Last week my daughter emailed me asking for the best resources to point someone beginning their identity journey to. I realized I couldn’t give her a straight answer, despite being deeply embedded in adoption land for many years.
My own journey didn’t start until I was in my mid 40’s. After my parents died. It was a different media world back then, and the only information online at that time were mostly forums for people wanting to adopt and some fledgling personal blogs by adoptees. The adoption politics and identity politics landscape was more binary and divided back then, so it could be pretty brutal to participate in debates and research on adoption was in its infancy. There were adoptee organizations all over the world having activities, but there was very little discussion by adoptees to adoptees. Not like today, where there are dozens and dozens of Facebook groups and adoptee-run on-line magazines and organizations and schools with adoption studies and thousands of books and memoirs.
I must say, I miss those old days.
Not the dearth of information, but the blogs! I miss the less self-conscience very personal voices poignantly speaking in the wind to nobody/anybody at 3 a.m. and sharing their heartaches, joys, confusion, and pain. It was very very real. And they would invariably fold. And that was a good thing, because they were moving on. It was therapeutic for them and therapeutic for us readers. And we began to talk to each other. Real conversations. Real 3 in the morning supportive conversations. And we didn’t feel so all alone.
But today it seems like everybody has all the answers. You can go to x adoption sites and find all you’d ever want to know about adoption and then some. We find our tribe and echo each other’s voices because it’s all been written already and then we get comfortable being part of a tribe and never have to leave. And, I would argue, we never have to grow or challenge ourselves either. It feels to me like the desire for presence, collective front, aggregation, political critical mass, etc. has occupied all the space and its near institutionalization has cleaned up what was messy but dynamic into something slick and sterile and nearly negated the individual voice.
Which makes me sad, because let me tell you – I credit blogging to saving my life. It’s one thing entirely to journal for yourself, another thing to write a letter privately to a person, and another thing entirely to write for yourself publicly. It’s a game changer. It means you’re accountable. It means you have a responsibility to not misinform, to not spread bias, to not let emotion cloud reason. It’s a skill that must be learned: not only writing, but also editing yourself. It means you have to consider your words and test them and ask yourself if it’s the truth. It means having to work your shit out. And because it’s in front of others it means you can’t fake it, because it can’t be unseen once published. It becomes a consistent self check. It becomes a practice. It progressively clears away all the lies you tell yourself to skate by with as little work possible. It makes you more observant. It makes you consider others more. It heals. More than any therapy or dozens of self-help books, the act of blogging takes your trauma and dissipates it, rendering it powerless.
So that’s what I did; I searched for my identity in real time publicly for over four years.
And my conclusion (which I don’t expect anyone to agree with) is that identity is, at its core, everything that persists that defines your essential you. No matter what was taken away. Despite whatever awful thing happened. It’s intrinsic. So, to me, I didn’t lose it. It can’t be taken away. It isn’t as superficial as my citizenship or a society or a culture. It is bigger than all of this adoption shit. Not to say adoption isn’t freaking traumatic and awful, because it is. And yes you had a destiny that was rather violently curtailed. But you are still you and you survived and you are teeming with human potential. Your identity is the ONE THING that you can actually always count on sticking around. Love and cherish that!
It just seems to me that, since we’re in this existential crisis club, shouldn’t we also be talking about strategies and tools to break free? To just live and have happily ever afters?
So how do I point adoptees to the best resources for their identity exploration? The past year I have been studying language acquisition methods and my favorite one is called, “The Discovery Method.” Basically what that means is you try to engage. You allow yourself to make mistakes and be inadequate. That experience tells you what you need to learn. You then have a goal to fill that hole. You now know where to focus your energies for research. You remember that lesson the most. And this kind of serendipitous, messy journey is how you become agile and learn to learn and accelerate your progress. I think it’s also called “Free Climbing.”
And write. Write like there’s no tomorrow. Write to anybody who will listen. Stream of consciousness. Reason for yourself. Form your own thoughts. Adjust, correct, grow! Flex those muscles. Be true to yourself.
Oops, got a little rapturous there!
I forgot to add that I, personally, wouldn’t want to steer anyone to any particular place because the journey is way more important than the conclusions of others. I’m a far different person with a far different mindset than I thought I would have when I started. And I’m grateful the path was not straight.
All that aside, I am always interested to hear what other people think identity is. What’s helped you get through identity crisis personally. What your process is for your learning style. Maybe you can give my daughter a more satisfying answer!
I’ve been thinking on this one for a while now, and also waiting for the school year to be done so I can have a peaceful moment to elaborate an answer. I’m about to head back to Beirut for a month, three years after I left. It’s been a strange return journey, in the sense that I felt less anxious about “identity” in Beirut or in North Jersey but things are quite different in Vancouver/Canada. I mean that I am comfortable with my self in less- and non-Anglo spaces. I’m not sure how cohesive this answer is going to be, but here goes….
My journey started at 40, on my birthday, when I went through my adoption paperwork again and found the official “name bestowing” document that called into question what I had previously believed was a family name. In contact with adoptees from France at the time, they further disabused me of any idea that our paperwork was anything but a pile of lies. Planned at the time was a big birthday party, and I canceled it; all of a sudden I called into question all of my links, ties, and connections.
This was not functional to those invited, but was functional to me, and what I started to see was the affected nature of identity. I wasn’t comfortable with who I projected, as opposed to who I was (or might be). This was the minor meltdown that led me back to Beirut, and the 12 painful years of coming to terms with my adoption and the search for self.
What was interesting in this experience was hanging out to dry previous affectations and self-assigned identity markers. This doesn’t mean I wasn’t identified, just like in the States (and now in Canada where it is worse), but I would just as much challenge all of it. So, for example, quite happy to be labeled a “Jersey Boy”, but no so much a “U.S.-American”. Not happy with being called “Lebanese”, but quite happy when people responded to the pre-colonial and much more politicized reference as being of “Damascus Country” or “Greater Syria”.
Needless to say this reflected a lot of privilege: as a man, as a seen-as foreigner in a colonized space, as someone with a passport that allowed for travel most anywhere. Friends locked into their sect and nation-state were upset when I converted and chose to “identify” in a way that was free from the acculturation or the familial/societal obligations that come with such identities and which govern every aspect of one’s life in Lebanon. I started my move down the social/class hierarchy at this point, spending most of my time with the Syrian workers in my neighborhood (to the dismay of many Lebanese), and also working with the artists’ collective I founded on issues having to do with displacement, dispossession, and disinheritance, most notably the Palestinian cause.
In the final half of my stay there, as I determined my identity as related quite locally to my neighborhood in spite of how it was perceived by my colleagues, as I limited my public space navigation to that of my friends in this neighborhood, as my DNA tests revealed my family and village, and then as a series of quite fortuitous circumstances led me to extended family and finally my story, I felt the Lebanese identity noose tightening. A friend from New York came to visit me, and I apologized that whereas when I first got there I felt free to travel everywhere (as a perceived-as American), now I had to limit where I went based on how I was identified in terms of family, village, and sect as well as how I saw myself.
All this to make a few major points. First, I’ve learned that our identity, and how we are identified, are two completely separate things. Our ability to navigate that is tied to class and social context. In Canada, “Lebanese” is projected onto me, as “Asian” is projected onto many of my students, in a way that is reductive and ignores the complexity of our originating places and their peoples, cultures, dialects, etc. Which leads me to the second point, which for me is that identity is quite local, and tied to community. This allows for “comfort” when I am, say, in North Jersey, or in certain places in Lebanon, or in certain conversations with certain Arabs or certain Northeasterners here in Vancouver. It brings discomfort when it moves to national or global definitions: “As a Lebanese, you must like [fill in the blank]”, or in terms of Canada’s horrifying official term describing non-Anglos as “visible minorities”.
Third, the progression over time of a disintegrative post-modern identity politics which I see as functional to a particular class stratum, and which has replaced what were previously notions of identity as “common cause” and as bridges, especially during the decades of decolonization of much of the globe. This identity politics mimics so absolutely the categorization that comes from living in a binary Anglo-dominant economic and political space that I am hard-pressed to tease apart how they are different. They function the same, and they silo everyone into finite affected spaces for which the energy required to maintain such charades despairingly reminds me of growing up and pretending to be white in a dominant white world.
I’m done with that. And usually I’m fine, especially when I don’t have to explain who I am or how I see myself. And yet the stasis of Vancouver has me stumped. The colonizing aspect of this place looms large, and there is no outward cultural expression to be found among the various groups that make up the so-called “multicultural tableau” here. I’ve sunk myself into readings concerning labor and activist history here, as well as that of activist Indigenous scholars. I am actively working on the university’s call to decolonize and Indigenize, which matches my research over the past 15 years.
But much of the day-to-day work has to do with removing oneself from the “performative fray”; away from the minstrelsy of “being” along lines defined by a dominant mode that wishes nothing more than the destruction of that being, though it might be entertaining for those of that mode to take in the performance for a while. I am weary of explaining aspects of what I do or why, and have turned to “reading” Canadian culture back to Canadians—a kind of “reverse Orientalism”; trying to explain to fish the water they are swimming in, and why it is toxic to many of us.
This is hugely consuming of energy that I would rather put toward more creative, productive, and mindful/changeful endeavors. But this is the world we live in I guess. One book I highly recommend is Asad Haider’s Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump [link]. It really clarified for me the particular political and economic moment we find ourselves in, and made me realize I was on my own “correct track”. Still have a ways to go. This will have to do for now.