The Truth About Growing Up As An Adopted Chinese Girl In White, American Culture

The Truth About Growing Up As An Adopted Chinese Girl In White, American Culture

Walking the in-between.

The form reads, “Please indicate your ethnicity (check all that apply),” and my stomach does a little flip, tumble, and drop. I’ve never understood why these forms ask such complicated questions and assume such a simplified answer. Sometimes they grace me with an “Other _____” option, but two inches of black line isn’t going to save me from the inevitable question: Which box do I check? How do I identify?

I began playing the violin at the age of four. My parents tell me stories about how they wanted me to play an instrument and my mom tried to teach me piano, but I became so invigorated every time I encountered the violin, that eventually they relented and I started lessons. My first violin was made of plastic.

By fifth grade, I had matured into a young artist. I played solos with the orchestra at my school, and went to local conferences where I took lessons from well-known teachers and performed for my peers and their parents. A few years later, my teacher proposed music conservatory to me and my mom. Part of me jumped at the idea because I knew I was good, and I loved my instrument. Another part found the idea repulsive, and I angrily rejected the subject whenever anyone tried to convince me otherwise. I remember the countless fights I had with my mom over scales and arpeggios and etudes. I thought she wanted me to go to conservatory, and being a contrarian, this meant that I had to do everything in my power not to go. Sometimes I would say: Mom, I don’t want to become like them. I can’t stand the competition and the community. I hate it.

Looking back, I find these arguments odd and troubling. It was never the competition or the community that turned me off music. It was the insurmountable mountain of practicing and work ahead of me if I took this career path. So why was I so fiercely focused on the atmosphere and the people? I have an idea, and it’s not a nice one.

I was adopted from China. My parents are both white. I have a round face, single lids, flat nose, and high cheekbones. I don’t know where I’m from, but I suspect that I’m Han Chinese. My birth parents were probably farmers. I was nine months old when my mom flew overseas to pick me up.

Now, put yourself in the shoes of a young, adopted, Chinese girl at violin camp. You look around and see lots of children that don’t look like your parents or many of your friends. In fact, there’s something familiar in how they look, and that familiarity gets under your skin somehow, but you don’t indulge it because it’s not really there. As the years go by, you realize that others see the familiarity before you do, and that they assume things about you because of it. A Russian conductor tries to speak Mandarin to you and you reply with about as blank a stare as you can muster. Your teacher tells you that you’re naturally talented, that it’s “in your genes.”

Step out of these shoes, but see their power. See how these experiences influenced a child to reject an entire community, an entire identity. When I turned away from a musical career, I held the musical community accountable. I didn’t recognize the judgments and assumptions guiding my decision. In short, I pushed away the Asian American musical community because of subtle cues and assumptions in my own experience leading up to the decision.

From a young age, I avoided the Asian American musical community. My actions were based in assumptions about behavior and observations that I made about the way others treated me and people who looked like me, back when I wasn’t familiar with textbook racial discrimination. I mimicked these behaviors, unaware that to them, I was no different. By high school, I had become familiar with the acute feeling of disgust every time I encountered an Asian American who fit any of my one-dimensional perceptions. I look back on these feelings and question: How did they begin? Why do I feel this way? Somehow, I had both experienced and subscribed to the inner workings of stereotypes.

I only began to see this dilemma during high school when I made a new friend. Her background is mixed. During the latter three years of high school, we grew close. And as we grew close, I began to grow increasingly uncomfortable with our friendship.

When we socialized together with our other friends and strangers, I began to notice the particular attention that many people gave to her and not me. Normally, I wouldn’t mind, but as I became more sensitized to these interactions, I began to recognize a greater trend: In their eyes, I was the studious one. I was more likely to cancel on the account of homework, more likely to succeed through conventional pathways, less likely to take risks. In the romantic realm, I was the trusted friend, the confident, and the one-who-gave-responsible-smart-advice.

As I grew more aware of this perception of me, however, I sought out ways to break from my routines. And as I did this, I became increasingly aware that these assumptions about me would stick.

Perhaps even more ironic is that I went to high school at a private institution in DC committed to diversity and community learning. We are often regarded as one of the best in the country. I am grateful for my education there - it has taught me valuable lessons of patience, kindness, and integrity. And maybe my experience there obscures or dilutes the pain that drives the topic of my commentary … but it certainly raises some questions: What does it say about US culture that the affects of discrimination permeate even the very institutions that were built to oppose them? What does the subtle way in which patterns of oppression first entered my life say about the prevalence of racism in society at large?

During these years, when I looked in the mirror, I consistently had trouble understanding my face. My mind sought out, but ultimately couldn’t conceive of the incongruities between how I was perceived and how I looked. To this day, the best way to describe my experience with mirrors is this: When I look into the mirror, I don’t see an Asian face. I see a weird-looking white face. I attribute my incapability to understand my own identity to the social conditioning that led me to believe that my own race is a threat to acceptance.

Over the years, I have sought out a way to define racial justice for myself, and I arrived at the following: Justice means giving every body the fundamental right to know and love themselves. I have yet to learn how to do this, and often I feel like it is impossible. I speak only for my own story, but I hope to bring it to the attention of others that identity can be an enormously problematic issue to the adoptee. Knowing and defining the problem is, for me, the first step towards self learning and self love.

Cover Image Credit: Kay Garlick-Ott

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8 Reasons Why My Dad Is the Most Important Man In My Life

Forever my number one guy.

Growing up, there's been one consistent man I can always count on, my father. In any aspect of my life, my dad has always been there, showing me unconditional love and respect every day. No matter what, I know that my dad will always be the most important man in my life for many reasons.

1. He has always been there.

Literally. From the day I was born until today, I have never not been able to count on my dad to be there for me, uplift me and be the best dad he can be.

2. He learned to adapt and suffer through girly trends to make me happy.

I'm sure when my dad was younger and pictured his future, he didn't think about the Barbie pretend pageants, dressing up as a princess, perfecting my pigtails and enduring other countless girly events. My dad never turned me down when I wanted to play a game, no matter what and was always willing to help me pick out cute outfits and do my hair before preschool.

3. He sends the cutest texts.

Random text messages since I have gotten my own cell phone have always come my way from my dad. Those randoms "I love you so much" and "I am so proud of you" never fail to make me smile, and I can always count on my dad for an adorable text message when I'm feeling down.

4. He taught me how to be brave.

When I needed to learn how to swim, he threw me in the pool. When I needed to learn how to ride a bike, he went alongside me and made sure I didn't fall too badly. When I needed to learn how to drive, he was there next to me, making sure I didn't crash.

5. He encourages me to best the best I can be.

My dad sees the best in me, no matter how much I fail. He's always there to support me and turn my failures into successes. He can sit on the phone with me for hours, talking future career stuff and listening to me lay out my future plans and goals. He wants the absolute best for me, and no is never an option, he is always willing to do whatever it takes to get me where I need to be.

6. He gets sentimental way too often, but it's cute.

Whether you're sitting down at the kitchen table, reminiscing about your childhood, or that one song comes on that your dad insists you will dance to together on your wedding day, your dad's emotions often come out in the cutest possible way, forever reminding you how loved you are.

7. He supports you, emotionally and financially.

Need to vent about a guy in your life that isn't treating you well? My dad is there. Need some extra cash to help fund spring break? He's there for that, too.

8. He shows me how I should be treated.

Yes, my dad treats me like a princess, and I don't expect every guy I meet to wait on me hand and foot, but I do expect respect, and that's exactly what my dad showed I deserve. From the way he loves, admires, and respects me, he shows me that there are guys out there who will one day come along and treat me like that. My dad always advises me to not put up with less than I deserve and assures me that the right guy will come along one day.

For these reasons and more, my dad will forever be my No. 1 man. I love you!

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From One Nerd To Another

My contemplation of the complexities between different forms of art.


Aside from reading Guy Harrison's guide to eliminating scientific ignorance called, "At Least Know This: Essential Science to Enhance Your Life" and, "The Breakthrough: Immunotherapy and the Race to Cure Cancer" by Charles Graeber, an informative and emotional historical account explaining the potential use of our own immune systems to cure cancer, I read articles and worked on my own writing in order to keep learning while enjoying my winter break back in December. I also took a trip to the Guggenheim Museum.

I wish I was artistic. Generally, I walk through museums in awe of what artists can do. The colors and dainty details simultaneously inspire me and remind me of what little talent I posses holding a paintbrush. Walking through the Guggenheim was no exception. Most of the pieces are done by Hilma af Klint, a 20th-century Swedish artist expressing her beliefs and curiosity about the universe through her abstract painting. I was mostly at the exhibit to appease my mom (a K - 8th-grade art teacher), but as we continued to look at each piece and read their descriptions, I slowly began to appreciate them and their underlying meanings.

I like writing that integrates symbols, double meanings, and metaphors into its message because I think that the best works of art are the ones that have to be sought after. If the writer simply tells you exactly what they were thinking and how their words should be interpreted, there's no room for imagination. An unpopular opinion in high school was that reading "The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne was fun. Well, I thought it was. At the beginning of the book, there's a scene where Hawthorne describes a wild rosebush that sits just outside of the community prison. As you read, you are free to decide whether it's an image of morality, the last taste of freedom and natural beauty for criminals walking toward their doom, or a symbol of the relationship between the Puritans with their prison-like expectations and Hester, the main character, who blossoms into herself throughout the novel. Whichever one you think it is doesn't matter, the point is that the rosebush can symbolize whatever you want it to. It's the same with paintings - they can be interpreted however you want them to be.

As we walked through the building, its spiral design leading us further and further upwards, we were able to catch glimpses of af Klint's life through the strokes of her brush. My favorite of her collections was one titled, "Evolution." As a science nerd myself, the idea that the story of our existence was being incorporated into art intrigued me. One piece represented the eras of geological time through her use of spirals and snails colored abstractly. She clued you into the story she was telling by using different colors and tones to represent different periods. It felt like reading "The Scarlet Letter" and my biology textbook at the same time. Maybe that sounds like the worst thing ever, but to me it was heaven. Art isn't just art and science isn't just science. Aspects of different studies coexist and join together to form something amazing that will speak to even the most untalented patron walking through the museum halls.

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