My adoption is an integral part of my identity and informs how I navigate the world in countless ways. I am a Chinese American adoptee, raised in the 1990s and early 2000s in a white, Jewish, upper-middle-class home an hour north of New York City. To the outsider’s eye, the community in which I grew up might seem progressive, liberal, extremely tolerant, or even accepting to all identities. And in many ways, I did grow up extremely sheltered, protected, and cherished by family and community members. That said, there was an abundance of important conversations and inequities regarding race that were minimized or swept under the rug in the name of preserving perceived unity.
I cannot recall a time that I did not know I was adopted. First and foremost, when you are the only Asian member of your family, it’s impossible to hide. Second, my parents made extensive, intentional efforts to normalize my adoption: children’s books we read included adopted characters, many of whom were transracially and transnationally adopted like myself. My dolls looked East Asian, reflecting my straight black hair, almond eyes, and olive skin. My parents enrolled me in all the adoptive family community networks in our local area, never forcing me to attend but always highly encouraging that I participate and get to know others with backstories that reflected my own. Whenever I asked questions—whether I was three years old or eighteen—, my parents never shied away from giving me nuanced answers, as painful or disconcerting as they might be.
All this said, my reality in Westchester, New York was severely different than those of my parents. While my parents did everything in their capacity to shelter me, comfort me, and support me in all my endeavors including exploring my identity, there were still gaps in my upbringing. During college, I wrote a high honors thesis in sociology that explored identity formation in transracially transnationally adopted girls from China raised in white households. Below is a shortlist of some of the most common shortcomings adoptees felt in terms of how their parents discussed adoption, race, and identity that would have allowed them to more confidently navigate various spaces as young adolescents of color in the United States. In writing this, I hope white parents who have adopted children of color will reflect on how they can enrich their children’s lives and gain a more nuanced understanding of what their needs might be during adolescence:
1. Race matters. Talk about it, even if it means bringing up differences within one’s family.
There is a delicate balance between not wanting a child to feel like a minority within their own family. I understand that. Yet that does not mean minimizing racial differences is the answer, either. Many of the adoptees I’ve spoken to, am friends with, or have mentored over the years have mentioned that while their parents acknowledge they are from China, they hesitate to call their children Asian American. Common comments include parents telling their children, “We don’t see you as different. We don’t see race. When we look at you, we only see our beloved child.” This colorblind ideology negates the lived experiences that we adoptees have. It erases the reality that others judge us by our skin tone, which can have detrimental consequences on our access to resources and inclusion—or exclusion—in various communities. So as much as it can be painful to acknowledge that we look different, we need to hear it. We need confirmation that the way we are treated differently from our white family members is not all in our head.
2. Guide us towards role models who resemble us.
It is important that we see characters who look like us so that we can envision a variety of futures for ourselves. No one in our family looks like we do – many adoptive parents don’t have people of color in their immediate social circles, either. So all the role models we have that we personally know are white. Unlike my other Asian American friends whose parents, family members, and neighbors often look like them, adoptees often feel like they are a tiny island in the middle of an ocean of white people. Many adoptees already feel that they’ve lost a sense of connection to their origin culture. It’s important that we have people to look up to who have overcome racial realities that our parents will never face. It’s important that we have people of color to teach us resilience. Make sure that the faces that look like ours are not only fellow adoptees or people in service positions that cater to our family.
3. Give us opportunities to learn about our culture but make sure they are authentic, not curated, and Westernized just for adoptive families.
My parents joined Families with Children from China, and also enrolled me in other Asian cultural experiences. While this gave me an extensive network of other adoptees with whom I could relate, the topics taught were less relevant. Many of the events focused on ancient Chinese art forms, rare musical instruments, or traditional Chinese clothing. However, none of my non-adopted Asian friends knew any of these things. Instead, they learned from their parents how to speak Mandarin; they learned from their parents how to apply makeup that complemented Asian skin tones and features. They learned about contemporary musicians, artists, and actors. The China, and more broadly, Asia, that I was exposed to at these adoptive family-run events were all obsolete. I have worked and traveled in China several times, traversing rural and urban communities, staying with Han Chinese and ethnic minority families. Unless a niche specialty school, not once have I seen children learning what FCC wanted to teach us: a nicely packaged, festive experience rooted in past cultural cues. It’s akin to having white American children only learning about clothing from the colonial period, elite instruments played in the 1700s, etc. Parents, please allow us to explore Asian American settings in the same way you expose us to mainstream, often-white American culture: let us learn about the fashion our peers would wear, the singers and actors that our fellow Asians and Asian Americans follow, the books they read. Don’t make us have to explore these things on our own but make it a normal practice to introduce these cultures to us—and learn alongside us.
4. Hold your social circles accountable but don’t make your child feel tokenized or self-conscious while doing so!
It’s critical that adoptees feel that their complex identities are valued within their communities. If someone makes a remark, do acknowledge it both with your child and the individual. It should not be up to the adoptee to do the emotional labor of calling out racism, xenophobia, or “othering” remarks that target adoptive families. As adoptive parents, we know you get your fair share of ignorance and painful comments. I know my parents have had their privacy invaded countless times. I am forever grateful that they stand up for me and our family unconditionally. And, sometimes, I wish that the methods in which they called out others did not feel like a spotlight was then shone on me. Adoptees are used to constantly feeling like a minority, even within their own families. Sometimes, we want to blend in rather than causing a public scene. Please have conversations with your child about how they want you to handle situations. While it might be cathartic for you to yell or challenge someone loudly who has disrespected your family, is that what your child wants? Or could there be unintended or adverse consequences in which your child just feels further othered, when all they want to do is move on? Make sure that your family is talking about how these situations are handled so that a chasm doesn’t emerge.
5. Listen to your child. Acknowledge what you don’t know.
Many adoptees that I have spoken for fear that raising conversations about their adoption, their identity, or their hardships will make their parents feel attacked or unloved. While I cannot speak to other families’ dynamics, something my parents told me early on has been fundamental for me: they told me that they would support me unconditionally if I get curious about my adoption and want to question it, search for biological family, or even express anger towards it. They told me that I don’t have to feel grateful that I was adopted, and that adoption involves both love and loss. This liberated me and allowed me to talk openly about adoption without fear that exposing the more painful aspects would drive a wedge between myself and my family.
Now, the adoptee community is not a monolith. Not every child may want or need the same things from their parents. All that said, now more than ever, it is important that transracial transnational adoptive families examine the conversations they are – or are not – having around identity, race, ethnicity, and culture.
If you like this article, check out: https://www.harnessmagazine.com/a-letter-to-my-teen-son-who-has-come-out-as-an-atheist/