Culture shapes a South Asian adoption reunion


Jeremy Uppenborn
Focus on Adoption magazine

Chelan Gill remembers always knowing she was adopted. It would have been difficult for her parents to hide it because, although Chelan’s mother is South Asian like her, her father is Caucasian. Adopted at birth, Chelan was raised within western culture and influences – even having the last name of Fletcher. However, at 26, she married a South Asian man who taught her about Indian culture and customs, and at 27, Chelan decided to search out information about her birth parents and medical history before having children. She already knew of a couple of genetic medical issues, and wanted to find out more, so she contacted BC’s Adoption Reunion Registry (ARR).

Chelan hadn’t originally intended to contact her birth parents, but found out that doing so was the only way to access the information she desired. She launched an active search with the ARR in March 2007 and had contact information for her birth mother within a month. “It was so fast. It was way faster than I expected,” Chelan remarks. “The staff were phenomenal. I wouldn’t have been able to get through it and find my birth mother without them.”

About the process, Chelan says, “I used to think that I don’t have any of the abandonment issues that you often hear about, but during this reunion process I found out that I do.”

What’s culture got to do with it?

While the search and reunion process is different for everyone, most people report it being a time of emotion and discovery. For Chelan, the process took her through waves of emotions and made her question who she was, where she came from, and how her future would be affected - she had an identity crisis. “You realize culture shapes a South Asian adoption reunion -  you have issues that you never thought were there,” she notes.

Those issues were compounded by the introduction of South Asian culture into Chelan’s reunion. Even before they met, Chelan knew her birth mother would be fairly traditional, and that culture would play a huge role in her birth mother even acknowledging her. “To this day I’m amazed that she was willing to own up to it. In Indian culture you don’t place your children for adoption. I give her so much credit for that.”

Additionally, Chelan’s in-laws struggled to come to terms with the possible outcome of Chelan meeting her birth mother. The politics of the culture put pressure on Chelan’s marriage, resulting in her and her husband attending counselling. In the end, Chelan and her husband helped his family come to terms with the situation.

A change of heart

In the beginning, Chelan had a “good” relationship with her birth mother. She found out she has two half-brothers and discovered where she gets much of her hard-nosed personality. “I now understand exactly where my toughness comes from. Many of my birth mother’s personality traits are exemplified in me,” she states.

However, Chelan describes how her birth mother had a sudden change of heart, stopped speaking to her, and has since cut off contact. Chelan believes it might be fear that the Indian community would find out her birth mother placed a child for adoption, which would negatively affect her birth mother’s status and standing.

“Perhaps because the process with the reunion registry was so efficient, she might be afraid I would be able to find my birth father,” she speculates. Whatever the reason, Chelan hasn’t received the medical information she originally sought; still, she is thankful her birth mother originally placed her for adoption. “She knew she couldn’t raise me and placed me for adoption. I’m glad she did. I’ve had a great life. I’m very, very fortunate.”

Chelan praises the support of her adoptive parents throughout the process. “My parents are awesome. They had my birthmom over for dinner and carried on a relationship aside from me. My mom respects my birthmom for the difficult choice she had to make and for allowing her to have a daughter.” Chelan says her mother knows what a tough struggle the process has been and didn’t want it to end badly.

“For South Asians, culture really dictated how my story played out. It wasn’t so much the adoption process and the finding of my family: it was more the cultural barriers that determined where we were going to go with it,” Chelan considers. She says if another Indian child is looking for his or her parents, he or she has to understand that culture is going to play a significant role and notes that outside resources are almost mandatory.

Words of Reunion Wisdom from Chelan

  • Take it slowly and stay reserved. “When you meet your birth family, you’re so relieved to have found them, and you may have a false sense of belonging that makes you want to jump in with full disclosure.” She emphasizes the need to consider the advice of the reunion worker and stresses that once something is disclosed, “You can’t go back.”
  • Expect the unexpected. Chelan recounts how her birth mother wanted to step into the relationship and take charge as if nothing happened. She says to be ready for unreasonable expectations and to stay guarded until the relationship has matured, adding that it’s important to set boundaries early.
  • Educate and prepare yourself. Chelan underscores the need for education and to ensure the proper emotional and psychological supports are in place prior to meeting the birth family. She says programs such as those offered by Forget Me Not Family Society can help those involved in searches maintain perspective so the emotion of the reunion doesn’t cloud their judgment. Other resources can be found through the B.C. Government website and the Adoptive Families Association of BC.

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