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Navigating Adoption at Street Level

I attended the KAAN conference for the first time last summer. What a privilege and pleasure it was to finally be a part of something I’d heard so much about over the years.

Discussion on race and ethnicity can sometimes feel overwhelming or confusing, that’s why it’s so helpful to have protected space and time to process our stories and hear from one another. I was especially grateful for the seminar hosted by Dr. SunAh Marie. In that time we were asked to form small groups and dialogue about our personal experiences.

I was deeply moved by everyone’s willingness to share, listen, and sit together with such tender and perhaps emotionally-charged recollections. In moments like these we gain windows into others’ narratives and sometimes receive a mirror for our own. I shared this story, which later became a launchpad for a book-chapter in This is Why I Was Adopted. Here’s an excerpt from that chapter:

“He wouldn’t stop following us. We tried to ignore it. But he just kept going. Was he mocking us? Was he trying to get a response? What was he going after?

It was a sunny spring afternoon. Just after a worship service at our local church. My friend and I were enjoying the beautiful day as we walked out onto State St., a bustling pocket of boutique shops and restaurants in the heart of campus at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

I fell in love with the city of Madison during my time there as an undergrad. For a lot of folks, it’s easy to get pulled in by the beautiful landscape that changes throughout the seasons, scenic bicycle trails, locally-grown produce sold at the farmer’s market up at the capital square, quirky micro-breweries, Bratfest, Stella’s Hot Cheese-bread, and that classic Midwest vibe.

UW-Madison boasts its liberal values and progressive stance on just about everything. According to the brochures, it’s diverse. Like I said, I really enjoyed this community, so much character with its old architecture and stunning views on the lakes. Not to mention, the “Terrace” area, where we were headed for a cold drink in the shade.

Just a moment after stepping onto the street, a young white man began following us, demonstrating the Gagnam Style dance by PSY. We kept walking. He kept following.

Did he expect us to do something? Looking back, I still can’t imagine what would compel a person to do such a thing. My heart beats faster even as I write this.

Whatever his intent, it wasn’t friendly. It didn’t feel friendly. And it made my stomach turn. A visceral sensation, a knot in my gut. My blood was boiling. It was humiliating, especially as bystanders just watched, some of them laughing, some of them stunned, some of them confused, none of them offering to help.

Of course, it was only moments earlier when we were singing worship songs with our local church community. Songs of love, forgiveness, mercy, grace, good news of great joy for all people, etc.

But, what about for this person? And what about for us? And what about the justice of God? God calls his people to do justice (Micah 6:8). What would that look like for us on State Street on this particular afternoon? I wrestled with this in my heart. I wanted justice. I wanted this young white man to stop it.

My friend and I looked at each other. And chose to ignore it. We continued toward the lake while the young man continued to dance behind us, while others continued to watch it happen.

We finally arrived at the end of State. St. Perhaps we tired him out. He stopped. Fading into the background, never to be seen again. It took a few hours for my body to feel calm again, and to process what had just happened.”

We came back together into a large group, my neighbor invited me to share my story aloud for the others to hear. Three impressions came up for me in that moment.

1. I’ve served in adoptee summer camp spaces throughout the past decade, and something about that moment at KAAN took me back into that camp-like atmosphere. I think it was the notion of feeling seen, heard, valued, understood, and embraced… this is a priceless gift we give to one another. Thank you to KAAN for making that happen for the adoptee community and for pushing us to constantly assess how to widen and deepen the scope of such a precious experience.

2. Every story counts. I finished, and then another person shared, and then another. Together we listened. Despite re-occurring patterns relevant to the theme of Dr. SunAh’s seminar, no story could be replicated. Each one offered a unique point of reference that spoke to the collective dialogue of our adoption journey. To those specific folks who felt compelled to share during that time, thank you for letting us hear your voice.

3. Lastly, each one of our stories continue to unfold. And it’s so helpful to have spaces like KAAN in which to process and make sense of it. Sure, the guy on State St. stopped, faded into the background, out of the scene. However, I’ve had more experiences that have felt difficult to navigate. I was in the lobby of a local clinic meeting a client recently. He heard me discuss my trip to China with his caregiver and he asked, “Do you speak Chinese??” His mom rebuked him, “No! That’s not how you say it, you say ‘do you speak Japanese.” It was then my turn to decide how to exist and respond while others in the lobby watched. KAAN will be in Denver this year. I suspect you’ll have a story to share. Does it need to be sugar-coated with a hope-filled message? Would we require you to wrap it up neatly so that listeners could feel a sense of restoration? I don’t think so. I think the telling of your story is powerful enough.

Thank you for showing up. Not just at KAAN of course but as you live your story at the street level, hour by hour, it continually holds new, fresh and timely validation for those around to hear it. Please keep standing for and speaking into the incredibly complex narratives we each seek to navigate.


Cam, trans-racially adopted from Korea and author of This is Why I Was Adopted, holds a Master’s in Counseling Psychology from University of Wisconsin-Madison and is a licensed professional clinical counselor. In addition, he is trained in biblical counseling, certified in non-violent crisis intervention and is a member of the American Psychological Association’s Minority Fellowship Program. He currently provides clinical mental health services in Minneapolis, MN, for individuals and families on the adoption and permanency spectrum.

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