#AdopteesAre: An Interview with Lily Rugo

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. Lily Rugo recently graduated from Emerson College as a Journalism major.


Mia Forbes: How about we start by you telling me a little bit about your adoption story?

Lily: Well, like you, I'm a Chinese adoptee. I was born in Maoming, China, which is in the far Southern part of China. For a long time, I thought I was born in Guangzhou, but that was just where my parents picked me up. I was adopted at nine months by two white parents, and then I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri.

Mia: I’m also from the Southern part of China. I’ve never been to Missouri though, how was it growing up there?

Lily: I mean I didn't like it when I was a kid. I miss my hometown now that I live in Boston though, especially since I don't get to go home as often. So, I miss some of the more nostalgic things about home. I had a good childhood though. I was never in want, and I never struggled. However, I grew up in rural Missouri at my mom's house and there were hardly any Asians, which meant I was pretty far removed from what it meant to be Chinese or Chinese American.

My parents did some things to encourage me to be more open-minded and more accepting of who I was as an Asian person though, despite how I wasn't around any Asian people. For example, we went out for Chinese food all the time and to a local Botanical Garden whenever they had a Japanese festival. I really appreciate those things now because I think not a lot of adoptees in predominantly White areas have even that. So, I had a very open and welcoming Pan -Asian experience. Then when I moved to Boston, there was a huge shift for me in how much more Asian diversity there was.

Mia: Yeah, my mother made a similar effort when I grew up as well. It’s not easy to stay connected with your roots growing up in an area that’s predominantly White. You bring up a good point though because some adoptees don’t have parents who make that effort to maintain that connection. Describe what it was like moving to Boston where you can find a bit more diversity.

Lily: Well when I was a junior or senior in high school, I started watching all the Asian YouTubers before moving like WongFu, Kina Grannis, and David Choi. So Southern California looked amazing to me! It was all I was obsessed with and was all I wanted to visit because of the culture and diversity that it inhabited.

Boston was nowhere near as diverse as Los Angeles, but it had way more culture than where I'd come from. With that in mind, I was expecting that same instant community type feeling when I moved. I envisioned this because there would be a larger community of Asian Americans, which for bits of it I had, but it didn’t meet the expectations I had set for myself. I went to Emerson College in Boston, MA, and I joined the Asian Student Union there right away, which gave me that community I was searching for. This is what exposed me to all the nuances and the layers of what it means to be Asian American.

Mia: It can be easy to fall into the trap of creating these unrealistic expectations about what it might be like living in an area full of Asian culture especially because of what we see and hear around us. With all this information, it’s inevitable to see stigmas, prejudice, stereotypes, and even discrimination form. Have you personally faced any of these struggles related to your identity as an adoptee?

Lily: Obviously, I've experienced the stereotypes as an Asian person including the notion that we're all good at math, bad drivers, etc. Then at some point, it started making me question my identity as a Chinese American adoptee because there were stereotypes like “All Asians are good at math.” Like I'm really bad at math, which in turn made me feel less Asian.

There’s also the stereotype that “All Asian girls are really skinny.” I mean I'm not big, but there's this notion that all Asian girls have super skinny waists and my waist is not like that. So then I was like, “Well I guess that just means I'm super American.” I wasn't truly Asian. So the Asian stereotype started becoming a checklist of “How Asian am I?” if I don't fit these “qualifications”, and the Subtle Asian Traits Facebook group has brought that back up for me.  There are so many comments and posts that are along the lines of, “If you know... you know…” I never experienced many of the nuances that most Asian Americans who weren’t adopted had gone through, so in a way, the Asian stereotypes started making me feel less Asian.

Mia: Yeah, I can definitely get that feeling of not being Asian enough in accordance with the standards that are present in the culture. The stereotypes that exist as an Asian American can definitely have just as much of an impact on adoptees as any other Asian American. With that said, were there ever times when you had to handle adoption-based stereotypes though?

Lily: I didn't hear too many of the adoptee stereotypes or I didn't realize there were stereotypes until later. When I was younger, there was, “How much did you cost? What happened to your birth parents? Why didn't they want you?” etc. 

When I was a kid, my parents also never told me I was abandoned. I don't know whose decision it was because my parents divorced around that time too, but the story I heard from my mom was that I was put up for adoption. That my mother loved me, and she wanted the best for me. However she said that, if I wanted, I could get in contact with her. It wasn't until I was 16, and I was getting my driver's license or passport that I found out the truth. We needed my adoption papers, and I'd never seen them before. So I was going through, and I saw on the first line that I was found at a bus stop when I was a baby. I mean that's a common thing for a lot of Chinese adoptee stories, but it was so jarring for me. It wasn't something I really processed for a really long time until a few years later. I just haven't thought about it too deeply until more recently. Yeah, the other stereotypes include questions like, “Why were you abandoned? Why didn't your parents have their own (kid)? Do you think your parents only had you because they couldn't?” I was way too young to be answering those questions.

Mia: Everyone learns to understand the meaning of their adoption story differently and at their own pace because all of our experiences vary.

Lily:  Yeah. It's also a lot of, “Why didn't they adopt an American kid? Why did they go overseas?” They don’t necessarily understand that it was also a different time and culture in the 90s. I'm specifically thinking of Korean and Chinese adoptees in this case. Korean adoptions were mostly in the 80s and a majority of the Chinese adoptions were in the 90s to early 2000s. That was a different time when it was easier to adopt internationally rather than domestically, and that influenced a lot of families.

Also hurtful jokes and comments don't just come from White people. I've had a fair amount of Asian people totally not get the adoptee experience, which I get because they don’t experience it. However, that doesn’t justify them to mention or say those hurtful words. I mean if you look at the numbers of Asian adoptees, and that's counting Korean and Chinese,.we make up a significant portion of the Asian American community. It's not a small number

Mia: Yeah, some people don’t make the connection that times were different in the late 1900s to early 2000s especially in terms of adoption. With that in mind, those same people may also be ignorant of what the adoptee experience is like and what is offensive to the adoptee community. It’s pretty unfortunate. So, why do you think these struggles and issues still exist?

Lily: Part of it is the narrative. There are two really main narratives about adoption, and this goes for Asian adoption and adoption in general in terms of the White savior complex. Mostly when you hear about it, the idea runs along the lines of how, “it's my job to go and rescue all of these poor orphans because I'm such a good person and it's from the goodness of my heart.” Parents who feel that way don't realize that although it sounds good on one level, it's really the feeling of I'm doing you a favor underneath it all. It’s the notion that, “I am rescuing you, so you should feel grateful,” that lies under what they feel is good on a surface level  So, the White savior complex has its own stigma as well.

Then another thing that's a part of that is how adoption involves so much trauma from a very early age. It’s just abandonment, separation, and readjustment that all affects you even if you're a baby. Older adoptees, who've done more research on it, have explained this to other adoptees and non-adoptees. Adoption is just immediate trauma before you're two years old most of the time.

This leads me to another stigma about it that underlines how adoption is just so sad. They're either war babies or the product of the one-child policy. The way those two stereotypes work together is, “We're so sad because we're born from trauma, so we need to be rescued. Therefore, we should be grateful.” Then there are the stereotypes that I mentioned earlier. It comes from a lot of that, especially because everyone is still a little shocked whenever I openly say I'm an adoptee. Then, of course, I know other adoptees who don't say it often, which is the complete opposite of how I think. That's where a lot of the stereotypes come from though.

Mia: It’s interesting because I learned about the White savior complex not too long ago, so hearing another perspective helps me better understand that concept as well. While also helping to better educate others who will be reading this. Yeah, I know some people who prefer not to share that side of themselves too. So, where do you think all these misconceptions about adoption stems from?

Lily: I don't want to speak for anybody because it's such a complex thing and I respect not wanting to disclose that. I think a lot of it though is that people will look at you differently once you share that you're adopted. It is a personal fact and as soon as you share this about your life,.despite if the person is close or not, people feel like it gives them license to suddenly dig into it. Then, depending on how nice the person is, hopefully, the adoptee could be like, “I don't know, and I don't really want to talk about it now,” and they’ll respect that or the adoptee could just be vague and blow over it.

That is one of the reasons why people would want to keep it to themselves though because as soon as you say, “I'm adopted,” a lot of people will be like “From where? Why? What year?” and so on. And then you get into the worst questions of, “What was the trauma?” or, “Do you remember anything?” So I think it's a measure of protection, which totally makes sense. Then it’s also probably a bit of internal processing with that [adoption]. If you're still not sure how adoption fits into your identity and how you relate to it, then you wouldn't really want to tell other people because then they will make their own assumptions about your identity. And if you're still conflicted about it, then it's not fair for other people to make all these assumptions about you.

Mia: When it comes to sharing that you’re adopted with someone, you touch on a truth there because most people don’t know how to respond so they start asking questions out of curiosity. When this happens though, it often just makes the adoptee feel uncomfortable especially if they’re not fully comfortable with themselves as an adoptee yet. So, how can our communities do better to address and prevent these issues?

Lily: The best thing is to find other adoptees to talk to based on what I've started to figure out in my own experiences because I only got involved with the adoptee community in the past four or five years when I was in college. I found it to be more helpful to talk to other adoptees and find adoptee spaces for support like Subtle Asian Adoptee Traits because we get it and we get each other a bit more. So, finding other adoptee spaces is a start because it's assumed that you’re an adoptee if you're there. This, in turn, helps so then you don't feel the need to vocalize or disclose that part of you if that's not something you're comfortable with. I'm also not a huge fan of forcing everyone in a group to talk.

So, if you go to these spaces and you just want to nod along and listen to other people say their experiences that's fine. I think that is still engaging with the community at your own pace. Also if there's someone who is more talkative and open about adoption. It might help to reach out and talk to them one on one If both of you are comfortable with it. So, just working your way up to making those one on one connections would be super helpful.

Mia: Making those connections can make all the difference sometimes, even if it’s just one person.

Lily: Yeah, Facebook as a platform is awful, but the groups are still really handy. There's a lot of different Facebook groups specifically for adoptees. I don't want to specifically say I endorse one or the other because at some point the internet can get pretty toxic. However, that's still a good place to start. Here in Boston, I go to CCI events, and I like CCI as well as Subtle Asian Adoptee Traits on Facebook. Also, if it's too hard to physically go to a space, I've even found reading books or watching movies on the adoptee experience to be helpful as it helped me a lot in the beginning years of processing my adoption.

Mia: Yeah, educating yourself becomes just as important as creating connections because without knowing some basic information about the adoptee experience it can be harder to establish an understanding of who you are as a whole. So, why do you think it’s so important to address these issues right now in today’s society?

Lily: There was a study a few years ago, specifically about adoptees and their suicide rate. It's tragic because of how high it is. It's important because if you feel that isolated and you're just out there with no one to connect to, that takes a very serious toll on your mental health. The

Asian American community is, at least the millennial or Gen Z community, the first community to be doing a really good job at talking about the importance of mental health. They're not separate issues because mental health is really important for everybody to take care of, but awareness of just how heavy it is to be in the adoptee experience also needs to be remembered when people talk about mental health. A lot of people blanket mental health by saying just go get therapy, but adoptees must go through their own process with that.

Another need of the Asian American community that people have to be more aware of in terms of the adoptee experience is deportations. The big stories I've heard have happened to three or four Korean adoptees where they were adopted in the 80s, and something happened with their paperwork. They committed small crimes. Then when they [the government] found out that they weren't citizens they got deported back to Korea. So that's another thing that, again, more of the Asian American community is becoming aware of, which is how much deportation affects us as adoptees. The more people are aware of how big the adoptee community is, the more people in the adoptee community can look out for each other. Do you know about the Child Citizenship Act of 2000? According to the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, adoptees born between 1999 and 2000 should retroactively be granted citizenship.  That act is super important to adoptees because if at any point in time that adoptee is not sure what their citizenship status is they can start there. So, that kind of legal education is also important for people to be aware of.

Then also remembering, we're raising our voices to help us feel more included in the Asian American community in general. Again, I've been doing various things in the Asian American community since my junior year of high school. I love it, and I love this community so much. It's given me everything. However, there have been a number of times when I've sat in a room with some famous YouTuber up on stage giving a pep talk and they say, “You know how it is with our immigrant parents,” or, “Everyone in this room knows what it's like to have an immigrant parent.” I get that we're a minority within a minority and broad generalizations still exist, but hearing that for five years gets a little grading. This is especially because you would hope they know that not everybody in this room is a first generation kid.

Mia: Yeah, mental health is so important for adoptees because a lot of the struggles we face are emotional. So it doesn’t really surprise me that adoptees struggle so much with thoughts of suicide. What needs to happen though, is people need to change how they respond to symptoms of mental health illnesses not just in the adoptee or Asian American communities, but also in the general public.

We want to promote inclusivity among fellow Asian Americans and the general public. So, your experience is very relatable as another adoptee. Keeping this in mind, how can people help to better represent and include adoptees in society?

Lily: Inviting more adoptees into leadership roles and places of authority would definitely help. We found out, thanks to Crazy Rich Asians, that it's not hard to find some Asians. So if they could just make sure one of them is an adoptee that would include the adoptee community more because they will speak for a group who doesn't often get a voice. They may not be transracial adoptees and they may not be Chinese or Korean adoptees, but having at least one person who knows that experience would go a long way in showing that they mean inclusivity versus just saying it.

Mia: That one person can make all the difference though, especially in creating an atmosphere of inclusion rather than exclusion. With that said, what would you want other adoptees and Asian Americans to know moving forward about these issues?

Lily: The representation the adoptee community wants to see right now is going to have to come from within. It's gonna have to come from our own community. Then it's going to have to be supported by the Asian American community. Those two things have to happen first way before Hollywood is going to pay attention to the adoptee narrative. The closest we got was Lion, which I haven't seen so I can't say if it's good or bad. That won a lot of Oscars and got nominated for a lot of Oscars, so that was a step. However, knowing Hollywood we're not going to see another movie about Asian adoption for years. So it has to come from within first. Most of what I've learned or realized about working in this community is that it's tough.

There are so many issues within the Chinese American community, and so many issues within each of the subgroups in the Asian American community because they're so different. With that said, as part of the Asian American community I want us to realize and actually feel like we are a community, not just one that's helpful and joyous all the time. I want Chinese Americans to see that what's happening to Laotian and Cambodian deportations will affect them too. I want people to learn about the history of China’s One Child Policy. We're so different culturally within the community, but there are so many things that, especially in America, are going to affect all of us someday and in some way. In the end, we need to care about each other as a community before we start seeing change on a larger scale.