Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Maybe I'd be a "twinkie" either way: Can the origins of transracial adoptees be preserved?

Even though I'm two years shy of 40, it's only recently that I am beginning to come to terms with my complicated, often paradoxical experience and idea of racial identity.

As a result of a blog post I wrote a few weeks back and the discussions that ensued, my conclusions about my own racial identity have been challenged even further, and I've quite honestly had to come to terms with some realities that are hard for me to admit.

Firstly, as ridiculous as it may sound, I am finally accepting that I am as much a White person as I am a Korean person. And along with this realization, I'm beginning to wonder if I would have turned out a "twinkie"--Yellow on the outside, White on the inside--no matter what my parents had done to try to inculcate me with Koreanness.


Even if things like culture camp and language classes had existed when I was growing up in the 70's, or even if my parents had made lots of Korean friends and cooked the food for me and sat me down to watch Korean movies and shows, I am beginning to realize that I probably would have still turned out pretty White.

And it is only recently that I am finally beginning to not despise this fact--that I am so dang White.

Furthermore, as I'm realizing more and more how so very White I am, I am realizing that in some ways, I am also somewhat of a hypocrite.

In the post I referred to above, I challenged White adoptive parents to take responsibility for raising their transracially adopted children in a way that allows them to cultivate their ethnic origins--to raise their TRA children in a way that is not "color-blind." Obviously, I have strong feelings about this because I grew up in a way that completely ignored and erased my ethnic origins.

I have realized recently, however, that I, myself, face the same shortcomings that these White adoptive parents face in raising their children as a result of being so White myself.

I want to instill a sense of pride and awareness in my son (and soon-to-be-born daughter) regarding their Korean heritage. I want to raise them differently than the way I was raised--in a sea of White.

But as I looked at my life, I was humbled and challenged by what I saw--that ultimately I am so White that it's going to require intentional, very purposeful work on my part if I want our children to not grow up in the same sea of White as did I.

Why?

Because, as I keep stating, I'm basically White--by language, culture, family, etc. I married a White man. And not just any White man, but as White as a White man can be (you know I love you). Look around, so many female Korean adoptees are married to White men. Not all, but a vast majority. Why is that? Because, we've been raised as and by White women.

The majority of my close friends are either White or Black, with a few other ethnicities mixed in there, one of whom happens to fortunately be Korean with children who are close to my son's age. And although it's a start, the truth is that I have only one Korean friend that my son sees on a regular basis. The church we attend is primarily White and Black. There are a few other Asians, but guess what? Yep, most of them are adopted children. Oh, the irony.

And even though I have reunited with my Korean family, realistically, I cannot raise my children around them. They're on the other side of the world.

I am surrounded by the same sea of White in which I grew up. Not consciously, but because that is the legacy that has been passed onto me. I want to grow beyond this. But it is exhausting at times, and so difficult to do. Hence, I am humbled, and find myself sympathetic to the challenges that White adoptive parents face. (Now, of course, a primary and significant difference between myself and White adoptive parents is obviously that I did not choose to be in such a situation--to be adopted and raised by White people. And that's no small, negligible difference, folks.)


I guess the point I'm getting to here is that I'm realizing that no matter what White adoptive parents may do to raise their transracial children in ways that respect and cultivate their children's origins, it's unrealistic to think that White adoptive parents can ever truly raise an Asian kid to be an Asian adult.

I'm not saying that culture camps and language classes, festivals and so forth are futile. No, not at all. There is definitely value in these activities, if not simply for the opportunities they provide for transracial adoptees to build friendships with other transracial adoptees and to at least have some kind of exposure to their origins.

But of course, these activities are never going to be able to replace growing up with an Asian family or Black family or whatever race the transracial adoptee is. There are so many subtleties and nuances of a culture and ethnicity that can only be passed along within the context of a family and community of that ethnicity (as I'm painfully learning 4 years post-reunion). Full immersion cannot be replaced by part-time activities.

And I'm not criticizing White adoptive parents' efforts. Again, not at all. I'm grateful for the adoptive parents who do make such sincere efforts to preserve their children's origins. I think rather, I'm trying to express that we have to come to terms with the reality of transracial adoption--it's imperfection as it applies to the inevitability that transracially adopted children will lose their origins in ways that can rarely, if ever, be retrieved.

My apprehension, however, is that people today and in particular many White adoptive parents will be deceived into thinking that activities like culture camps and language classes will "fix" the dilemmas of racial identity faced by transracial adoptees. 

Already, I am seeing so many adoptive parents assume that because of their recognition of their children's origins that their children will be free of the racial identity issues that older adoptees like myself experience. I fear some adoptive parents might begin to think that things like trips to China or Korea, and eating the food and wearing the clothes will somehow compensate for the profound loss of origins.

And although, certainly there are ways in which adoption culture has progressed, there are still basic, core issues that will always remain, no matter how well adoptive parents understand and manage these issues.

Because I was adopted in the 70's, my experience of adoption and my adoptive parents' ways of dealing with my adoption differ [sometimes] in certain ways from how adoptees today might experience adoption and how their adoptive parents deal with adoption.


But, I believe it is folly when adoptive parents presume that things have changed so dramatically that their transracially adopted children's experiences will be nothing like mine or other adoptees of my generation. 

Even if you happen to be the rare breed of adoptive parents who actually have moved into diverse neighborhoods and have friends of different ethnicities and you read adult adoptee blogs and incorporate your children's origins as much as is appropriate for your child, just be careful of making the mistake of thinking that these efforts "fix" everything.


An adoptee can never be "fixed." We don't need to be "fixed." We need to be accepted--just as we are, right where we're at. 

The goal of adoptive parents should not be to try to prevent or erase the difficulties that are inherent to being [transracially] adopted--this is impossible and potentially very detrimental. Making such a presumption can end up resulting in more damage than benefit in the long run.

Rather, perhaps realize that the goal is to create a relationship and emotional environment with your children that is completely open--more specifically, in which there is nothing they can express or do in regards to their feelings about being adopted, whether in general or specifically transracially, that will make you pull away or correct them. They need to feel safe to challenge you, to challenge their experience, their adoption, whatever it may be. They need to feel safe enough to seek out their origins as well as reject their origins, and they may do both at different times in their lives--as have I.


As a White adoptive parent, you will never be able to fully preserve your transracially adopted children's culture and origins--that is a limitation we must all come to terms with. That doesn't mean you shouldn't try, if your children show an interest. It doesn't mean your efforts are doomed to fail. Rather it's about having realistic expectations, and it's about having the humility to recognize that there are certain issues to transracial adoption that simply can never be fully resolved.

I was destined to be White as a result of being adopted in the 70's by White parents. But even had I been adopted in the 90's or in this new millennium by "enlightened" White parents, I'd probably still be destined to be pretty dang White.

It's not a criticism, just a reality.

But I was also destined to be Korean. Unfortunately, it has taken me almost 40 years to finally embrace this undeniable fact without shame and to realize that I don't have to choose a side--I don't have to box myself in. It has taken so long, in part, because I wasn't raised with the same resources available to me that adoptive families have today. So again, I'm not criticizing the use and applications of these resources--just warning folks to not make the mistake of thinking they're a "cure" or the "solution" to the dilemmas of transracial adoption. And I'm also cautioning adoptive parents to be discerning--don't force it if your child doesn't want it. And similarly, don't stifle it, if your child shows an interest.

I do wish I had grown up in an environment that allowed me the freedom to pursue my Korean origins more freely. And yet the truth is that even if I had, it still might have taken me 40 years to finally feel comfortable embracing my Koreanness. Because when I was younger all I wanted to do was fit in. I say this again to recognize that there is only so much an adoptive parent can do to preserve their children's origins. And yet, should your children one day seemingly "all of a sudden" begin to show an interest in their origins, of course, do not stifle them and do your best to provide all the encouragement and support you can, realizing that there might be times of waxing and waning in interest.

I know it can probably feel like a lose-lose situation for adoptive parents these days. But that's really not the point I'm trying to make. Rather, I'm acknowledging the intense complexity of adoption as a whole (what I have begun to call the adoption quagmire), and in particular the racial identity issues of transracial adoption.

I think today, White adoptive parents require discernment and flexibility when it comes to raising their transracially adopted children. And really all parents require these qualities. But specifically as White adoptive parents of transracially adopted children, you have to be willing to never think you've "arrived." Because an experience as complex and evolving as being a transracial adoptee is one that never ends, one that never resolves.


Rather life as a transracial adoptee challenges me each and every day. And it would be all the more bearable and manageable, comforting and empowering if I knew without a doubt that my White family was with me every step of the way, accepting me as I evolve, and ultimately, accepting me for as White and for as Korean as I may (or may not) choose to be.


* * *

Note: I realize there are other situations of transracial adoption, and I do not mean to diminish from those other situations by focusing on White adoptive parents and their transracially adopted children. Rather I discuss White adoptive parents and their TRA children simply because that is my point of reference and experience, and because currently the majority of transracial adoptions in America are White adoptive parents adopting non-White children...

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