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Perspectives Of A Chinese Adoptee

Written by Isa Jetté-Coté
Illustration by Thaila Khampo
January 2020

“Where are you from?” From the point of view of the person asking this question, this interrogation may come from a place of genuine curiosity, a willingness to get acquainted with the differences between Vietnamese and Chinese culture, for example. It can also be an effort to adjust to the era of globalization and multiculturalism. For some people, I know that it can be off-putting to be on the receiving end of this repeated question. It’s as if you were perpetually being reminded that you were “another” and seen for what makes you “exotic” rather than for what makes you unique. Oddly enough, I learned from a young age to answer this loaded question, simply. 

Like me, most if not all Asian-Quebecer who grew up in the suburbs, back in the 1990s, were also adoptees. At that time, the question about where I was born came from regular curiosity from my friends’ parents who could not tell the difference between someone of Korean, Indigenous or Chinese descent even if their life depended on it. The inner workings of my family were pretty similar to the other ones in the neighbourhood, except perhaps the more rigid discipline with which my parents raised me. I recall my mother dictating 10 sentences to me every weekday to improve my spelling. Meanwhile, my father would prepare mathematical riddles for me to solve over the summer. But don’t get me wrong, my life was far from “all work and no play”. Every night, my father would tuck me into bed with my stuffed animals, and would sing a song to each and every one of us. On Sundays, my family and I would gather and laugh out loud while watching La Petite Vie, a hilarious parody of an old Quebecer family. My friends and I would organize basement dance shows to the Spice Girls to entertain our mothers. At school, my classmates never made me feel like I was different from them. When my parents heard that other kids sometimes justified my outstanding grades with the “because you’re Asian” stereotype, they were quick to explain to me that the reason why I excelled was because I put the required effort into the task. I thus learned to respond shamelessly to these disparaging comments the same way my parents had taught me to—my success was rightfully mine.

For a long time, I only considered myself a neutral atom, a “regular Quebecer” in society. Being Asian wasn’t even something that came to mind the way I saw myself. The only time I was reminded that I was different from my peers was when I watched video recordings of myself. I couldn’t recognize myself. I always felt like I was looking at a stranger because I could not see my relatives’ facial features on my own face. For the longest time, I dreamed of having a pointed chin and a small nose. I also wondered how my life would have been had I inherited my mother’s blond hair and blue eyes.

Surprisingly, the feeling of being estranged from my country of birth followed me even after I moved to Montreal for high school. In Quebec’s multicultural metropole, I saw most Asian girls hanging out with each other. Although their physical traits looked more like mine, joining their close-knit groups had never appealed to me. In fact, I found it difficult to relate to what I remember perceiving as foreign. They exchanged notes in Cantonese, drank bubble tea before it became mainstream, and giggled with their hands in front of their mouths. Hence I became friends with the Caucasian girls with whom I could go to the Killers concert and make fun of Ashlee Simpson, and shamelessly binge-watch That 70’s Show. During the few times I visited Chinatown, the elderly grocery store clerks spoke to me in a language I did not understand—a language my parents never taught me because it wasn’t theirs. They always looked puzzled when they noticed I couldn’t understand them, and often persisted with more spoken Cantonese sentences, further adding to my sense of disconnect with their culture. 

“For a long time, I only considered myself a a neutral atom, a “regular Quebecer” in society. Being Asian wasn’t even something that came to mind in the way I defined myself.” 
At this point, you’re probably wondering if I’ve come to terms with who I am inside and out.  It was only after starting my psychiatry residency training at McGill University that I realized that my identity was  not limited to being a “regular Quebecer”. My new anglophone surrounding was more interested in understanding how my experiences shaped me as an individual. They liked to talk about their culture and families, and about how they felt similar or different from their parents. Suddenly, this open conversation became more than welcome, it brought students and staff closer together. It was as if people were saying “we should make a painting with all our colours”. They wanted their differences acknowledged. This mentality was different from what I was taught as a child: to be colour-blind. My mother would often say that pregnancy and delivery were just biological processes, and that what made you a true parent was raising a child. She also insisted on how your education shaped who you are much more than your outer appearance.

Although I realize that these may be oversimplified statements, they still hold some truth. If anything, growing up under the “we are all the same” illusion was ironically helpful because it protected me from the abandoned orphan narrative. Plus, brushing away the topic of adoption and ethnicity at a young age helped me feel less different; it helped me feel like I belonged. My friends and I had sleepovers, pool playdates, and attended Britney Spears concerts. My childhood had nothing stereotypically “Asian” about it. So until high school, I rarely reflected on my ethnicity, except maybe when I came across Lucy Liu in a movie. I admired her elegance and identified with her persona, seeing how her freckles made her stand out from other Asian actresses. It is thus through the kind of conversations with other Chinese peers that I grew more curious about their origins. They gave me a glimpse of what my life could have been had I not been adopted. 

“We need to accept that educating others about our history is a normal process that follows the displacement of diverse groups from one place to another, and co-existing together in a shared territory.”
I later reflected on how their immigration stories influenced my own sense of integration. I realized that I, in fact, benefited from positive stereotypes that were often associated with the image of the “boat people” who immigrated to Quebec in the 70s, following the Vietnam War. Hardworking, polite and serious families made a lasting impression on White Quebecers. Contrary to what I’ve heard from Filipino-American YouTubers, I was never negatively profiled by the police for being suspected as a gang-member. The most offensive comment I received living in Québecs was the backhanded compliment of “speaking good French”, which I would joke about with my friends. They would laugh along with me, so I never felt alone in the face of ignorance. I realize, as well, that being raised by parents whose values, personalities, lifestyles, idioms and accents corresponded to those of society made it easier for me to “blend in”. Being a Chinese-born adoptee raised by white Quebecer parents comes with some form of double-advantage: first, my family’s culture is well represented in most social groups, and second, I am able to benefit from other people’s positive prejudices of Asian-Canadians. This is a double-benefit I did not ask for but that has nonetheless influenced my life’s trajectory. It had never even occurred to me to try fighting the model minority stereotype because I’ve always identified as a hardworking, polite and serious person. I would, however, be quick to show that I was much more than that. For me, living in the shadow of such a cliché was like having a good business card: people would be inclined to trust me and to get to know me better from the get-go. Oftentimes, my natural sense of humour—which is blunt at times—would surprise them and in turn give them a good laugh.

I must acknowledge that, as an adoptee, my experience and sense of identity is most probably very different from children of Asian immigrants. I haven’t had to struggle with the sometimes confusing process of needing to assimilate more than one culture at the same time. But as a fellow Sino-Quebecer, I would like to tell other people who look like me and who still doubt whether they can be fully accepted for who they are: you and your family made it here against all odds; you are unequivocally part of this society. Our apartments, houses or shelters are a space within a shared land. Our interactions with others will inevitably be marked with offense, whether they be intentional or not. Sometimes, we will even be faced with overt ignorance and racism. But we do not have to withdraw from others when we feel offended. People surely have differences, some more than others, but they don’t make us less deserving of equal respect. And you can assert that by being fully yourself, and inviting others to see what you have to offer.

When you approach people in a friendly manner, you may even find yourself surprised by how empathic people can be when they are sensitized to your unique experience. We need to accept that educating others about our history is a normal process that comes with  co-existing in a shared territory following the displacement of diverse groups from one place to another land. When people would ask me where I was from, I “accepted” that I was indeed left for adoption by my native Chinese biological parents and that I was not born in Quebec – I never took offence. I would often answer that I was adopted from China when I was 10 months-old and that I was raised here in a White Quebecer family. I would also jokingly add that I grew up eating Shepherd’s pie while listening to Passe-Partout (a classic Quebecer children’s television show). With such a specific and assertive answer, people usually didn’t question whether or not they could relate to me. I’ve also noticed that answering this common question in an unapologetic manner was usually followed by a deeper conversation about how awkward it could have felt to be asked the question. This led, at least, to some sort of connection between us. 

“I choose to define myself by my resilience, adaptivity and caring.” 

Without a doubt, one of my biggest accomplishments during my psychiatry residency training was watching my Valedictorian speech recording, and being able to fully recognize the person speaking as much as I recognized the friends speaking alongside her. The person I see in the mirror no longer looks like a stranger.. I now embrace myself fully, because I realize that I am much more than what some people refer to as a “banana”—white on the inside, yellow on the outside. Today, I work in Rimouski, a rural city in Quebec. Sometimes, I still get the feeling that I don’t fit anywhere I go, but then I remind myself that the complexity of my identity is the precise reason why I can fit in everywhere because I choose to define myself by my resilience, adaptivity and caring.

Looking back at my years in my residency, Dr. Wiviott is the most memorable training supervisor that I had the chance to work with. He practiced psychiatry using the existential approach, which tackles themes of shared human experiences such as death and loneliness. I vividly remember how Dr. Wiviott put emphasis on the fact that therapists and their clients are fellow travellers in this journey that we call life. It is an absurd one, exhilarating at times, painful and frightening at others, but we always grow from sharing our stories.

Isa Jetté-Côté is a psychiatrist living in Quebec. She completed her medical doctorate at University of Montréal and her psychiatric residency at McGill University.

Thaïla Khampo is a Montreal-based illustrator. He likes patterns, mystery, beautiful stories, naive art, caustic humour, simplicity, and images that tell a narrative.





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