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Archive for the ‘Misplaced Baggage’ Category

Searching…

Where has the time gone?  It was almost a year ago that I received an email from a television show that offered to help search for my supposed Vietnamese foster mother.  The application requires a large amount of personal information.  I start to fill it out, then stop, start filling it out again, then stop again.  My mind seems trapped in the risk/benefit analysis of giving up my privacy to complete strangers and the slim chance of finding a woman who isn’t even my mother.

During my interview with John Safran, he brought up the subject of privacy rights vs. birth searches.  I wish I’d had the presence of mind to convey the thoughts I’d expressed in an earlier conversation with a fellow adoptee.   Some people seem to focus on the privacy of parents over the need for an adoptee to know, but there’s more to it than that.  Many adoptees have to give up their privacy in order to even begin a search.  Many of us have to trust complete strangers with information of which we’re usually very protective.  We become ripe for exploitation.  Then there’s that devastating disappointment when nothing is found.

Thinking about it makes me want to scream at woman considering giving up their babies to stop.  Do they understand the vulnerable position in which they place us?  Did they ever consider it?   I’m sure many were convinced they were doing what was best for themselves and their babies.    Maybe they were in some situations, but it doesn’t feel like it from where I’m standing now.

Part of me dreads another disappointment.  I’ve so far sent out two inquiries.  One ran into a dead end.  The other never got back to me, not even to tell they were still looking or to say they’d found nothing.

So I waffle back and forth, filling out the form a little each day as I continue to weigh the costs against the potential benefits.  I know I’ll eventually send it.  How can I not?

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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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Ethnically Perplexed by Sume

Years ago my father sent me a folder containing a family tree that stretched back to 1776, an old newspaper article about one of his ancestors and a picture of the family crest.  He is a proud Southerner, and his pride naturally extends to his European ancestry that he’d traced all the way back to Wales.  Throughout my childhood, he’d never failed to impress upon me the importance of heritage.

Even as a little girl, I remember him taking my brother and I to an old family graveyard in Louisiana.  Many of the graves had deteriorated to little more than piles of stones, and the names were no longer readable.  None of this mattered to my father.  He told my brother and I to stand next to them so that he could record our pilgrimage to the old family plot.

He often boasted about his grandmother’s strength of character which he attributed to her French-Canadian/Cajun roots.  During our visits, his ears would perk up as he heard her and his father speaking Cajun, a language he never learned to speak.

I vaguely remember him urging me to ask my great-grandmother to see a sword she supposedly owned that had been passed down from the Civil War. Being a proud Southerner, he impressed the significance of the Confederate flag upon me at an early age.  As a teenager, I proudly displayed it in the corner my room.

Rebel Yelling by Sume

I don’t remember my father ever associating the flag with racism.  For him, it symbolized his Southern roots and nothing more.  I might have had no problem with that except for the fact that my father was racist.  He still is – and this is the part where I get really uncomfortable.

Writing about my family’s racism is always painful for many reasons.  I am ashamed and ashamed of being ashamed.  He is my father, the only one I’ve ever known.  Some part of my conscience kicks me in the back of the head every time I mention my father’s racial prejudice.  I feel the urge to apologize for him and even cover it up, but I’m tired of covering for my family, exhausted from carrying the burden of their deceptions.  No matter how good their intentions, it’s not mine to carry.  Furthermore, as I slowly re-align my perspective to one of a woman of color rather than a white woman, my brain must reject much of my father’s view of the world as unacceptable.

He has mellowed out some over the years, but it’s still there and manifests itself in more – and still occasionally less – subtle ways.  He’s not the only one, but most of my family is less obvious about it.   It always surprised and filled me with such shame and anger when I’d hear members of my family say “nigger” as if there were nothing wrong with it – even more so when I’d confront them about it.  Sometimes I’d get arguments and excuses.  Sometimes, they’d just look at me as if I were crazy.  Except for my father, I’ve since learned to avoid those particular family members.

There was a time when I tried to compartmentalize Dad from his racism just as he seemed to compartmentalize racism from the Confederate South.   Yes, I’ve read the debates, but cannot escape the fact that the South and part of its history included slavery.  It’s not that I buy into the idea that the North was absent of racism and exploitation of people of color, but just as with my father, there are things to be proud of and things of which to be terribly ashamed.

Ironically, the only photo he seemed to be able to find of one of his early ancestors was that of a Union soldier (see first photo).  On it, he’d written: Don’t claim no kin to this one.

On the inside of the folder, my father wrote:

My Dearest:
Forget not from Whence
The lineage in your Vein
Was born of Suffering and Pain
In abeyance of Life’s Penance!

The infuriating thing is that all the while he was impressing upon me the importance of his heritage, he was contributing to the erasure of mine with his lies.  Well intentions be damned.  One does NOT compensate for another.  One does NOT trump the other.  Because there were so many pieces missing, the few remaining fragments became all the more valuable – and irreplaceable.

Despite any wish he might have had to ensure I felt a part of the family, a true sense of belonging is only true when you don’t have to work too hard at it.  The burden of proof felt more put upon me than upon him.  All he had to do was lie, but the responsibility for maintaining the illusion was mostly mine.

And I refuse.

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Thinking out loud…

What exactly defines an “adoptee perspective?” In the most general sense, I guess it could mean “from the point of view of an adoptee,” but is there something more specific that makes an opinion, essay, poem, work of art, etc. particularly “adoptee?” If there is, then what are the characteristics that distinguishes it from that of non-adoptees?

As far as I can tell, there are none except the fact that we are adopted. There are signs we can look for in the case of TRAs. Ethnically mismatched names and faces, photos with racially different family members, but even those are extraneous and could be attributed to other factors.

Unlike the previously mentioned, a sense of rootlessness or not belonging can be conveyed as part of an adoptee point of view, yet even these fall short. While perhaps particular to an adoptee, they are not exclusive. So what the hell are we talking about when we say, “adoptee perspective?” And why am I even thinking about this?

I suppose it’s because recent events have forced me to ask myself some hard questions. The recent scandal and subsequent closing of adoptions from Việt Nam, the blog exchange between Kevin Minh Allen and Adam Theodore, recent events in my personal life, and some less than stellar experiences with adoptees and people from the media have all thrown me for a loop. I guess it’s going to take me a while to get my bearings.

There is a new term that’s floating around out there – TRAmbiguity. It was originally coined by TRA writer Bryan Thao Worra. Any number of definitions might be assigned to this term but I prefer to think of it as: a behavior and/or state of being specific (though not exclusive) to transracial adoptees that allows them to remain undefined – ambiguous. The reason I use “TRAmbiguity” is because I am a TRA and that is how I chose to define my existence based on my experience as a transracial adoptee.

I believe living between races and cultures has allowed me to fine-tune my diplomatic skills down to an art-form. That’s not to say I wasn’t sincere. The lens through which I see the world is very gray. At first, I considered TRAmbiguity as more of a tool, but have since come to accept it as a state of existence through which I’ve learned to navigate. There didn’t seem to be a lot of choice in the matter – not if I wanted to avoid getting stuck in the polarized world in which society says we should live. Vietnamese or American? White or Asian? For or against? Pro or anti? Who’s side are you on, anyway?

The nebulousness of TRAmbiguity becomes problematic when faced with situations where I’ve felt pressure to pick a “side” or take a stand on some issue. Sometimes that pressure is internal, sometimes it’s external and at other times, both. The pressure I exert on myself is much easier to manage as I understand its source. The external pressure, however, is outside my control. Dealing with it can be tricky. Of course, one would think neither should matter as long as one is true to oneself, but it’s rarely that simple.

A recent example could be the recent accusations of corruption and subsequent closing of adoptions from Việt Nam. I voiced my concerns quite loudly questioning whether it was wise to continue allowing adoptions from my birth country. In fact, I did feel it was prudent not to until things were sorted out.

Some could interpret that as a stance against adoptions from Việt Nam, against international adoption or adoption period. Yet all the while, I supported Ethica’s efforts to try and ensure that pending and any future adoptions from Việt Nam remained ethical. Some could interpret that as a my being for adoptions from Vietnam, for international adoption and/or adoption period. Both interpretations would have been wrong as I have never expressed either opinion and truly cannot think in such binary terms about adoption or anything else. Support, criticism or outright opposition to one thing need not imply generalized support or opposition to another.

Likewise, choosing to embrace one’s ambiguity need not prevent adoptees from taking strong stands on issues important to them. Support for open records and adoptee rights, pushing for stronger support for birth families, exposing corruption and abusive adoption practices and being critical of ones own adoption or adoption itself should not imply that one is against adoption as a whole.

Ideally it really shouldn’t matter, but functionally it does. Whether a person is perceived as either pro- or anti-adoption can influence who that person speaks to in the media and who speaks to that person. It can be a factor in who links you if you blog, determine whether one’s loyalties are questioned and by whom and sadly, determine who trusts whom and with what.

Being too ambiguous or diplomatic can create doubts about one’s loyalties, foster feelings of suspicion and can make it difficult for an adoptee to find a place in which they feel they “belong.” From an “adoptee perspective” that is perhaps the saddest of all outcomes, because many of us are specifically seeking comradery with our adopted peers. To end up isolated or falsely labeled is detrimental to adoptees as a community. Such a split weakens us and could be exploited for any number of agendas other than our own. If I must be against something, it is that.

The blog exchange between Kevin and Adam was encouraging and drove home the importance of Vietnamese adoptees having similar open discussions – adoptee to adoptee. I think it would be a productive venture to continue discussions started a few years ago and spark new ones relevant to current circumstances.

Unlike forums, blogs allow us the liberty of engaging one another in lively discussions from the comfort of our own “turfs” under our own terms. It’s encouraging to see more and more VN adoptees getting their perspectives out there on their own. Hopefully, that trend will continue to expand and deepen in expanse of topic and depth of discussion.

Perhaps once adoptees begin to actively define and broaden the meaning of “adoptee perspective” on our own terms, TRAmbiguity will no longer be a source of suspicion. Hopefully, it will come to be seen as a liberated state of existence that allows us to speak freely without the fear of being labeled. Maybe it’s just a pipe dream, but it seems like a worthwhile goal – especially if it leads to a greater sense of solidarity among us. At the risk of sounding sappy, that is where I think we’ll find our greatest strength and what will enable us to make some of our most worthwhile contributions.

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Timeline in Brief:

Dec 20, 2007
A New Family

Dec 26, 2007
Preparing and Waiting

Jan 3, 2008
Across the Miles

Jan 11, 2008
Aftermath of adoption: adjusting to the culture

Jan 13, 2008
Sent letter to the editor expressing our concerns about the series.

Jan 14, 2008
Kevin receives reply from Anh Do requesting further discussion.

Jan 15, 2008
Anh Do speaks with Kevin over the phone and mentions Jami Farkas will be in touch.

Jan 16, 2008
Response from Anh Do (Letter from the editor)

Mar 12, 2008
Jami initiates contact via email stating she’s “doing a follow-up story on our adoption series and would like to speak briefly” with each of us.

Two of us respond the same day. She tells Kevin she will call him the following evening.

Mar 17, 2008
I respond to Jami’s initial email asking her to elaborate.

Kevin sends follow-up email to Jami inquiring as to why she didn’t call. He also sends a follow-up to Anh Do.

Mar 18, 2008
Anh Do responds to Kevin’s email explaining that Jami had some serious health issues and was unable to contact us.

Mar 26, 2008
Jami sends explanation and apology. She asks if we would agree to answer a few interview questions. She tells Kevin and I that she will send her interview questions later that night.

That’s the last the three of us heard from her.

April 12, 2008
I send follow-up email.

No reply.

* * *

As Kevin previously mentioned, events did not go as we’d hoped. Though it began as a gesture of goodwill, Người Việt’s offer quickly turned into what felt more like a brush-off. I have worked with editors and journalists before, but none have ever dealt with me so unprofessionally and with such disregard.

The three of us had discussed blogging about the series but decided to first write a letter to the editor expressing our concerns. After Kevin received Anh Do’s email response requesting a follow-up discussion with him, we were optimistic and enthusiastic about continuing the discussion. Apparently, Anh Do shared our enthusiasm given her prompt responses. However, once she handed responsibility over to Jami Farkas, there was a marked change in interest on the part of Người Việt.

Jami did eventually get in touch with us – two months later. Yet her email was completely devoid of the kind of professionalism one would expect from “the premier English-language publication of the Nguoi Viet Daily News, the oldest and largest Vietnamese-language newspaper in the United States.”

Wed, Mar 12, 2008

Dear Kevin, Khai, Sume and Anh:

(Fellow adoptee) gave me your e-mail addresses. I am doing a follow-up story on our adoption series and would like to speak briefly with each of you. Would you mind sending your phone numbers so that I can call you?

Thanks!

Jami Farkas

First, we didn’t know who the “fellow adoptee” was as she mentioned him by his first name only. Second, we thought Anh Do had already given her our email addresses. Why was she getting them from another adoptee? We didn’t know Jami from Judas and weren’t entirely comfortable just handing over our phone numbers to her.

Despite our reservations, we continued to express our interest in contributing to Jami’s vaguely proposed “follow-up story.” Two of us sent in replies the same day which resulted in Jami making an appointment to speak with Kevin over the phone that following Friday the 14th. She sent no reply to Anh Dao.

After taking more time to consider, I sent in my reply on the 17th.

Mar 17, 2008

Hi Jamie,

Thank you for your interest. Can you please tell me a little more
about your follow-up story and our expected contribution to it?

Sincerely,
Sume

No response.

Having not heard back from Jami, Kevin sent emails to both Jami and Anh Do the same day inquiring as to why we hadn’t heard back from Jami. She’d missed her appointment with Kevin and had failed to respond to either me or Anh Dao. In his emails to both Jami and Anh Do, Kevin conveyed our concerns about Jami’s lack of communication and professionalism. Anh Do sent a reply the next day explaining that Jami had some health problems and couldn’t get back with us. Feeling bad that we had jumped the gun, the three of us decided to just wait and see.

Jami did eventually get back with us on the March 26 explaining her situation and apologizing for not getting in touch with us. We expressed hopes that we had not been too harsh in questioning her lack of response along with well-wishes regarding her health. It seemed we could resolve the situation as a misunderstanding resulting from events beyond our control. In her email, Jami said she would send us some interview questions via email later on that night, but we never heard back from her. Kevin and I both sent yet another series of emails – mine being the last, dated April 12, 2008. We have not heard back from anyone at Người Việt since.

* * *

Confused? So were we.

Initially, we wondered if perhaps Jami had again experienced health problems and perhaps that might explain her failure to communicate with us. Despite our enthusiasm to get things underway, none of us wanted to jump to conclusions or be inconsiderate of any recovery time she might need.

Shortly after I sent my email on April 12th, we learned that protesters had gathered outside Người Việt’s office angry over a photo they’d published that allegedly “denigrated the old South Vietnamese flag.” Again, we decided under the current situation, it might be understandable that the entire staff at Người Việt might be pre-occupied with handling their sudden public relations crisis. So again, we waited.

It wasn’t until we entered May without a word from Jami or anyone from Người Việt that we began to wonder. Was she so incapacitated that she couldn’t send a brief update or acknowledgment that she’d received our emails? If so, then couldn’t she have asked another staff member to get back with us?

Thinking something might have happened to her, I went to Người Việt’s website to see if Jami had been updating. A quick search proved to be telling.

1. Doctors say stylish helmets less safe
(Thursday, May 22, 2008 12:12:12 AM – Compiled by Jami Farkas from news reports)

2. Teen births cost taxpayers $61 million in O.C. region
(Thursday, May 22, 2008 12:08:22 AM – Compiled by Jami Farkas from news reports)

3. Women wrestlers’ Olympic bid canceled
(Thursday, May 22, 2008 12:01:45 AM – Compiled by Jami Farkas from news reports)

4. UK continues annual grant of $100 million to Việt Nam
(Wednesday, May 21, 2008 11:56:07 PM – Compiled by Jami Farkas from news reports)

5. China quake rattles buildings in Việt Nam
(Friday, May 16, 2008 3:39:11 PM – Compiled by Jami Farkas)

6. Golf courses displacing agricultural land
(Friday, May 16, 2008 3:34:49 PM – Compiled by Jami Farkas)

7. First private plane in years now in Việt Nam skies
(Friday, May 16, 2008 3:25:18 PM – Compiled by Jami Farkas)

8. Car sales up in Việt Nam
(Friday, May 16, 2008 3:22:36 PM – Compiled by Jami Farkas)

9. 2 reporters nabbed for scandal coverage
(Friday, May 16, 2008 3:15:12 PM – Compiled by Jami Farkas)

10. Activist convicted, to be deported
(Friday, May 16, 2008 3:07:50 PM – Compiled by Jami Farkas)

11. Letter from the Editor
(Thursday, April 03, 2008 9:50:36 PM – By Jami Farkas)

12. Practicing what he preaches
(Wednesday, March 26, 2008 10:39:45 PM – By Jami Farkas)

13. Letter from the Editor
(Thursday, March 13, 2008 6:56:20 PM – By Jami Farkas)

14. This label is easy to make
(Thursday, February 28, 2008 7:32:00 PM – By Jami Farkas)
Kim-Oanh Nguyễn-Lâm is an educator, first and foremost.

15. Letter from the Editor
(Wednesday, February 06, 2008 10:38:15 PM – By Jami Farkas)

Obviously she’s been quite active – so busy that she couldn’t take the whole of five minutes to get back with us. Did Người Việt think we would simply go away? In good faith, we’d postponed our response to Venus Lee‘s adoption series only to be stalled, dropped and eventually ignored without a word.

Personally speaking, I never doubted the sincerity of the previous editor, Anh Do. Her response time alone implies her interest. As Kevin states in his previous post:

To say the least, I was impressed with Anh Do’s act of reaching out to our aggrieved party and seeking to make amends by bringing balance to the discussion on adoption from Vietnam. Each of us were notified that Anh Do was going to contact us with prepared questions and conduct a brief interview with each of us.

However, I have to seriously question that of Jami Farkas – not only because of her poor response time, but because of the offhand way with which she approached us from the beginning. Obviously, both the paper and Jami had remained active despite any “health issues” or public relations problems. What Jami’s actions seem to indicate is simply a lack of interest and/or that she didn’t take us seriously.

* * *

As my co-blogger, Kevin Minh Allen, has already done such a commendable job, I will only throw in some supplemental thoughts of my own.

I’m fully aware that there will still be people out there thinking, “So what?” There may be others who question whether it’s even appropriate for us to be pointing out Người Việt’s lengthy yet sadly lacking series. Still there will be others who will dismiss our criticism of Jami Farkas and her paper as nothing more than whining. Whatever.

On a personal level, of course, being dropped is never fun, but I could get over that part. Even the cavalier, flaky way with which Jami treated us, while insulting, could be passed off as a problem with her more than us. However on a deeper level, as a Vietnamese adoptee, being given the proverbial finger by a Vietnamese American paper really bites.

I’m not talking about journalistic integrity or anything so impartial *cough, because this is personal. To try and wrap Người Việt’s actions into a supposedly more objective skin diverts attention away from an adult adoptee perspective. Isn’t that contradictory to the goal (for many of us) of getting our undiluted point of view out there? We can argue about journalistic integrity all we want, but I think that makes it too easy to ignore how events like this can affect an adoptee on a deeply personal level.

And why should we? Life as an adoptee is a profoundly human experience. For many, the effects of adoption are deeply felt and last a lifetime. Dismissing or completely ignoring how our lives as adoptees affect our perspective feels like trying to take the water from an ice cube. Of course, it’s always a matter of balance. Hopefully, I’ll be able to maintain some as I attempt to bring this back down to a personal, though hopefully not overly ranty level.

Người Việt published a series of articles that basically functioned as a sales brochure complete with savior theme whilst adoptions from Vietnam were under scrutiny for unethical practices and outright corruption. On top of that, they completely ignored how being adopted under false pretenses might affect an adoptee. Adult Vietnamese adoptees would have been able to offer more realistic though possibly less idealistic insights into life after identity-revision.

On top of that, the last post of the series – Aftermath of adoption: adjusting to the culture - is so short-sighted that it also ignores the long term “aftermath” of adoption. If any part of the series should have featured adult adoptee perspectives, it should have been that one. And to top it all off, Người Việt offers to interview us after we call them on it, but then quickly drops us without a word. That’s just rude.

But like I said, I can get past that. As an isolated incident, it doesn’t mean much other than Người Việt did a really inadequate job of covering adoptions from Vietnam. It’s when I look at the wider picture and how the Vietnamese American paper contributed to the compounding problem of non-critical, AP-catered adoption literature that it really matters.

In light of the imbalance, is Người Việt obligated to compensate for the disparity? We could debate that endlessly, but in the end it’s ultimately the editor’s privilege and responsibility to make that call. That’s just the reality of it and why many of us have turned to adoptee-run mediums like our blogs, programs like The Adoption Show, and groups/forums like AdopteeRights.net and AdultAdoptees.org. Note the stark contrast between The Adoption Show’s recent contribution and Người Việt’s four-part series.

Người Việt’s recent actions would seem to indicate not only a willingness to pander to adoptive parents, but also a reluctance to allow critical or questioning adoptees to represent themselves. The fact that it’s a Vietnamese American paper seems to suggest an attitude that it’s okay for Vietnamese Americans to speak for Vietnamese adoptees, but not okay for adoptees to speak for themselves – if they have something critical to say about their adoptions. Think I’m stretching it?

Venus Lee isn’t even Vietnamese. As pointed out in the article written by Jami Farkas, Venus is “Half Japanese, half Chinese” who’s fellowship project involved “A study of adoptions from Vietnam.” Great. Given the negative experiences that I and others have had while trying to “re-integrate” into the Vietnamese/Asian American community, this is just the icing to top the you’re-not-Vietnamese/Asian- enough-cake. Thank you very much, Người Việt.

If we zoom out the lens and view the greater landscape of adoptions in the media, very little of it involves adoptees speaking for themselves as they interpret themselves and their experiences. Great strides have been made, but the overall perspective is still a very narrow view, often sifted and re-interpreted by a non-adoptee. For Vietnamese adoptees, who have had their experiences and stories milked relentlessly by non-adoptees for money, self-praise and promotion, political fodder, humanitarian causes and career advancement, this is doubly so.

It’s not that I think only adoptees are capable of and should represent their own stories. That’s unrealistic anyway. I believe we can and should work closely with non-adoptees to get our voices out there. However, there is a fine line between representation and exploitation, contribution and substitution, working with and working for. If, as adoptees, we do not adamantly draw those lines, I believe we endanger the very voices we claim to support.

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pic by sume

Reflecting

I don’t know how long I stood there, in front of the mirror, looking for my father’s features. There must be something there, a hint in the shape of my nose or the curve of my jaw. Surely I’d be able to find some distinguishable feature that would verify at least half of my genetics could be be accounted for. He was my father and fathers do not lie. At least that’s what I told myself as I traced lines upon my face, the tip of my finger growing numb to the touch of my own skin.

The breakdown of trust between my father and I and its unintended consequences have been one of the most emotionally draining to explore and convey. I used to think that love and trust between parents and their children was all you needed to build a solid relationship between the two. All else, whether it be communication, respect, loyalty or honesty could be built upon those two elements. It was also my thinking that if one, either love or trust, were ever challenged or even totally destroyed, the other would help to repair the damage. Sadly, I’m finding that this is not necessarily the case.

I still love my father, but it has done little to help re-establish the level of trust I once afforded him. Knowing and understanding the depth of his deceptions and the manipulative intentions behind them, has irreparably damaged my perception of his integrity. Furthermore, discovering his manipulative use of my mother’s “memory” filled me with such shock and disgust that it destroyed any sense of admiration I might have held.

At this point, I’m aware that some elaboration is necessary, but feel that doing so would bring too much focus upon my father’s actions. Writing about this will inevitably point fingers at him, however, at this point, I’ve chosen to put more of my energy into trying to understand the consequences rather than the actions themselves. Trying to further explain why he withheld the truth and flat-out lied about my adoption would require a great amount of speculation on my part. The exact reasons behind his choices are ultimately his to tell, and he has chosen not to explain himself.

I’m not sure I’d believe him even if he did suddenly decided to elaborate on what he meant by, “I had my reasons.” People keep telling me I shouldn’t let it take away from the good things he’s done. They say I should find some way to forgive and let it go. “It was a long time ago, and I’m sure he meant well,” seems to be their main defense. I don’t know how to get it through to them that I’ve already forgiven his actions. It’s not a matter of forgiveness now, but of trust and how its absence negatively affects our relationship.

The loss of faith in the only father I’ve ever known feels comparable to the sense of loss I feel when I think of Má. I was never allowed to know her and suddenly feel as if I never really knew him. He has widened the distance between us, and the resulting sense of betrayal has given me little cause to bridge the gap. The search for more meaningful relationships has taken me in the opposite direction as I search to fill the vacuum. Fortunately for me, I was able to establish and maintain relationships without trust becoming an issue. That is the amazing thing.

The ability to trust can prove surprisingly resilient even after repeated bombardments of disappointment. The resilience seems born from necessity since the growth and solidifying of a relationship, whether between parent and child, friends or lovers, depends on at least some level of trust. In very early childhood, one would think it’s just natural to trust one’s parents but these days, I question whether it could truly be called trust as I know it today.

While bonding with my parents may have been an early indication of my growing in that direction, the concept of trust wasn’t a conscious idea. Even then, I don’t think you could really call it trust in the way you’d refer to it with an adult. To me, real trust requires some amount of judgment, knowing who you can and cannot trust and understanding why. What I had with my parents in those early days was based on naiveté. I simply didn’t know anything better. Was it nothing more than attachment?

There were many reasons the subject of trust interests me. One was that I wanted to understand how my relationship with my parents might have contributed, if at all, to my own concepts of trust now. Another was spurred by reading an article in which an adoptive parent stated she felt her daughter thought she needed “permission” to express her feelings about her “birth” mother. There was something about using the word “permission” that angered me.

Thinking about it in terms of granting permission suggests that the adoptive mother exercised her power over her adopted daughter and allowed her to express her feelings. Talking about their adoptions is something every adoptee has the right to do, and that should be made clear from the beginning. I thought back to my own experiences and wanted to suggest to the author that an adoptee’s reluctance to discuss their adoptions should often be thought of in terms of trust.

I didn’t share that level of trust with my parents. It wasn’t because they were awful people, but because I didn’t think they could deal with it. I didn’t want to hurt them, didn’t want to make them feel bad or make them think of me in a negative way. Their approval and acceptance was important to me, and I didn’t want to endanger that. I didn’t trust that they would be able to just listen rather than tell me how I should think and feel.

My solution was to turn to people I thought I could count on, the result of which further isolated them from that part of my life. I think that was the beginning of that “dual existence” many of my fellow adoptees refer to when discussing their “adopted selves” and their “normal selves.” That’s not to say that I think adoptive parents should pump themselves up with enthusiasm and rush their children to talk about their feelings.

I think adoptees should be made to feel empowered to speak about their adoptions. Too much parental pushing would seem to have the opposite effect. Besides, one would hope that if a deep level of trust is first established as simply parent and child, the bond would naturally extend to one between adoptive parent and child. By that, I mean one need not overly stress adoption in very early childhood but rather concentrate on establishing and maintaining a solid parent/child bond as a foundation.

I think if my parents had stressed my adoption too much, I would have felt more like an outsider than I already had. Too little gave me the impression my adoption wasn’t open for discussion, that I should somehow be ashamed of it. All that said, I don’t think I would have been comfortable sharing everything with my parents even under the most idea circumstances.

Sometimes, parents whether adoptive or not, have to give their children room to grow on their own. We have to trust that our children will figure out some things for themselves. Within reasonable limits, isn’t it only right to have the same faith in our children that we ask them to have in us?

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