You Can’t Counsel Yourself into Belonging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can’t counsel yourself into belonging.

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

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

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

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

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

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!