Superman (Superman) and Luke Skywalker (Star Wars) dedicated their lives to fighting against evil. Leatherface (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and Freddy Kreuger (The Nightmare on Elm Street) dedicated their lives to killing people and wreaking havoc. Surprisingly, all four of these characters have similar backstories: they are all adopted. Many times, films use the adoption origin story to signal a character’s call to greatness or, conversely, to signal a character’s descent into madness. While I would agree adoption can certainly cause trauma many other people do not have to heal from, the vast majority of adopted children struggle with the same problems non-adopted children deal with: peer pressure, schoolwork, fitting in, etc. The idea that adoption turns people into superheroes or supervillains is an interesting film trope but generally does not hold true in the real world, as most adoptees go on to live very regular lives.
A lot of people have the misconception that adopted children are either completely put together or completely broken. Instead of these two polar ideas, here are four adjectives I think better describe many adoptees.
A paradox expresses two seemingly contradictory ideas that are somehow both true. A classic example of this is in Shakespeare’s famous play, Hamlet, when Hamlet states, “I must be cruel to be kind.” (Act III, Scene iv). This statement seems contradictory at first, but there is some truth to it. In this case, Hamlet believes killing his uncle to avenge his father would benefit his father’s legacy as well as his mother. In this way, he must be cruel (murder his uncle) to be kind (save his mother from a power-hungry man trying to steal her crown). The important thing about paradoxes is that the contradictory terms do not cancel each other out. Instead, they coexist in a dualistic way (i.e., avenging Hamlet’s father is both cruel and kind).
When people I meet find out I am adopted, they often see the whole situation as black or white. Some people go straight into pity mode: “Aw, you poor girl,” or “I am so sorry to hear that.” Other people go the complete opposite way: “That is so awesome,” or “You are so lucky!” Many people who are not affected by adoption do not understand adoption is mixed between these two extremes. There are times when I feel extreme sadness or guilt. I cannot fathom how my birth parents could create me and carry me a full nine months just to surrender me in the end. There are also times when I feel extreme pride and appreciation. I realize how lucky I am to be in the United States with a family that can physically and financially support me, something my birth parents were probably unable to do. Weirdly enough, there are times when I feel both of these things at the same time.
Sometimes, it feels as though people want me to choose whether to be completely positive or completely negative about it. However, my whole attitude toward my adoption is somewhat paradoxical. I am happy about the life I am living and appreciative of what I have, but part of me still grieves the loss of my birth parents and questions my identity.
This month is my birthday month! I really like the month of May–the weather is not terrible in Southern California, there are baby animals everywhere, and there is a long weekend at the end of the month. However, my pride for May is completely constructed. The truth is I actually do not know the true date of my birthday. It could be in May, but it could also be in March or August. May is simply the birthday the U.S. government bestowed upon me when I became a citizen here. So, really I am just celebrating a birthday, probably not my actual birthday, because it is the closest thing to the truth that I have.
When I was 17, I took not one but two DNA tests–one from Ancestry and one from 23andMe. As high school was coming to a close and my friends and I started applying to universities, my friends would always tell me their DNA composition while marking the “Race” section of the application with ease. Meanwhile, I would just stare at the section with pure confusion, looking for the box that said, “I don’t know.”
Two of the most common questions I have gotten all my life are: “Would you ever like to return to your birthplace?” or “Have you ever tried contacting your birth parents?” Personally, I would love to visit my birthplace eventually, and it would be naive for me to say I have no desire to know the identities of my birth parents.
Everyone has an origin story. For example, Peter Quill from Guardians of the Galaxy never met his father and grew up with his mother until she died of brain cancer when he was eight. Quill’s mother gifted him a cassette player, which he is seen listening to throughout the entire film. The film depicts Quill as attached to his family, even though his mother is no longer with him and he does not know the identity of his father. Quill becomes a prominent crime-fighter and guardian of the galaxy. However, Peter Quill eventually meets his father, Ego, a non-human “celestial,” and they bond throughout the sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2. Even though Peter Quill is one of the strongest, most powerful characters in the show, he demonstrates he still has that deep desire to know his father throughout the series.
I have found that adoptees who have the ability generally want to know their birth parents and the reason they were placed for adoption, even if the information they discover is devastating. I like to think the best–that my birth parents were not wealthy enough to afford me. Furthermore, I was born during the years China enforced the One-Child Policy, a law allowing only one child per family, which helps ease the reality that I will never know why I was placed for adoption. However, there will always be a part of me that longs for the truth.
I cannot speak for all adoptees, but I personally have a strong desire to learn. I am one of those people who has always enjoyed school. Something about learning scientific methods and grammar rules gave me some semblance of control. Since I could not change the fact that I would never know the identity of my parents, learning practical things like the bones in the body or the different uses of a comma almost made up for the lack of knowledge I had about my origins. In a way, it seemed like learning as much as I could about the world around me satisfied a portion of the part of me that hungered for answers.
Since I was young, I have been an independent person. My parents never really made me do chores, and I did not learn how to cook or do laundry until I moved out for college; however, this is not the kind of independence I am talking about. Ever since I was a kid, I did things on my own–I would pick out my own clothes, do my homework without having to be nagged or helped, and for a while, I walked home from high school even though I lived a few miles away. Additionally, I have always been fairly good at self-soothing. When I was a baby, I apparently used to massage my eyebrows to fall asleep, which I found out years later are actually facial pressure points used to ease tension (I still do that to calm down sometimes). My parents say I have been utilizing that calming technique since they adopted me when I was ten months old. It makes sense though, as I lived in an orphanage, and there were likely not enough people to take care of the hundreds of babies in their care, so I learned to take care of myself. The lack of care from others resulted in an instinctual need to rely on myself, making me a fiercely independent adult. In all honesty, I think my independence is a safety net for me: If I rely on myself, I do not have to rely on other people, which means I have a lesser chance of being hurt.
Many adoptees are fairly independent, both in a physical sense and in an emotional sense. While not all adoptees experience adoption-related trauma, many adoptees do face trauma stemming from being separated from their birth parents, usually at an early age. According to the pamphlet “Parenting a Child who has Experienced Trauma,” published by the Child Welfare Information Gateway and U.S. Children’s Bureau, “Some traumatized children act in ways that keep adults at a distance (whether they mean to or not).” I have found this to be especially true if the adoptee was adopted at an older age or spent time in the foster care system.
Fierce independence many times acts as a coping mechanism. Learning to trust is hard. I think there will always be a part of me that is independent and self-sufficient. However, having people in my life who have been there physically and emotionally when I needed them without judging me or forcing me to speak really helped give me a healthy amount of dependence on family and friends for support.
Resilience means “the ability to recover quickly from difficulties.” When I think of resilience, I often think of Kelly Clarkson’s “What Doesn’t Kill You (Makes You Stronger).” She sings: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, stand a little taller,” which is a good reminder that we can survive through and even grow from seemingly bad situations.
One of my favorite television character adoptees is Callie Jacobs from Freeform’s The Fosters. The writers did an amazing job portraying her as a strong, independent young woman who struggles to heal from her trauma while navigating high school. At times, she makes some very poor decisions, but she also matures throughout the series. She eventually uses her extreme anger and disappointment in the foster care system to make real change, such as raising awareness for abused children in the system and sharing her story as a message of hope. I think Callie is the pinnacle of resilience. She survives so many terrible, traumatic experiences, but she faces many of her challenges head-on and learns to own up to mistakes she made in the past. While I have personally not gone through nearly as much as Callie has, I have adapted well to many of the crazy events in my life. I do take disappointments and personal failures hard, but I also bounce back with more determination than before.
Most of us had to be resilient this past year. With the coronavirus pandemic, many jobs and schools quickly moved to an online format in order to enforce stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines. I not only graduated from college this past June (virtually) but also just completed my first year of law school completely online. I am not saying this to gloat–it was hard, and there were a lot of moments during the year where I just wanted to drop out. But I, like many others, kept going.
I think a key ingredient of resilience is hope. Without the hope that I will eventually be helping children in foster care through the legal system, I would not have had any drive to succeed in online law school. For many adoptees, especially those adopted at an older age or those who have been in the foster care system, there has to be some hope that things will improve. Losing birth parents at such a young age is hard, and we could choose to wallow in that sadness forever, but that is not a beneficial, productive, or joyful way to live. We all have some degree of resilience in that many adoptees were able to adapt to new situations and thrive with new families. Hope for the future is something I have noticed many adoptees have; as many of us understand, we could not dictate our past, but we are responsible for dictating our future.
In conclusion, the media may portray adoptees as either really great or really evil, but we are much more complex, just like everyone else. Adoptees are not defined by their origin story or lack thereof. We are so much more than that.