Saturday, December 11, 2010

Birthday Letter to My Birth Mother

Dear Birth Mom1,
Today is my birthday, but you already know that. I’ve attached a picture of me, taken in 2008. If it’s alright with you, I’d like to tell you what’s happened to me since my birthday forty-two years ago.
I was adopted into a loving family at two months old; a family that already had a young son, but they told me that they always wanted to adopt. The mother2 is extremely proud of her Norwegian heritage. Her mother – the grandmother2 – was the first generation immigrant to the United States from Norway. She came here when she was six. Anyway, I tell you this because I grew up with lots of Norwegian cultural influences all around me: Norwegian flags trimming the Christmas tree, Viking motifs and sometimes fiskeboller (a fish meatball) for dinner. I didn’t care for fiskeboller too much, because we would usually get them from a can, and it always tasted like the can to me. Overall, I enjoyed learning Norwegian table blessings and songs. It can be fun for a child to celebrate heritage and culture.
My childhood was, in some ways, pretty normal. In other ways, it’s pretty special. This family brought me up in a Christian household, attending church regularly, not just on Christmas and Easter. The Philadelphia neighborhood we lived in is called Mount Airy. It is a very diverse place with people of all races, creeds, and even socioeconomic statuses (to some degree). I attended private Quaker schools all through my childhood. After high school, I was able to attend Smith College, where I majored in East Asian Studies with a concentration in Japanese. As I got older, I appreciated my upbringing more and more.
Additionally, as I got older, I also needed to find out who I am and claim my identity for my very own. This was a challenging process. It’s a never-ending journey for all of us, I think. It was hard to grow up and not have anyone around who looked like me. After I was adopted, the mother and father gave birth to a girl (younger sister2). As all three children grew up, the older brother2 and younger sister2 began to look more and more like the parents; I felt like the odd kid out.  It was frustrating to want my eyebrows to match the pictures I saw on TV and on the cover of Seventeen magazines, knowing that my eyebrows were the complete opposite shape of the beauty standards. And where did my eyebrows come from anyway? Only when I went to Japan did I realize where they came from, noticing “my eyebrows” on every Japanese person walking down the street. During my preteen and teenage years, my insecurities would manifest themselves in emotional outbursts of “I don’t belong in this family” or “You’re not my REAL mother anyway”, directed at the family2. Intellectually, I knew that this was untrue but I let emotions get the best of me.
During college was the first time I was able to identify emotionally with my Japanese heritage; I watched a documentary about the U.S. Japanese Internment during WWII and then cried my eyes out afterward. After immersing myself in Japanese language and studies at college, I was able to live and work in Japan for twelve years. It was then that I soon discovered that all of my Japanese pride and education didn’t mean a hill of beans to the Japanese Nationals. If neither I LOOKED 100% Japanese nor had a Japanese surname, I wasn’t Japanese to them. I learned how to be comfortable in my own identity – I am White and I am Japanese; I am a 100% citizen of the United States of America.
After I became comfortable with this part of my identity, the father2 in the family died suddenly in February 1999. We were extremely close, and his sudden death put me into an emotional tailspin. Once again, I needed to look within to find out who I really am. I kept asking myself, “Why am I taking this death so hard? Why is it affecting me so much?” It was then I realized the depth of what was happening to me; I was reliving the day I was separated from you. While his passing was painful for me, his death brought a whole new self-awareness for me; for that, I am grateful.
Now, I am married and have two boys.  I met my Minnesotan husband in Tokyo, Japan. Both of my sons were born there. We returned to the U.S. in 2004, when the kids were 5 and 7 years old. As I watch the kids grow up and navigate their own identity journeys, it’s amazing to see how much they identify with their Japanese heritage. It helps me continue to travel my identity journey.
I’m writing to tell you that I’m okay. I want you to know that, even though I do not know all the circumstances surrounding my birth, I can appreciate the difficult choices you had to make in order to carry me to full term and then make plans for my adoption. I have nothing but the deepest respect for you because of the choices you made. If you ever feel that you would like to meet me, I am more than willing to do this. Just know that it would take a lot of courage and humility on both our parts.
Your Daughter3

1 Even though I have my original birth certificate, I chose not to use her name out of respect for her privacy. We have not had a reunion yet, and I am unable to ask her permission to share her name publicly.
2 I have intentionally addressed my adoptive family in the third person. They are/were the only family I’ve known, but refer to them in this way to be sensitive to my birth mother and to them. Addressing them as my “adoptive” family doesn’t feel right to me. Addressing them as my “family” might not feel right to my birth mother.
3 I know that name my birth mother gave me, but chose not to use it here. Also, she would not recognize the name I have now, so I chose not to use it.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Scottsboro Boys: Holding onto the Truth

Let me start off by saying that this has NOTHING to do with transracial adoption. But after my experience on Wednesday, December 9, I feel compelled to speak through my blog.

Last night, I went to one of the final shows of The Scottsboro Boys on Broadway, as it will close on December 12, 2010. This is an incredibly powerful musical, telling a difficult story of nine African-American teens who were falsely accused of raping two white women in the state of Alabama in the early 1930s. Not exactly your typical happy-feel-good musical.

I admit it: I went into last night’s performance with a peripheral knowledge of the topic. When asked, ‘What’s it about?’, I didn’t have a clear answer except ‘Something about racial injustice.’ I did not do my homework.

It seems that the people I went with did not do their homework either.

Let me start from the beginning. This outing on Broadway was organized by my employer. See, I work in alumni relations and development for an independent school (a.k.a. private school). I’m intentionally leaving out the name of this school because, frankly, what I experienced could have taken place at ANY independent school. Heck, it could have happened at any of the performances. It probably did.
We hosted a pre-performance reception all attendees to get a drink, grab a quick bite, meet each other and pick up their tickets. As I went around talking with people and taking pictures for our school magazine, it was clear to me that most of us were entering into The Scottsboro Boys with very little knowledge about the musical itself. As all 60 of us filed into the Lyceum Theatre and found our seats, I marveled at the intimacy of the small theatre. What a magical place! There’s nothing like seeing a Broadway show. The bell rang, the lights dimmed, and the opening number began - we were off on our magical Broadway ride. And as each song told its story and I’m being wowed by the extremely talented performers on stage, it happened.

Two people in my row got up and left the show.

The fact that I had to get up to let them out of my row made it all the more stunning for me. My mind raced with thoughts: ‘Really? Are they really leaving? Can’t they see how talented these performers are? Don’t they see how hard everyone worked on this show? Can’t they at least give the show a chance to speak to them?’

Then I reminded myself: Not everyone likes to lean into discomfort to challenge themselves. It takes practice to do this. It takes a presence of mind and the ability to be in the moment when something pricks our conscience and challenges our thinking.

The powerful message of this musical is to hold onto the truth. Have the courage to break free from opinions and traditions. After the musical ended, the words of the Declaration of Independence kept ringing in my mind:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
By telling their stories, The Scottsboro Boys reminds us how the U.S.A. has a long way to go before we achieve the goal of “all men are created equal.” I leave with this thought and question: Holding onto the truth comes with a cost. Is the cost worth it?