Finding the Balance Between an Asian and American Identity

Kaylee, an adopted Chinese living with Caucasian parents, stared at Rachel Sisco, an adult Korean who was also adopted as a child. Kaylee saw an image of herself in the older Asian woman that was different than her parents.
"She was trying not to stare," Debbie Carr-Taylor recalls of her daughter's fascination with Sisco. "She was an image of what Kay might be like when she was older. So we knew we were on to something. There was power for a little girl to envision herself as a young woman. ... She had an image of this young woman she wanted in her life that was just not there." 
All children and parents in an adoption scenario encounter emotional stress and confusion over cultural and family identity. For Asian children, the racial distinction often compromises their assimilation into American culture. 
Linh Song, a social work professor at the University of Michigan (U-M) whose brother was adopted from Vietnam, created Mam Non, a support program for Asian children. Originally established for Vietnamese children, Man Non ("sprout" in Vietnamese) fosters a supportive community for Asian adoptees and their parents through cultural events, peer relationships, and encouraging positive Asian American identities. Far East meets Midwest through many variations in the lives of adopted children, their parents, and volunteer mentors who participate in the Mam Non program, "Growing in Friendship Together" (GIFT), which is directed by Carr-Taylor.
Mam Non initially provided Asian cultural programs such as the Autumn Moon Festival and Lunar New Year celebrations, in which the children celebrated a common background. 
The newer mentoring program was "a really good test for us," Song says. "All of us are involved in the adoption community in different ways. I've done some policy work. Other cultural groups are focused on families with adopted kids from China, Vietnam. There are small splinter groups. The common thing is that as the kids grow older you can only do so many crafts and celebrate the same holiday every year. When Debbie's daughter asked whether she could spend more time with the women who have come to volunteer at our events, it was a really good test to see if we could pull the resources together and devote more time."

A dual identity
Asian adoptees realize they're very different from their parents early on, Song says. "We just didn't have an avenue for them to talk about it."  
Sisco, one of the original volunteers, had established a support group as a student at the U-M. A lawyer practicing in Birmingham, Sisco was raised by white parents in homogenous white small town. "It was just not me. I didn't have even an adult Asian person to talk to and have a sense of what I was going to become as an American." 
Her parents came from modest means and "lived the American Dream." Her mother is a physician and father an attorney. "I had an image of what America was then. I never really knew what America could mean for me culturally. I just kind of assumed that I would fit in somewhere."
When she came to Ann Arbor for college she was "shell-shocked" by seeing other Asian students. "I had never interacted with Asian people before. Their experience growing up in Asian communities even with Asian people who looked like them," contrasted with her experience. The Koreans she met expected her to identify with their traditions and common practices. She couldn't relate. She even took Korean to try to connect, but "failed miserably." The sense of alienation was unsettling: 
"I didn't fit in there, but I also didn't fit in here," Sisco explains. "It was a difficult thing to transition into not having anyone to talk to about it."
Jennifer Yim, director of the U-M Global Scholars Program and GIFT mentor, also grew up in a white community, but within a Korean family. She was grounded in her ethnic culture and didn't have the stress of being an adoptee, but she know how it felt to be marginal in the community. 
"Even though I grew up with my immediate family, I wasn't really socialized. I didn't have a positive image of myself. I was also really shy on top of everything else. Asian was not considered attractive growing up... I felt not as included," says Yim.

Connecting with heritage
About a dozen pairs of mentors and adoptees come together monthly for one-to-one experiences, while parents participate in group sessions separate from the girls and their mentors. Mentors are training in basic Asian American culture, adoption, and child development issues. 
The program, based in Ann Arbor, is volunteer-based and self-funded through the sale of moon pies, a tradition of several Asian cultures during the Autumn Moon Festival, and other fundraisers. GIFT has served 30 adoptees from various parts of the Metropolitan Detroit area. Participants are girls, but the program has reached out to others to establish a male counterpart.
While there are multiple Asian ethnic communities, GIFT creates a diverse community of young Asians and their parents working through the adoption experience, which can alienate adoptees even from their ethnic communities. 
"When we do this we make sure that no one feels that they're alone. That's really important for all of us," Song says. GIFT participants create a sense of "what family looks like... what love looks like. ... This is what community looks like."
Adopted children in GIFT "learn that families are made through choice, not just by blood," adds Carr-Taylor.
GIFT is less about Asian history and specific cultural identity and more about creating an opportunity for families, mentors, and other volunteers to express themselves as individuals, while sharing Asian commonalities. 
Asian people are not seen by their particular ethnic background, but by their race, Song says. An adoptee in America coming from a different race has that much more to overcome in their assimilation.
It's difficult for parents to realize that their child is an immigrant, Carr-Taylor adds. "We think of our kids as a kid. But they're immigrants and they will have an immigrant experience that is radically different from other immigrant experiences."
Asian adoptees live with a maternal mystery that's shared with other adoptees. Sisco denied all aspects of her Asian heritage as a youth, but when she became pregnant with her first child, she began to identity with her birth mother and imagined how she might have felt at that time. 
"It was really powerful for me because it totally changed my perception of the adoption experience. ... I wanted very badly to tell her how great I was doing in life, and now, after going through the whole birth process, I've slowly begun to accept that it was a very difficult decision for her," says Sisco. "Even though ultimately she didn't want to become a mother she still had to have me in her body for nine months and go through the emotion of experiencing life, holding me for the first time. I can now understand a little more about how you can love someone so deeply but still know it's not right for you and have to allow yourself to separate and allow the child to have a better life with someone else. That's something I never allowed myself to even consider."
GIFT helps girls create their own personal narrative, Carr-Taylor says. They are prepared to answer -- or not to answer -- the difficult questions they're likely to face about their Asian and adoptee identity. 
Adoptees in GIFT are "taking command of their narrative in deciding who they are," she says.
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