Friday, January 28, 2011

In Which I Ask Questions I Can't Answer And Buy Ellen A Shirt

I bought Ellen a shirt today.

"Ellen," for those of you who don't know, is the thirteen year old girl we are in the process of adopting from Thailand.  I was thinking about her today as I wandered around the clothing section of Target, having finished my other errands. 

We have a lot of information about our daughter-- much more information than many children from international adoption ever learn about their backgrounds.  We know the exact time and date of her birth, how much she weighed and many details about her family.  We know which hospital she was born and treated in and what ward she stayed in until she moved to her orphanage.  We know what therapies she's gone through and when she had all of her surgeries.  We know why her parents chose to make an adoption plan.

Because our adoption agency has been advocating for her since she was four years old, we also know a lot of things about her personally-- not just her background.  We know she's friendly and outgoing, that she has many friends at school, that her favorite food is papaya salad and her favorite color is blue.  We know she's missing a tooth.  She is on track for a child raised in an institution but delayed when compared to children outside the orphanage, which is not surprising.  She's right handed.  She once performed a wheelchair dance for the Princess of Thailand's birthday.  Her favorite subject in school is English.  She likes to play chess and watch Thai soap operas.  She's amazingly beautiful and has the most incredible, joyful smile I've ever seen on a human being other than Connor.

But there are so many things we don't know about her.  For one thing, we don't know when she's coming home.  I have no idea if the shirt I bought her today (I'm nesting already, which is not a good sign considering how long we have to wait) will fit her by the time we travel to meet her, which probably won't be for many months.  We'll never see a picture of her taken before the age of three and a half.  We don't know what she wants to do with her life, what she's been told about where she comes from, what she thinks her future will be.  We don't know what she thinks about the idea of adoption. 

I know that if I were in her shoes and was told that at age thirteen I'd be leaving every single thing I knew behind to live in a strange country with people I'd never met, I'd probably be terrified.  Terrified and angry.  Thirteen is a difficult age for everyone: certainly I remember it as being traumatic, and I enjoyed the privilege of growing up in an extremely stable, healthy family.  It's impossible for me to know what she's going through.  Right now she doesn't even know we exist, and she's probably preparing for a different transition.  It's likely she's given up on the idea of ever being adopted, and I'm sure she's well aware of the fact that in just a few short years she'll be aging out of the orphanage and leaving the only home that she's ever known.  It's a future probably just as terrifying as the thought of adoption; while I don't have statistics specifically for Thailand, in general the statistics related to children who age out of institutional settings (even in the United States) are extremely grim.

How do I help her piece together the two vastly different worlds she'll be bridging?  How do I prepare for a child who will be in some ways much younger than her peers and in other ways far, far older?  How do I help her preserve and honor her rich culture and heritage while preparing her to succeed in the mystifying, often-cruel world of the American teenager?  These are questions I have no answers for.

Take the seemingly simple problem of a name.  The English translation of Ellen's name is twelve letters long and difficult for the average American to pronounce, let alone spell.  However, it's her name, and so our plan was to keep it as her first name and give her an American middle name.  That way she could choose to use the middle name if she wanted to, but we wouldn't be callously changing her name with no thought for her age or sense of identity.  After reviewing her paperwork, however, we've discovered that the way the name is spelled and pronounced was changed by the orphanage when she was about eight.  The original spelling and pronunciation-- which is on her birth certificate and will be on her passport and all of her adoption documentation-- sounds extremely close to a vulgar phrase in English which would cause her a lot of embarrassment if she goes by the name here.  So what do we do?  Do we change her original name (which was given to her by her birth parents and has an extremely strong meaning in Thai) to the name that the orphanage has been calling her for the last five years?  Do we stick to our original plan and hope that she can weather the potential teasing her birth name will probably trigger?  Do we give her, or let her choose, an American name for a first name and make her Thai name her middle name, running the risk that she won't understand or accept our reasoning and making her feel as if we are trying to isolate her from her past?  What's the right thing to do here?  What will she want us to do?  None of the little bits and pieces of information we have about her can help us answer this question.  It's impossible to know.

I desperately want to ask her opinion about this and a thousand other things, but it will be months before she even knows that we exist.  I wish I could comfort her and give her some answers of her own as she confronts the big questions she's probably asking about what the future will hold for her.  There's not a thing in the world I can do right now, though.  I can't answer any of her questions or mine, however badly I wish I could, no matter how long I wander around and think about them. 

So instead I bought her a shirt and went home. 

I hope it fits.



Kristin said...

I have no experience in this either, but, there were three kids in my junior high that were recent immigrants from a far eastern country. Their parents spoke no English, and the kids were busy trying to be 13/14/15 yr olds that fit in. All three chose American names to use in school, but kept their original names for use in the family setting. Maybe something like that, were there is fluidity of name, until she's comfortable enough to decide would be helpful during Ellen's transiton.

At least you're thinking about these things now. She's going to be so blessed when she joins your family.

Julia said...

A very smart person once told me, "Struggle is good." I thought he was joking at first, but he meant it -- if you're not struggling, then you're in a place where things are too easy for you, and there's no opportunity for growth. Struggle means that you're in the right place. This is something that I live by and that I tell to my students all the time. It's how I know I'm teaching well -- I'm pushing my students to grow. I say all this because you've willingly, knowingly taken on a huge challenge, and you have all the right stuff to make it work, but it will be a struggle at times, for you and for Ellen. This is good. If this shirt doesn't fit, you'll get her one that does.

Julia O'C said...

I hope she reads this one day.

xraevision said...

This post really moved me. Names are so important because they involve identity. Perhaps, together, you'll settle on more than one name, as Kristin cited.

As an adoptee, I grew up with one name and then learned of my second name as an adult. Ironically, I feel that my original name suits me better. Having two names (and now a third, married surname) has helped me, in a strange way that I can't fully describe, to meld my past and present into one identity.

Despite the struggle, that you are thinking this clearly about your future daughter's name and all it means shows how blessed she will be to have you as her mother.

Wherever HE Leads We'll Go said...

These are tough questions. I wish I could offer some answers for you. I have no doubt that you will all work together to come up with the answers that are right for Ellen and for your whole family.

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