A journey on identity and adoption
Written by PX
Over the years, I have always questioned who I am, where I’m from and why my features are different from my family and friends. I spent a lot of time studying myself, trying to comprehend what makes me similar…or different, and trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle, despite knowing there are some pieces that might be missing forever.
What I’m about to describe is a very personal (and totally subjective) history. A retrospective look at my journey through adoption and identity, which can’t necessarily be extrapolated to the lives of another adoptee.
My name, although I won’t reveal it in this text, is the same as many others’, except that throughout my life, mine has always been accompanied by an expression of surprise. A gesture of unease, as if people expect my name, or surname, to be more…‘exotic’. Like me, I suppose. But what is a name, apart from a mere signifier of identification?
At the age of 10 months I was adopted in Nanjing, China, the city I was born in. It became the centre of an adoption boom in 1996, following the broadcast of a documentary called ‘The Dying Rooms’ a year earlier, which exposed the reality of orphanages in China, struggling with the massive issue of abandoned girls caused by the country’s one child rule.
My Spanish parents, although from different regions of Spain, had settled in Ibiza, which was to become my home following the adoption, and for the next 17 years until I moved to Valencia to study medicine, and two years ago to Asturias, where I’m completing my placement.
My adoption was one of the very first between China and Spain. My parents didn’t have it easy, and had to fight extremely hard for my adoption to go ahead. They managed it in the end, but only after two gruelling months of travelling back and forth across China between the orphanage and the embassy in Beijing.
Finally, on the 2nd of September 1996, the adoption was approved and I arrived at a new home with my new family. This was an absolutely radical change which separated me from my native culture and biological family. With a new family came a new culture and country to discover. It was a reality which I would come face to face with many times in years to come.
Two years later, my parents also adopted a second Chinese girl, from a different region to mine, who became what I now know as my sister. With the excitement that a two-year-old girl might have for seeing (and giving a name to) their new baby sister, I visited China for the first time. Although I obviously don’t remember much of the trip, from what my parents later told me and my sister, it must have been quite the event.
One of the highlights was getting lost as we walked out of a shadow puppet show. How did they find me in a room full of Chinese people? Easy - I was the only Chinese girl who didn’t understand Chinese. This is when I started to identify with the phrase: ‘neither one nor the other’.
Following this first encounter with my origins and those of my sister, we returned to the rest of the family in Spain, as we had the first time I arrived. My sister’s birth city, Wuhan, the now famous (thanks to the recent pandemic) capital of the Hubei province and the most populated city in central China, was also one of the sites with the highest incidence of abandonment of girls.
I’d like to talk shortly, before continuing, about the mark that adoption leaves. It’s a feeling which becomes ‘embedded’ in all adopted children, and implies abandonment by the biological family, and an abandonment of their culture. An abandonment which sticks in the mind, above all in small children - in the so-called ‘implicit memory’. This imprint remains, and only through a therapeutic approach to parenting can the wound of this abandonment start to heal.
At the end of the day, abandonment implicitly carries with it the message that the person is of no worth, doesn’t matter, and is for that reason, abandoned. This is a feeling that I have known for many years, much like many other adopted children. It’s not so much about the ‘why’ of abandonment, but rather the fact itself of having been abandoned. There could be a justifiable cause, but it would still be an unjustifiable situation.
I’ll now continue with my biographical story. Throughout my years living in Ibiza, as is to be expected, I had some good moments and some worse ones. I remember, as a child, how I thought I looked the same as my mother. I couldn’t see any difference in our features. I looked in the mirror without ever noticing any of my Asian features.
It’s interesting isn’t it? How the feeling of belonging to a place or a person, in this case a family, can transform your perception of your intrinsic identity. But that innocent, natural feeling, perhaps naive, was short-lived when I was mocked in school for looking different - because of my eyes or my complexion.
A curious detail about all this, which I wasn’t aware of at the time but now understand, is the fact that I only suffered this type of abuse from newly arrived classmates. Those that I’d known since preschool treated me the same as everyone else. It was only those that later joined my class in years to come that singled me out as different. Insecurity, the feeling of wanting to fit into an established group…which neither I nor they knew at that time, was the feeling that they subjected me to with every ‘joke’ or comment or allusion to my ethnicity.
The step up to secondary school was, without doubt, one of the worst periods of my life. Compounding the loss of my old school friends and, as I could not change who I was or my background - which kept proceeding me everywhere I went - I began to suffer a much more intense form of bullying. The mere fact of being labelled as ‘Chinese’ for me felt derogatory, even hurtful.
As if the discomfort I felt every time I set foot in school wasn’t enough, at home the emotions that this brought up were not being validated. So of course, I felt alone, misunderstood and hurt. Having to face these verbal, physical and perhaps worse of all, psychological aggressions on a daily basis, opened up a wound for me, so deep that I could barely stand to look at myself. It hurt too much, and at that point I started to emotionally shut myself off from the world.
I never had any real support in dealing with this behaviour from the teaching staff at my school, or from my parents, and for that reason, one day I just simply stopped mentioning these incidents at home.
I managed them by myself, as best I could. But thanks to a few people, who I’m proud to call my friends, who saw beyond my physical appearance, I was able to bear the weight of those tough adolescent years. As one of the fundamental pillars in my life, they have been without the shadow of a doubt the best thing that came out of that period - and that which followed - of darkness and unrest.
This wound I mentioned earlier kept growing throughout my adolescent years, like an active volcano, occasionally releasing its lava to destroy a small part of its surface, creating ever greater craters in the earth. A wound full of small ramifications, of channels I have navigated along this long journey through identity, a process of comprehension and understanding of my origins and the process of adoption.
All those years of bullying meant that I never wanted to accept my Chinese identity, because being Chinese was what made me different and the subject of jokes and abuse. This left me with an internal battle between my Spanish and Chinese identity, in which my Chinese side had been gradually diminished.
I’m now aware that it’s just as important as my Spanish identity. Because I am both. Over the years, people have tried to pigeon-hole me into one of the two categories, without letting me be both, while these last few years of self-discovery have led me to realise that I am, and want to be, both. I need both parts: they complement each other and one does not contradict the other.
I am still on a journey of self-acceptance and have only just started to figure out who I am, but I think at least I now have a few more clues about where I want to go.
(*) If you or someone you know has been through a similar situation and would like to share it with me, I would be very keen to listen! Please follow my instagram account @patrixiangadopt to discover more facts and advice on adoption-related themes.
Before reading this article, were you aware of what identity means for an adoptee?
- I found it very interesting and I want to know more about it