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.
Many prospective adoptive parent forums discuss whether it’s a good idea to change our original names at adoption. We thought we’d provide you our views, as adults, with hindsight from our lifelong journey as intercountry adopted people to help inform you of how we feel about this issue.
Here’s a collation of our responses, shared in no particular order, from our ICAV facebook group where we had this discussion. We hope it is helpful.
My view is that our names should not be changed unless we want them to be changed. My adoptive mom changed mine simply because that’s what she wanted but to me, my original name is what I really resonate with and it’s my identity. In adoption they use us as a substitute to make us theirs and not just take us in to take care of us because another family cannot or will not do it.
As far as the documents go, I think there needs to be legislation in place stating that we have the right to access our birth documents and be given them freely. Most times we cannot even go to ask for them from the courts because you need to know certain details such as county etc and adoptive parents have and can withhold that from an adoptee. It’s our history and we have every right to know who we are and we shouldn’t be forced into another persons mould of family.
To me it’s just unethical especially taking into consideration some of us were actually trafficked and not given up. Such was my case. The government lied and by the time there was enough information to find me in the orphanage, I was already adopted and bio family members were denied custody of me within that time also because of my a mom’s expression of wanting to adopt me. They lied about medical records and they lied about my bio dad’s information simply to gain more money for the federation.
Adoptive parents should be able to change our name but only if they can prove there is an immediate threat to us in keeping our birth name.
Микайла Трапезникова adopted from Russia to America
We lost enough. We are people before we enter their families, regardless of whether they like our names or not, it is ours. Even if it is “just” an orphanage name.
MKR adopted from Asia to America
I’d prefer they would have kept my name but then again, the orphanage were calling me by my middle name, “Manuel” which I always felt was odd. But when I found my mom, she called me by my first name “Antonio” and it made more sense. Anyways, now my name is Daniel which has nothing to do with my real one.
My birth family also say Tonio, short for Antonio. In Peru, this name is very common but in Canada, not so much. I feel like it’s a part of where I’m from. It’s also my father’s name. I always knew my real name, I just wish I’d got to keep it. The entire thing. I will eventually change it back to my real name. It’s just frustrating that I have to get through the legal procedure over all the stuff I have to do to reconnect with my culture.
It’s very sad ’cause it adds to all the stuff I was deprived from when I was adopted. It’s my identity. I also feel like growing up not speaking my language was cruel. I wish I could have grown speaking it a little bit so I didn’t waste my brain plasticity’s peak when I was a kid and have to learn it as a grown man.
In Canada, it always was important to learn English if you are french and both those languages are easier to learn or immerse in. Peruvian Spanish is also different from other Spanish, so even though I know Central American’s and South American’s, I don’t wanna learn Mexican stuff and realise it’s not the same.
I just feel like adoption out of country is wrong. Changing names or not, it doesn’t give back what we lose by being deprived of our culture. I wish I still had my name but then again, I wish I wasn’t adopted and I wish I grew up in Peru with my family even more.
I had this identity crisis where neither my real name felt like me nor did my legal name. It’s weird to say but it was very confusing for me. I suffered from this, not being able to identify with these names. It meant nothing to me. It’s like I’m in between and nowhere, at the same time. That’s what being adopted is for me. It’s assimilation. It took away my sense of self.
Daniel Walsh adopted from Peru to Canada
Honestly, I wouldn’t want my Korean name. After finding out my birth mother didn’t even name me and that the midwife did, I kinda thought about getting rid of them as my middle names too. I don’t like being asked all the bloody time about “why this and that” so at least having an “english” sounding name has helped me not have to constantly be asked questions all the time. But thats just me. I hate being asked and having to explain for the billionth time .
Gemma adopted from South Korea to Australia
A lot of people don’t think names matter. But just like in tribes, they knew where you belonged by the tribal name associated. So changing our original names means that you are erasing our identity.
I was named Angela as a baby, born to my mother, my roots, my history, my identity. I was renamed Maria, which I never felt connected to. Maria was someone I knew who was brought into another family and my memories don’t go beyond the days I can recall being part of a new family. If they had kept my name and added on to it, maybe with a middle name if I didn’t have one, that would have been acceptable, it would have given me some sort of comfort that I am real and not just some random child who needed to be wanted because of the circumstances my birth mother was in at the time. An added name/surname comes second to who I already was, we aren’t renewed after we’re adopted. We’re human, not some immaculate being that comes down from some planet.
We are the same child and who we become after adoption doesn’t redefine our identity, it merely hides and erases it on paper. We are not to be claimed like a puppy who gets two owners in one life. We aren’t animals you make up names for. We are already someone before we had to be someone else’s.
The key to “loving” this child that you need to have because there are so many children out there who need your “help” – is not to change who they are, or to replace their beginning with one that attaches/claims them as yours. It’s to take the child who’s already someone and build from that, understand that no change of name, no information erased from their true birth certificate will make them look like you birthed them into this world. Nothing will fix what’s broken within yourself, or whatever void you’re trying to fill, by changing / falsifying our identity.
Your power to change the identity of a child on paper is something you need to look inward about and think whether it’s truly for the benefit and the best for the child who’s lost/losing her biological ties and everything that goes with that; or if it’s to benefit you and your needs.
Maria Hernandez adopted from the Philippines to Canada
My name is mine. I used to hate it and wanted to change it. And then when I got married, people wondered why the hell I didn’t change it. It’s mine. It’s grown on me. Yes, it links me to a birth mother for whom I do not care, but it’s my name. No one can pronounce it, but it’s my name. I’ve thought about adding my birth father’s last name to mine but maybe in the future. I have so little left of my roots. Leave me with something.
Marisa Smith adopted from UK British/Native American ancestry to America
Don’t go there. That’s our family name and changing it strips us of our identity and family connections. Even married couples don’t always have the same last names. The adopters just want us to “match” them so they can pretend we’re theirs.
For adoptees whose names have been changed, going back to our birth names should be as easy as going back to a maiden name after a divorce. No cost, no hassle, just file it with the courts and you’re back to your own name again. It’s just one more area in which adoptees have no choice or right to consent.
Jodi Gibson adopted from Ireland to America
One of the first things we learn to write as a child, is our name. This is what identifies us as an individual, it is the collective sum of our unique personality and our lineage held together by words – our first and last names. So when we become adopted, we shouldn’t lose the right to who we are born as. I want to suggest respectfully that most adoptive parents change our names out of an unrecognised acceptance of the patriarchy and colonialism that predominates the basis of adoption. I hope that parents in this era will question more deeply why they feel the need to change our name.
Of course it’s convenient to not have to explain to half the world why our name is not the same as our father or mother or how we “belong” to them — but how can we develop self esteem, confidence, and pride in our own identity if we are not allowed our own name? Our name is an expression of who we are and we all deserve to live our truth. The most important thing we have to develop as we journey life, is our relationship with self and our name is integral to our sense of self.
I was given an anglo name by my adoptive parents with my Vietnamese name in the middle. At age 17, I was given a choice if I wanted to keep my Vietnamese name as my legal name. I chose at that time to keep the name as my parents had chosen because at that stage in my life, I hated everything Asian and had absorbed the negativity and racism I experienced within my adoptive country. After doing much work on myself years later, to find my true identity and reclaim my Asian self with my caucasian mindset, I now feel pride as to where I was born and I do wish my adoptive family experience had been different. No doubt if they’d taught me about my heritage and beginnings with a sense of respect and pride, I would have been proud to own my Vietnamese name. It would have helped me develop a stronger and more positive sense of who I am rather than the unnecessary complications I had to sort through as a much older adult.
On the flip side, there’s no doubt people in Australia would have struggled with pronouncing my Vietnamese name considering I was raised in very remote rural regions but I question any adoptive parent who intends on raising their child in areas with no racial mirrors; my generation of intercountry adoptees has definitely seen that this adds to our complexities in negative ways. Now that I live in multi-cultural and very-Asian-dominated-Sydney, my original name would not have been an issue if I’d been raised somewhere like this.
Vong Ung Thanh aka Lynelle Long adopted from Vietnam to Australia
I asked a bunch of adoptees this question for our child whom we adopted. Some said they wouldn’t have wanted a Korean name growing up because they already stood out too much and the name would make it worse. Others wish they had kept part of it (I’m in this camp).
We kept his birth name given by birth mother but changed the romanisation. I have advised other adoptive parents to keep at least part of the name.
Allison Young adopted from Sth Korea to the America and adoptive parent
I didn’t know for a long time that my birth mother had indeed named me. I wish it was my second name and now if I had to go through the process of changing it, it would be long and costly.
It’s a difficult question because I have periods when I dislike my own name because well, it’s not my first.
I know of not one adoptee that doesn’t at least attempt to find their roots. Finding out your adoptive parents gave you a new name can be difficult to digest, especially when you find out later in life. It can also enhance the internal divide an adoptee may already feel.
Lina adopted from Brazil to Germany
The moment or moments you are given a name, or alter a name (via marriage, divorce, blended families, immigration, or choice thru Deed Poll etc), they are all markers in the time line of an individual’s life. There are always many things to consider, however, inclusion and continuity of names (where ever it sits eg first / middle / hyphenated etc) seems to tell a story of a life lived and cared for by many whether biological family, carers, adopted family, or married family. Nothing is hidden and it’s just left to the individual as to which name they would like to be known as, which may change as they grow up, which is naturally what we often do (adopted or not, child names and adult name versions).
The issue for me would be about providing choice for the adoptee, not taking that away. And to not create identity erasure. Doing this creates identity ambiguity which is so damaging. Choice is empowering when so many parts of our lives as adoptees is about feeling disempowered and marginalised. My five cents worth.
Sue Bylund adopted from Vietnam to Australia
I wouldn’t want my Indian name. I partly just love the uniqueness and ambiguity of my current name but I ALWAYS hated my Indian name. I think as I child I truly believed that name represented an ugly part of me. That ugly, unknown confusing part. Then with how non-Indian I am, I wouldn’t want it!! BUT on the flip side I wonder how connected I would actually feel if I hadn’t had the opportunity to completely separate myself from the Indian part of me.
Anonymous adopted from India to America
What’s in a name? For adoptees, connection and disconnection. Most adoptees have little else going forward except their birth name – their link to humanity. When adoptive families change a child’s name, often to one that removes ethnic relevance and birth family history, the new name is a primal severing.
In my case however, the abusive people who adopted me mocked my birth name relentlessly. When I finally escaped my childhood hell as a teenager, I chose a new name that powerfully symbolised my new life. I eventually changed my name legally.
My advice as an adoptee is to keep and honour the adopted child’s birth name; use a nickname if needed. In this way, the link to the child’s core identity is preserved and not denied.
Jesse Lassandro adopted from Spain to America
In many cases our name is the only gift our mother gives us and our only link to her, to family and to culture. If it wasn’t given by her it’s still a part of our story. Our name is important and a disregard of it is significant it sends a message about who and what’s important. It’s the first sign that parent (and in some case white) comfort is more important than ours and we must collude with that or face their pain and resistance if we want to reclaim that name or any part of our biological identity – it’s a heavy burden for an adoptee.
If you have to change an Asian or African name for the comfort of a white community you’re not ready for a transracial child and all its complexity, not ready to advocate for them and celebrate their otherness instead of trying to disguise it. Don’t gift a child a sense of shame in their culture instead nurture confidence and security in who they are and the skills to advocate for themselves. Learn those skills yourself if you haven’t already. If you choose to erase your child’s identity instead you fail at this first hurdle. So prepare for a rough ride once your child tries to find their roots without your help because you’ve shown yourself unable to be supportive.
Name changes also play a crucial role in anonymising us so that biological family can’t search for us. No matter how well argued the parents case is for name changing – it’s a power grab, which means it disempowers others. I can’t express how heavy the burden of search is, it lies entirely with the adoptee because of the many ways birth families are disempowered and shamed to deter them from searching. I shouldn’t have to search, I want to be found.
Gardom adopted from Malaysia to the UK
Prospective and adoptive parents are contributing to a situation where we may end up with a huge list of names. It can be very confusing and does not aid identity. I have 5-6 different last name options (and more, if you consider hyphenating any of those). Now, that’s exacerbated by the fact that Sri Lankan Sinhala people typically have two different types of family names and can use either and that I am married. But being married and changing your name is not unusual in many countries.
Also, having two last names is also not totally unusual as Spanish and Latin American cultures often also use two names (and perhaps there are other countries too who follow such a system).
I have three given names as my bio mother gave me two and my adoptive parents kept my birth name as middle but gave me a new first name. So that’s three given names. It is just plain psychologically difficult to have so many different names. How many people have 9 different names? I don’t even want to calculate how many combinations that is!
Anonymous adopted from Sri Lanka to Australia
I think this is very personal to individual adoptees and there’s no way an adoptive parent can know which the child would prefer. They often have to make the best decision they can based on what they think is best. Hindsight is always 20/20.
I don’t think I would have wanted to grow up with my Korean name and deal CONSTANTLY with people misspelling it and mispronouncing it and having to spell it for people everywhere I go. Ugh. Just thinking about it makes me tired. Lol! But I also wasn’t very in touch with my Korean-ness as a kid.
I think today, it would be neat to have it as a middle name so I could have this little reminder. My husband and I also adopted from Korea. Our son is 9 and we chose to change his name. For one, his Korean name was one that was easily turned into a cruel taunt in America and we felt it would make him a target for bullying. We’ve told him all along, however, that we will help him change it back if he ever wants to do so. He knows we are fine with whatever he wants to do. We actually gave him a middle name he shares with my husband, who is white. Many adoptive families I know keep the Korean name as the middle name so they can decide later to go by their middle name if they’d like. I think that’s a great thing.
Anonymous adopted from Sth Korea to America
My Iranian name Susan was given to me at an orphanage, probably a horrible place to have spent any time in whatsoever. I am happy I got to keep it as a middle name because otherwise it would have felt as if my Swedish adoptive parents were actively trying to erase my origins. They gave me the first name Sarah, which works in the whole world. Sarah is common in Iran too, which is great now that I have found my birth family.
I am happy with not having a Scandinavian name that no-one abroad can pronounce. It would raise so many questions wherever I travel. With a name like Sarah there are less questions. Finding my birth family, it turned out I have a big sister named Susan, so now I’m even more happy I wasn’t given that as my first name.
So my advice is: 1) don’t erase the orphanage name; 2) give your child an international name; 3) if possible, give the child a name that works in their native country; and 4) if the child was given a name by the birth parent and if the child is old enough to answer to that name, you CANNOT under any circumstances change it.
Guest artwork by Xiaolan Molly Thornton, adopted at 3 years of age to Australia from China.
Xiaolan says: This artwork depicts how I feel being divided by two cultures. One of Australian and the other, Chinese. The background is supposed to represent the landscape of China and I have blended in aspects of Australian culture which I now embrace as part of my identity.
This artwork may not be reproduced, shared or copied without the consent of Xiaolan.
The following artwork is provided by high school guest adoptee, FUYI. FUYI was born in China in 2002 and adopted to America at 11 months old. She completed this portfolio of artwork as part of her requirements for an advanced placement class in high school. FUYI provides a small blurb after each piece to describe what the artwork is about.
This piece is simply about death, loss and all the “unknowns” in my life. The hand of a mother forever reaching for the hand of her baby. The lying figure represents those sacrifices for human harvesting. Chinese Bad Luck symbols noted throughout this piece, clock, the number 4, chopsticks in unfinished food… Bad luck symbols for China are not misfortunate in other parts of the world. Forcefully removing children away from their ancestry kills the future of the culture. It’s all very symbolic.
“An invisible red thread connects those destined to meet, regardless of time, place, or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle, but never break.”
A mind map collage of my emotions and thoughts that are on display for everyone to see. A small collection from fortune cookies are pasted that relate to my feelings. The red and blue prints are the silhouette of my biological father. The biological man in my life rips his heart out at his loss. Again, my unknowns.
This piece was my first ever sketch for my advanced placement requirement for review by the College Board, the first time drawing my feelings of being adopted. I’m represented in the middle. Behind me are the silhouettes of my biological parents as well as the road I was abandoned on. The squares are full of identifiers: finger, foot and handprints, and Chinese words that represent me as an abandoned child. My genetics and the possibility of organ harvesting are being hinted at here.
The figure represents both my biological mom and I. I’m floating and somewhat lost. Our fingers wrapped by the red thread connecting us and the “3 month” old baby in the ultrasound. On the right, displays a foetus and its heart that is no longer beating. That could’ve been me, had my biological mother not protected me from the government officials. (Inspired by Peng Wang).
This artwork remains the property of FUYI (c) 2019 and may not be reproduced or printed anywhere without seeking permission.
Angela Tucker be invited to the Red Table to address transracial adoption from
the perspective of an adult adoptee was possibly a landmark moment for many of
us. I‘m thrilled that she had the chance and the courage to speak on a subject that
adoptees know creates disruption, and frequently outright hostility.
I waited all day for it to appear watching a back catalogue of episodes including one that I couldn’t bring myself to watch before that day, addressing the question “Should white people adopt black kids?” in which the guest is a white adoptive parent and notably absent are any adult adoptees.
It’s not lost on
me that one such episode on white privilege the family discuss the meaning and
impact of the quote “Prejudice is the emotional commitment to
ignorance”. In another episode on relationships between black women and
white women, Jada talks honestly about the difficult feeling she gets around
white women, especially blonde white women. Later I will think of this and
imagine what she would say if she were asked to fit in with a group of blonde
white women the way it seems they expect Angela can do in a black community.
Angela expresses things many adoptees will relate to in one form or another, while others may not. For example, she currently feels more comfortable in white communities and parenting white foster children, and I see a lot of criticism online for that, from both adoptees and non-adoptees.
If there’s one thing we know about being an adoptee it’s that we can hold changing perspectives on our own experience over time and offering others the space to be where they are is to offer it to ourselves.
moment that touched me was when Angela said “I’m hoping that I live to see the
day where people say, when I say ‘I’m adopted’, they say ‘oh my gosh, did
someone try to keep you with your family first?’ instead of celebrating her adoption and
expecting gratitude for it. When Jada said “I’ve never thought of it that
way before” I exhaled, there’s healing in having your experience seen and
acknowledged that way. I’ve felt it lately with friends, who told me
“You’re really opening my eyes”. In a world where people actively
fight to deny my reality, I’m so healed by having people in my life who can and
do shift their perspective. Equally, I can see that those moments have often come over several months in
which I share openly and not without misunderstandings. So perhaps it’s a lot
to expect a 20 minute show to shift perspectives very far in one day. It will
take time and more of our voices to build understanding.
Back at the red
table, a tonal shift in the conversation occurs swiftly with Angela’s vulnerable
admission that she feels fear in the company of black people, in this moment I
sense she lost some of her hosts empathy as Gamma tenses and asks her to
explain why she chose the word ‘fear’. The fear of black people is so
inextricable with a legacy of discrimination and violence it’s hardly
surprising the word fear is alarming, I myself held my breath. But ‘real talk’
is at the centre of the show and to understand transracial adoption is just
that, real. Gamma had shown evidence of it herself in an earlier show when she
admitted she had found it easier to accept a white man into the family than a
As a fellow
adoptee what I know is that the fear I feel around people of my own culture is also
an implicit memory of my own relinquishment. Around people who look like those
who gave me up and those I’ve lived without, I feel vulnerable, rejectable. Can
a non-adoptee ever truly understand that feeling?
Getting into her stride, Gamma soon advises Angela to ‘counsel yourself’ for questioning how she could teach a black (foster) child to be black, Gamma points out that Angela counsels white couples in transracial adoption. Angela however, doesn’t counsel white people on being black, she doesn’t counsel them on fitting in to black culture, instead she uses her lived experience as a transracial adoptee to educate adoptive parents on the hazards, missing racial mirrors and role models. That’s not the same thing as actually being a black person trying to fit into a black culture they’ve grown up without.
You can’t counsel yourself into belonging.
You can’t learn belonging any more than you can learn to be a peacock. You may learn enough to hang out with peacocks without alarming them but try to fly and you’ll know you’re not peacocky enough pretty quickly. Just so with the iceberg of culture. A myriad of secret handshakes lie beneath, unspoken tests and initiations sit between ourselves and others.
Belonging is at the heart of identity. Those who think it’s enough to decide who you are independently of others beliefs, are underestimating the role that being seen plays in our identity. Self-acceptance in our identity is a small, sometimes inconsequential island, validation of our identity is a continent. For transracial adoptees there can be a lot of sea between our island and that continent.
I think about Angela sitting at that table with three generations of black women, secure in their kinship with each other, bound together by biology and a shared history. Across the table Angela sits between a white couple who raised her, and look nothing like her, and the black women who gave birth to her – who looks like her but is foreign to her. I try to imagine what Angela needed from those women across the table chiding her to counsel herself.
I think there
could be healing both for Angela and many adoptees who relate to her if they
could have said, “I’m sorry you have to struggle to belong with your own
people, I completely understand why you feel that way. We want you to know that
for us, you belong right here at this table here with us”.
Angela and all adoptees – you belong at our table, your voice is important to us, thank you!
In Sweden where I grew up, people like me are called adopted. It’s easy to spot an adopted. We look like we are from somewhere far away but we don’t know our native language or culture. This creates confusion wherever we go. It also creates confusion within ourselves.
Who are we? Who am I?
We grieve our traumas in silence because as soon as we share our sadness, we are told that we should be grateful: to our new amazing country and our kind adoptive parents.
This is something a Swedish biological child never has to hear: that they should be grateful to live in Sweden! This creates a sense of being worth less compared to everyone else; that we exist in Sweden on other terms compared to our peers; that it’s conditional. In many cases, our adoptive parents didn’t take good care of us. They disregarded our traumas. And they didn’t understand the racism all of us had to endure, both as children and adults. We were unprotected. We were fair game.
When you are adopted you sometimes grieve and think about your mother. For some reason you don’t think very much about your dad. I think this is because we are under the impression that our mothers were clueless and young, perhaps drug addicts, perhaps prostitutes. And that our dad was just some dude. The part with the prostitution, by the way, is part of the narrative that adopted girls are handed when they are young. “If you stayed in your country you would have been a prostitute, so why aren’t you grateful?!” Can you imagine what this message does to us?!
Daddy, like most of the other adoptees, I have spent time wondering about my mother, but I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about you in the past. Now, I think about you all the time.
This past November was the first time I’ve celebrated [Inter]National Adoption Month. In honor of centering the adoptee narrative, in honor of me, my family, and my bio family, I’m excited to share some thoughts. Here’s a bit about my perspective and experience of being an intercountry and transracial adoptee from China, having grown up in the US.
I want to stress that these are entirely my own perspectives and observations, drawn from my own life and relating to other [Chinese] adoptees I’ve spoken with; I do not intend to speak opinion for the entire adoptee community.
I used to tell people that I had no problem talking about being adopted because everything was fine for me. At a surface [and immensely privileged] level, it was. I was always very social and extroverted. I was oriented towards making as many friendships as I could. I was *that kid from camp who tried to stay in touch just a bit too long*. I told people I was fine talking about being adopted – even that there was nothing to talk about- because it had happened in the past.
But I am older now, and it’s taken me a while to dig into exactly how and why being adopted has had such an impact on me.
Being adopted is weird, and honestly I’m constantly in awe these days, learning new ways that its weird, and how it situates me in relation to most others, in and outside my communities.
I think we all face abandonment and loss, and the fear of these things, in different ways. I personally do not feel upset with my birth family at this point, but even so, I’ve realize that being abandoned (even if I don’t remember it) really feels present, and has been present throughout my life. I feel it’s important to name this phenomena of the fear of being abandoned, as its really not something I think any adoptee can ever really shake, no matter how conscious or unconscious those fears are. I’ve been doing a lot of work to understand how this fear affects me, and how I may be subconsciously reacting to it even if I don’t realize — whether it’s losing a camp friend at age 12, or the way I communicate in my relationships.
I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out what it meant to be read as an Asian woman. I felt completely foreign to this identity that I assumed publicly. I grew up in, and around white people, and white culture – as many adoptees from China do. I used to feel like I was a white kid in an Asian body. You’ll find this (or versions of it) aren’t uncommon for young Chinese intercountry and transracial adoptees.
Two examples of comments I received as a child are below for example:
“I don’t see you as Asian, you’re just normal!”
“Can you see ok?”
These comments were obviously steeped in racism, xenophobia and the essence of the marginalized identity, versus the construction of “normalcy”. They made me wonder what it was that people saw me as, and why it was so different compared to who I felt I was. I felt “normal,” which in itself was a horribly racist and xenophobic sentiment that I had been socialized to carry.
The sociologist Robin DiAngelo describes White Privilege as “To be perceived as individual, to not be associated with anything negative because of your skin color.”
There were two things that I continue to unpack there. While I was socialized in white culture within the US, I too learned how to read “Asians” as “abnormal.” Just as well, I discovered that I was read as abnormal — as out of place, too.
My White-Jewish and queer family culture has played a large role in my socialization and makes up huge parts of my identity and personality. But there’s this other piece that stands as a nebulous question mark, always looming over me:
Where do I come from? Whom do I come from? What are the struggles, joys, and histories of my people – biologically and culturally?
As I continue to understand the situation, more and more it feels like my birthright was taken from me — the right to know my culture, language, and ancestry: the stories and realities that I may never get to hear and that will never fully be a part of me. I also feel I was stolen from my family; there were very real and systemic pressures that inclined them to give me away.
The situation of adoption is inherently both deeply personal and individual, as well as global and systemic. It involves Chinese gender roles, family, culture, income inequality/classism, combined with the Western/American White Christian legacy of imperialism, savior-ism, and more.
A lot of my experience has been hallmarked by both the feeling of being different and that nothing fully belongs to me/that I do not fully belong to anyone (not even my family). This caused a deep dissonance for me. This underlying socialization has pushed me to constantly search to find belonging in groups, and via individual people as a mechanism of survival. This is also inherently motivated by the fear of further loss and abandonment.
While some of these questions around my origins may never be answered, I believe the hardships given to me by being adopted have pushed me to be resilient, self aware, grounded, and perseverant in connecting with others. I am so proud of being an adoptee for these reasons. I wouldn’t trade it for anything because I think one of the most precious things in life is being able to love and connect with others, in as many ways as possible.
I have mostly hated being asked where I’m from because it tells me that the person asking recognizes I must be from somewhere else. This question implies I don’t really belong and must have an explanation for being on this land (interesting, do you feel you belong on this land, white Americans?)
However, I’m beginning to find it to also be an empowering question!
I’ve begun to find beauty in this assumption that I’m not from here and in the recognition that I do in fact come from somewhere. I am the product of generations and generations of people who have lived their lives since the beginning of time. These people, while I don’t know them, are in my blood and in my DNA, showing me how to survive every day!
How sad that somehow, the acknowledgement that I am from somewhere else has largely been, for me and other transracial adoptees, a source of feeling out of place, and is a tool of implicit and sometimes explicit social exclusion.
And what a blessing that I’ve been asked this question and that I have, and plan to continue, to explore and uncover where I come from.
Being transracially and intercountry adopted has made me inherently feel that I don’t belong anywhere – in any group or community. It’s made me feel a little more like an outsider in virtually every community I’ve been a part of. While all these things – the sentiment of this question “where are you from,” the look of surprise when people hear I’m Jewish, the feeling of being “othered” by people I consider my own, have caused conflict in my identity in numerous ways, they’ve also asked me to dig deeply into what it means to build bridges and to continue to share, connect, and depend on community.
My adoption has caused me to ask myself, “Well, what and who are my roots? What and who matter to me?”
Even if it’s taken this long to get here, even if I may never know my biological ancestry and have lost the opportunity and privilege to connect to my original people, I do know the beauty, importance, and imperative of figuring out how to connect deeply to my given histories, ancestries, and communities. I know that I can even choose my communities, and that I have that agency – something all adoptees deserve to know and practice.
This white supremacist culture largely holds power through convincing its inhabitants relentlessly to be numb and to grow cold to their own struggles and inherently, the struggles of others. We are taught that to be strong is to remain stoic. This encourages isolation, which is the antithesis of community. By opening up to my own pain and understanding the situation of my adoption, I turn painful realities into curiosity and eventually compassion. By sharing this pain with others, I build relationships where I can give and receive support, and feel understood and known, despite always feeling unseen in certain ways. For me, this is what resilience and healing looks like.
And that’s been a deeply powerful experience but not without pain. It’s taught me to root myself in me, and to trust my ability to build relationships/community with love, curiosity and determination through listening, trust, and vulnerability.
While growing up with two White-Jewish and gay moms wasn’t ever helpful in making me feel “normal,” it’s also been a remarkable privilege that I would not trade for anything else. The cultures of Judaism and queerness that my moms embodied and raised me with, have saved me in so many ways. I’m speaking specifically of white Judaism and queerness because my moms experiences have been white. Being Jewish and queer growing up, my parents both learned mechanisms of survival and resilience from their struggles, families and communities. These communities, in different ways, each have their own societal traumas to deal with, past and present. Therefore, built into the fabric and practice of their Jewish and queer identities, they raised me with these inherent strategies of coping and healing. Their strategies are all based on unconditional love and support through gathering and processing — of holding a place for pain, and not running from it. They taught me the importance of chosen family because they, themselves know it.
I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to learn from communities and individuals of color who have shared and articulated their strategies of resilience and healing – of returning to real strength and love. Many intercountry adoptees grow up inside homogenous communities – largely white Christian spaces and don’t really have the access, in multiple ways, to address their identities and their pain. That is why I feel it is so important to share my own experience.
People of Color know this deeply through the multitudes of marginalization, dehumanization and struggle that we have experienced globally. We are, and have to be, inherently more connected to our people. We know this to our core even if it’s unarticulated; we have to know this, living through white supremacy. We know how to love and how to connect, how to to depend, and how to empathize. We have histories of resilience and practices of healing, both collectively and in our blood.
For me, my people are Chinese adoptees.
We as adoptees have mountains to climb. But we are able to connect to each other through our shared experience of feeling unmoored and untethered; not quite “enough” to fully belong to any group, we are our own.
We have so much work to do. We must learn again and again that we are worthy, after a multitude of things has made us feel that we are not. We must learn of our peculiar and particular systemic disadvantage, of parsing through our (largely white) parents’ (and our own) implicit racism and participation in western imperialism. We must learn how to get situated as Asians in our adoptive countries, and sift through the social locations of privilege and marginalization/oppression we experience. As Asians, we are used as a tool to uphold white supremacy and perpetuate anti-blackness. All of that is mapped onto us everywhere we go, and we must learn to navigate it appropriately.
I hope this post gives perspective to some aspects of my community through my story. Give us some space and time to figure ourselves out. Try to put yourself in the perspective of literally feeling like you are never part of the majority, never feeling fully understood, and feeling an odd and ever present dissonance between the way you present and who you actually are.
Ask those of us who are willing, to share about our experiences. (Also be prepared if the answer is no. No-one owes you an explanation of their life!) A lot of the time, the adoptee narrative is overshadowed by adoptive parent voices so let us speak and try to take in what we say, please!
Oh also ! Don’t eeeeeeeevvvvvver tell us that we “should be thankful” or “are lucky” that our parents adopted us! While saying this has absolutely no bearing on my own deep feelings of gratitude and love for my parents (having more to do with who they are as parents and not the mere fact that they adopted me), every one of our stories, hardships and inheritances is different. After losing original/biological family, no-one should have to count on “luck” or “goodwill” to receive love and care. This type of comment puts us in a situation of perpetually making up for a favor, as if we are unworthy of that type of love – something that too many adoptees experience coming from their own adoptive parents.
I may not know how to parent but I do know that the goal of having a child, adopted or by blood, cannot be to fulfill your own dreams. When you have issues with your child becoming an autonomous human who is Different Than You, that is a beautiful (and hard!) opportunity to connect through difference! And begin to let go of that urge to control who and how your child is. Don’t ever make your child feel like they are still making up for being adopted or your need to be seen as Good and Charitable! This is quite applicable to all parenting though, I think.
Also, attention astrology folks (yes, that means you, queer millennials!):
I’m glad you love astrology and it’s your religion but before you go on a rant/yell about people’s moon and star signs, maybe try and recognize that some people do not KNOW those details! It’s not real anyway! Yes, I’m salty! I much prefer the enneagram!
In reality, my bitterness towards astrology worshipers is just a cry for folks to pay attention to the people around you, in multiple ways. Do you know for sure that people around you would know exactly where and when they were born? Read this whole post again if you are confused or upset for being called out, or are wondering why bringing something up like not knowing your actual birthday, time, location, or family etc., might be hard for some people.
This concept of sensitivity though, can be generalized. We all do mess up and miscommunicate and the best we can do is to check in with each other about our particular sensitivities.
I’m really thankful to be able to share some of the insights that my identity and situation have afforded me. I hope you may find them useful as well. Thank you for engaging.
*I used concept “(k)new,” combining the idea of the “known” and the “new” in the title. I came across this quasi-antonym through the paper “The context within: My journey into research” By Manulani Aluli Meyer: it uses “indigenous ways of knowing” to understand the concept of knowledge through experience, connoting knowledge that is simultaneously “known” and “new.”
Life as an intercountry adoptee has those moments that feel extremely vulnerable and painful. I described it years ago as “peeling away layers of an onion“. I’ve had that this week. Firstly, I found out after 8 months the media company who were investigating and searching for my mother in Vietnam have failed to turn up anything substantial and no longer have funding to continue. I have spent many times over two decades trying to find a lead that will help me find my mother. In desperation I finally agreed to media taking on my case although I’m loath to having no control over how they portray one’s story. Each time after searching, I experience disappointment, grief and sadness. I give up for a while until I find the strength to be able to go through it all again. Secondly, I have spent over 10 months seeking the right experts to help me fight for my rights arising from my adoption. I’ve had to relive my years of life growing up in my adoptive home and the memories and feelings are still there. They never go away but fade into the distance because usually I get on with life and move forward. Thankfully, I don’t get stuck or spiral down anymore.
I just watched the SBS documentary Searching for Mum which follows two Sri Lankan intercountry adoptees adopted in the 1980s to the UK and their return to Sri Lanka to try and find their identity and families. There was one heartbreaking moment that resonated within me, where Rebecca went to the Registry to see if a record of her birth existed. It was her last chance to know if she had an official identity. She ended up finding out her birth was not registered at all and she is left with the confirmation that she “does not exist” on paper as a Sri Lankan identity. It struck a chord with me as I’ve lived my entire life too with little documentation except for my Vietnamese passport. The Australian government made up adoption papers and a birth certificate 17 years after my adoptive father flew to Vietnam and brought me to Australia as a 6 month old baby.
My adoptive parents and siblings teased me many times when I was growing up that I would make the “perfect spy”. They all knew and rubbed it in that I did not exist on paper anywhere. It was meant to be a “joke” but on so many levels then, and more so now, as a mature age adult I cannot fathom how or why my adoptive family were so insensitive and cruel. Only those who have an identity that they take for granted could be so thoughtless as to tease another for not knowing who they are, where they come from or having anything to show. Together with an adoption based on literally nothing – thin air – because no documents on the Vietnamese end have ever been found, I have no way to know how I came to be adopted nor to whom I originally belonged.
Last year, a private detective sent me a blury photo of what might be a Vietnamese birth certificate for me but he’s now gone underground. The media company who tried to get the Vietnamese police station to release the hoped for copy of the “real” document that the photo captures, refuse to do so. It is so excruciatingly frustrating to be held back from what is a basic human right. Like Rebecca, I just want to know who I am and the circumstances for why I was given to strangers from another country – and whether my adoption is legitimate without coercion. My journey to find the right experts so far this year, brought all this home again with a punch!
Like Rebecca, I live my life without the certainty of knowing who I am, how I came into this world, whether I was wanted or not, or who my clan is. I live with a shell for an identity – formed by my adoptive experience. Up until my adoptive family left to go overseas as missionaries at the beginning of my year 12, I had experienced quite a damaging journey that left little room to exist in a positive way. Thankfully, I found healing in my early 30s and now I mostly have a sense of peace in my “non existence”.
It blew me away to listen to the documentary Searching for Mum where one of the search detectives said, “At least 50 percent of his Sri Lankan cases in finding mothers the documentation was fabricated” and he had done over 400 cases. In my years of connecting with adult intercountry adoptees worldwide, I know of many individuals who suspect and/or confirm their documentation is false. To listen to someone who sees the outcomes of each search conducted in only one country and can quote that kind of statistic, it is a damning reality for intercountry adoptions in Sri Lanka. It matches my current project of translating into english the book Het verdriet Sri Lanka whose title translates into The Sadness of Sri Lanka. It is an eye opening book about the mothers in Sri Lanka who lost their child to intercountry adoption, written by a Sri Lankan intercountry adoptee who discovers the terrible truth about her own and so many Sri Lankan intercountry adoptions.
I know this reality is not just Sri Lanka because a good majority of our birth countries have shown the same pattern of unethical adoptions over many decades. It also matches the doubts I’ve always held about my own adoption. Until I find my Vietnamese family and hear from them myself, I don’t think I’ll ever stop wondering whether my “relinquishment” was legitimate and uncoerced. How could it be? A war torn country just like Sri Lanka. So much bribery and corruption coupled with outright child trafficking enmasse by world superpowers who believe to this day that flying out hundreds of vulnerable babies and children via Operation Babylift was a mercy mission.
How many other intercountry adoptees live their lives like myself and Rebecca with no known documents and identity, who have been removed from our country, our origins with little thought for our rights to identity? And what about those who do have documents but find they are falsified. This is where I say intercountry adoption is simply, downright wrong. A child always grows up and we have a right to know who we are, where we came from, to whom we were born and where we belonged until our adoptions. Our paperwork needs to be true and accurate because like the BBC documentary highlights, it is our ONLY source to know who we are and our origins.
To rob us of our truth by falsifying paperwork or creating an adoption based on thin air, goes against all human rights and ethics. If you cannot guarantee our original identity intact with no lies, then we shouldn’t be flying a child out of its country. Experience of adult intercountry adoptees like myself show that in being adopted to a foreign country we usually lose the ability to communicate and understand the culture and ways of our homeland. This then makes the pathway of trying to regain what is rightfully ours, even more complicated.
And what do governments or those who facilitate our adoptions say or do when we confront them with the truth of how intercountry adoption has operated and continues to operate? Or that we want help in finding our original identity and the truth? They largely turn a blind eye and do very little!
My journey to the right experts this week has made me aware that I could technically be considered “stateless”. They are now investigating this for me but it really brought home that the paperwork for my intercountry adoption is so dodgy and based on thin air. Even the Australian made up identity papers mis-spell my original name in 3 different ways on the same document. So am I even adopted?
To have confirmation that we don’t exist as an identity in our birth or adoptive country is another layer of the onion that some intercountry adoptees have to grapple with in situations like mine or Rebecca’s. It’s painful. There is a powerlessness we experience and very little can change it. We simply have to live with it and find a way to move through life and retain our hope. Like Rebecca, I live my life hoping one day I might find my mother and know the truth of who I am.