GENE DEMBY, HOST:
What's good, y'all? Real quick, so on Friday, November 16, the CODE SWITCH podcast is headed to Harlem's world-famous Apollo Theater. It's part of the Werk It festival from WNYC Studios. We're going to have some dope special guests with us - the chef and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson as well as the percussionist and composer Bobby Sanabria and more special guests to be announced. You know that you want to come and kick it with me and Shereen. So you should do that. And here's how. Go to werkitevents.com. That's werkitevents.com
A heads up - the following podcast contains language that some people may find offensive.
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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:
Matthew Everett (ph) grew up in a small town in Michigan. He's now 38 years old.
MATTHEW EVERETT: When I was old enough, I started realizing just the people calling me names at school, that I was different.
DEMBY: Matthew asked his mom why kids at school kept calling him names and why they kept telling him he didn't look anything like his parents.
MERAJI: And that's when they told him he was adopted from South Korea.
EVERETT: And I had these fantasies in my head, like maybe I was Korean royalty and that someday my birth parents would come and find me.
MERAJI: You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.
DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby.
MERAJI: How do you identify when you're a kid of color who was adopted into a white family? Most adoptive parents in the U.S. are white. And a lot of them are adopting children who aren't. That's according to the Institute on Family Studies, which found that in 2011, nearly 8 in 10 adoptive parents of kindergartners were white. Six in 10 adopted kindergartners, though, were kids of color. So if you're adopted and you're a child of color, you're likely being raised in a transracial family here in the U.S.
DEMBY: And transracial adoption overlaps a lot with transnational adoption. In the past 18 years, more than 270,000 children have been adopted from other countries, usually Russia and China, Ethiopia, Ukraine, Guatemala and South Korea. And just as an aside, more than 60 percent of those adoptees were girls.
MERAJI: So we put out a call to those of you who've been adopted. We wanted to know, how did adoption inform your sense of racial identity and your sense of self?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I spent the first 12 years of my life thinking that I was a little white girl. And when I found out that I wasn't, it wasn't just a revelation. It was an identity crisis.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So really, I think it's kind of a lack of identity that ties transnational adoptees together.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The narrative about my adoption was really centered around my mom being a savior.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: My language, my mannerisms, my experiences are all informed by the white family I grew up with.
MERAJI: You told us you feel alone and want to know if there are other people like you out there.
DEMBY: You asked us if you're a bunch of posers - those are your words, not ours - by trying to claim identities that you weren't exposed to when you were growing up.
MERAJI: A Korean transracial adoptee wrote to say, quote, "there's no one I can let my hair down with or be Asian with because I'm not Asian. But I am - gah, sorry. End of rant. Thank you if you actually read this email." Unquote.
DEMBY: We did read your email. And we read a lot of emails just like it. And we reached out to you all with some questions of our own.
First question, what experiences do you have that your parents and other family members do not?
MELISSA GUIDA-RICHARDS: Well, (laughter) there's a lot of those.
MERAJI: That's Melissa Guida-Richards. She's 25 years old and lives in Bushkill, Pa.
GUIDA-RICHARDS: I found out that I was adopted when I was 19 years old. That is when I found out that I was actually a Latina. I was adopted from Colombia.
MERAJI: Melissa says she's a lot darker than her parents. And for years her parents said that was because they had darker family members. But people she came across out in the world were constantly assuming she was Latina and trying to speak to her in Spanish. It caused a lot of confusion for her growing up.
GUIDA-RICHARDS: I was raised to be an Italian-Portuguese white daughter of Italian-Portuguese immigrants in the United States. And everybody in my life lied to me because they believed that they were making the right choice. Basically, my entire life was whitewashed. And since I have found out, at 19, I have been trying my best to learn about the culture. So it's just been a journey. And it's hard.
DEMBY: So white parents rarely talk to their kids about race. We knew that, right? We knew that from reporting we've done. And as so many of your responses show, that has a whole different set of consequences for transracial adoptees.
MERAJI: It does. And, Gene, we heard from several people who said their parents tried to minimize, if not completely erase, their racial difference.
MERAJI: Kendra Rosati (ph) was adopted from South Korea by white parents. And she says she was raised in a white suburb of Buffalo, N.Y.
KENDRA ROSATI: My sisters are blonde and blue-eyed, kind of your all-American classic beauties. And my brother looks like my dad. All of my life, my parents have told me I'm just like my brother and sisters. But I wasn't. And I'm not. When I got to school, kids would pull at the corners of their eyes and ask how much my parents paid for me and call me all kinds of nasty names like chink and Jap.
When I was little, people would come up to my parents and compliment how exotic I looked. And they would talk about how well I spoke English. I have constantly felt uncomfortable in my own skin. And when I was young, at night I would pray to God that I would wake up looking just like my sisters. My parents were definitely not ready or equipped to raise a child of color. They didn't know how to or want to talk about race. And even to this day my mother claims to be colorblind.
MERAJI: One thing Kendra said is something that came up a lot in our responses. And it's something that adoptees' family members don't get asked about themselves. How much did you cost? How much did they pay for you?
MARIAMA LOCKINGTON: I think I found out that my adoption in the '80s was about $5,000 for my family in fees.
DEMBY: Mariama Lockington was adopted by white parents in Colorado.
LOCKINGTON: And then my sister, who is 15 years younger with me - then - was a little bit more than that. But we are black children. And black children, typically the fees are lower.
DEMBY: There are lots of black children waiting for adoption but fewer prospective parents looking to adopt them. As Michele Norris reported for NPR back in 2013, many adoption agencies actually reduce their fees to incentivize people to adopt black kids.
LOCKINGTON: And then I think that the part of the narrative that is missing is also just the fact that adoption is an industry in some ways and that there is a demand for babies and that there's a supply of babies. And sometimes that supply is not always coming from a consensual or ethical place.
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DEMBY: Question number two that we asked adoptees, what's missing from mainstream conversations about adoption?
REBECCA BICKLEY: What's missing is the voices of adult adoptees, like myself, and birth mothers.
MERAJI: That's Rebecca Soome Bickly (ph).
BICKLEY: I see stories about adoptive parents who have had to go through various ordeals to adopt their children or raise them. But centering this conversation on one perspective when there are really three parties involved in every adoption is limiting the public understanding and perception of adoption.
MERAJI: Three parties - birth families, adoptive families and adoptees.
SARAH ITZIK: My name is Sarah Itzik (ph). I'm 32 years old. And I'm from Chicago.
MERAJI: Sarah says she was adopted from Korea and grew up in a white family in a white community.
ITZIK: I think "Where You're Really From" could be the title of my autobiography. What I think is missing from mainstream conversations about adoption is stories from adoptees themselves. I feel pretty strongly about this. I am really frustrated with most of the conversation about adoption being personal narratives that, like, extol the virtues of adoptees as a charitable project that brings a lot of good and warmth to benevolent white peoples' lives. They just always seem to manage to treat adoptees as children.
DEMBY: Adoptees, though, they grow up. They have feelings about being adopted.
CAITLIN HOWE: Everyone expects you to feel grateful. But it's more complicated than that. Everyone expects you to appreciate a good life that you have, but you still feel complicated at times. You know, not everything is gumdrops and rainbows.
MERAJI: That's Caitlin Howe. She reached out to us for this episode. So I called her up to interview her. She lives in Eugene, Ore., where she works for Holt International Children's Services, which was founded in 1956. And it's the same agency that her parents used to adopt her almost 30 years ago.
HOWE: I am a Korean adoptee. And I work in the post-adoption services department of the agency. It's a brand new position. It's really kind of a new, innovative direction that we're moving to include adoptees in programming for adoptees. As an adoptee, you're an expert in adoption. And so we want to utilize that expertise to really help adoptees along their journey.
MERAJI: Did you know that you were an expert in adoption by being an adoptee? When did you come to that realization?
HOWE: A year in, you know, after the honeymoon phase of employment rolls over and I'm not just like, oh, I get a paycheck and I have a desk I go to everyday. I was - just had more space to ask a lot of questions about how I felt about adoption, how to talk about adoption. And then you just start hearing so many stories from adoptees - adult adoptees, youth adoptees. And for me, I just connected with them on a deep level because I had a lot of qualifiers about what I was allowed to feel about adoption.
MERAJI: What do you mean by qualifiers?
HOWE: Yeah, so I think that because the narrative of being an adoptee has been driven a lot by adoptive parents, sometimes it feels like you're only allowed to feel a certain way about being an adoptee. I, like, saw that other people were giving themselves permission - or just needed permission - to feel complicated or feel frustrated or really acknowledge the grief and loss that has occurred. Then I also removed qualifiers from myself and said, I feel this grief and loss.
MERAJI: What have you done specifically to, you know, address these issues that you're talking about and these issues that adoptees have brought up to us - feeling isolated, feeling like they never had a real chance to get in touch with their birth culture. What have you been doing in your job to make these adoptees feel like they're not isolated and they do have a connection to where they are from?
HOWE: I think what I've actually seen, Shereen, is that it's not - I think that there is this assumption that the longing is for birth culture, but a lot of the times, it's a longing for, like, a deep connection to people that are like you. So I think that that happens in a couple ways through the work that I've done. One is that we have adoptee camps. They started out as heritage camps that focused on Korean culture. But the realization happened that there are adoptees from all over the world now in the U.S., and they want community.
So it turned into a whole adoptee camp. And within that camp, we, all of the counselors, are adult adoptees, which is a super powerful testament to young people to see someone that you recognize something familiar in with yourself. And so we do something called cabin talks. So there's a topic of the day. And I remember the first year that I was a counselor, we were sitting around and there was domestic adoptees and there was adoptees from China, Korea, Ethiopia. And we were all sitting around, and everyone was just sharing their birth story.
And for us, birth stories are pretty traumatic stories. You know, for one girl, it's like, all I know about my birth is I was abandoned in front of a government building in China. Like, that's extremely traumatic if that's your first known existence. But what was amazing about sitting in that circle is we went around the circle and everyone shared something pretty similar to that. And so in hearing those stories, that adoptee knows that she's not alone in that grief.
MERAJI: These adoptees, who, I'm assuming are all youth, right, that are going to this camp? OK.
HOWE: Yeah. Nine to 17.
MERAJI: They are just so hungry for a place where there are other kids who are in the exact situation that they are in, and that almost in and of itself, that is their identity - which I feel like we don't talk about.
HOWE: Yeah. I agree. Because I think it comes back to that expectation that it's all about birth culture. It almost feels like you're an adoptee first, and then your qualifier next will be the country that you're adopted from. So then the point of connection starts at being an adoptee.
MERAJI: It seems obvious now that you said it out loud, but I never really thought about it like that.
HOWE: I was actually at a conference this past weekend. It was, like, the Korean Adoptees of Chicago through this annual conference, but that was the first time in 29 years that I've ever sat in a room of entirely Korean adult adoptees. And it was extremely emotional, and I just remember during the closing ceremony, one of the adult adoptees was on the stage and they made the remark that, you know, you guys are my homeland. And I think that that really hit something deep inside of me because it is just, like, we kind of feel - or we can have that feeling like we're not really Korean, for all intents and purposes. And we're always recognized as a foreigner in the States. So where is our homeland as adoptees? And for a lot of adult adoptees, I think they find that in each other.
MERAJI: Caitlin Howe is the adoptee program coordinator for Holt International Children's Services. Thank you so much for being here.
HOWE: Thank you so much.
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DEMBY: Coming up, the writer Nicole Chung on a lifetime of answering awkward questions.
NICOLE CHUNG: Being asked in the grocery store, where did they get you? And being asked by, like, a peer, like, how much did they pay for you?
MERAJI: Question number three for adoptees - don't worry. It's not awkward - coming up after the break. Stay with us.
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DEMBY: CODE SWITCH.
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DEMBY: So for the final question, we asked our audience if they could share a vivid memory about how race was a part of their adoption story.
EDILOWEE: I am Edilowee Okwan (ph). And I am 11 years old, and I live in New Orleans.
MERAJI: Edilowee was adopted from Ethiopia. Her mom's white.
EDILOWEE: So a while back, my mom taught me about how to identify whether or not a white person was calling me the N word in a racist way, or a black person was saying it in a friendly way, in a welcoming way. And I came back from school, and it was a school of all black people. And I said, Mama, a black boy called me the N word. And I was so excited about it. And I told her I did the checklist. I looked for all the signs. He said my in the beginning. There was ah (ph) instead of an er (ph). And he was black. And he smiled while he said it. And I was so happy because I felt like I had finally belonged in a black space.
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MERAJI: One person who has spent years and years thinking and living and writing about the transracial adoptee experience is Nicole Chung. And she wants us to make clear that she's a transracial adoptee. She was adopted right here in the U.S., so she's not a transnational adoptee.
DEMBY: You might remember Nicole. She's a play cousin. We've had her on the podcast before. She just published a memoir that's getting rave reviews. It's called, "All You Can Ever Know." And in it, she tells her story of growing up as the Korean-American adopted daughter of white parents living in a very white town in Oregon.
MERAJI: And she starts her memoir by sharing a vivid memory, an incident where a white couple asks her advice on whether to adopt.
CHUNG: (Reading) One afternoon in the summer of 2003, two people I'd just met sat across from me in their sunny apartment and asked if I thought they should adopt. They had tried for a few years and been unable to conceive. Now they wanted to adopt a child from another country. They named some programs they were interested in. None would lead to them bringing home a white child. They asked if I ever felt like my adoptive parents weren't my real parents. Never, I said firmly. They asked if I'd been in touch with my birth family. No, I said, I hadn't. They asked if there had ever been any issues when I was growing up. I felt something like panic, the sudden shame of being found out. Perhaps confusion was all they could read on my face because one of them attempted to clarify. Had I ever minded it, not being white like my parents?
DEMBY: Our teammate Kat Chow sat down with Nicole to ask her about that memory and how her thoughts and feelings about it have changed in the more than 10 years that have passed.
KAT CHOW, BYLINE: So you start your book with that anecdote, about talking to this white couple about whether or not they should adopt transracially, and they ask if you minded it. And you describe this burden to, you know, make them feel comfortable, maybe, to encourage them. You know, and you felt very conflicted. What did you mean by that?
CHUNG: I think at that point in my life - I mean, I did certainly feel the social pressure a lot of times that I think people of color feel in, like, you know, in company with white people to sort of make them feel comfortable or sort of minimize, like, either racial difference or racism itself. But at that point in my life, the biggest factor in that conversation was my own discomfort. Like, I had never thought about it in terms of whether I had minded it or not. I had never - actually, that particular question in that form had never been posed to me.
CHOW: Yeah - did you mind it? That's so specific.
CHUNG: It was. I was like, well - part of me was like, what did it matter if I mind it? It's just the way it was, you know? And it was not something I grew up questioning. It was my default.
CHOW: Right. And so I mean, I guess if a couple were to ask you that same question today, how do you think you would address that?
CHUNG: It's such a good question. You know, I say this in the book, too, and I've said elsewhere, you know, I think at that point in my life I was still kind of thinking of adoption as this, like, overwhelmingly good, always positive thing. And I think it can be a great and very positive thing, you know, for families and for kids I think, though, I don't think of it in sort of, like, those simplistic terms anymore.
It's less is it good or is it bad, is it right or is it wrong? I try to, like, sort of take a different view and ask, you know, are people going into this realistically or kind of unrealistically? Are they really interrogating, like, their own sort of lives and thinking about what it would be like to be a person of color, like, intimately in their life?
CHOW: For you, I mean, being a transracial adoptee, I mean, identity came about in a different way. How did you start thinking about your identity?
CHUNG: I think, like most people, I sort of thought about it a little bit off and on all my life.
CHUNG: Honestly, like, probably the first time I was really confronted with the reality of what, like, being Korean in my family and in my town was childhood experiences of racism. It was not something I had, like, the words for at the time. You know, I really thought of racism as something that - again, this is how it was taught to me at, like, 7, 8, 9 - you know, that's all in the past. We've moved on. And also, racism is only, like, the terrible, bad, really violent kind. And we've definitely moved past that.
So I didn't have the words to describe, like, being called a slur at school as racism. It wouldn't have occurred to me to call it that, even though, of course, that's what it was. And, like, it happened for years running. And, you know, I remember feeling really hesitant to share that with anybody. I fundamentally understood at that age that was not something that, like, my white parents would've experienced, for example, or my white teachers. It wasn't just that I felt ashamed, although I did. It was that I had no idea, like, how to tell them what had happened.
CHOW: One of the things I was wondering is how do you specifically teach your daughters about racial identity?
CHUNG: That's, like, so difficult. You know, I think one way is just telling them the story - like, my story and being really upfront and honest about it. You know, I'm so thankful that - to have, like, a close relationship with my biological sister, who they've always known. So, like, she is much more connected - right? - to our current heritage than I am. And there are things that she can more easily, like, share with my kids or things that she can share with me and that I can share with them - like, everything from, like, cooking to, like, traditional dress to, you know, I had started taking, like, some Korean lessons. And I wanted to share that with my older daughter because she really expressed an interest. You know, just little things like that.
At the same time, I worry all the time it's not enough. There are great things in their lives that they'll experience because I'm adopted and because they have a lot of different families that love them. You know, I don't know. I will always feel a little bit more of a cultural disconnect maybe than I would have otherwise. And so that - that gets passed down. I do think a lot about that. And I don't know what I can do about it. There are things I can do to mitigate it. But I'm never going to be able to, like, be Korean - right? - in the way that I would have been, maybe, if I'd been raised by my birth family.
CHOW: Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate you being here.
CHUNG: Thank you so much for having me on. It was such a pleasure.
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DEMBY: Our teammate Kat Chow interviewing Nicole Chung, the author of the new memoir "All You Can Ever Know."
MERAJI: Remember Matthew Everett from the top of the episode?
EVERETT: I had these fantasies in my head. Like, maybe I was Korean royalty and that someday my birth parents would come and find me.
MERAJI: He was adopted into a white family and was raised in a small town in Michigan. And he told us that his most vivid memories from childhood were of the racism he encountered growing up.
DEMBY: That racism, he said, is why he left Michigan and moved to New York. He now lives in Oakland, Calif., where he feels more comfortable and less isolated. But at the end of his audio diary, he shared one more memory.
EVERETT: My mom brought me to a Korean festival every year. And she was trying her best to immerse me in Korean culture. Although she is a white woman, she learned Korean lullabies to sing to me as a kid. And she also learned how to cook Korean food for me. And so she tried her best to let me know, hey, yeah, you are Korean. And you're American. And you're part of our family, and we love you.
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MERAJI: All right, one last memory.
NAMI CLASSEN: My name is Nami Classen (ph). I'm 41 years old. And I live in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
MERAJI: Nami was adopted from Lima, Peru, when she was 10 months old. Her dad's from Spain and her mom's from the U.S. Like Matthew Everett, Nami says her parents were very conscious about raising her to learn about her birth culture and understand what it meant to be adopted. Because of that, she says, she never had a lot of questions about who she was or who her birth mother was.
CLASSEN: So I was abandoned at birth. And so for me, it was just something like, well, you know, she did what she did because she had to. I didn't really question it very much. I don't judge her for it. But I have to say, I think the first time I truly thought about it was when I had my own son.
And I remember when I gave birth - about two minutes after I gave birth - I mean, very quickly - I thought about her. I mean, I don't know her personally. But I thought about my biological mother and how difficult it must have been - how difficult it must have been. So that is the first time I ever truly thought about what she might have gone through.
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DEMBY: On this episode we talked to adoptees. But another voice that's often left out of conversations about transracial adoption are the birth families. So birth parents, we want to hear from you. What are your stories? Please email us at email@example.com.
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MERAJI: And that's our show. Follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. You can always send us your burning questions about race in a tweet or an email with the subject line, ask CODE SWITCH. That's how we decided to do this episode. So big thanks to all of you who asked questions and sent us ideas.
DEMBY: And thank you to all of the people who sent in voice memos for this episode. There were a whole lot that we could not fit into this. But we appreciate your stories.
MERAJI: Sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/newsletter/codeswitch. And subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever fine podcasts can be found.
DEMBY: Leah Donnella produced this episode. It was edited by Shereen, Sami Yenigun and Steve Drummond. A shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam, Karen Grigsby Bates, Adrian Florido, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Kat Chow and Walter Ray Watson. Our intern is Andrea Henderson. I'm Gene Demby.
MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.
DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.
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