The 2015 annual report of the U.S. Department of State says, Arabella McDonald could well be one of the 300,000 people who were adopted internationally in the past 15 years in America. On top of that, she is also one of the 120,000 American children who belong to a different race than their adoptive parents according to the US Census records. Both of her parents are white, while McDonald and her adopted sister are both Hispanic.
At 10, McDonald decided to look at her adoption record to find out the reason why she was sent to the foster care the first day she was born. For some time she did not understand why her biological family gave her up. But as she grew, she has learned to look at it from a different perspective.
Born in Guatemala, McDonald thinks “it may not be the best place for a girl to grow up”. Not all girls have the chance to learn to read and write. Some girls go to school for a few years and then immediately have to start working.
Due to poverty, it is hard for normal families in Guatemala to send their children to school. Even if they could afford it, most families would rather give the chance to a son than a daughter because of the deep-rooted patriarchal customs that tie women to a domestic role.
“Now I understand that things happen and that no matter what the reason was, I have a way better opportunity and life here than I would ever have there.” says McDonald as she was on the verge of tears.
When McDonald was younger, race was not a topic in the house. As the elder sister in the family, at 18, McDonald is usually entrusted with the job of talking to her 16-year-old Hispanic sibling about what it is like to be a person of color because her parents cannot have such conversations.
“I was able to tell my parents that they didn’t have the same experience dealing with racism as I do,” she said. “As they do not understand and I am old enough now to understand, we agree that I should be the person to talk to my sister about it.”
McDonald’s parents used to tell her to go to the police when she needed help. As she grew to be able to think more critically, she would think twice before making decisions like these because she is unsure whether things that work for white people are going to work for her as well.
“I read and hear stories of people who are of color who have problems with the police officers. Sometimes I have to pause and think about that,” she said. “Because my parents don’t know what it is like to have to be afraid. They are sympathetic but they are not empathetic.”
The lack of parents’ understanding has been a struggle for McDonald to be raised in a mixed race family. However, she thinks that her parents have done the best they can to foster her connection with the Hispanic culture.
“I was very stubborn about it and I didn’t want to learn about my birth country because I was mad at my birth family,” she said. “But my parents always try to make sure that we reconnect with our heritage and with people who look like us. They never really did things to keep me away from what I am.”
The family often celebrates things the way people do in Guatemala. Her parents still make food from her home country so she could grow up knowing things that people born in Guatemala eat. Her mother taught her Spanish when she was younger because she wanted McDonald to know, as that is still part of who she is.
“There are people who try to completely cut off any connections with the heritage that their adopted kids might have.” she said. “I was very fortunate I didn’t have that in my family. My parents always want me to genuinely know and care about my birth country. But not everybody who is internationally adopted gets that same support.”
She believes that adopters should never try to deny their transracial kids who they are. Instead, let the kids do as much as they want. The last thing parents should do is to push their children to past their limit.
“If I adopt kids that are not the same race as me, I will want them to know about their birth ethnicity because I think even though that is not entirely what makes up a person, it is still important to know where you came from.” she said. “But I would never force them if they do not want to learn anything ever about their birth country.”
Looking back at her childhood, McDonald feels lucky to have grown up in an accepting area where there were a lot of kids who were adopted internationally.
“Knowing so many other kids who were in similar situations like mine, we kind of have each other to lean on because we all understand what it is like to be adopted,” she said. “This makes it easier for me to deal with things that people might say.”
McDonalds hopes to tell the transracial adoptees out there that it is okay to feel different than the rest of their family. “It is also okay to feel that you are not being understood because there are going to be things that they don’t understand about you. You just have to try to make them get the idea of it.”
As for whether internationally adopted kids should find out more about their birth country, she thinks it has absolutely no problem for wanting or not wanting to do so. “Just be who you are and who you think you should be. That’s all that matters.”