According to the Intercountry Adoption Bureau of Consular Affairs and the US Department of State, more than 73,600 adoptions from China took place between 1991 and 2013. I happen to be a part of that statistic. I was adopted from China at 13 months in January of 1998. I am a product of the Chinese government’s One Child Policy. This policy was established between 1978 and 1980 as a regulation to help curb population growth and was initially a temporary fix. Many healthy young baby girls were given up because of the preference to produce males. In China, the male cultural preference is abundant because of their hopeful economic prospects. It was not until recently, in October of 2015, that the government addressed the imbalanced ratio of males to females. As a result of this, the law was changed to a two-child policy, which took effect in January of 2016.
My loving parents did everything to engage my interest in my Chinese heritage, but I could not comprehend its importance, and consequently did not benefit until years later. I denied my Asian exterior, telling people even though I do not look it, I am basically white. After all, I benefited from my parents’ white privilege, and it is what I knew. See, here in America, we have an obsession with feeding our ego. We love knowing and applying our knowledge, and labels just happen to satisfy our desire to understand the unknown. We conform to appear civil.
Adoptees approach the stages of identity differently, and it tends to fluctuate with age. Many of my adopted friends agree that our personal truth may have been sugar-coated early in our childhood and has now evolved into something much deeper and more serious. To compensate for all the emotions of discovering self truth, the once awe-inspired feelings towards our birth place became suppressed. After all, genealogy assignments in class do not allow adoptees to identify with their entire culture, but rather only their immediate adopted families.
In my experience, the classroom settings were not always easy. Classmates would ask me questions such as “Who’s your real mother? Why didn’t she want you?” Or “Are you happy you have a better life now?” I wonder—do children like me have enough emotional support and community to fight these comments or do they just nod and shake their heads in confusion?
I had a lack of role models to look up to. As fun as it was to combat my classmates’ questions with sassy replies or eye rolls, it was still a responsibility to educate my peers. Whether it was mine, well, there’s no telling. Talking about what traits someone inherited from such and such was dull because my answer was always, “I don’t know.”
As a 10-year-old I had the opportunity to travel back to China. I thought I would get answers to the questions some of my friends take for granted, because they have the answers. Instead, I realized I was not Chinese at all. In the Hunan province, I briefly reunited with my orphanage caregiver, had dim sum with the orphanage director, saw the street corner I was left on, and learned the name of the police officer that found me.
Much of this went over my head as a shy, insecure 10-year-old. I clung to my parents. I associated them with safety in this foreign country to which I was sure I did not belong. Vendors and locals having lunch around tourist attractions and parks would come up to me and start speaking rapidly, probably asking what I was doing with white people. They would give looks, or ask for our picture as if we were celebrities.
Flying home to America, I had learned a lot about what I had to be grateful for, but also what cultural customs I left behind. I learned that despite my birth mother’s circumstances, I would have been cared for either way. Maybe I would not have been as financially comfortable or going to college, but I would have my wit. Identifying as strictly American had just been a defense mechanism for me to cover any trace of doubt and insecurity about being successful. I used my family’s whiteness growing up to my advantage, because it was the only identity I actually understood that had a history worth living in.