I’ve always known I was adopted. This fact has never defined me; instead, it serves as a sort of “fun fact” that I mention offhand.
Sometimes, however, the fact of my adoption precedes me telling it. It’s when my friends meet my mom for the first time or when I walk up to the front desk of a business with my mom by my side. It’s that split-second look on their faces: confusion, puzzlement, hesitancy.
My mom: wavy chocolate hair, brown eyes, white skin, nice smile, born and raised in Western New York.
Me: pin-straight dark hair, black-brown eyes, tan skin, nice smile, born in China and raised in Southern California.
Our very obvious differences in appearance have never bothered me; what I can’t stand are the assumptions after a person sees me and thinks they know my background.
It’s when a nice woman begins speaking Mandarin to me, when someone asks if I go to Chinese school on Saturdays and when I explain I do not speak Mandarin or Cantonese nor have I been to Chinese school.
I grew up in a middle-class family with two white parents. We lived in a big house with a large backyard and a dog in a white-majority beach town. I grew up eating my mom’s delicious pasta dishes, meatloaf and garlic bread.
To my parents’ credit, I was not raised ignorant of my Chinese heritage. When I was a child, each year, we celebrated Lunar New Year, took trips to Chinatown in Los Angeles and for about five years, we would attend reunions with the other girls who were adopted with me, during which we would participate in Chinese traditions.
When we celebrated and acknowledged Chinese traditions, however, it never felt like my culture. There has always been an intangible sense of displacement or distance from my birthplace.
I never gave this any thought until the summer before my senior year of high school at a journalism camp. I found myself sitting with girls who looked just like me, and it felt nice — comforting. I could count how many Asian American students attended my high school. It was the first time I had ever experienced a sense of ethnic community.
But the feeling quickly died out. They began talking about the latest Korean drama on Netflix, complaining about Saturday Chinese school and discussing their favorite foods that their parents made for dinner. That sense of community dissipated into a stark sense of isolation as I realized I couldn’t relate to them.
That day was the very first time I began to realize the contradiction within me: the two identities that I’ve always lived with but never thought about or really acknowledged — to be Asian and American.
I remember one day during freshman year, I was walking with a friend who also happened to be Asian American. He was born in the United States but had two Asian parents, and I asked him if there was a culture he identifies with more strongly, and he replied, “Asian.”
I could not and cannot say the same.
I know my struggle between two identities is not necessarily novel, and it is not constrained between American and Asian identities. It captures the experience of those who are children of immigrants, stuck between the heritage of their parents and the lives they live in the United States. It includes those who feel they are “too white” to fit in with their family or ethnicity or “too ___” to fit in with their friends.
For me, however, this feeling is exacerbated by the fact that I have no one and nothing to fall back on to create a connection with my heritage. It’s not a matter of trying to meet the standards of my Chinese ethnicity for my white parents. It often feels instead like I must meet this standard for those who see me as only Chinese. No, I am not merely “white-washed” or “wasian.”
I know I am not alone in this seemingly specific sense of constant limbo between my Chinese and American identities. According to Pew Research Center, nearly 80,000 Chinese children were adopted by American parents between 1991 and 2016, and an overwhelming number of these adoptees were female Chinese babies. My adoption — and many others’ — was fueled by China’s one-child policy, which ended in 2015. And many of these Chinese baby girls found new homes with two white parents.
Since that summer before my last year of high school and now attending UC Berkeley, a campus that places an emphasis on respecting and exploring identities, I have done some serious exploration into who I am and what it means for me to be a Chinese adoptee. It means that I don’t fit in with the numerous Asian American clubs on campus. It means that I see the world through the lens of someone who was raised with a sense of white privilege. This extraordinary experience has set me on a path that is so different, but also shared with other Chinese adoptees across the country.
My experience has made me see the world in a unique way. I am thankful to have been raised with certain privileges that I may not have been granted if I had not been adopted. I am thankful to have such a unique story. I wouldn’t change the way I was raised in any way.
The truth of the matter is my mom is my mom. My family is my family, no matter how different we look. Ethnicity doesn’t define love and it doesn’t define family. Blood isn’t thicker than water.
My exploration into my identity has not pushed me to try to regain or build some sort of connection with my Chinese heritage — even though for other adoptees, it might. I am happy with who I am, the person whom my mom has raised me to become. My exploration into my identity has grown to be a sense of peace and true acknowledgement of who I really am.