Lessons Learned From A Bangkok Barber:
Adoption Identity, and the Donut-Hole Truth
My youngest biological sister was teaching English to elementary school children in Ayutthaya, Thailand last year. She hated it with a passion the likes of which I’ve never seen in her before; the rigidity of curriculum for teachers with pale skin really rubbed her the wrong way. She felt isolated, a little homesick, and I hadn’t seen her in over 9 months. The confluence of my desire to score as many “cool big brother” points as possible, and the freedom of being homeless after asking for a divorce created a unique opportunity to visit her indefinitely over the holidays.
After taking a night or two to “holla’ in the city of squala”, I was to take an hour-long taxi ride north to the quiet and unassuming town of Ayutthaya. Waking up that morning, however, the bedraggled and unkempt mop of curls staring back at me in the mirror kept begging for a haircut, to which I happily obliged.
Always an interesting experience getting a haircut in a foreign place, Bangkok certainly did not disappoint.
Never mind the fact that the barbershop was nestled away in the elbow of an underground mall. Never mind the fact that the shop-owned monkey went around sweeping up hair clippings from the floor. The most shocking revelation was the conversation I had with Allen, my barber.
An ex-pat trying to outrun his sordid past, Allen was as charming as he was adroit with his straight-razor.
It wasn’t long before I felt at ease and — as is customary in the barber chair — began unloading my childhood traumas. Soothed by anonymity, the hypnotic drone of the clippers, and the sweet musk of aftershave, Allen had me broken down like a fraction in a matter of minutes with his smooth combination of good questions and piqued intrigue.
He showed me that small talk doesn’t have to be small.
After I mentioned I was adopted, Allen (an adult adoptee himself) started dissecting.
With a careful and crafted lifelong insouciance, I recounted the highlights of “my story”: Haitian father was a doctor in Port-au-Prince; blonde-haired blue-eyed teenage mother was his nurse on a mission trip; I was the love-baby reject of their interracial throes of passion.
We live in a society that tends to romanticize the Annie-esque glamour of the adoption experience, when the reality is far more complex and nuanced than most people understand.
And why should they?
Few people who haven’t lived it themselves understand the far-reaching and deep-seated hurt the experience of being relinquished as a child casts on adoptees. So common after the trauma of adoption, adoptees silence their voices, and that experience results in shame that casts a heavy shadow over their entire lives.
As an adult adoptee of color, raised in a trans-racial home with twelve other adopted children (plus two biological kids for a grand total of fifteen children), I have plenty to share about how being given away, abandoned, and rejected by one’s biological parents can parlay into shameful beliefs about their worth, their value, and their lacking sense of self.
This is where our barber-chair therapist, Allen, dropped some knowledge bombs on me:
Life as an adoptee is like being a living, breathing donut; as a finished product, you’re left with a gaping whole in the middle that was punched through you by whomever it was that baked you. Sometimes the whole is filled with something syrupy and sweet, but it’s just not the same — the texture is wrong, the color never quite matches — and without fail, it never truly feels like you.
And here’s the hard truth that I didn’t want, but needed to hear:
We are destined for letdown every time we depend on another person to complete us.
Every. Single. Time.
Not one single person was sent into this lifetime to complete you, to make you happy.
I realized, as he said this, that I had invested so much energy and emotional capital into finding my filling in another person. Troubling, because when the behaviors, actions, and words of another control how we feel, we have lost who we are and are searching in all the wrong places to find ourselves.
In other words: you filling your donut hole is up to you.
Without the ability to self-soothe or self-validate — to accept my own internal experience, thoughts, and feelings — I was never able to shake the vague nebulous feeling that rose from my donut hole. Like the psychologist Erik Erikson said:
“The sense of identity provides the ability to experience one’s self as something that has continuity and sameness, and to act accordingly.”
Maybe it was Allen’s apt metaphor that got through to me; maybe it was the shame of my impending divorce; maybe it was years of trying to find an identity in performance and pleasing other people in my never-ending quest to be kept…
…maybe it was the barber shop monkey.
Whatever it was that let my guard down, it had allowed Allen’s self-awareness scalpel to slice through the emotional saran-wrap on my heart, and truly feel what he was saying. With the precision of Allen’s clippers, and the deftness of his words, I left BKK with a fresh fade, and a fresh POV on the man I could help myself become.