by Lily Valentino, Colombian adoptee raised in the USA.
We adoptees are absolute masters at compartmentalizing, I am no different. I can go on my way, not acknowledging, ignoring and stuffing my shit in the back of the closet. But it never fails that eventually something will trigger me into facing my feelings, and downward I usually go for a few days, and sometimes weeks and months.
Yesterday was one of those days, it was like walking through a field and getting bitten by a snake! It happened fast, yet while it was happening it was playing out in slow motion. But now it is nearly 24 hours later and I can quite sharply feel those words coursing through my veins like the poison of a snake.
“….they were brought to this country, were stripped of their names, language, culture, religion, god and taken totally away from the history of themselves”
These were words I heard in passing yesterday, that were the initial sting, bite, if you will, which left me literally stunned. These words came out of Luis Farrakhan, and as I was listening to him speak them, it hit me, he was talking about the slaves brought to America and I too, I too, was sold and brought to this country away from my birth land, for money.
As these words slipped down my throat, I thought of being minority, being Hispanic and how my white adoptive mother pushed and tried to get me to date white guys. How she often spoke about how she wanted me to marry an Italian man. This thought always makes me sick and the term, “whitewash” comes to mind as being her motive. Memories of how she spoke of Hispanics by referring to them using the racial slur, “spics” rush to the forefront of my mind.
It left me shrinking into my seat for the rest of the day. Choking on thoughts of all that I have lost and continue to lose, my culture, my language, my native food, my name, my family and mi tierra (my land). Thinking of how my world is literally cut in half (because I have my birth family that live in Colombia and my husband and kids here in the US), how true happiness of having my world combined will never be had, true belonging is a shadow that I’m forever chasing just like time lost.
I sit here uneasy, fighting the tears from filling my eyes. I’ve been in deep thought about this sudden cry for human rights that does not seem to include adoptees, yet we are walking a near similar path to the slaves of 300 years ago. The difference, we were not bought to fulfill physical labor but to fulfill an emotional position for many white families. Some of us were treated well, part of the family like nothing “less than” while others remained outsiders, forced to fit into a world not our own and punished emotionally and physically when we could not meet their needs. When we stood up for ourselves and decided that we no longer wanted to fulfill that emotional roll to another human for which we had been bought or withstand the abuse, we have been cast out and off of the plantation and told never to return.
The crazy thing is that it is 2020 and my basic human rights to know my name, to know my culture, to grow up in the land that I was born in, to speak my native language, though violated mean nothing, as nobody other than other adoptees are concerned, or have a sense of urgency about this violation.
If my mum read my posts about adoption, she’d think, “Not Juliette, not my daughter!”
I’ve done the emotional work because I know my parents haven’t and never will. Brexit tore my family apart when my parents voted and arguments revealed just how little they understood they had an Asian immigrant daughter. I struggled and battled them over Brexit, Trump and racism for two years. I raged, I withdrew, I reflected, I dug around for answers but I knew I could only ever work on myself. I knew the whole argument about Brexit had always been about adoption, but they didn’t. Likewise, I knew the first rift that happened in my teens, on the surface was about moving (countries) for about the 6th time in my short life, was also about adoption. But I never said it, so we never talked about it. And as far as I know, they never knew it.
So when at age 46 a friend gently suggested I meet up with her 70 year old adoptee friend who’d done plenty of therapy around her own adoption, I shrugged and agreed. I did not realise how much it would clarify and soothe me to talk to another adoptee, something I had never done before. That’s still incredible to me! Imagine being blind and never connecting to another blind person for most of your life – never knowing how universal your feelings are or realising only those who’ve experienced it, truly understand. As someone who’s been adopted, compared with those who haven’t and think it’s a beautiful happy ending with little to do with anything else, there are things I could never tell anyone while growing up. My loneliness, my longings ended up revealing and highlighting that biology matters and that my family was not enough and that their difference (not mine) was a source of deep isolation and pain. I understood from an early age just how forbidden that topic was and just how little self awareness my parents had about their own grief and it’s impact on me.
I could not find my place in this large white working class family whose only experience of Asian culture was take-out food. I’m not sure they ever rejected me exactly, perhaps I rejected them? But I certainly wasn’t embraced by them. I wasn’t in the minds of extended family, except to be asked about politely as an after thought, after speaking with my parents. If it ever occurred to my immediate or extended family to wonder how I felt being adopted and different, transracially and intercountry adopted, I never had any evidence of it.
For those aware of Tuckman’s model of group development (Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing) I never got past the first stage of Forming with my extended family. They never stopped being polite. That reminds me of the first reality show on MTV, “.. the true story…of seven strangers…picked to live in a house…(work together) and have their lives taped…to find out what happens…when people stop being polite…and start getting real…The Real World.” Perhaps it sounds blissfully charming to live in a world where people never stop being polite, but the real connection doesn’t actually happen until you do. That doesn’t mean when you stop being polite you start being rude, it just means you start exploring each other in a more open and honest way and that can get muddy – but done with curiosity and empathy, it can also lead to stronger and more meaningful relationships.
Now that I think about it, I’ve never left the storming phase with my adoptive parents. The classic movie 12 Angry Men is a great example in a nutshell of a group of strangers, moving from being cautiously polite through to an angry battle of wills, until they begin to learn more about each other’s stories and perspectives and in doing so, are able to reach understanding and consensus. A group can be colleagues, or it could be a jury, or new or old friendships. If you cast your eye on your relationships with friends or family, you’ll see the ones that got past the forming/polite stages, or through the storming phase, and those which never have. Side note, one of my friendships actually got a real life dose of this after we worked briefly together on a project and never saw each other again until we found ourselves on a jury together. We’ve been great friends ever since!
Some teams or relationships will never leave the storming phase and will then never reach their potential together. They will at best remain independent of each other and work alongside each other without too much jostling, at worst actively sabotage and disrupt progress and harmony. When they reach the storming, they will never test their own beliefs against differing perspectives, instead they will retreat into the safety of a story told from a single lens, their own. This is what my parents have done, you may be wondering right now if I have done that too. Certainly there is plenty I can’t know. But I can tell you I have thought it out from their perspectives initially more than I did my own, it’s the nature of life as an adoptee. For emotional safety, the pervading priority is the comfort of adoptive parents and the story they tell themselves. Society easily empathises with their longings — not ours as adoptees. It’s my deep understanding and prioritising of their perspective which also keeps me from unravelling theirs with my own. This also hinders the possibility of healing the widening rift in our relationship with truth.
Rightly or wrongly. Most of my therapy has been an attempt to work out the question of whether I should or not. Whether they are capable of growing at this point in their lives, or whether I would only cause pain and confuse them without any useful end game. In doing so, I create more emotional labour for myself in trying to explain the unexplainable.
When my mum went to see the movie Lion with her sister, I wondered whether it was an opening for us to talk. When I asked her how it was, all she said was, “It was good”. Neither of us pushed it further than that, though I remain astonished that she could have nothing more to say than that. I imagine that she looked at that story and specifically saw all the ways in which the protagonists story was not like mine, not like hers. What I think she would cling to was that I was a baby, not a few years old with memories of my family. In her mind, I had not experienced what he did as a lost child in India, searching for my missing relatives and not knowing how to get back to them. But of course I did, except as a baby, I experienced it all without language and by the time I had words for it, I also had awareness of the pain it could bring. And awareness of how little anyone would understand it.
I now have language for my experience and I understand the value of sharing it with other adoptees. Sharing with adoptive parents and with a society which harbours a one dimensional view of adoption through the lens of adopters, I want us to move past the forming phase of using babies to heal the wounds of infertility and opaque illusions of saviourism. I want us to move past the storming phase of denying the reality of adoptee losses and denial of our human rights, into an age of genuine problem solving, equipped with self awareness and the courage to learn from others. Still, it’s common to find people responding to this thought with, “Not every adoptee …”, not their friend, not their cousin, not their daughter.
To you, I remind you that my mum would read this and think that too.