Michigan in Color: Life lost, life gained
The following is a letter I penned to my “other” self, the one that would have grown up in the backcountry of North Vietnam, in the style of the annual report sent by my adoptive parents to my biological parents.
Dear Nguyễn Đại Dương,
Adam is now 21 years old, weighs 117 pounds and is 62 inches tall. He is happy and healthy.
Adam has grown up in an American household. He has two beautiful siblings and loving parents. He lives with his mother, sees his father and doesn’t speak with his stepfather. He goes to college in Michigan and is currently studying business. He enjoys learning in school and has incredible friends and mentors in his life. Adam’s favorite things are helping others, socializing with his friends, being active, hiking and cheering on Michigan athletics.
Adam has made a lot of American friends. Adam has always wanted to be normal. He has found it relatively easy to find friends but has never really felt like he fit in. In high school, he always questioned why his friends had to group up and why his body was welcomed with one group while his soul fit in with the other.
His soul is every bit American. He responds to Adam Brodnax and speaks English very well. Growing up, he spent Sundays watching the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans. He did gymnastics for most of his childhood, learned the trumpet and played Little League baseball. He inherited old family recipes such as Grandma Sue’s potato salad and Mom’s pot roast. His family tree tells him that he came from a mix of European countries that migrated to America roughly three generations ago. He grew up listening to popular hits of the 2000s such as Britney Spears and Santana. In school, he learned about Texas and American history, but hardly learned much about himself. He says “y’all” and “howdy” while being mindful to hold the door open for others. His soul fit in well with his white friends, until he started wearing polos and Sperrys and realized he just couldn’t pull them off. His soul is every bit American.
His body is every bit your body and an open mystery. He doesn’t have pictures of his family, but he knows that they and his four other biological siblings were deathly ill. He is treated as an Asian American, expected to be smart and submissive, and he is often times mistaken for being Chinese. He is average height in Southeast Asia but is very small in America. During Texas summers, his body is blessed to have your skin. He has had his DNA sampled hoping to find family, only to find a list of diseases he is susceptible to. His body fit in quite well with his Asian friends in school until he went into their houses and didn’t take his shoes off. His body is every bit your body.
However, Adam is so very optimistic. He has put in time to learn about the hardships that he could have gone through. He knows very well that if he had survived the sickness in his family, his potential would have been limited to harvesting rice in the backcountry of Vietnam. Coupling the hardships with the sickness in your and his family, the odds are improbable that he will ever meet them. Yet, from listening to the success stories of the many adoptees who have done this, their odds weren’t much better than his.
Adam is lucky to have such a beautiful and loving family. He knows that he must make the most of his life in America for you. He takes every opportunity he has because he knows that you would never get that chance. His future is bright because his families have given up so much to help him along the way. He knows that he can read everything he can about Vietnam and hang out with Vietnamese friends, but he also knows that’ll never suffice. His soul feels misaligned and trapped inside the body that you gave him. He knows that you and he couldn’t coexist, but losing you has left him never quite feeling full. Learning to love a body he has trouble speaking to has kept him unsteady, but he knows his parents have shown him what unconditional love is. He knows that happy endings are hardly afforded, but the slim chance brings him the strength to find your story.
Yours with all the love I have,
Adam Yeager Brodnax
Before college, I had hardly talked about my adoption process with anyone. It didn’t start until I took an intergroup relations class during my freshman year. Sitting in that class, I read aloud my testimony about my upbringing. In the middle of it, I began to choke up reading about my biological family because it was the first time I had openly confronted that part of my life. Since then, I have had this urgency to make sense of my adoption process. I understand how singular it is that I have a life in America, and that has pushed me to connect the life I lost with the life I gained.
I was adopted when I had only logged 179 days. I come from a family of seven in rural North Vietnam. My siblings ranged from being 4 to 15 years older than me. My dad worked in the rice fields during the day with my older siblings, while my mom kept to the house with the younger siblings. My family was ridden with tuberculosis and it seemed that they were afraid I would get it too.
My adopted family consists of my two American parents and two siblings. My brother was adopted from two legally blind parents a year before me from the same village. Five years later, my younger sister would be adopted from a young couple in central Vietnam. Digging through my adoption file, I realized the life I lost in Vietnam remains a scattered mystery.
I was afforded the opportunity to live the American dream that so many others sacrifice their lives for. Growing up, I benefitted from having a typical American upbringing — stable, suburban, white, middle class. Yet going through my adolescent years, I was constantly being exposed to these Asian-American lived experiences my white American parents just didn’t know how to handle. At my elementary school, people would ask, “Are you Chinese?” When my mom picked me up, the teacher would be hesitant to let me in the car. When I spent time with my grandpa, he warned me to leave “North” out of “North Vietnam” to protect me from being stigmatized by his old Navy friends. I was called several names — banana, Twinkie, whitewashed. Vietnamese barbers knew precisely how to handle my hair, but I never knew how to tell them what I wanted — I still don’t. These experiences would continue to shape my identity as a transracial adoptee that I still find difficult to articulate.
Through high school, I held onto the ideal that I would continue to grow toward normalcy. I hoped that I would find my space in society because all my friends eventually found theirs. The typical narrative about not fitting into either group took form, but instead of choosing between my Asian friends and my white friends, I was forced into this gray area in a world painted black and white. My soul and body never aligned like I expected, leaving both parts of me facing the same foggy reality together.
One of the important values I’ve learned growing up is that hope is something powerful to hold on to. It’s hard. It’s hard to wrap my mind around what hope means to me. But as I keep my head above the water, I continue to define what it means. For now, it means that I just want to be sure of myself. I see so many of my friends being sure of themselves and I happily celebrate that, but I have always celebrated for them, never with them. I’ve never been sure of myself and I hope that this piece will help me do that. I am still on this journey, sifting through my adoption file trying to find answers about me. This past summer, I learned that I might not even be the right baby and that’s OK. I’ve found refuge in that everything that makes me who I am is because of my loving adopted parents and siblings. This journey is very much alive, and I am navigating through it with the hope and conviction that my soul and body will find harmony.
Adam Brodnax is an LSA junior. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.