I’m an adoptee. I don’t really know how to talk about it.
There are the facts, of course, and those are easy. I usually stick to them if the topic comes up. I was eight months old when my mom adopted me. She’s a single mom, and she always has been. She’s white, and my family is from Michigan. I’ve only visited China a few times but not in recent memory. English is the only language I know how to speak, read or write fluently. I was born somewhere in central China, in a city I’ve been told is hot year-round. (I rarely name the place, partially because I’m never sure if anyone I meet will be familiar with it, but also because I’m afraid I’ll embarrass myself if I reveal that I can’t even pronounce the name of the city where I was born.)
I also tell people that I have little to no interest in going back, even for another visit. Those who are a bit more curious, a bit bolder, sometimes ask, “Not even to find your birth parents?” And that is where the line is drawn — the line that separates what I do and don’t know how to articulate.
“No” is the simplest answer. I never knew them. There is no innate, mystical pull in my gut which haunts me at night and tells me to seek them out. I like my life the way it is and the way it has been. It doesn’t feel incomplete without them in it.
All of this is true. These are the facts I stick with if the topic comes up.
There is an in-between though, sandwiched in the middle of those truths, where all of the complicated stuff lives and, for the most part, stays, because I don’t know how to talk about it.
In an admittedly weak attempt to remedy this, I joined a private Facebook group called Subtle Asian Adoptee Traits (an offshoot of the infamous Subtle Asian Traits, which has almost 2 million members) at the invitation of a friend, another adoptee. She thought it might be a good thing for me to connect with more of us: ‘us’ being other people who could only understand half of the memes we scrolled past on Suble Asian Traits, as the rest involved Mandarin or Cantonese puns and references to life as American Born Chinese. Maybe this would be a space where I could learn from others how to talk about that untouchable in-between.
But I’ve never posted anything in Subtle Asian Adoptee Traits, even after two or three years spent reading everyone else’s posts. On the rare days when I open Facebook, I scroll past new members introducing themselves, people planning meetups, some asking for help with languages, others opening up about microaggressions they’ve experienced. Some just want to talk about their days. Some people have awful relationships with the people who adopted them, others have great ones. I never interact, even when I’m tempted to, even when someone’s just asking for a movie recommendation. Even amongst all of these adoptees, people who might understand my inability to articulate my feelings, I can’t find the words to begin.
While I was idly scrolling through the group a few weeks ago, I stopped at a post; someone shared the trailer for a new movie called “Blue Bayou,” about a Korean-American adoptee named Antonio LeBlanc (Justin Chon, “Coming Home Again”), who faces deportation after becoming the victim of an obscure Immigration and Customs Enforcement loophole involving international adoptees. The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 gave automatic American citizenship to adoptees younger than 18 but left others vulnerable to deportation if their process of gaining citizenship was, for whatever reason, left incomplete.
I think that part of why I find it hard to talk to other adoptees is because no two adoption stories are the same. We all share a defining life event in name only — all of the facts are different. The details of my adoption are nothing like Antonio’s. He’s Korean; I’m Chinese. He remembers his birth mother; I don’t. He was adopted by white parents but was given up and thrown into the American foster care system; I grew up in a stable, loving household. He’s at risk for deportation because of his citizenship status; I’ve never had any reason to give mine a second thought.
But I could also see so much of my own experiences in “Blue Bayou,” even in little ways. In the opening minutes, someone asks Antonio, “LeBlanc? Where’d you get a name like that?” Antonio explains that he was adopted. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked about my English last name because it’s incongruous with the way that I look.
Antonio befriends a woman named Parker (Linh Dan Pham, “Mythomaniac”), a Vietnamese refugee, who invites him to a cookout with her extended family. He sits down to make spring rolls with them and haphazardly folds the rice paper around a roll that he hasn’t filled enough. My fingers fumble every time I fold a dumpling, I never put the right amount of filling in the middle.
He is terrified of being sent back to Korea, not only because he’d be separated from his family, but because he’s Korean by birth alone. His only language is English, and he knows nothing of Korean culture. The idea of being sent back to my birthplace with no one waiting for me, with no knowledge of the language or customs is a nightmare scenario.
He tells his step-daughter, who’s worried that he won’t love her as much as his unborn biological child, that they’re family because they chose each other to be family — that choice is the only thing that matters. These are words that feel both incredibly trite and profound to me all at once.
When I let myself think about it, I know that there’s something dark in the in-between that I ignore, and that obscurity is why I prefer to stick to the facts when talking about my adoption. If I dwell, I have to recognize that the act of being abandoned is inherently traumatic, whether or not I can remember it.
The course of my entire life changed when I was just two months old, when I was left in a box outside of a high school, found and taken to an orphanage, and that is something I will never be able to un-know. I am ethnically Chinese and culturally American, but there will always be people who think I’m an imposter in both countries, and so I will always feel a little bit like an imposter in both countries.
I don’t think I’ll ever feel connected to anything related to the place where I was born. I have no interest in finding my birth parents, but the idea that they might still be living on the same planet as me makes my head spin.
The details of our adoptions might be completely different, but if years of lurking on Subtle Asian Adoptee Traits has taught me anything, it’s that adoptees have this darkness, this obscurity, in common. It doesn’t have to hurt actively — these are not things that keep me up at night or affect my day-to-day — but it will always be there whether or not I want it to be, and it will always feel too vast to navigate.
But there is also a reason why I feel incredibly affected by Antonio’s insistence about the importance of choice, no matter how much the cynic in me wants to call it cliché. I don’t want to repeat any overdone maxims about family or friendship, nor do I want to find a pretty bow for an issue that I’ll never be able to wrap up nicely, but I’ve never had any qualms about calling anyone I love a member of my family and meaning it. It’s easy to do when the family you grow up in inherently deconstructs the whole idea that blood is a necessary unifier.
There are still so many things in my brain, my body, my life, which I can’t reconcile. I don’t know when it’ll get easier or if I’ll ever be able to find a way into all of it that doesn’t feel like it’ll swallow me whole. But there is something about seeing all the things I can’t talk about played out in front of me, even if it’s something as simple as folding a spring roll or a dumpling.
I don’t need to find the words; I can let “Blue Bayou” speak for me.
Daily Arts Writer Katrina Stebbins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.