Closeup of mixed-race Japanese American woman in glasses and gray sweater leans against tree trunk.

Susan Kiyo Ito on Growing Up as the ‘Unicorniest Unicorn’

The biracial adoptee tells her story in her memoir “I Would Meet You Anywhere”

Susan Kiyo Ito.

Emma Assano Roark

Words by Samantha Pak

For a very long time, Susan Kiyo Ito had stayed quiet about her story of being an adopted person. But not anymore.

With her memoir, I Would Meet You Anywhere, the 64-year-old delves into her life as a biracial Japanese American raised by two Japanese American parents, meeting her biological mother and their resulting relationship, searching for her biological father, and finding community among other adoptees. The book was released earlier this month and coincides with National Adoption Awareness Month, which runs through the whole of November.

I recently spoke with the Oakland resident about her reclaiming her story, having my eyes opened as someone who was not adopted (and getting upset on her behalf while reading), and the differing sizes of her various family trees.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Samantha Pak: Why did you decide to write I Would Meet You Anywhere? Because there are a lot of hard times in there to read about, and I'm assuming to write about as well.
Susan Kiyo Ito: This book took about 30 years to write. It started out as my MFA. It was fiction. It was me trying to answer a lot of questions about my life. It was originally called Filling in the Blanks. I was really trying to fill in the blanks of my story: Things that I didn't know. Things that I didn't understand. It's just evolved since then. In the very beginning, there's the line, “This was a story that I was not supposed to tell.” I complied with that for many years, and at a certain point felt like this is my story to tell. This is my story and I just finally didn't want to keep it a secret anymore.

SP: As writers a lot of times, fictional stories are loosely based on our lives. When did it go from that to, “It will be my story?”

SKI: Maybe about 10 years ago. Being an adopted person, we often feel like so many parts of our lives are fiction. We have a fictional birth certificate. I worked on it as a novel for many years, and I realized that I was spending so much time trying to disguise the story or fictionalize the story that I was replicating the fiction of adoption, if that makes sense. I just wanted to be like, “This is my story.”

SP: Did you let (your birth mom) know (about the book)? What was her reaction to that? Because I know she wanted to keep things very private.
SKI: There hasn’t been a response.

SP: What was it like, that first meeting with your birth mom at 20 years old?
SKI: It was surreal. It was one of those moments that I'll never forget. There are a lot of adoption tropey stories about reunions where there's this huge embrace and it's like, “Finally we're together!” It was not like that. It was very up and down, within that one meeting. It went from a lot of anger and disappointment and then there were feelings of connection. It was everything, everywhere, all at once. [laughs] I thought she was amazing. I also felt terrible because I could tell how hard it was for her. It wasn't a happy moment, and that made me feel bad.

SP: In addition to having this relationship with you, your birth mom also became friends with your adoptive parents. You mentioned in the book, them sending gifts and cards to each other. What was it like for you to see that relationship with all of your parents—especially because your birth mom was so hesitant?
SKI: I think they recognized something in each other because they were all Japanese. They had that in common and it gave them a certain sense of familiarity and comfort with each other. If any of them had been something different, maybe it would have been harder. But I think they immediately felt comfortable with each other. They were happy to know her, and she was really happy. She didn't know that I had been adopted by Japanese parents. She was never told that, and I think it really made her feel glad.

SP: One of your friends did the genealogy thing and found a close relative (of your biological father). What was that feeling, to be like, “This is another side of my heritage?”
SKI: At that point, it had been 40 years since I had met (my biological mother) and this whole time, she didn't tell me, and I felt like it's not going to happen. So the only thing that can tell me is maybe DNA, and consumer DNA was just starting. I had sent in my sample three or four years before I got any results. So I had given up at that point.

I was really not expecting anything to come of it. I was just shocked. You learn in one moment: One, we found a match and two, your birth father is not alive. That was a lot to take in. But when I connected with my aunt, it was unbelievable how open and welcoming she was. I was bracing myself that it was going to be not good. I was very wary about the whole thing. I wanted to know for information’s sake, but I really wasn't expecting any relationship.

SP: That side of the family goes back to the Civil War and in the book, you were like, “I always considered my family's military history with my adoptive dad and World War II.” Whereas this side goes all the way back a century and a half. I thought that was very interesting, that comparison.
SKI: They gave me a book, a bound book with many thick pages, of family trees, letters and diaries, and photos. And since then, I have put them all into my own little ancestry tree. It goes further back than what they gave me because you keep following the little hints and it goes back to Europe—the 1500s. And I'm like, “What on Earth?” I don't know if it's all verified, but people keep leading to people.

That's amazing, because one of the sad things is my adoptive father didn't know his own grandparents’ names. He knew his parents who came from Japan, but he didn't know any relatives that had come before that. It's the same for my adoptive mother, that family tree is very short—and very immediate. So you've got a few scraggly little trees here and then you've got this giant forest.

SP: You mentioned lying to doctors to get medical records. In terms of adoptees being able to access that kind of information, has it changed? Is it more open now?
SKI: There are still 23 states that have closed records for adopted people. For example, California, where I live, still has sealed records for adopted people. So whether you're 18, 50 or 90 years old, you cannot get your records.

SP: Even your original birth certificate, and that kind of thing?
SKI: And your adoption records. Your adoption records would have the legal paper saying, “This child was born, this was their original name, these were their original parents, and then they were adopted and now these are their parents, and this is their new name.” All of that is sealed, in addition to any medical or birth records. My birth records were not opened until 2020, when I was 60 years old. I was getting my birth records from New York state. It's still a big issue for many many adoptees. There are more tools available. DNA has made a huge difference. I think also social media, Internet, being able to search public records has made a huge difference.

Susan Kiyo Ito holds up her original birth certificate, answering the question on her shirt, that yes, she finally has her OBC.

Courtesy of Susan Kiyo Ito

SP: A lot of the things you write about in your book really opened my eyes as someone who is not mixed, who was not adopted. I really appreciate it as someone from the “other side.”
SKI: Well I want to say thank you back to you because, in telling the story, I really wondered, “Who’s gonna care who's not adopted?” I wrote it as much for people, as you say, on the “other side,” as for communities who do resonate directly with the story. Also, my story is really unique in that I consider myself a transracial adoptee, someone who does not share the same race as their parents. I halfway share the same race as my parents, but the other half not.

Most transracial adoptees are adoptees of color, raised by white parents. A lot of them are raised in racial and cultural isolation, and they do not have the opportunity to know people from their original heritage. My parents did not have to work hard to expose me to white culture. All I had to do was turn on the TV or go out the door in our town. We also had a very extensive Japanese American community with our church and extended relatives, so I had a lot of that as well. I really benefited from that, and I did not feel this rupture, where a lot of transracial adoptees feel very separate from their birth culture, and their community they were born into.

SP: You mentioned that group of adoptees who are also biracial, some are Asian American, and you're like, “These are my people. Because I've met Asian American people; I know adoptees; I know biracial people. But I don't know very many who are all three like me.” What was that like?
SKI: It was another one of those surreal moments of just like, “Wow, these are people that I can relate to more than ever.” When you feel like you're just the most unusual person around—I would say the unicorn among unicorns, the unicorniest unicorn—it meant a lot to meet people (like me).

One of my friends (a Korean adoptee) had posted on Facebook about having a gathering, and somebody wrote in the comments, “That was a really nice gathering, but I really felt kind of on the edge, or on the outside, because as a biracial Japanese American, raised by Japanese Americans…” I connected with that person and it was just this mutual joy of two unicorns meeting in the forest. I thought I was the only one!

I didn't know it was a reason I wrote the book, but now that the book is out, it's amazing that I could find other people like me, and they could find me and not feel unusual.

SP: And I know you released this book earlier in November, and it’s National Adoption Awareness Month.
SKI: This month started out more as an industry thing, where agencies were trying to get people to adopt. I don't know how many years ago, maybe 2015, an adoptee started a hashtag called #FlipTheScript and it was like, “This should center adoptee voices.” It's still pretty mixed on who gets to own the month, but a lot of adoptees have really taken this opportunity. I was thrilled. It just was absolutely by coincidence that my book came out at the beginning of November, but it's perfect because this is who we really want to center.

SP: What message do you hope readers get—both people who have been adopted or parents who have adopted, and also people like me who are on the “other side?”
SKI: What I want everyone to take away is that adoption is complicated. It's lifelong. This thinking and questioning and wondering, a lot of this happens when an adopted person is no longer a dependent child in their family. That's really when it begins. One of the things that I say when I talk to adoptive parents is, “Your adopted child will live the majority of their life not as a child.” And that's when a lot of the processing and dealing with things really happens.

SP: Yeah, it’s way simpler when you're a kid.
SKI: Way simpler! And I think there's a lot of impulse in this culture to try and simplify or flatten the experience of adoption: It's a win win! It's great for everyone! It's very complicated, and it begins with loss. There's a lot of impulse to try to make adoption all about love. And while there may be love in the equation, that's not all there is. It starts with loss. Adoption doesn't happen unless somebody's in crisis. It doesn't happen for happy reasons. It happens because somebody's at a very difficult turning point in their lives.

I didn't come to my parents until I was almost four months old. And when you see babies that are one week old, two months old, three months old, they're real humans. They’re people and they’ve experienced loss. I just think about what it was like to not have a family or any human contact other than health workers until I was four months old. That's very sobering. They don't allow kittens and puppies to be separated from their parents until they're eight weeks old. That's big. When you think about that and with humans, you can do it at five minutes old and they'll be fine. That's a lot to think about.

Published on November 21, 2023

Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.