Displaced Photographs

I am not a refugee or the daughter of refugees.
I am an international adoptee from China.
Came to the United States, Nothing but a pair of sandals,
Some official paperwork connecting me to my homeland.

In 2nd grade,
My teacher told the class that adoption
Was the same as buying a child.

Remember that assignment in 4th grade
Where you had to bring in a baby photo?
I hated it.
With only two other Asian kids in class,
They could always guess which one was me.

In 6th, 8th, 10th grade, I had to use the same photo
The only one I have from China,
A referral picture my parents received in the mail when they decided to adopt me:
Two-year-old Chu Pinghua with a shaved head.
Chu was the family name given to the babies in my year.

My immigration to the U.S., the beginning of a new life, was smooth,
Immediate legal residency,
A great privilege.
Taken from my birth country,
My first family,
My first culture,
And relinquished of my first language.
That is what it cost me.

Drawing parallels between refugee and adoptee,
Connection and community,
The traumas associated with each.
Refugees, similarly,
Experience an expedited immigration process
Due to their political status.

Accompanying their journeys
Family separation, culture loss,
A fragmented sense of place,
Fear, scraping together what they’ve carried to create a new home.

I’ve struggled to hang onto my Chineseness.
There is a longing and distance,
Amazement and resentment.
Staring at unfamiliar images of Nanjing,
Questions of belonging tugging at me.

Imagine a photo of a young Kurdish boy,
Smiling so hard his eyes are shut tight,
One lock of hair hangs down, curling to the right.
Arms extended, clutching yellow playground rails,
At a park just a few steps from his home
Red T-shirt with a rocket ship,
Wearing velcro sandals, the kind that squeak when he walks.

Now imagine a photo of a young Kurdish boy,
Washed up by the Mediterranean
Red T-shirt, dark shorts, little sneakers, soaking wet.

His face
pressed in the sand
Five minutes after he boarded a raft,
Pushed out by a fragmented sense of home
Trying to get to a Greek island just 30 minutes away.

How could the countries we love so much, our countries, create policies that displaced us?

Is displacement.
Like refugee status is displacement.
Like home foreclosure is displacement.

His name is Aylan Kurdi.
And the publication of this second photo
was when the world broke its collective heart.

It’s easy to objectify people when we feel no emotional connection,
It’s also easy to exploit people
And their sorrows individually,
As was done with this photo.

For you, did this photo humanize the refugee crisis or did the photo humanize you?

We heal in community, not in isolation.
When we think of people as people,
As more than one word,
One image, or one piece of a crisis,
They become more than a Something,
They become Someone –

Someone you can connect to across identity and landmasses.


This poem was written in collaboration with Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay for a recent event by Public Radio International and Gazillion Strong. Vongsay is an awardwinning Lao-American poet, playwright, and cultural producer.

My intention with this piece was to draw parallels between the adoptee and refugee experience.  Through privileged forms of immigration that are results of geopolitical circumstances, refugees and international adoptees share a common bond. But at what cost does this privilege come? Through separation of family and home, an indebted sense of gratitude for the respective form of immigration, as well frequent encounters with people’s preconceived stereotypes of refugees or orphans, I seek to draw connection between these two groups of marginalized people and humanize these forms of unchosen international migration.

4 responses to “Displaced Photographs

  1. I appreciate this poem as it adroitly captures the emotions felt by many adoptees and refugees. Everyone carries burdens that pull our lives in different directions. Learning the importance and value of balancing what is with what could have been keeps us all within the realm of living life as we can and not as we will never be able to. This is what we can all learn and what is expressed so eloquently by Nicholas James Vujicic ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zeb-k-XzaI ) who accepts what is in a way that seems miraculous.


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