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Archive for January, 2008

I’ve used the term freely and often. But then I read a blurb from the new Hyphen magazine I paused. Here’s the blurb and the full-length article.  

http://www.hyphenmagazine.com/blog/archives/2007/12/hapa_featured_i.html

http://www.hyphenmagazine.com/features/web_exclusives/rethinking.php

I have to admit I have loved the word, found it short-hand even in describing my cousins who are all half-Chinese and half other things (not all the same things either). But, I have argued so many times about the importance and use of words that I can’t ignore this last article. I’m hitting the pause button on using Hapa. 

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Geesh, with the Patriot Act I actually thought twice about making that my header. I will trudge on without censoring myself.

My husband pulls the car into the Asian market and that’s what our daughter says. No, she’s not some college student disillusioned, not back from a year studying abroad but a five-year old looking forward to the bakery, Hello Kitty section and being in a place where everyone looks like her.

She says to him, “Just so you know, people here know me. I come a lot.” I’m the one who usually takes her to this market. On this day, he was showing her around. She had asked to go and that was a first. They had lunch and played. She talked about liking just being there. My Caucasian spouse with the long blond (and white) ponytail got to tell her how everyone stared at him a lot when he was in China. It wasn’t always comfortable. Unlike me who would have made a forty-five minute conversation about, “How do you feel, really feel, really really really feel?” He said, “Any time you want to be around a ton of Chinese people, just let me know.” It’s nice to have two parenting styles in the same house at times.

We had been in full force planning mode for a Chinese New Year event for Families with Children from China. I may know about events, enjoy spreadsheets and been the one handling registration but my daughter was quick to remind me, “I’m Chinese,” and therefore able to offer expert assistance at times on things Chinese.

It was a smash success of an event. The emphasis was child-centered. The set-up child centered. In this place, kids who have known each other since sharing the same crib in China or plane ride from China to the U.S. are joined with new best friends, cousins, aunts and uncles. We ALL get to share Chinese New Year.

I grew up in a family where we celebrated Chinese New Year. My aunt married a man who had lived in China for the first 10 years of his life. His parents hosted a Chinese New Year party and included us. We only knew it meant red envelopes with one dollar bills and LOTS of food at a big table. The plates were all empty and the food in the center. Then, the dishes passes around. Except for Thanksgiving, we didn’t eat that way. We learned to eat with chopsticks.

This year that same uncle attended the event. My aunt was volunteering and he drove her in the snow she hates. We didn’t know he was coming. It was wonderful, as an adult, to host him at an event. I was one-part proud and one-part worried about what he would think. He was full of praise and enthusiasm. My sister and brother. My mother and step-father. My half-Asian and half-Caucasian cousin and her half-Asian and half-Asian and half-Caucasian boyfriend – I almost said “hapa” but there’s some controversy about it (see next post). They helped with cultural crafts – for hours! Kai’s dear friend was there as well for her first Chinese New Year celebration. Afterwards, she wished she was Chinese. Kai said, “I don’t think she’d look right with black hair.” My nieces wore their silk Chinese blouses to school on Monday. My sister was reminded of our childhood celebrations of Chinese New Year. We ALL celebrated Chinese New Year. 

Trans-racial adoption isn’t always a fun and easy process. It’s complicated. I can learn about racism but I can’t tell my daughter how I felt, what I said or did when I experienced racism or isolation or felt different because I looked so different from my parents or classmates. The key is not only play dates and groups where our daughter sees families exactly like ours but also where she meets adults and teens who have walked the path she walks. She is a Chinese American. She was born in China and her birth culture is important. But she is also American. We haven’t done our job in helping explain to her that Chinese people and Asians are ALSO American. We are, as a friend says to me, “growing an adult,” and though she’s not one yet she will be.  

For now, she is eager to celebrate Chinese New Year at pre-school. She has ideas about the craft, the snack, the book and if she and her best friend in class (who was also born in China) will wear matching dresses. 

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No one was hurt. Not by the glass. No shards pierced feet, sliced skin as they flew from what was once a solid form or left scars on a face. No one was startled by what I imagine was a wind so strong it blew the door back and into the porch light fixture and made a crushing crash.

Still, hundreds of rough-edged shards covered the porch and I wondered if the wind had even spread the glass into the street, the yards, the driveways of neighbors.

The empty hole in the frame turned into rough-edged and dangerous. The glass popped my daughter’s balloon which made her sigh. Our sturdy storm door was gone and what was left a weapon, an image of brokenness and actually dangerous.

I had tried to fix the door hinges a year earlier. The door was no longer holding itself up. The screws were placed in the frame and still, it hung, but crooked. Then the handle  to the door kept falling off. The door couldn’t be kept closed and started catching the wind so regularly it became her dance partner. It was no longer a stable and grounded thing that blocked the wind. Maybe, it was free at the end.

We had been careless. We should fix that door never switched on from idea to action. Shattered by a failure to lift an intention. We removed it, in below zero wind, screw by screw, and lay it to rest under the porch, too sharp and pointy to leave up for even another fifteen minutes. We were silent as we lifted it and carried down the stairs. We didn’t have to say, it’s our own fault, because we knew.

We had time to save it, to prevent the break, but we let it go.

The same thing happened to my writing group, busted open and floating in the wind. Six years together for the bulk of us. Now… no one knows?

There’s nothing to shield us from the cold when we open up. The barrier between the warmth inside and the cold outside is abrupt and shocking without a transitional layer or protection.

We are broken right now. Is this what divorce feels like, stunning as you think of how easy it was for five years, how smug you were as you count back the good times. You feel sorrow and shame as you remember saying and believing, “We’re good. We’re great. We’re solid,” and how you used to look down on or feel bad for those who didn’t have the same.

Now, embroiled in conflict beyond the repair of a happy get together. Was it that last week, month, season or was it maybe a year of drama and discord? Had we counted on the years before, our idea of how solid we were as the hinges got loose and the handle fell off?

Some are quick to point what needs to be done. Others try to apply a simple band-aid solution. Others are hands-off saying they never saw the problem, didn’t think it their job to address it. Some assume too much responsibility while others assume too little.  Does it matter. It’s shattered. I am a part of the break and broken. It was once whole. It’s shattered.

The door had been with us since the beginning. It was so reliable, unquestioned as a source of stable protection against the elements. It was clear and had been there as I crossed that doorway in crisis and celebration, when I bounded out eager or returned home tired.

I stood in the cold and tried to sweep up the bits of glass. I couldn’t tell which pieces were ice and which were glass.  The sun will melt more and I can shovel up the remains and remember what was.

I’m sure I’ll figure out how to put on a new door, maybe get one that’s a different color or style. Maybe most of the components will remain the same.  Right now, hands full of groceries, I come to my door and there’s no shelter as I struggle with the keys to get inside. On a warm day it’s fine. On a cold day, the wind whips at my skin. My daughter says, “Hurry, it’s cold,” and slams the door we do have as though it’s that door’s fault for having to work double-duty. The cold pours in like water from a flood.

Doors break. So what? At least no one got caught in a rainstorm of glass, right? And what have I learned this last year – to love broken glass in it’s less cutting form.

I worship beloved fragments which were once whole. No one finds a bottle, or plate or tea cup equally weathered and identifiable. It’s not always even possible to tell if a piece is green or blue, if the white frost has a tint of pink or purple which might only be recognized hours or days later.

Each fragment I love may have been happy in an earlier form, proud and with utility or trapped in a form that had never fit. Or both.

There’s only one choice in these matters. Work with time to make something new. Remember the waves, repetitive but not identical. Some go with a day at a time. I take it a wave at a time.

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I’ve been so busy with the www.writingfromtheheart.wordpress.com

blog I have not kept up here.

I am devloping new routines but don’t have them down yet. There’s fabulous new writing up on the site. Even though Lime isn’t going to exist much longer and so the show won’t be on-air, the blog will continue. New writing will be generated each week.

I find honest memoir moving and life affirming even if the topics are tough. Maybe especially if the topics are tough. There is always some humor in ANY situation no matter how bleak it seems. We can’t stop being human and humans are funny creatures.

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Writing from the Heart Blog

When I met Nancy Slonim-Aronie I was a shy writer. I said I “just” write in my journal. I said, “I’m not sure who cares what I have to say.” I had written for a newspaper, loved human interest stories, opinion pieces and reviews. I kept writing my own “stuff” in my diary. But I didn’t know if or why my own memoir mattered. 

What I didn’t do was trust my voice, my life experience and my own instincts. At Nancy’s workshops, the emphasis was on honoring the story, telling the truth and believing in the healing power of sharing words.

I’ve never been the same. I don’t share everything I write though I share quite a bit.  I believe in the healing power of truth-telling. Every single soul has a story. There may be writers who are similar but no two have walked the earth and planet at the same time and in the same way. The way one person has to dunk her head in cold water upon waking and another has to sit reading for an hour before she can engage with the world matters. The internal dialogue people have is crucial. We all narrate our own days to some extent. The voices we hear from those we love and/or fear also shapes us as our voices shape others.

The best writing I heard at Nancy’s workshops was the writing that was gut-level honest, detailed with dialogue or description grounding me in the story, and revealing an emotion that wasn’t cliche or expected – just honest and real. Contradictory feelings, complex stories layered with meaning – it was all welcome.

I was so encouraged. It was a shot of inspiration and a dose of hope. The stories I had to tell at the time I met Nancy were not funny. They had been called (and were) bleak, heavy and serious. At Nancy’s workshop I learned I could throw a joke into a story of despair. Writing, like life, doesn’t stop being funny or absurd or beautiful even while people are victimized by crime or fighting a chronic or terminal illness. She taught me that a true story could heal. But not just because she said so but because everyone at her workshop was lighter and more vulnerable and less guarded after each piece written and shared. “Tell the human what you like,” she’d say after someone read.

After her workshops, I felt affirmed about writing and life. I’d have the sense of finding my tribe, people who need to use words to digest life experiences, and feel less shame about being introverted or “deep” or whatever I felt wasn’t acceptable but was who I was. I’d be with people who honored the truth and the telling of it and who were fearless in admitting things one isn’t “supposed” to feel. Transformed. I’ve been a die-hard fan of Nancy’s ever since. After one of her workshops, I started a writing group because I knew whether or not I ever published or not writing had to be central to my life. Our writing group has been together for six years. We share this – the need to write.

Nancy herself still has her amazing book on the market,  WRITING FROM THE HEART: TAPPING THE POWER OF YOUR INNER VOICE, her workshops remain full no matter where she teaches them. She has a radio show on Lime (channel 114) and a blog (for those who want to marinate in words or who don’t get satelite). I’m thrilled to have helped launch the blog which I hope will be a place where writers connect and readers enjoy. The blog is at” www.writingfromtheheart.wordpress.com

For three weeks, one topic will be covered. Each week, eight or nine new writers will read on her show (I’m honored to be one). New work will be posted each week after it airs (on Sirius Lime at 4am and 7pm on Sundays). ALL of the time she will have regular bloggers posting to her topics. See my friend Kathy’s posting on “Tiny Murders” for a sample or visit her site to read her other writing: http://kaleidoscopereflections.wordpress.com/

Follow the prompts and use them to inspire your own writing.

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My daughter is thrilled to watch this show which stars a five-year old pre-school who is Chinese.  Kai-Lan is a t.v. character who will be on Nick Jr. The show doesn’t air until Feb. so I can’t say how it is. I can say if we learn as much Chinese from Kai-Lan as we have learned Spanish from Dora I will be grateful. 

I am delighted my daughter will see an image of herself on t.v. (albeit a cartoon) that is popular, her age, and the character is NOT adopted. I’m sure it will generate conversation about family, being Chinese and hopefully just be a fun show to watch.


Already, we’re doing the coloring sheets and paper lanterns and crafts on the site. Check them out if you’re interested:

http://www.nickjr.com/shows/ni-hao-kai-lan/kai-lan-about-the-show/ni-hao-kai-lan-about-the-show.jhtml

 

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Here’s an article that was published in the Winter issue of the New England Families with Children from China newsletter. It is based on an interview I did with national lifebook expert (and friend) Beth O’Malley. It is about the importance of making the birth-family part of the lives of adoptive families. It is also a reminder about how we can’t “fix, cure and solve” the pain of our children but help them to manage the emotions they have.

Our Children’s First Families: Finding Ways to Connect‘The reality of the birth mother is enormous. She is a real woman and the loss of her presence in the lives of our children can’t be minimized.’ By Christine “Cissy” White  “Regardless of whether or not kids are ever able to meet their birth family, they have a relationship with them,” says Beth O’Malley, who has been a social worker for 22 years and with the adoption unit of the Department of Social Services for a dozen. She has been a lifebook expert for a decade.[1] Those are her professional credentials. Personally, she is an adoptive mother and was adopted from foster care as a baby. When she was growing up, she felt “the void” of not knowing the names and faces of her birth family.  

While many people have compelling accounts of life as an adoptee or adoptive parent, and others have done extensive work as researchers or therapists, few combine personal and professional experience on this subject. “It’s one thing being a social worker and another having a little one in my home who needs concrete information about adoption,” she says. O’Malley and her husband, Douglas Bell, adopted Polina almost four years ago. “We are lucky,” said O’Malley, because she’s from Kazakhstan, a place where birth parent searches have just started to be done. Therefore, Polina has information about her birth family. But O’Malley wondered, “How the heck would we handle this if we didn’t have pictures?”

 When it was time for O’Malley to update and reprint her workbook for kids adopted from China – called “My China Workbook: A Lifebook Tool For Kids Adopted From China,” she revised it to include more information about the birth family. Naming the Birth Mother “I want to give children permission to start having an active relationship with birth parents, to give their birth mother a name and to formally invite them into their minds, lives and emotions and to have a conversation with her,” O’Malley says. On one page of the workbook O’Malley suggests kids come up with a name or nick name for their birth mother so they can make her existence feel more real. “Hello Birth Mother isn’t too warm or inviting,” she says.    O’Malley believes this exercise of giving the birth mother a name offers kids “control over the gaping hole in their heart and story.” As O’Malley says, “They weren’t born from a ghost or an anonymous person and calling someone by name makes them real.”  She wants adoptive parents to understand that whether or not our children will ever be able to search for any member of their birth family, each of them will do some kind of identity-related inner work which requires connecting back to the first family. Finding Words: Pain Management vs. Pain Avoidance “The reality of the birth mother is enormous. She is a real woman and the loss of her presence in the lives of our children can’t be minimized,” O’Malley says, “I’m talking about waking up in the middle of the night and being all alone. That’s the trauma, and the trauma of crying or not crying and looking for the birth mother and her not coming. Life is forever changed.”  

Abandonment and life in an orphanage – no matter how “good” – causes trauma to newborns, infants, toddlers and children, she explains. “It’s about primary emotions with primary relationships. It’s about love, trust and intimacy and how the child will relate with everyone in their world.”

 Knowing from her experience as a parent and social worker, O’Malley understands the fear of making our children feel badly by talking about difficult topics and our worry that we’ll say “the wrong thing.” O’Malley observes that “when people say birth family talk is causing their child to feel sad, they are right. Do they think their child isn’t sad and that there aren’t emotions connected to being adopted?”  

O’Malley goes on to say, “If you think feelings won’t come by avoiding birth family talk, then that is naïve. We, the parents, are responsible for helping our children process and deal with their feelings – including the painful ones.” She reminds parents with quite young children, who may not having any idea of the loss associated with being adopted, that the sadness they feel is normal. For many adoptive parents, one of the hardest lessons is recognizing that we “can’t fix” the feelings. “We can’t take the pain away,” O’Malley says, “There’s an element of being powerless that we have to come to terms with as parents. One of our jobs is helping our kids manage their pain about their abandonment.”

 My Child Doesn’t Want to Talk about It She does hear from many parents who say that their child(ren) don’t want to talk about birth family and she said, “That’s tough,” but insists it’s up the parents to take the lead on birth family conversation. She’s reluctant to encourage any “tabling” of birth family talk.  “I’m not talking about hammering adoption into heads on a daily basis” she says, “You have to be vigilant about keeping the subject alive. It might need to be informal. It may feel like monologues for a long time. If you join with them in not talking, they’ll never have a shot at coming to terms with processing it. That’s why you have to get creative with it. Do not let it fade into the sunset.”  

In her workbook, O’Malley has a page entitled “If, If, If…” in which kids can write what they would like to share with their birth family if they could, as well as a place to ask them questions. She encourages the use of interactive pages, letter writing, role playing with dolls, therapy and conversation within the family to give kids practical ways of expressing themselves.

 She explains that there are a myriad of ways in which families can work and play so the subject is less intellectual. For example, she says, writing a letter to the birth family can be a satisfying exercise “because it’s a task with a beginning, middle and end. The letter can be kept in a special box or shared but the main benefit is that feelings and thoughts are expressed.”  

“One of the hardest things for me growing up adopted was not being able to know what I was feeling or having the right words to describe it,” she said, “and if there’s one message I could give it is this – sometimes kids don’t lead conversations because they can’t verbalize it, because they don’t have the words not because they don’t have any feelings.”

 It is her view that families should compensate for any lack of concrete birth family information with extra efforts and attempts to address feelings about the ambiguity and loss. She says, “If adoption were a mathematical equation and lack of information were in one column, I’d have attempts to compensate for that on the other side to balance it.” Differentiating Birth Culture and Birth Family 

O’Malley is impressed with how the China adoption community has created play groups, travel group reunions, and a strong online community for sharing experiences, discussing issues, and asking each other questions. She is aware of how many Chinese adoptees know other kids who were born in China. She’s heard about children adopted from China who have located biological siblings who have also been adopted by comparing photos and information on the Web. There are also the homeland tours with groups comprised of other adoptive families, and she’s noticed how families stay connected to their children’s orphanages and birth provinces in China. Then there are the many celebrations and activities embracing Chinese ethnicity and culture.

 

She cautions families though by saying, “There’s so much energy around birth culture. Sometimes it’s so much that birth parents end up not coming into the equation.” This causes her to wonder if this emphasis on culture is in part to compensate for the fact that there is so little concrete information about birth families that can be shared. She suggests dealing with the reality of the absence head on. “We have to come up with strategies to help our children develop relationships with their birth mother and birth father and the first step is in making those people real,” O’Malley says. “The primary relationship is the one that brought you into this world and that seeps into the child’s relationship with the entire world.”

 She emphasizes the need for children to understand they came from a “first mother,” a “first parent,” a “first family.” She cautions that it is not certain that there will never be a way for our children to search for their birth family; all we know now is that there is little chance of searching successfully and having a reunion with the birth family.  

O’Malley understands that parents don’t always have the “right” words readily available to talk about all of these issues. Sometimes our anxieties as parents bout our children’s painful and ambiguous early life history leaves us at a loss, too. In addition, as parents we might fear that our children might secretly love their birth family more or that the biological connection is so strong it can never be replaced by our love. These fears can complicate our ability to communicate.

 She recommends, “reading reading, reading and reading,” from among the huge number of books, magazines, poetry and first-person accounts written by adult adoptees. In her opinion, the anthologies by adult adoptees provide great “insight into the soul” and she hopes adoptive parents refer to them more often. [See accompanying box about books and blogs related to these topics.] O’Malley talks about feeling “emotionally punched” by the eloquence of the writings by transracial adoptees who have “conveyed complex and painful emotions with such beauty and articulation.” Comfort Zones: Creating Them for Our Children and Destroying Our Own One of the most challenging aspects for children born from China is being an ethnic minority. “They face race issues as well as adoption ones,” she says. “I can only imagine that being Chinese amplifies all of the basic issues of feeling alone and being different, because, unlike in same race adoption in which there’s some choice about whether or not to share personal adoption information, that is not the case for most transracial adoptees.” As she puts it, “It’s one more layer of control stripped away – at least in public.”  China’s one child policy can cause some parents to “romanticize” the circumstances of their child’s abandonment. “A child does not end up in an orphanage because they are removed from the home by the government or a child welfare agency as is the case in the states and in some countries such as Russia or Eastern Europe,” O’Malley says. On the surface, she says, “Parents with children born in China can more easily empathize with the birth mother who is viewed as having no choice about relinquishing her child (though many families in China do keep out-of-quota girls). On a very basic level it’s much easier to have sympathy for the birth family and to not be angry with them because it can feel like the abandonment was out of their control.” In contrast, she says, children adopted out of the foster care system in the Unites States often have to contend with what seems like intentional pain inflicted by birth family, often as a result of domestic violence, drug abuse and neglect. She says birth mothers are often demonized.  

Her point in making this comparison is for parents to be wary of emotions they prescribe on behalf of their children so they do not project particular feelings toward the birth family. She hopes parents realize that children will have different feelings at different times throughout development. “We have to tread lightly so that we don’t necessarily fill in the blanks emotionally for our kids,” O’Malley says.

 “For me, one of the feelings I’ve had to contend with is the rage, absolute rage, at being placed for adoption.” This how-could-you-do-this-to-me feeling” was one that she was not allowed or encouraged to express. Of her own rage and grief she says, “It got stuck in me. I was unable to articulate it.” She compared it to living with a time bomb inside of her. She was afraid it would explode at any moment and had no instructions about how to diffuse it or prevent it from blowing.   O’Malley’s hope is that parents can provide a safe setting for their children to talk about all of their feelings about their first family. All adoptees grapple with ambiguity and loss she says. “The birth family isn’t dead and to some extent is treated that way,” she says, “There would actually be more finality if they were dead. Instead, there’s the silence.” What she would like is for parents to become  more afraid of silence than of painful emotions. “As adoptive parents, we have to get out of our comfort zone,” she advises. “If we don’t, our kids never will.” 

“A painful glob of nameless, shapeless emotions with a strong presence can be moved and shaped into something manageable and understandable,” says O’Malley. “And ultimately the benefit is the healing.”##

 Christine “Cissy” White is a writer and stay-at-home feminist living with her spouse, David Schildmeier, and their daughter, Kai, in North Weymouth, MA. Kai and Polina are ten days apart in age and are great buddies. Before motherhood Cissy and Beth were acquaintances. Now they are friends. Cissy also works for Beth periodically, letting families know about her lifebooks, workbooks and online newsletter


[1] Lifebooks are stories that adopted parents write for or with their children as a way of telling them about their lives from birth until they became a member of their adoptive family. O’Malley is the author of “LifeBooks : Creating a Treasure for the Adopted Child”

Ordering Beth O’Malley’s Workbook for Kids from China “My China Workbook: A Lifebook Tool for Kids Adopted from China$14.95, Adoption Works Press, 2nd Edition (May 1, 2007) 

“My China Workbook” can be ordered from Adoption Lifebooks: http://adoptionlifebooks.com/china_workbook_rev.htm

 To learn about other books and special reports by O’Malley (see titles below) or sign up for a free lifebook tips monthly newsletter go to http://adoptionlifebooks.com/lifebooks.htm 

“Lifebooks: Creating a Treasure for the Adopted Child,” $14.95, Adoption Works Press

 

“Special Report # 2: How to Make Lifebooks with Adopted Children Ages 5-9” (International Version) $7.00

 “Special Report #4: How to Make Lifebooks with Babies & Toddlers” (International and Domestic Version)  $7.00

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