It is my pleasure to present Lucy Sheen, co-contributor of The Adoptee Survival Guide:
(Elle) In the US, it is not unusual for white people to adopt children of a difference race, either domestically or from overseas. But when you were adopted in England, you were very unique. Can you tell us a little about that?
(Lucy) Yes. I am one of just 106 Hong Kong Foundlings transracially adopted by predominantly white families in the UK. We were the first-ever organised group of transracial adoptees to come to the UK. It was called The Hong Kong Project (1950s to early 1960s), and grew out of the initiation of World Refugee Year 1959. It was an effort to cope with the spillover of WWII refugees and those in the Far East fleeing Mainland China. Hong Kong had an estimated 300,000 people living in the streets or in flimsy, makeshift housing. Initially the plan was for the foundlings (mainly girls) to find Chinese families in Hong Kong. But there were just not enough indigenous families available with the means necessary. So they moved on to trying to secure Chinese families abroad in the US. The few boys had no problem finding Chinese families. But most of the orphans were girls, and they could not be placed. So as Hong Kong was a British colony, they turned to the motherland, and thus the start of numerous flights carrying orphans from Hong Kong to the UK.
I came over on the penultimate group of this initiative. Whilst orphans from Hong Kong continued to be placed in the UK until (I think) around 1973, The Hong Kong project concluded in late 1963 / early 1964.
I flew into Britain only a few years after the infamous race riots in Nottinghill, an area in London. Race relations here in the early 60s were in some cases (although smaller in scale) much like that in the US. People of colour had very little value, were definitely in the minority, and were viewed in very negative terms.
As a baby and toddler this was not an issue, as I grew up under the cover and protection of the Cute Syndrome. I was small and literally looked upon as a China doll. Once the cuteness wore off, things became very challenging indeed and have to certain extent remained that way.
As I was hitting my early teens, the National Front and ultra right-wing white supremacy political party was taking to the streets, demanding repatriation of all non-white people – irrespective of whether you were born in the UK or one of its colonies. The number of East Asians in the UK is very small, and the communal historical links that connect East Asia with the UK are still even to this day by and large ignored, forgotten or side-barred.
(Elle: How many others just looked up penultimate? Okay, good, I’m not alone.)
(Elle) Being a transracial adoptee, there is no hiding your adopted status. That can be a double-edged sword. In your opinion, is it better or worse to be “obviously” adopted, over secretly?
(Lucy) I think it is neither better nor worse. Although in one aspect, being physically different from the host country’s majority occupants, you are under no illusion as to the fact that your connection to the family that adopted you is not biological. I cannot imagine what it must be like for someone, say of Caucasian appearance, who moves into adulthood and then finds out (usually during a crisis such as family illness or death) that they are not biologically connected to their family. That what they have been living is, in essence, a lie. I cannot even begin to know what this must be like.
(Elle) Do you “feel” British? Alternately, do you identify with being Chinese?
(Lucy) For a long time I felt neither Chinese nor British. In the UK, hyphenating your nationality – your identity – is not really done. Certain minorities are more accepted as being “British”, such as Black, African,Caribbean or South Asian (Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani: i.e. the sub-continent). East Asians (Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Singaporean, Laotian, Thai, etc) are not considered British in any shape or form, but I cannot call myself Asian either, because in the UK, “Asian” only applies to the subcontinent. It infuriates the hell out of me.
Even though East Asians have been in the UK since the 1700s (in small numbers) we are still seen (I think, subconsciously) by the majority of Caucasians as outsiders. The to-be-feared-and-shunned Yellow Peril.
On the other side, many within the East Asian community shun me because I cannot be considered to be a “real” Chinese person, since I do not speak Chinese. I am regarded with suspicion by some of the older members of this society.
So I was adopted into a country by a people and society that has little time and even less love for people who look like me. And I was actively rejected by the elders of the community where I should have fit in. I was left in no-mans land – neither British nor East Asian.
It has only been fairly recently that I can say with hand on heart that I am comfortable and happy with who and what I am, and that is a British East Asian transracial adoptee.
(Elle) Reading your passage in the book, I hurt for your six-year-old self, trying to make yourself look more European. Your chapter is entitled “A Plea To Adoptive Parents”. Were you ever able to say these things to your own adoptive parents?
(Lucy) I was never able to say anything like this to the people who adopted me. Even now I don’t think I could. Around 2012 I was photographed and interviewed by Mike Tsang, a photographer, for an exhibition called Between East And West – about the experience of being British East Asian. Someone claiming to be from the family that adopted me threatened legal action. In short, they were trying to silence me. They claimed breach of copyright in that there were a couple of photos that showed other members of the adopting family, but they were really unhappy that I spoke about the adoption. So we removed the offending photographs and carried on. It just made me more determined to speak out. My memories are my memories I’m not putting words into anyone else’s mouth. They are my views and I refuse to be silenced.
My adoptive parents were brought up in an era where the thinking was very different compared to the times we live in now. Adoption was viewed as very specific, one-time act. I believe that until the language we use when referring to adoption radically changes, mis-parenting of transracially adopted children will carry on.
I am “grateful’ for what transracial adoption has given me, which principally was life itself, and the chance to enter the career and industry sector I am now in. Had I not been adopted, even if I had survived, I doubt very much I would have gone on to work in the arts. But that is where my “gratitude” stops. We don’t expect a naturally born child to be forever grateful and tugging their forelock every single day. Why is this expected of adoptees? (Elle: Because we’re children who never grow up?)
If I could I would legally emancipate myself from being a transracial adoptee. Sadly, in the UK this is not possible.
(Elle) In the documentary Adopted (by Barb Lee), 32-year-old transracial adoptee Jenny confronts her adoptive father, saying he should have tried to experience Korean things for her sake. His response is both sad and typical. Did your adoptive parents ever try to expose you to Chinese culture, or learn anything about it themselves?
(Lucy) The people who adopted me never really talked to me about being adopted. They were very British about it. And I grew up when children were still seen but not heard, and when corporal punishment was acceptable domestically, educationally, and in society as a whole. I was the elephant in the room. I can laugh at this now. I think: Did they really think I would never notice that I didn’t look like them, or for that matter, anyone in our community? I was never told that I had been adopted. Instead I was told I was lucky to be where I was, that they had sacrificed much for me and that I should be grateful.
To my knowledge, my adoptive parents have only been as far away as France. They had no connection to the Far East. They had never seen a Chinese person in the flesh until they picked me up at London (now Heathrow) Airport. They had no knowledge of Chinese culture and in fact they were advised to completely ignore my heritage. Wipe the slate clean and start afresh. In other words, raise me as if I were white. Of course, that is impossible. Unless I put myself in a bath of acid I am never going to be white.
I remember once begging to be allowed to learn to speak Chinese, and being told off for asking. I also remember being scared witless because when I asked a question about China, I was told if I continued to ask questions, someone from the Chinese Embassy would kidnap me and take me back to communist China where I’d grow up on a commune and have a very unhappy life. That gave me a recurring nightmare that lasted well into my early teens.
(Elle) The line in your chapter that hit me the hardest was, “I will never look upon the face of my own kin, ever.” Is there any hope in tracing your family? Can you tell us about your challenges in searching?
(Lucy) Sadly, I don’t think there is any real substantive hope of me ever discovering who my family is/was, or where they came from. The only way that could happen would be if a living relative came forward to say they were looking for a baby that was left on the public stairwell where I was found. I have come to terms with this now, as sad as it is. I am my mother’s legacy. My mother lives on in me. I am who I am in no small part because of my mother and my father.
(Elle) Do you think international adoption should be allowed? Or, how would you like to see adoption laws and policies changed?
(Lucy) International and domestic adoption is such a complex issue. Sadly, I don’t think we will ever eradicate the reasons for children and babies needing to be adopted. However, being able to pick and choose a country from where you would like to adopt, as if one is in some kind of baby and child supermarket, should not be allowed, in my opinion. Profit from facilitating adoptions should not be allowed, and until that is stopped the corruption, the mismanagement, and the horror stories of unethical adoptions will continue.
Adoption is the most extreme intervention that you could ever perform on a child or another human being, whether domestic or international. In an ideal world, there would be no transracial/transnational/international adoption. I know how deep the wounds are when you’re dislocated from your roots, when you are disenfranchised culturally and linguistically, when you are castrated from your heritage. Those wounds never heal. They become easier to live with, but they are always there, throbbing in the background.
If you want to know more about me, please visit my website: http://www.lucysheen.com
If you’re a social media user then head on over to Facebook and like my page: Actor_Lucy Sheen- 周麗端
You can follow me on Twitter (if that’s your thing) @LucySheen and @ActorWriterTRA
Abandoned, Adopted, Here My independent documentary is finally complete (almost) and is being submitted to various film festivals – if you facilitate any film festival and would like to invite this film to be shown, please contact me either via Twitter, my website or my facebook page.
Conversations With My Unknown Mother is a new full length stage play which I hope will go into full production next year. If you know any rich philanthropists who support the arts, please point them in my direction.
A second solo theatre piece is underway called Ungrateful (thanks to Nimble Fish and their Re:Play writing bursary). I will be exploring the use of dramatic poetry to tell a tale about being an adoptee and the darker side of the adoptee legacy.
Thank you for interviewing me, Elle. It has been a great pleasure and a huge honour to be one of the contributing authors of The Adoptee Survival Guide.
You can see all the publications that I have been printed in by visiting my Amazon Author’s profile.