Updated: Oct 20, 2020
“I was sitting in my first-grade class when one of my classmates came up to me, pulled their eyes back and asked, ‘Emma, why do your eyes look like this?’ At six, I didn’t comprehend the cruel action unfolding in front of me, but I knew it didn’t make me feel good inside. I didn’t fully understand at this point why my eyes did look the way they did, or why my hair was black, and my skin darker than my mom’s and dad’s. They say for transracial adoptees, one’s peers and classmates will provide the first real acknowledgment of the noticeable differences between the adoptee and their family. At such a young age, children don’t have the language to express how something like this would make them feel, but rather harbor it inside them. In that moment in my young brain, I did take note of how I was different — different than my family, different than my peers and their families — and I wondered to myself for the first time if the way I looked was unfavorable and if the way my family looked/came together was unnatural and bad.
In 1979, China’s one-child policy came into place in attempt to curb China’s rapidly growing population. The outcome of this policy from start to finish was the abandonment of thousands of Chinese children, most of which were girls. The impact this policy has created is a double-edged sword. This policy forcefully separated parents from children, and for international adoptees, gave them no choice but to be separated from a country, a culture, and people that looked like them. More favorably, however, this policy created families that otherwise wouldn’t have existed, opportunities for these children they could have never imagined, and provided forever homes with stability, love, and support. I am one of the thousands of outcomes of China’s one-child policy and I can tell you now, regardless of the complexities from being a transracial, international adoptee, there is nothing about my story I would change.
In the summer of 1996, my parents, Paul and Katy, were on vacation with my grandma and grandpa on Orcas Island. In one month, they would be on a plane to China, where they would meet their daughter for the first time, and together become parents. They had yet to see their baby daughter, however on their last day on the island, they got word that their match picture was going to be forwarded to the post office. If you know my parents, well more so my mom, you know of course they were running late and the post office had closed at 12 p.m. that day, and it was 12:30 p.m. While I am not a parent yet, I can say with certainty if the only thing holding me back from seeing my child for the first time was a glass door and thirty minutes past closing time, I would have a reaction in a similar manner to my parents. My mom was hysterical outside of the post office, and my dad determinedly banged on the door. To their relief, they were able to get someone to open the post office again, and while embracing one another, they laid eyes on their daughter for the first time.
I was born in Changzhou, China, in January of 1996. While more often than not an individual’s story begins with a natural unfolding of blissful events — one’s parent’s happily announcing their pregnancy, perhaps a gender reveal, the couple’s community knitting together to support the soon to be parents — this most likely was not the case for me and for other Chinese adoptees. Rather, the discovery of our existence was undoubtedly met with anxiety and uncertainty. For the adoptee, our story is often thought to begin when we are placed into our parent’s arms, a joyous moment filled with excitement and overwhelming love. Finally, we are wanted, we are chosen. However, it is the biggest misconception that our stories begin on this happy occasion.
One thing I would like you to take away from reading this is we must normalize and recognize the trauma and the adversity of the earliest days, months, and years of an adoptee’s life and how those occurrences stay with us and impact us for the rest of our lives. Trauma and adversity involve rejection, abandonment, orphanage, or foster care, and little stimulation and nurturing at a time when those things are crucial developmentally. The hard truth about being an international adoptee is there are numerous questions we will never have the opportunity to learn the answers to. I think of those questions sometimes as floating entities hovering just above me, and no matter how hard I reach for them, they will always be just out of my grasp.
This is what I do know: in January of 1996, four days after I was born, I was left on the street in Wujin District. I was found by somebody, I don’t know who, and taken to a police station, where an officer drove me an hour into the city of Changzhou and dropped me off at the Changzhou Social Children’s Welfare Institute. If you think this story is tragic and unique compared to other Chinese adoptees, I assure you it is not; our stories are all eerily quite similar. Compared to today’s Chinese adoptions, rather than taking years to be placed with a family, the placement process was quick. I spent seven months in the orphanage and on August 26th, 1996, I was given my forever home, a family.
Just a few years after my adoption, as a family, we traveled back to China three times over the years to adopt my sister Clare in 1999, my sister Rosie in 2002, and in 2008, my sister Meg completed our family. Together, we grew up in Denver, Colorado and truly I could not imagine my life without them. We are each from four different cities in China, four different provinces even, and whether you agree with this statement or not, I know God chose us to be sisters. Denver, Colorado is not the most diverse place, and I consider it a blessing to have had sisters whose faces I could look at and see similar features to my own. Being from four different places in China, however, we each have different characteristics from one another with really the only underlining commonality: we are all Chinese, all Asian.
The most hurtful question to this day for me is when people ask me, ‘Are you guys really sisters?’ The ‘really’ or ‘real’ questions as I like to call them, otherwise known as intrusive questions, have always unsettled me. It is amazing how many strangers, classmates, classmate’s parents, even loved one’s close to our family have asked, ‘Are they your real sisters?,’ ‘Don’t you want to find your real parents?,’ ‘Do you know why your real parents didn’t want you?,’ or even in a hushed tone, ‘I wonder how much she cost?’ In terms of the ‘really/real questions’ when possible, replacing ‘real’ with biological makes all the difference. I have always been protective over my family, and the impact of those questions are so hurtful and delegitimizing of the family I cherish and the only family I have ever known. Being an adoptee, you begin to understand the truth about love is it has no limits. The greatest lesson I have learned in my life thus far is love is not confined or defined by blood. There are no boundaries to love and I consider it a blessing to be a living example of that kind of love.
As I got older, I wish I could say as the oldest I set a good example of being proud and confident in who I was. I believe so firmly that my sisters are and have always been so beautiful and worthy, but believing it for myself was a process that took many years. Growing up in a Caucasian family, a predominately white community, and attending predominantly white private schools made it difficult to form an identity as an Asian American I could be proud of. When a person first enters adolescence, the last thing they want is to be seen as different. Anything that draws special attention to them often can feel uncomfortable and anxiety provoking. I am sure we all remember the awkwardness of our middle school years and high school years, and our desperate attempts, whether outward or inward, to fit in and be accepted by our peers.
I can’t remember the specific age I began rejecting my physical appearance and my Asian roots. I remember in third grade, however, raising my hand to ask a question about a math problem on the board and a male classmate rolling his eyes and exasperatedly exclaiming, ‘Shouldn’t you know this?’ and in a more hushed tone, ‘She is Asian!’ Or in fourth grade having a crush on a boy in my class, but him being much more interested in my white blonde best friend. These were all instances where I internalized and unhealthily began to cling to and believe this would always be true: I would be unchosen, unwanted, and judged because of my physical appearance and being Asian, and thus began the spiral of internalized racism and self-rejection.
As a young child, I took Chinese dance classes and Chinese language classes offered at the adoption agency my parents had gone through in Denver. By seven, however, I had quit both of those things and although my parents continued to put up decorations for Chinese New Year, or take us back to China to be immersed in the culture and learn about where we came from, there was an unwavering voice inside me pushing all of those things as far away as I could. Being an adoptee is like going through a never-ending identity crisis. So often in high school I would find myself in front of a mirror, staring into my face, wondering who the person looking back at me was. To the world, I was Asian, and this part of me would be something I could never escape, no matter how desperately I wanted to. It was an identity I had yet to embrace and something I was at the time unwilling to develop.
Another common issue we adoptees face is understanding where we belong in the world. In America we are Asian, but in Asia we are American. I remember walking down the street in China when I was a teenager and our translator saying, ‘You dress and walk like an American.’ You see, even in China where I find myself surrounded by people who l look like, I am still considered different. With all of these unique hardships I have faced as an adoptee, I know my experience and feelings have also been felt by other adoptees and it has led me to believe there is something connecting adoptees deeper than anyone could understand. We share a common past. We intuitively understand the challenges and adversities our unique life stories have caused us to face. Something I have always found strength in is the blessing of having my three sisters and knowing a beautiful connection holds us rooted together that does not encompass blood relation, but rather an understanding of what growing up as an adoptee has been like where we did and this has created a bond between us that could never be broken.
When I was seventeen, I became aware of an opportunity to travel back to China with other adoptees and volunteer in orphanages. Mind you, I was still deep in my self-rejecting phase, and I didn’t have any Asian friends nor did I want any. The idea of associating with other Asians was not something I wanted to do. However, there was something inside me that pushed me to apply for this trip, and a few months later in June of 2013 I traveled back to China for the first time without my family in a group of thirty-five other adoptees from all over the United States. This was the first ever trip of its kind; adoptees traveling back to China to volunteer in orphanages and give back to children whose beginnings were similar to our own. This trip completely changed my perspective and my life. While in China with these other adoptees, I finally felt like I belonged. For the first time, I felt like I could be myself, I felt accepted and I felt understood.
Over the weeks we spent together we talked about our experiences of growing up in our families and the struggles we faced as adoptees and, to my relief, I finally understood I wasn’t the only one who felt the way I did. Other adoptees were experiencing all of the challenges I was. On that trip, we climbed the great wall of China, we went to markets and bought jade and fans and silk, we ate amazing food, and we made trips each night to the Seven-Eleven to buy white rabbit candy and sit in our hotel rooms and laugh and just be. During the days, we spent our time holding and playing with amazing children in two different orphanages whom we also felt such a special connection and bond with. This trip was the first time I felt secure in who I was, and it was the beginning of a light and passion to help adoptees feel comfortable in their own skin and navigate their stories.
I cannot say after the trip I had fully changed my mindset. The last night of the trip I sobbed to the therapist traveling with us, feeling a deep sense of fear to go back to my life in America. Since the trip I’ve finished high school, I’ve had friendships and relationships come and go, I went to college and spent years in therapy investigating and gaining insight into who I was and what I had to offer and finding security in my identity as a Chinese adoptee. I was on a self-destructive path for so many years, but my journey to healing, loving, and accepting myself and understanding my worth has been beautifully evolving for a few years now. Do my insecurities as a Chinese adoptee still arise, YES, I can promise you this, but I have never felt more peaceful and more grounded in who I am today. Now, I am getting my masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and am working to become an adoption competent therapist myself. With the support of my family and friends, I am dedicated to spreading adoption awareness and helping adoptees to not feel so alone in their journey to understanding their own identities.