In my last post, which you can read here, I spoke about parents’ unique role in guiding their children through their journey of self-awareness. This is true for all children. But as a transracial adoptee, this was especially true for me. As a young boy I learned how to avoid unwanted attention-to stand out invited critique. This meant I knew how to feel the pulse in the body of almost any environment I found myself in to circulate without incident. The problem was that this lifestyle expended enormous energy to maintain. It served me well through adolescence, but skated over the surface of what I needed to grow and develop. This was survival mode and it became a way of life.
This wasn’t just true socially, it was also true culturally. For example, when I met my biological father for the first time, I subconsciously observed how he did almost everything. This happened from the moment I met him. I drove to meet him in South Carolina at Ruby Tuesday for lunch in 2014. In reflection, I believe my behavior was an effort to compensate for time lost. How does this black man, my biological father, decide how to interact with his environment? In a way, I was creating context to make meaning of my African-American heritage in a way that I had not before.
During one visit, my half-sister and my biological father went out to eat together. One of those restaurants gave out rolls while your meal was being prepared. Not thinking too hard about it, I reached for a roll, split it, and put the other half back in the bowl.
Next, after asking to taste my biological half-sister’s drink, I put my straw in it and took a sip. Both of these actions elicited a very memorable vocal reaction! Long story short, there wasn’t anything inherently wrong with my actions, but they crossed an ethnic/cultural boundary. The Adam way I learned to interact with food at the table differed from the way my biological father and half-sister had learned. The unspoken rules became clear through a mistake!
I was confronted by this during my tenure in Thailand. For those who don’t know, I lived for years in the mountains of Northern Thailand with an ethnic group known as the Karen. The Karen are originally from Myanmar in Southeast Asia. Historical migrations and state-sanctioned violence from the Burmese led the Karen people to either militarize and fight or flee to neighboring Thailand.
Cultural dynamics were never more apparent to me than among the various ethnic groups in Thailand. You didn’t have to create your own identity; it was rooted in spoken and unspoken rules laid down over centuries of preservation from group isolation. It was fascinating to watch the formation of young men and women through participation in the lives of their parents.
I mean, the way a Karen farmer would interact with the same type of rice field was different from the Thai, the Lahu, which was distinct from the Akha, etc. I admired this cultural homogeneity, interdependence, and distinctiveness; I coveted and craved it. This wasn’t just true in Thailand. This was also true for my reintegration back into our society.
I summed up this part of my adoption story with the deep desire to identify with a piece I wrote in 2008 in reflection:
Who am I?
And who are you?
Can you hold still, please? So I can watch you, sketch you out, then drop you?
Model and observe your behavior? Can you please be my savior?
I have no clue how to be me, teach me to be you, how can I improve?
I tried so hard to be you but never could escape me,
Please help me do you because I can’t do me
How should I dress? I’d be lying if I said I didn’t dress to impress
I burn bright amid a crowd of black and white, but what’s my fight?
The fact had destroyed me; it employed me; in most of my thoughts, it controlled me,
No peace of mind am I really defined?
Or is this just a game of cultural psych, a definition by a premonition of a future fight?
Please, Jehovah Rapha, save me from the author of confusion.
Although I was adopted as an infant in a closed adoption, experiencing relationships with an open dynamic brought many emotions that I had never experienced before. The desire to identify and belong for me was intense. The open/closed adoption dynamic was a big part of that journey, but that is a story for another blog.