One of my favorite vacation spots when I was young was the very iconic Disney World in Orlando, Florida. I loved Disney movies, all of the princesses, and going on the rides, like Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain, with my Dad. Even though I don’t resemble my Caucasian father at all, people could observe him hoisting me into a roller coaster car, splashing me in the pool, or holding my hand in a crowd. Through these actions, our relationship was made obvious to an outside audience.
No longer a little girl, my relationship to my parents (if any is assumed) is often unclear to fellow travelers. I recently came back from a vacation to the Baltic with my mom and dad. On this trip in particular, I noticed people were much more likely to address me separately or cut in between my parents and me when getting on and off busses or while waiting in lines. When the three of us met other travelers together, a common observation was, “So, you’re all traveling together…,” and then the thought would trail off in anticipation of an explanation. I’ve been assumed to be an exchange student with generous host parents, a niece, neighbor, family friend, and most recently my dad’s girlfriend.
Last spring, Mila from The Lost Daughters wrote an article entitled, Hey mom, they don’t see your little girl, they see an Asian woman.. in which she discusses the dichotomy between the way the world perceives adult adoptees and the way adult adoptees perceive themselves. Many of these outside perceptions change with age for transracial adoptees and their families, as I have just begun to experience. On this trip, only one fellow traveler asked if I was my mother’s daughter, and my time in the Baltic reminded me that Mila’s article carries so much merit. The vast majority of people see me as a young Asian woman, not the daughter of two older, white Americans. Having been a child longer than I’ve been an adult, I am so used to my family being addressed as one, cohesive unit. I am so used to being seen as a young girl when I am with my parents. And I am so used to being surrounded by people whose families aren’t questioned. I am always baffled when I re-realize to the public eye, I have a very ambiguous and slightly confusing connection to my parents. I now find myself shouting “Dad!” a little louder or standing slightly closer to him, trying to reclaim my position as daughter.
I was especially startled earlier this month when a romantic relationship was assumed between my father and me. I was sitting beside my parents at a large dinner table, when a photographer came by and jokingly called my grey haired dad a “young man.” His wry humor continued as he asked my father to “get closer to his girlfriend,” gesturing towards me. The smile on my face immediately disappeared, replaced by a deadpan expression. My mother quickly interjected that she was the wife, and we gave the camera stale smiles to match the stale mood created by that comment.
This, unfortunately, is not an uncommon situation for adult Asian adoptees traveling with their fathers. Jessica Prois wrote about “that awkward moment when people think you and your dad are married” in a HuffingtonPost article last fall. She describes the “complex stereotypes regarding race, gender, prejudice, and privilege that arise — namely the inculcated archetype regarding the “creepy” older white man and the younger, submissive Asian woman” when a romantic relationship is supposed. And this was precisely what went through my mind.
Did this photographer truly think he was funny? I found his comments extremely offensive to everyone involved. The idea was first demeaning towards my father, suggesting that he was some Asian fetishizing, old guy. The comment gave me the role of an appendage, relegating me into a sex object for my father’s use. Lastly, the photographer’s “joke” annihilated my mother’s value as an older woman by completely ignoring her and dissolving the 36 year marriage between my parents into nothingness.
More than just awkward and downright creepy, something sacred – the relationship between a father and daughter- was sexualized for what? For the sake of humor? While no overtly racial remarks were made, the insinuation was racially charged, playing to the exotification and objectification of Asian women by white men made popular through story lines like Miss Saigon, Madame Butterfly, and of course the porn industry. The attempted “joke” was additionally racially important because I am confident the line would not have been said had I been a white girl, eating dinner with my two white parents.
As a transracial adoptee, I am used to dealing with intrusive questions about where I’m from or why I was adopted, usually asked to settle idle curiosities. While over time, the questions cumulate to become constant reminders of being different and not quite fitting in, the individual inquiries don’t carry the same weight as this romantic implication did. Adding the sexual component made the photographer’s comment beyond invasive. It’s astounding to me that this stranger felt he could invade my family’s private space without even thinking for a minute what it means to throw off a joke that violates all of our relationships.
As I try to leave this incident in my distant memories and instead remember all of the beautiful places I saw on this trip, I have few simple requests. Think about the racial and gendered stereotypes in a joke before it’s said. Be cognizant of your words and their effects. And please, don’t use humor at my expense.