As I consider how things have progressed regarding my adoption search, I realize that for over half of my life I believed that I was of a certain race, but have come to discover that I am of another. I have felt all kinds of things as a result including surprise, confusion, frustration, and bewilderment all at once. Growing up as an Asian-American adoptee was often like stumbling through a maze blind-folded. I’m pretty sure that we all ask, “who am I?” at some point in our lives. For transracial adoptees, it is even more complicated as adoptees attempt to navigate two cultures and manage feeling “othered” by peers and sometimes, family members. My parents told me at a young age, I don’t remember when, that I was part Vietnamese and part Japanese. I wish that I could recall when they told me; nevertheless, I had no reason to doubt them. Through the discovery of my adoption papers, however, which were buried in a box in my parents’ attic, I learned something entirely different. Prior to having my papers properly translated, an adoption consultant who was guiding me through the process of my adoption search, led me to believe that my birthparents were Taiwanese. It made sense because I was born in Taiwan. Later, through the translation, I learned that both my birthparents were from China, an exact province notated in the document. It is difficult to argue with hard evidence, so naturally I now assume that I am Chinese. Imagine my surprise each time I learned some new fact about my culture of origin. Unfortunately, neither of my adoptive parents are alive to explain all of the discrepancies.
I say all of this because I have come to a conviction about transracial adoption. Those who plan to adopt a child or children from another country must be educated in how to help their child develop an appropriate sense of cultural and racial identity, which shapes an overall sense of self. It is not enough for a parent to just love their child or preach colorblindness. I am proof of that. My parents loved me without a doubt and provided for me physically and materially as any good and loving parent should. But, what they were not prepared for was coping with issues of color, race and ethnicity. They were not prepared to address the social and emotional needs of a daughter who looked different, not only from them, but from everyone else around her. This was doubly compounded by the fact that we lived in the deep South where prejudice and racism continue to exist. I am sure that they also never confronted whatever prejudices, or beliefs they personally held themselves. When my parents adopted me, I was automatically acculturated into a white society, shut off from my birth culture. My parents did not know how that would impact me growing up. Because the adoption took place in Taiwan, they did not have the opportunity to be made aware of the importance of educating themselves properly to address such issues as the development of ethnic and racial identity, or prejudice and racism. They did not talk about my birth heritage nor encourage me to investigate, but rather minimized my ethnicity due to this lack of awareness. The closest I came in contact with any Asian culture while growing up was eating out at the local Chinese food restaurant.
I think about how things could have been different had my parents been more prepared for issues of race and identity. Would I have been more willing to embrace my ethnicity? For many years, I downplayed it and tried to fit into the “whiteness” all around me never quite feeling like I was good enough, or fit into the social norm. It deeply affected my sense of self and led me to do things that I might not have done had I possessed a stronger sense of self. Would there have been less tension and strife in my family, especially during my teen years?
I strongly believe that those who intend to adopt children from abroad must be made aware of the unique challenges that surround raising a child of another culture, especially if the adoption originates in the U.S. Adoptive parents must consider the challenges that will confront their child regarding ethnicity and race, and considerations should be made regarding how to impart coping skills and how to facilitate open discussions with their child to address issues such as racism and racial discrimination. It is the adoptive parents’ responsibility to also ensure that their child is given opportunities to learn about his/her birth culture beginning at an early age. Otherwise, an injustice is imposed on the children of transracial adoption whether they are aware of it or not. I don’t fault my parents for what they did not know. I do hope to share from my own experiences what I’ve learned about cross-cultural adoption with others and hope that it can make a difference.