Asian female adoptee review of Crazy Rich Asians

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In August, Joey posted his review here about Crazy Rich Asians. I re-read his thoughts and felt compelled to add to them from an Asian female adoptee perspective.

Like Joey, I also watched the film twice and loved it each time! I saw it the first time by myself to absorb what I could as an Asian intercountry adoptee. I went again with my hubby and 8yr old daughter who is half Chinese half Vietnamese. I loved the awesome casting and role modeling in the film and wanted my daughter to see it! I wish mainstream media had shown that kind of glitz and positive take on Asian people and culture when I was growing up. It might have helped me feel more positive about being Asian during those critical self esteem development years.

I was born in Vietnam and adopted into a white Caucasian family during the early 70s. I have married a 3rd generation Australian Chinese man. I watched the film from a different angle to Joey – mine is that of “marrying into” a Chinese family. I could totally relate to the lead female role because I have been raised in white mentality because of my adoptive family and I had to learn the cultural and social ways in which authentic Asian families operate.

I related to feeling like the “invader” aka the “banana” (white on the inside, yellow on the out) entering into an authentic and traditional Chinese family, “taking away” the first born son from what he “should do” according to Asian family and cultural expectations. I struggled for the first few years of marriage to understand my mother-in-law and I certainly wasn’t familiar with the level of closeness and assumed “control” an Asian mother wants to have over her first born son. This was clearly demonstrated in Crazy Rich Asians.

I also understood the portrayal of the Asian family system where there are high levels of “respect” for the mother figures and the older generations. Compared to white caucasian family systems where we lock away our older generations into retirement homes, Asian families assume greater degrees of respect the older they age. The mothers in Asian families are also the matriarchs. Children fear losing their approval and there is definitely more expectations of the first son to anchor the family, take the lead, be financially committed/savvy and work hard. It was interesting how the Chinese father was portrayed as being a totally absent workaholic. This matches my perception of marrying into an Asian family where there are very clear traditional roles – the man is the provider and the wife’s role is to be the heart and soul of the family. She is to nurture and raise the children and keep the home. It took me some years to understand and embrace these cultural differences because I grew up with an adoptive mother who was the “career woman” and my adoptive father, the “work at home” parent.

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In marrying into an Asian family, the struggle between each Asian generation to maintain traditions vs become modern and keep in touch with the rest of the world, is definitely a real dilemma. I see the benefits and viewpoints of each generation. Like one of the lines quoted during the film, “China builds things that last” (eg Great Wall of China) whereas white western mindset, as epitomised in America, thinks only of the here and now and is very much about prioritising what the individual wants. Chinese culture has a longitudinal group mentality that is very different from white society. I was raised in white mentality where we are taught to live for the moment and be independent. Upon marriage, one leaves the family unit and starts their own. In comparison, in Chinese families, ha hah .. I have learnt that when one marries in, we marry the WHOLE family – extended included! For me, marrying into an Asian family I constantly see the difference between the two cultures: white vs Asian; independence vs group. In Chinese families, it’s definitely the group that is prioritised over individual needs, whereas in white families, it’s about the individual leaving home as soon as possible and making your own path in life, fending for oneself.

There was one critical moment in the film that pulled on my adoptee heartstrings. The part where the female lead isolates herself in her friend’s room for days after devastating news – until her mother walks in to comfort her. My adoptee soul cried out at that scene for how much I would have loved my Asian mother be there for me, to comfort me during my hardest moments in life. That part of the film connected with my sadness that I didn’t have my Asian mother to mirror me or understand me inituitively, and provide me with wisdom. I have always missed having my Asian mother even though I have never met her! The film brought home the loss and sadness for my Asian mother buried deep within myself. As I age and watch my own children grow, I realise even more what I missed out on by not being raised within my Asian family.

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I also loved how the film portrayed all the mother figures as “strong” Asian women. It was contrasted against the stereotype I received during my life, growing up in white Australia, receiving the message that Asian women are submissive, weak and in need of help/rescuing. Seeing Crazy Rich Asians during my young adulthood would have helped me overcome my “shame” of being an Asian female to understand that Asian mothers are actually like tigers – fierce, protective, assertive, not to be fooled around with and very loving of their children. It is such a contrast to what I got told about my mother that portrayed her as not being able to help herself or being in a shameful position.

Crazy Rich Asians enabled me to embrace my Asian mother in a more positive way. Through this film, I could visually imagine to some degree how my relationship with my Vietnamese mother might have been if we’d not been separated. I’m not referring to the material/economic wealth perspective but about the emotional connection and relationships that are obvious throughout the film.

The film ended beautifully and demonstrated on yet another layer just how much Asian mothers love their children. Too often as an adoptee I hear the typical response to those who have been adopted as, “She loved you so much she gave you up!” But it was nice to see on-screen the Asian mother who loved her child so much that she was able to find a way to overcome what looked like insurmountable difficulties.

Can’t wait to see the sequel! I wonder if we’ll see something about Asian fathers, who were notably absent in this film .. another parallel in intercountry adoption!

Stephanie’s Column, Filipino Intercountry Adoptee

My First Blog Post

I’m in the shuttle, sitting in the back seat with my headphones on listening to Krishna Das. It’s 6:49 a.m. and the sun is rising above the horizon. As the van turns to leave the bus barn near the mall, I can see the sky lightening. Pink, yellow, and purple, with low streams of clouds. The train passes by as we stop and turn left, soaring down the access road to the freeway. As I write, the sky transforms into dusty, baby blue and lavender. Green ponderosa pines pass my window as we make our way to the elementary school I work at.

My name is Stephanie and I’m a 32-year-old adoptee living in Northern Arizona. I was born in the Philippines in 1985 and relinquished to an orphanage at birth, where I was taken care of by Catholic nuns. My birth name was Desiree Maru but it changed to Stephanie Flood when I was adopted at the age of two. 

I’m starting this regular column, Stephanie’s Column, Filipino Intercountry Adoptee because I want to start voicing myself as a past orphan, adult adoptee, and a woman who carries past traumatic wounds no matter where I go. As I heal, I write in hopes to raise awareness on critical subjects and bring new dialogue to a space where many can’t tread unless they’ve been there.

I’m here to fill this space with needed perspective. With humanity. My humanity. So overall this blog will contain my whereabouts, thoughts, actions, insights, memories of my past and hopes of my unseen future.

I think it’ll be an adventure having this column.

I am writing this first entry on my way to a school out in Leupp, Arizona on the Navajo Reservation. I work at a school library as a library media assistant/librarian and I run the library by myself. This school is about 45 minutes from Flagstaff where I’ve been living for the past ten years, attending college at Northern Arizona University and now I’m an online student with San Jose State University studying Library and Information Science.

The atmosphere in the van today feels thick with tension.

I always have music playing in my ears on these shuttles to work and back in an attempt to make these daily trips a pleasant, contemplative voyage.

There is so much gorgeous scenery that passes by.

Land you can’t fully fathom unless you’re here and you have a reason to traverse this well-preserved part of the world.

Rolling hills in the distance. Once we hit Leupp Road, the ponderosas change into thickets of juniper pines that are as large as trees. They’re these bristly, round, green pines that smell so sweet. You can burn the dead branches for incense or prayers, and they make good kindling for wood stove fires.

Now the light is awake. It’s golden and raw, raking the Earth, sweeping over this high desert landscape with honesty. Finally, it is warmer in the vehicle. I can take my sweatshirt off since I have a sweater underneath. It’s been cold in the mornings in Flagstaff, especially at 5:30 a.m. when I wake up.

The land looks so beautiful when it’s aflame with sunrise.

As we drive, I can hear the teachers in the front get louder but I focus on the music blaring in my ears. The light glares in my eyes. I keep writing. I breathe and focus on my breathing, because what I’ve come to recognize is that I get anxious easily, especially around hostile or fast changing environments. 

At this school, the students can suddenly be aggressive with each other without warning. I’ve been yelled at by two teachers while I’ve been just doing my job too since I’d been hired here in August. To keep my composure here and my job, I keep my distance. I enforce strict, professional boundaries because I work better in positive, enforcing environments.

I like uninterrupted, positive and focused work flow too.

Although here at this elementary school, it’s like I’m at times bulldozing unseen walls just to do the work needed at this school library.

I fight to keep focused on the library’s needs and the Navajo children, as I’m pulled with other requests and stresses. As this library is grossly under national standards, every day is a fight to keep what I care about afloat.

I pass three crows sitting on a wire fence.

Tiny, little houses sparsely speckle the open, wild but barren landscape that spreads out for miles out here.

Hogans. Grassland. Trailers. Open range.

In the distance there are mesas now and the horizon is shrouded in blue hues. The junipers are gone. Groups of cows pass by. Then more open land.

I can hear the teachers in the front of the van raise their voices again. They get louder. I look down at my necklace that I’m wearing.

It’s the Tree of Life hanging on my pendant from a red, leather band.

I wore it this morning to remind myself of my own values that I’ve cultivated since I was young, growing up in Wisconsin, mostly on my own since my other adopted older brother had severe post-traumatic issues and my parents were often working. Since childhood, I’ve cultivated my own value system that has been rooted in personal growth and spiritual philosophies.

Faith was my support system. Although this faith has changed over time.

It now appears like we’re looming closer to the school.

I secretly fear the secretary here but I know it’s mostly all in my head.

I realize, I am at times prone to a casual victim mentality—having grown up accustomed to being so extremely affected by my external environment and not having enough resources to support me as an adoptee.

Now an adult, I’m understanding the issues that had arisen from my extreme upbringing. And, I see that it is more important than ever to break away from certain bad patterns that have prevented me from moving on, and reinforce my obstacles into opportunities to learn and change for the better.

I go to the morning meeting circle and it looks like Peta is bothered by something. She is in 2nd grade and very quiet. She chooses to stand next to me for a bit.

I ask her a few questions while everyone is gathering:

What animal is that on your shirt?

An elephant.

What did you do this weekend?

Mumbled something.

I like your glitter nail polish.

And still, there is trouble in her eyes.

Peta has shiny almond brown eyes and dark silky hair. She is a soft talker like me and lately she’s shown other aspects that remind me of me. She likes being helpful in the library and often asks to assist me. I see that she does fit in, but at times, she doesn’t due to her offbeat behavior, like me.

Peta is standing next to me as the circle started to congregate.

A girl walks up to her, one of her peers, Taima, another 2nd grader in her class who is often really confident, happy and social.

Taima stands boldly in front of Peta. She stares directly in Peta’s eyes, and they gaze at each other silently, face to face, like quiet warriors.

Taima asks what is wrong.

Peta stares back at her unflinchingly and doesn’t respond.

Taima looks up at me, questioningly.

She’s thinking, I say to Taima.

Taima walks away, and later, Peta goes to her class. For a few minutes, I wonder about Peta and all of these children on the Navajo Reservation.

In the school library, I have melodic music playing on Pandora at my desk computer. It eases my deep, mysterious soul and the feelings of isolation out here since I’m not friends with anyone at work either.

At my desk, I have a sticky pad of call numbers and book titles about adoption.

I also just wrote:

NOVEMBER

National Adoption Awareness Month

on the dry erase board in green marker that is in front of room.

On this particular day, I had started collecting adoption books from this library and other district libraries, displaying them at the dry erase board.

This is a step for me to start including new and diverse perspectives to this school library. I had originally imagined adoption in the Navajo community too but mainly, this was a step for me to start bringing myself out a little more.

Adoption is not just people and family members, I had told the students when I introduced these books on check-out day the next day.

You can adopt creeks, nature, animals, dogs, even hamsters!

Who Am I?

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For many of us adoption is a cross we must bear alone. The deep pangs of loneliness, emptiness and sorrow lingers – even amongst the perfect backdrop of life filled with success and wealth. Even in a crowd, I can still be alone.

Who am I is not a question but rather a reoccurring nightmare that haunts me on a daily basis. No matter where I run. No matter how I hide. No matter what I do. It still remains. No matter how I change .. it has a way of finding me. It reminds me that I do not fit in. It casts shadows of self-doubt. It also fills me with shame.

I am that odd jigsaw puzzle that was placed in the wrong box. I am misplaced. Misshaped. I do not belong to the world that I was forced into and a foreigner to the world I seek to find. People call it my home land but it doesn’t feel like home to me. Strangers look at me as oddly as the place were I was raised. I look like them but looks are not everything.

They know I am different. Different language. Different mannerisms. Different smells. They know I am .. unlike them. As I pass through their space, it’s as though I am wearing a scarlet letter. During my childhood that letter is in the shape of my almond eyes, yellow complexion, and shiny black hair. I am reminded of the shame of who I am each time I stare at my own reflection. A shame for being different. Like I said. Who am I? Who am I? WHO AM I!

No Mother, No Child

Rarely do we hear or see intercountry adoption from our biological family point of view but without our mothers, there would be no us! Adult intercountry adoptees are gradually becoming aware of how we can collaborate with our biological families and encourage them to become more visible.

I would like to introduce you to one such adoptee, Yennifer Villa who was adopted to Germany and born in Colombia. She is about to fly to her birth country where she will undertake a 6-9 month project entitled No Mother, No Child to capture mothers and their stories of relinquishment via the art of photography. She plans to showcase the end result of her work as a pop up photo exhibition to be held in Cologne (and possibly throughout Europe) towards the end of next year.

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Yennifer is currently 29 years old and was adopted at approximately 2 years of age. Her age is estimated because she does not have official birth information about herself. From some paperwork provided through the German consulate and orphanage in Colombia, it appears she may have been with her mother for the first 3 months of life until she was placed in her orphanage. At some point, her mother’s visits stopped and Yennifer has never known why her mother never returned.

Intercountry adopted and raised in a small German town with an adoptive family who never talked about adoption to “try and make things easier”, Yennifer grew up hearing a comment said about her biological mother – “she was probably a drug addict and now dead”.

What a harsh reality for a young adopted person to have to grapple with! I can relate to the damage this has on our psyche growing up for I was told a similar thing about my biological mother – “she was probably a prostitute”.

As adults now, Yennifer and I know our adoptive parents didn’t tell us things like this about our mothers to be mean – it was the propaganda adoption agencies/lawyers/governments told to justify not knowing the nuances of why we were needing to be adopted.

Understanding the good intentions of her adoptive family and not wanting to be rude or disrespectful, Yennifer feels compelled to see for herself the truths of mothers in Colombia. She suspects mother’s stories are more complex and nuanced and via her project, aims to open the door to a greater understanding of why mothers in Colombia give up their children.

Yennifer is currently studying Sustainability & Design at Akademie für Gestaltung (Academy for Design) and it is through this, that the funding she collects will enable her to complete her project. She has not travelled to Colombia since being adopted to Germany as an infant so this trip will be momentous and memorable. Yennifer has peer adoptee contacts who will support her during her year in Colombia taking time to locate the mothers, spend time with them, and photograph them after learning about their experiences. Yennifer has been planning this project No Mother, No Child for the past 2 years and is feeling very positive and excited. The importance of her project is to change the narrative of “she was just a drug addict” to bring the realities and nuances of each mother who has had to relinquish to light via her photography.

This is not the first adoption project Yennifer has been involved with. Decoding Origins, the first Colombian anthology of adult adoptees was completed last year and Yennifer utilised her art skills as the lead graphic designer for the book’s website. Proceeds from the sale of the book have been collected to fund DNA test kits for Colombian biological families, some of which Yennifer is taking with her for distribution to mothers who contribute to her photography project.

Read my review of Decoding Origins.

Yennifer flies to Colombia on 10 November this year. Her goal is to raise $5.500EUR to provide funding for her equipment, travel and living expenses. She is ready to go and has a vision of what the photos might be but wants to meet the mothers, talk with them, engage them, and allow them to contribute to define the project so that it is truly about them.

We look forward to seeing some of Yennifer’s work on this project in the next year and hope it inspires other intercountry adoptees to consider how we might collaborate with our biological families and encourage them to become more visible in the intercountry adoption arena.

Search and Reunion for InterCountry Adoptees

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I was recently contacted by a researcher who wanted to know if we could share our experiences of how searching and reunification impacts us. I decided it was a good reason to put together a long overdue Perspective Paper.

I didn’t realise this paper would end up being a book as it includes over 40 intercountry adoptees, contributing 100 pages!

Questions asked to stimulate the kind of responses I was seeking were:

  • What country of origin are you from? What country of origin were you adopted to and at what age?
  • What do you think it was that made you search? Was it something you always wanted to do or did you reach a point in your life that instigated the desire?  What were your expectations?
  • How did you go about conducting your search? What resources did you utilise?  What obstacles did you encounter?
  • What outcome did you have? What impact has that had upon you? How has that impacted your relationship with your adoptive family?
  • What has the experience been like of maintaining a relationship with your biological family?  What obstacles have you encountered? What has been useful in navigating this part of your life?
  • How have you integrated your search and/or reunion in your sense of who you are? Has it changed anything? In what ways?
  • What could be done by professionals, governments and agencies to help assist in Search & Reunions for intercountry adoptees like yourself?

These questions were guidelines only and adoptees were encouraged to provide any further insight to the topic.

All types of outcomes were included, whether searches were successful or not.

This resource will provide adoptees with a wide range of perspectives to consider when contemplating the issues involved in searching for original family. The paper will also provide the wider public and those involved in intercountry adoption a deeper understanding of how an adoptee experiences the search. Governments, agencies, and professional search organisations have direct feedback on what they can do to improve the process for intercountry adoptees.

Search & Reunion: Impacts & Outcomes Perspective Paper

What Questions are Normal?

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Is it Normal to Question when we have a Positive experience of Adoption?

I interviewed Fiona for a couple of reasons, the first being I have been connected to Fiona for many years because she and I ended up being adopted into families with the same surname that isn’t a common last name. Naturally I had a curiosity about her life and her experience because as adoptees we are aware of how easily we could have been adopted into a totally different family, country, culture, life than what we otherwise have had. As an adoptee and the older I get, the more I see it for what it is – a random lottery whereby an adoption agency or facilitator had the power to allocate us to whichever family had been successful when they submitted a request to adopt.

Secondly, I knew Fiona had been adopted from Hong Kong and I haven’t had many adoptees share on our website who’s origins were from Hong Kong (apart from my previous post on Lucy Sheen). Thirdly, Fiona is seemingly “well adjusted and happy” in her adopted land and family but one point I’d like to highlight from Fiona’s experience was pretty much summed up in her own words – when we spoke, she asked “Is it normal for an adoptee at my age to wonder about my origins?” My answer was “absolutely!” We adoptees seem to always get to some point in our lives where we have a natural curiosity for where we came from and who we were born to. It could be as early as 6 or 7, in our teenage years, in our mid 20s when we are busy establishing ourselves and forming our own identity outside our immediate families, and sometimes even later in our 30s, 40s or beyond. Sometimes the birth of our first child, or the birth of a child to someone close to us like a brother or sister – this event can trigger our curiosity and feelings that may have laid buried up until then.

Many adoptees like Fiona who have lived what they term “a pretty good life” get a bit shocked to have this rude “awakening” especially when they’ve had wonderfully supportive adoptive families and almost feel like they’ve been a bit “disloyal” or ungrateful for their “wonderful life”.

I’d like to suggest that it is completely natural to wonder at some and many points in our life about our origins and the questions of why, who, how, and when we were given up.

Thank you Fiona for sharing your experience with us!  Read Fiona’s story here.

Experiences of Adoption are all Different but Share much

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A friend, who is a Korean adoptee, recently shared her experience of life which she is happy to post. When I talk to intercountry adoptees there are always so many elements that we share and can relate to – yet each journey is so individually different.  I’m priviledged to meet and talk to many intercountry adoptees who share with me their  ups and downs and in-betweens. What is incredible is how much we have in common despite being adopted into different countries, different families, different cultures, and originating from different continents.

Here is our latest Korean adoptee story to share with you.