By: Stacy Clark
I am a 44-year-old mother of two daughters. One daughter shares my genes, reflects my blue eyes and wheat-colored hair (though I pay for my golden highlights now). The other exquisitely Asian daughter was adopted from China and shares my heart. When our family, which includes my blue-eyed husband from Connecticut, goes out and about in our suburban Florida neighborhood, we cause ripples in the ordinary. Ours is an adoptive, biological, multicultural, biracial family—and it shows.
Or something like that. The truth is, we may look visibly different, but we are a family same as any. Our family did not set out to represent any label. I’m not even sure what those terms really mean. But the truth also is, our family embodies a uniqueness that never ceases to surprise, sometimes sadden, and often delight us.
Not long ago we had one of those multicultural family moments. My daughter, Hanna, and I sat at the coffee table doing her first-grade homework. One of the assignments was to write down where her ancestors are from, if known. Hanna tapped her pencil in thought, her straight black hair falling over her face. While I wondered which ancestors she’d choose, Hanna was working out how to spell China.
“Oh, wait, I know how to spell China,” she said. “It’s on my lunchbox… even on my underwear! Look!” Hanna squirmed around, tugging the panties out of her jeans.
For the record, the panties were from Thailand. But we found that the lunchbox, a pair of socks and a toy guitar were Made in China. “Just like me!” Hanna squealed.
Technically Hanna was “made” in China. This is what we were told: Our daughter was born in a village in a southeastern province of China on a winter night. By the next morning, she was found outside the gates of a social welfare institute. She was taken in, given a name meaning “winter mushroom”, and placed into foster care, until my husband, older daughter, and I came along nine and a half months later.
Suddenly, in adopting this baby girl, our family of three Caucasians became four Americans —one of whom is also Asian. We are one family now made of two races and two cultures. She became a part of our world, but we also became a part of hers. Now we think about things we hadn’t before, such as where we buy our underwear.
In the months after we brought our daughter home from China, our family evoked glances and whispers whenever we went places together. The four of us were like a walking poster family for international adoption. Honestly, I did not mind. I was so sleep-deprived and fluent in baby talk then, I appreciated the adult conversation.
Besides, people were usually polite, always kind, and occasionally told us stories about their children who had been adopted, too. More than once a teary-eyed woman tapped me on the shoulder at the grocery store wanting to know about my adoption experience, usually because she was considering adopting a child herself. The markedly visible differences between Hanna and me gave rise to some beautiful conversations —and I hope some even more beautiful mother-child relationships.
Either the glances have faded, or I have stopped noticing, because I often forget there is anything unusual about our family. These days, some six years after adopting our daughter from China, our everyday lives are much like any family living in our palm-lined neighborhood about an hour inland from the Gulf of Mexico. Our kids go to school and theater, dance class and piano lessons, riding the minivan shuttle up and down the main boulevard. Like the other moms, I drive my kids to and fro, racing upstairs to my office to work while they’re in school. Months will go by while I am making lunches and meeting deadlines and trying to be a somewhat balanced, mostly showered human being. Then, a school assignment about a “Family Tree” or a whispered question at the club pool will remind me how different we are.
“Is she your mom?” a child will ask Hanna. “How come she does not look like you?” Or Kathryn, the daughter who does look like me, will introduce her little sister, and the person’s face will wrinkle in confusion. Sometimes people will say, “Who is her real mom?” and I will cringe and breathe. It’s in a moment like this I will pull out those terms “birthmother” and “adoptive mother” that I otherwise don’t like so much. They beat the alternative: being Kathryn’s “real” mother and Hanna’s “unreal” one.
Anyone who has adopted a child, or knows someone who has, surely knows there is nothing unreal about being an adoptive parent. We give real hugs and put real Band-Aids on real skinned knees. Our love and worry for our children is as real as it gets. On the other hand, there are some real differences, too.
I wish I could tell those women who tapped my shoulder in the grocery store all I have learned about being a biological and adoptive mother in a multicultural, biracial family of four. It sounds ridiculous, even to me. Yet, strip the cumbersome labels away and it’s who I am.
All I wanted to do was have a second child. When I ended up adopting her from another country, I entered another world. Unwittingly, I became an ambassador to this new place and a translator of these odd terms that now describe my family. I know about things now such as an adjustment period (translate to three months’ of hair-raising crying –mostly Hanna, some me) and the attachment process (beginning in a moonlit moment when Hanna stopped crying and, instead of straining away, nuzzled close). Now, along with birthdays and Christmas and the Fourth of July, I celebrate occasions such as “Gotcha Day” and Chinese New Year. I have made moon cakes and Chinese lanterns, and a million mistakes.
I never know quite how to respond when people say awkward or insensitive things to me about adoption. Even innocent things such as, Hanna is “lucky” to have been adopted. I know who the lucky one is (me) and about the sad layers of unluckiness surrounding Hanna’s birth and abandonment. Sometimes I’m patient and brilliant, but often I say nothing right or everything wrong.
I am in lifelong boot camp training for parenthood and learning as I go.
On the fly, I have explained to a three-year-old why my eyes are sky blue and hers are chocolate brown. I’ve told a four-year-old why she was born in another mother’s tummy. I’ve looked a five-year-old deep in her brown eyes and said I understand your sense of longing for a woman you have not seen since birth. I once tried to explain to a six-year-old, “No I did not buy you in China.” And when I inadvertently said she was priceless, she shouted, “They had a price list?!” Oh yes. I’ve held the hand of a seven-year-old tightly as she told me her face is round and the other kids at school have oval faces. And, I know the harder conversations are still to come.
Nope, I never expected how different life would be after adopting a child from the other side of the skies. Going in, having birthed a child and raised her for seven years, I thought I knew something about parenting. Adopting a second child taught me how much I would never know.
Maybe because I have both a birthed a child and adopted one, I can see how much biological and adoptive parenting is exactly alike, and not at all the same. Issues arise when parenting. Sometimes I can tell what is adoption-related and what is just a kid thing. Sometimes I can’t. One thing I am absolutely sure of from this dual vantage point is this: though I may love each child differently, there is no difference in how much I love my children.
I also know I would not have my different kind of family be any other way. Different also means not the same. I remember my husband and I trying to explain who we were in an interview during the adoption process. We are not the same people we were back then. We are far more giving and open-minded, loving and patient and real than we had ever thought. Likewise, our daughter Kathryn had to surrender her only-child status to a disarmingly adorable Asian sister and along the way deepened her generosity and compassion.
That’s the thing about becoming something out of the ordinary. By standing apart, we can look back and see how much we have changed. By embracing differences in race and culture in our family, we can look out and see the world newly. Still, we do not see ourselves as multicultural, adoptive or different. We’re just us.
Once, a year or so ago, I asked Hanna to describe our family. She said it better than I ever could. “That’s easy, Mommy. We are group of people who love each other.”
Stacy Clark is a writer and mother of two daughters, by birth and adoption. She writes on The Yin and the Yang: Life After International Adoption and blogs about life in an adoptive family at This Side of the Skies.
By: Stacy Clark
A couple of summers ago, my daughter Hanna attended a weekly art class here in our suburban Florida neighborhood. Picture a master-planned community with meandering tree-lined boulevards and tidy homes tucked within stone-walled villages, named after places in England. While there are families of different races and cultures sprinkled about, the majority of our neighbors are white. The thing is Hanna is not. She was adopted into our little corner of Americana from her birthplace in China before she was a year old.
As Hanna’s mom, I am sensitive to making sure Hanna has friends and role models that share her race and heritage. (I’ve read and been told this will help her develop a positive self image.) I am not always successful, but often lucky.
Take art class for example. On a Sunday morning, I drove Hanna a couple villages over to the home where the class was being held. An Asian woman peeked out the front door and waved us in. Other parents arrived with kids in tow, also Asian, specifically Chinese. This is great I thought while stumbling over the slippers the host quietly set behind me after I removed my shoes in the foyer. We came to art class because Hanna loves art, but the Chinese culture was a real bonus. Even the art teacher was Chinese.
The only one not Chinese was me.
As a blond-haired, blue-eyed Caucasian woman growing up in the suburbs of Maryland, I’ve always been a part of the majority culture. Mostly, my culture has been like water to a fish, unnoticeable to me. They were as nice as could be, these mothers and fathers with the wide smiles who gathered at the door speaking in rapid Mandarin. Yet suddenly I was the stranger in a strange land.
I was the bright, white bulb in an otherwise elegantly nuanced room. Rapidly I sought clues on how to behave. Should I take off my shoes? Do I wear the slippers? Do I stay for class or leave? Next time do I ring the bell or walk in?
Since it was Hanna’s first class, I accompanied her to the upstairs art room. I sat behind her observing the joy, affinity and boisterous synchronicity of the children and adults all around us as the students got settled and class ensued.
That old ditty from Sesame Street ran singsong through my head. One of these things is not like the other things, not like the other things… Of course, I was not alike. Aside from looking different and not speaking the language, I did not understand the intonations, mannerisms, social dynamics and niceties so effortlessly passing between these families, who shared a common culture.
But here was the real surprise. Hanna was not like the other ones either. Oh she looked like all the adorable boys and girls with dark hair and deep brown eyes holding pastels in their hands. Yet, Hanna was a “fish out of water,” too.
Hanna eyed the teacher, swiped her pastel across the page leaving color in its wake. She studied, erased, swiped again. Right then, I realized the obvious: Hanna may look like the girls beside her, but her mannerisms mimicked mine. It was safe to infer that the way she relates to others, the values she holds, the standards of behavior she follows, have also largely been learned from me.
While Hanna was born in China and presumably has Chinese birthparents, she is being raised by an American family and in the American culture. We adopted her, but she has been daily adopting our attributes and perspectives.
I could take Hanna to Chinese cultural festivals and Mandarin lessons, buy her Chinese CDs, books and Nintendo games—all of which I have done—but Hanna would never be “Chinese” the way the children in the art room were.
I left the art class that summer day feeling self-conscious, somewhat defeated and oddly relieved. No matter how I tried, I’d never be able to give Hanna a true “culturally Chinese” upbringing. I called a friend.
“I am so not Chinese,” I sighed.
“I could have told you that, Blondie,” she laughed, but understood.
This was one of those challenges of being a multicultural family that I had heard about during the adoption process. You could say Hanna is like any kid in our neighborhood, and it would be true, and not true. Art class vividly revealed the cultural gap into which Hanna could fall—somewhere between Chinese and American. Where in there would she find her sense of belonging?
The art class turned out to be a good thing for Hanna, but also for me. She gleaned art and culture; I gained new understanding. Even though everyone was nice, I felt uncomfortable and out of place around so many people “not like me.” I had a glimpse of what my daughter may now or someday feel as an Asian girl surrounded by Caucasians, or as a child born in China and raised in America. Standing out in a world where we want to belong is no easy thing.
Hanna is seven. She knows the story of her birth and adoption and is proud of her Chinese heritage, but is only beginning to understand why it all matters to her. For now, I pull on the threads of her origins and weave them into her American life as best I can. I buy Chinese flashcards and make moon cakes and keep an eye out for cultural experiences. I stumble into art classes and trip gratefully over a culture so foreign to me, yet so a part of my daughter.
Still, I know my actions are stopgaps in a sense, efforts to keep the sparks of her heritage alive until Hanna is ready to discover and embrace her identity however she chooses. In the end, it is Hanna who must bridge any distance between where she came from, how she was raised and the life she will lead.
Stacy Clark, a mother via birth and adoption, is a contributing writer for The Next Family. She also writes The Yin and the Yang on http://www.Adoptivefamiliescircle.com and blogs about life in a multicultural, adoptive family at http://www.thissideoftheskies.blogspot.com.