I Am Not My Dad’s Girlfriend

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.

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15 responses to “I Am Not My Dad’s Girlfriend

  1. Hi
    Thank you for your frankness. Your story demonstrates aspects that are more complex in the parent-child relationship for adoptees, and that can have implications consciously or unconsciously in the formation of our identity and sexuality. Take care. Di

  2. Hear! Hear!

    People in all circumstances need to just pipe down. You know what they say about assuming stuff.

    I have one very very good friend who is Asian and married to a Caucasian man. Their daughter looks like her. When out with her dad one day a passerby just decided it was was completely appropriate to ask the Caucasian dad “Where did you get her?” To which my friend’s husband replied of his biological daughter, “From between my wife’s legs,” which shut the inappropriate lady right up. This is a story that they have told many times as a family, trying to grapple with the general rudeness of society.

    So, having been sensitized by these friends I met a new friend who was Caucasian and had two children who looked to me like an Indian ethnicity. But of course I did not bring it up. During a conversation one day my new friend kept eluding to her children’s adoptions but did not come right out and say ‘my kids are adopted.’ So, finally, on eggshells, I asked her. Of course they were adopted, they didn’t look like her did they? To which I replied, “No, but I haven’t met your husband, maybe they look like him. And even if I had met your husband it is not my place to draw conclusions about your family, it is your place to tell me your story if you choose.” This woman literally started to tear up and thanked me about twenty times. She said that nobody had ever not drawn conclusions or placed judgement on her family.

    My husband is our 18 year old daughter’s biological dad and we are all northern European “see-through white.” Recently when they were downtown together a young man walked by them and said, “Dude, your girlfriend is HOT!”

    Seriously. People just need to mind their manners.

  3. Next it will be the caregiver role, we are the Certified Nursing Assistant to these white folks. Thanks Harry Holt! 🙂

    • That assumption’s already been made! I was visiting my grandparents (who receive 24/7 care) in their apartment. The worker present was very startled when I came in the dining room and very formally said something along the lines of, “Are you new here? I still have a few hours.” Taken aback when I realized what she thought, I quickly told her they were my grandparents. The awkwardness dissipated for her, but I still remember the incident.

  4. I admire your father’s restraint in not punching Mr. Funnyman in the mouth, and I’m very sorry for your family that this happened.

    I’ve seen adoptees (notably Stephanie Drenka on YouTube) address this problem, but the assumption that an adoptee is a caregiver is a new one. Given my age, it’s the most likely scenario for my daughter!

  5. Thanks for this insight to this issue. Our adopted daughter is only 7yrs old now. But I know how fast the years will go- as I have 2 college age biological daughters. I’d like to also share that with daughters in general (even biological daughters) whom are now young adults, we’ve experienced a similar assumption occur with their Dad a couple of times. So I can see a combination of assumptions that strangers can make regardless of race too. It’s strange how some people are naive & quickly assume a group of people traveling together. Thanks for sharing your perspective. It is very helpful as we raise our youngest daughter born in China. Blessings!

  6. Definitely something I’m aware of as something my kids will face in the future. However, some people are just clueless. My dad and I look fairly similar and I’ve been mistaken for his girlfriend before as well. He looks young and was mistaken for my mom’s son before too (poor mom! She looks her age, not old, but dad used to look quite younger than he was).

  7. Thanks for this. My daughter is 14, and recently, while traveling, we have had two incidents. The first was flying home from SC. Going through security, she was sked for her ID. When I told the security officer that she was 14, I was told that it didn’t matter – if she didn’t have ID, she couldn’t fly. I fly constantly, so am very familiar with the rules. When I pushed back he told us she couldn’t get on the plane. Luckily, she had her school ID, and showed that. I think he was challenging the fact that we were together. Another one happeded when returning a rental car and getting on the shuttle. She proceeded us on the bus. We were asked by the bus driver our airline. Then he went to her, and asked her. When I said she was with us, he said, “Well, I didn’t know”. So, here she is 14, and now assumed to be old to fly by herself and rent a car! After reading your blog, I can see that we are in for many more of these incidents unfortunately.

  8. How uncomfortable. I’m sorry you had that experience.

    I think my own dad (we’re white and I’m not adopted) is hypersensitive to the notion that anyone might think I’m his date instead of his daughter. If we go anywhere without my mother, I notice him referring to me as “my daughter” more often and more loudly than is necessary.

    Obviously this doesn’t compare to your experience but your post has me thinking about how outside perspectives can affect us.

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  11. I feel that some people just don’t think before they talk. People have their own little world and they struggle when they come out of it. Unfortunately the older adoptees will face these ignorant comments, not unlike other nationalities.
    A few years ago we were moving I to a new home, there was work being done by a floor installer, while he was working my friend (who happens to be Mexican) was there helping me do a few things. The floor man directed her a few times to hand he
    hand him this or that. And though I thought he might have sounded a bit direct, I assumed he was working quickly and she was there, so I didn’t say anything….nor did she. Later in the day she was sharing with me how she started to have a horrible headache. I suggested she go lie down in one of the finished bedrooms that had beds. This man made some kind of remark to her and she said,” you never laid down with a headache ?” He replied, “not while I am working.” She came to me and told me his man was under he impression she was working for me ! We have no doubt that it was because she was dressed in sweats and is Mexican. I was outraged. I went to him , and told him she is my best friend. He was a bit shocked, and apologized. Years later, we actually laugh about this, the shock on his face. But assumptions can hurt

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