Finally, Transracial Adoptees Can See Ourselves Reflected in Literature
Celeste Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere” helped me process my conflicted feelings about my adoption
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I ’m nine years old and I can’t tell what library I’m in. Tampa? Or maybe we’re in Jacksonville? At some point they all start to blend together.
My parents are the Florida branch directors of an international adoption agency, here to talk about the wonders of adopting abroad. I dress a table with international flags and printed brochures, while my three sisters — ages 8, 13, and 18 — set up the chairs. A few folks start to file in, usually older white couples. Sometimes no one shows up, which seems like a bummer to me, but my parents are never fazed.
On the PowerPoint presentation is the adoption agency logo and ClipArt images of flags — China, Russia, Colombia, Vietnam, Kazakhstan. The next slide is familiar. It’s of me. The image on the left is a baby photo taken in 1996, and the one on the right is a more recent portrait of me taken on one of those cruise ship photo shoots. I have monolid eyes, thin black hair, and blunt bangs — unmistakably Asian. I’m holding a rose. The next three slides are the same, but of my sisters. My parents always started with their miracle story of how their lives changed when they brought their baby girls home from China.
My parents always started with their miracle story of how their lives changed when they brought their baby girls home from China.
At seven months old, I was the first of four girls adopted, all from different orphanages in cities throughout China. My mom, then a doctor’s assistant, and my dad, then the owner of a hardware distribution company, had gotten married a couple years before and hadn’t had a desire to have children until they saw an international adoption commercial on TV. Struck by China’s then-active one-child policy and the number of little Chinese girls being surrendered to orphanages, they couldn’t get the commercial out of their heads.
I knew this story and presentation by heart. I could’ve recited it myself. On the way out, couples would gush about me and my sisters to my parents, astounded at what “China dolls” we were, as if we were made of porcelain. Then they’d smile meaningfully to one another: This is what we could have.
I picked up Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere earlier this year on the recommendation of the literary Internet. I expected it to be good, but I didn’t expect to finish it in one sitting, staying up until 4 am, straining my eyes by the light of my bedside lamp, recognizing myself in a book in a way I never had before.
I loved the complex characters, the exploration of motherhood, the understated but arresting prose. But what I couldn’t get out of my head was the Chinese American baby. Mirabelle McCullough — or May Ling Chow, depending on what side you fell on — born to an impoverished Chinese immigrant, surrendered at a fire station, adopted into an affluent white family. Though the adoption circumstances of May Ling/Mirabelle, as I’ll refer to her, are not entirely analogous to mine, I related to this character who never speaks.
At the crux of the story is the question of who May Ling/Mirabelle belongs to. This eventually erupts into a highly public, controversial legal battle for custody of the child. The McCulloughs are upstanding members of the Shaker Heights community: long-time residents and homeowners, him a finance professional and her a stay-at-home mom. They love Mirabelle and shower her with toys — “wooden blocks in all colors of the rainbow” and an “entire shelf of dolls” and, conspicuously, a panda plush chosen over the traditional teddy bear — all housed in the bedroom and guestroom-turned-playroom dedicated to her enjoyment. They’d spent years trying to have a child. So when the adoption agency called with news of a baby “who was theirs if they wanted her,” after four years of being on the waitlist, “it felt like a miracle.”
Bebe Chow is a twenty-something waitress, making $2.35 an hour at the local Chinese restaurant. She immigrated from Guangdong, China, to San Francisco and then Shaker Heights, Ohio, conceiving a child with a boyfriend who left her after she broke the news to him. Racked with postpartum depression and no money for formula after her milk dried up, Bebe takes two-month-old May Ling to the local fire station before passing out from hunger and being taken to a shelter herself. But when she is released, she is told by the police that she had terminated her parental rights. Even as her life becomes stable in the months after, her search for her daughter turns up no leads. She recounts, “Sometimes, I wonder if I am dreaming. But which one is the dream? That I can’t find my baby? Or that I have no baby at all?”
At the beginning, I identified with the McCullough family’s plight. I thought May Ling/Mirabelle should be with whatever family is loving and could give her the best shot at life. After all, wasn’t that what happened with me? Growing up, I had never felt an allegiance to or a curiosity over a birth family I never knew. In fact, I didn’t understand why more people didn’t adopt. Why did people insist on having their own children or children who looked like them? It seemed selfish to have a natural-born child when there were so many without a good, stable family. If they really loved a kid, couldn’t they look past their race?
Growing up, I had never felt an allegiance to or a curiosity over a birth family I never knew. In fact, I didn’t understand why more people didn’t adopt.
But as the narrative progressed, I found myself ricocheting between the two sides. Like the residents of Shaker Heights, I was conflicted. These arguments are best summarized in the text verbatim: “A mother deserved to raise her child. A mother who abandoned her child did not deserve a second chance. A white family would separate a Chinese child from her culture. A loving family should matter more than the color of the parents. May Ling had a right to know her own mother. The McCulloughs were the only family Mirabelle had ever known.”
I almost never believe people when they say a book has changed their lives. Reading is my passion and my way of reckoning with the world, but it’s hard for me to point to many books where I could identify a clear “before” and “after” reading. Little Fires Everywhere awakened something in me. Adoption has been at the bedrock of my identity since I was a child, and to hear it challenged from its status as an unquestionable societal good gave me pause. Reading the book also swept the dust off and gave language to feelings I’d had about my race and Chinese heritage my entire life. For the first time, I felt recognition.
Reading the book gave language to feelings I’d had about my race and Chinese heritage my entire life. For the first time, I felt recognition.
One of my sisters recently told me it had never occurred to her that she was Asian until middle school. Up until then, she had been marking “Caucasian” on forms and standardized tests. This came as a surprise to me, because if anything, I was hyper-aware of my Asian-ness. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t scan rooms to see if I was the only Asian or non-white person around.
When you grow up in a multi-racial family, there is no shortage of questions. Do you speak Chinese? Do you remember your birth parents? Do you miss China? And since I attended conservative Christian schools, I was usually one of only a few Asian people in my class. I had a couple recurring bullies in middle and high school who would ask me how I could see with my “slanty” eyes — usually accompanied by a demonstration of what I looked like to them — or shout at me in fake-Chinese nonsense. I don’t remember having any Asian friends until high school.
At some point in my adolescence, I grew into my Asian identity more. On some level I appreciated the novelty of not being white in a largely white space, but I also hated fielding the questions. I still hate it. It’s never the curiosity that bothers me, it’s my lack of answers. No, I don’t speak Chinese. No, I don’t know my birth parents. No, I don’t remember China. I felt like a fake, Asian in name only. I hated that my existence and my right to belong in places always came with an asterisk, begged explanation.
It’s never the curiosity that bothers me, it’s my lack of answers. No, I don’t speak Chinese. No, I don’t know my birth parents. No, I don’t remember China.
Like the “progressive” community of Shaker Heights, I was part of a colorblind family. I had always known I was adopted, but the consensus around colorblindness dictates that those differences don’t exist — or at least, don’t matter. In this pervasive philosophy, hard questions are hand-waved. This is exemplified in one character’s defense of the McCullough adoption: “Honestly, I think this is a tremendous thing for Mirabelle. She’ll be raised in a home that truly doesn’t see race. That doesn’t care, not one infinitesimal bit, what she looks like. What could be better than that? Sometimes I think that we’d all be better off that way. Maybe at birth everyone should be given to a family of another race to be raised. Maybe that would solve racism once and for all.”
Colorblindness is the most convenient worldview to have in the United States, circa 2018. To consider the proposal above a fascinating thought experiment, to use children for virtue signaling and cultural cachet, it’s the height of white privilege. While adherents to the idea that race should not be talked about may mean well, the philosophy has no legs. Beyond being an inaccurate reflection of history and today’s cultural climate, it ignores and silences any narrative to the contrary. It’s an ideal that relies upon everyone collectively — conveniently — forgetting what has transpired in the world since the beginning of time.
My family was an average American, middle-to-upper-middle-class family in every sense. Hot dogs for the Fourth of July, turkey for Thanksgiving, ham for Christmas. Disney Channel and Cartoon Network on TV. Wardrobes from Limited Too and Barbies from Toys R Us. Cats and dogs filling the hallways. English, the only language spoken at home. I felt normal and loved at home, but stepping beyond the front door, I didn’t know yet how to reconcile my insides with my outsides.
In Little Fires Everywhere, the child — named May Ling, her name as indicated by a handwritten note in which Bebe asks the recipient to “give her a better life” — was renamed Mirabelle Rose McCullough hours upon her delivery to the McCullough’s house. They pored over the name dictionary for two hours before settling on a new one to “celebrate the start of her new life.” Mrs. McCullough gushed, “Mirabelle means ‘wonderful beauty.’ Isn’t that lovely?”
Like May Ling/Mirabelle, I have two names. I was born Mao Bao. It’s on my Chinese birth certificate. My given name is Taylor Moore. I was named after the singer-songwriter Taylor Dayne. According to the Social Security Administration, Taylor was the 6th most popular name for girls in 1995, cornering the market with 1 percent of births in the United States.
I have never had to go by Mao Bao, as the paperwork for my name change and citizenship went through almost immediately upon arrival in the US. But Taylor Moore feels even more foreign. I’ve always made jokes about my generic-sounding, unisex name. Everyone knows a Taylor, a Moore, sometimes even both at the same time.
A dissonance exists between my name and my appearance as a Chinese woman. It feels like a placeholder name, something that was made up on the spot, another John Smith. It’s strange to not have your name line up with your sense of self. It confuses people sometimes, that my name contains no reference to where I’m from. They assume that my father must be white and my mother Asian, to have a name like mine.
It’s strange to not have your name line up with your sense of self. It confuses people sometimes, that my name contains no reference to where I’m from.
In the past, I’ve wished I had a Chinese last name, so I wouldn’t be constantly subjected to pointed questions like, “So where are you really from?” I’d probably still get those questions, but at least I would have a tangible connection to my heritage — an allegiance, a line in the sand, a drop-pin on a map indicating, “You are here.” More often, I’ve wished that I were white. To “match” your family is to fly under the radar. We attracted attention wherever we went, especially when me and my sisters were younger. After a while, you get used to being cooed at, stared at like a novelty, revered as a success story.
Having to explain who you are and why you look the way you do is exhausting. Knowing that people have good intentions is even worse because you’re not allowed to affect anything but bright-eyed engagement. They ask, “What is it like to be adopted?” as if I’ve experienced anything else. They tell me, “I want to adopt from China someday,” as if asking for my support. There’s no way to tell people, “It was the best and most confusing thing that’s ever happened to me” and “How much have you thought about this?” without inviting more questions.
The displacement doesn’t end there, because I have never felt comfortable around Asian people either. In fact, my experience around them has been minimal because I’ve always counted myself out. I could’ve joined the Asian-Pacific Islander and Chinese student organizations at my college, but I balked each time I was invited. From my standpoint, those clubs existed to provide forums for people with shared experiences, but what experiences did I share with them? I don’t know what it’s like to, say, make dumplings with my Chinese grandmother. I don’t know the inside jokes that comes with going to Chinese language classes. I didn’t grow up with immigrant parents. Even those examples are conjectures — guesses based on the limited experience I have with people who look like me.
I’ve had both white and Asian friends tell me I’m not a “true” Asian. Those still sting. It felt cruel that I should look the way I do and be subjected to dumb lines of questioning and racist bullying and unconscious bias, only to be stripped of my identity because my parents aren’t Asian.
I don’t know yet how to reconcile the emotional struggle of not fitting in with the objectively good and fortunate life I’ve had from being adopted. Traditional adoption narratives are overwhelmingly call-and-responses of selflessness and gratitude. The selflessness of the rescuer and the gratitude of being rescued. Lost in the narrative is the perspective of the adoptee, unvarnished by platitudes and the ever-present fear of seeming ungrateful. Only recently, with books like Little Fires Everywhere and Nicole Chung’s memoir, All You Can Ever Know, has the dust been blown off to reveal the nuances of these complicated origin stories.
International adoption has been on a steep decline for years, with countries like Guatemala and Russia and Ethiopia having halted the practice. Online, it’s not uncommon to see international adoption decried, often in elite, liberal publications, as “imperialism,” “colonialism,” “abduction,” “state-sanctioned violence,” a product of the “white-savior complex.”
But when my parents send me a “Happy Gotcha Day” text every July 24 to commemorate the day of my adoption from China, how could I see it as abduction? Can I simultaneously hold the beliefs that my family is good and that the cultural displacement that international adoption engenders can be harmful?
In one scene in Little Fires Everywhere, a reporter interviews one of the McCullough family’s neighbors, who says, “You can tell that when she looks down at that baby in her arms, she doesn’t see a Chinese baby. All she sees is a baby, plain and simple.”
“She’s not just a baby,” an Asian woman says as a counterpoint. “She’s a Chinese baby. She’s going to grow up not knowing anything about her heritage. How is she going to know who she is?”
Indeed, how am I to know?