Dear Adoption, Growing Up You Were Everywhere, But You Were Never Enough
I saw you in TV shows of my childhood. I saw you on stage, I saw you in movies. I even saw you when I was stuck in the drive through at Wendy’s.
Being a child of the 80’s in the United States was quite the experience. My friends and I were able to taste New Coke, watch the first space shuttle launch and all it took to be kind was to rewind your VHS rental.
Adoption, it was a time when you were everywhere.
Take, for example, the American comic book superhero, Superman. Separated from his home, Superman lost his parents and was adopted. A perfect example of a (literal) hero to look up to. But how does a young teenage boy compare himself to the Man of Steel? Although Superman’s longing to visit his home resonated with me, I was unable to explain that similarity to my friends around me, so adolescent awkwardness became my kryptonite.
Remember Arthur Fonzarelli, from Happy Days? (He was not technically adopted, but work with me here.) Effectively raised by his friend’s parents, he was as close to an adopted character as one could get in the mid 70’s. Alas, he jumped the shark, but it didn’t really matter, as a little brown boy in a white community could never be as cool as The Fonz.
On stage, of course, we had Little Orphan Annie, forever droning on and on about her hard knock life and longing for tomorrow. For a moment, try to ignore the issue of having a small child singing when that child may or may not be good enough to sing. What I really can’t stand is the portrayal of her orphanage. In the story, the orphanage worker is intentionally mean and nasty, no doubt done to heighten the joy of her being “rescued”. And Annie is a small child, reinforcing the stereotype that all orphans are helpless waifs, unable to fend for themselves and always in need of a savior to come to their rescue.
When I was in high school, I had the privilege of meeting real, genuine orphanage workers. They weren’t mean. They were really nice and were thrilled to meet some of their “babies” who were now young adults. But thanks to that dumb play, theatre after theatre of people still watch and believe the lies.
Adoption, how could I trust you? Even when you had the spotlight, the story you told me was a lie.
I have an older brother who was (and still is!) biological to my adoptive parents. As an inter-country adoptee with darker skin than the rest of his adoptive family, it is pretty darn obvious that I am adopted. Once, a classmate in high school refused to believe that I was really my brother’s brother (he was a popular athlete) until other friends of mine said the same words I had just said. Only then did he believe me.
Once again, Adoption, you were everywhere. But this time you wouldn’t even allow another person to believe my own words.
In the TV series, Star Trek, The Next Generation, a Klingon boy is raised by his human grandparents. Several episodes actually did a nice job exploring the conflict of identifying as a particular culture and being raised in a different culture. The hardships of being a single parent are also explored. But the main theme of the show was interstellar exploration and thus being able to relate to these characters was as likely as becoming friends with the Gorn.
Adoption, you were everywhere in real life and in story, but you you never let me share my inner light.
That changed after I graduated high school. I went to an adoptee retreat in upstate New York that was organized by the previously mentioned orphanage volunteers. I was suddenly introduced to a whole new world that I hadn’t thought to explore. I discovered that there were other people like me. Some were quiet. Some were outgoing. But we all had a similar story. We were all adopted in the 70s. All from Vietnam.
Suddenly I didn’t have to explain myself. I didn’t have to explain that the white woman I was with really was my mother. These new friends also had parents that “got it.” They didn’t ask why I couldn’t speak Chinese or Japanese. With just a look or a glance, I was able to say to my new friends what I had never spoken of in all my years.
So you see, Adoption, even though you were everywhere, you were never enough. I needed more.
Despite years of searching, I still hadn’t found what I was looking looking for. With my new friends, we would share our experiences, look at each other and say “You, too?!!” I found people who shared my story, so that there was no longer a need to share my story.
And without saying anything, I was able to say everything.