The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an orphan as “a child deprived by death of one or usually both parents.” However, the common use of the word “orphan” today includes the children of unknown parents or parents who have abandoned them. For instance, in the beloved Broadway musical Annie, Annie, a young, sparky redhead, hopes to find her parents who left her in an orphanage many years prior. Annie believes both of her parents are alive, but she lives in an orphanage, thus classifying her as an orphan because her parents abandoned her. However, Annie does end up getting adopted, so she does not stay an orphan.
Many different situations could render someone an orphan. Batman (Bruce Wayne) is left an orphan when he loses both his parents to the mugger in Gotham. Sarah Crewe from the 1995 classic, The Little Princess, is deemed an orphan when her father is incorrectly pronounced dead. The beloved Roald Dahl child, Matilda, is considered orphaned because her parents grossly neglect her even though they are physically present throughout most of the book. Various situations can leave a person orphaned, but I do not think the label “orphan” is meant to be a permanent one.
I was an English major during my undergrad. I spent lots of time deliberating specific word choices used by authors, poets, and even myself when I was trying to write a persuasive essay. When I was trying to figure out how to answer the question, “Are adoptees orphans?” my first order of business was to google the definition of the word “orphan.” While I have a general idea of what an orphan is, I wanted to see the specific words used by experts and scholars. The most interesting thing I noticed was not the particular wording, but rather, the fact that “orphan” is both a noun and a verb. (For a little review, a noun is a person, place, or thing and a verb is an action). So, in essence, one can be an orphan and/or one can be orphaned. This is an important distinction because the former is something you are whereas the latter is not something you are, but rather, something that happened to you.
I Was Orphaned.
When I was just a few days old, my birth mother supposedly left me at the gates of the Hefei School of Lucks orphanage in China (which does not exist anymore). I was less than a week old, so I have no memory of this; but I have a lengthy document which clearly states I was permanently abandoned by my birth parents—my certificate of abandonment. Being orphaned is something that happened to me, but not something I am.
I Was An Orphan.
Every once in a while, I look back through the books of photographs and paperwork my parents filed and received in order to adopt me. There is a picture of me at six months old in an unfamiliar hallway sitting in a baby chair. No people are standing in the hallway and in the background, all that is visible are tons of pairs of little shoes drying on the windowsill. Despite my lack of memories of the orphanage, this photo and other documents prove I did indeed live in an orphanage for at least a little while. I am assuming random people came into the orphanage to give me basic necessities like food and clothes every day because there was no one else to take care of me. I had no parents. That is the definition of “orphan.”
If you were to ask me maybe five years ago if I was an orphan, I would probably respond with some weak, insecure form of indifference. Since I was ten months old, I have had a privileged life in California with my parents. So, I physically was not an orphan as I had two present parents. However, until a few years ago, I was still bitter about being abandoned by my birth parents. Even though I had two parents who gave me everything I could have wanted, I was so focused on the fact that my birth parents would desert me. And it was not that I was ungrateful, but it always felt like part of me was deprived of my birth parents in that I would never get to meet them. Back then, I was a lot less secure and understanding regarding my birth parents’ possible situations than I am now. I automatically figured they did want me; maybe I was not good enough or lovable enough for them. Furthermore, being born in China while the one-child policy was in effect, I had a lot of guilt which stemmed from the fact that I was a girl. I do not remember my physical abandonment, but I dwelled so much on the fact that I was orphaned. I had the outlook that I was an orphan. Like the definition above states, an orphan is a child deprived by a lack of parents.
Furthermore, I was culturally orphaned. I was adopted from China as an infant and grew up in Los Angeles, California. As a little child, my parents tried to keep me connected with Chinese culture. I received new Chinese dresses every year for Chinese New Year and I had training chopsticks since I was old enough to hold a pencil. Every year, these attempts to connect with a culture I solely had a biological connection to felt awkward and borderline disrespectful. My parents researched all they could, and they were trying to do a good thing; However, this culture was equally as foreign to them as it was to me. In this way, growing up as a Chinese adoptee in California with European-American parents left me culturally abandoned. I never understood or connected with Chinese culture but part of me wanted to understand and connect. The United States is my home, but part of me does not feel fully American because I was not born here. I was stuck between two cultures and I did not feel a full prideful connection to either of them.
However, if you were to ask me today if I was an orphan, I would respond with a resounding “No.” I have grown a lot in the last few years and come to terms with my past. Instead of assuming my birth parents simply did not want me, I now understand the situation may have been more complex, and I give them the benefit of the doubt. I no longer resent my birth parents, but instead, I have a grateful outlook towards them- if they had not surrendered me, I would not have met any of my friends or be living the life I live now. Like other adoptees, even though I was orphaned at a young age, I am not an orphan because I have a set of loving parents and I am not deprived of my birth parents. I am in a good place.
Additionally, I am no longer a cultural orphan. While I no longer wear the Chinese dresses and I still cannot use chopsticks, I feel a certain happiness from watching others celebrate Chinese traditions in an authentic way. For instance, I attended a traditional Chinese wedding a few years ago; although I did not understand some of the rituals, it meant a lot to me to observe and participate in Chinese traditions in a way that was accurate and respectful. In regard to Chinese culture, I am at peace with enjoying it from afar. I also enjoy Californian culture and I know that many of my language, fashion, and mannerisms come from Southern California culture. I drive very aggressively (because I learned how to drive on the I-405), use Californian slang like “no, yeah” (meaning “yes”) and “yeah, no” (meaning “no”), and even wear sandals in the rain. Even though I was not born in California, I am just as Californian as any of my friends who were born here. Similarly, even though I was not born into my adoptive family, I am not any less a Kaessinger than my dad is. Even though I was orphaned by my birth parents and my Chinese culture, I am no longer an orphan as I have a family and a home.
This is a hard topic because, like I said earlier, if I had written this article a few years ago, it would have been totally different. The important takeaway is that some adoptees may respond differently to this question, even if they are not actually orphans at the time. Although no adoptees I know consider themselves orphans, I am sure some still do. While adoption is beautiful, many adoptees need to heal from losing their birth parents, even if they cannot remember them. Letting them do that in a safe space is paramount to the healing process. If an adoptee tells you they feel like an orphan or they are an orphan, that is how they feel and invalidating their feelings is one of the worst things a person can do. That is not to discount their adoptive parents and it is not usually a personal attack. And, to be fair, they were orphaned at some point. However, from personal experience, I can say adoptees heal on their own timelines.
So, like Batman, Sarah Crewe, Annie, and Matilda, all adoptees have had to process the loss of either one parent or multiple parents. Maybe this loss did not entail death, but all adoptees have emotionally and physically lost parents via death, abandonment, court orders, etc. Adoptees may not be orphans at the time, but they may feel like orphans as a result of being orphaned at one point. This question has more to do with where an adoptee is on their journey of healing rather than their physical circumstances.Are you considering adoption and want to give your child the best life possible? Let us help you find an adoptive family that you love. Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98.
Katie Kaessinger is an international adoptee from China now residing in Southern California. After graduating from the University of California, Irvine in June 2020 with her BA in English, Katie started law school at the California Western School of Law. Katie hopes to be a family lawyer and specialize in child advocacy and dependency to work with children in the foster care system and adoptees as well as foster and adoptive parents. In her spare time, Katie enjoys listening to and writing music, singing, drawing, playing with her pets, and spending time with her friends (with a mask on and from six feet away!).