A Sense of Self
As a youngster, going to various places with mom, I was never aware that I might draw more stares than the more commonly seen biological mother and daughter. From what I know, this lack of awareness is often the case with children. I’m reading Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and the protagonist, Jeanie, does not realize that she is black until she sees a photo of herself.
Blame it on stupidity or blame it on childhood innocence, but I was so unaware that I don’t even remember giving any serious thought to the idea that I didn’t have a father. Having no father was my reality – nothing more or less or different or strange. When father’s day came around, I didn’t think twice, and just made the artsy project for mom. When other childrens’ fathers picked them up from 4th “R” (a childcare program), I simply wondered when the heck my mom would be coming to get me out of the place.
When I think back to my experiences through the public elementary school system, I realize that the two schools I attended had few Asians or other minorities, something I never thought twice about at the time, but which I (wonderingly) laugh at now. No one talked about race, and it never occurred to me to think about how it might play into friendships, if at all. I suppose the phrase “No one talked about race” brings negative thoughts of an uncaring and/or ignorant parent, lack of cultural exposure, and other such indignantly wielded, politically correct thoughts to mind. But not talking about race at such a young age, when prejudice and racism were nonexistent — at least from what I remember -– I do not think did any harm. I’ll even hazard to guess that if it HAD been brought up, it would have had a negative impact because I might have been made self-conscious. Of course, if children are making fun of one’s almond-shaped eyes or such, discussion would be a swell idea…
I can’t pinpoint a time when I became more aware of having Asian features. I know that by middle school I was self-conscious, but this was certainly not exclusive to looks. And it’s important to note that most kids have reached the pinnacle of self-consciousness at that age! Race and adoption were often forgotten in the every-day ordinariness of tests, teachers, classes, and ever-present challenge of grasping onto some wisp of one’s sense of self. At the time, I suffered from the standard woes of anyone growing up: searching for people I shared commonalities with, privately struggling to come to terms with my growing realization at the injustices of mainstream Hollywood, begging mom to order the most cognitively detrimental magazines (think Seventeen), wondering what my teachers thought of me and my strange last name, and the list goes on. Having gone to very diverse middle and high schools though, I think my experiences in being American-Chinese might have been more neutral than someone who went to a mostly Caucasian school. (Then again, maybe not.) Interestingly, most of my lunch buddies, by the end of middle school, shared my almond eyes and straight black hair…
Being aware that one looks one way – but feels she lacks any experiences of one who grew up with a different culture – does make a person self-conscious about some things. Somewhat hypocritically, I have often criticized how cliques at my school are segregated by race. As I’ve gone through high school, I’ve wondered at why I choose to spend time with the people I spend time with – mostly first-generation Chinese; how race/adoption/previous friendships might play into it, (the last being a big portion, because most of my friends went to my same middle school); and in what ways I’ve tried to consciously “branch out,” and why.
As I feel very content with my adoption and my relationship with my mom, it’s hard for me to think back and acknowledge that not all of it was as happy-go-lucky as I make it sound. Part of my self-censorship is also because I know that I have readers who are either interested in adoption or have already adopted. I want to contribute to the discussion on adoption, and as positively as possible – because I think it’s a beautiful thing – so along with that comes questions of how much to share. When rereading what I’d written in this post, I realized that I’d hardly acknowledged that there WERE issues of any kind. When I mentioned this to my mom, she pointed out that there were many struggles. She reminded me of a few times I semi-“ran away” (i.e., at age 12 I left the house for a number of hours to wander down the street, then came back when I felt like it), heated exchanges we’ve had, and my struggles to “fit in” at various times in my life. I argued that many of the things she connected with my adoption, particularly the first, had little to do with adoption, but might just have to do with typical childhood angst. But, she pointed out, it is difficult to differentiate between what is related and what is not. Everything in our lives is connected to everything else. I cannot measure how much adoption has intersected with all aspects of my life. So: I want to acknowledge that there were of course struggles related to adoption. There might even be more in the future. But then, I also want to add that every family — however “nuclear” or biological — encounters struggles. And every person goes on an infinitely lasting identity-quest.
A writing teacher once pounded this into my head: NEVER use the word “unique” while writing. It’s the laziest word a person can use to describe something or someone because EVERYONE is unique. So: those struggles of looking Chinese and feeling 100% American? Those are often the same struggles that Chinese immigrants’ first- and second-generation children face, too. That sense of a dual existence? Ditto. And that desire to explore the past or one’s culture? That is often universal! Adoptees do have a kind of “dual world” thing going on, but we are not “unique.” I think it is fun and easy to make that claim of duality and to have that cross-culture, happy-go-lucky frame of mind, but it’s also important to remember that an adoptee is just as ordinary and extraordinary an individual as the next person, and vice versa!
Meia Yao, our guest blogger, is an 18-year-old Chinese adoptee. In her blog, Adoption. Etcetera., Meia reflects on a few adoption- and race-related thoughts.