“Who am I?”
That’s the question that typical teenagers ask as they trudge through adolescence. It can be grueling as they seek the answer to that seemingly simple question. For anyone in near proximity, the process can be downright painful to watch, even dangerous if you get too close.
If the question is hard enough for the “typical teenager”, if those actually exist, imagine what happens when a teenager, or his family, isn’t typical. I didn’t feel like our family was very different from the family next door. We were two parents loving our four kids. But the fact that we looked different–and happened to move to Texas from Venezuela–meant that our family wasn’t “typical” after all.
This fact, that our family’s appearance complicated our kids’ identity journey, is one of those areas of our adoption journey that I underestimated. I told you last week, Adoption Awareness, that I’d share some chapters from our adoption story that caught me unaware, and this is one of them. I was aware that looking different would be an issue. I was unaware that it would be such a big issue.
We have two biological kids with a set of twins in the middle who we adopted while we lived in Venezuela. Our oldest and youngest sons look like “typical” North American middle class blondies—they were easy for others to place in a box without messing up any preset boundaries (although our blondies had their own atypical issues feeling a little more Venezuelan than Texan, but that’s another story).
Our twins, on the other hand, confused people because others didn’t know what “box” to put them in, especially when we moved to West Texas. Each region has its unique racial boxes and stereotypes; and in some regions the lines are drawn darker than in others. In our kids’ world in Abilene, Texas, the boxes were white, black or Mexican. It took us by surprise since none of those boxes even existed in Venezuela—they have boxes too, they are just different. Our kids didn’t even have vocabulary for these boxes, much less know where they fit.
Since our family looks different, the questions began in elementary school. “Is that really your mom?” “Why are you so dark and your parents aren’t?” “Are you half-breed?” “That can’t be your brother.” “So where are you from?” “You’re not Mexican?” So many questions, so few boxes.
Most assumed that the twins fit neatly in the Mexican box since they are from south of the border. But it’s not that simple. Their heritage is different. We ate cachapas with white cheese in Venezuela instead of enchiladas with jalapeños, and we celebrated Independence Day on “cinco de julio”, not on “cinco de mayo”. In other cities there may have been space for the twins in a Hispanic box, but in Abilene the box is Mexican, and few kids, or adults, even know where Venezuela is.
I was caught off guard by this messy journey. I didn’t know that I’d have to explain to my daughter what the girl in the cafeteria meant when she said, “half-breed”. I was surprised when Jacob wanted me to buy long sleeve shirts so that others wouldn’t see how dark he was. He asked me to park down the street and not enter the school for pick-up so the kids wouldn’t see how different we are. And there was the dilemma of what kind of shorts to buy. In fourth grade Jacob noticed that white boys wore cargo shorts, Mexicans wore blue jean shorts, and blacks wore athletic shorts. What kind of shorts was I supposed to buy for Jacob, a Venezuelan in a white family?
There were a few years that the science unit on genetics stirred the gene pool pot—dominant genes, recessive genes, “your guess is as good as mine” genes. Could their parents curl their tongue, wriggle their ears or wave their eyebrows? We had some fun making up answers, but their homework was a reminder that we didn’t have all the answers to the question, “Who am I?”
The quest became more complicated as the twins grew older. On the first day of middle school they walked into the cafeteria and had to decide if they would sit with the Mexicans, blacks or whites, because although the school district was desegregated, the cafeteria was not. One lunch period Jessica was chewed out by a white girl for sitting in the “wrong” section. And one day after school, Jacob said, “I’m not sure what to do after lunch. When everyone finishes eating, the blacks play football against the whites.” Fortunately, he was a good enough athlete that they both invited him to their team. It just made him ask that question again, “Who am I?”
Our family still laughs about a lady who approached us in a restaurant when the twins were in high school. Convinced that Jacob was an exchange student, she felt compelled to come to our table to welcome him to our country in loud and slow Texan English. She was impressed at how well he answered her in English without an accent. Either she couldn’t hear us because she was speaking so loud, or her English wasn’t as good as Jacob’s, because she never understood that he was our son. She just didn’t have a box for our family.
Of course the answer to the question, “Who am I?” goes deeper than the color of skin or place of birth, but as we watched our kids’ journeys we realized that they had to get comfortable with the superficial before they could go deeper. The question demanded perseverance, lots of processing and honest conversations—more than I ever expected.
Jacob’s a junior in college now. When he participated in the opening flag ceremony of Abilene Christian University’s fall semester, it was evident that he’s made peace with the question, “Who am I?”
To most people the ceremony was about the beginning of a new semester, and the international flags were about the countries that the students represented. But to me, the ceremony was about the end of a long journey. The ceremony itself was a message that now there are more than just three boxes in Jacob’s world, and it represented the university’s effort to blur the lines between the boxes. And the flag that Jacob waved represented part of the answer to the recurring question, “Who am I?”
When Jacob marched into the coliseum waving the Venezuelan flag in front of thousands of people, I knew that he was finally comfortable with the question. And he was proud of the answer.
And if you saw me, you would have seen that I was proud too. I was proud of the young man who persevered on the quest to answer the question.
And I’m proud of our family—that everyone’s made peace with not being “typical” after all.