As a transracial adoptee I was made to feel as though I should be grateful

When I was around seven or eight, my teacher made me stand up in front of the entire class and said, ‘This is what failure looks like’.

As the classroom erupted into laughter, I desperately forced myself not to cry.

Then, when I was finally allowed to sit down, the teacher threw the blackboard eraser at me and the wooden side hit my head. 

I just remember thinking that it couldn’t get any worse than this. 

My crime for being labeled a failure? I was the only Asian kid in my class at a school in Australia.

I’d been adopted from war-torn Vietnam as an infant by a white middle class family. 

There is a definite thing around many transracial adopters: being the white saviour.

My own adoptive parents even told me that as they couldn’t go to war in Vietnam, they did the next best thing – save a child who was born there. 

In other words, take them to the West where it’s going to be much better.

It felt like the constant narrative that surrounded me as I grew up was that I should be grateful that they saved me.  

While Australia is a very different place now, when I was adopted, Asian refugees were only just migrating to Australia. It meant I encountered a terrible amount of racism in Sydney, where I grew up.

Vietnamese people lived in a stereotypically bad part of town and people called us prostitutes and thugs and thieves, so I had a very negative image of what being Vietnamese meant.

I was also very confused because I was brought up as white, like many transracial adoptees.

My parents would say they didn’t see my colour, just me – but the reality is that’s problematic because we live in a world of colour.

The world will always see me as an Asian person.

Back then, it meant I was bullied a lot at school and in society because I look different –  my eyes are different, my nose is different. I have black hair, no one else had black hair. Physically I was smaller than the white kids.

I remember people patting me on my head, saying, ‘Oh, that’s a nice adopted child’, or my parents introducing me to people as their adopted child. It was very clear I was different from my white siblings who’d been born to my mum and dad.

My parents couldn’t see the racism that I was encountering, but that’s because they were a part of it as well.

I remember once driving with them through the Vietnamese area. It was summer and I had the window down. When we stopped at a traffic light, my father said ‘You should wind up the window because this is a bad area of town and a Vietnamese person could grab you or steal something from you’.

Like all kids, I just wanted to fit in and be normal, so I tried to completely erase being Asian. I remember spending so much time with soap and water trying to wash away the Asian because I hated all the racism that I received so much.

I never saw people like me reflected in the books I read or the TV I watched.

Once I asked about being Vietnamese and my parents said, ‘We’ve taken you to Vietnamese restaurants and cafes. Isn’t that enough?’

As a teenager, I started questioning my heritage, and they didn’t really have an answer or an understanding of what it was to bring up an Asian child.

I always wanted to learn Vietnamese, and I’ve since realised as an adult how much it would have helped me. I remember asking my parents why I didn’t learn the language of my birth country, but they just shrugged their shoulders. 

As a transracial adoptee it can feel like you’re living in limbo and I ended up suffering from severe depression and suicidal thoughts as a child. 

I’ve since learned this isn’t uncommon among many people in my situation.

It didn’t help that I also realised I was part of the LGBTQ community, which added just another layer to my struggle for acceptance.

As I got older, I slowly grew apart from my family and in my late teens I left Australia and headed for Europe, where I lost contact with my adopted parents, who passed away some years later.

I also lost control of myself a bit. I needed to find this sense of self, which saw me end up in a bad crowd of alcohol and drugs and 24 hour partying. I spent the little cash I had like there was no tomorrow and I ended up homeless for a number of years.

At my lowest moment in a homeless shelter, I slept solidly in bed for two days. I woke up on the third crying uncontrollably, wondering what had become of my life.

I knew I had to pull myself out of that hole as I had something greater to give, but I didn’t know what it was yet. 

I went back in my mind to where I initially found my purpose through bodybuilding, something I found a passion in when I was younger. Thankfully going back to the mindset of an athlete helped pull me out of poverty, but it was the hardest thing that I have ever done and I had a mental breakdown while doing it.

It’s only as I’ve got older and started visiting my birth country every year, that I’ve really learned the truth.

In developing countries, particularly ones where there has been great poverty, being in an ‘orphanage’ often doesn’t mean that you’re an orphan, and this is something that adopters may not know.

The situation in Vietnam was that a lot of orphanages were full of children that actually had relatives, even parents, that were alive. 

When you’re living in very difficult circumstances people think the best thing is taking the child to an orphanage where they will be fed, educated and clothed.

But there is an understanding, that once that child becomes a teenager, say 16 to 18, they go back to the family to work.

I have no idea if that was what my mother had wanted for me – or if she had intended for me to be raised by another family for life. I’m not sure I’ll ever know.

There are many stories that have come out of Vietnam over the last 40 years of our biological mothers and fathers searching for their adult children of my age, because they weren’t meant to be adopted during such a turbulent time.

Of course, things are very different now and there’s a vast support network for interracial adoptees, that we didn’t have.

When I was an infant, they basically received me at the airport, and were left to their own devices, and that was it.

If you compared my experience to that of a transracial adoptee now it’s very different – but even so, our experience is very shared.

Like a lot of adopted kids, I’ve done all the DNA tests and I’ve been able to trace, second, third, fourth, fifth cousins.

But I have yet to find my biological mother.

Not a day goes by that I don’t think about her. I don’t know if she thinks of me as well.

For my own identity – for me – I just want to meet immediate family. Before I go to my grave, I just want to know. I want to see people that look like me, and also to let them know that I’m okay. 

A few years ago I went back to my orphanage in Saigon. It’s now an apartment block, but when I went with a social worker, I was able to go into one of the apartments and people showed me pictures of what the orphanage looked like.

I know my adoptive parents struggled with the fact that I wanted to know more about my heritage, but the fact is I had two families – it doesn’t diminish my adopted family. 

What I’ve learned through going back to Vietnam is that my community have this resilience inside of us that has been passed on through generations. I truly believe it’s our experience through the war that has shaped us.

Last year, I became the first Asian Stonewall sports ambassador and I’m working with Formula E at the moment. I became an athlete, an ally, an ambassador, but I got here on my own accord. 

Now, I go back to Vietnam, probably two, three times a year, and it grounds me in my identity and culture, and I always feel like I’m coming home. 

It’s made me understand that while I don’t think transracial adoption should be avoided, I think there needs to be more education around it to keep children connected to their heritage.

We can’t be so naive to think that love is enough because our identity matters, that’s what makes us who we are and that should never be erased.

The foundation of my success today originated in my early adolescence with my discovery of finding comfort in bodybuilding that distracted me from my childhood in Australia. My passion for sports turned into the career I built and my life’s work in giving back through my global activism.

As an LGBTQ advocate I have always stood in my truth and been unapologetic. I’m just one voice – this was my reality back then and I hope that what I went through never happens to the younger generation of adoptees. 

I hope they never have to question if they can tell the truth and share their feelings, as I once did.

As told to Jen Mills.

Visit Amazin LeThi’s website or follow her on Twitter.

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