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“Oh, but I’m adopted.”

Transracial Adoptee and Multiracial
November 6, 2017 Christopher Pheneger

“Trans” is a prefix that can indicate movement or shifts from one side to another or from one state to another. “Race” and “ethnicity” are terms that signify distinct groups of people based on shared characteristics such as physical appearance, ancestral heritage, cultural affiliation, cultural history, values, language, and shared experiences related to specific social, economic, and political contexts. “Transracial” can then be understood as a movement across racial boundaries and is a term most closely associated with adoption, namely the adoption of children of color by White adoptive parents. The transracial adoptee then is someone who was born of one racial or ethnic group with adoptive parents of another racial or ethnic group. My focus on the terminology here is intentional, because I want to underscore the use of the term “transracial adoptee” and all that this term can convey. I wasn’t even aware of this term until I was in my late twenties and transferred to UC Davis. I use “transracial adoptee” frequently now, and I wish I had known about the term when I was younger. I wanted to write this post in honor of National Adoption Month to tell you about my experience as a transracial adoptee, but when I sat down to start writing, I couldn’t find the words that would adequately articulate that experience. I couldn’t find the language that would adequately convey to you the nuances associated with being in the liminal space that transracial adoption is. And then I realized that this has been a struggle of mine for a long time: how do I find the words that tell you who I am?

It’s funny to reflect back on what I may have known or not known, or what I may have been aware of when I was younger. When it comes to the Asian American experience, there always tends to be those questions: “where are you from? No, but I mean where you really from?”  Growing up, I would always get the “where are you from?” or the “what kind of Asian are you?” questions and there were always two parts to my answer. The first part was “I’m from Vietnam” or “I’m Vietnamese.” The second part, the qualifier if you will, was “oh, but I’m adopted.” Even as a kid I knew that there were assumptions being made whenever I told someone I was Vietnamese and I felt compelled to clarify with people that those assumptions can’t be applied to me. I think I always had a nervous sense of hope that the words “oh, but I’m adopted,” would somehow adequately convey to people my life story and explain to them why I am who I am. This brief phrase was my default explanation for anything and everything associated with my lack of knowledge about what it meant or felt like to be Vietnamese or Asian American. What’s more, I always felt like I was disappointing someone when I clarified that I was adopted, as if to say, “sorry, I’m not the Asian you think I am.” In retrospect, I think a part of me was also disappointed that I was not the Asian others thought me to be, whatever that may mean. The point being, I lacked the knowledge and experience about what it meant to be Vietnamese and I had no association with an Asian American identity beyond the fact that others perceived me as such. I didn’t know how to tell anyone any of this, and so I never talked about it, which also meant that I never gave myself the chance to process it as a teenager or young adult.

I started at UC Davis studying race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. I learned about racial formations and the material consequences associated with racialized identities. And I learned about that term: transracial adoptee. Suddenly, I felt like I had something that I could comfortably identify with and something that would finally explain to others who I am. It speaks to my experiences of having grown up identifying with whiteness but never really being able to claim whiteness and never understanding what it was to claim the Asianness others seemed to associate me with. But is anything ever really that easy? I realized that there’s still much to unpack in this identity that is the “transracial adoptee.” At Davis I found a community of Southeast Asian students and found myself among people who looked like me. And as I began exploring Southeast Asian and Vietnamese experiences, I began the struggle of trying to find myself somewhere in the these spaces; I struggle with trying to find something to identify with in Southeast Asian and Vietnamese narratives and experiences. I was looking for what I couldn't find in White spaces or amongst other White people. I found that while I felt some sense of community in these spaces, I still held and lacked specific experiences that made me feel like i wasn’t Vietnamese-enough. I felt stuck in-between.

This brings me back to that prefix: “trans.” If you do a brief Google search of the definition, one of the definitions included is “across.” Having struggled to find myself in both White spaces and Southeast Asian and Vietnamese spaces, I’m becoming more comfortable with claiming the liminal space that is the “across.” It’s the space where I seem to find my most authentic self, or rather the position where I can most clearly process my experiences. It’s the space where I reconcile my experiences associated with being raised in a White middle class family and experiences navigating a world where the color of my skin solicits a number of assumptions and expectations. It’s the space where I’ve grown the most in the last several years of exploring who I am and who I want to become.

I will always cherish my undergraduate experience for being the place where I started exploring all of the questions and thoughts associated with being adopted. So in honor of National Adoption Month, I want to encourage student affairs practitioners to ask themselves how they acknowledge and give visibility to that liminal space. How do you include in your work the nuances of all that exists and forms in the space that shifts from one side to another or from one state to another? What efforts do you make to see, hear, and center the complex feelings and experiences that exist in-between and all at once? How does your work transform spaces so that “oh, but I’m adopted” becomes a position from which someone like me can grow and learn more about themselves?

Christopher Pheneger (he/him/his) is a NUFP fellow and is a Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Major and Asian American Studies Minor at the University of California, Davis, and is a queer Vietnamese Transracial Adoptee. He has co-planned and co-hosted socials for Asian American adoptees, and co-facilitated workshops on the Asian American adoptee experience at the 2017 AAPI Issues Conference and 2016 and 2017 Mixed Heritage Week at UC Davis. Christopher also serves as the Retention Chair on the Recruitment and Retention Organizing Committee, the governing board of the student-initiated Student Recruitment and Retention Center at UC Davis, and is the student director for a Southeast Asian recruitment and retention program housed in the same center. Upon earning his bachelors he plans on pursuing student affairs and higher education.