Many thanks to Clarissa Trent, 2023 Smithsonian Leadership for Change intern, for this guest post. Trent was one of several interns working with Smithsonian Affiliations to identify untold stories and develop ways to tell those stories. This 3-part series is based on personal experiences, research conducted while at the Smithsonian Institution, and conversations with staff at The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. For more resources on Asian Pacific American bias and stereotypes, and further resources from the Smithsonian, visit the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.
It’s impossible to capture the long and complicated history of adoption in just a few blog posts. The previous posts (Cold War Babies to a Multi-Million Dollar Industry and From Operation Baby Lift to International Adoption Today) cover just a small fraction of international adoption history, but hopefully they set the stage for sharing the interviews I conducted during my internship. Each woman I spoke with has had a different experience with transracial adoption that shaped their identities. I’m grateful to my sorority sisters Dana, Mattison, and Laura, for sharing their experiences and being open about their adoption stories.
Dana, on proving her “Asian-ness”
Growing up Chinese, with a white mother and Chinese siblings, Dana’s family is not what most people picture as a typical American family. But for Dana, this is the only family she can remember. Born in the bustling city of Guangdong, China, Dana was one of the thousands of children sent abroad when their birth mother gave up parental rights. Dana spent less than a year of her life in the country of her birth.
Dana entered a family that had adopted a girl from a different part of China two years earlier. Three years after her own adoption, Dana’s mother expanded their family and welcomed a boy from another part of China. Most adoptive families have both a mother and father, but not so for Dana’s story. Her mother adopted three children in five years as a single woman in her forties.
Dana’s mother enrolled her children in Chinese schools to incorporate as much Cantonese and Mandarin language and culture as possible in their lives. Dana was able to attend the school in her hometown that had an Asian population of 30%-40%. Dana remembers enjoying the experience, though her time at the school was short-lived. Unfortunately, when Dana was very young, her mother passed away and Dana and her siblings moved in with their maternal aunt.
Dana attended Clemson University, a predominately white institution in South Carolina where she continued to look for ways to embrace her culture. As a freshman, Dana joined Delta Phi Lambda, where her sorority sisters cultivated an environment that was inviting and safe to explore her Chinese background.
But there were challenges outside the safe space of the sorority. Not having grown up immersed in Chinese culture and tradition, as an adult Dana felt like an outsider compared to her peers raised by Asian parents. She felt the stark difference between Asian-raised and white-raised Asian children, and looking back, remembers not understanding or realizing she should be offended when children made fun of her for looking “Asian” or mocking a Chinese dialect.
One of the complexities of transracial adoption is this dual question of identity—on the one hand, being raised culturally white but experiencing racism and othering, and on the other hand, not having experienced the cultural language or traditions that would create a sense of belonging in the Asian community. As Dana expressed in her interview, “How are you going to invalidate my identity because we didn’t grow up the same?” Though the Asian diaspora is vast, with varied experiences, many adoptees feel they have to prove they are Asian.
Mattison, on “otherness”
In the capital of Hubei province, in Wuhan, China, a little girl named Mattison was born and put up for adoption, spending the first year of her life in an orphanage. Mattison’s mom traveled more than 15 hours to pick up her daughter from a hotel lobby. When telling her story, Mattison laughed when I asked about the location—most people imagine parents first meeting their child in a hospital or even an airport, but not in a hotel lobby.
Mattison grew up an only child in a predominately white community. She attended a private Catholic school with few other Asian students enrolled. Her mom tried to encourage her to connect with her Chinese heritage by taking language classes and wearing traditional Chinese apparel. Unfortunately, children bullied her, and eventually those lessons stopped. Those memories of being bullied still resonate with her today as she recalls how children made fun of her because of her clothes. These experiences impacted her personality, and she became shy and kept to herself. She knew she looked different compared to other people and it made her nervous. These feelings of wanting to belong continued into college.
Studying at Clemson University, Mattison first joined a Panhellenic, an historically white-only sorority, but quickly felt like an outsider and quit after one semester. She later learned about Delta Phi Lambda, which advocates for Asian awareness. The sorority welcomed her and she found a community in which she felt like never had to prove herself. And Mattison’s Chinese American boyfriend and his family were instrumental in helping her learn more about her culture, taking the time to teach her Cantonese along with Chinese traditions and recipes. But she still struggled with her identity—not looking like everyone else at Clemson was still hard. It affected friendships, romantic relationships, and how she viewed herself. Unlike many of her classmates and friends who grew up surrounded by those of their own race, Mattison could never take belonging for granted.
Mattison’s mother was also adopted, which helped them to share a special relationship. This commonality of being adopted is a connection that many adopted children do not share with their parents. However, unlike Mattison, her white mom was adopted into a white family. Still, her mom was always open with her about race and adoption and is the person Mattison often turned to for difficult conversations. While Mattison’s mom was very open to these conversations, her father was not. Mattison often felt she had to educate her father about race and racism, which is not uncommon within the adoptive community. For Mattison, the weight of this burden was often exhausting and disheartening. The burden of tackling racism and bias—already fraught topics—has added another complicated layer to the complexity of transracial adoption.
Laura, on being immersed in culture but still struggling to belong
A Chinese orphanage was Laura’s home until, at one year old, she made the 15-hour trip to Tennessee to begin her new life. Not long after her adoption, Laura’s parents adopted another child, a boy from Russia. Laura spoke of how her parents encouraged them each to explore their backgrounds and their cultures and never shied away from the topics of race and who they were.
Her parents made immersing Laura in the Asian community a priority. They would drive two hours to Nashville to celebrate Chinese New Year, and worked to keep Laura connected to two other girls that were adopted with her—friendships that are still important to her today. Laura has also had the privilege that many adoptees dream of, but rarely achieve—she was able to go back to her birth country to be immersed in Chinese culture.
Identity and belonging were still issues for Laura; not feeling Asian enough or feeling she did not have the right to speak on certain topics, she did not come to easy conclusions about herself. Laura faced racism that made her truly reflect on her identity. Despite having had so many opportunities to be immersed in Asian culture and community, she still keenly felt the internal battle of growing up looking Asian in a white culture.
Laura longed for acceptance in a community that is not always accepting. Always migrating towards people who look like her, Laura learned the hard way how, for some, adopted Asians are not perceived as “real” Asians. Twenty years later, through many struggles with identity and race, Laura finally feels proud to be an adoptee. With support from others and a growing inner strength, she is more confident in her identity and story.
Adoption stories are extremely personal, and difficult to share. Dana, Mattison, Laura, and I all have different adoption stories that shape our lives. Their stories are just three in a world of complicated stories and do not speak for all adoption experiences; they’re meant to foster conversations about identity, race, belonging, and inclusion. My hope is that these stories are a catalyst for bringing attention to transracial adoption. For many, myself included, our stories and experiences are not an open topic. For those curious about Asian transracial adoption, I have included some resources below to start—or continue–your journey. The experience of adoption is not singular, it takes time and research to understand how people feel about adoption and why it takes place. The complexities of transracial and international adoption are becoming an increasingly louder national conversation, one which will hopefully lead to increased understanding, awareness, and inclusion.
Readings and Resources
For a full list of sources, view here.