An #importedAsians POV: Kelsee Hill
Would you please introduce yourself, and tell me more about your background, what you do etc.?
My name is Kelsee, and I belong to the subgroup of Asians known as adoptees. I was adopted in 1996 from the province of Anhui, China when I was just 4 years old. My mother, who was a single white American, came all the way to China with my grandmother to pick me up. I was then brought back to America and essentially assimilated into my family. I recognize and value my privilege of growing up in a white community and benefiting from the opportunities, such as formal education. With that said, there is a tradeoff that occurred for these privileges. I lost a piece of myself that I can never regain, no matter how much effort and time I try to understand myself. I’ll speak more about that trade-off as we continue.
In my younger years, in my new homeland, fate would take away my adoptive mother and in place, my grandmother would step in to care for me until I reached adulthood. Ironically, my grandmother wasn’t supposed to accompany my mother to China, but fate had other plans for her. My grandmother went with my adoptive mother to China on her first and only trip outside of the country. I’m glad she did, because those moments in China laid out an important foundation for her and my future relationship with her. I’m grateful for her because she essentially ended up with another kid that she didn’t expect to have. There’s a reason for everything, and this is one of the life philosophies that I live by. This life philosophy, taught by my grandmother, would show itself again as the caretaker role reversed itself. I found myself caring for the very woman that cared for me in my younger years. I felt that I came to my family for a reason and this comfort and helps me to cope with my adoption and life transitions.
Growing up in a predominantly white community, have you ever struggled with your own identity as an Asian woman and especially as an adopted Asian woman?
The short answer is yes, as I am sure many others that share similar beginnings do. I landed in the Midwest in America, and I haven’t strayed far away from it since. To give you a little perspective of my area’s demographics, in the 2000 census in America, it revealed, in my area, that 99% of the community that I inhabited was white and there was only 1% that were of Asian origin. Today’s me is a bit proud of that fact; I added a little historical diversity to my community. There wasn’t a lot of diversity in my area to say the least. As a result, it didn’t provide me with much opportunity to interact with other Asians, let alone Chinese adoptees or the adoptee community. My family also didn’t celebrate festivals like Lunar New Year or anything to do with my heritage. My family is based in Christianity, so we celebrated Easter and Christmas. Because of that, I had little exposure to my heritage, and as I grew older, I didn’t know how to act appropriately when I met other Asian peers or during Chinese festivals.
When I was in school, other kids would make fun of me and they even gave me a racist nickname. My new nickname was only used in certain areas and I thought to myself, “What the hell was that? What was the meaning of the nickname?” I didn’t really know what was happening, other than the fact that it was because I was Asian-looking. I did not bother to look it up. That’s all it was—a dumb nickname. But I wasn’t the kind of person who would stir up trouble either. I wanted to fit in, so I would never say anything about it. Looking back, I probably should have said something about it and how I was feeling, but I was taught to stick up for myself in that way by my teachers or family. I was not taught to be proud of my heritage or my differences in general. Not only did I not do anything about the bullying, if anything, I even joined in with that kind of behaviour. It was, unfortunately, self-deprecating. I was in-between two different cultures, and because (of this) I was still trying to figure out where I fit in. I didn’t realize that I can embrace both cultures, so I ended up gravitating towards one only—the one that I’m most familiar with, which was being with the white community. As a result, I denied the Asian aspect of myself for a long time. The name-calling started with the older students, and the younger students followed suit after learning from the older ones. Now, as an older individual who has a platform and better understanding of herself, it’s important to speak out so that the current and next generations don’t grow up with the same misconceptions as my community and I did. I want them to have a better understanding of the differences every culture has. It’s important to recognize those differences and not just try to assimilate others. Things are changing but it’s very slow. It’s one of those things where the more we—the adoptee community—put ourselves out there, the more our community gets that much-needed exposure. The world should know who we are, how we fit in, and that it’s okay that we are not all the same.
Are you currently part of any adoptee or Chinese adoptee communities?
When I was still in college, I started to do more research and tried to have a better understanding of my own Asian heritage. There was a lot more diversity on my college campus and a lot more opportunities to engage with other individuals from different walks of life. Eventually, I found another adoptee and her experience was very similar to mine; both of us were abandoned at birth but ended up being adopted to America. We just clicked on the same level and understanding. I didn’t have to explain anything to her about my adoption like I did with others. Later on, I started exploring more online community groups. I also watched this movie called "Somewhere Between," which talks about the stories of adoptees, and there was one adoptee who was also from my province. In the movie, the adoptees talked about how they were able to connect with other Asian adoptees, and that really got me thinking about how I can connect with others.
Since Facebook is one of the biggest platforms, I decided to search on there. I managed to find a group of other adoptees who were also 20-something. Due to COVID-19, it has really accelerated people’s means to connect with others. The online community has definitely grown so much since I joined. I also learned so much more about myself, such as about adoptions in the early 1990s. (I would be considered part of the first wave of Chinese adoptees.) There were also Korean adoptees, whose adoption wave came before the Chinese adoptees. They, the Korean adoptees, tend to be a lot older than us as a result.
One thing you mentioned in our conversation was “learned helplessness.” I find this a very interesting term. Do you mind expanding as to what this term means?
Sure. One of the things I learned in college is that children are taught behaviors and they learn behaviors. Learning is a fundamental part of being human. We never stop learning from the early stages of conception to well into our senior years of life. Essentially, “learned helplessness” is the thought that one cannot accomplish a task or achieve a concept due to learning from repeated failures or negative feedback from stimulus around them. This isn’t the exact definition; I encourage those who are interested to look up the exact definition, but it has a big factor in how future behaviors occur in both children and adults
What we learn is greatly influenced by our environment and experiences we go through. Now, throw in the life-altering event of adoption into another culture and you have a recipe for learned helplessness to occur. Our identity and self-worth stems from our learning. For me, as a transracial and transnational adoptee of the mid 1990s, I was raised in a race that was not biologically mine and in a country that held different values and beliefs than that of my homeland.
Like I had said earlier, in my family, we did not celebrate traditional Chinese holidays. We did not celebrate my arrival day in the form of, “Gotcha Day” or “Family Day.” My family’s values and beliefs centered around Christianity, and as such, we celebrated and recognized the traditions that came along with it. I learned that speaking my native language did not get me what I needed, so I picked up on English quickly. I ate what the family ate. Occasionally, we’d eat Americanized-Chinese restaurant food from the city adjacent to my hometown. I never looked at it as a cultural tie—it was food. Despite retaining my abilities to utilize chopsticks, my family household did not hold such utensils. As the only Asian representation of diversity in my hometown of all-white citizens, I had no reason to want to learn more about my differences. I had learned that I am not Chinese, but was just another member of my family and community.
I knew that I was different; that this difference was not necessarily a good thing. I learned to avoid anything that made others question me for fear of judgment or exclusion. I felt discomfort around those who were Asian. “I could not be like them, so why try? Why learn more about my heritage?” These were my thoughts when I was younger. Ironically, the country I was raised in valued individualistic ideas and promoted independence, yet I was taught to devalue my uniqueness and held up to arbitrary standards that I would never be able to live up to due to just the very nature of my biological makeup. As I grew, I continued to learn more about myself. I learned and had to unlearn new ways of thinking that shaped me into the person I am today.
Do you think it’s important for children to have a figure to look up to and guide them? Especially when they’re an Asian adoptee growing up in a white community?
Yes, I think it is very important that children that are raised in a culture and race other than the one they were born in, are given every opportunity to engage and interact with those who are like them. I never had that growing up and as a result, I lack the ability to properly engage with and be proud of my heritage. I felt awkward, and still struggle to this day, around other Asians. I must constantly fight back my learned, negative thoughts of: “I am not Asian enough” or “You’re not really Chinese.” Being Chinese is not just one construct as some may try to have you think. I think if I had an appropriate figure to look up to, that I’d be less self-deprecating. Having a figurehead is not a 100% guarantee that everything is alright, but it eases that transition and the loss that occurs in a slightly gentler way.
At the beginning of the interview, I had mentioned that living in the white community gave me privileges and opportunities. But again, I ask: “At what cost?” The financial cost is nothing compared to the lifelong adjustment a child will go through. Some will be more successful than others. Each of us must learn to cope the best we can. The choice of adoption wasn’t ours and was made for us by multiple parties before we had a voice or understanding . I am also not saying: “Adoption is bad.” What I am saying is that it is important that individuals, be it parents, friends, family members, or community members, understand that adoption can be both a blessing and a life-long struggle over loss. Denying an adoptee’s feeling of sadness over their adoption if they feel this way can be detrimental to some adoptee’s growth and mental health. Adoptees can feel both happy about their adoption and sad too. It’s okay. It’s not a failure, but a realization that things are different.
Having a mentor, or someone to look up to, can help in this process of understanding. With our connected world, there are plenty of resources for adoptees to utilize for guidance. If a child is too young, it’s on the parents to act in their child’s best interest and not necessarily their own. There are still pockets of communities that do not have much diversity; but again, it does not mean that there are not any resources for those adoptees to access.
I’m not sure if you’re aware, but recently there’s a couple from Youtube who came under fire for adopting a child from China and eventually giving him away because they couldn’t handle him because he had certain learning disabilities. This is heartbreaking because it is as if the child is a mere commodity and they only adopted the child to “save” him/her. However, when they could not deal with him anymore, they gave him away. What is your opinion towards this?
Adoption is a hard decision to make. It should not be taken lightly. Adoption involves two families changed forever. Adoptees are not commodities to utilize for what they are worth and then to be thrown away or abandoned when things do not go the way the parent expects it to. Adopting from another race and/or culture is even more challenging. I understand that there is only so much an adoptive family can do with a child, and then they have to make a decision on what is in the best interest of the child. But they need to ask themselves: “Would they do what they are planning to do to an adoptee if the adoptee was biologically theirs or would they continue to fight just a bit harder to not lose the child?” They took in a child, and that child is theirs. If they give that child away, then they are abandoning that child as well. The parents have to live with that guilt of abandoning. Families that have abandoned an adoptee should have an extra layer of requirements to go through before they are allowed to adopt another child.
I know we have discussed a lot of different topics today, but is there anything else that you would like to talk about today?
To sum up what we discussed today, I would like to re-emphasize that being happy and sad about adoption is okay. How adoptees interpret their adoption, their identity, their culture, themselves is for them to determine. If you see yourself as Asian, then you’re Asian. If you do not, then it’s okay as well. Your feelings are valid, and no one can tell you how you should or shouldn’t feel. Through my journey as an Asian adoptee, I am constantly learning and reevaluating myself. Some days I feel more Asian than others. Some days I’m more interested in my culture than others. It’s all okay. This is my interpretation on being a “Universal Asian.”