall, the findings of this study add to our understanding of HKADs, an understudied cohort of transnational adoptees. Prior to this study, the only research with this population focused on HKADs who had been adopted to the UK, whereas our findings include HKADs who were adopted to the USA, U.K., Hong Kong, and Canada. Additionally, this study is one of the first to explore transnational adoptees, the majority of whom were in their 50s and 60s, who were in the generativity stage of development (Erikson, 1968). The adoptees in our study differed from other transnational adoptee groups who were adopted during the transnational adoption boom from the early-1990s to the mid-2000s for multiple reasons. First, the participants in our study grew up during the decades when representations of Asians in the media or the presence of Asians in their communities were minimal in their adopted countries. Second, HKADs adopted in the 1960s grew up for the first half of their lives without the Internet and the means to connect to other HKADs. Third, HKADs of this generation grew up in times when many adoptive parents did not get training prior to adopting and when their small numbers resulted in isolation within their communities. Fourth, there was little if any focus on post-adoption services for adoptees, espe- cially adult adoptees. These differences prompt us to consider not only how adoption practices can change to benefit younger adoptees but also what would be useful for transnational and transracial adult adoptees in their later life stages.
Our study’s focus on HKADs’ identity as well as their reasons for attend- ing, experiences, and significance of the Gathering in their birth country provided important insight into the value of adoptee gatherings. The HKAD Gathering provided the opportunity for the HKADs to join in a community of peers and even for the HKADs who did not engage in cul- tural socialization or reculturative practices, it served as a form of adoptee socialization, which Baden (2015) defines as a “process by which adoptees gain a sense of themselves as adopted persons and develop a degree of comfort with their adoptive histories” (p. 28). Empirical investigation of adoption socialization should also be studied to better understand the nuances of adoptee socialization and gatherings, specifically adult-adoptee- only spaces (i.e., without the presence of the adoptive family). Future research should further explore HKADs with respect to their developmental life stages and how adoption impacts them as they move into older adult- hood. The intersection of adoption, race, and migration come together in
HKADs, and research studying their experiences and developmental experi- ences can benefit our understanding of other transnational adoptees.
The implications of this study on practice inform the practice of adop- tion and clinical practice. This study underscores the importance of return- ing to one’s birth country. But more significantly, it highlights for agencies and adoptive parents the importance of cultural socialization, reculturation, and adoptee socialization in a group setting with other adult adoptees (not just with adoptive family), and how attaching such experiences to particular places (e.g., orphanages or finding sites) can engender greater meaning and fulfillment than tourist trips back to one’s birth country. Additionally, the kinship felt by attendees reinforces the importance of training adoptive parents to provide adoption communities and racial ethnic communities through which their children can find connections. Clinical practice can also benefit from training practitioners to recognize the importance of these socialization experiences. Clinicians can support adoptees in their efforts to socialize as adoptees and as members of their racial ethnic communities. Future research can target best clinical practices to support adoptee social- ization and other identity tasks. Furthermore, attempts at and newfound interest in birth search (even at such a late stage) indicate the importance of avoiding narrowly defined concepts of family and kinship. This points to the potential utility of broader notions of kinship that include not only birth family but also bonds with other adoptees.
We realize it is uncommon to have an epilogue in a journal article, but we want to make two important notes. First, we want to acknowledge that one of the participants passed away shortly after the Gathering. Kacy had breast cancer, which was in remission during the trip, but aggressively returned upon arriving home. She is missed dearly by the HKAN group. Second, with the help of Hong Kong media, another participant—who wishes to be unnamed even by pseudonym—connected with her birth family after the Gathering. With this article and epilogue, we hope to honor adoptee lives, their many desires, and their complex family portraits.
- We understand that while there is often overlap that there can be a difference in personal root tracing and birth search. For space reasons and because the way that interviewees sometimes put these two things into the same category, this essay talks about them together.
- She uses the language “save me for a better life” and “saving me” but we understand these terms to be problematic.
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