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 much later.
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, pulling up the corners of their eyes with their fingers or talking sing-songy. Occasionally I’d hear the word, “chink,” as I passed by. More than once, I was asked, “where are you from?” “No, where are you really from?” Once, on the school bus, someone I thought was my friend 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 peers became increasingly more difficult. I’m sure some of that grew from my own insecurity and social awkwardness. Around junior high, I wanted desperately to be part of a particular group of girls who were considered “popular.” I craved acceptance. I began hanging out with them for a while, yet felt I had to fight to feel included. One day, one of the girls said to me, “Why don’t you find another group to hang out with?” Ouch. I was speechless, embarrassed, ashamed. 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 happened because I looked different from them, was uncool. I kept these incidents to myself and never talked to anyone about them. 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 carpet. My parents were unaware of the pressures I felt to “fit in,” that it was compounded by my outward appearance. 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 teen. I downplayed my Asian features and rejected any association with my birth culture. In middle school, I wrote a biography report and lied about where I was born. In the report, I said that I was born in Hawaii, as I felt that was more “acceptable.” 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. 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 were more accepting. 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 upset with my dad. I know that in his small way, he was trying the only way he knew how to reach out to me. He had no idea how offensive the gift was. I felt conflicted that I had hurt his feelings by rejecting the gift, but was simultaneously mortified and ashamed. He and Mom were both so unaware. 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. Eventually, I hid it. 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 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 such a joke. That’s another story. Again, I struggled inwardly because I knew that staying away from home hurt my parents, yet I had to get out from under my mom’s control.
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 experience similar feelings. I feel certain now that I’m not the only one.