Abandoned as a baby in China, Jessica Kelly has felt out of place her whole life.
Growing up in a town with little diversity and her American mother’s culture, Kelly struggled to find a place where she belonged. Searching for purpose and a sense of belonging, Kelly joined TYS Dance Crew last year. Now going into her fifth year, Kelly leads the team as a co-director and finally feels she has found a place where she can be herself.
Over 76,000 children from Asian countries have been adopted by American families. By incorporating their Asian children into American life, many adoptees feel that they do not have a culture for themselves. Although every adoption case is different, Kelly represents many of these children.
“To put it simply, it isn’t a piece of cake,” Kay Johnson, a professor of Asian studies at Hampshire College, said. “People tend to have a biogenetic bias against adopted children, they will be racist if a child does not have the same genes as their parents.”
Kelly does not know her birthday or who her parents are. According to Chinese government papers, she was abandoned in 1994. She was placed into an orphanage, and at seven months old she was adopted by her mother through an agency called “Los Niños.”
“It’s interesting because now that Chinese adoption is popular they have a lot of moms from the same area,” Kelly said. “But in 1994, it was just beginning so all the moms were from across the country. It’s special because I still keep in touch with everyone I was adopted with.”
The international adoption process was opened for China in the early 1990s. By 2004, it assisted about 7,000 children in finding families. With 95 percent of adoptions from China being girls, it is no surprise that Kelly was adopted with a group of girls.
“I first flew to Hong Kong to stop at the US embassy there,” Kelly’s mother, Patricia Kelly, said, “Then I went to Guangzhou and then Nanning. When I got Jess, we had to wait about 3 weeks for her citizenship papers to go through.”
Although Kelly may not have a birthday, she does celebrate “Family Day,” which is Nov. 7, 1994, the day she came to America with her mother.
“The experience of adoptees differs, given the society they live in,” Professor Johnson said. “Are they more susceptible to emotional damage? Some would say yes.”
Kelly grew up in Southport, Connecticut, and she describes it as an “average place,” emphasizing its lack of diversity. Her upbringing followed her single mother’s culture of white, European descent, which caused Kelly to feel trapped between two cultures.
“I was one of three Asians in my school,” Kelly said. “Even though I was adopted everyone would always ask me [about Asian culture] like, ‘Oh how you do you do this?’ And I would be like, ‘Oh I don’t really know.’ They thought I was special.”
This caused an already stressful time for Kelly to become torturous.
“Middle school came around and middle school is always tough,” Kelly tells with a half laugh. “I was not normal, but it’s okay, I mean who wants to be normal?”
When Kelly’s grandma from Long Island grew ill, her family moved to Stony Brook to be closer to family. The prospect of a new school excited Kelly due to the issues she had at her previous school.
While Kelly attended Ward Melville High School, she found a guidance counselor that pushed her to excel.
“I guess she saw something in me,” Kelly said. “I was in one honors class at Southport and she was like ‘I’m gonna put you in all honors classes.’”
Through her classes, Kelly found people similar to her and was able to learn more about her culture. Unfortunately, the financial recession of 2009 occurred, and while Kelly was in the ninth grade her mother lost her job.
Coming to Stony Brook University was the smartest option considering that Kelly could commute from her house. However, this caused Kelly to not be as involved as she would have liked.
“I wasn’t in too many things until last year,” Kelly said. “I was mostly friends with my boyfriend’s friends or just friends I met in class. I was really good friends with Jeff.”
Jeffrey Tseng, a dancer that Kelly met during bible study, quickly became friends with Kelly after they realized that they shared the same major, engineering.
“She did express dissatisfaction with her then-boyfriend, now ex,” Tseng said.
Her ex-boyfriend, another dancer, had always deterred Kelly from dancing although she expressed interest. It wasn’t until they broke up and Kelly was approached by Olivia Sun, a dancer with a passion to bring back her old team, that she decided to pursue her interest. She joined a startup dance team, TYS Dance Crew, and discovered her love for dance.
“I noticed a positive change in Jess after she joined TYS,” Tseng said. “She made more friends in the Stony Brook dance community. I’m happy to know she is investing in a hobby that she’s said she wanted to pursue before.”
The first semester that Kelly was on TYS, her choreography was chosen by the team and co-director, Tracy So. However, it wasn’t until the second semester that Kelly and So were chosen as co-captains and developed a strong friendship.
“We relied on each other to get work done,” So said. “Through the things that happened that semester we were able to get close to each other and rely on each other more.”
Kelly’s commitment and dedication to her craft and TYS soon made her the leader of the club.
“She is extremely reliable,” So said. “She takes more of the actual role of a co-director than me even though we are on the same level. I’m not good with leading and public speaking so she tends to take the lead with that.”