Last night, I had the privilege of giving this (modified slightly) speech at my college for the incoming first year students. My story stood next to seven other remarkable narratives of identity searching, validation, and bravery. If any young people entering college are reading this from other schools, my advice remains the same. And congratulations on starting this exciting journey!
I started my first year of college unsure of the people I would meet, the professors who would inspire me, and the ways in which I would grow. I had heard repeatedly that the college years are life-changing but remained skeptical to the potential romanticism in that statement. So, naturally, I was very surprised when I enrolled in a course during my first year here that can only be described as life-changing.
I wasn’t looking for this class. It wasn’t required for either of my intended majors, and it was in a department I didn’t know well at all. This course was a 300 level, so I felt completely underprepared but decided to take the risk anyway.
The class was on the politics of transracial and transnational adoption. As an adoptee, originally from China, I immediately connected with the title. I had always been very strong in my identity as an adoptee and could talk about adoptions from a personal perspective. I wanted to know more about adoption from an academic angle, though. I wanted my reflections on the topic to have some sort of credibility. And I wanted to learn about the work adult adoptees were engaged in. I figured this class would give me the opportunity to learn more about myself and the international adoption system that I am so entangled in.
I thought being an adoptee would give me an advantage in the class, but I don’t think that was necessarily true. As we read about the origins of transracial adoption as a form of genocide to wipe out the aboriginal peoples of Australia and heard narratives from first parents who had their children kidnapped or coerced from their hands, I couldn’t help but personalize this academia. We learned about the ways in which money influences the politics of sending and receiving countries, as well as national policies and social structures. I became jealous of the non-adoptee students in the class because, while emotional, the study of adoption was strictly academic for them. But for me, it was incredibly personal. My identity was shifting, the rosy, altruistic image of adoption I had created for myself nearly flip-flopped, and I even began to question my family unit.
The thoughts I was forced to wrestle with were extremely challenging, but for the first time, I gained a support network of other adoptees who were going through the same experience. This class gave me the vocabulary and history required to discuss issues of transracial and transnational adoption, and validated so many of my experiences growing up in a scholarly way. In the beginning of the class, I struggled because critiquing adoption meant criticizing the credibility of system that brought my family together. I ultimately gained so much when I took another risk by letting down my guard, feeling all of the raw emotions I had been trying to suppress, and finally learned to think critically on this hugely complicated subject.
As my identity as an adoptee activist solidified, the connections with my adoptee peers deepened in a way I had never experienced before. Together, we started an identity collective on campus for transracial and transnational adoptees to continue the conversations that were only touched upon in class. For my own further exploration, I began a blog about being a Chinese-American adoptee, hoping some adoptive families may read my thoughts. My blog has reached actually reached a tens of thousands of people and benefited me in ways I couldn’t have imagined when I first began writing. Last fall, I was contacted by the President of Families with Children from Asia – Midwest as well as the founder of the organization Land of Gazillion Adoptees. I am currently working with that organization, and am one of the editors for Gazillion Voices, the first adoptee run adoption magazine. I have volunteered and spoken at national adoptee and adoptive family conferences and met adoptee film makers, authors, and scholars who have all guided my work. And all of these opportunities have come to me because I enrolled in that class my spring semester of my first year in college.
When I was sitting where you are now, I had no idea how college would change me, and I honestly didn’t know to what extent it would. I can you now that just one class can turn everything you thought you knew upside-down and influence the direction of your life in unexpected ways. While the class I took was the catalyst for my personal and academic growth, my friends, family, and this whole college community has been incredibly supportive and encouraging of my work and involvement in the adoptee community. Now it’s our turn to be there for you as you begin college, this provocative, challenging, and thought-provoking time. Whether you’re interested in Biology, English, Applied Math, or International Studies, I encourage you to take risks while you’re here, to take an interesting class even if it doesn’t fit in your major, and I encourage you to keep an open mind to change. Welcome class of 2018.