Lost in a sea of wavy blonde locks and blue irises, my straight black hair and brown eyes set me apart from classmates, teachers and family alike. For as long as I can remember, I knew that I was different. Given that I am a transracial Chinese adoptee raised by a white family in rural Pennsylvania, I knew little about what it meant to be Asian, or at least what I thought a “true” Asian was. I grew up eating mac n’ cheese with potato salad, Chinese takeout and stuffed cabbage on special occasions. In fact, when I looked in the mirror, I often forgot that I looked different from those around me. Reinforcing this notion, my parents would often exclaim, “I don’t even see you as Asian!”
Nevertheless, my mom would come to my class each year to share Lunar New Year traditions practiced in China, giving out oranges and red envelopes throughout my elementary school years. My mom was trying her best and I love her deeply for that, yet it did not feel “authentic” enough for me. It felt whitewashed and fake. In those moments, I felt like a white kid wearing a Chinese girl’s face. I knew that my mom just read about the traditions on Google while I simply looked like the accompanying part. And I knew little to nothing about Chinese traditions or even China itself. It was a blurry concept, a faraway land that was merely the starting point for my life story that held little meaning to me.
Looking back, I longed to find faces and experiences similar to mine during those times. I was desperate for connection, to blend into an ocean of dark hair and dark eyes like mine, even if it would be through a virtual community. With this longing I eagerly gobbled up K-pop and Asian YouTubers when I came across them in my early teen years — my first real taste of what I deemed to be “authentically Asian.” Whether it was because the content showed faces that mirrored mine or because the style was different from the white media I was used to consuming, I am not sure what drew me in. But soon enough, I was fascinated with the new realm of online representation. As for my mom and brother, they jumped in feet first with me, learning the names of K-pop band members and staying up past midnight to watch show premieres. We were able to connect over something seemingly mundane or even childish, and it felt like my family was starting to see a glimmer of what I felt was “authentically Asian” and therefore, authentically me. Our dinner conversations were filled with talk about the latest K-pop comeback or our thoughts on a new album … even when my parents’ guests and friends were over.
Simultaneously, I was thrown into the world of language learning, Asian and Asian American identity and the larger social, historical, and political contexts surrounding the media. I began reading about the divide of the Korean Peninsula, Japanese imperialism and Vietnam War orphans. I engrossed myself in Asian history and looked to see how Asian Americans were impacted by it. I came to see how Asian Americans played a major role in civil rights and racial justice movements, specifically Black liberation, along with the strategic negation of Asian Americans in political activist spheres. Through these discoveries I began slowly fitting myself into the larger puzzle of America’s story. I assumed the political and social identity of an Asian American — not a “transracial Asian adoptee,” despite that identity being uniquely powerful in itself — which would later flesh out my personal conceptions of what an “Asian American” is.
Inspired by a deep craving to learn about the world and to find where I belong within it, I chose to major in International Relations with a regional focus on East Asia. The Asian American Student Union was the first organization I joined in university and Chinese 212 was the course I looked forward to the most. And with the chance long awaited, I attempted to become what I believed to be a “true” Asian American: raised by Asian immigrant parents, interested in Asian media, enjoys Asian food, can speak one’s parents’ language and not transracially adopted. This idea significantly tied into my lack of consideration of transracial Asian adoptees as activists. I failed to see transracial Asian adoptees like myself as “truly Asian” and instead as a “whitewashed Asian,” placing my own racial imposter syndrome on others. I did not know where or how I could fit into this self-created perception of authenticity. Thus, I strongly aligned myself with being what I saw as a “real Asian.” At the same time, I subconsciously put on a mask once more by quietly denouncing my adoptee identity and my white family.
Unsurprisingly, this created a rift in our family’s relationships. I became “too Asian” for them and they were “too white” for me. They expressed guilt for not raising me “more Asian,” and I bore sadness for my loss of culture and lack of guidance on what it means to be Asian in America. For years I always felt as if my family encouraged me from the sidelines to independently explore Asian culture, from supporting me in learning Mandarin to choosing a school with a strong Asian American student organization, rather than learning with me. So when I learned that my mom was preparing multiple days of various Chinese dishes to celebrate Lunar New Year with our family, my heart exploded with joy. She specially ordered Shaoxing wine and dried shiitake mushrooms, roasted chicken and dumpling wrappers. As we sat down for the first meal, I was overwhelmed with a sense of pride and love. It started to feel as if my family was finally walking beside me. And in this way, over many days’ worth of Lunar New Year meals, we were beginning to redefine what Asian American meant together.
Now, deep conversations about culture and identity are commonplace at our dinner table. Oftentimes I introduce topics discussed at Asian American Student Union meetings like the political roots of the pan-Asian term “Asian American” or cultural gatekeeping. I nonchalantly send video clips on Asian history in our family group chat and forward them webinars about bystander intervention for anti-Asian racism. Though I am still trying to unpack my distorted and whitewashed view of what a “real” Asian is, I have begun to proudly claim the label transracial Asian adoptee so that neither identity negates the other. I can eat stuffed peppers on Monday and 地三鲜 on Tuesday. I can be Mei Tomko and 阳春菊. And most importantly, I can be Asian and American.
This article is part of the Summer 2021 issue. The Summer 2021 issue centered on the theme of Family, scratching the surface of what it means to be an Asian American family, whether that’s from queer families growing to the ways our AAPI community comes together. Check it out here!