By Joie Norby Lê, Ph.D.
Over the course of my life, people have been curious about my adoption story. It is a story that begins in the Vietnam War. At the time, adopting from Vietnam was as much a humanitarian movement as it was an opportunity for couples hoping to establish or expand a family. As such, questions about my adoption were numerous and while many people were supportive of my parents’ transracial, international adoption, it was still a tenuous time and the choice was not devoid of criticism by others. Adopting a child was one thing; adopting a child from an unpopular American war was quite another. Even so, my parents fielded the positive and negative comments with dignity and managed to pass on to me a healthy sense of love and belonging in a society that would not always afford me the same.
In the past forty-three years, I have come to understand that being adopted is an integral part of what defines me. It is not just about “being adopted” that shapes me, but rather how I learned to cope, to survive, and to reconcile the ambiguity of it all that gives my adoption context. People have asked me when I first knew that I was adopted. While many young children may not comprehend difference in a family that is based in acceptance and love, I always knew that I was not the same race as my adoptive family. It was not difficult to see the difference—my skin was as dark as theirs was light. Their eyes were as blue or green as were mine dark brown. Their characteristics became markers of what I considered to be “ideal” or “normal” because in my neighborhood, most of the other families were white as well. I understood that I was a child of another color, and while those in my closest circle of friends and family never blinked an eye about that difference, I soon realized not everyone felt the same. Racial confrontations were a constant in my life growing up. One of the most interesting aspects of transracial adoption is that it is not necessarily the difference in ethnicity that matters most to others, it is the difference in skin tone. While certainly children of any transracial adoption may be subjected to similar confrontation, I always felt that the stark dissimilarity between my family’s skin color and my own was the true determination of whether I would be accepted or rejected by society. If I had lighter skin, would it have been easier for me to integrate? While this remains speculation, I cannot help but consider that the darkness of my skin is what mostly relegated me to marginalized spaces. Couple that with misgivings about the Vietnam War and it would be safe to say that throughout my life, especially up until I turned eighteen, it was not easy being adopted.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m being overly sensitive, as if the past four decades have made me cynical about the role of race in society and its impact upon me. Forty years ago, adoption was not as open and accepting as it is today, where the blending of families from various ethnicities and backgrounds is more common. It gives me hope that the children of adoptive families may have it a bit easier nowadays, especially when it comes to the issues that surround transracial adoption. It would make me happy to know that when a child says, “I am adopted,” the child is not consigned to a less than more than equation that erroneously determines their worth. However, I know that we still have a long way to go. In America, our society still struggles with the blurring of racial lines, non-traditional family constructs, and less-progressive attitudes will always prevail. The questions then become: How do we raise adoptees to cope considering these adverse societal positions? How do adoptive families sustain a supportive, loving environment that serves to reduce the negative emotional or psychological impact of growing up adopted? While certainly the answers will be different for every family and every adoptee, a fair start would be in the acknowledgment that there is a difference, not in the true love and inclusion that should be provided to an adoptee, but especially in the case of transracial adoption, a difference in ethnicity and as an extension, varying degrees of skin tone. Acknowledging that difference matters not so much within a family (especially those who foster love and support of each child within the family regardless of ethnic background), but in preparing children for the reality that in society it still, unfortunately, matters. We do not live in a post-racial world. Problems surrounding race, gender, religion, and sexuality are still worldwide issues that we all must confront. That’s not to say that we should prepare our children for a life outside the home that will unilaterally be unaccepting of those differences but simply to recognize that exclusion does exist and to help children establish a sense of self-worth not determined by others.
Earlier I mentioned that my story was one characterized by mechanisms of coping, surviving, and reconciling. While each of these mechanisms played a role throughout my life (some more often than others), my ability to deploy them when needed stems from being raised in an environment that recognized those differences and celebrated them. We are all different. No matter our race, gender, sexual preference, religion, political affiliation, or even hobbies and interests, we are unique individuals whose identities are manifested through our experiences. I learned that my allies were those who could see my adoption, skin tone, and ethnic background as an asset, not a detriment. My family and friends encouraged my desire to investigate my heritage and taught me never to be ashamed of where I came from, even being a product of one of the most unpopular wars in American history. I learned from my family that I belonged with them, and I was never meant to feel like an “other,” which is difficult to reconcile against the segments of society that try to delineate where I belong: on the outside. Raising adoptees who can transcend the difficulties of adoption (transracial or otherwise) comes from an understanding that we are not cut from the same mold nor should we desire to be. My most salient identities come from an acceptance that no matter which country I was born in or how dark my skin is I am still a valuable member of American society, whether others choose to recognize that or not. If I spend too much time trying to fit in, I fail to honor the aspects of my life that have allowed me to carve my own niche among those who are likewise uniquely different.
Joie Norby Lê is a first generation adoptee from Vietnam. She was adopted in 1973 and was raised in New Mexico but has spent the last twenty years living in Colorado. She is interracially married and with her spouse, they have three children ages 12, 10, and 7. She has traveled back to Vietnam several times over the past two decades and just recently reunited with half of her biological family. She is a curriculum developer, writer, and education consultant with a Ph.D. in Teaching and Learning Studies from the University of Denver. Additional adoption dialogue can be found on her website: http://speakingfromthemargin.com