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Marli Grace | The Voice of a China Adoptee

I want to introduce Marli. She is an adult adoptee and has decided to share her story to guide, encourage and teach about international adoption from the other side. Her story and heart are sweet and kind. I hope that her account inspires and encourages you to be intentional in your journey through adoption.


Hi, my name is Marli Grace and I am 20 years old. I am a Junior in college and have grown up mostly in the south. I was adopted from Changsha, Hunan China in 1998 when I was 14 mos old. Alright, let's go!

Did you grow up knowing many other adopted people? Chinese, Japanese, Asian, mixed race people? How did that influence how you feel about your identity and how others perceive you?

My parents actually went through the adoption process with my mother’s best friend from middle school. My mother and her had dreamed of having Chinese daughters. My mother’s friend was able to bring home her daughter from China a couple of months before my parents came for me. So growing up, we were very good family friends. My mother’s friend was way better at getting us involved in Chinese cultural events as young kids. Other than the other mutual adopted friends in our area, I was not really involved in many adoptee centered activities. When I was little, people always knew I was adopted because of the stark physical differences and people always thought it was sweet and cute. But now that I’m older, it’s weird for me to go places with my dad because they think I’m his wife or girlfriend and that’s just awkward!! First of all, no! And Second of all, NO!! Ugh…. And sometimes when I go out to eat with my mom they will ask if the bill is separate as if we are just friends meeting up. Those small things don’t really matter but sometimes they can sting and prevent me from doing things alone with my parents because I don’t want to have an awkward encounter. My parents always say that I’m too sensitive about those little things but I really just don’t like being in those positions…I always thought people’s very first impression of me was that oh she’s asian and probably really smart. But if you ask my friends and people I know, they wouldn’t say anything like that. I once had to do a survey and ask people how they would describe me and it really shocked me. I received answers like, sweet, hilarious, adventurous, goofy and so on. They were all positive and none of them had to do with the way I looked, so it made me think maybe I am the shallow one thinking only of outer appearances. Then again, those people know me so maybe if I asked strangers if would be different?

What is the best and worst thing, in your experience, about being adopted?

This is a tough question… I feel that the concept of adoption is so beautiful but also very heartbreaking. The hardest thing about being adopted for me was that I stick out like a sore thumb everywhere I go. It was never really the fact that I was adopted that people harped on, it was the fact that I was Asian. I guess the cliche answer is that I have a way better and fortune life here in American in comparison to what my live could have been like in China. I am blessed with many things like freedom, parents who love me, and opportunities for my future. I think everyone goes through an “identity crisis” finding out who you are, who you want to be etc. I think that as an adoptee, we have just another layer to dig through that is tough, sometimes painful but I’ve learned the more I try to understand myself, motives, and feelings that it helps me know who I am. I really struggled with expressing my feelings when I was little. I think I just had so many feelings I didn’t know what to do with them and out of the blue I would explode and have a really bad day full of anger, tears, and being mean :( I would just bottle everything up and sometimes not even know why I was upset. Some parents would call that just a moody teenager, but all of this happened all the years when I was under the age of 13. I’ve had to learn to voice my feelings and tell people what’s going on. It’s still hard because I sometimes still struggle with this fear of rejection; I want to put my best foot forward and not show people that I may be hurting inside. I think that’s normal but it was also something that I’ve had to work through and still work on.

Did you struggle with your family about anything related to your adoption?

Do you feel _Chinese_ American? Is that important to you? How do your peers treat you, and how did they treat you growing up, whenever being Japanese, Chinese, Asian, adopted, or otherwise "different" came up?

I don’t think I ever really feel Chinese American… I’m not sure what that really means to feel it. I’ve always felt purely American or “white” UNTIL someone points out the differences by either making a racist joke (that I never understand because they never actually apply to me) or describe me in some way, like, “the chinese one” or “hey asian” or something really dumb. I never was picked on or treated differently because of the fact that I was adopted, but more along the lines that I was asian. I think that if I were younger again, I would want to be told that it’s okay that I’m Chinese and that it should be something to be proud about. I think for a long time, I felt that being Chinese was somehow wrong so I felt embarrassed about being Chinese. So with all that being said, I think I wish that my parents would have helped me embrace that part of who I am better; wether it was celebrating the Chinese New Year, having more diverse family friends, learning about Chinese culture, chinese history, or chinese language. I don’t think just eating Chinese take-out was very helpful because after going back to China, real Chinese food is not like most take-out places! :) But also take in mind, there is a very important timing with all this “learning”. I would say it is pivotal when they are very small! As young as you can start is good. Because let’s face it, once middle school hits; our emotions, thoughts, and brain is all over the place. In middle school, I wanted to rebel from my parents and never truly listened to anything they said, but instead listened more to my friends because at that time you are really just trying to fit in and “find yourself”. I think if I would have gone into middle school with some understanding and pride in being Chinese American that it would have helped. Again, if my parents were to have said “here we are going to meet this other girl who is also adopted so you will have some adopted friends” when I was in middle school, I would have flipped because thenI would think that my parents were trying to categorize me into a different group other than the norm. I know that sounds so petty but in all honesty I was so touchy about the subject once I reached middle school. So I think building those bonds and connections while the child is young is best because they don’t quite yet understand that you are secretly surrounding them with other adoptees and that will be normal when they get older and have friends to talk to when they struggle. I think there is also another aspect that needs to be learned is that although I am a Chinese American and need to be proud of that, I am also an adoptee and need to be proud of that. It wasn’t until recently that I realized how big the adoptee community is. And within the community there are different organizations, facebook groups, instagram groups, conferences etc etc! It made me realize that I am really not alone in it all and that other people struggle with the same things I do but they may live in another state. Then the fun part is that you end up having friends all over the world!

Did your parents learn Chinese or put you in language school? Do you see language as something you should have and something that gives you access to a part of yourself? Do you see it as another thing that makes you "different?"

When I was in elementary school we had a chinese neighbor who taught me Chinese every Saturday morning for a couple of months but then she moved away! Then I never picked back up until about 4 months ago! I personally love learning languages and really wished that my parents would have put me in a language school when I was younger. Some of my adoptee friends said their mom put them in chinese dance classes when they were younger! I think not knowing the language fluently makes me “different” because when I do meet native Chinese speakers they have all sorts of questions as to why I do not speak Chinese. Now, I’m starting to learn Chinese by the help of Rosetta Stone, Chinese movies, and sporadically attending a Chinese Church where I live.

Have you been to your birth country as an adult? What was that like?

This is the post from my blogpost I did last summer before I went on my first trip back to China (Sorry, it’s a bit long),

“I want to share with you what has been happening in my life regarding my return trip to China for the first time since I was adopted in 1998. For those of you who may not know my story, I'll brief you with a short summary. I was born in 1997 somewhere in Changsha, China which is located in Hunan Province. I was taken care of and lived with someone unknown to me for the first 9 months of my life. That spring I was abandoned, found, and placed in an orphanage. I would reside in that orphanage for 5 months until my forever family came to take me home.

“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you." John 14:18

Growing up as a Chinese adoptee, I struggled with my identity. I struggled with not looking like my family, standing out in the very southern states I lived in, and questions that may never be answered. If someone tried to talk to me about my story, try to ask a question, or stared 1 second too long, I would get defensive, mad, and annoyed. (Sorry, if you are reading this and my younger self was rude to you, thankfully I have grown and have had a lot of healing and restoration & now get so excited to share my story with others). Growing up is confusing as it is, so throwing in adoption made things chaotic in my little brain. With all that being said, my heritage has always interested me and I have always wanted to return to China to see this land that is so foreign to me.

Now that you know a little bit of my history, let's fast forward about 18 years.

"Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I. Send me!" Isaiah 6:8

In the spring of 2016, I applied with an organization to be apart of a volunteer trip to China to work in an orphanage during the summer. My heart was set and my excitement was uncontainable. The application process was fairly rigorous and the waiting game was excruciating. Eventually an email popped up into my inbox and I skimmed and read--- I had NOT been accepted into the program. Bummer. Major bummer!! I didn't understand why I had not been accepted; the trip was PERFECT-- a little touring, working in an orphanage, and authentic Chinese Food (YUM!)- or so I thought... I was bummed and wondered why on earth the doors weren't opening.

"There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens" Ecclesiastes 3:1

A year later, I begin to think about summer plans and what I will be doing. I felt this nudge to check out what that program had to offer for the summer. To my surprise I found out there was going to be a volunteer trip to China specifically Hunan Province (Which is where I'm from) so I began to get excited again and decided to apply. Again, long process & long waits. I told myself not to get too excited because of what happened last year. As soon as I submitted everything, I felt this peace and decided not to be anxious about the outcome.

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths." Proverbs 3:5-6

A notification in the email blinked... I clicked...I scanned... I rejoiced... because I had been accepted!!! I would be traveling back to Hunan Province to volunteer in an orphanage along with girls who were also adopted from China.


"Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the LORD will personally go ahead of you. He will be with you; he will neither fail you nor abandon you."

Deuteronomy 31:8

My first steps after acceptance were to gather passport info and important documents like citizenship, shot records, and lots of other things & pay a program fee of $1,050 to cover train rides, hotels, and such once we are in China. (That's a lot of money for a broke college girl, but if I calculated correctly that only means I would need to babysit for 150 hours... ha.) My mom handed me a box of "Important papers" to rummage through to find everything. I ran across a few papers that looked interesting. I unfolded the pieces and examined them. Apparently two of my mom's clients had given me a gift as a "Welcome to America" back in 1998 and they had been stowed away for 19 years. They had gifted me with 2 bonds. The first bond amount was $50 and the second was $1,000 which equals $1,050. The EXACT amount of money needed to pay my program fee. WHAT?! How does that happen? I have no idea. I guess God knew in 1998 that I would need $1,050 in 2017. Since I had waited 19 years to redeem the bonds, they had earned some interest so that was a nice bonus. :)

"Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us"

Ephesians 3:20

The next step was to raise money for my flight to China. Flights can range upward around $2,000 and from my previous calculations that would be A LOT of babysitting. I reached out to some family friends and shared with them what I was doing. I have been blessed with generous people in my life. Thank you, to those of you who are reading this :) I decided to hold a garage sale because 1. they give me so much life; I like to categorize and organize junk, 2. every little dollar can add up so if I had 1,000 little things each for a dollar I'd be set. 3. who doesn't like hanging out with friends & meeting new people-- add some donuts and music and you've got a little party! Shout out to my friend who let me wake her up at 5 am to set everything up. I had a donation jar and sign saying the reason for my sale. Some people were intrigued and others didn't care. My favorite part was listening to their stories of adoption or knowing someone with a similar story to mine. If anything, take time to listen to people's stories and learn as much as you can. Anyway... another huge shoutout to all the families who donated their things to be sold in the sale. Everything adds up!! :) At the end of the day my friend and I sat down and counted the money. I was flabbergasted by the total. Somehow I had raised over $1,400!!! I have never known anyone to make that kind of money from a garage sale, so I was completely shocked! With the gifts from others and the earnings from the sale, my plane ticket was covered & purchased. Me, being the worry wart that I am was calmed and quieted by how faithful God had been.

"Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

Philippians 4:6-7

It is now May and as the trip is drawing near, our group has had a couple online meetings in preparation for our trip in June. The next steps would be applying for a visa to enter China. Yay for more paperwork! (Usually these things give me life but with the whole different language and country thing, it kind of stresses me out). I needed to gather something like 15 documents and $140 for the consulate fee to process my visa. Shoutout to my mom and dad who put up with my cranky attitude when I'm stressed or hangry. Y'all are the best. I tried to compose myself enough to go to a Young Adult Church Service. I knew that getting out of the house and being with people would ease my mind from the tasks at hand. I arrive and my friend pulls me aside with complete joy and excitement in her eye and says she wants to give me my birthday present. (My birthday was last month) I was surprised to be getting a gift a month after my birthday- but yay! After the service, she told me her and her boyfriend had dedicated the month of April to praying for me and my trip. (side note-- kindest most thoughtful birthday gift ever, there are no words, seriously!) Just knowing that someone was so intentionally praying for me made me feel so loved, taken care of, and chosen. She hands me an envelope and I read the letter (cue waterworks, just kidding but kind of not) I saw some cash and put the letter back in the envelope. After profusely thanking her for her encouragement, I went home. I opened the letter again to reread and pulled out the money. Guess how much.... $140. Yes..... EXACT amount I needed for my visa. WHAT?! How does that happen again?! I had not told her or anyone about the visa prior to her gifting me the money.

" Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows."

James 1:17

I'm not sure what you may be thinking after reading all of my rambles but I do have a few thoughts. First, my God has undoubtedly orchestrated this trip from the very beginning. I love how Proverbs 19:21 puts it, " Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand." If I would have had it my way I would have gone on the 1st trip and had a nice time. But God had something so much better planned-- to return to my own province + who knows what else He has up His sleeve. Second, because I am a worry wart, He knew I would stress over finances and how I would find the money so He said, Don't worry-- look I will take care of it. And He has, He has provided every step of the way. Third, He has worked through my friends and people in my life. Life isn't meant to be lived alone and it's so important to have people who are with you and praying for you. Not only were my friends excited for this opportunity for me, they were ready to be used by God and prepared to hear from Him + act on it.”

I went back to China for the first time last summer with an organization called Adopteen, they are affiliated with CCAI. They do many adoptee gatherings, conferences, and trips— I however, did not hear about this organization until my last year as a “teen”. I applied for the trip to China called, AGBOST (adoptees giving back orphanage service trip) Me and 20+ other chinese adoptees would spend 10 days in China touring our “home” country and volunteering in an orphanage. I especially wanted to go on this trip because the trip was to my province (Hunan Province) I filled out my application and prayed and crossed my fingers. I was accepted and we all began getting to know each other over social media! (yay for facetime, skype, instagram etc!!) I was super pumped to be traveling with such an amazing group of ladies. We all flew from our cities and arrived in China and met and began the trip of a life time. I could write pages upon pages about this trip but will try to summarize it all. But overall, I am so thankful that I was able to go on this trip in the time that I had. I was a bit bummed that I was “aging out” of this group because most of the girls were in their earlier teens. This trip shaped my opinion on adoptee groups. I used to think being apart of the adoptee community was weird and that it’s like putting yourself in the group and not blending in with the rest of the world, but I found that it’s so beneficial to be apart of a group that you share this common bond with. There’s no explanations or questions hovering over you. You just automatically feel like you have this group of sisters. Even though each of our lives have been different; we share this deep commonality— adoption; growing upend living in a Caucasian family as a Chinese. I felt understood and confident to be myself. The orphanage service part of the trip was incredible. It was seriously the most special experience I keep in my heart. To go back to your home country and care and love on these kids who are in a position you once were… it was heart wrenching but also healing for myself. I thought the language barrier was going to be tough but in all honesty, when it comes to loving on the children and playing with them; the language isn’t a barrier— love knows no barriers. Hugs, or smiles, and hand holding was enough. All the children wanted was to be seen. They wanted all our attention and craved interaction with us. That was both so sweet but also draining. It made me really sad. Not that they are purposefully neglected but just that they need forever homes and families who will love on them and care for them. It was also so interesting to watch the nannies watch us adoptees love on the kids in the orphanage; they wondered why we even cared to come back, and how genuinely we loved these children. I think being able to return to our home country for the 1st time as a group of adoptees was such a special experience. We all experienced hiking the Great Wall together, we all laughed at our poor chopstick skills, we all awkwardly giggled when native Chinese people would start talking to us as if we knew what they were saying, we all played multiple games of charades to try to communicate, we saw beautiful ancient attractions, and tried new foods together. It was something I feel like was the best thing to experience together with other adoptees because there is just this underlying understanding in it all that is comforting.

Do you have contact with your birth family? Either way, how do you feel about it?

I do not have contact with my birth family but I would love to and pray that if that is part of God’s plan for my life that it will happen.

If you do not know your birth family, do you intend on looking for them? If so, explain how you feel.

I have started the search for my birth family. It’s quite complicated with the language barrier, time difference, physical distance, and huge population to reach but if it’s meant to happen, then it will. This summer I am planning to do a search trip to my province. The odds are stacked against me one very way but I will try to stay optimistic without setting my heart up for more heartbreak. Through different connections and networking, I have a connection to a TV station in my province that said they would help me search, so we will see…. There’s so much that has to come together for a successful search but God is able to do miracles. Also, if I have to speak Chinese then the whole country will hear my very poor broken Chinese so I’m crossing my fingers that if the opportunity arises that they will allow me to speak English through a translator so I can adequately convey everything because at this point my chinese skill is on the level that I maybe could order a bowl of rice and cup of water. HAHA.

What is your relationship with your adoptive family like?

We are a family. The only family I’ve known. My mom is my mom. My dad is my dad. I’ve always felt part of the family in my immediate family, there was never a question about that. Sometimes being at family reunions and extended family gatherings things could get awkward for me. But in my immediate family we are just like any other family; dinners, shopping, movie nights, church, jokes, and arguments haha; we do everything a regular family does. :) I have a sister too. She is my dad’s daughter from his first marriage and we are about 12 years different in age. So by the time, I came around she was living at our house only on the weekends then she went away for college. At that time I guess I would have been around 5 or 6 years old and she was 18 or 19. We are and have always been in just different seasons of life. Once I hit middle school she was out working in the real world. Once I hit high school she was entering married life. Now I’m in college and she had her first baby! Yay aunt life! I think each of theses different seasons would have been more fun if we had a closer relationship but because of physical differences in locations that we lived, it was just always hard.

What was your biggest adoption related struggle growing up?

My biggest adoption related struggle was being insecure. Being “different” is praised but also hard. They say, one of a kind, unique, different, are all good things to be; but when that’s your whole life; it can be kind of challenging. Some adoptees may be totally confident and upfront when situations arise like people asking you why your parents are white or why you don’t look like your parents or even questions about your personal adoption, but I wanted to blend in as much as possible and avoid all those situations. I didn’t want anything that made me stick out more. I didn’t want to stand out in academics or any extracurricular activities. I’m not trying to boast here; but the truth is, is that academics, especially maths and sciences, have always come easy to me. School in general was always easy for me but when my classmates started to notice that I was “smart”, they immediately stereotyped me as the “smart asian” and that was NOT what I wanted. I didn’t want to be nagged on about being smart. People’s comments would be like, “Of course she got a 100, she’s asian” or “asian people are always good at math” (which isn’t true! I have lots of asian friends who hate math) So I unfortunately didn’t try very hard in school after that or kept my grades hidden from everyone. I remember in elementary school being in the orchestra. As I’m reminiscing back, I think everyone in that class was a minority. Some of my friends would say that their parents would force them to practice for hours! I would just nod and smile and not say anything because my parents were never forceful about school grades or extracurriculars. They weren’t strict to the extent that some of my ethnic friends endured. Everyone would just assume I went through the same struggle because I looked Chinese. I remember elementary school kids were just blunt; I don’t think they meant to be mean but those are things that I have remembered all this time… A really funny story in elementary school was that we were learning about family trees and genes. I remember feeling so embarrassed because I didn’t know anything about my genes or family tree. I remember sitting in my chair feeling burning red because I wondered if my classmates were thinking about how I didn’t look like my mom or dad. (In all honestly they probably didn’t even care or remember) Our teacher assigned us a project where we had to draw our family tree and describe physical characteristics that were passed down to us… Oh boy! I remember drawing out my family tree perfectly; 2 sets of grandparents, 1 mother, 1 father, 1 sister, aunts, uncles. All real people in my life… except I drew them as Chinese!! I wrote down my characteristics like, I got my eyes from my dad, my nose from my grandma, and my hair from my mom. All complete lies but I didn’t know what else to do! I remember turning it in to my teacher and she didn’t even question it! HAHA. Oh joy, the topic of genes is always humorous when adoptees learn about it.

Do you still struggle with any aspect of your adoption now as an adult?

I still struggle with the unanswered questions about my beginnings. I definitely think after college I want to move to a more diverse area— it really helps you to not feel so alone. It’s weird, for me, when I traveled to San Francisco, which has a HUGE Chinese population, it was like heaven! A lot of the people were Chinese American, born in America so they understand American culture and ideals. I would just hate it when people thought since I looked Chinese that I did or did not do certain cultural things when in reality I’m so American through and through. I heard this this quote from a documentary called, “Somewhere Between”, (it follows four Chinese adoptees and experiences) “It’s like we are stuck somewhere between, not fully Chinese and not fully American.”<— I think I butchered the quote, but you get what I mean.

When you were growing up did you crave to know more of your Chinese heritage and culture? How would you encourage an adoptive family to pursue and incorporate culture on behalf of their child?

Up until about 2 years ago, I actually tried to avoid anything Chinese. I didn’t want to be associated with the culture, language, or people. I felt somewhat embarrassed of being Chinese. Now that I’m older and have been able to do more soul searching, I’ve realized that my juvenile behavior of avoiding a part of who I am was because I initially felt rejected from this culture. A couple things that swam around in my head were the words: abandoned & unwanted. So if I was unwanted by my birth family I guess I just associated the whole culture with that one thought. But I have found that to be a very black and white way of thinking and that so many other aspects are part of this. There were broken governmental systems, broken thinking, and broken people. It’s taken me basically my whole life to understand that it was not personal. My abandonment was not because of anything I did but could be from many others things. The pressure of having a son to care for the family in old age, the law of having only one child or pay the penalties, births between unwed couple, etc, etc. There could be so many possibilities and I’ve had to learn to be okay with the fact that I won’t fully know unless I am miraculously reunited with my birth family. I’m really not sure how I would encourage adoptive families. The only thing I can think of is that you know your child best. You will know different trigger points that makes your child uncomfortable. For me, as a child, it made me really uncomfortable when we would go to the local asian market or asian restaurants and all the asian people would stare or even come up and ask us questions. In some families, the adopted children may be totally confident and upfront when those situations arose, but I wanted to blend in as much as possible. I didn’t want anything that made me stick out more.


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