An International Adoptee’s Identity

“Alright, class. Now we are going to take everything we just learned about family dynamics and apply it to our next assignment: genograms. I want you all to be as creative as possible. You can use whatever materials are around the room and the pictures you brought from home. Have fun, I’ll be at my desk if you need anything,” our FCS (Family Consumer Science) teacher said cheerfully. 

The room came alive with the general rustling of kids scrambling to grab the art supplies they had had their eyes on since she started talking. Nearly dry markers, old glue sticks you could barely open, and chipped colored pencils soon littered the tables, along with everyone’s copies of family photographs. Personally, I wanted a simpler design, so I made a beeline for the highlighters and fine-tip Sharpies. 

Once I had my things, it was time to work. Most of the other students were chatting with each other, either commenting on their genogram projects or simply looking for small talk. I tuned them out to focus on my own project. 

Color-coded boxes… highlighted script… pictures glued on and done! 

I stood to take the poster up to the teacher’s desk when I felt someone’s gaze on my back. I turned to see one of my classmates (who I was not as familiar with) staring at the pictures of my family and me. Her mouth moves, and I feel as though I can hear the question before it even leaves her lips. “So, who’s your real family?” 

Freeze.

Welcome to the recurring topic of discussion that has served as a source of confusion and my identity for the first 17 years of my life. 

I was adopted as an infant. As an international adoptee who looked nothing like her family, these sorts of questions became a norm for me. Who is your real family? Is that your real mom? Do you know your real parents? Doesn’t it make you sad that you don’t know them? Did your adoptive mom save you? Why did your real parents give you up? What are you? Where are you from? Can you speak [insert language they think I speak]? How much did you cost? 

Yes, all of those are questions I have been asked (often multiple times) over the years. Whether by strangers, peers, friends, or even my grandmother’s friends, they were everywhere. Now, as I have grown up and learned how to tackle these inquisitions, they no longer bother me to any lengthy extent. If anything, I have become more willing to share my experience in order to politely correct and inform people about the adoption community. However, as you can imagine, being constantly bombarded with questions like these can be tough to deal with as a kid (and believe me, the odd looks and stares we got in public were absolutely no help at all). Not only do you get annoyed with the number of times you need to address the issue, but sometimes you doubt your own answers to the questions. They can all snowball into one, gigantic question of identity. 

When it comes to identity, most of the sources I have seen tend to regard it as a linear issue. Adoptees are initially nonchalant about their past, then they explore it, then they embrace it. However, I have personally found that not only can it be non-linear, it can also go backward. I started off intrigued by the fact that I was adopted. My mom surrounded me with books and media that reflected adoption and Chinese heritage, which made me want to learn more about this aspect of myself. We went to adoption group picnics and Chinese New Year celebrations and Chinatown. Half of my friends at the time were other international adoptees. When we went to China a second time to adopt my sister (no, we are not biologically related) I was scared, but also excited because it meant I got to see the country where I was from. Anytime I was asked, I enthusiastically would tell people about how I was adopted from China and that made me unique. To put it simply, I was fascinated with my own backstory. 

Unfortunately, middle school hit that fascination with a truck. The books and media were either “for little kids” or “for boring adults”, so they no longer fascinated me as much. We fell behind on our adoption get-togethers and New Year parties and Chinatown visits, eventually stopping almost completely. I made new friends who were all unfamiliar with adoption and China (do not get me wrong, I love them, but there was a noticeable difference in this aspect of our relationships). My sister showed less interest in China and more interest in “Lalaloopsy” dolls. The worst, though, was the difference in the responses, which came from both my end and other people’s. In elementary school, when I told my peers about myself, it was usually met with either positive notes (Oh, that’s pretty cool) or indifference (Oh, okay. Want to go down the slide?). In middle school, everyone started getting curious. The thing with curious middle schoolers is that they are the most confusing combination of, “our minds are able to comprehend more complex ideas” and, “we are all insecure so we should be mean about it” ever.  Telling people about myself now resulted in the difficult, rather insensitive questions I mentioned before and what felt like a lifetime of attention in all the wrong ways. This then led to me questioning myself. Add that to a person who was already naturally shy and afraid of confrontation, and you have yourself a recipe for identity insecurity. 

Thus began the period of my life that I like to imagine as a rapidly swaying seesaw. I wanted people to know me. I wanted to hide from others. I wanted to know more about my birth parents. I wanted to pretend that I was never adopted at all. The topic was sensitive, and I would not bring it up unless I had to. The topic was hilarious, and I kept making jokes about it. I was happy when people asked questions about it. I got angry at people who asked questions about it. Did I want to find my birth parents? What kind of people were they? Did I really belong here? How much of me was from my birth family vs my adopted family? Who was I, if I didn’t know my “real” family? As with most everything in life, this time had its ups and downs. I am fairly certain I confused more than a few classmates with my inability to choose a side. Sorry, guys. If it makes you feel better, I was just as confused as you. These swings in my views kept circling in my head for the next few years, though outside my head I appeared to have become indifferent to it all. I simply stopped bringing it up and would dodge any conversation about it, until people around me either took the hint or got used to it. That became how I dealt with it for a while. I would wrestle with those questions—particularly the last few I mentioned—on the inside while appearing to everyone else as unwilling to talk about it. 

Now, in terms of identity, high school was only slightly less confusing than middle school. Teenage fear and emotional turmoil are nothing to scoff at. However, as the other aspects of my personality began to rearrange themselves, this one part of my identity finally seemed to be falling into place. My circles of friends had changed since the earlier years, and these new groups began to teach me about something that was integral to, well, myself: the meaning and importance of found family. 

I am not sure how it started, exactly. All I know is that at some point somebody in our friend group had started calling somebody else “Mom” as a joke. Then, our “Mom friend” started calling that person her “daughter”. From there it slowly evolved into multiple moms, daughters, sisters, grandmas, aunts, and even one weird uncle (or brother, depending on who you ask). It was all just a game, yet at the same time, it was more than that. It was our way of expressing love to each other. We all came from different kinds of lives, we all had our own backstories—and unfortunately, many of them were less than ideal, to put it mildly—but we found each other and became our own kind of family. It reminded me a lot of that famous quote from Disney’s Lilo & Stitch: “This is my family. I found it, all on my own. It is little, and broken, but still good.” 

I started realizing how broad the definition of the word “family” really was. For the record, it covers much more than just, “the people you were born to” or, “the people you live with”. You know that old debate over nature vs nurture, the one that seems to come up in almost every adoption story ever? I certainly struggled with it for a while. But after this realization, I believe I found the answer. Or, at the very least, my answer. It is not one or the other, it is both. We have to acknowledge both in order to understand ourselves. Yes, I would always look like my birth parents. I will always have their genes and their unknown medical histories (I will answer your next question right now, no this has not caused any health issues). However, I also see so much of my other families in me. I saw my mom’s influence in our similar thought processes and the way we spoke. I saw my school friends in the ways that I began to act and the things I began to love.

Eventually, I came to recognize my youth group as another trusted family, and I saw them in my yearning to be kind. My identity became less about the question, “How much of me was from my birth family vs my adopted family?” and more about “How much of me came from everyone I cared about?” I had put so much stock into the fact that I was adopted, that I thought it was all that mattered. Slowly, all the anxiety from those hard-to-answer questions melted away. I became more self-assured (at least, in being an adoptee) and was able to answer other people’s questions again. It felt good, really, to recognize that being adopted was only a part of myself—and that I shouldn’t forget about the rest. 

This revelation did not mean that I completely let go of that part, though. Now that I am in college and a little more confident in my adoptee identity, I have more opportunities to revisit Asian culture and the adoption community with even more appreciation than I had as a child. Taking classes, doing research, even my current job as a writer here—I am trying my best to learn more about the world I came from.  I am able to more fully participate in wondering and rediscovering it in a way that both keeps my newfound confidence and leaves room for more growth. Instead of a line, my adoption story seems to have gone in a circle. I went from curiosity, to exploration, to denial, to acceptance, and then finally back to curiosity. 

I suppose it’s time I move on to another identity crisis to explore, huh? 

Unfreeze. 

“Well?” the girl says, waiting for my answer. “Do you even know who your real family is?” 

 I pause for just a second, then look back at my desk. Even though I could not use them for my genogram, I had brought pictures of my friends along with the ones of my adopted family. Photos from sleepovers, concerts, and youth group retreats were scattered over my binder, in a collage that I could confidently say I was proud of. I smile, and gesture to them while holding up my genogram. 

“This is my real family.”

Considering adoption? Let us help you on your journey to creating your forever family. Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98.