I am a transracial adoptee, born in Taipei, Taiwan, adopted at the age of four months, raised in Bossier City, Louisiana, by a White military family. The region I grew up in is known as the Ark-La-Tex where the Southern states of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas abut and join together. Shreveport, a major city, sits adjacent to Bossier, and the city where I attended college. As you can imagine, there was little diversity in these communities. In fact, the college I attended had no faculty of color. I was the only Asian student, and the only other people of color were janitors and cafeteria workers. I have no idea if much has changed since then. I wanted to go to college out-of-state, but when it came down to it, my grades weren’t good enough, and I got a music scholarship at Centenary, so I ended up staying in Louisiana.
It was not easy growing up in Louisiana. By the time my parents adopted me, I had already spent the majority of my life in an orphanage. As we now know from research, separation from birth mother causes a significant trauma. Many are under the false assumption that adopting an infant removes risks associated with a child’s birth family and/or potential maladaptive behaviors. This is not true and is the kind of wound that exists invisibly, yet needs healing, nonetheless. Because I did not develop a secure attachment to my adoptive parents while growing up, and in particular, to my adoptive mom, the wound never healed. It was never addressed and caused problems later on, like intense separation anxiety, panic when being left at daycare or elementary school, nightmares, stomach problems, fear, grief and loss that caused such pain, it felt as though the whole world was crashing down around me. But, when you’re an infant or a young child, you have no language to express such pain. Instead, my adoptive mother disciplined me for “acting out,” usually via a spanking, anger, yelling, impatience.
In elementary school, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Kids pick on what’s different. I was teased by peers because I was Asian – you know, the typical gestures, like pulling up the corners of the eyes, “Chink,” and generally being “othered.” I believe that there were teachers who also discriminated against me. So, the wound just festered, and I internalized the hurts. No one ever talked about race or culture, no one asked what it felt like to be adopted, no one saw the hurts. Yet, I was constantly told how lucky I was. And, I believed it. In those early childhood years, I learned that authority figures were scary, mistrustful, and downright mean at times. They were also to be obeyed. Guess what? I became a super compliant kid…and grew up to be a super compliant adult…The truth is, the adults in my life were ignorant…my parents, teachers, coaches. They did not know how to support a transracially adopted kid. And, adoption workers at the time were ignorant of the impact of adoption on the development of a child emotionally and developmentally.
During adolescence, I tried to take back what was never mine…control. I rebelled. I did stuff that pissed my parents off, especially my adoptive mom. She tightened the “control” while my dad passively stood by. I raised hell, which in some ways wasn’t too different from other typical teens. Yet for adoptees, child/teen development is much more complex. The root of my rebellion came from rejection, shame, and loss. Our home was always tense. Beneath the rebellious behavior, though, I was fearful. I was afraid of my mom and generally all adults, and I was afraid of rejection. I was too afraid to speak up. Multiple losses, trauma, and development of identity, if not supported by an attuned, educated adoptive parent, can be a landmine.
Patterns that develop in childhood due to trauma don’t just go away. Trauma stays in the body, trapped, until it is acknowledged, processed, and healed. I generally present to others as calm, patient, kind, soft-spoken. I’ve heard it time and time again from others. Yet, this is very often not what’s going on internally. I suffer from social and generalized anxiety. I tend to be hypervigilant. I get chest pains with increased anxiety, yet very often play it off. I have difficulty speaking the truth, especially with people I consider unsafe, usually people in authority or “over me.” In other words, I monitor what I say to unsafe people, or minimize the truth. Call it people pleasing. It has caused damage in every sphere of my life. Not speaking the truth, not standing up for oneself, is emotionally draining. It takes a toll and very often causes increased damage. When you speak the truth, not everyone is going to like you. Not everyone is going to want to hear what you say, nor agree with it. Not everyone will accept you. Rejection…
Over recent years, adoptees have bravely raised their voices, individually and collectively, to speak the truth and to “flip the script,” at the risk of rejection. The predominant voices in adoption narrative and policy continue to be adoption professionals and adoptive parents. I look forward to the day this changes and the script is flipped. I work for a foster and adoption agency (I could write an entirely different post on this), something I never imagined I’d ever do because I’m an adoptee. Everyday, I see adoption “authorities” make decisions for kids in care. Rarely do the kids get asked what they want, and if they do, usually the “authorities” still make final decisions (granted there are many workers who genuinely care about what’s in the child’s best interest). I train foster/adoptive parents who come into the process ignorant of how trauma impacts the child in foster care or the adopted child…Ignorant to their own biases and how those biases will impact the identity development of a transracially adopted child…Ignorant to their own trauma. It’s astounding that such ignorance around the impact of adoption on children continues to exist. Furthermore, when adoptees grow up, many still can’t get access to their own original birth certificates, depending on the state. It seems like a no brainer that this is a piece of an adoptee’s identity and history, something rightfully theirs. Likewise, thousands of U.S. adult intercountry adoptees don’t have U.S. citizenship due to a defect in current legislation. Some have been deported back to their country of origin without supports and without speaking the language. This is a tragedy that can be fixed, yet remains unresolved.
Adoptees are the authority on adoption in terms of what it’s like to be adopted. Some may not want to hear what we have to say, especially if it is delivered from a place of hurt and anger. As I tell foster/adoptive parents in trainings, look beneath the “behavior” and find the unmet need. Behind angry words, there is an unmet need. Anyone who has suffered a traumatic experience needs healing. Being witness to another’s story can begin the process. In my experience, adoption healing occurs across the different life stages because adoption is a life-long developmental process. The truth is, our experiences matter. Our expertise matters. We must keep speaking the truth so that change and healing occur, not only for ourselves, but for others. It is not easy for me to speak the truth, but I am learning and trust that I’ll get there. Another way to speak the truth is through art. It’s a nonverbal way to communicate and express. I have always loved drawing, but have never made it a real hobby or taken art classes. Three years ago, it became a more serious endeavor, and I started making art journals. The piece above, “Truth,” is a sketch I drew and painted using mostly acrylics. Like speaking the truth, my artistic skills are growing and evolving. It’s a place, however, where I can be completely truthful.