Molded By White Hands: A Chinese Adoptee’s Story

I can’t believe that I am going to grow old and look like one of the Chinese grandmas shopping for su cai (vegetables) in Chinatown. My entire life, I have been surrounded by old white people so, I guess I thought I would look like them when I got older. When I look in the mirror, I expect to see light brown hair, big brown eyes, and peachy skin. The face that stares back at me has black hair, monolids, and a yellowish undertone to my skin. This confusion, this incongruence in who I am and who I think I should be derives partly from my identity as a transracial* adoptee. This identity has put a unique spin on my cultural and racial identity formation.

“When I look in the mirror, I expect to see white features”

I was adopted by my white parents from Hunan, China when I was six months old and was raised in Brooklyn, New York. I don’t remember the first time when I realized that I was adopted, it just seems like a fact that always was. I never questioned that I was adopted, I looked nothing like my parents so how could it be any other way? My parents also never shied away from talking about adoption. We had books about it, we visited the adoption agency they used to adopt my brother and me, I even went with my parents when we adopted my younger brother. Our adoption days were always special occasions to be celebrated with presents and Chinese take-out (far from the only time we got takeout but a special treat nonetheless) from the restaurant down the block. One year on my adoption day, they brought in my baby album and cupcakes to talk about adoption with my second grade class. Adoption has always been a central part of my identity. But, now that I am older, I am realizing how much adoption shaped the way I see myself as a racial and cultural being.

“Adoption has always been a central part of my identity.”

I was fortunate to be surrounded by many other people of my race and culture, a privilege many transracial adoptees do not have. I went to a bilingual school and learned Mandarin alongside the children of Chinese immigrants. Even though I looked the same as everyone I went to school with, I still felt out of place. I remember deliberately mispronouncing words in Chinese because I didn’t think I should be good at my own language. I remember being chastised by a teacher after she saw me give my backpack to my dad to carry one day after school. I remember being utterly bewildered by the plastic covers over my Chinese friends’ couches and the tin foil covering their backburners.

“I deliberately mispronounced words in Chinese because I didn’t think I should be good at my own language.”

It is these things that I didn’t understand about being Chinese that made me feel like an outsider. Know how to speak and use the language, hold your parents and elders in the highest esteem, keep everything squeaky clean. To my friends and classmates raised by Chinese parents, they were unspoken rules of being Chinese. My family’s frequent trips to the local Chinese take-out restaurant didn’t transmit these aspects of my culture to me. Culture is more than food and I have little understanding of the depths and intricacies of Chinese American culture. I was raised like a good little WASP. Our shoes remained on in the house, no wok adorned our stovetop, and our cluttered TV trays were laden with Rachael Ray’s recipes. That’s the only way my parents knew how to raise me, because that is what they are. But that isn’t who I feel like I should be.

“I was raised like a good little WASP.”

I have often felt like a perpetual foreigner in both the worlds I occupy. I am caught in a bind between the person non Chinese people assume me to be, the person Chinese people think I am, and the person I think I am. This was always the case but, now that I live in a very white state, this feeling of foreignness has been exacerbated. To many Chinese Americans, I am not “really Chinese.” I can see it in the hesitation with which they approach me. I can see that they want to find community in me, especially in the very white state that we live in. But, there is also hesitation in their eyes because although I look Chinese, I also bear the marks of having been Americanized. It is the way I dress, the mannerisms I have. Whenever I meet a Chinese person, I give them an abridged version of the adoption story and they always compliment me with, “Oh your Chinese is so good.” But, it doesn’t feel entirely like a compliment to me. To me, it means oh, your Chinese is good for someone who is an outsider to the culture. It singles me out as a partial member of the community. It means I don’t fully belong. To many white people where I live, I’m just, “another one of those Asians.” I am constantly asked, “Where are you really from?” because Brooklyn is clearly not the correct answer. When I finally give them the answer that they really want to hear, “Well, I was born in China but, I came here as a baby,” they like to ramble on about the one Chinese word they know or the time they traveled to Asia. So even though I was raised by white people and have an intimate knowledge of white American culture, I will never be white. I will always be a foreigner to white people.

“This feeling of foreignness has been exacerbated.”

And how do I see myself? I have been told I like a lot of white people sh*t. I like tromping around in the woods and I like the kind of music you would hear in an L.L. Bean commercial. I feel whitewashed because the way I have been raised to see the world is through the eyes of white, upper-middle class people. But, I can’t deny the Chinese part of my race and culture. I love hearing the way the tones of my language roll off my tongue, I love the soft feel of dough between my fingers as I fold dumplings. I think now, I am seeing myself more clearly for what I am than ever before. I am both American and Chinese and I am neither. I think I will always be searching for the true me, the one that feels complete and whole. I have a deep longing to feel entirely connected to and entirely welcomed by a community. The quest for that acceptance, for that warm embrace continues on.   

*The author means transracial only in the context of white parents adopting a child from a different race than them.

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

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