“Oriental Express.” The words leapt out at me in dark green letters as I tore away at the wrapping paper. There was some “oriental-like” design in the background in pink, yellow, and purple. I stared at the license plate in my hands in horror. It was Christmas morning, 1980. Across the way, my dad sat in his favorite recliner, a broad smile lit the corners of his whiskered face. He was clearly pleased with himself. I was a high school freshman. I don’t recall what exactly I said in response to the gift, but I distinctly remember the embarrassment and confusion of it all. The pained expression on my face, I’m sure made it just as confusing for my dad. He thought that the personalized license plate specially ordered just for me was something his adopted daughter would love and appreciate, but just the opposite occurred. It was like a punch to my gut, a painful reminder of my differentness. There was no way in hell I was putting that on my car. All I truly wanted was to be and look like everyone else around me. Neither my dad nor mom understood the internal struggle that tore me up inside – a conflicted self, confused, shamed by my appearance, but even further, a suffocating separateness that was like a heavy cloak. They had never heard of the terms, “adoption trauma,” “cultural identity,” or “birth heritage,” and really, back in the day, what adoptive parent had? Clearly, no one understood the implications of trauma and separation and loss on the development of an internationally adopted child. The license plate sat on my dresser collecting dust for a little while, but eventually I hid it. Who knows where it ended up or where it is now.
I am fifty-one years old, and yet this event is still so vividly etched in my mind. My struggle with identity has lessened dramatically since that time, yet at my core, I still struggle occasionally with those same misplaced feelings of inferiority. I’m just better at identifying them now and managing them in a healthier way. I tend to be an overachiever and perfectionist, which is exhausting. I think other adoptees have this same tendency to one degree or another. I feel and sense things more acutely than maybe the average person, say for example, rejection. As a result, I’m a people pleaser. I go out of my way to win people over, which is good and bad. I tend not to deal well with strong emotions like anger or conflict. It stirs up those same feelings of fear, insecurity, and distrust. In my work, I am constantly placed in those types of situations. Yet, I can pinpoint those uncomfortable feelings now and am not paralyzed by them. Though I still don’t like the presence of such strong emotions, I can sit with them when confronted. It’s not easy, and it takes me awhile to process them. It takes time to let any negative emotions go…I am not good at letting go…but I try, and I try to learn from the process so that I can grow.
Feeling grounded is super important to me. After dealing with conflict, I’m always off-balance and have to work at getting back into a more positive state of grounded-ness. Music, art journaling, and writing help tremendously as does yoga. The practice of yoga is so centering and helps me focus on connecting to my body. I highly recommend it. Perhaps I’m writing about this now because work over the last month has been especially challenging, and I am growing my clinical skills. Dealing with our line of work is “not for the faint of heart” as one of our directors shared.
I have grown to embrace my cultural heritage and identity, yet the struggle is never really over. I continue to work on accepting me just the way I am – making peace with myself, my appearance, my professional aspirations, right here in the moment. That’s probably why I love yoga so much. The practice promotes acceptance, which is truly not an easy task. I continue to struggle with perfectionism and overachieving in almost everything I do. I’m not great at self-care, or perhaps I just need more of it! Why can’t there be 3-day weekends?! And I’m constantly working on gratitude. My experiences have made me who I am, just like everybody else, and I accept that my parents were not able to help me with the things I struggled with the most. I have many regrets about our relationship and wish that I could have been more involved in their lives as they aged. Time is short. But I was still working on my own internal struggles. It was really selfish as I look back, but I didn’t know any better. My parents did the best they knew how. One thing they did do well was model generosity and care. And that is a tremendous gift. I can’t undo the past, yet in the future, I hope to get better at being okay with it. And I hope to get better at practicing generosity and care towards myself and others. It’s not for the faint of heart.