Not quite/just the same/different : the construction of identity in Vietnamese war orphans adopted by white parents

University of Technology, Sydney. Social Inquiry
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Global diasporas caused by wars carry many streams of people - in the 1970s one of these streams contained orphans from Vietnam delivered to white parents in the West. On arrival, the social expectation was that these children would blend seamlessly into the culture of their adoptive parents. Now some adoptees, as adults, reflect on their lives as 'Asian' or racially 'Other' children in white societies, charting the critical points in their maturation. This thesis interrogates their life histories to explore the role of birth-culture in the self-definition of people removed from that culture at birth or in childhood. Thirteen adult adopted Vietnamese participants were interviewed. These interviews provided qualitative data on issues of racial and cultural identity. These data were developed and analysed, using a framework drawn from symbolic interactionism and cultural studies, in order to reveal the interpersonal dynamics in which people were involved, and the broader cultural relations that sustained them. The findings reveal that in early childhood the adopted Vietnamese identity process was shaped by a series of identifications with, and affirmations of, sharing their adoptive parents racial and cultural identity. Such identifications were then challenged once the adoptees entered society and were seen by others as different. The participants' attempts to locate a secure sense of self and identity within the world they are placed in are disturbed by numerous uncertainties surrounding racial and cultural difference. One of the most crucial uncertainties is the adopted Vietnamese knowledge about their cultural background. While most felt they lacked positive knowledge about Vietnam and racial diversity, their sense of identity was unsettled by experiences with racism and negative cultural stereotypes throughout their late childhood to adolescence. As their recognition and acceptance of their difference develops in adulthood, they experience a degree of empowerment due to their being able to access more knowledge about their cultural background and a greater appreciation of racial diversity. Many participants have formed closer ties with other people born in Vietnam, most notably other adoptees; most returned to visit Vietnam. The thesis concludes that those adoptees who were able to develop an understanding of the Vietnamese and other backgrounds to their complex identities, tended to be more integrated as adults than those who either rejected or were unable to come to terms with their Vietnamese ancestry.
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