“As an adopted Chinese girl I was a foreigner in both lands”
What happens when the cute Chinese baby you adopted grows up and experiences an ongoing identity crisis – and it’s something that neither of you can solve?
British Chinese actress Lucy Sheen speaks to Tuey Mac from MyAsianPlanet.com and explores these issues in a self-penned play about trans-racial adoption. It’s a topic she knows to the core as Lucy was one of hundreds of Chinese babies adopted by well-meaning families in the UK in the 1960s.
The production ‘There are Two Perfectly Good Me’s: One dead, the other unborn’ showcases at the King’s Head Theatre, London in February and Sheen admits that the play is largely autobiographical and was a painful experience to write.
As an adopted Chinese girl I grew up to be a foreigner in both lands. No one else is going to know exactly what it feels like to be shunned not just by the culture that adopted you but also by your native culture too
Adoptees that speak out about their experience have often been met with a wall of criticism, accusing them of ingratitude against the families that have ‘saved’ them from their abandoned state.
Yet the cute adopted Chinese baby will grow up in a counter culture knowing that physically he or she doesn’t fit in facing a lifetime of taunts, racism and a deep sense of ‘unbelonging.’
“You’re bringing a child into an existence of white privilege, you’re asking that child to become comfortable with this way of being, to behave in a particular manner, but very often parents forget that their trans-racially adopted child will reap none of the benefits of this white privilege.”
Turning to the parent for comfort will not bring about relief as quite simply a white English parent could not understand the depth of racial and cultural confusion facing the child.
Whilst modern parents are now more sensitive to these needs, understanding the need to allow their child to explore their own culture, often taking them back to their birth country, families from the 1960s-1980s that were at the forefront of the Chinese adoption process would not have been so culturally aware.
If you are thinking of adopting a Chinese baby or know someone who has – please point them to this article. It may help them understand more fully the effect the adoption will have upon their child – problems that may not be apparent now but may grow to have devastating lifelong repercussions.
I talk to actress and writer Lucy Sheen about her experience – from adopted Chinese baby to becoming a mother – her daughter herself of mixed racial heritage.
Was it difficult to write about such a painful topic?
Yes and no. I think the most painful thing was being trolled by other transracial adoptees because I dared to speak out. Actually being bad mouthed by other transracial adoptees because what I do scares them. I threaten their status quo. I’m not afraid to speak out.
What inspired you to write ‘There are Two Perfectly Good Me’s: One dead, the other unborn?’
Frankly getting roles, parts in mainstream that are more than the stereotypical cliched characterisations of what people think East Asians are or should be is a rarity. So I wrote the play for myself. No one else is going to know exactly what it feels like to be shunned not just by the culture that adopted you but also by your native culture too. However I think that anyone who has been subject to gross marginalisation because of their race will absolutely identify with this piece.
What would you say the best and worst aspects of your adoption were?
Best I’m alive and I’m doing what I do. Worst I was disconnected from my natural heritage, culture and language.
Do you still keep in touch with your adopted British family?
[this is only the second time that I have declined to answer a question – it’s complicated and involves the threat of legal action against by members of the family that adopted me]
Have you ever returned to your roots in China / Hong Kong?
Yes, last time was 2012
How much do you know of your real family? Are they traceable?
I know nothing. I was abandoned on the stairs of number 9 Austin Avenue Kowloon. Records were not kept in the same manner as they would be now. Many of the records for the orphanage I was in were destroyed in the mid 80s I believe. We, that were abandoned, truly were. We lost not just our families but our heritage, our culture and our language. My history does not start until I enter the orphanage. I have no way of realistically tracing my birth family.
What advice would you give to any English parents out there looking to adopt a Chinese baby?
If this is something that you truly wish to do for the child, then educate yourselves. And I mean educate yourselves. You will have to answer and talk on some very difficult questions some of which you may feel uncomfortable about. Namely race.
Get to grips with the racial politics in the UK. And always remember never make your child’s questions of identity or belonging about you the parent, because it isn’t about you, it should never be about you the parents.
You have to be there to validate your child’s experience not belittle it. Many prospective adopting parents just don’t think about these matters and they should, they must. You’re bringing a child into an existence of white privilege, you’re asking that child to become comfortable with this way of being, to behave in a particular manner, but very often parents forget that their trans-racially adopted child will reap none of the benefits of this white privilege.
They also forget that their transracially adopted child will never be white.
Likewise what advice would you give to any adopted Chinese children growing up in a British household?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Learn to speak your native tongue. Go back to China involve your parents if you can, if not do it for yourself. Don’t be fooled by people who tell you that race doesn’t matter it does. And at the end of the day what makes you Chinese is what is in your heart, what you are prepared to stand up for and be counted for. Not whether you speak Chinese or not or know how to use chopsticks.
Do you think trans-racial adopting is ultimately more harmful than helpful?
Sadly yes. Adoption whether trans-racial or not is an extreme intervention. In an ideal world it would not be necessary. However it is necessary, but as long as such things as race and ethnicity are used and perceived by others as markers of that which is not normal or that which pejorative then trans-racial adoption will always be harmful.
What do you love most about England?
The countryside, the architecture and the people. But people are also the thing that I hate most about England.
You yourself have a mixed race child and your husband is of Afro-carribean origin– do you see your child’s heritage a problem in this day and age or do you think they have grown up in more multi-cultural times?
I think that they are better equipped to cope with dual heritage/mixed ethnicities than say my generation. How the wider society continues to view these children of mixed and dual heritage only time will tell. I hope that things will be better, but we’re dealing with human beings so who knows?
What do you hope to achieve with this play? Does it offer you any closure? Or a way of understanding your circumstances with the advantage of adult maturity and experience?
There is no closure – trans-racial adoption is for life. No matter what I do I cannot be un-abandoned, un-culturally displaced, anymore than I can make the racist and biggots accept me. I can never truly understand or appreciate the extreme circumstances that forced my mother to make the ultimate sacrifice for me, so that I had a chance of life. I can only guess.
If I make one person think then that’s something.
I came to terms with who and what I was not quite a long time ago. The fact that many within the wider society still find it a challenge to relate to me, one human being to another, is another matter entirely.
I am always for some going to be the outsider, the East Asian that isn’t really East Asian well so be it.
But I think that I am far more comfortable within my own imperfect skin than those that condemn me
for not being the East Asian they think I should be. Because I don’t speak Chinese or because I refuse to kowtow to the dominant culture. Or to those who condemn and marginalise me for being the visible outsider, the foreigner.