Matthew Salesses on the dilemma of how to talk about adoption without hurting loved ones.
It was the first time I had met an adoptee with an adoption agent for a mother. It was amazing to talk with someone who had been raised to think openly about adoption and yet who had the same troubles I had, who got everything that was on my mind. I was feeling generous, and open, as if I was a part of something bigger than sides.
As I walked back through Harvard Square, a homeless person asking for money called out exaggeratedly, “Ni hao.” I was the only Asian in sight. He had placed me. He had shouted this while holding a sign silently for the white passersby. I didn’t want to let it go. What was the purpose of saying that? If I had been Chinese and answered in Chinese, he wouldn’t have had anything more to say.
You’re the homeless one, the homeless person was saying to me, you’re the outsider. Marking me as the outsider was as simple as saying hello in another language.
“Fuck you,” I said, and gave him the finger.
Then a remarkable thing happened—and this has never happened to me before, after any of the other comments I have heard from strangers, even in front of my kid—he apologized.
I was so stunned I simply walked off.
The apology didn’t make me feel better, though—that he had realized he’d done something offensive. He had still done it. I was still different. By apologizing, he had given himself acceptance and left me more on the outside—I looked like the crazy one for having sworn at him. I looked like I was putting my trauma on him for no reason.
That is often the complaint I see in the comments of my articles on adoption. “It’s just your problem, man. You’re projecting it onto us white people.” Well, okay. If you could leave me alone with my problem, I might even be satisfied with that.
Recently, I read an essay by writer Nicole Callahan in which a white couple asks about her experience being adopted, in order to help them decide whether to adopt. The couple is asking Callahan to devalue her trauma, or interpret her trauma, into something supportive of a decision they have clearly already made.
I have been put in this position before, asked to evaluate adoption, to affirm it, basically. Usually, I do my best to keep quiet. If it is someone I don’t mind offending, I am more honest.
I haven’t written anything about adoption—anything new—in months.
For the past two months, my wife and daughter have been in Korea, my country of birth. I have spent the time watching Korean TV, listening to K-pop, eating Korean food, both trying to get closer to them and to avoid thinking too much about adoption.
The last time my family visited Korea while I stayed behind, I fell deep into depression. I let my loneliness overtake me. I wrote about adoption constantly. It was productive and it was terrifying and it almost or did break me.
This time, my wife told me she did not want to hear me say I was depressed. She didn’t want my problems to affect her, my staying behind to spoil her trip.
On the one hand, that seems totally fair. Why should personal trauma so affect others? But there was no way to keep it to myself and yet deal with it at all. The effects of adoption do not exist in a vacuum of self. Others are necessarily involved.
And of course, every day, out in the world, people identify the adoptee and judge him and engage with him by privileging his lost life.
There was a time when I was writing twice a week about my life, my trauma, my family.
Then I took a trip with my wife and daughter to see my parents. They sat me down and said they were bothered by my writing about them. My wife said she too was bothered by it, but I kept ignoring her opinion.
That was my own family asking me to stop. All I could do was to try to cut my writing off at the source.
But of course the source, as I have said, had to do with them. How do you cut yourself off from your trauma and yet allow yourself to deal with it?
Nicole Callahan says to the parents, No, adoption has not been a problem. Because it’s not a problem for them. She is answering for them.
To be honest, that is not a terrible option, or an easy one, or a cowardly one.
When I was writing often about race and adoption, I felt like I was being asked to write certain things. Over the summer, I pulled an article about the diverse books movement, in which I mentioned a few anecdotes I had heard from other writers of color. The white editor wanted me to name names. The white editor wanted me to ask publishers directly if it was true they were looking for certain kinds of books from writers of color. She didn’t understand that this would put those writers of color in danger. Would put me in danger—in the industry and, as it were, “on the couch.” She thought nothing of the consequences, because she didn’t have to.
But you know, she is probably a good person and is exactly the person the article hoped to reach.
November is National Adoption Month. There is a hashtag floating around that adoptees should #flipthescript and take control of the adoption narrative. I am all for this, and have written articles arguing that same point. Our narratives, though, are often painful not only for ourselves but for others.
I can’t figure it out: the paradox. How do we tell the truth about love without hurting the people we want to love and to love us (including ourselves)? That is the writer’s block I have been in.
This essay has no conclusion. I am not writing this with an answer. I am writing it to write something. To struggle. To say that I struggle. To wonder if it’s okay to struggle. To let that struggle be known.