Photo: Ocean Sunrise by Kaitlyn Collins
Recently, 18-year-old Natalie Wiest has wondered what the first eight months of her life were like more than usual. As an adopted minority in America, Wiest often struggled with her identity growing up. After unearthing letters written by her biological parents over spring break, Wiest’s been faced with a decision that could connect her to her past. Not remembering anything about her life before America, any knowledge Wiest does have is from the stories her adoptive mother has told her.
Perhaps the most impactful and memorable story for Wiest was the one of how both her biological parents would visit her every day at the orphanage in Hanoi, Vietnam, a northern city in which she was born.
“It only reiterates the fact that they really did love me when they put me up for adoption,” Wiest said. “They came to see me because they cared. They didn’t just drop me off and forget about me.”
Growing up in a predominantly white community of Palmyra, Pennsylvania as a minority, Wiest had always known that she was adopted from Vietnam as a baby. She remembered being in middle school and resenting the fact that she didn’t look like anyone else. She would even go as far as to deny parts of herself with hopes to be more likable to her peers.
“At times, I would try and act kind of racist towards my being Asian to try and fit in,” Wiest said. “Like ‘Hey I’m acting like you guys. Accept me.’”
Today, Wiest reflected on how she matured and has changed her outlook on being a minority.
“It was growing up and realizing that I can’t change who I am no matter what,” said Wiest.” “It was figuring out that it wasn’t only me who felt this way and I want to set a good example to others.”
Wiest said that she is thankful that her adoptive parents never tried to keep her identity a secret or shield her from her Eastern roots. Wiest doesn’t specifically recollect being told that she was adopted as it’s always been a part of who she is. While Wiest remembered her mother always telling her “Yes, they gave birth to you, but I am your real mother,” she also recalled how her mother always wanted Wiest to know where she came from. In fact, a picture of Wiest’s biological parents and three older sisters was displayed in their living room throughout childhood.
Wiest said her mother choose to frame that photo so “she could teach me that this isn’t some secret, big thing. This is who you are. This is part of your identity. But you’re also my daughter.”
According to Azadeh Block, professor in the department of social work, children adopted from Asian countries typically have no information about their birth families due to the adoption process. Wiest’s situation is unique to both her biological and adoptive families. Though decades ago, the majority of adopting families participated in closed adoptions, a process by which the record of the biological parents is kept secret, across Asia and Europe, according to Block, Wiest’s biological parents were able to contact her in America.
Wiest was at school when her mother told her about the letters from her birth family for the first time. Wiest had asked her mother about her adoption because she had learned about the dynamics of ethnic based families in her Sociology and Family class. She cried when she learned of the letters, she felt overwhelmed by the news and her mother’s support. At the time, she concluded that she would not read the letters until she was older. Wiest didn’t feel emotionally ready for new information about who her biological family is and what her life was like prior to being adopted.
After talking to her adoptive mother, Wiest learned that while she was a baby her adoptive mother, Amy Wiest, had written back and forth with the biological family. Amy Wiest said she remembered buying the family small gifts such as watches and jewelry. She said she also sent coloring books as gifts for the older sisters in return. However, communication eventually came to an end between the two families while Wiest was still young.
“I would say the issue came when I got divorced,” said Amy Wiest who has since kept her married last name. “I didn’t know how to tell them that they gave their baby to us and we couldn’t make it work. So that’s when I kind of stopped writing.”
Over spring break, Wiest was working on chores around the house for her mother when she found these letters while cleaning out a hutch. She said it wasn’t “a conscious effort to find them.” It was just a coincidence and it happened to be the most convenient time to read them. Her mother was out of the house and Wiest was alone.
There were only a few letters but from what Wiest read, many of them were happy new year wishes.
“I think they just wrote every year a couple of times. They would say ‘We hope you’re in good health and we hope your family has peace this year. And good fortune.’”
Her theory that she was put up for adoption due to financial reasons was also confirmed in the letters. She was unplanned and her biological sisters, one 12 and the other 15 years old, were much older when she was born.
“A lot of it was saying that my dad, my biological dad, was really sick at the time that I was put up for adoption. So that’s probably part of the reason too,” Wiest said.
Wiest said that she was in second grade when her parents went through their divorce. The year 2008 was also the same year the last letter between their families was sent. The last letter was small and written on a small piece of paper. Because the addresses were international, they were long and took up a large portion of the envelope. With the original letter is a translated version. Wiest is unsure who translated her letters from Vietnamese.
As of right now, Wiest doesn’t feel as if she can reach out to her family in Vietnam. At 18 years old, Wiest said she still feels very young. School also has a large factor in this decision to wait. She wants to be at a more stable point in her life before starting the process of learning more.
“I’m in my chapter of college,” she said. “I feel like I shouldn’t put that much stress on myself to find my parents.”
“I definitely want to go to Vietnam eventually and meet them. I feel like it’s important just because I know so much about them. They clearly wanted to keep in contact with me through the letters. I just think that it’d be really good, in general, to see where I came from.”
Wiest recognizes that she is lucky to have such a strong support system. In fact, she said that she wouldn’t be so positive about her adoption if it wasn’t for her parents. Both have given their encouragement in her journey to discover more.
“I’ve told her, that’s totally up to her and if that’s what she wants to do, I will do everything I can to help her with that,” said her adoptive father, Matthew Wiest.
Her mother also said she would help Wiest in any way she could.
“Natalie and I had talked about possibly writing a letter a few years ago,” said Wiest. “And I’ll help her if she wants to. If she ever wants to go visit, I will help her.”
Today, Wiest is proud of being adopted from Vietnam as she said she recognizes the significance of international adoption. She also said she believes that being both adopted and Asian play a large part in who she is and what she wants to do in the world.
“I mean, I don’t know any other way,” said Wiest. “I feel like I have no other identity besides being adopted from Vietnam. That’s the only place I’m from, I have no other option but to proud about it. I’m a transracial adoption because both my parents are white. So, I feel like that had a lot to do with my growth.”
Currently, Wiest is attending California University of Pennsylvania with a major in social work but prior to declaring this major, she didn’t know what she wanted to do.
“I took a quiz online and it said that social workers worked with kids that need to be adopted and I was like ‘I’m a kid who’s adopted,’” she said. “I thought that it was really cool that I could use the experience I have to help other people. So, if I wasn’t adopted, I think my whole identity of what I want to do in life would be totally different.”
Though Wiest said that her adoption is a part of her identity, Matthew Wiest said he doesn’t think that it defines who she is. He has only ever seen her as his daughter, nothing about adoption or ethnicity separating them.
“She’s just Natalie,” he said. “She’s my daughter... I never understood the race thing, to be honest. I would not change anything, I know that.”
While contacting her birth family is a big step, Wiest said she believes it will not change who she is, it will not turn her into someone else.
“I feel like the reason why I wouldn’t change is because my roots are here. Getting to know my biological parents wouldn’t change that. Everything I am and everything I know is rooted here,” she said.