Tag Archives: Self-Identity

the language of identity

I recently read a book called, “The Language of Flowers,” by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. It is the heartbreaking, yet poignant story of a young woman who grows up in the foster care system. Until the age of 9, Victoria is shuffled from one family and group home to the next never quite meeting the “standards or expectations” of the adults in her life. Victoria’s social worker, jaded and quite unsympathetic, believes she is nothing more than a troublemaker. Victoria is hurt and traumatized and acts out the only way she knows how to after years of abuse and abandonment – through defiance. She mistrusts everyone around her and has great difficulty developing and maintaining relationships, that is, until she’s placed with Elizabeth. Victoria eventually learns to trust Elizabeth after a period of opposition that would send most of us over the edge and grows to share her passion for flowers. However, circumstances arise that threaten Victoria’s new found sense of security with Elizabeth. Out of desperation, Victoria engages in a dangerous ploy to win over Elizabeth’s undivided love and attention once and for all, which just invites havoc into her life again.

I was genuinely moved by the story of this young woman. Her struggles to maintain meaningful relationships and to be loved deeply resonated with me. She was imprisoned by her own self-loathing and inability to let others into her life. I totally get that. Yet, she had a special ability and desire to help others through the flowers she chose for them, having learned under Elizabeth’s careful tutorship the meaning of flowers.

For many years, I wrestled with identity. Like a lot of people in their 20’s, I had yet to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life. This was compounded by all of the insecurities I tried to hide – the trauma of being raised in a culturally non-diverse environment, an Asian girl trying to fit in with a predominantly white group of peers and never ever quite feeling worthy enough. Feelings of inferiority, passivity, shyness, and an inability to communicate my feelings made it difficult to connect with others, not to mention to self. I was even called a wallflower by a church leader in a church that I attended, where leaders were praised for their loud personalities, but that’s a whole different story.

We lived in a predominantly white area, so naturally, I just wanted to be like everyone around me, white. It never occurred to me that being Asian was a positive thing. Having been teased at an early age about my outward appearance, I learned that Asian was not attractive or popular. It makes me sad looking back that I felt so unhappy and insecure. Unfortunately, my adoptive parents were not well attuned nor prepared to parent a child of a different race with gaping attachment wounds. They were also racist, especially my mother, and often make discriminatory remarks that made me feel extremely uncomfortable and angry.

It has taken a very long time to feel comfortable in my own skin. Probably the first significant event that helped occured after the birth of my daughter. I was 31 years old. Becoming a mom literally transformed me. It opened up my heart in a way I’d never experienced. I didn’t know then that the attachment wounds I experienced had never really healed and caused me to feel unsafe in relationships. My husband once told me that other women in our small church family group found it difficult to feel “close” to me, as though it were my fault. Of course, I felt like a terrible leader and was hurt by his comments. Having my daughter was safe. Being a mom was safe and gave me the opportunity to nurture, hold, rock, and comfort another being, something I had not experienced in my early years. There was an unconditional love and bond that connected me to my daughter, which expanded my heart. I began to “like” myself because I cherished being a mom. My daughter taught me to give love and to accept love. For once, I felt confident in my role as a mother.

Another such turning point occurred just recently. As many of you know, I reunited with my birthfamily in Taiwan at the beginning of the year and discovered that, after eons of believing that I was Japanese and Vietnamese (41 years to be exact), I’m actually Taiwanese. Many people ask me if I feel closure now that I’ve met my birthfamily. At first I thought this was such an odd question because it’s not an ending, far from it, but a beginning. From others’ perspective, it may appear like closure because I found connection to my cultural roots and birth family. I suppose it is closure, but in a different sense. I accept who I am unequivocally. There’s no mistaking that I’m Taiwanese and finally feel a sense of pride around my ethnicity. I have a renewed sense of identity. I’m still exploring this identity and what it means to be Taiwanese and American. I want to become more involved in the Taiwanese American community and greater Asian community in our area. I hope to take more trips to Taiwan and hope to help somehow in the intercountry adoption community. My identity is a work in progress. At times, it’s been a painful process, but nonetheless, one that has taught me self-preservation, resilience, compassion, and self-worth.

Embracing my cultural roots

Wow, it’s been nearly a month since my last post. I feel as though I live in slow motion as I continue to wait on news of the search for my biological sister in Taiwan. At the end of September, I received an email from Beatrice at The Child and Juvenile Information Center in Taipei City, the agency that’s leading the search for my sister. Beatrice is always very encouraging and sent word that the household system in Taipei has record of my sister’s address, my second sister to be exact. Wow, second sister! I’m assuming second born daughter to my birth parents; I was the fourth and the only one given up for adoption that I know of.  Just knowing that small fact makes this all seem a little bit more real. She’s alive, she’s living somewhere out there. Will we find her? Beatrice expresses that finding this information is a big step, and they will try to contact her as soon as possible. More importantly, she also informs me that everyone needs to register in the household system, so everyone will have an address in the system; however, that does not guarantee that the individual registered will live at the address listed. I understand the message: we can’t be certain that my sister still currently lives at this address. My heart sinks a little. I want to be hopeful, but the possibility of finding my sister seems nearly impossible, far away, intangible, like looking for a needle in a haystack. I wish for things to be more certain, that perhaps after all this time, destiny will be on my side.

At the beginning of the month, I email Beatrice asking how the search is going. She expresses that although they sent letters to the address, there has been no reply from anyone. She suggests that it’s possible my sister no longer lives at that address, or that she has rented the house out. I become curious about the address, whether it is listed in Taiwan or in China. The reason behind this is my adoption contract lists my birth family’s address in the province of Guangxi, China. This is confusing to me and makes me wonder if I’m Chinese or Taiwanese? Furthermore, what led my birth family to move from China to Taiwan? Beatrice explains that the address on my adoption contract traces back to my ancestral descent, to my birth father’s family and that my sister’s address is in Taiwan. She assures me that I’m Taiwanese since my family lived in Taiwan.

Beatrice emails soon after noticing that it bothers me somewhat not knowing if I am Chinese or Taiwanese. I explain that my adoptive mom had always told me I was part Japanese and part Vietnamese – my mother, Vietnamese, and father, Japanese. I have no idea how she got this information, and I certainly never questioned it growing up. When I found my adoption contract in 2010 (after my adoptive mother’s death), I discovered that my birth parents were both Chinese, at least their names were Chinese, not Vietnamese or Japanese. This was shocking to say the least. My whole life, I believed myself to be Vietnamese and Japanese. Finding my adoption contract opened up an unsettling mystery about my birth heritage. Both of my adoptive parents have passed on, and recently I learned that both of my birth parents have also passed on. I’m left to investigate my past on my own. I can only say that now, I’m more curious than ever to discover something of my cultural roots.

Last week, we spent the weekend with some good friends of ours in California. My friend is Korean and her husband, from Czechoslovakia. While there, she introduced me to a popular Korean TV series, “Boys Over Flowers“. I can’t say that I was very interested in watching it, but to my surprise I got totally hooked, and when we returned home, continued to watch the entire 25 episodes! Watching this series was not only great entertainment, but on a much deeper level, it helped me to appreciate my Asian roots in a way I’ve never experienced before. I feel proud to be Asian. I’m sad to say that for the greater part of my life, I downplayed any reference to my Asian heritage, never fully embracing my cultural roots. I tried for many years to look “western,” American, white. When I look in the mirror now, I’m beginning to appreciate what I see, the shape of my eyes and nose, the color of my hair and skin. I have a burning desire, whether my sister is found or not, to go to Taiwan and immerse myself in the culture, to even learn Mandarin. I want to explore that part of my identity that I rejected for so long and feel compelled to do so. It’s been difficult to wrap my head around all of the emotions that have crept in over the last several weeks.

I know that Beatrice and the agency in Taiwan are doing everything they can to find my sister. It will take time. Whether or not I receive good or bad news, the good news to me is that I’m slowly learning about my cultural roots. I hope that in so doing, I will appreciate who I am and who I’m becoming in a greater way. I realize that my self-identity is still so full of complexities. But things are coming full circle, and in the end, I know that I won’t regret this journey.

who am I

I guess I felt the first inkling of being “different” around the age of pre-school when we lived in Westover, Massachusetts. Although I don’t remember very much about pre-school, I do remember at that early age feeling out-of-place, distant from the other kids. I was extremely shy and hid behind my peers. I was perfectly content to read a book alone in a quiet corner or spend time listening to music. When I look back at school pictures, my face stands out among all the others. Mine was typically the only Asian one. I was a minority once we moved to the states from Okinawa, but I never knew or understood that term until much later.

The teasing began in kindergarten. By then we’d moved to Bossier City, Louisiana, where my father completed his military career. There was very little diversity in this small town, and we lived in a predominantly white neighborhood full of military families. Typically, I tried to downplay any teasing and brushed it off as though nothing had happened. Mostly, people did the same tired stereotypical thing, pulling up the corners of their eyes with their fingers or talking sing-songy. Occasionally I’d hear the word, “chink,” as I passed by. More than once, I was asked, “where are you from?” “No, where are you really from?” Once, on the school bus, someone I thought was my friend shoved me off the bus seat. At first, I thought she was joking around, but then realized she meant it. I didn’t understand why she would treat me in such a way. It was embarrassing, but I tried my best to act like nothing happened. It was a long ride to school that morning.

As I got older, feeling accepted by peers became increasingly more difficult. I’m sure some of that grew from my own insecurity and social awkwardness. Around junior high, I wanted desperately to be part of a particular group of girls who were considered “popular.” I craved acceptance. I began hanging out with them for a while, yet felt I had to fight to feel included. One day, one of the girls said to me, “Why don’t you find another group to hang out with?” Ouch. I was speechless, embarrassed, ashamed. I didn’t understand what I’d done to cause such rejection, but I got the message as confusing as it was. It didn’t occur to me that perhaps these events happened because I looked different from them, was uncool. I kept these incidents to myself and never talked to anyone about them. Back then, I wasn’t sure what to think of it all, and it was very difficult for me to put my feelings into words. Mostly, as I mentioned before, I felt embarrassed and confused. I was ashamed that I looked different from everyone around me. My parents seemed oblivious. I don’t think they ever clued into the teasing. We never talked about how things were going in school or any difficulties I may have been experiencing, and we never talked about my birth heritage. Sometimes I wonder if they had been offered education or cultural training, would things have been different? They were of a generation where families did not talk about problems openly, but rather swept them under the carpet. My parents were unaware of the pressures I felt to “fit in,” that it was compounded by my outward appearance. They did not know the sense of dread I felt going to school everyday during those elementary years and of the racial discrimination I experienced from both peers and teachers – mostly white male coaches.

As I got older I realized that being shy wasn’t cool. I longed to be liked and accepted by my peers just like any other pre-teen or teen. I downplayed my Asian features and rejected any association with my birth culture. In middle school, I wrote a biography report and lied about where I was born. In the report, I said that I was born in Hawaii, as I felt that was more “acceptable.” Many students questioned me afterwards, but I stuck to my ‘story.’ I wrote another paper about a girl who was teased by others and read it in class. My teacher, who was a black male, asked me, “does that happen to you?” or something like that. The conversation never went beyond that though.

In 8th grade, I became friends with some girls who were more accepting. Still, I struggled with insecurity. I was obsessed with wanting to look like everyone else. I used eye makeup to make my eyes appear rounder. I curled my straight hair every morning before school with hot rollers. By the end of the day, the southern humidity caused every last curl to go flat, which was incredibly annoying. In high school, I used Sun-In to lighten my hair. I pursued hanging out with the “popular” crowd. At home, I became increasingly disrespectful towards my parents. They were very strict and old-fashioned. One Christmas, my dad gave me a special present. I was horrified when it turned out to be a license plate for my car with the words “Oriental Express” inscribed across it. I refused to put it on my car and was upset with my dad. I know that in his small way, he was trying the only way he knew how to reach out to me. He had no idea how offensive the gift was. I felt conflicted that I had hurt his feelings by rejecting the gift, but was simultaneously mortified and ashamed. He and Mom were both so unaware. They were simply uneducated. I’m sure that Dad thought the gift was something special and was completely boggled by my reaction. The license plate sat on my dresser collecting dust. I didn’t want to get rid of it because I didn’t want to hurt my dad’s feelings any more than I already had. Eventually, I hid it. I’m not sure what happened to it over the years.

After college, I moved out of Louisiana. It was extremely difficult for my mom. Dad didn’t say much, but I know it was hard for him too. Mom wanted me to stay close to home, but I had other plans and ideas. I ended up in Florida for a couple of years and took acting classes. I partied with friends and enjoyed living independently out from under the control of my mother. I purposely did not go home to see my parents that first year, but stayed in Florida and worked. Eventually, I moved to California to pursue acting, which was really such a joke. That’s another story. Again, I struggled inwardly because I knew that staying away from home hurt my parents, yet I had to get out from under my mom’s control.

When I moved to California, the first thing that struck me was the large population of Asians. It was shocking. I’d never seen anything like it. Naturally, I avoided associating with anyone Asian. As time went on, I developed some close relationships with a group of friends and began to overcome my old insecurities, although, I still rejected my cultural heritage.

Last year, I began a master’s degree in social work at Arizona State University. I enrolled in a class called Diversity, Oppression and Change. This class forced me to re-examine the issues I struggled with related to culture, identity, and race-relations. I chose to write a research paper on ethnic and racial identity in Asian-American adoptees, a topic obviously close to my heart. To my surprise, I found much literature written on cross-cultural and transracial adoption. These research studies focused primarily on issues such as racial and ethnic conflict and confusion, the role of parenting and nurturing cultural identity, and the development of ethnic identity across stages of life. I also interviewed two other Asian-American adoptees, which was the best part. The whole process of researching and writing was inspiring. I became increasingly interested in learning more about other Asian-American adoptees and discussing our stories together. A desire to connect to my birth heritage took root and has been growing ever since.

For many years, I struggled with my identity and a sense of belonging. It never occurred to me that other internationally adopted persons experience similar feelings. I feel certain now that I’m not the only one.

my mysterious adoption

Imagine your whole life believing that you are one thing and then learning in mid-life that you are not what you have always believed you were. Let me explain. When I was four months old, I was adopted by a white American family from an orphanage in Taipei, Taiwan. My dad was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, and he and my mom were stationed in Okinawa at the time I was adopted. My parents provided very little information about my adoption, and I knew nothing about my birthfamily or birth culture. I always believed that I was Vietnamese and Japanese. That is what they told me, that is what I believed. I had no reason to question what I’d been told. After my mom passed away in 2008, however, I made a discovery about my adoption that in one instant changed everything I ever knew.

My mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, which slowly progressed across several years. Before she passed away, my half-sister began rummaging through our parents’ attic in an attempt to get rid of junk. There were tons of boxes stored there, and none of us had a clue what was inside them. As it turned out, one of them contained some very surprising things. After mom’s funeral, I began to sort through each box. Some contained remnants of my dad’s military stuff from World War II, things that are very meaningful to me now, like old photos from his youth, flight records, clues to his military past which I knew so little about. Then in one box I stumbled upon the original contract of my adoption plus other items that my mom stowed away and never told me about. I knew something of my past had to exist somewhere, but never had any motivation to search up in the attic, of all places. The most curious thing of all was a picture of my mom holding me in her lap in what appeared to be the orphanage where I was placed for adoption, although I can’t be certain. A small baby bed, its railings rusted with peeling paint, is situated just behind us. I found safety pins that probably held together my cloth diapers and baby shower cards congratulating my mom on her new addition to the family. I was stunned and excited about these new finds and that I’d finally found some tangible link to my mysterious adoption. At the same time I felt a little sad that my parents never shared these things with me.

At the beginning of this year I went back to Bossier City, Louisiana, to salvage what I could from my parents’ home. It all seemed so surreal knowing that this would be my last visit to the house I grew up in before it sold. I shipped back home tons of old pictures, an antique grandfather clock that’s been in Mom’s family forever, LP’s of Glen Miller music, and several of Dad’s military awards, plaques, and old service records. So many memories came flooding back as I unpacked all the boxes and unwrapped each little item. It saddens me that neither of my adoptive parents are here anymore. We’ll never get the chance to clear things up about my adoption. It’s up to me now to figure it out. But really, that’s been the theme in my life – left to figure things out on my own, alone. 

Since coming back home to Arizona, I’ve thought more and more about my adoption and decided to begin a search for my birthfamily. I sent my adoption contract to an adoption agency specializing in placing children from Taiwan with American families. Surprisingly, I learned from one of the caseworkers that my birth parents were not Vietnamese and Japanese, but very possibly Taiwan. Could I be Taiwanese? It would make sense since I was adopted in Taipei. For years I have explained to people that I was born in Taiwan, but am really Japanese and Vietnamese adopted by white parents. I had to further explain why I had a southern accent. The fact that I didn’t exactly look like either of my parents also raised question upon question and elicited stares, especially having lived in a predominantly white area.  It will be so much easier now to just tell people that I’m Taiwanese and not give them the whole back story.

I’m not sure how the search for my birthfamily will go. Chances are that neither of my birth parents are still living. My birth mother was 39 and birth father, 55 when I was born. Still puzzling to me is why my mom told me that I was Japanese and Vietnamese. Did the translation get mixed up, or was it all fabricated? It’s hard for me to believe that my parents would purposely lie to me. Perhaps it will always remain a mystery.

Discovering things I never knew about my adoption and digging into my past has led to an awakening, a desire to understand my cultural heritage. I am more curious now than ever before about my birth family. Do I look like any of them, does anyone else in my birth family have an affinity for music, are there any health issues to be concerned about, was it difficult for my birth parents to relinquish me, did they ever want to see me? Questions that adoptees tend to ask themselves. Although I may never find out anything other than what’s preserved on my adoption contract, I hope that won’t be the case. 

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