A few years ago I met my parents out for lunch, introducing them to my wife’s parents for the first time (fiancé back then). My parents are white, I’m Korean. My wife and her family are Chinese.
The waitress asked my parents, “Um, do you mind me asking, why are you guys sitting together, what’s going on here?”
Um… yeah. I get it. And it’s fine to ask. And today we’re gonna talk about that feeling the waitress had, that sense of curiosity and perhaps confusion.
It’s the adoptee thinking things to herself like, “Umm.. why am I here in this family, umm what’s going on here? Do I belong here??”
Ok Netflix. Have you seen this Netflix original??
“A teenage girl’s secret love letters are exposed and wreak havoc on her love life.”
That’s kinda what it’s about. But there’s so much more. I’m real excited about it actually and I could write about it for hours. BUT, we’ll stick to something short and sweet (ish)!
Originally a book by Jenny Han, adopted into the movie. Main character is Lara Jean, the teenager, half Korean and half white. It’s referenced in one of the opening scenes that her mother died and now it’s just her father and two sisters (I wanna talk about ambiguous loss at some point, stay tuned, it’ll be great!).
Okay so, how does this relate to identity development? And what is identity development? What is your identity development??
Adoptees, this is for you!! Parents, you’re welcome to join in too 🙂
Here are 3 basic concepts to help us figure it out:
1) Ethnic identity is the degree to which we feel a sense of belonging to a particular ethnic/racial group. We pair thoughts, feelings, beliefs and actions with that and bam there you have your sense of ethnic identity. To be honest, I think this stuff gets a little foggy, but it gives us language to attach to the stuff we experience in our day to day lives.
Anyway. Lara Jean. Half Korean, half white.
How would you describe yourself? Half? Whole? For racial minorities, what do you think or feel when you see someone who looks like you walking down the street? Through the hallway at school? Sitting next to you on the bus? In a restaurant?
Do you feel different, even though you look the same?
Have you ever felt you wanted to know more about it? Or didn’t want to know more at all (that’s where I was until my mid-twenties), like you’d rather be invisible? However you answered, there’s a good reason for it. And whatever your answer is, it’s cool, and it’s important, and you’re not the only one who feels that way. There’s a ton of research on these kinds of things (I provided a couple references at the bottom, for any nerds like me out there), and I’ll unpack more as we go along through Therapy Redeemed.
2) Adoption identity could be the degree to which you feel a sense of belonging in your own family. Does that make sense? Like, we know we’re not biological children, and we feel a fluid sense of closeness or distance, connection or division, in vs. out, throughout the time spent with our adoptive family.
For me, I was actually pretty oblivious to this particular piece as a child/teen. For example, people stared at us when we went out to eat, but it didn’t really strike me that they were wondering why someone like me, Korean, would be sitting, eating with people like them (my white adoptive parents). In fact, only recently did I really start picking up on this in terms of my own family (like that time at the restaurant with that waitress).
3) Phases of identity development. So these researchers, Phinney and Kohatsu (1997), added to an idea first developed by James Marcia in 1980 (imagine a rock remix of a classic 80s song), here’s how they described the three phases:
a) Diffusion/foreclosure: you haven’t really thought much about your ethnicity/race/adoption, not interested. Or, if you have thought about it, you’ve focused on or internalized society’s negative views about it.
b) Search/moratorium: you’re interested in learning about ethnicity/race/adoption and you might even consider how it shapes your life, the way people treat you and the way you treat others, now and in the future.
I think Lara Jean feels something like this when she starts “fake dating” Peter Kavinsky.
His friends kind of “adopt” her and embrace her as part of the family. People at school start noticing her in ways they hadn’t before. This typically leads you to the third phase.
c) Identity achievement: you’re consciously aware of your ethnicity/race/adoption. And you’re even committed in some way to your group/identity. Maybe you’ve been a regular attendee at a culture camp. Or involved in school or on campus in activities and social norms related to your ethnicity/race. Learning and speaking the language, cooking and enjoying the food, music, lifestyle, perspective-taking, etc. It’s kinda like you’re all in.
Which one of these three speaks to you right now? Can you think of a time when you were in one or the other? They might overlap, happen at the same time or differently depending on who you’re hanging out with that day/hour, they might wax and wane. That’s ok!
SIDE NOTE: I think these phases could also map onto spiritual identity formation. More on that later, though.
So those were 3 super simplified basic concepts of Identity Development. It’s like that first taste of a melon bar on a hot summer day. There’s more and I can’t wait to share it with you!
- Ethnic identity is the degree to which we feel a sense of belonging to a particular ethnic/racial group.
- Adoption identity could be the degree to which you feel a sense of belonging in your own family.
- Phases of identity development. Diffusion/foreclosure. Search/moratorium. Identity achievement.
Stay tuned for a future post on Identity Development!! I plan to get into Attachment Identity and a ton of other helpful ideas to help us talk about what goes on inside adoptees’ minds and hearts (not all of us of course, I mean it’s not like we’re all the same just because we’re adopted).
But hey!!! I’d love to hear your thoughts for real, tell me what part of identity development feels confusing or spot on, what would you like me to share more about, what questions would you wanna ask me if we were sitting around a campfire just hanging out? Let me know!
Phinney, J. S., & Kohatsu, E. L. (1997). Ethnic and racial identity development and mental health. In J. Schulenberg, J. L. Maggs, & K. Hurrelmann (Eds.), Health risks and developmental transitions during adolescence (pp. 420-443). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.