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Thoughts On A Transracial Adoptee’s Identity In Relation To Authority & Voice

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In my piece “To JK Rowling, From Cho Chang,” I misrepresented both Chinese and Korean naming practices. First, though I knew that Cho and Chang could be Chinese names, I phrased the joke in a way that did not show that information. Second – Chang, if it is a Korean name, should be pronounced Chong/Jong (장). Unfortunately, this line got turned into a gifset (gotta love Tumblr) and it understandably offended many people. Though I was trying to prove that Cho Chang’s name was stereotypical and badly researched, I ended up perpetuating further ignorance.

 

 

But this post is not about my embarrassment or guilt. I’ve done my best to address my mistake in my subsequent blog posts and response video.

 

 

This post is talking about why I made this mistake, and how it relates to my identity as a transracial adoptee.**

I grew up in a Midwestern suburb, where there were only a handful of other Asian kids, and only a couple in my grade. Therefore, I grew up hyper-conscious of the fact that I was Asian, and thus constructed a lot of my identity around that fact. I also went to a Korean culture camp for ten years, so I learned Korean culture and language. Because of these experiences, it felt accurate and comfortable for me to identify as Korean-American.

However, this identity and cultural knowledge was complicated by the inescapable fact that I was raised in a white family and in a white community.

When I applied to college, I struggled with my identity: Should I check “white” or “Asian” on the box for my application? Didn’t the colleges want to know so they could increase cultural diversity? If so, I didn’t feel like I had anything to offer, because my family was white.

Still, I somehow felt more comfortable identifying as “Asian,” so that’s the box I checked.

During my first year of college, I remember watching the video “Shit Asian Dads Say” and finding it hilarious, because I knew a bit about typical Asian family dynamics from friends and I thought the video was funny and accurate. However, part of me questioned my ability to laugh at the video: Here was a situation in which my visible identity as Asian clashed with my family’s identity as white. Was it okay for me, as an adoptee, to laugh at this video? Wasn’t it racist, because my family was white, and therefore I was an outsider looking in?

 

 

However, I was not challenged for laughing at this video and sharing it with my friends, because I am perceived as Asian. It was yet another case in which an adoptee’s outward appearance is mistaken for cultural knowledge.

More importantly, I didn’t truly challenge myself on my racism, because I still clung to my identity as Asian.

The same thing happened with my piece, “To JK Rowling, From Cho Chang.” When I wrote the piece, I researched the points I make about Cho’s name. However, I didn’t ask someone who would have actual knowledge of Chinese naming practices. Why not? It didn’t occur to me to even approach someone else, because I saw myself as Asian. I felt like I was “allowed” to say what I felt about this issue. I could act like I was the authority, the expert. And others allowed this as well, because I am perceived as wholly Asian.

However, in many ways, I am extremely ignorant of Asian culture and heritage. To what extent, by taking on the voice of Cho Chang, was my piece appropriation?

The answer would be obvious if I was white. However, as an adoptee, I’m left — as always — somewhere in-between.

Due to the backlash I received on this poem, I’ve learned that my identity is more complex than growing up in a white community made me think. Even though I am used to viewing myself as Korean, my racial identity is much more complicated than that one word. (Not to say that non-adoptees’ identities are simple, because everyone has multifaceted and intersecting identities.) I now find it necessary to be aware how my visible identity as “Asian” makes me seem to be an authority on Asian culture which, as an adoptee, I am not. With this recognition comes the responsibility to be aware about how I am positioning myself in relationship to the broader Asian-American community.

(Of course, part of the “authority” issue is that each person of color is viewed as spokeperson for their race.)

Now, I turn this over to you: Has anyone else had similar experiences? How do you navigate the tension between your family’s heritage and the ethnicity that others perceive you to be?

**From here on out, I will just use “adoptee,” when I really mean “transracial adoptee,” just for convenience’s sake.

9 Comments on Thoughts On A Transracial Adoptee’s Identity In Relation To Authority & Voice

  1. Thanks for this post, Rachel. I really enjoyed both your original video and your response.

    How do you navigate the tension between your family’s heritage and the ethnicity that others perceive you to be?

    I’ve never learned how to do this, is the short answer. I have had similar experiences, starting in college (the first place I ever knew any other Koreans — I was literally the only one I knew in my white town growing up. Which was just as awesome as it sounds). So, freshman year of college, one of my suitemates is Korean. She’s premed and is not really enjoying the coursework, to put it mildly. I ask her why she’s torturing herself, she says her parents really want her to become a doctor and will accept nothing less, and I naively (and judgmentally, though the judgy part was in my head) say that she should just do what makes her happy. She gives me a look of total disgust and says, that’s easy for you to say — you’re not a real Korean. You’re basically WHITE.

    Which stung a bit, considering all the identity issues adoptees can and do have, though maybe I had it coming. I was too young and ignorant to understand where she was coming from, and though I didn’t say it aloud to her, I was totally failing in terms of trying to empathize or support her where she was. I was an outsider looking in and just thought it was the dumbest thing ever to do something you didn’t want to do because your parents wanted you to do it.

    Apart from roommates, friends, and strangers at parties who expect me to be the Token Asian, I’ve also experienced some of this outsider-ness with my birth family (I reunited with my sister and father in 2008). My sister is more like me, quite Americanized, but our dad is much more traditional. I actually felt worried I’d disappoint him when we met because, culturally, I know I’m not very Korean — even though it was his choice to place me for adoption that led to me not being culturally Korean!

    Maybe others will have a different response here, but I think it’s being too hard on yourself to consider your piece “appropriation.” It’s always something to be careful of — yet I don’t think you can “appropriate” something that was yours to begin with. It’s okay to stress that you’re still educating yourself. But I’d never call what you did appropriation the way it’s committed by people truly outside a culture.

  2. Thank you so much for posting this!

    Oh goodness, this is an issue I’ve struggled with my entire life and, until very recently, have been putting off addressing my feelings of “outsider-ness” as you say, because I’ve never met ANYONE who’s had the same experience.

    My entire life has been filled with similar experiences, though. I was adopted, from South Korea, into an all-white family and grew up in a predominantly white community. There were only a handful of other Asians at my school and most of them were non-adoptees, and I always considered myself as “white” anyway. I definitely felt like, among my friends, I was expected to be the token Asian and actually, I’ve also felt a lot of outsider-ness even within my own family, which is very painful; my family members like to make racist jokes – which, oddly enough, I think is their way of trying to make me feel MORE like family, but actually has the opposite effect and creates feelings of shame and disconnectedness…

    To answer your question, “How do you navigate the tension between your family’s heritage and the ethnicity that others perceive you to be?”

    No. I’ve never learned how to do this either, at least not without a lot of difficulty and pain. There isn’t enough information or other examples or role models out there for adoptees to know how to cope with feelings that come with this kind of transracial identity. When it comes to things like ignorant racist jokes and comments, at least, I kind of feel like I’m not allowed to be offended, because I FEEL completely white, and at the same time, this actually causes me to feel more pain… I suppose I’ve been trying to accept that I’m neither Asian, nor Caucasian, and not even really Asian-American, but rather I fall into a different category of Asian-adoptee-who’s-culturally-white-and-not-culturally-Asian. <— And as far as "authority" goes, we may not, as adoptees, have authority to represent Asian culture, but we definitely have authority, I think, to represent this sort of in-between culture and transracial identity we've grown up with that's unique to our experience.
    So I guess that's one way of coping, feeling like I can be a role model for others who fall into this category.

    Thanks again for posting!

  3. “How do you navigate the tension between your family’s heritage and the ethnicity that others perceive you to be?”

    I’m a Colombian adoptee, but I suspect that most people in my hometown who didn’t know me thought I was Mexican. Nothing wrong with being Mexican, but I’m not so I get huffy about it 🙂 With that perceived Mexican-ness comes lots of judgments since in North Iowa, Mexicans are seen mostly as illegal and lazy and stupid. SUCH a bummer for them! I’ve only had a few instances of actual prejudice in my life, and most comments were from kids on the playground or at lunch when I was little.

    As a kid, I think I thought of myself as just Angie. Once I started having to fill in those damn race/ethnicity questions on tests, I got confused. I can totally relate to the question raised in your post above – what kind of information do they actually want?! No, I’m not white looking, but my culture is white. Does that count? Does it count if I want a multicultural scholarship? Apparently it does….and my parents aren’t rich, so I played that card.

    After visiting my birth country in 2006, I was a mess. Where the hell do I fit? I was politically frustrated, let’s say, so I didn’t want to be an American. But I realized I wasn’t really Colombian. It took a few years, but I’m actually an adoptee. That term explains the grey space, the liminal space that says I’m not really in either but kind of in both camps. Since then I’ve actually listed myself as Other and written Colombian Adoptee on the line next to the box.

    I agree with the commenter above – you are an authority of your experience. Being an adoptee is complicated sometimes, and you’re an expert at the complications, including all those terms and definitions.

  4. I stared at those boxes on college applications…it was suggested to me by a relative that I should put “Palestinian” down, to have a better shot at getting in. I can’t remember what I did, but I don’t think I did that.

    I was often enough reminded by Lebanese that I wasn’t “really” Lebanese, and so I never claimed that. Living in France for four years, I was “seen” as North African, and I dealt with that racism all the while protesting that I was “American”. Whatever that even means. Honestly, I prefer the in-your-face racism of the French to the “Where y’all from?” racism of America.

    Finally I decided to move back. To see for myself. That was eight years ago, going on nine. I still won’t call myself “Lebanese”, though I’ve regained my nationality. I won’t call myself “Arab”, either, though I’m speaking the language and living a life pretty much free from most of the affected baggage we carry around with us in the States.

    I call this the razor’s edge. It usually involves moving back and forth between realms. More and more I am uncomfortable with this, and kind of balk at the “interfaces” with boojy Lebanese or ex-pat or American culture. I’m happiest hanging out at my street corner drinking tea with people in my neighborhood and pitching in at the corner market.

    At which point is revealed just how much adoption robs us of.

  5. Thanks a ton for posting this.

    I was adopted from China into a white family and grew up in a town that was predominantly white. I remember being in elementary school and having to do a presentation on an immigrant in my family, so my first thought was a great-grandfather. After I finished, my friend asked why I didn’t do it on myself since it was easier. The problem was I never thought of myself as an immigrant, always as American. After that, I started becoming self-conscious about the fact that I didn’t look like my parents. I imagined that everyone stared at me when I went out with them, so I would come up with stories in my head, like if I was out with my mother that my father was Chinese, or vice versa.

    When I got older, there were a couple of other school projects that brought up the fact that I was adopted. Like requiring the time and place of birth and when I first started crawling. Things that no one knew because I was adopted and at thirteen months, I was already crawling. So I went through a period where I made things up. Another time, we had to share our ethnicities to a partner, so I listed my parent’s ethnicities and left out Chinese, and I remember, the girl looked at me like I was insane, but I still didn’t say it. I didn’t feel it and I didn’t want to be different.

    I can’t really blame anyone. My parents tried to keep my heritage, but they didn’t know anything about China. They kept part of my Chinese name as my middle name, but they don’t know what it means. They would dress me up in Chinese clothes and put on Mulan or Tarzan (because it dealed with adoption). Today, I look at that and think yes it’s racist, but I’m not really offended. They tried, but it just didn’t work. My China group saw each other a couple times a year when I was younger, but I had nothing in common with those girls besides adoption but that hadn’t affected us yet.

    I still don’t know what to call myself. Lately, I’ve been filling in Asian on forms because that’s what I look like. If I filled in Caucasian, I feel like someone would look at that form then look at me and see fraud, and frankly, I would feel fake. At the moment, Asian sits better, but it doesn’t feel right. Like at Chinese restaurants, the people who worked there sometimes speak Chinese to me, and I’m be completely lost, so I just mumble something about being adopted and people generally leave it alone. It’s too murky and complicated, and there’s no one size fits all. I still don’t know, and I don’t know if I’ll ever feel 100% okay filling out my ethnicity on forms.

  6. I am so grateful for your post. I am white adoptive mom (our older daughter is our bio. kid and our younger daughter is Ethiopian). I hear your voices loud and clear and applaud your willingness to share your stories. I can empathize with the feeling of being on the “fringe” because I am a child of immigrants, but the adoptee experience is of course different, complicated. Best wishes!!!

  7. Candie Eutsler // January 15, 2015 at 10:39 am // Reply

    That meant avoiding the messy and painful email/password process and instead authenticating users using their twitter accounts (we’ll add other options in the future) Cornell

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