Saturday, October 10, 2009

An Adoption Reunion: Aliens in America

I've been thinking a lot and reading a lot lately about the issues Jen Fero raised in the documentary film Adopted which I wrote about recently. As a parent in general but also, as an adoptive parent, I feel a responsibility to learn and do all I can, to pay attention, to stay attuned, and help my Chinese born daughter feel at home in her adopted home, culture, and country. At the same time, I know the risk: it's easy to become hyper-vigilant, to second guess every exchange, and make oneself just a teeny bit ...stir crazy.

I'm thinking back to an exchange I had with my daughter this past summer.

It was the last weekend in August and my 9 year old daughter and I drove 3 hours south to join the annual reunion of 10 or so adoptive families who traveled together and bonded, 8 long years ago, on our journey to China to adopt our beloved daughters.

This year was the first time, since making this trek, since my daughter understood the significance of this gathering, since she'd struggled with the losses in her story this past spring, that my daughter was excited to go.

The reunion is typically hosted at one very generous family's home. We all contribute different dishes and share in a potluck dinner. We visit. We feast. We celebrate.

As parents, it's our hope our girls will develop and share a life-long bond. As parents, we already share a special bond, remembering that singular morning we gathered together in the lobby of the Liang hotel in Wuhan to meet our toddlers, each and every child looking pale, worried, tearful, and uncertain. We share the bond too of knowing, in a crazy-making-kind-of-way, that any one of our daughters -- the lanky girl running across the garden, the stocky girl sneaking an extra helping of noodles, the girl seated shyly at the table -- could just as easily have been our daughter. None of us will ever know, or be able to divine, the thinking (or even if there was much thinking) that went into the effort to match each girl with each family. It happened thousands of miles away, in a small sterile office, at the China Center for Adoption Affairs, in Beijing. The end result? No music, no fanfare. Just a letter and a crude photo mailed, special delivery, to homes across the US, a single envelope that would change the trajectory of each of our lives.

With the start of the reunion this year, the girls took a little time to warm to each other. But soon enough they embraced each other and the traditional party-like atmosphere. In prior years, one of the dad's had rigged a hose to a giant, jerry-rigged slip'n slide. Another year, the girls had partied on an enormous outdoor trampoline. This year the girls piled like puppies on to a hammock, swinging and tumbling. Then they disappeared to the basement to test their skills at Wii Karaoke and some kind of rock band fantasy. But the big hit, by the end of the evening, was an improvised i-spy, hide and seek game staged in and out of the garden and throughout the house.

It was stunning to see the difference the years have made. The girls seemed especially happy, as if they'd come into their own. They were healthy, strong, boisterous, sassy, and happy, hanging on us parents with an easy sense of entitlement. We might as well have been door posts planted for their pleasure. They rammed, tugged, poked, pulled, and punched at us playfully. We smiled back, caressing a head, stroking an arm, patting a bottom, exercising a parent's prerogative.

It was late in the evening by the time we said our good byes and thanked everyone. My daughter had been running non-stop, laughing, popping in and out of our host's house, clustered together with the gang of girls. Her eyes were bright, her cheeks flushed. She was either coming down with swine flu -- or she'd had a good time. On the drive back to our hotel, I checked in:

"Did you enjoy the reunion?"

"Yeah Mom. It was great. It was awesome!"

"Awesome, huh? Well, that's good news. I'm glad we came."

"Yeah. Me too. And, guess what Mom?" She whispered: "I'm not supposed to tell you this -- so don't say a word to the other parents -- but I just have to tell you --"

(What mom doesn't love this?)

"What's that honey?"

"We were aliens! We decided to pretend all the Chinese girls were aliens. And, we were hiding and spying on the parents!"

"Nooo way. Too funny."

We talked on, sharing impressions of the night. Nostalgia got the better of me and I shared a confession, dead certain the other moms felt exactly the same way -- and would have felt the same way again, even if the match between girls and parents had somehow played out differently.

"You know honey... I love each and every one of you girls. We're all family in a sense. Our lives are connected. But I feel blessed cause somehow I had the amazing good fortune of becoming your mom. I love being your mom."

She was quiet a moment. "But you know.... you're not my mom."

My heart lurched and froze for a nanosecond. Did the reunion trigger something? Were we headed back to the exchanges of last spring?

"No..?" I asked weakly. I glanced in the rear view mirror and saw her raising her palms upward. She looked at me -- like I was slow.

"I just TOLD you! I'm an ALIEN!"

I laughed. Apologized. And resumed breathing.

Sometimes, just sometimes, an alien is just an alien.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Transracial Adoption: Learning to See a World Full of Color

My last post offered a description of one adult adoptee's struggles with family, with her sense of belonging, with identity. The film trailer for "Adopted" shows Jen trying to explain her struggles to her mother who, in the film, battles a terminal illness.

Jen's story is enough to keep any parent of a transracially adopted child awake at night. But, as difficult as it is to watch, "Adopted" heightened my awareness. As an adoptive parent to a child of a minority race, an essential part of my job is to acknowledge and address the challenges that come with being a mixed race family.

Thankfully, in my search to learn more, after viewing “Adopted,” I came across another video.

Judy and Aaron Stigger share a very different story -- one with a far happier outcome. This isn't to discount Jen Fero's story. But stories like Aaron Stigger's are also important. To make us smile. To help us further understand. To give us hope.

This 4 minute video was originally posted back in January 2009 by Adoption Learning Partners (ALP), an educational organization whose primary goal is to have a "positive measurable impact on adoption outcomes." ALP offers a variety of web-based courses for adoptive parents and professionals, but there's also a wealth of free information and other resources if you dig about on their site and check out their "Community" page.

I love the message in this video that mother and son, Judy and Aaron Stigger, have to offer. Perhaps just as important as the verbal message is the body language, the clear, easy affection you see between mother and son.

Judy Stigger, by the way, was one of ALP's founders (which officially makes me a fan.) Judy and Aaron also did an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep, back in July 2007, sharing their experiences and insights on transracial adoption. There's a great summary write-up of the interview on the NPR website, or better still, you can listen to the interview, or read the transcript. (NPR has done a number of pieces on transracial adoptions and there are several terrific links on this site.)

In the on-air interview, Judy shares one of the ways she used to respond to the classically intrusive comments adoptive families so often encounter: "People would say, 'Do you have any real children?" She'd turn to her son, Aaron, and say, "No, I just have this plastic one." Aaron, playing along, would in turn hold out his arms and sing, "Ta-da!" Judy taught her son by example, defusing an otherwise potentially awkward moment with humor -- while also communicating the thoughtlessness of the question.

Aaron, also present for the interview, describes his memories of growing up, of not wanting to stick out, not wanting to be different, appreciating the opportunities he had to know, and make friends with other kids, other people, of color. This prompts Steve Inskeep to turn to Judy and ask how much thought she put into this. Judy credits a moment she experienced with her daughter (also adopted, also bi-racial):

"When she was about eight, we spread across the bed all the congratulations cards we'd gotten when we adopted her, because now she could read them. And then she looked at me and just got this pain wash across her face, and said, 'Mom, was I supposed to be white?' And I looked at the cards and realized every one of them had a little white baby face on it. And it struck me that this parenting business wasn't going to be about not being prejudiced. It was going to be about being inclusive."

In time, Judy began sending holiday cards to family and friends featuring people of color. One day, her daughter received an Easter card from Judy's mother. Her daughter took the card up to her room to read it in private -- but returned, flying down the stairs, holding the card out in front of her for her mother to see. The card showed a risen Christ, black, muscled, with dreadlocks. Judy's daughter said, "My grandma loves me!"

Further on in the interview Judy describes another moment of heightened awareness. She’d gone to attend one of Aaron's performances when he was part of a black theater group his freshman year in college. Walking into the theater, Judy realized she was one of the few white people in the audience. She realized how she stuck out, how exposed she felt -- and then she thought this is how her children must feel, as minorities, living, moving, and breathing in a predominantly white world. At this point, Aaron can't jump in fast enough. He explains, eagerly, emphatically, that this is an issue for all transracially adopted kids, for that matter, for all minorities. "Thank you! Thank you!" he exhales. "That right there needs to be on every program nation-wide!"

The message from both Judy and Aaron (and Jen as well) is that no child growing up likes or wants to stick out or be different. Children of color need friends, neighbors, and role models of color -- both in their immediate world and in the imagery, the media, that surround them. As caucasian parents with children of color, we need to support our children, to be as inclusive as we can. We can't limit ourselves to a world of white privilege.

As Judy puts it: "You need to see the world in color."

Friday, October 2, 2009

Finding Home, Feeling at Home -- An Adult Adoptee's Painful Story

Nine year old tidbit for the day:

"Hey Mom! Did you know if you whisper --" she drops her voice a notch below audible and, with exaggerated precision, mouths: "'E-le-phant shoes,' -- people think you're saying 'I love you!'"

This pleases her.

My daughter is full of good humor and snappy comebacks these days while I've been scrambling to launch her back into the school year and launch myself, full force, back into the job hunt. We've had a lot going on. Last week, the stress got the better of me. Out of patience, I launched into a lecture and told her if she couldn't learn to help around the house and clean up the trail of mess she leaves behind -- in the front hall, on the couch, on the dining room table, all over the kitchen counter -- and find a home for each and every one of her belongings, I'd have to assume they were leftovers. Trash. Oh, yes. The 18 origami cranes that lay for the past two days littered about the piano bench like leaves in the yard? Trash. Obviously trash.

She stammered, looking for the right response. "But, but... they're not trash! That, that... that is their home! It... it's... it's a display, Mom."

The corners of her mouth twitch and a wry smile escapes at this unexpected flash of creativity. I too am taken by surprise, and explode with a belly laugh. The cranes earn a reprieve and she quickly sweeps them into a nearby drawer.

We are back to innocent, happy days once more. But, in my off hours here and there, I continue the adoptive parents' journey in due diligence. Two weeks ago, a Korean adoptive parenting group (Korea Focus) and our local FCC (Families with Children from China) organization sponsored the showing of Point Made Films' documentary "Adopted." And so it was, thanks to an invitation and prompting from one my blog readers (Thank you Laura) I found myself with a gathering of 15 or so other adoptive parents in a well lit church basement one Tuesday evening.

According to the Point Made Films' web site, "'Adopted' reveals the grit rather than the glamor of transracial adoption."

The film is controversial and it's easy to see why.

We meet John and Jacqui Trainer of New Hampshire. They are just beginning their adoption journey and they're filled with great hope and joy at the prospect of becoming parents. They want to do the right thing by their child. There's no doubt they're completely committed and will love their daughter deeply. At the same time, it's clear they have no concept of the issues and challenges involved in transracial adoption. These issues and challenges are highlighted by Jen Fero, a 32 year old Korean born woman, adopted and raised in the late 70's and early 80's by a loving Euro American family in a small Oregon town.

Jen is the dominant voice in the film and, as she looks back, sharing her experience, she raises a number of blunt, difficult questions not only for her own adoptive, now terminally ill parents -- but for other adoptive parents, particularly those with children of differing racial backgrounds. Jen narrates her story and shares how early on she came to put on a game face, to present herself to her family, to the broader world, as the happy, funny, affectionate daughter she thought her family wanted.
Underneath this veneer, she struggled.

As a child, Jen heard again and again from people in her community what a "lucky" girl she was. But Jen didn't feel lucky. As much as she loved her adoptive parents, she felt loss and sadness over her abandonment by her Korean family. Jen's adoptive family emphasized their love and sense of good fortune in having her as their daughter -- but her losses were never referenced or acknowledged. Jen feared disappointing her parents, contradicting their joy. She felt she ought to be happy. Unable to discuss or explore the possible reasons behind her abandonment, Jen was left with a nagging vulnerability. What if she failed to please her adoptive family? She assumed a kind of vigilance, striving to please and placate her family. She learned to deny her more challenging, difficult feelings.

Growing up in a white family and predominantly white community, Jen identified with those around her. Since Jen's parents believed love was more important than race, they chose not to discuss racial differences. But -- if there's an elephant in the room and no one mentions the elephant -- will the elephant disappear? Jen was left to wrestle with the differences that announced themselves in the mirror each morning. The image of her own uniquely Asian face, her eyes, her nose, her skin tone, created a dissonance within her. When she was out in the neighborhood, in the school yard, on the playground, other children saw these differences too and they teased and taunted her. Jen felt ashamed. Lacking any kind of dialog at home, she had no words, no language, no safe harbor, place, or person to confide her troubles.

Remarks not only from other children but from others, elsewhere, over the years, made Jen aware there were people who didn't view her as fully American. Jen yearned to return "home" to Korea. But when she traveled to Korea, she found she was far more American than Korean -- and Koreans saw this too. When Jen moved away from her hometown to a larger city for work, she struggled to feel fully accepted within white communities -- but also had difficulty feeling a sense of belonging with other Korean Americans.

In the film, Jen makes an earnest effort to communicate her struggles and bridge the connection with her terminally ill parents. But the message they have failed her is too much and perhaps, too late, and too painful for them to take in. They don't understand and Jen feels even more alone. She succombs to anti-depressants and pain killers and is forced to leave her terminally ill parents to commit to her own self care, to enter a rehabillitation program.

Watching "Adopted," I felt a little like Ebenezer Scrooge witnessing the slow parade of ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future. I remembered the dark moment Scrooge stood perched at the edge of what would prove to be his grave, afraid to peer over and confront the worst.

Was Jen's fate my daughter's fate? Our fate? There was still time. What more could I, can I do, here in the present, to re-cast our future?

I'm being a tad melodramatic. But there's no denying Jen's story is tragic. By all appearances, her parents were loving, well meaning people. It took great courage for Jen as well as her parents to allow the film makers into their home, to share their story, and offer the seeds of hard-won wisdom.

I think there were two distinctly different issues at stake for Jen.

The first problem was that Jen was never encouraged or given the opportunity to recognize her own unique story -- and losses -- as a separate, legitimate reality apart from her adoptive parents' story -- their journey and joy in adopting and raising their daughter. Jen sensed her sadness and grief at losing her birth parents posed a threat or, at the very least, would prove hurtful to her parents. So she bottled up her sadness. As she grew older, as the pain persisted, she tried to numb it, then medicate it away.

As a community, as adoptive parents, we've learned how important it is to help our children own and process their stories -- including their losses. We live with the irony that our children's greatest loss is the basis for our joy: their presence in our lives. As threatening as that may feel, we have to support our children, to help them grieve one family so they are free to celebrate the next. Jen's experience is, in part, a desperate cry for this recognition and validation.

The second issue Jen wrestled with is, I think, even more complex.

Jen’s well meaning parents failed to recognize and address the challenges that come with being a mixed race family. To be fair, I think the Feros followed the beliefs of their generation. Once you adopted, you treated your child as if s/he were -- had always been -- your own. Love and acceptance trumped dislocation or differences. To acknowledge the rift or difference threatened the fantasy the bond could be re-made, perfect and whole. So families didn’t discuss abandonment, adoption -- or race. Korean adult adoptees like Jen have taught us the price of this denial.

Listening to Jen, I couldn’t help wondering if her struggle to fit in was unique to her experience as a transracial adoptee – or part of the broader experience of persons of color, of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities in this country. Friends of mine raised by immigrant parents, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Italian, Polish, and Russian, have shared childhood memories of not fitting in, of being the outsider, living betwixt and between two cultures, the culture of their parents' generation versus that of the American school yard and the media. Those of my friends who were happiest seemed to have found a way to mix and move comfortably in both worlds, having made their peace, even taking pride in a hybrid identity.

Is it possible Jens’ struggles to fit in were more authentically Korean American, or Asian American, than she realized?

As for adoptive parents, how many of us truly acknowledge, or understand that, when we adopt a child of another race, we become a family of color?

When I first made my decision to adopt my daughter, I threw myself into reading and learning everything I could about China. I developed a deep, one could argue na├»vely romantic fascination for its difficult history, politics, and people. Now, as much as I know it’s helpful to give my daughter a sense of pride in her birth country, I see there are many more layers to my job.

White adoptive parents have only known the world of white privilege. We have no idea what it feels like to walk about in someone else’s skin, to enter a classroom, apply for a job, shop at the local mall or museum, wander a city street and greet the world with a face that isn’t Euro American -- but is Asian American, Latin American, or African American.

We are blind and yet, we need to learn more, read more, reach out more, if we are to help our children feel at home, with a mix of faces, in a variety of places.