When Ben Smith was an elementary school student at Grace Church School, other children frequently asked him, “Why do you have two dads and why don’t you look like them?” At 11 months old, he was adopted from China by his fathers, Bill and Sam, and in 1994, he was one of the first to be adopted overseas by a gay couple.
Looking back, the Union Square area native feels privileged to have grown up in New York City, where diversity is celebrated. He also knows the statistics, that adoptees are at a four times greater suicide risk compared to their non-adopted peers; he believes that mental health issues are multifaceted, though can in part stem from a lack of access to diversity. The 28-year-old felt a responsibility to share his story, to be a voice of representation for those who have similar experiences.
What happened after he came forward on his TikTok channel @becomingben was something he could have never imagined. The account now has over 40 million views and 85,000 followers, and through it, he gets messages from strangers expressing their gratitude and watches as others make connections in the comments section.
For Smith, the overwhelming response has not only been heartwarming but exciting, as he sees the videos “as a starting point for a broader discussion on family diversity.” And after earning $500 in ad revenue from TikTok, Smith used that money to pay it forward literally, by funding a housing scholarship program to enable a BIPOC adoptee to move to New York.
When he is not connecting others on social media, he is putting them together in real life. After studying abroad and staying in 20 different hostels, he founded the communal home Goal House in Lefferts, Gardens, Brooklyn, where he lives. It is a five-story townhouse that people move into with the intention of learning about their neighbors and making new friendships.
How did it come about that your parents adopted you from China?
This is a multifaceted question, but it comes down to them being gay men and wanting to have a family. It also comes down to the timing of everything. Right when they were adopting, in ‘94, was right about the time where China opened up their doors to international adoption. Of course, there’s the one-child policy, which led the doors open to international adoption.
When you were growing up, did you have any friends with two dads?
I had a friend with two moms and then there were actually a few other adoptees who were from China as well in my class. New York is the melting pot of everything; it was nice to be in a place where differences and diversity is celebrated as opposed to being maybe somewhere else where that’s not so ... And then when I was five years old, my dads separated and I started spending half the week at each house. And then a little later, my dad Bill adopted my sister, Mabel, from Vietnam when I was seven years old.
Tell us how you decided to start telling your story on TikTok.
I downloaded TikTok like everyone else, just wanting to watch some videos for the sake of it. Then I realized TikTok really values people sharing their authentic selves and sharing unique stories. And I realized, “Well, I have this unique story, I have this unique background, and probably some other kids have similar experiences that maybe they’re not comfortable talking about it or maybe they just don’t know anyone else like them.” So I thought that if I’m comfortable sharing, which I am, I’m confident in sharing my story, then I felt like, “Ok, now it’s actually my responsibility to share, to make other people feel heard and to give other people a voice.”
What was the post that got the most views?
The most viral one is 9 million views, which is a lot, even for TikTok. And it’s a school interview and it’s me sitting with my two dads and the interviewer says, “Can you tell me about you and who are these two people?” And I go, “This is my dad and this is my other dad.” And it’s a very visceral viewing experience because you can see this is clearly a family. It doesn’t necessarily look like a family maybe that we’re used to seeing, but it’s absolutely a family. It’s a normal family. Maybe it just looks a little bit out of the ordinary.
What kinds of messages have you gotten on TikTok?
The response has blown me and my family away. We’re so grateful for all the kind comments and messages. Many strangers have messaged me saying that they share similar experiences and appreciate a story like theirs being out there. One that comes to mind was from a 17-year-old guy from the UK. He reached out to me and said, “Just wanted to say I really appreciate you sharing your stories, by the way I have two moms and this is something I actually never told my friends about, other than my closest friends.” It sounds cheesy, but I always respond in a similar way, saying that the best approach is to express yourself honestly ... The people who love and support you will continue to love and support you for exactly who you are. And those are the people that you should want to be your friends.
How did you get the idea for the scholarship?
It’s a combination of multiple different things. I grew up here in New York City and because I grew up here, I’m also aware that there are privileges to having grown up in the city. I think in New York City, maybe more than anywhere else, diversity and differences are celebrated. In many other places, we’re made to feel small because of our differences. Because I’m an adoptee, I know the struggles that adoptees deal with, and one statistic is that they deal with mental health and suicide specifically at a four times greater rate than non-adopted peers. Mental health challenges are very multifaceted, but I think identity and access to diversity is certainly a part of it. When you interact and learn about people who are different than you, you in turn learn a lot about yourself.
How did you choose the scholarship winner?
It was based mainly on two different criteria. The first is financial need, because it is supposed to be a launching point for someone and it is giving free housing and a little bit of money as well. Financial need is the number one. The other is based on personal and professional alignment. The winner is someone named Emily and she’s from a small town in Vermont where she and her brother and one other family that also has adopted children, the four of them were the only people of color in their school growing up. She always wanted to move to New York and fortunately she actually did a fellowship experience where she spent six months in New York as an acting fellow because she’s an actress by trade. She fell in love with the city and now she’s back in Vermont applying to communications jobs and other roles in New York because she wants to be here so badly. She felt like she was able to find a community of people here and wants to continue developing that, so this scholarship is a great way to provide at least a starting point of resources for her to start a new chapter in her life, one that’s hopefully met with more diversity as well.
View Ben’s videos on TikTok @becomingben