The weight of what we don't know

Guest contributor LEAH BURNS on her experience as a Chinese American Adoptee

Hi! It’s not the titular Patrick Armstrong but the titular Leah Burns! A massive thank you to Patrick for inviting me to guest-write this week’s newsletter while he’s in Korea.

Patrick and I met on Bookstagram (book-Instagram) a couple of years ago while I was part of an API booksta-tour, and we met in real life for the first time last October in Dallas, TX. His other podcast was celebrating its 2nd anniversary with an in-person live show, and I thought, “Sure! I’ll drive 5 hours to meet three men and various others I only vaguely know of through the internet.” Jokes aside, I had a great time and felt this immediate sense of community I didn’t know was possible with fellow adoptees as an adult.

Growing up, I wanted to be unaffected by my adoption like the other adoptees I knew. It seemed to work for them, so why couldn’t it be the same for me? This way of thinking worked for most of my life, and I became the “well-adjusted” adoptee that people assume results from being adopted into a good and loving home. Spoiler, it’s actually a result of repressing your feelings and believing that other societal factors don’t affect you.

I grew up with zero language to explore or express feelings of grief, racialization, and more. What was the point of pondering a different life that could have been mine? How would I even begin? In the movie Past Lives, Nora describes her immigration experience matter-of-factly by telling her husband, “This is where I ended up.” I, too, feel like I just ended up here.

I was adopted in ‘97 and am a product of the One Child Policy. Because of this law (and let’s admit it, the patriarchy, too,) I understood from the get-go that society puts more value on males over females. However, this isn’t what I consciously believed since I was adopted and raised by a white single mom. Our lives represented anything but the patriarchy.

As a child, my adoption story was presented to me as the government didn’t want a ginormous population; they restricted the number of children allowed in a family, and in their culture, it was tradition for men to take care of their parents and wives. Cue the picturesque narrative “Your birth family couldn’t care for you in the way you deserved, but they kept you as long as they could and loved you.” And for a while, this story was enough.

Now as an adult, the weight of the complexities of adoption and grief are insurmountable some days. How else is a young girl supposed to feel about herself knowing that her original country didn’t want her, and in this new country of hers, peers and adults look at her like she doesn’t belong? College was the first time others didn’t know I was adopted by a white mom and would assume I was a guest in their country. You could say I was emerging from an adoptee “fog,” but I’d like to say I was approaching apocalyptic feelings.

It’s hard for me to see movie trailers like Joy Ride. I desperately want to have pride and joy in seeing Asian women on the screen, but at the expense of my adoptee experience? Hard no. The day after my 25th birthday, I sent an email to my adoption agency, inquiring about any records that I may have never seen. After a week of waiting, I received the following email,

Even though my suspicions were confirmed and I grew up understanding that the likelihood of learning anything regarding my birth was slim, the last sentence brought me to a halt. Why is she so sorry? Is it because she imagines me having a quarter-life crisis and knows she virtually shot down my attempt at finding my first family almost entirely? Or is it because she knows I’m left to decide to continue to search, deal with the emotional toll, shell out the money for DNA tests, locate and hire a private investigator, and more on my own? Is she sorry because she understands that due to secrecy and the need for anonymity, my life seemingly didn’t start until my time in the orphanage? Is it because she’s sorry that this decision was already made for me when I was relinquished? Is she sorry that when I think of my birth family, the only face I can picture is my own? Or is it because she wonders if the grief will consume me or if I will grow around it?

After reading the rest of her email and the (not-so-helpful) resources she provided, I cried for my mom. But for the first time, I didn’t know which mom I was crying for. At the end of Past Lives, Nora wonders, “Who did I leave behind?”. I also wonder, who did I leave behind?

I have seen so many Asian adoptees share some of the deepest parts of themselves in the online adoptee community, so here I am joinin’ in. Thanks for reading and thank you to all adoptees who emotionally labor privately and publicly. I can’t believe I wrote these words for Patrick’s peers and acquaintances to read?! Please check out these other adoptee voices and their specific posts because when you support one of us, I think you support us all.

This week on Conversation Piece…

On this week’s episode of Conversation Piece, author and lifestyle guide Jamie Holland joins Patrick to discuss how we can be more mindful of our mental health in the workplace. Jamie shares about her journey with mindfulness and addressing her own mental health, why workplaces should invest in their employees’ well being, and how addressing our own mental health helps us help others.

Connect with Jamie on Instagram

Learn more about ShoLux Lifestyle Centre:

Buy a copy of Mindful Moments: A Guided Workbook:


RE: Joy Ride - Media Guidelines w/The Very Asian Foundation

Yesterday, a group of Adoptees including myself, in conjunction with The Very Asian Foundation, released media guidance on how to write / talk about the Adoptee experience. In the wake of Joy Ride’s release and the inevitable reviews and takes that will follow, we wanted to get ahead of it and hopefully affect change on a wider level.

You can find the full guidelines here.

In addition to this, I would love to hear from Adoptees who have seen the film. No opinion or take is wrong or bad — all are valid and will be treated as such! If you’ve seen the film and you’d like to share, please fill out this form.

Next week…

Patrick here! I am still in Korea for another week, prepping for the International Korean Adoptee Association’s (IKAA) conference! As we did this week, I will have a guest contributor sharing their thoughts with us here.

That guest? Kira Omans!

Final thoughts

You’re going to see a lot of Joy Ride-related content over the next month. I appreciate all of you who have supported me (and us) as we work to bring nuance and validation to this narrative and our community.

If you’d like to share thoughts, feel free to respond to me here directly and I will get back to you as soon as I can.

We’re taking this opportunity and running with it. Let’s go.


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