Like any good journalist, I began today’s blogging by researching. I went first to other blogs and organization/foundation websites before returning to my first love, magazines.
My mom and I found the magazine Adoptive Families tucked in the bottom shelf of Barnes and Noble’s magazine racks. It peeked out from the back, partially hidden behind piles of magazines about pregnancy, children’s health and one misplaced May 2009 issue of Vogue. I remember all that because I was going for the Vogue. As I reached for the issue highlighting model behavior, the adorable little boy on the cover of the March/April 2009 Adoptive Families picking spring flowers caught my attention. I had never before seen a magazine devoted to adoption. I swallowed the approximately $7 cost – chalking it up to being worth it to support the magazine industry – and took it home. That was a week ago, and I’m still wading through it. Each ad, article, reader letter and photo captivates me. This captivation stems from my previous “a-Ha!” moment that arrived in the middle of strangers’ YouTube video. I am so accustomed to viewing inappropriate, silly or down-right stupid college moments on YouTube; the endearing and heartwarming videos of parents’ first glimpses of and touches of their children caught me off guard. Watching a scene in an airport of a baby being placed into their arms of his mother had me immediately in tears. I continuously cried as I clicked on a couple receiving a phone call from the adoption agency, of sisters and brothers meeting the newest addition to their family. It was then that I knew I wanted to do something in my life related to adoption agencies, legislation or advocacy.
So it was while reading Adoptive Families for my research that I came across an article written by a father of two adopted children. Prior to finding his piece, I hadn’t read any words from fathers. Mothers had dominated the scene. This father’s article was predominately about his wife, and I could tell already what a great dad he is by the clear protective and proud way he spoke about her. I thought of my dad.
My dad once told me that he became a father the moment he knew he and my mom were going to get to adopt me. He knew months before they had seen a picture, heard my Samoan name or held me in their arms. I still see it in his eyes now. He told me the other day that every time he looks at me, he still sees the tiny child who once got into the baby powder and was as white as a ghost before they found me at the top of the stairs looking terribly guilty. But at the same time, he sees the woman I am today. I am a transitioning adult, growing out of being “daddy’s little girl” but never really shirking that distinction. I am positive every father feels this way. I still see the glimmer of memory pass through my mother’s father when he looks at her. Adoption or no adoption – a father will always look at his daughter the exact same way my father looks at me. However. I do believe there are a few differences between an adoptive father and his child when there are ethnic differences that can be seen on the exterior – if not through his eyes, than through everyone else’s eyes. Just as the father in Adoptive Families said he always wanted to distinguish that he was his son’s father by saying, “Take Daddy’s hand,” so too I am sure my father wants to always be known as “Karen’s Dad.”
My father, like my mother, is Caucasian (proud Polish-Danish heritage and British-Swedish heritage respectively), and I am Samoan. When adopted children are just that – young children – there are fewer questioning stares, fewer inquisitive strangers. It seems that more recently people understand that parents adopt children regardless of race or ethnicity – not just adopting children who will look like them (a practice I find interesting period and even more interesting in that I know many adults my age who were matched were their parents for just that reason in the 1980s). Flash forward 20 years in a child’s life and things start to change. When I shop with my mom, I no longer hold her hand like a child who is concerned about getting lost among the crowds and racks of clothing. I now hold our bags, hold up dresses to her frame, and hold different sizes of jackets and sweaters for her to try. Now, instead of clerks and salespeople asking my mom where I’m originally from or how long they had had me, they ask me, “Did your friend want to try on this suit?” “Is that woman going to need a different size?” Now that I am an adult, it is not as obvious that I am that woman’s child. I am positive other mothers and daughters have been asked questions like this even when they are blood-related – mothers and daughters are not twins – but there is more of a disconnect for children who are so physically different from their parents. And, to be perfectly honest, after 23 years of being distinctly different and having it pointed out constantly, being called something other than my mother’s daughter makes me weary.
Now, the words bounce on deaf ears. Not only do I understand that there is no obvious connection to strangers who have just met or seen me with my parents for the first time, but I’ve dealt with enough language that ranges from well-meaning misunderstandings to blatant cruelty to have gotten over it. There was a time, however, when the slightest ill-placed word could bring tears to my eyes. I was a sensitive child to begin with, but when puberty kicked in, the last thing I wanted to do was to stand out. I even remember sitting up late at night, not being able to sleep at 12 years old, hoping that I’d marry a white man so I could bring the skin color back into the family. Those are the types of thoughts that have since been erased from my true desires, but that I am also sad that I had thought. Like many of the parents with children of a different race or ethnicity whose blogs and websites I read, I feel their pain.
The children of the father I spoke of earlier are of mixed racial backgrounds. He submitted a piece to Adoptive Families in response to the magazine’s call for readers to share their experiences with persistent inquisitors. This father wrote in about his wife’s lunch where other mothers asked those curious questions that never seem to come out right: Q)”Did you try to have your own kids?” A) “Well, these are my own kids.” Q)”Did it [adoption] cost a lot?”A) “Each time we’re asked the money question, we think of asking if the interrogator’s hospital bills were high. But my wife calmly responded, ‘All adoption agencies charge a fee for their services.'”
I’ve had all types of questions, too… Where are your real parents? What was it like living in an orphange? Why do you look so different? Is your daddy Black? Is your mommy Hispanic?
I’ve gotten those questions in Spanish, too, probably since there aren’t too many Samoans walking around in Texas. To be fair, when in Hawaii, I’ve also had those questions in Hawaiian, Tongan and Samoan…
Being so obviously different from my parents has had its moments. But if there’s one thing I can offer, it’s that, personally, I know I’ve developed into the young woman I am because of those differences, because of those questions. I try to be more tolerant of differences, more accepting and more sympathetic. I also love talking with people to patiently explain things that are not clearly understood at first glance. My parents encouraged open discussion of my perceptions of race, ethnicity, racism and all other differences that exist among people- religion, politics, language, everything imaginable – so that communication and acceptance were always readily available in my life. I’ve witnessed other parents with adopted children from different ethnicity than their own handle this situation similarly, too. Like my aunts and uncles. My father’s sister has two adopted sons from Thailand. And our newest addition to the family (turning 3 June 21, 2009), the handsome Zakele, was adopted from Swaziland by my father’s brother and family. We are definition melting pot ha!
I wish I could tell the parents who wrote into Adoptive Families and others like them not to worry, despite knowing that those questions probably will never cease and that you will still meet ignorance and rudeness, but…. still. Don’t worry. I still think children will be the better for it – not because they are pitted against adversity, but because these differences – all differences – will enrich their lives. I hope to be able to help my children build the type of character I’ve seen other parents build in their biracial or multiracial children or children who have different ethnic backgrounds than their own. It is a unique part of those people’s lives that is all their own.