Tag Archives: transracial adoption

the invisible red thread

Shumin_Vivian2Over the last couple of years, it seems that there have been a number of film documentaries made on inter-country/transracial adoption. But many people in Arizona do not have the opportunity to see such films, which are typically introduced at film festivals and then screened via special engagements. Earlier this year, we were able to host a screening of Somewhere Between by Linda Knowlton Goldstein through Tugg. We had a super turn out and even sold out of tickets. I received much positive feedback after the event from friends and adoptive families.

In 11 days, we will host another film screening on adoption in Chandler. This event is called, “Honoring One’s Cultural Roots.” We’ll screen the film documentary, The Invisible Red Thread, from director Maureen Marovitch, although this event will be slightly different, as the movie is shorter (approx. 55 minutes), and we’ve invited psychotherapist Stephanie Withrow to speak after the movie. Stephanie has a private practice inTempe, AZ and works with adoptive families. She and her husband, Doug, have adopted 3 girls from China. In addition, another friend and colleague, Dalena Watson, LPC, FAMI, MT-BC, has helped to coordinate the event. She and her husband, Dustin, have 2 adopted children from China and Korea. If you live in the Phoenix-Metro area, I hope that you’ll be able to join us. You can find all the details at the link above entitled, The Invisible Red Thread- An AZ Premier. The film is recommended for kids 11 and older. Reservations and pre-payment are required, so be sure to reserve your seats. You can actually pre-pay for the screening by clicking on the Paypal button located on the right sidebar of this site. If you cannot attend the event but would like to contribute to the cost of bringing the film to Chandler, you can make a donation by clicking on the same button. For more about the movie, see the official website by following this link.

Come out and meet other adoptees and adoptive families who live in the valley!

Stephanie and her family

Stephanie and her family

how deep are your roots?

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

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

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

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

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

post-adoption services

adoption

I’ve been meeting with a couple of colleagues who both have adopted children from China. One also has an adopted son from Korea. Both of my colleagues are licensed professional counselors, and one specializes in working with families with adopted children. Their own children are in middle childhood. We’ve been discussing and making plans to develop adoption programming for adoptive parents in our area targeting the Fall for some kind of event. Interestingly, in fiscal year 2012, Arizona had an estimated 105 adoptions from abroad (U.S. Department of State). We’ve also talked about our own individual stories and experiences in adoption, me obviously from an adoptee’s perspective, and my colleagues from the perspective of adoptive parents. We all agree that adoption is a fundamental, life-altering event for all triad members that can lead to both great joy and tremendous pain. I believe that most agencies do a great job of connecting families with children who need a family. However, not many prepare families for the unexpected issues that arise post-adoption—an adopted child not wanting to be touched or showing signs of reactive attachment disorder (RAD), or experiencing sensory issues, and how to cope with such issues.

My colleagues have spoken about the challenges of raising their own adopted children and how the effects of institutionalization and maternal separation have impacted them emotionally, psychologically and physically. Like many other adoptive parents, they feel that there is a lack of meaningful support and post-adoption services following adoption and that risk factors are not always properly understood or disclosed by adoption service providers to adoptive families. One of my colleagues talked of all the pictures of happy smiling adoptable Korean children displayed on the walls of her adoption agency. She felt that this elicited a picture that everything is wonderful and happy in adoption, a somewhat misleading picture. My other colleague felt that her agency did discuss the risk factors of international adoption, however, very often adoptive parents are so excited about adopting that they tune these issues out only later to discover the very complex nature of raising an internationally adopted child.

After our meeting the other day, my colleagues and I came to an agreement that we all had very different goals for developing adoption programming. We decided that before planning any big event, we should proceed with developing a post-adoption needs survey for adoptive parents to assess what the needs are, something already in the works. What do adoptive parents need? What kinds of services and programming would be most helpful? We also talked about hosting another screening of a film documentary, possibly The Invisible Red Thread, or Wo Ai Ni Mommy  (I Love You Mommy) on transracial adoption, an event that would require a little less planning, yet provide a forum for discussion and interaction. The needs surveys would also be available for families to complete. In January, we held a screening for the documentary, Somewhere Between, in Phoenix. Many adoptive families attended, but, unfortunately, some were unable to because the screening sold out. I am cautiously optimistic that another such screening would draw a crowd of adoptees and adoptive families. What I found exciting about our Somewhere Between screening was meeting adoptive families and adoptees in Arizona and building a sense of community.

If you live in Arizona, I would love to hear from you about a forthcoming screening of either The Invisible Red Thread or Wo Ai Ni Mommy (which was aired on PBS in 2010 as part of a documentary series on transracial adoption). Let me know what your thoughts are regarding post-adoption services, support groups, community building or anything else on international adoption. If you aren’t in Arizona, still please feel free to comment. You can comment on this post, or reach me directly by email at mjnguyen7@cox.net.

 

poet jena

I am so happy to share the following piece below with my readers. It was written by one of the people I hope most to meet one day in person. Ma-Li and I connected a few years ago when she contacted me with news that she was also adopted in Taipei from The Family Planning Association of China. We are just a year apart in age. I was so excited that someone who once lived at  the same orphanage contacted me. Ma-Li currently lives in Germany, but was raised in the UK by British parents. She is a gifted writer and poet. You can read some of her beautifully written poetry at Poet Jena’s Blog. Please stop by for a visit. Here’s a little about Ma-Li in her own words:

Ma-Li2I am a writer, a poet, a thinker, a philosopher, a storyteller, a lover of children and animals and beauty –  an artist, love-junkie and music addict which, in terms of taste, can mean anything and everything…. ! My background is a ‘story within a story’ in the way that there is a ‘play within a play’ in William Shakespeare’s tragedy, “Hamlet”.  It involves being given up to adoption at an early age and adjusting to foreign cultures.  It is a story of a lonely upbringing and at the same time the never ending search for identity.  Above all, it is the archetypal journey from the life saving pages of a diary begun as a despairing teenager to the crystallization of thought as found in the adult poetry of my current writing.

By Ma-Li:

In an television broadcast I caught by non-coincidence, I was reminded of the adopted part of me, what in the end may only amount to a story in an ocean of stories, but still, I felt immediately connected to this interviewee, this woman called Sarah Fischer.

Existence beyond duality says we are all ONE. To find a little piece of ourselves in another is the seed of the hope of this awareness.

Others who have lived a part of our own lives strike us to the very core, or so I have always found. They awake inside us what it is we mean to ourselves. Or what we may have believed we have meant to ourselves for the longest time. As if by magic, there is the sudden and extremely moving recognition of a deep knowing – a sense of timelessness almost.

But perhaps what resonates for me most is when she says, to paraphrase, – it was of great importance to her that the man she met and eventually married had ‘roots’.

Something else which touched me deeply: in order to find out that Germany was her true home, she had to first undertake a trip around the world.

It reminds me that no matter in which ways we choose to do it, whether adoption or by other means, the underlying journey of which this globetrotting, to me, seems to be only an allegory, is one of self-discovery, and moreover, ‘re’-covery. And in it, one sees the soul’s intense longing to finally be acquainted with itself. And what relationship is there or was there ever going to be which is more essential than that?

Sarah Fischer, Globetrotter | Talking Germany | DW.DE | 01.03.2013

http://www.dw.de/sarah-fischer-globetrot

In her current book, “Heimatroulette”, Munich photographer Sarah Fisher describes her search for her own roots. She was adopted by a German couple as baby.

A few closing words from Ma-Li:
I came into contact with the writer of this inspiring blog some time ago during my own attempts to uncover aspects of my adopted past.  It is now coming up to more than forty years since the day that I myself got on that JAL airlines plane headed for a new and unknown life. Finding her was not only a surprise, but a huge unexpected delight. Imagine someone so close in age to me and even having been born in Taiwan!  And that is how the connection began. At present, time will not allow me to write more than this.  Suffice to say that like all adoptions it is a story, and a somewhat involved one at that, whose multifaceted details are to this day still not all known to me.  But for better or worse, adopted, I am. And nowadays I am starting to come around to the thought that the adoptees journey is not as rough a one as I might have believed in the beginning. Although we have never met in person, there is somehow a sense of closeness for me to have met someone such as this, in that space, as her blog so aptly says, “beyond the two worlds”. Simply put. It is an honor to know you Marijane.  And, without having ever been adopted myself our paths might never have crossed.
 

somewhere between makes impact in phoenix

I was talking to my friend, Kathy, today about the Phoenix screening of Somewhere Between, directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton (the one I’ve been plugging for the last month!). Last Thursday evening, adoptive families, friends, and members of the community joined us for the feature length documentary. It was such a wonderful event in many ways. Kathy and her husband, Dave, adopted a little girl from China at the age of 15 months five years ago. Jade is now six. She has such an infectious personality that all who meet her cannot help but fall in love with her. Kathy and I talked about the film for over an hour and its implications for adoptive families, adoptees, and international adoption in general. I thought about how international, or inter-country adoption has changed from the time I was adopted, an era when adoptive parents did not talk to their kids much about their adoption or birth culture.

Not quite a full house yet

I was so happy that our screening sold out, which means that there is a thriving community in Phoenix of those interested in international adoption. I was worried that we would not meet the threshold set by Tugg, Inc. to secure the Phoenix screening, but as it turns out, there weren’t enough tickets. Over half of the audience was adoptive families, including four teen adoptees from China, Kyndra, Hannah, Kiara, and Cassandra. One family I met is in the process of adopting a little girl from Taiwan and currently awaiting finalization. Of special mention, the mother-in-law of director, Linda Goldstein-Knowlton, who lives in the Phoenix area, was a member of the audience. Mrs. Knowlton was accompanied by her daughter and other extended family members. It was very cool to see so many adoptive families and to have many personal friends come out to support the film – big thanks to Maria, Kathy, Diane, and Ted!

For me, the film did exactly what the director hoped it would. In the words of Linda Goldstein Knowlton:

I hope the film will create an emotional experience for viewers, and in the process educate and help create a language that helps describe what it means to be “other” in the U.S. I also hope the film will inspire reflection on how we all form our identities, and on our growing global and personal interconnections, especially those networks of women and girls that have been formed due to this large wave of adoptions.

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One of the most poignant segments of the film was Haley’s reunion with her birthfamily in China. SPOILER ALERT! I found it heart wrenching to watch the emotional reaction of Haley’s biological father upon their reunion. He was obviously happy that she had found him, yet guilt and remorse over her abandonment was painfully evident. Haley’s biological mother, due to financial distress, surrendered her without telling anyone, including Haley’s biological father. Haley’s reunion with her biological mother was equally painful. The difficulty her biological father had in relinquishing her yet again at the end of their reunion that just about broke my heart. Likewise, I was moved by Run-yi’s story, another little girl with cerebral palsy whose adoption was partially documented. As she realized time drew closer for her departure, which meant leaving everything familiar to her in China, she cried inconsolably. In an attempt to comfort her, her new adoptive mother wrapped her up in her arms, but she was a complete stranger to Run-yi. It confirmed that, although adoption is often framed as “growing families” and “one of the most loving things to do,” there is grief and loss that accompanies it, and it’s felt not only by the child separated from his/her birthmother/father and environment, but by the birthparents who are often forced to relinquish them due to desperate circumstances. We see just how very vulnerable the adopted child is, as well as the birth parent(s).

I very much enjoyed the film. I thought that the four teen girls, Fang, Jenna, Haley, and Ann, whose stories we follow were very thoughtful and wise in understanding where they are in life considering their identity, family, and being adopted. They demonstrate a maturity that is impressive and perhaps beyond that of kids their own ages, as they’ve had to grapple with issues like identity and belonging that other kids take for granted. It would be interesting to see how they continue to mature at different developmental stages.

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Following the screening, we had a discussion. It was a great forum in which to hear from many adoptive parents who shared information and experiences. I felt a real sense of community and support amongst everyone there. Thanks to all who came out to see the film. It was a pleasure to meet and talk with many of you. And finally, thanks to Tugg for making our screening possible. I do hope that we will have more opportunities to come together as a community in the future. Please keep in touch!

(Note: If I got your name wrong or misspelled it, please contact me and I’ll correct it!)

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.

what adoptive parents should know

I just returned recently from a trip to Orange Co. I stayed with one of my best friends who adopted a 15-month old little girl from China in 1997. Her daughter is now 15 years old, the same age as my own daughter. We had some interesting discussions on adoption. I realized during our conversations that my views on adoption have evolved since I first learned of my true ethnic identity, reunited with my birth family in Taiwan and dug into the psychology of adoption. I talked to my friend about the documentary, “Struggle for Identity,” which neither she, nor her husband, had heard of. In this post, I wanted to share some more insights from the film on an important topic discussed: what adoptive parents should know… I know you may have read articles and books pertaining to this very topic, but I think that the more it’s discussed, the more awareness will be brought to the importance of this matter.

This portion of the DVD was especially candid, which I totally appreciated. Michelle, an African-American adoptee adopted by white parents, addresses the the topic of “what adoptive parents should know” in this way:

“What parents have to understand is that this is a painful process, a very hurtful process. In many cases, there are going to be issues at every stage of this child’s life that are painful, and you’re going to have to be able to deal with that– a lot of rejection, not necessarily of you, but of your culture and the microcosm of a racist culture.”

Michelle does not mince words. She’s forthright, and I like that about her. What she shares comes from a place of honesty and experience. As difficult as it may be for some to hear her perspective, I agree with her. It’s not that adoption can’t be successful. The fact remains, however, that adoption can be a painful and hurtful process for all within the adoption triad: birth mother, adoptee and adoptive parents. I read somewhere that adoption is a process where all involved suffer loss, whether it’s due to infertility or separation trauma. Likewise, it’s important to understand that adopted kids do not develop in the same way biological kids do even if they are raised by the most loving, stable, well intentioned parents. Identity formation is one such area where development is complex. When I was studying to become a social worker, I wrote a research paper on “Racial and Ethnic Identity in Asian-American Adoptees.” There have been numerous studies conducted in the U.S. over the years. Researchers, Huh and Reid, studied 40 school-aged Korean adoptees (Intercountry, transracial adoption and ethnic identity: A Korean example, International Social Work, 2000). Based on their research, they devised a four-stage model related to age as a framework for understanding ethnic identity development. Although I think it’s hard to “fit every child into the same mold,” I thought their research was interesting and informative.  Click on this link to read the entire article: intercultural transracial adoption. Another researcher, Vonk, approached racial and ethnic identity formation in transracial adoptees by exploring and defining the concept of cultural competence as it applies to the role of parenting. She devised a three-part definition of cultural competence for adoptive parents: 1) racial awareness, 2) multicultural family planning, and 3) survival skills (Cultural Competence for transracial adoptive parents, Social Work, 2001). Click here to read the article. I don’t want to bore you with a bunch of research and statistics, but I think it’s evident that raising a transracially adopted child is different from raising a biological one in many ways.

From the perspective of an adoptive parent, Beth, a white adoptive mom of two domestically adopted children, one bi-racial and the other African-American, comments,“You have to look at your family and decide your family is not a Caucasian family…”  She also says:

I think that as the adult, you have to be willing to change. I don’t think it’s the children who have to change, it’s you. When you show the changes in the way you’re dealing with things, your kids will do the same thing that you do.”

I found her point that adoptive parents must adapt and be willing to change for their adopted child profound. After all, adopted kids have not only suffered the trauma of being separated from their birth mothers (which is far too frequently minimized), but cross-culturally adopted kids are also coming from a different  culture, often country, and rarely speak or understand English. It seems logical that just as transracial adoptees must adapt and assimilate into a new culture, so must adoptive parents adapt and adopt their child’s country of origin in a very deliberate and demonstrative way.

John, a bi-racial adoptee, poses this thought for adoptive parents:

“Before they adopt, parents need to think about why they want to adopt a child of another race. How will they answer that question at different stages of the child’s life?…when your kid totally rejects you and goes back to their culture of origin? What is your motivation, which is really significant?”

Perhaps not all tranracially adopted kids/adults will totally reject their adoptive parents and go back to their culture of origin, or at least not forever if it occurs. More to the point– are adoptive parents willing to think long and hard about these questions? Are they prepared to face the reality that their adopted children will struggle with identity and will they be equipped to help them?

Michelle’s sister, who is also an adoptive mom, comments on the role of parenting a transracially adopted child:

“One useful strategy is humility, which is to say, I’m not going to be able to do all of these things myself. Some of these things I’m going to have to provide the child with from other places that they can find coping strategies.”

In my opinion, adoptive parents do not receive enough education, support and counseling pre- and post-adoption. I have a good friend who has a son adopted from Korea and an older daughter adopted from China. She and her husband are both white. We’ve had a few discussions on adoption, and she agrees that after the child is adopted, there are not enough services or follow up provided to help adoptive parents, especially if the adoptee is experiencing difficulties (with anger, bonding and attachment, and grief, etc.). It’s crucial that adoptive parents recognize that their adopted child will have challenges at some point, and that’s ok. What’s important is identifying the problem and getting help through a support network or therapist who specializes in child development, or better yet, works with adoptive families. I believe that every adoptive family should seek out therapy for their adoptive child if possible– even at a young age (6 years+, give or take a few years), especially if the child is showing signs of developmental delay, behavioral and/or emotional issues, distress or grief. There may be financial obstacles, or the chance thought that your child doesn’t need therapy, but I think it’s extremely beneficial for all involved if you can get it.

By writing this post, I’m hoping to inform and not give the impression that I’m telling adoptive parents how to raise their children. On the contrary, as an adult transracial adoptee, I’m sharing my own views from what I’ve experienced and from what I’ve seen some of my friends who are adoptive parents experience. I welcome your thought and comments (as long as they are respectful).

For more information on the film documentary, or to purchase “Struggle for Identity” and “Struggle for Identity: A Conversation 10 Years Later,” follow this link.

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