Tag Archives: Identity

new podcast

Hsiao_Ling_H-Logo-Final-3000x3000It’s rare that I write 2 posts in a row these days! I wanted to share with you a new podcast I’m launching soon called Global Adoptee Talk, a podcast featuring the diverse voices of international and transracial adoptees around the globe. The podcast will feature 1:1 interviews with other international/transracial adoptees, and we’ll discuss topics related to international adoption, race/culture/identity, search and reunion, and mental health. The website is up and mostly functional, although I’m still working out some kinks, and you can listen to a brief preview of what we’ll present in Season One of the show. I hope that you’ll give the website a visit and  listen in to the preview. Just go to GlobalAdopteeTalk.com.

And, please share the podcast with your adoption community! I’m off to work now…Thank you so much for visiting Global Adoptee Talk!

i am

It’s always interesting to me the words that people use to identify or describe themselves. I am this or that. Surely, we all identify ourselves in multiple ways. I get a kick out of reading how people describe themselves on their Twitter profile or blog tagline. Here are some words that I came across: Storyteller | Dreamer | Adoptee | Activist | Advocate | Feminist. Parallel Parker and Fully Qualified Batman Villain were a couple of the more interesting ones. And here is an intriguing tagline I found: “Blabbering, borderline, wannabe badass with a wicked case of wanderlust” at a blog entitled Big Mouth. That about sums it up.

When I was growing up, I used to say about myself, “I America girl,” or so my adoptive mom told me. No doubt, I  was very proud to be an American. As an adopted kid, to be American carried special meaning. I’m still proud to be an American, for the most part. As I watch the DNC, I’m filled with nostalgia. I remember my childhood growing up in a military family. I knew even as a youngster there was something significant about being in the military. My father was a lieutenant colonel, a staunch Republican by political orientation, and my mother, a Democrat. Their political views and opinions were as different as night and day. Honor and respect for America and the land of the free became inherent. In elementary school we stood up in class with our hand placed over our hearts and recited the pledge of allegiance every morning. When we drove back onto the military base, the dude in the funny get up gave an extra special salute to my dad. I went to the BX and commissary with my parents, and when my dad retired after 29 years of service in the U.S. Air Force, they gave him a very proper retirement ceremony full of pomp and circumstance that I still remember vividly. We were American. I have nothing but fond memories of being a military brat. I was American through and through. Funny thing is, I didn’t look American. Duh, my outward appearance suggested that I was an outsider, different. And you know what, that is how I came to view myself. Never quite fit in no matter how hard I tried. Subconsciously, I considered myself inferior, although I’m sure that most others did not view me in that way. It became hardwired nevertheless.

I have followed recently some blogs authored by transracial adoptees that I find inspiring. One, The Adopted Life, is authored by Angela Tucker, who began a film series on transracial adoption. Angela describes herself as an “advocate for adoptee rights.” I caught Episode #1 of her film series where she sits down with 6 different adoptees who discuss being transracially adopted. One adoptee, a 20-year old female from Vietnam, speaks of feeling “embarrassed” while growing up because she did not look like her white parents. She states that her eyes were different, her skin tone was different, people knew she was different. Another adoptee, a 15- year old from China, says that she wants to “know the truth” and what happened. She states “it’s annoying not knowing that part of you.” Another adoptee, age 19 from China, further describes the unknowns in the following way, “accepting the mystery is part of me.” I thought that was very well put. There is definitely mystery in our lives as adoptees. It’s a part of our identity.

I also came across a You Tube channel called The Here and Nao produced by Naomi, a Chinese/British adoptee living in the UK. She describes herself as a “UK based student and cat lover.” In one episode, Figuring Out My Identity: An Adoptee Talks, Naomi discusses her views on the topic of identity. She talks about having tea with her close friends and feeling very strongly British, and then visiting China and returning home feeling like, “yes, I’m Chinese.” She explains identity as being “fluid.” A lot of times she feels, and perhaps other adoptees can relate, that she has to be “one or the other” in regards to her English and Chinese identities. She expresses that this often leads adoptees to feel “like we can be neither.” Hmmm. I can relate to that. How’s that for a tag line? Naomi concludes with the idea that identity evolves and that multi-ethnic individuals can integrate both or all identities, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing, and we go back and forth between our identities. I envision this like the ebb and flow of the ocean tide, or something like that.

I was touched by these videos because the adoptees are much younger than I am and yet also struggle with identity and being internationally/transracially adopted. Sometimes I think it’s just us older generation adoptees who struggle with identity and issues related to growing up in a family of a different race. It appears that transracial adoptees of all ages share the same struggles, young and old, raised in America or the UK or wherever. Apparently, I’m not the only one. I find this to be extremely validating.

Not too long ago, I updated the tagline on this blog from “musings of a Taiwanese-American adoptee” to “musings of a reunified Taiwanese adoptee.” It’s a better reflection of who I am now. The “American” part of me is a given I thought, as I’ve lived in America pretty much my whole life. The Taiwanese in me gets the spotlight. So what’s your tag line? You know, they really do speak volumes.

the picture of my birth mother

I finally framed the picture of my birth mother, which was given to me by my sisters in Taiwan. It was one of the first things they gave me at the airport once I arrived in Taipei. It’s a 5×7 black and white photo. My sisters laminated the picture to prevent any damage.

I used to think that my birth mother looked so solemn. She’s wearing a black mandarin collared jacket or shirt. Her hair is short and neat in the style of older women. Her eyes are a little downturned at the outer corners. I thought upon first seeing the picture that she appeared sad. She is not quite smiling, and I often wonder what my birth mother was thinking when the photo was taken. Oddly enough, I never asked my sisters how old she was at the time. I think that I was so overwhelmed with joy to have her picture and to see what she looked like that the thought didn’t cross my mind. My guess would be that she was somewhere in her fifties. My sisters told me that I look very much like our mother in her younger years. Unfortunately, there are no photos left of her when she was a young woman.

It’s a really odd feeling knowing that I was born to two people who I will never have an opportunity to meet. The story of why and how I was placed for adoption is a very sad one. Yet my sisters believe that my adoptive parents were angels and are very happy and thankful that I had the opportunity to be raised in a more affluent, stable environment. I understand why it happened the way it did. There are many privileges that I have received because I grew up in the U.S. in a middle class white family. My adoptive parents loved me very much, but there were many challenges, especially when I was a teenager. My parents were ill-prepared to parent an adoptee with identity issues.

I am happy that my sisters and family wanted to reunify. They have very big and generous hearts. The picture of my birth mother is now sitting in a place where I see it every morning. Framed, she appears happier, if only in my imagination, and it makes me smile.

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.

“don’t ____, or you’ll look puerto rican!” say what?

RLucasIt is with great pleasure that I introduce my dear friend and writer, Ruth Lucas, a long-time native of Long Island, New York. Ruth has accomplished something of great worth – she has completed her first novel, Don’t _______, or You’ll Look Puerto Rican! More about the title of the book in a moment. My husband and I have known Ruth and her husband, Eric, for nearly ten years. We met in church and quickly became friends. Ruth recently received her Master’s Degree in Psychology and is now in private practice as a Professional Consultant and Life Coach specializing in Relationships and Parenting (www.lucasseminars.com). The Lucas’ have been married almost 26 years and have a 21-year old son, Kyle, who currently resides in New York City. The family moved to Arizona from NY in 2001 just a few years before we did. It is Roo who got me hooked on Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings, two of my favorite series of books. I remember watching the first couple of Harry Potter movies, as well as The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers in her living room nearly nine years ago! Boy, had I been missing out. We blazed through the Harry Potter series together, and waited in line like two giddy teenagers to see the midnight showing of The Return of the King. Yes, Ruth and I both enjoy a good book and a good movie! With a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism/Communications and her expertise in family and relationships, it was only a matter of time before Ruth authored her first book.

puertoricancvr2Now back to that book title. You see, Ruth has an interesting background. She is biracial – African American and Puerto Rican. You might think, what’s the big deal, but Ruth was raised in such an environment that she grew up rejecting one-half of herself, that is, one-half of her race and ethnicity. In her own words, Ruth explains,

Many people are biracial. Not many people are biracial AND raised by one parent who is actually prejudiced against the race and ethnicity of the other parent with whom they (WILLINGLY) chose to have sex … so much so that they raise his/her own biracial child to believe that half of him/her is intrinsically BAD. This is the story of a girl raised in that paradox; essentially primed to be conflicted throughout the process of developing her self-concept without the necessary self-esteem to do so in a healthy way! 

Are you intrigued? I certainly am. Ruth’s book is a work of fiction; however, her story touches on some serious issues – race relations, diversity issues, identity, acceptance and self-determination.

In her work, it is Ruth’s hope to,

… enlist the reader on a journey with the protagonist (Elle) – to join the protagonist in her quest to become self-determined as she periodically delves into her and her mother’s past to better understand what obstacles she needs to overcome.  It is intentional that the reader feel as confused and frustrated at times as Elle, but that he/she also realize that the onus falls on Elle to not blame those who raised her or her past, but to rise above what she learned in her youth and re-parent herself so she can be a whole and healthy individual with mature and functional coping mechanisms.

Don’t _______, or You’ll Look Puerto Rican! is a story about a young woman coming to terms with who she is, who she was raised to be and who she longs to become and was written from the perspective of an eye-witness. Ruth sent me a portion of her book recently. In just the first 50 pages, I was hooked, and no, I’m not just saying that. As a personal friend, I know so much about Ruth, yet I had to separate that, somewhat, from who I know her to be and the storytelling. The beautiful simplicity of Ruth’s prose is engaging, yet beneath that simplicity is a rich interweaving of a much deeper theme – a coming of age, a struggle for self-acceptance. It is a story relatable to anyone who has, at some time or another, questioned his or her identity. The book also gives you a feel for what it was like in 1960’s New York against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement and the clashes that occurred (and still do) across clearly demarcated socioeconomic, cultural and racial lines, which is one of the things I love most about the book so far.

Ruth Lucas’ debut novel, Don’t _______, or You’ll Look Puerto Rican!, can be pre-ordered for a limited period through Inkwell Productions at this link. Copies that are pre-ordered will be signed by the author and are expected to be released this Fall. I hope that you will join me in ordering your copy and embarking on a great reading adventure. In the meantime, check out Ruth’s new book blog. Congrats, dear Ruth, on your wonderful achievement!

at the heart and soul of taiwanese america

Ho Chie Tsai

Ho Chie Tsai

Last January, I had the privilege of connecting with Ho Chie Tsai, founder of Taiwanese American.org who, without a doubt, is making a huge impact in a special community that is not often recognized. I met Ho Chie after he stumbled across my blog and contacted me just before I reunited with my birth family in Taiwan. He is chiefly responsible for welcoming me into the Taiwanese American community.

Ho Chie founded TaiwaneseAmerican.org in 2006, a website featuring many of the interesting people, events and organizations that make up Taiwanese America. He is passionate about connecting individuals and promoting those who identify with the Taiwanese identity, culture, and heritage. As a community leader, Ho Chie launched the first Taiwanese American Students Club at his alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is also a member of the Taiwanese American Foundation (TAF) Board of Directors, a non-profit organization that hosts an annual summer conference for elementary and high school aged kids of Taiwanese descent. TAF is home away from home for many campers, alumni, and conference leaders who return year after year. I had the opportunity to experience part of the 2012 TAF conference as a speaker upon the invitation of Ho Chie, and I understood afterwards why so many return. The conference is more than just a “cultural camp.” It is a true community where character, leadership, identity, and genuine support of one another are nurtured. Recently, I caught up with Ho Chie and asked some questions about his role at TAF and his perspective on culture and identity. Read the full interview below and get to know Ho Chie, a man at the heart and soul of Taiwanese America. A big thank you to Ho Chie for taking the time to talk about TAF and what it means to be Taiwanese in America!

Who are you and what do you do?

I am a proud 2nd generation Taiwanese American on a mission to help young people discover their unique identities, explore personal passions, and realize their fullest potential. I am someone who believes that each of us has the power to make a lasting impact on the communities we care about and want to serve.

I am a frequent speaker at Taiwanese American and other Asian American conferences, and this opportunity to be an influential thought leader on various issues is something I don’t take for granted. In the Taiwanese American community, many know me as the founder of the website TaiwaneseAmerican.org, a portal site that highlights the amazing people, the numerous events, and the vibrant organizations that are relevant to our next generation. We see our mission as an important part of capturing and documenting the stories of our evolving community within the American historical context. Currently, TaiwaneseAmerican.org has the largest social media and web presence serving specifically the Taiwanese American community.

Professionally, I am a general pediatrician who lives and practices in and around the San Francisco Bay area. I do primarily urgent care and hospitalist work, and my schedule is flexible enough so that I can travel to various conferences and major events within the Taiwanese American community and work on projects for TaiwaneseAmerican.org. It’s almost as if I live two lives, but guided by a common personal mission.

How did you become involved with TAF?

Like many of the counselors, staff, and board members, I actually grew up with TAF, and because it impacted me in such a positive way, I continued to return year after year and assumed more responsibilities as I matured. Decades ago, I was a young high school student who attended because my parents “forced” me to go to this camp that they had heard of from their network of friends. Although I was resistant to the idea of attending an “Asian camp,” I quickly changed tunes once I discovered how open and welcoming the staff and other campers were. Connecting with so many other young Asian Americans helped me realize that the teenage issues I struggled with, through my experience of being Asian in America, was not mine alone. There was something comforting yet emboldening in understanding that my bi-cultural 2nd generation experience was, in fact, the common denominator for my fellow Taiwanese Americans.

HoChie2

In retrospect, it is so clear to me now what kind of impact it made on my life. As well-adjusted as I seemed to appear on the outside, in reality, I was a teen still searching for my personal identity and stronger sense of confidence. The atmosphere at TAF emanated a certain unconditional love and acceptance, and it changed me practically overnight. Unbelievable? Well, talk to many of the attendees, and many will share similar stories of their own. As I would learn over time, this environment and my experiences were not accidental. In fact, the core belief of “servant leadership,” or lifting others up and serving first, is a philosophy that the leaders at TAF have intentionally put into practice for over three decades. Effectively, it translates into excellent role modeling, influential leadership, and the creation of one of the most accepting and supportive communities I have ever seen. TAF has shaped my own personal mission and approach to life.

What is your role at TAF?

As I grew with TAF, the leaders who surrounded me and nurtured my teenage soul showed me that I could make a difference for others, too. After taking on some Coordinator level responsibilities during my high school years, I eventually took on the role of Junior (grade school) Program Director and served for about 10 years. By the time I was a college student, I was also invited to serve as a Board Member for this non-profit organization and have remained in that capacity to the present day. When I became a pediatrician, I assumed the role of Camp Physician. I have also been an occasional workshop facilitator or program speaker. During the past decade, I have actually been quite content just taking a more supportive role and learning from some of the most inspiring and dynamic speakers who guide the current generation of TAF campers–many of those speakers were once young kids in my Junior Program. They and so many “TAFers” who have ventured out into the real world with a servant leadership mentality have made me so proud to continue serving TAF today in any way I can.

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How many campers attend?

Each year since 1980, the week-long Taiwanese American Foundation summer conference draws approximately 160-180 youth, most of Taiwanese heritage or experience, from across the United States. These campers between the ages of 7 to 18 attend one of the three full-week, overnight, parallel tracked programs: Junior, Junior High, or Youth (High School). An additional 45-50 college-level through young professional counselors, advisors, and staff support these programs.

What are the goals of TAF and how do the campers benefit?

The primary mission of TAF is “to foster personal growth and develop servant leaders in the Taiwanese American community for the benefit of society.”

This translates to programming and interactive sessions that help young people explore their unique identities at various stages of their personal growth through one of four rotating themes: Identity; Ethics & Values; Communication; and Servant Leadership. Through years of experience working on these real-life core topics, we have seen this camp produce generations of confident, caring, and fulfilled individuals who are well-adjusted to the often challenging world we live in. A majority of our leaders, staff and speakers grew up with the camp, much like I did. Although culture, history, and identity are important issues to us, the primary focus of the programs is personal identity and leadership development using an interpersonal and values-driven approach. The strengthening of the Taiwanese American identity follows naturally.

Over the years, we have gained expertise in dealing with a very broad age range of youth. Even kids as young as 7 years old who attend our Juniors Program have a great time learning from our talented counselors (many of whom are student teachers or have years of experience working with children) and do very well even when away from their parents for a full week. It’s a prime example of how our staff prepares the experience so that the kids just feel like they are lovingly accepted at this home-away-from-home starting on day one. As each program develops and “grows” their campers year after year, they understand their goal is to prepare the TAF camper for the next stage of camp. As the child moves from the Juniors Program to the Junior High Program and eventually on to the Youth (high school level) Program, we see that they gain more confidence and pride in their identity as well as a deeper understanding of their unique qualities and traits. By rotating through the four major themes in cyclic fashion, even a camper who has been at TAF for many years will be able to re-explore these issues further at deeper levels. Additionally, leadership roles as “coordinators” for various camp programs are offered to the high school level participants. Many begin to put actual servant leadership qualities and skills into practice, and that has a powerful influence on their peers and younger “sibs” in a positive and impactful way. And the icing on top of all this is that camp is all glued together by fun and entertaining activities. It is, after all, a summer camp experience.

We take great pride in our proven ability to help kids grow to their fullest potential and to know their greatest strengths. Our slogan, “growing people,” also suggests a more life-long mission in building up individuals and creating a community, a home, to nurture that process. TAF doesn’t end with youth programming; it’s the start of building family foundations and better relationships all throughout life. In fact, our weekend Parents Program brings together the youth and their parents in specially-designed sessions to help them better understand and appreciate each other’s perspectives. The impact is obvious and lasting: Take a look around, and one will find that many who have grown through our programs are now college students, young professionals, and even parents who return year after year to support our mission as counselors, staff, board members, speakers, volunteers, and financial sponsors. As we continue to grow, I have noticed that our programs now serve 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation Asian Americans, including mixed-race children, adoptees, and children of previous campers. This is, I believe, a testament to our success in building a strong foundation in service of the Taiwanese American community for the benefit of the greater society we live in.


What does it mean for you to be Taiwanese American?

I think everyone’s personal journey through identity is different and unique, and recognizing that we own those differences can be empowering. Ask 10 people what it means to be Taiwanese American, and you’ll get 10 different answers. Some will answer from an ethnic or cultural heritage perspective, and others will offer a more political or historical-based response. In reality, the Taiwanese American identity is complex, and not everyone will agree on the answer. With that said, for me personally, I identify as a proud 2nd generation Taiwanese American who recognizes and accepts the diversity of experiences that have shaped our immigrant community. However, because I grew up in the Midwest during a time and place where cultural diversity was lacking, I see my Taiwanese American-ness through the lens of the broader Asian American experience. I can relate to the experiences of my fellow 2nd generation Filipino American, Korean American, and Vietnamese American friends more than I can with people who grew up in Taiwan. As Asian Americans, it is as if we walk a tight-rope between two cultures, and that is where our struggle with identity begins. Being a proud Taiwanese American means coming to terms and finding a comfortable balance with the internalized values that two (sometimes conflicting) cultures bring, and using that knowledge and experience to bridge gaps wherever they may be found. I am so fortunate that my experiences helped me to embrace my unique identity starting at a young age, and I take pride that I can help shape the next generation of young Americans of Taiwanese heritage. As we influence more servant leaders and build a strong community together, I believe that we as Taiwanese Americans have a responsibility in contributing to and enhancing a more inclusive multicultural American society.

Well said, Ho Chie! 

somewhere between in phoenix

somewhere between@_V1_SX214_Well, I have already broken my 30-day challenge to stay off-line the third day in! I thought this news important enough to share though and the quickest way to get out, especially if you live in the Phoenix-Metro area. I’m so happy to announce that there will be a special presentation of the film documentary, Somewhere Between, by director Linda Goldstein Knowlton on January 24, 2013 at 5:30 pm at the AMC Arizona Center 24 in Phoenix. Tickets are $10.00 and must be purchased in advance (see below for ticket purchasing info). We need a total of 84 people to attend in order for the screening to take place!

If you haven’t already heard, Somewhere Between is an award-winning film about four teenaged girls. They live in different parts of the US, in different kinds of families, but have one thing in common: all four were adopted from China as a result of China’s “One Child Policy” and their birth parents’ inability to keep them. Although typical American teens, these four young women reveal a heartbreaking sense of self-awareness and grapple with issues of race, gender, and identity more acutely than most their age.

There will be a brief introduction preceding the film and discussion  afterwards if you’d like to stick around. All of this has been made possible through Tugg and Kevin Carlson, who has worked on getting the film here to Phoenix for the past several months. A big warm THANK YOU to Kevin for making this possible. For more information about the presentation and to reserve your tickets, go to  http://www.tugg.com/events/2633, or contact me directly via email at mjnguyen7@cox dot net (your credit card will not be charged until we meet the threshold of 84 people). Signing off once again and hope to see you at the showing!

Note: DVDs of the film are being pre-sold on Amazon and will be released on February 5, 2013.

stereotypes and labels

In between overindulging on Halloween chocolate and preoccuation with the holidays, I watched two brief film documentaries, Struggle for Identity: Issues in Transracial Adoption (released on VHS in 1998) and a follow up to Struggle: A Conversation 10 Years Later (released in 2007). In the first documentary, we meet six adult transracial adoptees of different ethnic and racial backgrounds: John, Michelle, Josh, Allison, Martin and Seujan, who each speak on various  issues related to transracial adoption. In addition, we hear from some of the adoptive parents and siblings. Both documentaries are short, 20 minutes each, yet pack a punch. As a transracial adoptee, I could relate fully to many of their insights, feelings and experiences and was literally moved to tears in some instances. As the month of November is “National Adoption Month,” I thought I’d share some of the highlights of the documentaries and things that resonated with me over the course of this month.

One of the most challenging issues transracial adoptees encounter is that of stereotypes and labels, the first topic of discussion in Struggle. John, a bi-racial adoptee adopted by white parents, stated,

There are so many societal expectations, and every time I walk into a room, people react to the way I look or dress, or the way my hair is, or the color of my skin, and that can make you crazy if you don’t have some sort of frame of reference, which is why identity or this label becomes so important.”

John continued to discuss how he “rejected” the idea of labels during his first couple of years in college. He expressed,” I thought of myself as brown for a semester or maybe yellow. I’m not white, I’m not black, I’m just going to be brown.”

The problem is, as John pointed out, society doesn’t work like that. Society wants you to make a choice. John continues, “It was never a choice to be white because it was clear, you’re not white, but what are you? Are you black?” John shared later that around the age of 22 or 23, he finally came to accept and say, “yes I am black” (John Raibles has become a nationally-known adoptee, speaker and author on transracial adoption).

I understood well this identity confusion. My adoptive parents were also white, and I lived in the South. Obviously I didn’t look like my parents and I didn’t talk as most people assumed I might. In fact, I had a southern American accent just like everyone else in Louisiana. One of my most vivid memories of stereotyping occurred when I lived in Florida. I was waitressing at TGI Fridays and one of the other servers expressed his initial surprise at my southern accent. He said, “I didn’t expect this little Asian girl to have a southern accent.” At the time, it was laughable to me. But I realize now that any kind of stereotyping can be hurtful and damaging.

Martin, an African-American adoptee adopted by white parents, discusses another  example of stereotyping. In this incident, he was listening to his Walkman when another black youth came up to him and asked what he was listening to. Martin replied, “Pearl Jam.” The black youth said, “that’s ‘white’ music… can’t be listening to that. You have to listen to rap, reggae, all this other stuff.” Martin’s response was, “it’s what I like.” In answer, he received this remark, “you’re double-crossing the black community.”

The expectation to embody a certain way of being according to your outward appearance is confusing for transracial adoptees because we have roots in two cultures, maybe even more. For a long, long time, I rejected any link to my cultural roots. Surrounded by mostly white and African-American peers, what I learned at an early age was that it was not cool to be Asian, to look the way that I did. As a result, I tried to change the way I looked via makeup, hair coloring, what I wore, my attitude, etc. When a friend advised me to take a look in the mirror one day, not maliciously, to point out that I was, indeed, Asian I was affronted. To say that I minimized my ethnicity is an understatement. Identity was a confusing matter to me growing up. I was not able to define myself with any confidence until much later in my life.

The other adoptees in the documentary also shared personal experiences of stereotyping and marginalization, as well as how they came to eventually define themselves culturally speaking. Suffice it to say that identity for anyone is a process, but frequently a process of struggle for transracial adoptees. To confront “societal expectations,” we must learn to define ourselves from the inside out.  As Michelle, an African-American adoptee, stated in the documentary the question of who we are, our identities, must eventually turn into a statement, “I am ____”. When that happens is different for each adoptee. For some of us, it can take half a life time. When I finally grasped a sense of identity and could say, I am Taiwanese-American (not just American), I did it with confidence, not based on anyone’s approval or disapproval, but it came after a lot of inner conflict, introspection, and searching.

You can purchase a special edition DVD of both documentaries at Photosynthesis Productions (a friendly fore-warning, the DVD is expensive. I was able to get mine on Amazon for half the price). Also, from November 12-16 as part of the Minnesota Transracial Film Festival, you will be able to stream the documentaries via Watch Adoptee Films for a very small fee.

Tune in next time as I continue to discus the two film documentaries.

Watch the trailor for Struggle for Identity: Issues in Transracial Adoption