Cozy sweaters, warm drinks, long walks to look at the colorful leaves, and anticipation for a season full of festive holidays – these are all things that I look forward to as summer days become shorter and usher in the brisk, autumn air. Of all the fall/winter holidays that make this season so special, Thanksgiving has always been my favorite because I am able to gather with family, eat delicious food (including an exorbitant amount of pie), practice gratitude for the good fortune in my life, and still look forward to all the merriment of Christmas traditions yet to come.
Within the last several years though, the end of October and November have not been defined by these uplifting activities, and the more prominent feeling during this time of year is a looming sense of dread about the upcoming celebration of National Adoption Awareness Month (NAAM) in November. This month’s dedication to adoption first began as a weeklong event to promote the need for homes for foster youth, was turned into a national month-long campaign by former president Bill Clinton, and is now recognized widely by adoption agencies, government offices, and those in the adoption network to encourage all types of adoption. As an adoptee who is critical of many adoption practices, my emotional homework before November begins is to prepare myself for an onslaught of positive adoption media, preemptively anticipate the type of potentially well-meaning but ignorant adoption-related questions I might receive, and decide to what extent I will participate in various National Adoption Month media requests.
I was in my first year of college when I enrolled in a course on transracial and transnational adoption that introduced me to the political, racial, and socioeconomic issues inextricably tied to adoption and turned what I thought I knew about the practice upside down. It was extremely painful to be forced to wrestle with uncomfortable truths about the level of fraud and deceit involved in many adoptions, examine social conditions and policies that led to the historic and present-day unnecessary and sometimes forceful separation of children from their families, and reflect on what these realities meant for the formation of my family, my identity, and my community of adoptees. After completing this course and processing the new information I learned, I sought out places with nuanced dialogue on adoption and found adoptees sharing their stories on Facebook, Twitter, and public blogs. I felt compelled to raise my voice, first on my own blog, Red Thread Broken, in these online adoptee-centric groups, and of course during National Adoption Awareness Month.
It wasn’t until I started sharing my own thoughts and experiences in adoption spaces that I was able to witness firsthand how candidly and how commonly adoptee voices are discounted, dismissed, and invalidated simply for providing a picture that threatens to challenge what the larger public deems as a heartwarming, charitable deed, done by do-gooders, as if good intentions alone can outweigh and warrant the ignoration of the other harmful aspects of adoption. Online, everyone seems to have a friend who has a cousin who is adopted and is “just fine.” And if an adoptee expresses anything besides gratitude about their adoption, they are seen as not “just fine.” Particularly during NAAM, the world wants to hear a Hallmarkified version of an adoption story, where there is no loss, no grief, no trauma, and no struggle. But there is no adoption without loss and no family separation without trauma. In my experience as an adoptee, as an adoption social worker, and as someone who has talked to a lot of adoptees and adoptive families, adoption stories are not this simple.
During NAAM of 2014, the women writers behind the Lost Daughters blog began the revolutionary #FlipTheScript campaign. #FlipTheScript was about dispelling myths in adoption discourse, broadening the single-story narrative, and making adoptee voices front and center during the entire month of November and hopefully beyond. The Lost Daughters kickstarted the month by releasing a powerful YouTube video that shared thoughts from several adoptees. Adoptees from all over the world joined the campaign by using the hashtag #FlipTheScript through various channels. I threw my own tweets (a now contentious platform since its recent acquisition) into the chorus. On an old blog post about the #FlipTheScript Movement, I wrote:
Please realize asking me to celebrate adoption is asking me to celebrate the loss of my first family. Celebrating adoption simplifies my story and my identity. And celebrating adoption doesn’t validate the range of emotions the words home, family, love, and citizenship carry for me.
Throughout that NAAM, adoptees appeared on major T.V. stations, news programs, the radio, and in press articles as they continued flipping the script on adoption. To my fresh eyes, still somewhat new to the world of adoption advocacy, #FlipTheScript felt like the first time that I was a part of a collective adoptee movement. #FlipTheScript allowed me to feel so much pride in being an adoptee and a part of this vibrant community. A year later, I shared an essay in the Flip the Script: Adult Adoptee Anthology on the transition in my identity that was solidified because of #FlipTheScript. I went from describing myself as adopted, the passive recipient of an event that happened to me, to an adoptee, recognizing that this is an active and ongoing part of my being.
Though the hashtag #FlipTheScript hasn’t carried the same weight as that first year, adoptees are continuing to flip the script on the traditional adoption narrative. Paying homage to my sister scholars and activists in the Lost Daughters group who started #FlipTheScript, I asked the online community on Twitter during NAAM of 2018, “What would it look like if November was National Adoptee Awareness Month instead of National Adoption Awareness Month? Of whom or what do people need to become aware?” Most people seem to be aware of the concept of adoption, but much fewer seem be aware of pertinent issues for the adoptee community, including citizenship, belonging, mental health, child trafficking, transparency in adoption practices, and ambiguous loss of family, culture, language, names, birthdates, medical/personal information – so much loss. Similar to the way using adopted versus adoptee changed my identity, I wondered how issues for adult adoptees would be prioritized differently with this slight change in wordage for NAAM from adoption to adoptee.
When I logged into my Instagram account on the first day of November this year, I was energized to see numerous organizations and individuals referring to this month as National Adoptee Awareness Month. While National Adoptee Awareness Month has been used and shared in the past few years, this is the first year I’ve seen the altered name have such a large presence from the very beginning. When I was first asked to write a piece for National Adoption Awareness Month, I began brainstorming an article about NAAM as a time of mourning for adoptees while others are celebrating. But something about seeing National Adoptee Awareness Month in so many places does feel celebratory.
When we celebrate and honor the complex people in a community rather than a one-sided portrayal of an extremely complex practice, it enables a more holistic appreciation and acknowledgement of the impacted people. The expectation of thankfulness with Thanksgiving coupled with the celebration of National Adoption Awareness Month during November demands gratitude and compliance from me while smothering all of this complexity, which forces an opposite reaction and a desperation for everything suffocated to be seen and heard. National Adoptee Awareness Month allows me to express gratitude in a way that National Adoption Awareness Month does not. I have so much gratitude for a community that constantly amazes me and pushes me to think differently as adoptees reimagine the boundaries of identity, family, and child welfare systems. I have so much gratitude for my family’s attempts to keep Chineseness a part of my life when so many others did not. And I have gratitude for all that I have gained through adoption, which does not diminish or resolve or rectify all that I have lost.
While #FlipTheScript developed in reaction to the dominant societal understanding of adoption and adoptees, I see National Adoptee Awareness Month as an evolution of this movement that allows us adoptees to continue flipping the script but also does not require us to constantly push back against something. National Adoptee Awareness Month balances these factors because it lets all adoptees drive the narrative, wherever they are on their adoption journey, including those who are not quite ready to #FlipTheScript yet. National Adoptee Awareness Month gives me the space to be a rabble-rousing agent of change one day and in a celebratory mood the next, as I reflect on the great pride I have for adoptees, the strength it takes to sit in our bodies, and that we have survived – while recognizing those of us who have not. I believe that all social and political movements need to have some joy, and National Adoptee Awareness Month grants me the ability to feel joy during a time of year that I typically begrudgingly trudge into. It brings me joy to see so many adoptees, sharing our stories and knowledge, owning our identities and full range of emotions, and reclaiming this month as a time for us. So this year and every year, I will not be celebrating National Adoption Awareness Month, but I will be celebrating National Adoptee Awareness Month. I hope you join us.