Most of my life, until I returned and had a chance to reintegrate my Vietnamese identity with my adoptive identity, I thought of Vietnam as a backward Communist country. I absorbed the mentality I heard from my privileged white western adoptive country. Emotionally, I felt compelled by the assumptions I absorbed, to question how anything good could exist in a country where they couldn’t look after their own children. I was raised to think negatively about my homeland and I was always told how “lucky” I was to be adopted to Australia. Being lucky usually implied “Australia is better”.
Most times, when people make comments about my adopted status, being “lucky” refers to material gains – plenty of food, shelter and clothing; a good education; and plenty of opportunities. Yes, I have had all that for which I am thankful! But having spent over a decade trying to integrate my lost identity after being in the fog about the lifelong consequences of being separated from my birth land, culture, and people — I speak out now to help others realise there is more to being adopted than the material gains in my adoptive country.
COVID-19 has further challenged my beliefs about my birth country compared to my adoptive country. It has been the first time I’ve read something in mainstream media to highlight a positive about my homeland over my adoptive country. Here’s the recent article on Vietnam’s response to the coronavirus. I’ve seen more about other birth countries being held in high regard (see Taiwan and South Korea). It’s an unprecedented time to see some of our birth lands viewed with pride in mainstream media. In contrast, is the wealthiest, first world democratic country America and how it is responding to COVID-19. Right now, with the media coverage, I imagine the whole world is questioning whether America is better than anywhere else. From an adoption perspective, American intercountry adoptees have been trying to voice for some time that not granting automatic citizenship and actively deporting intercountry adoptees back, after 40 years, is completely unethical, unfair, and wrong. No other adoptive country does this yet America has still been upheld by most birth countries as the land to send children. Perhaps now, after seeing how America handles COVID-19, birth countries might think twice about sending children to America? Maybe the rose coloured glasses might fall away?
COVID-19 has made it quite apparent that our birth countries aren’t all backwards! They aredifferent, but not less. Seeing our countries portrayed positively in mainstream media is novel for me. I wonder how many South Korean, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese intercountry adoptees in America might be, for the first time, wondering why they believed the mantra about how “better off” they are compared to being raised in their birth countries? This COVID-19 is impacting far more American adoptees than those impacted by non-citizenship or deportation! And with racism towards Asians at an all time high in so many of our adoptive countries, there’s a lot that COVID-19 raises in our minds.
Right now, the whole world is re-evaluating many things but what it does for me as an intercountry adoptee, is it encourages me to look critically at how our countries are portrayed and challenges me to re-evaluate how I regard my birth land and people. I rarely see any birth country portrayed in a way where other democratic first world governments might look to them as an ideal. I’m sure I’m not the only intercountry adoptee to notice these changes and ponder what it means. This period in time adds yet another layer to consider what it means to be intercountry adopted.
Once we have learned to ride a bike, we will never forget it. This is true, but must be understood as a metaphor. I am in a process where I need to learn and become a real human being. I need to learn how to ride a bike. Cycle on the road of life, and once I have learned it, I can never forget it again.
When I lose control, I become insecure. Then I get angry and seek refuge in drugs, or verbal, psychological violence. This feels very insecure to other people. But I had to protect myself.
The world is a dangerous place. I have to protect myself, in order to survive. That’s how it was for me when I was six years old. It was the first thing I learned in my life. But I’m not six years anymore. I don’t have to protect myself anymore. The world can also be a beautiful place. With beautiful people who wish you well.
The fact that I seek professional help myself is a start, a desire for change. A way to learn to ride a bike. I am in a process where I see things in bird’s eye view. It hurts, but also feels good, to see its faults.
We are in the midst of unprecedented times with COVID-19 taking over the world but as an Asian intercountry adoptee raised in a white adoptive country, I find myself once again, in that uncomfortable “in-between” space. I have lived the experience of sitting between two very different cultures and races – east and west. I am a product of both but yet at this point in time, I feel ashamed at how human beings can behave and treat each other when ultimately, we are of the same human race.
I have been raised with the white mindset of my adoptive country but I have also spent over a decade embracing my once removed cut-off Asian heritage. My current pride in being Asian didn’t happen easily because I was adopted in an era without education to advise parents that our cultural and racial heritage is of immense importance. I had to put years of concerted effort into reclaiming back my birth heritage, race and culture. So I find this period of overt racism against Chinese/Asians as very confronting. It reminds me of how I once use to hate my own Asian-ness. I was teased as a child for how different I looked — picked on for my slanting eyes, flat nose, and non European profile. I grew up isolated being the only non-white person in my community as a child. I know that for many Asian adoptees (and many adoptees of colour) right now, we are having to relive those racist moments all over again.
What has been particularly triggering recently, is to see the American President choosing to consciously speak about the COVID-19 disaster with pointed fingers at a whole race, calling it the “Chinese Virus”. I felt personally offended. Did you?
When a leader of the world’s superpower labels a whole race in such a negative manner it overtly tells us that racism is very real, acted out by those highest in power. They make it appear as if it’s “normal”, “okay”, “justified” to do so —- but racism should never be okay! So adoptive families, if you haven’t recognised that we intercountry and transracial adoptees experience racial micro aggressions every day, I hope that this period in time, is your wake up call!
Racism is one of the most common issues we intercountry adoptees end up having to navigate. Facing racism and having to constantly explain why we look Asian (or any colour different to the majority) but speak, think and act like a white person in our adoptive country is a constant challenge. This has been documented in many of the resources we adoptees contribute to and create, eg. The Colour of Difference and The Colour of Time. Sadly, not all adoptive parents recognise the racism we experience and many are definitely not equiped to know how to prepare us for it.
Some more-awoke-adoptive-parents have recently asked what they can do to support their adoptive children who are of Asian descent. I’m sharing this advice from Mark Hagland, a Korean adoptee who has been co-educating adoptive parents at this facebook group for many years:
“I think that parents absolutely need to find ways to explain the situation and the environment to their Asian children. Of course, whatever they say must be age-appropriate and sensitive to the individual temperament and stage of development of their individual child/ren. And every child is different. But all children deserve the truth–sensitively and lovingly shared, of course.
Some parents will inevitably say things like, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly harm my child! I want her/him to remain innocent for as long as possible!” Any such sentiment reveals white privilege. All children of colour end up experiencing racism. The least loving thing possible is to avoid preparing one’s child to experience the inevitable. Far better to lovingly explain to one’s child that there are going to be difficult experiences out there, but that they will be okay because they will be supported by you, their parents.
I often tell parents of young children that even the youngest children can understand the concept of fairness. Start with that, if you have a young child. Start with the idea that some people are mean/unfair just because of how someone looks or where they’re from. It IS mean/unfair. With a young child, we need to prepare that child without imparting fear or trauma.
I made sure as a young adult to move to a very large, diverse, welcoming, progressive city in order to live in psychological comfort. And this is literally the first time as an adult that I’m even the least bit worried about experiencing aggressions or micro aggressions against me personally, in the city where I live. I believe it will mostly be okay, but who can say for certain?“
I have also been like Mark and as an adult, I ended up relocating myself to a city area that is much more diverse than where I grew up. In my city of Sydney, Australia, I have found a place to belong where I’m not the only Asian or non white person in my community. I have also married into an Asian family which has helped me immensely to embrace my race.
For young adult adoptees, if you are struggling at the moment due to the increase in racism you see directed towards Asians from COVID-19, I highly recommend joining adoptee led groups and communities where you can connect with others and be supported by your peers. There’s nothing like being able to freely speak amongst a group of people who understand what it’s like! The validation and peer support is invaluable. If you have found yourself hugely triggered and struggling emotionally, please seek out further professional support and surround yourself with a strong support network of people who understand what it’s like to be a racial minority. Here is also a link with some great tips.
Right now it’s not an easy time for anyone, but for adoptees and any people of colour, it is a heightened time for being a target of racist acts/comments and/or for being triggered. Please take time to nurture yourself and join into communities who do their best to support and understand you. Let’s all:
Hello, you may call me FaerieWarrior and I’m a Chinese artist who was adopted to America in 1997 at around thirteen months old. I was raised by a single mother and have always had a passion for drawing. I currently hold a degree in education (k-12) and art. I would love to go back to college and potentially get a master’s in art.
Above is one of my drawings which I call “Locked”. It expresses how after I was bullied in 7th/8th grade and how I always kept my feelings and emotions to myself. I tended to keep people at a distance and never really open myself up.
The bullying started halfway through 6th grade and got more intense at 7th/8th grade. The most popular guy in our class came up to me during recess and told me he had a crush on me. Me, being an intellectual and not liking this guy at all, said: “Ew, no!” So for the next two years, I was bullied about various things from my appearance, my hobbies, and my so-called ‘boyfriend’ (my childhood friend who went to a different school and no, we weren’t dating).
I should probably mention that around 85-90% of my class were white Americans. The other ethnicities in our class were: one Hispanic girl, one Filipino girl and one Chinese girl (me). Given we all went to a Catholic K-8 school, we were all raised Catholic as well.
I was mostly bullied about how “long and disgusting” my hair was (I still proudly keep my hair long) together with my love of reading. While I read, some people would throw random objects at me to see if I would notice. Markers, paper clips, eraser heads, etc were the main projectiles. One time in music class, the guy who professed his crush on me threw a broken pen that hit me in the check.
The ‘friend’ group I was a part of, mostly ignored me unless they needed help with school work (I was usually given the task of doing the experiments and explanations for science labs). Other times they would exclude me from their conversations or small group projects with the snide, “You should work with other people and try to make friends,” while they continued to work with the same exact people. Such hypocrites.
Not only that, there were two (or three, I don’t really remember) guys who would be super creepy and oddly sexual towards me. When the jerk who initiated it walked around the classroom, he would intentionally walk behind me and stroke my back as he went by. Every single time. That led me to hate being touched, especially when it’s from a stranger or unexpected. That guy even had the gall to tell me that he’d, “Make me the next teen mom” (back when that television show was a “thing”). I replied with, “You’d never get close enough to try,” while kicking him in the shin under the table.
There was only ever one incident where my ethnicity was under fire. Some random weird kid who had a love/hate relationship with me called me a racial slur (some days he’d claim he was in love with me and the next day he’d hate my guts). I was a bit confused since I had never heard that word before in my life. I went home and looked it up in the dictionary. I didn’t really particularly care because I had a sense of purpose about who I was and what I’m here to do.
Well, I’ve been rambling on for a while so if you want to know more about this time of my life, I have a story speedpaint where I draw and tell you a more in-depth about my younger years (it’s around 20 minutes long so hope you got some popcorn). You can find it here.
When I reached high school, I started clashing with my adoptive mom. I wasn’t performing at the level she wanted and each year from sophomore to senior year I struggled in one class. We also had many differing ideas on what my career path should be (she did not support me being a professional artist). I constantly felt like I was a disappointment and had no worth. From my resulting ruined self-esteem, destroyed confidence and years of being bullied and abused, those feelings grew into a general feeling of disappointment in my talents.
Anyway, for a more light-hearted conversation, above is a drawing I made for the Chinese New Year 2020. It was a fun drawing to make. I was born in the year of the rat and I always enjoy ‘celebrating’ Chinese New Year. Every year I would get my mom to buy me Chinese food and we’d change the stuffed animal that hangs out in the kitchen (we have all the Chinese zodiac beanie babies). The girl has the Chinese symbol for “metal” on her chest because this year the element is metal. The lucky colours for rats are gold, blue, and green. So I incorporated gold in the dress and blue in the eyes of the mouse. The lucky flower for rats is the lily so I added them in as hair accessories since I always wear a flower in my hair.
I was raised with lots of books about my home country and its culture/traditions so I grew up always proud of my heritage. I really love the idea/concepts of the zodiac and I would totally nerd out with it (ie I compiled notes about personality traits, relationship dos and don’ts, etc). When I was a toddler, my mom took me to Chinese lessons in which I was too shy and antisocial to really participate in, which is something I regret now.
So with my head in the clouds and with all my past experiences, I enjoy making art and stories that hopefully will make an impact on others in the future. If you would like to see more of my work, you can follow me on DeviantArt.
Are you a maid, au pair or prostitute? I have heard all this through my childhood and professional career in Norway.
A Norwegian chronicle by May Martinsen, CEO of IRMI Group. Written in collaboration with the Norwegian Adoptionforum organisation and translated from the original article published in Norwegian newspapers.
I started writing this text nine years ago, but it was filed and stored because I didn’t dare stand up. Have we managed to break the code and have a country without racism?
According to Norwegian People’s Aid, job seekers with foreign names have a 25 percent less chance of being interviewed, and 43 percent of immigrants from Africa, Asia and Latin America were overqualified in the positions they worked (2012). In Norway, we have section 185 of the Criminal Code, also known as the racism section, but it may seem that we have not been able to solve the challenge.
It is often talked about that Norway and Norwegians are so friendly and inclusive and that there is hardly any racism in this country. But the concept of racism also encompasses attitudes and discrimination that impose on people traits based on race, religion and culture. I was born in Korea and adopted by ethnic Norwegian parents from the West Coast. I would say we were mutually fortunate; they were resourceful parents who wanted a child, and I was a child who needed parents. You’d think I was Norwegian. But society and individuals have often reminded me that I am not.
I recently met another resourceful lady with a Chinese background, but she is Norwegian like me. She wrote a post in Drammens Tidende on April 5, 2016 about what it is like to be an entrepreneur and a woman with an immigrant background who faces the daily racism in Norway. Although I was adopted by Norwegians, held leadership positions for 15 years, I have also not been able to escape racism.
The Visible Racism
I grew up in a village where almost everyone was ethnically Norwegian. Because of this, I had rough parts in my childhood. My parents probably also experienced racism early on. They told me about an episode where I, as a young child, cried on a flight. One of the passengers had told them that “people like her” belongs to Emma Hjort, that is a home for mentally disabled children.
As a child, I had to get used to getting comments like negro pussy, negro whore, fucking yellow geek, etc. Children make pranks and strikes, and it belongs to everyone’s childhood. But if something went wrong, the blame was put “on the yellow one”. I got grounded and more often blamed than what is deserved. It did something to me as a little kid. And I was never a whistleblower. I chose to “suffer in silence”.
I learned early on to acquire the attitudes “if you are going to accomplish something in life, then you must ‘fight twice as hard’ and ‘it’s never about how you feel, but how you take it’.” Instead of getting sad and bitter, I focused on finding a solution for a better everyday life.
My solution was to become a Tomboy with a touch of humour.
But it never stopped entirely. The worst episode was at a church service and we were confirmants. Before the service, several people forced me into the school toilet. They put my head down in the toilet bowl saying, “If you are to be confirmed, you must be baptised first” as they soaked my head with toilet water. I arrived at the church sticky, and some shouted, “I think yellow sewage smells in here!” The statement was followed by scornful laughter from the whole rural school. This was the day I felt I had two choices: to commit suicide by cutting up my artery or drowning; choice number two was to stay focused on the school and think about getting away from the village. I chose the latter.
According to school surveys conducted by the Olweus Group, over 40 percent of those who have been bullied have thought about suicide.
The Youth Data Survey February 2017 says that 10 percent of 16-year-olds have tried to kill themselves. Some, unfortunately, “succeed” with it, so bullying and racism, combined with isolation, have fatal consequences for many young people.
For me, a major turning point came when one of the leading bullies, after many years, apologised to me and acknowledged to their parents and me what I had been exposed to as a child. Not everyone gets the opportunity to forgive as I did.
The Silent Racism
In the book Plausible Prejudice by anthropologist Marianne Gullestad, she writes about invisible racism – the discrimination we do not notice because it is based on beliefs that many people think are perfectly normal. Many seem to think that identity is something to do with descent.
I was of the belief that society was improving. But in adulthood came a new lesson – I have chosen to call it “the silent racism”.
I had given birth to my second child and was rolling around my little blonde daughter when people on the street stopped me and asked, “Whose child are you looking after? Where are you a maid?” Men would frequently approach and asked how much I cost for one night. I have always had a classic and conservative style, so I was surprised. I quickly learned not to get too offended and accept that this society is “just like that”. It is again about attitudes, ignorance and stigma.
As an Asian-looking woman in Norway, I have the impression of being seen as an international commodity: A maid, au pair or a prostitute. When it was tempting to get angry, I let it be. When the “offers” have appeared, I have used humour and responded with a clear West/Midcoast dialect and a smile saying, “Sorry – I’m way too expensive for you!“
Already in 2012, the United Nations expressed concern about rising digital racism. Our children are now learning about online web behaviour through school. But what about the adults?
On digital dating sites, people meet in search of possible boyfriends, girlfriends and future life partners. I know several people who have married, as a result of contact through digital platforms.
Although I have been skeptical of these arenas and thought it best to meet people in real life, I was curious about established and used dating sites while I was single in the early 2000s. Unfortunately, I then drowned in requests for prostitution and bedroom activities, both the visible and invisible explained that I was an Asian. I concluded early on that this arena was most suitable for ethnic Norwegians, and quickly signed out and terminated the account.
Has there been any positive development here in this area for the last 15-20 years, I wondered recently and established a profile to take the test. The conclusion is that fortunately it seems to have gotten somewhat better. But unfortunately it is not entirely gone.
Societal Development and Responsibility
After spending some years in Tokyo as a diplomat for Foreign Ministry, my husband and I moved home, and I started a new director job in Oslo in 2011.
On the first day of work, a colleague asks during a closed program with a guided tour, “Where are you from?” A logical question and the answer was simple: “I just arrived back from Tokyo, but grew up outside Namsos” (a local city in Norway). But the colleague gave me a look as if I should have fallen from the planet Mars: “That is not true!” I laughed before connecting that it was my ethnicity that suddenly came into focus. Given that I was the only woman in the management group and also had a different ethnic background, maybe it wasn’t strange? I politely replied that I was adopted from Korea by Norwegian parents.
The reaction was unforgettable. “No, it’s not called that. Such people as you, are not adopted. You are imported.” I couldn’t help but laugh, also because I didn’t believe my own ears. Had we really not come any further?
In a fiftieth birthday celebration, I was in a conversation with a senior director in a Norwegian directorate, who spoke about the challenges Norway is facing with all the Somalis. I became curious and had to ask more about what that person meant, explaining that I myself was adopted and had Norwegian parents. The answer was, “Oh, you’re from Asia. Yes, people such as you, are so hardworking and sweet.”
“People such as you“?
I thought I was Norwegian!
I travel a lot at work. Amongst all the airports I visit, OSL Gardermoen stands out. 9 out of 10 times, I and my luggage must be inspected. It’s called “random control.” An interesting observation is that this happens all the time, whereas it rarely happens in other European cities when I arrive. I have done sports of it, so when I am with others in the traveling party I tend to say: Keep track of what’s happening in security checks now.
I will not claim that these everyday episodes are racism, but they are my observations. Two weeks ago they tried to be expel me from the EU / EEA queue in passport control, citing that I was Japanese. When I showed my Norwegian passport with a smile, the person who had approached was quite upset and embarrassed.
When it comes to immigration policy, integration and prevention of racism, do not forget the “invisible” Norwegians who are adopted or born in Norway. My daughters have an ethnic Norwegian father and are born in Norway. New generations, young promising adults, will not have to find themselves in comments, prejudices and discrimination. As a mother, I can teach my own children to include and care for, and strike hard when others are subjected to bullying or racism. But we can never manage the battle alone.
We need to increase knowledge and clarify the responsibility we all have for helping to change attitudes. Do not let those who are exposed suffer in silence. The work must be rooted in the politicians and the state as part of an important social responsibility. It is a disappointment that we have not been able to improve any further.
Notes on becoming less human by Vicente Mollestad (Bolivian adoptee raised in Norway)
On 10 August 2019 in Bærum, Norway, a 22-year-old white male attacked a local mosque armed with shotguns. While failing to kill anyone at the mosque, the arrest and search of his house revealed the murder of his stepsister, an intercountry adoptee from China, only 17 years old.
Upon our arrival, we were once told the laws of the new world, but the reality we inhabit speaks of ignorant wishes and in the worst case, fatal lies. They spoke about us as equals in this society, of us belonging to this country, neither as foreigners nor as immigrants. Words we repeated to ourselves.
But the idea of us as innocent, gullible, dream-fulfilling children became more complicated as we mutated into more hideous and unknown beings of puberty and adulthood. The hair grew long, black and unruly. The skin, dark and distinctly different. The body did no longer resemble the idea of a child but had the features of a stranger. A stranger to our surroundings, a stranger to ourselves, and sometimes even a stranger to those closest to us.
Boys eventually fit a media profile for the cause of violence and danger in society. Girls grew to become sexually desirable and fetishised. This dehumanisation leaves us vulnerable to the current state of the West as the threat of the foreign hangs over Europe as a ghost, a ghost conjured by its involvement in a bloody past. We became targets in the line of fire in a war that isn’t ours.
As intercountry adoptees we are being assimilated in the worst way, losing our languages, our biological families and our cultural roots. Meanwhile, we still carry the negative sides of not being assimilated at all. Because our physical traits are still those of an outsider, of the threat, of the barbarian. And that description and image of us makes us enemies for nationalists like Phillip Manshaus.
Even now, when our position is manifested in the worst way, the society and media at large fails to recognise or support our position and discourse. For us there will be no marches, no mention and no grievance. Even when we are so intertwined with the current state of affairs, we are not yet heard, we are not yet given platforms. If this country insists on bringing us into the place of hate, I suggest they at least give us a chance to speak our cause because I refuse to die at the hands of a white nationalist.
Growing up in near-total whiteness in the Midwest of America in the 1960s and 1970s, as a member of the first large wave of transracial intercountry adoptees, I experienced consistent marginalization and ostracism because of my race, and, to put it more bluntly, because of the race I was not—white. Constantly asked where I was from—no, REALLY, where was I REEEEAAAAALLLY from?????—I can say that the society around me made it very clear that I was an outsider, a foreigner, a stranger, an alien. I was often asked where I was from, and sometimes asked when I was going back to where I was from. And very occasionally, yes, I was told to go back to where I was from. All of this was deeply hurtful and wounding, of course, but I largely internalized a huge amount of racism and xenophobia to myself, and ended up with one gigantic complex about my physical appearance, which it’s taken me more than four decades to self-heal from—and I’m still working on that.
Indeed, one huge element in my participation in groups on Facebook around transracial adoption, as well as in-person participation in conferences around transracial adoption, has been a profound sense of mission around not only supporting my fellow adult transracial and intercountry adoptees to navigate society, including racism and xenophobia, but also around trying to help white transracial adoptive parents prepare their adopted children of color to navigate the world around us. I feel an intense identification with the littlest adoptees, who in some cases, even now in 2019, are experiencing what I experienced as a small child back in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the 1960s; and honestly, with all the resources available to white transracial adoptive parents now, in the second decade of the 21stcentury, is there any reason at all that the littlest transracial adoptee should have to experience what I and other transracial adoptees in the first waves experienced several decades ago???
Meanwhile, a great deal has happened in America, and elsewhere, in the past couple of decades. For one thing, enough white Americans were willing to give a Black/biracial man a chance, that we elected our first president of color, in November 2008. I still remember the thrill of election night on November 4, 2008, when then-Senator Barack Obama appeared on the stage in Grant Park in Chicago (the city that I am proud to say is my home) with his beautiful, accomplished wife Michelle Obama, and their adorable then-children, Malia and Sasha Obama, and were greeted by the most thunderous applause I think I had ever heard, on the part of hundreds of thousands of people gathered there, cheering, screaming for joy, weeping, many in stunned disbelief that our country could have the mind and the heart to break that barrier. And I, like millions of Americans, hoped in that moment that at least some people who had not voted for Barack Obama actually wished him well, and would be willing to give him a chance to lead all of us, all Americans, and to use his position as president of our country to also help lead in the world.
At the same time, I and so many Americans of color knew that there were many who hated President-elect Obama simply for his race (even though he had two, another complexity of his identity), and that some of those people would do everything they could to undermine him simply for his race, even apart from any ideological issues involved. We people of color knew that there would be a backlash; but the size and endurance of that backlash has shocked even many of us. And, shockingly, 62.9 million American voters, or 46 percent of the electorate, voted for Donald Trump, a man with absolutely zero political or public policy experience, and whose entire campaign had been based on racism and xenophobia; and because of our bizarre (and, to non-Americans, essentially inexplicable) Electoral College system, Trump won the presidency, even though 65.8 million voters, of 48 percent, had voted for former Secretary of State, former Senator, and former First Lady Hillary Clinton. In any case, based on how our strange Electoral College system works, Trump assumed the presidency on January 2017, and from literally the first moments of his presidency, he framed everything in apocalyptic terms, speaking of “American carnage” that only he could stop, and intensifying his racist rhetoric month after month.
And then, this month, Trump stepped up his hate-filled rhetoric against four first-term U.S. representatives—Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, hurling insults and accusations against them, branding them as “anti-American,” and piling lie on top of lie, in an effort to solidify his popularity among his core supporters, as the American presidential campaign (which, surreally, lasts two full years here) got underway. And then, on July 14, Trump tweeted that those four congresswomen should “go back to… the places to which they came,” even though three of the four were born in America.
Then, after massive condemnation of his remarks, Trump said on July 17 at a campaign rally in North Carolina, of the four congresswomen, “They never have anything good to say. That’s why I say, ‘Hey if you don’t like it, let ’em leave, let ’em leave.’ … I think in some cases they hate our country.” He then called out Rep. Omar specifically, once again falsely claiming that she had praised the terrorist group al-Qaeda (a charge thoroughly debunked numerous times in the past), and stating that Congresswoman Omar “looks down with contempt” on Americans; and the crowd reacted by chanting, “Send her back, Send her back.” Trump did nothing to stop the chants, and, after feebly distancing himself from them in the days that followed, now appears to be endorsing them.
For those of us who are immigrants of color—and even for many people of color who are not immigrants—we grew up hearing the “go back to where you’re from” taunts. They are hurtful and devastating. Padma Lakshmi, an ACLU Artist Ambassador for Immigrants’ and Women’s Rights, writing in The Washington Poston July 19, spoke for many of us when she wrote that, “Those words, those hurtful, xenophobic, entitled words that I’ve heard all throughout my childhood, stabbed me right in the heart. They echoed the unshakable feeling that most brown immigrants feel. Regardless of what we do, regardless of how much we assimilate and contribute, we are never truly American enough because our names sound funny, our skin isn’t white, or our grandmothers live in a different country.”
And for those of us who are transracial, intercountry adoptees, growing up in whiteness, and often surrounded by racists and racism, the pain can run very deep indeed. Kurt Bardella, who like me is an adult Korean adoptee, on July 17, wrote, in nbcnews.com, the online news website of the U.S. broadcast network NBC News, about his reaction to the “go back” taunts by Trump, in an op-ed entitled “’Go back’ is how racists try to deny my American-ness. But I’m never leaving.” Among other things, Bardella wrote eloquently that, “Like so many marginalized people in America, when we speak our mind in the political sphere, when we challenge the normalcy of the white status quo, we are attacked as less-than-fully American. I guarantee you, every single person of color who writes a column or appears on cable news to debate the national issues of the day (particularly from a perspective critical of the current president) receives a barrage of tweets, direct Facebook messages and emails from white Americans telling them to effectively ‘go back home.’ These reminders in which others perceive the color of our skin as a reason to reject our Americanness, is a constant reality that has been a part of our lives for as long as we can remember.”
What’s more, Bardella wrote, “Of course, Donald Trump’s weaponization of existing racism is not new; it has been his tool of choice ever since he expanded his presence on the political scene by questioning the legitimacy of the first black president. As president, he has praised white nationalists in Charlottesville, pardoned a racist sheriff in Arizona, labeled Haiti and African nations “shithole countries,” attacked NFL players for protesting the National Anthem and presided over an administration that locked up and tortured Central American children and their families at the southern border while deriding them as potential gang members.” Essentially, Trump has filled his entire time in the Oval Office so far—two-and-a-half years—with racist, xenophobic attacks and disparagement, literally nearly every single week.
What Bardella and Lakshmi have written says more articulately than I could, how I also see things. Frighteningly, it appears certain that Trump is going to base his entire 2020 reelection campaign pitch on open racism, white supremacy, and xenophobia, hoping to capture more of the white vote than in 2016, even amid demographic shifts that will make the United States a “majority-minority” country by 2045, according to the United States Census. And actually, that’s what all of this is about. The fear and apprehension of some white people in the United States is now palpable: in big cities and small towns across the country, the presence of people of color, including of very identifiable immigrants of color, is unmistakable. And Trump’s core base supporters are terrified and enraged.
Sadly, a large number of white transracial adoptive parents in America refuse to accept that the explosion in the open racial aggression of people of color has anything to do with their adopted children of color. Ensconced in bubbles of (often-right-wing) whiteness, and with no or few adult friends of color, many white transracial adoptive parents in the U.S. are convinced that their children will be treated as “special,” and further, that Trump and his core followers wish only the best for their children.
I had a very recent involvement in that issue this very week, when a thread in a transracial adoption-focused group that I do not moderate but was a member of, blew up because a friend of mine, a transracial adoptive mom whom I like very much, posted Kurt Bardella’s op-ed in the group. Facebook notified me of it, and I thanked my friend for posting it, stating that I so appreciated her lifting up the voices of transracial, intercountry adoptees in this difficult moment. But a racist white mother who fully supports Trump assured us that Trump could never possibly be racist, and that nothing he says or does could possibly be racist, and things exploded from there. Along with a large number of like-minded members, I (one of only two adult transracial adoptees participating in that discussion thread) and the others protesting racism and white supremacy, were promptly removed by the moderator from the group, while the racist adoptive mother was retained. I was also told that I was removed not only for discussing politics, but also for, one time only, using the f-word in one phrase in one of my comments in the discussion thread.
In other words, using foul language, even once, and in the context of protest, is far more offensive than racism and white supremacy. Not only that, by retaining the racist/white supremacist member of the group and ejecting all of us who were protesting racism and white supremacy, the moderator of that group—which is what many of us in the transracial adoption world refer to as a “rainbows-and-unicorns” group—a group focused only on the sweet, pleasant aspects of transracial adoption, and disallowing any discussion of race or anything else complex or challenging—proved our point. If enforced politeness around middle-class-white-American-woman sociocultural norms, is far more important than challenging racism, then clearly, no authentic, meaningful discussion of racism is possible in such a group.
What Donald Trump is doing right now—absolutely weaponizing the tenets of white supremacy, and banking on the deep racial and sociocultural resentments of white racists—is not only profoundly morally abhorrent, it is frightening to Americans of color, both immigrants and non-immigrants of color. We are now being pointed out as obvious targets for racial aggression, and possibly even violence.
The bottom line is this: America has come to a moment of profound crisis and of moral emergency. It is impossible any longer to stand by in silence. That’s what happened in Nazi Germany in 1934-1937, when the “good Germans” either expressed open support of Adolf Hitler and his storm troopers, or docilely remained silent. We all know what happened afterwards.
So this is where I stand: this is no longer about politics; it is about the safety and well-being of all of us Americans of color. And I will not be silent. But I will engage with those who want to understand, and who are willing to be authentic allies. And I will work. And I will hope.
I grew up on a dairy farm in rural Minnesota. Minnesota is a state, located in the north central region of the United States and borders Canada. Most people do not know the most northern point of the lower 48 states is located in Minnesota. It should be no surprise to learn Minnesota ranks in the top ten states for being the coldest and having the most snowfall. The Minnesota winters are known for dumping heavy wet blankets of lake-effect snow and its frigid temperatures.
If you live in a Northern climate, you gain experiences that only those who live in that region can understand. One learns to watch the weather the night before to know if one should plug in their car so the radiator will not freeze overnight. You learn to bundle up in loose layers to keep out the cold. As kids you learn not to lick metal surfaces when its below freezing otherwise you freeze your tongue on the object licked. Lastly, one learns to never eat yellow snow.
The straw stain that pops out against the white background is the recording of a human or animal’s presence as they relieve themselves in the great outdoors. This mustard stain that violates the white backdrop symbolizes discarded waste and something that is disgusting. Waste of course, is thrown away because it has no value. Garbage is ugly to look at and is an eyesore to the beauty that surrounds us. We put a lot of effort to hide, throw away and rid ourselves of trash. This is the way I felt during my childhood. I lived a childhood where I was taught I had no importance or value. I was the real living breathing ugly duckling. Worse yet, I was Asian. I symbolized that urine yellow stain in the snow.
The counselor at school insisted I take an IQ test and even though I tested a couple of deviations above the norm, I was placed in a “special” class. In the 5 years I was forced to attend this class, I befriended a boy named Raymond. The general public knew Raymond was intellectually disabled. My friend’s face seemed distorted, his pants seemed bulky due to the diaper he wore and his gait could be described as a stumbling walk. Many children mad fun of Raymond’s speech, his simple, s-l-o-w, slurred replies were the brunt of many jokes. I refused to partake in the taunts because I learned Raymond was a human being and like myself, he had feelings and ideas of his own.
After spending “special” classes with him for nearly 5 years, we grew to become great friends. I learned that Raymond loved collecting baseball cards and he would bring extra candy to class to share with me. Some people have asked me whether attending this special program hamper my intellectual growth. It may have but it also allowed me to learn a valuable life lesson. I learned to have compassion for all people. Black, white, yellow, tan, brown … the color of people did not matter. I believe that individuals who have a strong support network can do anything. Nothing can limit an individual in obtaining their dreams and goals. Little did I realize that Raymond and I had much more in common. Like Raymond, I also had to cope with being different, stared at and labeled as an outsider by society.
There was a kid that tormented me on the school bus. He was in high school and I was in first grade. It started out with threats and then it turned into gut punches. He hated me for being Asian. I hid this shame to myself and it was exposed when he took a permanent marker and used it to spell “gook” and “chink” on my face. The physical torment continued on when I entered high school. I endured an occasional punch, oratory lashings, and the constant fear that I would get beaten up. A kid several grades below me would twist my tiny frame into a pretzel on the long journey on the yellow school bus. My thin, waifish 16 year old Asian 100lb frame was no match for his 6ft 2in frame. He was the corn-fed farmer’s son who took pleasure in bending my small frame into a pretzel in the back of the bus. I was forced to feel the shame alone. I felt helpless, emasculated, and humiliated.
I felt further castrated by being taught that I was undatable. I was no match for the jocks. They were strong and good looking. I didn’t belong to the geeks because they were at least smart. I was the outsider to the outsiders. Being raised on a dairy farm meant I had to pull my weight with the chores. I had to carry heavy bushel baskets full of feed through manure covered feed lots and clean the calf pens each morning. I was the target of hate as I arrived to school with a distinct smell of cow faeces. I was the smelly kid in class because my adoptive parents did not allow me to shower before arriving to school. Then to add insult to injury, I was also the brunt of all fashion jokes. I often wore old “hand-me-downs”, garage sale and KMART specials. Needless to say, I was not popular at school.
Not only did I feel belittled but I also felt stupid. I had poor grades. I often fell asleep in class and also at night when I did my homework. My parents never helped me with my homework and without a tutor or a peer to study with, I had nobody to learn from. Many nights I stared into the blank pages of my text books and wondered about the meanings of the literary works or the simple algebraic equations. Nothing made sense to me.
Fear gripped the depths of my soul. Fear of the unknown. Fear for my own future. Later on, when I became an adult I learnt the proper name of the fear that prevented me from doing just about anything. This thing that had a chokehold on my life was called anxiety. My adopted parents described this behavior as being wimpy.
When I did overcome my fears, my behavior could be described as socially awkward. I didn’t know how to act around people because I had little interactions. Other times I would ramble and stay glued to a person because I was so starved for attention. No matter what the scenario, I would act inappropriately and my parents would later reprimand me verbally for my short comings. I never had a chance to be a kid or do simple things such as go to movies, watch popular TV shows, or hang out with friends. It was never an option. I was lacking in personal skills because I was isolated. I had no identity. I was simply a small kid alone in this big world.
My adoptive parents never thought to teach me about my Korean heritage. It never occurred to them to buy me a book about my ethnic origins. When I inquired, they refused to allow me to look at my own adoption paperwork. I was reminded I was American and told to be grateful. I was only taught about their Scandinavian roots. Racial issues that I brought up were immediately dismissed. It was met with the question of what I might have done to provoke someone or it was replied that this was a part of life and I had to toughen up. They called it “tough love”.
When they sicked the dog on me and howled with laughter when the dog tore into my flesh, it was supposedly done out of love too. I never felt like their child. Then again, most parents don’t do these things to their kids. Furthermore, society did not view us as a family either. The mismatch of large, looming Caucasian parents and tiny Asian children looked like the giant bearded lady and dwarf in a circus freak show. I felt awkward showing my face in public. People gawked at us when we entered the room. Our strangeness gave total strangers the courage to walk up and pry into my personal life asking questions like, “Hey are you getting married to your own kind? Are you Chinese? Japanese? Vietnamese?” I have even been mistaken to be Native American, Mexican, and Eskimo. Nobody in Minnesota seemed to know of the existance of a group of people called Koreans. With all this questioning and odd looks I wondered as a child if I was the only Korean left alive on God’s green earth?
A guidance counselor in my high school year was blunt with me when I walked into his office for the mandatory visit. I answered truthfully when he asked me what I wanted to do after high school. I told him I wanted to attend college and work in healthcare. The man told me in a stern voice that I was not college material and that I would steal an opportunity away from someone more deserving. I wondered if he would have said the same things to a Caucasian boy with poor grades? Did he take into consideration the hand I was dealt as child of being bullied, thrusted into child labor and a person who had all self esteem pummeled out of him? I have always wondered why he never offered any encouragement. Isn’t this what guidance counselors are supposed to do? To give individuals the best route towards the goals they were aiming for? Like the rest of the community I grew up in, he saw no value in me. But I ignored all the negativity I faced through out my childhood and focused on achieving everything said to be impossible.
The best way that I could explain my childhood was to compare it to a prison. A small, cold dirty Mexican prison. I was isolated from people. I was not allowed to pursue things I was curious about. My life was filled with hard manual labor, misery, abuse and filth. Despite these beginnings and the statistical chance of being successful, I persevered. I took remedial college course and taught myself how to write simple sentences. I studied evenings and learned the math I was unfamiliar with. I observed people and learned to shed my social awkwardness. I opened myself up to possibilities and fell in love. After several attempts, I married and was blessed with two wonderful children. I earned five degrees and two were graduate degrees from a reputable university. I traveled to more than 40 countries across the globe. One of the countries I visited was my birth country and I found my biological family. I have dined with presidents and met with dignitaries. I can say that I have had a fruitful life and entered into a profession as the CFO of hospitals.
I hope in telling my story, I can encourage others to take steps to push away their fears. I experienced numerous years of conditioning from others saying I was not good enough, strong enough or capable. I encourage everyone to break free from the chains of violence, hate, and anger. I tried as hard as they did in breaking me and I reached for the impossible. I made it despite the odds!
I encourage you to take a chance on yourself. You are worth the wait!