Dear Fellow Adoptees at Transracialeyes , I am a Chinese American adoptee. I was born in China and adopted when I was about to turn 8 years old. In a few weeks I will be 12 years old. After I entered the orphanage in China I was put into foster care. I lived with my foster parents in China, since I was a few months old, until I was adopted. I consider my foster parents as my parents in China. Of course, I have another set of parents in China that are my biological parents. They are currently unknown to me. My question is about handling how my peers, who ask me questions about my early life, want to put feelings onto me that I might not be feeling. The hardest issue to deal with is people who tell me how I must ‘feel’ about my biological mother. For example- Oh my God….you must miss your mom sooo much.(or) Oh my God…that is so sad…don’t you want to find your mom? (or)….I feel so bad for you…it must feel terrible to left by your mom. I really don’t like people feeling ‘sorry’ for me or taking ‘pity’ on me. I have a lot of feelings about my mom and they are way more complicated than just sadness. I am not sitting around crying about it all of the time. Sometimes I feel mad about it all or frustrated not knowing why or sometimes I don’t think about it at all. I know I can tell people that it is none of their business. I know I can just walk away but sometimes it feels like they really are asking for nice reasons. I don’t want to be rude. I don’t want to turn away people who are really trying to understand or be helpful. How do you handle questions from people who try to tell you how you must ‘feel’ about being left by your parents? How do you explain how complicated it is without sounding like you are awful somehow for sometimes being angry or not thinking about it? Thank you.
Dear fellow adoptee,
This is an excellent question!
I can’t say this ever gets any easier, though people are a little less apt to project their own ideas on you as you become an adult, and I will have to think hard about how I myself respond to these questions now, since when I was your age my responses were mixed and very unsatisfactory.
John Raible calls us always having to explain ourselves, adoption fatigue, though it is much worse for transracial adoptees than for those of the dominant race, because our difference is a curiosity and people assume that our public face is a free forum for their questions and that what is public has no private boundaries. (sigh) Many people do want to take the opportunity to show that they are supporters of adoption, but too often that is, as you too well know, couched in terms of, “aren’t you lucky,” which reads as, “you should be grateful.” Others are forming their opinions and are really curious to hear your perspective so they can have more data upon which to form their opinion on the topic. So, our biggest problem to me is that the general public are both ignorant and often more racist than they would like to believe. And it is our burden to be forced to be educators, and to be educators forces us to have form our own opinions, and THAT is really difficult, as we’re all of us in the process of doing that!
The first thing we must do is weigh each situation in a cost/benefit analysis. Are these particular people worth me taking my time to educate? For the ones that are not, then we need to come up with polite ways to say, “none of your business.” Then there are those who we encounter briefly who we’d like to leave with some food for thought. And then there are those who we really care to educate deeply.
But you need practical responses, so here’s mine, and I’m sure the others here can come up with some as well. Heck, maybe I’ll get some new tips from them, too!
To stop the probing:
-I try not to think about it
-I don’t feel comfortable talking about this right now
-It’s really confusing and I don’t know how I feel about it.
(it’s always good to mention your feelings because people tend to be more respectful when you do that)
To leave food for thought:
-I have two families I love and was separated from one of them. How would you feel? (Asking them how they feel will probably generate lame responses, but they will take this question away with them and consider it more thoroughly. This can also be re-phrased to include divorce, which is something they might relate to)
-It’s like if someone passed away. You have to move on.
-Adjusting to a new life is difficult. (bring it into the here and now to stop them romanticizing about the orphan origins)
To deeply educate your peers:
You might take whatever opportunity you have at school to write or prepare a presentation and field questions after. This has REALLY helped me. Telling my story thoroughly has helped me deal with my own unresolved feelings a lot and also conveyed to others how complicated international/transracial adoption is. For me, it has proven most effective to take people on the journey with me, presented in chronological order, so they can process each traumatic experience and the feelings those bring with them as they happen. In this way, their emotions follow the same path yours did: confusion, sadness, excitement, frustration, acceptance, difficulty, etc.
Wish I could come up with more and hope the others can chime in! Hope I’ve been of some help…
Great question. First, I would like to tell you that you should be very proud of yourself for tackling such complicated emotions head on! I wish I had been this aware of things when I was your age. Second, my advice above all would be to not worry if things don’t seem to make sense, or if they are overwhelming at times, or if you end up “walking away” as you say from a question that makes you angry or upset or uncomfortable.
Your question is very astute, because it points to a “greater truth” if you will of our language. Meaning, there is a question that is asked of you, and this question can be parsed as to the literal meaning of it, but what you are finding is that there are things behind it–motivations, other questions, even accusations. These are much harder to figure out.
For example, I hate the question I often got asked in the U.S., “Where are you from?” I read it now, I hear it, as an accusation instead: “You are not from here.” And this accusation has no answer, if you really think about it. And this is problematic–how do we attempt to find replies to questions that are actually statements in and of themselves?
This leads to girl4708’s reply, which covers most of the bases very well, and gives you a lot of options as to how to reply according to how you yourself feel. I would only add one thing though, which is to consider that an aspect of the question lies outside of the question itself, and involves what we might call a kind of power differential. By this I mean that sometimes the question carries extra weight, or the person asking assumes a position that forces us into the defensive. To be aware of this, the context of the question, can help when you go to answer.
For example, we can think of many situations where this power differential changes the nature of the questions as well as the answers. In a court of law, a witness on the witness stand is allowed very particular answers, but nothing beyond that. Someone in police custody the same. Both of these situations reveal something interesting, in that the person being questioned does not have the right, or perhaps the ability, to question back. This is because the context has, in a way, been weighted against the person answering, in this example, for legal/authoritarian reasons.
So whenever I find myself in a situation where I do not feel the ability to question back, I immediately realize that there is a power differential involved, often just by virtue of how a given culture looks at things. So, for example, when I was in first grade and a student asked me: “Why are you brown?” I realized that to question back “why are you white?” was not an option for me, because I was on the other side of this particular difference in power, as revealed by the language.
Now I try to always question back, if only to test the situation. It’s like being on a see-saw with someone who is a bit heavier, and it is easier for them to keep me up in the air. Once up in the air–once the question is asked–it becomes difficult, if not impossible to reply while at such a disadvantage. And so to ask a question in reply to a question is to upset this balance a little bit. Attempts to make the see-saw even in weight to begin with–meaning, to not be seen as being on the defensive–requires a lot of work, and like girl4708, I do a lot of writing in order to help understand as well as explain not in reply to others, but as statements of their own right and own value.
So to go back to the questions that are posed to you, maybe it is worth thinking about how to turn them into other questions that would get the person asking to think about this power differential a little bit. “You must miss your mom sooo much.” “Oh my God…that is so sad…don’t you want to find your mom?” “I feel so bad for you…it must feel terrible to left by your mom.” How to reply? Is it valid to ask back: “Why do you assume to understand my situation?” “Are you willing to listen to the details of my situation before assuming such a stance?” Or on a more probing, analytical level: “What makes you ask that?” “Where does that question/statement come from?” Sometimes if I sense that the question is well meant, I reply, “Do you want the really long answer or the really short answer? The really short answer is: ‘it’s none of your business.’ ” I say this with a smile on my face, and the person asking questions realizes that it is much more complicated, that they need to be a bit more respectful and less flippant, and allows me to even out the see-saw ride a little bit.
Good luck, and keep us updated on how things go with you!
This is a difficult subject to navigate, especially at your age when people are telling you how to feel and think.
Such questions like “Don’t you feel lucky” are not real – they are merely giving the message that to say otherwise is to go against the cultural way of thinking about adoption. You are not being given freedom to think or feel the way you want to, and it’s tiring.
It really isn’t other peoples’ business to pry into why you were adopted or if you are angry/sad about your families. They also don’t realize WHY it isn’t any of their business because you not matching your adoptive parents is like being on an unofficial panel. “Most” parents don’t give up their kids, and your obvious ethnic differences will emphasize that something “wrong” may have happened. So they don’t think their questions are intrusive.
I really like Dan’s answer – when they ask you something that you don’t want to answer, try answering with a question. This catches them off-guard.
There is one thing I’d like to point out, though:
Dan says: “Are you willing to listen to the details of my situation before assuming such a stance?”
The problem with this is that they don’t know they are even IN a stance. They don’t realize how powerful cultural (dominant) thinking is.
But I think the best idea is what girl4708 said – tell them straightforward “I don’t feel like talking about this right now” or even “This is personal for me to talk about.”
I like girl4708’s answers.
My answer below is not an advice (in the sense that I’m not saying how you should handle questions), but an answer to the question itself “How do you handle questions from people who try to tell you how you must ‘feel’ about being left by your parents?” for other readers.
I’ve been handling questions/comments by avoidance, that is by not answering. As a child, I had different ways of avoiding depending on the people asking questions.
When the question/comment came from children, I would generally change subjet or turn them into joke and make them laugh.
When it came from adults, I would generally smile without answering and sometime, I would even nod my head as if I agreed with them.
Children’s questions/comments were similar to those from your peers, such as: “You must be sad”; You must be missing them”. Some would try to make me speak in a tricky way: “Are you talking about your real parents? Oops, I hope I didn’t hurt you.”
Generally adults didn’t ask me question. Their comments were completly the opposit such as: “You’re so lucky! You must be happy!”; “You parents are so generous. They love you so much. You’re so lucky”.
It only happened one time that I “replied” someone. The comment was from my first friend. After revealing to me she was adopted, she told me, “We are lucky. Our parents love us more than other parents love their children, because we are chosen…” I replied by a simple “no” accompanied by a grimace.
I don’t hear comments anymore, as I became adult and I don’t get to meet new people. It happened recently, my aunt made a comment. Soon after I told her my true feelings, I realized that it was better not to reply at all.
Let me highlight a part of what girl4708 wrote:
How would you feel? (Asking them how they feel will probably generate lame responses, but they will take this question away with them and consider it more thoroughly. This can also be re-phrased to include divorce, which is something they might relate to)
I’m sure people actuallly think how they would feel before commenting or asking questions.
Children think how they would feel if were to lose their parents or to be abandoned by their parents. With their experiences, they can only assume they would feel sad, thus they assume the adopted children are sad.
Adults think how it would be great to have a child/to become or to be parents, how it must be aweful to live in an orphanage, etc. With their experiences, they can only assume how they would be happy to have a child, thus they assume the adopted children are lucky and sad.
I was adopted when I was 9 years old. I lived 8 years with my first family (as non-adoptee and non-orphan, without the need to put an adjective the word “family”).
I have thought about “how I would feel” when I was about 7 years old. It was a year after losing my grandmother and my mother, when I heard a neighbor girl was adopted. But even with my experience of losing a parent to death, imagining myself as “adopted” meant to lose all my family and to live with parents that wouldn’t be my real parents. I could only feel very sad, therefore, I’ve assumed she too was sad.
You can not know how someone feels unless you have walked in his shoes, you can not know simply by imagining in his shoes with your own experiences. That’s why only adoptees can understand adoptees.
Interesting article for you with an interesting response from an adoptee about exactly the same question: