Q: My daughter is 12 and was adopted from China as a baby. At school, a Chinese-heritage classmate told her “You’re not really Chinese” and another Chinese classmate chimed in “No, you’re just adopted.” These comments shook my daughter to the core of her soul. She has stated for years that she wishes that we were Chinese (this is what she’s always wished, rather than wishing she were white). We traveled to China a year ago and she hated being stared at. Ultimately she feels like she doesn’t belong in either society. What can we do to help?
A: Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon occurrence for adoptees. They often feel like they have one foot in two worlds and don’t fully belong in either one. In some ways, that is completely true. So, the first step is to validate that feeling—she is, in fact, from two very different places—and try to help her reframe it—rather than “not belonging,” does she have “dual belonging”? Then, discuss what makes a person “Chinese” and who gets to decide what or whom is “Chinese enough.”
This is a challenge that many adoptees and mixed race children face. It is truly a lifelong process that many adult adoptees continue to struggle with. There are multiple adoptee blogs/books that provide some insight to his process. The Internet is rich with these resources. You can best support your daughter by working with her to determine what makes her Chinese, what that means to her and to others, and how she can respond to these taunting bullies. Also, finding her a “Big Sister” or mentor would be wonderful. Knowing that others have experienced this, and survived it, normalizes her struggle and may empower her to push back when these things happen. As an adult adoptee, I have learned that, ultimately, you are the one who defines who you are and where you belong. As a parent, you can support her, embrace her, and give her the permission and opportunities to explore every aspect of her identity. Help her know that she is forever tethered to you, but free to discover who she is, and that your love for her only grows as she does.
—DEBORAH H. JOHNSON
Social worker, founder of Kindred Journeys International, a heritage travel company, and a longtime columnist for Adoptive Families magazine. Find her on Facebook at The Fishbowl Experience.