Embracing Every Identity

Embracing Every Identity
Cathleen Daly

Adoption is not the most important fact about me, but it has been one of the most impactful aspects of my identity journey. 

I was adopted from Zhejiang Province, China at 18 months old by my amazing family – my mom, older brother, two older sisters, and little sister – in New Mexico! 

Growing up, as a Chinese adoptee in my hometown of Rio Rancho, New Mexico meant I was pretty much the only Chinese adoptee in my community. I didn’t feel that I fit in anywhere because I looked different than everyone around me including my own family, and I despised it at the time. That mixed with being extremely shy as a kid made me want so badly to just blend in with the crowd and not do anything to draw attention to myself. It also made me want to have nothing to do with my cultural heritage. 

However, as I entered my teenage years, for the first time my heart actually began to open up to learning more about where I came from. I got curious, and that curiosity led me to discovering Adopteen. My mom had told me about it growing up, but due to my lack of interest in learning about my past, my lack of pursuing the organization any further also waned.  

But in summer 2012, I was finally ready to open that door. I found out Adopteen was hosting a Camp-Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. The night before registration closed, I, very much on a whim, filled out my registration and bought my plane ticket to Hotlanta! 

I arrived at my first Adopteen event that summer of 2012 with really no idea what I was getting myself into, and I quickly realized it was everything I needed and more. The energy was so open and positive. It was a community where I did feel that I fit in and where I didn’t feel like I had to explain, not even once, the complicated reasons of “Why I am adopted” or “Why I didn’t look like my family.”

Along with the experience, surprisingly a new challenge that I had never been faced with before in understanding my identity emerged; suddenly, I didn’t stand out anymore solely because of how I looked or because I was an international adoptee. I was so used to standing out that fitting in almost felt more foreign to me. However, there was something so special about this community; there was so much acceptance and embracement of everyone’s individual personalities, strengths, and stories that I knew that these were my people…and it didn’t matter what we looked like, it just mattered who we were as people and the connections we made with each other. 

So, I got involved. I attended every Adopteen Camp, Midpoint, Adoptees Giving Back Service Trip, and Committee I could throughout the rest of my high school experience.

In being immersed in this community, I learned how to develop and celebrate my identity beyond just my adoption. I grew in my faith, my relationships, my interests, and later on my professional career. I learned that my identity story was more than just my adoption story.

Now, as an adult adoptee attending programming like Beyond Adopteen and staying connected with the community has been instrumental in building my confidence as both an adoptee and as a person. The community, regardless of the age group and the seasons I am able to be involved in, remains the same: acceptance and celebration are at the core of everyone’s unique story and it has taught me to embrace others in the same way. Today, I am proud to embrace every identity that makes me, me (and all of the future identities I have yet to discover too): A daughter, a sister, a girlfriend, a friend, a cat mom, a young professional, a creative type, and yes of course, a Chinese adoptee who now honors her past and all of the curiosities that come with it. 

Grounding Work
Julia Miracle

Julia and her mother

Fall 2020: If you had asked me how I felt about adoption, I would have said that I was all good — that I felt pretty solid in my identity. Fast forward to Spring 2021, the Stop Asian Hate movement was quickly sweeping across the US and Canada. I felt so detached and ungrounded, with no one else to share these feelings with. It was shortly after this that I was sent the application to apply for The Park as a Digital Marketing Intern.

I had visited The Park in 2019 on a family trip and was in awe of the programs that were offered for kids and teens like me. It was comforting knowing that adoptees had a space to gather and it was something I wish existed closer to where I grew up in Ohio. I realized this internship would be the perfect chance to connect with adoptees and gain work experience: an opportunity I wouldn’t find anywhere else.

I remember being asked, “how are you connected to adoption?” It seemed like such a straightforward answer: I am adopted. Then I realized, that was about as much of a connection that I had. I began to doubt my ability to work in an adoption support organization. After all, I barely identified myself as Chinese; I was raised around white people and white culture; and I grew up knowing only two other adoptees and rarely engaged in anything related to my culture or adoption.

Despite my doubts, I received an acceptance email. I was thrilled! Little did I know how transformative this internship would be. I understood very little about the adoption process: how I got here, what my mom went through to get me, and all of the politics and international relations at play. Moreover, I did not realize how incredibly powerful and grounding it would be to be surrounded by a team of adopted and Asian women.

I loved my work and creating content for The Park, but the moments in between were by far my favorite. Learning everyone’s stories, sharing feelings and thoughts I had never been able to completely articulate before, and learning how to intertwine Chinese culture with my own upbringing was gratifying. I came in with so many preconceived notions about who I was, how I could feel, and what I believed in that were turned completely on their head.

The Park staff and interns helped me connect with my truest, most honest self, and we did it together. I connected with the interns and staff in a way I have never connected with anyone else. Coming from a lifetime surrounded by white people (sorry Mom), I was conditioned to give the short and sweet version of my background. Suddenly, I was graced with the beauty of not having to explain myself and, even better, my unknowns and my feelings were not only understood, but relatable. Never have I been able to relate to so many people at the same time in my life. This in itself was worth doing the internship. I know my fellow interns and Amy, Ali, and Claire will forever be in my corner, as I will be in theirs: always supporting each other, laughing together, and eating boba.

For APIDA Heritage Month (Asian-, Pacific Islander-, Desi- American Heritage Month), The Park will be hosting a panel conversation with transracial, transnational, Asian adoptees to discuss how navigating home culture and birth culture has impacted their ideas of home and identity. Before the panel, we asked the panelists to share their thoughts on what APIDA/AAPI heritage celebration means to them. This blog series is a collection of their thoughts.

Jade Wexler

What does APIDA Heritage Month mean to you? Does this month bring any challenges for you as an adoptee?

As a transnational, transracial adoptee, I didn’t grow up with Vietnamese or Asian culture, any Asian American role models/mirrors, or any sense of connection to my heritage. For 20 years, I felt confused, ashamed, and inauthentic. I made jokes about being “basically white” to put my mostly white peers at ease. I was embarrassed to introduce myself since I often felt obligated to explain my mismatched name and transracial adoption story. I used to feel like an alien — that I’d simply plopped, out of nothing and no one, into existence and that nobody could ever relate to me or the issues that burdened me (read: grief of mother and culture loss, love for my adoptive family, confused racial identification, and etc.)

When I went to college, I joined Asian heritage clubs seeking to find a community and/or learn more about “my real culture” outside of the watch of my adoptive family. I was simultaneously frightened of “being found out” and desperate for acceptance as an Asian adoptee. Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of work to be done to increase awareness of adoption and so these experiences left me feeling more alienated and confused since I lacked experiences growing up in the culture. I’m thankful to have since found friends who, as non-adopted Asian Americans, also held space for my feelings and made me realize that, while different, many Asian Americans also wrestle with the same feelings of shame, in-betweenness, and fears of inauthenticity.

Finding the adoptee community changed my life. I can’t describe the joy in finding this community. Researching for my honors thesis helped me understand the history, tension, and political potential of Asian adoptees in America. It helped me frame adoptees in Asian America, and who I was, and empowered me to assert my identity and validity as an Asian American and as a transnational, transracial adoptee. There are at least 300,000 Asian adoptees in the US (reach out if you want resources — knowledge is power!). Asian adoptees encounter the same racism, xenophobia, and hypersexualization as non-adopted Asian Americans, and we have unique experiences that make us different too. For example, transracial Asian American adoptees often do not grow up with access to their biological family, racial mirrors, medical histories, or culture (all privileges), yet we often have access to other privileges (financial stability, greater educational opportunities, socialization in white spaces) through proximity to our (predominantly) white families. We are Asian American, too, and we matter.

For me, Asian-, Pacific Islander-, and Desi- American Heritage (APIDA) Month is about learning about, celebrating the beauty of, and recognizing the real diversity and differences in APIDA communities and cultures. It’s a beautiful idea — and at the same time, there’s also a lot of trauma, loss, and grief in our identities (for adoptees, and for APIDA communities more broadly) that are often unacknowledged by the broader public. So as we celebrate APIDA communities, I think we also need to hold space for the tensions, conflicts, and sadness that can emerge alongside joy in connection to these identities too. May also brings spring and blossoming flowers, and it always reminds me that we are always in the process of “growing through what we go through.” I like to think that, however long it may take, or whatever path we find ourselves on, we all have the capacity to bloom in our own way. As I explore, learn, and connect with my cultures — Vietnamese, Asian American, adoptee— I can now recognize myself as an Asian American adoptee and what an honor each of these identities brings.  🌸🌺✨

Kate Mayne

What aspect of your culture do you admire?

What I admire about Korean culture is their endurance and creativity. Even though it is a tiny country, the amount of innovation that has come from the people who have suffered so much so recently, is truly admirable. Of the US culture, I love that it is a country full of so many beautiful minds and perspectives.

What does APIDA heritage mean to you?

APIDA heritage to me is something I have struggled with only within my adult years. As a kid, I never really thought of being Asian as part of my identity, but as an adult, I’m constantly questioned about my identity.

Does this month bring any challenges for you as an adoptee?

As an adoptee, I struggle with being able to fully understand what many of my fellow AIPDA are feeling since I never faced the same types of issues that they might have. Since my family was part of the majority in the country I grew up in, I didn’t have to navigate the same issues as many other immigrant families had to, but as an adult, I’m realizing that personally, I have been faced with so much discrimination and problems due to my physical appearance.

How has your heritage shaped the person you are today?

My heritage was always something I was taught to be proud of. My American family was very careful to make sure they explained as much as they could and helped me understand to the best of their ability. I would say they tried their best, and I am so grateful to that, but I think there was obviously much that I just didn’t even realize was different. I am now very proud and even find beautiful, the shape of our eyes, the sound of the language, the taste of the food, etc, but it was definitely something I had to learn.

How does your culture influence your perception of identity and home?

“My culture” is a term I am still adjusting to. I now have dual citizenship of the country I was born in and the country I was raised in, so it’s hard to say which is my full nationality. It would be simple to just say I’m American, because I had that citizenship for so long and am more comfortable in that language, but most of my adult life has been in the country that I was born in. So I would say I am still being influenced and learning about my identity and what I call “home”.

How has your upbringing influenced notions of identity and home?

My upbringing was very open and honest. My family is Christian and raised me to be very understanding and accepting of anyone and everyone. I really appreciate that they were never close minded and always encouraged us kids to research for ourselves about what we believed in and supported that exploration. Without that support, I could never have gone to the places I’ve been or done the things I’ve done.

How does adoption tie into APIDA Heritage Month?

There are so many of us Asian adoptees that struggle with being between Asian and whatever culture we were raised in, if we were adopted into a different culture than what we were born into. I think it’s important to open the door for understanding amongst us because we do share so much in common, and also give us adoptees the opportunity to learn and understand what was different. So often, I think people just close the door on what they can’t understand or what they think others won’t understand. The world is hurting already, we don’t need to add to it by keeping people out who are needing the support and community.

What message would you give to Asian adoptees who find it difficult to navigate this month?

I would like to tell Asian adoptees that it is okay to struggle and that it is okay to ask questions. We’re all still learning who we are and what our place is in this world. I am what most would consider “adult-enough” of an age to have things figured out, but I can assure you that no matter what country I’ve been to or what age I’ve met, people have lived such different lives and gone down such different paths, there’s no way anyone can predict when you’ll have it “figured out”.

“It takes courage to grow and become who you really are.” – E.E. Cummings

Leah Garlock, a Korean-American transnational adoptee, is an experience designer and illustrator and is the Communications Manager for Asian Womxn in the Arts (AWA). Leah sat down with our 2020 Adopteen Virtual Camp campers to explore how creativity and artistic expression can be used to process and celebrate our diverse and ever-evolving identities.

Identity is ever-evolving, but whatever that identity is right now, we hope you are able to own it and feel proud of it! What are some ways you have found help you to express and explore your identities?