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.