Being adopted makes me feel like I’m only Asian American with an asterisk
In the middle of a journalism class, I found myself giving an unasked-for TED Talk about my life. This was back in 2016, before the presidential election, and our small, 10-person class had been discussing the harm Donald Trump’s immigration policy would do if he were elected president. I mentioned being adopted from outside the U.S., and my professor asked what that was like. So I started to answer, and before I knew it, I’d commandeered the room for my one-woman soap opera.
My life isn’t really that dramatic on the surface. I was born in Maoming, China, and then, nine months later, I was adopted by my white parents, who raised me in the Midwest. My parents encouraged me to connect with Chinese culture through food, visits to the Asian art collection at the museum, and going out to a Chinese restaurant every Chinese New Year. But still, my identity as a Chinese person wasn’t very important to me until high school, when a Nigahiga video (“Word of the day – Bromance”) led me to the whole Asian American YouTube community. From all the way in Missouri—where before this I only had Mulan, anime, the one Asian Bratz doll, and London Tipton—I fell down the Asian American internet rabbit hole. Finding this shining diamond of a community blew my mind and made me really look at my own Asian American, Chinese adoptee identity, and consider how I related with the people I saw around me.
As I told this story in class, I think my professor was the only one really listening to my words. Still, I kept going for what felt like half an hour or more, answering questions from my professor and a few polite classmates. I was excited to have the chance to tell my story, but at the same time, I felt self-conscious for having spent so much time spilling so much personal information. The most embarrassing thing was, this wasn’t the first, or the last, time I’d do it.
Usually when I talk about my adoption, it’s in an Asian American space rather than the middle of class. I don’t think I can spend five minutes talking to other Asians without blurting out, “I’m adopted!” This includes my college’s Asian student organization, networking events for young Asian Americans, Asian American film festivals, screenings, or even small talk with random Asian Americans I meet at work. I always thought of it as a sort of introductory fun-fact: My name is Lily, I’m from St. Louis, and I’m adopted. Anyone who sees me with my family already knows I’m adopted—next to my parents and siblings, I immediately look out of place. It never even crossed my mind that it was an option not to disclose that I was born in China and raised by white parents, until recently.
I’ve always loved meeting other adoptees. I find our shared experiences fascinating; hearing about their journeys helps me as I work through my own. Every now and then, I go to adoptee events, and at one of these about a year ago, I ran into Beth, whom I’d met once before. I hadn’t known she was adopted, and I loved hearing her share her stories. A group of us, all Asian American adoptees and college students, spent the afternoon sitting around a table discussing how we felt about going out in public with our parents, being complimented for our English, and having non-Asian last names. We talked about the guilt of not learning our heritage languages and the discombobulation of going back to the countries where we were born. I left feeling deeply connected with the whole group, especially Beth.
Not long afterwards, I ran into an acquaintance Beth and I shared, and I mentioned running into Beth at the adoptee talk. Beth found out, and told me that she doesn’t tell anyone that she’s adopted, meaning I had committed a huge violation of her safe space. We haven’t spoken since, and I’ve never forgotten how much I hurt her. Even though this situation left me distraught, I assumed it was rare that someone would choose to keep their adoption a secret.
Then, a few weeks later, I saw the documentary Somewhere Between, which follows four teen Chinese adoptee girls, one of whom mentions that she doesn’t tell people about her story right off the bat either. She says that after growing up in a small town where everyone knew about her and her family, when she began college away from home, she tried to keep it to herself. Hearing that for the second time really threw me. Was hiding adoptee status something others did? Was it even possible? Was “hiding it” even the right way to describe what they were doing?
I’d never considered that some adoptees keep their backgrounds private, or sometimes choose not to share them at all. I had wrongly assumed that just because I was open about my adoption, every adoptee must be as well. Now I try to talk about it the same way I would other sensitive information like sexuality or gender identity, and leave it up to the other person to disclose in their own words, if at all. My betrayal of Beth’s secret has stayed with me, making me reconsider all the ways I think about adoption: how it reflects and defines a person’s identity, and how I rely on it to define my own.
Why do I have to let everyone know this deeply personal fact about my life? I think it’s because this is the only way I know how to relate to other Asian Americans and find a way into our community. I’ve wanted to be a part of the AAPI space ever since I first fell into the Asian American YouTube hole, and that’s what made me want to get involved and build this community. Since then, I’ve learned so much about what it means to be Asian American, including the issues we face and our relative privileges in the world. But it’s all a self-taught crash course, with plenty of remaining gaps, and my insecurity about my place in the AAPI community shows itself through my tendency to overshare, to explain my way into belonging.
This year I was finally able to put this insecurity into words. Last March at the conference for the East Coast Asian American Student Union, I attended a special caucus for adoptees. It was another small, intimate gathering, and we talked about our shared issues—the microaggressions we deal with, fighting savior complex in our parents and the media, facing our privilege—and just bonded as adoptees in general. Finally, I asked the group the question that had been sitting as this unidentified weight in my head:
I’m Chinese American.*
*Actually, I’m adopted from China, so I don’t really know anything about the culture, history, language, or growing up in a Chinese family.
I’m Asian American.*
*And by that I mean I’m adopted from China, so conversations and stories about immigrant parents, homemade food, etc. feel like inside jokes I don’t get.
I want to work in and empower the AAPI community.*
*But again, I’m adopted and was raised by non-Asian parents; I’m still educating myself about what being Asian American means, so don’t get the impression I know what I’m talking about.
My need to shout, “I’m adopted!” all the time is my way of explaining why this random person who doesn’t relate to the child-of-immigrants experience is here in an AAPI space. For the sake of my imposter syndrome, I need to let everyone know right off the bat that even though I look the part, I’m Asian and Chinese American in appearance only. That’s why I get so excited when I meet other transracial Asian adoptees: it’s a relief not to be the only one in the room. After what happened with Beth, I recognize now that not all transracial Asian adoptees feel the way I do. But for me, seeing others who share my experience validates my presence in the spaces that I desperately want to be a part of. I want everyone to know that there are not one, but multiple adoptees in the room, so then it’s not weird for me to be there.
While telling people I’m an adoptee is a way for me to find community, I also use it as a personal disclaimer. As a student leader, I moderated important conversations within my college’s Asian student organization about race and gender, and there were many times I felt way out of line as a cisgender Chinese person raised by white parents. Or with friends who were Asian or people of color, I would try to make an inside joke about white people appropriating Asian food or ask a question about Asian culture and be completely off the mark because I still didn’t know what I was talking about. I depend on my transracial adoptee status to explain why I don’t have knowledge others might expect me to have. That doesn’t mean I want a pass on being problematic, but I make sure to tell everyone I was raised by non-Asian parents, in a rush to put an asterisk on my ignorance.
I graduated from college last December and have been looking for other Boston-area Asian American organizations to get involved with. I’ve found a few that I like and have gone to a some of their events: a lot of mixers, networking meet-ups, and a Crazy Rich Asians screening. I’ve talked to a lot of new people, and for a while, I made it a goal to not mention right away that I’m adopted. “Why did you get involved in the AAPI community?” became an interesting new test for me. It’s not that I hid or denied my identity as a Chinese adoptee, but I wanted to see how it felt not to say that as my second sentence whenever I met new people. “I’m Lily, and I just graduated” felt like a normal way to start conversations in general company.
It turned out to be a short-lived experiment that ended when I was talking with one of the security guards at work. He was Taiwanese American, and we talked for a while about growing up Asian in America. I stuck by my goal and didn’t mention I was adopted for most of our conversation, but eventually it felt like I was co-opting another person’s experience or misleading him by not telling him how I grew up. When he asked about my parents and I had an opening to tell him the truth, I felt relieved. We talked a bit about my background, but since he asked first and was genuinely interested, I didn’t feel like I was forcing my story onto someone. I’ve come to realize that, oversharing or not, telling people who I am and where I come from matters to me. I’m proud of the work I’ve done with the communities and organizations I’m a part of, and it means so much to me to do it as an adoptee. Being a Chinese adoptee is both my crutch and my truth, asterisk and all.