Content Note: This post is written by Rachael Joslow, a third-year student at UMBC. I am a transracial adoptee adopted from Vietnam who grew up in Georgia for most of my childhood and adolescent life. I hope to highlight my experience growing up as an adopted child discussing my personal feelings on adoption and the ambiguous loss that I experience. I would like you, as the reader, to acknowledge and learn the realities of adoption through my experiences.
In my previous blog, I discussed my personal experience with being adopted and included some other stories of adoptees (My Personal Experience with Being Adopted). Within that blog, I addressed common questions those would ask of me if I mentioned that I was adopted. These questions being: "What was it like being told that you were adopted?" or "Is it hard being adopted?" My focus from my last blog was to give awareness on the topic while being vulnerable about my own experiences and those of other adoptees who have shared their stories online.
I wanted to recap some aspects from my last blog, because many have come forward to ask me more about what it is like being adopted and how those experiences have shaped me. As it is touched on from my previous blog, many positive adoption experiences from adoptive parents overlook the negative and traumatizing experiences of many adoptees, specifically transracial adoptees. Some adoptees learn that their adoptive parents carry a savior complex over their adoptive children, especially for transracial adoptee cases where they are from foreign countries and the parents are a different nationality/ethnicity. Unfortunately, it does come up in adoption very often, especially when adoptive parents believe they are "saving us" from the situation that we're in. And to be clear, it's not that adoptees are not grateful-it is valid for us to feel uncomfortable being paraded as trophies for adoptive parents to receive a gold star on their "good deeds" list.
A quote from an article titled "What We Lost" resonated with me about the frustration adoptees feel towards society telling us that we should be grateful for everything and not express our sadness or negative feelings towards being adopted.
"Society's narrative of adoption tells adoptees, in no uncertain terms, that if we were given to a loving home, we shouldn't feel this pain, this chasm, this rip, this tear. We were saved, after all. We're so much better off. We're the lucky ones. Our parents must be such wonderful people. We must feel so grateful. How lucky. How special. We were meant to be together. Everything worked out just the way it was supposed to in the end."
This quote calls out people who don't take adoptees' feelings into consideration when we, adoptees, talk about our feelings on adoption. People tell us constantly how we should feel instead of giving us a moment to speak about our lived experiences. There is no time for us to pause or talk about it as a whole. In addition, these experiences contribute to this sense of loss that I've been bearing over the years that is specific to adoptees. It is constantly brought up in different ways how I'm adopted and I have no connection to my birth parents. Because this is an extremely vulnerable topic for me to discuss, I've had to take extensive time to write this blog in order to give myself space to take breaks until I felt ready to come back to it. However you feel about adoption, a common experience that many adoptees share would be the sense of loss from identity, as well as the relationships we have missed out on.
Ambiguous Loss Felt in the Adoptee Experience
Ambiguous loss is a type of grief that lacks closure and information regarding the loss of a loved one or the loss of a connection with a loved one. Ambiguous loss is common in cases when we have no contact with somebody even though we know where the person could be or what has happened to them. Examples include divorce, estrangement, immigration, a loved one who is incarcerated, and of course, adoption.
Thinking about my birth parents feels weird. I visited Vietnam back when I was eleven years old and struggled with finding my connections back to my culture, the country I was born in. From my perspective, I've experienced a lot of ambiguous loss ever since I was able to understand that I was adopted, as early as five or six years old. There are no names on my original birth certificate on who my biological parents are. I don't know the language nor have I experienced Vietnamese culture growing up. I considered myself white-washed for a long time because I did not have what others might consider key Asian experiences. It felt like I did not deserve to call myself Vietnamese because even though I was considered Vietnamese in appearance, I do not have those interpersonal connections to my ethnicity. I'm Asian but I'm also not Asian.
What I mean by that statement is that I lack the cultural background that a Vietnamese-American/Vietnamese person might experience normally. It was made apparent to me growing up through middle school and high school that I was different from other Asian peers. I don't know a lot of cultural foods and I did not grow up with the same household items. Even out in public, it is made apparent by strangers where people don't realize that I'm standing next to my mom. It's a weird paradox to be seen as Asian in some settings and not Asian in others. There's also an internal loss where I feel left out from being Asian.
From the same article, "What We Lost," this next quote resonates with me on what ambiguous loss feels like and expressing heavy feelings towards what it's like to not have a relationship with one's birth mother as an adoptee.
"Adoption loss is an ambiguous loss. While it changes shape over time, it is often life-long. It is without end. I have lost my entire family and yet, there are no bodies to bury, no socially acceptable ritual or process meant for me to understand this loss and how to live with it. My mother went on living, became someone else's mother, while I lived my young life with only the presence of her absence and the fracturing unknown. Maybe she's alive; maybe she's dead. Maybe she loves me; maybe she has forgotten me. Maybe anything."
It's difficult to put it into words. I have no idea where my biological parents are, if they are still in Vietnam or even alive. I'm constantly mourning over the loss of everything in those relationships that I never had with my birth parents. However, it's not like I'm sad-it feels empty. I have spent most of my life pondering whether or not I cross their minds. These feelings of mine are real and okay for me to feel. On this note, I can still be grateful to my mom and love my mom while appreciating her for everything. While she has given me so many opportunities throughout my life, she also does not hold it above my head that I should be grateful because she adopted me.
It feels nice to put these feelings into words and share them, because not many people are aware of what adoptees go through in their lives. This is my experience with adoption and ambiguous loss and I hope that I've left you as the reader with some things to think about. And as always, please make space where you can and listen to adoptees' feelings and voices when they share their experiences.
The article I attached is where I got the two quotes from. It is a heavy read as it talks about the writer's personal experience with being adopted and meeting her birth mother. It is important to be in a clear headspace before reading this story:
What We Lost: Undoing the Fairy Tale Narrative of Adoption
Articles that talk more on white saviorism:
A Savior No One Needs: Unpacking and Overcoming the White Savior Complex
What Is White Savior Complex-And Why Is It Harmful?