I’m Asian, my husband is white and our son is Black. In the adoption world, we’re a ‘visible family.’ So why can’t others see us?

Carolyn SunFri, November 5, 2021, 6:06 AM

The writer, left, with son Ollie, husband Andrew and pooch. (Photo: Courtesy of Carolyn Sun)
The writer, left, with son Ollie, husband Andrew and pooch. (Photo: Courtesy of Carolyn Sun)

November is National Adoption Month and here, a new mom shares her experience with transracial adoption and dealing with prejudices from the world outside her family.

What started off as a trip to the pool became a moment of reckoning.

I was there with my son two weeks before Labor Day. Oliver was 5 months old at the time, and we’d been going to our apartment building’s pool almost every day since it re-opened in June after being closed the previous pandemic summer.

As we lounged post-dip, I spotted the arrival of three friends with their babies, and I waved. They all lived in the building next door — the only building, post-COVID, that could access our pool without having to enter with a resident.

I waved to my friends, and one, a blonde coder with a ready smile, broke off to join me. Our children took swim class together, and we’d grown tight. As we chatted, I couldn’t help but notice that my building’s resident busybody had claimed a seat nearby us. She was hard not to notice — making a show of staring daggers at us while texting furiously.

This woman possessed an unspoken influence within our co-op. She was married to the president of the co-op board. Together, and as individuals, they were known to engage in an aggressive form of finger pointing and policing within and outside the co-op that they dressed under the guise of “safety,” like the time he called the police on the homeless man he saw collecting cans from our recycling bags outside.

Soon after the arrival of my friends, I was approached by the lifeguard.

“Are they your guests?” He pointed toward my friends who’d entered the pool with their kids. I explained that they were not, and how they lived in the building next door, which had access.

Oliver and I soon left, and after we returned to our apartment, I received an email from our building’s management.

“Hi Carolyn, I understand that you have guests at the pool today beyond the limit of two adult guests and/or two child guests. I also understand that the daily fee was not remitted to the lifeguard, as such a charge of $45 will be added to the maintenance.”

My mind was stuttering. Raging. I’d gone to a pool where I was both a shareholder and a member, followed the rules and told the truth. And I was being charged for guests that I’d already said were not mine.

I felt humiliated. What’s more, targeted. And it had happened enough to me in my life already to know just what was behind it: racism. 

My transracial family feels ‘normal’ to me.

Being targeted is something I think about often now that I’m a mom.

I’m Korean-American. My husband, Andrew, is white. Our son Oliver is Black.

In the adoption world, we’re what’s called a “visible family.”

Carolyn, Ollie and Andrew in their pool. (Photo: Courtesy of Carolyn Sun)
Carolyn, Ollie and Andrew in their pool. (Photo: Courtesy of Carolyn Sun)

We brought Oliver home when he was six days old. It was a moment that was four and a half years in the making, if I combined our 12 months of four IVF cycles and two IUI cycles with our three and a half years of waiting for adoption.

It was remarkable how from the moment we first stroked Oliver’s hair, all of our pain and disappointments, which once felt so alive, simply vanished. What felt even more remarkable was how even though we’re a super-visible and obvious family to me and everyone who knows us, my relationship to Oliver remains a big, fat question mark to the outside world.

Like during a recent visit to the pediatrician, when my husband and I were asked by the medical assistant, “Who are you to this baby?”

I couldn’t believe she couldn’t tell we were his parents. I’d caught Oliver’s poop in my own hands. More than once. At the same time, I understood, although I wish she’d enquired with more tact. (Try: “Sorry that it’s not obvious to me, but are you this child’s parents?”)

Our visible family creates questions, but it’s not the questions that worry me.

I worry about my son, and how he, too, will be targeted.

I worry about him feeling “too different” from the other kids and families. About him being short-changed in an education system that is quick to write off students of color.

About my son being hurt because of an attack meant for me — as it certainly wasn’t a coincidence that I was being targeted during a hostile time for Asians in U.S. history: Between March 2020 and June 2021, there were 9,081 reports of racism and hate incidents against Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in the U.S., according to data gathered by Stop AAPI Hate.

And when I think about the responsibility I hold to impart on my son the tools and emotional intelligence and maturity to not only thrive in this world as an individual, but to survive situations that could easily escalate around him, as a Black man, I feel my chest constrict.

On the other hand, fear and rage can be a powerful incentive.

How I dealt with the pool incident.

After I got that email from the building’s management, I sang nursery songs to my son until he fell asleep. It was my version of burning sage.

When my husband arrived home that evening, I told him what had taken place, and he grew incensed. He, too, thought I’d been targeted for being Asian and in the line of sight of the wrong people.

The next month was complicated. Exhausting.

From the get-go, I wanted the targeters outed for their behavior, so I did that, writing a letter that detailed my experience. Then, I hand-delivered a copy of the letter to every apartment in our building (especially to the door with the Trump 2020 sticker).

I also asked my friends to email the building’s management company to let them know of their error, which they did.

Carolyn and her son, Ollie. (Photo: Courtesy of Carolyn Sun)
Carolyn and her son, Ollie. (Photo: Courtesy of Carolyn Sun)

I spoke to the lifeguard, who showed me his texts to and from the building manager, through which I’d discerned, after some investigation, that the husband had used his influence as the co-op board president to pressure the building’s management to ignore what I’d said as the truth.

I posted about my experience over social media. If I was going to be visible, then I was going to turn my volume way up.

And I demanded an apology from all guilty parties. The building manager emailed me one immediately.

I heard from the busybody couple three days later, and met with them, only to be asked if I would be writing a story about them. 

After I replied no, they (mostly he) began justifying their behavior. “Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” he said, without any irony. I expected and found zero accountability. 

Soon thereafter, I was reminded that trauma and stress have a direct line to your health: During the month of September, my immunity took a pounding. I contracted shingles in my ear and landed in the ER for a stubborn bacterial infection. I could feel myself growing despondent over the idea that I could be in the right and send all the strongly worded emails in the world, but that the board president would retain his position of power, and as time washed over any collective outrage and sympathy over what had happened to me, he’d resume, along with his wife, where he’d left off with his bullying and targeting.

I felt helpless. Unheard. Until another fellow new mother, a woman of color who’d had a front row seat to these events, said something that pulled me back into myself: “You’re a mom first. Everything else is extra.”

With that, I stopped sending my outraged emails to the board and discussing it with my friends who’d been involved, as well as with my husband. I couldn’t allow my trauma, my outrage, to occupy the space that now belonged to my son.

I’d done my share of feeling upset. I wanted instead to embody what it was to be joyful, healthy and present.

Reclaiming our space

In the end, I got my meeting with the board of directors. The board president stepped down. In fact, he and his wife put their apartment on the market.

Someday I can tell my son that his mom, 5 feet 2 on a good day, can stand up to bullies.

Also, I can let him know that something beautiful can arise from something ugly. Shareholders I’ve formerly only exchanged polite how-do-you-dos with have opened themselves up to me, sharing their own experiences with the bullies and why they didn’t fight back. Like me, they didn’t want to invite trouble. They were afraid. They had their kids to think of. But they’re happy I spoke up. It emboldened them to do so in the future. People have dropped off notes of support at our apartment, stopped me in the elevator and hallways to say they’re sorry for what I experienced and ask me how I’m doing.

One Black couple, raising a son three years older than ours, reached out to say they want to support us in our parenting, to help us prepare for the tough conversations about interactions with the police we will need to have with our son in the future.

The month of September may have rained on my immunity, but the people in our building wrapped me in their warmest blanket.

Our visible family invites looks and explanations, but it’s already been the making of me.