Perspectives: My journey to belong and empower others to find their space in the world

December 21, 2016

By Tam Emerson, director of the Eli J. Segal Citizen Leadership Program 

This article appears in the Winter 2016 issue of Heller Magazine

image of Tam Emerson

I stood in the immigration and customs line watching nervously as I approached the window. I repeated an address in Spanish to myself close to 100 times, having been told that was the primary question I would need to answer. It was my first time back in Bogotá, Colombia, nearly 30 years after being adopted at the age of 6 months.

I honestly hadn’t thought I would ever go back – not because it wasn’t compelling but because I was scared. Growing up in the United States, I never found a comfortable way to engage in the culture that reflected my true heritage; it always felt shameful or inferior. Imposter syndrome, something many people (especially women and people of color) feel in spaces that they aren’t traditionally expected to inhabit or excel, was something that resonated with me whenever I explored what it means to be Latina or Colombian. When I did try, I was hypercritical of my inability to command the Spanish language and my lack of cultural competency. I mumbled the address over and over again, feeling as if I was about to be caught for being less than fully Colombian as I tried to enter the country.

Over the years, I sought out other adoptees. I was eager to understand their experiences but often felt discouraged because I haven’t felt the same sense of belonging to my Bostonian roots and family as they had in their lives. I kept this to myself most of the time, as I think it’s magnificent how many people have had positive experiences with adoption.

What I’ve learned is that there isn’t a cookie-cutter example of what it means to be who I am – Colombian, first generation, American, woman, adoptee and activist. However, sometimes this positive grasp on life feels overshadowed by the many ways my American family tried to change me, including my name, birth date and connection to my culture. I wondered if I was enough, or if these changes made me more acceptable in America.

What I believe we miss fairly often, though, is how to allow each person’s individual light to shine – one that they dictate and one that makes them feel empowered. Rather than ask people to fit a mold — whether it is body type, gender assignment, race or ethnicity, method of learning, sexual orientation, religion, language, family structure, culture or so many other facets of current society — why can’t we foster the ways we each provide necessary parts to a system of change? These questions have led me to become part of movements like Black Lives Matter and anti-racism work as well as commit to organizations where I work with children, youth and young adults trying to forge their own paths.

I was relieved when the customs agent didn’t ask the address of where I was staying or why I couldn’t answer his questions in Spanish, even though my passport states my nationality as Colombian. I thought it was luck, but once I arrived in Colombia, I fit. I can’t fully describe what this means, but I had never felt it before. The first time I felt this sense of “fit” was as I forged a friendship with two other Latin American women adoptees whom I met in a Boston leadership development program. One of them was also adopted from Colombia, and she invited me to join her on her annual trip to visit her family. I knew that this was my chance to go back to Colombia under all the right circumstances.

I fit, even though I didn’t possess the conventional markers of belonging. Rather, I saw that my openness to acceptance of others and by others was all I needed. I’m so grateful to my friend, her family and the people in Colombia who welcomed me home as if I had never left. It was the proclivity toward generosity that struck me and was done in a form unique to Colombia. I was surrounded by a culture and people that didn’t care if I had waited five years, three decades or my entire life to return and get to know them.

Since I couldn’t speak the language, I had to sit quietly and observe often. For me, as those who know me can attest, not speaking is a rarity, but I do enjoy observing and reflecting. I filled some of this time by getting to know my friend’s niece, an adorable 18-month-old girl who understood what it was like not to be able to speak with everyone. We spent many hours laughing and smiling over a sticker on my phone and a set of “beeps” and “boops” that made up our own form of language. It was only a week, but my friend’s family never once treated me like I was less than Colombian.

I was only a year younger than this toddler when I left the country. Her sense of curiosity, self-reliance, independence and warmth reminded me of stories I’ve heard about myself when I was the same age. It mirrored an intellectual path I have traveled for years to better understand the nature-versus-nurture debate. What parts of me are due to the experiences and people who surrounded me for most of my life (predominantly upper middle class and white) and what parts of me are ingrained in my DNA from the ancestry of people I may never meet? The way my toddler friend interacted with the world felt akin – our desire to develop language, the need for few things to satiate our curiosity and a longing to be understood. I know I just described most toddlers, but this felt different. I can’t fully explain it, but I will continue to explore it.

What I appreciated most was that when I was in Colombia, I realized I’m not an imposter. I’m a Colombian American. I’m proud to be a woman of color, just as much as I feel fortunate to have grown up in a place like the United States. I want to make an impact on the world. Every person I interact with is dealing with a similar struggle for a sense of self. I want to be a force that reminds them they have genius and a purpose. My ability to connect with people, empathize, and be open with my journey will provide me with my own unique set of abilities to make this change.

I may have been destined to travel this path no matter where I was raised, but I’d like to think that it’s happened this way because of my unique identity. I believe this is a lifelong journey for self-acceptance that changes due to the experiences we have and the people we meet. Some days it’s empowering, other days demoralizing. Nevertheless, I know the step I took by traveling back to where I came from was integral to my feeling grounded in who I am today.

Some of my next steps include seeking dual citizenship and learning Spanish. Many people ask the intrusive question of whether I’ll go find my family, but all I can respond is that I don’t know. Family has been an interesting part of my life, and even if it weren’t, it’s a deeply personal decision. One thing I do know is that I thought I’d never go to Colombia. But I made a friend who brought me along on this journey, and now I can’t imagine not having done it. I won’t ever be able to fully answer who I am, but I now have more pieces of my larger picture. I have a renewed sense of my work and passion. And I believe in people who are told too often that they don’t matter — those are the people who will make all the difference. I just hope to be part of the waves that make a change for the future.