Fitting In vs Belonging

The image could be the mantra for many adoptees. A lifetime of trying to fit in, be accepted and feel worthy is exhausting and traumatic. We don’t always even know the toll it takes on us emotionally, but it manifests in so many different ways in our lives.

Now that I actually know I am 25% Danish (my adoptee dad’s original father was a Danish immigrant) this story captured my heart. An adoptee writes about her struggle fitting in.

I’m an Asian European. My mother is Danish and my father is an American. I’ve grown up in both places but have moved home to Denmark and am staying here because I feel this is my true home.

Both my Danish and my American family are white, all my friends here in Denmark are white and I’ve almost lost contact to all of my Asian friends in the US because they mistakenly think that I want to be white, my husband is white (I chose him because of who he is and not what he is), and my two sons are often mistaken for being white. So whether I like it or not – and I actually don’t – I’ve developed a white identity.

When I look in the mirror I’m actually surprised to see an Asian woman and I honestly don’t know how to feel about the woman I see. I actually expect to see a white woman with rosy skin, blond hair and blue eyes. Not because that’s what I want to look like at all but because here in Denmark most women have blond hair and blue eyes.

My Asian friends in the US were South Asians, so I never really had any…what should we say ? Mongoloid Asians as mirrors to compare myself to and therefore, I have no idea whether I’m ugly, average, or beautiful. It’s a very strange feeling.

I have to admit that my family’s feeling about Asians and non-whites haven’t helped me to become a proud Asian either. They’ve always made it clear that it was probably a mistake to adopt me. I was never allowed to call my parents mom and dad but was told to call them by their first names. The family has said things like “you’re not really like them (other Asians), so you don’t have to mix with them”. They went hysterical whenever I was with non-white friends or boyfriends and they nearly threw me out in the cold, when I tried to discover the Asian in me.

I was actually disappointed when I fell in love with my husband. I thought, now they’re going to have their way. Oh, aren’t they just going to be thrilled that I’m marrying a white man and to make it all worse for me (better for them) he has blond hair and blue eyes like most Danes.

It doesn’t help the situation that my husband has said that he always imagined that his wife and children would be fair and have blond hair. I get so hurt when people say “your sons could be mistaken for white, you can’t even tell that they’re half Asian”. Said in a tone expressing ? relief or pride ?

I know it’s a lengthy message but I hope that after having read it the reader understands why I’m not exactly a proud Asian and that it’s easier for me to try to blend into the white community and culture that I live in because this is the only place I feel at home. I am Danish; I’m Danish-Asian.

~ posted on Reddit

One comment touched my heart – it is the last one on that linked page but wow, two adoptees who married, that is like my own parents.

To the Danish adoptee, I am so sorry you were adopted into such a racist, white superiority, piece of crap for a family. OOH IT makes my blood boil when I hear stories like yours. How dare your family to even get a chance to adopt a person who is of color. There is definitely a glitch in the adoption service when it comes to screening the proper families to adopt internationally. When I hear stories like yours it makes me sad, angry and I can’t help thinking that there has to be way to solve these problems. I can only begin to understand how much pain you have gone through and trying your whole life to make sense of what it is that you have gone through. Let me tell you, you aren’t alone in this world. I am married to a Korean adoptee and he didn’t have the best adoptive parents either. I am also a Korean adoptee and being married to an adoptee, it is extremely complicated and trying at times. Our adoption and how we were both raised comes out in our marriage a lot.

Believing in Colorblindness is a Privilege

Colin Kaepernick with his parents, Teresa Kaepernick, Rick Kaepernick and girlfriend, Nessa Diab

Read the link to Colin’s story at the end of this blog to understand more completely why his photo is here.

Articles that mention adoption always catch my attention. Today, I saw one in the Huffington Post – Like Colin Kaepernick, I Wish My Adoptive Family Had Talked About Race by Melissa Guida-Richards. She was adopted from Colombia in 1993 and her adoptive parents were one of many that believed in the colorblind ideology. Her adoptive parents believed that giving a child a loving home was all that was necessary. 

For most of her life, the family didn’t talk about her race and ethnicity. Actually, she was not aware of her true racial identity until she was 19 and found her adoption paperwork. Her parents had believed that if they raised her as Latina, she would be treated differently than the rest of the family. However, people often questioned her about where she was from ― particularly when her adoptive family wasn’t around. When she was out in public with her white parents, she found that she was included under their umbrella of privilege. But the moment she was out on her own, people treated her differently.

Many BIPOC adoptees eventually learn that the world is divided into how they are perceived with their adoptive families versus when they are alone. And this is especially true in today’s climate where an Asian adoptee shopping for groceries can be attacked, a Black adoptee pulled over by police is potentially in danger, or a Latina adoptee walking in their town is told to go back to their own country. Adoptive families can think that it will never happen to their child, but for most transracial adoptees, it does. It’s just part of the reality of being a person of color.

Transracial adoptees do not have the privilege of believing in colorblindness. It can be fatal for a Black adoptee to “forget” that they are Black. If that adoptee approaches a police officer the same way their white parents do, they could find themselves in danger. When adoptive parents do not properly prepare their transracial adoptee for a racialized world, they are left playing a game of catch-up that they hopefully can win before it costs them their very life.

Current policies disallow considering race when placing children in adoptive homes. This is due to laws like the Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA), which prevents child welfare agencies that receive federal funding from denying or delaying a child’s placement based on race. MEPA was amended in 1996 to establish that states could be fined for using race in placement decisions. While MEPA also requires agencies to “diligently recruit families that reflect the racial diversity of the children in need of homes,” it does not fine states that fail to do so.

Currently over 70% of adoptive parents are white and over half of adopted children are of a different race than their adoptive parents. One key issue with MEPA was that, while it made it significantly easier for white middle-class adoptive parents to adopt children of other races, it neglected to require anti-racism and transracial adoption education before or after placement.

The adoption industry perpetuates the idea that adoption ends in a beautiful happily ever after. When we think of adoption as an ending, we forget that it has a lasting, constant impact throughout the adopted person’s life, not just their childhood. Race should not be an afterthought in adoption. Adoptees are often pressured to be grateful and simply be happy that they have a family, to forget all of the challenges and trauma they experience.

When you are a person of color, you know how the world sees and treats you, and when your family refuses to be open to simple conversations about ethnicity and race, you start to wonder what’s so negative about acknowledging your identity. It impacts how you see yourself and how you believe your family sees you.

The author found that her adoptive family avoiding conversations of racial differences led to her having feelings of rejection and shame. She struggled to understand how her parents and relatives could love all of her, when they refused to acknowledge a big piece of her identity. Adoptive parents need to get comfortable having uncomfortable conversations about race. Race may be a construct but its ramifications are very real.

At the beginning of her essay, the author also mentions Kaepernick’s interview in Ebony magazine. Worth the quick read.

All You Can Ever Know

Nicole Chung

With Asians on my mind this morning, I stumbled on this book when an essay in Time magazine titled “My adoption didn’t make me less Korean” got my attention. I can not locate a digital link for this (I will share some excerpts – her own words about being Asian at this fraught time – later in this blog). In my all things adoption group, there have been a number of Korean adoptees. The international adoption of Korean children by Americans was the result of a large number of orphaned mixed children from the Korean War after 1953. That is not Nicole’s story.

In looking for her book, I found a New Yorker review by Katy Waldman – Nicole Chung’s Adoption Memoir, “All You Can Ever Know,” Is an Ode to Sisterly Love. Like many adoptees, her parents believed she was a gift from God. Like many transracial adoptees, growing up among white, Catholic Oregonians in the eighties and nineties, students teased her for being adopted and for looking “different.” 

Her adoptive mother couldn’t tell her much about her original parents. They “had just moved here from Korea” and “thought they wouldn’t be able to give you the life you deserved.” This brief story, one of love and sadness and altruism, “may be all you can ever know,” her mother told her.

After a protracted and unglamorous process of filing paperwork and wrangling lawyers, she finally uncovered the reality of her original genetic family, the Chungs. She discovered an older sister, Cindy. Sadly, her sister had been physically abused by their natural mother. She learned that her parents are divorced and not speaking to one another. Her birth father had told Cindy that Nicole had died. 

Nicole explains why having a baby mattered to her so much, “I wouldn’t be alone anymore. There would be someone who was connected to me in a way no one else had ever been.” For her memoir, Chung wanted to explore “the quiet drama of the everyday adopted experience.” 

Remembering the fiction she scribbled down as a kid, Chung writes that she “found a measure of previously unknown power” in envisioning “places where someone like me could be happy, accepted, normal.” 

From Chung’s Time essay – What her adoptive parents struggled with was to fully and consistently see and understand her as a Korean American woman. She doesn’t blame them for this, she notes – “Acknowledging it flew in the face of everything ‘experts’ had told them when they adopted me in the early 1980s – the adoption agency, the social worker, the judge had all maintained that it wouldn’t, shouldn’t matter.” She shares the things they would say to be color-blind with her.

She also notes – “Often, people who’ve read my memoir will note my white family’s ‘color-blind’ approach and ask whether this led to me thinking of myself as white. My answer is always swift, unequivocal: no, I never thought I was white.” However, she goes on to say her adoptive parents did “assume that I’d be protected from racism because the world would see me as they did – their child, no more, no less – and as my race was irrelevant to them, they could not imagine anyone else caring about it either.”

She says, “While my adoptive family saw me as almost raceless and therefore safe from racists, I lived every day from the age of 7, when I heard my first slur from a classmate, understanding that my Korean face made me hypervisible where we lived – and that it could also make me a target.”

This startled me. I cannot imagine children that age knowing racial slurs. Then, I remember reading once that children learn racism in the family. I thought about WWII, the Korean War and more recently the Vietnam War. I could believe that some returning veterans, having done battle with Asians, might have brought bias home with them.

Chung describes how from the start of the pandemic and racial scapegoating, she has thought of other Asian American kids growing up in white families and white spaces, even as she knows their experiences are not interchangeable. She says, “I know it can feel like a unique burden when you witness or experience racism in a kind of isolation, unable to retreat and process your rage or sorrow with people who also know what it’s like to live in an Asian body.”

She speaks of the experiences of transracial adoptees – “asking, sometimes begging our adoptive relatives to acknowledge our experiences; to stand with us; to challenge the racism endemic in our society as well as our own families and communities.”

Her adoptive parents have died. She says, “I’ve had to accept that there are questions I’ll never get answers to, things we’ll never be able to settle. That my parents didn’t entirely understand or accept my racial reality will always be with me, part of my adoption story.”

In her final thoughts she says, “I know the last thing either of my parents would have wanted was for me to despair, or live my life in fear. And so, for their sake and my own, I won’t.”

Racially Determined Adoptions

I spent most of last summer educating myself about racial inequality and reform issues. Now I see this advertisement. First of all, $13,000 tax credit for adopters??? Think if poor mothers got $13,000 to keep and raise their own babies. The newborn adoption industry would totally collapse.  In Canada, they pay single parents so that they are not burdened with having to find a job and child care. There are no losers in that scenario. This program lasts until the child is 18. The amount per month decreases as the child gets older.

Note that African American babies are less valuable at Everlasting Adoptions. One could ask – Doesn’t this somehow directly violate anti-discrimination laws? Besides the smell of human trafficking in this brochure. No one regulates this business. It’s truly the wild west at this time in human history as regards adoption. This one isn’t even an adoption agency, its like a “travel agent” for people who want to pay someone to find a birth mom for them. If found, the parties then go to an adoption agency to draw up the paperwork but on Everlasting Adoptions website, they proudly take credit for successfully completed matches.

NPR did a story back in 2013 titled Six Words: ‘Black Babies Cost Less To Adopt’. The title for this one came from a Louisiana woman. Other contributors have also addressed the skin-color based fee structure for many adoptions, NPR noted – The intersection of race and adoption has prompted many people to submit their six words to The Race Card Project. Americans adopt thousands of children each year. And as the nation has become increasingly diverse, and with the growth of international adoption in recent decades, many of those children don’t look like their adoptive parents.

One adoptive parent, remembers a phone call with an adoption agency social worker. “And [she] was telling us about these different fee structures that they had based on the ethnic background of the child. And … they also had, sort of a different track for adoptive parents.” Moving through the process would be quicker, if the family was open to adopting an African-American (not biracial) child, the social worker explained to her. “And that is because they have children of color waiting,” but adopting biracial, Latino, Asian or Caucasian children could be a slower process because there were more parents waiting for them. “And I remember hearing this and just sort of being dumbfounded that they would sort of segregate — to use a loaded term — segregate these children by ethnic background before they were even in this world,”

It is a profit-motivated, supply and demand business. Thankfully, NPR also found that some states and agencies are using a different formula to make adoption more affordable for families, with a sliding scale based on income rather than skin color. In that system, lower-income families pay less to adopt. Some agencies are also moving toward a uniform cost system where all adoptive parents would pay the same fees. (Though I am still not in favor of adoption in most cases.) Still, back in 2013, the cost to adopt the Caucasian child was approximately $35,000, plus some legal expenses. I see upward of $40,000 in Go Fund Me efforts set up by hopeful adoptive parents today in 2021.

Appearances Matter

A woman has guardianship of 6 year old twin girls.  Their mother is incarcerated but they have some contact.  The father is dead.  Recently, one of the girls said –  “I don’t look like you (taking about her hair). I want my hair to look like yours, and my eyes are different than yours.”  All are Caucasian.  The little girl is fair with blue eyes.  The Guardian has olive skin and dark hair.  She wanted to know the best ways to address this concern.

One adoptee that responded was harsh but truthful.  “None of what you said was validating. You even called your phrases platitudes! All you did was list the reasons she’s not allowed to feel as she does. Regardless of what emotion they express regarding their losses, your response should be, ‘You’re right’.”

“I would have wanted to hear that I had every right to be sad that I don’t look like my caregiver. Then I would have wanted my caregiver to grieve with me.  Many of us adoptees began processing our grief and are STILL processing our grief in our 40s 50s 60s and beyond. What a difference it would have made if the adults in our lives could have put words to that grief, acknowledged our losses, and helped us process those feelings in a healthy way.”

Another said – Here’s the thing: Kids are smart. They know when you’re offering them platitudes, when you’re repeating the things you’re “supposed” to say. Worst of all, they know when those things you’re “supposed” to say don’t resonate with them because you received them from other people who are like you.

Tell them the truth: We look like the people whose genetic material we inherited. Therefore, we look like our biological (and not our adoptive) families. One day, when they have children (if they have children), their children will look like them because that’s how nature designed people to work.

Like all organic things, we take our appearance and our genetic composition from the people who formed us organically. Adoption is not organic, and therefore these children will not look like the people caring for them.  Because love doesn’t make you a parent. Genetics do.

My image of the book cover came from an adoptive mother’s suggestion, though she added – It didn’t seem to impress my daughter, but some kids might like it. We talked about it a lot. She really wanted us to look alike. She is Asian, I am Caucasian with blond hair, so we are very different. We had some matching outfits that she loved, but finally she straight up asked if we could have the same color hair, so I had it dyed a dark brown for quite a while. That seemed to do the trick for her. I’m not sure if she grew out of it or if it met her needs, but she’s a teen now and it doesn’t come up anymore. She’s fairly open about her needs and concerns, so if it was still a thing for her, I think she would tell me.

Many adoptive parents are quick to brush their own discomfort aside and attempt to distract the adoptee from it. Adoptive parents, please develop the courage to face the depth of loss adoptees experience and sit with them in it awhile. Doing so will bring healing and healthy relationships so much sooner.