Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences.
By Josh Knoll
“My father is Israeli and my mother is Russian, so that makes me Vietnamese.”
I wrote those words thirty-one years ago in my 6th grade autobiography. While those words make me laugh today, it nicely sums up the way I have always viewed my adoption – unique, funny, and worthy of conversation.
I have never shied away from discussing an event that probably saved my life and has surrounded me with a loving family. I am proud to be adopted and love to advocate, speak, and write about adoption. It is something to be celebrated!
I was six months old in 1974 when I arrived from Giadinh, Vietnam from the Phu My Thi Nghe orphanage. I was just one of many babies arriving into the arms of joyous American parents who wanted to do something to help the hundreds and hundreds of children being orphaned due to the Vietnam War. Using the Friends of Children of Viet Nam adoption agency out of Denver, Colorado, my parents were matched with me.
My mom says she saw my picture and immediately knew I was her son. If you saw my little emaciated face, you would think to ask my mother, “Are you nuts?!” But for her, I was the one she wanted.
My given name is Du Huy Minh. I was nicknamed “E.E. Cummings” by a nurse who had cared for me and who had been reading his books at the time. Both of these names were changed to Joshua, which means “saved by God.” It was a highly appropriate name with huge significance to my parents. First, many people were dying and there was the fear I was not going to make it out of the country. Second, I was a very sickly baby, malnourished and suffering numerous health issues. Finally, my parents are two New York-raised Jews who wanted a strong name to match their faith.
At thirteen, I would pick my middle name as part of my United States citizenship ceremony. My official name is Joshua Minh Matthew Knoll, a nice nod to the duality of where I come from and where I am now, a combination of my Vietnamese heritage and my American/Jewish upbringing.
I like to joke that I am the whitest Asian you will ever meet. For example, I have no ability whatsoever to use chopsticks and my math skills are pretty horrific. I truly don’t fit into any stereotypical image of who an Asian is. This is not an insult or a criticism. It is a fact that has much to do with what I call my “All-American childhood.” Shortly after I arrived in the United States, my family left Colorado for the Central Valley of California.
My older sister Monique and I were then joined by another sister, Heather -- biological not adopted. We lived in Merced on enough land that we had sheep, rabbits, horses, dogs, goats, and numerous other animals. I was in 4-H, played soccer, ran track, was obsessed with Star Wars, loved reading books, and constantly ate Kraft macaroni and cheese.
I went on family trips to Disneyland, Florida, New York, Canada, and Alaska. I performed on stage in “South Pacific” and danced in the Nutcracker ballet. I celebrated all the Jewish holidays, with Passover being my favorite. I even had a Bar Mitzvah when I was thirteen. I clearly remember that my speech was about having several names – Vietnamese, American, and Hebrew. This was followed several years later by Confirmation in the temple. I knew I was Vietnamese, but that wouldn’t become interesting or important to me until later in life.
It is not difficult to figure out that I am adopted. Just look at my skin color versus the rest of my family. It is easy to see the difference, and classmates picked up on that. Even though I had no issues with being adopted and did not know anything different, some children and neighbors made sure I didn’t forget it. I distinctly remember one student in my elementary class who repeatedly told me that I was adopted because my real parents didn’t want me. Even though I knew this was not true, it still hurt like hell when he said it. Kids will always find the thing that makes someone different and use it to tease them mercilessly.
On another occasion, a family came by the house and referred to me as the neighbor’s son. My parents had to explain to them that I was their son. Even to this day, I get unbelievably surprising responses from people. Recently, my brother and I were at a barbecue at my cousin’s house. After being introduced to some people, a woman came back and asked my brother and me if we were really related to the host. We almost had to prove we were by drawing a diagram of our family tree. She never stopped staring at us during the entire lunch. It’s 2016, but some still don’t know how to deal with adoption.
Adoption, though, is what I have always known. It’s normal to me. It was further impressed upon me when I was in my early teens. My family expanded with the arrival of three younger siblings. My parents decided to adopt again, this time from South Korea using Holt International Adoption. The first to arrive were two biological sisters. Originally, the plan had been to adopt one child, but when my parents were asked if they would be interested in a sibling pair, they knew they didn’t want to break up two sisters. With that, we excitedly and warmly met our newest family members at the airport in Los Angeles.
Several years later when I was fourteen, my parents adopted my brother Brandon, an infant also from South Korea. Our family was fully complete, a mixture of biological and adopted children. My parents, though, always referred to us as their children, never their “adopted children” or “biological children.” And amongst my siblings, we have always called each other sisters and brothers, never “adopted sisters and brothers.” We are truly a modern, multi-racial family.
This is my real family, and my mom and dad are my real parents. I bring this up because I am often asked if I am interested in finding my “real” parents. It seems to surprise people when I say that I have no desire to find my “biological” parents because I was raised by my real parents with my real siblings.
Those “biological” parents that everyone else seems to want me to find would be complete strangers with no shared memories, experiences, or relationships. I could pass them on the street and would never even know it. That is, if they were even alive, which doesn’t seem very likely.
When I was beginning to plan a trip to Vietnam to see the country of my birth, I had to routinely explain to people that this trip was not about tracking down long-lost-relatives. That was always the first thing people asked me about. After some explanation and insight, though, most people understood my feelings.
I am my parents’ son through and through. I have all of the characteristics of both my parents. I am like my mom in that we both love to read books, have a desire to volunteer and help make the planet a better place, and love to travel. My dad and I are the same height, enjoy going to the movies, and both of us have even lost our hair in the same pattern. In addition I followed in their footsteps into the world of education as a special education teacher.
If this wasn’t a case study for nature versus nurture, then I don’t know what is. My parents did such a marvelous job raising me by making me feel loved and wanted, that I have never felt like I am missing a part of myself or that I do not know who I truly am. I know my adoption was done out of love and I know exactly the man I am. I owe all of that to my mom and dad. I also owe them the gratitude for instilling in me the curiosity to learn about the world around me, including my Vietnamese background.
When I was in my twenties, I got a job as an environmental chemist. There, I met a co-worker who was Vietnamese. Through her, I was introduced to Vietnamese food for the first time. I soon fell in love with pho, the hot noodle soup that is prevalent in Vietnamese cuisine. (I have to eat it at least once a week now.) From there, I began to explore many other aspects of Vietnam, seeking out stories whether novels, graphic novels, movies, or Broadway shows about Vietnam.
The musical “Miss Saigon” is one such artistic endeavor that directly speaks to me. The show follows an American G.I. who falls in love with a young Vietnamese woman during the Vietnam War. One song in particular resonates very strongly with me. It is called “Bui-Doi.” The song is about the mixed-race children born from American soldiers and Vietnamese women. While there is no proof that I am bi-racial or that this song is about me, I have always felt in my gut that I am not full Vietnamese. Though it is said that I come from the highland region of Vietnam which explains my height and skin tone, I feel that there is a high probability that I might be the son of an American soldier and a Vietnamese woman who died or was shamed into giving me up for adoption. The lyrics from the song are very telling:
“They’re called Bui-Doi
The dust of life
Conceived in hell
And born in strife
They are the living reminder
Of all the good we failed to do….”
Certain songs really connect with me and these lyrics certainly do. Again, I do not know if they are true to my life, but something about them means a great deal to me. It is difficult to explain and may not have any true relevance to my life, but, in any case, I have sought out adoption stories for most of my adult life, wanting to read about people who have experienced what I have.
Whatever way I was brought into this world, I have never been embarrassed to talk about being adopted. I am a teacher now, and when I find out one of my students is adopted, I make sure that both the parents and the child know that I am as well. I openly encourage them to talk about it and to feel proud. It has been such a huge blessing in my and my family’s lives, and I want every adopted child to feel the way I do. I would not trade my life story for anything in the world. It has made me who I am today.
One of my favorite quotes sums it up perfectly:
“Yes, I am adopted. It’s just one of the many things I have in common with Superman.”
When not busy working as an elementary special education teacher in the Bay Area, Josh Knoll enjoys spending his free time taking photographs, scrapbooking, attending different comic conventions, reading, going to the movies, and geeking out over The Walking Dead. He loves being an uncle to four beautiful nieces and one handsome nephew who fill his life with lots of love and hugs.
Are you looking for awesome children's adoption books? The second book in the Jazzy's Quest chapter book series for adoptees is HERE!!! Be sure to get your copy of Jazzy's Quest: What Matters Most, the sequel to Jazzy's Quest: Adopted and Amazing!
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