Tag Archives: Self-Identity

the language of identity

I recently read a book called, “The Language of Flowers,” by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. It is the heartbreaking, yet poignant story of a young woman who grows up in the foster care system. Until the age of 9, Victoria is shuffled from one family and group home to the next never quite meeting the “standards or expectations” of the adults in her life. Victoria’s social worker, jaded and quite unsympathetic, believes she is nothing more than a troublemaker. Victoria is hurt and traumatized and acts out the only way she knows how to after years of abuse and abandonment – through defiance. She mistrusts everyone around her and has great difficulty developing and maintaining relationships, that is, until she’s placed with Elizabeth. Victoria eventually learns to trust Elizabeth after a period of opposition that would send most of us over the edge and grows to share her passion for flowers. However, circumstances arise that threaten Victoria’s new found sense of security with Elizabeth. Out of desperation, Victoria engages in a dangerous ploy to win over Elizabeth’s undivided love and attention once and for all, again inviting havoc into her life. We watch Elizabeth come of age and struggle with the demons of mistrust, betrayal, and an injurious lack of self-worth as she is forced to reconcile her past and risk everything for the sake of finding the happiness she deserves.

I was genuinely moved by the story of this prickly and difficult young woman. Although I never experienced the level of abuse, nor the traumatic events that occurred in Victoria’s life, the lack of self-acceptance and identity she felt and difficulty developing and maintaining relationships deeply resonated with me. She was imprisoned by her own self-loathing and inability to let others into her life. I totally get that. Yet, she had a special ability and desire to help others through the flowers she chose for them, having learned under Elizabeth’s careful tutorship the meaning of flowers.

For many years, I wrestled with gaining a sense of identity like Victoria. I spent my 20’s chasing after the dream of becoming an actress. I even moved to California to pursue this “folly,” as though acting would help me gain the acceptance I longed for. Like most people in their 20’s, I was exploring my identity and what I wanted to do with my life. However, my search was compounded with all of the insecurities that stemmed from my past – the trauma of being raised in a culturally non-diverse environment, an Asian girl trying to fit in with her predominantly white peers and never ever quite feeling worthy enough. This insecurity plagued me for years and manifested itself in deeply rooted feelings of inferiority, passivity, shyness, and an inability to communicate my feelings. I was a “wallflower” as one incredibly insensitive individual once told me.

I attribute those years of damaged self-image to a couple of things: my inability to express what I was experiencing and feeling to my parents, or to any other person who could have helped me and the lack of positive role-models in my life- by that, I mean other people of the same ethnicity. I’m not positive that my adoptive parents would have known how to help me as I struggled with issues of self-identity and the extreme pressure I felt, mostly self-imposed, to fit into mainstream America. We lived in a predominantly white area, so naturally, I just wanted to be like everyone around me, white. It never occurred to me that being Asian was a positive thing. Having been teased at an early age about my outward appearance, I learned that Asian was not attractive or popular. It makes me sad looking back that I felt so unhappy and insecure about myself. I must mention here that not all transracially adopted children will experience what I did, or have the same issues that I’ve had to wrestle with. Each adoptees’ experiences are unique, and no two families, or circumstances are alike.

Having stated the previous, the growth of my identity has come in small spurts. A huge turning point for me occurred after I had our one and only daughter. I was 31 years old. It literally transformed me. Being a mom opened up my heart in a way I’d never experienced. I’d always had difficulties in developing deep friendships with others, both men and women. My husband often told me that other women in our small church family group didn’t feel “close” to me. I felt hurt by his comments and argued the point, but after having our daughter, I understood a little more clearly. There was an unconditional love and bond that connected me to my daughter, which expanded my heart and inspired the capacity to build deeper and more meaningful friendships. I began to “like” myself because I cherished being a mom. My daughter taught me to give love and to accept love. For once, I felt confident in my role as a mother.

Another huge turning point for me occurred just recently. As many of you know, I reunited with my birth family in Taiwan at the beginning of the year and discovered that, after eons of believing that I was Japanese and Vietnamese (41 years to be exact), I’m actually Taiwanese. Many people ask me if I feel closure now. At first, I thought this was such an odd question because it’s not really an ending but a new beginning for me. I understand, though, from others’ perspective, it appears like closure because I found my true cultural roots and birth family. I guess it is closure in a sense that I accept who I am unequivocally. There’s no mistaking that I’m Taiwanese and finally feel a sense of pride about my ethnicity. I have a renewed sense of identity. I’m still exploring this new identity and what it means to be Taiwanese American. I want to support and become more involved in the Taiwanese American community and greater Asian community in our area. I hope to take more trips to Taiwan and hope to help somehow in the transnational adoption community. Like everyone else, my identity is a culmination of family and life experiences that’s shaped who I am. At times, it’s been a painful process, but nonetheless, one that’s taught me self-preservation, resilience, compassion, and self-worth.

Embracing my cultural roots

Wow, it’s been nearly a month since my last post.  Life has seemed as though in slow motion as I continue to wait to hear news of the search for my biological sister in Taiwan. At the end of September, I received an email from Beatrice at The Child and Juvenile Information Center in Taipei City, the agency that’s leading the search for my sister. Beatrice is always very encouraging and sent word that the household system in Taipei has record of my sister’s address, my second sister to be exact. Wow, second sister! I’m assuming second born daughter to my birth parents; I was the fourth and the only one given up for adoption that I know of.  Just knowing that small fact makes this all seem a little bit more real. She’s alive, she’s living somewhere out there. Will we find her? Beatrice expresses that discovering this information is a big step, and they will try to contact her as soon as possible. More importantly, she also informs me that everyone needs to register in the household system, so everyone will have an address in the system; however, that does not guarantee that the individual registered will live at the address listed. I understand the message: we can’t be certain that my sister still currently lives at this address. My heart sinks a little. I want to be hopeful, but the possibility of finding my sister seems nearly impossible, far away, intangible, like looking for a needle in a haystack. I wish for things to be more certain, that perhaps after all this time, destiny will be on my side.

At the beginning of the month, I email Beatrice asking how the search is going. She expresses that although they sent letters to the address, there has been no reply from anyone. She suggests that it’s possible my sister no longer lives at that address, or that she has rented the house out. I become curious about the address, whether it is listed in Taiwan or in China. The reason behind this is my adoption contract lists my birth family’s address in the province of Guangxi, China. This is confusing to me and makes me wonder if I’m Chinese or Taiwanese? Furthermore, what led my birth family to move from China to Taiwan? Beatrice explains that the address on my adoption contract traces back to my ancestral descent, to my birth father’s family and that my sister’s address is in Taiwan. She assures me that I’m Taiwanese since my family lived in Taiwan.

Beatrice emails soon after noticing that it bothers me somewhat not knowing if I am Chinese or Taiwanese. I explain that my adoptive mom had always told me I was part Japanese and part Vietnamese – my mother was Vietnamese, and my father, Japanese. I have no idea how she got this information, and I certainly never questioned it growing up. When I found my adoption contract in 2010 (after my adoptive mother’s death), I discovered that my birth parents were both Chinese, at least their names were Chinese, not Vietnamese or Japanese. This was shocking to say the least. My whole life, I believed myself to be Vietnamese and Japanese. Finding my adoption contract opened up a whole new mystery about my true birth heritage. Both of my adoptive parents have passed on, and recently I learned that both of my birth parents have also passed on. I’m left to investigate my past on my own. I can only say that now, I’m more curious than ever to discover something of my roots.

Last week, we spent the weekend with some good friends of ours in California. My friend is Korean and her husband, Czechoslavokian. While there, she introduced me to a popular Korean TV series, “Boys Over Flowers“. I can’t say that I was very interested in watching it but to my surprise I got totally hooked, and when we returned home, continued to watch the entire 25 episodes! Watching this series was not only great entertainment, but on a much deeper level, it  helped me to appreciate my Asian roots in a way I’ve never experienced before. I know that may seem completely bizarre. I suddenly felt proud to be Asian. I’m sad to say that for the greater part of my life, I have downplayed any references to my Asian heritage, never fully embracing my cultural roots. I tried for many years to look more “Western,” Americanized. When I look in the mirror now, I’m beginning to appreciate more what I see, the shape of my eyes and nose, the color of my hair and skin. I have a burning desire, whether my sister is found or not, to go to Taiwan and immerse myself in the culture, to even learn Mandarin. I want to explore that part of my identity that I rejected for so long and feel compelled to do so. It’s been difficult to wrap my head around all of the emotions that have crept up on me in the last several weeks.

I know that Beatrice and the agency in Taiwan are doing everything they can to find my sister. It will take time. Whether or not I receive good or bad news, the good news to me is that I’m slowly discovering my cultural roots. I hope that in so doing, I will appreciate who I am and who I’m becoming in a greater way. I realize that my self-identity is still so full of complexities. But things are coming full circle, and in the end, I know that I won’t regret this journey.

cross-cultural adoption

As I consider how things have progressed regarding my adoption search, I realize that for over half of my life I believed that I was of a certain race, but have come to discover that I am of another. I have felt all kinds of things as a result including surprise, confusion, frustration, and bewilderment all at once. Growing up as an Asian-American adoptee was often like stumbling through a maze blind-folded. I’m pretty sure that we all ask, “who am I?” at some point in our lives. For international and transracial adoptees, it is even more complicated as adoptees attempt to navigate two cultures and manage feeling “othered” by peers and sometimes family members. My parents told me at a young age, I don’t remember when, that I was part Vietnamese and part Japanese. I wish that I could recall when they told me; nevertheless, I had no reason to doubt them. With the discovery of my original adoption contract, however, which was buried in a box in my parent’s attic, I learned something entirely different. Prior to having my papers properly translated, a Taiwanese adoption social worker, who was guiding me through the process of my adoption search, led me to believe that my birthparents were Taiwanese. It made sense because I was born in Taiwan. Later, through the translation, I learned that both my birthparents were from Guangxi, China, an exact province notated in the document. It is difficult to argue with hard evidence, so naturally I now assume that I am Chinese. Imagine my surprise each time I learned some new fact about my culture of origin. Unfortunately, neither of my adoptive parents are alive to explain all of the discrepancies.

I say all of this because I have come to a conviction about transracial adoption. Those who plan to adopt a child or children from another country must be educated in how to help their child develop an appropriate sense of cultural and racial identity, which shapes an overall sense of self. It is not enough for a parent to just love their child or preach colorblindness. I am proof of that. My parents loved me without a doubt and provided for me physically and materially as any good and loving parent should. But, what they were not prepared for was coping with issues of color, race, ethnicity, racism, and discrimination. They were not prepared to address the social and emotional needs of a daughter who looked different, not only from them, but from everyone else around her. This was doubly compounded by the fact that we lived in the deep South where prejudice and racism continue to exist. I am sure that they also never confronted whatever prejudices, or beliefs they personally held themselves. When my parents adopted me, I was automatically acculturated into a white society, shut off from my birth culture. My parents did not know how that would impact me growing up. Because the adoption took place in Taiwan, they did not have the opportunity to be made aware of the importance of educating themselves properly to address such issues as the development of ethnic and racial identity, or racial discrimination. They did not talk about my birth heritage nor encourage me to investigate, but rather minimized my race and ethnicity due to this lack of awareness. The closest I came in contact with any Asian culture while growing up was eating out at the local Chinese food restaurant.

I think about how things could have been different had my parents been more prepared for issues of race and identity. Would I have been more willing to embrace my ethnicity? For many years, I downplayed it and tried to fit into the “whiteness” all around me never quite feeling like I was good enough or fit into the social norm. It deeply affected my sense of self and led me to do things that I might not have done had I possessed a stronger sense of self. Would there have been less tension and strife in my family, especially during my teen years?

I strongly believe that those who intend to adopt children from abroad must be made aware of the unique challenges that surround raising a child of another culture, especially if the adoption originates in the U.S. Adoptive parents must consider the challenges that will confront their child regarding ethnicity and race, and considerations should be made regarding how to impart coping skills and how to facilitate open discussions with their child to address issues such as racial discrimination, racial teasing, and microaggressions. It is the adoptive parents’ responsibility to also ensure that their child is given opportunities to learn about his/her birth culture beginning at an early age. Otherwise, an injustice is imposed on the children of transracial adoption whether they are aware of it or not. I don’t fault my parents for what they did not know. I do hope to share from my own experiences what I’ve learned about cross-cultural adoption with others and hope that it can make a difference.

who am I

I guess I felt the first inkling of being “different” around the age of pre-school when we lived in Westover, Massachusetts. Although I don’t remember very much about pre-school, I do remember at that early age feeling out-of-place, distant from the other kids. I was extremely shy and hid behind my peers. I was perfectly content to read a book alone in a quiet corner or spend time listening to music. When I look back at school pictures, my face stands out among all the others. Mine was typically the only Asian one. I was a minority once we moved to the states from Okinawa, but I never knew or understood that term until I became an adult.

The teasing began in kindergarten. By then we’d moved to Bossier City, Louisiana, where my father completed his military career. There was very little diversity in this small town, and we lived in a predominantly white neighborhood full of military families. Typically, I tried to downplay any teasing and brushed it off as though nothing had happened. Mostly, people did the same tired stereotypical thing, like pulling up the corners of their eyes with their fingers or trying to talk sing-songy. Occasionally I’d hear the word, “chink,” as I passed by. Once, on the school bus, someone I thought was my friend intentionally shoved me off the bus seat. At first, I thought she was joking around, but then realized she meant it. I didn’t understand why she would treat me in such a way. It was embarrassing, but I tried my best to act like nothing happened. It was a long ride to school that morning.

As I got older, feeling accepted by my peers became increasingly more difficult. I’m sure some of that grew from my own insecurities and social awkwardness. Around junior high, I wanted desperately to be part of a particular group of girls who were considered very “popular.” I began hanging out with them, yet felt I had to fight for their acceptance. One day, one of the girls said to me, “Why don’t you find another group to hang out with?” Ouch. I was shocked, speechless, embarrassed. I didn’t understand what I’d done to cause such rejection, but I got the message as confusing as it was. It didn’t occur to me that perhaps these events occurred because I looked different from them. I kept these incidents to myself and never talked to anyone about them, not even to my parents. Back then, I wasn’t sure what to think of it all, and it was very difficult for me to put my feelings into words. Mostly, as I mentioned before, I felt embarrassed and confused. I was ashamed that I looked different from everyone around me. My parents seemed oblivious. I don’t think they ever clued into the teasing. We never talked about how things were going in school or any difficulties I may have been experiencing, and we never talked about my birth heritage. Sometimes I wonder if they had been offered education or cultural training, would things have been different? They were of a generation where families did not talk about problems openly, but rather swept them under the rug. My parents were unaware of the pressures I felt to”fit in.” They did not know the sense of dread I felt going to school everyday during those elementary years and of the racial discrimination I experienced from both peers and teachers – mostly white male coaches.

As I got older I realized that being shy wasn’t cool. I longed to be liked and accepted by my peers just like any other pre-teen or teenager, and I went to extremes to try and fit in. I downplayed my Asian features and rejected any association with my birth culture. In 6th grade I wrote a biography report and lied about where I was born. In the report, I said that I was born in Hawaii and hid the fact that I was born in Taiwan. Many students questioned me afterwards, but I stuck to my ‘story.’ I wrote another paper about a girl who was teased by others and read it in class. I don’t think it caught the attention of any of my peers; however, my teacher, who was a black male, asked me,”does that happen to you?” or something like that. The conversation never went beyond that though.

In 8th grade, I became friends with some girls who I felt I could be myself around. Still, I struggled with insecurity. I was obsessed with wanting to look like everyone else. I used eye makeup to make my eyes appear rounder. I curled my straight hair every morning before school with hot rollers. By the end of the day, the southern humidity caused every last curl to go flat, which was incredibly annoying. In high school, I used Sun-In to lighten my hair. I pursued hanging out with the “popular” crowd. At home, I became increasingly disrespectful towards my parents. They were very strict and old-fashioned. One Christmas, my dad gave me a special present. I was horrified when it turned out to be a license plate for my car with the words “Oriental Express” inscribed across it. I refused to put it on my car and was very upset with my dad. I know that in his small way, my dad was trying the only way he knew how to reach out to me. I felt conflicted that I had hurt his feelings by rejecting his gift, but was simultaneously mortified and ashamed. He and Mom were both unaware of the conflict I was experiencing and lacked the skills to help me through those difficult teen years. They were simply uneducated. I’m sure that Dad thought the gift was something special and was completely boggled by my reaction. The license plate sat on my dresser collecting dust. I didn’t want to get rid of it because I didn’t want to hurt my dad’s feelings any more than I already had. I’m not sure what happened to it over the years.

After college, I moved out of Louisiana. It was extremely difficult for my mom. Dad didn’t say much, but I know it was hard for him too. Mom wanted me to stay close to home, but I I had other plans and ideas. I ended up in Florida for a couple of years and took acting classes. I partied with friends and enjoyed living independently out from under the control of my mother. I purposely did not go home to see my parents that first year, but stayed in Florida and worked. Eventually, I moved to California to pursue acting, which was really a big joke. That’s another story. Again, I struggled inwardly because I knew that staying away from home hurt my parents, yet I had to get out from under my mom’s control.

When I moved to California, the first thing that struck me was the large population of Asians. It was shocking. I’d never seen anything like it. Naturally, I avoided associating with anyone Asian. As time went on, I developed some close relationships with a group of friends and began to overcome my old insecurities, although, I still rejected my cultural heritage.

Last year, I began a master’s degree in social work at Arizona State University. I enrolled in a class called Diversity, Oppression and Change. This class forced me to re-examine the issues I struggled with related to culture, identity, and race-relations. I chose to write a research paper on ethnic and racial identity in Asian-American adoptees, a topic obviously close to my heart. To my surprise, I found much literature written on cross-cultural and transracial adoption. These research studies focused primarily on issues such as racial and ethnic conflict and confusion, the role of parenting and nurturing cultural identity, and the development of ethnic identity across stages of life. I also interviewed two other Asian-American adoptees, which was the best part. The whole process of researching and writing was inspiring. I became increasingly interested in learning more about other Asian-American adoptees and discussing our stories together. A desire to connect to my birth heritage took root and has been growing ever since.

For many years, I struggled with my identity and a sense of belonging. It never occurred to me that other internationally adopted persons might have or do experience similar feelings. I feel certain now that I’m not the only one.

my mysterious adoption

Imagine your whole life believing that you are one thing and then learning in mid-life that you are not what you have always believed you were. Let me explain. When I was four months old, I was adopted by a white American family from an orphanage in Taipei, Taiwan. My dad was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, and he and my mom were stationed in Okinawa at the time I was adopted. My parents provided a little bit of information about my adoption, but I knew very little about my birth family or birth culture. I always believed that I was Vietnamese and Japanese. That is what they told me, that is what I believed. I had no reason to question what I’d been told. After my mom passed away in 2008, however, I made a discovery about my adoption that in one instant changed everything I ever knew.

journey to unravel my pastMy mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, which slowly progressed across several years. Before she passed away, my half-sister began rummaging through our parents’ attic in an attempt to get rid of junk. There were tons of boxes stored there, and none of us had a clue what was inside them. As it turned out, one of them contained some very surprising things. After mom’s funeral in 2008, I began to sort through each box. Some contained remnants of my dad’s military stuff from World War II, things that are very meaningful to me now, like old photos from his youth, flight records, clues to his military past which I knew so little of. Then in one box, I stumbled upon the original contract of my adoption plus other keepsakes that my mom had stowed away and never told me about. I knew something of my past had to exist somewhere, but never had any motivation to search up in the attic. The most curious thing of all was a picture of my mom holding me in her lap in what appeared to be the orphanage where I was placed for adoption, although I can’t be certain. A small baby bed, its railings rusted with peeling paint, is situated just behind us. I found safety pins that probably held together my cloth diapers and baby shower cards congratulating my mom on her new addition to the family. I was stunned and excited about these new finds and that I’d finally found some tangible link to my mysterious adoption. At the same time I felt a little sad that my parents never shared these things with me.

At the beginning of this year I went back to Bossier City, Louisiana to salvage what I could from my parents’ home. It all seemed so surreal knowing that this would be my last visit to the house I grew up in before it sold. I shipped back home tons of old pictures, an antique grandfather clock that’s been in Mom’s family forever, LP’s of Glen Miller music, and several of Dad’s military awards, plaques, and old service records. So many memories came flooding back as I unpacked all the boxes and unwrapped each little item. It saddens me that neither of my adoptive parents are here anymore. We’ll never get the chance to clear things up about my adoption. It’s up to me now to figure it out.

journey to unravel my pastSince coming back home to Arizona, I’ve thought more and more about my adoption and decided to begin a search for my birthfamily. I sent my adoption contract to an adoption agency specializing in placing children from Taiwan with American families. Surprisingly, I learned from one of the caseworkers that my birth parents were not Vietnamese and Japanese, but very possibly from Taiwan. Could I be Taiwanese? For years I have explained to people that I was born in Taiwan, but am really Japanese and Vietnamese adopted by white parents. I had to further explain why I had a southern accent. The fact that I didn’t exactly look like either of my parents also raised a few questions and illicited some stares, especially having lived in a predominantly white area.  It will be so much easier now to just tell people that I’m Taiwanese and not give them the whole story of my background.

I’m not sure how the search for my birthfamily will go. Chances are that neither of my birth parents are still living. My birth mother was 39 and birth father, 55 when I was born. Still puzzling to me is why my mom told me that I was Japanese and Vietnamese. Did the translation get mixed up, or was it all fabricated? It’s hard for me to believe that my parents would purposely lie to me. Perhaps it will always remain a mystery.

Discovering things I never knew about my adoption and digging into my past has led to an awakening, a desire to understand my cultural heritage. I am more curious now than ever before about my birth family. Do I look like any of them, does anyone else in my birth family have an affinity for music, are there any health issues to be concerned about, was it difficult for my birth parents to relinquish me, did they ever want to see me? Questions that adoptees sometimes ask themselves. Although I may never find out anything other than what’s preserved on my adoption contract, I hope that won’t be the case.