Polarity of cultural difference

imageYesterday I spent the best part of the day at the Museum of Childhood celebrating the 10th anniversary of the charity,  Mothers’ Bridge of Love.
There is an exhibition in the museum called Hand Me Over Hand Me Downs by Annabel Stockton a series of photographs of the clothes that Chinese babies and children had worn on the day that they were handed over to their adoptive parents.
The exhibit is definitely one I’d recommend that you go and see. But some adoptees may find this exhibit one that stirs deep and visceral emotions.
For me it was a very sad, very disturbing piece of art. I felt uncomfortable, like a voyeur. As if I was looking at a series of skins that had been peeled away from these children and then had been laid out for all to see.
I the reason I see this exhibit in raw emotive terms is because of who and what I am. A displaced, linguistically disenfranchised transracial adoptee.
The only way that I can describe the depth of my feeling and my immediate emotional response; is to compare my reaction, to the emotional response that most people have when they view those photographs of the piles of shoes and glasses.

Happy Coat that I wore when I flew from HK to the UK in 1963

The images that have now become synonymous with the death camps of the Nazi regime. That’s how strong my reaction to the exhibit was.
I’m sure some readers will consider this an over-the-top reaction. How can one compare the horror and unbelievable inhumanity of the Nazi death camps to a series of simple photographs documenting children’s clothing?

Well, it’s what those empty clothes represent to me. It’s what those small garments encompassed and have lost. I totally concede that this is purely a personal response. Maybe it is nigh on impossible for someone who isn’t an adoptee to understand. Perhaps some adoptees will not understand where I am coming from. As I said it’s personal. It’ s coloured by my own personal experience, my own personal loss. The true legacy of my transracial adoption.

The clothes pictured in this exhibition are all that those children have of their culture, their history, their ‘roots.’ These clothes that they wore, that they were hand-me-downs, that were customised and some that were ill miss-matched. A combination of western and traditional styles. You see the passage of time in the changing cut and design of the donated and re-mended clothes. A brief window into the history of transracial adoption between China and the West. These garments represent all that the child has left of their birthright. And it is so little and in some case so thread-bear. Along with a few gifts some of the children were given to take with them. The odd soft toy and little parcels of earth, “good earth” to remind them from whence they came.

photo2           Hand Me Over Hand Me Downs - Annabel Stockton

Something the artist said stuck in my mind, “polarity of cultural difference.”
In my case the polarity is squared. It is both cultural and racial. The polarity of cultural difference flows both ways. From the country of my birth to the country and culture into which I was transracially adopted, a double whammy. The miss-understanding from birth and host country translates equally in both cultures, to intolerance, bias, prejudice and racism.

Hand Me Over Hand Me Downs - Photo Exhibit by Annabel Stockman
Hand Me Over Hand Me Downs – Photo Exhibit by Annabel Stockman

The longer I viewed these photographs the sadder I became. There was something ghostly, death-like in the images for me. What might prompt the, ‘awe’ reaction from most, just made me think of what those children had lost. Hoping that their losses were not as deep and as far-reaching as mine.

For me those children’s clothes represent a life that stopped the moment they were handed over and adopted. They were moved, their lives set upon an alternative path. Those children grew up to the sound of a different backing-track. I hope that they are all happy, healthy and at peace with who they are.
But I cannot help but feel a sorrow, a sadness and a great loss.