Friday, April 29, 2011

When you think you understand, but you really don't...

(Yes, it's another dang long post...just think of it as getting a bargain for your buck...oh wait, this is free...well, then, it's an even better deal...)

I don't know what's more maddening and challenging to deal with--folks who don't understand and don't care to understand or folks who are convinced they understand but in reality don't understand at all. I've dealt with the latter frequently, and every time, I walk away feeling sick to my stomach, patronized, and dismissed. Nothing new of course, but nonetheless, hurtful and annoying.

Here's the thing, I do believe that through our collective sufferings we can work toward a certain level of understanding of others' sufferings. We can do our best to draw from our own lives to find experiences that help us to relate to or understand better the hardships and suffering of others, with a caveat, though--to also recognize that to understand better does not therefore mean we know what it's like to live in someone else's shoes.

As this relates to being an adoptee, it makes me insane when folks, especially adoptive parents, put up this wall of "Oh, you don't have to tell me, I know, I already get it, because I went through this or I went through I know what it's like to be an adoptee..."

Or I can't tell you how many times, folks who are older than I am, have patronized me with variations of this statement, "Well, when you get older and wiser, like me, you'll understand better, and adoption won't have the same effect on you that it does today. I mean sure, it will still be a part of who you are, but ultimately, you'll get over it..." Due to their own life's hardships they presume that they know how my adoption experience will resolve (whether that's even possible remains to be seen).

Oh, really? Okay. Thanks for telling me how I'm going to deal with being adopted. I'm glad you know so well how to handle daily life as an adoptee. I'm glad you somehow know that being adopted is just like dealing with anything else in life.


Sure. Yes, sure. I'm sure that one day when I have to fill out papers at a medical office, I won't have to leave entire sections blank because I don't know my medical history (despite reuniting).

Right. And I'm sure when I look at family photos and see this short Asian person among a sea of tall, Nordic looking people, I won't be reminded that I'm adopted...every...single...time.

And I'm sure--despite the fact that every time someone asks me where I'm from or where my parents live, I'm reminded that I'm adopted--that one day, I'll just forget that I'm adopted.

Certainly. And the fact that I'm constantly surrounded by people who look nothing like me and who assume that English is my second language and harangue me for not knowing Korean will one day no longer remind me that I'm adopted.

I'll stop there, but the list goes on. I'm not playing the violin here, and I don't mean to sound acerbic (or maybe I do). And, as I've stated before, it's not a competition of who has claim to the most tragic sob story or who has suffered the most. I'm just trying to give some practicals to help folks see that being an adoptee affects every day life--and in ways that are unique to adoptees. I've written about it before several times--being an adoptee isn't just something that hangs out on the back burner, and it's not viewed by the general public accurately. It's constantly burning out in front of me, and I feel the heat all the time, even in the most mundane of activities that so many take for granted as uneventful and trivial.

Someone can make the most benign, seemingly unrelated statement or question that nonetheless reminds me and brings to the forefront the fact that I am adopted...and being in reunion actually emphasizes and complicates that fact even more so...

Are you visiting your family for the holidays? Where are you from? I'm just like my mom. I get it from my dad. What are you going to name your son? I love kimchi. Did your mom get really bad morning sickness when she was pregnant with you? Oh, you're Korean, I lived in Korea for three years back in the nineties. How much did you weigh when you were born? How long was your mom in labor with you? Oh, I speak Korean. Does this or that run in your family? Who do you look like? Wait, you're mom is white, huh? That's not your brother! How long have your parents been married? Do you have siblings? Do you have a big family? Etc., etc.

These questions are not wrong or insensitive. They're normal, generally harmless questions to ask. But that's exactly why they perfectly illustrate my point--for some adoptees, benign, everyday life can stir up deep emotions and responses that others might not anticipate or even bother to think about--not because others are careless per se, but because they're unaware, or simply indifferent or...they think they've got a grasp when they really don't.

It irks me when folks come along, especially adoptive parents, proclaiming that they understand fully what it is to be an adoptee. My insides bristle when someone claims, "I myself completely understand and know exactly how you feel because I [fill in with perhaps somewhat related but completely different personal experience of speaker]."

What would be a more truthful and accurate response is "I think I can relate somewhat emotionally due to my life experiences, but ultimately I realize I'll never know what it is to be an adoptee."

Look, yes, trying to gain understanding into the adoptee experience is a good thing. I'm not discouraging that. I'm not trying to create a Catch 22 for the non-adopted persons trying to connect with their adopted loved ones. I'm just making the point to please be honest and truthful about your understanding. We can tell when we're being patronized or when our feelings and experiences are being diminished. (And that obviously applies to a vast many other situations.)

And don't get me wrong, I appreciate when adoptive parents educate themselves and make efforts to understand. Doing so, I believe, is crucial and vital to the role of an adoptive parent. I want adoptive parents to inform themselves and do whatever they can to increase and deepen their understanding of the adoptee experience.

But it's a bit troubling when an adoptive parent thinks she or he knows exactly what it's like to be an adoptee, because this has real consequences for their attitudes and behaviors toward their adopted children. When you think you already understand, when you think you've arrived, you don't seek out further understanding. You get complacent. You stop educating yourself. You stop challenging yourself. And you refuse to listen to others because you already believe you've got it all figured out.

It's a sad thing to me when someone does not understand because they already think they understand. People in this state of mind are often the most difficult to reach--not only when dealing with adoption matters but with anything in life. And I suppose, in a way, it's a form of hypocrisy and ultimately arrogance or pride.

At least those who realize they don't understand and openly state that they have no desire to understand are not deceiving themselves. Yes, it still hurts when someone chooses indifference. But at least they know and you know, and there's always hope in the future that their hearts and minds may change, because they at least know where they stand.

But for those who are blissfully ignorant yet believe themselves to be blissfully enlightened, who already think they've got it all figured out, but actually don't? Well, honestly, I haven't figured out how to reach people like this other than to simply hope that with time something will bonk them on the head and turn on the light. And maybe I don't understand these types folks like I could...and that's just it--it boggles my mind that they choose to be so dismissive.

Until, then, I have to learn to be patient and manage my own emotions so that I don't become my own worst enemy or their worst enemy, because that wouldn't do a bit of good for anyone.

* * *

Ultimately, when it comes to responding to and comforting loss and the associated grief and pain, it's often a lot more simple than folks make it.

We don't need to be fixed...we don't need "wisdom" or a sincere but presumptuous attempt to provide "answers"...we don't need you to pretend to understand or to tell us these things happen for a reason...

What we often need is what an adoptive mother alluded to in a comment to one of my recent posts,
"...And maybe all my daughter will need on some of these occasions, all she'll want is to be held and listened to..."

That's it--simply and sincerely, heartfelt compassion and a listening ear. That's often all it takes.

Sometimes compassionate silence is the most understanding, validating response you can offer.

The most "right" thing you can do may simply be to listen.

I'm not looking for someone to fix me or give me all the answers they think I want or need to hear. I'm not a problem that needs a solution. I'm a human who needs sincere compassion and validation--not pity, and not charity.

What I need is to be treated with respect as an intelligent, competent, mature adult--not some angry, bitter exception to the norm. And as a child, I needed the same, simply applied in a way appropriate for my development.

Now, is that really too much to ask?

Apparently, for some, the answer is "yes."


The Byrd's Nest said...

Great post Melissa:) Seems like something new is always coming up with my girls so the only way to keep up with them is to continue to educate myself. Lottie is angry lots of time and all I can do is keep trying to talk to her about "why" she is angry so that one day she can put her feelings into words. But I do tell her that it is okay to be angry. I will never know how they feel but all I know is that I love them so much and I owe it to them to learn from adoptees like you. Thank you for always being honest and speaking from you heart. I pray that I will always be teachable:)

Mila said...

I appreciate you, Kimberly...I appreciate the lack of "wall" that I sense and experience from you. You don't put up defenses nor do you try to justify yourself...thank you for always being willing to listen so sincerely and openly.

Anonymous said...

Melissa, Great post and so true. Daily we can be reminded 'we are adopted' and it can happen when we least expect it.

"Your too young to have this - does it run in your family?"

Watching TV and adoption comes up...

Being asked your doctor if you know when your mother started matter how old the zingers keep coming.

Or the comments dismissing the need for family health history - "well I don't know mine" - "They" can do something about that and if they choose to remain ignorant what does it say about them...and they will change their tune when they end up in the hospital and the doctors are stumped and then they will pick up the phone and call their family - because they can.

I watched The Voice the other night and when one of the contestents went out and hugged his mom and dad - everyone knew he was adopted. I didn't look like my family but being a different race makes it impossible to not have the adoption card present all the time. I don't know that I would deal with that very well at all because their would be no escape, ever.

Haley said...

[this is me, doing my best to be compassionately silent.]

Von said...

More compassion all along the line and more honest, real listening can never do anything but good.
It's the assumptions that hurt, damage and show the ignorance of the speaker.Perhaps if those who like to tell us they know, realised their foot in mouth disease is showing, it might give them pause for thought.

Reena said...

Good post Melissa-- I don't know why aparents would ever think they/we could possibly fully understand how an Adoptee feels.

It simply isn't possible-- we can empathize, show compassion, validate feelings and be there with a caring hug-- but we can't fix the hurt and we can't take away all these experiences that you have described. This is the reality for our kids.

I am so very grateful that you and other Adoptees share your experiences with us.

otjo said...

Thank you so much for continuing to share your experiences in such an honest way. Without perspectives from adoptees how can we ever have any idea about how to be the parents our children deserve to have. I only hope that I can really learn and put it into practice.

I am still (even after 2 years) left dumbstruck at some of the comments.... how do other people handle this?

Any advice about how to reply to some of the common questions and how to equip my son to start dealing with them himself would be greatly appreciated.