the language of identity

I recently read a book called, “The Language of Flowers,” by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. It is the heartbreaking, yet poignant story of a young woman who grows up in the foster care system. Until the age of 9, Victoria is shuffled from one family and group home to the next never quite meeting the “standards or expectations” of the adults in her life. Victoria’s social worker, jaded and quite unsympathetic, believes she is nothing more than a troublemaker. Victoria is hurt and traumatized and acts out the only way she knows how to after years of abuse and abandonment – through defiance. She mistrusts everyone around her and has great difficulty developing and maintaining relationships, that is, until she’s placed with Elizabeth. Victoria eventually learns to trust Elizabeth after a period of opposition that would send most of us over the edge and grows to share her passion for flowers. However, circumstances arise that threaten Victoria’s new found sense of security with Elizabeth. Out of desperation, Victoria engages in a dangerous ploy to win over Elizabeth’s undivided love and attention once and for all, again inviting havoc into her life. We watch Elizabeth come of age and struggle with the demons of mistrust, betrayal, and an injurious lack of self-worth as she is forced to reconcile her past and risk everything for the sake of finding the happiness she deserves.

I was genuinely moved by the story of this prickly and difficult young woman. Although I never experienced the level of abuse, nor the traumatic events that occurred in Victoria’s life, the lack of self-acceptance and identity she felt and difficulty developing and maintaining relationships deeply resonated with me. She was imprisoned by her own self-loathing and inability to let others into her life. I totally get that. Yet, she had a special ability and desire to help others through the flowers she chose for them, having learned under Elizabeth’s careful tutorship the meaning of flowers.

For many years, I wrestled with gaining a sense of identity like Victoria. I spent my 20’s chasing after the dream of becoming an actress. I even moved to California to pursue this “folly,” as though acting would help me gain the acceptance I longed for. Like most people in their 20’s, I was exploring my identity and what I wanted to do with my life. However, my search was compounded with all of the insecurities that stemmed from my past – the trauma of being raised in a culturally non-diverse environment, an Asian girl trying to fit in with her predominantly white peers and never ever quite feeling worthy enough. This insecurity plagued me for years and manifested itself in deeply rooted feelings of inferiority, passivity, shyness, and an inability to communicate my feelings. I was a “wallflower” as one incredibly insensitive individual once told me.

I attribute those years of damaged self-image to a couple of things: my inability to express what I was experiencing and feeling to my parents, or to any other person who could have helped me and the lack of positive role-models in my life- by that, I mean other people of the same ethnicity. I’m not positive that my adoptive parents would have known how to help me as I struggled with issues of self-identity and the extreme pressure I felt, mostly self-imposed, to fit into mainstream America. We lived in a predominantly white area, so naturally, I just wanted to be like everyone around me, white. It never occurred to me that being Asian was a positive thing. Having been teased at an early age about my outward appearance, I learned that Asian was not attractive or popular. It makes me sad looking back that I felt so unhappy and insecure about myself. I must mention here that not all transracially adopted children will experience what I did, or have the same issues that I’ve had to wrestle with. Each adoptees’ experiences are unique, and no two families, or circumstances are alike.

Having stated the previous, the growth of my identity has come in small spurts. A huge turning point for me occurred after I had our one and only daughter. I was 31 years old. It literally transformed me. Being a mom opened up my heart in a way I’d never experienced. I’d always had difficulties in developing deep friendships with others, both men and women. My husband often told me that other women in our small church family group didn’t feel “close” to me. I felt hurt by his comments and argued the point, but after having our daughter, I understood a little more clearly. There was an unconditional love and bond that connected me to my daughter, which expanded my heart and inspired the capacity to build deeper and more meaningful friendships. I began to “like” myself because I cherished being a mom. My daughter taught me to give love and to accept love. For once, I felt confident in my role as a mother.

Another huge turning point for me occurred just recently. As many of you know, I reunited with my birth family in Taiwan at the beginning of the year and discovered that, after eons of believing that I was Japanese and Vietnamese (41 years to be exact), I’m actually Taiwanese. Many people ask me if I feel closure now. At first, I thought this was such an odd question because it’s not really an ending but a new beginning for me. I understand, though, from others’ perspective, it appears like closure because I found my true cultural roots and birth family. I guess it is closure in a sense that I accept who I am unequivocally. There’s no mistaking that I’m Taiwanese and finally feel a sense of pride about my ethnicity. I have a renewed sense of identity. I’m still exploring this new identity and what it means to be Taiwanese American. I want to support and become more involved in the Taiwanese American community and greater Asian community in our area. I hope to take more trips to Taiwan and hope to help somehow in the transnational adoption community. Like everyone else, my identity is a culmination of family and life experiences that’s shaped who I am. At times, it’s been a painful process, but nonetheless, one that’s taught me self-preservation, resilience, compassion, and self-worth.

8 thoughts on “the language of identity

  1. Molly W.

    Hey Marijane, I’ve been following this blog for some time but I can’t figure out how to contact you privately. I am hoping you can help me get in touch with Tien — perhaps forward a message to her? She helped us adopt our daughter from Taiwan four years ago. We will be visiting Taipei this summer, and I would like to try to locate our daughter’s mother in Taiwan. I’d really appreciate any help you can offer in this regard.
    I enjoy your writing, and especially your honest and thoughtful discussion of what your feelings have been at various points in your life.

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  2. Gillian

    Another wonderful reminder to adoptive parents to be aware of all these feelings that may not be expressed easily. Thanks so much for continuing to share your story!

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