International adoptees confront their identity: ‘I’ve ignored my birth culture almost my whole life’

Parents of adopted children may struggle to raise them with a connection to their country of origin

adopciones internacionales
Alicia Martínez-Simancas, born in China, was adopted by a Spanish couple when she was six months old.Olmo Calvo
Ana Cristina Basantes

Alicia Martínez-Simancas had to reject her Chinese origins over and over to be accepted. She was born in China and adopted by a Spanish family at just six months old. Though she always knew about her roots, she has long struggled with her lack of connection with her birth country. One of those moments, which she remembers with particular clarity, occurred when she was a teenager: she entered a shop, and the Asian owners spoke to her in Mandarin. “I realized that they assumed I spoke the language because of my physical appearance. I didn’t know what to do. I felt weird. I thought, ‘They look like me, but I don’t speak their language,’” she said. Now, at 25 years old, she acknowledged: “I’ve ignored my birth culture almost my whole life.” Many internationally adopted children face similar dilemmas, having been raised in their adoptive parents’ culture without links to the country of their birth.

Alicia has known she was adopted since she was young, but her parents didn’t teach her anything about China. She was raised, she said, like any of her other siblings. “I would have liked for my parents to introduce me a little more to my culture to know where I came from. In my house, you won’t see any relationship between Spain and China,” she added. “I’ve always carried this burden of not being able to access part of my identity,” the psychology student went on. “The conflicts get worse when someone asks, ‘but are you Spanish or Chinese?’”

Flavia Garduiola, the president of the Spanish organization The Voice of Adoptees, explained the consequences of not raising adopted children with connections to their country and culture of origin. “When they grow up, many of them have been harmed by not having a relationship with their culture, and it hurts them to have to develop that connection as adults,” Guardiola said. She added that, at times, the parents themselves make comments like “To me, you’re just like us.” “That means not recognizing your child’s ethnicity and that they come from elsewhere,” she explained.

For Alicia, the conflict began when she was a child. At just seven years old, she tried to change her physical appearance. She stole strips of tape from her father’s office, cut them into strips and put them on her eyelids when she went to sleep. No one knew. She wanted to look like her parents and siblings. “I went to bed like that, hoping that the next day I’d have big eyes and not slanted ones,” she said. As she grew up, she felt increasingly strange and out of place. Racist comments, like “you don’t look Spanish,” madee her feel ashamed. “In that moment I didn’t identify as an Asian person, because I saw myself as European,” she said.

The psychologist and adoption specialist Montse Lapastora explained that the lack of contact with children’s culture of origin can create a void in their sense of identity. “We all need a common thread starting before we are born. If you have one life until you’re two years old and then another one, and there is no bridge, you don’t know what you’ve experienced. It generates uncertainty, and you don’t have a sense of belonging,” she said.

Lapastora emphasized that it is essential for adopted children to experience their native culture in their daily lives. “You have to look for athletes, singers, politicians, writers from your country,” said the psychologist. “Children should also be in contact with other people from the same culture,” she added. “There are adolescents from international adoptions who say: ‘I have the language, but I don’t have the traits, so I am strange. And when I go to my country of origin, I have the features, but not the language, and I also feel strange.”

Challenges in adaptation

Kinnari Ladrón de Guevara, 29, knows the “shock” of adapting to a culture different from the one in which she was born. She was born in the Gujarat region in western India. When she arrived in Spain’s Basque Country at the age of 13, everything she knew changed, from her way of eating and dressing to her language, Gujarati. In just three months, Kinnari learned to communicate: “I started to learn Basque, Spanish and English, but at the same time, I was losing the languages I knew [Gujarati and Sanskrit],” recalled the young woman, who is studying for a master’s degree in Political Science.

Vitoria, Kinnari, born in India, and adopted by a Spanish family at the age of 13, posing in downtown Vitoria.
Kinnari Ladrón de Guevara, born in India and adopted by a family from the Basque Country, Spain.L. Rico

The adaptation process was very fast, Kinnari said. But she admitted that, although she had spent her childhood immersed in the customs of her birth country, she came to reject her own culture in order to feel accepted. “It seemed like I was doing everything very easily, but behind it was a lot of stress that I wasn’t aware of and neither was my mother.” Barely a month after arriving in Spain, she started going to school. Kinnari acknowledges that she and her mother had to learn as they went along. “My mother wasn’t prepared for what was coming either,” she saud. Adapting was not easy, “and it will never be.”

Adoptees’ construction of identity is a long, often lonely process, especially when they come from different cultures. Kinnari’s mother has always made an effort to teach her about her birth country. She “has helped me to continue loving India,” although Kinnari admits that she will always remain “the outsider.” “When I am with my circle of Indian friends, I am the least Indian. People from India have their language, customs, traditions and a lot of other things that I no longer have, because I left them when I came here at the age of 13. That link was broken,” Kinnari said. “For me, getting closer to India is healing, but at the same time it is a bit painful. It’s hard to say ‘this is me,’ but not to feel recognized.”

Alicia has tried to connect more with her Chinese heritage through Facebook groups where other Chinese adoptees share experiences. “I try to go to meetings and we start cooking food from the country,” she continued. “I think that the best way to know a culture is by its food. The music too, but I still haven’t really assimilated it,” she said. Since June of last year, Alicia has used Instagram and TikTok to share content about the conflicts that adoptees face. Many young people in similar situations have thanked her for talking about the subject, she says, and have told her that they identify with her. Still, however, she receives plenty of racist comments, often calling her “ungrateful” or saying, “if you’re complaining so much, you should go back to China.”

For Kinnari and Alicia, growing up far from the countries where they were born has meant a years-long process of adaptation and acceptance. “Although I don’t live in India, there is something from there in me. That is what makes me feel part of here and there, a double identity,” said Kinnari.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS