When you look at this picture, what do you see? Can you see just how magical this picture is?
This is me, reconnecting with my foster mother after 25 years apart. I was born in Hangzhou, China in the early 1990s and this is my story.
I was adopted at 11 months old, being one of only 206 children adopted from China that year by U.S. citizens. I grew up with two Caucasian, working parents. Looking back my parents were phenomenal and did everything in their power to ensure I was loved and knew my Chinese heritage. Growing up, I did not think I was any different from friends and family. My immediate neighbors were predominantly other Caucasian families but that never seemed to matter to me. My dad loves telling the story of when I was young and he heard other neighborhood kids asking me, “What are you?” and I replied, “I’m a Jessica”. “Perfectly stated,” he’d always add.
Through elementary and middle school, my parents had me involved with other families who had adopted children from China, in Chinese school, and with other Chinese heritage activities. It was not until fourth grade that I realized that being adopted was not “normal”. Up until then, I never really thought being adopted was any different. Some of my peers at school would ask me, “Are those your parents?” or “Are those your grandparents”? I was so confused about why they were asking me that. But, looking back, those peers were only trying to understand. Inevitably, middle school came. I became reluctant to be different or to be associated with anything Chinese. My parents enrolled me in a Chinese dance class, which I did not want to do after a while. My friends knew me as a swimmer but hardly anyone knew I was also a Chinese dancer; I was too embarrassed to tell them. I was going through the “I want my peers to like me and accept me” phase and Chinese dance was not “normal”.
Despite the challenges, a positive life-changing event happened to me in middle school. My parents took me on a homeland tour, when an adoptee returns to their country of origin. In 2005, I returned to China with my parents and a group of about 15 other adoptive families with China-born children. The program we went through had us tour famous parts of China and then each family returned to their child’s (or children’s) home province. During my province visit, I was reconnected with my orphanage caretaker and my foster sister. I was also able to see the orphanage where I had lived for some time. For those in the adoption community, we know that we do not always have the full story of why a child was placed for adoption; we inevitably fill in our own blanks. So for 13 years, my parents and I had thought that I spent most of my first year growing up in an orphanage. We came to realize that I was actually in foster care for most of the time. Earlier, I said this trip was a turning point in my life. Yes, it helped me with my ethnic identity but it also influenced the career I have now.
Fast forward, I return home after this amazing trip. I feel more connected to my heritage then I have before. But I come home to America, back to American norms. To be honest, I fell back into wanting to fit back in with my peers and “normal” teen activities. My parents still had me involved with the Chinese adoptive families, we would order Chinese food weekly, celebrate Chinese New Year, etc. Yet it was not until graduate school that I really truly felt comfortable with my racial/ethnic identity. Just to be clear, I was comfortable with who I was in college but it was not until graduate school that something clicked for me.
It was in my last semester of graduate school, during a multicultural counseling course, that I truly began to understand my racial/ethnic identity. I learned in this course that there was a model that explained all the feelings that I had growing up. The model made me feel that what I had experienced and never shared with my parents was actually normal. It was normal to go through a stage of feeling ashamed and feeling torn between two different races and cultures, both of with which I strongly identify. I explored the topic further through my capstone project (thesis) on “Racial/Ethnic Identity Development in International Adoptees in Transracial Families”.
Before graduating with my Master in Social Work, I began to look for jobs. I knew that I wanted to work in the adoption field and possibly even open up my own adoption counseling and training center. My dad suggested working for the agency that we traveled with in 2005. I contacted the program and they offered me the opportunity to join the part-time staff that accompanies parents and their children on homeland tours. As a result, for the past three summers I have traveled to China, each time accompanying one homeland tour group on their approximately 2-½ week tour. After the first trip, I knew I wanted to continue. My parents raved about how I just grinned and lit up when talking about my experience working with families. The second trip I returned to my province, alone, in my mid-20s. I was humbled to even be able to have this experience. I was able to meet my caretaker and foster sister again. I was also able to visit the village in which I was found. I do not know why, but I did not anticipate that the visit to my province would have been so emotional. Wrong, completely wrong. I spent most of time exploring outside my hotel, connecting with Hangzhou as much as possible, and journaling.
Okay, finally, to get back to the picture at the top of the page. This was taken this summer, on my third trip escorting adoptive parents and their children. Again, the program I work with allowed me to return to my home province, while others on the tour went to their own home provinces. This summer, my parents also traveled back to China themselves and arranged to meet me during the days that I would be in my home province. Thanks to modern technology (most notably the popular Chinese app WeChat) I was in contact with my foster sister and caretaker and knew I would be able to meet them again. However, this trip my foster sister said she was going to try and bring my foster mother since she was in good health. I was beyond excited.
The day of the orphanage visit I was not very nervous. After all, I had done this only last year. However, when I saw my foster mom step out of the van and come towards me my eyes filled with tears. Emotion overload. The guide was there to translate. We were able to ask each other questions, show pictures and tell stories. I will forever be grateful to be able to learn the most basic stories of how I was as a baby.
The discoveries continued as during that visit my guide got off the phone and said she had managed to track down the woman that found me. Not only that but the woman graciously invited us to meet her that same afternoon at the apartment building (about 40 minutes away) where she now lived. We immediately drove there after my visit at the orphanage with my foster family. Again, while our meeting was a brief one of 45 minutes or so, I was able to learn more about my story. Finally, the last night in Hangzhou my foster sister came to the hotel and brought her daughter. My parents and I had been a bit curious as to why my foster mother seemed so intent that we meet her daughter. We thought maybe it was for the next generation to be able to stay connected. No, we were wrong. My foster sister’s daughter was 8 years older than me and she remembered me. She talked about how she would play with me and hold me. She talked about how much she missed me and still considered me her sister. Growing up as an only child I always wanted to have siblings. Thus, this connection with her was very meaningful.
So this picture represents my family before adoption. I am truly blessed to be able to not only continue my adoption story but to be a part of other adoptive families’ journeys as well. I hope through this blog post I am able to share a small glimpse of how important an adoptee’s racial identity is and how it is a lifetime process of discovery. I am still continuing my journey.
Jessica Houston, MSW, LCSWA
Jessica is a contract social worker with ASA. She runs our teen support group and will share her experiences in our upcoming Race, Culture and Adoption class. To learn more about homeland tours, check out the Ties Program.