We all sat on the carpeted floor of the kindergarten classroom in a circle, legs folded criss-cross-applesauce. Our teacher, Mrs. V, started by asking a girl with curly blond hair where she was from. She proudly smiled and said “Mannheim. My house is really close by! I walk here every day.” From there we went around the circle, each of us stating where we were from. But as my turn got closer and closer, I found my heart beating rapidly. I felt an odd mixture of excitement and anxiety in those moments, waiting for my turn to signal myself out as a weirdo. Sure, I loved being adopted. Mom had always taught me that I was unique and that my adoption was something to be proud of. Yet somehow in the room of 20 or so students, I got a distinct feeling that it . . . wasn’t.
My turn finally came and I answered the question honestly (because what else could I do?). “I’m from China. My mom adopted me.”
I saw all the kid’s faces scrunch up. The teacher moved forward with the circle of questions before anyone could ask the inevitable questions, but I knew they were there. During lunch, a few approached me with the usual, “What’s adoption?” and “Who are your real parents?” questions. But none of them took much time to talk about it. Instead, they whispered about how weird it was while glancing at me from across the room.
I sat at the far end of a table with one other person. They told me about how their classmates had teased them for being biracial. Apparently, having one black parent and one white parent was weird. I told them about being labeled as that same thing, but for being adopted. We both laughed, finding it funny that the two of us would randomly find each other in the lunchroom and bond over stuff like this. I’m still friends with this person, nearly 20 years later.
That bond of empathy is what kept us friends. I found that a lot of my relationships started off similarly—finding the underdogs of the community and bonding with them. Years later, I recognize that part of the reason I did that was because I ended up learning to empathize with those labeled as weirdos early in life. I was born into a situation that made me stand out (which I often disliked) but it made me a more empathetic and compassionate person.
In middle school, my adoption journey brought a new mountain for me to climb: the dreaded questions. Who are your real parents? Why were you adopted? Do you miss them? Do you want to find them? How does that work? Do you know your language? But where are you really from?
These questions can range anywhere from pure curiosity to downright rude at times. I got them so often during middle school that I started to respond rather angrily. I hated standing out, I didn’t want all the attention, and their questions always seemed to come from a place of ignorance (please note that in my child mind, it seemed stupid that some people didn’t understand how adoption worked). However, eventually, I came to the conclusion that I needed answers that were less angry. How, though?
Humor! At some point, I realized that making my situation more humorous eased people’s tensions around the subject. When they saw me laughing, they were more open to my answers, and for some reason more likely to choose their words wisely. So, that is what I did. A few examples of this:
Do you know Chinese? I mean, I watched “Ni Hao; Kai-Lan”, so I probably know about as much Chinese as you know Spanish.
But where are you from? I came in a space pod like Superman. (This is usually followed by awkward stares and me promising I’m just kidding).
How can you be Asian when– Man, I will give you five seconds to look at me and ask yourself how am I not Asian?
I do want to take the time to point out that humor may not be everyone’s answer. For some people, this subject is very serious, and for others this type of humor doesn’t do it for them. That is all completely fine! However, for myself, this was something that I grew to love about my adoption journey. Being able to find the humor in questions that used to anger me and using that humor to get people to be more open, is something I take pride in.
Years later, I began a new journey in my life: college. At this point, the adoption aspects had faded into the background of my consciousness. I was focusing on other things, and for the most part I had those aspects of myself figured out. Yet every once in a while, an opportunity to pry open those gates would resurface.
It was a small class, only about 12 other people or so, with a couple joining in on Zoom. Our desks were arranged in a semicircle so that we could talk facing everyone during our discussions of British poetry. I don’t remember which poem we were talking about, but it was about a father and a son, and our conversation turned into how we may interpret their relationship. One of the classmates on Zoom began telling us how he was considering adoption, but was torn because he also wanted the child to look more like him—to share his DNA.
This was a lightbulb moment for me that made me feel a little dumb, but also made me realize my own perspective. I realized that after years of only thinking from my own, internationally adopted perspective, I never thought about the fact that many parents have that innate desire to see their children look like them. Yes, that was a very weird sentiment. I shared this moment with the class, and they found it as odd but intriguing as I did.
At this point, I feel pretty secure in my identity as an international adoptee. I no longer fuss over how to answer weird questions or whether I will stand out in a bad way. However, every once in a while I will have moments like this that remind me of the unique perspective it has given me over the years.