When Jessica Danaher asked her parents, ‘why South Korea?’, as they chatted about how they’d adopted her from Seoul and took her back to their home in rural Australia in the 80s, she was expecting ‘something deep and philosophical’.
‘Instead, they just said, “oh, there were a list of countries and we thought South Korea sounded good,’ Jessica laughs, as she recalls her own tale of being adopted at four months old in 1984, for Metro.co.uk’s Adoption Month.
Now 36, she knows little about how she came to be in the orphanage – called Angel Babies Home – only that her biological mother was an unmarried woman, and in the 80s to be single with a baby ‘was a big no-no’.
At the time of her adoption, Jessica’s parents had tried multiple times to have their own biological child, with her mother going through ‘four or five’ heartbreaking miscarriages.
Since Jessica’s adoption turned out so well (and by all accounts, with them having all documents sorted before arriving in South Korea and returning to Australia two weeks later, incredibly breezy by some adoption standards) only two years later her parents returned to the country to adopt another child, a son, Grady, who, at the time, was six months old and in the care of a foster mum.
Jessica says her parents were content with their brood – when, lo and behold, her mother became pregnant, soon welcoming a daughter, Phoebe.
About 18 months after that, Maddy came along.
As their family was made up of both adopted and biological children, Jessica’s parents made sure adoption was always an open subject in the Danaher household, with it made clear there was also no dodging her Korean heritage.
‘When we were kids we used to travel for Korean lessons. Mum learnt more Korean than we did,’ Jessica remembers.
‘We had the Korean alphabet and she’d quiz us; and she’d cook us Korean dishes. When we made our Holy Communion, I wore a traditional hanbok – which I was okay with, because traditional Korean dresses weren’t girly.’
Growing up, though, Jessica recalls having no idea what ‘race’ was and, not realising she was born a different one to her parents, figured she would ‘grow’ a Caucasian nose that looked like her parents.
She explains: ‘The adoption stuff really wasn’t an issue and I don’t know if that’s because Mum and Dad never made it an issue. But they were told early on in the process, especially seeing as they’re white, ‘don’t lie to your kids, it’s better the earlier they know’. So I was less than a year old, they sat me down and told me I was adopted. It’s always been a known fact.
‘I do remember growing up and, not understanding the concept of race, seeing mum and dad with their big, Caucasian noses and then assuming when I get older, my nose will grow in. I thought it was an age thing. Then I got confused because I saw a kid who was younger than me and had a bigger nose than me.’
Jessica rememebrs that her sister was also a little baffled by the concept.
She says: ‘I remember once we’re in the car, all four of us, we’re waiting at the shops and having a chat. I was maybe 12 and I can’t remember how it came up, but Maddy, who was about five, said, “ohhhh is that what adopted means. I always just thought mum and dad were in Korea when they had you”. She thought because we were born in Korea, they were holidaying in Korea when they had me and Grady.’
In a landscape where odds are the only Asian families in town are the ones who own the local Chinese restaurant or Vietnamese bakery, Jessica says that while she never had to deal with ‘rampant’ racism growing up, she can recall moments of casual racism that dotted her upbringing.
‘I was once at a school with only 30 people, and I was clearly the only Asian,’ she says. ‘A few people would say “go back to where you came from”, racial things, or you’re walking through town and they’re saying, “ching chong”; just saying Asian-y things. It was here and there, but it wasn’t rampant racism. It was a thing you would almost learn to expect.’
While Jessica says she and Grady learnt to handle the comments or slurs, it was their parents who took on any prejudice or teasing to heart.
She says: ‘I remember travelling around Europe with Mum and we went to Dachau concentration camp. We were walking through and these German kids on a school excursion yelled out to me, and my mum asked what they shouted. I said, ‘it’s fine, leave it, put it down to ignorance’, but mum turned around and gave them a mouthful, saying ‘that’s my daughter, how dare you, especially in a place like this’, with angry tears in her eyes.’
Jessica goes on: ‘Grady and I leant on each other, because we both unconsciously understood what it felt like. Parents get defensive and make it a bigger deal and you get a bit embarrassed. It was nice to have someone who knew what you were going through.
‘I used to get a bit embarrassed when Mum or Dad would ask who [had said something]. It wasn’t nice but you also can’t live your life going after it, you become bitter. I think in that sense we leant on each other heavily.’
Even at the height of her angsty teen years, Jessica put it front of mind to never use her adoption to one up her parents in a fight.
‘I was very conscious of never saying “you’re not my real parents” as angry as I got, it was always front of mind to never cross that line,’ she says. ‘They are my real parents. It might be different for those who were adopted later and have a memory, but for me, that is my life. I remember thinking that would kill them to hear that.’
Still, it sometimes came in handy when wanting to shut her younger sisters up, adding with a laugh, Jessica says, ‘I’d fight them and they’d call me ‘flat face’ and I’d get really offended and say, “well at least mum and dad chose to have me!”‘
While kids have never been a priority for Jessica and her partner, who both relocated from Sydney to work in Switzerland for a few years, she’s open to the idea of adopting one day.
She explains: ‘Seeing people around us have children we’re more open to it, but we want to achieve so much together as a couple and know the responsibility of kids changes your life. For one, we wouldn’t be living in Switzerland – it’s just us making that decision, ultimately.
‘But if it came down to it, I would be totally open to it.’
Adoption Month is a month-long series covering all aspects of adoption.
For the next four weeks, which includes National Adoption Week from October 14-19, we will be speaking to people who have been affected by adoption in some way, from those who chose to welcome someone else's child into their family to others who were that child.
We'll also be talking to experts in the field and answering as many questions as possible associated with adoption, as well as offering invaluable advice along the way.
If you have a story to tell or want to share any of your own advice please do get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.