I’m adopted and have no clue about my heritage or race

Guest post by Cortney

Those “what race are you” boxes are hard to fill out when you’re adopted and don’t know your background.
“By the way — what are you?”

I’ve heard this question, referring to my “race” so many times in my almost 30 years on this planet. When I was a kid it didn’t bother me. When I was a teenager, it made me sad. As an adult, it pisses me off to no end… and to be honest, it still makes me sad.

Let’s start with a little back story. I was adopted the day I was born. My birth mother (Life Giver) was a senior in high school and my father (sperm donor), well… I really just don’t know. I know there was a relationship but other than that, I just don’t know.

My mom and dad were married for eighteen years before they adopted me. They had suffered a miscarriage of their first and only child and weren’t graced with another pregnancy. They gave me a life that Life Giver couldn’t. I never went with out anything I needed. Looking back I was a pretty damn happy kid. Mom stayed at home with me until I started school. She attended every school function after she went to work. She was the mom who made cakes and cookies for the class. Helped chaperon field trips. And made all my Halloween costumes on an old sewing machine that had been my grandmother’s. Dad tried to teach me how to work on cars (it didn’t really stick but I did learn how to change my own oil and change a flat tire). He took me to air shows and on fishing trips. We would watch documentaries on WWII and laugh at the Crypt Keeper from Tales of the Crypt.

Now, I’ve always known I was adopted. ALWAYS. Not because it was an open adoption — it was a very very closed adoption — but for the simple fact I have very dark skin and my parents are white. I’ve always thought of my self as Latina or around here “Mexican.” Being a kid raised in the country, I had more to worry about than what “race” I was.

The first time it became an issue for me was when I was thirteen and my band director called me into his office. He explained he was filling out a survey for the district and needed to know what race I was. I panicked. How the hell was I supposed to know!? I started crying and told him I really didn’t know. To his credit, he was sympathetic and tried to calm me down. In his defense he didn’t know I was adopted because he had only met my mother and he said “You two look so much alike!” This was something we had heard many times and we would just laugh and say “thank you.”

It was about that time I started asking questions about Life Giver. But my mother and my father didn’t know much. So when I found my adoption papers when I was about fifteen, I felt like I had struck GOLD! I had names and addresses! I told my mother about it one weekend when I was visiting her and she broke down in tears. This freaked me the fuck out so I decided that I wouldn’t pry anymore.

Flash forward a decade or so, and I’ve been asked if I was Indian, Cambodian, Filipino, Vietnamese, Native American, and African American. Sometimes the questions people ask astound me.

I’ve since contacted Life Giver and she told me that she also considers herself Latina but in reality she is only Hispanic on her mother’s side. Her Father was Apache, or so I’ve been told. All she said about Sperm Donor was he wasn’t a very good guy.

I’m not going to lie and say that we’ve had a storybook reunion and I got to meet all the family I never even knew I had. Nope. Didn’t happen. My husband finally suggested I let it go. He was right — I had become a mess wondering what was wrong with me.

I just wanted to know my heritage so badly! I wanted to look at a ritual, celebration, or rite of passage and say “This is my culture.” I wanted to connect with my past so much that I forgot about the present.

I married a great guy. Who, by the way, is “white” but he describes himself as a mutt. I’m somewhat at peace with not being knowledgeable about my heritage and culture. I still cry about it sometimes but then I remember something. I have painfully straight and thick black hair, my skin is very tan, but not so dark that people know exactly what my “race” is.

Over time, I’ve stopped telling people Hispanic, Latina, or “Mexican.” I simply reply “I’m Human.” I even put it on the court survey when I had jury duty earlier this year. I remember that I’m a geeky, redneck, rocker who has a pretty great life. I remember that just because my heritage is somewhat of a mystery that shouldn’t derail my future. I am me.

No matter what will happen I just have to remember my past, and the mystery of my heritage, does NOT define me or my future. I still cry when I hear people talk about how proud they are about their heritage. How they can follow their family tree back generations. But you know what? Screw it. My future kids will be geeky, redneck, rockers just like their parents. I hope.

Comments on I’m adopted and have no clue about my heritage or race

    • This. As a self-proclaimed Euro-mutt for many many years I finally did this. It confirmed which countries I knew I was from, but I love data and this was so much fun to do.

    • I totally agree! 23andme.com was totally eye opening for both my husband and I. My husband’s parents are both Turkish immigrants, but he doesn’t look Turkish at all (Turks are often surprised to hear him speak close to perfect Turkish!) His results showed that he was mostly Eastern European… something he always figured, but was nice for him to know about in general.

      Mine were surprising, too. I found out that I’m part Ashkenazi- and a large part at that. I’m not sure which side of the family it came from, but I’m definitely going to be gifting a lot of 23andme to family members for Christmas this year!

    • The DNA test would only show 1/2 her genetics though. Because biological women only have two Xs, the test can only show the results on the Xs. You’d need to have a male biological relative to get the full genetic picture.

      • Way too much outdated information out there.

        In the beginning – the only commercially available DNA tests were Y-DNA and mtDNA. They could only tell you about your father’s father’s father’s father’s … father (if you were male) and your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s … mother (either gender). A woman wanting to know anything about her father (or sperm donor) was out of luck.

        A few years ago, 23andMe came out with their comprehensive autosomal (all 22 chromosomes + the X chromosome) + Y-DNA + mtDNA test. Then Family Tree DNA came out with their autosomal test (Family Finder) and now Ancestry.com has their own autosomal test (AncestryDNA).

        All three tests will match you with genetic cousins and give you a breakdown of your ethnic and racial admixture. There are pros and cons for each test and all three companies are continually working on improvements – some of which have been rolled out within the past few weeks. There are also dozens of knowledgeable people who are creating their own third party websites, applications and methodologies to help people understand and work with their DNA results.

        This is a very fast moving technology.

        • Well this conversation has convinced me to get a DNA test. Such a big step in my life. I am so excited. 23 and me seems to have good reviews so I went with them. I can not believe I am going to have credible information before the year is up. Thank you everyone!

          • omg good luck ! im so excited for you !! reading the feed here has really got me thinking of getting tested also.

        • I’m adopted as well, and I recently (over the summer) did the ancestry.com test. It only displayed my maternal line. Maybe they changed the test since then?

          Although you’re right about autosomal results, the test still doesn’t show a paternal haplogroup.

          Here’s a quote directly from 23andme.com: “Since women have two X chromosomes instead of an X and a Y, the 23andMe Personal Genome Service does not directly provide paternal haplogroup assignments for women. The paternal haplogroup is traced through the Y chromosome, which women do not inherit.

          For females, if a male relative such as your father, brother, paternal uncle or paternal male cousin were to be genotyped then you would be able to infer your own paternal haplogroup information from his. If your brother were to provide a sample, you would learn your maternal haplogroup as well as your paternal haplogroup. However, if your father or father’s brother were to provide a sample, you would learn your paternal haplogroup, but not your maternal haplogroup since he does not share your mother. If your biological father participates, you can link his paternal haplogroup to your profile so that it will appear on your own Paternal Line page.”

          • Ancestry.com’s autosomal test (AncestryDNA) has been around for about two years. They first gave out 12,000 free kits to get the database started. Those people waited six months for their results. Then they offered it only to subscribers by invitation. About a year ago, they began offering it to everybody. It sounds like you took the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) test though, not the autosomal one. They are completely different animals.

            There is also a company called AncestryByDNA which is NOT the test you want to take. It is not affiliated with Ancestry.com and it uses older technology.

            Current recommendations:
            23andMe (one test offered) $99 (note that postage outside the US can double the price of the test) Y-DNA and mtDNA haplogroups are included but 23andMe does not include genetic matches for them.

            Family Tree DNA: Family Finder (autosomal test) $99, mtDNA and Y-DNA are separate tests but are more comprehensive than 23andMe’s mtDNA and Y-DNA. International postage for FTDNA tests is much cheaper. Note that you generally only have to have the kit mailed and returned ONCE. Once they get your sample, you can do additional tests without the need for mailing costs.

            AncestryDNA (from Ancestry.com) $99 They do not include mtDNA or Y-DNA but sell these as separate tests. The mtDNA and Y-DNA tests from FTDNA are FAR FAR superior. Ancestry.com does not mail outside the US and will not even take non-US credit cards to mail the test kit within the US.

            Most matches: Ancestry.com’s AncestryDNA (23andMe limits your matches to the top 1000 + plus people you have sent introductions to).

            Best DNA tools: Family Tree DNA (for autosomal & mtDNA/Y-DNA).

            Best Ethnic Admixture Tool: 23andMe

            Most genealogical information on matches: Ancestry.com

            You can do all three for $300 total – what it used to cost for FTDNA’s Family Finder alone. 23andMe used to be $500.

            Once you take a test, all future improvements, new matches and bells and whistles are yours. No need to “upgrade” or take another test.

    • The thing that was both cool and freaky for me about 23andme was that it can find relatives who are also signed up. Mostly it’s been 5th cousins who only contact me because they are ancestry hobbyists, but it did also find a fairly close relative (2nd cousin?) who I’ve never met — and now sends me updates on how my grandmother is doing at the home, since she still lives in that area.

    • 23 and me …..I am a female who found my birth father because his daughter, my 1/2 sister took the test. At age 67 he and I met. Birthmother recently died, he discovered. He and I talk daily and love each other. He did not know about my birth, but had an inkling, despite my b-mom’s denial. My secret shame has lifted. Just 8 months later he is in hospice….Don’t wait!!

  1. It’s crazy how identical our stories are. I have had SOOOOOO MANY issues with not knowing my heritage. So many awkward conversations with friesnds, even a dermatologist thought it would be funny to play the guessing game. But I do have to tell you that hopefully it will get easier as it has for me. The anger and frustration disappeared when I had my first child. FINALLY, someone who has my DNA, my blood, and looks like me (spitting image actually).

    All that matters now is my two girls. And funny enough, my second daughter came out with blue eyes (I look more Hispanic, my hubby is dark Italian). So someone, somewhere in my gene pool is blue eyes.

    My point is, when its your time to be a mother, your focus will change and you will have what you are looking for right there in your arms.

  2. I really recommend the 23 and Me DNA test! For only $99 you can get an ethnic breakdown, information on potential medical risks as well as potentially connect with distant relatives through the family finder portion!

    If you’re interested in connectingn with other adult adoptees, many of whom who understand the DNA testing piece better than I, or just to swap stories about all things pertaining to life as an adult adoptee, head on over to: adultadoptees.org/forum! I’ve enjoyed connecting with other adopted adults!

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your story. My husband and I (both white) are in the midst of the adoption process, and will most likely be adopting an infant of color. We’ve talked and studied a lot about how to teach our child about his/her heritage and develop a positive racial identity. Reading the stories of transracial/transcultural adoptees is a huge part of that. I wish you all the best on your journey, fellow geek!

    • Just be honest with the kid. I was adopted outside of my race and my parents were always upfront with me being adopted, that I was Hispanic, and where I originally came from (a very low income border town in Texas). I had a very closed adoption, but I know enough from that little information to know I am of 100% Mexican origin.

      It’s a struggle to define yourself sometimes, but being given the information upfront has allowed me to seek out the resources and mentors I need to connect culturally with my heritage and the Latino diaspora. And believe me…I am very thankful for that.

      • I hope that you don’t do this the Capobianco way.

        Make sure that BOTH birthparents of whomever you try to adopt agree and want this adoption. Taking a baby or child away from a biological parent who wants to and is able to raise his/her own child is akin to kidnapping and a violation of that child’s birthrights to be raised by his/her own parents. If you cannot respect the rights of the child you want to adopt, then please don’t adopt and claim that you “love” the child as your own. What the Capobianco’s did to Veronica Brown and her father was horrendous. Don’t be like the Capobianco’s and don’t let your friends be like them.

        Also, BEFORE you adopt, please make sure your state allows adopted people to have the same equal access to their original birth certificate as every other adult person. Adopted people should not be discriminated against by their government solely because of the decisions they never made or contributed to. Denying a person their right to know their truthful identity, heritage, and biological relations is a violation of human rights. The amended birth certificate that adopted people receive is falsified. The adoptive parents didn’t give birth to them. Birth dates, hospitals, names, etc. can and have been altered on those amended “birth certificates”.

        Again, if you cannot respect the rights of the child you want to adopt, then please don’t adopt and claim that you “love” the child as your own. Have your state restore the laws that give the same equal access to adoptees to have the same level of truthful information about themselves as everyone else has had under previous laws.

        And, please don’t adopt from another country, where the language, nationality, etc. are different, unless YOU plan on moving yourselves to that child’s original country and becoming fluent in that language. How do you expect to respect and maintain that child’s heritage when you can’t speak their language, and you are keeping that child far away FROM his/her heritage and people and the ability to ever communicate in the future with people from his/her origins?

        • Whoa…calm down. The Capobianco case is an example of extreme mishandling and not the norm for many adoptions inside of the states. Both my bio-parents knew and signed off on my adoption…so please calm down on throwing around such an extreme case. The original poster nor myself were talking about that.

          Also, I think there is a right and a wrong way to handle international adoptions. You need to be very very meticulous in research for this adoption (there is way too much trafficking and falsified documents in many countries), but parents can make a conscious effort to live in a very diverse community where the child can have access to everything they need (language, community, mentors, religion, etc.) I know very well adjusted international adoptions and it is all to the credit of thoughtful adopters.

        • Wow,Kym Your options are your own, I was adopted and so happy that I was…I know my ( (Life givers) race but she has no idea of my sperm donors race…Get a life and you are way to judgmental…My parents gave me a wonderful life….

  4. I appreciate your attitude about this! I am sure it has been (is) difficult. Sometimes, I think all the emphasis on race, diversity, etc., can actually be burdensome to some of us. When you think about it, there may be a lot of people who don’t really know or who “know” but are wrong because they don’t have all the right stories (for example, someone who was married, conceived a baby by another man, but never told). Too much emphasis on label and boxes of ANY kind (genetic, diagnostic, etc.) can stifle who we are as individuals — and in the end, we are responsible for writing a big piece of our life stories ourselves.

    I don’t say this to diminish the struggles anyone has with finding out or coming to terms with their hereditary background, of course — I myself have some issues with the stories we have been handed and with dealing with the truth when found out — but rather to agree with the point the author makes that “I am me.”

    • Yeah, there’s the “funny” story about a guy at a university who was researching blood types and trying to find out how they were inherited and just couldn’t figure it out. He was using his colleges (professors at the university) and their families as test subjects. Turns out, that he couldn’t make any sense of the data, because lots of his professor colleges were not actually the genetic fathers of their kids…

      (Though I do think genetic heritage and also disease risks are INTERSTING!)

  5. Thanks for your lovely and interesting post.

    It resonated with me because my boyfriend knows his family history but his heritage is not easily identifiable from physical cues. He gets the “what are you?” question a lot, and I know it bothers him. He is from New York (born & raised), and that is how he usually answers the question. People might really want to know where his parents are from, but too bad for them. He’s really got it down (after years of people asking; not to mention the people who make assumptions about his background and start talking to him in Spanish when he’s got just a few years of basic high school Spanish – which is perhaps a whole different conversation about language, identification, and community).

  6. Over time, I’ve stopped telling people Hispanic, Latina, or “Mexican.” I simply reply “I’m Human”… I remember that I’m a geeky, redneck, rocker who has a pretty great life… I am me.

    I love this! I have no questions about my race (I’m quite white) but I get frustrated when people ask about my heritage. Some fellow Americans seem to get annoyed when I say “I’m American”. They want to hear me say “part German, part English, part Scottish, blah blah”. But some of my ancestors deliberately left other countries in the 1600s; it feels disrespectful for me to identify myself by that. What’s more, I don’t identify with any of those cultures – the only “German” thing about me is my name. But even the United States is so diverse with so many subcultures that calling myself “American” still doesn’t seem quite right. Maybe “Coloradan”. Or just “Alissa”. 🙂

    • This is me exactly. I’ve jokingly considered saying Euro-American, though I realize that is problematic for a few reasons. I wouldn’t really ever say it, but it sounds more reasonable to me than listing off a bunch of European countries that I have pretty much no connection to.

    • I’m glad the author was able to come to her own conclusion about how she wants to identify herself (as human), but many adoptees don’t even have that privilege. It’s one thing to know or have the information that you have (scottish, english, etc) and choose to identify a certain way…it’s another thing to have that privilege of knowing taken from you by laws supporting secrecy in adoption and having a big ? mark in your life. I thought I was Norwegian until I met my biological dad and found out I was also French/Czech,…while I don’t know what that means, or how to integrate it, it feels like a big deal to me, ya know?

      • What is so lovely about the author’s post is that it works on several levels. She makes very clear her individual pain of being unable to identify her genetic and cultural origins due to adoption, but she also touches on some broader complexities of race, heritage, and identity in today’s world.

        Many people’s stories are unclear, for so many different kinds of reasons, and yet there are so many signals around us telling us to identify ourselves by race, heritage, or family background (the common question “what are you?” is one example).

        This post is specifically about the experience of someone who was adopted in infancy. But to me, it is also very much a human post.

        • Well said, maryr!

          I was talking with a friend recently about the pressure in our society (or at least mine) to know / embrace / celebrate certain aspects of your identity moreso that others – sometimes to the extent of othering ourselves from those with different identities. And sometimes we’re being asked to celebrate aspects of our identity that don’t have a great impact on us as others may feel that they should. For me, I don’t identify with with my race or heritage much (which I definitely realize is a privilege afforded by my skin color) whereas I do identify more with my spiritual beliefs.

          Overall I think the ability to choose how we identify and what we value, and celebrate (or not) what we choose is very important – and I love how the author touched on these complex larger issues of identity. Fantastic article!

          • I agree with all of you very very much. That has been one of the things I really loved when I moved to Germany. It’s enough of an identify to just be “American.” In the states it was always, “yeah, but what are you *really*?”

      • Hi
        I’m a 70yr old adoptee who would love to know who his my dad is. I know who my mother was, but never met her; she died before I had that opportunity.
        I have a brother and two further sisters (two other sisters have passed on) but not sure if we were all fathered by the same man! We are talking 1930-1947 in Glasgow or near Glasgow (Scotland) . I have very strong eastern european features possibly Polish but could be another Easter European Nation say Estonian or Romania .
        So, My mum is dead – so no DNA from her- I would at minimum like to know whether my father was Eastern European (even better if I knew he nationality at that time) March- April 1944! or something completely different.

        How do I go about finding out? Incidentally, adoption did not get in the way. It taught me independence and freedom of thought. Look me up,on the web.
        John Sabin
        Haywards Heath, UK

        • While having DNA from your mother would have been ideal, there is still a lot you can do with DNA testing. In the UK, you have a choice of autosomal testing with Family Tree DNA, 23andMe and Ancestry.com. It is now possible to do all three for a reasonable price – although 23andMe charges a lot for postage outside the US.

          Getting your remaining siblings tested will show you who had the same father. A maternal half-sibling will be a reasonable proxy for your mother’s side.

          Ethnic admixture is still “not soup yet” but is much better than when my first autosomal test told me I was “100% European”.

          Y-DNA testing should be on your list (Y DNA and mtDNA haplogroups are included in 23andMe’s test, FTDNA does more sophisticated versions that go beyond haplogroups but they are separate tests).

          In addition to ethnic admixture, you will get matches to a few hundred (or a few thousand) DNA cousins. Most of your matches will be in the US.

          The good thing about this kind of DNA testing is that you will continue to get new matches, and new tools to use without having to invest any more money. Every year or so, one of the DNA companies will do a major adjustment of its ethnic admixture algorithms along with minor tweaking in between.

          DNA testing is revolutionizing genealogy. About 2 million people have tested world-wide and growth is exponential. You may not get all your answers right away – patience is the key.

    • I too, am product of a long line of immigrants , the first in the late 18th Century. He chose to live in a new place, not to identify with past ties, (to the extent that we all have the new surname he took on arrival here). I know there is Irish and Norman and Flemish, but that isn’t who we are, and who we will be. Accepting who we are now is still more valuable than uprooting the past.

  7. being adopted myself, the thing that really gets to me as i get older, is having no clue about my genetic medical history. with all the things that can be heriditary, not knowing what to watch for drives me up a wall. then when you add not knowing my heritage, not knowing how i will age ( i just found my first twenty silver hairs at 33!)… it is very sad to feel that some of the most basic parts of a person’s identity will remain a mystery to me.
    unfortunately in washington state it can be a total hassle to get records opened. in fact, i recently discovered that a previous foster family tried to send a packet of pictures with me when i was relocated at the age of two, only to have them taken away by the social worker….

    • Did you know that in WA state this year we passed a law allowing adult adoptees to get access to their original birth certificates? The law won’t go into affect until next July, but once you have that you will have your original name and your parent’s original names (on the birth certificate). There is the Northwest Adoption Search and Reunion yahoo group that does searches for free, and while it’s not the same as just getting medical information, you might be able to find your parents or other relatives to help fill in those medical histories. Also, the 23 and Me DNA test provides some of that info, too!

      • well, that is fantastic news…. the family that adopted me is one hundred percent amazing, and i will probably never want to meet the genetic parents, (there was severe infant abuse including broken bones and cigarette burns) but just to be able to see where i came from, and what sorts of things might be in my future would be kind of a dream come true!

  8. So, I’ve been toying with the idea of international adoption for the past few months. (Just toying. I haven’t even talked to my husband about it yet.) And this is actually one of the things that I’m concerned about. My husband and I are both white, mostly-western-european mutts. Without going too into the “whys”, suffice it to say the countries I’m looking at generally do not share my melanin deficiency. How badly does this affect affect a child as they grow up with a family of a different race?

    Is the different race thing enough to cause a growing kid an identity issue? Is it a different matter if you can tell them “You came from Kenya/ South Korea/ China/ Honduras/ Mars?” How inappropriate/ ridiculous would it be for us to try to recreate some of the culture that isn’t ours to teach a kid about their roots? Would that make them feel more like part of a family or less? Hubby and I can each trace our families back a few centuries, will it be enough for a kid to know that they’re part of that tree to, or will there always be something missing for them?

    And ultimately, is any of that a good reason not open our home and hearts to a couple of kids?

    • I think there are some good posts that deal with this in the Families archive.

      I don’t know that there is any one answer to the questions you ask — kids (being people) are so different. I have an internationally adopted sibling. There were a number of reasons my parents didn’t choose to work within the domestic adoption framework (including previous bad bureaucratic experience with it), and their choices for international adoption were limited by a number of circumstances, so no Caucasian country was an option for them. My brother is from Latin America. He is quite proud of who he is, where he comes from (he has very little detail, and most people from his country are a mix of Spanish and Native Central American), although he doesn’t like it when people just assume he speaks Spanish! The rest of us are a mix of European and Middle Eastern heritage. My parents have always stressed that everyone in the family is a little different (usually both parents, even if the same race, don’t have the same ethnic make-up, then when you step back to grandparents, you get more different people). We are all very open about both his adoption story and his ethnic heritage, as well as the fact that he is a very important part of our family. We gently discourage “rude” questions from strangers while politely and positively dealing with issues that come up. I’m sure it’s not always easy for him — there is a lot for adopted kids to come to terms with, often, in addition to the heritage question.

      Now, not every adoption scenario works out great. (Not every biological kid scenario turns out great, either! Not every marriage turns out great!) But there are many, many reasons to think about when making such a big decision, and it is good to think about how you would handle this issue.

    • There is no clear answer for this. Everything depends on SO MANY factors. Where will the child be raised? Will it be a racially diverse area (I can tell you mine wasn’t and it was a pretty awful growing phase)? Will he or she have access to a community/mentor/culture where they are originally from? Will you seek out language education or both yourself and the child?

      I would HIGHLY suggest watching the documentary Somewhere Between about international and interracial adoption of girls from China. You will see some really struggling with finding where they came from, why they were left/abandoned, and how to process their identities. I literally sobbed my way through it because I completely understood how they felt.

      I love my adoptive parents (my only parents to me), but it was a struggle to self identify. I am very connected to where my adoptive father comes from (But I spent every summer there and he is also a very mixed culture of Mediterranean/Middle Eastern, so when I looked at them I felt like I saw the features I had as well. I think it would have been much harder to accept something like Irish, which my adoptive mother is and I have NEVER really identified with.). I don’t think I was fully self accepting until probably college. You really need to be very open to helping your child through things with an interracial adoption.

      Good luck! I know a lovely family who have adopted two East Asian children recently and they work their butts off to help them self identify (Korean language school, Korean church, Korean food, Korean holidays, Korean music/entertainment always, and we live in an area of very defined Korean-American community).

      • I think, as sad as this is to say, is that if you’re considering international adoption something else you need to think about a well is that if you try to adopt from a country that is not politically stable, the adoption may fall through. Two very good friends of mine recently had this happen. They’d been to visit the babies they were about to take home when the country’s government demanded a bribe from their adoption agency, which of course the agency would not pay because that would amount to human trafficking. So the orphanage pulled out. My friend has referred to the experience as an “adoptive miscarriage.” It seems to require a great deal of patience and thick skin even before the child arrives.

        • I def agree. I also think you need to be very aware that many adoption agencies in foreign countries may not be the most altruistic in origins. Guatemala has been a cautionary tale for everyone adopting abroad as are some children coming out of China. The adopting parents are going with the best intentions, but there a kids being stolen, sold between orphanages, and having forged backgrounds. South Korean scholars have also pointed out that some children adopted in the 80s and before were listed as “having no family”…when it turns out they clearly did.

    • “…will it be enough for a kid to know that they’re part of that tree to[o], or will there always be something missing for them?”
      Well, I’m only answering as one person/adoptee (myself) but this statement actually irritates me — or it did when MY adoptive parents said basically the same to me. The thing is, I’m NOT part of their “family tree”; nor will any children you adopt be part of yours.
      Before you start to pursue adoption with more than casual thought, please read (at least) these two books: “Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew” by Sherrie Eldridge, and “The Primal Wound” by Nancy Verrier. Ms. Verrier is an adoptive mother and a therapist (and she has written other books, too, but The Primal Wound is where it starts). She states — and you need to DEEPLY understand — that “I am my [adopted] daughter’s mother, but my ancestors are not her ancestors.”
      I have always been interested in ancestry/genealogy and (lacking any knowledge of/access to my own) am fascinated with my adoptive family’s stories, etc. However, at no time in my life did I ‘claim’ them — they are not MY ancestors. These are not MY family stories… mine (until my 30s) were unknown to me. I love history in general, though, and will read the journals, writings, etc. of almost anyone who has written one (if they’ve been dead for a while… 50 years or so… but that’s my personal quirk).
      Just be prepared. Your (hypothetical) adopted child(ren) may or may not yearn to know their own history/ancestry/genealogy… but yours is not theirs. Please don’t try to ‘sell’ it to them as if it is.

      • I think there are two ways of looking at this. If you’re adopted into a family, you do become part of that family tree/story. The cultural history, at least, becomes part of your story – I think of it as akin to claiming the American Revolution as ‘your’ history as an American, even if your family didn’t arrive until later.
        My adoptive family are culturally Jewish-American, and the fact that I’ve always strongly personally identified with my own Irish heritage doesn’t change the fact that I was raised surrounded by that history, and those traditions, which came from people whose DNA I do not share.

      • Hi Holly – and chance you are on 23andme.com? if so, please sign on and see our exciting results! Look forward to hearing from you (if it is you 🙂 Thanks!

  9. Do your parents have a strong cultural identity? I want to adopt my next child, but I have a very strong attachment to my family heritage and culture. I would want my child to feel like she could share in that. I *certainly* wouldn’t want her to feel alienated by it. I would also want to embrace/promote her culture of origin if there is an identifiable one, but I want my family history to be her family history. Am I hoping for two much? Any thoughts on adopting a child of a possibly different ethnicity into a family with a strong focus on lineage and culture?

    • My adoptive father is from a very proud and strong country. We can trace our name back to the Phoenicians and we have been ruled by every major civilization that has ever existed. I spent every summer there growing up and heavily identify with their struggle and development as a country. We have a family crest on everything.

      That said…I also felt like that unique and strong background was like a refuge as a child. I could just say my adoptive dad was X and that shut most people up with the “what are you” question. The people from the country looked like me (features, coloring, etc.) and I felt like I could see myself in them (a big opposite to what I had back in America in a very white area). I must be honest though…I don’t think I would ever identify as something like Irish on my mother’s side. My mom is proudly Irish and can trace her roots back FAR, but I could never see myself identifying as Irish like her.

    • This is something my husband and I talk about a LOT. We both agree that our kids will be raised with strong ties to his heritage/culture, whether they are our biological or adopted children (my culture is the current social norm, so we really don’t feel like it needs to be emphasized). For example, if we adopted a child from China they would still be taught Telugu (my husband’s native tongue) and raised Hindu, but we would also look into ways to incorporate their Chinese heritage into our family’s lives. They would share in our collective family history, but our family traditions would have to alter in order to accommodate the addition of a new cultural identity.

      I definitely think that our success would directly relate to the cultural diversity of our surrounding community, but I’m sure that people in culturally restricted areas could still have *some* level of success.

  10. It’s amazing what people will say/ask when you don’t look like your parents! I’m an adopted kid who is hella scandinavian. I look a lot like my white forever mom, but my sister (also adopted) identifies as latina, so we get some strange looks and comments!

    I still remember one time when I was in elementary school and my sister was in preschool, this old woman came up to us at the grocery store and sneered at us. She said “Look at them! Those girls can’t be sisters!” My mom looked her dead in the eye and said “Different fathers.”

    And that’s when I knew my mom was a bad ass.

    • First of all, your mom is AWESOME! Even in families with biological children that happens too, so that lady is rude as can be! I know a family where the three kids all have the same mom, but different dads with 3 very different genetic backgrounds. They don’t look anything alike, so they get comments like that too.

  11. Are you from the US? I’ve heard that there, your race is given in your passport.
    Here in Europe that is not requested and not allowed because racism is a VERY VERY serious issue here (because of obvious reasons and past experiences). And it is an absolute NOGO to ask others which race they are, this is the essence of racism, because what does it matter, what race you are or your parent’s were??? Ok, it might matter what skin colour you have in case you commit crimes and people are searching for you, but if you have tan skin, it could just say “tan skin” like “blond hair” or “green eyes”, it does not define you in any way if that tan comes from your parent’s being indian, sout-east asian or mexican!!
    And honestly said this does not give me the best view of the US. Separating people upon their race is just so strange to hear from a country that is basically founded on a colourfull mixture of immigrants from all over the world, why is race so important?

    People should not ask you about your race, they should ask you who you are, not what you look like. You should have a longing to find out, who your parent’s are, what they felt, thought and loved, but not what race they were. Race itself is a category that should be banned from our minds.

    • “I’ve heard that there, your race is given in your passport.” No, that’s false.

      Having held an American passport for over ten years now, and my son being both American and British (and holding both passports), I can honestly say that neither US passports or British passports list the holder’s race or ethnicity. The forms for both passports request this information but there is a box that says “Other” with no obligation to explain further.

    • so, im one of those people who like talking about people’s heritage. so, i will do the “what is your heritage?” question.

      for me, its never about figuring out a person’s race, just for race’s sake. its about getting to know that person. and i like talking about it with everyone, not just non-white people. most white people actually have very diverse heritage!

      its just a neat subject, and i find it interesting.

    • I was trying to decide whether not to say something, but I think it might be important.

      This idea of “color-blindness” really isn’t helpful. People look different from one another and the has historically been used to separate people and decide who gets what. To discount race, discounts the very real experience of people of color. Race matters a lot. It matters historically, culturally, and currently.

      The US has some interesting history which has left a very real cultural scar which exposes our prejudice. However, the US doesn’t own the corner market on racism. Atlantic slave trade anyone? Spain, France, Britain, the Dutch, and Brazil were ALL involved in this. Christopher Columbus, anyone? Imperialism and the disenfranchisement of native people all over the world?

      Race is taken seriously in the US, too. It might look different, and maybe the culture of our country allows more expression of racist ideals. But it is very serious. However, say we all just need to let go of “the race thing” and love the individual isn’t helpful in the long run for those who this affects which I know is counterintuitive for those of us which have never had someone ask, “What are you?”

      I’m sorry to derail this a bit.

      • It’s interesting your mention the Atlantic slave trade – I can’t think of ANY other situation, besides adoption law, where laws LEGALLY denied a person the knowledge about their TRUE origins, identity, and information about their own birth EXCEPT adoption law and slavery.

        In slavery, people were treated as legal property and commodities. In adoption, the adopted people aren’t treated as equal people with the equal right to their own identities and histories.

        In slavery, the slaves didn’t have a choice about whether to be a slave. In adoption, the adopted people don’t have a choice about whether to be adopted (unless they are much older).

  12. Just a thought, but maybe consider looking into your Mom and Dad’s heritage? I know it’s not a genetic family history, but they are family.
    I come from a big Italian family, and the guy who keeps the family tree going adds all family members in. I don’t think we’ve had anyone adopted yet (we might have and I just don’t know), but we’ve had several kids that my great-uncle’s wife had from a previous relationship, and they’re all on there the same as anyone else.

    That’s awful about people asking you questions like that, though. I’ve only ever seen it on forms and surveys. I can’t imagine someone just randomly asking you that. I had a sociology professor tell us that if you lined the world’s population up by color, you wouldn’t find a clear cut off between “races.” You’d only see a gradual change from more pigmentation to less.

  13. Thing is, if you want to know, you have every right to know. This isn’t a reflection on the love you have for your parents or your husband or the happiness you have in the life you are living in now; it is a basic human need that we all have and many of us crave. If you feel you need to explore this in order to feel more whole and complete as a person, then there is no reason on this earth why you shouldn’t explore it. Those around you who love you should see how this is affecting you and should support it, because they should want you to be the most complete, happy, and whole you that you can be.

    I am also an adult adoptee from the very closed, secret adoption era and I went through the reunion process (I wasn’t as lucky as you to be able to just look at my adoption papers though) and I am going through the process of self-discovery, learning the roots of my ancestors. I can tell you that it is very liberating to finally know the blood that runs in my veins. My parents, God rest them, were good and loving people who did a wonderful job and will always be my parents – but this is about me, and filling in the gaps and holes that no amount of love could fill. I think this makes me a better person, and makes me feel more complete. And my husband has enjoyed the process with me as we discover many surprises along the way.

    Yes, it may consume you – but that will fade, and you will begin to be able to embrace your newly found heritage with pride and joy and be able to answer those questions happily and with a sense of ownership over your own heritage which is yours and yours alone. Adoption took that from you once – don’t let it keep it from you forever.

  14. Wow! This story is very similar to mine! I’m adopted and I have no clue about my culture and heritage. I get confused for being Hispanic with people speaking Spanish to me, or ask me if I’m Filipino. I am (or so I have been told) Malaysian and Indonesian. My adoptive mom is Korean, and my adoptive dad is white. And I too grew up in the country. When people ask, “Where are you from?” I tell them, “North Dakota!”. Then they’ll say, “No, where are you FFFRROOOMMM???” It’s kinda funny. I haven’t looked for my real parents but I’ve always wanted to. It was worse for me in high school when I really wanted to know my real parents, but over the years I’ve kind of gotten too busy and just let it go. I’ll see people on tv that look similar to me and think, “I wonder if I’m related to them?” My husband has talked about the DNA testing so we will probably do that. Thanks for the awesome article!!!!

  15. aw this was a great and sad piece.

    my boyfriend’s grandfather (maybe great grandfather?) was adopted, and so what he does know about his heritage is only half, if that. which, i might add, is fine. the answer “im adopted” or “x person in my family tree was adopted”, so you dont know specific heritage IS a real answer, because that is a real life situation, just as real as tracing lineages through time.

    and, im sorry, but i am totally that person who would ask. but i ask everyone, i think its interesting. and if i asked you and you came back with, “im adopted so i have no idea!” i would think that is interesting, because thats you, its your real history.

  16. Hey, if you’re a quarter Apache I can get you in touch with a friend of mine if you want to learn more. Unfortunately, as I understand it, the Apache can ostracize people who are “too white,” so the answers you get (in terms of finding a place to belong) may not be the ones you want. But if you want someone to talk to about it, ask the editors for my email address and drop me a line and I will get you two in touch.

  17. I can relate to this a little, though my situation is pretty different. My great grandfather essentially stole some guys identity to go fight in WWI when he was too young to enlist, and just kept the name when he returned. We found out about it from the man who’s identity he stole when he was very old and too senile to tell us his real name. My grandfather has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars hiring investigators to solve the mystery, but it remains a mystery to this day. Growing up, I always dreamed of being able to solve the mystery, and I do feel like I’m missing something by not knowing my heritage or even what our family name should have been. I’m white, but you still want to know, you know? At least, I do.
    It’s not at all like having been adopted, of course, but I too know the longing to just know.

    • That’s the beauty of DNA testing. You don’t need a paper trail to get started. If your grandfather is still alive – get him tested forthwith. Especially do the Y-DNA test from Family Tree DNA. Depending on who is available (and willing) to test, there are lots of options to get started. Success will depend on ethnicity – some ethnicities are more interested, have more paper trail information available, etc. Colonial American is your best bet. Italian is problematic as is Irish Catholic. Ashkenazi Jewish – you will have thousands of matches with no idea of how they are related because no one has a tree past their great-grandparents who “came from Russia”.

  18. Hi I’m sorry you have been upset by questions about your nationality! My partner is not adopted, his mum brought him up …. But he has never known his dad. He has never even asked! And he is now 33. His mum has been waiting all this time for him to ask. But he too is very tan with black hair – and his mum is white. We know he is not Maori (the other main ethnic group here) but nothing else and I have to respect his decision not to know and not find out. It means when we have a baby I won’t know part of its origins but i guess it doesn’t really matter. I wonder if it is a stubborn male vs inquisitive female thing but there is no way I could not find out about my parents if I didn’t know them, even if it was just to know where in the world they are.

  19. i remember reading a blog once upon a time where a mother was talking about raising an interracial child (not adopted) and the frustrations associated with inappropriate questions from strangers (usually along the lines of “what is he?” and “can i touch his hair?”). she said that she started directing the “what is he?” questions to him when others ask her. she said he usually answers, “ironman.” lol

    i can’t imagine what kind of identity crisis it was for you, not knowing, but you have a very healthy attitude now for sure. you rock!

  20. Me too me too! It was like reading my own story. I know my mom was Irish, no clue about my dad, though. I have dark curly hair, freckles, and light eyes, but olive skin and I rarely burn. I’ve had people ask me if I’m everything from Mexican to Russian, and it’s always bugged me that I’ve never known – mostly just from my own burning curiosity. I know I can’t ask my adopted mother anything about it, unfortunately. She gets very… sensitive. I might try out 23andme, though!

  21. I just wanted to let you know at 19 I was manipulated into placing my first child for adoption. His father was incredibly abusive and my family refused to help me. I faced being homeless or staying with the older man who regulalry beat an raped me. The only people who would help me convinced me I needed to give my son a “stable family with 2 parents”. They convinced me I wouldn’t be a good enough mother. I had been abused growing up and absued in my first real relationship (by the father of my son) and I was DESPERATE for someone to be kind to me. The agency lied to me, and even withheld legal rights I have in my state. But they told me how amazing and mature I was being. they told me how I was being such a good mother by giving my son up for adoption. And I bought it all. Afterwards they dumped me back on my abusive parents who said I could come home once I placed my baby. I developed severe PTSD afterwards and am now 100% legally disabled by it. I recieve SS payments and am unable to consistantly leave the house much less work. Having been abused all my life I still had always had hope for the future, for people, for myself. But once I realized people could stoop so low as to lie to a person to take their child and not care what happens to the mother I began to distrust everyone. What kind of person does that? What kind of society allows that to happen?

    My son is almost 10 now and wants a relationship with me. I have been in therapy since losing him and have had 1 other child. Contact with my son destorys me. I have PTSD flares, flashbacks, nightmares, and regression. I feel I can’t connect with my other child when I have to interact with my son. All of a sudden I’m 19 and scared again. Afraid if I don’t please his family they will send me back to my (long gone) abusive boyfriend.

    None of this means I don’t desperately want to have a relationship with my son. I fantasize about him “coming home” and still see him as MY son. I love him so very much and that’s what makes it hurt so badly. If I didn’t care about him I wouldn’t have cared about losing him.

    I just wanted to give you another perspective on why your reunion with your mother may not have gone so well.

    For me, for my son, I think of him daily. And its not just the left over stretch markse ,cigarette burns, and other scars that remind me. Its the horrible emptiness I feel in the spot he has in my heart thay tells me everyday I won’t ever “get over him”. How could I? He’s my son and I will always love him. Even if I can’t have a relationship with him because of the severe psychological duress it causes me.

  22. I can relate to your situation I too was adopted I was 3 months old when my folks brought me home. In my case there wasn’t any info on my birth parents on the certificate and they didn’t ask because well i was theirs. However I’m as white as it gets so where i live i blend in but when i see doctors the family medical conditions / history is the million dollar question and i get annoyed when i have to tell 3 nurse and then the doctor I don’t know this stuff. SO i do understand the mix of emotions that comes with being adopted.
    As far as traditions go I decided a long time ago that i wanted to be Irish my adoptive parents are Irish/ Italian. So i found one of their traditions and made it party of our family traditions so that my future family has these things too 🙂 Might be something worth thinking about if you feel your really missing out even combining a few parts of different traditions to get your own to incorporate in your family.

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