Dear Adoption, Where Am I From?
Where are you from? Such a simple question.
This question is one that is asked of me every single day.
I work as a nurse at a large hospital in a metropolitan area, and the nature of my job allows me to meet new patients every time I work. This question is a just an easy ice breaker for many, but for some individuals (like me), this can be a loaded question.
I start by responding to this question with the answer I want to give: my hometown. A small town, the place where I grew up, the home to all my childhood memories, the place I drive to when I say I’m going “home” for the weekend. Doesn’t that make it where I’m from?
When I answer the question Where are you from? with my hometown, it’s never enough. The natural follow-up question asked of me 9 times out of 10 is: No, where are you really from? The patient’s emphasis on the word “really” indicates that they’re looking for more.
Where am I really from? What does that even mean? I’m from wherever I say I am. I’m from the small town. I’m from where my family is.
Depending on my mood that day, I’ll either avoid the question; or I give my patient the answer I know they want to hear. They want to hear the more exotic, exciting answer to this question, even though I’m more hesitant to offer that piece of me to them.
The conversation is nearly identical every time:
Patient: Where are you from?
Me: <insert hometown name>
Patient: No, where are you really from?
Me: I’m originally from India.
Patient: Wow! How old were you when your folks moved you here?
Me: I was actually adopted.
Patient: Oh! You must be so grateful!
Yes. Grateful. Grateful is always the word people jump to first. I suppress the bitterness in my voice for having had this conversation a hundred times. Each time I have this conversation, I am reminded that I must be so grateful.
Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful to be adopted- it has provided me with a home, a family, education, access to healthcare, etc. But, adoption is more than just the act of heroic love that usually comes to mind. In order to be grateful for the family I have today, I had to lose another family in the process. I also lost a culture to which I’ll never fully belong, no matter how hard I try. To constantly be reminded of these traumatic losses on a daily basis can be emotionally exhausting.
But my job is to keep my patients happy and healthy, and in order to do that, I must engage in the repetitive small talk about where I’m from, while always asking myself the true answer to the question where am I from?
One time at work, I met a man in the elevator who, after asking me where are you from? did not approve of my small hometown answer. But instead of asking a clarifying follow-up question like most, he had the nerve to correct me and tell me where I was from. Not ask, not guess, but correct me. No way, you aren’t from there. You are from India. Thanks, random stranger, for being able to identify my racial ethnicity and for gracing me with the wisdom of knowing where I’m from, because obviously I would never know that myself.
While I don’t mind sharing about my background with family, friends, and acquaintances, I am constantly having to share my Life Story with strangers. And then the strangers tell me that I must be so grateful.
Again- I am grateful, but I am also filled with many other emotions, such as sadness, frustration, and confusion. If I had to sum up my feelings toward my adoption in one word, it wouldn’t be grateful. It would be complex.
Adoption is an extremely complex emotional phenomenon. Why, you ask? Let me tell you: When I hit the age where I was mature enough to realize the gravity of my loss, I cried on my birthday, and every year since I have continued to cry on my birthday because it’s the day I lost my birth family and my culture. I feel extremely uncomfortable at baby showers even though I find pregnant women beautiful. I hated my post-partum clinical rotation during nursing school because I was jealous of all the babies who had family surrounding them from the moment they were born. I find myself often wondering if I have a sister, a brother, or even a long-lost twin out there wandering around looking exactly like me but not even knowing I exist. I feel like an imposter in Indian grocery stores and worry that authentic Indians will be able to pick me out as unauthentic. The list of oddities goes on… For these reasons and many others, adoption is complex.
Despite the complicated answer I could give, I muster together the patience to again give them the answer they want to hear: Of course I’m grateful.
Dear Adoption, I’m grateful for you but you also are so complex. I just want to do my job without being questioned about you. Unfortunately though, because I’m a person of color serving a primarily white community, I will continue to deal with this question at work and so for now I’ll just put on the fake smile I have perfected over the years and answer Where are you from? the way you want me to.
Thank you for sharing! I often grew up getting asked similar questions, or ‘whats your background’. I am half Indian half Caucasian, and the suburbs of Pittsburgh are a primarily white community. Most people like to say ‘Oh you must be Mediterranean.’ Its their easy answer. Beiing mixed with Indian gave me a very ambiguous look. Strangers seem to always be interested in others racial identity!
[…] Dear Adoption, Where Am I From? […]
My daughter will graduate and be a nurse in May.
Thanks for sharing your truth here.
Wonderful explanation of the complexities of adoption. So many people do not recognize that adoption involves loss. I wish you joy when you visit your birth country, though I’m sure you will have many complex emotions.
Thank you for sharing this! I work as a physical therpist I the hospital and have the same experience daily. I am continually amazed that people think it’s appropriate to assume based on your skin color “you are not from here” is an acceptable answer. I often get an awkward silence if I tell people I am adopted.
Maybe if we all (adoptees and first mothers/families and yes, adoptive families too) didn’t put on our fake faces (polite hypocrisy), people would soon come to learn that adoption *does* involve a great deal of loss.
Who are we really trying to please? I came to hate telling or implying to someone that “I’m fine and yeah, it’s all good”, when it’s not. I got tired of feeling like a liar. It’s emotionally and physically exhausting to carry around a false front.
Explaining the reality may not be PC, but there are a great many things in this world that have gotten a pass or been pushed under the rug and not had productive, healthy changes made to them, due to the ‘lets all be polite and smile/PC’ mantra. Isn’t that why so much of society continues with the, “Oh, you must be so grateful”? They have no comprehension of the reality. They have been fed a steady diet of ‘adoption is a win-win’. Kind of like eating nothing but sugar. It’s not healthy.
Thank you for bravely telling your story. I am sorry you are faced with such painful questions day after day. All of your feelings matter and need to be heard and validated. I hope you can make it India someday.
Thank you so very much for sharing. It is important, especially for the adoptive family (of which I am a part), to realize these complex emotions exist, and that each person in the family will deal with them differently.
[…] Today’s rec: Mara Smith’s essay on adoption, its complexities, & navigating the demand of being “grateful.” Dear Adoption […]
Thanks for sharing your story. I am adopted from Kolkata (IMH) too. I work in a hospital ironically and totally get the “where are you from” questions. I try to keep it simple most days and am often humbled by my patients. This life as an adoptee is quite the experience!