Redefining the ‘norm’
Susan Murray picked up the phone one early morning in 1995 and heard a woman’s voice say, “I’m looking at a picture of your daughter right now.”
“What are you talking about?” Susan asked.
The woman said she was holding a picture and a one-page health report about a five-month-old baby named Lucy who had come from China. She asked Susan if she was ready to adopt the child.
“Absolutely,” Susan said.
Seventeen years later, that baby girl is navigating the grounds of Virginia Tech, participating in jCamp the summer before her senior year in high school. She has an easy laugh and a quirky sense of style; she’s a realist and an atheist. She’s also an adopted Chinese-American raised by a single mother.
“It’s just a fact of life as much as anything else is,” said Lucy Murray, John F Kennedy High (’13). “They’re just things that you grow up knowing about and (being adopted) is completely normal.”
‘A traumatic thing’
It wasn’t normal in the mid-1990s, however, when Susan first heard about international adoption from a friend. She said she had always pictured herself with children, but had become unsure about how that would become a reality.
She had considered adoption before, but ruled it out because of two high profile legal cases regarding domestic adoptions. One in particular seared itself into her memory — a custody battle in August of 1993, when two and a half year old Jessica DeBoer was removed from her adoptive family and returned to her birth father.
“It was a very traumatic thing that had scared me away from domestic adoption,” Susan said, “because I could not imagine that happening to a child or myself.”
International adoption was still relatively new at the time, so when she heard a friend was adopting a baby from China, Susan immediately contacted her to find out more.
Susan said, “I just knew right then that I was going to do it.”
‘No one else out there’
In part because she was adopted internationally, Lucy expresses no desire to seek out her birth parents, as many domestically adopted children have.
“(Adoptive parents) are your parents,” Lucy said. “There is no one else out there that you have that emotional attachment to as being your mother. If someone told me, ‘Oh, you’re my kid,’ or I saw a blood test, it wouldn’t make that much of a difference to me.”
Due to the circumstances in which she was put up for adoption in China as a baby, Lucy figures it would be nearly impossible for her to track down her birth parents.
“The impossibility really eliminates the curiosity,” Lucy said, “but I don’t lament the fact that there’s no chance of me finding my birth mother or father.”
‘Move heaven and earth’
Neither Lucy nor her mother know the exact circumstances under which she was put up for adoption, but Susan said the process itself was long and complex. She had to develop a dossier and compile a vast array of background information, including three certified birth certificates. After jumping through numerous hoops for the paperwork, she had to pass a home study, interviews by a social worker, police background checks and parenting classes.
Susan thought she was almost done after she turned in her final paperwork to the Child and Family Services Agency in the District of Columbia. However, days before the adoption was supposed to be approved, she got a phone call from the adoption agency telling her they had not received the paperwork. If it didn’t reach them by a certain date, she would be put on hold indefinitely.
“I knew in my heart that Lucy was waiting for me and I knew that paperwork needed to go in with that group,” Susan said. “I had to move heaven and earth, and everybody told me there was no way I could get it in, but I knew I had to do it or things wouldn’t work out the way they were supposed to.”
Lucy agreed the way things worked out for her and her mother is the way they are supposed to be. Her general knowledge about China’s culture and history helped her fill in the blanks enough to keep her curiosity satisfied. Whether or not her assumptions are correct, she said being part of an international adoption changes her entire sense of curiosity.
“If a kid was given up for adoption by American birth parents, they’re closer to home so they have a better understanding about what their birth parents would be like. I would not be able to communicate (with my birth parents) because there would be a whole culture clash, not only in language, but their whole life would be totally different from mine. Being internationally adopted removes us from our cultures,” Lucy said.
Although she considers herself completely Americanized, one of the first things people say when they meet Lucy is, “Wow, you speak really good English.” Their ignorance, which can be frustrating to her, has sparked a certain interest in learning more about China. While she has read books about her birthplace, she has not devoted a lot of time to the topic. Rather, she’s learned to deal with attitudes different from the ones she shares with her mother. She describes their relatives as a very stereotypical upper middle class white family from Texas. She remembers an incident from her childhood involving her cousin and her cousin’s boyfriend, joking about how she had a “Made in China” tag coming out of her butt.
“I was not even 10 yet and as a kid I was not only embarrassed by it, but I didn’t know I had a right to be offended by what they were saying. I was about to cry, even though I was trying to laugh,” said Lucy.
Lucy harbors no hard feelings and understands they were just doing it to be funny. Rather, she tells that anecdote as an example of the way she deals with being different. She said she deals with the same social issues most other Asian-Americans do. She prefers to laugh it off and joke about her race with her friends. She has learned to fully embrace being from another country, something she sees as being inherently American.
“I think my own personality leads people to really see past stereotypes, especially after they meet me,” Lucy said.
Defying the ‘norm’
Susan recognized that spirit the moment she first met Lucy. She had traveled to Changzhou, China, where the orphanage was located. The five families who had come there together stood in the reception center, waiting. Then the aides started bringing the babies out one by one.
Susan said, “They brought Lucy in and I immediately recognized her. They put her in my arms and it was the most amazing thing. I just held her and she let me hold her, she didn’t cry or anything, and she just looked around. My sister said to me, ‘Look at her hair, what’s wrong with her hair?’ It was like she was almost bald on top of her hair and she just had little strands all around and I was laughing and crying.”
As she talked, Susan’s voice picked up and filled with emotion. She described the moment as one of pure joy and excitement, and said every moment since has been the same.
Lucy said, “Until recently it was more of a thing to be ashamed of, that you are not the norm. Being part of an international adoption, you can’t escape the fact that you’re not the norm. It’s a game changer that other people were once ashamed of and my mom made it part of her communication to me to be the exact opposite, to be proud of the fact that I’m adopted. She turned around that attitude that some people still have.”
Because of their racial differences and since Susan is a single mother, it was obvious Lucy would grow up knowing she was adopted. Regardless, Lucy’s mother didn’t think it was either necessary or right to keep the truth from her child, unlike other families at the time. Lucy said her mother raised her to be proud she was adopted and to see it as a part of who she is.
“It’s always something that we’re not afraid to talk about, but in general it’s not really a discussion because its just so normal,” Lucy said. “When a family is different from most people they try to hide it and they’re uncomfortable about talking about it, but I’m not.”
Follow Anagha Srikanth on Twitter @Anagram33