I am a high school senior, knee-deep in the college application process. For years now, I’ve been writing my college essay in my head. The opening line would be: “I was born cleft-affected and spent the first five-and-a-half years of my life in a Chinese orphanage.” I would then go on to describe how I held the hands of two total strangers and boarded a plane to America, where no one looked like me, I didn’t speak or understand the language, and the food was unlike anything I had ever eaten before. I would then describe the many surgeries I endured, the learning challenges I overcame. And I would wrap things up by describing how I’ve returned to China to help older orphans, the ones no one ever wants to adopt.
But when I sat down to write this essay, the ink didn’t flow, as they say.
For years, my parents told me that my adoption story was just that — my story. I could share it at will or not at all. I could share parts of it as I wished. I had no obligation to tell anyone anything. That empowered me to cut short the stranger in the grocery checkout who looked at me and my Caucasian mom and wanted to know: “Are you adopted?” It empowered me to tell the girl in kindergarten who wanted to know why I don’t look like my parents that families can be built in many ways and that family members don’t have to look alike. Multiple times, people have asked if my brother is my “real” brother and I simply deflected the question with, “Why would you want to know that?” I learned to intuit when the questions were born of ignorance, curiosity, bigotry, or because someone was considering adoption. I always answered those last ones.
So why am I struggling with writing my college essay? I think it’s because sharing my story would feel like I were playing the “adoption card.” Just as it was no one’s business “where I’m from,” where I’m from shouldn’t factor into a college’s decision as to whether or not I would be a good student. I don’t want to tell them a sob story to garner pity. Adoption isn’t about pity any more than adoptees are “lucky.”
There is little question that my adoption story is compelling. It absolutely gives insight into who I am, what I’ve overcome and accomplished, what I hope to do. But why should I have to share it for a college to want me as a student? If my adoption story were different — what if I hadn’t adjusted to my new life or suffered attachment issues, like many older adoptees do — would I still want to share it with colleges?
I want colleges to know who I am, and being an older, special-needs adoptee is certainly part of that. But it isn’t all of me.
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