“Occasionally, we have the pleasure of sharing with you the thoughts of adult adoptees who are part of our community. We are thrilled to share this piece by Rosey Jones. She is a recent graduate of Messiah University. We found her through a link to her senior thesis project highlighted on their social media. She was adopted from China and shares her story of searching for identity as part of our observance of National Adoption Month.” —Creating A Family
Ambiguity Was a Burden
I don’t have a record of my birth, or at least not the recollection of it. For me, life starts at sixteen months — all else was lost in transition, left behind with my abandonment, and locked away in the babyhood memory of my adult mind. All I can really say with surety is that I was adopted when I was sixteen months old from an orphanage in southern China.
I have several internationally adopted friends, but we never talked about our pre-adoption lives as children. We celebrated our “Gotcha” days together and ate Chinese food together. With our families surrounding us, we basked in the knowledge that each of us was lucky and blessed to be in the situations we were. With no one to talk to about this differently, I always believed that the ambiguity I felt was a burden I had to bear alone.
Adoption as a Band-aid for Abandonment
From my earliest years, I always assumed that I was abandoned because of the One-Child Policy. The Chinese government decreed that families could only have one child in hopes of curbing the unprecedented population growth of their nation. I also learned that in the Chinese tradition, men care for their parents when they grow old. Women accommodate this family preservation by leaving their families of origin to join their husbands’ families at marriage. Therefore, to reinforce and protect their families’ cultural traditions, it was more favorable during the enforcement period of the One-Child Policy for families to keep their sons and abandon their daughters.
My adoption was always inevitably described as the cure for abandonment.
To soothe my feelings of ambiguity and uncertainty about the circumstances of my adoption, I purposely turned my attention away from the hard questions of adoption and race. Instead, I parroted the parroted lines I had heard my whole life from my family and my friends:
- Of course, I feel lucky I was adopted.
- I don’t have any problems with my adoption or my adoptive parents.
- No, I don’t want to meet my real parents.
- My race doesn’t matter at all—all that matters is my family loves me, and I love them.
- Race is just skin color and nothing more.
I didn’t start to process my experiences and identities as an international, transracial adoptee, and Chinese American woman until I was a young adult. Research shows that this is a typical stage in which adoptees begin this investigation into self. I didn’t feel comfortable working through these parts of my identity until I was living away from my adoptive parents. In many ways, doing so felt like a betrayal of their role in my life – to be researching my roots and sitting in the next room away felt awkward.
I never let myself consider the context surrounding my adoption nor let myself need, wish, or even imagine information about my life before adoption. I did not entertain “what could have been.” I didn’t even consider what my adoption meant to me until I left for college. Once away at school, I began to explore the intersectional identities and experiences other transracial adoptees writers like me had worked through in the past.
The Search for Self
My search for self began with literature. I dug deeply into reading authors and writers who had the same experiences as me. As an avid reader and creative writer, it is no surprise that reconciling my identity began in my comfort zone. Sometime during my second year in college, I was introduced to the poet Lee Herrick. A dear mentor and English professor emailed one of his poems to me.
“Thought of your [work] when I read this,” she wrote in the subject line. The body of the email was nothing except for a link to Herrick’s poem, “How Music Stays in the Body.”
After a quick online search, I learned that Herrick, poet laureate of Fresno, California, from 2015-2017 and current professor at Fresno City College and Sierra Nevada College, was born in Daejeon, South Korea. He was adopted by a white American couple when he was ten months old (“About Lee Herrick”). I followed the link and began to read. I was immediately drawn in by the words that Herrick crafted.
Your body is a song called birth
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
[…] Most forgot the lyrics
to their own bodies. or decided to paint abstracts of mountains or moons in the shape of your face.
I’ve been told Mothers don’t forget the body.
I can’t remember your face, the shape or story, or how you held me the day I was born, so
I wrote one thousand poems to survive. (Herrick 1, 7-13)
Before this introduction, I had never read work by an adoptee, much less an international adoptee! In his poem, Herrick gave language to my experiences of longing for memories that are always just out of reach. It wasn’t a denial of his adoption nor an aggressive act against his second parents. Rather this piece was a simple recognition of his loss. Reading Herrick was the first time I found someone else who felt the same way I did. He struggled to reconcile many of the same situations I was struggling with. And he wrote about them, just as I have done over the years. His words empowered me, and I eagerly began searching for other adoptees who wrote about their experiences.
Their History is My History
From there, my search for truth began to grow, and I branched into topics that frightened me more — the policies and politics of my birth nation. When I first began researching, I didn’t tell my parents, friends, roommates, or anyone. I didn’t want anyone to know I was curious about this part of myself. I didn’t want anyone to know I was grieving this lost culture and history.
The things I knew about China, about the China adoption program, and, more specifically, my adoption were the pieces of information I was told. I wanted — needed — to see the facts myself.
I wanted to know this history because it was mine, and I should have known it — would have known it — if I had been raised in China. My adoption had separated me from the experiences and knowledge of my first culture, home, and family along the way. I had internalized untruths about myself and my origins. I always thought my gender was why I was separated from my first family. Granted, the likeliness of this is still very high — after all, it’s no coincidence that 96% of the Chinese American adoptees in 2001 were female. However, by extension, I always assumed that my gender meant I was unwanted. Or that my first parents were victims of state propaganda. Or I was given up by my first parents because they wanted me to have a better life.
When I did the research, however, I learned the picture wasn’t nearly as “black and white” as I had internalized it. The family planning policies implemented by the Chinese government, the centuries-deep cultural norms around family, and the unique stories shared by birth and adoptive families over the history of Chinese adoption all combine to create a far more nuanced picture. My adoption wasn’t simply a choice made by my first parents. It was a decision borne out of policies and prejudices of the larger governmental system and far more significant than the people those policies impacted.
More Context Wasn’t Enough
Population control has historically been a tactic for governmental structures to wield power over specific groups of people and continues worldwide even today. Specific ethnic minority groups and socioeconomic classes in China have been targeted for decades and continue today.
Consider the Uyghur people imprisoned in work camps in the Northwestern region of Xinjiang, China. Reports of rape, forced sterilization, and genocide have been shared by escapees from the camps. Global satellites have visually proven the rapid building of barrack-like structures in that area. Regulating the size of a single ethnic group or people group has been a horrifyingly effective way to enforce power and dominance over that group. On the macro level, my international adoption was orchestrated by just such a system – put in place by the Chinese government and enforced for decades according to plan.
Doing this research and connecting with others with similar life experiences as mine didn’t give me answers. However, those connections and shared stories did contextualize my life a little bit more. My feelings and experiences are affirmed and validated within those connections. My arrival into my life no longer started at sixteen months old. Now I have knowledge about the place from which I came and valid explanations for how and why my story progressed as it did. I may not know the particulars, but I do know the general. Once I spent a few months looking into this quietly, I began to slip small comments into my conversations with some of the closest people in my life: my parents, friends, roommates, and siblings.
In the beginning, talking about what I was learning felt taboo. However, opening to them and with them started deep and meaningful conversations I would never have had otherwise. Sometimes I walked away feeling hurt by the stereotypes and beliefs others spoke to me. I had to remind them of my journey and discuss why their words hurt me and how we could remedy it together. In the process, learning more about my identity and speaking up for myself deepened my knowledge of and confidence in myself. The added benefit is that my relationships with friends and family grew stronger too.
Finding Home in My Body
It was a terrifying step to investigate my roots and even more so to talk about them. However, as I’ve matured and learned more, I’ve come to realize several important truths:
- It’s not a betrayal to recognize your past while living in the present. Recognizing your past and present are not an either/or situation; it’s both/and.
- The adoptee experience is a culmination of being lost and found and having many parents with different emotions associated with them, and that’s okay.
- Adoption doesn’t mean you have to leave everything about your previous life behind and replace it — you can bring your culture, food, memories, and interests with you.
In learning more about my adoption, my race, my culture, and my past life, I have been able to make my mind and my body my home, a place I can love, take care of, and inhabit comfortably. I have learned more about who I was, who I am, and who I want to be.
Rupi Kaur describes this notion in her third poetry collection, home body, of finding a home in one’s own body. Not just living life as some empty zombie, wandering from place to place, but being comfortable and in love with your body. For your body is your true home. No matter who tells you differently, the experiences you go through are reflected in and on the body in which you live. Your memories, emotions, traumas, and joys are all yours. No one can invalidate those truths, not even yourself.