race matters

Race matters. Even though there are times when I’d like to think that my transracially adopted identity doesn’t shape who I am – in my family and in the world – my race in relation to those around me influences in a very real way how I see myself, and how others view me.

That may feel uncomfortable to acknowledge. Talking about race and its impacts is supposed to assume a negative and foreboding tone. But I want you to hold on for a moment, because my racial identity is one of the aspects of my identity I’ve grown to appreciate most about myself, and because I believe the implications of transracial identities, as I’ve come understand them, are valid and worth sharing.

Race does matter. And that’s okay.

For those transracially placed (and in many multiracial families) the experience of racial identity is at many times marked by the presence and contrast of experiences to those with similar racial socialization, but a different racial identity (such as siblings or schoolmates). Oftentimes, the difference is not obvert, but made obvious by the incongruity that takes place if one identity or way of being is assumed (either consciously or unconsciously) that is different from what’s expected based on what one looks like and what that supposedly means. For better or worse, this impacts the abilities of those transracially placed to operate unquestioned within the larger society. And because we may not talk or act as expected, our racial identities may be called into question, and we may find ourselves reconciling what appear to be inauthentic and incongruous ways of being to those for whom the transracial experience falls outside of “the norm”.

Of course, identity is complex, but the likelihood of what I’m describing seems to increase the most against stereotypes of what racial groups are “supposed” to be like, when placed or other folks fall short of expectations that they will act or sound a certain way. This is the difference between how our racially different families raised us to look at and navigate society, versus how society deems we “should” act or sound – based on how we look from the outside. For example, a White adult adoptee raised by Black adoptive parents called into an NPR radio segment, which ran in 2011, entitled The Parenting Dilemmas of Transracial Adoption. He spoke of reconnecting with his biological family as an adult and being “chastised for acting Black” and learning new ways of being in order to attract less attention for the differences he’d acquired throughout his upbringing.

Of course, there is already so much here that I could say. The unique perspectives of transracial adoptees often highlight, in precarious ways, complexities surrounding race, as well as the existence of prejudice in society – and I believe that’s an important and complex part of what it means to be transracially placed.

For those transracially placed, having a different set of cultural markers – other than those of one’s own cultural or ethnic heritage – is felt regardless of its acknowledgement. Much like those with biracial identities, who feel as though they’re prevented from fully identifying with one racial identity or the other, transracially placed folks’ identities may be invalidated (usually by outsiders) when they are told that they’re not really [insert nationality/culture of origin here]. Unfortunately, unless foster and adoptive parents are kept aware of this dynamic, they won’t know why, or understand the impact if their child is called various unkind – and even derogatory – names such as those referring to the fact that they are White on the inside, for example, but a different color on the outside.

The good news is, by remaining aware, adoptive and foster families can support their child by, at the very least, acknowledging the differences in identity and striving to connect adoptees and fosters to opportunities for building stronger connections to their ethnic and cultural heritage. For many transracially placed folks, this exploration is key to developing an identity that acknowledges these incongruities, and which allows them the opportunity to choose how they will identify and operate within society.

As a transracial adoptee, I feel I have the unique advantage of understanding my own racial identity from a context of privilege and difference. I don’t always get to choose how others view me in light of my differences, but I do get to choose how I identify – knowing that identity is complex, and that challenging assumptions about who gets to be this way or that is something I have the power to do – if not just by walking into a room.

And while it’s been a bumpy road to self-discovery, I’m grateful to have found value in my racial experience and identity. The mix of perspectives one encounters in the context of being transracially placed combine to form what I think are some of the most fascinating social and cultural implications of our time. And I think that’s worth considering.

More soon.

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I Am Nothing (And That Is Something)

By Kev Minh Allen

Kev at the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas

Image: Kev Minh Allen at the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas

As I reached the age of 40 last December, driving through northeast Oregon and California on my way to Reno, Nevada, I was so tempted to stop the car on the side of the highway, get out and walk toward the steel-cold purplish-orange horizon. Dusk was settling in, darkness was prevailing and no other cars were on the winding road except for mine. The moon was a thin crescent sitting in a black void. I was headed south, just entering California. Now and again I would look out the window and just see blank, black land stretching for miles on end. Such seeming emptiness beckoned to me to stop everything I was doing and head toward the freezing, silent oblivion because I was seeking solace, I was seeking relief, I was seeking a way out and a way in.

I was born either face-up or face-down, either screaming until I was red in the face or holding in all my breath until I was blue in the face. Either my mother was given the chance to hold me within the first few minutes of my birth and look upon my face or I was given over to someone else’s outstretched arms and placed in a room crammed with other bawling newborns to stare at a ceiling fan blurring the air as it rotated. Either my father was there in the room to count my toes and fingers or he was a ghost just like my mother. I couldn’t tell you because I just don’t know. Or perhaps I would know the whole story if someone who witnessed my entrance into the world could get word to me. But, I’ve been told before that that is asking for far too much.

Why had I been alone at such a momentous stage in my life and driving so far away from where I lived, far away from the familiar and the usual? Why did I want no friends or family around me on the supposed day of my birth so they could see me, revel with me and celebrate my sometimes quick, sometimes slow accumulation of 40 years on this planet? No easy answers ever came to mind. All I could come up with is that, in order to properly commemorate my 40th year of life, I had to be alone, had to be on my own.

Most likely, my parents are dead, and that is the Unknown that I still cling to, still believe in, because I fear that the Truth will never ring true to me. Mind you, they are not dead to me. In the back of my mind I imagine them talking. Without any sort of mementos or photographs of them to go by, I pretend their conversations revolve around reliving the moment when they wished they had, or had not, met in Vietnam, kissed in Vietnam, made love in Vietnam and met their demise in Vietnam. My memories of my parents are fantasies, little tall tales I tell myself every time my reflection sees itself on the other side of the mirror. I can’t help but recognize myself, but I probably wouldn’t ever recognize either one of my parents, even if they passed by me on the same side of the street. When they left me, I left them. I disappeared into another land, another language, another family. Thigh-high snow drifts in the winter and raucous pool parties in the summer are what I grew up with; not wilting palm trees and morning alms to the shuffling monks on the sidewalk.

In an essay I wrote almost a decade ago, I ended it by writing, “I slipped into this world, and I will slip out of it.” It’s a clever thought, albeit a nihilistic one. I realize now that I can commune with anyone or anything around me, even if it’s within my own mind, whether I’m alone or not, and feel as though I have a purpose in this one life I’ve been given.

I am nothing. I am nothing but a man who drives 14 hours to a city in the dead of winter where no one knows him and no one ever will.

Kevin Minh Allen was born Nguyễn Đức Minh on December 5, 1973 near Sài Gòn, Vietnam to a Vietnamese mother and American father who remain unknown to him. He was adopted by a couple from Rochester, NY and grew up in Webster, NY with his two younger sisters. In 2000, he moved to Seattle, WA to pursue a life less ordinary. He enjoys travel and photography when he’s not writing. Kevin has had his poetry published in numerous print and online publications, such as Eye To The Telescope, Meniscus Magazine, AsianAmericanPoetry.com, and Chrysanthemum. His first book of poetry My Proud Sacrifice was published in July 2014.


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Coming Home to Self – The Adopted Child Grows Up – Part II

I recently wrote a quick post about “Coming Home to Self: The Adopted Child Grows Up” – a book I began reading several months ago that examines the effect of early separation on the development of adoptee sense of self, and which explores the impact of early separation on adoptees in adulthood. The book is an important read for adult adoptees and for those who wish to support us because it looks at the way adoptees relate – to self and to others – and seeks to understand adoptee identity formation and relationships in the context of the initial separation and loss that adoptees experience.

Although I meant to follow up much sooner, my initial enthusiasm for the book waned considerably when after some time I realized how frustrated I felt with its tone. Specifically, I found myself wondering about the difference between using information to contextualize identities and experiences, such as those of adoptees and fosters, and using information to pathologize – by linking a certain behavior or way of being with the identities of those we wish to better understand and support. This is something I’ve continued to think about and explore, both as it relates to my own journey, as well as in how it relates to the content and work of this blog – and I think the implications are worth considering.

At a very basic level, I guess what I’m wondering is, to what extent does the information we read or use to help us better understand and support a particular group or population stop being helpful, and instead become counterproductive?

Many of us are taught to think critically about what we read. In high school, if we’re lucky, we learn to think carefully about our histories – to understand their purpose and context, and to consider who gets a say, and whose voices are left out. If we’re lucky, we learn that history has been written from the perspectives of those in power, and that those marginalized throughout society were and are currently also, or more often than not, marginalized from the mainstream historical (and contemporary) narratives.

In a similar sense, until recently, the bulk of adoption literature was written from the perspectives of adoptive parents and professionals, but did not include the voices of those whose experiences adoption literature was meant to better understand – adoptees themselves. Instead, it focused primarily on the experiences of those same adoptive parents and professionals, and used their perspectives as a lens through which to view the experiences and characteristics of adoptees. The original literature on adoption, as well as contemporary adoption literature that is written from the perspectives of adoption professionals and parents is valuable in its own right. However, the lens through which it is written should be considered (especially when it comes to transracial adoption issues), because information is power, or so they say. And because understanding identity in the context of power forms a critical aspect of the work on this blog, I think it’s important to remember that what’s being said is often just as important as who’s saying it.

So, for example, when I read the Chapter on “Emotion and Regulation of Self” in “Coming Home to Self” and the section on “The Journey: Victim… Survivor… Participant” I found it hard to stay present as I was being told how adoptees are by someone who, themselves was not an adoptee.

Despite the validity of Nancy Newton Verrier’s perspective, I couldn’t help but to consider the voices of those placed, from whom I have learned a great deal already. I couldn’t help but to question whether what I was looking for would more likely be found among the books and blogs of those placed, the conversations and exchanges with those whose lived experience embody the qualities, characteristics, and experiences that can only be written about, but not lived in “Coming Home to Self”. Of course, there is already so much more I could say.

Although it’s likely that I’ll eventually find the book useful, I’ve decided to postpone reading it for the time being. Meanwhile, I hope to bring more relevant perspectives into the conversation (hint, hint, to any potential contributors).

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

More on the way.

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When we’re the same we don’t have to be different. It takes a lot of work to be different. Stepping outside the box. Baring it all. Risking rejection.

And yet we’re told we are the same. We are no different than anybody else. But the difference is palpable. And so we try to fit in, try to fix it. Because we think we can. Because we think we must.

But keeping up takes work. The energy of conformity, the emotional toll of having to be and do something other than what comes naturally. But it’s hard to let go. There’s less fear in complacency.

Just like everybody else. Nothing to see here, move along folks.

Is this my path of least resistance? Adoptees are notorious for chameleon-like behavior, after all.

And then, as if we weren’t confused enough already:

Just be yourself!

My self is trying.

Just be yourself!

My self is more worried that you’ll leave, more fearful that you’ll hurt me, than concerned about figuring out what you really mean when you say, “just be yourself”.

So. Does my difference need fixing?

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Coming Home to Self: The Adopted Child Grows Up – Part I

This weekend, I started reading “Coming Home to Self: The Adopted Child Grows Up” by Nancy Newton Verrier, author of “The Primal Wound” (a classic in adoption literature). And can I just say, wow! I’m eager to read it. “Coming Home to Self” is written as an exploration of the impacts of early separation (between adoptees and their birth mothers) on how adoptees relate to self and others and explains how adoptees can use this knowledge to become more empowered in their lives – which I have to admit, I like a lot (though I’m still not sure what to make of the fact that she is writing as an adopted parent, and not an adoptee herself).

According to Newton Verrier, separation trauma is at the core of understanding the adoptee experience, and thus healing from adoption. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, separation trauma refers to an infant or child’s inability to cope with the sudden disappearance and/or loss of their birth mother. Which makes sense when we take the more general definition of trauma into account:

Trauma is “an event in the life of the victim which overwhelms her ordinary human adaptations to life.”

Considering stages of brain development, which Newton Verrier discusses at length, but which is beyond the scope of this post, infants and children might then be considered least likely to adapt to an event such as a sudden loss, because their coping strategies are less developed and are more likely to be overwhelmed. Hence, separation trauma.

Some results of separation trauma might include: the development of a false self which is then used by the adoptee to bar against what might then be perceived as further rejection and abandonment, anger, rage, fear of change and intimacy, and reluctance to accept joy and authentic connection.

Although I am only three chapters in, there is already so much about this book that I find helpful. Quite briefly I am wondering how, if at all, the premises of “Coming Home to Self” apply specifically to the experiences of those transracially placed. Certainly the experience of racial and ethnic difference adds its own unique dimensions to the aforementioned effects. Deeper critical insights are something I hope to unpack as I read further into the text.

And while I don’t think it’s necessary to pathologize the issues presented in the book, I do think that a basic understanding of separation trauma provides an optimistic and empowering framework for understanding the impacts of adoptee loss on relationships and healing, not just for adoptees, but also for anyone who seeks to support us.

Those are my initial thoughts. More to come.

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awareness in healing

A wise woman I know reminds me often that she cannot fix what she doesn’t know is broken. My personal philosophy on healing follows a similar line of logic. Healing begins with awareness.

Shedding light on the truth of any situation can have a powerful impact. Sometimes we find it when we look for it, and then there are times when the truth hits us, whether we want it to or not. It has been my experience that we heal as we discover and interpret our own and others’ truths, but that ultimately the process does not begin without awareness.

Negotiating the complex terrain of identity, both as adoptee and as someone who grew up in a family that does not share my ethnic or cultural heritage, I have learned that I cannot take that process for granted. When I have, my own lack of awareness has led me to places that were inauthentic to my own healing, not because they weren’t a part of who I was, but because they didn’t honor or recognize my past – part of which includes a history of loss and trauma – one that for so long felt too tenuous and confusing to work through. It was not until I began to acknowledge and work through this loss and trauma that I began to recognize the validity of other perspectives, while also knowing which one was mine to own.

When adoptee loss is taken out of context, misunderstanding and internalization of the adoptee experience are likely, and can delay and/or negatively impact healing – not just for the adopted person, but for everyone involved. But adoptee loss isn’t about what the adoptive family did wrong, it’s not about being “bad” people, or making “bad” decisions and somehow needing to make penance for it in the adoptive family. At its core, what’s often missing from an understanding of adoption loss is acknowledgement – of first families, of connection to culture and language, of lives lived prior, of memories, and the opportunity to know what life would have been like had we grown up in our families of origin. Only when awareness is brought to the loss inherent in the adoption experience can healing truly can begin.

I am proud to be part of a movement of adoptees reclaiming their own narratives. By doing so, we raise awareness of the experience and what it means to be adopted. Embracing our stories has such far-reaching connective and healing implications, not just for our own communities, but also for the many who support us. And though the implications may vary, our healing as adoptees, and as families affected by adoption, depends critically on the awareness we bring to it.

That’s all for now.

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complexity and the beauty of spaces in between

Complexity breeds despair, or so I’ve heard. But in my eyes, complexity is special. It’s hard earned. It’s what makes us three-dimensional. And while I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, what makes an adoptee identity complex is very special to me.

Adoptees inhabit the spaces in between. Inherent to our existence is the loss of our natural families, whether temporary or permanent, as well as the belonging to families who have chosen us. We are chosen, and yet difference remains an undeniable part of our reality, whether we know it or not. Instead, we learn what love is – beyond blood that’s thicker than water. We truth seek. We think deep. We are survivors. We prevail, despite circumstances beyond our control.

An additional dimension of complexity exists for those of us who happen to be adopted across racial lines or country borders. Some of us lose rich cultural connections to language and what then become foreign ways of being. Others grow up in households and communities as the only, or perhaps few, who share their racial or cultural heritage. Our differences lead us into a quest for identity that is uniquely rooted in the unknown. Because we may look different to the world outside, and because those we love may look different from us, but because we know that family means more than looking alike.

This kind of complexity leads us into spaces of false dichotomy, which we live out by virtue of our very being. It’s not that I identify as a Person of Color, and that I grew up in a White family, and that somehow I have to choose between the two. In much the same way that you or I could be a member of one family by birth and another by adoption, and still not have to choose. There is complexity in the experience and so much depth and beauty to the process.

Without denial of the pain that adoption entails, the gift – at least for me – is the social location of adoption itself, and the perspective that it offers. Resilience, reconciliation. Healing, hope. Growing up adopted is a lifelong process. It can be complicated and difficult, even painful, but it is part of what makes us who we are – and so very beautiful– even the “ugly” parts.

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