Amara: The Colour of Difference

- Book extract (with permission of publishers) From "The Colour of Difference" edited by Sarah Armstrong and Petrina Slaytor, c. 2001. Federation press. Reprinted with the permission of The federation Press (www.federationpress.com.au). Idea to publish contributed by Dr. Irina Pollard.

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 12 (2002), 149-150.
Amara was born in Sri Lanka in 1980 and adopted when she was 29 days old; she came straight to Australia after her adoption. Amara's birth mother is Sri Lankan but nothing is known about her birthfather. Amara lives with her Mum (Australian) and Dad (Swiss), she has no adoptive siblings and isn't aware of any natural siblings. Currently she is studying child care at TAFE. Amara's experience of adoption has been overwhelmingly positive, in fact she doesn't think of herself as adopted. She feels herfamily's openness about her adoption and acceptance of her is the key and has helped her to feel secure and happy in her Australian family.

I have never really thought about being adopted from a different culture because I have always felt so accepted. "I forget that you are adopted, I forget that you are black," Josh, my cousin, frequently comments. I can't relate to other adoptees' feelings of having no roots because I am rooted in my adoptive family. Actually the word "adoptive" doesn't sit comfortably with me - they are my family! You could try telling me that there is no blood connection and therefore there is no family, but you are wrong. I am black, they are white and we are family.

My family is very close. Mum, grandma, and my aunt all live in Paddington. Dinner at grandma's every Friday is a fond childhood memory of mine. Josh and I are particularly close. Mum, Dad and, I have always been open and honest. When you are 16 your parents are supposed to be "uncool", but when I was 16 my parents knew everything I did. I rebelled because every teenager does and has to - the fights with your parents, stealing their alcohol and coming home at 5am! I wasn~t reacting to being adopted or black, I was reacting to being 16 when I didn't need a reason for anything I did. Why should I question my place in my family when all I have experienced is love, warmth and acceptance? I don't feel adopted, my family has made me feel like a "blood relation".

Mum and Dad have always been open about where I am from. They told me I was born in Sri Lanka - I didn't guess by looking in the mirror and discovering my "difference". Their openness is the key and has helped me not to question. My life is not shrouded in mystery, with parts of it hidden, deemed untouchable. To be honest, I have never been particularly interested in Sri Lanka, as a culture or as a place. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I am not sure, it just is. Mum gave me books to read about Sri Lanka when I was little. I flicked through, looked at the pictures, and then added them to my collection. I have ornaments too; I like them but they hold no real meaning for me. I did think about my birth family and Sri Lanka once, I was 12. Mum started the searching process but hit a dead end. She was told I wasn't supposed to know until I was 18. That was enough for me, I was content to wait. It was a good excuse for me not to have to think about it.

I have a good sense of who I am. In terms of culture and identity, I am Australian. My identity includes being Sri Lankan and Swiss, but I don't see myself in three individual parts. There is no friction or confusion but rather a sense of wholeness. When I look in the mirror I see Amara - not colour, appearance, culture or questions. I fit in completely -in my family, in Australia.

I am like my Mum, a little too emotional and way too generous. I strongly feel that who I am is directly related to how, not where, I have been brought up. Genetics do play a part but you also model, and are shaped by, your family. In relation to the development of my cultural identity, experience is vital. After Australia, Switzerland is my second home, not Sri Lanka. Information about a place creates knowledge, experience of a place creates familiarity - memories, smells, tastes, sights, feelings, a bond. Sri Lanka remains a place in south east Asia of which I have limited knowledge and no experience. My colour may tell you I belong there but my identity conveys a contrary message.

I have never experienced extreme racism. The only incident that I can remember as being threatening occurred when my family was with me. I ended up feeling sorry for the guy because after my family had finished with him I am sure he wished he had never said anything. My family is incensed by racist comments but I don't get angry. If someone is racist their ignorance is their loss.

Have you heard of positive racism? I have experienced it. I walked into a pub one day and suddenly I was engulfed by the arms of this huge black man. "Hey, sister", he said "I have so wanted to see a black woman!" Once I recovered from the shock and caught my breath I sat down and we chatted tike old friends. It was a great experience. Whenever I see another black person we always smile and say hello. It is a positive acknowledgement that we look the same and are connected.

One thing that I think about is that I don't know Sri Lankan customs - I don't want to seem disrespectful, but because I've been brought up in Australia, I have different customs and beliefs than they may have there; I may not find it possible to go along with their customs, and this worries me a bit. I'd be a bit upset if they didn't understand that, and if that caused difficulties between us. At this point in my life these concerns are at the forefront of my mind because I am about to embark on an incredible journey. A journey to Sri Lanka to search for my birth mother. I heard an adoptive mother comment "You either want to know where you come from or you just bury it." She couldn't be further from the truth. I have always wanted to know but until now I haven't been interested. A feeling inside me has prevented me searching earlier even though Mum and Dad have always encouraged me to search. My fear is that I will hurt my Mum and Dad. I believe it is an unconscious feeling of gratitude. I have never wanted to thank them but part of me knows that my life could have been very different to the way it has been. I have now come to the point of realising that searching for my birth mother and learning about Sri Lankan culture is not about rejecting my Mum and Dad. Rather it is a journey that must be completed wherever it takes me and whatever I discover.

Curiosity is the strongest feeling pulling me to Sri Lanka. I want to know what my birth mother looks like. It will be strange if I look like her or if I have siblings who look like me. I want to know her story - what her situation was when she had me, who my birth father is, why she couldn't keep me. At the same time as wanting to know these things I want to convey to her, in some way, that I do not feel angry, rejected, abandoned and I am not bitter. They are all such harsh words. I don't believe that relinquishing a child is a selfish action, but rather an action of generosity. Imagine carrying a child, feeling it grow and move, bonding with it and all the time knowing that you cannot care for this child in the way you would like. You cannot promise a long healthy life, or a good education, you may not even be able to promise food. Wouldn't it be more selfish to keep the child? My Mum said that she must have given me up because she didn't want me to live in extreme poverty. Her gesture was loving, she had my best interests at heart, she was able to think of my future. Did she have a choice? I believe she did, after all she knew of adoption. How can you choose if you aren't aware of the options. I respect her decision because I know that it could not have been easy to do. I am really looking forward to getting to know her as the woman she is now. I just cannot imagine what it will feel like to come home having met her and knowing about her. I don't know how it will affect me. I haven't really thought about my birth father. It says "unknown" on my birth certificate in place of his name. Is this true, is he unknown? Does he know about me? Again my curiosity builds. I hope my birth mother has the answers. They will determine my response. If he doesn't know I will be hesitant to find him. Can you imagine the shock? A child you didn't know you had turns up on your doorstep, she has been raised in Australia and can't communicate with you. I don't feel that would be fair.

I have many uncertainties. The biggest being what if she doesn't want to see me? I do not know how I would cope. I would understand because it would be so difficult for her. I have a family and Australia to return to. I don't want to just remind her of her loss. I don't want to seem like an intruder just dropping in for two weeks and disappearing again. My fantasy is positive though, and I won't know if it is reality until I get there.

Once we have met, what do we do? There is no handbook that tells us. Do we sit down and chat? Do we go for a walk? I don't know. The language barrier will make communicating so hard. There I will be, in probably the most emotional experience of my life, and everything I say will be going through a third person. I will have no idea if he is translating exactly what I have said. Although this will be frustrating it doesn't make me feel I should have learnt Sri Lankan. But I do think I will try and learn a little before I go - at least the basics like hello!

I think I will be shocked by the poverty too. It is something that I have heard about but because I live in Australia it isn't real. I am also very aware that I will need to learn about the culture and customs of Sri Lanka because I don't want to offend anyone, especially my birth mother. This is a strange feeling for me because even though I know that my appearance, my blackness, will make me fit in I know that I won't fit in any other way. I feel like I fit in Australia and that when my family and I do go to Sri Lanka I won't fit because my parents look different. But I will be just another black face in a sea of black faces. Such an overwhelming thought, how will I cope?

So I venture out on this journey, down an unknown path into an unknown world. My feelings are many -curiosity, fear, excitement, bewilderment. What it will be like, I do not know. How it will affect me, I just can't imagine. What I do know is that I am about to discover a part of me that I am so connected to but know nothing about. At the end of my journey I will incorporate my discoveries into my life in Australia, where I am part of a loving family in which I feel secure, happy and confident of who I am.


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