During the first half of my life, I never thought of myself as anything other than being American. What I mean is, I always thought of myself as being white. My outward appearance, however, has never really fit the image of what most people typically think of as a white person. DUH. I was raised by white parents in a mostly white neighborhood. In every way, I grew up to think “white,” to be white. What does this mean? It means I learned to be like everyone else around me. I tried very hard to minimize looking Asian (people in the South call it “Oriental,” but to set the record straight, Asian is the culturally correct term). Being white meant being privileged. In my mind, it was synonymous with superiority, a thought that makes me cringe now. I wanted blonde hair with blue eyes, a skinny nose, and about five inches more in height. When you wish for something that you’re not, it leads to some serious insecurity, discontent, and general unhappiness.
When I was very young, I didn’t recognize the significance of how different I looked from my parents or my peers. My adoptive parents didn’t talk about race or culture. They didn’t know how to. Up until a certain age, kids tend to be colorblind and less attuned to differentness. Somewhere between kindergarten and elementary school, they take notice of others who stick out for whatever reason. For the longest time, I didn’t get why certain kids picked on me– the racial gestures, like pulling up on the corners of the eyes, or the slurs, like “chink,” seemed so weird to me. I just thought kids were plain old mean and had no idea they were acting prejudiced towards me.
I was extremely sociophobic, shy to the max, which made things even worse. Speaking up to defend myself was not in my nature at the time. I was afraid of my own shadow. I quietly ignored negative encounters with others and went about my business. Internally, I felt inferior, invisible, a complex that stayed with me for a very long time. To this day, I’m still an introvert, but I feel much more comfortable stating my opinion, although it sometimes feels unnatural. I’ve always admired those with loud, boisterous personalities who aren’t afraid to speak their minds.
What’s so ironic is that I was spoiled rotten growing up. My parents handed me things on a silver platter. That was their love language– giving gifts. You would think that this was a good thing. I was cared for physically and materially in a way I may never have been in my own birth country. Such is not the case. I didn’t learn to be truly responsible until much later in my life because I always had someone there to take care of me. It had a crippling effect. When I graduated college, I bolted in pursuit of independence from my parents. I moved to Florida, then L.A., but was still so naive. I’m amazed I didn’t get myself into more trouble than I did. Difficult times followed, but it was never like I was ever homeless, in harm’s way or hungry (although I did eat a lot of cereal for dinner-Corn Chex was my favorite). It was the psychological and emotional areas that needed maturing. I needed a strong dose of character, too.
And now, how do I feel about things as I reach my 47th birthday (not until August) and see life through a different lens? You’ll be happy to know I’ve come to the realization that I’m not really white…DUH. A light went off when I found my adoption papers and learned that I was Taiwanese, not Japanese and Vietnamese as my adoptive parents always told me. My sister found the box where my adoption papers were hidden in my parent’s attic. I wanted to learn about my cultural heritage for the first time in my life. I was intrigued by the possibility that my birthfamily was out there still alive somewhere. Imagine yourself being re-born–that’s the only way I know how to describe what it felt like to learn that I was Taiwanese, that my identity was not what I’d always thought it to be. It’s been thrilling to grow into my cultural roots and even more so, to have met my birthfamily in Taiwan last year. Nothing could ever replace that reunion and the welcome I felt from my two sisters and family in Taipei. I often ask myself now, why am I so passionate about transracial adoption and identity? Who really cares? Then I remind myself that someone needs to speak up about adoption and identity. Someone has to help make it better and help others understand the special challenges of inter-country adoption. Someone has to help adoptees who are struggling emotionally and/or behaviorally due to adoption-related issues. I signed on to be a messenger and a helper.
If you’re wondering where I align myself ethnically now, I’m proud to say that I’m Taiwanese American. After years of identity confusion, it’s nice to finally be clear on that. It’s complicated though. I can’t change the core of who I am, the southern girl who will always be a bit country. I have a fondness for southern food and movies about the South (like Steel Magnolias). There are some things about the South that I appreciate. Louisiana will forever be like home away from home. But during the second half of my life, I will not ignore the fact that I’m also Taiwanese. I have a lot of catching up to do. One day I hope to meet other adult Taiwanese adoptees. We would have a lot to share with each other.