The Voice We’re Given
From the moment of transaction, a number of power structures are at play in adoption. There is the economics, the adoptee purchased by the adoptive parents. There is the adoptee’s (usual) youth. There is the historical youth, too, that (at least transnationally) adoption is young and most adoptees are young. But the lingering truth is that the adoptee’s position in these power structures does not go away when we become adults. The structure persists in how our voices are valued. The adoptee voice seems always to be positioned either in contrast to or in agreement with the adoptive parent’s (or agency’s) voice—perpetually in reference to those in power. Adoptees get the pretense of value, while the determination of that value is measured according to a disempowering context.
This is all very abstract. Let’s think of it in another way: a rhetoric scholar I know said recently that she didn’t like her African American literature course because it used different terms for things she knew by other names in other courses. She wanted everyone to use the same terms, to make it easier on her (as, it must be said, a white student) She mentioned that this was the only time she was ever going to take an African American literature course, because it didn’t intersect with her studies (of course), implying that the theories would be more relevant if they were part of the majority discussion. To his credit, the professor of record was quick to point out that African American literary scholars needed to create their own terms, at least at first, in order to break free from being seen only in relation to the majority, and from using terms that already belonged to someone else.
Or let’s get away from academia, and think about how this applies to real life.
The Voice We Give Ourselves
I would argue that the adoptee, or at least the transracial adoptee, is often bullied by other children as much for his similarities, or for daring to think there might be similarities, as for his differences. Probably he doesn’t even realize this. The adopted child is often feared, often becomes a sort of reflection of insecurities. The adoptee often becomes Jung’s Beast, the Other who needs to be accepted by the (accepted) Beauty in order for his own beauty to exist.
When I was growing up in my white town in Connecticut, I was so focused on my own fears that I barely recognized the fears other people had of me. Maybe this was why I bought into one of the great lies of bullying, that it was I who caused the teasing and insults and fights—that something wrong with me, not something wrong with how people saw me, was the reason I was singled out. If someone fought with me, the other person might change but I remained the common variable. I was just as ready as anyone to hate the side of me that wasn’t the white kid I wished so badly to project (and be)—so badly I even denied to myself that I was not him. And this isn’t to say I was an entirely unpopular kid; I was somewhere in the middle. I had my friends, but with those friends I didn’t always feel entirely comfortable. One of the differences was that I seemed to have enemies no one else in my friend group had. I was in the middle, but to some, because I was adopted, or because I wasn’t white, I would always be at the bottom.
I remember I had a friend who would constantly pick fights with me—I didn’t know why. We would end up trying to get each other in a headlock at someone’s birthday party, and then would laugh it off as having fun. I wasn’t having fun. I don’t think he was, either, but whenever I tried to avoid him I found him pushing at my wounds even more. When he fought with me, he got attention. He knew enough about me, as my supposed friend, to know exactly how to hurt me. I don’t think I knew as much about myself in many ways. Sometimes it is the people who most want to hurt you who dig the fastest and deepest to your buried truths.
This friend had a shrink for a father and the daddy issues that perhaps went along with that. He was often shooting things with his BB gun or otherwise going through a prolonged stage of torturing animals. These were things about him we thought were cool: his interesting father, his violent urges. I can see now how insecure he was, but at the time the mask with which he covered that insecurity seemed enviable. Masks often do. Or they do for me. Maybe some part of me was impressed by the way he could be someone else on the outside.
Once, we got into a wrestling match at another friend’s house—I was in high school by then, I think, and still having these fights—and I felt my anger come on more strongly than it ever had in previous encounters and with a determination I only had when I felt most wronged and justified, when I finally realized something was not my fault. Usually, I was happy to slip away as soon as possible, but this time, I tried harder and harder to hurt him. I wanted to do some lasting physical damage, to do something that would put an end to what I must have understood eventually, or on some level, as torment. In fact, I would dream of this friend doing crueler and crueler things to me—the scenarios we played out in real life were also stuck in my subconscious. This time, this fight, I threw elbows and tried to lock his arms and legs and get my arm around his throat. I got angry on the level of desperation, as if this was some last chance I had. I had to show him that he couldn’t do this to me. And though I wasn’t able to do any real damage (he was always stronger than me, or more aggressive with his strength, or more efficient with it, which he knew, of course), I think that for the first time, I scared him a little. I could feel that he was struggling, and that I might have eventually gotten the upper hand, when he broke away.
What he said then, though, is what I remember most well, and my answer to him is what really continues to torment me. He complimented me, as if this was all a game to him and he was happy to see me rise to the challenge, or as if he was some Mr. Miyagi and I was his pupil finally earning his respect. And in one of my worst moments, I felt proud of myself for that compliment. I felt respected by him. I felt my utter inferiority and a ridiculous pride that I had even come close to him.
It’s difficult to write about how much I looked down on myself.
This wasn’t even the friend who hurt me the worst for my seeming inferiority, not the one who turned his back on our friendship and pretended it had never existed as he climbed the popularity ranks, or the friend with whom I thought I was extremely close but who I have realized over many years never believed the same. This friend, the BB gun friend, was a friend who seemed the entire time to believe that we were friends and that this was our (natural) dynamic.
Now, maybe obviously, we are not friends anymore. I’m sure he has realized that we were never friends. We were afraid of each other. It wasn’t just me, I see now. Or we had recognized in each other something about ourselves that we were afraid of. If I look at the parts of myself I’d rather not see, even now, I think I must have located in him a boy whose father could have understood him if he had only let him. I think he recognized in me a boy who had his same violent urges, that same deep-seeded rage, under the mask I was trying so hard to wear. Maybe he was trying to draw me out as a way of drawing himself out.
Or maybe I really was the only one with the issues. How can one ever be sure?
This friend eventually made a point of not inviting me to his wedding, though we were still supposedly on good terms then. I didn’t invite him to mine, though I didn’t invite most of my friends from childhood. I was still not over the way I saw myself in my relationships with them. I’m still not over that.
I don’t know what I would do if I saw this friend now. I hate being reminded of that time. I hate that I will still regress to who they thought I was, to the dynamics we had then. I hate that they can define me in their ways, without my having any input, from something they must see as inherent. I will probably never go to a high school reunion. I have only one good friend remaining from high school, and whenever she suggests we try to have a little get-together with other classmates, she seems to know ahead of time that I will turn her down. I know that to be around those classmates, I will feel as if I never grew up.
The Voice We Take
The power structure with that friend, where I only felt on even ground, and where I congratulated myself for reaching that even ground, when he finally acknowledged me—I see this same power structure (this same beasting) played out in many adoption essays I read online.
Even in the current adoption climate, the adoptee is caught between, spoken for, treated as a purpose, or a context, as a way to improve the adoptive parent or agency, as something to be learned from or ignored, as less an individual with her own agency and more a contribution to the agency of someone else. Of course children may start out being (and providing) a purpose, in some ways. Adults decide to have children (sometimes). Adults decide to give children up (sometimes). Adults decide to adopt. But valuing adoptees means actually valuing adoptees’ voices, letting them talk for themselves and not interpreting what they say for one’s own purpose. It’s like this: sometimes I read these articles by adoptive parents talking about their kids as blessings, as gifts, and saying what they have done for their kids, taking them back to their homeland and how good that’s been for them, for the kids and for themselves. So often, this is all second hand, all the parent’s account. Sometimes the parent talks about what she has learned about her child’s original culture, how having an adopted child has opened her eyes to Asia or so forth. It’s unbearably parent-centric—all aimed at what the parent can (or rather, has) learned. And when an article is actually about the adoptee and yet written as if the adoptive parent knows what is going on in the adoptee’s head, how do I believe that? How does that parent believe that? I can write an entire book about denial, and even if I knew exactly how I felt, I would not have wanted to make my parents pity me, or feel confused about me, or, worse, try to explain or to fix me. I suspect it’s like that for others, though of course I am loathe to do what I am arguing against: to put words in other adoptees’ mouths, no matter how I think I understand. My point is that the adoptive parent is not the one who should be judging whether the adoptee really understands or does not, is happy or is not, is adjusting or is not, is Beauty or is Beast.
It is a problem of its own that adoptees ourselves have trouble telling how we really feel. But how complicated that becomes when held up to the standard and scrutiny of the adoption power structure.
I was at a talk recently on education, where the speaker was discussing how people had been wrong to think an early education program had failed—at the time they hadn’t been able to study the long long-term results. They were measuring the results via testing. In the short-term, the tests seemed promising, and in the medium-term, the tests seemed to show nothing, or only temporary improvements, so researchers had thought the program was a failure. Yet years later, studying those children, it seems that early education had extremely deep-seeded effects, resulting in children being less likely to do something that ended them up in jail, less likely to become pregnant at a young age, and so on. Even when the test scores seemed to show that the effect of early schooling went away by the time they were teens. The education system wasn’t an effective way of measuring the education system.
Maybe it is a matter of what we are subject to. For it is not that I think these adoption articles, these evaluations, these studies, are a problem of empathy. I’m not saying adoptive parents are wrong to think about how their kids feel, or even to imagine those feelings. I believe these parents when they say they love and cherish their children. I believe they are trying and I can believe that they are trying to see things from the adoptee perspective. I believe they talk to their kids, that their kids say what appears in the articles. I even believe that writing about their kids could be helpful to empathy, could help them understand their sons and daughters through the mere act of trying to put themselves in those shoes. The problem is, it reinforces the idea that the adoptive parent has the authority over the adoptee, and even the adoptee’s feelings and thoughts and growth. It reinforces the idea that the adoptive parent is the one who tells the adoptee’s story.
What makes me saddest, though, is when I read adoptee essays in which the writers seem to assert the same. When they have to explain themselves in comparison or contrast to the adoptive parent. I have been there. Often this stance is by necessity, is important in thinking about one’s audience. Often the adoptee writer has to write an entire essay of, “That’s not how it is,” or even, “Don’t speak for us.” I may have even done so here. It takes so much space before the essay can make its own territory, until the adoptee writer can escape the (e)valuation of the power structure and wonder for herself. That is where the adoptee has a power and a context of her own, where she can say, this is a question outside of any (granted) authority. This is a question I am asking myself, not for you to legitimize or strike down or make real, but because I have to ask it and it is mine to ask. And if I am asking it also for you, then consider what I don’t know on my terms, not as a plea for help or acceptance.
The adoptee voice matters because the adoptee says so.
See more at: The Good Men Project
A version of this essay was first published in The Perpetual Child: Adult Adoptee Anthology: Dismantling the Stereotype.
Matthew Salesses was adopted from Korea. He has written about race and adoption for The New York Times, NPR, the Center for Asian American Media, Salon, The Rumpus, and others. He is the author of Different Racisms: On Stereotypes, the Individual, and Asian American masculinity. Matthew’s most recent work, The Hundred Year Flood, is his first full-length novel. Released September 1, 2015, it can be purchased on Amazon.