Adoption Day and The First Day of School

A few days ago, as I stepped into an air-conditioned Target to purchase some toothpaste, I was abruptly reminded that summer was coming to a close and fall was rolling around the corner. I felt my heart drop to the pit of my stomach, and I caught myself gasping for air. What is always synonymous with the beginning of fall? School, of course. At my local Target store, I noticed the dollar shelves being lined with back-to-school junk and all of the bathing suits had red labels screaming, “Buy me! Summer is ending!”


As my summer vacation period comes to a close, all of my college friends start to post on Facebook about how wonderful (or not) their summer has been and just how excited they are about school starting up again. My inbox is bombarded with messages about how ecstatic everyone is to see me back at school, and I find myself drowning in invitations to join new projects for fall 2013. The considerate ones end their emails with lines such as “I hope your summer was wonderful.” At least they are acknowledging something that once was. As much as I want to partake in all this excitement about the beginning of a new school year, I struggle to do so.


I am not one to blame or tie all of my sentimental feelings to my complicated adoptive past. In fact, I get visibly upset when people (including my own parents and friends) ask, “Are you feeling this way because you’re adopted?” But during this particular time of the year when change is especially visible and ubiquitous, I cannot help but feel that same sort of anxiety and feeling of loss that I first felt as a little girl orphaned in China.


I know it seems like a far-fetched connection to make, but stick with me here. You see, the first day of adoption for many Chinese adoptees is complicated. Most adoption-day stories are told from the perspective of the adoptive parents. Therefore, what we see on television and even in our own adoption-day photos are beaming parents tightly grasping on to their new treasures. If you pay enough attention to the other (little) human being in the image, you will usually notice that the child is crying hysterically, looking terribly confused (or afraid) or simply staring at the surrounding scene with a blank expression. By exploring the other side of adoption day, you realize that there is another story to be told. Come adoption day, children are forced to leave their friends at the orphanage or are torn out of the arms of their beloved caregivers. If you ask any adoptive parent what one of their happiest days was, I would bet that most parents would proudly proclaim, “The day we got our little one, of course!” This is in stark contrast to many infants, babies and young adoptees for whom adoption day is a day of trauma and loss. As an adoptee, I know all too well that every event, just like adoption day, has multiple versions. Some of those versions don’t always agree with the standard version, and these lesser-known versions are often hidden, forgotten about or altogether quieted. One experience, two very different takes.


Just as with the above example, the first day of school does not exactly mark a cheery day of new beginnings for me as it does for everyone else around me. This feeling is often frustrating for me as I feel more alone, as I watch everyone else around me be cheery and partake in the celebrations. Call me a pessimist or a party-pooper, but when I think about September 3 (the first day of school at Mount Holyoke College), I feel a deep tormented pain that is both distressing and exciting all at the same time. The all-too-familiar feelings of pain and loss are brought up again.


When people mention the beginning of the school year, my mind immediately jumps to the end of summer. I think about the beautiful days of my summer adventures in Portland, North Dakota, Russia, China and Thailand. I think about the breathtaking moments that awakened every cell in my imaginative spirit. I think back to the moment that a little girl in an orphanage in China told me that living a good life was our best gift to the world. And lastly, I think back to my younger self. When you’re twenty years old, three months is a lot of time. So when I think back to the version of me which existed three months ago at the beginning of summer, I mourn the end of that younger self. How can I not?


When I try to explain how not excited I am about the close of summer to my friends and family, everyone just assumes that I am reluctant to go back to my books and my little kennel (AKA my dorm room). Although this may be true to a certain extent, I try my best to explain my complex feelings to people without sounding too sentimental. Most of the time, I come out sounding like I am anti-school. No one truly gets it, except for my friends who have also experienced this duality of joy and pain in one event.


As many of us know (not just adoptees), anything (not everything) can trigger these familiar feelings of loss and abandonment. For me, school is one of them. As a kid, the first day of school always brought about confusing feelings of excitement, anticipation, dread, nervousness and anxiety. As a little girl, I loved school. I couldn’t wait to be a part of the classroom environment again after a seemingly long summer. I longed for the familiar schedule of school lunches, recess, projects and homework. That being said, I remember watching all of the shelves at our local Office Depot load up with binders and scissors and feeling a restriction at the back of my throat. With each new “Back to School” sign, I saw the clock ticking another hour closer to the end of summer and the beginning of school. I felt my summer moments slip right through the fingers of my memory. Now, a soon-to-be-junior in college, I feel the same helplessness as a third grader in elementary school. When I see families waving at their children from their rearview mirrors, I can’t help but empathize with the young freshmen – for some, this is the first time mom and dad have left them. I can see the same sense of loss, distress and utter confusion in the eyes of these students as I see in the photographs of adoptees on adoption day. I watch as everyone around me trades in their bathing suits and flowy summer outfits for something more studious and preppy. I can’t help but wonder if I am the only one who is still trying to hold on to summer before it runs away and abandons us in the shadow of fall’s fiery leaves.


~ Fang Lee