Alicia Martínez-Simancas had to reject her Chinese origin many times to feel accepted. She was born in China and was adopted by a Spanish family when she was just six months old. Although she always knew it, the conflicts due to her lack of ties with her native country have been present. One such moment, which she remembers particularly clearly, occurred when she was a teenager and she went to a grocery store and was spoken to in Mandarin. “I realized that they assumed that I spoke the language because of my physical appearance. I didn’t know what to do, I felt weird. I was like, ‘they look like me, but I don’t speak their language,’ she says. Now 25 years old, she admits: “Almost all my life I have completely ignored my culture of origin.” Like her, children and young people from international adoptions have been educated in the culture of her adoptive parents, with hardly any ties to the country where they were born.
In Spain, about a thousand boys and girls are adopted each year, according to data from the Children’s Observatory of the Ministry of Social Rights. National adoptions grew by 25% from 2020 to 2021. They went from 503 to 675, according to data from the agency. But international adoptions have registered a significant drop, from 531 in 2017 to 171 in 2021, although the families that request them have increased (783 compared to 693 five years earlier). The reasons for this decrease are legislative changes regarding the protection of minors made by some countries of origin.
Since she was little, Alicia’s parents told her that she was adopted, but they didn’t teach her anything about the Asian country where she was born. She was raised, she says, like any of her other siblings. “I would have liked my parents to introduce me a little more into my culture to know where I come from. In my house you will not see any kind of relationship between Spain and China, ”she says. “I’ve always carried around the issue of not being able to access that part of my identity,” she continues. “These conflicts worsen when someone asks you: ‘But are you Spanish or Chinese?’ recalls the young woman, who is studying Psychology.
The president of the association La voz de los adoptados, Flavia Guardiola, criticizes that adopted sons and daughters are not told about their country of origin, nor about their culture once they arrive in the country of their adoptive parents. “When they grow up, there are many who have been hurt by not connecting with their culture. And (years later) it hurts them to have to do it as adults, ”says Guardiola. This association, one of the main ones, is integrated into the Coordinator of Associations for the Defense of Adoption and Fostering (Cora), of which Guardiola is vice-coordinator. She adds that, sometimes, it is the parents themselves who make comments like: ‘To me you are like us’. “That’s not acknowledging your child’s ethnicity and that he comes from somewhere else,” she explains.
For Alicia, the conflicts began as she grew up. She remembers that there was a time, when she was just seven years old, when she tried to change her physical appearance. She cut a couple of adhesive tape strips, which she secretly took from her father’s office, and put them on her eyelids to sleep. Nobody knew. She wanted to physically resemble her father, mother, and her siblings. “I would go to bed with it, hoping that the next day my eyes would be big and not slanted,” she says. Emotions such as feeling “strange” or “out of place” increased, which added to racist comments such as “you don’t look Spanish”, made her feel ashamed. “At the time I didn’t identify as an Asian person, because I saw myself as a European,” she says.
The psychologist specialized in adoptions, Soledad Lapastora, explains that the absence of referents from the children’s culture of origin creates a void in their identity. “We all need a guiding axis from the moment we are born, even before. If you have a life up to two years and suddenly another and there is no bridge, what you lived is unknown to you. It generates uncertainty and you don’t find a sense of belonging ”, she maintains.
Lapastora emphasizes that it is essential that the native culture be present in the daily life of these children, so that they have references and feel identified. “You have to look for athletes, singers, politicians, writers from your country,” says the psychologist. “Children should also be in contact with other people from the same culture,” she adds. “There are adolescents from international adoptions who say: ‘I have the language, but I don’t have the traits, therefore I’m strange. And when I go to my country of origin, I have the features, but not the language, I also feel strange.
Challenges in adaptation
Kinnari Ladrón de Guevara, 29, knows the “shock” of adapting to a culture different from the one in which she was born. He lived in the Gujarat region (62.7 million inhabitants), in western India. When he arrived in Vitoria, in the Basque Country, at just thirteen years old, he changed everything he knew. His way of eating, dressing and even his own language: Guayarati. In just three months, Kinnari learned to communicate: “When I came I started to learn Basque, Spanish and English, but, at the same time, I was losing what I knew (Guayarati and Sanskrit)”, recalls this young woman, who is studying for a master’s degree in Political Sciences.
The adaptation was very fast, relates Kinnari. But he admits that although the customs of her country were embedded in her, she often rejected her own culture in order to feel accepted. “It seemed like I was doing everything very easily, but behind it was a very big stress that I wasn’t very aware of and neither was my mother”. Barely a month after arriving in Vitoria, she went to school. To get closer to the new culture, Kinnari acknowledges that she and her mother had to learn as they went. “My mother wasn’t prepared for what was coming either,” she adds. The adaptation was not easy “and it will never be”, she settles.
The construction of the identity of the adopted people is a long process and in many cases lonely, especially when they come from very different cultures. In Kinnari’s case, her mother has always told her about her country. She “has helped me to continue loving India”, although she, she admits, she will always continue “being the outsider”. “When I am with my circle of Indian friends, I am the least Indian. The people of India have their language, customs, traditions ingrained. A lot of other things that I no longer have because I broke up when I came here at the age of 13. That link was broken ”, laments Kinnari. “For me, getting closer to India is healing, but at the same time it is a bit painful. It’s hard to say ‘this is me’, but not to feel recognized”, she affirms.
Alicia has tried to connect more with her Chinese heritage through Facebook groups, where other adoptees, also from her country, share experiences. “I try to go to meetings and we start cooking food from the country,” she continues. “I think that the best way to know a culture is by its food. The music too, but I still haven’t really assimilated it”, she says. For her, that has been the first step to find her origins. Since June of last year, Alicia has used her Instagram social networks and Tiktok to talk about the conflicts of the adoptees. Alicia says that many young people, also adopted, have thanked her for talking about the subject and have told her that they feel identified with feelings or situations that have happened to her. Although she acknowledges that there is never a lack of people with racist comments or people who call her “ungrateful” or “if you complain so much, you can go back to China.”
For Kinnari and Alicia, growing up far from the countries where they were born has meant a process of years of constant adaptation and acceptance.. “Although I don’t live in India, there is something from there that is in me. That is what makes me feel part of here and there. A double identity,” says Kinnari.
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