Interview with International Adoptee Lily Vanek

1.) Tell me about your adoption experience. What was it like? 

I was a 90’s baby, and during that time, they had a one child policy in China. That’s why I think my biological family had to give me up. I remember some of the people from the orphanage. There was a caretaker there, we called her “Ai Ei”. She would take me home with her and show me love—and at that age, you really need it so you can grow into an adult that can form healthy relationships.

I was an older child when I was adopted, around five or six years old. When I was adopted, I was careful to warm up to my parents at first, but at the same time, I was extremely scared when they weren’t there. My Mom said we would be in a grocery store and I would be the cart, and she couldn’t even walk two steps away from me before I would get upset and think that she was leaving. I had dependency issues.

2.) I know you are interested in getting a tattoo of your adoption journey, what inspired that idea? 

I had abandonment issues, but I never really thought I did until I was older and one of my counselors brought it up to me. I would respond with, “No, my adoptive family is great” and “I love being adopted.” But, deep down, I did have a lot that I needed to deal with. I put myself through a lot subconsciously, thinking that maybe I deserved being put up for adoption. So I did a lot of self harm growing up.

Before I had these really strong feelings, and thought, “Oh I’ve got to get these scars covered up…People might see them and be afraid of me.” Which was my only real fear. So at first, I wanted to get a tattoo to cover them and have them be less noticeable.

However, through the years, I got closer to my scars and realized, they made me who I am and I am stronger because I did get through it. Now, I want my tattoo to tell the story of where I came from, why it made me who I am, and I want to embrace my scars and have them be partially visible in my tattoo. I want to add a meaningful family piece that includes an image of my Dad’s boat with my Mom’s name on it. I want to use the ribbing on my arm as a piece of the net— it will blend in and look artsy, but not completely hide it.

3.) How did your parents help you to feel secure as a part of the family unit?

My mom was good at sacrificing and knowing how to put me first. Which I needed—constant proof and efforts that I was the number one and that she wasn’t going to leave me. It’s hard to say that out loud because I like to think of myself as a selfless person who helps others and puts others first, but I think growing up, I needed one person to show me that I was worth it. And my mom was definitely the one who did that. It was wonderful!

My parents asked me if I wanted a sister or a brother because they wanted to adopt again, but only if I wanted it. I always said, “No.” Then at some point, when I was older, I thought, “Maybe I don’t want all the attention.” Then they were actually too old to adopt, so we got a foreign exchange student. Today, she’s still very much a part of the family. We are still good friends and I even consider her a sister.

4.) What are the best traits your parents instilled in you during your upbringing?

Since I was adopted when I was older, I already had a personality and it was similar to my adopted parents. When I was growing up, people would ask my parents, “How did you adopt someone that is literally a miniature version of you?”

Looking back at the best things, I would say, my mom helped me to be more empathetic and altruistic—to be more aware of what other people need. She’s inspired me to live like that.

My dad taught me the Alaskan way—how to get through anything. And growing up in Alaska made me more connected to nature, and more of a handy(woman). My father also taught me how to not be so connected to technology so that I constantly need it.

And both of my parents taught me how to not be materialistic and how to work hard, which I appreciate.

5.) What was the hardest part/season of life growing up as an adoptee? 

All of it was hard, up until two years ago. When my parents adopted me, they put me in everything to see what I liked—dancing, swimming, sports, arts, anything you can imagine that you’d want to do outside of school. I loved that when I was little, but once I went through puberty, I developed a chronic illness called endometriosis that was really painful and hard. I had to give up everything—my friends, sports, everything. I realized that I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do without feeling pain and then I would get really upset and have to leave. I got more and more sick growing up and more and more depressed. The hardest part was having all this hope, and then having a new treatment for it, having it work for a little while, and then (for whatever reason) having it stop working.

A part of me feels like I didn’t want to get healthy on the inside, because I had all of these negative feelings about abandonment and I felt like I wasn’t worthy of my adoptive parents. I felt like I wasn’t living the life that would make me worthy of it, yet at the same time I couldn’t. I would sometimes try, and that would get me to the point of feeling okay, and I would be super happy, and then I would start feeling the pain again and it would bring me back into being depressed. And that repeated over, and over, and over again. I don’t even know how many times that happened, where I would feel healthy because I tried something new, and then it would just go bad again. Until I had a surgery to treat my endometriosis, and realized I could live happily; life was hard.

I had a lot of mental problems after the surgery. I thought the surgery would fix everything, and then I realized, “Nope. Your body is a whole separate thing from your mind, Lily. You have your body fixed, and now you have to go fix your mind.” I realized that I needed to pinpoint and put a label on everything that came into my mind. When you do that, it helps you to understand your feelings, and then you will know where to go from there. I went through and I pinpointed every single issue I had with myself and I realized I didn’t love myself. Also, I realized my inner voice wasn’t positive—it always helped me to get to where I wanted to be in life, but it wasn’t a positive way of getting there. It was always beating me down. So I decided to view myself as someone who I really care about. I had to learn to view myself as someone who deserved to be treated with love and respect. I constantly had to think of my stream of thoughts and change my inner voice to be a positive talk…that took over a year.

6.) You mentioned reuniting with your birthmother. What sort of feelings do you have about the possible reunion? 

I actually meditate about this almost everyday. I try to connect my soul to her soul when I do that. I have the feeling that I need to find her so that I can put her mind and heart at ease. I feel like she is the one in the hard boat at this time, and I’ve got it easy. I have a family that loves me, and I am proud of who I am now. I think that’s one of the most important things—to come out as an adopted kid and realize, “I’m not a lost person.”

I couldn’t imagine having to give up your own child… and I know that she loves me, and the reason she did it was so that I could have a better life. I would love to tell her the thank you that she deserves and give her the peace of mind that she deserves, so she doesn’t have to wonder where I am anymore.

I want her to know that I am in a good place and I love my life—that my adoptive parents are good to me—and I ended up someplace that is amazing…America! She probably has no idea. I want her to know that all of her dreams and her wishes for me came true. I would love for her to know this. And if she did need help of any sort, that I would be there to help her.

7.) What is something you hope all [adoptive] parents would hear, listen to, and know?

My parents took me to meet some of the kids that were in the orphanage with me, once I was older, after being adopted. I am actually connected to some of them on Facebook. And one day, I was clicking around on their Facebook’s and I found some more kids from the orphanage that they were connected with, and I was deeply touched.

These parents adopted so many kids and everyone looked so happy! And I thought, “You know what? These kids are blessed too! Let me just say thank you to them.” So I wrote a letter to a random adoptive parent and posted it to Facebook; it said thank you for what you do. It also said, what I would want all adoptive parents to know: Thank you for giving us the hope that we didn’t have.

8.) If you could tell the world one thing about adoption, what would it be?

If you feel interested in adoption, totally look into it! There are so many kids who need adoption these days. If we can work together and help those kids, that would be wonderful!

However, I feel like it’s important that you adopt when you want to adopt, and don’t just do it because your spouse wants to, or because you think it’s the right thing to do. Because those feelings do carry out into action, and it might lead the child to not feel worthy. I don’t want to stop anyone from adopting, but I think it’s important that they are committed to the adoption and are prepared to help a child who has dealt with abandonment.

9.) If you could give other adoptees advice on their journeys, what would it be? 

I used to think, “I wish my parents adopted someone who was worthy of them,” even though my parents told me, I was always worthy of them.

To other adoptees, know that your parents adopted you and they really want to have you! They are really trying to be there for you. Have patience with your parents and know that they are coming from good motives.

At least for me, that was my experience.

10.) Do you have any thoughts on how we, as a community, can offer more inclusivity for all adoptees?

I think people need to know that family is family and family is who you choose it to be. Growing up there were kids who said things like, “Well, I wasn’t adopted and my parents love me and you were a mistake because you were adopted.”

I think people need to teach their kids that there is no shame in being adopted, or growing your family through adoption. In fact, the shame is looking down on other families. I think people need to teach their kids to be accepting—of all shapes, sizes, colors…to know that we are all human beings and we all want the same things. We all have hearts and souls.


Today, Lily is working toward opening up her own salon and becoming a certified life coach. Lily’s goal is to combine cosmetology and life coaching together, to create a space where she can help people find their path in life and feel good about themselves physically. Throughout her adoption journey, Lily realized that her purpose is to uplift others and inspire them to shine.


Heather Lei graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a B.A. in English. She is a mentor through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program which aims to help at-risk youth stay in school and attend college. Heather is also one of the producers of, The Greater Than Project, an interview style web series which focuses on stories of greatness—of triumph over challenge. Heather is a passionate storyteller who hopes that through the sharing of stories, we can better understand the world around us and more deeply connect with our humanity.









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