Identifying as an adoptee and an immigrant

The writer Grace Madigan age 3, stands in Tiananmen Square with the flag of China. This was her first trip back to China with her family to get her younger sister who was also adopted from China. (Photo courtesy of Pamela Madigan)

“Who are you?”

A simple question, yes? For me not so much. I’m Chinese but I don’t really feel Chinese. I didn’t grow up in a household where I had to take off my shoes nor did I experience having to bring lunches that others would deem foreign and strange.

I didn’t have these experiences because I was adopted from China by a white family in Seattle.

I’m actually kind of really white. I have a love for Americana and folk music. I will sit and watch a whole History channel documentary by choice. And in the fall, I openly embrace pumpkin spice everything.

I identify as a “Twinkie” more than anything — yellow on the outside and pretty damn white in the inside. My experience however, has been different than other Twinkies who grew up in Asian American homes.

While my parents have given me an endless supply of support and love, they will never be able to see the world from my perspective as a Chinese American. And that’s really hard. There’s no guide to what it means to be Chinese (I’ve checked). Without parents to help you, figuring out your identity makes for a very confusing quest.

Grace Madigan just over a year old at Temple B’Nai Torah after her naming ceremony with her parents Frank and Pamela Madigan. Her Hebrew name Ariel was formally given to her and blessed by Rabbi Mirel. (Photo courtesy of Pamela Madigan)

College has intensified my desire and need to understand who I am, to be able to answer the question “Who are you?” The Trump administration has spurred me to reflect on what being Chinese means in a nation where anti-immigrant sentiments are strong. The concept of being an “immigrant” as an adoptee became important to me to understand.

The Struggle of Identity

The first day of a new internship I had to write down a short bio to share with the rest of the company.

It wasn’t until after it had been shared with everyone that I realized I had put “Born and raised in Seattle…” But I hadn’t been born in Seattle. I was born in Anhui province in China and adopted and raised by two incredible people in Seattle. I felt guilty and had a minor identity crisis after realizing I neglected to acknowledge my own Chinese roots.

People often ask me the question, “Where are you from?” It’s a simple question but it tugs at the internal conflict. If I tell them I’m from Seattle they won’t believe me and they’ll ask where I’m “actually from.” If I tell them I was born in China they start to get a picture of me that isn’t true.

Children of immigrants have explored some of the issues that come with the subject of identity but it is different for children of adoptees. The truth to the question of “Where are you from?” doesn’t reveal the whole truth about me.

I am still in the beginning stages of discovering who I am and what that means. But as I talked to others who shared the same experience as I did, I began to feel comfort in the shared confusion and struggle to understand who we are.

When Ashlee Meissner, a Korean adoptee, was younger she would tell people she was German.

Meissner laughed as she told me this. It wasn’t a lie to her. She legitimately thought that her brown eyes and black hair were “just a phase” and she would grow to be tall, blue eyed and blonde just like her siblings.

This is not an uncommon feeling for adoptees in transracial families.

Ashlee Meissner holds up a baby photo of herself. Meissner, from Korea, and is the only one of six kids in her family who was adopted. (Photo by Grace Madigan)

Alyse Campbell, a student at the University of Washington who is also a Chinese adoptee, also felt more connected to her parents’ Scottish and German heritages than her own Chinese roots.

Growing up in neighborhoods and families that look different than we do, assimilation is key in adoptees’ efforts to fit in. Campbell’s parents, like mine, encouraged her to take Chinese language classes and learn about her culture. But Campbell was too busy trying to fit in to embrace that part of her identity.

I also largely ignored my Chinese heritage. I accepted Chinese food and that was about it. I embraced my American identity. I obsessed over American history and politics, as if to prove to the world how American I was while I turned my back on China.

A different kind of immigrant

Narratives about immigration almost completely leave out the story of international adoptees, like me.

Amy Pak the founder of Families of Color in Seattle, is also an adoptee from Korea. Pak says international adoption, for the most part, is the byproduct of westernization and imperialism. The effects of imperialism and militarism produce war, affect economies, land and resources.

“When those impacts hit, families can’t afford to live and adoption is a legacy of all of this,” Pak said. Women and children are the most vulnerable, which often leads to families having to give up children.

When I was adopted I had to be naturalized just like any other immigrant. This was before the Child Citizenship Act was passed in 2000, which allows adoptees to gain automatic citizenship under certain guidelines. Despite my having to go through naturalization, I still never felt really connected to my “immigrant” identity, just like how I never felt like I was truly Chinese.

Immigrating as a baby I couldn’t relate to any of the immigrant stories I read about or watched. It wasn’t until I found myself standing outside in the January cold protesting Trump’s travel ban at a rally to support immigrants that I felt like I could  — and wanted to — accept my identity as an immigrant.

Adopting the Identity of “Immigrant”

Identity is a very complex topic for adoptees. The additional layer of being an immigrant can make it even more complicated. Pak describes how being torn from your roots is something that adoptees experience. It’s a bizarre experience to have a need to seek the truth about where you’re from, when it’s nearly impossible to do so.

“Embracing and grounding yourself in your identity and then being able to draw power from that is important,” Pak said. “As adoptees our stories begin in another land, they begin with immigration.”

Our stories may be different, we may be different. But as immigrants we share the strength and resiliency that is necessary to uproot ourselves even if it wasn’t by choice and begin a new life in a foreign land. That is something to be proud of and embrace.

So, who am I? For now, I’m Chinese. I’m adopted. And I’m a proud immigrant.

Writer Grace Madigan holds up her favorite stuffed animal in Tiananmen Square. On their trip to adopt their second daughter from China the Madigan family spent a few days in China’s capital, Beijing. (Photo courtesy of Pamela Madigan)
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5 Comments

  1. Bravo! Thanks for sharing your story! As a curious global citizen you’ll have a wonderful journey in exploring your identity, wherever you travel to. Some of my favorite experiences have been in Latin America (mainly Brazil), Turkey and Korea, where many curious and open souls want to know your story and be afraid to approach you and ask. It’s a lot of fun sharing and listening to everyone’s stories. Bravo again!

  2. Love this write up, I am a Chinese Adoptee too. Thanks for sharing your story to help share the awareness of the deeper complex issues of identity to international adoptees.

  3. Very well-written article that explores a perspective that needs to be discussed. The challenge all humans face in developing our identity is complex. So what ? I prefer to see that challenge as opportunity to weave ourselves in the increasing panorama of who and what we are. Thank you for allowing me to better understand your situation. By the way this implies more than just the reading of an article.

  4. Thank you for sharing Grace! It takes courage to explore, embrace and share. I’m an adoptee myself removed from the orphanage life in Hong Kong, now living in Vancouver, BC. Keep well and keep it up!

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