By Maggie Walker
(photo provided by Maggie walker) From left to right: Jean Walker(maggies mom), Joseph Mattackal(Maggie’s fiancè), Maggie Walker, David Walker(Maggie’s Dad), and Maggie’s siblings Holly, Lilly and Ben.
My surname, Walker, has Scottish origins, but I’m not Scottish. My current surname is not the only one I’ve held because I’m adopted. Before I was adopted, my surname was Yi, the surname given to me by the Chinese orphanage. I was adopted at 12 months and gained the surname Walker, my family’s name.
How does growing up in a family with a different culture and ethnicity from me affect who I am now? Adoptees who grew up in transracial families have wrestled with these questions and still wrestle with them today.
Below are the stories of adoptees at Cedarville University who shared their perspectives on growing up in transracial families and their journeys of thinking through their adoptions. We were all born in foreign countries and grew up in the States, yet each story and journey is unique.
Will Geist was adopted from Almaty, Kazakhstan, at 8 months, in October of 2001 — a month after 9/11. Family and friends urged Geist’s parents not to go, but Geist’s parents felt God’s call, one beyond their sense of safety.
Geist has no memories of Kazakhstan, but his parents were open about his adoption. They told him his story when he was ready to hear it. Geist’s birth mother couldn’t support him and gave the adoption agency permission to place Geist in another family.
Soon after learning about his story, Geist heard a sermon at his church on the topic of harbored unforgiveness. He was convicted and decided to pray about forgiving his birth mother. Though he didn’t want to admit it, Geist had been wrestling with the question, “Why did you abandon me?”
“Even if I didn’t want to admit, I had some animosity, I needed to confess and forgive my birth mother. Not that she had done anything wrong because she made the right choice,” Geist said. “ The Lord was gracious to forgive me of that and give her the forgiveness that Christ has given me.”
But that doesn’t mean Geist hasn’t grappled internally with coming to terms with his own identity. It is fascinating, to be brought up in and understand a completely different culture and people group than the one you were born into.
It seems that by nature, adoptees subvert expectations and stereotypes. But that only happens when people are willing to see adoptees past their racial profile. A frustrating phenomenon in Geist’s own experience is being racially generalized. When interacting with adoptees, Geist advises, “Just remember that everybody’s different. Everybody’s unique.”
“Ask me where I’m from before you make a generalization and say, or assume, that I’m Chinese. Just because I’m adopted or look like someone who’s from over there,” Geist said. “Even if the numbers say that most adoptees come from China, that doesn’t mean the one you’re talking to is going to be from China.”
Now, Geist is focussing on how his journey with adoption has been a reminder of God’s faithfulness in his life.
“Is it moving on or moving forward?” Geist asked. “I would say it’s moving forward. I acknowledge what has happened in the past, grasp what I have learned from it, and move forward in life.“I feel like moving on has a connotation of forgetting. And I think that, as an adoptee, I have to be careful not to forget. I don’t want to forget because it’s who I am; it’s what God has used to make me who I am and who I will continue to be.”
Senait Scheie and her brother were adopted from Ethiopia at 6-years-old. When her birth family couldn’t support them anymore, they moved to an orphanage and then a Christian children’s home before being adopted.
While her family celebrated adoption, Scheie admits the journey of reconciling herself with her identity was hard. Through it all, her adoptive parents gave her the love and support she needed to get through the struggle and encouraged her to seek God through it all.
“I did struggle with my story a bit and how to reconcile everything, but I think that overall, through the ups and downs, my mom would tell me, ‘This is your story, a clear testament of God’s grace,” Scheie said. “And that’s how I met the Lord and gave my life to him. I knew my powerlessness at that point, how weak I was and how much God had to do.”
Scheie’s family was intentional about praying for her birth family as she grew up, and she learned some of the cultural traditions in Ethiopia. When she was older, her parents took the time to make her aware of the implications and baggage that came with her ethnicity, particularly about America’s history of racism.
“At that point, I still didn’t have a name for myself or a category for myself. Because although I looked African-American, I was Ethiopian — but I also didn’t speak the language or have anything from the culture. And, although I was raised in a white family I didn’t look like them,” Scheie said. “I think learning about American history started to get me thinking about the question of ‘Where do I fit in?’ I don’t have the same heritage as Black African-Americans here, and I grew up in a very different culture from them.”
Scheie’s parents were open about her adoption, and wanted them to ask questions they were wrestling with. While her parents were supportive and present, Scheie had to wrestle with her identity on her own.
One day, Scheie heard a sermon from a biracial speaker, who spoke about feeling like he didn’t fit in with either side of his family. While the feeling of being “in-between” was isolating, the speaker saw this as a strength and opportunity to be a bridge between different types of people since he related to both groups. Scheie began thinking of her position similarly and realized that Jesus was in a similar situation while on earth.
“Christ was often the advocate between people groups that didn’t want to get along and didn’t want to fit into each other’s cultures,” Scheie said. “Instead of seeing it as a curse, He saw it as a blessing to be the one that gets to bring people together. I started viewing my position as an adoptee in that way.”
Once she started thinking this way, Scheie found herself wanting to know more about her culture of origin. She dove into researching Ethiopia and found it was a helpful way to combat Imposter syndrome. Before, Scheie felt uncomfortable when people asked her questions about Ethiopia. By learning about her birth country, Scheie felt like she had an understanding of the six years before her adoption.
Scheie recalled that people asked her whether she thinks about the fact that she’s Black. Smiling, she answered, “No.”
“Do you think that your eyes are brown or green? No one goes around consciously thinking that,” Scheie said. “I think the journey is getting to the balance of knowing your identity is founded in Christ — knowing that He’s given you the way you look, the experiences you’ve had, the people you’ve met as good things — they’re not a waste, they were meant for something.”
Scheie wants everyone to know: “Ask good questions.”
Instead of guessing about a family that has adopted children, give them the honor of telling you. Ask what their story is and if they don’t mind sharing it. After asking an adoptee their story, be gentle in your response to them. Even a “thank you” means something to them because it is a big, and possibly painful, part of their life.
“Asking ‘how are you doing now?’ and ‘how do you see God in this?’ or ‘how can I be praying for you?’ is much better than saying well, ‘that’s so cool,’” Scheie said. “And maybe it is, maybe they agree with you, but sometimes it can be something personal and they’re not healed through it yet.”
To fellow adoptees, Scheie says, “Give yourself grace.” Grief is something that can often be overlooked as an aspect of an adoptee’s life. It is important to Scheie that adoptees recognize their grief and how they got past it as a part of their story.
“The reason we have adoption is that there was brokenness at some point. We grieve broken families, broken leadership and government and countries that led to this. And thank goodness for God’s grace that adoption is a thing, but your first step is grief,” Scheie said. “I know that telling your story can get tiring. There are seasons when you’re healing more from things. Don’t be afraid to lean into all of that, there’s no shame in that. It’s just more strengthening in the end to yourself and your story.”
* * * *
To echo Scheie, telling one’s adoption story is a brave and sometimes difficult thing to do. In the end, we are all just people made by God, each as complex as the next.
How significant were those months, years and so on these adoptees spent in their birth countries? How significant is it to our identities where the cultures and ethnicities we were born into are?
In reading these adoptee stories, perhaps the most accurate answer is that there are no blanket answers. Wrestling with these issues looks different for each adoptee.
But as Geist put it, “Being an adoptee is a part of us whether we like it or not. The truth transcends perception, and the truth is reality.”
Maggie Walker is a senior Political Science major and hopes to attend law school after graduation. She enjoys exploring art museums and trying new foods, being part of the MISO officer team, working out, and listening to the same song until nauseous.