Adoption and Identity Intertwined: An Interview With Mei Kelly

Last summer, I had the pleasure of meeting with 18-year-old Mei Kelly, who created a documentary called “Adoption and Identity Intertwined.” Mei Kelly was adopted from China at the age of nine months, and she has experienced the unique complexity that adoption brings to identity.

Curious to learn how being adopted has affected the lives of other teenagers, Kelly decided to film an adoption documentary for her Senior Studies Project at Evanston Township High School.  Here is my conversation with Mei Kelly:

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What gave you the idea to do a documentary about adoption and identity?

Mei Kelly: I knew I wanted to do something on adoption for my senior studies project. I think my interest started when I went to The Music Box and saw the documentary Somewhere Between, and it brought up questions I had never thought about, like is my birthday actually my birthday? I loved the feelings I took home with me after I saw Somewhere Between, and I wanted those same qualities to be in my documentary.

How did you find the teenage adoptees that participated in your documentary?

Mei Kelly: I knew some of the adoptees from childhood; I went to middle school with some of the others.  Two of the adoptees are students I met at my high school. One adoptee was a girl who was selling artwork at the Evanston Galleria.  My mom bought some of her Chinese artwork, and the girl’s bio said that she was adopted, so I contacted her through the Galleria email. She and I hung out before I did the interview for the documentary.

How many adoptees did you interview?

Mei Kelly: I did twelve video interviews and also emailed back and forth with a Korean adoptee named Dan AKA Dan, who is in the entertainment business. His documentary is My Story AKA Dan.

Tell me about the music in the documentary. It’s really good.

Mei Kelly: It’s Dan AKA Dan’s music from his album Stuntman that went along with his documentary, and we got permission to use it, because it really works.  We also got some music that was composed for Susan Hope Engle, the filmmaker who mentored me.

How did it affect you personally as you created this adoption documentary?

Mei Kelly: It was really a lot for me to process. I watched Somewhere Between again to really break down the film and see how the filmmakers got the answers out of interviewees. I started considering the influence of nature versus nurture in my own life as an adoptee. Dan AKA Dan brought up the idea of finding my own parents, and it stirred up a whole lot of feelings I had never confronted.  In Korea, where Dan AKA Dan is from, the adoptees often get the privilege to find their parents, whereas it’s so very hard to track down parents in China.  I joined CCI Chinese Children International (a group only for Chinese adoptees), and talking with them helped.

I think going back to your country of origin is amazing and it is something everyone should do. But finding your parents is a whole other idea. There is a lot of thought that has to go into a birth family search.  If you are ready, you should do it.  But if you are not ready, I don’t think you should be pushed into it, because it can be life changing, and you should feel prepared for that.

How much can you share your real feelings with your parents?

Mei Kelly: I can share almost all of my feelings. My parents are very accepting. My mom has a degree in social work. I don’t think it was very hard to bring up any of these topics with them.  Sometimes it was hard for ME to understand what I was feeling, but I could easily talk to my parents.

Recently, it was my 18th birthday, and I didn’t want to make a deal about it, in case it possibly isn’t my birthday. I make a bigger deal about Family Day, which was the day I was placed in my mom’s arms here. Some people call it Gotcha Day, but I prefer Family Day.  That is in a way more important to me than my birthday, because it is a solid, known date.  Your birthday is the day you were born into your family, but Family Day is the day I was accepted into my family.

How often do you talk about being adopted with your family or friends?

Mei Kelly: Gradual exposure is really important for an adoptee to accept his or her own culture, especially in transracial adoption.  I interviewed some adoptees that didn’t ever talk about being adopted at home, and they felt isolated. Going to an adoption conference or going back to a home country or joining an adoptee group over social media helps people feel like they are not alone.

With international or interracial adoption, the parents should expose their children to different parts of their culture starting at a young age. Celebrate holidays, take language classes. Some of the adoptees I know didn’t like to do classes or cultural things in high school because it didn’t feel cool, but now that they are in college, they are considering learning more about their birth culture, because they see the importance of it. You create a whole new identity in college.

Do you feel a commonality with all adoptees, or mostly Chinese adoptees?

Mei Kelly: I can relate and have a good understanding of different types of adoptees.  For example, there was one girl I interviewed for the film. She is Caucasian and is part of a domestic open adoption, but we shared a commonality in that she didn’t know her father, and I do not know my parents. I think it’s even harder sometimes for domestic adoptees who look like their parents, because no one assumes they are adopted.  But I feel a commonality with all adoptees.

I think adoptees can be more easily molded by their environment, and we change a lot more depending on who we are exposed to. We have a foot in two different worlds. Everyone can develop and create their own identities, but adoptees are the product of their environment more than kids who are growing up with their birth parents.

What’s the best thing a teen adoptee can do for herself or himself?

Mei Kelly: Ask questions and not be afraid to learn who you are.  Identity is such a hard subject; it progressively develops until the day you die.  Seek out more information about your culture and your parents’ culture – not just your birth culture but also the culture of your adoptive family.  I love learning about my Chinese culture, but I also love learning about my mom’s Irish culture and her blessings.  Ask your adoptive parents how they created their identities.

I know this is a time when you want to defy your parents, but they have lived through the teen years, and they are your best resource, and they will try everything in their power to help you through the difficult times.

Also, it can be hard to find a great friend who will always have your back.  You need to find a friend who will be understanding of all the issues you go through, even if the friend can’t completely relate.

You have asked other adoptees if they think they were abandoned or placed. Which term do you use?

Mei Kelly: With the language, I think abandon is a very harsh word. I don’t think any adoptee should use that word lightly. I feel like I was placed, because I was left in a beautiful park where the older generation always practiced Tai Chi in the morning, so whoever left me knew that someone would find me and bring me to a police station. If they had abandoned me, I think they would have done an abortion or left me in a dumpster.  I was found in a very nice city and my orphanage was well funded, so I think my parents knew what they were doing.  Of course, I don’t have a lot of information about my adoption, so this is what I hope is true. It’s what I choose to think.

What would you say or do if you met your birth family?

Mei Kelly: If I were to meet my birth family, I would just embrace them.  I’d probably be on cloud nine because I had that one-in-a-million chance to meet my Chinese family.  I wouldn’t have negative feelings about being placed, and I wouldn’t ask why.  I think the reason I was placed was the one-child policy. I think it was because I was a second child, and I think large cities had population control problems.

If you learned you had been placed solely because you were a girl, how would you feel?

Mei Kelly: I had a revelation during my junior year of high school. I found that since 2010, the girl value in China has skyrocketed.  A lot of families in China are adopting domestically, because they want a girl.  I think that’s very good! When I was younger, and I heard comments like, ‘Oh, it’s because you’re a girl,’ I didn’t feel great about it, and I hoped there was more to it than that, but I feel better knowing that girls are valued more now.

Have stereotypes about being Chinese affected you?

Mei Kelly: Stereotypes in the media are a big thing, especially with shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Blackish.  They are obviously there for fun, but it can be hard. I heard from my adoptee interviewees that they faced a ton of different stereotypes.

I’ve dealt with stereotypes about the Asian eyes, or many of my young campers think I look exactly like the other Asian counselor and get the two of us confused.  It is definitely difficult.  I was at the Gold Coast Art Festival, and an older lady said to me, “Move, China Doll,” and I chose to ignore it because she seemed older and like she wouldn’t change.  But it’s hard to face those stereotypes.  With the younger middle schoolers, when stereotypes happen, I think adoptees need to speak up and counteract those stereotypes. Parents should tell adopted kids, “if someone says something like this to you, this is what you should do.”

How important are your adoptee friendships?

Mei Kelly: Being adopted is not an everyday topic for us, but I love having these best friends who share this experience, and we can talk about adoption when we want to. My Chinese adoptee friends all came to Evanston at the same time as I did.  My other friends can’t understand first-hand, but they are willing to try.  There is an underlying connection between adoptees.

How do you feel about the way the documentary came out?

Mei Kelly: I am very happy with it. I am never going to touch it again. I’m very much of a perfectionist. There’s always more to talk about, but it gives a general sense of the identity topics.  Viewers who are adopted and not adopted can understand identity topics.  One of my goals was to make it educational so that people could take something away from it, and I was very satisfied about how it came out.

What do you to do in free time?

Mei Kelly: I like doing art – graphic design, sketching with charcoal.  I did stage crew for a long time at ETHS.  I’m not sportsy so I didn’t fit into the sportsy popular crowd.  But I fit into theatre.

Did you already have experience with filmmaking before you made your documentary?

Mei Kelly: I took some classes at the Evanston Art Center, and I took a media camp through Noyes.

Tell me about The Beat.

Mei Kelly: The Beat stands for “Beginning to Explore Adoption Together.”  It was started by the Cradle.  It helps adoptees to find resources that can help them through their adoption journey and help them connect with other adoptees.  The Beat website was created a few years ago, and I took the website under my wings as part of my volunteer portion for senior studies.  We created a completely new look.  The dandelion is our mascot, and it creates the seeds, which are the adoptees.  The wind moves the seeds to different places that they can’t control. Then the seeds are rooted. Their families give them roots and wings. The Dandelion is our theme throughout social media.

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On Thursday, Feb 25, 2016, at 7 pm, the Evanston History Center, located at 225 Greenwood Street, is holding a special screening of “Adoption and Identity Intertwined” followed by a discussion with Mei Kelly.  There will be a reception catered by Whole Foods Market at 6:30 pm.

Reservations are recommended. You can make a reservation online.

Admission is $10, payable at the door. Evanston History Center Members are free. The event provides 2 CPDU credits for Illinois educators and teachers.

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