Monday, April 11, 2011

What AM I?

In adoption circles, we're familiar with that sometimes irritating question, "What ARE you?" directed at mixed-race and non-mixed-race adoptees alike.  But what about the adoptees who, because of no information about their origins or hidden information about their origins, have to ask the question of themselves -- "What AM I?"  Two items I've come across recently poignantly raise this issue.

First, this article in the Guardian about the "Gatwick baby," a 10-day-old baby found at Gatwick Airport who is now 25 years old and searching for his roots:
Because he was found at an airport, Steve always wondered if his background was non-British. Some of his adoptive relatives speculated that he had an Irish, or even a Russian, look. Poignantly, among his treasures, he has the lists of arrivals and departures into Gatwick on the day when he was found. He could have come from almost anywhere on the planet.

Then he heard of a way to check out his background. "I heard there was a DNA test I could have which would give me some idea of my roots, placing me from somewhere geographically, and maybe even linking me to specific family lines," he says.

He went to Edinburgh, to meet Dr Jim Wilson, a population geneticist at the university there, who analysed his DNA. He shows me a graph: what it reveals is that – contrary to his relatives' speculations – Steve's forebears were probably of English or Scottish descent. Wilson has also done a Y-chromosome check, tracking the male bloodline from that – and the results show that his father's family are more likely to come from the east of Britain than the west.

Finally, and in many ways most fascinating, was that Wilson fed Steve's DNA into a global databank containing the genetic profiles of millions of individuals. These were people hoping to find family matches for either genealogical or medical reasons. From this, he identified a number of individuals who are Steve's seventh or sixth or even, in one case, fifth cousin.

For many people, establishing information so vague and remote wouldn't mean much. Steve felt as if he had been given pure gold. "You've got no idea how it feels to know nothing about what nationality you are, or where you come from," he says. "This is worth so much to me. It places me somewhere, it gives me a place to say I'm from. I'm European; I'm maybe from England. I link in somewhere, even if I only have a vague notion of where. There are people somewhere on the planet who are my very, very distant relatives. And all of it matters."
Second, this aptly titled article, I Might Be Hawai'ian, by Kevin Minh Allen, adopted from Vietnam after the war that "expanded the possibilities of my parents’ whereabouts and identities to near endless proportions:"
When I landed in Honolulu, Hawai’i to attend the Asian Adult Adoptee Gathering & Film Festival in October 2008, my first thought was that I wanted to see the beach. I like to think that when I was born a tropical hormone was injected into my blood stream, making me pine for salty water and cracked coconuts. When the #19 bus to the hotel district arrived, I heaved my two full backpacks onto my back and walked into the air conditioned cabin. Luckily, I got a window seat, so I could stare out at the scenery and take in everything I saw. As the bus wound through its elongated route, I marveled at the various people who boarded and exited the bus. I have a bad habit of staring, but hopefully I wasn’t too conspicuous when I watched the many faces of Hawai’i standing, or sitting, before me. Old and young, men and women, shuffled by and an odd feeling crept up behind my eyes making me suddenly wonder if I could very well be looking at one of my own blood relatives.

As mistaken as I could have been, it’s not a completely irrational suspicion. Being a mixed-race Vietnamese adoptee who was brought to America as an infant with very little identifying information has forced me to periodically reconsider my ethnic heritage.

In fact, it’s only recently that I’m acknowledging the real difficulty with accepting the presumptive and conclusive label of “Vietnamese/White” that appears on my Vietnamese passport. When I consider that Thai, Chinese, Filipino and Korean men, as well as Mien, Hmong and Montangard men, and even Native American and Latino American men, participated in combat operations and acted as support personnel during the Vietnam War, the “White” part of me starts to take a back seat. My naturally dark tan skin and curious indeterminate Asian facial features have started to point in many directions beyond the classic racial identifier, “White”.

Who knows. My mother could have been anything other than Vietnamese.
And of course, in America you don't have to be an abandoned child or a mixed-race international adoptee to face that question about race, ethnicity and identity.  You just need sealed adoption records and amended birth certificates that make it nigh-impossible to find out anything about your birth family.

But these two men speak eloquently to the centrality of that question for adoptees -- what AM I?


Anonymous said...

Our daughter adopted from china in the international genome project came back as having mitochondrial DNA (mothers) that is typical in South America. We were told she looks like she came from a Chinese minority - in China. All i can say at this stage is that we feel we will have to wait until there is more testing of these groups before we know anything definite.

LilySea said...

Even in open adoption there can be questions. We have no idea of one the the genetic fathers of our girls and as for the other, her mother knows little about him and he's long gone.

Anonymous said...

Being a "white" adoptee in the US did not tell me what I am or stop people from asking what nationality I was...everyone else had a nationality and a country their ancestors came from. I agree with the first story that any information even a sliver no matter how far in relation is pure gold and priceless...

Mahmee said...

I gotta say, I get asked that much more than my daughter does even (I think I span the globe genetically). R clearly looks Asian and a lot of folks (for whatever reason) guess that she is Chinese. I've also had a lot of folks tell me (when she was a baby) that she looks Vietnamese (which she could be since she was found about 50 miles inside of China from the Vietnam border). I gotta say though that being asked, "What ARE you?" as kid has to be rough/intimidating/I'm guessing here. If you are adopted and don't look like 90% of your peers, Hell would have questions. In the end I wonder, do we really need labels? What do we really get out of these labels? Does identifying with certain cultures really make us who we are or is it something else? I'm feeling a can of worms coming on.

Anonymous said...

Our daughter is from Vietnam, but many people (especially Vietnamese people) tell us that she can't be Vietnames becasue her eyes are too big. We have no birthfamily information. We eventually did a DNA test for her:

I know it does not replace birthfamily information, but we felt we could at least provide her with one small piece of the puzzle.

Our son was adopted domestically. His birthmom is caucasian, but she did not name the birthfather. We also did DNA testing for him, again to provide whatever additional information we could for him: