What I Am

Holt adoptee Olivia Carnaté defines her identity — not by her physical attributes, but by the journey she has taken in life.

Olivia with her son.

If you meet me in person, you will see I am about 5’3”. I have long dark brown hair with curls that don’t need hairspray. I have stick straight eyelashes, full lips and high cheekbones. I have been called “exotic” and “unique-looking,” but what surprises most people about how I look is that when I speak, I do not have an accent. I do not know my native language. I am not great at math and sometimes when asked to describe my ethnicity on paper, I check both Asian and Pacific Islander.

Self-identity is a constant battle as an international adoptee. We straddle a fine line between maintaining a connection to our heritage while embracing the culture we’ve learned to identify as our own. Our appearance says one thing, but then we act another and for some reason, society is surprised by this.

This year, I turned 30 and I will tell you that when I first meet someone, the one question I’ve been asked more times in my life than any other is: “What are you?” I field this question on a regular basis from the curious bystander on the train to the man interested in getting my number to my co-worker when she sees pictures of me with my mom. From my standpoint, it’s a weird question to be asked. Sometimes, I will get asked, “Where are you from?” or “What is your nationality?” But more often than not, it’s about WHAT I AM.

As an international adoptee, answering the “What am I” question is a double-edged sword. It’s never simple and it’s always complex. It starts with “Well… I’m Filipino but I’m adopted and that is why…” The next thing I know, I’m giving an elevator speech – defining my personal history in 30 seconds about where I’m from, blatantly pointing out that my parents are white and no, I’ve never tried Balut.

Instead, I wish I could say it like this:

What am I you ask?

Olivia with her best friend, Rina, who she met at Holt Adoptee Camp in 1997.

I am a product of the Philippines — not only in my genetic makeup but in my being and although my absence from the Philippines has been greater than my actual presence, I will tell you that my country is deeply rooted in my soul and that I am made of it. I am the face of men and women working sun-up to sundown in rice fields with tilted hats and sun-kissed skin.

I am the young women engulfed in a life of prostitution because there is no other option and I am a representation of the sweet orphan children who so desperately wish for a better life but are instead subjected to a life of poverty in a third-world country.

I am the birth daughter of a woman who under unfortunate circumstances could not care for her two children and relinquished her rights as a parent, as a mother.  I am her love, her strength and her belief that better things await. I am hope nestled between an orphanage and a foster family.

I am living proof of a miracle when the American family who adopted my biological brother agreed to reunite us into one family (again).  I am opportunity at its best with that family just nine months after they had adopted my biological brother.

I am a blessing and a prayer answered when my family could not conceive on their own. I am forever their child — not by blood but by learned traits — and I know nothing more than the love they have given me.

I am Holt’s belief and living proof that every child deserves a home. I am God’s will and wish for a second chance at life. I am proof that love is selfless, that every moment leads us to something better and lastly, that self-identity is not just defined by the physical but rather by the journey endured.

Olivia Carnaté | Portland, Oregon

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