From confusion to confidence: Search for self-acceptance as a transracial adoptee

Story and photo by MARISSA SITTLER

Through childhood, adolescent and adult memories, the first transracial adoptee from Tonga recalls the feeling of never being able to fit in within her Tongan heritage, or the white culture that she was raised in. And, how she was able to turn this insecurity into one of her greatest strengths.  

Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou turns 55 in 2018. But she was 3 years old when a white couple legally adopted her. She left the staff quarters where she lived with her biological mother and moved into the main house on the plantation estate.

It was the first day that Feltch-Malohifo’ou started living with her adoptive parents that her Tongan grandfather said to her, “So from here on out you don’t speak Tongan. I don’t ever want to hear you speak Tongan again before I cut your tongue out.” Feltch-Malohifo’ou is able to speak a little Tongan, but cites her grandfather’s admonishment as a reason why she has never truly been able to pick up the language.

Before moving to America when she was 12, Feltch-Malohifo’ou lived where there was lots of diversity and was never taught to be aware of skin color. She adds that she never heard the terminology “black” before, or that people had to be different skin colors, or be labeled at all.

Feltch-Malohifo’ou first experienced racial tension in Vernal, a town about 170 miles from Salt Lake City that she described as predominantly white and Mormon. She recalls, “I remember kids said, ‘Where are your parents?’ and I would say, ‘Right there.’ The kids would say, ‘You’re black, and they’re white.’ And I’d be like, ‘I’m black?’”

In high school, Feltch-Malohifo’ou remembers how she never dated, because of the way that the boys at her high school viewed her: as a brown girl. She says, “I was best friends with guys that I played sports with, but I wasn’t someone that they dared asked out, even though I knew they wanted to.” This feeling of being romantically undesired is one of the ways that her self-confidence was negatively impacted.

She also recalls, “I was really a follower. I just wanted to be accepted.” She says she never really felt part of the majority in her high school, partially because she was never able to fit into the same clothes or shoes as other girls in school. She felt “different.”

Growing up with her adoptive white family, Feltch-Malohifo’ou remembers that her brothers and sisters never recognized that she looked differently than they did, other than the variation of their hair colors. She says, “But [my family] never talked about skin color. So I didn’t recognize that I was a different color. I had never thought about being different, because in my family I was the same as my siblings.”

Angela Tucker, a transracial adoptee, creator of the website The Adopted Life and advocate for adoptee rights, believes in the importance of parents talking comfortably to their transracially adopted children about some topics that may be uncomfortable to discuss, such as racism. Tucker said in a phone interview, “It’s hard for a transracial adoptee to have a high intact self-esteem if the parents aren’t able to talk about racism.”

Kathy Searle, Utah director of program for the Adoption Exchange and parent of transracial adoptees, also believes that how parents choose to be involved in resources for their transracially adopted children can further strengthen the relationship between parent and child.

In an email interview, Searle said, “I also think that it’s important for adoptive parents to join communities that are the same race as their children. They need to cultivate relationships that can help them to better understand what their children face.”

It was when Feltch-Malohifo’ou played volleyball at a Northern California community college that she was around a lot of Pacific Islanders for the first time. She says, “My world was so different. So I did a lot of observing, I did a lot of watching, and trying to fit in.” She went from wanting to be accepted in “this white world,” to wanting to be accepted by the people who looked like her. It was only when she attended college that she discovered what the word racism meant.

Despite her desire to belong, she still was not accepted. “I was still different. I didn’t fit here, I didn’t fit there,” she says. Feltch-Malohifo’ou believes it was her upbringing in a white household that truly set her apart from her similarly looking peers.

In a clear moment of self-reflection, Feltch-Malohifo’ou says, “I’ve had problems just, like, figuring out where do I fit in this world. And so I went way this way, way that way, just trying to figure out where it is that I actually I fit in. Till I just started finding my own voice and realizing that everybody has value, everybody has privilege.”

While Feltch-Malohifo’ou says it has taken her many years to be comfortable and confident in herself, she has learned to love her unique “hybrid” background. Her perspective and understanding of white and Pacific Islander culture allows her to successfully be the executive director of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources (PIK2AR), a community resource group.

PIK2AR’s mission “is to help Utah’s Pacific Islander communities flourish through providing culturally-relevant resources, opportunities and services to help build alliances, bridge communities, and provide opportunities.”

Feltch-Malohifo’ou believes she has finally found her place with PIK2AR. Before, she felt like an outsider, but “now I have a whole group of people who have been struggling like me trying to figure it out.” She hopes that her work with PIK2AR will be able to create a space for the generations of Pacific Islanders that follow, without facing similar struggles that Feltch-Malohifo’ou did herself.

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Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou before meeting with a women’s resource group that is organized by PIK2AR.