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Where has the time gone? It was almost a year ago that I received an email from a television show that offered to help search for my supposed Vietnamese foster mother. The application requires a large amount of personal information. I start to fill it out, then stop, start filling it out again, then stop again. My mind seems trapped in the risk/benefit analysis of giving up my privacy to complete strangers and the slim chance of finding a woman who isn’t even my mother.
During my interview with John Safran, he brought up the subject of privacy rights vs. birth searches. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to convey the thoughts I’d expressed in an earlier conversation with a fellow adoptee. Some people seem to focus on the privacy of parents over the need for an adoptee to know, but there’s more to it than that. Many adoptees have to give up their privacy in order to even begin a search. Many of us have to trust complete strangers with information of which we’re usually very protective. We become ripe for exploitation. Then there’s that devastating disappointment when nothing is found.
Thinking about it makes me want to scream at woman considering giving up their babies to stop. Do they understand the vulnerable position in which they place us? Did they ever consider it? I’m sure many were convinced they were doing what was best for themselves and their babies. Maybe they were in some situations, but it doesn’t feel like it from where I’m standing now.
Part of me dreads another disappointment. I’ve so far sent out two inquiries. One ran into a dead end. The other never got back to me, not even to tell they were still looking or to say they’d found nothing.
So I waffle back and forth, filling out the form a little each day as I continue to weigh the costs against the potential benefits. I know I’ll eventually send it. How can I not?
A friend and I headed out one morning in search of the art district. I’d never been to that area of town and had to google up a map. Anyone who regularly uses google maps eventually learns that trying to navigate those things can tricky. Sometimes it’s like trying to find true north using a needle-less compass. We ended up heading straight out of town.
Luckily, backtracking was just a matter of getting on the other side of the highway via a u-turn. So back we went to find the nearest gas station to ask for directions. Undaunted, we headed out again hoping the gas station attendant knew what he was talking about. As we continued down the road, I saw the word “Danang” on a store sign and mentioned it to my friend. We decided to check it out and, wow, it was a newly opened Vietnamese store.
For me, it was a big deal. Over two years ago, I wrote a post bemoaning my inability to connect with Vietnamese adoptee bloggers and the Vietnamese American community in general. I couldn’t seem to find an “in” door. Since then, I’ve made contact with other bloggers and even had the privilege of co-blogging with two of the most distinctive voices out there. However, my attempts to establish contact with the Vietnamese American community in my area remained halfhearted.
Still gun-shy from previous experiences, my efforts were minimal. I knew there was a fairly sizable community here, but still did not actively seek them out. My justifications were endless: I was busy. There were more urgent matters to attend to. The community isn’t really a community and is too scattered. It’s too hard, dammit.
The truth is I’d turned into a big chicken and didn’t need much of an excuse to lull me back into forgetfulness. Ah, will I ever learn? As with my adoption, the signs were everywhere and popping up when I least expected them. The Vietnamese store served as yet another reminder that there was something I should be doing and wasn’t.
Of course, to reduce my reasons to merely fear would oversimplify and misrepresent the psychology behind my reluctance. I think the common set of fears did come into play: fear of rejection, fear of judgment, fear of not being able to connect, etc. However, something that I rarely talk about is the resentment. Being summarily rejected by a recruiter for the Vietnamese student organization at the college I was attending left a bitter taste in my mouth. True, I was hurt and felt seriously discouraged, but just as importantly, I felt this blood-boiling rage.
It felt as if “my own” had thrown me to the wolves and then refused to let me back in because I’d been mauled beyond recognition. I didn’t walk away. They’d given me away. I’d survived to seek them out again but rather than welcoming me back among them, they slammed the door in my face. They wanted nothing to do with me, and why should I care? What had they ever done for me other than relinquishing me to an eternal state of otherness?
I was aware these feelings were unreasonable but felt them anyway. Because I knew they were irrational, I buried them. However, I would eventually have to face the truth. Denial of those feelings numbed my awareness of them but still allowed them to affect my behavior. It’s weird how the mind works. I feel weird just writing these thoughts down, but surely I can’t be the only one.
I know as well as anyone that it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to resent a whole community of strangers. They had nothing to do with what had happened to me – either individually or as a group. Furthermore, I’d met and befriended enough Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans to know better. Why did I harbor such a sense of betrayal?
My mind immediately goes back to my childhood. Insomnia and I have been joined at the hip since I can remember. A lot of those late night sessions with sleeplessness involved thoughts of my Vietnamese mother. As I’ve mentioned before, not all of my midnight daydreams were childish fantasies of tearful reunions. Many times my imaginary interactions with Má were rendered with classic feelings of abandonment common to adoptees.
Some part of me felt that she’d sloughed me off like so much unwanted hair to be swept away and forgotten. Of course, now I know that’s not necessarily the case. There were other options, but to a child with limited knowledge and understanding, the only ones were a) orphaned by death and b) orphaned by abandonment. To compensate, I waffled between the two scenarios. Did she die or just dump me to my fate?
Sadly, Má wasn’t around to answer my questions. She only existed in my head and could neither confirm or correct my assumptions. Those thoughts never dissipated. They were never resolved but lay dormant just below the surface of my consciousness. I guess the recruiter for the Vietnamese student organization was just the trigger. He’d unwittingly turned on the light behind my skewed optical lens allowing for a whole lot of projection.
Ethnically Perplexed by Sume
Years ago my father sent me a folder containing a family tree that stretched back to 1776, an old newspaper article about one of his ancestors and a picture of the family crest. He is a proud Southerner, and his pride naturally extends to his European ancestry that he’d traced all the way back to Wales. Throughout my childhood, he’d never failed to impress upon me the importance of heritage.
Even as a little girl, I remember him taking my brother and I to an old family graveyard in Louisiana. Many of the graves had deteriorated to little more than piles of stones, and the names were no longer readable. None of this mattered to my father. He told my brother and I to stand next to them so that he could record our pilgrimage to the old family plot.
He often boasted about his grandmother’s strength of character which he attributed to her French-Canadian/Cajun roots. During our visits, his ears would perk up as he heard her and his father speaking Cajun, a language he never learned to speak.
I vaguely remember him urging me to ask my great-grandmother to see a sword she supposedly owned that had been passed down from the Civil War. Being a proud Southerner, he impressed the significance of the Confederate flag upon me at an early age. As a teenager, I proudly displayed it in the corner my room.
Rebel Yelling by Sume
I don’t remember my father ever associating the flag with racism. For him, it symbolized his Southern roots and nothing more. I might have had no problem with that except for the fact that my father was racist. He still is – and this is the part where I get really uncomfortable.
Writing about my family’s racism is always painful for many reasons. I am ashamed and ashamed of being ashamed. He is my father, the only one I’ve ever known. Some part of my conscience kicks me in the back of the head every time I mention my father’s racial prejudice. I feel the urge to apologize for him and even cover it up, but I’m tired of covering for my family, exhausted from carrying the burden of their deceptions. No matter how good their intentions, it’s not mine to carry. Furthermore, as I slowly re-align my perspective to one of a woman of color rather than a white woman, my brain must reject much of my father’s view of the world as unacceptable.
He has mellowed out some over the years, but it’s still there and manifests itself in more – and still occasionally less – subtle ways. He’s not the only one, but most of my family is less obvious about it. It always surprised and filled me with such shame and anger when I’d hear members of my family say “nigger” as if there were nothing wrong with it – even more so when I’d confront them about it. Sometimes I’d get arguments and excuses. Sometimes, they’d just look at me as if I were crazy. Except for my father, I’ve since learned to avoid those particular family members.
There was a time when I tried to compartmentalize Dad from his racism just as he seemed to compartmentalize racism from the Confederate South. Yes, I’ve read the debates, but cannot escape the fact that the South and part of its history included slavery. It’s not that I buy into the idea that the North was absent of racism and exploitation of people of color, but just as with my father, there are things to be proud of and things of which to be terribly ashamed.
Ironically, the only photo he seemed to be able to find of one of his early ancestors was that of a Union soldier (see first photo). On it, he’d written: Don’t claim no kin to this one.
On the inside of the folder, my father wrote:
Forget not from Whence
The lineage in your Vein
Was born of Suffering and Pain
In abeyance of Life’s Penance!
The infuriating thing is that all the while he was impressing upon me the importance of his heritage, he was contributing to the erasure of mine with his lies. Well intentions be damned. One does NOT compensate for another. One does NOT trump the other. Because there were so many pieces missing, the few remaining fragments became all the more valuable – and irreplaceable.
Despite any wish he might have had to ensure I felt a part of the family, a true sense of belonging is only true when you don’t have to work too hard at it. The burden of proof felt more put upon me than upon him. All he had to do was lie, but the responsibility for maintaining the illusion was mostly mine.
And I refuse.
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.