Friday, September 19, 2014

Claiming White American Identity as an Asian Adoptee: When Race and Ethnicity Diverge in Transracial-Transnational Adoption

I recently read an article, An Ethnicity Conversation Your Adoptive Child Wants You to Have, by a Korean American adoptee, Elizabeth Connolly. The article got me thinking about the incredibly complex racial and ethnic identities that transracial-transnational adoptees must learn to manage--often while having to field a barrage of scrutiny and criticism both within and outside of the adoption community.

In her article, the author addresses the tension she has experienced within her identity as a Korean adoptee who has grown up in a White family. She writes, “I am very proud to be Asian and a Korean adoptee, but if we are assuming that a person's ethnicity is defined by a shared religion, culture, language, and more, then why would I declare my ethnicity as Korean?”

She addresses a very real dilemma regarding identity for transracial-transnational adoptees raised in White families: the basic dissonance between our ethnic and racial experiences and hence, the divergence between our ethnic and racial identities.

In America, race is inextricably connected to ethnicity. One’s race assumes one’s ethnicity and vice versa. If you look Asian--in my case, Korean, then your ethnicity must also be Korean American. If you look Black then your ethnicity must be African American.

However, obviously, for transracial-transnational adoptees this is starkly and often awkwardly and painfully not the case.

Not surprisingly, I can very much relate to the author's struggle. Although I may not wholly agree with her, I understand her point. And most importantly, I appreciate her honesty in questioning the status quo by acknowledging the limitations of accepted ideas of race and ethnicity in America. Current definitions are restricting and confining for adoptees like myself, which can further exacerbate the already complicated process of trying to establish a coherent, healthy identity.

For instance, although my racial experience is that of an Asian person, my ethnic experience is that of a White American. Even though I am Asian genetically, I have often felt biracial (White and Asian) as a result of being a transracial-transnational adoptee. But I cannot claim biracialness because genetically (and physically) I am not. This is primarily due to the present-day constructs for identifying race and ethnicity, which do not have the capacity to consider people like transracial-transnational adoptees and other individuals with uniquely complicated circumstances around race, ethnicity, and identity.

Some may criticize the author of the aforementioned article for her proclamation of rejecting “Korean American” as her ethnicity and instead wanting to claim “White American” as part of her ethnicity, which I will address further after I say this: I took the article less as an indication that she wants to be “White” but more as an acknowledgment of the complex identities that we as transracial-transnational adoptees must navigate, and the identity dissonance we must manage both internally and externally.

As I’ve already stated, although I am racially Asian, I am basically ethnically a White American, if the measure is based on culture and language. However, since reuniting with my Korean family 5 years ago, I am becoming more ethnically Korean. But I will always be limited in my ability to fully assimilate within the Korean ethnicity, because my experienced family history is White American.

Yet, of course, I can never fully assimilate or be fully accepted within the White community because my racial experience is Asian. And, now that I have kids who are mixed race, the issues of my already confusing identity have become all the more convoluted.

This all exemplifies further that identity for transracial and transnational adoptees (and for anyone living between worlds, whether immigrants, adoptees, expatriates, or the like) requires adaptability and fluidity as we experience life and as our familial and social circumstances evolve, whether encountering reunion, becoming a parent, losing a parent, and the like. I know my identity has evolved dramatically over the past half decade, and I have no doubt that it will continue to do so.

I would also like to say that if the author of the above article--or any other transracial-transnational adoptee adopted into a White American family--wants to claim White American as a part of her ethnicity, she should be able to do so (because essentially that is how she was raised and to what she finds herself identifying). But she is not “allowed” to claim White American as her ethnicity because of her race and the limitations and expectations forced upon her because of her outward appearance.

Others may disagree with her “right” to claim White American as her ethnicity, and perhaps feel that she is betraying her Korean heritage or view her as an impostor or appropriator because she is not genetically Caucasian.

Transnational adoptees are not appropriators. Ironically, it is actually adoptees who have been appropriated. We were given (taken) without our consent and taken in possession by White American parents who then raised us as White American children who grew into White American adults, except for the irrevocable fact that we are not genetically White.

Hopefully you are beginning to recognize now that it truly is so much more complicated than the surface of our skin.

Some may say that a transracial-transnational adult adoptee wanting to claim White culture and ethnicity as part of her identity is a reflection of the failure of the adoptive parents to incorporate enough of her original culture into their lives. And you might be right that perhaps a particular set of adoptive parents did not incorporate the adoptee’s original culture and ethnicity into their family identity.

However, I think it is more an indication of an inherent and irrevocable consequence of transnational adoption. I think we have to realize and accept that removing a child from his origins and transplanting him into a foreign country will inevitably result in disconnecting the adoptee from his origins in ways that can never be replaced or rectified.

As the author of the article references and as I alluded to above, in America race and ethnicity are inextricable. This is understandable. But in an increasingly socially complex global community perhaps we need to allow our ideas and definitions of both race and ethnicity to be more flexible and open to evolution.

Whether you agree with the practice of transracial and transnational adoption, there’s no going back for those who are already here in America and have been raised within White families and White communities.

Adult adoptees need the freedom to form our own identities without people judging us or telling us what we have the "right" to claim. It’s time we be allowed to be authentic and true to not only who we feel and believe we are but to how we experience our own identities--in whatever way that may manifest for each individual.

We, as transnational and transracial adoptees, should not be barred from claiming our racial and ethnic origins nor should we be barred from claiming our experienced ethnicity. I, personally, feel BOTH White American and Korean American, because that is the inevitable intersection of my inherited origins and my experienced upbringing. Don’t tell me, “You’re not Asian, you’re basically White!” But furthermore, don’t tell me, “You’re not White, you’re Asian!”

I am both.

Because it isn’t nature versus nurture. It is nature and nurture. And adoptees are unwilling exemplifications of this classic debate and experiment in nature versus nurture. By nature, I am Asian. But by nurture, I am a White American. And I claim both. Whether you accept this or do not does not change the fact that I am.

Obviously, I know I’m not “White” by race. And I’m not trying to be. But the truth is that I was raised within a White family as a White child in a White community. And that truth will always be a part of my familial and ethnic history and experience, whether I prefer it or not. In the same way, my Korean origins are an undeniable part of my familial and racial history and experience, whether I prefer it or not. But it is now up to me how much of these experiences and inheritances I engage and cultivate as a part of my individual identity.

To be honest, for so long I felt ashamed to claim either. I felt ashamed to claim my Koreanness because of my experiences of racism and otherness. I felt ashamed to claim my Whiteness because I do not look White. But why should I be ashamed of either? And why should I allow the expectations and perceptions of others to be imposed on me and hold me back me from embracing who I am as a whole?

As I stated above, adult adoptees need the freedom to form our identities as we see fit. We need to have the capacity to create an identity that includes not only the color of our skin and the shape of our eyes but the sound of our music and the memories of our childhood. We did not have a choice about who adopted us or to what country we would be adopted. Conversely, we did not choose to whom we would be born or in what country we would originate.

But what we can choose is what pieces of each we want to claim and be. And if we change our minds along the way, do not accuse us of hypocrisy or flip-flopping--instead recognize that our circumstances demand that our identities be adaptable, and furthermore that they do not belong to you or to anyone else.

I hope we will continue to question and rethink the currently narrow and myopic concepts of race and ethnicity. Let's stop trapping people who need to cross the boundaries. Let’s stop demeaning them with terms like “twinkie” or “oreo” and so forth, and realize that our world and the individuals who compose it are far too complex and intricate to confine within a box of your making for your comfort.

Break out! It’s so much more fun and meaningful.


*Note: Some may note that I chose to reference "White American" as an ethnicity rather than "European American" (which would technically be more accurate). I realize that generally "White American" is not viewed as an ethnicity. I chose for the purposes of this article to use "White American" as an ethnicity because it seemed appropriate in the given context. Firstly, the issues discussed in this article are incredibly complicated. Therefore, I chose to use a broader term in order to try to simplify an already complicated discussion. Secondly, I wanted to emphasize that there is indeed a traditional culture and experience associated with being White American--just like with any other "ethnic" group. "White American" represents and connotes more accurately than does "European American," my cultural, familial, and social experience growing up in a White American family and community. Hence, again, I thought this emphasis necessary and relevant in the given context.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Better Late Than Never: A Guest Post from Noelle Sickels

I am a “late discovery” adoptee, a term I learned only recently. I’m also a historical novelist. These  self-definitions came together in a surprising way while I was researching my latest novel, Out of Love.

As a historical novelist, doing research is not only a job requirement, it’s also my favorite part of the work. My three previous novels were set, respectively, in 1852, 1886, and 1943. I read old diaries and old newspaper articles, and I immersed myself in the clothing styles, slang, and homemaking chores of those bygone years, all as a way to create characters whose emotions and actions would be true not only to their personalities but also to their situations and their place in time. Adoption wasn’t featured in any of those novels, but adoption is at the core of Out of Love. More specifically, the aftermath of adoption --- its emotional effects over the years on everyone involved, not only the “adoption triad,” but also siblings, the birth grandparents, and the spouses and children birthparents may have acquired after relinquishment.

The story in Out of Love is kick-started when a young man sends his birthmother a letter and then disappears. She plunges into a search for him, reluctantly enlisting the aid of the high school boyfriend who has never forgotten her. Being a dutiful historical novelist (and someone who loves libraries and investigating), I read scores of oral histories by birthmothers and birthfathers, I combed scholarly works on adoption issues, and I interviewed women who’d relinquished babies. Then, as I approached the part of the book where the missing young man would make his appearance, I started reading the stories of real-life adoptees. And came face-to-face, amazingly, with myself.

I’m not an adoptee in a formal, legal sense. I was raised by my mother and her husband, whom I always considered my father, a man who never showed by any word or deed that I was any different from my five siblings. My grandparents and aunts and uncles and a few of my mother’s close friends all knew the secret, but they, too, never let a single hint escape. And yet, I always felt different. Not inferior or discriminated against or deprived in any way, just different. As a child, I couldn’t have told you exactly what the difference was, or why I felt it. It was subtle, subterranean, out of the reach of words. But some air of the unknown must have hung about me --- in college, a boyfriend dubbed me a “black-haired enigma,” and, later, my best friend called me a “sphinx.”

I found out, definitively, after my mother’s death that my father wasn’t my father. I wasn’t told. Based on old letters found in my mother’s closet, I guessed. Then, slowly, I questioned, I dug. When I first knew for sure, when the first person said, “Yes, you’re right,” it wasn’t a shock. It was, instead a settling in, a sigh of relief almost, an affirmation and explanation of that strange difference I’d known all my life, the answer to a question I hadn’t even realized existed.

I have been digging now for years, ferreting out facts about my birthfather, trying to understand the long-ago emotions and motives of my mother and my two fathers. Lately, I’ve been talking about it. But in the beginning, I kept my discoveries and even the fact that I was searching at all a secret, even from people close to me. It was my story, the story of me and the people who made me by contributing genes, by making decisions about my fate, by raising me, but I felt like an interloper. To search felt like a transgression.
Without ever having been told the colossal secret, somehow my parents had trained me to keep it. I wanted to protect them from criticisms by others. I wanted to protect my new awareness and knowledge, to possess it fully myself before letting anyone else in on it, as if it were something that could be snatched away from me. Each time I prepared to contact someone I thought would have useful information, I had to build up my courage. Not one person disappointed me, yet every time, I went through the same nervousness before asking my questions, the same feeling that I should apologize for asking, that I was trespassing. I let long lapses of time pass between these interviews. Months. Years. I voluntarily put myself in limbo.

I had always thought these feelings were unique. And I thought they were mysterious, even weird. Until I began reading the stories of adoptees. I had never thought of the term “adoptee” in reference to myself. But again and again in the adoptee stories, I encountered familiar feelings: hesitancy in searching; a sense of responsibility for the needs of others; fear of being disloyal; satisfaction, even joy, at gaining knowledge, but continued, seemingly insatiable longing.
So I’m grateful to adoptees who openly explore and share the complex web of their feelings about themselves and their parents, and how it can shift over time. As much as any piece of census data or tiny black-and-white snapshot or reminiscence by an elderly relative or old love letter, the experiences of other adoptees have helped me make sense of my life. I, like anyone, am unique, but I’m also not unique. And that’s a good thing to know.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Tracing Your Roots

As an interracial adult adoptee who is among the fortunate ones that was able to find my birth family and also being a lost daughter and female adoptee--- for me it meant that once the missing pieces in my puzzle had been found. Only then could I turn my attenton elsewhere and focus on trying to help my mum and dad trace their own roots. I've done so already way back in the past, in High School I choose to research  my mum's paternal relatives as a final project work.

I suppose my interest for genealogy had to with my quest for my own identity not knowing who I was at the time (I still don't know exactly who I am) also realizing that a birth family search might not give me the results I wished this was my compromise. Any answers , names or relatives I might stumble upon wouldn't strengthen my bond to my birth country--- instead it would serve to strengthen a part of my other identity. The one linked to my adoptive parents which in a way also would help me to discover my own identity.

Many years would pass before I would feel interested and curious enough to start another genealogy search, I suppose it had to do with how my own reunion with birth family progressed and slowly developed. ..
So it wasn't until  my reunion went into the post reunion phase I felt like a big part of my identity , finally was resolved. The choice I made was to try to trace my dad's paternal line something I was curious and intrigued to do-- knowing what answers my last genealogy search had found.

I begun my search by looking into my dad's maternal line which proved to be very confusing but which clearly told me my dad's maternal ancestors were Finnish from a very small island located between Sweden and Finland (which nowadays have muncipality). The search ended somewhere in the 18th or 17th century and now the only option if I wanted to try to move further back was to travel to Finland and look in their archives there.

I never did that, dad said he would but so far he never has to be honest I'm not really sure how interested he is in genealogy research. I thought he was, but I know my paternal Uncle is when dad failed to find the time or interest for it my paternal Uncle became a big support almost as anchious ---if not more to try to find some answers, and some names.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

"Blended" is Clueless

This is NOT a picture from the Blended photo series
Naturally, adoption in the media captures my attention, this post certainly drew me in...

'Blended' Photo Series Captures The Unconditional Love Between An Adopted Child And His Family

The pictures are certainly beautiful. The baby is adorable. The adoptive family looks like a happy family. I can almost understand why they thought this was a good thing to document and put out into the world. But, there are just so many things that are so wrong here. 

First of all there's the title about Unconditional Love. Since it was a story about a baby being adopted, I wondered why that was part of the title. It should be assumed - parents should have unconditional love for their child, right? Then we see that it is a black baby adopted by a white family. OH! Now we get it - the white people have rescued the black baby and are willing to love him even though he's different. Cue the cheers and the comments about how love is colorblind. 

But, what strikes me most is how this adoption, and the depiction of adoption in general, is focused on the adoptive family. The focus is the joy of the adoptive family and not the experience of the baby. How did we become a society where the desire to have a family overrides the needs of the child who needs a family? How did we decide that a baby losing its original family is something to celebrate? Why is adoption only about the adoptive parents? 

There were commenters who got it, who called out that what the pictures don't show is the incredible loss that took place so that this adoption could happen. There was the predictable back-and-forth that ensued. A few people got it. Very few. But the majority were upbeat comments about how wonderful this was. That we are still in a place in our society that adoption is paraded about as a beautiful thing is striking in its ignorance. 

What I want to talk about is the adoptee in these pictures, the one who doesn't have a voice, who can't make a comment. The post explains that the photo series is a documentary of the "lucky" baby who was welcomed into their family, as well as the agonizing wait and then elation of the adoption. They say they show the child's adoption journey. Apparently, to them, the journey of his life begins not when he is born, but when he is adopted. 

I want to tell you what I saw in the pictures. The baby is clueless to the pictures, unaware of the post sending pictures of him out into the world. He is not a willing participant, he is made more a prop than a person. 

In a way these pictures capture the structure of adoption - all we are shown is the joy of the adoptive family, not the tragedy that took place. What I would like to see is a photo series that shows what adoption really looks like, with all the members involved, all the emotion, all of the experience. That would be something newsworthy. 

This is NOT a picture from the Blended photo series

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Connecting the Dots: Adoption, Religion, Money, and Birth Certificates in Pennsylvania

I was sitting in the gallery earlier this week as the Pennsylvania Senate Aging and Youth committee members voted on whether to pass a bill that would restore to adult adoptees born in the state access to their original birth certificates. The committee passed HB162 with an amendment added that would result in continued differential treatment under law for Pennsylvania-born adoptees. Because of the amendment language, Pennsylvania Adoptee Rights withdrew support of the bill--a decision that I agree with both personally and as a board member.

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference is the most politically influential opponent to this bill and the key reason that the amendment was added. The organization claims that its opposition is based on the beliefs that relinquishing parents were legally promised a right to confidentiality and that adult adoptees accessing their own birth certificates would somehow result in an increase of abortions. Both of these claims have been proven time and time again as having no reputable data or evidence to support them. For more information, read my post Refuted by the Facts: Catholic Claims About Restoring Birth Certificate Access to Adult Adoptees.

Regardless, many people, some of our senators included, seem to buy into these claims. Or at least, they buy into the idea that a religious special interest organization should have influence over the vital statistics function of a secular state government. A closer examination of the relationship between Catholic adoption agencies operating in Pennsylvania and the state's own adoption system reveals perhaps another claim that might be closer to the truth.

Who Really Cares?

In examining why a religious special interest organization would care so much about adult citizens accessing their own, factual birth certificates, it is important to first strip away emotions and red herrings. Let's ask ourselves if it really matters to the rest of society if adults who were adopted as children have access the accurate records of their births. I'll use myself as an example.

I'm a Connecticut-born adoptee who currently resides in Pennsylvania. If you visit my website, you will find information about my professional background. You will find links to my Amazon author page that promotes books about the adoptee experience. The fact that I am an adoptee is made quite clear. Now, I would challenge anyone reading this post to discern if I am in possession of my original birth certificate and consider if the answer is of personal relevance to them. For all of the supposed concern about confidentiality and abortions, does anyone know, or care, if I have my original birth certificate or not?

The truth is that I successfully petitioned the court in the city of my birth and was granted access to my original birth certificate 16 years ago. And what I have decided to to, or not do, with the information featured on it has been a personal, private matter. I have managed my own affairs as an adult citizen without the interference of the Connecticut state government or the agency that facilitated my adoption, Catholic Charities of Fairfield County. I also have yet to hear from anyone about how the accessing of my birth certificate has somehow impacted society-at-large. As far as I know, no woman has had an abortion over the past 16 years because I have my original birth certificate. I'm also unaware of how any relinquishing parents other than my own feel about the fact that I have my original birth certificate. Perhaps, this is because my personal life truly isn't of any concern to those not related to me or within my circle of confidants.

So why is my personal life, and those of other adult adoptees, of such interest to the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference?

The Bottom Line

Currently, there are several Catholic adoption agencies providing post-adoption services in Pennsylvania. These agencies charge fees to adult adoptees in return for third-party intermediary services. The adoptee pays the fee and the Catholic agency reviews the adoption file, contacts the natural parents, and determines if contact between the the two parties can occur. Of course, if the natural parents do not want contact with their son or daughter, the Catholic agency keeps the fee paid by the adult adoptee--for services clearly not rendered to the paying individual's satisfaction. The interesting thing about this arrangement is that in some circumstances, these Catholic agencies are providing post-adoption services to adult adoptees whose adoptions were not facilitated through the agencies themsevles. I'll use Centre County as an example.

Centre County refers its adoptees to Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown for post-adoption services. This means that adults who were adopted through Centre County itself (as opposed to through a private agency such as Catholic Charities) are referred to a third-party religious agency that did not facilitate their adoptions. After receiving permission from the Centre County court, the authorized representative from Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown is then granted access to the adoption files of those adoptees. This means that a religiously affiliated party not involved in the adoptions has full access to all of the identifying information about the adoptees and the natural parents involved. So much for confidentiality.

I placed a call this week to Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown to inquire about these services. The authorized representative was friendly, helpful, and more than happy to provide me with the fee structure. She also shared with me the fact that she currently has several Centre County cases ongoing and only one case in which the adult adoptee was actually adopted through Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. Each of these adoptees is being charged an initial $25 to start the process of possibly obtaining identifying information. An additional $100 will be charged upon completion, I am assuming regardless of whether the adoptee feels the outcome was satisfactory.

It is important to note here that these fees are not uniform across the state. York County, for example, charges adoptees $500 per parent for these same services. I know of one York County adoptee who paid $1,000 to have an Act 101 authorized representative named Sandra Bornman (only two days of training is required to serve in this capacity) access the adoptee's adoption file and provide the services. Let's just say that this particular adoptee paid $1,000 and received absolutely nothing in return. And Sandra Bornman has been very outspoken about how she does not support legislation such as HB162. Wonder why?

The bottom line isn't just about Catholic agencies, it is about our municipal bodies, and the Act 101 representatives as well.

Connecting the Dots

One could conclude that restoring the access Pennsylvania-born adoptees had to their original birth certificates prior to 1985 would remove the need for the post-adoption services offered by Catholic and municipal agencies. In accessing their original birth certificates, adult adoptees born in Pennsylvania would be able to make important decisions pertaining to their own lives--such as what to do with the information featured on their birth certificates--in a personal, private manner without third-party involvement. This is typically how most adult citizens born in Pennsylvania make decisions pertaining to their personal lives and the rest of society seems to be okay with that.

So, if we set aside red herrings about mythical confidentiality rights and the nonexistent rise in abortion numbers, what's left? What could possibly cause the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference to fight so hard to ensure that adult adoptees--many of whom were adopted through its own affiliated agencies--are treated differently under law to all non-adopted adults?

Then Jesus went into the temple and threw out all those who were selling and buying there. He pushed over the tables used for currency exchange and the chairs of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It’s written, My house will be called a house of prayer. But you’ve made it a hideout for crooks."

~ Matthew 21:12-13

Julie Stromberg
When the time came to think about college, I decided that my career path would encompass either child psychology or journalism. Fortunately for all the young people out there, I opted for journalism and earned a bachelor's degree in communications. Since that time, I have worked as a newspaper and magazine staff writer, public relations associate, and marketing copywriter. My professional creative efforts have been acknowledged with several industry awards.

I am also pleased to be involved in several writing and advocacy projects outside of the office. As an adoptee, my advocacy work is focused on changing the common, societal discourse on adoption practices and encouraging reform that would place the emotional needs and legal rights of the children involved first.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A Haitian Adoption Story: Review of The Roving Tree by Elsie Augustave

Elsie Augustave’s novel The Roving Tree tells the story of a Haitian adoptee, Iris Odys, who at the age of five is given for adoption by her poor single mother to a white couple from New York state. She is raised there, along with her new older sister, also white and also adopted. Guiding her development are her black American godfather—a family friend—and her Haitian dance teacher. Iris’s involvement in college with the Black Students League ultimately leads her back to her native country, where she begins to uncover her biological identity and develops a yearning to understand her African ancestry. She follows her heart to Zaire, and her cultural immersion brings with it unexpected life choices.

Like her protagonist, Augustave was also born in Haiti and left for the U.S. as a child, although not due to adoption. Her family emigrated to America to escape the Duvalier regime. There were only two other Haitian families living in their upstate New York town. In interviews, she has said the inspiration for Iris came from a story she heard while visiting Haiti as an adult, about the child of a peasant woman who had been adopted by a French missionary couple. Augustave imagined what the child’s life might have been like in a foreign land, away from everything and everyone she knew.

Despite not being adopted herself, Augustave has portrayed some of the identity angst many adoptees feel through the character of Iris. We feel Iris’s ambivalence toward her Haitian mother as a young child—a protective instinct—and, likewise, we recognize her desire as an adult to understand her Haitian family and their belief system.