The Significance of Adoptee Eyes

by Alexis Bartlett, adopted from South Korea to Australia; their adoptee art project can be found at Art by Alexis Bartlett.

YoungHee’s Eyes by Alexis Bartlett

In continuing on with my adoptee portraits and drawing lots of eyes lately, it got me thinking about my own story and history, eyes playing a strange role.

I always hated my eyes as I was growing up. Part of the difficulty growing up as an adoptee is that we just want to be like those around us. It was always disappointing to me when I’d look in the mirror and see these brown, Korean eyes staring back at me because they were nothing like those around me, or those who were meant to be my family. I still go through periods where I really want to get the infamous Korean eye surgery done (to give myself a double eyelid, and hence the illusion of larger, less Asian eyes) because I think there will always be a part of me that I can’t fully embrace for who I am. But I have a little guy looking to me now as a mum; a little guy who I want to have grow up loving himself just the way he is. And I feel it would only be contradictory for me to alter myself while telling him he should love himself for the way he is.

It’s so hard, but self love is so important. And that’s so hard to have when you’re adopted because not only do you know (from a VERY young age) that there was some reason as to why you weren’t wanted, but we grow up around people who look nothing like us. It might seem trivial, but trust me, it isn’t. Representation is important, especially coming from those who are meant to be closest to you. Anyway, YoungHee here, has amazing eyes.

To see more of Alexis’s adoptee portraits, check them out, click on each image.

For those who don’t access Facebook, here are some of what Alexis has shared for these portraits as a reflection of her own journey:

“It’s nice to paint people who are “like me”. I’m only just coming to terms with… myself, in many ways. I’ve been trying to get my head around my adoption trauma all my life; something that’s manifested itself in various ways over the years. I was a terrified, lonely kid (although, to be fair, I love solitude) who wanted to be accepted but couldn’t be because I could never accept myself and just be myself.”

“A lot of people don’t want to hear the experiences of adoptees; they’re too confronting, too challenging to the happy ideals people go into adoption with. Many of us are angry with misunderstanding, having been silenced by the happy side of adoption that people want to believe in.”

“I was a very lonely kid. I’ve always found it difficult, if not impossible, to make genuine friendships with people, and I always knew I was different to my adoptive family; many of whom excluded me from things, anyway. Art was all I had, much of the time.”

“For me, belonging has always been a struggle. I have my own little family now where I finally have a true sense of belonging, but other than that, it’s pretty sparse. I’ve been made very aware recently that I’ll never truly belong or fit in with my biological family, and I’ve never truly fitted in with my adoptive family either. Finding the Korean adoptee community has been immensely important to me though and I feel super honoured that I can share my fellow adoptees’ experiences and stories. Thanks, guys.”

Confronting my greatest fear led to my best discovery!

by Sharinda Nathaliya, adopted from Sri Lanka to the Netherlands.

As a child

Last year has been a rollercoaster ride for me. Through it, I’ve come to learn to let go of unnecessary control by looking straight into the eyes of certain fears caused by trauma.

It was a burnout that brought me to a turning point of realization. I needed a different perspective to chance my life by looking at it from another different angle. A new chapter had started. I soon went to therapy that helped me break down the wall I built around myself which I didn’t know how to remove. It was an incredible journey to witness myself, first class at the front row. Finally, I am able to reach were I am heading!

I’d become enthusiastic by confronting whatever I fear. To be honest, I feared to search for my biological mother. She was searched for and found, 7 years ago by a man I didn’t trust. I went on with life in full effect. I felt scared on and off and years went by and I still didn’t reach out to her. I felt ashamed of myself. I felt and still feel guilty. I thought that maybe she would be angry at me, she would blame me that I searched but didn’t reached out. I doubted if she wanted to see me still, or the worst case scenario, that she would no longer be alive.

I had to step beyond my feelings and figure it out, whatever the outcome would be.

My mum and I on social media

On 27 April 2021 my Sri Lankan mother was found. We FaceTimed three times. I told her that I’m sorry I let her wait for so long and explained her what the reason was. She understood, she had a bad feeling about that man too. He treated her like she was less. The information he provided was false. She doesn’t have a mental illness. She’s not educated and that’s it. I don’t have an older half brother. I am the oldest and I have a younger brother by the same father. A father who’s ill and lives with my grandmother. I needed some time to get used to all this new information to switch it with the information from 7 years ago. My feeling was correct and my biological mother had the same feeling.

I recognized the feeling she gave me. She gave me the same feeling my beloved grandmother gave me. Before I saw her online, I dressed up. Did my hair and make up, carefully selecting which outfit to wear. My nerves went through the roof but she looked through it all and didn’t care about my looks. She saw me for being me, her daughter as human being. Something instantly changed in me. A weight felt off my shoulders, I felt at peace which I’ve never felt before. We just stared, laughed, waved hands and blew kisses to each other. Behind my laptop she is watching me on a phone screen. So surreal, so epic, so static!

Me today

If you’d told me 3 years ago that I would meet my biological mother on a digital screen, I would have laughed in your face. I never thought this would happen at all. That was the control, that was the blocked emotions, that was the fear. The pieces of the puzzle fell in place. I was shocked to see the similarities, the smile, the frown.

Days after the first meeting, I stared at myself in the mirror. It felt awkward but my self confidence began to rise. I no longer felt alone through finally seeing someone with the same features as mine.

I finally have the courage to go and meet her, to get to know her, with patience. To take time for these precious changes and chances in life. I want to make a documentary of my trip back to Sri Lanka. To meet her, take the time to know her, meet my father and grandmother. I also need to start the search for my younger brother who’s also adopted and can be anywhere on this world. I want to experience the island of Sri Lanka, the culture, nature, history and art — to do this together with my biological mother. In one year’s time, I want to figure out what Sri Lanka does for my identity and expand my own narrative of adoption.

I have many questions that I want to explore through my documentary. Am I able to connect with my biological family? What happens after? How do I develop a relationship when I have differences in language, culture, values?

For those who are open, I’ll provide all the information I gain during this journey to my fellow adoptees through my documentary. Why? Because it is the least I can do to help others who travel a similar path.

If you’re interested, you can read more about my documentary idea here.

Much Love
Sharinda Nathaliya

For more about Sharinda’s story, her recent Dutch article was published here and watch her self made video with english subtitles.

Connecting with People of Colour is Not Automatic for Transracial Adoptees

by Mark Hagland, adopted from Korea to the USA, Co-Founder of Transracial Adoption Perspectives (a FB group for prospective and adoptive parents). Mark originally wrote this for his Transracial Adoption Perspectives group.

I had an absolutely wonderful, hour-long phone conversation today with a fellow person of color (POC) with whom I connected some months ago via Facebook. We had originally connected in a very “Facebook” way–through friends of friends of friends–you know, that Facebook way of connecting.

In order to protect her privacy, I’ll just call her “X.” X is a Black-biracial woman who’s close to my age (I’m 60); we’ve connected very strongly around racial justice and political issues. She’s an absolute delight. We’d love to meet in person someday soon (we live quite far away from each other), and we talked about a wide range of subjects, including racial justice and politics, but also about our lived experiences as people of color; and I shared with her about some of what I do in the transracial adoption world. She was extremely supportive and encouraging. And that prompted her to share some deeply personal experiences around racism, colorism, and challenges as a biracial person specifically.

I’m sharing this here because I want to share about the fact that, growing up in near-total whiteness, I was essentially disabled intellectually and culturally when I first entered young adulthood, in terms of connecting with fellow people of color of all non-white races. I absolutely knew that I needed to connect with fellow POC, but it was difficult at first, because I had been raised in near-total whiteness and absolutely inside white culture–even though white people had never allowed me to “be” white. In other words, I only knew how to connect to my fellow POC in a very “white” way, and it showed.

So it took me years to “break into” POC society. Over time, I was introduced to more and more people, and I acquired cultural fluency with individuals from the various non-white racial groups. Of course, every single person on earth is an individual; that goes without saying. But the ability for a transracial adoptee raised in whiteness to break out of learned whiteness is far from an automatic thing. Indeed, a young-adult transracial adoptee raised in whiteness can inadvertently send signals to individuals of color that can make them hesitant to engage, if one presents oneself as not understanding fellow POC; but it’s like anything else in life–until one has certain kinds of experiences, one lacks the fluency needed to pursue those experiences.

My conversation today brought something to mind for me. For several years, I privately and confidentially advised a particular white transracially adoptive mom. I’ll call her “Y.” She and her husband had raised two Black children, one male, one female; I’ll call her daughter “Z.” Y and her husband raised their children in near-total whiteness in a smallish Midwestern city (around 100,000), and when Z moved to a large city to try to integrate with fellow young Black adults, she was devastated by the rejection she experienced. She was so culturally white that people mocked her and dismissed her out of hand. She had several years of painful experiences before she was able to reach a level at which she was socially and culturally accepted. She’s OK now, but she had a rocky several years (which is why her mom had reached out to me for advice).

One of the biggest stumbles I see happening over and over again in transracially adoptive parenting is what happened with “Y” and “Z.” The parents in that family were loving and supportive of their children, but their daughter hit a wall when she tried to penetrate birth culture as a young adult, and was emotionally devastated by the initial non-acceptance and dismissal that she experienced. But it doesn’t have to be that way. White transracially adoptive parents need to prepare their children to try to integrate with their birth culture and also to become adept at interacting with people of color of all races. It took me a while, but I’ve been so happy to be able to interact with people of color of all non-white races, and to be accepted by them as a fellow POC. And no, that’s not automatic at all. I can tell you that I’ve had countless experiences with Black, Black/biracial, Latinx, Native, and Asian (East, South, Southeast) individuals, in which they saw and affirmed my POC-ness. And I want to make it absolutely clear that my referencing that fact is in no way a boast; instead, is simply my reporting that it is absolutely possible for transracial adoptees to be able to navigate society in ways in which other people of color perceive them as POC and interact accordingly.

Some of this is a bit nuanced and difficult to explain, but I can assure you that there are subtextual communications going on all the time, and there’s a world of difference between interacting with fellow POC as a POC and interacting with fellow POC when they’re putting you at arm’s length. I’ve experienced both, and know the difference.

In any case, if your child of color is not seeing daily mirrors of her/himself in adults and children of their specific race as well as adults and children of all non-white races, and if your child is not actually interacting with POC on a daily basis, it will be far harder for them to begin to integrate with people from their birth race and with people of all non-white races, as they approach adulthood. Please absolutely make sure that early adulthood doesn’t come as a terrible shock, as it did to “Z.” They’ll definitely blame you for leaving them in the lurch in this crucial area. Don’t make them have to figure all of this out by themselves; begin building the needed bridges when they’re young children, so that the connections happen fluidly and organically, and so that their competence evolves forward fluidly and organically as well. It’s a huge element in their lifelong journey, and cannot be ignored. Surrounding your child with media and culture that reflect them is essential, but so is helping your child to be able to interact easily and naturally with members of their race and all non-white races. Both are incredibly important.

In any case, thank you for reading and considering this.

For other articles which Mark has shared:
Coming Out of the Adoptee Fog
Can We Ignore and Deny That Racism Exists for Adoptees of Colour?

For Mark’s new book:
Extraordinary Journey: The Lifelong Path of the Transracial Adoptee

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