A Recovering Transracial Adoptee
by Lucy Sheen
In 2008-2010, I agreed to participate in the BAAF (British Association for Adoption and Fostering) research study, centered on a specific group of female British Chinese Adoptees, of which I am one. Because of that research I was finally able to reassess the meaning of transracial adoption and therefore me.
It has been a bittersweet journey a journey that will not end until I am buried. To quote Jean Paton, adoption pioneering reformer and founder of the adoptee support and search network, Orphan Voyage:
“I am one
Who was delivered into adoption,
And it rests on me until I (am) dust.
It is my name.”
It also gave me the courage to embark upon the making of an independent documentary, about transracial adoption and identity. This is now in postproduction.
I was introduced into the “political” world, showing me the soft and less seemly underbelly of adoption, exposing the fragility, the guilt, the trauma, the emotional and human detritus that transracial adoption can leave behind. The true legacy that transracial adoption bequeaths lingers on far beyond those formative childhood days. My adoptive mother saw me not as a baby, but as a play-dough being, that could be shaped into whatever my adoptive mother wanted me to be.
As an adopted person, it is assumed by many in society that I should be forever beholden, forever indebted and eternally grateful for having been saved, “rescued” from a fate, far worse than death.
I do not kowtow to the notion of transracial adoption by any means or any adoption is a good adoption. For such supporters, an adoptee like me should be eternally grateful. Adoptees that don’t constantly show gratitude for Western largess are branded as troublemakers, ingrates and people with mental health issues. I am supposed to spend the remainder of my years tugging my forelock showing how grateful I am for having been “saved.”
I am alive because I was adopted, true. Would I be acting and writing if I had remained in Hong Kong? In all probability, I would not have survived infancy. Am I grateful that I was adopted? Yes. Do I feel forever beholden? No. Will I forever feel unconditionally indebted to those who adopted me? No. Do I feel guilty about this? No.
There was a time when I would have answered yes to all those questions. It has taken over thirty years of therapy with a remarkable person, who gave me permission not to feel guilty—who taught me that I had nothing to feel guilty about.
My life has been dislocated and displaced. I am culturally and linguistically disenfranchised. My life is comprised of displaced heritage and ethnic nomadism—rejected by my culture and race of birth as well as the culture and race that adopted me. Emotionally and physically abused because I was the odd one out—because my skin wasn’t the right color. Discriminated at college, in the work place and in the wider society (which I cannot see an end to even now).
Dual heritage created uncertainty about my identity. If anything the racism and discrimination that I face now is worse than when I graduated back in 1985!
As a child, I had no idea what it meant to be Chinese or that indeed I was “Chinese.” As a young child, I thought I was white. So, when other children and adults shouted at me putting on a strange accent or pulled back their eyes, I had no idea what they were doing or why. I was so unaccustomed to seeing an East Asian face; I was constantly surprised by my own reflection. As I got older and realized that I was not white like everyone else. I would scrub myself raw with carbolic soap and pray that when I woke up I would wake up a real child, a white child.
It was only when I was at Secondary Modern school that I realized there were other people out there who looked like me. The cultural and societal mirrors did not reflect the image that I saw when I looked as myself in the mirror. I saw Rex Harrison as The King of Siam, Christopher Lee as Dr. Fumanchu, Dame Flora Robson as The Dowager Empress and John Wayne as Genghis Khan. Some brilliant actors, but not one East Asian amongst them. I had none of the building blocks that other children had; markers which help define identity and belonging. My “DNA” strand had been broken. My identity sequence was incomplete.
The Chinese have the following saying, which I think is very apt to the circumstances of the transracial adoptee: “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.”
After thirty odd years of struggle, I can now say with confidence, I am British East Asian. I embrace both my Chinese East Asian side and my “English” side equally.
It took a hell of a long time for me to figure things out and to understand what being Chinese/East Asian meant to me. I had to navigate my way through the minefield of negative stereotypes. Pick my way through the misinformation and assumptions that I had grown up with that had been ingrained into me. Attitudes and beliefs that I had subconsciously and subliminally been indoctrinated into. All the ambient and environmental racism, biases that every one of us in society has.
I had to unlearn all of that. I re-educated myself. I learnt about China/East Asia, not from a western Eurocentric point of view, but from my point of view. By doing this, I had to sever any remaining “bonds” that might still have connected me to my adopted family. I was made to feel guilty and disloyal. I was told that I was a terrible person for even wanting to seek out further knowledge about my birth culture. I felt as if I was being ripped apart. I was being pulled in two opposing directions. I was, but at the time, I didn’t know it. I was an emotional wreck. I was bruised, battered and emotionally belittled by the racism that I experienced on a daily level. I was isolated and alone. I lost it. I was having a mental breakdown and didn’t even realize it.
I tried reaching out to other members of my own ethnicity, only to be rejected. They viewed me with suspicion. It was a very odd period in my life. I was just starting out as an actor and whilst many from within the British East Asian community were rejecting me, at the same time I was being sought after to on work on film, stage, TV, and radio as a representation of an East Asian.
You see that’s who I am. I’m all of those flaws. That’s what makes me an actor, writer and filmmaker. All those jumbled and incomplete neuro pathways. All the rambling, crisscrossing emotional passageways. That’s me.
After thirty odd years, I’ve finally come to terms with who and what I am. Or more importantly who and what I am not. I have found the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference. I am no longer afraid of what people might think. I no longer yearn to be like every one else.
I’m me and proud of every single one of my flaws.