For adoptees, the question of identity is even harder than for most people. This is because so much of identity is about where one comes from and, for adoptees, much of that is a mystery.
For example, I was born Chinese, but I have been raised by a white mother in a predominantly white community, so does that make me white or Chinese? Perhaps for someone who is not adopted this question does not make sense. But consider that I know almost nothing about Chinese culture outside of books and movies, I have trouble identifying with the characteristics associated with Chinese people.
Gee Roldan, Director of Specials and Specials Integration, has had a somewhat similar experience. She was born to a Japanese mother and Chinese father, a pairing that many traditional families see as taboo. She and her half brother, who is full Japanese, were neglected and found in the house by themselves on multiple occasions. After being left alone for more than 24 hours on one particular occasion, the living conditions were deemed an unsafe environment and the two of them were put up for adoption. They would then stay in foster care for a few months before being adopted when Gee was three-years-old by an interracial couple. She describes them as “being like the John Lennon and Yoko Ono doppelgangers.”
Gee’s adoptive father is of German-American descent and her mother is of Japanese-American descent. Gee would then grow up in Upstate New York in a predominately white town. Unfortunately, four years after the adoption, Gee’s parents got divorced and her father got primary custody of both her and her brother. As Gee puts it, “It ended up being a white male raising two Asian kids in Upstate New York.” So Gee and her brother were raised by a parent who looked nothing like them.
Similarly, Erika Greenberg, who is the Admissions and Administrative Associate, did not look like the parent who raised her. Erika was adopted at three-months-old because her birth mother was very young. It was clear to her from early on that she looked different from her mother whom Erika described as “a white little Jewish woman.” So Erika’s parental figure also looked different than she does.
I was born in China in a town of seven million people called Hefei. Due to the one-child policy in China, I assume I have siblings. Maybe I was the first child and my birth parents wanted a boy because Chinese traditions state that boys inherit property and wealth.
I was adopted at 18 months by a single white mother who had a son 12 years older than me. I look nothing like my mother who has blond hair and blue eyes, while I have black hair with dark brown eyes.
Since transracial adoptees look nothing like their adoptive parents, many assumptions are made when it comes to transracial adoption, which is adoption where the child is a different race than the adoptive parent. Both Gee, Erika, and I have had to deal with assumptions about who we are in relationship to parents or other relatives. Assumptions that we should act a certain way because of how we look, or assumptions for us to know certain things we just may not know.
For example, Gee and her dad were often asked about what their relationship was. Gee remembers that her dad's comeback to questions about their relationship was, “This is my daughter. I’m her dad. You can tell. Look at the nose.” Gee explained that “my dad has a very predominate nose, and I have a little Asian button nose.” So the two of them used humor to wave off questions like that. A more recent story of people assuming what their relationship is happened when Gee and her dad walked into a restaurant in Wyoming and the ladies inside thought they were a couple.
Erika has also faced questions about her parentage growing up. She recalls that through elementary school and high school she would face questions about her mom like, “Why doesn’t she look like you? Who is she? And all of these other questions.” In college, people assumed Erika was married due to her last name being Greenberg. Erika describes this experience accurately when she says, “People [expect] you to be a certain way because you look a certain way.…a lot of people make assumptions. I’ve learned, I guess.…to have, like, a tough skin, where I don’t let it affect me, but after a while, it just wears you down.”
For me, there has yet to be an instance where my mom and I were outright asked what our relationship was. But I have noticed people giving us strange looks as if they were trying to figure out what our relationship was. Sometimes when I am with my mom, I feel the need to say “Mom” louder than the rest of my sentence to clarify our relationship to strangers. I have not faced assumptions about what I should be like yet, but I am sure it will be something I am forced to confront in my near future.
Assumptions about who one is and what one should be like hurt after awhile. While everyone faces the problem of assumptions made about who they are, it is something interracial adoptees have to confront whenever they meet someone new.
Unlike Gee, Erika, and myself, Naomi Selwyn, the IVsN teacher, is not a transracial adoptee. Nevertheless, she has a fascinating story. Born in New Orleans to parents who were not ready to have a family, Naomi was adopted at three-months-old. Her adoptive mother is black and her adoptive father is white.
Adoption has always been a part of Naomi’s family. Both she and her sister are adopted and it has been a huge part of her family growing up. They were sometimes mistaken for twins when they were younger even though Naomi claims, “We look nothing alike at all. We just have the same skin color and the same kind of texture hair.”
Another part of Naomi’s story is that she found her biological mother despite having had a closed adoption. “One part of my story is that it was a closed adoption….which means after she gave birth to me we would never see each other again.” But Naomi got lucky and her mother accidentally signed Naomi’s birth certificate. So Naomi got curious and ended up finding her biological mother on social media.
Like Naomi, Erika has also been able to find her birth family but has had a difficult relationship with them. She believes this has something to do with some of the cultural distance she feels. “They were, like, family is, like, the center, the be-all, and everything, and I’m like, ‘this is a whole new family to me.’ I don’t know how to navigate it, and I’ve had to say no, and I feel like they’ve gotten offended at times. But it’s for my own health that I needed to set boundaries.”
Erika’s biological family expected her to be more dedicated to them, but to her, they were still a new family and she was uncomfortable having to meet their expectations. She started looking for her birth family when she was 19-years-old, then looked again when she was 21 for health reasons because she was pregnant, though Erika would not find her birth mother until she was 30.
On the other end of the spectrum, Gee has never tried to look for her birth parents because, “I have a very loving, but wacky family make up of my own.” It is also the fact that, not only is the search an emotional rollercoaster, but if you do find them, their response can be anything from welcoming to heartbreaking.” She continues, “I’ve yet to find the space….if it goes, really, really south.”
Like Gee, I feel as though I am not ready to look for my birth family, although it is something I want to do at some point in my life. This is mainly because I have no clue about them. In addition, it would be hard to find them because the furthest place back I could go would be the orphanage and who knows how much information they would have.
For adoptees there will always be holes in one's understanding of identity. Adoptions lead to many questions about parentage and identity. For transracial adoptees, they also lead to assumptions. I hope that I was able to do these adoptees stories justice and shine a light on some of the challenges adoptees face.
You can access the podcast file here.