"You look like Mulan" and other adoption tales

Buzzfeed's "I'm Adopted but I'm Not..." video

In 1995, Denmark was approved to receive international adoptees from China. In the summer of 1996, a round-headed 9-month-old Chinese girl crossed the Danish border for the first time. My name is Lærke, and I am adopted from China.

Being adopted was never something that bothered me. Growing up there were only two ethnically “non-white” kids in my year group of about 100. It never mattered to me: I looked different, so what? The worst that happened was people assuming that I was good at math or Tetris (Disclaimer: I am an atrocious mathematician and a below-average Tetris player). While some argue that positive stereotypes are just as harmful as their negative counterparts, I have always laughed them off as the intentions were rarely bad.

While I have mostly avoided negative experiences, adoption has gotten me into many a strange situation. When working as a ski instructor I was the only one of my 120 colleagues who was not white. One day I walked into a full office and a girl turned around in her chair, looked at me and said: “Ching Chong” Somewhat taken aback I responded: “Sorry, I don’t speak Chinese” to which she stared at me, turned back around and continued her conversation. (I really do not speak a word of Chinese so I hope that does not actually mean anything. If it does, girl, I sincerely apologize for calling you out.)

When I travelled to England to start university, I was walking with my father who is a blond-haired, blue-eyed, middle-aged Caucasian man. We walked past a local couple. The man proceeded to smirk at my father with his missing tooth and say: “You got yourself a young one, didn’t you?”

Because of his thick accent, it took me too long to understand the sentiment to respond. However, I wondered afterwards: what exactly was he expecting to happen? That my father would go “You know it”, pop his sunglasses, offer a fistbump and move along? That I would hug my father closer and go: “Yes, Ting-Ting love white man”? (My apologies to anyone named Ting-Ting with a white husband. You do you, girl.)

I will admit that this incident left me a little shaken but, importantly, this is far from a regular occurrence. Most incidents are more funny than harmful. People will say I look like Mulan, Pocahontas, Lilo or Boo from Monsters Inc. None of this is offensive to me. I mean, who wouldn’t want to look like the girl who saved China? People ask questions with genuine curiosity and I really like answering them – if people walk away from a conversation with me more enlightened on the topic of adoption than they were before, I’ve done my job. For many people, it takes a little while for them to realize that I am totally okay talking about adoption, at which point they are able to shed the initial awkwardness.

I mostly laugh at the awkwardness of these exchanges but I also understand where it comes from. Look no further than the film industry: orphans are pitiful beings dressed in rags, whose sole purpose in life is to find their “missing pieces” (read: biological parents) and finally become whole. The Oscar-Nominated film “Lion” was all about an unhappy adoptee going on this hero’s journey. While I liked the film, I was somewhat shocked at its apparent message: that you cannot possibly be a complete human being without knowing your biological parents. With this discourse, how can you blame people for not wanting to deal with such traumatized and woefully incomplete beings?

Crucially, though I am not traumatized. I am not on a noble quest to find my “real” family. My real family is the one I grew up with, despite the fact that we do not look alike. Maybe I do not look like a Danish person “should” but in this age of globalization and migration, what does that even mean?

Of course, there are many adoptees who have a hard time with who they are and their place in the world. I cannot and should not speak for them. Just look at the video above from BuzzFeed, artfully demonstrating the variation in attitudes, even among adoptees. Personally though, I strongly believe in the following philosophy, formulated by my fellow Danish adoptee, Helene Thordsen:

“Being adopted is my special circumstance. And I know no one, white, yellow or brown, who do not live with some special circumstance that they deal with throughout their life.”

So, adoption is my special circumstance. What’s yours?

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By Alfie Tobutt