My life is richer, simply because I asked

Or: An oral history project, incredible families, much talk on adoption, China, love, and family, and how I found a title for this project

Last January, I was struck with an idea for a project. I had read a book about a generation of Chinese girls who had been adopted into families worldwide, with a huge number of them becoming part of American families. (I wrote about it too.) Tens of thousands of these girls are growing up Chinese-American, in predominantly upper-middle class families, and they have a distinct perspective on the world, and their spot in it.

 

That Americans have been adopting from Asia is not new information to most people; American families with an adopted Chinese (or more generally Asian--Korean, Vietnamese) child is more and more common in the general public. On the sitcom Modern Family, Cam and Mitchell adopted their daughter Lily from Vietnam, and that diversity is one of the mainstays of the "modern" aspect of the family composition on the show. In your own community, at the grocery store or Target, multicultural families are an ever more common site within the larger populace.

 

What I realized--in one of those sudden ideas that come to mind only when a combination of other triggers intersect perfectly--is that there is an important historical story here, and that I could help to tell it, begin to collect it, with the tools I have. I had been thinking a lot about identity, and the concept of "roots," genealogy, and biology, and thinking about how much, how deeply, it doesn't matter in the end. I had been thinking a lot about how much I want to adopt in my own life. And I had been thinking about the group of people--oftentimes members of Families with Children from China (FCC)--who is here, connected, who live this story every day: the families. Also being a public radio addict, I love podcasts and the new media we have to share stories and collect and share history, and decided the internet combined with an audio format would be the perfect way to tell this story.

 

Over the course of a few months in early 2011, I wielded in and narrowed my enormous original scope, and decided on what would become the final capstone project for my master's in public history.

 

I would collect oral histories of families who had adopted children from China (mostly girls, but a few boys as well), who live in the Metro Atlanta area. They will be delivered in an online format, much like a podcast, and often in small series that connect the stories of various families to each other.

 

I wrote a paper to end the semester, with grand ideas, plans, and notions of this project. Then in the fall, I had to begin to deliver on my many (many) promises. An important thing to point out is that I knew not one singular person in the Atlanta community who had adopted a child from China. I am not in the age demographic of adoptive parents, and I am not even married. Nor do I have kids. I spend a lot of my time at work and at school. So I started cold-calling people, with a very strange request, indeed, when they did call me back or answer my unknown number: "Yes, hi, I am a graduate student at Georgia State, and I am working on a project about families who have adopted children from China. If you are interested, could I explain a little bit about what I am doing?"

 

Strangely, I only felt really nervous the very first time I did a dialing session. That first, painful, jump into the icy water. Turns out, the water was not cold at all. A few returned my calls or answered, and connected me with people who were either more directly involved, or spoke to me themselves. In each case that I have spoken with a mom, dad, or family as a group, I have been allowed a little more access into their lives, and they have shared my project with their friends, people also connected through FCC--the Atlanta chapter and beyond. It has been extraordinary.

 

What began as a few contacts in the fall has snowballed in 2012. I have been graciously welcomed into homes, invited to hear personal tales of how these families became what they are--decisions about family, ethnicity, fertility, biological children, and all other manner of real, complex lives.

 

I ate Chinese food to celebrate Chinese New Year with one very active playgroup, the kids averaging about six to ten years old, and it was a rowdy, wonderful evening, meeting parents and further discussing and explaining this project and my goals.

 

I watched a rehearsal performance of the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company, which has become a haven and passion for a number of adopted Chinese girls over the years, many of whom continue to dance into high school and college.

 

I was invited to a monthly book club begun by mothers of adopted Chinese girls and boys, who found there was a need to read the literature (spanning many topics) on kids, adoption, China, parenting, and a number of issues within these topics, and that reading them together was more meaningful. I have begun attending them, and the most striking note I took away from my first session was that there are issues of confidence, perception from outsiders, and even simple semantics that arise in every adoptive mothers' mind, and that the support from small groups like this one is indispensable for these women. It was so lovely to sit and discuss their most recent selection, Lucky Girl, with them--quite frankly, most I did was listen.

 

I listened to one mother console another on the fear that she, who had never had children biologically, somehow loved her daughter in a less, or different, way than the mother who had two biological boys before adopting her Chinese daughter. This second mother listened earnestly, and then vehemently countered that, having both, she promises there is not one thing different in the love for each of her three children, biological or adopted. She repeats this for emphasis, staring her friend straight in the eye. She is brought to tears when talking about it further.

 

It is moving. There are many times I am near tears in working on this project. The stories, the love, the shared experiences are so moving. I am up to my ears in adoption stories, and pictures of young, growing, and grown-up families; it only makes my conviction and desire to adopt stronger, if that was possible.

 

I was invited by two girls, ages 8 and 9, to watch the videos their older sister (film-producer earning her master's at Columbia, might I add) made of their respective adoptions, after I had finished interviewing their parents. It was the first time in the course of this work that I watched, in moving picture, the moment when a little two-year-old met her parents and sisters. It was remarkable, joyous, and scary, and sad all at once--many in that room captured on film feeling so many varieties of emotions all at once. It is a moment not everyone would perhaps want to share with me; I was honored, yet again, by their gracious invitation into the lives of others.

 

Is it that adoptive families tend to be willing to share, because they are used to being the ones in the room who created their family in a manner somewhat different from "normal"? I don't know the reasons, but I am grateful for their positive responses to this project, the excitement some have expressed, and the thanks others have shared. We all recognize that these are stories worth telling, collecting, connecting, sharing. I think they are especially rich in the aural format, voices captured in this moment in the lives of these families. The little girls, little boys, teenagers I have spoken to--those voices are being saved, and their notions of themselves are now recorded, as documentation that this is how they felt in 2012, about their spot in this wide world. I giggle, I cry, I am in awe as I listen back to the words and thoughts that I have collected. How far I have brought this, into fruition, into something quite extraordinary--something I wanted but that, if I'm being honest, seemed impossibly large to attempt.

 

I have been invited into homes, back into homes, met kids, siblings, parents, friends, interviewed many of them. I've met with people without the voice recorder on as many occasions, listening and talking and proving that I can be trusted with their family's history.

 

I was most recently offered two beautiful, hardcover books that have been compiled from families' personal photographs ad writings, on the China adoption experience. The collection is from photo collections and families across the United States, who all have this same experience in common. The first of the books was compiled and designed in the basement of the family I most recently interviewed, and they insisted they had "too many copies" lying around, so gave me one of each of these two books. They are cherished additions to the resources I have already compiled as I entered this world to begin work on this project. From one, I found the inspiration to finally settle on a title:

A Thousand Ways Richer:

The China adoption experience in Atlanta, An Oral History

 

I have been shown unbelievable support, consideration, and openness as I have thus far explored the China adoption community in Atlanta. The most striking discovery has been confirmed and reaffirmed by nearly every mother or father I speak to: the adoption of their daughter, son, or multiple children has brought them more than just a child--their lives have been enriched in a thousand ways they could not have imagined before. A child, yes. Also, culture, dance, food, language, history. Also, activity, sports, small businesses, and an entire community of support, best friends, love, play groups. Some who share this initial experience go on to become lifelong friends. One man's Chinese daughter has already made him reconsider his perception on race, and interracial marriage--and she's only eight.

 

I will explore many of these facets in the forthcoming website, where I post the stories and some of the audio. But the quick thesis to this thing, what has inspired the title, is a combination of the thousands of ways life is changed by adoption, and the countless ways I am also richer for knowing these incredible women, men, daughters, and sons. The ways my life has been enriched are too numerous to count, and I would have missed every single one of them if I had shied away from doing this, in favor of something easier, smaller, with people I already knew. It has been exhilarating to know what I am capable of, if I just pick up the phone and ask.

Another bit on American, African, and identity

I can't help myself, it's just too complex and juicy an issue. Right after I posted that last bit on nationality, in between cleaning a turkey and chopping up salt pork and tons of garlic, yet another discussion hit my radar on origins, culture, and what you most relate to. This time we're examining the African-American identity, in Malik Washington's writing titled "Embracing the Africa in African-American," part of Michael Martin's Tell Me More blog series on NPR.org. The bit that gets to the heart of this matter, and obviously resonates with what we've been discussing:

"Are you black Americans or white Americans?"

That was the question put to me and other African-Americans, in a junior high classroom in Accra, Ghana.

For some of the visitors, it was utterly offensive. For others, it was simply shocking. How could we, black people, be confused for white?

For me, it was utterly simple.

The question came as no surprise since so many African-Americans don’t see themselves as African. That, by default, just leaves them identified as just “American”. The very term “American”, after all, implies “white”. Everybody else gets a hyphen.

Many African-Americans, in fact, don’t know what to think of themselves.

African? American? Both? Or neither? “Black” seems to be an accepted hybrid term that falls short of claiming either entity yet still denotes exceptionalism in this society.

Nonetheless, this ambiguity isn’t entirely neutral, as black people generally seem prone to distance themselves more from Africa, than America – either consciously or sub-consciously.

This brings me back to thinking about the era not so long ago in American politics, when slavery was the thorn in the government's side, and politicians just did not know what an America with free whites and blacks living alongside each other would look like, or how it would function after such a system ended. One of the popular ideas was to send freedpeople "back to Africa," to a population that would theoretically understand or relate to them better. Obviously absurd to us now, what is most absurd is thinking that African-Americans who had been born and lived their entire lives in this country could possibly be considered not of this country. Certainly the African-American fused culture had taken on a life of its own by this point, creating a large minority of Americans whose customs and food ways and stories and religion had distinct African influences; that is what scared white politicians and many of their constituents.

But there is no returning to sender, no reversal of time when whole lives have been founded in new and divergent societies, and indeed, when new cultures are created from the fusion of others. This is another thing I have been trying to illustrate. Because someone's ancestors were not like ours, it is all the more important that we take time to understand cultural nuances that exist side by side in one singular, yet multicultural, society (and, incidentally, world).

Once the African-American identity had calcified, it could neither be ignored or removed. While some slaves had seen Africa, it was  a very low number by the time abolition became a seriously debated political issue, and even fewer African-Americans today would probably identify as precisely with the African continent as they did then. Yet they are not, do not consider themselves, that "white American" that was mentioned in Washington's musing. That nationality is distinct from white American, yet an immovable part of the larger national identity.

Turks in Germany, calling nationalilty into question again

It is a complicates issue, as I wrote recently, identifying oneself in the hyphenation-happy categorization rampant in within the notion of modern American nationality. But as has long been touted, this is not an all bad phenomenon. Yes, it puts people in oftentimes artificial categories, Chinese-Americans born here still caught awkwardly between a culture they have grown up in and the culture of their ancestors, which collide in their homes and schools and jobs. Japanese-Americans taking desperate measures in WWII to ensure to their neighbors that they, too, are Americans in this--and Arab-Americans who have spent the last decade being reminded of that 1940s episode. Hispanic Americans who today get stuck in the middle of an immigration battle and animosity towards an ever-larger Spanish speaking minority and the threat of linguistic heterogeneity.

Yet there is enough of a belief among Americans to have ensured that through everything, we have made ourselves more multicultural today, even if it surely provides plenty of demons for us to face in our public lives (battles over where to build a mosque, for instance, or absurdly, the President's ethnic origins).

The United States is not alone, for certain. Consider the xenophobia that just as often plagues European nations, like Germany's fifty-year troubled relationship with its Turkish immigrants, beginning with the Recruitment Treaty of 1961, when Turkish people moved to Germany as workers in building West Germany's "economic miracle"--its massive growth at this time. Many stayed, much to the chagrin of Germany nationals. Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel came out and said recently that multiculturalism in Germany had "utterly failed." This clash of nationals against immigrants was the subject of a recent story on The World, where correspondent Matthew Brunwasser quotes a gentleman named Cerel, who says the problem at the core of the relationship today is that "Germans expect Turks in assimilate, not integrate. In other words, to be indistinguishable from Germans."

Says Cerel: "There was always xenophobia in Germany, but right now it's mainstream, it's uttered in a situation where Turks are so integrated as they have never been before. That's not a good sign." Turks have been deemed a scapegoat for German woes, but Turks are beginning to look back towards their native Turkey, as their homeland is booming, while Germany is not looking nearly as rosy. The economy of Turkey is expected to grow 7 percent this year, more than twice that of Germany's, according to the news story.

Yet Brunwasser goes on to say, such a tormented relationship has created the feeling among some Turks of being an outcast in both countries--being in one long enough to no longer identify as strongly with your native culture, but clearly still looking like a foreigner in your adopted land. This is a very nearly universal phenomenon in immigrant groups (indeed, very often even if you are relocating within your own country, but far enough removed from your cultural roots). What often happens as well, is that the citizens of the adopted country often know little about their immigrant populations' cultures and traditions for quite some time, engendering misunderstandings and racial prejudices based on stereotypes for far too long.

Brunwasser concludes: "The mono-ethnic countries of Europe don't have hyphenated identities, like America. You're either a German, or a foreigner. Though if today's demographic and economic trends continue, Germany, and Europe as a whole, could be forced to change."

I say with confidence, that line "could be forced to change" most surely hides the larger truth: will be forced to change. Or even, simply, (hopefully,) will change. The U.S. has its own immense multicultural shortcomings and the hyphenated nationality is arguably one of them; but I appreciate and value it compared to the alternative.