I was just a few days old when I was left in a bus station in Zhuzhou, Hunan Province, China. At some point, a figure emerged from the humming crowd and carried my blanket-swaddled body to a nearby police station and from there, I was delivered to an orphanage.
In the afternoon of Jan. 20, 2003, nine-some-odd months later, a couple in the United States received “the call” from their adoption agency. Come early March, the pair arrived in China alongside another couple dozen parents-to-be, all of whom were simultaneously jet-lagged and hopped up on pre-baby adrenaline. The couple, whose names were Rick and Laura, would soon become my parents. As they waited for the last documents to be finalized, they set out with the group, and together we explored the surrounding cities throughout the subsequent few weeks. At last, it was finally time and enveloped in the belly of a big white plane, we flew to the place I’d learn to call home.
That’s usually how the “adoption story” goes, and more importantly, how it ends. By a stroke of luck, one family’s tragedy morphs into another’s blessing: a neat, bookshelf-worthy narrative arc easily packaged and tied with a bow. There is some truth in this understanding of adoption — for even with any broader external circumstances subtracted, the reality persists: a mother decided that the best opportunities and the best life for her child did not reside within her capabilities. Yet, somewhere else, another human (or a pair of humans) did have these capabilities. I’ve always found that there really is some Hollywood-worthy transcendental twinge, some twist of fate, involved in bringing an adoptee to their adoptive family. After all, running through some of the infinitely many “what-ifs” — what if I had gone to another family, what if I had never been adopted, what if my birth parents had kept me? — is nearly unavoidable, and yet this only reaffirms how, dare I say, “meant to be” it all is, in its own inconceivable, incomprehensibly labyrinthian kind of way.
Still, our natural love for happy endings can inadvertently cloud our ability to question if the ending truly is the end. And in the case of adoptees, the part of the story that takes place after the actual adoption is often lost. Seeing as November is National Adoption Month, it’s as fitting a time as ever to discuss the nuances of adoption. As a Chinese American adoptee myself, this piece will focus on the nuances pertaining to this particular group.
At the tail end of the 1970s, China enacted its controversial one-child policy. Intended mainly to assuage fears of overpopulation, it was exactly what it sounds like: parents were not legally allowed to have more than one child, though exceptions for two children were common. In 1992, China formally opened its doors to international adoption, yet certain traditions led to sex discrimination when it came to which children were kept and which were given away. Some of these traditions were underpinned by patriarchal tendencies — for example, when children grew up and married, the wife was generally expected to prioritize the care of her husband’s parents over her own. Unsurprisingly, from a parent’s perspective, sons were thus preferable to daughters. This would go on to lead to a sex imbalance as well as a multitude of other issues. Still, it was almost four decades later before China finally terminated the one-child policy.
Despite a gradual decline in international adoption as a whole, the Pew Research Center found that nearly 270,000 children were adopted out of China from 1999 to 2016, with over 78,000, almost a third, adopted by American families. In fact, China reigned as the United States’ predominant source of international adoption for a decade.
Chinese American adoptions overwhelmingly display a few common characteristics. Firstly, the adoptee is a girl more often than not, the adoptions are always closed or anonymous and finally, the vast majority of the time, adoptive parents are “white, older, well-educated and relatively affluent,” as described by the Institute for Family Studies in a 2017 report. For the most part, my adoption was no exception to these circumstances and the ways it has shaped and continued to shape, my life is seldom out of the ordinary, either, as far as adoptees go.
I grew up in a small town of a couple thousand people in upstate New York, our little lake and quaint Victorian houses shielded by rolling hills. Some of us, half-kidding, half-serious, would say, “growing up here is like living inside a snow globe.” As trite as it is, I really wouldn’t change any of it for the world. But it would be a mistake to say that either this village and the life it provided me are without their faults.
According to the U.S. Census, the population of my town is 94.2 percent white. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, I was still a baby when, upon seeing my slanted eyes and realizing I was adopted, folks began making remarks to my parents that were, quite frankly, better left unsaid. Elementary school brought an onslaught of curious classmates who wanted to know if I could speak English or why my face was so flat. From there, the years more or less dissolved into an ambiguous blur of such comments, mixed with the classic “Who are your real parents?” question as well as the teachers who relentlessly mistook me for another one of the few Asian students. A couple moments do manage to stand out — perhaps the most entertaining one is the time when the lunch monitors pulled me out of class to tell an Asian woman she couldn’t bring her kids to the playground during school hours — there was nothing but pure shock on their faces when I told them she was a stranger and was not, in fact, my mother.
Of course, virtually nobody had negative intentions, especially my fellow little kids, and it’s important to recognize that these interactions were informed by ignorance and not knowing any better rather than hatred. Yet it’s also important to recognize that intention is different from impact. Even in the absence of any ill-minded intention, words can still be damaging. I started feeling like an outsider in my own home, my own community, before I was old enough to understand what was happening. I was hyper-aware that I stood out, if by nothing else than the way I looked and the place I was born. Perhaps this seems dramatic, but until you’ve been in an environment where nearly nobody looks like you, you really can’t grasp what that experience is like.
Still yet, tapping into my Asian heritage often proved to be equally disconcerting, as it is for many adoptees. However, while some of us are encouraged to fully assimilate to our parents’ white lifestyle, my parents were the opposite. Many Sundays were spent at Chinese school a few towns over, and our family shuffled into the Chinese New Year festival’s audience every year we didn’t perform in it. This stopped before I got to middle school, despite my parents’ resistance. I saw it as one more thing that made me different from the other kids, and I was embarrassed by it. So, in the end, I wound up like many Asian adoptees, unable to speak my native language and uneducated about my heritage and culture. I was “too Asian to be white” and “too white to be Asian,” thus I continually straddled the line between the two. Occasional feelings of guilt are hardly a rarity among adoptees, either, whether for being adopted while other kids stayed at the orphanage or for the pain we’ve almost certainly caused our birth parents. There’s always those birth family questions, too, begged mostly out of curiosity but condemned to remain unfulfilled: what would it be like to know someone genetically related to you? What are my birth parents like, or what is my birth family like? Would they like me?
These questions underpin identity crises that take place amid a society with deep-seated prejudices and issues. The long-standing hyper-sexualization of Asian women, as well as the recent violence inflicted upon Asian Americans in light of a pandemic they have nothing to do with, are just a few of multiple issues. Perpetrating the “model minority” myth only solidifies the fact that, since Asian Americans do not suffer from the same economic inequalities as other racial and ethnic minorities, the discrimination we do face is easily swept under the rug.
One adoption story is bound to contrast with the next, yet we are united by certain things, and more precisely, certain challenges. That being said, this isn’t meant to be any sort of “sob story” — the goal here isn’t pity. But this oversimplified, prototypical idea of adoption as producing an easy “happily ever after” misrepresents a multifaceted situation as a single-faceted one. With that, a definitive self-identity is equal parts essential and hopelessly intricate, if not unobtainable altogether. The main takeaway? Be grateful that miracles happen when they do, but don’t forget that even miracles have their imperfections.
May Braaten is a freshman majoring in philosophy, politics and law.