25 March 2014

“Breaking the Illusion of the World”

This week, the flyer for Old Navy arrived.

I had two simultaneous reactions. First, “Wow! A transracial family!” Second, “Whoa. A transracial family.”

Let me explain. But before I do, listen to this segment of This American Life. Listen for the cues on “breaking the illusion of the world.”

(You can also hear this on This American Life’s site here if the link is not loading.)

At first appalling, with Elna Baker’s description of Nubbins and his FAO Schwartz Lee Middleton Doll orphanage adoption ward, the story meanders through the hierarchy of our real life society … our society, where white sells to the affluent crowd, where wealthy parents can support their children in adopting dolls that look like them, and when white dolls are not available, we can move on to Asian, Latino and Black babies. But wait, Nubbins, the special needs doll who is white can be purchased by the entitled, young girl who will not love him and wants to call him “Stupid” … and is … before the Black babies.

This is not to say that these are the parents who become adoptive parents. However, I do believe that it speaks to the illusion of race and adoption.

My parents loved and cared for me. My family (both white and Puerto Rican) has embraced and forgotten that I was different. Yet, deep inside, I have always known I was different. My mother hoped to help me with the struggle. She did the best she could and bought this doll, my most cherished childhood toy.

While the ad for Old Navy reaffirmed my place in my family, it also scared me. I feared that others might want that little “China Doll” for their family. The Asian girl might become the trophy child … the child in the advertisements.

As I mulled over the meaning of this flyer in my mailbox, two dolls on Ebay were shared with me.

The first, was the White Swan Hotel Going Home Adoption Barbie, complete with her very own Chinese adoptee. All for $475!

The second was the 1984 “Rice Patty” baby, with her very own Hong Kong passport! She, of course, is a bargain at $78!

These images broke the illusion of my world. While adoption has complex meaning to me, the children of transracial adoption are viewed as fodder in the toy world.

23 March 2014

Shame vs. Trauma

In my home state of Tennessee, a federal judge granted an injunction on the state’s gay marriage ban. It was a small victory in my eyes, and I gleefully posted an article by a local news agency on Facebook (FB). In my post, I asked out-of-state friends to read the comments so that they could understand the level of discrimination.

This brought a flurry of comments, utter disgust from non-Tennesseans, and confusion from Tennesseans. A cousin and two schoolmates felt I had misrepresented our hometown, where they still live.

My cousin was the most upset. She interpreted my comments as a sign that I was ashamed of my family and where I grew up. I understand her confusion. My days in my hometown seemed idyllic. I loved time with my family and did well in school. But there was trauma.

My mother knew it from my first day at the local elementary school. I was nine-years-old. The teacher had directed me to the lower parking lot where my mother was parked. My sister was little, so it was difficult for my mother to walk and meet me. As I walked down the hill, a group of children gathered around me. They encircled me and began chanting, “Me, Chinese. Me play joke. Me put pee-pee in your Coke!” All I remembered were large faces with eyes pulled to slants, laughing and looking down at me. I curled into a ball. 

Within seconds, my mother, toddler slung on one hip, rushed up and began screaming at the kids. She wanted names, but they scattered and screamed back, “Come get us, you big, fat hippopotamus!”

My face was wet with tears, but my mother’s was red and hot. Her anger was frightening. 

From that moment, I wanted to protect her. I kept my shame silent. Shame was knowing my family and I faced discrimination because I was different. I wanted my family to be buffered from the hurt I would endure each day, as someone would pull their eyes or make a ching-chong reference. 

So, I must admit, I was taken back by my cousin’s question of my shame. Was I ashamed of my hometown and family? No.

Traumatized by the racist comments? Traumatized by the marginalization? Traumatized by the hatred? Yes.

When I read the hate-filled comments on the recent same-sex marriage decision, it brought back the trauma of victimization. I felt the trauma of losing my friend, Patrick, to gay bashers. I felt the trauma of being discredited because of my Hispanic name. I felt the trauma of never being “normal” enough to date. 

Many do not believe this to be possible. The two classmates assured me that I would be surprised at the progress made in our small hometown. I agreed to go out with them when I returned for a visit to see it in action. But even today, I know Asian adoptees in Tennessee who suffer the same trauma I did. When you are white and local, it is difficult to see the hurt and hatred that lurks in the school bathroom or a nook in the library. I do not fault them for this blindness, but I do ask them for consideration and understanding that my lens was different from theirs.

While the conversation also meandered around a rural versus metropolitan theory, I just listened. Perhaps it may appear that racism and same-sex marriage discrimination occur primarily in rural areas, but if you are a person of color (POC) or a gay or trans person, you know differently. 

This is the year where my Twitter activism and my personal FB page have intertwined. With that, there will most likely be more discussions of race, gender, sexual orientation and adoption. My FB page will no longer be a celebration of a perfect life; instead, it will be a realistic view of my life. 

As adoption loyalty has fallen away, my shame will no longer be silenced.

11 March 2014

The Fine Line

Oh, Upworthy! You inspire me, then let me down.

As an admirer of the work Upworthy does, I have applied for a position there more than once. My goal in doing so was to see a focus on adoption and its impact on children. Adult adoptees have a unique perspective on adoption to share. There are various blogs and articles as well as the electronic magazine Gazillion Voices, but not much on Upworthy until this.

The story about Kim Kelley-Wagner has splashed all over my Facebook page and my Twitter feed; she lives in Charlottesville, a city we still consider our original home. At first glance, I was ambivalent. I felt that these words were powerful in the hands of a 13-year-old, that it spoke to people to know how insensitive the general public is on transracial adoption. But the more I delved into it, the more upset I became.

As a parent, I know I have made many mistakes. I caught criticism from a recent article I wrote for The Good Men Project as well as the same article on xoJane. This article was based on a photography project I had started on feminism. Upon seeing the comments, I wondered if I had made a grave mistake in writing the piece and including my son. Understand that I did not get paid to write that article, nor do I use my photographs as a means to advertise a business. For me, my writing and my photographs are vehicles for activism.

Activism was my initial thought in the Kelley-Wagner Images post, until I realized that her post was posted from her photography business page! While it may not have been her intention, Kelley-Wagner appeared to be using her children as advertising props.

Maybe I was blinded by another post by an adoptive parent (Rage Against the Minivan) of other transracial adoptees that had hit the internet around the same time. Her photographs of her transracial adopted children copying an ad for the Gap again seemed like a promotional stunt. Again, this site is this mother’s business site. She sells t-shirts and advertising.

Back to Kelley-Wagner, had her photographs not been on her business site, I might have been persuaded on some level. But as a mother, I still have a problem with them. I would understand the project if it were prompted by the 13-year-old, but had not included the 7-year-old. In my mind, it should be written in the hand of the receiver of the comments. If the comments were said to the mother and the 7-year-old, the mother should be standing in the frame with her daughter to show solidarity.

Now, my friend who is both an adoptee and an adoptive parent asked me why the mother should be in the photograph. She felt the images had more impact with the sad children’s faces. She also pointed out that the mother took the photographs. As an art photographer, I can state that a photographer has the means to take self-portraits. Also, as an “art photographer” and not a “commercial photographer,” I do not sell my images. They are a means for my activism; they are an essential part of my being. Selling them would be selling my soul. If you ask my subjects, you will know that they receive a copy of their photographs.

There is a fine line in activism. While activists do not gain monetary riches, we gain pleasure in knowing we might have touched just one life and made it better.

As an artist, I respect these women’s images and therefore am not sharing either of their photographs, as they belong to their businesses. You may view them via the links above. 

09 March 2014

What’s in a name?

This video really spoke to me via Upworthy:

I recalled my father’s early days in Tennessee. “Enrique” was hard to say, so he always told people to just call him “Jim.” So, all the newspaper clips read “Jim Gonzalez.”

This video got me thinking, and of course, when I think, I tweet:
My tweets feed into the Facebook account which I maintain for my friends and not the general public. The last tweet brought a flurry of conversation. Unfortunately, not everyone had read the entire thread. 

Commenters tried to console me by letting me know that they too suffered from the name shortening. When I tried to explain the entire thread, a commenter asked this question: “Is everything about race to you?” 

I responded this way:

“Race is a huge part of me. Not just my Korean self but my Puerto Rican self too. I don’t expect you to know that, but I do expect you to try and understand that. Again, I have been called ‘Roserita, Rosalita, Risotto …’ then, when I correct them, I have been asked, ‘Can I just call you “Rosie”?’ I hate shortened names for that very reason. My children’s names were chosen to be short so they couldn’t be butchered. (But alas, they have been shortened even further.) I get that people like to shorten names often as a expression of familiarity, but that hasn’t always been the case for me. I have had new acquaintances ask to call me ‘Rosie’ and I have accepted that politely … ”

The conversation continued both on my Facebook page and in messenger. The commenter continued that my full Puerto Rican name was as “American” as his. I responded that this is very dependent on what our definition of “American” is. I explained that, to me, the melting pot was a middle class fallacy. 

I doubt my commenter understands that I am profiled and assumed by many just on the basis of my name. This commenter’s name is as generic as John Doe. It is difficult for me to explain my experience to someone who has never experienced what I have. My British husband realized this early in our relationship. When we lived in Tennessee and began our hunt for a new apartment to share, I would call and leave a message about a place leaving my name. No one called me back. Then, he would call the same number, and he would immediately get a call back.

If you have followed me for some time, you know how idyllic my life was in Virginia. I had two very dear Asian friends, my kids had friends who resembled them racially. Our community was less segregated, and I was blissful in my everyday life, but there were hints of a longing for an identity. This commenter met me during this time in my life. I was the model minority. Married to a white man, living in a middle class home and going about my daily life as a mother … that was how I was living. I wasn’t questioning the injustices that most likely happened all around me. I was white by default … having a white mother, a white family and white friends.

The commenter’s final words were these: “… it does concern me that you’re so obsessed with race; I think this obsession is a self-defeating waste of energy.” He’s confused. Trust me, I’m still confused, but clarity is coming. My children are the catalysts for change, that is why I spend my time and energy writing about race and adoption.

It seems the further I distance myself from my white identity, the more I am called, “angry.” As long as I stay silent about the prejudices I feel and experience, the less threatened others feel. But why should they feel threatened? I am not angry, but frustrated and motivated to change how we are viewed.

I cope with my racial identity, adopted children cope, my children cope. But why should we just cope? I want to see our communities recognize and address racial inequities instead of saying “It’s better.” I think it is time for those in places of power to cope with the realities of race. 

As my fifth grade teacher taught me, “Good, Better, Best … never let it rest, ’til the good is better, and the better is BEST.” 

02 March 2014

What sucks about being adopted?

Here I go, down to the depths.

But before I take you there, I want to tell you that it isn’t that I am unhappy with my adoptive family. I am not angry at them or as some might say, “ungrateful.” Far from it. You can read about my mother, my father, my sister and my extended adoptive family in past blogs to understand the extent of our love.

Now, I want to tell you what sucks about being adopted.
  1. I have no birth certificate. —This frustrates me to no end. Every time, I needed proof of my birth, I had to dig out my naturalization papers (from age 5) and my adoption papers (from age 13 months). Well, that is not proof of my birth. Neither list my birth family or birthdate. This leads me to number 2.
  2. I have no true birthdate. — Yes, I have one, but it isn’t my true birthdate. It’s an estimate, a fabricated birthdate based on how I appeared on May, 24, 1968. 
  3. I have no birth story. — This never really bothered me until I had children of my own and realized how elemental it was to celebrate that moment when you take your first breath. I love telling my children’s birth stories, and they love hearing them. It bonds us all as a family because we were there at the creation of our family.
  4. I have no medical history. — This one is a true pain in my rump. With every move or change of health insurance, we must have that initial first meeting with the new doctor. It goes, “Any history of heart disease?” There, I stop them, “No history, I’m adopted.” This happens for me and my children, because obviously, the mother’s family medical history plays into the children’s health.
  5. I am not really Korean. — This one is complicated, and I have written about it numerous times. While my dad fed me kimchi, and my mother sewed hanbok sets for me, I really wasn’t exposed to the Korean culture in the way I would have been had I grown up in a Korean household. So, I find it irritating when I am viewed as Korean, spoken to in Korean, asked about my “real” Korean family, asked if I know Tae Kwondo … well, you get the picture.
  6. Reading or hearing the phrase, “like you’re adopted” (insert snarky, teen voice) — Language. Why must people joke with the word “adopted”? Listen, it isn’t funny, and I don’t appreciate being the butt of a joke. I am #notyourbadword. Adoptees are people with feelings, so refrain from using that word in jokes. Got it?
  7. Being referred to as an “adopted child/children” — Even as we grow into adults, we are referred to as “children.” This is especially prevalent in the media’s headlines and news stories. Someone please add this to the AP Stylebook!
  8. Being left out of the adoption conversation — Big one related to number 7. As adult adoptees, this perception of us as children seems to exclude us from the adoption dialogue. The fear that we might say or write words that might hurt adoptive parents is insulting. If an adoptive parent is hurt by the words of an adult adoptee, that parent is a grown up, remember? Adults should have the maturity to take someone else’s words, understand them and learn from them. 
Now that I have all that off my chest, carry on believing what you want of me, but understand that it might be an assumption by you, dear reader, given your history with adoption. Realize that every adoptee is different, has a unique narrative, and struggles with her own demons.