Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Asian American Adoptee Activist: Simone Labony Labbance

Aloha, Hip Hapa Homeez!

Welcome back to our Watermelon Sushi World. Meet this bi-month’s featured hip hapa homee, Simone Labony Labbance.

A transracial/transnational adoptee, Simone is a recent graduate of Wellesley College where she studied Asian American Studies and Music. Recently, Simone completed a capstone for her Asian American Studies major, which culminated in a full-length lecture examining the relationship between AAPI admissions at elite colleges and race-based admission practices. Simone was also president of Wellesley Asian Alliance, the only pan-Asian racial justice student organization on campus. Currently, she’s job-hunting in the Boston area and hoping for something in AAPI Advocacy. In the meantime, she also has a part-time job at EMW BookstoreIs that busy enough for you, hip hapa homeez? No? Well, here’s more from this active activist:

Q: Simone, who are your parents and how did they meet?

A: My parents are Kathie and Bob. They have the most generic white names of the ‘50s! They are both racially white. My mother is of mixed European descent, but I think mostly English. My father was very Italian (biological last name of Maestro), but he was adopted into a Hungarian family, hence my last name: Labbance.

I have an older brother, who is also adopted, and his story influences mine, so I’ll touch on it briefly. He was adopted from an orphanage in Kolkata (many people still use the British name of Calcutta). My parents chose India due to interest in the culture and because it was a country known for having relatively smooth adoption processes at the time. When my parents went to adopt a second child, they had two hopes.

1. to adopt a girl, so they could have “one of each”;
2. to adopt from the same orphanage or at least the same region of India, so my brother and I would share a culture.

We’re both Bengali, and as you’ve probably at least heard, India is a very diverse country from food to culture/language and even terrain/ecosystem.

My brother and I are both from the International Mission of Hope (IMH) in Kolkata, but it almost didn’t turn out that way! IMH was hurting financially when my parents adopted my brother. So they grouped together with many other expectant parents to hold a fundraiser. My parents ran an eclectic restaurant and cooked a huge Indian meal. One mother, an artist, painted a backdrop for the dinner featuring a scene from India, I believe…but I’m not entirely sure because I wasn’t there or alive! My brother successfully made it over to our family in large part due to that fundraiser. Yet during the interim year or two between the time my brother left IMH and the time my parents would file for a second adoption, IMH looked as though it was closing, or at least was not in the position to match children and families. So my parents were forced to look elsewhere in India. They were recommended to a place in the southern part of the country. But before that adoption was close to being ready (and definitely not paired), IMH started to accept applications for adoption again. Because I was the second child my parents had adopted from that particular orphanage, the orphanage let them choose the sex of the child. They, of course, chose a girl and ended up with me!

My mother’s first image of me was via fax (yes, back in the days of fax machines)! She tells a great story of holding her breath while watching me appear, feet first, her new daughter, Labony. I arrived at Logan International Airport a few months later in the fall.

Simone with Chinese adoptee
Q: How did you grow up?

A: Ha ha--definitely not in an ethnically diverse neighborhood. I grew up in rural Vermont, the second whitest state in the USA. There was little cultural opportunity, but my parents worked really hard to provide whatever they could for us in that regard. My first home was located in the epitome of backwoods Vermont with only a few children (if that!) in each grade and not a single other person of color in the entire local community. (Unless of course you count my brother!)

So we moved to Central Vermont, which could offer a community with other POC, but most importantly, other children of color. Many of these children were also adopted, and we shared a particularly meaningful connection. Central Vermont also had easy access to Burlington, Vermont’s hub of cultural diversity.

My mother brought me to Indian music and dance performances, as well as international festivals and events for Hindu holidays. At some point in my junior high years, my mother and I attended a Bharatanatyam* (Hindustani classical dance) performance. Through members of the crowd, we discovered there was a massi**, who worked in my orphanage in India, present that night, too! (I’m so grateful for the small community in Vermont at times like these!) She is an amazing person, and we still keep in touch on occasion today. The massi, now Auntie-ji, invited me to her house, spoke Bangla around me (though I’m sorry to say I haven’t picked it up), taught me how to cook desi food, and wholly welcomed me into her Bengali home and community without a second thought. I also met one of the main dancers of the evening and began taking Bharatanatyam lessons in Burlington on a regular basis. (A big thanks to my mother for driving me for an hour there, waiting throughout the lesson, paying for private lessons, and then driving me home.)

Simone plays sitar
When I was fourteen, my father indulged my wish for a sitar. I took sporadic lessons throughout high school, as I had to go all the way to Portland Maine to meet with my teacher. I already had a strong musical background through piano lessons as a young child, and flute lessons starting in fourth grade. While this was clearly European classical music with completely different theory, notes, scales, everything, it did offer a base from which to work. I was very passionate about linking my activism with music. This was especially possible when addressing cross-cultural communication and international relationships.

Simone with Big Bang Bhangra Brass Band (B5)
playing Bangra Jazz fusion
I composed pieces for the sitar and European chamber ensembles. The musicians often came from a variety of backgrounds. My favorite musician to play with was Bolivian American. The piece of music I composed that expresses this most is Me Shanti, or into peace. The first-stage version is still posted on my MySpace musician page, since that was the in platform of the time. This composition was selected to open the United Nation’s International Day of Peace ceremony in 2009 as a musical representation of a world in conflict engaging in cross-cultural dialogue and eventually moving into a state of positive peace. The musicians were from three different continents (including myself). Those who performed were of South Asian, Latin@, and Mediterranean descent to further convey the message.

Since I haven’t produced new music since high school (and the days of MySpace), I haven’t felt the need to move to SoundCloud or anything else. I hope to have a page up within a year with some new pieces though! I’ve learned a lot in my music courses at Wellesley that I want to apply.

Simone's collage for justice
While Vermont is very racially hegemonic, there are pockets of non-whites and cultural experiences if you know where to look. I was very fortunate to grow up with those experiences made available to me.

Q: What was like being a child in New England?

A: As I mentioned previously, there were other people of color and other transracial (and transnational) adoptees in the greater Vermont community. My parents met many parents of transracial transnational adoptees, and maintained close friendships. Their friends’ children tended to be the same age as my brother and me, and even occasionally from the same orphanage! This was a great support growing up. We shared concerns with one another and processed our individual experiences together. Though to a certain extent, it did seem natural to be adopted and to be a different race than my parents, because those were the experiences I was surrounded by.

WWA poster designed by Simone

At college, it was quite different and definitely more difficult! I attended Wellesley College outside of Boston, and our campus was approximately 30% AAPI including international students. Most students of Asian descent at Wellesley are not adopted, speak their mother tongue pretty fluently, and had a much stronger vocabulary for discussions around race, culture, and ethnicity than I did. It was intimidating to arrive at Wellesley, but I also felt most at home with other students who identified as AAPI. No one knew I was adopted just by looking at me, and a few people even thought I was an Indian International student. I was told by other Indians that I gave off a certain vibe that led them to believe this and, according to them, was able to hold my own in discussions of Indian culture.

Q: Do you have the same passion for golf as your late father?

A: I actually quite dislike golf! The only reason I hold any fondness for the sport (now) is because my father loved it so much. He was well respected in the field as a historian and writer. My father fell off a bridge (on a golf course, of course!) and was paralyzed from the neck down when I was still in elementary school. He died in 2004, just after my fifteenth birthday, of ALS, Lou Gehrig's Disease. Now that he’s gone, I like hearing golf tournaments on in the background (though I’d never actually sit down and watch). The sound is comforting and reminds me of him.

I would say our mutual passions fall into the category of history, politics, and writing. He was very liberal and used to write incredibly out-there articles under a fake name for a publication in England about Americans. I’m probably more like him than I realize, but it’s hard to tell when your strongest memories of your father are of his illness. My main memories, besides the painful ones relating to his own suffering, are of his laughter and sense of humor, his strength through great adversity. The most useful lesson I learned from both my parents was personal strength during difficult times. I also learned that strength takes on many faces and how to use multiple types of strength to endure life’s hardships.
playing flute in the Himalayas

Q: Have you returned to India, or connected with any relatives there?

A: There is no information on my birth family, so nothing there. But I have returned to India. I studied abroad at an alternative school in India my senior year of high school. This is where I really developed my Bengali American cultural identity. At this school, there were roughly a combined total of 10 American and Canadian students and approximately 30-40 Indian students. I was the only Indian westerner and soon discovered I didn’t fully fit in with either group of students. I wasn’t Indian in the sense that I didn’t grow up in the country and still required a fair amount of help with certain interactions, especially because my Hindi is quite poor. Yet I wasn’t white American. I understood certain cultural etiquettes and was often treated by Indians (students and community members) as though I had never left the country! It was an interesting experience trying to balance the pieces of my identity that fit into both worlds all while trying to remain true to myself as an individual. My experience could not be corroborated with or related to by anyone else in the campus vicinity.

WAA film festival poster
Q: Do you believe that Indian culture is inherent in you, or do you think culture is something that's learned?

A: I believe both. I don’t think one’s culture is inborn, but I think certain people inherently feel more connected to the culture of their heritage. Many personal traits are deep-rooted and even natural, evident at birth. I don’t believe in the “babies are a blank slate” thing. For example, I would also consider myself inherently political and compassionate. I have always been very aware of the world and cared deeply for others. (Perhaps this is what led me to pursue activism!) Even when I was in my first years of elementary school, I would draw posters about current issues and hang them up around school in attempt educate my peers about topics that called for intellectual and moral consideration.

with friend Suh, stepsinging
With regard to culture, part of me definitely has always shown a strong interest in my South Asian heritage and culture. But this was fostered and reinforced by a variety of experiences. I don’t believe that the opposite of inherently feeling Bengali is having to learn the culture. The two are closely linked. If I am interested in my culture from birth, this will lead me to learn about my culture and further my knowledge of it by seeking out experiences that will educate me about my culture. This isn’t an exclusive relationship either! Someone who has shown absolutely no interest in their culture for their entire life could suddenly decide it’s something they want to learn more about and pursue that knowledge without having felt an inherent connection to their roots.

at the Iraqi Youth Leadership Exchange Program

Q: You are so active in your beliefs. Where do you think that comes from?

A: As I said before, I have always shown a strong level of conscientiousness with regard to global issues and exhibited concern with the future of the world and its inhabitants—people and animals alike, although my work does center around racial justice (humans).

Thank you, Simone, for sharing!

Your Hip Hapa,

*Bharatanatyam: Hindustani Classical Dance, also known as temple dancing. These dances are for the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. There are many different styles of Hindustani temple dancing. Bharatanatyam is from Tamil Nadu in the south.

**Massi means caretaker such as an Auntie or someone else of significance…more than, say, a high school babysitter!

Want more, Hip Hapa Homeez? Then, please check out these links:

Watermelon Sushi film
Watermelon Sushi on Facebook
Watermelon Sushi World Networked Blogs on Facebook
Hapa*Teez on YouTube
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Hapa*Teez on Café Press
War Brides of Japan v.2 on YouTube
War Brides of Japan on YouTube
War Brides of Japan on Facebook
Yayoi Lena Winfrey fan page on Facebook (sorry, but Your Hip Hapa can’t add any more friends to her regular profile page)
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