Are we branded for life?

Recently I’ve taken steps towards disengaging from the adoptee community.  One person wryly told me my efforts were futile, and she told me being an [transracial] adoptee was like going to the Hotel California, “you can check out but you can never leave.”

It made me think about how visibly not fitting in (or culturally not fitting in here in my birth culture) instantly “outs” the transracial adoptee.  To the extent that, aside from getting plastic surgery and going into a witness protection program (joking) to obtain an entirely new identity, there’s little one can do to not be forever labeled as this thing that was done to you/for you against your will, and that one may have to forever explain one’s difference until you die.

I have my own hopes/ideas how this may be done, but I also may be fooling myself.  What do you think?

8 thoughts on “Are we branded for life?

  1. Hi:

    My reply is a bit slant.

    First, on the metaphor Hotel California, which I think has some telling links with the massive prison-industrial complex in California (and the US generally), that you can never check out must be seen as a myth that one tells as a coping mechanism while “still inside” (or as a threat to those who would wind up inside). For those with an indeterminate sentence, getting out involves vetting and demonstrations of good faith while inside. For those with determinate sentences, dependening upon various factors, they are automatically kicked out when the time is up.

    Either way, once one is out, one is faced by (continuing the prison metaphor) (1) parole–a period of supervision by a duly appointed watchdog of the State to ensure you don’t “reoffend”– by (2) possibly State-mandated therapy of some sort (treatment for an addiction, etc), by (3) a possible legal requirement to register your offense in some public form or manner, even after the period of parole and therapy may be formally ended, by (4) various forms of legal prohibition that will prevent you from getting housing (in the US, a drug conviction makes you ineligible for public housing) or employment (in Illinois, there are 57 industries that require a certificate to practice and which having a felony conviction bars the acquisition of–ironically enough, including cosmetology, which is a skill many incarcerated people are trained for in prison)–this also continues after parole and therapy are over, by (5) the general social stigma of being formerly housed in “Hotel California.”

    It might be fruitful to further explore how this metaphor applies to the “Hotel California” concept.

    Secdon, I wonder if Kübler-Ross’ five stages (of grief) would apply here as well. These are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Noting that Kübler-Ross never intended for the five stages to be chronological or even that all five stages were necessary kind of makes mincemeat of the distinctions, so I acknowledge that as a problem of proposing this in the first place. But in the way that anger has been linked as a fuel to activism and acceptance as a consequent withdrawal from activism (if anger = activism), then this may provide some kind of insight to (the sense of) being branded for life.

    • Thanks for being well-read enough for both of us. I didn’t know of Kübler-Ross, but his stages of grief describe perfectly my process, which has been condensed and extreme in a very short time. I guess I am transitioning into acceptance yet frustrated by having to revisit/live through those previous stages on a micro-scale each time anyone questions where I am at in my process. And, because we never fully fit in, I question whether we are ever ALLOWED to rest.

      Maybe there for adoptees there is a sixth stage following acceptance. Maybe it looks like ennui. since we aren’t allowed to be angry over the re-irritations and being labeled by others.

      • Hi Girl:

        Thanks for the comment. As a quick first point Kübler-Ross was a woman (Elizabeth Kübler-Ross). Also, I remember maybe Ralph Ellison (or maybe the Invisible Man himself) who says, to the effect, “I’m tired of being an ambassador for my race.” I experienced something a little like this in college when for a time I was the “out homosexual” on campus, so I kept getting invited to official panels about “sensitivity training” and the like. Having to be an ambassador for queerdom, however, is manifestly different than the relentless microwaving of being under the public guise as an ambassador of a race. There probably comes a moment in an adoptees life when we start to “pass” just as a matter of course. So long as we are the “otherly” child in a family, we don’t pass, but then we grow up, even if we are still racially other with respect to our surrounding culture, we become that kind of Other rather than an adoptee. Even so, there’s that weird connection between an adoptee (as a sort of immigrant into a family) and someone who is identified as an Other (by definition an immigrant, even if one’s family has been living in the country since forever).

        Part of Ellison’s exhaustion is the impossibility of passing. The upside is that society can’t really ignore your presence; the downside is that society can’t really ignore your presence. With adoption, we have teh “luxury” of confrontation, theoretically we can pick our battles, although we may stumble into them unintentionally. It may be this “occasional” quality that makes Kübler-Ross’ cycle have a different quality. With race, certainly in some places, teh confrontation is virtually minute by minute–willingly or not, one ends up doing a lot of work each day (whether toward good or ill, but there’s a lot of work). When one is dying (Kübler-Ross’ specific topic), this again is minute by minute, every day. THe first phase being denial, once you’re past tht, there’s nothing but work, work, work, every day. So merely this volume of work moves the cycle along more or less quickly. Being out and queer has a slower cycle, for those who can pass, because it’s typically not minute by minute, every day, but perhaps only week by week–stuff comes up sometimes at work, etc.

        With adoption, if we survive to adulthood, we actually have to work to make occasions for work. I can experience racism at the drop of a hat, but I have to go out of my way or look in some very particular spots to get -centric pushback on adoption-related oppression. It’s only lately that I’ve been making a point of introducing myself as someone who is adopted–although I’ve many times said, “I was born in Seattle, Washington while my parents were in Reno”. However, because we weren’t able to pass during childhood, so that the feelings of oppression related to adoption are wedded frequently in the most painful ways imaginable to the awfulness of childhood, it would make sense to be very skittish about deliberately seeking out opportunities to “do work”–if one even was inclined to be an ambassador.

        Kübler-Ross’ cycle gets at people dealing with an inevitability–and there’s no guarantee in it tht people will get through the whole cycle, even if death doesn’t come first to interrupt any progress (or lack of it) being made (or not made). With race, to avoid the inevitability means effectively withdrawal from social life generally, and that gets to be pretty infeasible in the long-run (either worsening conditions in the ghetto–or cul de sac–make life dangerous or gentrification brings the very problem to your doorstep). Thus, there are high odds the inevitability will get confronted. Not so with adoption. So if there’s any concrete type of “completion” at each step–i.e., a really solid foundation for moving forward that isn’t made of shifting sand–then that makes us vulnerable to frequently reprisings of the cycle.

        I need to go sign over my old title to my roommate, but I’m intrigued to think of the possibility of a sixth step. So I’ll chew on that as I’m driving around.

  2. …..sure, and this is me speaking for myself…my adoption or really the separation from my mother and father feels like it’ll be a part of me for life. Whether I allow it to shape me into who I want to be is yet to be seen. I have my hopes and dreams….the main one ofcourse being to find my mother and family. No matter how happy I am, there’s always a tug in my heart. Sometimes I find myself in tears for no apparent reason what so ever, be that where ever I may be at that point in time…be that on the bus, in the shower, driving, walking, at work, talking to people, or at a party etc….. I’ve felt it from the first day of separation from my mother and that was before my adoption… adoption just reinforced the feeling, no less, having abusive adopters further reinforced this and screwed the feelings even tighter…like a triple whammy, you know?…..Yes, I am scrutinized by folks too and questioned to oblivion…maybe that’s just human nature and we can choose how to reply be that even making things up. Living in the UK, my accent is what I get asked the most…am I American/ Canadian etc….but for some reason the conversation always ends with me saying ‘I’m adopted’. And then that shuts people up, or shall I say usually! The older I get the less I have a problem speaking of my adoption & loss as maybe its something that needs to be spoken of more -even in everyday discourse, perhaps?

  3. It is very telling to me that the responses here are tending toward the Orwellian in the fullest sense, meaning, in a kind of dystopian realm of measured behavior within a inhuman system as well as in terms of hypocritical contradiction.

    By the first I mean to say that we are indeed test subjects in a great experiment of social engineering that I think is pretty fair to say was a failure from the very moment that someone decided that a surplus child made a good slave.

    By the second I mean to say that our acculturation also fills our heads with ideas of free will, agency, and ability to rise above our circumstances, to overcome all odds, to persevere in the face of adversity, to “make it”, when it is quite obvious that the deck is stacked against us by the very social differential that allowed for our adoption in the first place.

    It’s a cruel joke, really.

    Continuing with the metaphor, the most normal reaction is to try to escape the “Hotel C.” You are joking, but many people do indeed do this via plastic surgery, or removing themselves from their known context. The problem is that what is taken for “freedom” is just as constraining; the prison is just a focused and concentrated reflection of the greater society.

    The greater problem is that whereas those with a definite and definitive ethnic acculturation can find solace or “backup” from their community, both positively (communal association, etc.) or negatively (ethnic studies, etc.), we are afforded no such luxury.

    We oscillate between the desire to escape one reality and the desire to belong to another. Rejection from one is a consolation in a way; an affirmation of what we have known. But rejection from the other is a rude awakening and a slap in the face.

    And so as mentioned above this dissonance can always quickly be ended by stating “I am adopted”. At which point we go back to our prison cell, and start counting the days again.

    • Orwellian indeed…

      This weekend I went to one of those living history museums, a folkloric village, with a friend who is a native. Clearly, life was intrinsically connected to the natural world and a hard struggle, and it was critically dependent on community. We came upon a replica of a government complex and there was a prison quarters there, whereupon she told me that actually, the concept of incarceration is pretty modern and is only a brief moment in the country’s history, and that physical punishment or death were the traditional means of punishment, and exile from the community worse than death, so that got me to thinking about the introduction/overlay of imported ideas on ancient social systems.

      In that social system, I would be branded for life for whatever station I was born in. If, for example, my father was a butcher, I would be the child of the lowest of the low in the social order of things. If, for example, I had been born out of wedlock, my mother might as well have had a scarlet letter on her chest. If my father had been caught stealing, everyone would forever know I was the child of someone untrustworthy. My family’s shame would be my own shame that I would have to carry. These draconian yet effective self-regulatory social systems have not really disappeared despite the importation of western ways, and international adoption provided/provides a quick and dirty way to reduce all manner of social stigma, hardship and familial responsibility. It, like incarceration, is a modern introduction that attempts to disappear problems yet arguably doesn’t really solve the problems.

      So I feel we would have been branded adopted or not. But the difference is, we would not have been alone in our suffering. Our entire family would have been branded. Our poverty would have been shared. Our bastard status would have found solace in our fallen mother’s shame. Non acceptance of our status would not have been an option in our communities, and perhaps that would have brought with it lower expectations and more peace of mind.

      Adoption is often viewed as a way to spare people of stigma and provide a better life, and yet I wonder if the isolation of being the sole bearer of a brand among people who can not relate is any better.

      Not that this answers the original question, but my weekend and the comments just brought these thoughts to mind.

      • I completely relate to this. I resent implicitly the classist notion of “the better life” that is echoed by so many pro-adoptionists. In doing research for my presentation at the conference in NY coming up, it is really distressing to hear this as an underlying reasoning behind the Orphan Trains, the Home Children, the destruction of indigenous peoples via adoption, etc. ad infinitum.

        Furthermore, as an adoptee who returned and then worked among the class of those who support adoption in Lebanon, I can absolutely vouch for the fact that this “stigma” does not magically disappear just by virtue of having been acculturated into a particular class. What am I to make of colleagues who referred to me as “أزعر”—yob, [working-class] thug—making reference to the neighborhood where I live, but also by extension my religious sect, and therefore my roots in this country as far as I can determine?

        Frankly, I would much prefer being a “yob among yobs” then being the poster child for leap-frogged class advancement—the Tarzan, the Beverly Hillbilly, the en-princed pauper.

  4. Hmm the eternal conundrum for the Transracial adoptee. As a very famous advertisement in the UK used to say, “A dog is not just for Christmas, but for life.” So it is with being a transracial adoptee and gift or curse depending upon which point in your life and journey one might have reached. Too much of one thing to be …. and not enough of the other thing to be …. Denied access and or acceptance by the country that ‘took you in’ and rejected by the country and culture of your birth. I often feel as if I am actually in some Kafkian or Orwellian world. And trying to fight the system the perceived state of normality is in the end futile. Instead one has to learn to flow with and not be drowned by

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