Being Adopted and Colorblind in America

My name is Emma McMahan. I am Asian, though you wouldn’t know it from my name. McMahan is not an Asian name, but Irish because I was adopted at 8 months from Changsha, Hunan, China. My parents tell me they always wanted to adopt a baby from China, which is how I ended up living in the United States. As soon as I arrived, I became a naturalized citizen.

My parents took me home to a small town called Madisonville, Texas. The population at the time was just over 3,000 people. One might think that growing up in rural Texas as a person of color would be hard, especially since most small towns in Texas have a majority white population. This was not the case for me. Racial discrimination rarely affected me when I lived in Madisonville. In fact, it was when I moved to Houston that I started to experience racial discrimination. 

In Madisonville, I remember playing cowboys and Indians with my neighbors and my classmates at school. I always wore my cowboy hat or baseball cap wherever I went. When most people think of cowboys or American farm dwellers, a small, Asian girl does not come to mind. Nonetheless, I wore whatever my parents bought me to wear or what my younger brother Liam wore: jeans, t-shirts, overalls, some kind of hat, and of course, cowboy boots. 

My parents do not see me any differently because I am Chinese.

Even though I am racially and ethnically Chinese, I did not grow up with Chinese culture. I never learned Chinese in the home because my parents did not speak Chinese. For supper, my parents cooked me burgers, steak, beef stew, and spaghetti instead of rice or stir fry. My parents raised me in their Irish-American culture with a Texan twist. They did not force Chinese culture in my life because of my skin color. My parents wanted me to feel included in the family just as much as my brother, who is not adopted. 

My parents do not see me any differently because I am Chinese. Humorously, my mom often forgets that she adopted me. She tells me, “I always think of you as if I had you myself.” How much more inclusive could she be? My skin color never mattered to her, but she loves me because I am her daughter, regardless of what I look like.

This is where a fine line appears between race and culture. Some people like to comment on how “American” I am when they first get to know me. Race is race, but I’d say culture is much more important. One is not required to be a certain race to practice a certain culture. Racially, I am Chinese. Culturally, I am Irish-American-Texan. This is the beauty of America: you don’t have to be a certain race to practice our culture. My parents were colorblind while raising me, and still are colorblind. They always taught me what Martin Luther King, Jr. taught: never judge based on color. This colorblind approach has always stuck with me. I find racism deplorable because I’ve been taught to love others because of their personhood and character, not their race. 

You can’t change race, so why judge others for it? Judgment should always focus on character, not color. This is not to deny racial identity, but to focus instead on what means more. Culture is much more meaningful because culture can be chosen. Race should not define culture, either. While some may argue that race is a big part of culture, this doesn’t have to be the case in America. As an adoptee, I believe that my culture completes my identity more than my race does. My experience as an adoptee has shaped my colorblind attitude. Because my parents love me for my character, I learned to love others for theirs as well.

Movie Review: Instant Family

Instant Family offers a heart-warming and nuanced view of fostering children in a fun film filled with laughs. 

Written by Sean Anders and John Morris and directed by Sean Anders, Instant Family tells the humorous story of Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie Wagner (Rose Byrne), based on events in Anders’ own life, about their decision to adopt three children: Lizzy (Isabela Moner), Juan (Gustavo Quiroz), and Lita (Julianna Gamiz).

Children were never really on the table for Pete and Ellie. They are content with their life flipping houses, until Ellie begins to consider adoption, largely on a whim. Pete also begins reading about the children in the foster care system, and they set out to become certified as foster parents. Eventually, three siblings, each posing different challenges to Pete and Ellie, are placed in their home: teenage Lizzy and here younger brother and sister Juan and Lita.

My expectations for Instant Family were that it would be a feel-good movie with just enough drama and emotional manipulation to feel believable. I certainly was not expecting a movie that was both genuinely funny and also not shy about showing foster parenting (and parenting in general) as an extraordinarily difficult thing.

While there were some slapstick elements, Anders did not rely too much on that. Anders chose to focus on interpersonal comedy which added to the overall message and plot of the film. 

Anders’ biggest risk in making Instant Family were portraying adoption and foster parenting as too easy for the sake of comedy, and portraying it as too difficult for the sake of not trivializing the challenges it poses. The links to adoption resources on the film’s website, the information shared at the end of the movie, and Anders’ own experience fostering and adopting are clear signs that aside from the normal goals in making a comedy movie, Anders wants to encourage people to consider whether becoming foster parents is something they can do. With over 400,000 US children in foster care, and far too few qualified foster parents, that is certainly a dire need.

Presenting foster parenting as something that anyone can do is dishonest, both because of the normal difficulties of parenthood and the other challenges that children in foster care face, either stemming from the reasons they were removed from their homes in the first place or negative experiences in other foster families. Likewise, making it seem that adoption is something so unusually difficult that only a select few are cut out for it doesn’t help anyone either, something the movie is explicit about early on.

Despite the humor, Instant Family took care not to sugarcoat adoption and foster parenting. Fostering children, especially ones that have been in foster care for several years, is a notoriously difficult task, and there’s a reason there is such a shortage of foster parents. Pete and Ellie have more than one conversation about the difficulty of what they’ve taken on, and at one point discuss (albeit without intent to follow through) how they could place the children back in the system and still look the hero to their friends and family.

Instant Family isn’t Anders’ first comedy about a non-traditional family starring Mark Wahlberg. Daddy’s Home (and the creatively titled sequel Daddy’s Home 2) looks at a dad and step-dad’s efforts to raise the same kids. Instant Family is ultimately a better movie than Daddy’s Home, in part because of its embrace of the complications that come with fostering and adopting children, and in part because of better jokes. Far from being a feel-good adoption movie with a few jokes tossed in at the end, Instant Family stays both serious and funny without sacrificing either.