Adoptees Disrupting Adoption Narratives is a series of as-told-to pieces written and curated by Prism’s editor-at-large, Tina Vasquez, featuring five adoptees—Tiffany HyeonBrooks, Mezekerta Tesfay, Nicole Eigbrett, Rachael Murphey, and Rev. T Sheri Dickerson—and one personal narrative essay by Kimberly Rooney 高小荣. They share in their own words what being an adoptee means to them and how current narratives around adoption are inextricably linked to family separations, settler colonialism, and white supremacy. They also delve into how adoptee-led discussions are necessary for the sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice movements. You can find the series in its entirety here.
CW: family separation, sexual assault, intimate partner violence, eating disorders
I left China without knowing it. I was 17 months old, according to my paperwork, but the only memories I have are filtered through the photos, videos, and anecdotes my adoptive parents would later share with me. They told me I cried without end, that I clung to my adoptive mother even when she went to the bathroom, that I barely ate except for clementines that they peeled and fed me slice by slice. They attributed my crying to teething, and I don’t know enough about my own development to tell them they’re wrong. I just know it hurts too much to remember the grainy VHS recording they made of the welfare center staff handing me to them.
It took me nearly 20 years to return. In the meantime, my white adoptive parents raised me in a predominantly white suburb in Maryland. My adoption became a mythology: I was abandoned a day after I was born, left on the steps of a police station steps in Gaoyou, Jiangsu Province. My adoptive mother read me storybooks about the benevolence of Chinese-American adoption, and she told me I was meant to be her daughter because she had a Chinese imaginary best friend as a child.
Despite her supposed love of my Chinese identity, she and my adoptive father legally papered over my Chinese name and citizenship, and I lost a little more of myself. While they celebrated Chinese New Year with superficially explained red envelopes and decorated our house with items they brought back from China, they offered little substance about my Chinese identity.
My adoptive parents had few answers to my questions about adoption, so I had few things to say when kids at school asked me why my real parents didn’t love me. I don’t remember what I mumbled back, but I became increasingly convinced there was something wrong with me. For a while in elementary school, my mother pulled me aside every few months to chastise me for something childishly impolite I’d said or done, and I began to fear saying anything.
I think often about how, on paper, all the right pieces were there. There was a sizable Chinese-American community where I grew up. My neighbors were Chinese and had a son my age and a daughter several years our senior who sang in a Chinese children’s choir. My adoptive parents signed me up after attending one of her concerts, and for eight years, I went to rehearsals every Saturday surrounded by other Chinese children. At school, I took Chinese classes and I sat with the other Asian students, trying to pick up the pieces of their Asian identities, hoping they might drop like crumbs I could push together into something whole.
Some of it was consumerism—if I just listened to enough K-pop, watched enough Studio Ghibli and Wong Fu productions, I could understand their conversations. Others were values and mannerisms. I tried to contort myself into a shape their parents would approve of, first through my grades and extracurriculars, then by starving myself until my periods stopped.
But there was always a rift. I did not return to a house with Asian parents after school, and I sat silently as my friends exchanged anecdotes about the latest thing their parents said or did. At choir, the director singled me out as one of the only children who didn’t know music theory. My adoptive parents hadn’t insisted I learn an instrument, and while the choir director was gracious enough to offer supplementary lessons, I only felt shame at everything I didn’t know. During rehearsals and especially on concert days, the director and parent volunteers gave instructions in Chinese, and I would try to mimic the other children fast enough to imitate comprehension.
At the time, I didn’t understand why I had such an aversion to attending rehearsals, but when middle school ended, I gave up on choir. Two years later, convinced that leaving was better than being left behind, I gave up on Chinese classes too.
In high school, my legibility as my adoptive parents’ daughter began to wane among strangers, but among those who knew about my adoption, challenges to my Chinese identity increased. Every part of me became a reason for speculation or accusation: my bone structure made me part-Korean, my freckles and my eyes made me part-white, and even if I was technically Chinese, my lack of knowledge of Chinese language and culture made me basically white anyway. It hurt coming from white people, but I could dismiss their opinions more easily. It hurt more coming from other Asians; I was scared they knew enough about our identities that it might be true.
College was a rupturing point, as is common among transracial adoptees. My Chinese identity became undeniable at the predominantly white university I attended, but I lacked a strong enough foundation to build that understanding of myself. The casual racism of white students only offered pain and discomfort as a means of understanding my Chinese identity, but I felt alienated from Asian student organizations where members connected over what seemed to be essential Asian experiences I lacked.
My academic work helped me recognize how adoption altered my experience of my racial identity. In my first year of college, the Communist Party of China announced it would alter the one-child policy into a two-child policy. For a journalism class assignment, I interviewed several other Chinese-American adoptees about how the policy had affected them and what they thought about the change. By my sophomore year, I decided to expand that assignment into a research thesis, and I felt a compulsion to study abroad in China. I applied and was accepted for an eight-week program in Shanghai in the summer between my sophomore and junior years.
I still don’t know how to talk about what happened in China. I have several anecdotes prepared for when non-adoptees ask. When other adoptees who haven’t been back to their birth countries ask me, I talk about the culture shock, the language barrier, the overwhelming grief, and the hesitant joy. I tell them I don’t regret it, though the truthfulness of that answer changes by the minute. I don’t know how to tell them that going back to China shattered me. I don’t want to poison the well of their expectations by telling them that a white student in the study abroad program raped me in Shanghai, that he raped me again in the place I call my hometown. I don’t want to know if they, like so many others, will blame me for what he did.
My relationship with my rapist extended beyond the study abroad program. He told me he loved me, and I convinced myself that his actions only hurt so much because I loved him too. More than anything, I couldn’t bear to be abandoned again. When it finally ended, I had bruises on my wrist, nausea from the Plan B he bought after raping me again, and chest-cleaving grief that almost all of the pictures I have of myself in China were taken by him.
In the aftermath of the breakup, my relationship with my adoptive parents became untenable. When I told my adoptive mother about the assault, she told me I couldn’t tell my father. The next month, not knowing I’m bisexual, she expressed her disgust at bisexuality and queer people who are “so public” about who they are. Both my adoptive parents declined my offers to translate the Chinese objects they kept around the house, or even teach them how to pronounce my Chinese name. I knew I needed to leave. I finished my degree, successfully defending my thesis on racial identity formation in Chinese-American adoptees with the support of my adviser, Dr. Lynn Clarke. Then, I cut contact with my adoptive parents.
I first wrote about what happened with the arm’s length distance of fiction. For my senior seminar class, I wrote a story about an adoptee preparing to finish a medication abortion, feeling like this is her only option. She despairs that her birth mother may have felt like she lacked a true choice too. It took another few years to find my way to reproductive justice and the language it offered to articulate the need for true reproductive and bodily autonomy that arise from systemic and community support.
The next year, I began writing creative nonfiction, exploring my adoption journey in what is becoming a collection of essays. At first, I worried each essay was too imprecise and unclear without context that couldn’t fit within several thousand words. But I also worried about saying too much, like I was inviting people to look at my open wounds while handing them fistfuls of salt. I worried about writing truthfully when the truth of my life is so riddled with buried memories and unanswered questions. I learned that I never outran my childhood anxiety and my desperation for control. Without realizing it, I began to starve myself again.
The more I wrote, the more memories emerged: the workers at the welfare center in Gaoyou telling me through a translator that I may not have been born in Gaoyou, the papers they showed me that revealed I was left outside the welfare center rather than on the police station steps. The mythology my adoptive parents crafted collapsed, and I was left with the difficult, heavy emotions that made me understand why they preferred the fiction.
It is easier to tell stories of fate and blame adoptees for bad attitudes or personal failings than to recognize the human decisions to create, uphold, and benefit from unjust systems. Adoption, particularly transracial and international adoption, is deeply political, intertwined with histories of war, imperialism, slavery, and genocide. China would not have had an abundance of children, primarily girls, to send to other countries through adoption if it had not been for the one-child policy. American parents pushing around a Chinese baby in a stroller would not have become prolific enough to become en vogue if China had not passed a law in 1992 permitting foreign adoptions. I doubt the new families created would be considered as “magical” if people held, in all its weight, the reciprocal truth that birth families had to be torn apart.
I remember my adoptive parents telling me that my birth family loved me so much. I didn’t understand why they would then abandon me, so my adoptive parents told me that my birth family wanted me to have a better life in the U.S. That narrative of saviorism, American exceptionalism, and adoptees’ requisite gratefulness is rooted in white supremacy. These narratives make it easier to believe that tearing birth families apart, that separating a child from their birth culture and assimilating them into white, American, and often Christian culture is not only necessary, but good.
My adoptive father once told me that he thought he and my adoptive mother rescued me. To him, I was not Chinese; I was his daughter. It didn’t stop him from calling me a racial slur. My adoptive mother seemed to have more sympathy for my birth parents. She once told me how thinking about my birth mother brought her to tears, but she was also the one who preferred an international, closed adoption because she didn’t want my birth parents to intervene in her family.
The truth may be that my parents loved me and are carrying the pain of losing a child because they did not have the true freedom to choose. The truth may also be that they did not want to raise me, but that does not justify tearing me away from my birth culture and community or minimizing the pain, grief, and trauma I feel. Because of the penalties of the one-child policy and because of my adoptive parents’ preference for a closed adoption, I may never know.
Turning away from the truths of adoption might be easier—for adoptive parents, adoptees, and anyone who doesn’t want to challenge the normative ideas our culture has about family—but it makes it more difficult for adoptees to process our experiences. It denies us the language and narratives in which we can recognize and articulate our own experiences. It minimizes the systemic inequities that tear families apart, the violence of separating a child from their birth family, community, and culture, and the lingering trauma that those children carry into adulthood.
My healing from adoption trauma and sexual assault trauma came hand in hand. Each trauma involved a violation of my autonomy. Victim-blaming narratives of sexual assault compounded gratefulness narratives of adoption, convincing me that I must have done something wrong. Those narratives dismiss and blame “the type of person” who is sexually assaulted, who has a bad adoption experience, and it took me years to recognize and begin processing my trauma without blaming myself for others’ actions. When I did, it hurt to recognize each act as violence because it meant accepting that violence was done to me. To admit that others could hurt me, that systems could hurt me, felt like relinquishing the control I had craved since childhood, but it was the only way I could heal.
Meeting other adoptees and hearing about their experiences also helped me process my own. I’ve stayed in touch with interviewees for my thesis through written letters and online through Twitter, Instagram, and in Facebook groups, such as subtle asian adoptee traits, and organizational pages like China’s Children International (CCI). Even when we don’t talk about adoption, it’s reassuring to know that there are shared experiences we understand about each other. Following other adoptees online through hashtags like #AdopteeVoices has also introduced me to adoptees who are similarly critical about adoption as a system, who fight for adoption abolition and who connect adoption to other forms of family separation and violations of people’s bodily autonomy.
It’s heartening to see more people listening to adoptees. Books like Nicole Chung’s “All You Can Ever Know,” Jenny Heijun Wills’ “Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related.,” and Rebecca Carroll’s “Surviving the White Gaze” give adoptees space to process our experiences in our own words. There are so many facets and ways of processing our experiences, and each of our stories will be different. I hope people, especially adoptive parents and those considering adoption, are willing to listen. Adoptees don’t need people’s pity, saviorism, or accusations. We need people to examine their own beliefs about adoption and family and make meaningful changes.
I used to think healing meant I would no longer think about what happened to me, but I no longer believe that’s possible, nor do I want that. One of my first writing professors told me that every writer has an overwhelming question that threads through their work. If that’s true, adoption is mine. I write to make sense of what happened. I’ve started therapy with a therapist who specializes in adoption and LGBTQIA+ identities. I’m teaching myself to eat when I’m hungry, and I no longer blame myself when other people disregard me when I say “no.” I use my Chinese name again, and I’ve started learning to cook Chinese dishes and paint calligraphy on my own terms and timeline. I am tired of trying to mimic an identity that I never had to fake.
Adoptees aren’t saved by adoption. We aren’t saved by sugarcoating the violence of separation and assimilation or by papering over the difficult position birth parents may navigate with white savior narratives of abandonment as benevolence. Adoptees deserve autonomy and respect. So long as the adoption industry continues, adoptees must have the space and language to process their feelings, to let those feelings change over time, to hold multiple, sometimes conflicting feelings together at once. I hope other adoptees who want to can find communities that will support them. I hope we can all heal in the ways we need.