Tag Archives: Cultural Identity

my chinese roots

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI cannot begin to tell you how relieved I am that my second year in graduate school has just ended!  I’m now taking full advantage of some R & R. Over the summer, I plan to catch up on some reading. Before I explain more, I wanted to go back to my last post, “what’s in a name?“. I completed the paperwork to legally change my middle name to my given birth name, Hsiao-ling; however, upon filing the paperwork at the court, I was informed of a $340 fee attached to the process. I didn’t expect the fee to be so costly and will have to wait to finish this process at a later time. It’s truly disappointing.

Anyhow, I’m embarking on another small adventure. When I first learned about my true identity, I experienced many mixed emotions- shock, surprise, elation but I was also very confused. I know that my birthparents lived in Guangxi (广西), which is situated in the southern part of China. I don’t know when they moved to Taiwan, but know that I was born in Taipei in August 1966, the same month and year that China’s Communist leader, Mao Zedong, launched what became known as the Cultural Revolution. I also know that my birth father served in the military, but do not know to what capacity. I have so many questions, but the path to my past brings up very painful memories for my biological sisters. I am thankful for what my eldest sister was willing to share with me.

ghost brideI decided to take on a reading challenge and am reading books written by Chinese and Taiwanese authors, fiction and non-fiction, or books that depict Chinese culture or history over the summer. Although I was born in Taiwan, my birthparents were originally from China. I just finished reading “The Ghost Bride” by Yangsze Choo. I loved the story – it is a work of fiction with elements of fantasy, folklore, and Chinese culture that I very much enjoyed reading. I learned about some of the superstitions and beliefs in Chinese folklore, especially in regards to the “afterlife” and honoring one’s ancestors. I found it overall to be a very fun and entertaining read. Currently I’m reading “Peony in Love” by Lisa See. See is not a Chinese author, however her works often describe some period of Chinese history and culture. The story is based on actual historical events and goes back to seventeenth-century China after the Manchus seize power and the end of the Ming dynasty. I cannot imagine living under such oppressive conditions for women, who basically had no rights.

good womenI’m concurrently reading “The Good Women of China: hidden voices” by Xinran. Xinran is a Chinese journalist/writer. In the book, she captures through oral histories the voices of several Chinese women, all anynomous, who lived during decades of civil strife in a painfully restrictive society. It is an incredibly moving book. The stories shared by these women with Xinran are heartbreaking. I chose to read this book in order to understand how things may have been for my birth mother, who also suffered many hardships. She lived in China most of her life. I hope to gain a better understanding of what life may have been like for her. Perhaps her story could have been one included in Xinran’s book, but I couldn’t be sure.

The other books that I hope to read over the summer include, “Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love” also by Xinran; “When Huai Flowers Bloom: Stories of the Cultural Revolution” by Shu Jiang Lu; “A Dictionary of Maqiao” by Han Shaogong; “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” by Dai Sijie; “Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China” by Chang Jung, and “The Third Son” by Julie Wu, a Taiwanese American author. I don’t know if I’ll get to all of them, but I’m going to try. I’m sure that there are many other Taiwanese authors whom I don’t know of but have written wonderful books. Grace Lin has written several children’s books, one of which I purchased awhile back but have not yet read, “Dumpling Days.”

My roots go back to China where my birthfamily first lived. I don’t know our complete family history, but I think that their move to Taiwan was not under favorable conditions. And I know that their lives in Taiwan were extremely difficult. By summer’s end, I hope to understand a little more about Chinese culture and indirectly about my own biological family or at least what China was like when my birthparents were in their youth. Sadly, I will not be able to travel to Taiwan this year with my own family as I’d planned to visit my sisters and extended family. There’s always 2015 – I do hope I can go back to see my family in Taiwan then. Until then, I will strive to learn more about my origins through reading and research.

transracial parenting

When I was a very young girl, I didn’t think much about being adopted. I didn’t think about the physical differences between my white parents and I. Since my parents and almost everyone around me were white, I thought of myself in the same way – white. This became a problem when I entered kindergarten and realized that my physical appearance was different than the other kids around me. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I grew up in a predominantly white area, Bossier City, Louisiana. Our neighbours were mostly white, middle-class families. There were African American families, too, but I knew that I wasn’t black. There was prejudice and discrimination all around me. I was too young to understand the implications of such bias. In my family, we never talked about race, my race, my adoptive parents’ race, racism, prejudice, etc. But I perceived very early that whites were “superior” to other races. It makes me very sad that such racism existed (and still does) where I grew up and, furthermore, within my own family. I often wondered how my adoptive mother felt about me when I heard her make racist remarks toward others of a different race. It made me struggle and lose respect for my mom. I thought silently that she was a hypocrite.

At my current internship, I spend time with families who adopt children transracially through the child welfare system. These are typically white families who adopt African American, biracial, or Hispanic children. Maybe it’s me, but I am always surprised at how little time is spent discussing with adoptive parents issues of race, culture, and identity. Couples in the process of adopting seem to minimize the importance of these issues often thinking that because the child(ren) who will be placed with them permanently are so young, they have time to plan how to manage such issues. I would dare say that parents of internationally adopted children receive even less education on race, culture, and identity (less overall required training in general) than families who adopt through child welfare. Prospective foster and adoptive parents must complete a 10-week training at many Arizona adoption agencies called PS-MAPP (Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting). Arizona is a little more diverse than Louisiana, but still mostly White at 84.3% of the population (http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/04000.html). I would hope that White adoptive parents would want their adopted black or Hispanic children to grow up with a strong sense of identity and connection to their cultural heritage. I personally believe that, in the best interest of the child, children should be placed with families of the same ethnic/racial background. Unfortunately, there are few, if any, African American and Hispanic families who adopt children from the child welfare system, at least here in Arizona. I wish that we could recruit families of African American and Hispanic descent who are financially able, willing, and have the emotional/psychological capacity to adopt children through child welfare. I do believe it’s better for a child to be adopted into a family capable of providing the kind of love and care necessary regardless of race rather than languish in the system.

We would like to think that racism does not exist. We would like to believe that love is enough. Some would like to embrace the idea of being colorblind – that we are all human beings and that the color of one’s skin doesn’t matter. But in our society it does matter, and being colorblind does not really work. Racism is alive and well, granted that some areas of the country hold to racist views more than others. There are potential risks inherent in transracial adoption. Adoptive parents must develop cultural competence and the tools necessary to help their adopted child(ren) manage and integrate cultural differences. There are children’s books that discuss race at a level meant for very young children. Family discussions held regularly on issues of race and culture are another way to prepare children for racism and/or discrimination and to help children develop a sense of ethnic pride. Proactive is better than reactive. Studies show that adoptive parents who demonstrate a high regard  toward their adopted child’s race foster within their child(ren) a greater sense of ethnic pride.

Transracially adopted persons will explore their ethnicity sooner or later. Familial support, especially during the adolescent years, will help transracially adopted children develop a greater sense of self and ethnic identity. It may seem insignificant, but how race, culture, and identity are negotiated in a transracially adopted child’s developmental years will undoubtedly affect his or her psychological and emotional adjustment across the lifetime.

 

honoring one’s cultural roots: the invisible red thread

TheInvisibleRedThreadSome 8,668 children were adopted into U.S. families from abroad in the 2012 fiscal year; 105 international adoptions took place right here in Arizona (U.S. Dept. of State, 2013). Although declining in number since 2004, intercountry adoption is still prevalent throughout the U.S. and is so often misconceived. One of the most complicated areas of transracial adoption is the development of identity. I read somewhere recently that identity is defined both by what one is and what one is not. Identity is affected by all members of the adoption triad. Adoptees who are born into one family, a family who will probably remain nameless to them, lose an identity then borrow one from the adopting family. Birthparents are parents and yet are not. Adoptive parents who were not parents suddenly become parents. Adoption, for some adoptees, precludes a complete or integrated sense of self. Adoptees may experience themselves as incomplete, deficient, or unfinished, or may lack feelings of well-being, integration, or solidity associated with a fully developed identity. We often lack medical, genetic, religious, and historical information and may be plagued by questions such as: Who am I? Was I merely a mistake, or an accident? Why was I relinquished? Do my birthparents ever think of me? This lack of identity may lead adoptees, particularly in adolescent years, to seek out ways to belong in more extreme ways than many of their non-adopted peers. Furthermore, adoptees may wish to search for their birthfamily or reconnect with their birth country.

To honor the cultural roots of an adoptee is a necessity. We must make every effort to help adoptees develop a strong sense of identity, to help them navigate through the process of identity development, to maintain the cultural connection to an adoptee’s birth country. This can be difficult, as we know that the tendency to assimilate to the predominant culture is strong (although having a parent of the same ethnic background or who speaks the language of the country from which the adoptee was born lessens the cultural disconnect).

In an attempt to address these needs, we are hosting an event, Honoring One’s Cultural Roots, on Saturday, June 1st. We will screen the film documentary, The Invisible Red Thread, written and directed by Maureen Marovitch of Picture This Productions in Montreal, which I’m very excited to see. Following the movie, Stephanie Withrow, M.S., LPC, will facilitate a discussion as we explore the intersection of adoption, culture and identity and what it means to honor one’s cultural roots. Stephanie and her husband have three adopted children from China. The event is for the whole family, although the film is recommended for children 10 and older. Admission is $10/person; children under 12 receive free admission. Reservations and pre-payment are also required. To make reservations, please contact Mj Nguyen at mjnguyen7@cox.net. For all the details, click on the The Invisible Red Thread- An AZ Premier link located above.

The Honoring One’s Cultural Roots event will be held at The Chandler Public Library, 22 S. Delaware Street, Chandler, AZ 85225, in the Copper Room (2nd level). Please join us for what I think will be a memorable and exciting event! I hope that many will leave feeling a greater sense of community and understanding the importance of honoring adoptees’ cultural roots. Please see the Honoring One’s Cultural Roots facebook page. Screening of The Invisible Red Thread is made possible through Picture This Productions of Montreal, QC (Canada).

how deep are your roots?

One of my favorite books is the The Secret Life of Bees (2002) by Sue Monk Kidd. I read it years ago, but it’s one of those books that I go back to. When the movie came out in 2008, I refused to see it. I didn’t want to see Hollywood mess up a perfectly awesome book for the sake of “drama.” The other night, though, the movie, starring Queen Latifah, Dakota Fanning, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson, and Sophie Okonedo was on BET, and, having nothing better to do, I watched it. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the movie. What surprised me even more was how deeply I connected to the story, the setting, and the characters who came to life on my TV screen. Watching the movie was like taking a journey through my childhood, back to the South where I grew up.

If you haven’t read the book, here’s a brief synopsis. The story takes place in South Carolina in August 1964- the summer that President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin. Of course, this law didn’t change things overnight, and racism and violence continued rampantly, as depicted in the story. Fourteen year old Lily, the protagonist, is haunted by the death of her mother who died in a terrible accident. She is left to live with her abusive and neglectful father. After Rosaleen, her black “stand-in mother,” insults some of the town’s most vicious racists and is imprisoned, Lily decides they both must escape to Tiburon, South Carolina, a town she believes holds the secret to her mother’s past. There they are taken in by an eccentric trio of black beekeeping sisters, the Boatwrights, and Lily comes to find solace in their mesmerizing world of beekeeping.

The Boatwright sisters live in an old southern style home painted a lovely shade of Pepto Bismol. It sits on a beautiful plot of land in the country. Louisiana has many places of beauty much like the setting of the Boatwrights’ home. The rocking chair on the front porch, the creak of the old wooden floor planks, the way that food comforted and brought people together in the movie reminded me so much of the South, especially those sweet potato biscuits. All of my senses were on southern culture overload. I thought of Meme’s “farm.” Meme was the grandmother of one of my childhood friend’s. One weekend, I went with my friend and her family to visit Meme, who lived in an old wooden framed Southern home in Haynesville, Louisiana in the middle of the country. I remember the musty smell of her living room, the soft clap of our footsteps as we trailed across the wooden floorboards, and the old dirt roads that swirled up dust and left grit on my hair and skin. Later in the movie, Rosaleen serves a plate of cornbread piled high and drizzled with honey, and I thought of The Hushpuppy on Jimmy Davis Highway. They serve the best cornbread and hushpuppies I’ve ever tasted. My family and I went there often. Then my mind travelled to Humphrey Yogurt on Barksdale Boulevard where you can get the best frozen yogurt topped with fruit, granola, and lots of honey. My classmates and I visited Humphrey Yogurt many a time. I thought about Strawn’s, one of the oldest restaurants in Shreveport. Their strawberry pie oozes with a special strawberry glaze that can’t be made anywhere else. What’s so ironic is that growing up in Louisiana was such a painful period of my life, and yet now I find that the memories of being there are a source of comfort. I realize that as hard as I’ve tried to leave that part of my life behind me, I can’t. It’s ingrained in me, a part of my fabric.

Last week after class, I went to Mekong Plaza, one of the local Asian marketplaces. I was craving a Taiwanese spring onion pancake. I stepped up to the counter of a tiny restaurant and looked at the menu board. A woman greeted me and began speaking in rapid Mandarin. I let her continue to talk, nodding my head as though I understood every word she was saying. Finally I told her that I didn’t speak Mandarin. “Oh, oh, oh,” she said and then continued to go through the menu items in very broken English. I was struck by the fact that though her English wasn’t very good, it was so much better than my Mandarin. I went to sit at a table to wait for my food. I looked around me and noticed many other Asians eating and talking in languages I didn’t understand. I felt like such a foreigner as I sat alone at my table. I tried to imagine what it would be like if I could communicate fluently in Mandarin. Would I feel like I’d fit in better? Would it eliminate some of the funny looks I get when I say I don’t speak Mandarin? I was actually happy that the woman behind the counter began a conversation with me in Mandarin. In a weird kind of way, it made me proud that she thought I could speak it.

In all of this, there’s no mistaking that I have mixed roots, as do many others. Ethnically speaking, I identify most with being a girl from the South. I even had a southern accent at one time that I purposely hid through acting classes. I know this because a co-worker once told me how funny he thought it was to hear an Asian woman speak with a southern accent. I wonder if I would feel differently had my adoptive parents kept me connected to my birth culture? Our roots go deep wherever we’re planted. It is a loss to have been cut off from my cultural roots, and now that I’m trying to re-connect, it’s much harder. Reuniting with my birthfamily in Taiwan was the best possible way to reconnect, but now that I’m back in Arizona, I’m left with just being me, the girl from Louisiana with the mixed up roots. Funny, but I’m Ok with that. And now, I think I’ll go and have that biscuit with strawberry jam that I’ve been craving…

natwa II 24th annual convention

I’m speaking at the upcoming NATWA II (North American Taiwanese Women’s Association) Convention! I was invited to join the speaker’s panel to share a little of my adoption story, as well as to address the topic of identity, more specifically the journey in discovering my Taiwanese identity. The NATWA II Convention is held annually. This year’s theme is “Love and Compassion.” I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to meet so many other Taiwanese American and Canadian women, as well as to rub shoulders with the other speakers who include Marilyn Fu, screenwriter and Victoria Linchong, actress, writer, producer and director. Furthermore, I’m excited about becoming a part of the Taiwanese American community. I’ve never attended anything like this related to my Taiwanese heritage.

NATWA II is an association bringing together 1.5 and 2nd generation Taiwanese American and Canadian women. Its parent organization is NATWA, which consists of 1st generation Taiwanese women – mothers, grandmothers, aunts. The purposes of NATWA II include:

(1) to establish a network consisting of 1.5- and 2nd-generation Taiwanese American and Canadian women
(2) to cultivate and promote talents among young Taiwanese American and Canadian women
(3) to preserve Taiwanese culture and promote Taiwanese American and Canadian identity.

You can check out NATWA II’s website and find more information on the convention and speakers at http://natwa2.org/. Both NATWA and NATWA II will present separate and joint programs. The convention will be held in San Jose/Silicon Valley, CA from April 19-22. I’m looking forward to it!

a whole new world

I have become intrigued by everything Asian, specifically things related to Chinese culture and to Taiwan. It surprises me how strongly I feel about this. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve become a little too obsessed. Am I going overboard? Is this a mid-life crisis? Have other transracially adopted adults gone through this kind of searching later in life? When I explain to friends and family that I’m taking Mandarin lessons, going to Taiwan soon, and really exploring my cultural roots, their reactions are often encouraging, but I don’t think they quite get it. Perhaps they believe that this is just a phase I’m going through similar to a kid going through adolescence. It has, after all, taken half of my lifetime to get to that point of wanting to learn more of my cultural heritage. Twenty years ago I would never have thought twice about pursuing a search for my biological sisters, planning a trip to Taiwan, or learning Mandarin. There was no hint of a desire whatsoever.

I am happy that this new chapter of my life has begun. I’m not sure where it will all lead, but it’s an adventure. Recently, I’ve been watching a Taiwanese TV drama called, “Meteor Garden.” I had a hard time getting into it at first because it’s targeted for a younger audience, but I must say I got sucked in. I’ve begun to pick up on a few Mandarin words and phrases here and there. I have a growing list of Taiwanese dramas that I want to watch! I’ve also been listening to K-Pop (Korean pop music) and Taiwanese pop music lately. I’ve been enjoying it and am getting acquainted with popular Taiwanese singers and bands, like Jay Chou and Jerry Yan. I’m sure there are a lot more great artists out there.

I still have many questions about my adoption. One thing that still mystifies me is why my adoptive parents told me that I was Japanese and Vietnamese. My birth parents were both from China and moved to Taiwan where I was born and adopted. When and whythey moved from China to Taiwan, I’m not exactly sure. I would like to know what happened to the adoption agency, The Family Planning Association of China, as it no longer exists. I’d like to know if Tze-kuan Shu Kan, the director of the agency, is still living. My adoptive mom also kept a list of orphanages in the Taipei area. I wonder if she visited all those orphanages before finding me? I would like to visit one of those orphanages in Taipei while I’m there in January. Of course, to find one of my biological sisters and meet would be beyond wonderful and would most likely lead to some of the answers to my questions. Maybe going to Taiwan is just the beginning. I hope that more doors open up. I don’t think that this is just a phase. I think it’s a growing appreciation for my birth culture, an opportunity to explore it and expand my identity. So, I may come off a little obsessed, but it really is a whole new world.