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!

A journey through space, a journey divided

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.

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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.


Sunny J. Reed is a New Jersey-based writer. Her main body of work focuses on transracial adoption, race relations, and the American family. In addition to contributing to Intercountry Adoptee Voices and Dear Adoption, Sunny uses creative nonfiction as a way to reach a wider audience. Her first flash memoir (‘the lucky ones’) was published in Tilde: A Literary Journal . Her second piece (‘playground ghost’) is due out by Parhelion Literary Magazine in April 2018. She is currently at work on a literary memoir.

Return to Birthland

Lynelle

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!

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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.

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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!

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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 recent return trip and here for the photos from my first visit, 18 years ago.

Complexities of Intercountry Adoption

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Recently a research journalist from Sth American contacted me to ask a few questions on intercountry adoption and my views.  I loved her concluding comment: “We want to understand more about it (intercountry adoption) and we believe the vision of those who lived it is essential for this.”

1. Tell us a little about your life.  How old were you when adopted by your Australian family?  What was this process?  Where you old enough to understand what was going on?

2. Did you feel the need to have contact with the culture of your country of origin? When did this happen?

3. Is it common among children adopted from other countries to have this need?

4. Do you think there are cases in which intercountry adoptions are not the best option?

5. What is the origin of Intercountry Adoptee Voices group?

6. Why do people participate in ICAV?

7. How is your work in ICAV?

Here are my answers.

I’m a Vietnamese adoptee living in Australia, adopted at age 6months.  My adoptive parents organised my adoption privately via a Vietnamese lawyer, Le, who also worked for the Sth Vietnamese Govt during the Vietnamese War.  Le informed my adoptive parents he and his wife found a baby girl for them in July 1973 and advised my parents to fly in to bring me back to Australia as this would be the quickest way.  So my adoptive father flew into Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh) and picked me up and flew me back to Australia, December 1973.  To date, we have never seen adoption papers from the Vietnam end and it wasn’t until I was 16 yrs old that the Australian Govt made up my false Australian Birth Certificate and finalised my adoption into the family who were raising me.

For this process to occur, at the age of 16 another social worker came to visit us to get the adoption process repeated given my adoptive parent’s original adoption assessments seemed to be missing.  The Australian agency that had facilitated this in Sept 1973 no longer existed and in 1977 had shown the paperwork had gone missing although the social worker had clearly been in contact with and assessed my adoptive family.  I remember someone coming to speak with me about adoption things but at that age of my life, I was focused on surviving and given my adoptive siblings had been teasing me about “not existing because I had no birth records”, of course when the social worker asked did I want to be adopted and get papers, I said yes.  What I don’t remember is whether they ever talked to me clearly about what adoption meant nor was any offer made to help me find my biological family or my original Vietnamese papers.

So was I old enough to understand the meaning of “adoption”?  Now that I’m in my early 40s, I say absolutely not.  At that age, I remember my focus was on “trying to fit in” with my peers .. trying to feel part of a community, a family.  So of course when someone is telling me this is what adoption will do, then of course I consent.  But now in my early 40s, I suspect no-one really gave me a great choice.  It would have been if I didn’t consent to being adopted, I would be in no man’s land – not being able to be an Australian citizen, not being able to probably go back to Vietnam because I had no proof of being born there either.  If someone had offered on behalf of the Australian Government to search for my biological family – I’m sure I would have said I preferred that because as a child and into my teens I felt a huge sense of loss – but never spoke about it because I had indirectly absorbed expectations from society and adoptive family that I was “lucky” to be adopted – that I should be grateful to live in Australia – that I would alternatively have been dead or on the streets in Vietnam.  To a teenager, those options sound very dramatic and of course, not something I’d chose if I wanted to survive.

I didn’t feel the need to contact my biological culture and country of origins until well into my late 20s.  Short story is I had some negative issues to overcome first from what I’d experienced in my life, so it took some years to get to the bottom of things and realise as an adult that I also had deeper abandonment issues.  Once I explored those issues, I then became more ready and willing to return to my birth country and see what that would stir up.  I was 27 yrs old when I made my first trip back to Vietnam.  It was an emotionally overwhelming trip but the one highlight I remember the most was a broken english conversation with a local Vietnamese lady who said something to me which captured what I’d felt all my life, but no-one had ever said.  This Vietnamese lady asked me questions about where was I from and why was I here in Vietnam and when I very simply explained “born here but taken away as a baby to have white parents in Australia” she said, “oh, you missed out on so much!”  And yes, in essence, my return trip to Vietnam made me realise just how much I had missed out on in being adopted to another country: I had missed out on knowing my own heritage and culture, language, sense of belonging, knowing my family, the sense of community that ties these communities together despite being poorer on the wealth index, of fitting in and looking like everyone else around me, of knowing the history of the war and hearing it / experiencing the ramifications of it and understanding it at the “lived it” level, of seeing the war’s impact on people all around and understanding what drives the country forward, so much I had missed out on.  In hindsight maybe she was commenting not from the angle I interpreted but maybe as a “lucky you missed out on all the terrible ramifications of the war” but it’s not how she came across – she seemed sad for me and it was her empathy of what I was not but could easily have been which I’d never experienced before.  It was healing in itself.

For many years now I have worked voluntarily in setting up a support group for adult intercountry adoptees like myself.  My own struggles growing up in an adopted country made me realise the need for support.  In my own healing I had learned the power of group validation and empathy from others who had journeyed a similar path.  So over the 17 years since I’ve been running a group called InterCountry Adoptee Voices, I’ve met hundreds of other intercountry adoptees raised not just in Australia, but in other wealthy countries like the USA, Netherlands, England, Canada, etc .. and in my experience of listening to many others like myself, I would say yes, it is common for intercountry adoptees to have the need to want to explore their birth country and culture and learn about the other half of their identity.  For some, there is no desire at all but in general, many do end up wanting to explore this at one point in their lives.  I think for the adoptees who have been raised with very positive adoptive families who embrace all the losses and challenges and raise the child to be able to explore and talk about these freely, it definitely assists in travelling this journey of being abandoned and adopted with more ease.  What I’ve seen for the majority is the journey is usually more complicated than for the non-adopted person because we are primed from our early abandonment to struggle with connection, rejection, self worth, and a feeling of not quite belonging.

The question of whether I think there are cases of intercountry adoption that are not the best option is an awesome question!  I applaud anyone who can ask this.  I wish more Governments would ask this question.  If we look at the history of the Korean adoptions enmasse and find out their realities by talking to them today, one could conclude that many of their adoptions were done simply because of a lack of options available to single mothers.  In other Korean cases, the biological families are still together but at the time, they lacked resources to raise their children – so they sought an alternative – which in Korea, adoption is really the only option rather than changing antiquated attitudes and values.  This is reflected around the world from other sending countries, like India, China, Ethiopia, Romania, Guatemala, Cambodia, Vietnam.  Usually inter-country adoption has occurred because of a lack of alternatives for the biological family.

In 2015, we live in a world where there is a massive divide between those who have wealth and those who live in poverty.  If the world divided its wealth and distributed it more equitably, I do not think there would be as huge a need for adoption.  The other issue we adoptees live is the reality that adoption legally severs our right to our own birthright – being our own identity and heritage.  This is fundamentally wrong when it is done without our consent (at a time when we are too young to understand the implications).  As per the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), if we are orphaned we have a fundamental human right to know our identity and be kept with our family, community, and country.  The issue I see today is intercountry adoption has become a huge money driven machine, powered by the wealthy couples looking for a baby, with baby brokers in the middle taking advantage of the inequitable division between wealthy and poor, and uncontrolled and unpenalised by Governments around the world.  There is not enough done to ensure that all other options are investigated and empowered before allowing a child to be given up for intercountry adoption.  There is no double or triple checking done by sending or receiving countries to ensure a child is truly a legitimate orphan as defined by UNICEF, as having lost both parents.  Where there is family or community, there is not enough provided in terms of “wealth” to ensure the local/country of origin people are given options to raise the child.  There is more that could be done to facilitate micro lending for impoverished families.  There is more that could be done to help families who are struggling from lack of education and opportunities.

Intercountry adoption has become an easy solution for wealthy countries to “allow” children to be exported like a commodity because they lack the backbone to do the right thing by the child and help facilitate these poorer countries (with the exception of South Korea and now the USA since becoming a sending country) to setup enough community based options that would prevent the need for intercountry adoption.  The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption has become a legitimate way for child exporting to continue without there being any legal discouragement from open trafficking which is the darkest side of this business.  I believe adoption by kin was probably the original intention that was good but the issue is adoption has become more than it was intended and there is simply a lack of will power from nations in power and those who don’t have it, to ensure the child is given all options BEFORE intercountry adoption.  This is when adoption is not the best option.

Of course there are also the numerous cases of intercountry adoptions where the adopted child gets mistreated, abused, and murdered by the adoptive family – which is an absolute easy case to highlight as to when intercountry adoption is not the best option.  Also, the cases where the adopted child ends up being deported back to it’s country of origin because the adoptive parents failed to finalise the adoption, even though they never had a say in being exported to begin with.  Then there are the cases where our birth certificates are forged and faked and again, intercountry adoption is not the best option because of this reality – that our original identities, our fundamental human right, are “as if they never existed”.  Intercountry adoptions are not the best option when there is no tracking of children and ensuring in later years of followup that it indeed has been in their “best interests” and they have grown up to become fully functioning, emotionally healthy adults.

So what’s left? When are there cases of intercountry adoptions that ARE the best option?  When both sending and receiving countries have done all they could, given their joint resources, to facilitate all other options for the child’s care, including kinship care and community care, and if these still fail to work then I believe it might be a legitimate option to intercountry adopt – BUT with the original birth certificate remaining intact and with the child having full access into the future.  The child should also be allowed to have dual citizenship in both countries to facilitate ease of returning and access to services to help reunite with biological family if they wish.  There should also be a full suite of services available (e.g. psychological, social, translation, medical, financial) to help the adoptee navigate both cultures and languages and to ensure they grow up well adjusted, emotionally healthy functioning adults.

Note: What needs to be discussed is to apply question 4 from the biological family point of view.  Too often the biological families from intercountry adoption are ever sought after by media to comment and provide their longitudinal views.

The origins of InterCountry Adoptee Voices (ICAV) is it was started as a result of me seeing the power of group validation and support and how it can help one to heal our abandonment wounds by having a sense of belonging from those who have journeyed a similar path.  I started ICAV in 1998 in Australia and it has grown today to include intercountry adoptees from many countries around the world.  I think adoptees participate in ICAV because of the need to feel like someone somewhere can understand what the journey is like – the challenges, the questions, the ups and downs of search and reunions, the racism, the need for a sense of belonging, and many more.  I love my work in ICAV.  I love hearing over the years how life is travelling for adoptees and I’m always passionate about educating the wider public on the complexities and issues involved.