Posted in 2015 or there abouts
I am delighted and honoured that Banana Writers have asked me to write a wee article for them. I think writing is hugely important in this day and age. Access to information is everywhere and yet understanding and accepting the beauty and richness of mankind's diversity seems to be in such short supply. Such opportunities to speak out should be grasped with both hands and shouted out at the top of our voices.
I am one transracial adoptee, one British East Asian and this is my personal experience.
I know other transracial adoptees and British East Asians whose life experiences has been at the other end of negative - making mine look positively heavenly. I also know of others whose life experiences have been nothing but positive. We are as unique and as alike as the next person. But I would say that there is a thread that runs through all people whose ethnicity is not that of the countries that they now consider their home or for whom they call themselves citizens. Whether we take it on board or not, embrace our differences or not, we are always the visible "other,” we are different and therefore sometimes not as readily accepted.
Even now, as a mature adult I sometimes feel as I have unwittingly ventured into a gathering of hostile people. I feel it as I walk down the street, buy a newspaper, have a cup of tea in a local cafe or order dim sum in the centre of town.
Yes, there are many more faces that look like mine. I no longer walk around with my head drooping down, not making eye contact, for fear of somehow offending and getting spat at or worse.
Yet, no one wants to be so different that you stick out like a sore thumb. Different yes, but not that different. No child wants to be picked on. You want to be liked by everyone else. You want to be picked to play games and not be the last to be chosen. You want to be part of the group, go to parties, visit your friends' houses and play.
Thinking back on my childhood, I had very few friends. In fact, at primary school I don't think that I really had any proper friends.
I was different.
I was the "other". I was something they had never seen before. It's something that I battle with every day though now it's at a subconscious level. Occasionally, someone or a situation will stand out and consciously make me take active umbrage or make me feel like I'm back in the school playground being picked on. But it’s not very often these days.
I came over to the UK when I was eleven months old. I was abandoned in Hong Kong - left on the steps of 9 Austin Avenue. Well dressed, even if I was severely malnourished, covered in boils and exceedingly small for my age. They could only guess that I was two to three days old. I was first taken to the local police station and then onto a home for babies called Fanling. There I stayed for eleven months until I was flown out with eleven other babies on a BOAC plane bound for the UK.
The first three months at the baby home, I was in limbo or in hope. Hope that my parents or a family member would be found and that I would be reunited. Adverts were placed in the local newspapers and on the radio. I was not claimed for three months and that led to me being put up for adoption. It was the 60s and Hong Kong at that time was suffering great hardship. The chances of finding a local family who could afford to take me in were slim to none. Since Hong Kong was a British colony, they looked for prospective adoptive parents in the UK.
Fate can be a double edged sword neither side being particularly blunt. Dual heritage cuts deep both ways; hyphenated nationally is like being sawn in half - sometimes you don't get put back together properly. Adoption is and always will be a contentious subject. It's emotive, subjective and preloaded with a myriad of conflicting emotions. Reader please don't get me wrong, if I had not be adopted it is very doubtful that I'd be here today. I would not be typing this article as I hurtle along through the darkness of the London underground system.
Adoption assured me of a life, but at what cost?
These days we talk of adoption loss and trauma. There is a greater understanding of what constitutes best practice for the emotional health and wellbeing of a transracially adopted child. However, when I was flown into the UK these kinds of thoughts and practices were either in their infancy or had yet to be born.
I did not have a miserable childhood, neither do I think I had an ecstatically happy one. I was like any other child growing up in early pre-multicultural 60s Britain. It's just that I came with added extras - most were hidden, lying dormant, waiting to pounce when least expected. But my face, how I looked, that was a permanent reminder to all.
I was not like them. I did not come from them.
For a brief period of time, I was oblivious to all of this. I was small and cute in a non-English way. This had a certain appeal to curious (nosey) passing parents. I was a novelty and unthreatening. One parent commented that I was “A real China doll ". If ignorance was bliss, then knowledge and self-awareness was hell. This was partially in correlation to the time I was brought over to the UK and the social and cultural attitudes of the day.
When I was about three, I was taken to the primary school where I'd spend the next five years. My first experience of UK school life was being part of a "Bring and Tell,” session. You take an object into school, stand up in front of your class and tell everyone about the object.
I was the object.
I was dressed in the clothes that I had first worn when I flew from Hong Kong to the UK. I was placed on top of a desk and surrounded by thirty staring children. This was probably the first time that they had ever seen a real Chinese person. This was the first time that I realised that I was not the same as everyone else. I was poked, prodded, pushed, nudged and even had my face licked and wiped. There were squeals of delight when the children found that their fingers had not been stained yellow. I think in some senses you could say it was all downhill from there - at least for a while.
Over the years, I have not only dealt with being of a different ethnicity, but also with the loss of my native identity. As a transracial adoptee I may have gained a new family and new life, but I lost my culture, my heritage, my language and my tongue. All those essential factors that form your identity - they root you socially, culturally and historically. I don't think people realise what can happen when you displace a child. You have disconnected the child not just from the family it may or may not have, but from all that is innately, instinctively hard wired in. You are wiping the human hard drive clean but you are not downloading a new operating system. You could be just leaving the child to try and figure it out on their own. All transracial adoptees cope with it - some better than others. But just because they ‘cope’ and 'function' does not mean that they are happy, centred or rooted. In order to do that, they need some understanding of where those roots are. When you know your roots, it helps you to become you. You are able to form the mesh upon which your identity is woven into - your identity DNA.
I find it very interesting when people dismiss such human constructs and say that race, ethnicity and identity really don't matter. I have noticed these views usually hail from the cultural majority - the dominant social and political groups in society. They probably have never had to question or think about their place in society or the cultural landscape because they are already there. They have probably never been rejected on grounds of ethnicity or faced racial profiling. They will never feel like they are in the minority. Western expansion and imperialism have tried to shape not just the world but how we see the people in that world.
I had no definable history before I was abandoned and taken in by the orphanage in Hong Kong. I truly am a blank sheet. I have been disconnected from my ancestors. I don't know who they are, where they came from or whether any of their line still exists. The ancestral umbilical cord that would have connected me to my past and linked me to my future was permanently severed. It cannot be reattached, no matter how hard I try. It is ironic that the very act of saving my physical life condemned me to a cultural and linguistic purgatory. Being a transracial adoptee is a life-long condition. It is not something you grow out of.
Back in the seventies, I was beaten up by a group of skinheads in broad daylight. It was in the middle of a busy high street. Not one person lifted a finger. I fell to the ground and did the only thing I could - curl into a foetal ball. In the middle of this, a white poodle with pink bows walked up to me and started licking my bloody face. A few minutes later a rather well-endowed lady tottered over in her five inch high heels, picked up her pouch and stepped over me. I dragged myself to Accident and Emergency and gave a fake name, address and National Insurance number. Those were the days; pre-computer. All records were done by hand and back checks were not immediate or easy to do. Later, a friend covered up the bruises with make-up and my adoptive family noticed nothing. In all the time that I was a minor and growing up in the adoptive family environment I was never officially told I had been adopted. I can now laugh about this as enough water has been swept beneath the bridge. I am curious to know, how long did they think that I would not notice? It was a case of 'don't mention the war' syndrome.
I remember feeling the shock upon realisation that actors in films playing people who looked like me, were not in fact anything like me. They were Caucasians pretending to be like me (and doing it badly for the most part). The social and cultural reflections I had staring back at me were Charlie Chan, Mr Moto, Dr Fu Manchu, Mrs Meers in Thoroughly Modern Millie, 7 Faces of Dr Lao, Flora Robinson as the Dowager Empress, 55 Days in Peking, John Wayne as Genghis Khan, Rex Harrison as the King of Siam, Yul Bynner as The King of Siam and Marlon Brando in Tea House of The August Moon. I could go on but it's really depressing. Looking back at me through the cathode tube were these presentations. They were images and characterisations that were somehow supposed to represent me. They were grotesque, ludicrous and unreal. Even when Kung Fu the TV series hit the small screens in the UK, Kwai Chang-Caine was played by yet another Caucasian. And when eventually UK television did produce a show that had a few East Asian characters in it was hideous. The show was called Mind Your Language and was about a group of hapless and clueless immigrants trying to learn English at night school. Every opportunity given (and some not) was ceased to poke fun at the immigrants in their ability to understand English. It poked fun at ethnic minorities with their funny habits and re-enforced negative racial stereotypes. They had the South Asians liberally shaking their heads and goodness graciousing me whilst the Chinese and Japanese characters were bowing, ah-so-ing and me no spleakie enrgishing. I think I only watched a couple of episodes.
But I couldn't help wondering is that how everyone else sees me?
The first time I ever went to China Town was a frightening, exciting and bewildering experience. I was surrounded by people just like me. But I was alone, and very much a stranger. As long as I didn't open my mouth no one would know. One of the first grown up films I remember watching and actually taking note was a foreign language film Spirit of the Beehive, Victor Erice 1973. I feel it is no coincidence that this film deals with childish imagination and trouble; perhaps the rescue that this can bring. It also deals with a family of four with parents that do not enter into substantive communication at all. Perhaps I subconsciously drew parallels with my own circumstances. That film has stayed with me because it speaks to me of loss; of things untold and truths not spoken.
That was over half a century ago.
It took until 2010 for me to feel at ease taking about transracial adoption. It is not for everyone and you do stand a fair chance of being trolled, grieved and even legally threatened. Transracial adoptees, you see, are not supposed to speak out. They are meant to be eternally grateful that they were saved from a fate worse than death.
Recently, I responded to a question posed on an open forum for adoptees.
Would you rather have been adopted or would you have preferred to stay in an institution?
I stated that with hindsight knowing what I know now, having experienced what I have experienced, I would have preferred to have stayed in the home. The responses I received ranged from the "You don’t know what you're talking about" to "How dare I…" with some choice medieval Anglo-Saxon expletives and expressions dotted amongst the response. I was referred to and compared to a female dog, various anatomical female parts and told that I would burn in hell for being so ungrateful to my saviours. I was also an, “…ungrateful slant-eyed born out of wedlock female dog”. I was told that the West should never have bothered with me in the first place and that Christian charity had been wasted on me. Those were the milder comments and views expressed. I suspect under other circumstances these people are usually sane, well-adjusted human being who see themselves as non-violent, probably quite liberal, charitable and reasonable "world" citizens. You see when you put the topic of adoption in front of most people, you will get a deeply divided and polarised view.
Is it painful? Does it make me feel angry?
Sometimes, but more often than not I feel more like a non-practising addict at an AA meeting, standing up and sharing what it's like to be a transracially adopted human being. Occasionally, I do feel like the three year old stuck on the desk being poked and prodded, but only occasionally.
I have had a lifetime to re-adjust. I have also been very good with my therapy sessions and the therapist that initially took me on. I do not need to feel guilty. I am not beholden to those who decided they wanted to adopt me and I do not have to feel eternally grateful for having been adopted. I have learnt it is ok for me to have feelings of anger and alright to be hacked off that I was let down. It is perfectly acceptable to mourn the loss of my culture, language, history and to understand why I wasn't given the choice.
This all sounds like I had a terrible time and I don't want people to feel sorry for me. I'm still here. I'm doing what I do because I was transracially adopted. For that, I whole heartedly acknowledge that without being adopted none of this would have happened for me. I guess I'm just greedy. I want to have my cake and eat it. I would have liked to have held onto my roots and my mother tongue and also to have grown up to be the actor, writer and filmmaker that I am now. But it would never have happened. I chose a profession where, as I like to put it, I hide in plain sight. I say other people’s words, I think other people’s thoughts and feel other people’s emotions. I hide behind the creation of someone else. For some, I will always be too English to be Chinese and too Chinese to be English. But I'm ok with that, because I am me - take me or leave me. I'm happy. I now know who and what I am and if you don't like it that's your prerogative. After all, I have to think about learning lines and writing two new plays. Life is short, why waste precious energy on petty inconsequential arguments? BW
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