These are my battle scars from when I was around 12-13 years of age, done around these holiday times. I would get really depressed looking at all those loving families with parents who look like them, spoke like them, etc. It didn’t help I was a Chinese male with white parents.
Whenever I look at my wrists I am thankful I made it through those times. It took me till the age of 30 before I really dealt with my PTSD and depression due to my inter-racial and intercountry adoption. Now and then I have moments where I go back into my past and think about “was it all worth it”, living my life and getting to where I am today – am I better off or should I just have ended my life back then?
I guess a lesson to be learnt from this, is no matter what you do as an adoptive parent – there are some things that a child needs to learn the answers to questions themselves. It’s not up to you as parents to give them the answer that you want them to believe in and hear.
Many prospective adoptive parent forums discuss whether it’s a good idea to change our original names at adoption. We thought we’d provide you our views, as adults, with hindsight from our lifelong journey as intercountry adopted people to help inform you of how we feel about this issue.
Here’s a collation of our responses, shared in no particular order, from our ICAV facebook group where we had this discussion. We hope it is helpful.
My view is that our names should not be changed unless we want them to be changed. My adoptive mom changed mine simply because that’s what she wanted but to me, my original name is what I really resonate with and it’s my identity. In adoption they use us as a substitute to make us theirs and not just take us in to take care of us because another family cannot or will not do it.
As far as the documents go, I think there needs to be legislation in place stating that we have the right to access our birth documents and be given them freely. Most times we cannot even go to ask for them from the courts because you need to know certain details such as county etc and adoptive parents have and can withhold that from an adoptee. It’s our history and we have every right to know who we are and we shouldn’t be forced into another persons mould of family.
To me it’s just unethical especially taking into consideration some of us were actually trafficked and not given up. Such was my case. The government lied and by the time there was enough information to find me in the orphanage, I was already adopted and bio family members were denied custody of me within that time also because of my a mom’s expression of wanting to adopt me. They lied about medical records and they lied about my bio dad’s information simply to gain more money for the federation.
Adoptive parents should be able to change our name but only if they can prove there is an immediate threat to us in keeping our birth name.
Микайла Трапезникова adopted from Russia to America
We lost enough. We are people before we enter their families, regardless of whether they like our names or not, it is ours. Even if it is “just” an orphanage name.
MKR adopted from Asia to America
I’d prefer they would have kept my name but then again, the orphanage were calling me by my middle name, “Manuel” which I always felt was odd. But when I found my mom, she called me by my first name “Antonio” and it made more sense. Anyways, now my name is Daniel which has nothing to do with my real one.
My birth family also say Tonio, short for Antonio. In Peru, this name is very common but in Canada, not so much. I feel like it’s a part of where I’m from. It’s also my father’s name. I always knew my real name, I just wish I’d got to keep it. The entire thing. I will eventually change it back to my real name. It’s just frustrating that I have to get through the legal procedure over all the stuff I have to do to reconnect with my culture.
It’s very sad ’cause it adds to all the stuff I was deprived from when I was adopted. It’s my identity. I also feel like growing up not speaking my language was cruel. I wish I could have grown speaking it a little bit so I didn’t waste my brain plasticity’s peak when I was a kid and have to learn it as a grown man.
In Canada, it always was important to learn English if you are french and both those languages are easier to learn or immerse in. Peruvian Spanish is also different from other Spanish, so even though I know Central American’s and South American’s, I don’t wanna learn Mexican stuff and realise it’s not the same.
I just feel like adoption out of country is wrong. Changing names or not, it doesn’t give back what we lose by being deprived of our culture. I wish I still had my name but then again, I wish I wasn’t adopted and I wish I grew up in Peru with my family even more.
I had this identity crisis where neither my real name felt like me nor did my legal name. It’s weird to say but it was very confusing for me. I suffered from this, not being able to identify with these names. It meant nothing to me. It’s like I’m in between and nowhere, at the same time. That’s what being adopted is for me. It’s assimilation. It took away my sense of self.
Daniel Walsh adopted from Peru to Canada
Honestly, I wouldn’t want my Korean name. After finding out my birth mother didn’t even name me and that the midwife did, I kinda thought about getting rid of them as my middle names too. I don’t like being asked all the bloody time about “why this and that” so at least having an “english” sounding name has helped me not have to constantly be asked questions all the time. But thats just me. I hate being asked and having to explain for the billionth time .
Gemma adopted from South Korea to Australia
A lot of people don’t think names matter. But just like in tribes, they knew where you belonged by the tribal name associated. So changing our original names means that you are erasing our identity.
I was named Angela as a baby, born to my mother, my roots, my history, my identity. I was renamed Maria, which I never felt connected to. Maria was someone I knew who was brought into another family and my memories don’t go beyond the days I can recall being part of a new family. If they had kept my name and added on to it, maybe with a middle name if I didn’t have one, that would have been acceptable, it would have given me some sort of comfort that I am real and not just some random child who needed to be wanted because of the circumstances my birth mother was in at the time. An added name/surname comes second to who I already was, we aren’t renewed after we’re adopted. We’re human, not some immaculate being that comes down from some planet.
We are the same child and who we become after adoption doesn’t redefine our identity, it merely hides and erases it on paper. We are not to be claimed like a puppy who gets two owners in one life. We aren’t animals you make up names for. We are already someone before we had to be someone else’s.
The key to “loving” this child that you need to have because there are so many children out there who need your “help” – is not to change who they are, or to replace their beginning with one that attaches/claims them as yours. It’s to take the child who’s already someone and build from that, understand that no change of name, no information erased from their true birth certificate will make them look like you birthed them into this world. Nothing will fix what’s broken within yourself, or whatever void you’re trying to fill, by changing / falsifying our identity.
Your power to change the identity of a child on paper is something you need to look inward about and think whether it’s truly for the benefit and the best for the child who’s lost/losing her biological ties and everything that goes with that; or if it’s to benefit you and your needs.
Maria Hernandez adopted from the Philippines to Canada
My name is mine. I used to hate it and wanted to change it. And then when I got married, people wondered why the hell I didn’t change it. It’s mine. It’s grown on me. Yes, it links me to a birth mother for whom I do not care, but it’s my name. No one can pronounce it, but it’s my name. I’ve thought about adding my birth father’s last name to mine but maybe in the future. I have so little left of my roots. Leave me with something.
Marisa Smith adopted from UK British/Native American ancestry to America
Don’t go there. That’s our family name and changing it strips us of our identity and family connections. Even married couples don’t always have the same last names. The adopters just want us to “match” them so they can pretend we’re theirs.
For adoptees whose names have been changed, going back to our birth names should be as easy as going back to a maiden name after a divorce. No cost, no hassle, just file it with the courts and you’re back to your own name again. It’s just one more area in which adoptees have no choice or right to consent.
Jodi Gibson adopted from Ireland to America
One of the first things we learn to write as a child, is our name. This is what identifies us as an individual, it is the collective sum of our unique personality and our lineage held together by words – our first and last names. So when we become adopted, we shouldn’t lose the right to who we are born as. I want to suggest respectfully that most adoptive parents change our names out of an unrecognised acceptance of the patriarchy and colonialism that predominates the basis of adoption. I hope that parents in this era will question more deeply why they feel the need to change our name.
Of course it’s convenient to not have to explain to half the world why our name is not the same as our father or mother or how we “belong” to them — but how can we develop self esteem, confidence, and pride in our own identity if we are not allowed our own name? Our name is an expression of who we are and we all deserve to live our truth. The most important thing we have to develop as we journey life, is our relationship with self and our name is integral to our sense of self.
I was given an anglo name by my adoptive parents with my Vietnamese name in the middle. At age 17, I was given a choice if I wanted to keep my Vietnamese name as my legal name. I chose at that time to keep the name as my parents had chosen because at that stage in my life, I hated everything Asian and had absorbed the negativity and racism I experienced within my adoptive country. After doing much work on myself years later, to find my true identity and reclaim my Asian self with my caucasian mindset, I now feel pride as to where I was born and I do wish my adoptive family experience had been different. No doubt if they’d taught me about my heritage and beginnings with a sense of respect and pride, I would have been proud to own my Vietnamese name. It would have helped me develop a stronger and more positive sense of who I am rather than the unnecessary complications I had to sort through as a much older adult.
On the flip side, there’s no doubt people in Australia would have struggled with pronouncing my Vietnamese name considering I was raised in very remote rural regions but I question any adoptive parent who intends on raising their child in areas with no racial mirrors; my generation of intercountry adoptees has definitely seen that this adds to our complexities in negative ways. Now that I live in multi-cultural and very-Asian-dominated-Sydney, my original name would not have been an issue if I’d been raised somewhere like this.
Vong Ung Thanh aka Lynelle Long adopted from Vietnam to Australia
I asked a bunch of adoptees this question for our child whom we adopted. Some said they wouldn’t have wanted a Korean name growing up because they already stood out too much and the name would make it worse. Others wish they had kept part of it (I’m in this camp).
We kept his birth name given by birth mother but changed the romanisation. I have advised other adoptive parents to keep at least part of the name.
Allison Young adopted from Sth Korea to the America and adoptive parent
I didn’t know for a long time that my birth mother had indeed named me. I wish it was my second name and now if I had to go through the process of changing it, it would be long and costly.
It’s a difficult question because I have periods when I dislike my own name because well, it’s not my first.
I know of not one adoptee that doesn’t at least attempt to find their roots. Finding out your adoptive parents gave you a new name can be difficult to digest, especially when you find out later in life. It can also enhance the internal divide an adoptee may already feel.
Lina adopted from Brazil to Germany
The moment or moments you are given a name, or alter a name (via marriage, divorce, blended families, immigration, or choice thru Deed Poll etc), they are all markers in the time line of an individual’s life. There are always many things to consider, however, inclusion and continuity of names (where ever it sits eg first / middle / hyphenated etc) seems to tell a story of a life lived and cared for by many whether biological family, carers, adopted family, or married family. Nothing is hidden and it’s just left to the individual as to which name they would like to be known as, which may change as they grow up, which is naturally what we often do (adopted or not, child names and adult name versions).
The issue for me would be about providing choice for the adoptee, not taking that away. And to not create identity erasure. Doing this creates identity ambiguity which is so damaging. Choice is empowering when so many parts of our lives as adoptees is about feeling disempowered and marginalised. My five cents worth.
Sue Bylund adopted from Vietnam to Australia
I wouldn’t want my Indian name. I partly just love the uniqueness and ambiguity of my current name but I ALWAYS hated my Indian name. I think as I child I truly believed that name represented an ugly part of me. That ugly, unknown confusing part. Then with how non-Indian I am, I wouldn’t want it!! BUT on the flip side I wonder how connected I would actually feel if I hadn’t had the opportunity to completely separate myself from the Indian part of me.
Anonymous adopted from India to America
What’s in a name? For adoptees, connection and disconnection. Most adoptees have little else going forward except their birth name – their link to humanity. When adoptive families change a child’s name, often to one that removes ethnic relevance and birth family history, the new name is a primal severing.
In my case however, the abusive people who adopted me mocked my birth name relentlessly. When I finally escaped my childhood hell as a teenager, I chose a new name that powerfully symbolised my new life. I eventually changed my name legally.
My advice as an adoptee is to keep and honour the adopted child’s birth name; use a nickname if needed. In this way, the link to the child’s core identity is preserved and not denied.
Jesse Lassandro adopted from Spain to America
In many cases our name is the only gift our mother gives us and our only link to her, to family and to culture. If it wasn’t given by her it’s still a part of our story. Our name is important and a disregard of it is significant it sends a message about who and what’s important. It’s the first sign that parent (and in some case white) comfort is more important than ours and we must collude with that or face their pain and resistance if we want to reclaim that name or any part of our biological identity – it’s a heavy burden for an adoptee.
If you have to change an Asian or African name for the comfort of a white community you’re not ready for a transracial child and all its complexity, not ready to advocate for them and celebrate their otherness instead of trying to disguise it. Don’t gift a child a sense of shame in their culture instead nurture confidence and security in who they are and the skills to advocate for themselves. Learn those skills yourself if you haven’t already. If you choose to erase your child’s identity instead you fail at this first hurdle. So prepare for a rough ride once your child tries to find their roots without your help because you’ve shown yourself unable to be supportive.
Name changes also play a crucial role in anonymising us so that biological family can’t search for us. No matter how well argued the parents case is for name changing – it’s a power grab, which means it disempowers others. I can’t express how heavy the burden of search is, it lies entirely with the adoptee because of the many ways birth families are disempowered and shamed to deter them from searching. I shouldn’t have to search, I want to be found.
Gardom adopted from Malaysia to the UK
Prospective and adoptive parents are contributing to a situation where we may end up with a huge list of names. It can be very confusing and does not aid identity. I have 5-6 different last name options (and more, if you consider hyphenating any of those). Now, that’s exacerbated by the fact that Sri Lankan Sinhala people typically have two different types of family names and can use either and that I am married. But being married and changing your name is not unusual in many countries.
Also, having two last names is also not totally unusual as Spanish and Latin American cultures often also use two names (and perhaps there are other countries too who follow such a system).
I have three given names as my bio mother gave me two and my adoptive parents kept my birth name as middle but gave me a new first name. So that’s three given names. It is just plain psychologically difficult to have so many different names. How many people have 9 different names? I don’t even want to calculate how many combinations that is!
Anonymous adopted from Sri Lanka to Australia
I think this is very personal to individual adoptees and there’s no way an adoptive parent can know which the child would prefer. They often have to make the best decision they can based on what they think is best. Hindsight is always 20/20.
I don’t think I would have wanted to grow up with my Korean name and deal CONSTANTLY with people misspelling it and mispronouncing it and having to spell it for people everywhere I go. Ugh. Just thinking about it makes me tired. Lol! But I also wasn’t very in touch with my Korean-ness as a kid.
I think today, it would be neat to have it as a middle name so I could have this little reminder. My husband and I also adopted from Korea. Our son is 9 and we chose to change his name. For one, his Korean name was one that was easily turned into a cruel taunt in America and we felt it would make him a target for bullying. We’ve told him all along, however, that we will help him change it back if he ever wants to do so. He knows we are fine with whatever he wants to do. We actually gave him a middle name he shares with my husband, who is white. Many adoptive families I know keep the Korean name as the middle name so they can decide later to go by their middle name if they’d like. I think that’s a great thing.
Anonymous adopted from Sth Korea to America
My Iranian name Susan was given to me at an orphanage, probably a horrible place to have spent any time in whatsoever. I am happy I got to keep it as a middle name because otherwise it would have felt as if my Swedish adoptive parents were actively trying to erase my origins. They gave me the first name Sarah, which works in the whole world. Sarah is common in Iran too, which is great now that I have found my birth family.
I am happy with not having a Scandinavian name that no-one abroad can pronounce. It would raise so many questions wherever I travel. With a name like Sarah there are less questions. Finding my birth family, it turned out I have a big sister named Susan, so now I’m even more happy I wasn’t given that as my first name.
So my advice is: 1) don’t erase the orphanage name; 2) give your child an international name; 3) if possible, give the child a name that works in their native country; and 4) if the child was given a name by the birth parent and if the child is old enough to answer to that name, you CANNOT under any circumstances change it.
Sarah Mårtensson adopted from Iran to Sweden
What’s In a Name? It Turns Out, A Lot.
As Korean adoptees, the reclamation of our origins through embracing our Korean names is fraught with complications.
I recently started using my Korean name, Joon Ae, but only on social media. Respectfully, my friends have asked if they should start calling me Joon Ae.
My answer has been: Not Yet.
Like many other adult transracial, transnational adoptees, changing my name is a question with which I’m wrangling, an adoptee-specific question like: Do you want to find your biological parents? (Pointer: If you don’t have an intimate, trusting relationship to an adoptee, if the adoptee didn’t bring it up themselves, or if you’re not an adoptee yourself, then don’t ask this last one.)
What non-adopted folks should understand is how hard these questions are for adoptees, how complicated and layered and distressing they can be, how one question leads to another question leads to another question, all of them hard and all of them conjuring up our trauma, unraveling who we are, who we think we are, who we want to be — who we might have been. All of them potentially involving years of work and many unexpected, emotionally brutal outcomes.
To read the rest, click here for Joon Ae’s full essay.
Guest artwork by Xiaolan Molly Thornton, adopted at 3 years of age to Australia from China.
Xiaolan says: This artwork depicts how I feel being divided by two cultures. One of Australian and the other, Chinese. The background is supposed to represent the landscape of China and I have blended in aspects of Australian culture which I now embrace as part of my identity.
This artwork may not be reproduced, shared or copied without the consent of Xiaolan.
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.
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
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!
As an intercountry adoptee from the early 70s era, I became so assimilated into my adoptive country’s white culture and value system that it wasn’t until I reached adulthood, that I became keenly aware of being disconnected from my intrinsic and inherent origins and wanted to do something about reclaiming them back.
At various stages throughout my adult journey of adoption, I began to unravel and explore my origins which included exploring the language, the religions, the foods, the customs and value systems of my birth land. This can also include exploring and embracing the ways one’s birth culture celebrates certain milestones.
A huge change over time for me has been that when I married, I felt so totally Australian that I didn’t even consider embracing my Asian origins by wearing a traditional Vietnamese dress, the ao dai or by having my wedding embrace any of the traditional Vietnamese customs. Now, over a decade later and after returning to my birth country twice, I wish I had included elements of my Vietnamese origins into my wedding.
An Indian intercountry adoptee friend of mine, adopted to Sweden, is willing to share with you her thoughts about what it means to embrace her origins on her special wedding day. You can read Jessica’s thoughts here.
Hopefully, by sharing our thoughts we will help other intercountry adoptees feel positive about embracing and exploring their origins. It is totally normal for intercountry adoptees to want to do this even when we are happy in our adoptive lives. It is a healthy thing to want to explore who we are racially, where we come from, exploring the customs and traditions of our origins, embracing the cultural elements we connect to and displaying it in whatever ways we feel comfortable.
This past November was the first time I’ve celebrated [Inter]National Adoption Month. In honor of centering the adoptee narrative, in honor of me, my family, and my bio family, I’m excited to share some thoughts. Here’s a bit about my perspective and experience of being an intercountry and transracial adoptee from China, having grown up in the US.
I want to stress that these are entirely my own perspectives and observations, drawn from my own life and relating to other [Chinese] adoptees I’ve spoken with; I do not intend to speak opinion for the entire adoptee community.
I used to tell people that I had no problem talking about being adopted because everything was fine for me. At a surface [and immensely privileged] level, it was. I was always very social and extroverted. I was oriented towards making as many friendships as I could. I was *that kid from camp who tried to stay in touch just a bit too long*. I told people I was fine talking about being adopted – even that there was nothing to talk about- because it had happened in the past.
But I am older now, and it’s taken me a while to dig into exactly how and why being adopted has had such an impact on me.
Being adopted is weird, and honestly I’m constantly in awe these days, learning new ways that its weird, and how it situates me in relation to most others, in and outside my communities.
I think we all face abandonment and loss, and the fear of these things, in different ways. I personally do not feel upset with my birth family at this point, but even so, I’ve realize that being abandoned (even if I don’t remember it) really feels present, and has been present throughout my life. I feel it’s important to name this phenomena of the fear of being abandoned, as its really not something I think any adoptee can ever really shake, no matter how conscious or unconscious those fears are. I’ve been doing a lot of work to understand how this fear affects me, and how I may be subconsciously reacting to it even if I don’t realize — whether it’s losing a camp friend at age 12, or the way I communicate in my relationships.
I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out what it meant to be read as an Asian woman. I felt completely foreign to this identity that I assumed publicly. I grew up in, and around white people, and white culture – as many adoptees from China do. I used to feel like I was a white kid in an Asian body. You’ll find this (or versions of it) aren’t uncommon for young Chinese intercountry and transracial adoptees.
Two examples of comments I received as a child are below for example:
“I don’t see you as Asian, you’re just normal!”
“Can you see ok?”
These comments were obviously steeped in racism, xenophobia and the essence of the marginalized identity, versus the construction of “normalcy”. They made me wonder what it was that people saw me as, and why it was so different compared to who I felt I was. I felt “normal,” which in itself was a horribly racist and xenophobic sentiment that I had been socialized to carry.
The sociologist Robin DiAngelo describes White Privilege as “To be perceived as individual, to not be associated with anything negative because of your skin color.”
There were two things that I continue to unpack there. While I was socialized in white culture within the US, I too learned how to read “Asians” as “abnormal.” Just as well, I discovered that I was read as abnormal — as out of place, too.
My White-Jewish and queer family culture has played a large role in my socialization and makes up huge parts of my identity and personality. But there’s this other piece that stands as a nebulous question mark, always looming over me:
Where do I come from? Whom do I come from? What are the struggles, joys, and histories of my people – biologically and culturally?
As I continue to understand the situation, more and more it feels like my birthright was taken from me — the right to know my culture, language, and ancestry: the stories and realities that I may never get to hear and that will never fully be a part of me. I also feel I was stolen from my family; there were very real and systemic pressures that inclined them to give me away.
The situation of adoption is inherently both deeply personal and individual, as well as global and systemic. It involves Chinese gender roles, family, culture, income inequality/classism, combined with the Western/American White Christian legacy of imperialism, savior-ism, and more.
A lot of my experience has been hallmarked by both the feeling of being different and that nothing fully belongs to me/that I do not fully belong to anyone (not even my family). This caused a deep dissonance for me. This underlying socialization has pushed me to constantly search to find belonging in groups, and via individual people as a mechanism of survival. This is also inherently motivated by the fear of further loss and abandonment.
While some of these questions around my origins may never be answered, I believe the hardships given to me by being adopted have pushed me to be resilient, self aware, grounded, and perseverant in connecting with others. I am so proud of being an adoptee for these reasons. I wouldn’t trade it for anything because I think one of the most precious things in life is being able to love and connect with others, in as many ways as possible.
I have mostly hated being asked where I’m from because it tells me that the person asking recognizes I must be from somewhere else. This question implies I don’t really belong and must have an explanation for being on this land (interesting, do you feel you belong on this land, white Americans?)
However, I’m beginning to find it to also be an empowering question!
I’ve begun to find beauty in this assumption that I’m not from here and in the recognition that I do in fact come from somewhere. I am the product of generations and generations of people who have lived their lives since the beginning of time. These people, while I don’t know them, are in my blood and in my DNA, showing me how to survive every day!
How sad that somehow, the acknowledgement that I am from somewhere else has largely been, for me and other transracial adoptees, a source of feeling out of place, and is a tool of implicit and sometimes explicit social exclusion.
And what a blessing that I’ve been asked this question and that I have, and plan to continue, to explore and uncover where I come from.
Being transracially and intercountry adopted has made me inherently feel that I don’t belong anywhere – in any group or community. It’s made me feel a little more like an outsider in virtually every community I’ve been a part of. While all these things – the sentiment of this question “where are you from,” the look of surprise when people hear I’m Jewish, the feeling of being “othered” by people I consider my own, have caused conflict in my identity in numerous ways, they’ve also asked me to dig deeply into what it means to build bridges and to continue to share, connect, and depend on community.
My adoption has caused me to ask myself, “Well, what and who are my roots? What and who matter to me?”
Even if it’s taken this long to get here, even if I may never know my biological ancestry and have lost the opportunity and privilege to connect to my original people, I do know the beauty, importance, and imperative of figuring out how to connect deeply to my given histories, ancestries, and communities. I know that I can even choose my communities, and that I have that agency – something all adoptees deserve to know and practice.
This white supremacist culture largely holds power through convincing its inhabitants relentlessly to be numb and to grow cold to their own struggles and inherently, the struggles of others. We are taught that to be strong is to remain stoic. This encourages isolation, which is the antithesis of community. By opening up to my own pain and understanding the situation of my adoption, I turn painful realities into curiosity and eventually compassion. By sharing this pain with others, I build relationships where I can give and receive support, and feel understood and known, despite always feeling unseen in certain ways. For me, this is what resilience and healing looks like.
And that’s been a deeply powerful experience but not without pain. It’s taught me to root myself in me, and to trust my ability to build relationships/community with love, curiosity and determination through listening, trust, and vulnerability.
While growing up with two White-Jewish and gay moms wasn’t ever helpful in making me feel “normal,” it’s also been a remarkable privilege that I would not trade for anything else. The cultures of Judaism and queerness that my moms embodied and raised me with, have saved me in so many ways. I’m speaking specifically of white Judaism and queerness because my moms experiences have been white. Being Jewish and queer growing up, my parents both learned mechanisms of survival and resilience from their struggles, families and communities. These communities, in different ways, each have their own societal traumas to deal with, past and present. Therefore, built into the fabric and practice of their Jewish and queer identities, they raised me with these inherent strategies of coping and healing. Their strategies are all based on unconditional love and support through gathering and processing — of holding a place for pain, and not running from it. They taught me the importance of chosen family because they, themselves know it.
I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to learn from communities and individuals of color who have shared and articulated their strategies of resilience and healing – of returning to real strength and love. Many intercountry adoptees grow up inside homogenous communities – largely white Christian spaces and don’t really have the access, in multiple ways, to address their identities and their pain. That is why I feel it is so important to share my own experience.
People of Color know this deeply through the multitudes of marginalization, dehumanization and struggle that we have experienced globally. We are, and have to be, inherently more connected to our people. We know this to our core even if it’s unarticulated; we have to know this, living through white supremacy. We know how to love and how to connect, how to to depend, and how to empathize. We have histories of resilience and practices of healing, both collectively and in our blood.
For me, my people are Chinese adoptees.
We as adoptees have mountains to climb. But we are able to connect to each other through our shared experience of feeling unmoored and untethered; not quite “enough” to fully belong to any group, we are our own.
We have so much work to do. We must learn again and again that we are worthy, after a multitude of things has made us feel that we are not. We must learn of our peculiar and particular systemic disadvantage, of parsing through our (largely white) parents’ (and our own) implicit racism and participation in western imperialism. We must learn how to get situated as Asians in our adoptive countries, and sift through the social locations of privilege and marginalization/oppression we experience. As Asians, we are used as a tool to uphold white supremacy and perpetuate anti-blackness. All of that is mapped onto us everywhere we go, and we must learn to navigate it appropriately.
I hope this post gives perspective to some aspects of my community through my story. Give us some space and time to figure ourselves out. Try to put yourself in the perspective of literally feeling like you are never part of the majority, never feeling fully understood, and feeling an odd and ever present dissonance between the way you present and who you actually are.
Ask those of us who are willing, to share about our experiences. (Also be prepared if the answer is no. No-one owes you an explanation of their life!) A lot of the time, the adoptee narrative is overshadowed by adoptive parent voices so let us speak and try to take in what we say, please!
Oh also ! Don’t eeeeeeeevvvvvver tell us that we “should be thankful” or “are lucky” that our parents adopted us! While saying this has absolutely no bearing on my own deep feelings of gratitude and love for my parents (having more to do with who they are as parents and not the mere fact that they adopted me), every one of our stories, hardships and inheritances is different. After losing original/biological family, no-one should have to count on “luck” or “goodwill” to receive love and care. This type of comment puts us in a situation of perpetually making up for a favor, as if we are unworthy of that type of love – something that too many adoptees experience coming from their own adoptive parents.
I may not know how to parent but I do know that the goal of having a child, adopted or by blood, cannot be to fulfill your own dreams. When you have issues with your child becoming an autonomous human who is Different Than You, that is a beautiful (and hard!) opportunity to connect through difference! And begin to let go of that urge to control who and how your child is. Don’t ever make your child feel like they are still making up for being adopted or your need to be seen as Good and Charitable! This is quite applicable to all parenting though, I think.
Also, attention astrology folks (yes, that means you, queer millennials!):
I’m glad you love astrology and it’s your religion but before you go on a rant/yell about people’s moon and star signs, maybe try and recognize that some people do not KNOW those details! It’s not real anyway! Yes, I’m salty! I much prefer the enneagram!
In reality, my bitterness towards astrology worshipers is just a cry for folks to pay attention to the people around you, in multiple ways. Do you know for sure that people around you would know exactly where and when they were born? Read this whole post again if you are confused or upset for being called out, or are wondering why bringing something up like not knowing your actual birthday, time, location, or family etc., might be hard for some people.
This concept of sensitivity though, can be generalized. We all do mess up and miscommunicate and the best we can do is to check in with each other about our particular sensitivities.
I’m really thankful to be able to share some of the insights that my identity and situation have afforded me. I hope you may find them useful as well. Thank you for engaging.
*I used concept “(k)new,” combining the idea of the “known” and the “new” in the title. I came across this quasi-antonym through the paper “The context within: My journey into research” By Manulani Aluli Meyer: it uses “indigenous ways of knowing” to understand the concept of knowledge through experience, connoting knowledge that is simultaneously “known” and “new.”
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.
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.
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!
Intercountry adoptees speak often about the return to their birth country, a time defined by searching and finding. Lynelle’s recent post made me consider my relationship with Korea, the land that, over three decades ago, released me to a country made of dreams. We speak of “the return” as a journey of healing, confrontation, and conflict. Today I’m sharing my perspective on what “the return” means for me and how that phrase is set against my experience with adoption and my parents.
An ocean and several continents occupy the distance between myself and an invisible past. A past that suffers me its opacity every time I hear the word Korea.
For many years, Korea was a Bad Word, something spat out, a noun formed in the back of your throat where phlegm collected. It was shameful. It was ugly. It was full of people with flat faces and squinty eyes and coarse dark hair like me. But Korea was the country, my home in only the metaphorical sense, that I was instructed to embrace.
Many families encourage intercountry adoptees to go back, to find the place that let them go, suggesting a return trip will erase an adoptee’s discontent and otherness and experience with racism. A trip to the homeland might replace those evils with the satisfaction of a curiosity fulfilled. Perhaps this helps some adoptees. I certainly support them and I hope a trip serves those purposes and more. It has, for many, and I’m proud of them. But I have never returned, for either lack of money or desire. Here’s why.
On her deathbed, my mother urged me to Go to Korea. She had pushed for this trip my entire life, pressing me to return while things like I’m going to kick your eyes straight and Chinese people can’t be punks competed for space in my developing self-image. My mother shoved Korea at me as my Asianness became a liability, weaving her misguided request into our relationship’s growing divide.
One late afternoon, my mother sat across from me in our breezy kitchen, perched on her backless padded barstool while I did homework and complained about teenage life. Somehow, either adoption or race came up, topics we fit the criteria for but on which we ourselves boasted ignorance. She fixed her bright blue eyes on me and in that wide open kitchen asked Why don’t you like Korea? Is it because it gave you up?
I gathered my things and raged into my bedroom. Her carefully hung family portraits shook when I slammed my door. My teenage self couldn’t articulate anything but anger in response to her accusatory question. Today I understand my reaction.
From my mother’s perspective, my lack of curiosity was a flaw. She died never realizing that I couldn’t accept a country not because it “gave me up” but because years of external conditioning taught me to hate it.
But we can undo this damage. Adoptive parents eager to change the public’s one-sided adoption narrative can support adoptees struggling to find their place, to accept what fragments of a heritage they assemble as their own. We must allow adoptees the room to grow into whatever culture they choose—or not—to inhabit. Or maybe an adoptee will embrace their freedom to float freely between worlds, content in independence, drawing strength from ambiguity.
In the end, it doesn’t matter. As long as the adoptee makes the choice to visit their homeland, we must consider them independent human beings. We can operate separately from our adoptions, finding ourselves on paths we finally forged ourselves. If this happens with or without a homeland visit, it’s because the adoptee chose that way.
I’ve just returned from a 3+ week return trip to my country of birth, Vietnam. This trip attests to the mantra “adoption is a lifelong journey“! My return to homeland has been another unwrapping of the many layers in exploring who I am and where I belong.
This trip was such a contrast to the first which I made 18 years ago. In year 2000, I returned to Vietnam for the first time. I was in my late-20s. I had only just begun awakening to understand I had “adoption” and “relinquishment” issues. I certainly had no idea I had a mass of grief and loss sitting beneath the surface of my daily life.
When I arrived in Vietnam for the first time in year 2000, I was affected by overwhelming feelings I had not known existed. I remember the deep intense grieving that arose within me as we were landing at the airport. Overwhelming emotions flooded me and I spent the first week crying and trying to work out why I was crying and what it all meant.
That trip ended up being quite liberating, a wonderful and very healing visit. The most memorable moment was the local woman in the Mekong Delta who asked me in faltering english where I was from. In my broken english I explained very simply that I’d left the country as a baby and was raised by white Australians because I didn’t know my mother or father. Having lived almost 3 decades of hearing people’s response, “Oh, how lucky you are” to learning of my adoption status, this woman in the Mekong Delta had been the first to immediately comprehend my losses. She spoke my truth which resonated within when she replied, “Oh, you have missed out on so much!”
18 years later, I am a different Lynelle, no longer fragmented and confused. I am now very aware of the impacts of relinquishment and adoption. It is now 20 years later of speaking out and encouraging fellow adoptees to become proactive and share about the issues we face. This time, I returned and I felt so grounded being back in my homeland and knowing my place, time and date of birth. I revelled in being back in my district and hospital of birth. I enjoyed blending in amongst people who look like me. I felt a natural affinity to the place and people. I love the vibrancy of Ho Chi Minh City! I can now call it home because my birth certificate has been found and I know some basic truths about myself!
Clearly it wasn’t just me who could sense that I felt at home. My husband is a 3rd generation Aussie Chinese and he said to me, “Wow, I’ve just realised I’m married to a Vietnamese woman!” It was one of those humorous moments but beneath the surface, the truth in what he said was profound. I am actually Vietnamese and I feel I have finally reclaimed that part of me that was missing. I no longer feel I am just an Aussie girl, I am Vietnamese – Australian. This second visit highlighted to me the many aspects of who I am, are fundamentally, very Vietnamese!
The mother earth connection, respect for nature and nurturing things has always been within me but it became obvious during my travels in Vietnam that this is a very Vietnamese way of being. I travelled from South to North and everywhere I went, whether it was in the city or the country areas, there were so many plots of land with fields growing vegetables, flowers, rice or something. The city ways in Vietnam have not as yet forgotten the link between mother nature and our human needs.
The innate desire in me to build and be part of a community, I also saw reflected in the Vietnamese way of life. In Vietnam just the example of how they navigate around one another on the roads is amazing. People and the traffic just flow around one another, allowing each other to go their ways without aggression, pushiness or competition. There is a natural way to “work together” in harmony that resonates within me.
I am by nature a very friendly person, always interested in finding out about others at a deeper level. I found this reflected in many of the Vietnamese locals I met and spent a great deal of time with. My taxi driver Hr Hien took me for a 12 hour trip to the Floating Markets. He embraced me, a stranger really, as his little “sister“. Turns out we were actually born at the same hospital with him being only 7 years older. He sheltered and protected me all day long. He could easily have abused his position of power, given I speak no Vietnamese and he could have robbed and dumped me in the middle of the Mekong Delta. Instead, he took me for the whole day and treated me with respect, welcoming me into his life sharing his thoughts and views about Vietnamese life, culture, family, laws, and ways. When we purchased things, he would say, “Don’t say a word, I’ll tell them you’re my sister returned from Australia who left as a baby to explain why you can’t speak Vietnamese“. Then he’d negotiate for us and get the “local rate“. It was experiences like this that showed me the soul of the Vietnamese people with which I relate – the sense of looking out for others, being kind and generous in spirit.
Returning to visit the War Remnants Museum, I was once again reminded of the Vietnamese spirit of resilience, forgiveness, and ability to move on despite a terribly, ugly history of wars and atrocities. Attributes I’ve seen within my being and now I comprehend where these flow from. It’s my Vietnamese spirit, my Vietnamese DNA! I am hardwired to have survived and flourish, despite the adversities.
For me, returning to birth land has been so important to embracing all the aspects of who I am. I am a product of relinquishment and adoption, in-between two cultures, lands and people. In growing up in my adoptive country, I had been fully Australian without understanding or embracing my Vietnameseness. Now, in my mid 40s, I feel I have returned to myself. I am proudly both of my two cultures and lands. I love the Vietnamese aspects I see in myself and I also love my Australian culture and identity. I no longer feel divided but am comfortable being both at the same time.
It’s taken years of active awareness to embrace my lost identity, culture, and origins but it is a journey I wanted to do. I had realised in my late 20s that being adopted had resulted in a denial of a large part of who I am, at my very core.
I look forward to future returns to Vietnam. I hope one day it will be to reunite with my Vietnamese birth family. That will be an amazing path of discovery which will open up even further facets in discovering who I am!
I can so relate to the Lotus, the national flower of Vietnam!
To the Vietnamese, lotus is known as an exquisite flower, symbolizing the purity, serenity, commitment and optimism of the future as it is the flower which grows in muddy water and rises above the surface to bloom with remarkable beauty.
Click here for my collection of photos from this trip and here for photos from year 2000 return visit.