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