Navigating identity and belonging as Chinese adoptees in the West.

Eight days after Maggie Yu Mattackal was born, someone found her at the gates of Yiyang, a city in Hunan province, China. It was in early March 2001. Someone had affixed a note with a birthdate on it: February 23. Of the circumstances surrounding her birth, that’s about all she knows. The rest—who she got her nose from, whether she takes after her mom or her dad, or if she cried a lot—is a question mark. She doesn’t even know if she got a name. 

Maggie spent the first year of her life in an orphanage. Someone named her Yi Yuzhu. Two days after her first birthday, a white American couple adopted her. She grew up in North Charleston, South Carolina, 13,064 kilometers away. 

For most of her childhood, Maggie remembers being the one who stuck out. No one looked like her. She couldn’t, like her friends, point at her baby photos and say, “I look like my dad.” Whenever she saw an Asian person at the grocery store, she’d stare, pondering the minuscule possibility that her birth family could have immigrated to America and that she could meet them there, between two shelves, pushing a shopping cart.

“I was always looking for someone who looked like me,” she recalls. 

At the church where her father was a pastor, regular visitors, who were mostly white, often touched her hair or commented on her tanned skin with envy. Her parents sometimes referred to her as a “China doll.” Maggie was still young, but she already disliked it. It felt as if people were treating her like a sparkling, shiny “other.” But she didn’t want them to see that she was uncomfortable. She’d laugh it off. 

Once, on the playground, a white boy approached her and asked where she was from. “I’m from North Charleston,” Maggie said. “You’re not from here, you’re a foreigner,” said the boy. “What are you doing here?” As Maggie repeatedly told him that she was from the same place as he was, the boy kept pressing her. 

At the time, Maggie didn’t know much about the different forms racism can take. Race wasn’t something she discussed with her family. When she told her parents about the playground encounter, her mother tried to comfort her by saying that she, too, was bullied at school because she had red hair. 

“In my parents’ generation, color blindness was seen as the best way to approach color and ethnicity,” Maggie explained. “It wasn’t even on their radar that it was a conversation that needed to happen. And I didn’t have the vocabulary to bring things up.” 

In 2011, Maggie’s parents decided to adopt again: twin girls from Guangzhou, China. Until Maggie was thirteen, she, her sisters, and her brother, adopted from Kazakhstan, were the only Asian children in their community. But that all changed in 2014, when a Chinese Christian church moved into the same building as their father’s church. 

“That was the first time I’d been around people who were like me, in a meaningful sense,” Maggie said. But soon, she hit a wall. She realized she couldn’t keep up with kids her age, who switched between English, Mandarin, and Cantonese. Or with Chinese aunties, who asked her questions in Mandarin she couldn’t understand.

“That experience highlighted that I wasn’t Chinese enough,” she said. “I felt like I was imposing on people whenever I tried to join a conversation. I felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there even though I wanted to be there.”

For the first time, Maggie realized how “in-between” being an adoptee could be. Too Chinese, in the way she looked, to feel comfortable and fully accepted around white people; not Chinese enough, somehow, to fit into this new community. 

Going to college felt like a liberation. For about a year, she didn’t tell most people that she was adopted. She’d let them assume she wasn’t.

“I felt that I could just be Maggie, as long as no one knew my last name. For the first time, I didn’t feel pressure,” she said. 

But that was 2019. Soon, the COVID-19 pandemic began. Labels like “the Chinese virus” or “the Kung flu virus” exacerbated xenophobic sentiment toward Chinese people. Anti-Asian hate, violence, and discrimination against Asian Americans surged across the country. Stuck at home after her college closed because of the virus, Maggie had no choice but to question her identity once again. 

“I felt really isolated. I felt that I couldn’t tell my family about what it was like to be an Asian person at that moment. People were attacking Asians, and I felt a really deep anger about it. But I didn’t know if I was worthy of it. Because I felt like I wasn’t really Chinese.” 

*  * *

Not long before the creation of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949, Mao Zedong said, “It is a very good thing that China has a big population.” But that was mostly rhetoric. A few years later, he said, “In my view, humankind is completely incapable of managing itself. It has plans for production in factories, for producing cloth, tables and chairs, and steel, but there is no plan for producing humans.” 

In the mid-’60s, China established a Birth Planning Commission and started distributing contraceptive pills. In the ’70s, state leaders launched a coercive campaign to limit births, including forced intrauterine device (IUD) insertions and female sterilizations. By the end of the decade, fertility rates had drastically declined. But still, the idea that China had to limit couples to one child only was gaining ground. In 1979, the state started a large-scale experiment that would last for more than three decades: the one-child policy. 

The policy was unevenly implemented and penalties differed across China. Officials enforced it at the provincial level with IUD insertion after women delivered their first child, forced abortions, or fines, which many in rural areas couldn’t afford. Children born “out of plan” lived unofficial lives and could be seized from their families at any time and sent to orphanages or welfare institutes.

For the first decade and a half, thirty percent of families gave birth to children secretly or hid them, according to Dr. Kay Johnson, who spent years documenting the one-child policy era. One of the main strategies to evade fines was customary adoption. Parents left their children to neighbors, family, friends, sometimes strangers. But in 1991, the government outlawed the possibility of relinquishing children and limited national adoption to childless adopters above thirty-five years old. Countless families had no choice but to abandon their children. Most of them were girls (it was less likely for a family who gave birth to a girl to risk raising her in secret). People  found them and took them to Chinese state orphanages. But soon, they couldn’t keep up with the number of infants anymore. In 1992, China opened up to international adoption. 

In America, the idea of intercountry, transracial adoption wasn’t a new thing. The practice developed in the twentieth century after the Second World War left countless children orphaned in Europe and Asia. 

In the ’50s, one of the pioneers of intercountry transracial adoption was the African American singer and performer Josephine Baker, who adopted twelve children coming from different countries with her white husband and coined the expression “rainbow family,” according to Dr. Tobias Hübinette, who wrote a paper about racial issues for transnational adoptees of color. Baker had a dream: a color-blind world, in which ethnicity, race, religion, or one’s birthplace wouldn’t matter anymore. Baker’s vision laid the ideological foundation for the rise of transracial, intercountry adoption, institutionalized in the US after the Korean War. In the ’60s and ’70s, adoption became more common. Sometimes, it appeared as a politically radical act. Other times, religion was a driving force, along with the idea that white couples could save poor kids of color. 

After China opened up to international adoption, adoption agencies assured prospective parents that Chinese families wouldn’t want to adopt girls due to the importance of bloodline and a traditional preference for boys, according to Johnson. This myth was relayed by the media in receiving countries, mostly the US and Canada. But the truth was more complicated. In China, families did have a strong desire for sons, who took care of their parents when they were old, while daughters went to the family of their husbands. But research shows that Chinese couples have adopted girls under the one-child policy. And they would’ve done so to a larger extent, had the Chinese government not limited national adoption to older couples. Families preferred boys. But giving up on their daughters wasn’t a choice either. Or in Johnson’s words, it was a coerced one. 

For several decades after adoption became a socially acceptable practice, color blindness was the most widespread parenting approach to raising adopted children. White parents believed that assimilating children into their culture and treating them as white was the best solution. But color-blindness as an ideology also affected scholars of transracial adoption, according to Hübinette: research mostly focused on acculturation and adjustment for adoptees, while minimizing issues of race or racism. (It also mostly focused on adoptees as children, as opposed to people who remained adoptees even after they came of age.) Today, Hübinette writes, a new field has emerged. Critical adoption studies recognize the experience of adoption as lifelong and fluid, identifications as multiple and negotiable, and tackles questions of race that were previously ignored. Studies report feelings of racial isolation or loneliness among adoptees who grew up as the only person of color in a white environment and experienced racism that people around them often weren’t able to understand. Today, in the US, the discourse has evolved, and more parents acknowledge that color blindness is a bad idea. Not all agree. 

According to China’s Children International, after China opened up to international adoption, more than one hundred and sixty thousand Chinese children were adopted into families worldwide. At least eighty-two thousand of them were adopted in the United States. Today, many Chinese adoptees are coming of age, while the older ones are in their thirties. 

*  * *

Twenty years ago, at the beginning of June, a man on his way to work found me on the steps of a clinic in Hubei province, in a small county called Qichun, named after a variety of celery growing in the area. I was draped in a red cloth. I like to think that my birth family wrapped me in the color of good luck before leaving me on the street when I was a few days old. But it might just have been that red was a flashy color, and they wanted someone to notice me. 

            At the Qichun Social Welfare Institute, a four-story building with ugly yellow paint and white columns that welcomed orphans like me, the orphanage staff gave me the surname Qichun—like most people who were in there—and the first name Jia Dian. I also got an approximate birth date: May 30, 2003. About a year later, a French couple adopted me. 

            For my mom and my dad, this adoption was the result of a four-year-long process, conversations with social workers, a parenting test, and endless paperwork. They were in their thirties, hadn’t been able to conceive a child of their own, but deeply desired to be parents. My mom, who had worked in an orphanage in India in her youth, knew that she would be able to love a child no matter their skin color, country of origin, and whether or not they shared the same blood. Eventually, my parents turned to adoption. Since they were a young couple, the adoption agency agreed to assign them a child of less than two years old. At the time, the place to adopt such young, relatively healthy children was China.

            I had a happy childhood: loving parents, two fish, and a garden with a swing and a little orange plastic hut. My dad ran a hiking shelter in the French Alps, a few hours away by foot from where we lived, and I spent my summers running around, playing with the hens, and looking for marmots with a pair of binoculars. 

            I always knew that I was adopted. It would’ve been pretty hard to conceal — our village had less than seven hundred inhabitants, and I was the only Chinese kid around. In elementary school, people had an interesting way of expressing their curiosity: they’d come to me, squint their eyes very hard while stretching their eyelids with their fingers, and ask me if I could see things properly. We were all kids; I don’t blame them. But as I got older, racist nicknames became more noticeable. At the time, the only defense mechanism I found was to reject any relationship with China. Whenever people acted up, I only had one response: I was French. My parents asked if I wanted to learn Chinese. I said no. I think it’s one of my only regrets.

My parents had a white Peugeot car, with a big trunk and a stinky smell. On the road to the nearest town, where we went for groceries, school, and dance classes, my mom sometimes played a song by Francis Cabrel, “Mademoiselle L’Aventure.” Cabrel dedicated the song to his child, adopted from Vietnam. “What looks like chance, often, is a rendezvous,” Cabrel sings. To my mom, this line resonated with deep-set beliefs. Growing up, she often told me that our encounter, and my coming into this family, wasn’t just a product of chance. Perhaps, it was meant to be. It was a rendezvous. And a lucky star protected me. 

When I went to college, I reconnected with my Chinese roots. My campus specialized in the study of the Asia-Pacific region and we had a lot of internationals coming from Asia, including Chinese students. For the first time in my life, it wasn’t weird to be interested in China, and I was to some extent surrounded by people who looked like me. One of my roommates and best friends was Chinese. She taught me what a mooncake was, how to swear in Mandarin, and how to prepare dumpling fillings for the Lunar New Year. 

College was also when I first heard of race. In France, race is a taboo topic that can’t be expressed in public overtly. In people’s minds, the word is often associated with the Holocaust or Nazi Germany. In the US, color blindness is understood as a racial ideology rooted in the belief that racial group membership shouldn’t be noticed or accounted for, which allows people to ignore and perpetuate racism by providing nonracial explanations for racial inequalities. In France, color blindness stems directly from public policies. It’s considered a result of French universalism, an ideal aiming to unite all French citizens under one French identity, no matter their country of origin or other distinctions. In 2018, the National Assembly voted unanimously in favor of removing the word “race” from the Constitution. The French State refuses to collect racial or ethnic data. As a result, it’s almost impossible to measure racial discrimination against people of color when it comes to housing, workplace, law enforcement, or more recently, vulnerability to dying due to the COVID-19 pandemic in France. Recently, there have been calls from activists, politicians, and members of civil society to acknowledge and address racism and the flaws of the universalist myth. When it comes to transracial adoption, the question of race, like in the rest of society, is erased and often replaced by the one of culture. Instead of speaking of skin color or racism, adoptive parents use the words “roots” or “cultural heritage.” This erasure, some researchers believe, can lead to racial anxieties and the reproduction of racial hierarchies and inequalities. 

When I started doing research on intercountry adoptions for this article, speaking with scholars who study adoption from a critical perspective, it finally struck me that my mother was right when she said my adoption didn’t happen by chance. But not exactly because of the poetic reason we both thought of—that we were meant to meet, or that it was fate. 

Recently, I shared with her some insights from adoptees I had interviewed: because their families didn’t talk about race, some didn’t feel prepared to deal with racism or realized late in life that they were people of color, after being brought up as white. My mom explained to me that she made the educational decision not to highlight the difference between us because she didn’t want me to feel that all the issues I’d face in life were related to my adoption. My eyes, skin color, and facial features were different from my parents’. We all knew it, and it would come up sometimes in our conversations, like when I came back home and complained that kids made fun of me because of my eyes. But we’d talk about it like just another difference that people make fun of on the playground, like having red hair or freckles. We never talked about race explicitly. I’m not sure it’s a concept my parents knew much about, and neither did I. Until college, I didn’t know what “ethnicity” meant. To some extent, I can understand my mom’s decision. My childhood and teenage years were a perpetual fight to blend in that I feel like I never won. A deeper acknowledgment of my Asian identity could’ve helped me better understand racial discrimination. But to the young me who so desperately wanted to fit in, wouldn’t that have been cruel, too? Between illusions and the truth, I wonder what hurts more. I still don’t have an answer. Whether or not we talked about it, I’d probably still end up in the same place, which to me is at the core of my identity as an adoptee: I don’t fully belong anywhere. 

Today, I know more about Chinese culture. Sometimes, it makes me feel fuller, as if I’d just found a few of the missing pieces to glue back to a vase broken years ago. Other times, it sheds light on the empty spaces left by pieces I won’t be able to retrieve completely, no matter how hard I try. Last summer, I visited China for the second time since my adoption. It made me feel like a stranger. My Mandarin wasn’t good enough to talk to people. For the first three days, I couldn’t stop crying. 

*  * *

Like Maggie and I, to varying degrees, some adoptees embrace their roots, Chineseness, and in-betweenness. Others identify with their citizenship only and don’t want to hear about China at all. A few consider themselves white. All of them are faced with questions of race, identity, ethnicity, and culture, and with choices to make. 

“Identity formation for adoptees can be complicated,” said Dr. Sara Dorow, a professor of Sociology at the University of Alberta, who was among the first to study issues of race, gender, and kinship in transnational adoption from China to the US in the ’90s and early 2000s. “I find it interesting that there’s a divide among adoptees about that. There’s a sense that you’re in denial if you’re not looking for your birth parents or questioning your identity. But I think we need space to recognize the multiple trajectories that adoptees experience.” 

Throughout her research, Dorow talked with more than 50 adoptive parents. Some of them wondered whether they should’ve invested in the creation of good systems and facilities for children in their home country instead of adopting them. But both sides knew that had they sent $25,000 to China, it wouldn’t have been sufficient for that to happen.

“People often ask me, ‘Do you think it’s good or bad?’” Dorow said. “The reason I don’t want to answer is that we don’t get into the right kind of conversations. The question is how we deal with realities in front of us,” she added.

Instead of a black-and-white question around the ethics of intercountry adoption, what matters more to Dorow is how families choose to talk to children about their adoption.

“One of my favorite responses was from a couple from Minnesota who said, ‘What’s important is how we invite her to tell the story back to herself’,” said Dorow.

Grace Shu Gerloff, who was adopted in Zhejiang and grew up in an upper-middle-class white neighborhood in Minnesota, defines her upbringing as “color evasive.” Gerloff had a happy childhood. Her parents were caring, economically stable, unconditionally supportive, and easy-going with grades. They took her to Lunar New Year activities, to Chinese dance classes, or to get Chinese food on her adoption day. They talked about culture and the fact that she was Chinese and that it was special. They did everything parents were supposed to. But to Gerloff, something was missing.

“It felt like we were Chinese for a few days, and a white family the rest of the year. Because you’re an adopted child, and not because we’re a multiracial family. It was always the kid’s culture, like taking them to a soccer game. Being Chinese was like an extracurricular.” 

Gerloff’s family rarely talked about race, but she noticed that people treated her differently because of how she looked. Once, at a restaurant, staff asked her if she’d pay separately. She was just eight years old. Another time, outside her middle school, someone approached her as she was standing next to her dad, who is physically disabled, and asked which agency she worked for. 

“He thought I was my dad’s nurse, even though I was wearing kid’s clothes and a backpack,” Gerloff said. “It made me realize, not only did I look different, but I was assumed to be in a service position.” 

At the end of high school, Gerloff started thinking more about race. As she made Asian American friends in college, it struck her that she too was a person of color. 

“I started realizing how many structural issues there were and how much of the adoption industry relies on economic and racial inequalities,” Gerloff said. “Adoptive families say, most of the time, you’re not buying a child. But money is changing hands and you end up with a child. Someone is profiting off the exchange of a human being. Adoption is a market,” she said. 

Today, Gerloff is a fourth-year PhD student. She’s writing a dissertation on how East and Southeast Asian adoptees who were raised in white households in the US, in racial isolation, have used social media and networking to navigate their racial identities.

“I never had a model or people in my community to compare my experiences with racism or being Asian to. Social media became a way to connect with people I didn’t have in my immediate sphere,” she explained. 

To Gerloff, adoption should be a last resort, not a solution. 

“Why are we so invested in pretending that adoption is just another way to build a family, ignoring the dynamics of poverty and imperialism?” she said. “The adoption industry is preying on families in crisis, poverty, or addiction. Why is it that we see it as a good thing when it can only happen through the forced separation of a child and their parents? Is it really child-centered?” 

Dr. Andrea Louie, who wrote a book called How Chinese Are You? Adopted Chinese Youth and their Families Negotiate Identity and Culture, agrees with the idea that adoption should be a last resort. In a lot of cases, she said, it’s been how countries have made money. In an ideal world, she believes that children should be placed with family members or someone in their community. But in the Chinese situation, that wasn’t possible. 

“All the adoptive parents I interviewed were doing the best they could, both Asian American and white parents, to provide their child with resources and think about their identities, mostly cultural. But it’s hard to teach a child about something you don’t know about yourself,” she said. 

In her book, Louie explains that once adoptees are not with their parents anymore, they’re often treated as Chinese Americans but might not identify in the same way as a person of color. Other times, they might lack some of the tools to think about their identity or face racism. 

As a third-generation Chinese American, Louie finds similarities between the adoptees’ experiences and her own. 

“From a young age, Black parents teach their kids how to be safe and defend themselves against racism. But I wasn’t taught that either when I was growing up,” Louie explained. “At the time, the focus was on assimilation. For Asian American groups, who are sometimes considered honorary whites, the model minority myth erases the fact they experience racism and discrimination.” 

Louie didn’t grow up speaking Chinese. She often felt that she wasn’t Chinese enough.

“I think it shows how Chineseness can be used as a form of exclusion, but also a form of exclusion. But it’s not real,” she said. “If you think about it, there are so many cultural variations in China and the Chinese diaspora. There are many ways to be Chinese.”

As an anthropologist, Louie sees culture as changing over time instead of a fixed set of ideas. Being Chinese is not checking off boxes on a list. But to her, there’s also a limit when it comes to cultural appropriation.

“There’s critique in the literature about adoptive parents taking traditions and reinventing them without deep or contextual understanding. I’m not sure how you draw a line or prevent going over it. Chinese Americans also are somehow inventive or change their traditions. But they have the privilege of authenticity. They can do new things, and no one will question them,” she said. “But you also want to leave room for adoptive families to create new traditions, like celebrating adoption day. It’s a family-built tradition to acknowledge,” she added. 

*  * *

For most of her life, Maggie didn’t feel worthy of calling herself Chinese, or even Chinese American. It made her feel like an imposter. She didn’t speak the language. She didn’t know about the customs. She didn’t feel qualified enough. During the pandemic, for the first time, she opened up about how she felt to a friend and her mother. Both were surprised. 

            “It’s in your blood,” her friend said.

            “That’s part of who you are, you were born there!” her mother added.

To Maggie, this felt like an empowering realization.

“No one had told me this straight up before,” she recalled. “My mom had just assumed I knew it.”

After these two conversations, Maggie felt more at ease. She joined a Chinese culture club, connected with Chinese students, and started learning Mandarin on Duolingo. She still felt insecure. But she also realized she wasn’t the only one. 

“I think that sometimes, other Asian Americans who aren’t adoptees feel a similar pressure and insecurity. For adoptees, this can be more extreme. Because we don’t necessarily have Asian family members,” she said. 

In college, Maggie changed her legal name from Maggie Walker to Maggie Yu Walker, to reclaim her Chinese name, Yi Yuzhu. 

“I wanted to reclaim that part of myself that was born in China.”

She finally felt free enough to grieve that loss. 

Today, Maggie has come to terms with the idea that there’s no right or wrong way to be Chinese. She recently became Maggie Yu Mattackal after marrying her husband, who is Indian, and she knows that one day, she wants to have children and integrate Chinese culture into their lives, maybe through food or festivals. 

“It’s something I want to keep learning about. There are so many gaps in my knowledge,” she said. “But I want my children to be proud of where they’re from.” 

In February, Maggie had an emotional breakdown because she didn’t know how to celebrate the Lunar New Year. She hasn’t grown out of her feeling of in-betweenness. Instead, she grew into it. 

“After a while, I realized that it can be a strength,” she said. “I can identify with people who feel in-between. I can empathize with those who feel the same sadness and void.” 

For a long time, Maggie didn’t know how to communicate how she felt to her family.

“I’m worried I’m gonna offend my parents. But I’ve started to own my own story more. I still take a deep breath and say a quick prayer before I talk to them. But they’ve been receptive and open.” 

Recently, Maggie took a DNA test to look for her birth parents and found some distant cousins. But she doesn’t have enough money to go further by hiring a private investigator. Even if she found her birth parents, she knows she lost years of getting to know them. 

Her adoption has affected almost everything in her life. From introducing herself to people or meeting her friends’ families to managing her relationships or wanting to have children. 

“I have really deep abandonment issues, and I can be really clingy in an unhealthy way. I feel vulnerable opening up to people because I’m afraid they’re going to leave. It’s never going  to leave me. It’s something I carry,” she said. 

“But there are days I don’t think about it and it doesn’t feel as devastating. Especially now that I’ve started to build my own life and family.”