I was recently asked to do an interview with Midwest Mixed, a group that focuses on programming for mixed race people and their families in the Twin Cities area. I have often stated that transracial adoptees and mixed race folks face some similar challenges in terms of feeling torn between two cultures, having to navigate relationships with family members who may not be racially sensitive, and facing intrusive questions from bystanders. I was happy to be included in this interview project and provided with very thoughtful questions. Below are my responses:
Midwest Mixed (MWM): What is your very first memory of being identified as different (mixed or transracial)? How old were you and what was the situation?
RTB: I was adopted from China as a three-year-old, so I always knew that I was adopted and that I looked different from my white parents. From a young age, my peers would comment on this difference or ask me why I didn’t look like my parents. I grew used to explaining the concept of adoption often. Despite what people like to think when they say, “children don’t see color,” this is absolutely untrue. In preschool, I noticed that I was Asian, that one of my best friends was Black, while my other best friend had pale skin and blonde hair, and that we all looked very different. The first time I remember someone making a racial remark to me was in kindergarten. A boy in my class called me a Japanese squirrel. I was very confused by the comment because I was neither Japanese nor a squirrel.
MWM: Can you recall experiences you had where you felt understood or recognized in your identity/ies? A book, conversation or other interaction?
RTB: When I was younger, I often sought validation from and connection with Chinese people. In college, I learned that relationships with Chinese nationals and even Chinese Americans who grew up in culturally connected families could be interesting and rewarding but didn’t necessarily provide the sense of belonging that I originally thought would be created. There are so many elements of Chinese culture that I only have surface knowledge of, and so many Asian American immigrant family experiences are not applicable to me, as the sole immigrant in my family. The place I feel the most connection and camaraderie is with other transracial and transnational adoptees, despite country of origin. Since adoptee status is not immediately identifiable, I have often had to create these spaces and groups for myself.
As someone who has had three different primary caregivers in three different locations call me by three different names, I once articulated that I sometimes felt as though my one body had lived the lives of three separate people. The dissociation of body and self can be alarming to others. At the second Minnesota Transracial Film Festival I attended, one of the films opened with the filmmaker’s narration that she felt that her body had been occupied by three separate people, and it was the first time that I heard the same sensation I feel echoed back to me.
MWM: How do you racially identify?
RTB: Racially, I identify as Chinese. Ethnically, I describe myself as a Chinese American. I think the most accurate description of my identity is Chinese American adoptee, though, because Chinese American alone is not enough to understand my cultural experiences.
MWM: What are some of your other important identities (gender, sexuality, abilities/disabilities, religion/spirituality, nationality, SES, age/generation)?
RTB: In addition to Chinese or Chinese American, other salient identities for me are: Asian, Asian American, woman, adoptee, Agnostic Christian, writer, feminist, and progressive.
MWM: Which cultural aspects (language, food, holidays) of your identity were you exposed to as a child? Were there aspects of your racial/cultural/ethnic identities that you did not have access to?
RTB: Growing up as a transracial adoptee, there were a lot of cultural elements of my heritage that I could not access. Much of my early knowledge of “Asianness” was from a pan-Asian perspective. I had friends who were Korean, half-Indian, or Chinese. I observed how their families took shoes off at the door, cooked, or related as a family. I found the commonalities and would think to myself, “this must be an Asian thing.” My parents enjoy eating at Chinese restaurants but didn’t have fluency in a lot of the dishes, and besides Chinese food in America is not like Chinese food in China. My parents gave me a hongbao 紅包 (red envelope) every Chinese New Year, but we didn’t do all the other rituals that are a part of the festivities. I grew up going to Chinese school on Saturdays for language (my dad took language, too!) and dance but stopped in middle school. For a long time, China remained purely images from documentaries, magazines, and Google searches. I returned to China with my parents for the first time when I was thirteen years old. My parents did their best to instill in me an appreciation of Chinese culture and pride in coming from such a beautiful, rich culture with a deep history. I often say that my parents taught me how to be a Chinese girl, but I had to teach myself what it means to be an Asian American woman. There were a lot of racial experiences they couldn’t prepare me for because they didn’t know about them.
MWM: Were you more accepted by any particular social groups? Were you rejected/excluded from particular social groups?
RTB: Growing up, people would often tell me how lucky I was or how beautiful it was that, through adoption, I had these two different cultures open to me. I remember being confused about this, because it didn’t feel that way. In America, I sand out for being Chinese; and in China, I don’t fit in because I am so Westernized. I had a very large friend group in high school that was predominantly white but also had a handful of Asian people in it. I experienced a strange phenomenon of feeling graduated discomfort with some of these high school friends over time. What started out as just an interest in anime or manga eventually turned into an obsession with K-pop and dramas, studying/living in Asia, dating only Asian men, and collecting new friends all of Asian descent. I began to feel objectified and fetishized and wondered if some of these friendships had been initiated purely because of racial intrigue and stereotypes of cuteness to provide entertainment. This experience was almost even more unnerving than discovering that a potential love interest has an Asian fetish, because this issue usually arises fairly early with dating partners. My friends, however, are people I have had meaningful relationships with over the course of years. In college, I tried to connect with the Chinese student organization but couldn’t participate because meetings were conducted in Mandarin, and my language level was beginning to intermediate in school. Never quite fitting in with mainstream American culture nor purely Chinese spaces, I have found the most camaraderie in networks of politicized Asian Americans, spaces for Asian women of the diaspora, and with other transracial adoptees.
MWM: When you were a kid, what were the family and/or social expectations about how you were to identify? And did you agree?
RTB: I don’t think that my parents had strong attachments or expectations of how I would identify. Society, of course, always viewed me as an Asian person, and my parents wanted me to feel good about that identity. They tried to give me the tools (Chinese language and dance classes, Women of China magazines, attendance at culture camps etc) to do so. They never subscribed to colorblindness, which a lot of transracial adoptive parents used to be told was the best thing for children of color. Colorblind ideology is so diminishing; it looks at a person and tells them, “I don’t see all of you. I only see the parts that are like me.” There is nothing wrong with noticing difference. Only when acting with prejudice is the outcome of recognizing difference is something wrong.
MWM: Does your physical appearance identify you more with one race or another, or do you tend to look ambiguous?
RTB: I present as very Chinese in my physical appearance and apparently in my stylistic clothing choices, as well. While I was living in Nanjing, China, a Chinese friend told me that I “could pass as a real Chinese person as long as [I] didn’t open my mouth.”
MWM: Do/have you altered your physical appearance to align yourself one way or another?
RTB: Other than with general makeup application, I’ve never altered my physical appearance in any major way. I’ve been too nervous to dye my hair, and I would never consider anything as extreme as plastic surgery to create a double eyelid. This procedure is very common in East Asia, as well as skin lightening treatments and usage of colored contacts to make the wearer’s eyes blue or green or any color they like. To me, these cosmetic alterations all seem seeped in internalized racism with the goal to appear more Westernized or as white as possible. I seem to have had the opposite reaction, embracing my Chineseness. Sure, I’ll wear a flannel and jeans or other “American” styles, but I also really enjoy wearing clothes I’ve purchased in China and feeling in touch with that side of my identity.
MWM: What are the positive aspects or strengths gained from being transracially adopted or mixed?
RTB: When I was younger and worried about an upcoming event or predicament, my mom would try to comfort me by telling me, “Probably the hardest thing that will happen in your life has already happened to you.” And I hope this is true. This sentiment gave me strength that I could bear any obstacle if I had already overcome life’s greatest challenge for me. Losing my first family and being found on the street as a toddler, adopted, and moved across the world with strangers who didn’t speak my language without an understanding of why all of this was happening by the time I was four years old is a lot of loss, movement, and trauma. Of course, adoption is not a one time event that can be simply over. Adoption is a lifelong process of learning how to unpack unresolved and unresolvable grief and loss that ebbs and flows. Most people don’t experience a profound loss until much later in life, but because I knew what it felt like to miss people and places that are unknowable, I exhibited an emotional maturity and emotional intelligence beyond my years from a young age that was noted by teachers and other adults around me. I consider these great strengths, as friends have sought me out for counsel during periods of distress or crisis for them, knowing that I, too, have experienced pain and loss. I would not describe myself as a sad person overall, but I deeply understand sadness.
MWM: What do you find most challenging?
RTB: The hardest aspect for me about being transnationally adopted are all of the unknowns and unanswerable questions paired with society’s general attitude that I should be grateful for my adoption in spite of all of the loss — as if adoption can be weighed and measured on a point scale and that the gains should outweigh the losses. Most people have concrete facts to build an identity around, but for me, my birthday, birth place, family medical history, and the entire first two years of my life are a total mystery.
Dr. Pauline Boss coined the term “ambiguous loss” in the 1970’s, referring to the different grief patterns of the wives of Vietnam soldiers who had gone missing in the war. Unlike the wives of soldiers who had died, these women were unable to find closure or know when to carry on with their lives, assuming that their spouse would not return home. Biological families who have relinquished children for adoption and adoptees similarly experience ambiguous loss towards our missing family members. My first family is likely alive somewhere in China, and I wonder what they are doing now, if they still think of me, and when, if ever, our paths will cross again. In 2015, I tried to begin a search for my first family. When I went to the police station where I was taken as a toddler, there was virtually no information. I was devastated by this immediate dead end and incensed at the Chinese government for creating the system in a way that mandated secrecy. I don’t know when I’ll search again, but I know I will. Deciding to begin the search again is like resurfacing a partially healed wound and not knowing if the information discovered will be able to remedy it or if it worsen the cut. Even if I am able to locate my first family, there will still be loss – a loss of over 20 years of potential relationship, of language and culture, of things I might not even know currently are lost. No matter the outcome, there is no closure. There is only figuring out a way to make sense of being from two families, two cultures, and countless unknowns.
MWM: Any advice for people like you who are navigating their identity
RTB: My advice to young transracial adoptees is to find other transracial adoptees. If there aren’t any other adoptees in close proximity, there are a lot of online groups (China’s Children International, Adopteen, Also Known As etc.) for adoptees and blogs, including my own, Red Thread Broken, that serve as places of dialogue, community, and thought sharing. I consider adoptee status to be a third culture – one of its own. Adoption identification numbers, referral photos, and original passports are our cultural symbols. Despite mother-tongue, we collectively speak the language of early childhood loss and confusion. The economic and political systems of oppression that have, in many cases, influenced our own adoptions are now ours to change if there is to be a cultural shift. Finding other transracial adoptees, with whom I share this third culture – neither Chinese nor American – has been one of the most profound elements of my healing and identity creation. So much of the adoptee experience is feeling isolated from the dominant culture, isolated from our birth culture, sometimes even isolated within a family culture, and having a space with other transracial adoptees is a community we can finally claim as ours.