As part of our #AdopteesAre Campaign, we sat with several Asian American adoptees and talked about their experiences and some common stereotypes and prejudices that adoptees face. Phoebe Balascio is a student at the University of Delaware studying Exercise Science with minors in Women’s Studies, Sociology, and Disabilities Studies.
Mia Forbes: Can you tell me a little bit about your story?
Phoebe Balascio: Well, I was adopted from China when I was about one year old. So I'm a transracial and a transnational adoptee raised in the United States. My parents are white, and I am a third year at the University of Delaware.
Mia: I can relate with that as I was also adopted into a White family around that age. With that being said, what was your experience like as an adoptee growing up with a family that was not also Asian American?
Phoebe: So, being in a transnational family has a lot of nuances. This applies to the fact that I’m also a woman of color raised by white parents and in a white family. Due to white privilege, it took me a long time to gain the knowledge and vocabulary to articulate the discrimination, the stereotyping, and the other oppressions that I experienced growing up. Simply, because I hadn’t learned the language to talk about these issues. In regards to my own family, growing up was great! I just lived my life. I would say my life was like any other kid. However, I do know that because I am from a predominantly white state and a predominantly white area, and having gone to predominantly white schools and still attend a PWI (Predominantly White Institution) being othered was an experience I always faced as a woman of color. For me personally, having the language and the skills to handle those encounters would have been beneficial, but also in no way do I fault my parents for not having known those things.
Mia: Would you be able to explain what you mean by being “othered” a little further?
Phoebe: Yeah, for example, in elementary school I was the only person of color in my class. It was a small private, religious school. So any time that China or Asia was mentioned I always knew that I was being singled out even though I didn't really know how to articulate that. I knew that I felt different but I couldn't say why I felt different or why everyone always stared at me when those topics were brought up. So in that stage, even in middle school, it was a lot of me trying to conform to whiteness and trying to belong in whiteness, which is ridiculous looking back on it. At the time that was only because that's all that I saw in the world around me.
Mia: Would you change anything about how you grew up or the environment you grew up in?
Phoebe: It's like I mentioned earlier having the vocabulary and having a way to talk about race as a woman of color would have been helpful. I have grown into my identity and into understanding adoption as well as my own experiences because I went through those times in which I couldn't articulate what I wanted to say. So I wouldn't necessarily be so driven to do advocacy work if I had not gone through those experiences in the past.
Mia: Since you did bring up the idea of identity, how do you think adoption has impacted your sense of identity?
Phoebe: I mean I would argue, at least to me, that my adoption is probably one of the primary components of my identity. Simply because it's shaped how I moved through the world and how I experience life as it's shaped my past. It's something that is not as simple as the media, and as the general public, believes it to be. When I was younger, I struggled with understanding whiteness and understanding the idea of being a non-white person. However, now as I have shifted into more Asian American spaces I see how my life is also not comparable to first generation, second generation, or even third generation Asian Americans. Simply because I was raised culturally in whiteness and my external features do not match the culture that I was raised in. So I think navigating the disconnect between my race and my culture in the United States is how my adoption has impacted me.
Mia: Yes. I relate to that as well. So why do you think adoptees, in particular, struggle so much with discovering their own identity and getting a grasp on who they are as they grow older?
Phoebe: I think that no matter the context of one’s adoption, whether it’s a transracial, a transnational, a domestic, or even a same race adoption there is loss, despite what everyone wants to tell you and what everyone wants to believe. Simply put, for adoption to happen there has to be loss of one's biological family. Now, the fact that the publicized discourse surrounding adoption does not address this at all forces adoptees to portray themselves as grateful for have been saved by their parents. Children are humans, not pets. In that context, when adoptees are forced into that narrative, they feel as though they have to stick to it, so that they don't suddenly become the angry adoptee or the one who is ungrateful. It's hard to understand your own identity when you're struggling with internal feelings of loss, of anger and of sadness, even more so when society implicates that there's nothing bad about adoption. My point is that because external narratives are telling adoptees how we should feel, it causes adoptees to not necessarily feel comfortable in exploring their own identities and their own understandings of adoption. Simply because it goes against the stories of rainbows and butterflies that everyone wants to please.
Mia: There's so many external pressures whether it's family based or just societally based that these pressures can influence a person, and especially an adoptee, who is already struggling with this dual cultured life. It makes the whole process of growth and finding who you are so much more difficult. So what can adoptees do to help themselves find their own identity?
Phoebe: For me, it was really empowering to obtain the language to talk about how I felt and what my experiences were. Just listening to what others are saying and seeing how others are feeling the same way helps you to relate to other folks. It’s important to find that community whether that be of other adoptees or people who are just supportive of you to help you get through. At the same time though, understanding history is really important too. As I touched on before, my experiences as a Chinese adoptee differs greatly from other types of Asian adoptees. This is because of the history in which Chinese adoptees or Chinese adoption is rooted in with female infanticide, the one child policy, and communism. That's what led to my adoption. It's not the same for other people though. So again, understanding the social and societal factors that force biological families to abandon or give up their children is important.
Mia Yeah, learning the appropriate vocabulary to speak on a topic as sensitive as adoption is so important as well as learning about one’s roots. So what are some other experiences that you’ve gone through that have shaped your perception and ideas on adoption?
Phoebe: I’ve become involved in the Chinese adoptee community online, I was on the board of China’s Children International for three years, so being a part of that community was enlightening. It’s definitely a space in which Chinese adoptees can find folks to relate to. Then there’s just a lot of self reflection to be quite honest as well as learning and educating myself as much as possible. Just finding a way to situate yourself and being comfortable with your own unique story is key. We all share this common life experience, yet it’s different in the way in which each person interprets and lives through that experience
Mia: Every single person in society goes through different experiences and obstacles by which shapes who they are today. Adoptees are no different. So you’re on the National Board of ECAASU, what inspired you to take on such a big role?
Phoebe: I wanted to be the representation that I didn’t see and be a figure in which others could come to. I, essentially, want to be the person I didn’t have when I was growing up. When I was going through all of those times as a kid, it was tough and just to be that person of support for somebody else would mean the world. We are at a pivotal point in life. Simply, because the adoption of Asian children peaked in the 90s and 2000s, which means those same individuals are now becoming young adults. We are not little kids anymore and we are not at an age where adoptive parents can write our stories for us. We are thinking critically and the narrative is going to start shifting just because those adoptees are getting older, at least for the Chinese adoptee community.
Mia: With age, there also comes more insight on just how you see adoption and being able to interpret that. Going back to the idea behind the two worlds that adoptees can be conflicted with, the Asian American culture and the Caucasian culture, what kind of subtleties did you notice, as an adoptee, growing up that other Asian Americans may not necessarily be aware of?
Phoebe: Well, this question has a lot of layers to be quite honest. I personally want to reinforce that even though the Asian American adoptee experience is different than that of a non-adoptee, it is still part of the Asian American experience. It’s different, but it still qualifies as an Asian American experience and that is often overlooked because it may not be traditional or typical. Essentially, it boils down to culturally being raised in Whiteness, which for me meant learning everything as a White person would growing up. This would be anything from not learning how to use chopsticks until I was 18 to having to seek out Asian American friends because if I didn’t I would only have White friends. Those experiences could definitely relate to not only adoptees, but also folks who are multiracial or further in the generation line.
Mia: I just put that question out there because sometimes there are different nuances that people notice growing up that they have a difficult time with. This may lead to feelings of Oh, I don’t belong with either the Asian American community or the White community. It may contribute to that feeling of just not belonging, which is difficult because those nuances don’t define who you are as an individual. It doesn’t define who you are today, it doesn’t define who you were in the past, and it certainly doesn’t define who you are going to be in the future. With that in mind, is there anything that you would want other adoptees or even just Asian Americans to know regarding adoption?
Phoebe: For Asian American adoptees, it really is just an internal balance between your race, your culture, and all those other salient identities that you may hold. That balance is going to look different for everyone. So, as you mentioned, it’s totally valid if other folks feel as if they have had a completely different experience as an Asian American. It is just finding that internal balance and being okay with defining your own space, defining your own identity, and defining your own way of being. Also knowing you don’t have to prove to anybody who you are or what your identities are. A lot of times there is gatekeeping within communities and that’s just something that happens, but it’s not your job to prove to people that you belong.