Who Am I?

by TLB, adopted from Vietnam to Canada.

Do I look like my father or mother? What is my real name? When was I born? Who am I really? I have been going through these questions my whole life and not quite sure if I will ever find the answer.

I was born in Vietnam, adopted by a white family in Canada in the early 70’s. I am part African-American and Vietnamese but I look more African-American, and I’m also physically disabled which I contracted from polio and a gun shot wound (something I have been told as a child, but not sure if it’s true). I have always known I was different growing up, not because the colour of my skin but because I was disabled. When I arrived to Canada I had to go to the hospital for many surgeries to straighten my legs and back due to scoliosis. When I arrived home from the hospital, this is when I felt I didn’t belong in the family. As a young child I was stubborn and barely spoke because the effects of leaving Vietnam and being in a different environment, I was overwhelmed.

Being an African-American Asian disabled child, living in a white world, I knew I was different and I wanted so much to fit in. At an early age, I knew that my adoptive mother treated me different than my other siblings. They had two other biological children along with another adopted child from Children’s Aid Society, so I was the black sheep in the family and that was my nickname to other family members and neighbours. My adoptive mother wasn’t the perfect mother everyone thought she was behind closed doors. Using my wheelchair was forbidden in the house so I had to always crawl around on the floor and carpet, but leaving marks on the carpet didn’t look good and caused my adoptive mother to always vacuum, so I had to have my bedroom moved down in the basement – being isolated away from my siblings. Whenever my siblings would come down to play with me, they were sent back upstairs and told not to play with your “black sheep” sister. Being alone in the basement, I stopped talking and had to entertain myself as a child. From not talking, my vocal cords didn’t develop well so whenever I went to school, I had trouble interacting with other students and was bullied and labelled as being dumb.

My adoptive mother always told me I should be grateful to them for adopting me. I always kept my feelings inside because if I told them how I really felt, I would be beaten. I always had to thank her for saving my life every time I did anything wrong. The first time I said “I wish you’d never adopted me” my adoptive mother emotionally and physically abused me. Sometimes I wouldn’t care what she did to me, I was happier just to be in my own shell in the closet.

I was never involved in any of the family gatherings or family vacations. I would always eat alone after everyone else ate. The one memory I will never forget was when my adoptive family went away to Florida and I wasn’t allowed to go because my adoptive mother said “black and crippled children were not allowed”. I went to the mirror and looked at myself. I wanted so much to be white that I scrubbed my skin so hard but it just turned red. I pushed my wheelchair down the stairs and tried to push myself up to walk, instead I fell down and was left lying on the floor for days until a neighbour found me bleeding. Instead of being a good neighbour and help a young girl, he took advantage of me for days while my family was away having fun. When my family returned, I tried to tell my adoptive mother what happened. All she said was, “You were looking for attention and that’s what you deserved”.

I wanted so much to be a part of the family to the point that I would agree to clean the house. My adoptive mother would always introduce me to her friends as the “black maid of the third country”. My adoptive mother emotionally abused me by continuing saying she never wanted me because of my disability and skin colour. She didn’t think I would turn out to “be soo dark” and a troubled child needing therapy appointments. All I wanted was to make my adoptive mother proud of me, but nothing I did ever satisfied her. Whenever my siblings got into trouble, I would stand up for them and would lie and steal for them so they would play with me. There were times I would sneak food at night because I was so hungry but whenever I got caught, I was sent to the closet for days. Nothing I did was good enough for my adoptive mother.

When I was 11 years old, I was told that I was leaving the family and spending a few days somewhere else. I didn’t know what I did wrong. That night I stayed up all night rethinking the day – what did I do to displease my adoptive mother. All she told me was I would be going to a better place that can care for my “crippled-black” behaviour. I cried the whole way begging my adoptive mother that I would be a “good girl”. Four hours later I was dropped off to a big stone house with lots of stairs and other children running around the living room. My adoptive mother told me it was only for a few weeks and that the family will help me with my behaviour. For the next few days, all I did was sit by the window waiting for my adoptive mother to return. Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months. I had to eventually realise that I was staying in this house and no-one was coming back for me.

I was living in a house with 25 other children. I tried to fit in and be a part of the family but still felt like an outcast. Even though I was not the only disabled child, I felt that I didn’t belong. I found out that the foster mother of this home, was the woman who helped my adoptive parents adopt me from Vietnam. The foster mother had an organisation that helped Canadian and American families to adopt children from third world countries out of orphanages that she opened. I wasn’t the only child adopted and sent to the foster family. During the years, living at the foster family I became a reserved and quiet child and during my teen years I still wanted to know “who am I”? I asked the foster mother if she knew anything of my birth mother and every time I asked her, the answer was always, “Wait until you are eighteen”. From then I just left the question alone and tried to live my teen years in the home.

When I first went to the foster family, I was placed in a school with other disabled children but I felt it wasn’t for me. I wanted to be independent and be left alone so I became very stubborn especially during therapy sessions. Having therapists lift my legs and try to stretch them wasn’t working for me, they tried to get me to use braces and crutches, I definitely didn’t want that. So they finally agreed for me to use a sports wheelchair and what freedom I felt!! Using the wheelchair built up my teen arms and I became very strong, during recess time. While other children were at therapy, I could be found in the gym bouncing basketballs. This is when a sports coach saw me throw my first basket and she asked me, “Do you want to be an athlete and travel?” I quickly answered her, “Yes!” Little did she know that I didn’t just want to be an athlete but I wanted to travel so I could be out of my foster house as much as possible. My foster father was abusing me whenever we went to the family home in Montreal every summer, so whenever I found out that I would be travelling in the summer – I looked forward to the summer knowing I would be out of the country!

If it wasn’t for that sports coach, I wouldn’t have been able to be the Paralympian athlete I am today. I have travelled to many countries and won numerous medals, but a part of me felt that I didn’t deserve it. Whenever I was away, I still felt like an outsider to my team mates and other athletes. Deep down I believed they all knew who they were and they always talked about their family. With my timidness, I still had trouble interacting with my team mates. By the end of every trip, I dreaded going home because I knew what I was going home to.

My foster family didn’t really recognise my athletic achievements. There were times they didn’t even know I went away for a week because there were so many children in the house and the foster mother was busy with her work. I remember one time I arrived home from my first competition where I’d won my first 5 gold medals (being the youngest on the team) and when I arrived home, I just sat at the front door with my bags waiting for someone to greet me. When my sister came down the stairs to see me she just said, “Are you running away?” From that moment, my enthusiasm just dropped from my heart and I wished I could just run away. So from then on, I just continued on with my competitions with no feeling of accomplishment, feeling like a nobody.

I competed in two Paralympics, two PanAm games and many small competitions. When I won my first Paralympic 5 gold medals, I was interviewed by the paper but a lot of the words written were just not true. The story portrayed a young girl winning medals from a foster home that cared for her, but they really didn’t know the truth.

I am grateful for the foster family to let me stay with them, but behind closed doors they portrayed themselves as looking like the perfect couple helping many children. The house was not accessible, I continued to crawl up and down stairs to get to my bedroom, and I had to crawl up and down and bring my chair down stone stairs outside to get to my school bus.

My whole life living in the foster family, I wanted so much to be out and living on my own. When I turned 16 years old, I finished high school and left the foster home. I went to college and received a degree in Business Administration.

Throughout my life, I always felt unloved and not wanted by anyone. I thought of my biological mother not wanting me, my adoptive mother not wanting me and within the foster family, I was just “another child”. I have tried my best to do right things, never gotten involved on the wrong side of the law, etc. I always felt I didn’t fit in anywhere, had trouble with social gatherings and interacting with adults my age. To this day, a large part of me continues to feel isolated, not wanted and most of all not knowing who I really am.

Recently, I decided to register with 23&Me to know my background and I discovered I have many 2nd and 3rd cousins out there. I was surprised to know that I have some sort of distant family out there but disappointed to not have any information about my parents. I just want to have the feeling of belonging. Growing up, I never had that feeling.

homecoming, el regreso

Tower of Babel

this year
after forty years
i have come to claim
the land of my blood
to assert my birthright
to stand in the square
with the confidence
of belonging
and loudly proclaim
that i am here

i am one of you
i am your son
i am your brother
who once was lost
and now found
receive me
restore me
renew me
welcome me

after a lifetime
i dare to challenge
the harsh reality
of circumstance
this passing of time
and it’s inevitable washing
of the years
of minds
souls
tongues
hopes
and dreams

displaying my ignorance
my fears
my unrest
for all to see
i pound on the gates
of my very own
babel’s tower
raging at the twists of fate
that make me
a hero
to the few
and fool
among the many

crying
my illiterate tears
laughing
without explanation
the heights
the depths
are alone
for me to wrestle with
in my sleep
and in the haze
of each passing day

homecoming, el regreso
mi boreal interior collection
(c) 2019 j.alonso
el pocico, españa

Poems by j.alonso may not be reproduced, copied or distributed without the written consent of the author.

Identity, Lost & Found

It wasn’t until I was in my 40s (yes, you read that right), that I started making friendships with Latina women. By this I mean Latina women who grew up within their Latina families, language, and culture. Non-adopted Latina women. 

Why? Why did it take me so long to be able to make connections with other Latina women? Because from the moment of my adoption at age 2.5 months, my Latina identity and environment were replaced by a white, Jewish one. Now, there is nothing wrong with having a white, Jewish identity – if you are white and Jewish. But what if you’re not?

I grew up with so many truly wonderful people and things around me. There were hard times for sure, but there was always love, friendship, family, educational opportunities, vacations, warmth, food, shelter, etc. All feelings and things that no one can or should take for granted. 

Yet, still, something was missing. Not only the figment of mi mami in Colombia, but me, myself. My identity as the Latina I was born to be, thanks to all that had transpired in the lives of my ancestors.

It’s crazy hard to say these things, to say that I got hurt even though I was raised by people who loved me, who had the best intentions, but who wanted me to be – and who were erroneously told I could be – the product of their ancestors and not mine. 

Again, it all leads back to the damaging, majority viewpoints that have dominated the system of adoption since the late 1950s.
Telling adoptive parents that they don’t need to see color, that they should fully assimilate their intercountry transracially adopted child into their family, along with name change, new language, new religion, new environment, is to tell adoptive parents not to see all of their adopted child. It’s how it was done back in the early days of intercountry transracial adoption, and, sadly, much of this continues today even though experts – the adoptees who have lived this whitewashing – have started speaking up on how the impact has been harmful despite the intent being good.

I speak not to be hurtful but that, hopefully, guardians, foster parents, and adoptive parents of children of a different race and ethnicity than theirs can understand and learn to do things in a way that helps raise racially comfortable and competent individuals.

It took me decades to start breaking down my internalized whiteness. And it is an ongoing process. It started with legally reclaiming my original last name, Forero, about 20 years ago. This was NOT done to deny or disrespect my (adoptive) parents. Absolutely not. It was done to respect myself. To recognize I have always been here, that I have always been Colombian, that I have always been part of another family as well as my adoptive family, and that I have always had worth just as I was and always have been. 

My light brown skin has never been white. And that’s OK. 
My dark brown eyes have never been blue. And that’s OK.
Spanish filled my brain from within the womb. And that’s OK.
My ancestors didn’t come from Eastern Europe. And that’s OK. 
I was racially incompetent. And that’s NOT OK.
I am still surprised when I look at pictures of myself and see an Indigenous Latina woman. And that surprise is NOT OK.

Recognizing differences amongst people is not problematic. What’s problematic is discriminating against people based on visible and invisible differences. What’s problematic is pretending not to see people fully. When we put our blinders on to others, we put our blinders on to ourselves as well. Every child, every woman, every man has history that is carried in their genes. No one is less than anyone else. Everyone deserves to be seen. 

“Time’s much too short to be living somebody else’s life.”

Today, I dedicate I Ain’t Movin’, by Des’ree to my fellow transracial adoptees. May you all walk with dignity and pride.

(Originally posted on my facebook feed during NAAM2019)

You Can’t Counsel Yourself into Belonging

Facebook Red Table Talk, Jada Pinkett Smith, Willow Smith, Gammy, Photographed by Michael Becker

Watching Angela Tucker be invited to the Red Table to address transracial adoption from the perspective of an adult adoptee was possibly a landmark moment for many of us. I‘m thrilled that she had the chance and the courage to speak on a subject that adoptees know creates disruption, and frequently outright hostility.

I waited all day for it to appear watching a back catalogue of episodes including one that I couldn’t bring myself to watch before that day, addressing the question “Should white people adopt black kids?” in which the guest is a white adoptive parent and notably absent are any adult adoptees.

It’s not lost on me that one such episode on white privilege the family discuss the meaning and impact of the quote “Prejudice is the emotional commitment to ignorance”. In another episode on relationships between black women and white women, Jada talks honestly about the difficult feeling she gets around white women, especially blonde white women. Later I will think of this and imagine what she would say if she were asked to fit in with a group of blonde white women the way it seems they expect Angela can do in a black community.

Angela expresses things many adoptees will relate to in one form or another, while others may not. For example, she currently feels more comfortable in white communities and parenting white foster children, and I see a lot of criticism online for that, from both adoptees and non-adoptees.

If there’s one thing we know about being an adoptee it’s that we can hold changing perspectives on our own experience over time and offering others the space to be where they are is to offer it to ourselves. 

One moment that touched me was when Angela said “I’m hoping that I live to see the day where people say, when I say ‘I’m adopted’, they say ‘oh my gosh, did someone try to keep you with your family first?’ instead of celebrating her adoption and expecting gratitude for it. When Jada said “I’ve never thought of it that way before” I exhaled, there’s healing in having your experience seen and acknowledged that way. I’ve felt it lately with friends, who told me “You’re really opening my eyes”. In a world where people actively fight to deny my reality, I’m so healed by having people in my life who can and do shift their perspective. Equally, I can see that those moments have often come over several months in which I share openly and not without misunderstandings. So perhaps it’s a lot to expect a 20 minute show to shift perspectives very far in one day. It will take time and more of our voices to build understanding.

Back at the red table, a tonal shift in the conversation occurs swiftly with Angela’s vulnerable admission that she feels fear in the company of black people, in this moment I sense she lost some of her hosts empathy as Gamma tenses and asks her to explain why she chose the word ‘fear’. The fear of black people is so inextricable with a legacy of discrimination and violence it’s hardly surprising the word fear is alarming, I myself held my breath. But ‘real talk’ is at the centre of the show and to understand transracial adoption is just that, real. Gamma had shown evidence of it herself in an earlier show when she admitted she had found it easier to accept a white man into the family than a white women.

As a fellow adoptee what I know is that the fear I feel around people of my own culture is also an implicit memory of my own relinquishment. Around people who look like those who gave me up and those I’ve lived without, I feel vulnerable, rejectable. Can a non-adoptee ever truly understand that feeling? 

Getting into her stride, Gamma soon advises Angela to ‘counsel yourself’ for questioning how she could teach a black (foster) child to be black, Gamma points out that Angela counsels white couples in transracial adoption. Angela however, doesn’t counsel white people on being black, she doesn’t counsel them on fitting in to black culture, instead she uses her lived experience as a transracial adoptee to educate adoptive parents on the hazards, missing racial mirrors and role models. That’s not the same thing as actually being a black person trying to fit into a black culture they’ve grown up without.

You can’t counsel yourself into belonging.

You can’t learn belonging any more than you can learn to be a peacock. You may learn enough to hang out with peacocks without alarming them but try to fly and you’ll know you’re not peacocky enough pretty quickly. Just so with the iceberg of culture. A myriad of secret handshakes lie beneath, unspoken tests and initiations sit between ourselves and others.

Belonging is at the heart of identity. Those who think it’s enough to decide who you are independently of others beliefs, are underestimating the role that being seen plays in our identity. Self-acceptance in our identity is a small, sometimes inconsequential island, validation of our identity is a continent. For transracial adoptees there can be a lot of sea between our island and that continent.

I think about Angela sitting at that table with three generations of black women, secure in their kinship with each other, bound together by biology and a shared history. Across the table Angela sits between a white couple who raised her, and look nothing like her, and the black women who gave birth to her – who looks like her but is foreign to her. I try to imagine what Angela needed from those women across the table chiding her to counsel herself.

I think there could be healing both for Angela and many adoptees who relate to her if they could have said, “I’m sorry you have to struggle to belong with your own people, I completely understand why you feel that way. We want you to know that for us, you belong right here at this table here with us”.

Angela and all adoptees – you belong at our table, your voice is important to us, thank you!