Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives.
I Just Feel Fortunate for What I Have
By Jennifer Harkins
Today, I consider myself very fortunate to be living here in South Tampa, alive, healthy, raising two beautiful children, gainfully employed as a per diem anesthesiologist and writing my own destiny.
I appreciate my parents more than they realize for adopting me. It seemed like pure luck to me that they chose me, because they were presented with two pictures of baby girls, and they could have easily selected the picture of another girl.
I think I became aware of my ethnicity around the tender age of five, when I asked my mom why she had blonde hair and I had black hair; why she had fair skin and I had brown skin; and why she had blue eyes shaped differently than my dark brown eyes.
My mom stated in a matter-of-fact manner, “You’re adopted.” She went on to explain that I was not born from her body, but had come over on the Baby Airlift from an orphanage in Saigon right before it collapsed to the communists.
Marci Cox (now Marci Levine) traveled with me from Saigon and handed me to my parents at the Atlanta airport, after a brief two-day layover where I was treated at Children’s Hospital of LA for terrible malnourishment and an infection with parasites.
I was two and a half months old and weighed only six pounds.
To soften the blow when I learned that I was not biologically related to my mother and father, my mom showed me a poem in my baby book:
Not flesh of my flesh,
Nor bone of my bone,
But still miraculously my own.
Never forget for a single minute,
You didn’t grow under my heart,
But in it.
By Fleur Conkling Heyliger
It wasn’t always easy being an Asian child in South Tampa. As I was growing up, the fact that I was Asian bothered me more than the fact that I was adopted. Both my race and my adoption have had an influence during my life. I may look Asian, but I don’t feel Asian, as I was raised by Caucasian parents in a predominantly Caucasian area. I was one of only four Asians in my elementary school in the early eighties. There were few African Americans, a couple Indians, and no Persians.
I did not appreciate being adopted and it was hard to be from a different country when I was young. Children were cruel. They made fun of me and my brother, who was also adopted from an orphanage south of Saigon.
Children would chant, “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these” (while placing fingers in the corners of the eyes to make them slant upward). When I was briefly at a junior high school in Miami, I remember a bully calling me a “gook” but I didn’t yet realize it was a derogatory term referring to someone of Southeast Asian descent.
These slurs shaped how I saw myself and perhaps overshadowed my perspective of also being adopted. Fortunately, nature gave me a strong personality, and that strength, combined with nurture from my mother — who made efforts to expose my brother and me to other Asians, whether adoptees or not – helped me to avoid letting ignorant comments get the best of me.
I remember another family with Korean adoptees that we’d go hang out with for play dates. The other two Asians (besides my brother and myself) that were in our elementary school were Vietnamese, and we’d go over to their house to play, too.
Unfortunately, I think a combination of prejudice and his innate introverted nature wore on my brother, who tragically ended up committing suicide in college. After we lost my brother, my parents personally drove me back to University of Virginia and made sure I was connected with a therapist at school. I was actually more worried about them and called them every day throughout the rest of college.
My ability to thrive is based on numerous things. Some of it is intuitive and innate. As far as my love of sports and exercise, I was influenced by watching my parents run when I was very young, and I became a runner, too. The same happened with tennis — because my dad played, I was determined to play tennis, too.
Studying came naturally to me because I was competitive and didn’t want anyone beating me. I enjoyed learning for learning’s sake. All of these things helped move me forward. Luckily, I could channel most of my fragile self-esteem / self-worth and self-consciousness about being Asian into a deep commitment to sports and academics, and this has been very rewarding.
Over the years, my ethnicity and being adopted have receded to the background in defining me. I have a greater appreciation for being different. When I was younger, I just wanted to be exactly the same as everyone else.
I relish my time now with my children and family, enjoy the outdoors for running, and love my career in practicing in a variety of settings (hospital, outpatient surgery center, eye center, endoscopy center) and in lovely places (Florida and California).
I am very close to my parents. I appreciate them so much, and I try to spend as much time with them as possible. I feel very fortunate to have them as my parents. I only realized how much my mother loves me when I had my children. My children are the lights of my life and I feel very close and connected to them.
I have always wanted to visit Vietnam, but when there was an opportunity, it was around the time I was about to start med school and there was a serious scare about SARS. I plan to go next year with my kids. I think it will be very emotional seeing my original roots…trying to find the orphanage and experiencing a culture I wish I knew better.
I choose not to feel paralyzed and angry at a life I never knew. I have had my fair share of bad situations, rejection, and failure, but I try not to dwell on the past. I feel like positive outcomes are more likely with positive attitude and perseverance. I just feel fortunate for what I have – for my family, my career, and for my great life.
Jennifer is a proud Vietnamese adoptee who is living her best life as a doctor, a mother, an athlete, and more!
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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter