Published on Modern Family Stories
Written by Amina Abdelrahman
Photos by Georgia I. Salvaryn
For Joanne Sidote, it’s almost always been just her and her mom. Except for when she lived in an orphanage in Maoming, China with 11 other girls.
She’s a perfectly average girl, but her experience as a baby is quite different to most people’s.
She was just a few weeks old when she was found in a cardboard box in front of a government building in China, with just a red note stating her name and birthday.
By the time she was a year old, she was adopted by Barbara Sidote, a half Italian and half Polish woman from New Jersey who would give her the life she deserves.
“Being adopted wasn’t too much of an issue growing up,” Joanne says.
Now 20 years later, she is a student at Montclair State University, where she studies nutrition and food science. Being adopted has been both an emotional and empowering experience over the years for her and her mother.
There are often certain assumptions when it comes to adopted children, like when they found out they were actually adopted, for example. The physical differences between mother and daughter made it much more obvious in this case.
“I realized it at a very young age,” Joanne says. “No one had to tell me I’m not white.”
Sometime in 1996, Barbara saw a flyer in the newspaper for Adoptions From the Heart, an east coast adoption agency, which made her realize that she wanted to adopt. After about two years, multiple interviews and a lot of money and paperwork, she hopped on a flight to China and eventually got to hold her baby for the first time.
“I have no memory of my life before Joanne,” Barbara says. “She is my whole life.”
In their Ridgewood, New Jersey home, their two cats, Simon and Katniss, greet Joanne when she walks through the door after a long day at school. Hanging on the walls are both Barbara and Joanne’s high school pictures, while a grandfather clock chimes in the background. There are also two photographs right next to each other that look similar: one of Joanne as a baby being held by Barbara, and one of Barbara as a baby being held by her mother.
Most days, Joanne feels just like everyone else, but she does get emotional about her past experiences from time to time.
“I went through identity issues,” Joanne says. “Being around other Asians with Asian parents, I felt like I didn’t belong.”
What other people thought was never a problem while she was a young kid, until she reached middle school. Children at that age are much more prone to saying inappropriate things.
“There were a bunch of questions that were asked that were more ignorant, like, ‘Do you miss your biological family?’ which I obviously don’t know [them], and ‘Would you rather have had your adopted parent versus your biological parent?’” Joanne says.
Barbara has always been supportive of her daughter’s Chinese culture and encouraged her to embrace it.
“You want to support that part of her,” Barbara says.
Joanne is grateful for everything her mom has done for her when it comes to her Chinese culture.
“[My mom] always tried to celebrate Chinese New Year with me, so we’d go out to a Chinese restaurant or something,” Joanne says. “She wanted me to take Chinese school on Saturdays at 9 a.m.” Like most kids would agree, she declined by saying, “No, sorry. That’s a little early.”
Unlike some parents with adopted children, Barbara never had any fears that she could lose Joanne to her biological parents. She does admit that having to figure out the balance of information to give was challenging at times.
“You answer the questions they ask, not the ones they don’t ask,” Barbara says.
In May 2017, the mother-daughter duo took a trip to China to trace back Joanne’s roots. They ended up finding the person who found Joanne when she was left in front of the building, so it was an emotional trip for them.
Even though it was no secret that Joanne was adopted, Barbara decided to withhold the fact that she was left in front of a building until right before their trip to China. She wanted Joanne to grow up loving China, and that small fact probably would have caused her to resent her biological mother and the country.
“Her birth mother’s actions were actions of courage and love,” Barbara says, speaking about how Joanne’s birth mother left her in front of a safe building where a lot of people would be.
Joanne frequently finds herself thinking about her genes. Just recently, she completed DNA testing with 23andMe, but hasn’t gotten her results yet. She’s looking forward to selecting the option to share her results with other users, which leads to the possibility of finding relatives who also used the service.
“One person at the [East Coast Asian American Student Union] conference found her biological sister through it, so there’s that kind of hope,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in whether I have siblings or anything.”
Barbara has no doubt that Joanne will one day find her biological family, and she thinks it will be through social media.
But until then, it’s still just Barbara and Joanne helping each other through life.
“Adopting Joanne was the best thing I ever did,” Barbara says.