I was adopted in 1962 by a white English family. I am also one of the 106 Hong-Kong adoptees that formed the first ever group or organized transracial adoptions to take place in the UK.
The family that adopted me was not extraordinary in anyway save for the fact that they decided to adopt transracially twice. I grew up in a time in Britain where cultural sensitivity and diversity had not yet reached the place in society that it now holds. Being a non-white child raised in a white community with a very conservative outlook was--as I am sure you can imagine--challenging to say the least.
My adoptive parents, for reasons known only to themselves, never sat me down and told me that I had been adopted. I can laugh at this now with comments like, for how long did they think they could keep the fact that I was Chinese and they were Caucasian a secret? My adoptive parents did not help me in anyway to understand my own story. In fact I would say that they were frightened of having to do this. There was no help or training then on how to raise a child from a different culture. Also attitudes were very different then with regard to transracial adoption. In spite of my adoptive parents' inability to validate my childhood experiences of difference, I do have one prized memento. I still have my baby Chinese Happy Coat that I wore when I was flown over to the UK for the first time to be picked up by the parents from the London Airport (now known as Heathrow).
Most of my early childhood memories are of rejection, misunderstanding, of being misunderstood and mostly being the odd one out. The “other” the foreigner. The child that no one wanted to sit next to. The child that no one wanted to play with. The child that got laughed at, poked at, spat at, who passed other children and adults as they shouted insults.
The relationship that I had with my siblings was complicated. My sister was also a transracially adopted child. She came from the same orphanage as me, but quite some years before I did. My sister was a very different person than me, of course. But because we looked the same it was always assumed that we were blood sisters. Her personality was very different from mine. She was neither as argumentative or as inquisitive as I. The more I was told nothing, the more I wanted to know. My sister was academically bright, I was non academic, musical and creative. I was scatological my sister was methodical, neat and clean. I was messy, dyslexic (which I didn’t know at the time) and intuitive. As we grew up even though we shared ethnicity and physiognomy, the similarities ended there. I was not satisfied or content to be silent. Or to have a “white” identity superimposed upon me. My sister it seemed was quite happy to assume a white persona. This ultimately drew a wedge between us which became wider and wider as I entered my teens.
At school I survived the bullying by being sporty. I could run for longer, jump higher and play badminton better than most pupils. This at least gained me some protection from the D-stream bullies.
As a teenager the silence and inability of my adoptive parents to talk to me about my identity, my culture and where I had come from and why was the primary cause for my eventual estrangement from the family.
But, on a positive note, as a teenager, as is normal, I began to discover more about how and what I was, where I came from. I also discovered my artistic talents, my musicality, my ability to paint, to write and to act. Had I not been adopted, I doubt very much whether I would have had the opportunities to realize these talents or to pursue them if they were recognised.
I have sadly experienced first hand discrimination, prejudice and racism both as a child, teenager and adult. I suppose the most serious of example and expression of such feeling was when I was but sixteen. I was set upon by a group of skinheads in broad daylight on a busy high street. I was battered and bruised with three cracked ribs, a fracture cheek, black eyes and a bloody lip. The only reason that I was set upon was the fact that I was not Caucasian. The National Front at the time was in the ascendancy especially in the area in which I grew up.
Going "Home" to Hong Kong
Kong was something that I aspired to but also rejected because it rejected me. I wanted to go back “home” but feared what would happen if I did.
I first went back to Hong Kong in the late 70s. It was a bitter sweet experience. I found myself almost incapable of disembarking from the plane. For the first time I found myself in the physical and racial majority. It was the first time for sixteen years that I had been able walk down a street with my head held up gazing into the eyes of strangers who looked exactly like me.
I was going to go back to the orphanage that I had come from but at the last minute pulled out. I was petrified of what I might find, what I might be told. So I turned tail. Since the late 70s I have been back to Hong Kong about half a dozen times. The last time was with my daughter and husband. We specifically wanted to take her to Hong Kong so that she could just see a part of where she is “spiritually” from for want of a better term.
The dominant thoughts about my birth family are I wonder where they are if indeed they are still living which I think is highly unlikely. Followed by fantasy scenarios that play in my head if I were ever to be reunited with my family. I often think that I would prove to be a disappointment to them as I am culturally as Chinese as a pot noodle. I don’t speak Cantonese or Mandarin so I could not even communicate with my parents. And then I think that perhaps I would be equally as disappointed as my birth parents as they were of me. I know of course that is pure projection and a fantasy projection at that. But I can’t help feeling sad, fantasy or no. I am who and what I am and in no small part due to the genes that I inherited from my birth parents.
Now: Relationships and Acting as a profession
The relationship that I have with my adoptive parents - well I no longer have a relationship with my adoptive parents it has gotten to the stage that I have even been threatened with legal action designed I assume to silence and or intimidate me, to dissuade me from talking openly about my personal recollections of being a transracial adoptee and my memories of my childhood. Now I readily acknowledge that these are my personal views and my memories of what happened. These memories may not be shared by other members of the family that adopted me. They may consider my recollections to be false. But I have always openly stated that these are my personal recollections and I neither seek to impose or to force others of the adoptive family to accept or indeed acknowledge my views. I think that the attitude of the adoptive family high lights imho a not uncommon occurrence within the adoption framework and family. That the adopted parents unwittingly make the child’s search for truth, or roots all about themselves and take offense or are hurt that their adopted child is looking for something making the search all about themselves and how they are feeling betrayed and hurt. This is not about the adopted parents, it should never be about the adopted parents--it should be about the child. My relationship with my adoptive parents has followed a consistent pattern. One of silence and secrecy on my adoptive parent’s part. Fear probably due to lack of knowledge. Embarrassment at not knowing how to deal with situations and feelings that were alien to them. Whether my adoptive parents wish to believe that I regret that we no longer have a relationship, is entirely up to them. I cannot force them to enter into a relationship. Any more they can force me to change who and what I am.
The greatest challenge for me being a transracial adoptee is the loss of my birthright and this would have occurred irrespective of whether my adopted parents were supportive or not of my racial background.
When you are transracially adopted, you lose everything. Your language, your culture, your roots, all the things that make you unique but at the same time the same as your parents and siblings. I was brought up in a world that wanted me to be White, I appreciate and understand western culture, values, history and being. I am essentially a Westerner. But I can not reap any of the benefits of being raised in a western household as I am not and never will be Caucasian no matter how much as I child I wanted to be “white “ or indeed no matter how hard my adoptive parents ignored the fact. I will always be Chinese.
I suppose this cultural schizophrenia runs through the core of all my creativity. It underpins my writing and filmmaking. It has made me the actress that I am. I deal with things that are not quite as they seem –after all actin is the ultimate in that. You spend your life speaking other people’s words, feeling other people’s emotions, making the audience think that you are something that you are not really. So what I do is I take my personal discomfort or should I say the discomfort that many in the wider society feel about me, because I look different and use it to my advantage. To play a character to subvert or be the opposite of what they expect. One of my favourite American actors, John Lithgow, had this to say about acting: "The most exciting acting tends to happen in roles you never thought you could play."
Perhaps because I was denied the chance to play the natural role I was originally cast in, a Hong Kong Cantonese-speaking child, I subconsciously entered the world of entertainment where I could become the person that I can otherwise, in some sense, never hope to be.