Proud, Adopted and British-Chinese

This is the presentation that I gave to the British Adoption and Fostering Agency yesterday

Hello my name is Lucy; I was one of the 106 Hong Kong Chinese foundlings that came over to the UK during the late 50s and into the 60s as part of the Hong Kong Project.

A white family adopted me like many of my fellow foundlings. The family that adopted me already had a son of their own plus, a Chinese daughter that they had adopted from the same orphanage in Hong Kong; though we were not related save having come from the same children’s home in Hong Kong. For me the experience of being adopted was both positive and negative. Especially in my formative years.

Attitudes of the day, I think dictated how the people who adopted me chose to deal with the fact of me being of a different race and culture. It was a subject that we did not talk about. It was the elephant in the room. I was curious and as I grew up I become more and more curious. Pushing to know more, who was I? What was I?

It has taken many years of therapy and personal soul searching to reach the place that I occupy now. To have found a balance and contentment with who and what I am, or perhaps what I am not.

Let me make it perfectly clear that I am profoundly grateful for having been adopted. Had I not been I’m sure that I would not be standing here today addressing you as I do now. I certainly would not have become the person that I am. Or have entered the creative arts sector as a professional. I have had to fight my way through silence, prejudice and out and out racism from a very early age.

Having been rejected at infant school by the incumbent school bully to the institutionalized racism which sadly still creeps along the corridors of industry even now in the 21st century in supposedly multicultural Britain. I personally have had to come to terms with the fact as someone who looks to all intensive purposes to “be” Chinese that I am and always will be “incomplete”.

The loss of my mother tongue and my cultural heritage marked me out to those in the Chinese speaking community as someone to be wary of, as someone not to be trusted, not Chinese. For those from the indigenous Caucasian community I was an outsider. A foreigner. The reasons for not being able to connect with my birth culture and language are many and varied, but mostly ‘of the time’. The clean break attitude was what was considered the best approach.

Now there is no excuse, no reason why a transracially adopted child cannot retain cultural and linguistic links until such time they reach their majority and may decide to set aside such matters. But at least they will have the basic tools to be able to communicate in their own language should they ever need or feel the need to do so. Something, that when I was younger hit me very hard. The feelings of rejection, the feeling of inadequacy, embarrassment of not being able to respond to a fellow countryman, followed by the looks of suspicion.

I did not have the advantages of language courses, of the World Wide Web or the opportunities to learn. I am neither pro nor anti Transracial adoption. But I would say, it is my personal view, that transracial adoption should be the very last resort.

Identity is a strange beast; it is overlooked and taken for granted by those who do not have to question who or what they are in society. But for those of us who do not benefit from the reflection of society’s mirror re-enforcing our physiognomy it is elusive. Making us wander the no man’s land between two cultures, two lineages two distinct “what might have beens”. To ensure that children remain in their country of origin. This should be the first choice.

For those of you that are considering transracial adoption I salute you. It is challenging path that you have embarked upon.  But take it from one that has trodden that road. As parents you have the onerous responsibility of equipping your children with all the tools to deal with life and that includes the unsavory and negative aspects of life.

It is crucial that we assist those children who are being uprooted from their country of origin to be placed for adoption in another country and make their journey of self identification easier.

I would hope that in this day and age of information that no transracially adopted child would be kept in the dark about where they came from. That they would be taught their mother-tongue and get to know in depth their culture and heritage. And I am not referring to a cursory Sunday school that teaches children a few traditional songs by rote and does a few collages about the moon festival.

I was not given the choice of whether I retained my Chinese name, learnt to speak Chinese or was instructed in Chinese culture and heritage. It is something that for many, many years left a gap in my being, in my identity. It is something that I never fully come to terms with.

Incomplete as I am, I am now whole. I am proud to be who I am a child of both the East and the West. But it has been a long and difficult road and one that I would not willingly wish onto another.

In spite of the challenges of being Chinese and transracially adopted I have survived. I have prevailed. The challenges that I encountered as a child, the bullying, the prejudice and racism have in some ways made me what I am today.

I would not be here if the history of this country had not tied Hong Kong to it’s apron strings. Hong Kong would not be the Special Administrative Region of China that it is to day had the British not taken it as a crown colony

And I would not be the proud British-Chinese actor, writer and filmmaker that stands before you now.


6 thoughts on “Proud, Adopted and British-Chinese

  1. Lucy: thank you for offering this post. I have a few questions.

    Could you provide a bit more background on where you were speaking and how you were invited to speak there? Having a better sense of who your (presumed) audience was would further contextualize your presentation. That the event occurred at the British Fostering and Adoption Agency suggests a particular context, but the reference to those who would transracially adopt puts more people in the audience that I might necessarily have anticipated from the name of the setting alone.

    Second, to just pick out two moments that seem to form “poles” that your presentation negotiates between, on the one hand you make clear to those listening that you are profoundly grateful for having been adopted and, at the same time, that it is not something you would wish on anyone.

    Without meaning to presume your reasons for crafting your presentation in this way, I wonder if anyone listening realized that their awareness of the presence of a grateful adoptee by implication points as well not only to adoptees who might not be grateful but even more so also to adoptees who can be neither grateful nor ungrateful for their adoption, as they didn’t survive the experience. Surely those at the British adoption and Fostering Agency itself can hardly be unaware of this, but those in the crowd who would transracially adopt–that’s likely another thing entirely.

    Thank you again for your post 🙂

    • This makes me fantasize about advocating a policy (short of advocating for adoption abolition entirely) where a necessary criteria in determining eligibility to adopt would include being able to speak the child’s native language. The ostensible “justification” of the “clean break” mentioned above gets immediately exposed by this proposal, particularly as being able to speak one’s native language will definitely (in a sufficiently cosmopolitan) setting have real-world value, as the post above makes clear.

      I could find ways to make it problematic that an adopted child would be able to speak the language of neighbors who shared an ethnic and/or linguistic background, but the idea that the child shouldn’t (or needn’t) exposes the conceit that the transracial adoptee MUST lose the ethnic and linguistic markers that preexist the adoption. For me, this makes mincemeat of whatever pieties get tossed about about the benefit to the child or the child’s good fortune. One can go on indefinitely about whether it would be “better” to grow up here or there, but behind all of that is NO WILL WHATSOEVER on the part of those who would transracially adopt to honor the ethnic and linguistic origins of the child. For those who aren’t queer identified, if I said I’ll adopt you, but only if you “become gay,” the whole conceit of my beneficence must necessarily collapse.

      This point goes for immigrant people’s in the US who adopt white babies as part of the devil’s Bargain of assimilation as well. Not that my father should have taught me English, but that he should have taught me the Spanish that he grew up with. All three of his children (two adopted, one not) grew up with the notion of multilinguality–meaning, all of us went on to learn more than the sorry high school requirement of a foreign language–but only my sister learned Spanish. Even as much as i hated my father, had he taught me Spanish (in the household), I’d’ve not rejected the language, but would have just as enthusiastically hated him bilingually as I did in English. And of ll the languages one SHOULD be required to know in the US, Spanish is certainly high on the list. What a difference it would make culturally if everyone spoke Spanish.

  2. Hi Snow Leopard. I hope that I can clarify the above presentation and context further for you. I was invited to speak at a conference held by the BAAF who were airing the preliminary findings of several research projects that they had conducted and or sponsored. One being The British-Chinese Adoption Study. I was one of the 72 participants who took part in the research from a sample group of 106. 100 of which came over in the late 50s early 60s and comprised The Hong Kong Project. This was an academic conference looking at the findings from essentially a research point of view the audience was comprised of researchers, psychologists, social workers, child health practitioners and other academics, a few low level policy makers, one or two press and media personnel but by and large academics. But amongst those academics, adoption professionals etc some are also as well as being academics or psychologists they are also adopters and transracial adopters.
    As to my state of gratitude yes I am grateful for being adopted because had I not been in my personal circumstance I literally would would probably not have survived. For that yes I am profoundly grateful. But I do not feel beholden to the family that adopted me as my therapist helped me to see I am not beholden or duty bound. Yes there are other adoptees who do feel beholden and do feel that they have a duty to remain forever grateful for having been adopted. The audience that I presented in front of was aware perhaps more than most of the complexities of adoption and of transracial adoption. I was one of four adult HK adoptees who participated in the research asked to present a snippet of our actual experience to humanise the statistics to give human context to the scales and various signifiers used. I hope this clarifies the presentation a little more apologies for not having made this clearer from the outset

  3. This is (yet another) post that I keep coming back to and rereading and then words tend to fail me because it gets me thinking about so much. I really admire your getting up in front of this organization and claiming (reclaiming) pride in being British-Chinese. I want to ask: How was the speech received? What was the general response?

    Also, Are there avenues for you to literally reclaim Chinese nationality?

    I ask this as someone who has regained his birth nationality, yet I balk at stating outright “I am Lebanese”. Or “Lebanese-American”. Or, for that matter, “American”. I do proudly say I am a “Jersey boy”….

    Which brings me to the second question, tied to the language discussion that SL started. The stated requirement that an adoptive couple speak the language of the child is fraught with problems stemming from this “localization” of sense of place.

    I am aware now of different Lebanese and Syrian dialects, and am often mistaken for Syrian or Palestinian (for hanging out with the former and for word choices from the latter). I also know that North African, Egyptian, and Gulf Arabic all are foreign languages to me. (To be fair, they are dialectically different and foreign for most Arabs, though mediation of films and the like has made Egyptian better understood).

    I understand that Chinese works in a similar way, where a common written system is completely different from the spoken dialects.

    And so which “Chinese” would we have the parents speak?

    I’m not looking to do any kind of reductio ad absurdum here, I ask this in all seriousness. Unless we state that the requirement of language is, in fact, a way to prevent adoption from happening in the first place….

    Anyway, Lucy, great speech, and kudos to you.

  4. Hi Daniel wow thank you for your comments. Firstly to be fair to the organisation (The British Association for Adoption and Fostering or BAAF) they actually invited me and three other HK adoptees to speak at this conference. I don’t agree with all that the BAAF do and I know other UK based adoptees have had very negative experiences with them. I can only speak from my own. So I give the BAAF their dues and respect for having the courage to ask four very different adoptees to present their experiences two positive and two not so positive.
    As for reclaiming my being British-Chinese I’m not too sure about that one. I am for some and never will be (as I said in my speech) British any more than certain people and groups that are “Chinese” will I be considered Chinese.

    Yes I can reclaim my ‘Chinese nationality’ but it comes at a real price, I cannot enter or leave HK on a British passport and would need to use only the Chinese passport if travelling around China. I have real concerns about this just from a practical point of view. But I first need to apply and get my HK iD card which at the moment is not happening because of time and finances (I’d need to be in HK for at least one month)

    Yes with regard to language and Adoptees from East Asia this could be a minefield but also goes towards what I have been saying from a professional point of view the way that in the UK East Asians are perceived as one lump that means you could be Japanese Korean or Laotian and you are viewed as being “Chinese”. The Chinese language is full variations and dialects the most notable I suppose being Cantonese. I actually came across an instance of a child who was sent to learn Mandarin by her adoptive parents at least they were trying but their daughter’s heritage, culture was Hong Kong Chinese so her mother tongue was Cantonese not Mandarin.

    I have no answers in truth Daniel I am what I am because I was transracially adopted. I now do what I do soley because I was a transracial adoptee – what I gained can never make up for what I lost

    Thanks for the support Daniel – kudos – no but thanks, I am just trying to do what I can for the next generation of transracially adopted children who find themselves in the UK.

Adoptees, what do you think? We welcome your replies!

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