Mama Bean is a bi-racial Adult Adoptee who authors her humorous blog about life and family "Update my Status." As May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, she has graciously agreed to write a guest entry on the topic of her choice to share with us her thoughts and perspectives.
"So, what, uh... is your, like...background?"
I get asked this fairly often. I think the questioner's usually trying to not sound racist or something. But it's a natural enough question. My appearance is kind of confusing. I like to joke that I'm ambiguously Asian. On any given day, I've been mistaken for Native/Inuit, Hawaiian, Hispanic, and once, Welsh.
But what does 'background' mean? Is it just about race, what's written on my face? Or is it about culture, what's lived in my home? For non-adoptees, there is no distinction. What you're born with is also what you're raised with. But for adoptees, the divide between what's Nature and what's Nutured is wide, and sometimes confusing.
Here is the cultural mix I was raised in: I was adopted by Chinese-born parents who both emigrated when they were very young to the West Indies. They later moved to Canada after getting married. I grew up in a predominantly white neighbourhood, school, and church. So, my background is Chinese-Trinidadian-Canadian.
Here's what I know about my genetic make-up: my first mother is Chinese, my first father is white (Norwegian.) So, my background is half-Chinese, half-Norwegian.
Growing up, I didn't get too caught up in the complexities; my family's culture was my culture. I used to say, "Heredity doesn't apply to me." But as I get older, and now that I have children of my own, I want to know more about that other side of my background.
When adoptees express the desire/need to know about their genetic heritage, they are sometimes (often) charged with demonstrating ingratitude or a lack of loyalty towards their adoptive family. So I was trying to think of an illustration that explains why these desires are normal, and do not diminish the importance of the adoptive family's culture or influence.
The adoptee's experience of a division between genetic and familial heritage underscores the fact that everyone, whether adopted or not, participates in a variety of cultures. It's just like the adoption folks are always saying, "Family isn't always blood." So, okay, maybe I have a church 'family' or a profession-related 'family' or a hobby-related 'family'. Each of these groups represents its own culture, that I have learned about and internalized as something important to me. Each group has a history and a value-set that is bundled up in a 'family' code - this is the essential information. This is the group's heritage. Know this, act accordingly, and you belong.
Imagine trying to be a Christian without knowing the story of Christ or having a Bible. Could you be an effective doctor without knowing the background of disease and appropriate treatments? A knitting hobby wouldn't be much fun if I didn't have any instructions to follow, or needles and yarn to work with.
The illustration's a bit of a stretch for adoption, but it's kind of like this: I have my original family's heritage in my cells, but I don't know anything about it. So how do I function with that heritage? How do I use it, use my own body effectively, when I don't have the essential information? How could I not want to know it? It's part of my culture, it's part of my heritage, but I'm ignorant of these salient points. Being part of my church family, understanding my professional heritage, delving into a hobby's culture - none of this makes me less my parents' daughter. No one judges me for wanting to know more about church history, or attending continuing education classes for my job, or taking music lessons in my spare time. So it should be for wanting to know my original family's heritage. It's just another part of me, another culture that I am naturally invested in. Because it's part of my identity. It's written all over my ambiguously Asian face.