‘No one understands me!’ I felt like I was drowning in feelings. I was afraid of losing what I thought was my identity.’: Transracial adoptee shares journey, ‘Families don’t have to look the same’

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“I was born on July 7, 1996. At least, this is what my birth certificate says. I was left in a busy hospital, found and brought to an orphanage in Yangzhou, Jiangsu China. At least, this is what I’ve been told. My name was Yang Zhi Hong, or at least, this is what the orphanage caregivers called me. These three pieces of information are the only ‘facts’ I ‘know’ about myself before the age of 1.

Courtesy of Sara Odicio

Here is what I do know: I know my parents took a second leap of faith in flying halfway across the world to adopt me in August 1997 when I was 11 months old. This was my parent’s second adoption from China, as my older sister was from a different part of the country. I know my parents tried their hardest to immerse themselves in the Chinese culture while they were there. I know as soon as the caregiver brought me out to them, with my hair buzzed short like all the other babies, I gave them a giant blank stare, as I saw them grinning ear-to-ear with tears in their eyes.

I know while in the Chinese hotel for the rest of the trip, there was no crib available, so my mom made a little crib by pushing two armchairs together right next to their bed. I know by the second morning with them, I crawled right out of the make-shift crib and into bed with my dad, which must have made him automatically know I would be a ‘daddy’s girl.’ I know my parents’ adoption trip for me was the FIRST time they were away from my older sister for more than a couple of nights, so when our extended family was waiting at the airport with my sister, there were tears of relief and true joy amongst everyone, as they saw our family finally be complete. It seems like a lot I DO know, but my life has been just as much, if not more, impacted by the first three sentences of information I DON’T know to be true.

Courtesy of Sara Odicio

After being adopted, I grew up in rural Pennsylvania. I was raised knowing I was adopted, as it was physically apparent. I don’t know what it’s like to have other siblings who are biological to the adoptive parents. All I knew growing up was she was my sister. Shawna and I, who looked alike, and then my parents who looked different than us. In fact, as a young kid, I noticed physical differences (what I now know as the racial difference) through people’s noses. I used to say to people, ‘Shawna and I have small noses and my parents have big pointy noses!’ It was quite humorous back then, and honestly, noses are still the first thing I notice when I see people, but those comments were the earliest observations I had in pointing out the racial differences my sister and I had within our family and extended family.

Courtesy of Sara Odicio

Along with knowing I was adopted at a young age, my parents always spoke of our adoption in a positive light as they normalized it through the books we would read and the movies we would watch. For example, the Disney movie Tarzan was a favorite – arguably the best Disney movie soundtrack with Phil Collins starring in all the songs. In the movie, Tarzan as a young boy essentially becomes part of the gorilla family, even though he looks different. My mom used to sing, ‘You’ll Be in My Heart’ with my sister and me, and we felt a deeper connection to Tarzan’s story. Basically, my mom was the gorilla (Haha!), and my sister and I were Tarzan, to help us understand families don’t have to look the same.

Courtesy of Sara Odicio

Another positive way our adoption was recognized was our once-a-year gathering with other adoptive families from China to celebrate the Chinese New Year. We would make it as traditional as possible with fireworks, dragon parades, money-filled red envelopes, the story of the Zodiac, long-life noodles, and of course delicious Chinese food. It didn’t feel especially important to do in the moment, but looking back it definitely impacted me. I now have a deep desire to continue this tradition with my future family. All of these reasons and so much more were ways my parents encouraged my sister and me to engage with our adoption in a positive way, but a part of the process that wasn’t as much openly engaged with was the grief and loss I felt.

Grief and loss are hard for people to pair with the topic of adoption because traditionally, adoption has been viewed as a solution to struggles of infertility and forming long-awaiting families. While it can be a wonderful solution, it does NOT mean it’s an easy or happy choice for all parties involved. There are grief and loss in all parts of the Adoption Triad (adoptive parents, birth parents, and adoptees). I think a big part of why grief and loss weren’t engaged with is because my family didn’t know, at the root of my struggles, was a sense of grief and loss. For instance, I was an anxious child growing up. I struggled to go to school each year and I even struggled to come home from school into summer vacation – transitions were hard for me. I still remember the nervousness and fear I would feel when being separated from my mom in a new place. I often said as a kid, ‘I don’t feel good’ without knowing exactly what hurt. My mom, being like any mom, wanting to problem solve, couldn’t understand what I meant. But as a kid, it was my way of saying, ‘I’m anxious.’ The anxiety was a result of my deep-rooted fear, tied closely to my grief and loss.

Courtesy of Sara Odicio

As I got older, in late middle school all the way into college, and had interpersonal struggles with family and relationships, often times a fight would start on one topic and then end in me breaking down in tears, crying myself to sleep and saying, ‘I miss my [birth] mom’ – who I didn’t even know. It’s like the scared feelings of whatever I was originally arguing about directly turned into grief and sadness over my early life. I honestly don’t know how to explain it. All I know are the REAL feelings of sadness I have had, and for the longest time, I never put a name to those feelings as grief and loss. I thought I didn’t really have an excuse to be sad with my situation, as it was a healthy, loving adoption situation, comparably speaking.

One last example of grief and loss showing up was in the face of anger, which was probably harder for my parents to see. It’s hard to recognize the need and the true message behind behavior that is hurtful towards others. It’s true when people say, ‘You treat those you love the hardest.’ At least, it’s been true in my case. In my high school years, my motto and my phrase I said daily to my parents was, ‘You don’t understand!’ or ‘No one understands me!’ Now I know it was clear my grief and fear were showing up in angry words. So much of anger is fear in disguise. I honestly didn’t have awareness of my feelings of grief. In those angry moments, I just felt like I was emotionally drowning in deep feelings, but what I was really wanting to say was, ‘I don’t understand myself, but I know I feel sad and scared, even though I don’t know why!’ Now, through doing hard work in therapy, I understand and firmly believe those angry moments were really the ‘small baby part’ in me crying out for help. I believe the scared baby separated from her birth mother is still in me and cries out for help in the face of fear, but the crying can literally come out as crying tears of sadness AND cries of anger. No wonder it’s been hard to recognize the anger for grief, loss, and fear.

Courtesy of Sara Odicio

My adoption journey is a life-long process and my adoption has confronted me in different ways throughout my developmental stages. In my early elementary days, my adoption confronted me by noticing I looked different from all the other kids in my classes, but I never felt different, so that was the extent of my processing. Middle school was the first time I remember someone making fun of me for being Chinese, singing the old Subway commercial, ‘Five dowa…five dowa…five dowa…eggroll’ instead of saying ‘5-dollar foot-long.’ In those types of moments, I didn’t know how to take it. I just knew it felt mean and not even relatable because I didn’t feel culturally Asian.

In high school, stereotypes were given to me when fellow students were excited for me to join the soccer team because they thought since I was Asian, I must be skilled in everything and hopefully would intimidate the other teams we played. To their disappointment, I did not live up to their expectations. Instead, it brewed even more anxiety in me. The academic stereotype of ‘A for Asian’ with grades was another constant reminder of my adoption, as fellow peers would make those comments to me as they asked for help with homework. Being a people-pleaser put pressure on me to fit that stereotype as I tried my best to help people in honors classes. I remember feeling afraid to let them down and their expectation of me as being Asian. Even more so, now I see I was more afraid of losing what I thought was my identity since my self-concept and self-confidence was so weak.

College years were the first time I actually got to know culturally Asian people, as there were quite a bit of international students from China and South Korea. These were the years I seriously started to want to search for my birth parents as I became genuinely interested in the Chinese culture, the food, and the history of China’s One-Child Policy. I remember searching the streets of my orphanage city through Google Earth to see what the city was like. In college, I also traveled back to China for the first time as part of a Chorale Tour in Hong Kong, and although it was for touring and singing, I had this hopeful expectation to understand myself more. Through the trip, I learned I had the same inner conflict of not fully identifying with Chinese culture as I did all through growing up not feeling totally American either. I experienced the dual feeling of sensing a connection with the people in China, but also not truly connecting with them.

Courtesy of Sara Odicio

One other aspect, and maybe the most pivotal of my college years that my adoption showed up in, was when I solidified my Christian faith as MY own. I chose to go to Cairn University, a Christian university, and through one of my undergrad classes, I began to understand the Biblical concept of adoption in a new way. The most comforting feeling I ever felt towards my adoption was when I directly compared it to my adoption into Christ’s family. I believe God uses different concepts and words in the Bible to resonate with us and help us all understand His character in a deeper way. The word adoption in Ephesians 1, I believe, was carefully chosen in the Bible for people like me to personalize it and strengthen my faith in a deeper way. Overall, I truly attest to my adoption as the biggest part of my testimony. After realizing this, my searching and longing for answers didn’t disappear, but instead, it began to come from a different place in my heart, a place of curiosity and empathy for the missing parts of my story instead of a place of soul-searching or identity-seeking that would make or break me.

Courtesy of Sara Odicio

Right after I graduated with my Bachelor of Social Work, I stepped into a Graduate Program for Social Work at Bryn Mawr College and then acquired my License in Social Work. My graduate internship was at Bethany Christian Services, in the Post-Permanency department, also commonly referred to as Post-Adoption, which is now my current place of employment for the past year and a half. It was in the time of my internship, as I began to work in the adoption field, my own adoption confronted me in the largest way. I decided to begin therapy. I also chose to do a couple of DNA testing kits in hopes to find some percentage of Korean in me. The DNA results affirmed yes, I was Chinese, and my closest relatives were third and fourth cousins. No life-changing answers were given, but it still felt like part of the work and process of my adoption journey, which was important to me. Now that I am speaking in the present time, I can say working with adoptive families has been so much more than a job. It’s been part of my personal adoption journey, which I believe makes me even more passionate about my work.

Courtesy of Sara Odicio
Courtesy of Sara Odicio

Through my lived experience, and through the education and hard work I’ve done in the past couple of years, I would encourage those who are adoptees and those who are in close relationships with adoptees to recognize the grief and loss and name the hard feelings. Recognize separation from a birth mom is REAL trauma, even if the baby can’t remember it. I believe it’s one of the harder traumas to heal from, because at an early age when there is a severed attachment, that baby did not have a ‘pre-trauma’ self. That child did not know what life was like before hard things happened to them, so their brain, trust of others, and self-concept are being crucially shaped around the traumatic experience. Above all, I would be grateful if people left understanding this: The only way to heal a trauma that occurred due to a severed relationship is THROUGH relationship. Knowing this point, as an adoptee or one in close relationship to an adoptee will change the way you engage in the hard work and life-long process of adoption.

Courtesy of Sara Odicio

This is my personal story and writing this out for the public eye is the next part of my adoption journey, as I have never formally written my story in this way. I feel confident, excited, and hopeful for this being the right time in my life to be writing this. I pray this helps someone feel a little less alone or helps someone leave a little more understanding and educated, but if not, more importantly, writing this out is a tool for me to continue in my growth, so thank you for holding this space of compassion and support.”

Dan Brown Photos
Dan Brown Photos

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Sara Ordicio. You can follow their journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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