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.