The empty circle: honoring and validating our complex identities

I am posting the following article written by adoptee, Amy Mihyang Ginther, who originally posted on Transracialeyes.com, another blog that I follow. I could relate to what she writes about honoring and validating our complex identities as adoptees in many, many ways. It’s difficult to convey the kinds of emotion and feelings that are at the very center of your story, but I think Amy has done it. I felt validated upon reading Amy’s article and recognize that even at the age of 47, I’m still wrestling with a few things and perhaps always will be in some sense. Sometimes I wish that I could just be done with it, but I guess that it’s just part of the fabric of who I am. I hope that Amy’s article will resonate with other adoptees and that we can as Amy expressed, “validate and support our intersected identity locations, whether it’s race, language, gender, sexuality, class, religion, nationality, or politics.” Thank you, Amy and Daniel of Transracial Eyes, for allowing me to repost this article. Please read on…

I have this memory from 3rd grade.

On the surface, it’s a fairly mundane image; I am staring at a piece of paper with a large circle drawn on it. The circle is empty. The assignment was to utilize our newly learned pie chart making skills and create a graph that represents our family ancestry. I just sat there, doing nothing, as my classmates excitedly talked about their percentages and colored them into the large circle on their papers.  50% Irish. 25% French. 1/16th Cherokee. I just sat there, paralyzed in confusion, shame, and futility. My circle was blank. I didn’t know what I should do.

When I was completing my MA in Voice Studies, I met a fellow voice coach who was also a hypnotherapist. I had wanted to try hypnotherapy because I wanted to further process the trauma of adoption and separation from my Omma (Korean mother) in a way that I couldn’t do consciously, as I was adopted at the age of three months.

I only had two sessions with this woman, and we never went back as far as three months old under hypnosis. But the memory of 3rd grade and the blank circle came back to me very strongly during one of our sessions. Hypnotherapy is a bit difficult to describe: you don’t feel powerless or under someone’s control – there is a sense of calm and clarity and it can feel really safe to explore memory and experience. Revisiting this moment, staring at this blank circle, brought quiet tears streaming down my face. I was 29 years old, grieving over a classroom assignment in elementary school. The pain and the frustration hadn’t left my mind or my body and I needed to be fully present within those feelings to really process and understand them.

Even by the 3rd grade, I was a good adoptee. I was the perfectionist and the high-achiever. I was excellent at excelling at any task or assignment I was given. But this blank circle, this pie chart, was impossible. I was faced with the choice of using my parents’ ethnic ancestry to complete the assignment: a seemingly satisfactory combination of Irish, Polish, French, German, and Scottish or filling in the entire pie chart a single color and just writing “Korean 100%.” Neither of them seemed to be the right answer; the former felt like it wasn’t really me at all and the latter didn’t use our pie-chart making skills the way the lesson clearly intended. If I made the chart 100% Korean, it was as if I cheated. And I would surely have failed.

Despite my young age, those feelings were very real and they were powerful enough to stay with me, twenty five years later. I didn’t realize at the time that deep down, those emotions related to an embedded fear of being abandoned again; that if I didn’t do this thing right, make this pie chart the way I was expected to, I would be given up again. This might sound irrational to a non-adoptee. Of course I wouldn’t be given up. I had a loving family and a stable childhood. But for too long, adoptees and adoptee discourse are not fully addressing that our trauma is not just in our heads- it is in our bodies, in a more abstract and subconscious way. The insidious nature of our trauma means that we don’t always realize that difficulty in our lives or relationships relates to our adoption. We don’t connect the dots. I had been in therapy for some time during my childhood, mostly for performance anxiety in relation to perfectionism. I have no memory of this ever being connected with my adoption.

Sometimes I think about what I’d fill into that circle today if given the same assignment. I think about the many adoptees who have struggled to be too much of this and not enough of that. Being a theatre-maker has allowed me to make that circle a playing space. Through my acting and voice work, I have been able to fill in that circle with whatever I choose to in a safe environment. And I have found the permission to allow the circle to change when I want it to. Sometimes, in rehearsal or a workshop, or anytime really, I feel crushing frustration when I’m not given clear enough instructions to complete a task successfully. I breathe. I remember that these feelings stem from old, false truths, and when they are brought out in the light of the present moment, they dissipate.

I reject even the idea of a circle because I know as transracial adoptees, we have much more dimension than that. Like all people, in reality, we are much more expansive than we realize. There are days and moments where my sphere is a lot more Korean and times when my Americanness takes up more space. It is not about the percentages, though, or even the shape. It is about surrendering to the idea that identity is never fixed and that we are many different versions of ourselves all at once and at different moments. We must courageously acknowledge that all these versions, percentages, pie slices, are valid, legitimate, beautiful parts of ourselves.

What would be in your circle? Are these parts of you in harmony or in conflict? What can we do in our community to validate and support our intersected identity locations, whether it’s race, language, gender, sexuality, class, religion, nationality, or politics?

Transracialeyes

****This is my first post with TRE and I would like to share my gratitude to Daniel and the other contributors for this space. And for you, readers.

I have this memory from 3rd grade.

On the surface, it’s a fairly mundane image; I am staring at a piece of paper with a large circle drawn on it. The circle is empty. The assignment was to utilize our newly learned pie chart making skills and create a graph that represents our family ancestry. I just sat there, doing nothing, as my classmates excitedly talked about their percentages and colored them into the large circle on their papers.  50% Irish. 25% French. 1/16th Cherokee. I just sat there, paralyzed in confusion, shame, and futility. My circle was blank. I didn’t know what I should do.

When I was completing my MA in Voice Studies, I met a fellow voice coach who…

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