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.