I guess I felt the first inkling of being “different” around the age of pre-school when we lived in Westover, Massachusetts. Although I don’t remember very much about pre-school, I do remember at that early age feeling out-of-place, distant from the other kids. I was extremely shy and hid behind my peers. I was perfectly content to read a book alone in a quiet corner or spend time listening to music. When I look back at school pictures, my face stands out among all the others. Mine was typically the only Asian one. I was a minority once we moved to the states from Okinawa, but I never knew or understood that term until I became an adult.
The teasing began in kindergarten. By then we’d moved to Bossier City, Louisiana where my father completed his military career. There was very little diversity in this small town, and we lived in a predominantly white neighborhood full of military families. Typically, I tried to downplay any teasing and brushed it off as though nothing had happened. Mostly, people did the same tired stereotypical thing, like pulling up the corners of their eyes with their fingers or trying to talk sing-songy. Occasionally I’d hear the word, “chink,” as I passed by. Once, on the school bus, someone I thought was my friend intentionally shoved me off the bus seat. At first, I thought she was joking around, but then realized she meant it. I didn’t understand why she would treat me in such a way. It was embarrassing, but I tried my best to act like nothing happened. It was a long ride to school that morning.
As I got older, feeling accepted by my peers became increasingly more difficult. I’m sure some of that grew from my own insecurities and social awkwardness. Around junior high, I wanted desperately to be part of a particular group of girls who were considered very “popular.” I began hanging out with them, yet felt I had to fight for their acceptance. One day, one of the girls said to me, “Why don’t you find another group to hang out with?” Ouch. I was shocked, speechless, embarrassed. I didn’t understand what I’d done to cause such rejection, but I got the message as confusing as it was. It didn’t occur to me that perhaps these events took place because I looked different from them. I kept these incidents to myself and never talked to anyone about them, not even to my parents. Back then, I wasn’t sure what to think of it all, and it was very difficult for me to put my feelings into words. Mostly, as I mentioned before, I felt embarrassed and confused. I was ashamed that I looked different from everyone around me. My parents seemed oblivious. I don’t think they ever clued into the teasing. We never talked about how things were going in school or any difficulties I may have been experiencing, and we never talked about my birth heritage. Sometimes I wonder if they had been offered education or cultural training, would things have been different? They were of a generation where families did not talk about problems openly, but rather swept them under the rug. My parents were unaware of the pressures I felt to”fit in.” They did not know the sense of dread I felt going to school everyday during those elementary years and of the racial discrimination I experienced from both peers and teachers – mostly white male coaches.
As I got older I realized that being shy wasn’t cool. I longed to be liked and accepted by my peers just like any other pre-teen or teenager, and I went to extremes to try and fit in. I downplayed my Asian features and rejected any association with my birth culture. In 6th grade I wrote a biography report and lied about where I was born. In the report, I said that I was born in Hawaii and hid the fact that I was born in Taiwan. Many students questioned me afterwards, but I stuck to my story. I wrote another paper about a girl who was teased by others and read it in class. I don’t think it caught the attention of any of my peers; however, my teacher, who was a black male, asked me,”does that happen to you?” or something like that. The conversation never went beyond that though.
In 8th grade, I became friends with some girls who I felt I could be myself around. Still, I struggled with insecurity. I was obsessed with wanting to look like everyone else. I used eye makeup to make my eyes appear rounder. I curled my straight hair every morning before school with hot rollers. By the end of the day, the southern humidity caused every last curl to go flat, which was incredibly annoying. In high school, I used Sun-In to lighten my hair. I pursued hanging out with the “popular” crowd. At home, I became increasingly disrespectful towards my parents. They were very strict and old-fashioned. One Christmas, my dad gave me a special present. I was horrified when it turned out to be a license plate for my car with the words “Oriental Express” inscribed across it. I refused to put it on my car and was very upset with my dad. I know that in his small way, my dad was trying the only way he knew how to reach out to me. He and Mom were both unaware of the conflict I was experiencing and lacked the skills to help me through those difficult teen years. They were simply uneducated. I’m sure that Dad thought the gift was something special and was completely boggled by my reaction. The license plate sat on my dresser collecting dust. I didn’t want to get rid of it because I didn’t want to hurt my dad’s feelings any more than I already had. I’m not sure what happened to it over the years.
After college, I moved out of Louisiana. It was extremely difficult for my mom. Dad didn’t say much, but I know it was hard for him too. Mom wanted me to stay close to home, but I I had other plans and ideas. I ended up in Florida for a couple of years and took acting classes. I partied with friends and enjoyed living independently out from under the control of my mother. I purposely did not go home to see my parents that first year, but stayed in Florida and worked. Eventually, I moved to California to pursue acting, which was really a big joke. That’s another story.
When I moved to California, the first thing that struck me was the large population of Asians. It was shocking. I’d never seen anything like it. Naturally, I avoided associating with anyone Asian. As time went on, I developed some close relationships with a group of friends and began to overcome my old insecurities, although, I still rejected my cultural heritage.
Last year, I began a master’s degree in social work at Arizona State University. I enrolled in a class called Diversity, Oppression and Change. This class forced me to re-examine the issues I struggled with related to culture, identity, and race-relations. I chose to write a research paper on ethnic and racial identity in Asian-American adoptees, a topic obviously close to my heart. To my surprise, I found much literature written on cross-cultural and transracial adoption. These research studies focused primarily on issues such as racial and ethnic conflict and confusion, the role of parenting and nurturing cultural identity, and the development of ethnic identity across stages of life. I also interviewed two other Asian-American adoptees, which was the best part. The whole process of researching and writing was inspiring. I became increasingly interested in learning more about other Asian-American adoptees and discussing our stories together. A desire to connect to my birth heritage took root and has been growing ever since.
For many years, I struggled with my identity and a sense of belonging. It never occurred to me that other internationally adopted persons might have or do experience similar feelings. I feel certain now that I’m not the only one.