The empty circle: honoring and validating our complex identities

****This is my first post with TRE and I would like to share my gratitude to Daniel and the other contributors for this space. And for you, readers.

I have this memory from 3rd grade.

On the surface, it’s a fairly mundane image; I am staring at a piece of paper with a large circle drawn on it. The circle is empty. The assignment was to utilize our newly learned pie chart making skills and create a graph that represents our family ancestry. I just sat there, doing nothing, as my classmates excitedly talked about their percentages and colored them into the large circle on their papers.  50% Irish. 25% French. 1/16th Cherokee. I just sat there, paralyzed in confusion, shame, and futility. My circle was blank. I didn’t know what I should do.

When I was completing my MA in Voice Studies, I met a fellow voice coach who was also a hypnotherapist. I had wanted to try hypnotherapy because I wanted to further process the trauma of adoption and separation from my Omma (Korean mother) in a way that I couldn’t do consciously, as I was adopted at the age of three months.

I only had two sessions with this woman, and we never went back as far as three months old under hypnosis. But the memory of 3rd grade and the blank circle came back to me very strongly during one of our sessions. Hypnotherapy is a bit difficult to describe: you don’t feel powerless or under someone’s control – there is a sense of calm and clarity and it can feel really safe to explore memory and experience. Revisiting this moment, staring at this blank circle, brought quiet tears streaming down my face. I was 29 years old, grieving over a classroom assignment in elementary school. The pain and the frustration hadn’t left my mind or my body and I needed to be fully present within those feelings to really process and understand them.

Even by the 3rd grade, I was a good adoptee. I was the perfectionist and the high-achiever. I was excellent at excelling at any task or assignment I was given. But this blank circle, this pie chart, was impossible. I was faced with the choice of using my parents’ ethnic ancestry to complete the assignment: a seemingly satisfactory combination of Irish, Polish, French, German, and Scottish or filling in the entire pie chart a single color and just writing “Korean 100%.” Neither of them seemed to be the right answer; the former felt like it wasn’t really me at all and the latter didn’t use our pie-chart making skills the way the lesson clearly intended. If I made the chart 100% Korean, it was as if I cheated. And I would surely have failed.

Despite my young age, those feelings were very real and they were powerful enough to stay with me, twenty five years later. I didn’t realize at the time that deep down, those emotions related to an embedded fear of being abandoned again; that if I didn’t do this thing right, make this pie chart the way I was expected to, I would be given up again. This might sound irrational to a non-adoptee. Of course I wouldn’t be given up. I had a loving family and a stable childhood. But for too long, adoptees and adoptee discourse are not fully addressing that our trauma is not just in our heads- it is in our bodies, in a more abstract and subconscious way. The insidious nature of our trauma means that we don’t always realize that difficulty in our lives or relationships relates to our adoption. We don’t connect the dots. I had been in therapy for some time during my childhood, mostly for performance anxiety in relation to perfectionism. I have no memory of this ever being connected with my adoption.

Sometimes I think about what I’d fill into that circle today if given the same assignment. I think about the many adoptees who have struggled to be too much of this and not enough of that. Being a theatre-maker has allowed me to make that circle a playing space. Through my acting and voice work, I have been able to fill in that circle with whatever I choose to in a safe environment. And I have found the permission to allow the circle to change when I want it to. Sometimes, in rehearsal or a workshop, or anytime really, I feel crushing frustration when I’m not given clear enough instructions to complete a task successfully. I breathe. I remember that these feelings stem from old, false truths, and when they are brought out in the light of the present moment, they dissipate.

I reject even the idea of a circle because I know as transracial adoptees, we have much more dimension than that. Like all people, in reality, we are much more expansive than we realize. There are days and moments where my sphere is a lot more Korean and times when my Americanness takes up more space. It is not about the percentages, though, or even the shape. It is about surrendering to the idea that identity is never fixed and that we are many different versions of ourselves all at once and at different moments. We must courageously acknowledge that all these versions, percentages, pie slices, are valid, legitimate, beautiful parts of ourselves.

What would be in your circle? Are these parts of you in harmony or in conflict? What can we do in our community to validate and support our intersected identity locations, whether it’s race, language, gender, sexuality, class, religion, nationality, or politics?

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31 thoughts on “The empty circle: honoring and validating our complex identities

  1. This post resonates with me very much. We have a saying in Indian Country that an adoptee goes full circle when we travel back to our natural family and land. I have done that and my circle is like yours, very diverse and changing.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughts, Lara! I do love the image of a circle in the sense of connectiveness and wholeness. I’m glad yours is so diverse. It’s not what’s inside the circle but how at peace we are with what’s inside.

  2. This one hurts, but I’m glad you asked it! My equivalent to your circle (what a task to set before a child!) was during the time of Roots, and my high school had a “Roots Day” where we were expected to “express our heritage”. The Irish/Dutch/English of my adoptive parents seemed to be off-limits in a subliminal way; I took a few inklings of what I knew of Lebanese culture (the colors of the flag; the symbol of the cedar tree) and put this forward as my “identity”.

    Which of course it wasn’t. My adoptive parents did not challenge me or correct me, or attempt to explain their own heritages to me. The Lebanese students at school did not challenge me either; although their silence was a bit deafening if I remember correctly. The Great Unstated seemed almost to be: “This exercise does not apply to you”. Of course, this is not a socially acceptable statement to make.

    “This exercise does not apply to you” is what I think when I see your circle. I’ve read of APs challenging the schools of the children in their care to be more “sensitive” where this kind of thing is concerned, family trees and all of that stuff. But to me this is denying something basic to the culture, inherent to society, reflected in our own searches and attempts to become “whole” along these lines. In that light it doesn’t seem right to perpetuate the mythology for the sake of the child’s psyche.

    I like very much the idea that Lara brings up, of coming “full circle”. This at least starts to get us thinking about time, change over time, the dynamic nature of our lives. Because what I want to say is “if I draw this circle every day, it will be different every day”. So how do we take that into account? I am not the person I was 10 years ago; 20 years ago. In rather radical ways. These exercises, in their static demand to “categorize” and compartmentalize” ourselves do no justice to this.

    Ironically, nothing in my circle “today” would contain much of anything “Lebanese”, whatever that might mean. And as you suggest, there is a lot of conflict between the person I’ve grown into here, and how he is different from the person who grew up there; conflict in the sense of casting off baggage and affectations; coming down to a “true self”. This self, however, is not determinate in the sense that this exercise might ask it to be….

    I love the idea of going back and reworking what was painful into something pro-active and positive; I wonder how it might be possible to bring time into this exercise? What if it were an animation of morphing and changing circles? I think this would be a radical departure for the community. We are acculturated to accept identity markers as being static identifiers of ourselves. What if we challenged this wholesale? How might we challenge this? Alternatively, for someone who might be more comfortable with an identifying exercise, how to imply that there might be much more to explore along these lines?

    • “I love the idea of going back and reworking what was painful into something pro-active and positive; I wonder how it might be possible to bring time into this exercise? What if it were an animation of morphing and changing circles? I think this would be a radical departure for the community. We are acculturated to accept identity markers as being static identifiers of ourselves.” Thank you for this way of putting it!

    • I vaguely remember roots or heritage days. It seems as if the mainstream narrative during my time in public school was to celebrate the scrubbed and shiny aspects of the US’ history of immigration and diversity. And that schools tend to avoid White identity and its bloody history of colonization by talking about ‘roots’ of Scottish, Irish, French, German, etc. I’ve been told by a number of White people that they don’t like to consider themselves White but instead this amalgamation of immigrantness. I hate this because I think it is once again an avoidance of acknowledging privilege.

      I worked with a voice teacher/director from New Zealand who does work with Maori Whakapapa ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whakapapa ) and I found this mapping of our identities to be much more inclusive and conducive to reflection and discussion. We take paper and are allowed to draw, write, or reference ANYTHING that we think makes up our identity and we don’t have to justify it. It can be used for just discussion, or in my case, acting, voice, and movement exercises.

      Overall, I think it is helpful for us to think of identity in terms of locations as opposed to categories. We arrive and depart when we please and the more aware we are of this, the more we can be at peace with it and empowered by it, instead of feeling crippled or restricted.

  3. “I was faced with the choice of using my parents’ ethnic ancestry to complete the assignment: a seemingly satisfactory combination of Irish, Polish, French, German, and Scottish or filling in the entire pie chart a single color and just writing “Korean 100%.” Neither of them seemed to be the right answer; the former felt like it wasn’t really me at all and the latter didn’t use our pie-chart making skills the way the lesson clearly intended. If I made the chart 100% Korean, it was as if I cheated.” I wonder if I am one of the few who have no recollection of having to do this for a class. However, I have been doing it for myself for decades now and I see it keeps changing – my pie chart changes all the time. For a long time I used cultural associations – like my German a-father. I studied German. I connected with my a-mother’s English background – so I read lots of English writers. Eight years ago, after meeting my natural mom in Honolulu (who was too busy much of the time to see me) I fell in with Kathleen Raine’s Autobiographies – and saw in her stories the kind of thing I was hungering for in a mother. I wanted stories about life, what it felt like to grow up and have questions. Raine was Scottish but lived and grew up near the Umbria river – then later in London which she hated. I’ve always been probing ways to ground my life but I see that the ground is alive and mutable.

  4. Amy I relate to so much in your heartfelt post…

    “The insidious nature of our trauma means that we don’t always realize that difficulty in our lives or relationships relates to our adoption. We don’t connect the dots. I had been in therapy for some time during my childhood, mostly for performance anxiety in relation to perfectionism. I have no memory of this ever being connected with my adoption.”

    – I so very much relate to this comment. No one in my childhood put any of my difficulties down to my adoption either.

    and

    “Sometimes, in rehearsal or a workshop, or anytime really, I feel crushing frustration when I’m not given clear enough instructions to complete a task successfully. I breathe. I remember that these feelings stem from old, false truths, and when they are brought out in the light of the present moment, they dissipate.”

    I work on this sort of thing, reducing the panic/anxiety when the rules change, they are not clear, or when I cannot anticipate response. Perfectionism is crippling and takes effort to manage. I practice being mindful of where the pain comes from (old wounds, as you say) and make the adjustments. So I really relate to this passage especially…

    Fantastic post Amy…

  5. I could also relate to what you have expressed here, Amy. It’s validating for me as an adoptee to hear other adoptees share such similar feelings and experiences. Would it be Ok with you and Daniel to repost this article on my blog, beyond two worlds?

  6. Occasionally I purchase the New Yorker; speaking of “vestigial torturing of oneself”….

    This issue had an ad which made me think back to this discussion….

    AncestryDNA ad

    Amy you brought up the troubling notion of “falling back” to immigrant backgrounds and thus denying privilege; I wanted to add to this how much I’m troubled by the whole Anglo-Saxon concept of “one drop” ethnicity, which has given us some of the more heinous epithets in the language in terms of those who are “mixed”, as well as the official definitions of, say, who is allowed to claim that they are Indigenous.

    I think if the “falling back” to an immigrant background were total, then I find it somehow valid. Meaning, I often recommend to domestic adoptees and also many APs that they seek out in their ethnic background “sites/entities of resistance”, as opposed to perhaps the more-known figures who feed into and support the dominant discourse.

    We’ve discussed previously these DNA tests and what might/might not be troubling about them [link]. In terms of this exercise, I find I get stuck on language and linguistics; dialects and subversive speech. My spoken English comes with a NY/NJ accent; my spoken French a Normandy/Rouen accent; my spoken Arabic a Syrian inflection. These all “mark” me more and more often than any claimed identity I might project, and not always for the better!

    Along these lines I’m really pained when I hear people attempt to lose this aspect of their identity. For example, I always want to scream at Martha Stewart that she is from Nutley, NJ and no one there speaks the way she does! I have no patience for Eliza Dolittlists or Pygmalionizers of any stripe.

    You put this in your list, Amy, and I’m curious how other people see their “language” as an identifier along these lines….

  7. Language and accent identity isn’t something you necessarily need to get stuck on. Most people engage with a level of code-switching to some extent and if anyone is unfamiliar with this term, I suggest reading up on it.
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Code-switching
    Our accents and dialects are incredibly fluid and shift both consciously and subconsciously depending on what context we are in and power inequities between speakers. It’s a shame people like Martha Stewart has lost her regional accent but it makes perfect sense given the waspy clientele she caters to. I wonder if she returned to any of it while in prison.
    You may also want to check out “shibboleth” and “standard language ideology.”

  8. Reblogged this on beyond two worlds and commented:
    I am posting the following article written by adoptee, Amy Mihyang Ginther, who orginally posted this article on Transracialeyes.com, another blog that I follow. I could relate to what she writes in many, many ways. As an adoptee, it’s difficult to share your story with others and convey the kind of emotions and feelings that are at the very center of your story. I felt validated upon reading her story and recognize that even at the age of 47, I’m still healing as an adoptee and perhaps always will be in some sense. Sometimes I wish that I could just be done with it, but I guess that it’s just part of the fabric of who I am. I hope that Amy’s article will resonate with other adoptees and that we can each as Amy expressed, “validate and support our intersected identity locations, whether it’s race, language, gender, sexuality, class, religion, nationality, or politics.” Thank you, Amy and Daniel of Transracial Eyes, for allowing me to repost this article.

  9. Just replying to say how much this resonates with me. Thanks for posting this. I too, often have memories of these “heritage/ancestry” assignments from school that have left me feeling blank – not only in terms of the assignment, but myself.I like the idea that was presented upthread about a blank circle, but going full-circle.

  10. There’s lots of collective wisdom here and I’m honoured to be able to try to soak it up.

    In the following, when I say “mongrelization” I mean this term very affectionately and not at all in the sort of sense that the eugenicists use it with a pejorative accent.

    Like Mark, I don’t remember this exercise, but as a white male (adopted by a Hispanic and white couple), it may well be that the assignment never “blipped” my radar because I would not have seen it as problematic.

    Like most people “I don’t know I’m white,” but on the other hand, from the earliest time my adopting parents told me the narrative they’d been told about my origins, I’ve understood that I’m “Irish, German, and Welsh.” So I’ve actually had distinct markers for my whiteness, even if it meant nothing to me to be Irish, German, or Welsh. Maybe I took German in high school because it’s a part of my (hypothetical) ancestry, but I’m sure I also took it because it wasn’t Spanish (my father’s demonstrable heritage). Lately, also, I’ve grown uncertain whether it is “Scottish” or “Irish,” which points to the inessential character of this sort of designation (for white people), even as I find that “Welsh” resonates for me (for whatever reason, including simply because it got listed last, and that made me “feel sorry” for it).

    Partly I mention all of this to respond to AMG’s observation, “I’ve been told by a number of White people that they don’t like to consider themselves White but instead this amalgamation of immigrantness. I hate this because I think it is once again an avoidance of acknowledging privilege.” I agree. And when I meet snowy white people (males typically) who tell me they’re 1/16th Cherokee or some other Indigenous American tribe I don’t let them get away with it, whether it is true or not. The offense of this one-drop maneuver revolves (it seems to me) around the fact that the cultural heritage associated with the blood drop claimed means absolutely nothing. I’ve known one culturally Irish person from Ireland, and he most assuredly was not just flying a one-drop flag. For me, to be “mongrelized” as Irish, German, and Welsh is bizarre in one way because most “white” people don’t concern themselves with such specificity in the first place. They’ll speak instead how they’re related to Ulysses S. Grant rather than break themselves generally down along ethnic lines. So I was bequeathed this curious marker of specificity, while nothing in my growing up ever filled in whatever Irish, German, or Welsh might mean–no culture camp for me.

    In fact, my overwhelming homesickness was for Russia, almost definitely because my father hated it. (If he hated it, it had to be good.) So–to connect to AMG’s remarks about hypnotherapy–when I did a past life regression, it was expected I turn out to be a Russian of some sort, but instead I came out as nebulously some kind of Emerald Isle denizen (probably Irish) and an atheist monk. Anyway, the only girl I ever really had a crush on was Kathleen, and that was the name of my wife in the past life regression, so obviously I’d “picked up” the “stereotypes” that went along with my mongrelization, even if I never tried to consciously construct it. And this after at least 19 years of adamantly throwing my heart in the direction of Russia (and taking four years of German in high school). I still “came out” an Irish heterosexual (also a very negligent husband).

  11. I got so busy transcribing the secondary points, I neglected the main one.

    In seeing the circle, I am reminded of Jung’s contention that it symbolizes the whole Self, but even more so when it is crossed by a horizontal and vertical line.

    So if we start with a circle and “X” it out, then we more accurately represent the Self (as a mandala) than when we simply confront a circle.

    And this, perhaps, because as the union of two people of differing heritage, a “pure” circle (uncrossed) can only represent a (dangerous or misleading) idealization.

    • So many things to think about, Snow Leopard! As an actor trainer, I somewhat paradoxically encourage White students, in addition to students with more pluralistic backgrounds to explore their heritage as there are some interesting ways immigrantness can manifest in our identity, even many generations removed. Although I don’t like it when people lean on their immigrantness to avoid discussions of privilege, I do honor the influence our backgrounds can potentially have on us. For example, my mom’s father was 1st generation from Poland. I am keenly aware of the prejudice he faced and the resulting need for him to elope with my grandmother who was Irish Catholic. Polish nonsense words were spoken in my home and my paternal grandfather was many generations removed from his German background, but still spoke in German from time to time. This is all part of my inner soundscapes and I have made space for them to coexist with other parts of me.
      I encourage everyone to meditate on their family’s background because I don’t want White students to exoticise their fellow classmates and think that they are cultureless. This reinforces a hegemonic epicenter where everything else is an outlier (or exotic!). It can be very useful to prompt White students to explore the the movements of different diaspora and the triumphs, oppression, and marginalization their ancestors experienced.

  12. Given the coming referendum on independence in Scotland, as well as similar rumblings in Brittany and Catalonia (which I kind of see as a rebellion against an imposed economic and political model which is Anglo-Saxon derived), I wonder what this might mean for the umbrella category of “white”?

    • I am so glad you brought that up, Daniel. One of my upcoming pieces for TRE is going to address the intersectionality of Whiteness. My partner of 7 years is White Scottish, has a working class background, and is cognizant of English oppression. Things are so deliciously complex, aren’t they?

  13. Pingback: complex identities | The Life Of Von

  14. I keep coming back here to reread this wonderful post and edifying replies. My DNA results have not only pinpointed exactly where I come from, they define me as absolutely “of” this place, in terms of ethnicity and community. What was an initial euphoria concerning this knowledge has turned into a kind of despondency in the face of a complete and total inability to avail myself of this in any…spiritual?…constructive?…way. My “circle” would be one solid block of defining color—and yet…and yet. Don’t really know what to do with this.

    • And re-reading this yet again! Beautiful piece, Amy, and the feedback is excellent. I was at a friend’s house the other day and her son was working on a homework assignment that required a family tree and writing down the color of relatives’ eyes….it doesn’t end.

      And then I was thinking of another metaphor; looking back at my 11 years here and how the perception of me has shifted in my neighborhood. Meaning, as much as I’ve attempted to disaffect myself in terms of identity markers, my neighbors evoke their perception of me….

      At first I was “the American”. Now this is rarely stated, except in joking. I’ve stopped catching myself when I say “we” and “us”—a weird catch waiting to see if I’m going to get “called out”….

      And it’s like a leaf, floating on water, as compared to when the surface tension breaks, and it submerges. Dunno if that holds up to scrutiny, but it just kind of worked its way into my brain….

  15. “…our trauma is not just in our heads- it is in our bodies, in a more abstract and subconscious way. The insidious nature of our trauma means that we don’t always realize that difficulty in our lives or relationships relates to our adoption.” That really stuck out to me. This is what adoptees need to hear to understand themselves. Thank you for this post.

  16. Pingback: Why Asian Adoptees Need to Give a Shit about #BlackLivesMatter | THE MIX, a weekly look at mixed ancestry

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