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Archive for November, 2008

reposted from Misplaced Baggage

Identity Replacement Conditioning.
It begins with the changing of a name.

Erase. Replace.
Lê Thị Bửu Trân was preserved only as text on a page – the right to replace it with a Western name purchased for a few thousand dollars. Mismatched but easy for Americans to remember and pronounce, my new name served as a testament to the alien-ness of the environment that was to be my home.

First impressions.
“Bonding” was essential to successfully imprinting upon me the graph of my new family’s identity. This psychological process, so vital to human beings, served as a kind of primer-coat. It covered my undeveloped consciousness, smoothed it over for easy transferral and later sealed in any objections or doubts as to its validity.

Indoctorinization Initialization.
Identity restructuring often occurs under the guise of acceptance and belonging. When my parents changed my name, they intended it to be a sign of acceptance and a means through which I might “fit in.” In actuality, it was a kind of branding. Neither my adoptive parents nor my environment could accept me as I had been.

Like a mark of ownership, my new name helped us all to believe I belonged to and with them. The cutting and pasting of my identity was cast as being a good thing and I was none the wiser. Belonging was a necessity and that reduced the value of my original heritage even more.

Gratitude Adjustment.
Give me adoption or give me death. “Forget the past,” society says, “but if you must remember, do so in light of the fact that all you have lost is nothing compared to what you have gained. Be grateful to be alive. Be grateful for your opportunities. Be grateful you weren’t left in Viet Nam. See the orphanage. Look at the poverty.

Understand from where you came. Be witness to what could have been. Aren’t you glad you didn’t grow up like that? Take what we have given you without questioning, without complaint. God bless your adoptive parents. God bless America. Pity the country that couldn’t take care of you.”

It was rarely said aloud. The suggestions were subtle, subliminal, almost automatic.

Ethnic Subversion Immersion.
Movies, television, school and church all worked together to convey the message that Lê Thị Bửu Trân brought with her little, if anything of importance.

“Life is here and now. She was then and so far away. Let’s bow our heads and pray, be thankful for our blessings. You cannot fight destiny. Respect authority. Respect your parents. God. Country. Family.”

The struggle to fade into the landscape of racial ambiguity, pop culture, fashion and teenage trends trumped everything. To truly become something, you have to know it, study it, lose yourself in it. You’re told how to speak, what to eat, what to wear, what to like, what to believe until you forget to wonder if there was ever anything else.

Ethnic Equations
Face and race were the first of many clues that something of was out place. Beyond nothing “matching,” the isolation and feelings of dislocation, there was the secret knowledge that I could never go back. Even if face and race matched, culture did not. The way “others” saw me would rarely be the way I, the other, saw myself. Face(x) + Race(x) + Culture(y) ≠ Ethnicity(y) or (x).

Society seemed to offer me only three directions in which to go. I could stick with what I knew and continue in the direction that my parents had laid out for me. I could break from my comfort zone and try to become “fully” Vietnamese. Or I could try to cut straight down the middle and carve out some existence in-between. All would later prove problematic. The first two would send me down paths that I could never fully explore. The third down a path that could never be tangibly defined.

To refer to it as a kind of “third space” proves inaccurate. That suggests a place in which I inhabit when in fact, there is no tangible place with which to identify my hybrid ethnicity. It seems more appropriate to say I carry it within myself. It is who I am and up to me to define. I write the equation, determine whether the answer is correct or not while reserving the right to revise.

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I rarely blog about my kids for fear of embarrassing them and/or inadvertently violating their privacy.  Maybe that’s where the adoptee in me comes into play, because I feel their lives will be theirs, not mine to interpret and convey (or not) when they grow up.  Once in a while, however, the proud mom in me can’t help but think out loud and even brag about my kids.

As part of a community service project, my daughter volunteered to be on the Kids Vote staff.  I took her and her friend to their assigned district in the afternoon and being my typical photo-hungry self, immediately started taking pictures.  I was proud of her.  What can I say?

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Her assigned district just happened to be right down the road from the Vietnamese store where I regularly shop.  After taking several photos and letting my son vote, he and I ran off to pick up our monthly supply of Aloe Vera water, pho noodles, soup bases and whatever else we thought might be interesting to try.  I’ve made a habit of picking out a new item every time we go.  That way, we always manage to add at least one new experience each time.

Sometimes, we “research” items first then buy them, but sometimes we buy them and then try to figure out what they are.  We’re just weird like that.  I considered the thorny, football-sized durian fruits for a few seconds before quickly deciding it wouldn’t be a good idea.  I’d done my research on those ahead of time, thank goodness.   My son decided on some little green rice cakes we’ve never tasted before.  We’ll look those up later.

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It was strange watching my youngest son skipping through the isles pointing at this or that and commenting or asking what they were.  At least seventy percent of the time, I had to tell him I didn’t know.   Seeing my son strolling comfortably among all that Vietnamese-ness, enthusiastic, curious and totally comfortable with his lack of knowledge touched something in me.

He doesn’t care about what he doesn’t know or what he should know.  He just picks an object of interest and checks it out.  If one of the store employees happens to be close by, he has no problem walking up to them, pointing at something and asking, “What is that?”  Mind you, this is the same son that use to scream, “Mom, look!  Asians!” barely three years ago.

With our grocery shopping done, we thought it would be a nice idea to eat lunch there.  My son wanted a chicken sandwich, but all they had was pork.  “If you want chicken,” the store owner’s son replied, “go to Chick-fil-A.  They’re giving away free sandwiches to kids who have the “I voted” sticker.”  Dude was obviously missing the point.  That was suppose to be our day to eat Vietnamese food.

The idea of a Chick-fil-A sandwich, however was already firmly implanted in my son’s head.  So off we went to hunt down the nearest Chick-fil-A to get his sandwich.  Unfortunately, the one Chick-fil-A we went to wasn’t participating in the free thing.  *grumble How can you be a chain restaurant and not do what the rest of the “links” are doing?  Whatever.  We headed off to Burger King which has become a once-a-month “treat” for us anyway.

By the time we’d finished, it was time to pick up my daughter and her friend.  As I walked in the door of the church that doubled as that district’s voting location, I saw my daughter in the middle of a group of about six or seven Asian kids.  They were waiting to take their turn monitoring the Kids Vote booth.  It always takes me by surprise when I realize just how alien seeing my daughter surrounded by her Asian peers feels to me.  I can see her rolling her eyes and telling me to get over that, but the TRA in me can’t seem to adjust.

Enter youngest son who gets to vote again and ends up hugging all of my daughter’s friends.

That day was just one of many instances where my children become my teacher instead of the other way around.  Watching them navigate their identities with such obvious assertiveness and comfortable curiosity is something I was never able to experience as a child.   They remind me that sometimes, you just have to let yourself be.  While I struggle to define the strangled part of my identity, it’s my kids who keep me grounded.  Their constant example serves to remind me that I can acknowledge that struggle without letting it color everything I see.

Most of what I do is for them, but they never let me forget that there’s a difference between giving them access to part of their ethnicity and suffocating them with it.  Had I been more aware and had access to a Vietnamese tutor when my kids were younger, I would have made them go to Vietnamese classes just as I made them go to public school.  It was one of a long line of mistakes that I made as a young mother.  However, I would not have forced my idea of what it meant to be or act “Vietnamese” upon them.  In the end, it would be up to them to decide how and how much they would incorporate into their identities.

My children also remind me of the incredible resilience of which children are capable.  Watching them,  I better understand how I and others survived and sometimes even thrived in those tricky waters of mixed identities and adolescence.  My kids still have their difficulties and will run into new ones as they grow, but I think they’ll be alright.

They’re way more aware than I was at their age, more confident and assertive in who they are and want to become.  Being young and still exploring, that can change on a weekly basis.  The trick as a parent is knowing when to take my hands off the wheel and when to steer them back onto a productive course.

I often wonder how my children view their nutty TRA mom, how they’ll look back on our life together and what they’ll take from it.  What are the lessons that I’m unintentionally teaching them?  Is what I’m trying to teach them coming across the way I intend?  One of my biggest fears is that my TRAness and the choices I’ve had to make in my life will negatively affect them in ways that won’t become apparent until they’re adults.  I’ve often expressed this fear to my daughter.

We’ve established strong communication lines between us.  Though that sometimes results in heated verbal debates, I’m glad she’s confident enough in our relationship that she can express herself so honestly.  That’s something my parents never established with me.  It’s through my relationship with my kids that I began to realize I was never truly at ease around my parents.  Neither of us knew each other the way my kids (especially my daughter) and I know each other.

Then again, that’s the way I see things.  My kids may disagree.  I’m sure the day will come when one of them, (probably my daughter) freaks me out by expressing her difference of opinion on one of my posts.  Hopefully, my blog is way too boring to be of interest to any of my kids for the time being. 

*crossing fingers

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reposted from Misplaced Baggage

pic by sume

Lost

A friend and I headed out one morning in search of the art district.  I’d never been to that area of town and had to google up a map.  Anyone who regularly uses google maps eventually learns that trying to navigate those things can tricky.  Sometimes it’s like trying to find true north using a needle-less compass.  We ended up heading straight out of town.

Luckily, backtracking was just a matter of getting on the other side of the highway via a u-turn.  So back we went to find the nearest gas station to ask for directions.  Undaunted, we headed out again hoping the gas station attendant knew what he was talking about.   As we continued down the road, I saw the word “Danang” on a store sign and mentioned it to my friend.  We decided to check it out and, wow, it was a newly opened Vietnamese store.

For me, it was a big deal.  Over two years ago, I wrote a post bemoaning my inability to connect with Vietnamese adoptee bloggers and the Vietnamese American community in general.  I couldn’t seem to find an “in” door.  Since then, I’ve made contact with other bloggers and even had the privilege of co-blogging with two of the most distinctive voices out there.  However, my attempts to establish contact with the Vietnamese American community in my area remained halfhearted.

Still gun-shy from previous experiences, my efforts were minimal.  I knew there was a fairly sizable community here, but still did not actively seek them out.  My justifications were endless:  I was busy.  There were more urgent matters to attend to.  The community isn’t really a community and is too scattered.  It’s too hard, dammit.

The truth is I’d turned into a big chicken and didn’t need much of an excuse to lull me back into forgetfulness.  Ah, will I ever learn?  As with my adoption, the signs were everywhere and popping up when I least expected them.  The Vietnamese store served as yet another reminder that there was something I should be doing and wasn’t.

Of course, to reduce my reasons to merely fear would oversimplify and misrepresent the psychology behind my reluctance.  I think the common set of fears did come into play: fear of rejection, fear of judgment, fear of not being able to connect, etc.  However, something that I rarely talk about is the resentment.  Being summarily rejected by a recruiter for the Vietnamese student organization at the college I was attending left a bitter taste in my mouth.  True, I was hurt and felt seriously discouraged, but just as importantly, I felt this blood-boiling rage.

It felt as if “my own” had thrown me to the wolves and then refused to let me back in because I’d been mauled beyond recognition.  I didn’t walk away.  They’d given me away.  I’d survived to seek them out again but rather than welcoming me back among them, they slammed the door in my face. They wanted nothing to do with me, and why should I care?  What had they ever done for me other than relinquishing me to an eternal state of otherness?

I was aware these feelings were unreasonable but felt them anyway.  Because I knew they were irrational, I buried them.  However, I would eventually have to face the truth.  Denial of those feelings numbed my awareness of them but still allowed them to affect my behavior.  It’s weird how the mind works.  I feel weird just writing these thoughts down, but surely I can’t be the only one.

I know as well as anyone that it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to resent a whole community of strangers.  They had nothing to do with what had happened to me – either individually or as a group.   Furthermore, I’d met and befriended enough Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans to know better.   Why did I harbor such a sense of betrayal?

My mind immediately goes back to my childhood.  Insomnia and I have been joined at the hip since I can remember.  A lot of those late night sessions with sleeplessness involved thoughts of my Vietnamese mother.  As I’ve mentioned before, not all of my midnight daydreams were childish fantasies of tearful reunions.  Many times my imaginary interactions with Má were rendered with classic feelings of abandonment common to adoptees.

Some part of me felt that she’d sloughed me off like so much unwanted hair to be swept away and forgotten.  Of course, now I know that’s not necessarily the case.  There were other options, but to a child with limited knowledge and understanding, the only ones were a) orphaned by death and b) orphaned by abandonment.  To compensate, I waffled between the two scenarios.  Did she die or just dump me to my fate?

Sadly, Má wasn’t around to answer my questions.  She only existed in my head and could neither confirm or correct my assumptions.  Those thoughts never dissipated.  They were never resolved but lay dormant just below the surface of my consciousness.  I guess the recruiter for the Vietnamese student organization was just the trigger.  He’d unwittingly turned on the light behind my skewed optical lens allowing for a whole lot of projection.

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