There are no words. So I’ll leave you with these for today.
“First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak for me.”
~ Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)
[Early supporter of the Nazis, later imprisoned for opposing Hitler’s regime.]
Or: Lost and found
I didn’t go searching for the past. I was dreaming of future things: of our new house and the child that might one day play in it – when I found my birth certificate. Or to be more precise: an ancient, fragile document comprised of thin pages covered in writing that I can’t understand. Plus an English translation of certified provenance. Certificates of adoption into my now native country. Official looking seals. Records of identity, and photos of a baby that looks a bit like me.
It’s never been hidden from me that I was adopted as a baby, from a country far away from the one I now live in. This document is the link to who I was back then, before I became British (“more British than the British”) – before my parents became my parents and long before I ever came to live in England and become fully assimilated into the middle classes and later, the hustle and bustle of London life.
It seemed somehow serendipitous that I should come across them that day, as for some reason (infertility, a new IVF cycle, the moon?) I’ve been thinking a lot about adoption and the fact of having been adopted. It seemed like a sign from the universe, if I believed in such things. (I don’t.)
The only reason I was going through boxes is that we’re in the process of buying a house. The London housing market is such that anything we can afford to buy is approximately half the size of the place we now rent, which means some downsizing and rationalising of the immense amount of clutter we’ve managed to accumulate. T has been strict about me doing a bit of sorting every night, and I’ve been roused from my customary placement on the sofa to dig through piles of old stuff that we never unpacked from the old house.
And there it was: an old folder bursting with documents of Me. All that information laid out there, so tantalisingly close and yet so far from my comprehension – characters on a page in a language I can’t understand.
And yet… I could pick some words out. I could match it up from the translation of my name, because I know what my name is in my birth language. (My parents gave me the fusion name: a name in my birth language and in English, a name I now realise my first mother must have known when she signed away her rights.)
I can see her name. I’ve never looked for it before. I don’t know why. I look at the dates of birth and I realise she was 20 when she had me. A baby herself. I look at her birthdate and wonder why I never thought what it was before. I work out how old she would be now. Not much older than my ex; quite a lot younger than my parents. I calculate that she’s exactly the same amount younger than my dad as I was from my ex. A strange thought.
Little things. I see this on the translation next to her name and somehow it seems poignant.
I misunderstand it at first, thinking that she just appeared to give consent, suggesting that maybe she was ambivalent. Then I read it again, and I think that I have the emphasis wrong, that it is merely a statement of fact that she turned up and I wasn’t signed away in absentia. I look at it again and I’m not sure. Somewhere, back in the mists of time, my first mother held the certificate that this translates. Maybe for longer than she held me. I don’t know; she had me for a few days after my birth and I don’t know how much of that time I was with her.
I snap a picture on my phone and I look up the English translation on the translated document. Later, at work, I contact the first person I can think of who speaks my birth language and I ask her if she’d be willing to look at something written down and tell me what it means, and type it for me. My untrained eye can’t translate it into type for future internet searches, but she can. She tells me to send the picture and instantly she’s able to tell me my mother’s name. It’s similar but not quite the same as the translation says – she has a name that I can type now and I google it idly for the rest of the afternoon, but nothing comes up.
I thank my coworker and tell her it’s my birth mother’s name. She sends me a smiley emoji.
You can’t move forwards without looking back.
I’ve never tried to look at these documents before, which seems ludicrous at the age of 30-something (late thirties!) – I always knew I wouldn’t be able to understand them because I don’t speak that language. It wouldn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know: that I was born, and I had at least one parent, and then I had two more and I lost the first. Maybe I was in denial, or I didn’t want to look, or it just didn’t seem relevant. In recentish history I’ve had the chance to look at these things and the chance to visit my birth country, but I never took it and I don’t know why.
So much of my adoptee narrative was given to me and I never questioned it. I’ve questioned everything else in life – religion being a big one (I told my religious mother that I was an atheist at a very young age, and I’ve tried every branch of Christianity just to see if I could possibly start believing – I really like it, but I just can’t believe it). I’ve questioned my superiors. I’m totally one of those annoying people who always wants to know Why?
Why did I never question my story? Why have I never tried to find out more than that? I think I just so internalised the narrative… that I was transplanted from poverty, that my first mother wanted to give me up, that she had a very common name, that she was young and marginalised and it would be really difficult to find her. My parents always said they would help if I wanted to. I never wanted to. I’m not the type who ever wants to set myself up for a fall.
My birth country is pretty advanced in terms of adoptee rights. It’s the language barrier which gets massively in the way. I can’t even search for my first mother’s name because I couldn’t read what the results showed. Even if I could find something online, I’m unversed in the language of the country of my birth. Without language, I’m mute. I’m a foreigner here, sitting on a computer which in my imagination is a giant tin can with string that stretches all the way around the world and there, somewhere on the other side is my birth family. Are they huddling around the other tin can? Are they off living their lives, playing out in the distance?
They even have a standardised adoption search form. I’ve looked at it. I could kick off the search right now, with what I have – all they need is a birth certificate, proof of my identity and a signed consent form. Those old certificates are sitting there in their folder, and all it would take would be for me to scan them in, send them through cyberspace and whoosh, the people at the other end (the nice officials with their much more advanced attitude towards opening up closed adoptions) would do their stuff. I don’t even have to pay anything. My birth country sees it as a service they should provide to grown up adoptees. It catches me a little bit, in my heart, that they have a whole website devoted to reaching the people like me who are foreigners in their birth country. They want to welcome us back. They want to help me search.
Why have I never done it? I’ve never really looked back.
It is said if there’s one thing that’s sure in life, it’s that you can’t move forward without acknowledging the past.
My past is locked up in an old wooden chest. My parents, my “real parents”, the only parents I’ve ever consciously known put this chest together for me. It’s old and the lock’s broken and some of the feet fell off. For my entire childhood that chest has been a part of my life. It used to sit at the end of my bed and my other adopted sibling had one too – it marked us as special, as the bio kids didn’t have one. All our old things were in there, and sometimes we’d hide toys in there, but really what it was meant to be was a place to store our past.
I’ve never really paid much attention to it. The chest, like my past, is just a part of me – a fact; an adjective. No big deal in my everyday life. But I finally got around to clearing out some stuff, because to move forward I have to do that. I have to touch the past. In collecting my stuff from storage and in sorting through that and trying to get a new mortgage and start my new life, I inadvertently stumble upon the past.
Without even opening it, I know that in the chest is a baby outfit. It’s not a western style outfit. It’s from my country of birth. There’s a blanket. Some booties. My first favourite book, and my second and third. (I’ve always been a voracious reader since the age of 2 when I apparently figured it out.) As a child I never really thought of the significance of these first things. My first photo album full of photos, my parents bedecked in 70s sepia with me, a little foreign baby. I look like a changeling. I always thought stories about changelings were about me. Those words again: The person involved personally appeared to performed the right of consent. Those words I can’t read: somewhere on that page of foreign writing is the writing of my first mother, signing away her motherhood of me.
As an adult, and as an adoptee, a label I’ve always been resistant to claim (not because I ever dispute the fact that I was adopted or am ashamed of it, but because it reminds me of amputee, and suggests I’m not whole, that I’m just an object, an -ee for someone else’s agency), I look at these things anew. I’m not so inured any more to the everyday-ness of the past, of my papers. I’m older now and I’m possibly the end of my line, so maybe I should look at it because there might not be any more. (On family trees: I’ve always thought of myself more of a spliced branch onto my parents’ family tree – I never quite got why adoptees would get so upset about “the family tree project” – I have a tree; it’s just that mine bears different fruit… Or possibly no fruit.)
Now things are new, and modern, and instant. In the age of social media and omniscience delivered via warp speed fibre networks, adoptees are rising up in their hundreds and demanding information. What was once “very difficult to find” is now instantly searchable, crowdsourced, blogged, viral. Some of their quest I can’t relate to; I can’t picture myself as one of those adoptees in a photo, holding up a sign asking strangers to tell them where their biological relatives are. Those people so earnest in their vulnerability. That isn’t me.
But… I can hold my birth certificate in my hands. The original documents, the ones that other adoptees fight to attain. (OBCs or Original Birth Certificates are sealed in many US states, and adoptees are banned from ever finding out the kind of information that sits innocuously in my wooden chest, that was a prop of my childhood games… Even worse, some adoptees in the USA don’t even have citizenship rights for the only home they’ve ever known, which is a travesty.) It strikes me that this information that I’ve casually had to hand for most of my life and has never been hard fought for is something I’ve never romanticised or idolised. It’s just there. And in being just there, I’ve almost ignored it.
And yet… It’s now here, in my immediate possession, not an abstract file somewhere that’s sealed by the state. I have the very papers that my first mother touched, that she put her signature to, on which her name and birthdate and other identifying details reside.
If I could read my birth language, I could look for her. I could look for my first father. In my head, I have at least one biological brother who’s impossibly cool and would teach me that men of my ethnicity can be cool, too, rather than exotic beings I’ve never known. In my head, at least my sibling is on Facebook and we could exchange stories and figure out where to go from here.
Many adoptees are now doing 23andme, and other DNA testing. I’ve even seen posts on adoption forums where people urge adoptive parents to get their children tested when they’re still young, so they can get “answers” and “identity”. I guess my take on it is that I’ve never felt that my identity was purely DNA or biological, and that whilst it’s incontrovertible fact that I don’t look like the majority of people in my country, and I have my own idiosyncrasies (a tendency to wear black, an evil stare… But also an enthusiasm for animal cartoons and kawaii cuteness that may bely my biology), the me-ness of me is more than genes.
I worry that it might open up more information than I need, more questions than can be answered. If I did it – if I swabbed my cheek and found a distant cousin – or even a sibling, or parent – what would that mean? What would it mean if I found nothing? If it just confirmed my status as a genetic island?
I think all of this, the idea that information is out there and maybe I could find it, is wrapped up in a fear of raising my expectations in a way that wouldn’t be positive. I remind myself that I’m happy. I question the idea that all adoptees need to search for self (the prevailing paradigm being that somehow self and identity is tied up in finding one’s genetic roots – something to wrap your head around when you were brought up as the last of the “colourblind, assimilated” cohort of adoptees, where success is predicated not on remaining in touch with one’s birth culture but in assimilating as far as possible into the adoptive one).
I don’t feel like I’m missing out by not knowing. I know many adoptees do, but so much of my story is of everything that happened since. It’s hard to miss what you never had, and it’s hard to yearn for another life when the life you have is good, and nice, and full. And if you always managed down your expectations, if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t try and get their hopes up, and if you’re so used to being different that Other is a core part of your identity, then to search is to turn that paradigm on its head.
For me the only clear fact in all this is that I have this information… Information that I never lost, and information that I was never conscious of having. I didn’t have to dig for it, save for sorting through stuff to take to the new house, to the new life.
My birth certificate, my other-language identity, is in my hands.
I have been thinking lately about what it’s like to be infertile / pursuing IVF / post miscarriage.
I realised that’s how it feels. I feel Other.
Regular readers of my blog will know that I’ve had a whole lifetime of getting used to being Other. I was born overseas and I was adopted a few days after birth by my white British parents. Unlike some adoptees (note: I dislike the word but for the purposes of this blog I use it for brevity rather than “people who were adopted”), my parents actually lived in the country of my birth and even spoke some of my “native” language. (I say native as I was preverbal when I lived there so my native language is English.) I realised over the weekend when I was randomly thinking about it that my white British parents actually lived longer in my country of birth than I ever did. Strange.
Growing up with non-white features it was ingrained in me from the start that I was Other. (Okay, possibly not the start, but pretty much smacked me in the face when I moved to England.) The predominant beauty standards are white and you probably have no idea how internalised that beauty standard is. For example, it’s taken me until recent years, my late 30s, to understand that people of my race can actually be attractive. And for me – I used to hate how I looked so much, that I would stare for hours in the mirror at myself and wish that my eyes and nose and hair and skin were different, and I could just be “normal” (blonde, blue eyed). Even though there are probably more people who look like me in the world than not. Fast forward to adolescence and females of my race are fetishised as exotic and ascribed a level of ability with the opposite sex that has simultaneously served me well, as well as slightly repulsed me.
It’s kind of tricky growing up different. Of course I had a sibling, also adopted from the same country, who was supposed to make me feel less alone. Our parents wanted us to have that kind of buddy and racial mirroring, I guess. (They came from the era where “colourblindness” was the prevailing attitude, pretending you can’t see race, which is really quite confusing to transracially adopted kids. They didn’t know any better – I don’t blame them, but it really is confusing when people tell you they can’t see a problem when there is clearly a problem.)
It’s been a love-hate relationship between my adopted sibling and me all our lives. At times it’s felt like a reminder of my own failings, a mirror to my Otherness. At times it’s felt like I had an ally and at times it’s felt like we were both as clueless as each other. We don’t know how to be [our race], other than in looks. We had very few racial mirrors growing up (as they now talk of as important on transracial adoption forums). I hate to admit it, but I was kind of scared of people of my own race… they seemed so foreign… and if I really admit it, I probably still do. I’m insanely jealous of [ethnic minority] colleagues who have loads of [their race] friends. Like, I like white people; I really do – I live with one, and my family’s mainly white – but it would be nice once in a while to not be the token ethnic.
Infertility and transracial adoption is a strange and ironic kind of intersectionality where I kind of want to start singing Alanis Morrisette’s Ironic, aside from the fact that everyone knows it’s not really about irony. There’s a special sort of bad luck associated with that primal desire to have some sort of genetic connection to another being, which adopted and non-adopted alike seem to want more often than not, and the inability to have that even when your first genetic links were severed. It’s like lightning striking twice – no, you can’t have a genetic relation! Can you really lose both your first family and your potential family? That seems kind of double bad luck! You lose the ability to see your parents in yourself, and you lose the ability to see yourself in your kids. That is something basic, something primal, and something that pretty much everyone else takes for granted. It seems doubly unfair not to have both, no matter how “lucky” you are as an adoptee.
I can only speak for myself as an adoptee. Others have different stories… We aren’t some amorphous mass of adoptedness. A lot of the time when I read stuff on adoption forums and blogs, I feel like I can’t relate, and maybe that’s another layer of intersectionality – the treatment of ethnic minorities (UK term) / people of color (US term) in the UK (where I live) and the US (where most bloggers/forum posters seem to live). I think my experience growing up overseas in a primarily American expatriate environment followed by “assimilation” in the British environment in the UK gives me a specific perspective that probably differs from a lot of what I read online. I don’t at all dismiss those voices, and equally I think it’s good if we recognise we aren’t all the same – some dichotomy of angry or grateful (the adoptee tropes) – we are all different, all complex, all different shades.
My feelings about adoption have changed and developed, which is apparently common with adoptees. As a younger child and adult I really downplayed the idea that genetic links mattered and that there was any need to have a child related to me by blood… I kind of thought it didn’t matter, because it didn’t matter that my family wasn’t genetically related to me. (I always saw myself having children, though.) As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more “woke” (as they call it in adoption rights parlance) to the idea that adoption isn’t just as tickety-boo as it might seem (I’m not opposed to it but I think there are reasons I would hesitate about doing it, particularly in the UK where there is far less of a domestic adoption “market” as there is in the US/overseas, meaning that we don’t really have babies adopted to order and more likely involving traumatised children who have been involuntarily removed from their parents). I’ve also become more in tune with the idea that I’ve lost my genetic links and my cultural heritage and that that’s a loss rather than just a fact, and I would like if possible if my child could have that familiarity and genetic link to its parents.
I don’t know if I’m really explaining it very well… It’s just how I feel. Both my partner and I were adopted as babies; we both had largely positive experiences (though mine was negatively impacted by being a different race to the predominant one) and we both feel that our adoptive families are our families, and we feel secure and happy in our families. And yet – we both would like to have a child who is genetically ours. We haven’t fully explored what our choice would be if/when we decide to give up on the fertility treatments. I can’t say for sure what I would want, but I don’t think we would automatically move towards adoption (plus I think it’s insulting to think that just because we were adopted, we should “just adopt” – it’s really not that simple). Life without kids isn’t worthless, no matter what the media might portray. We enjoy our life right now with Dog and without children, so maybe we would just not have kids.
And here we are, putting ourselves (mainly me) through this gruelling and intrusive process, just to grasp that teeny tiny flicker of hope that it might work and we might become parents. I started down regulation just over a week ago and honestly, I feel pretty crappy.
First of all, it makes me feel like I have perma-PMS. I now have a big zit on my chin, which always makes me feel really self conscious (I had very bad acne as a teen which only healed when I went on the pill – bad skin just added to my intense hatred of my looks). I’ve also piled back on the weight which I don’t know whether to attribute to a bad month of eating (staycation, Easter, general PMS-like feelings from down regulation) or to the side effects of the Buserelin. Either way I’m back up to a high weight and I’d been doing really well losing 4-5kg, so it makes me feel awful and fat. Plus whatever’s in Buserelin (it dampens down your body’s natural cycle which is then kick started by stimulation meds in a couple of weeks) makes my boobs grow enormous.
The upside of this is that T really likes the bigger boobs; the downside is I hate them. They feel sore and I feel like they make me look fat. He says the drugs make me more moody too, which is probably not a surprise as they basically mimic PMS symptoms. Ugh. So I’m spotty, with greasy hair, humungaboobs and fat as well as moody. It’s basically the dream combo for making a baby! (Nevertheless we did have a bit of how’s your father over the weekend, because you may as well take advantage of having big boobs when the situation arises.) I’ve found myself feeling more emotional than normal, which is maybe a side effect of down regulation. (Or: I’m just a moody cow.) I feel more than ever that there are situations in which people (let’s call them breeders) act in a way that is massively triggering.
One such occasion happened last week when I was on the tube. The tube was delayed for ages due to some kind of mechanical problems which means it was way more crowded than usual. I was standing up for part of the way and was feeling kind of gross (as for some reason I’ve also been feeling a bit nauseous, probably due to the Buserelin or possibly that I keep stuffing myself). A guy holding a toddler obnoxiously asked people to move down inside the carriage (people do this and it’s very annoying because the carriage was already really crowded and people weren’t standing there just for fun). Someone in front of me vacated their seat and I went to take it, and then this guy holding the toddler kind of muscled in and said in a really loud voice “Could I have that seat please” – indicating the child as a reason. I duly gave up my seat.
This is probably a London etiquette thing but the basic hierarchy for seats is: disabled people, pregnant women, old people – then everyone else. There’s no place in the hierarchy for children, and in many cases, people will ask their children to stand up or sit on their laps if lots of people are standing. The other point is that children travel free. So by taking up a seat, a child is taking a seat from people who have paid, whilst they haven’t paid. Now, I always give up my seat to people who fall in the above categories. Believe it or not, I’m especially attuned to pregnant women because to see one is basically to be punched in the face with your infertility. They have these badges they wear saying Baby On Board which is depending on how you see it, either a smug way of saying they’re pregnant but more likely a British thing of asking for a seat without actually having to ask. If you see someone with a badge on, you need to offer them a seat. Everyone knows that. (Strangely it always seems to be me giving a seat, rather than a man.)
What bugged me and triggered me about this man was his sense of entitlement. Sure, it’s not fun standing on a crowded tube train with a toddler. But he was travelling in rush hour, which is when most people are getting to work (it seems unlikely he was, given his casual wear and the kid), and there were delays, meaning that most of the carriage was full of standing people. Like I said, it’s absolutely not the norm to give a seat because someone has a child (it was an able bodied, verbal child) and then it soon became apparent that this guy was there with his wife/partner, as he started speaking in a loud “Daddy” voice to the toddler about “Mummy” for the entire journey. I’m all for fathers being happy to be fathers but parents who shove parenthood into everyone else’s faces really p*** me off.
In fact the man sitting next to him immediately got up and offered me his seat, because he also seemed to grasp how ridiculous it was to be told to give up your seat for an able bodied man and child. (Note I didn’t say anything about feeling nauseous or ill or anything, because as a non-pregnant non-mother we are pretty much implied to be invisible and pointless… I don’t get a vote.) I appreciatively took the seat and then wham… a woman gets on with a Baby on Board badge, and nobody offers her a seat, so I jump up out of my seat and she waddles through the crowd and takes it. (I’m not mad at her, just mad at all the people closer to her who should have given up their seat – including the able bodied man and child… The guy just carried on yabbering to the child really loudly, as if he thought he didn’t have to give up his seat for a pregnant lady.)
Point was of this whole story is how a seemingly innocuous event can make you feel terrible. Maybe it’s the down regulation and the drugs that are making me feel bad. Maybe it’s my history of infertility and loss that makes me feel like I’m constantly reminded of how I’m a second class citizen because I don’t – can’t – have a child. Maybe it’s a lifetime of feeling Other. Or maybe it’s all three.
I got a seat eventually, when the obnoxious Daddy got off (not after giving the entire carriage a running commentary in baby voice about every single stupid aspect of the journey – basically being inconsiderate to everyone else, either because he thought his job as Daddy was so important or he just didn’t care). It’s such a stupid small thing, but the effects of that journey are still ongoing. I am still smarting from it a week later, still feeling inadequate and still feeling resentful. I even feel resentful that I’m resentful. Like, I shouldn’t even care what some dimwit does on the tube, but I do. It’s pretty much impossible to escape one’s childlessness and the constant reminders that we are lesser human beings because we haven’t managed to perform this basic human function.
And yet. There are good things happening too. (I promise you I’m not sitting around in a fug of childlessness… I’ve been childless my whole life so I’ve had time to get accustomed to the idea!) Hopefully our house is moving ahead, which is a good thing. I mean, it’s exciting to think we might have our own home. We even went to the Ideal Home Show at the weekend just to look around, as we got free tickets – it’s fun to play dream house although our new place is tiny and doesn’t have space for most stuff! T made me think of fun things like what would my ideal cooker be. (He’s great at cheering me up. It would be a big range cooker! Impractical for a small flat!) On Sunday we introduced Dog to our friends’ dog – they’d never met – and went for a long walk. They aren’t friends as such given the other dog is 4 times Dog’s size, but the other dog “gave” our Dog a cow’s ear (URGH) to chew on, which Dog’s almost beside himself with happiness about. (I, on the other hand, am disgusted.)
Work is much easier now I know I’m leaving! It’s quite gratifying when people are being annoying, to think that I don’t have to deal with them for much longer. My work friend left last week which was sad, as it means I don’t have her to chat to any more, but I did inherit her desk which is a total prime desk by the window in the corner (not overlooked – win!) which is fun to think of as it means I have it for the next couple of months whilst working my notice! Which is quite nice!
So actually I’m sort of happy about things. I’m just working through my feelings on here, and aside from the Buserelin Blues (which should be a song – boo-boo-be-doo) I am generally okay. I need to work on not getting worked up!
Next steps for IVF:
I have my first scan on 12 April. This means in a week’s time I could be starting stims and I also have some of the reproductive immunology stuff from Dr S to take. Maybe a week or two after that, egg collection. Quite exciting… although daunting to think of how many other steps there are after that. T and I were talking about it and thinking ahead to next steps if this doesn’t work. Like if we move, we might have to go to a different clinic for the next cycle. We might change eligibility so might not get another NHS cycle, which would mean going privately. It sounds negative but I find it easier to try and plan for contingencies and think that we have a plan if it doesn’t work out.
I am hopeful. It’s just that I’m slightly more realistic… slightly more bruised than I was in Cycle 1.
“I went to China to find the birth mother who left me on a street corner. Instead, I became the focus of a nation’s buried pain.”
Read the full story here.
At the Oscars, Chris Rock, who ironically made it a point to address the lack of diverse representation at the awards ceremony, also made an insensitive joke that played to Asian American stereotypes and child labor. You can watch a clip here: …and by the way, those are not those children’s real names…
Read more… (Really, do! Please!)
I’ve never been punched in the face. Not in an actual fight, at least. I’m not much of a fighter, I suppose… more of an “arguer.” I don’t think I’m “scared” to get into a fight, necessarily — there have been many times I have put myself in situations where a physical fight could easily have happened.
I just can’t see myself ever being the guy who throws the first punch, and I’m usually the kind of guy who DE-escalates things with logic or humor. And one of the things about being that sort of person, is that the other sort of guy — the sort who jumps into fights quickly — tends to not really be a big fan of me. Not when he first meets me, at least. They usually like me later. Not always. You can’t win ‘em all…
When I moved to Nashville, I didn’t really know anyone. I got a job as a server on my second day here. And before long, I was one of the servers the management favored, which meant I got better shifts, better sections and better money.
About nine months after I had been there, a new guy started. We instantly disliked each other. He didn’t like my smart mouth, and I didn’t like how he walked in and immediately acted like he owned the place. He carried himself with this annoying confidence — like it was his world, and he would tolerate our being in it, as long as we stayed out of his damn way.
There were also rumors that this guy had spent some time in jail, and it was very clear that he was not a “DE-escalater.” He was the sort of guy who knew exactly how much he could bench, you know? And you could sense that — just below the surface — there was always this restless energy that silently dared you to say something. He was an intimidating dude.
So it bothered me a little bit when — only a month after he started working there – he was already getting rotated into some of the good sections. Another mouth to feed meant less money for me. He was a good server though.
But nothing he did got under my skin nearly as bad as this: When Chuck (we’ll call him “Chuck.” His name wasn’t Chuck, but it was definitely a name in the “Chuck” category of names. It certainly wasn’t a pushover name like “Chris”) would walk toward you, he always expected you to be the one to move out of the way. He didn’t do this when walking toward girls.
But if he and another guy (me, especially) were heading toward each other, he would head straight for the other guy — not making eye contact — and he always assumed he had the right of way. If not, you would get bumped by this stocky, solid mass of aggression who seemed to be just itching for someone to question his intended path. And really, this seemed to best describe how Chuck lived his whole life — walking straight at people, and expecting them to move. Until one day…
I had had enough.
I kept thinking, “Why am I always moving out of this guy’s way?” Just about everyone else in the world seemed to agree that if two people were walking toward each other, both people would acquiesce a little, leaning the side closest to the other person back just so.
What gave this guy the right to just expect that I’m going to move out of his way? And then another thought started tugging at my brain: “What if I didn’t move? What if I just kept walking too?”
I was done playing by his rules. And that evening, as he walked quickly toward me in the aisle of the restaurant (we both were fairly fast walkers), I walked toward him — and I didn’t move. I’m not a giant of a man, but I’m solid enough to hold my own — especially when I see a collision coming — and the impact spun him around.
Right there, in front of guests, he immediately said, “What the F*CK, dude!?”
I said, “You alright?”
He was furious, and insisting to know why I had just bumped into him.
I said, “Chuck, I was just walking. Why did you assume that I was going to move out of your way?”
He followed me around the restaurant, angrily attempting to escalate things. He ended up stopping me by another table, and when I said something along the lines of “Welcome to planet Earth,” he shoved me. Hard. And not like a shove where you put your hands on someone and then shove.
It was the sort of shove where his hands were already moving really fast when they hit my chest, and it made a pretty loud noise. All of his bench-pressing muscles let lose on me — this person who dared question his right of way — and I was knocked about two steps back.
I walked away from him, and I could feel my heart beating in my ears. I thought about what I should do, if I should say something to a manager (that didn’t seem like a good idea), if I should say anything more to Chuck (that seemed like an even worse idea).
I decided to just try to avoid him for a bit and let him cool off. About 15 minutes later, the GM asked to talk to me. He said that a guest had seen Chuck angrily shove me, and had complained and described what happened (describing it as him “hitting” me, but it was definitely a shove).
I told him what happened — about him always assuming I was going to move, about me simply walking and not moving, and about the arguing and the shove that followed. It was a corporate restaurant, so he took everything very seriously. He filled out an incident report, asked me if I wanted to press charges, and told me if I wanted him gone, he was fired. I said that I didn’t want the guy to lose his job. I just wanted him to recognize that other people had every right to be there that he did.
And so, I recently thought about this story again after I had just read this amazing quote (a quote for which I tried very hard to find an attribution, but kept coming up “Unknown):
“When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”
And things started making a little more sense to me. All this anger we see from people screaming “All Lives Matter” in response to black protesters at rallies. All this anger we see from people insisting that their “religious freedom” is being infringed because a gay couple wants to get married. All these people angry about immigrants, angry about Muslims, angry about “Happy Holidays,” angry about not being able to say bigoted things without being called a bigot…
They all basically boil down to people who have grown accustomed to walking straight at other folks, and expecting them to move. So when “those people” in their path don’t move — when those people start wondering, “Why am I always moving out of this guy’s way?”; when those people start asking themselves, “What if I didn’t move? What if I just kept walking too?”; when those people start believing that they have every bit as much right to that aisle as anyone else — it can seem like their rights are being taken away.
Equality can feel like oppression. But it’s not. What you’re feeling is just the discomfort of losing a little bit of your privilege — the same discomfort that an only child feels when she goes to preschool and discovers that there are other kids who want to play with the same toys as she does.
It’s like an old man being used to having a community pool all to himself, having that pool actually opened up to everyone in the community, and then that old man yelling, “But what about MY right to swim in a pool all by myself?!”
And what we’re seeing politically right now is a bit of anger from both sides. On one side, we see people who are angry about “those people” being let into “our” pool. They’re angry about sharing their toys with the other kids in the classroom.
They’re angry about being labeled a “racist,” just because they say racist things and have racist beliefs. They’re angry about having to consider others who might be walking toward them, strangely exerting their right to exist.
This is the “Again” of “Make America Great Again.” Don’t worry, they’ll just open some swim clubs and make the membership really expensive…
On the other side, we see people who believe that pool is for everyone. We see people who realize that when our kids throw a fit in preschool, we teach them about how sharing is the right thing to do. We see people who understand being careful with their language as a way of being respectful to others. We see people who are attempting to stand in solidarity with the ones who are claiming their right to exist — the ones who are rightfully angry about having to always move out of the way, people who are asking themselves the question, “What if I just keep walking?”
Which kind of person are you?
I should mention that “Chuck” and I eventually became friends, proving that people who see the world very differently can get along when they are open to change, and when they are willing to try to see the world though another person’s eyes. There is hope.
In case you hadn’t gathered from my blog musings, I work in a very competitive and fairly aggressive industry. It also happens to be an industry mainly populated by white males… which isn’t something I considered that much as a student at a Russell Group university, or as an adolescent doing her GCSEs and A levels, or as a little non-white girl dreaming of what she’d do when she grew up. I went into this industry largely inspired by my father – a white male* – who was my main work role model growing up.
(*I was adopted transracially by white parents so have grown up mainly around white people, as an ethnic minority.)
That’s not to minimise the role of my mother. She is possibly the strongest woman I know, and probably the main reason why my youthful dreams weren’t shattered earlier. I grew up with the British version of the American Dream, with a female prime minister – with no concept that we might be limited as women by the lack of male genitalia.
But my dad was the corporate guy. (My mother the entrepreneur, which as all good children of the 80s know is dangerous.) The number one focus for us growing up from our “Tiger parents” (very Asian even though they’re white!) was how we were going to be self sufficient later. And the route to security was not strewn with artistic and creative endeavours. The path to Comfortably Middle Class (for my working class background parents) is lined with Bloody Hard Work, and University, and Getting A Good Job.
I once said I wanted to be an artist. Like Van Gogh. The response? “In your spare time. Van Gogh never made any money whilst he was alive, and he cut off his ear!” I loved art as a child but I relegated it to a side interest. (Even now, I try and introduce creativity to spreadsheets and powerpoints, but I’m fighting a losing battle against corporate branding!)
The fact is: there aren’t very many women where I work. And in the sector and industry where I work, there are considerably fewer. I kind of thought I was used to it, until in the past week I was called in to provide subject matter expertise on a client outside my usual industry. (My usual one is the old white guys in pinstripe suits stereotype, and I have to tell you, it doesn’t deviate much.)
I walked into the office and the first thing that hit me was:
There are women!
There are ethnic women!
There are people like me working here!
Seriously, I could have had a little party right then and there. I went to a board meeting and I was prepared (and scared) for the usual being talked over and so on that comes with being an ethnic female in a white male space.
It didn’t happen.
Because when I looked around the board table, there were almost equal numbers of women, and this was a senior exec meeting. They were in charge of stuff. There was a black guy too. It was extremely diverse and it wasn’t even worthy of comment, other than for me – who wasn’t used to this level of diversity or equality. I talked through my section and nobody challenged it. There was no pushback. The white guy in charge even backed me up.
Shocker! But sad when you think that my default position as an ethnic female – even as the most senior female in my position – is automatically to assume that I come lower down in the pecking order. To assume that I am less valid than others, and that I’ll have to justify my opinion harder because of it. That’s nuts.
And I know that part of this is the industry I work in (where white guys in meetings routinely “forget” to shake my hand, or acknowledge me last because they assume the males are more senior, even when they aren’t). I guess it’s some kind of syndrome where you have had enough bad treatment to not be surprised when someone treats you badly – like a maltreated animal shrinking from humans.
And I realised yesterday how that way of thinking was damaging my own ability to think of myself as someone who is competent. Not just competent, but pretty good.
I mentioned the other day I did two first round interviews lately. (Not because I’m actually desperate to leave my current job… I mean, I am, some days… But because my philosophy is that you might as well have a conversation about opportunities. Every time I have changed jobs in the past few years it’s been because someone reached out and said “Why don’t we have a conversation?” And I took the opportunity! I kind of think you have to make opportunity for yourself.) The completely unexpected outcome is that I have two second round interviews. One of them even had their recruiter call me yesterday (as I’d expressed some concerns about it, mainly that the interviewer didn’t seem very keen on me!) and she told me all this great feedback. Somehow the interviewer had seen something in me I didn’t see in myself.
I also had a feedback session with one of the senior women at work, based on some work I did for their team before Christmas. She asked me to write some notes on my own feedback and then gave her own version of what I should add. She would then write up the notes.
Firstly, this woman is one of the most senior in my industry – there are very few who get to the top, and she’s one off that.
Secondly, she was really nice to work for. I mean, she cared a lot about the people who worked for her and everyone got on really well. I was there to write a report, kind of an external programme assurance report on their team performance and they were super high achieving, and also super nice. And it was due in no small part to her leadership.
Thirdly, every time I ran through what I’d written, she gave me a different, more positive way to write it, and also thought of things that I hadn’t even thought to include.
Me: Able to draw on previous experience of XXX structures in XXX.
Her: Nara was able to run information gathering sessions with the team to focus on articulating the XXX sections which were more challenging to define.
Me: Identified ways in which the information gathering process could be streamlined for future reports.
Her: Nara was inventing and driving us to the reward (net new business) – coming up with conceptions of the report and articulating that with the client, and coming up with ways to iterate with the team.
Me: I didn’t really work as part of the team, so I haven’t put anything much in that section.
Her: Nara’s role enabled the team to deliver whilst she produced the report – it was hugely important for the team to be successful and not overloaded. She recognised that they all had other priorities but was able to extract the information with minimum distraction.
Do you see what I mean? The woman’s a genius.
One of the cliché ways that women apparently don’t help themselves is to not want to “blow their own trumpet”. I’m considered a confident woman, and I even got asked by some more junior women to mentor them at work. (I was really honoured as I don’t work with them and they’d somehow come across me and considered me a role model. I even have weekly meetings with one of them.) And I’m still not comfortable having to tell people what a great job I’m doing. It’s definitely something that she really helped with. (Even if it sounds like jargon, which I think it probably does to someone outside the industry – what I’m trying to get across is that I had put down some very objective and neutral feedback, and she found a way to say it in a more positive way, that would be seen as a better contribution.)
At the end of our meeting, she said to me that she realised that I had no direct female leadership or even any leadership in my specific area. (The complicated way our company works is that you’re aligned to multiple teams – one team based on what you do, and one team based on the industry you work in… The type of clients you have. I am basically the most senior person – not just female – in my specific area, which makes it kind of tricky to develop new business without going more technical or more into industry.) She saw that, and she offered to mentor me. It was all I could do not to bite her arm off!
So I was really pleased. I guess the thing is, I don’t focus all the time on being a woman, or being non-white (I promise I don’t!). But sometimes it takes someone more senior to say: I think you’re selling yourself short. You’re actually okay. I think you’re quite good.
It’s what I try and pass on to my mentees, a belief in themselves and a way to try and think of the positive things about themselves and how they can build on them. In business speak, how you can monetise yourself! I think as women *mass generalisation* and as ethnic minorities *mass generalisation* we often fall into those roles that stereotype us as submissive, or less able, or less hungry, or not one of the guys. (The last one is probably true.) And nobody’s asking us to be white or male, no matter how much we might pigeonhole ourselves. Sometimes we have to figure out a way to tell them our value – and sometimes (a lot of the time), that value is in not being a white guy.
My dad, the white guy, used to tell me that he always made sure he had women in his team. He was pretty senior in his industry before he retired, and he worked in a stereotypical white male environment. He didn’t want the women for their looks. (That would be bad!) He said he wanted them because they’d often be able to see things in a different way. He said he wanted to make sure he’d considered every angle and that the more diverse the team, the more different ways of thinking there were. This is from the guy who adopted two ethnic babies. But also the guy who won industry awards many years running for being the guy everyone wanted to work with.
So I say…
A February resolution:
- I’m going to blow my own trumpet more.
- I’m going to encourage others, especially my mentees, especially those who are not stereotypically into telling people how good they are, to blow theirs.
- And I’m going to take that leader up on her offer. Partly because every time I speak with her, I come away with a new insight. And partly because she’s really bloody nice and really bloody cool.
Call to action!
Tell me how awesome you are. I already know, but I want you to tell me.
I’m going to a christening. I have to go, because it’s for my niece. And I feel generally okay about it. It’s been long enough since I miscarried (last July) that I’ve settled back down into my old identity of Childless Me.
For my sister, who miscarried a few months after I did, also as a result of IVF, and also as an adoptee (the irony is never lost on me that the bad luck just keeps lining up), I think maybe it’s rawer.
I was thinking this week about My Other Life (previous post). In that life I would be due next week. It’s a bit crazy to think about things like that. And it seems a bit cutting to have to go to the christening of a baby when I should have so nearly had my own by now. (Perhaps s/he would have come early and I could have escaped!) But I suppose it’s better than their original plan of having it on my birthday weekend.
When it comes down to it, I think there are people like my brother and his wife who simply haven’t had much suffering in their lives, and therefore don’t think about the impact that their actions have on others. I don’t think they specifically thought “Let’s schedule the christening for her birthday when she recently lost a baby!” or later, just before my due date. They’ve never had difficulty getting pregnant, never lost a baby and wouldn’t even think of my due date.
They also scheduled it in a far flung place in London first thing in the morning so most of the guests have to travel down the day before and stay overnight in a hotel. Because they want to do it in the morning! They’re not bothered about the expense of an overnight stay. (£120 a night… My parents are staying 2 nights.) And I found out that following the church service, they aren’t even putting on a reception! It seems extremely odd to expect people to come and attend and not give them any refreshments, but perhaps that’s just me. (I was brought up religious but I’m not religious.)
I guess it got me thinking about privilege. There is this concept of privilege and especially “white privilege” that’s often spoken about in the adoptee community. It’s the idea that certain people (usually white males) can’t understand what it is like to be not white, or a female, or disabled, etc.
I wasn’t born into privilege. As a non-white female, I’m at the bottom of the heap as far as “diversity” goes. (Although, it’s not a competition and I feel fortunate that I am not disabled as I think that must be more difficult.) At work, it’s a double whammy of being Not A Man and Not White. But outside work I have grown up with whiteness, and I’ve mixed in white circles and have mainly white friends.
I’m not black. I’ve talked with my black friends about this, that in many ways I envy the black identity. I’m aware that black people would cite this as the ultimate example of non-black privilege. And I can’t be black. (I’ve no desire to go Dolezal. Wouldn’t work and I don’t think it would really cut it in the UK anyway, where blackness is different than in the US.)
What I mean is: I’ve been involved in ethnic diversity movements in the corporate world and I’m often the only non black person there. It’s like I can’t claim an identity because as an adoptee I don’t have a real ethnic identity. And “my people” are basically invisible in the UK. I envy my black friends who have these circles of strong black women, and have a proud non white identity. They aren’t white and they don’t look white and they don’t want to be white. I’m not white – I’m kind of off-white, and truth be told, sometimes I want to be white. Not because I hate myself (I’m sort of used to how I look) but I feel like life would be easier to be one thing or another.
Anyway, I digress. This whole thing, the christening, the distance from the loss of PB – coupled by the idea that he would almost be here – makes me think idly that there are so many people who have to go through this crap. But there are so many who don’t. And my brother – the archetypal white guy, everyone’s Nice Guy and friend – can whisk through his privileged white life without ever having to deal with loss. He’s not mean, or intentionally wounding. He simply hasn’t ever had to deal with that level of pain.
And also: my parents who adopted me gave us all privilege. So I’ve had borrowed privilege. I went to a good school. I went to uni. I had enough allowance to rent my first flat. They instilled in me a need to work hard enough to earn my own money and be self sufficient and I did it.
And yet: I’m acutely aware that borrowed privilege confers its own issues. I’m not meant to be middle class. I’m meant to be poor. I was born to a single mother, too young to afford to keep me; too unsupported to be able to keep me. Maybe even too unwilling to be a mother to want to keep me. I don’t look like a white middle class person. To the ones I mix with at work, I’ll always be Other. To my friends, I’ll always be quirky – partly because maybe I’m quirky but partly because I’ll never be able to blend in as a wholesome white girl. I’m not quite anything.
And yet I’m me. All this pondering probably makes me sound overly introspective and sad. I’m honestly not! If anything, I’m happier than I’ve been in a while. I love T and we have Dog and finally things are a bit easier at work. I let myself think of what might have been, and it gave me a moment of sadness. (I almost cried in Starbucks. That was embarrassing. But plus side: I love Starbucks!)
Compared with what might have been, I try to think instead of what Is.
This time last year I was under immense stress at work and now I’m not. (It was project based – so it could happen again, but at least I’ve had a few low stress months.) We are going into our second cycle of IVF in March. I have an appointment with the reproductive immunology doctor before then in a couple of weeks. T and I went to explore a new area and we finally thought it could be somewhere we want to settle, where we could see ourselves making a permanent life.
And I get to see my family this weekend. My crazy but lovely (but crazy… did I mention how my family members are all cray cray?) and crazy family. We don’t get together that often as we all live in different places (and they’re crazy) so it’s nice to see them once in a while. The crazy b*ggers.
Things could really be worse.
I still don’t really like christenings though…
“She probably meant no offense; she just forgot her manners or, more likely, slipped and gave voice to the truth she believes, the truth that lives in her head. Unlike her, I didn’t have the luxury of forgetting myself or my place.”
Read more What Goes Through Your Mind: On Nice Parties and Casual Racism…
From the New York Times, December 14, 2015. Whilst not about transracial adoption, I always think we have a lot in common with biracial / mixed race people – we are often part of one culture with a predominant race (usually white) whilst appearing not all or one of the other races.
Despite what my parents assume, I’ve never once identified as white. As soon as I knew what race was, I knew I wasn’t white. I am not black either, and we live in a society which is often binary. I don’t get to be either. (I live in London, the “melting pot” of the U.K., and even here it is very clear there’s a white strata of society that I can play in but never belong to. And I realise that the US has very different race issues than the U.K.)
And finally, because this is more about a reblog than me(!), I thought again yesterday about how absurd it is that we distinguish and judge people on skin colour. I mean, it is absurd. This may be going against the “modern” idea that we shouldn’t be “colourblind” but come on, people. What. The. ????
Do you realise skin colour’s no more choosable than height? That it has no more correlation to a person’s character than the length of their eyelashes or the widened of their mouth? Should we construct a society based on something as uncorrelated with meaning as the span of someone’s hands? (Oh… We just did.)
“I never realized how little I understood race until I tried to explain it to my 5-year-old son. Our family story doesn’t seem too complicated: I’m Chinese-American and my husband is white, an American of English-Dutch-Irish descent; we have two children. My 5-year-old knows my parents were born in China, and that I speak Cantonese sometimes. He has been to Hong Kong and Guangzhou to visit his gung-gung, my father. But when I asked him the other day if he was Chinese, he said no.
“You’re Chinese, but I’m not,” he told me, with certainty. “But I eat Chinese food.” This gave me pause. How could I tell him that I wasn’t talking about food or cultural heritage or where we were born? (Me, I’m from Queens.) I had no basis to describe race to him other than the one I’d taken pains to avoid: how we look and how other people treat us as a result.”