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by Sarah Armstrong and Analee Matthew

The Adoptee’s Experience of Transracial Adoption

Sarah Armstrong is the Senior Manager of the Post Adoption Resource Centre (PARC), a service of The Benevolent Society and co-edited ‘The Colour of Difference: journeys in transracial adoption’.


Analee Matthews is a Vietnamese adoptee and was one of the book’s participants.



This paper is a brief introduction to some of the issues which have been raised by intercountry adoptees throughout the development of the book. Sarah will first talk about the book and some of the key theme it raises. Analee will then give her own personal perspective on some of the issues that the book raises.


Why a book on transracial adoption?

At PARC a young woman who had been adopted from South America was having regular sessions with a counsellor, to explore some of her feelings of sadness and confusion around her adoption. We were unable to find anything for her to read which might assist the work that she and the counsellor were doing together. We found a couple of unsatisfactory American texts and some useful local articles and research studies, but nothing that really addressed the impact of transracial adoption on the adopted self.


So, PARC decided to write something to fill the gap. We advertised, got some press interest and eventually recruited 30 adoptees who were willing to have their stories gathered and published. The resulting book, published in October 2001, brought together 27 of these stories. There were 18 intercountry adoptees and 9 local adoptees who had been adopted transracially. Of the 9 Australian-born adoptees, there were those of Aboriginal, Chinese, Maori, African, Spanish descent. The countries of origin for the 18 intercountry adoptees were Vietnam, Bangladesh, Fiji, New Zealand (Maori), Burundi, Korea, Colombia, Sri Lanka, India and Canada (North American Indian).


The aim of the book was to learn from the adoptees what the impact of their adoption has been. The public perception of intercountry adoption readily allows the community to build up assumptions about who benefits from such arrangements and gives us some information about the demand for adoption and some short-term outcomes, but we felt that there must be much more to learn from the first adult generation of adoptees.

The adoptions of those adopted from other countries and with a non-white appearance, have been a badge that they have had to wear, like it or not. The adoptees told us that their adoptive status is so ‘obvious’ that perfect strangers can see it and can feel justified in commenting on it, or giving an opinion on the benefits of such an arrangement to the adoptee. Taxi drivers and people in lifts feel that they have the right to question these black or Asian adoptees on their origins; waiters in restaurants have been seen to view the adoptee separately from their family when arranging a table; passers by have congratulated the adoptive parents on the charity they have shown the ‘poor orphan’ by taking them into their homes. In transracial adoption there is no place to hide.


Colour blindness, racism and culture

A significant number of the adoptees referred in their stories to looking in the mirror and being surprised by the face that looked back at them; they almost expected to see a white face, reflecting the way they imagined themselves, based on their place within the family and white society. In most situations, they were, for all intents and purposes, white.


“My way of coping with the fact that I am a Vietnamese girl adopted into an Australian family was to ignore it. I didn’t want to be different, I wanted to blend in. As a young child, my mother said I used to stand in front of the mirror hitting it and crying. I wanted to know why I looked different. As I got older, my reflection would disappoint me because it reminded me I was Vietnamese. As a teenager, I felt like a white person trapped in a Vietnamese body” (Buffy)


Research into the development of racial awareness shows that children as young as 2 are aware of racial differences, and that the development of a positive racial identity does not just happen, but must be cultivated. Adoptive families where ‘colour blindness’ was the coping strategy for dealing with the transracial adoptee’s place within the family therefore may be said to have compounded the adoptee’s difficulty in developing a positive self-image. In these families, the transracially adopted child may well have been loved and accepted, but their difference was not acknowledged or named, and therefore it was impossible to build a positive self-image which included their racial identity. A self-image which excluded their racial identity was, of course, incomplete and unlikely to promote a healthy self awareness. It is not surprising that many transracial adoptees report a negative view of their own colour and culture, and that this is difficult to challenge and break free of.


As a group, the adoptees talked of the frustration they all seemed to have experienced at some time at having little or no awareness or knowledge of their birth culture. For some, this led to feelings of fear or awe towards their race. For others, it resulted in feelings of embarrassment or shame. They were almost all able to recount situations where it has been assumed that they would know the language, or some history, or some cultural nuance, which in fact they were ignorant of.  Some of the adoptees managed to deal with these situations with humour and an open explanation of their situation. The less robust indviduals, however, allowed their experiences of coming across people from their birth culture to further influence their negative sense of self.


Racism was experienced, to some degree, by most of the adoptees and the way it was dealt with depended very much on the adoptee’s resources within their family and the degree to which such delicate issues could be openly discussed. For those unable to talk about it, or where the power of the racism had gone unrecognised, the experience of racism was traumatic and, ultimately, damaging to the essence of their self esteem.  The fragile sense of self described by adoptees generally is perhaps further compounded by cultural difference and, for many, racism is experienced as truth; the verbal attacks and rejection experienced in childhood damages their ability to develop a love of self. Several of the participants have feelings of dislike, bordering on racism, towards their own race. Their own appearance, at odds with the way they imagine themselves to be, becomes a focus for their own distaste and self-loathing.


For some adoptees, their ignorance of their birth culture, coupled with the racism they may have experienced, created a overwhelming argument for turning their back on anything linked to their adoption or to their birth culture.




Almost all adoptees talk about gratefulness in some shape or form. Transracial or intercountry adoption, however, seems to add even more pressure to the fragile balance in adoptive families. The degree to which the adoptees felt indebted to their adoptive parents depended on the circumstances of their adoption as much as on any pressure put on them by their family. Those in unhappier adoptions had often been made to feel grateful by being reminded of what their fate would have been had they not been ‘saved’ by adoption. These adoptions were predominately from overseas, with all the common perceptions about poverty and third world countries coming into play. Many of the adoptees said that their families would probably be unaware of the degree to which they felt grateful.



Of the 28 adoptees, 5 disclosed some sort of abuse at the hands of a member or members of their adoptive family. This includes emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect. For these hurt and damaged adoptees, the question of why their family adopted them and why they were not protected naturally occurs. Again, he book gives us the opportunity to talk about what happens when things go wrong and has been a tool through which adoption agencies can raise these difficult issues with prospective and current adoptive families. From our, largely anecdotal, evidence from intercountry adoptees, the incidence of abuse amongst this group is high; too high for comfort.


Adoptive parents – gestures and choices
The adoptees writing in the book had broadly been raised in loving families and by parents who worked hard to understand and accommodate their child’s needs. Our thinking on what is ‘good enough’ in transracial adoption has changed a great deal in the past 30 years. In the 1970’s, accepting a child into the family and treating them as if they were no different was seen as adequate. Now, we ask a great deal more. We ask this, however, with reason, learning what we have from adoptees who were raised in families where little accommodation for their needs or difference was made.

The make-up of families seems to also have an impact, with children in families where there are others from their birth culture fairing better than where there were not, and children being raised in a family where the other siblings are all natural to the family faired less well.


The largest single factor in whether a transracial adoption is viewed as positive by the adoptee appears to be the adoptive family’s attitude to the child’s race and their commitment to maintaining a positive sense of the child’s racial identity. This cannot be manufactured; it must be real. The adoptees whose parents made a ‘token’ gesture towards embracing their birth culture were not assisted to a positive sense of racial identity. This was only achieved in families who truly adopted the child’s culture when they adopted the child, and made continuous efforts to develop the child’s pride in their race and in their appearance. These families were able to talk about the differences between the child and the other family members in a positive way. They were able to talk about the adoption and the possibility of future contact with the birth family. The birth family were real people with a real place in the child’s past and present life.


It is true that an average Australian cannot teach the key elements of the child’s birth culture, but what the adoptive parents can teach, through making ongoing efforts to include meaningful elements of the child’s original culture in their family, is a sense of pride and acceptance which clearly contributes to the creation of a positive self-image which incorporates a positive racial identity.


Adoptive parents can also make choices about where and how they raise their children, and this was something raised many times by the adoptees. The factor of whether the adoptee’s upbringing occurred in regional or metropolitan Australia seems to have been extraordinarily significant. Those who had been brought up in country areas, where there were no other people of colour, felt that they had been disadvantaged and discriminated against. The multicultural climate of Sydney and Melbourne allowed for a degree of anonymity and, whilst it may not have helped them develop a true cultural awareness, it at least protected them from the particular isolation of being the only non-white person in the community.


Analee - A personal account

For my 25th birthday I got myself a tattoo of a jigsaw puzzle piece. The significance of a jigsaw puzzle piece is that it represents the missing piece of life that comes with being adopted. That might sound really sad to you, but for me it’s actually a reminder of how lucky I am.


I was born amidst the Vietnam War. My birth certificate reads ‘born to unknown parents and abandoned at birth’. I think that’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever read but I truly believe that it’s also one of the best things that could have happened to me. My life has been filled with unconditional love, I received private schooling and I never needed for anything material.


Of course, living life with no knowledge of whom or where you came from can be really challenging. What I realised, through the development of The Colour of Difference, is that these challenges tend to be common amongst people in this sort of situation, and it’s really only now, as the first generation of inter-country adoptees grow old enough to understand and articulate exactly what impact our adoption has had, that we can truly begin to understand and share such information.


Fear of abandonment

As a child I would go to great extremes to please people or get their approval and that was because I believed that if they liked me then they would have no reason to leave. My whole life has been spent trying to ensure that the people around me like and/or love me because that was the only way I thought I could be sure they wouldn’t abandon me.


Similarly, I tried to be the perfect child for my parents. I never challenged them and always did the right thing because I felt like that’s what I needed to do that to ensure they loved me enough to never leave me. I always felt loved unconditionally but I think on a subconscious level I wanted to make sure I never gave them a reason to give me up.


My intimate relationships were also affected by this ingrained fear of abandonment. I used to assume that my partner would eventually leave, and so I would always end the relationship first. Looking back my partners never actually had any plans to leave me but I assumed they would and so did what I thought was the only way I could protect myself and that was by ending the relationship.


Isolation and loneliness

Being raised in a country town in Victoria, I grew up with a distinct sense of isolation and a constant niggling of loneliness. I didn’t have any other Asian faces around me; I don’t even think there was a Chinese restaurant in the town I lived, so I never really had anyone around that I could relate to. When we moved to Melbourne for secondary school I was fortunate enough to attend a private school where there were many Asian faces around. Although none of them were adopted and although I wasn’t introduced to the actual Asian culture, it did make me feel less isolated having similar looking people around me.


Lack of identity and belonging

Although I had friends at school, I never quite felt like I truly belonged. Because I yearned to be accepted and liked, I tended to adapt to those I was around. For example, in social situations I’d be 'funny' Analee, whereas in employment situations I’d be 'professional' Analee. And rarely would the two mix. All my life I’ve developed different personas based on the environment I’m in and it’s actually only recently that I’ve begun to realise I don’t have to do that; I realise now that people will accept me and remain my friends if I’m just me. And if they don’t then that’s okay.


Conflicting self perception

Another common issue that many interracial adoptees experience is the conflict between the extrinsic and the intrinsic sense of self. I grew up by the beach feeling like a blonde haired, white surfie chick and yet I don’t look like that. It is human nature for people to judge and even treat others based on how they look. So you can imagine how frustrating and confusing it can be when you look one way but feel a completely different way. Even today I still struggle to believe I look so different to how I feel on the inside; at least these days I am less shocked when people treat me like an Asian person or when I catch a glimpse of myself in a shop window.



I’m not proud of how I feel, but I am proud that I can acknowledge the feelings. As bizarre as it may sound, I’ve grown up with a racist attitude towards Asians. I use to think it stemmed from those primary school days, where the other kids teased me for looking Asian. I used to think it was their taunting that caused me to feel that being Asian was bad; that being Asian meant being a lesser person. And maybe in part it was, but I think it’s more likely that my fear of embracing an Asian birth culture is what really caused my racist feelings.


My parents never introduced me to anything Asian while I was growing up. I’m glad they didn’t because I’m pretty sure I would have rejected whatever they offered. It’s only now, almost three decades since I arrived, that I have begun to consider embracing my birth culture. And that curiosity has emerged naturally, in my own time and will continue to progress at my own pace. My parents are supportive of whatever I want to do and of the time I require to do it.



It's been almost two and half years since I wrote my submission for The Colour of Difference and I'm proud to say that much has progressed since. My feelings of racism have lessened as I’ve grown more comfortable in my own skin and these days my intrinsic sense of self is a lot more closely aligned with my extrinsic sense of self.

I  am also a part of a loving and secure relationship and we have actually made plans to return to Vietnam next year for my 30th birthday, as well as to get married.


I believe I still have a long way to go in terms of addressing exactly how my adoption has, and will continue to, affect who I am but I now look forward to unravelling those hidden layers and I do welcome the revelations that I know I'll learn about myself.

Implications for adopted parents



Personally I believe that adoptive parents should make their child’s birth culture available, but realise it may take time for the child to want to explore it. I think it’s great for parents to have elements of the birth culture within the home and as part of the child’s life so it’s there whenever they need or want it.


I think adoptive parents should ensure their child grows up with people around them who look similar in appearance. This will contribute to the child developing a sense of identity and avoid the feelings of isolation and estrangement.


A key factor is establishing and maintaining relationships with support organisations like PARC ( and ICASN ( to ensure that when the child is old enough they have direct access to other adoptees. Meeting other people in the same situation was the most therapeutic process for me. had I not come across the people you read about in The Colour of Difference I would not be here, as I am today. Ensuring your child knows people and has direct access to others who are in similar situations is irreplaceable and the most valuable thing you can offer your child, that is of course, in addition to unconditional love.


For more information on the Inter-Country Adoptee Support Network (ICASN), see


To contact the Post Adoption Resource Centre:


02 9365 3444







Post Adoption Resource Centre

Phone 02 93653444

1800 024 256

Fax 02 9365 3666



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