Tag Archives: Identity

new podcast

Hsiao_Ling_H-Logo-Final-3000x3000It’s rare that I write two 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 about the experiences 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. Please stop by to visit my new site, 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!

the photo 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.

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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

those shoes

My first pair of shoes. I found them in the box, the one my adoptive mom hid in the attic with the rest of my adoption stuff. They are so small. A few scuff marks are visible where creases have worn into the toes. Amazingly, the laces are still a pristine white. The shoes smell faintly of mustiness after all these years having been buried in an old attic for who knows how long. On the soles of each shoe, my mom wrote, “Mari, 1st Shoes, Taiwan.” My family and close friends back home in Louisiana called me Mari, except for my dad. He always called me by my full name.

I will never know for sure why my mom hid so many things about my adoption. I suspect that she was being protective. When she died, I truly believe that she felt she had unfinished business. I’ll tell you why. She appeared to me shortly after her death, during a music therapy workshop, of all places. I was in a training class, along with some of my classmates, for The Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music (GIM), which is a music-oriented exploration of consciousness intended to awaken a deeper understanding of self. Basically, it’s music-assisted psychotherapy.

During the training, we practiced facilitating sessions with each other, one student facilitating, the other playing the role of client. During my session, the imagery that emerged was of my adoptive mom and another unknown figure. I sensed that my adoptive mom wanted to tell me something important. I saw her face so clearly; it was how I remembered her before she got sick. Her eyes beamed radiantly at me the way they always did when she was happy. I felt such warmth and gentleness emanating from her presence and wanted so desperately to reach out to her. She was nudging me toward something, or someone. A figure appeared before me in the distance wearing a cloak similar to the one we all recognize from the fairy tale, Red Riding Hood, except, this cloak was dark. At first, I felt afraid. The figure was kind of creepy looking and ominous, and I wasn’t sure why it was there. It seemed to be waiting. As the music changed, the figure became less imposing, it took on the stature of a slender female figure. I noticed a pair of long gray gloves adorning her hands and forearms, like those long white gloves that women wore back in the 50’s. It slowly dawned on me that the figure was my birth mother. I’m not sure how I knew it was my birth mother, her face was hidden behind the hood of the cloak,  but I just knew it was her. What’s interesting to me is that before this experience, I had never consciously thought about my birth mother. Of course, I’d never met or seen her before either. At the time of the workshop, I didn’t know that she had passed away several years previous. My birth mother came closer and then embraced me. We stood like that for a long time. She was so elegant and lovely. She told me that she hadn’t wanted to give me up and that my musicality was a gift from her. She affirmed her love for me, not only through her words, but through an unspoken understanding. Much later when I reunited with my biological sisters in Taiwan, I learned that my birth mother loved and listened to classical music, which I also love and studied for many years, and that my biological father had placed me for adoption without telling her. So it was true, she hadn’t consented to relinquish me. She, nor my 2 biological sisters, had any idea what our father was up to.

The imagery was intensely vivid and powerful. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it before. It’s like you’re in a dream-like state, but are aware at all times of your surroundings and what’s going on around you. At the end of that session, I was sobbing and in quite a state of shock. That is the only contact I’ve ever had with my birth mother as an adult, in the subconscious recesses of my mind. We processed with the workshop facilitators afterwards, who assured me that many clients have reported similar spiritual experiences in which loved ones who have passed on appear during their sessions. Was it my way of working through my adoptive mother’s death and the loss of being separated from my birth mother, or was it somehow a real connection spiritually between me, both my adoptive and biological mothers? I struggled to believe the latter, that my two mothers had come back to visit me through some transcendent experience. But in the end, I came to accept it and believed it was true.

When I first found the shoes, I felt a deep pang of loss all over again. The loss of my mom, the loss of my dad, discussions I would never have about my adoption. A disparity between what I thought to be my true identity and the evidence that stated otherwise surfaced in a mere instant leaving me not only grief-stricken, but dumbfounded. Grieving leaves such a huge gaping hole in your heart, a heaviness that weighs down on you as though you’re suffocating. In addition to the grief, I struggled with feelings of guilt over my long absence from home as my mom became more and more demented from Alzheimer’s. Simultaneously, those moments of sifting through the items in that box were empowering. It was as though my mom was telling me it was OK for me to know about my past. I was in a daze for a long time after that discovery as the realization that I was not who I thought I was sunk in.

As I’ve gone back through all the photo albums my mom made, I’ve noticed those shoes in several pictures. My mom dressed me in them often. I found another pair of white shoes similar to my first pair, just a little bigger to accommodate my growing feet. Obviously, it was important for my mom to keep these items. She could have given them to Goodwill, or passed them on to my niece, but she didn’t. She had to have known that one day I’d find everything, my adoption contract, the shoes, the picture of her holding me in the orphanage, the diaper pins and baby shower cards. It pains me to imagine the relationship my mom and I could have had if she hadn’t gotten Alzheimer’s. Would we have been more open with each other? Would she have confessed that she’d hidden my adoption papers and eventually given them to me? Would I have become curious about my biological family on my own and questioned my adoption story without the discovery of  my adoption papers? Would I have had the desire to connect with my birth culture and search for my birth family, or would I have remained ignorant?

I’m glad my mom kept the shoes. I’ve had them setting out for a couple of weeks, wanting to write about them, but not really having the inspiration, or time. They bring back a flood of memories. They remind me of the shy little girl I once was and of a mostly happy childhood with my adoptive family before the turmoil of my teen years. They remind me of growing up in Louisiana. I’m not the least bit bitter or angry towards my deceased parents, adoptive nor biological. There are days when I still question, when I still want more answers, but mostly, I feel at peace knowing that I was loved by my adoptive parents and that they sacrificed in many ways to raise me as their own child. I realize that everything that’s occurred has made me who I am. I’m doing my best to accept what I cannot change about the past and striving to work through my sense of loss and the unknown answers to so many of my questions.