The Struggle For Identity As An Asian-American Adoptee

Growing up in a primarily white suburban area, I was reminded of my otherness by kids tugging at the sides of their eyes.

I was walking down the street today, on my way to the ATM to take out money for my trip to Pretoria tomorrow. I passed a man on the street wearing an orange work suit. He muttered some version of ‘ching ching chong’ to me in an effort to illicit my attention, and he did. I stopped, turned, looked him in the eye, and sternly said, ‘you’re pretending to speak a language that you don’t understand. It’s rude and disrespectful.’ He sheepishly apologized. I wish I had always been so quick to respond on my feet — all the times I’ve been mocked, harassed, provoked throughout my twenty-seven years strolling through life. However, my brief monologue, although recently written, has become well-rehearsed at this point. On the street, at the taxi rank, in the grocery store — these incidents aren’t frequent, but they aren’t rare either.

I’m often referred to as ‘China.’ I am still grappling with my emotional reaction and the feels I feel when this occurs. At times in direct conversation it’s used as a synonym for Asian, with no ill-intention; other times, it’s accompanied with laughs and giggles, a way to point out that I’m different. I try to empathize — especially in my village which is made up of primarily black South Africans, it’s still quite a shock to community members when they see me and furthermore learn that I’m not just passing through but living here for two years. The more time I spend here; the more acquainted people become with seeing me; the less attention I will attract. However, my village is large and just when I think I can make it through a taxi ride to town without garnering added attention, someone boards who hasn’t seen me before and we take the scene from the top. Over time I expect I’ll lose my shine and luster, although there will always be a visual recognition of my being an outsider. And then there are those who use race as a platform to make fun, to taunt, as a way to put me down for being other. This is ignorant, and in recognizing this ignorance I wish I were able to table my emotional reaction.

I’m not Chinese. I was born in South Korea and adopted when I was 5 months old. There are 48 countries in Asia, but China headlines the show. And I’m guilty of ignorance myself. When I think of Asia, I share a single-story vision as well of people who look like me. I don’t picture a person who is Middle Eastern or Indian, although they are also from the continent of Asia and therefore Asian — just as much so as I. I should also mention that there is nothing inherently negative or wrong with being referred to as Chinese or called China, but it is inaccurate. These incidents aren’t limited to South Africa. It happens at home in the states too but admittedly more frequently whenever I’ve traveled afar.

Growing up in a primarily white suburban area I was reminded of my otherness by kids tugging at the sides of their eyes, pointing out my differences, and laughing in a way that implicitly stated I was less than. I was raised by a caucasian family. My parents made an earnest effort to expose me to Korean culture, but at a young age I had already learned — being different was not the way to fit in; being Korean was different — and therefore not cool. In third grade we had to paint a self-portrait. Mine is currently hanging in the basement of my parents’ home — preserved like the Mona Lisa in my dad’s workroom which serves as a gallery to some of my finest work, including a polar bear with a camel toe and an oversized diva paw. My self portrait has a lovely hot pink background with flowers — I’m wearing bell bottoms and a flared top, all v 70s chic. I have two eyes, a nose, lips, and pigtails with two purple scrunchies holding up ‘my’ golden blonde hair. It’s a perfectly lovely portrait painted by a third grader who when asked to create a self portrait took the opportunity to draw who she wanted to be instead of who she was.

As I grew up, I was referred to as a ‘twinkie’ — yellow on the outside, white on the inside. I never saw this as offensive. Instead I saw this as a compliment, as extremely validating, as the ultimate achievement — the gold medal — in fitting and blending in. When people would tell me ‘you’re not really Asian,’ I would sigh in relief, ‘phew — they get me!’ High school is a confined microcosm of the world, so I got by — with a smaller community of people it was easier to keep up the charade. They knew who I really was and understood I wasn’t really Asian.

Then came college — I can still remember first year trying to establish the baseline understanding that I wasn’t really Asian. I would do this in subtle ways, mentioning I was adopted at opportune times, which in hindsight I doubt ever fit naturally into a light conversation over natty light at a frat party. The way I spoke, the brands I wore, the way I did my make-up — they were all in an effort to pass. My first year of college was tough for this reason, feeling like I had to work to prove myself, not in academics but in my identity. I needed people to understand who I really was, that I wasn’t really Asian. I regret the lost opportunities to make connections with people who given the chance may have really seen and heard me and in the process validated who I actually really am — instead I saw associating with other Asian Americans as a threat to the validity of my ‘not being really Asian.’

The Atlantic recently published an article written by Alex Tizon about Lola, his family’s slave. This article led me to Tizon’s book, “Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self,” in which he shares his experience struggling with his identity as an Asian American male. Among many first hand accounts that well-capture the complexity of Asian American identity, Tizon speaks about his parents — how they would use ‘American’ and ‘white’ interchangeably, as many people do, and how despite his best efforts, he would never be either:

It’s one of the beautiful lies of the American Dream: that you can become anything, do anything, accomplish anything, if you want it badly enough and are willing to work for it… I put in the time, learned to read and write and speak more capably than my friends and neighbors, followed the rules, did my homework, memorized the tics and slangs and idiosyncrasies of winners and heroes, but I could never be quite as American as they. The lie is a lie only if you fail, and I most certainly did.

My first year at university I was accepted into APALTI — Asian Pacific American Leadership Training Institute. I went for a few sessions then stopped going. Partially because it didn’t feel ‘cool.’ Partially because I teeter a line of in-between. Although I am Asian American, my family is caucasian; and so the culture in which I was raised has no trace of Asian American heritage. Visually I fit in with the other Asian Americans in my APALTI class, but culturally I struggled to feel at home there too.

Later that same year I rushed and pledged a sorority. This was extremely validating and felt like an end to my searching for a way and a place to fit in. In a pledge class of about thirty I was one of three women of color. By fourth year, the anxiety of approaching graduation and a rather lackluster resume of extra curricular activities propelled me to apply for a leadership position with the Asian Student Union. I took on the role of planning APAHM (Asian Pacific American Heritage Month) events. I should note this was a good fit because I like(d) to plan events, but not a good fit because I was (and still am) very out of touch with my or any Asian American heritage. This would have been okay if I approached my role with a desire to learn about APA heritage; instead, I dreaded weekly meetings and having to leave my house. Unlike chapter on Sundays where my roommates and I would migrate to our sorority house, I was a lone ranger trekking to campus for what was referred to as my ‘asian group’ meetings. There wasn’t much validity in belonging to the Asian Student Union from my primary social circle. It wasn’t ‘cool.’ As members of the ASU, we were expected to support other affinity groups that fell under our organization. I would usually (always) find an excuse not to attend. I even dreaded attending the events that I had planned. I downplayed my involvement with the ASU and most likely made self-deprecating comments about my role. I can’t remember if I even invited any of my friends to the events I planned, but if so none of them came.

Truthfully, I had forgotten about APAHM until this year. I was feeding my addiction, scrolling through Instagram when I came across a post from Refinery29 with the hashtag #APAHM. Seeing Asian American women represented on their feed, and still in any mainstream media, is monumental for me. They posted and celebrated Asian American women — not for passing as white, but for embracing their identity that was every bit as Asian as it was American. They posted actresses, illustrators, and makeup tutorials featuring Asian American women —not one token post featuring one token Asian in a half assed push for diversity. Asian American women felt celebrated, beautiful, seen. Refinery29 covered APAHM all throughout May. And in a way, this is another form of my seeking validation from the ‘mainstream,’ from channels that are ‘cool.’ But, it still makes me emotional now to think that a publication that I (and my friends) respect, one that is mainstream, is celebrating APAHM. How would this have changed how I saw my role as APAHM co-chair five years ago? The thing is, it’s cool now to celebrate diversity. It’s trendy, and don’t get me wrong I think that this is amazing. I just wish I had been self-aware, self-confident, and had enough self-love to find that validation five years ago before it was ‘trendy.’

I owe an apology to those who I worked with throughout my involvement with ASU. Part of my disengagement was that I didn’t feel completely at home in that community. However if I’m being honest, I didn’t necessarily feel completely at home in other communities I associated with either, yet I would never have missed a date function or sorority event. I saw ASU as being less than in the scheme of my life at the time, an association that didn’t validate the person I thought I was and was trying to be; and while I don’t believe I ever personally made anyone feel less than in an attempt to validate my own self-worth, my attitude reflected that sentiment, and I’m sorry. While I never necessarily felt at home, I was always embraced and that speaks volumes to the caliber of people that made up the APA community at university.

I should also note, this facade of ‘not being really Asian,’ my efforts of trying to pass as white — they were never conscious. It wasn’t until recently that I was able to even see them for what they were; that I found this lens to better understand my identity and past experiences. I was like an elephant trying its best to hide behind a skinny little tree. I genuinely thought that if I did a good enough job, people wouldn’t see that I was Asian. They wouldn’t see me.

The same year I held my role in the Asian Student Union, my roommate’s boyfriend was visiting for the weekend. He had previously attended our university but had graduated the year before. At the time I was living in a duplex, my side housed seven girls — which fun fact, I believe by some outdated state law constituted our house as a brothel. We inherited a giant black leather couch from the sorority house — it wrapped around our entire living room. It was worn and cracked, and did not fit with (or really in) the room whatsoever. But it did allow at least three, if not more, of us to sprawl out and nurse our hangovers over pad thai and SVU re-runs simultaneously, so this took priority over a well-functioning, well-designed interior. On that couch, my friend’s boyfriend lightheartedly told us about the time he ran into trouble with administration while at university. I should mention I never liked him. We never clicked, and I thought he was a grade-A asshole to be frank. I don’t remember the exact story but he had gotten into trouble for harassing an Asian American affinity group on grounds. He laughed. My friends laughed. And there’s a strong chance that I even laughed. What I do remember is how small it made me feel, while simultaneously making me feel HUGE and seen and naked. It threatened my charade. I felt panicked; like if the subject wasn’t changed quick enough they might realize that I, too, am Asian American. But in hindsight, they didn’t really see me at all — that’s why they were laughing. They’re not assholes. I had just blended so well, that it never even crossed anyone’s mind that the story would make me feel singled-out and small. But it did. The reason the story was funny was that in his position as a caucasian male he felt he had leverage in a fucked up social hierarchy over a group that was seen as inferior, this was what was funny.

What I have come to know as micro aggressions are always ever so subtle as to not warrant a reaction, lest you risk being over-reactive or god forbid sensitive. My twenties have been a journey of finding myself, knowing myself, and loving myself. It’s a work in progress, and I recognize it’s a lifelong journey that will encounter many, many iterations. I am far (very very far, football fields, continents, light years far) from perfect. When people ask me if I speak isiZulu I often respond “Ngiyazama” — I am trying. And so I’m trying — to learn a new language, to better understand myself, to be less ignorant and more ‘woke’ — not because it’s trendy but because people don’t deserve to feel less than. People deserve to feel valued and for the world to hold an equal amount of space for people regardless of their race or religion or the many other facets of our individual identities that lead us to believe we’re more different than we are alike. I’m trying to recognize and comprehend the effects of systematic oppression and my preconceived notions and biases that are shaped by my experiences, my environment, my upbringing, and media — to challenge those ideas and how I understand the world. It’s work that is necessary. I have arguably found some semblance of a voice, mustered up confidence in the face of harassment. But I have to question, to what effect do race and cultural hierarchy play a role in my gaining said confidence? If you took the twenty-seven year old version of me standing here today and put her back in that house, in the room, on that couch; would I still be so bold as to stand up for myself against my friend’s asshole (now thankfully ex) boyfriend?

During training we visited the apartheid museum and afterwards discussed internalized oppression. It was heavy and emotional, especially for the people of color in our cohort. I recognize internalized oppression in myself, but unlike others who may have previously eschewed their heritage and culture and can now turn to their parents and grandparents and embrace their lineage and where they come from, I don’t necessarily have that option. I have spent a lot of my service looking back — at the experiences and factors that have in effect led me to be more ‘white-washed.’ But the thing is, I can’t change those things, nor would I want to because they’ve made me who I am today. However, in a way looking back feels safer. What’s scarier is looking forward. How do I grapple with my internalized oppression? In terms of my appearance — how much of what I find attractive, what I find desirable, is a result of trying to pass as white and how much of that is just who I am? How do I give adequate space to the multiple facets of my identity? It’s exhausting, but again — work that is necessary. There’s no clear path, despite the endless self-help books, articles, and podcasts out there for people who are attempting to do the same. How do I weed through the years of influence and get back to just being me? Living authentically feels like a worthy (although sometimes insurmountable) goal to strive towards. But all I can say for now is — I’m trying.

Disclaimer: The content of this post is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the South African Government.