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Thinking out loud…

What exactly defines an “adoptee perspective?” In the most general sense, I guess it could mean “from the point of view of an adoptee,” but is there something more specific that makes an opinion, essay, poem, work of art, etc. particularly “adoptee?” If there is, then what are the characteristics that distinguishes it from that of non-adoptees?

As far as I can tell, there are none except the fact that we are adopted. There are signs we can look for in the case of TRAs. Ethnically mismatched names and faces, photos with racially different family members, but even those are extraneous and could be attributed to other factors.

Unlike the previously mentioned, a sense of rootlessness or not belonging can be conveyed as part of an adoptee point of view, yet even these fall short. While perhaps particular to an adoptee, they are not exclusive. So what the hell are we talking about when we say, “adoptee perspective?” And why am I even thinking about this?

I suppose it’s because recent events have forced me to ask myself some hard questions. The recent scandal and subsequent closing of adoptions from Việt Nam, the blog exchange between Kevin Minh Allen and Adam Theodore, recent events in my personal life, and some less than stellar experiences with adoptees and people from the media have all thrown me for a loop. I guess it’s going to take me a while to get my bearings.

There is a new term that’s floating around out there – TRAmbiguity. It was originally coined by TRA writer Bryan Thao Worra. Any number of definitions might be assigned to this term but I prefer to think of it as: a behavior and/or state of being specific (though not exclusive) to transracial adoptees that allows them to remain undefined – ambiguous. The reason I use “TRAmbiguity” is because I am a TRA and that is how I chose to define my existence based on my experience as a transracial adoptee.

I believe living between races and cultures has allowed me to fine-tune my diplomatic skills down to an art-form. That’s not to say I wasn’t sincere. The lens through which I see the world is very gray. At first, I considered TRAmbiguity as more of a tool, but have since come to accept it as a state of existence through which I’ve learned to navigate. There didn’t seem to be a lot of choice in the matter – not if I wanted to avoid getting stuck in the polarized world in which society says we should live. Vietnamese or American? White or Asian? For or against? Pro or anti? Who’s side are you on, anyway?

The nebulousness of TRAmbiguity becomes problematic when faced with situations where I’ve felt pressure to pick a “side” or take a stand on some issue. Sometimes that pressure is internal, sometimes it’s external and at other times, both. The pressure I exert on myself is much easier to manage as I understand its source. The external pressure, however, is outside my control. Dealing with it can be tricky. Of course, one would think neither should matter as long as one is true to oneself, but it’s rarely that simple.

A recent example could be the recent accusations of corruption and subsequent closing of adoptions from Việt Nam. I voiced my concerns quite loudly questioning whether it was wise to continue allowing adoptions from my birth country. In fact, I did feel it was prudent not to until things were sorted out.

Some could interpret that as a stance against adoptions from Việt Nam, against international adoption or adoption period. Yet all the while, I supported Ethica’s efforts to try and ensure that pending and any future adoptions from Việt Nam remained ethical. Some could interpret that as a my being for adoptions from Vietnam, for international adoption and/or adoption period. Both interpretations would have been wrong as I have never expressed either opinion and truly cannot think in such binary terms about adoption or anything else. Support, criticism or outright opposition to one thing need not imply generalized support or opposition to another.

Likewise, choosing to embrace one’s ambiguity need not prevent adoptees from taking strong stands on issues important to them. Support for open records and adoptee rights, pushing for stronger support for birth families, exposing corruption and abusive adoption practices and being critical of ones own adoption or adoption itself should not imply that one is against adoption as a whole.

Ideally it really shouldn’t matter, but functionally it does. Whether a person is perceived as either pro- or anti-adoption can influence who that person speaks to in the media and who speaks to that person. It can be a factor in who links you if you blog, determine whether one’s loyalties are questioned and by whom and sadly, determine who trusts whom and with what.

Being too ambiguous or diplomatic can create doubts about one’s loyalties, foster feelings of suspicion and can make it difficult for an adoptee to find a place in which they feel they “belong.” From an “adoptee perspective” that is perhaps the saddest of all outcomes, because many of us are specifically seeking comradery with our adopted peers. To end up isolated or falsely labeled is detrimental to adoptees as a community. Such a split weakens us and could be exploited for any number of agendas other than our own. If I must be against something, it is that.

The blog exchange between Kevin and Adam was encouraging and drove home the importance of Vietnamese adoptees having similar open discussions – adoptee to adoptee. I think it would be a productive venture to continue discussions started a few years ago and spark new ones relevant to current circumstances.

Unlike forums, blogs allow us the liberty of engaging one another in lively discussions from the comfort of our own “turfs” under our own terms. It’s encouraging to see more and more VN adoptees getting their perspectives out there on their own. Hopefully, that trend will continue to expand and deepen in expanse of topic and depth of discussion.

Perhaps once adoptees begin to actively define and broaden the meaning of “adoptee perspective” on our own terms, TRAmbiguity will no longer be a source of suspicion. Hopefully, it will come to be seen as a liberated state of existence that allows us to speak freely without the fear of being labeled. Maybe it’s just a pipe dream, but it seems like a worthwhile goal – especially if it leads to a greater sense of solidarity among us. At the risk of sounding sappy, that is where I think we’ll find our greatest strength and what will enable us to make some of our most worthwhile contributions.

War was both a real and abstract occurrence in my life. I was born during and into a war being carried out in a relatively tiny country that I was taught to forget or not consider ‘real’ at all when I grew up as an American. Due to numerous political and economic circumstances, as well as sheer distance and the passage of time, my body and consciousness were well shielded from the ripping and tearing, the decay and degradation, and the dying moans of war.

Because I wasn’t told about it, I didn’t know; because the secreted past wasn’t acknowledged, I didn’t recognize my part in it.

My suburban lifestyle and the mentality that came with it, made the ir-reality of my past even more prominent. I melted in with everyone else and hardly ever thought of what made me different from my peers and other community members. My willingness to ‘pass’ was accepted as a natural stage of development because not to do so would have been the death of me. And, I really don’t think that’s an overstatement.

However, the more my pot was stirred, the more detritus came floating to the top. The truths of war and the aftereffects of others’ decisions in times of crises began expanding past the Keepers of Lies until I started noticing inconsistencies and uncomfortable silences cropped up when I asked inconvenient questions of the elders.

Like many a struggling teenager, I used music as a form of self-expression that went against the grain of the inauthenticity I noticed all around me. Certain songs from specific artists helped me comment on the state of the world and on my own life.

“One”, by Metallica, was a song that gave me a shove out of slack acceptance and woke me up to the stultifying stillness that had clouded my surroundings. It’s a song that starts with the soft, but building, sound of strafing machine gun fire and exploding bombs, as if you were just coming to after a long sleep. The first clanging guitar notes mark the descent into the main subject’s personal torment. Blind, deaf, mute and with no limbs to speak of, this stump of a war veteran is kept alive through the egos of others and the vanity of bureaucrats.

now that the war is through with me
I’m waking up, I cannot see
that there’s not much left of me
nothing is real but pain now

No one pays attention to his humanity because he cannot speak for himself and his vulnerable physical stature causes his caretakers to disregard his mental well-being (“I’m just a piece of meat that keeps on living.”). The guy lives his thoughts, dreams, nightmares and desires in his head, lives through time in a loop of childhood memories, and continually messages for help to end his misery (“Inside me I’m screaming, but nobody pays any attention. If I had arms, I’d kill myself; if I had legs, I could run away; if I had a voice, I could talk and be some kind of company to myself.”).

The italicized quotes come from the movie clips from “Johnny Got His Gun” (1971), which were incorporated into the music video for “One”. At the time, I took the anti-war commentary literally and viewed the song and video as a common critique of the popular glorification of war in our society.

From the benefit of hindsight, however, the song was speaking to me on a much more personal level. The speechless and devalued stump lying on the hospital bed was how I felt whenever I delved into my actual role in my family and in my community. I was simply kept alive for someone else’s amusement, or out of someone else’s sense of duty and responsibility, or because I fit nicely on the mantel for my parents’ friends to gaze at and comment upon.

fed through the tube that sticks in me
just like a wartime novelty
tied to machines that make me be
cut this life off from me

To be made an orphan by the war on the Vietnamese, allowed a segment of the American population to take pity on my predicament. In my mind, the predicament is really this: how does one bring in and raise a child of the enemy? What sort of mental calculations had to be made to account for the fact that these people who brought me into their community to live and become a citizen among them were the same ones who did nothing to end their government’s willful killing off of my countrymen and women?

Well, I think I can offer one educated guess as to how they accomplished this feat: They gave me a second chance. And, I could take it or leave it. My survival, my well-being and my happiness were placed squarely on my shoulders.

My family, my community and the people of the United States could then sit back and pat themselves on the back that at least one good thing came out of that war: I was alive due to their charity.

Now, all I had to do was forgive and forget.

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A blog by three adult Vietnamese adoptees as they move forward, reflect back and express their thoughts on just about everything in between. More...

Contributors:
Anh Ðào Kolbe

Kevin Minh Allen

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© All rights reserved, Misplaced Baggage, Sumeia Williams, Anh Ðào Kolbe, Kevin Mînh Allen. 2008. May not be reproduced without individual author's consent. The rights to all referenced content is held by the original owners.